Another year, another Best Of series on this blog that comes way later than everyone else’s list (though a full week earlier than last year!). As always, there’s plenty of stuff I still need to catch up with – I count around 60 I’m eager to see – but I’m happy enough with this. Lists of the year’s best performances and other miscellany come later this week, but first, here’s the best of the best.
Honorable Mentions: The World’s End, Room 237, C.O.G., Berberian Sound Studio, Bastards, Crystal Fairy, Prince Avalanche, Star Trek Into Darkness (some of y’all are getting too worked up about the cons)
Special Honorable Mention: MANAKAMANA was on Manohla Dargis's list, but as it didn't see commercial release in 2013, I disqualified it for the time being. It'll be on my best of 2014 list when it does see commercial release, rest assured.
25. Mud – Director Jeff Nichols has a great gift for low-key, simmering drama in the lives of working-class Americans, and the world he builds around Mud’s story is often fascinating enough by itself. It doesn’t hurt that he has the wonderfully charismatic McConaughey continuing his recent winning streak as a man who’s laconic charm belies a sense of instability and danger. But the two main child actors are just as good, particularly Sheridan, a young actor who provides a strong moral center in a film that often deals in moral murk.
24. Stoker – Park Chan-wook combines Hitchcock’s most classical impulses with De Palma’s most gonzo ones in his English-language debut. Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t always tie things together as neatly as it should, but the film is beautifully florid and operatic, and Wasikowska continues to amaze. Few actresses are as good at playing characters who are slightly off without going flat-out crazy from the beginning. Kidman is also reliably strong, but credit Matthew Goode’s surprisingly impressive work as being a real ace in the hole. Apparently mixing malevolence with a sense of heartbreak and betrayal is his niche.
23. The Counselor – Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay is florid, to a degree that sometimes grinds the narrative gears to a halt as characters muse on the possibility of death and what it means in 10-minute dialogue scenes. But that also makes The Counselor one of the year’s most fascinating films. The plot’s murky nature will likely frustrate many, but McCarthy is more interested the nature of the men and women behind evil deeds, what it takes for them to survive, and whether they can live with the consequences than he is with the deeds themselves. In a world of safe films, the aggressive, frequently off-putting The Counselor stands out.
22. No – Pablo Larraín’s mixture of real terror with goofy 80s style sets this film apart from your average Big Issue film. He deliberately reproduces the look of 80s advertisements to make the film as beautifully ugly as possible, part of a garish era, one that pushed good feelings above content. The film left me with a question: what we should think when that’s what it takes to get a monster out of office?
21. Leviathan – Pretty much every bid for relevance – a quote from the Book of Job, a shot of a depressed fisherman watching Deadliest Catch – feels like the directors are reaching, but the film works as an exercise in abstraction. It’s never more thrilling than when going purely formal, throwing us in the middle of impressionistic images of fishes sloshing around with their eyes bulging, or arms and legs cutting the fish up. It’s a nature doc by way of a horror movie.
20. Beyond the Hills – Fans of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu have waited five long years for the return of one of Europe’s most talented filmmakers, but they have not waited in vain. Mungiu is particularly gifted when showcasing moments of unpredictable, jarring movement within the stillness, as with a scene of fish being dumped into a sink; the troubled Alina (Cristina Flutur) confronting the priest about the legend of a mystical idol in his altar; and any scene where Alina has to be held or tied down by the superstitious nuns in a horrifying exorcism, often writhing against bodies with unbelievable fury.
To the Wonder – Perhaps Terrence Malick’s weakest film, but those on To the Wonder’s wavelength will likely find the film liberating, not to mention beautiful. The film deserves credit for playing as a darker mirror image to The Tree of Life, a film about surrendering to the mystery and accepting the unknowable. To the Wonder is not hopeless, but certainly more tentative about this acceptance. Are our relationships with one another, with the universe, with the spiritual true or shallow and one-sided? As it hits its emotional peak in its final minutes, it proves as vital as any of his works. It’s about the joy of fleeting pleasures (making love, experiencing nature) and how lasting ones- love, God, happiness- may be outside our grasp.
18. Nebraska – Few directors capture dissatisfaction like Alexander Payne. The writer-director behind Election, About Schmidt and Sideways specializes in stories about sometimes sympathetic, sometimes irritating, always empathetic sad-sacks dealing with an ineffable question: “Is this it?” Payne’s new film, Nebraska, is the first he didn’t have a hand in writing, but it nonetheless feels like a story right from Payne’s head, complete with a career-best performance from Bruce Dern as a man who needs to believe in and look forward to something.
17. Drug War – Holy shit, can Johnnie To direct a movie. Plays a bit like Heat, but deals and transactions being the main focus rather than professionalism. To’s style reminds me somewhat of a modern Howard Hawks or Walter Hill, with each action sequence shot for maximum precision and clarity rather than grandeur. Both Louis Koo and Sun Honglei are excellent, particularly Honglei’s cop, whose transitions from stern lawman to pretending to be a goofy, constantly laughing gangster named Haha are the stuff of comic gold.
