One of my favorite exercises of the year is creating my annual top ten list, but here are some “rules” before sharing everyone’s list:
1. This is just a list of each person’s favorite movies from the year. Because there is no such thing as “best.”
2. Unfortunately, we did not see every movie that came out this year, including movies that could have very easily made our top ten lists.
3. The lists might be different if we wrote them up tomorrow.
My point is that Top 10 lists say more about the author/publication’s opinions than anything else, as you likely already realize, though some lose sight of this fact when presented with a list from a so-called expert on the subject. Let’s take a look at a range of Top 10 lists from Cinedelphia.com contributors of various ages and cinematic tastes…
- Pieta– Kim Ki-duk woke up the cinematic world from a dead sleep and broke its face with a ratchet. Pieta is a bluntforce film that continues Kim’s visceral trajectory, and digs deeper into his emotional themes. It is an apex for veteran Kim fans, and also a great starting point for newcomers.
- Rags and Tatters– We are dropped straight into the ambiguous nocturnal struggle of prisoners suddenly released into the desert in Egypt. It has the feel of a warzone. When the dust settles and the sun rises, one man struggles to find his way in a city that is rapidly changing. His odyssey puts him in search of another prisoner’s family, so that he can convey a message. Ahmad Abdalla’s nearly wordless film is brilliantly immediate, and tinged with metaphor. One of the few truly important films of the year.
- Before Midnight – The screen disappears. You are inside this film, and it is both painful and beautiful. Linklater’s latest installment of this ongoing story is his most authentic, most exposed, most unsparing, and most accomplished. Will someone give Hawk and Delpy a goddamn award, because if you don’t I will.
- I Have to Buy New Shoes – An emotionally intelligent film in the Before Sunrise vain by Eriko Kitagawa. This one premiered in the US at the Japan Cuts Festival. Sen Yagami is a photographer who’s younger sister Suzume drags him to Paris for reason’s unbeknownst to him. She ditches him right away which leads him into the path of freelance writer Aoi Teshigahara who lives in Paris. He spends the next few days with her developing a natural and honest relationship despite the constraint of time. New Shoes has an airy feel and a confident sway that is infectious.
- Hafu – A compelling documentary about mixed-race Japanese and the social stigma that they must fight against in Japan. Nishikura and Takagi’s 3-year project has great flow, range, and balance.
- High School (repertory) – Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 portrait of Philadelphia’s Northeast High School is an example of pure cinema. It is a direct observation of behaviors of teachers and students. Cinedelphia Film Fest’s best selection.
- Blue Jasmine – Blanchette is a master, and Allen is at the top of his game (again). Affecting, intelligent, powerful, yet so simple.
- Late Autumn (repertory) – This has been the year of Ozu. Between the Film Forum’s two Ozu festivals, and the copy of Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films that has yet to leave my hands this year, and the Japan Society’s film-based tribute to Donald Richie, Ozu has been given a substantial reexamination (on 35mm!!)…at least in NYC. This year marks the 110th anniversary of his birth and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Late Autumn was a revelation on the big screen. Ozu must be seen large, where all the textures, patterns, spaces, and faces can be seen to their fullest.
- Land of Hope– Sion Sono at his most tactful. No less a speculation about the Japanese psyche than his previous works, Land of Hope is a disaster film where the disaster (an event similar to the 3/11 tsunami and Fukushima Daichi nuclear crisis) is offscreen but the effects are shown through the changes in the lives of regular people.
- To the Wonder – Underappreciated Malick. Wonder is a further distillation of his storytelling methods and themes of “diverging experiences of life.” To the Wonder is a narrative of pure and constant movement, of physical interaction, and of gestures. It seems to be a film made entirely of the most fleeting moments, and rolls on a current of implication and ephemerality. The more I let it sit within me, the more it stirs. There is a poetry to this one that many have allowed to slip into obscurity.
