Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.
We saw the vast
expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we've never seen them
before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with
a tabby cat.
Enough nonsense, let's do this.
10. Blue Jasmine
can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to
live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen's Blue
Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy
socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand's Maddoff-esque
antics are exposed.
Cate Blanchett's performance is captivating
and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised
confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins
as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by
frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin's
The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named
Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the
proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by
Jasmine's presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature
despite Jasmine's superiority being little more than an empty shell. It
is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen's best works.
9. Fruitvale Station
tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a
real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New
Year's Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man
who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer
(he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not
his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how
the story ends.
That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like
the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young
daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant's
life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question
of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.
part of the film's strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the
nation's attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic
incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of
Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film
would arrive in, but they didn't need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar
Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in
America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies
continue to occur.
documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite
docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which
tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of
documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that
medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful
organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.
So it is
with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and
particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in -- if not
the intentional cause of -- several deaths and injuries of park
trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying
the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers
is hard to question.
Through a series of interviews and truly
breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was
kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to
Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another
trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing –
archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a
water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas' teeth. We see park
employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of
the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his
side where the other whales have "raked" him with their teeth. And we
watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing
cries after her child was taken from her.
We hear the interviews
of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and
the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most
memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as
a whale trapper. You can't help but believe him when he says he's seen
some things in his day, but it's the whaling that haunts him most.
The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.
7. All Is Lost
Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss
JC Chandor's All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the
sea. But even with Pi's tiger, and Phillip's gun-toting Somali pirates,
it's All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon
its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost
Chandor -- who made his debut in 2011 with the
spectacular Margin Call -- goes all in on his star, and the bet pays
off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and
demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured
by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It's a
surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is
tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way
onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.
6. The Kings of Summer
In Kings of Summer (full review here),
three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head
into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It's a
simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating
level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh,
scream, and do as they please.
The performances are spectacular,
particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also
Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized
characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the
doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the
ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of
adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of
5. American Hustle
the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI
in taking down other ne'er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What
ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that
balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam
case it's based on.
At it's heart, American Hustle is the story of
Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a
garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his
mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent
who thinks he's in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld's absolutely
unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a
well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.
an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit
of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In
American Hustle (full review here), everyone's a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they're not always the same people that get punished.
4. Before Midnight
a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end
precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through
the rain to profess his love at our heroine's doorstep, but it's what
happens after they kiss that's truly interesting. The morning after, as
it were, is when the drama begins.
It's that sense of realism, not
relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what
"love" is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In
Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day
walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything.
Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France
only now he's married with a son and she's in a relationship, but the
And now, 18 years after their initial
serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and
vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having
spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled
fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends
gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy,
only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument
spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent
frustrations of what they've each given up to be together.
Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to
this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an
almost unbearably honest approach to the idea of marriage as our pair
go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the
space of a single conversation. If that's not modern romance, I don't
know what is.
Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired
against us, stopping us from catching a break? That's the emotion that
sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk
singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and
failures. He's a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends' couches to
provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and
peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a
But the beauty of the Coen Brother's film is how it pulls
back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some
omniscient being. Llewyn's situation is less a matter of bad luck as it
is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities
because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people
in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him.
It's a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at
one point a producer suggests there's no money in Llewyn as a solo act,
but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which
sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for
his time and walks out.
It's a highly symbolic tale, filled with
themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with
one's self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a
misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and
layered with the best soundtrack of the year.
The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (full review here)
is that of Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a
vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an
inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before
her eyes and no way to reach it.
That image comes early in
Gravity's 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming
to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity,
Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative
representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a
symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white
knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations
obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist
trapped in a race against time.
What Cuaron has accomplished with
Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with
film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of
survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with
breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was
previously the frontier of "edge-of-your-seat" thrills.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen's brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon
Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and
sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a
decade before regaining his freedom.
The power of the film comes
from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the
cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita
Nyong'o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who's camera
lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a
few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor's
Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the
ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is
finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is
uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic
The desire of that scene and others like it (and the
decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for
audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of
slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions
of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and
presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces
us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a
visceral way that only film can.
Paired with the heartbreaking
humanity of Ejiofor's performance, McQueen's work is a triumph, exposing
a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.