Gravity – The relative simplicity of Gravity’s survival story makes it a perfect vehicle for Cuarón’s penchant for baroque camera movements. It’s some of the most astonishing action directing in years. The sense of spatial dynamics in Gravity is extraordinary, not to mention essential. With even the most ostentatious movements, there’s a need to show exactly what we’re seeing at the exact moment we see it. The film roots our experience in the characters’ objectives, in the specific cause-and-effect of every detail. That emphasis is important, considering the film’s central thread: the value of life.
15. The Past –As with his masterpiece A Separation, the biggest star is writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant script, which makes each character’s position empathetic at every turn. Farhadi sometimes leans too hard on the dialogue to explicate his theme (hint: it’s hard to move past, well, the past). But it hardly matters when he handles each character with such understanding and makes potentially melodramatic plot turns feel natural and wholly earned. Why do the characters avoid talking about the circumstances around the failed marriage? Why do people try to escape the past all of the time, when it’s unsuccessful almost without fail? Farhadi doesn’t give any easy answers. Few directors understand human complexity the way he does. I wish we had more of him.
Blue is the Warmest Color – My minor gripes are more than compensated for with how sensitively Abdellatif Kechiche and his actors handle the characters. Seydoux, best known for minor roles in Midnight in Paris and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, is a truly magnetic presence as Emma, funny, articulate, and talented; it’s easy to see why Adèle might fall so easily for her. And every superlative thrown at Exarchopoulos is warranted: she’s an absolute natural, at once intelligent but naïve, happy to be in love but confused about how to handle it. We’re with her every step of the way as she winds up sadder but a little bit wiser, maybe recalling our own formative experiences along the way.
13. Pacific Rim – The most joyful experience I had at the movies all year.. Del Toro able uses frenetic editing when it’s called for, but we have a sense of where everything is, we can tell what’s going on…for almost every fight, I know exactly where every character is in relation to each other, whether it’s established through photography or through cross-cutting. That sounds simple, but so many blockbusters forget basics of spatial dynamics. And that’s what makes everything so exciting, not just the robots with swords. Though, come on, my inner 9-year-old was about to have a joyful heart attack at that sword. But then there’s the look of this: the way it’s composed, the way colors blend together in an impressionistic blur. It’s a beautiful film.
12. Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig co-wrote the script for Frances Ha, which gives Gerwig the best showcase for her loopy charm yet. Gerwig gives a funny, empathetic performance as a woman whose flightiness barely hides that her neediness and deep insecurity. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t excuse their characters’ behavior or attitudes, but the film’s warmth and understanding for them helps make Frances Ha one of the most poignant late coming-of-age films in recent memory. Adapting to adulthood is difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s all just a matter of adjusting expectations.
11. Behind the Candelabra – Yeah, yeah, TV movie, whatever. It premiered at Cannes, so I’m counting it. Soderbergh is noted for his often clinical approach to filmmaker, something that can occasionally seem aloof and misaligned for a project (see: Side Effects). Here, it’s a perfect matter-of-fact counterbalance to the gorgeous production design and big performances, especially Michael Douglas’s best work in ages as Liberace, capturing the entertainer’s almost impossible flamboyance while also finding the combination of vanity, fear, and smothering love in the man.
10. The Act of Killing– The year’s most original and striking documentary, about Anwar Congo’s involvement with the murder of thousands in Indonesia. The film’s flaws are largely minor in the face of such an unflinching look at the nature of evil. It’s also refreshing to see that the film doesn’t tell the viewer how to feel about the events; it trusts the audience to be naturally mortified by how the men involved may or may not feel any semblance of guilt.
9. The Grandmaster – The Grandmaster might be more beholden to traditional storytelling than most Wong Kar-wai films, but it remains a Wong film through and through. Aided by a swooning, melancholy score and the evocative use of two Ennio Morricone pieces, it is a film filled with longing and loss, both for the lost martial arts and the unfulfilled romance between Ip Man and Gong Er (brilliantly played by Zhang Ziyi) at its center. It’s a film that knows that for the survival of Ip and his teachings, there’s a whole world that will never be seen again.
8. Computer Chess – The strangest film of the year, but film’s constant strangeness is inviting rather than alienating (at least for more adventurous audience members). Mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski’s formal experimentation yields a project that feels like a time capsule, a forgotten tape of a particularly odd weekend with the brightest and most awkward minds of the early digital age. The way the characters fail to relate to each other is both consistently funny and poignant in the way it captures how the socially awkward (and likely Asperger’s-afflicted) failed to interact as they developed technology that would both facilitate and break down communication. There’s nothing like Computer Chess coming around again anytime soon, and that makes it essential.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis – Heroes have never been the Coen Brothers’ MO. The filmmaking duo specializes in tales of losers and deadbeats, has-beens and never-weres. But the read on the Coens as smart-alecks who don’t care about anyone has always been reductive at best, wrongheaded at worst, and it’s rarely more apparent than it is in Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about a singer (played by a prickly yet empathetic Oscar Isaac) who’s not going to make the big time, but who isn’t any less admirable because of it.