Only God Forgives – If you liked Drive, you’ll probably hate Only God Forgives. It sets out to stomp on everything that Drive meant to Gosling fangirls and imitators. Probably one of the most fatalistic films you’ll ever see, the film sets out to create a dream-like tone in which every character is trapped in his or her role, none of which are heroic — least of all Gosling.
The Act of Killing – Not so much a documentary as an experiment in insanity. The Act of Killing is Fitzcarraldo if Herzog wanted to move the human spirit instead of a boat. That the filmmakers were able to complete the film without getting themselves killed is admirable; that they were also able to engender remorse in one of their subjects is extraordinary; but, that they were able to blend fiction and reality in such a way that it causes the viewer to question how he or she perceives the world is the truly remarkable act.
A Field in England – Mind-bending English folk horror redux that melds Altered States-like trip sequences to Witchfinder General period drama. Very little of it makes sense, all of it is deathly serious and bleak in tone, but something about the film lingers on after the credits roll.
Gideon’s Army – Sorely under-looked documentary chronicling the problems with our justice system. Is providing someone a defense enough? Gideon’s Army makes a compelling argument stating otherwise.
The Conjuring – The best horror film of the year was also the most regressive. Positioning itself as a classic American ghost story in its use of restraint and tension as the primary focus of fear, The Conjuring was able to reaffirm that this era of horror is capable of frightening without resorting to cheap gore or gratuitous violence.
Stoker – Chan-wook Park is never subtle. Never. He’d probably be doing the world a disservice if he was as it would prevent him delving into the deliriously warped side of human nature he seems to know so well. Stoker is all kink, all weird, all wonderful. It’s as if Hitchcock developed an obsession with the Psychopathia Sexualis but chose to embrace the perversion instead of clinically examining it from afar.
Simon Killer – A young Patrick Bateman in training? Simon Killer could be just another story of a sociopath, or perhaps a dark look into Millennial narcissism; however you choose to look at the film, what is clear is that Brady Corbet is one of the best young actors around.
The World’s End – The Cornetto Trilogy concludes with an uneven film that’s equal parts Invasion of the Bodies Snatchers and The Big Chill. Oddly enough, The Big Chill portion is the better half. That said, even in its wildly uneven state it’s still a wonderful experience. Simon Pegg’s turn as a stunted man-child is probably his best performance to date.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – Casey Affleck has an affection for Malick-esque period pieces, this being his second after The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. His preference has yet to serve him wrong.
Her – We all need to come down with an occasional bout of the whimsy every now and then. Spike Jonze is one of the few filmmakers who is able to infect you with such an affliction without ever having it seem cloying or forced. Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
Top Ten Lists don’t typically require a preamble, but when I’m asked about my favorite films (of the year or otherwise), I feel the need to iterate two important things: first, this is a list of my personal choice films, not necessarily the most beloved or award-worthy. Secondly, I have yet to see some of my more anticipated flicks of the year, which include Her, The Spectacular Now, Rush, 12 Years a Slave, & Blue Jasmine, to name a few. Disclaimer aside, let’s get into it, as there were a few phenomenal films sitting atop a dearth of prettayyy, prettayyy good movies this year:
- Gravity – I’m one of the many that consider Alfonso Cuarón’s space disaster movie to be more than the best of the year; it’s a monumental achievement in modern cinema. This technical wonder requires no suspension of disbelief… I continually had to remind myself, “this is just a movie.” The acting is also top-notch, and I’m no Sandra Bullock apologist. Especially in IMAX 3D, Gravity is simultaneously a complex orchestra of special effects as well as a straightforward punch to the gut that taps into basic human fear of the unknown.
- The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorcese’s adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s drug-laden millionaire memoirs is intense, unapologetic, and it just might be the funniest movie of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio’s animated portrayal of Belfort reaches levels of Jack Nicholson in his prime. Jonah Hill once again proves that he’s more than a member of the Apatow ensemble. Scorcese’s direction is as sharp as ever. Check your morals at the door and enjoy it.
