, Saturday, March 8, 2014
WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the Best Movies of 2013.
From the blockbuster hits, to the indies you missed, WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley ranks the Best Movies of 2013.
Note this list only includes narrative (fiction) films, excluding documentaries like "Stories We Tell," "The Act of Killing," "Medora" and, yes, "Bad Grandpa." Comparing the two is like apples and oranges. We'll live to fight the doc battle another day.
This isn't your typical critic's best list where high-brow art automatically trumps low-brow entertainment. Movies have always been, and will forever be, a mix of both. So here's a list from both sides of the film spectrum, where indulgent pretentiousness goes to die, popcorn explosions require substance, and quality ultimately reigns supreme.
Director: Francis Lawrence
"The Hunger Games" set a high box office bar as the third highest grossing movie of 2012. Luckily for fans, "Catching Fire" cleared that hurdle with Jennifer Lawrence suffering PTSD in her first major movie since her Oscar win for "Silver Linings Playbook."
The franchise continues to divide along generational lines: Young viewers view it as their very own "Ben-Hur" or "Gladiator," while parents are horrified at the concept of teens fighting to the death. For me, "Catching Fire" drops to the bottom of the list due to a predictable twist ending that provides an anti-climatic setup for the next installment. Even so, it remains the second highest-grossing movie of 2013, proving Katniss is still queen.
Director: Alexandre Moors
Born and raised in the same Md. county where they caught the D.C. Beltway snipers, perhaps the wound is still too fresh. But I found zero sympathy for the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, even in movie form.
"Blue Caprice" was supposed to explore the motivations for John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who killed ten people and critically injured three others in 2002. And yet, the film's message was muddy. Prior to Sundance, its IMDB page listed the cast as portraying the real-life snipers. After mixed reviews, the page mysteriously listed them as "John" and "Lee," spinning the roles as abstract interpretations of the real-life gunmen.
Either way, I want to include the film on this list because the performances are top notch, including the talented Isaiah Washington as the father figure, newcomer Tequan Richmond as the impressionable teen and the uniquely beautiful Joey Lauren Adams in support. Most of all, director Alexandre Moors deserve credit as a powerful new voice, echoing Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood" (1967) as raindrops on a windshield create teardrop shadows down Washington's face.
Director: James Wan
Once again, it was a year of pointless remakes, as new versions of "Carrie" and "The Evil Dead" made us run to buy the Blu Rays of the original Brian DePalma and Sam Raimi classics. But 2013 proved there's still a place for original, low-budget horror.
While "The Purge" ruined an intriguing premise with mediocre writing, "The Conjuring" delivered with a creepy clap game, tense direction by James Wan ("Saw") and strong performances by Vera Farmiga ("Bates Motel"), Patrick Wilson ("Insidious") Lili Taylor ("Say Anything") and Ron Livingston ("Office Space").
Director: Peter Berg
"Lone Survivor" tells the true story of a failed Navy SEAL mission in 2005 Afghanistan and director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") offers the most intense military action since the Omaha Beach opening of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). But that's where the comparisons stop.
"Lone Survivor" lacks the compelling narrative of "Private Ryan," the character development of "Patton," "The Hurt Locker" or "Zero Dark Thirty," and the social and political commentary of "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket."
This one never tries to be anything more than a gruesome survival tale. Still, it's a touching tribute to the brave men and women who serve, forcing us to walk in the boots of heroes at a time when most Americans aren't even invested in a war that's now entering its 13th year. Gone are the days when going to war meant everyone having skin in the game. And that's the real tragedy.
Director: Lake Bell
Often, the key to a good flick is finding a topic that's right under our noses, then exposing its comic possibilities. "In a World..." does just that, spoofing the absurdity of movie trailer voiceovers.
Actress Lake Bell makes her feature-length debut as writer, director and producer and should be a real talent for years to come. She plays a struggling voice coach who competes against her arrogant father and his protege in the male-dominated voice-over industry.
I adored this quirky little indie, but even if you walk away less than impressed, I guarantee you won't look at movie trailers the same way again.
Director: J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams dazzled with his "Star Trek" reboot in 2009, and fans turned out in droves to make "Star Trek: Into Darkness" a top ten grosser of 2013.
