I would put this year of film up against any in recent memory. In addition to getting new Scorsese, McQueen, Polley, Bier, O. Russell, Baumbach, Malick, Payne, Jonze, Cuaron, and Coen brothers, we got incredibly exciting new indies like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Fruitvale Station, controversy inducing foreign films like No, Blue Is The Warmest Color, and The Patience Stone, and unnaturally heavy studio fare like Prisoners. It was a very good year. A year that proved cinema is certainly not dead, dying, sick, or out of town, regardless of the now firmly changed paradigm.
This year every single outing to the theater was filled with promise. Here are my favorite 10.
10. Before Midnight // Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Directed by Richard Linklater
Reteaming for the third time in seventeen years (since 1995’s Before Sunrise) Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke bring Jesse and Celine to life again, this time over the course of an afternoon and evening in Greece’s golden countryside. Jesse has spent the summer at an invitation only writers' getaway of sorts, bringing with him Celine, their twin girls, and his son from his previous marriage. Delpy and Hawke, yet again seemingly indiscernible from Jesse and Celine themselves, bring a wizened gravitas to characters once colored with a smidge of pretense. Linklater’s subtle framings, sea foam palettes, and long takes catch all the resentment and impassioned love flowing in equal parts between the couple. That the end of the film leaves less of a question mark about the couple’s future than the other two films is of little consequence. Before Sunset (2004) is still the best of the three, but the climactic hotel room scene that plays out near the film's end is a heavyweight fight of writing, acting, and direction often missing from relationship films. And we, of course, fall in and out and back in love with Jesse and Celine all over.
9. American Hustle // Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, Directed by David O. Russell
David O. Russell is now 3 for 0. It is no secret that the writer/director has now firmly reinvented, or at least updated, his cinematic voice. The question is, is it working? It would seem so. Though The Fighter (2010) is still the best of O. Russell’s triplet return (followed by 2012's Silver Linings Playbook and, now, American Hustle), this crime and con epic deserves much of the attention it is receiving. At times American Hustle feels a little too self-conscious for its own good, but that does not stop it from being a mesmerizing bout of cinematography, sound design, writing, acting, and direction. And that cast. It would be hard to piece together a much more complete American dream team. Jeremy Renner gives, arguably, the best performance of the lot. O. Russell’s soundtrack is a mix tape of disco-sized proportions. American Hustle is clearly the work of a hurried filmmaker (made immediately after Silver Linings Playbook), containing both the rushed flaws and go-for-broke flashes of brilliant immediacy inherent therein.
8. The Wolf Of Wall Street // Written by Terrence Winter, Directed by Martin Scorsese
Film-nerd freak-outs aside, The Wolf of Wall Street is an American epic as only Scorsese can deliver. It is a disgustingly audacious and lush piece of work about Neanderthal-like greed and lavish capitalism run amok in an era of American financial history where guys like Jordan Belfort could, well, do what he did. That being, namely, selling penny stocks at inflated prices to the wealthy elite just looking to blow wads of cash on the next big thing. Comparisons to Goodfellas (1990) are unfortunate because this is an entirely different movie. The only similarities here are Scorsese’s style (quick cuts, whipping camera, long Steadicam takes, narration) which are, in some combination, all over every one of his other films anyway. The Wolf of Wall Street is decidedly a comedy, albeit as dark and murky as Belfort’s psyche. The film does not come without its share of problems. The pace is a little uneven. Some scenes drag while others are over too quickly. We don’t spend enough time with extraneous characters (Kyle Chandler’s Denham, Cristin Milioti’s Teresa). The effects of Belfort and Co.’s actions are not felt much farther than their own office walls. But Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker jam shots together like prize fighters taking big swings and quick jabs, creating montages that have been too long missing from Scorsese’s work. I can’t think of a single role more tailor made for DiCaprio’s manboy quailities and quirks. He ignites every frame he is in. Not to mention Jonah Hill’s hilarious and terrifying performance as Belfort’s partner in crime. Scorsese is not back. He has always been here. It’s just that with The Wolf of Wall Street he is screaming at the top of his lungs rather than quietly murmuring.
7. Mud // Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
I honestly do not understand why this movie has been so criminally forgotten. Mud has to be the most overlooked film of the year. It was a critical darling when it was released, but then it was seemingly set adrift on the waters of its own prominently featured Mississippi. Jeff Nichols remains one of the most uniquely regional voices in contemporary cinema, letting us peer into worlds distinctly southern but refreshingly universal. Matthew McConaughey gives another one of his dozens of great performances from the past few years. Nichols says he had McConaughey in mind for the role when he began writing the script back in college. It shows. Reese Witherspoon also, finally, cashes in the startling dramatic performance from which she all too often shies away. Clearly drawing inspiration from Mark Twain, Nichols creates a sprawling mythic yarn. One part fairy tale, one part coming of age story.