- American Hustle – I stand by my review of David O. Russell’s best Martin Scorcese impression. American Hustle is high caliber talent absolutely going for it and executing flawlessly to create one of the more interesting character studies in recent memory.
- The Place Beyond The Pines – One of the quieter independent releases of the year starring A-List actors, this is an outstanding film. It’s so much more ambitious in scope than the limited marketing would insinuate– it’s billed as a heist flick starring Ryan Gosling & Bradley Cooper, but it’s really the story of the repercussions of fathers on their sons across several generations. Don’t miss it.
- Dallas Buyers Club – You’ll continue to hear about nearly unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey’s performance in this film, and deservedly so. But as I said in my review, I hope Jared Leto gets his due for an Oscar worthy turn as a cross-dressing AIDS patient and McConaughey’s partner in crime.
- Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks stars in a true story hostage thriller directed by Paul Greengrass– how could it not be one of the year’s best? I really enjoyed Hanks’ performance, Greengrass’s taut direction, and the sympathetic approach taken to understand the motivation behind the Somalian antagonists. Captain Phillips does this true story justice.
- The Way Way Back – Everyone loves a good coming-of-age story. Mix that with some phenomenal acting from Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, and Steve Carrell in a rare antagonist role, and you have a stand-out dramedy that I enjoyed even more than the acclaimed Mud.
- Prisoners – My review expounds on what I loved about this movie, but in short: the performances are astounding. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in the performance of his career as Detective Loki, and Hugh Jackman’s morally ambiguous father role is fascinating to reflect on. What would you do in his shoes?
- Disconnect – This movie flew under the radar for most moviegoers and is definitely not an uplifting flick for a Sunday afternoon, but I was captivated by it. The message, told through three loosely intertwining stories, is rather unique: technology is singlehandedly connecting us while killing intimacy and relationships. Jason Bateman’s rare dramatic turn in Disconnect is a must-see; another study of what-would-I-do in a sad scenario that happens all too often. See it.
- Spring Breakers – I’ve caught a significant amount of flack from my movie geek friends about the inclusion of Spring Breakers in my top ten, and I wish I had a more decisive reason as to why I enjoyed it so much. I cannot really say why this movie haunted me for days after first viewing. Perhaps it was James Franco’s brilliant character acting; maybe I see too many movies and this one was not what I expected, so I liked it all the more. Either way, Harmony Korine’s simultaneous exploitation & commentary flick is weird, wild stuff, and a flick that I will not forget anytime soon, much like James Franco’s Alien exclaiming through his smiling gold teeth, “Sprrraaannnngggg brreeeakkkkkkk….”
It was a darn good year at the movies and this list was really insanely difficult to put together. I’d be much more comfortable with a top 20 or 30 to be totally honest. Some notables that didn’t make the list included The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which surpassed a very good original in every way, and Gravity, which was a visual marvel but did lack something in the story area.
My list comes with a huge asterisk, in that I have not yet seen a bunch of year-end heavy hitters (including Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and others). Not sure what I would have thought of them but they surely would have been thought provoking. However, I’m relatively sure that nothing would be able to knock my top choice out of its spot.
- 12 Years a Slave could accurately be described as a series of moments. After all, director Steve McQueen started out as an installation artist. One particularly haunting image occurs when Solomon Northup, the free black man kidnapped into slavery, is left hanging by a noose, his feet scraping in the mud, just barely keeping him alive as the regular plantation life continues going on around him. It’s a powerful image that has stuck with me long after the credits rolled. But the film is more than moments. Wrapped together by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s incredible performance, 12 Years a Slave was a single portrait suspended across its minutes that looked at slavery in a way that no film ever has before, and is hands-down the most effective film I’ve seen in a good long while.