6. All Is Lost – The most challenging of the three major survival stories of the year (Gravity, Captain Phillips), and the most rewarding. Elemental in its storytelling, it benefits from a career-best performance from Robert Redford. We see one of the last great movie stars stripped of his strength, of his class, and, now at 77 years old, of his once-youthful good looks. It’s easy enough to believe that Our Man is capable of doing the arduous tasks at hand, but they also clearly take a toll on his body, already worn down by age and lord knows what other hardships before the sea, the sun, and the salt take their toll. All Is Lost is brave not only for its forgoing basic dramatic conventions or for rooting us in the particulars of a man’s struggle, but also for showing how we deal with the inevitability of death, whether it’s to come now or a little later.
5. 12 Years a Slave – Like Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave is a tale of determination vs. dehumanization, as Solomon’s hope for justice meets the harsh realities of slavery. McQueen’s unsparing aesthetic makes the brutality all the more palpable. Where a film like Amistad makes slavery a musty past, the extended takes of beatings here bring the pain to life. Yet the film is not a wallow- it is filled with lyrical touches (Solomon’s gift of a violin, a shot of blackberries on a plate) that make it all the more emotionally wrecking. That McQueen depicts Solomon’s eventual rescue and reunion with his family as melancholy rather than uplifting only further speaks to the film’s distinctively truthful nature- even with silver linings, the greatest ordeals cannot be forgotten.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street – It’s inspiring that even at 71, Martin Scorsese can make a film that’s as controversial and potentially alienating as it is formally exciting. And formally exciting it is. Scorsese throws out all of the stops in The Wolf of Wall Street: freeze frames on tossed dwarves, long tracking shots through crowds of chanting brokers, tight close-ups on heavy drug use, slow motion scenes of DiCaprio and Hill strung out on qualuudes, and enough fourth-wall breaking narration from DiCaprio (in career-topping work) to make us as charmed and fascinated by Belfort as we are disgusted by him. At just a minute shy of three hours (and a minute over Casino to be his longest narrative feature), The Wolf of Wall Street is almost exhausting, but Scorsese makes itgloriously excessive and exhausting with some of his most vibrant filmmaking in years. We’re on sensory overload here for a world of sensory overload.
3. Before Midnight – A combination of Richard Linklater’s much-noted influence Eric Rohmer (talkative young people philosophize, fall in love) and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, chartering the life of a person (or, in this case, relationship) and how it changes over time. In the film’s greatest sequence, the beloved Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have a long, heated, relationship-testing argument that’ll damn near tear the hearts out of anyone who loved the previous two films. It’s absolutely brutal in its truthfulness. But Linklater and company are careful to balance out the harder material with a sweetness that keeps the tone from curdling, and the film is ultimately hopeful. True love, while not as perfect as most movies would make it out to be, may have a chance after all.
2. Her – On paper, Spike Jonze’s Her sounds like another genre/mind-bender in the style of his Charlie Kaufman collaborations Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Instead, it’s the set-up for an allegory about love, relationships, and heartbreak, the most personal and emotionally bracing work of Jonze’s career. From Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous cinematography to a fully realized relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s operating system Samantha to the disarming sincerity with which Jonze handles it, it’s very nearly my favorite film of the year. Maybe within a few months I’ll move it up.
Upstream Color – But at the moment, I don't see any film matching the formal high I got from experiencing Upstream Color. I’m not going to pretend I know all of what’s going on here, but the mystery of it is one of the biggest reasons of why I love it. The abstract rhythms – which play more like a poem or a symphonic movement in the last third than a story – depend on how director Shane Carruth connects it all. What’s remarkable here is that while it’s difficult to piece together most of what’s happening, in context, it all makes some sort of bizarre sense. Even if we don’t know what’s going on, it’s clear that Carruth does, and that he trusts the viewer to find what makes it all cohere.
What sets Upstream Color apart from Carruth’s impressive debut Primer is its strong emotional core. As much a love story as it is a sci-fi mind bender, the film filters the relationship of Kris (Amy Seimetz, incredible) and Jeff (Carruth) through their past traumas, their attempt to share their experiences, and their blending identities. What’s makes it all the more impressive is that Carruth does it almost solely through images, minimizing the dialogue and completely eschewing exposition. So much of the film is couched in metaphor that it’s hard to grasp everything that Carruth’s getting at, but what’s for sure is that there’s some sort of a power – be it God, nature, the past, or something more insidious – that connects and shapes us. No film this year told us less about what it was trying to do, and no film tried to do more.