6. Blue Jasmine // Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen returns with his yearly offering delivering a type of film we have not seen from the filmmaker since Stardust Memories (1980). Blue Jasmine meanders between bleak comedy and stark drama with all the charming neuroticism inherent in Allen’s own onscreen persona. The laughs come frequently but with an even more frequent price. Cate Blanchett gives, arguably, the best female performance of the year. Louis C.K. has an amusingly fitting bit part and Bobby Cannavale’s Chili is brimming with well-grounded anger and passion. In fact, the entire cast does some of the best work of their careers; possibly a testament to Allen’s now-famous hands off approach to directing actors. Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe makes this the most well shot Woody Allen film since his work with Gordon Willis in the 70s and 80s. But what takes the film to new heights, even for Allen, is the end. It is unsettlingly bleak and quite shocking, proving Allen still has the guts to pierce into the ambiguity of the human experience.
5. Nebraska // Written and Directed by Alexander Payne
With the exception of my number 4 pick, Alexander Payne is perhaps the most European (unconventional/anti-Hollywood aesthetic and style) of contemporary American filmmakers. That being said, Nebraska is perhaps the filmmaker’s most cinematic work. Pairing his Truffaut-like observationalism with beautiful black and white cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska plays in turns laugh out loud hilarious and heartbreakingly bleak. The cringe inducing awkwardness that Payne does like no other is almost too much to bear as Will Forte’s underplayed David and Bruce Dern’s masterful Woody visit family, dine at a local restaurant, and arrive at their destination. That scene, the end of their journey, is both inevitable and alarmingly disappointing. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a master class with Payne and speak with him briefly this year at the Savannah Film Festival where Nebraska screened. He told me that filmmaking means “becoming friends with despair.” It would seem with Nebraska Payne did just that.
4. Frances Ha // Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach
It’s hard to like some of the characters in Frances Ha, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hard movie to like. As is the case with Baumbach’s entire oeuvre the film deserves revisiting and requires a lot of post-viewing rumination. Also filmed in stark black and white, many might think Baumbach is trying to comment on the current effort to define us aimless millennials. For me, Frances Ha is a much more specific narrative. Frances is not a representation of an entire generation. She is her own person, flaws and triumphs, and more accurately represents a universal feeling and place in life than a group of people. The script, penned by Greta Gerwig (Frances) and Baumbach, is perhaps the film’s greatest victory. An entire course on good dialogue could exist solely from examining Frances Ha. The Squid and The Whale (2005) still remains Baumbach’s best film, but Frances Ha feels more like a matured culmination of Baumbach’s unique perspective, voice, and style
3. Prisoners // Written by Aaron Guzikowski, Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Another massively undervalued film this year, Prisoners simply is not getting the awards season credit or attention it deserves. Absolutely stunning performances all around. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Maria Bello, and Paul Dano are lit with subtle command by Roger Deakins and directed to pitch perfect pace by Denis Villeneuve. The cast creates portraits of everyday people that will haunt you for days after the film ends. Not to mention a chilling and unrecognizable Melissa Leo. With an airtight script by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners plays like the film version of the little dutch boy with his finger in the dam. The characters’ pasts weigh on them heavily and yet we never really know what those pasts included. It’s an incredibly tense device that makes the film feel as if it could erupt in volcanic proportions at any moment, but it rarely does. When it does, though, watch out because it’s truly explosive.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis // Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
I could not have loved this film more. Again, this is when it is important to remember that my list is a completely subjective one of my favorite films from this year. Are there imperfections? Probably, but I was so stunned the entire time that objectivity went out the window from the first guitar strum Llewyn delivers. The Coen brothers, wisely, do not make this a movie that feels like a musical nor does it lack its share of musicality. The greatest favor they pay the film is letting each song play out in full rather than cutting away after the first chorus like many movies about music often do. But Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t really about the music, at least not entirely. It’s more about Llewyn the drifter, the punk, and the dreamer. He is a vehicle through which all aspiring artists can vent their own frustrations with “making it.” Every single one of your preconceived expectations derived from the tropes a film like this often employs is completely undercut. There is no happy ending here and about half way through the film it becomes clear that there shouldn’t be. Not every musician in 1960s Greenwich Village became Bob Dylan. Some must have fallen by the wayside. Positioning us with the Llewyns of folk music rather than the Dylans, the Coens create a portrait of a musician and a person more in line with the reality of many aspiring artists’ fates instead of cramming a falsified American dream of success and celebrity down our throats.
1. 12 Years A Slave / / Written by John Ridley, Directed by Steve McQueen
1. Her // Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
I simply could not choose between these two towering feats of cinematic achievement. Both will unequivocally become parts of the contemporary canon. And, oddly enough, both couldn’t be timelier. With 12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen finally confronts the horrors of American slavery with an unflinching and uncompromising eye for the brutality often left out of films about the period. The film begins a conversation that must be had and is particularly effective given the social atmosphere surrounding high profile racial cases like the murder of Treyvon Martin this year. Her also asks questions about the current state of urban existence. What does it mean to live in a post-technological world and where does that situate us as individuals seeking connection with the people around us? Spike Jonze’s dizzying whirlwind of cotton candy colored futurism is, at its core, just a love story. Simple enough. But the way the film handles modern loneliness is specifically 21st century. Both films are beautiful, masterful works from irreplaceable filmmakers at the height of their directorial prowess.
Other Favorites: The Butler // August: Osage County // Place Beyond The Pines // The World’s End // Gravity // To The Wonder // The East // Fruitvale Station // Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
What I Missed: Upstream Color // Stories We Tell // Blue Is The Warmest Color // Dallas Buyer’s Club // Enough Said // The Act of Killing // Short Term 12