The ordering of these things is always fairly arbitrary (particularly in the case of my no. 10 pick, which could have just as easily been 4 or 1 for that matter), but I’m not going to do any of the little cheats and load the thing up with ties and honorable mentions or ballooning it out to 15 or 20. It’s a Top 10 list, so here are 10 movies in list form.
10. 12 Years A Slave
The placement of this movie is entirely arbitrary. I can’t compare 12 Years directly to other movies with their 3 Act structure and traditional character arcs, as it is not a conventional dramatic story. It is an endurance test, seeking to illuminate how terrible humanity’s ability to endure can be. I could say that it’s well acted (particularly by Chiwetel Eijiofor and Lupita Nyong’o), and that the cinematography was accomplished, or praise it in other technical ways. But I can’t say that I liked it, even the way I like other downbeat movies.
I shuffled home from the theater with my head hanging low, contemplating man’s inhumanity to man and my own capacity for tolerating atrocity. Which probably means that Steve McQueen accomplished exactly what he set out to. Whether it is a “good movie” or not, this is a towering piece of work, scarring in both a visceral and emotional sense. Everyone should probably see it, even though I have trouble recommending it wholeheartedly, because it is definitely going to hurt.
See It For: Putting a finer point on your white guilt
Trendspotting: Rich White People Get Away With Everything, “True Story”, Period Piece
9. IRON MAN 3
Marvel films get flack for being product, churned out by a rigid studio system that drowns out the voice of any particular filmmaker. But Shane Black’s voice is so sympatico with RDJ’s depiction of Tony Stark as a self-obssessed, fast-talking playboy with a heart of gold (well, at least gold trim) that Iron Man 3 comes out as distinctly a Black film, with all the dock shootouts, witty banter, circuitous villain plans, and arbitrary Christmas settings that entails.
I really should be sick of RDJ’s schtick by now, since it hasn’t changed much since the 2006 original, and he’s even spread it to another franchise with the middling Sherlock Holmeses. But Black brings out the best in that schtick, to the point when even an extended interlude with a pint-sized sidekick can’t stop IM3 from being an utter blast. It’s funny enough to be a straight up comedy, with time for action beats for the previously-underused Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow, and possibly the best Marvel villain turn this side of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki by Ben Kingsley.
See It For: The marvelous “barrel of monkeys” sequence.
Trendspotting: Marvel Bitchslapping Diminishing Returns, Near Future Sci-fi
8. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Wolf is a tremendously energetic, angry film to be coming from a septuagenarian. But surprise, surprise, Martin Scorcese is better than the rest of us, and his collaboration with Leo Dicaprio seems to be keeping him engaged and young in spirit. Wolf has issues; it is a scathing comedic satire with the bloated runtime of a historical epic, it doesn’t even use that time to get very deep into what makes its primary character tick beyond being a, well, everything addict, and seems to think that the audience will be bored by the details of Jordan’s Belfort’s biggest crimes (when we eat that type of confidence scheme stuff up).
But it has even more considerable strengths, in its performances, editing, and the fact that it’s a scathing comedic satire that is really, really funny. Dicaprio is having the time of his life playing the least inhibited douchebag who ever lived, and reveals a facility for physical comedy that I never would’ve guessed at. A 3 hour runtime may not have been truly necessary to tell this story, but with Marty and Leo at the helm, that time flies by.
See It For: The best Popeye reference that was or ever shall be
Trendspotting: Rich White People Get Away With Everything, “True Story”, Period Piece
7. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The Coen Brothers don’t know how to make a bad movie (I remain our message board’s most frequent defender of the maligned screwball Intolerable Cruelty). Inside Llewyn Davis is not their best, or particularly eventful if I were to describe the plot. But it is a sad, funny (OUTER….SPAAAAACE), profound meditation on loss, doubt, and the pains of falling just short of greatness.