- Before Midnight – The third chapter of Richard Linklater’s ongoing look into the lives of Jesse and Celine did what I thought was impossible and outdid 2004’s Before Sunset, bringing the lovers another nine years in their future and upending the walking-and-talking structure that made the first two so great, and replacing it with a lot of sitting and fighting. Maybe it’s because we know the two characters so well at this point, but the film ended up being the truest portrayal of a relationship in a good long while.
- Frances Ha – There’s something about Greta Gerwig’s Frances, from her penchant for play-fighting to her ill-advised travel choices, that makes her lovable but overall relatable. The lyrical black-and-white film doesn’t try to hide (or flaunt) its protagonist’s flaws. They just are what they are, and Frances herself only becomes more aware of them as the film goes on. Call it a better version of Girls if you like (it does share Adam Driver), but I’d say it tells a story that the HBO show would rather gloss over, in which Frances falls (both figuratively and quite literally) and picks herself back up again. Sure, it may take her awhile, but that’s what growing up is all about.
- Philomena – The story of an old Irish woman searching for the son she was forced to give up with the help of a cynical English journalist had schmaltz written all over it — at first. But the script (co-written by star Steve Coogan) surpasses its feel-good concept and goes for the relationship between these two unlikely companions in a surprisingly nuanced way. Of course the real magic of the movie is owed to Dame Judi Dench’s performance, which is supreme to say the least. She’ll have you from the moment she starts talking about her new hip.
- American Hustle – Following up on Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell casts a 70s period piece based on the ABSCAM scandal chock full of his former collaborators. Apparently working with the director is how the magic happens for Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who each seem to have found a new level of insanity for their new characters. Perhaps the only thing better is Amy Adams, delivering the the best worst fake British accent since Anne Hathaway tried it for real. The film itself is surprisingly hilarious, full of the twists and turns you might expect from a con movie, but probably not in the places you’d expect them.
- The World’s End – It’s a good year for trilogies (um, unless it’s something based on a Tolkein novel), and The World’s End is no exception. Director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s “Cornetto Trilogy” has never really been about telling one story but just about telling a bunch of stories really, really well. After they took on zombies and police procedurals they swung back in action with this robo-apocalyptic film that’s really about growing up and growing old, if you can believe it. It’s the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year, certainly.
- Blue is the Warmest Color – After winning the top prize at Cannes this summer, Blue is the Warmest Color had a bit of a rocky premiere stateside after a series of squabbles between its director and lead actresses over its infamous long-form sex scenes dominated the press. None of this, however, takes away from the film itself which is the most intimate and epic of love stories I’ve seen portrayed. And for all the controversy over the sex, it’s really the emotions of the two phenomenal leads that are the most graphic and raw.
- Much Ado About Nothing – What’s the best antidote for filming the third-most successful film of all time? Apparently filming a breezy black-and-white adaptation of Shakespeare literally in your own backyard. That’s how The Avengers director Joss Whedon shot the film, which was cast with his buddies and former coworkers from his years on television. The result is a romantic comedy with the chemistry built-in, a Shakespeare adaptation that doesn’t take itself too seriously and something new from a director who has previously relied heavily on his own dialogue. And it’s just lovely and airy enough to be mistaken for a summer breeze.
- Stories We Tell – Every family has its secrets, and director Sarah Polley decided to turn her camera on her own family’s dirty laundry in this documentary. What sounds like a glorified home video ends up being one of the most compelling films of the year, and certainly the best documentary in a year when there was an embarrassment of riches in that medium.
- Side Effects – Steven Soderbergh’s supposed last theatrical release (Behind the Candelabra was later but went out on HBO) before his retirement has a bit of the Sex, Lies and Videotape vibe to it, when a depressed woman goes on psychotropic drugs that result in some, well, side effects. It’s hard to talk about what makes the film great without spoiling it, but suffice to say it is definitely more than it appears.
We’ll continue tomorrow with some more lists. One point to note: So far, only Before Sunrise and The World’s End have appeared on more than one list. Incredible.