1. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) - Steve McQueen’s story of Solomon Northup stays with you. It is a film that haunts you with its beauty and brutality. It is a film about people, not concepts. It is not the story of slavery as a whole, it does not offer reparations, or seek to define the struggles of an entire race. Rather it tells the story of Solomon Northup and allows that story to be enough. I can think of no other director, except for David Cronenberg, who can explore the pain of a human body so effectively as Steve McQueen does here and in his previous films (Hunger (2008), Shame (2011)). Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender each give masterful performances that are impossible to look away from.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)- I doubt there is any film that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio could do that I wouldn’t love. Along with all the drugs, sex, money, and grand speeches, the film is an honest look at pathetic men. Dicaprio’s fearless performance captures just how absurd and pitiful Jordan Belfort is. And yet there is something immensely likable about Belfort, at least in terms of this depiction of him. What makes Martin Scorsese such a master is his ability to film without judgment, to capture honesty and let the audience decide for its self what to make of the characters. In the hands of a lesser director and a screenwriter other than Terrance Winter, this film could have easily villainized Belfort. Instead Scorsese does what allowed his gangster films to work so well in the past; he allows the characters to live on the screen with all of their morality and charisma uncut.
3. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)- Spike Jonze focuses on humanity over technology which is what makes the film so effective. Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the OS Samantha is one of the most human performances of the year. The relationship between Samantha and Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly carries weight and relevance in terms of what it means to be human and what it means to connect. Her is science fiction but it is also science now in ways that are immediately apparent. Yet unlike most modern SF, the film does not condemn humanity’s relationship with technology. At its heart Her is an exploration of our ability to communicate with one another, to know ourselves by knowing others, in whatever form that other may take.
4. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)- Villeneuve’s direction, along with the cinematography of Roger Deakins, creates a cold portrait of desperation with religious overtones. Hugh Jackman gives a powerful performance but it’s really Jake Gyllenhaal who shines in this movie. It’s his character tics, his way of blinking as if he’s taking mental photographs to process, his tattoos, that contribute to the feeling that Detective David Loki is well lived in character, someone Gyllenhaal knows intimately. His background, which is never explicitly delved into, is a story wanting to be told. He exists beyond the frames of the film and yet the audience is held back from knowing him too closely. It is this restraint ultimately that makes the movie work. The restraint in terms of Det. Loki’s background but also restraint in terms the graphic nature of the story. It is what the audience doesn't see that carries the most weight and this most evident in the final scene.
5. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)- Lavish, theatrical, and anachronistic in a way only Luhrmann could construct, The Great Gatsby captures the spirit of Fitzgerald’s novel despite the liberties it takes. Lurhmann, as always, has enough artistic creativity to do more than offer a cover version of Fitzgerald’s work (a la Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation). It is in the liberties he takes, the soundtrack and use of CGI that makes the story worth revisiting. The performances are earnest and tinged with the right amount of the melodramatic. Every aspect of the film from the editing, to the costumes, and production designs are expertly crafted in such a way that it is clearly the work of an auteur.
6. Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder) - Superman, the first superhero, is perhaps the most difficult to adapt in a modern context. The comics in the recent years have struggled with this as well. Man of Steel successfully adapts the character and reintroduces him to the modern age. Zach Snyder finally allows the character to step away from the Richard Donner interpretation of the character. Snyder fleshes out Krypton in a new way and delivers and Superman that actually throws punches. He excels at directing action sequences and takes full advantage of that, delivering a worthy climax. The film doesn't shy away from the mythical underpinnings of the Superman story. It is the story of a god sent to live among men, but a god who is alienated and ultimately chooses further alienation. It is in the questions the film raises, the possibilities waiting to be explored that made the film a success in my eyes.
7. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols) - Nichols coming of age story has trappings of Mark Twain in terms of its realism and sense of adventure. Mud has the feel of a classic movie, one that could have been made in any previous decade but still holds true today and will hold true in the future. The performances have an effortless quality to them. Every fame feels like a snapshot of Americana and is novelistic in its structure and sense of intimately, personal stakes. Mud is an honest and uncynical story of love and what that entails. It is these big ideas viewed through a small window that makes the film work on the level that it does.
8. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)- I hadn’t seen Linklater’s previous films in this trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) until this year. I watched all three in order and while the film holds up well on its own, it is in the journey of Celine and Jesse’s relationship over the years that make this film such a worthwhile experience. Before Midnight, as part of a trilogy, is a remarkable testament of cinema’s capability to bottle time. The film is not so much plot driven as character driven and the dialogue is sharp, tender, awkward, and painful in all the right moments. The exploration of the relationship here is also complex enough not to be one-sided in terms of what is exposed. In the end Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” is one of the most interesting cinematic experiences I’ve seen.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)- The opening tracking shot through the carnival is one my favorite shots of the year. There is an intimacy to the filmmaking which makes each of the characters feel like people you know, despite how briefly they each appear in the film. The most interesting aspect of the films is its four narratives, arching across generations and how the characters parallel each other. Pines is an unglamorous look at crime, poverty, corruption and forgiveness. Despite the star power of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, they blend in seamlessly with the film and their settings instead of becoming a distraction from the otherwise low key casting choices. In addition, Mike Patton’s score is hauntingly effective.
10. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)- Simply put, Spring Breakers is frightening. It is a horror movie operating outside of the genre of “horror film.” It is exploitative and self-indulgent and it rubs your face in it. It is a movie that in some ways begs not to be liked. There are points in the film that are empty, empty in terms of offering new content, empty in the fact that the audience is exposed to repeated shots of partying, over-indulgent college students. But it is in the emptiness that the horror comes in. The emptiness reflects an empty youth culture, a culture where “masks” are used to cover up the lack of individuality, the lack of goals, the lack of identity. James Franco’s Alien, cobbled from southern rappers and an over-exposure to Scarface, is not an outsider despite his namesake. In his cornrowed, grilled persona he is right at home with the rest of the “spring breakers”; he is right at home with people who live life like video games as if their actions lack consequences. These characters dance around consequence throughout the film. The feeling that something tragic would happen was unshakeable. And yet in the end the real tragedy is perhaps that the ending is not tragic enough.