Llewyn Davis is recognizably Coen in nature – prickly, hard luck protagonist, underplayed humor, blustery supporting turn from John Goodman, conclusion involving retribution of questionably divine origin. But it’s also less talky, and less overtly comedic than most of their non-crime thriller output. It’s practically a musical, chock full of musical performances, but the last time they toed that line the bros produced O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which remains one of the best films of this millennium. This one isn’t quite as great as all that, but it’s still one of the best films of the year, sporting a bonafide star turn from Oscar Isaacs. Also there’s cats, and a wonderful song about space.
See It For: The amazing soundtrack performed by the actual stars and co-produced by the legendary T. Bone Burnett
Trendspotting: Period Piece
6. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Paul Greengrass has carved out a very particular niche for himself, as the purveyor films that have a way of making even well-executed, adult-oriented thrillers look like “movies” – lightweight, phony, and manipulative. But the truth is that Greengrass himself is a master manipulator, walking audiences through complex scenarios and forcing them to sweat and cry and feel empathy for parties that they would much rather write off as one-dimensional villains.
Captain Phillips is built around two towering performances. It’s no surprise that Tom Hanks is fantastic in the titular role – “fantastic” is practically his blood type. But newcomer Barkad Abdi is a revelation as the leader of the desperadoes that take Phillips and his ship hostage. The two men create a shaky, unexpected but real bond as the situation spirals further and further out of control, until the last-act arrival of the SEALS feels less like a fist-pumping cavalry charge than an implacable Hand Of God that you wish the “bad guys” could be spared from. See it, but maybe double your dosage of heart medicine beforehand.
See It For: The airless final 15 minutes.
Trendspotting: Limited Cast, “True Story”
5. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
There were plenty more important, more emotional, more “artistic” movies that came out this year, but Thor: The Dark World was easily the best time I had at the movies. A lifelong Marvel partisan, I never cared for Thor growing up, finding him too silly and outright dumb (in both concept and personality) to fit in even with the colorful ranks of the Avengers. But Chris Hemsworth’s insanely charismatic performance made a convert of me, finding just the right notes of sincerity and humor to make the Odinson come alive as a simple man rather than a simpleton. The rest of the cast, talented thespians all, take their cues from him and find a way to have an absolute ball with the goofy material without winking at the camera.
Thor 2 is a big, friendly golden retriever of a movie that slobbers all over you in its eagerness to please. You liked Loki, right? Sure you did, and we’ll bend over backwards to give him an important supporting role! Want to see Stringer Bell stab a spaceship to death? Done! Here’s some Kat Dennings comedy to go with it! More Warriors Three? Okay! And Space Elves with Implosion grenades! The action finale borders on incoherent in how hard it tries to make sure you never get bored (Wait! We also have an Ice Monster!). And I never did. I just sat there with a big dumb grin on my face for 2 straight hours.
See It For: Loki. Duh.
Trendspotting: Marvel bitch-slapping diminishing returns
4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
We live in the age where everything is or is at least hoping to become a trilogy, but Richard Linklater (/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy)’s Before series is unlike any of the fantasy or young adult “epics” that have been polluting the multiplexes for several years. It’s more akin to Michael Apted’s Seven Up documentary series, providing periodic portraits of a grand, touching, intelligent romance between young, not-so-young and middle-aged partners who love, above all else, to talk to each other.
Hawke and Delpy’s performances are so lived-in, so natural, that the effect of Before Midnight is like watching your best friends fight. Only good. They have all the affection, resentment, intimacy and ennui of a real marriage, and Linklater has the honesty to delve into the way that you can’t really, truly loathe someone unless you really, truly love them too. This is the apex of one of the greatest, realest romances ever put to film, and manages to maintain the series streak of ambiguous endings while putting a different, less optimistic spin on it.
See It For: Hawke and Delpy’s incredibly real, volatile chemistry
Trendspotting: Limited Cast
3. Spring Breakers
I never liked Harmony Korine, finding his films to be grossly unpleasant, self-indulgent messes to be endured rather than enjoyed. And none of them were as indulgent as Spring Breakers, a bizarre, ungodly mutant of a film, unlike anything I saw this year, or ever really. Part crime movie, part hedonist romp, part dreamy fable, part oddball romance, part cantankerous screed about what’s wrong with “kids today”. Wholly original and completely unpredictable. It plays like someone, for some reason, decided to let the scumbag founder of Girls Gone Wild write a self-aggrandizing screenplay mythologizing his smut as the ultimate expression of the American Dream, then for some reason turned around and hired Michael Mann to shoot it, then for some other reason gave Terrence Malick final cut.
And then there’s Alien. James Franco has been dancing around the line of self-parody for awhile now, but this is one of the strangest, most compelling characters and performances of the young century. And it’s the center of an insane, beautiful work of something that feels too grubby to call genius, but too singular to call anything else.
See It For: James Franco(‘s sheeyit)
Trendspotting: Rich White People Get Away With Everything
Gravity is a truly phenomenal movie experience, one of the few times where shelling out extra $ for Imax and 3D were not just worth it, but absolutely essential. The best roller coaster I’ve ever been on (it took an hour for my stomach to fully settle afterward), and just about the best theater experience I’ve ever had. Clooney and Bullock are cast precisely, perfectly to type. A barebones script with exactly what we need and nothing we don’t. A effects thrill ride without a nuclear bomb or alien portal in sight, that scrambles your innards and gets you out in a tight 90 minutes, they don’t make them like this anymore, but then they never really did anyway. A visceral experience unlike any I’ve ever had, Gravity makes the case for the continuing viability of the big screen in a world where bigger and bigger spectacle is increasingly ported to smaller and smaller TVs, tablets, wristwatches, etc.
See It For: The best representation of the disorienting axis-lessness of space ever brought to the screen
Trendspotting: Near Future Sci-fi, Limited cast
Spike Jonze is one of America’s underappreciated geniuses, possibly because his early triumphs (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) are rare cases where the director is overshadowed by the writer in auteur terms, and/or maybe due to his association with the Jackass crew. But Her should change that. An incredible piece of low key scifi world-building, the film also boasts a small but insanely talented cast. Joaquin Phoenix’s quietly wounded lead performance, Amy Adams topping off a simply extraordinary year with a remarkably warm and genuine performance (including doing her feisty best to save Man Of Steel from iteslf and a glammed up, scorching turn in American Hustle that is 180 degrees from her mousy, affectionate work here), and absolutely wonderful voice work from Scarlett Johansson. It’s beggars belief to learn that she was brought in as a replacement in post-production and never actually interacted with Phoenix, but she makes an operating system into not just a fully believable, dimensional character, but one charming enough to anchor a movie romance without a face.
What is most surprising and wonderful about the movie is how conventionally that romance plays out, despite the inherent ridiculousness of the “Guy Falls In Love With His Phone” conceit. I went in with a vague worry that the movie would turn out to be a simplistic “we all need to unplug and really talk to each other” parable. What I loved about Her is that while it does aver the paramount importance human connection, it does so while celebrating technology as creating new ways for people to connect rather than an impediment. The film is funny, but it never treats the central relationship as a joke. Samantha, despite originating as lines of code, is a fully intelligent being with a personality that is much, much realer and deeper than “Siri with a sexy voice.” What Jonze seems to intuitively understand is that for as glued to our screens as we can be these days, the most popular and important apps and sites (be it Twitter, Okcupid, or CHUD.com) are built around allowing us greater interaction and access to each other. Looking around today’s world, it occurs that the bulk of our collective technological will seems to be aimed less at eliminating poverty or disease than loneliness. Jonze finds that completely understandable, and even kind of beautiful.
See It For: Scarlett Johansson. As absurd as the premise of this movie sounds, I dare you not to fall a little in love with her disembodied voice along with Joaquin.
Trendspotting: Near Future Sci-fi, Limited Cast