The blockbuster sci-fi sequel featured plenty of references to "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), including Benedict Cumberbatch's villainous turn and a glass window goodbye between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.
Rarely has 3D been more effective than allowing the starship Enterprise to bend upon itself as it jolts into warp speed.
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
One of film's greatest ironies is that the phrase "paparazzi" has been embraced by a Hollywood red carpet culture that has no idea it came from Paparazzo in "La Dolce Vita" (1960). Then again, does anyone really expect Snooki to read subtitles? It's like the hilarious joke in "Anchorman" when Ron Burgundy misuses the phrase "When in Rome."
With "The Great Beauty," director Paolo Sorrentino joins the ranks of Rossellini ("Rome, Open City"), Fellini ("8 1/2"), Pier Pasolini ("The Gospel According to St. Matthew"), Antonioni ("La Avventura") and Bertolucci ("The Conformist") as Italy's great filmmakers. Like Mastroianni in "La Dolce Vita" and Peck in "Roman Holiday," the film follows Jep, a journalist who roams Rome in search of truth and beauty.
In a year where "Blue is the Warmest Color" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, "The Great Beauty" won the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Flick. The film is gorgeously shot with sweeping camera moves and oceans on ceilings, but it fails to make good on Jep's own honest line: "You can't charm me with things like; 'I'm an artist, I don't need to explain.' Our paper has a core of cultured readers that don't want to be taken for fools. I work for that core." Same here, pal.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Who knew 2013 would be the year of Matthew McConaughey? Exactly 20 years after "Dazed and Confused," he offered a chest-beating cameo in "The Wolf of Wall Street," while giving two lead performances to silence any doubters: "Mud" and "Dallas Buyers Club," the latter of which is generating plenty of Oscar buzz.
In "Mud," he plays a drifter whose boat is discovered in a tree by two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who help him reunite with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The film is a great coming-of-age tale with a tone that recalls the best of Mark Twain literature. It would have ranked higher on this list if it had chosen a less tidy ending, perhaps showing Mud's signature crucifix sandal print on the sand in an ambiguous final shot. This would have played up the film's allegorical strengths.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
This summer brought plenty of coming-of-age flicks, from "Mud" to "The Spectacular Now." But "The Kings of Summer" was the most unabashedly fun, following three boys who escape their parents and build their own house in the woods for a modern-day "Stand By Me" (1986).
Just like "Superbad" (2007) had its McLovin', "Kings" offers its own awesomely weird sidekick in Biaggio (Moises Arias), who keeps things light despite some real teenage heartache.
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
This was a big year for James Franco, from his wild speech in "Spring Breakers" to his title character in "Oz: The Great and Powerful." Still, his funniest effort was hosting a raging Hollywood party in the apocalyptic spoof "This is the End."
All the comedy stars aligned for this one: Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Channing Tatum, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchuel, Rihanna, Craig Robinson, Mindy Kaling and Michael Cera, who steals the show by playing hilariously against type.
The movie not only features side-splitting sophomoric humor, it boasts more commentary on celebrity culture than any other movie this year, save maybe Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," both starring Emma Watson.
Director: Brian Percival
While "Catching Fire" had plenty of box office success, 2013 saw another solid adaptation of a hit young adult novel, "The Book Thief," based on the 2005 book by Markus Zusak.
Narrated by Death in a tamer version of Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," the film tells the tale of young Liesel, who learns to read by stealing books before they burn in 1939 Nazi Germany.
The movie shies away from the horrors of the Holocaust, feeling more like a kid-friendly intro to the Sophies and Schindlers to come. But it's a solid family outing with award-caliber performances from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Liesel's parents, who risk their own lives by hiding a Jewish refugee in their cellar.
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, "Inside Llewyn Davis" tells the tale of a struggling folk singer who fails to achieve Bob Dylan fame in 1961 Greenwich Village. The character's ideal is admirable -- an artist who won't compromise creative integrity for commercial appeal -- but it ultimately becomes the film's own stubborn flaw.
The Coen Brothers have a knack for painting art masterpieces disguised as rip-roaring entertainments, but "Llewyn Davis" forsakes the latter so much as to feel inferior in their canon. The film has a unique setting like "Fargo," but far less likable characters. It casts John Goodman like "The Big Lebowski," but lacks the comic dynamite. It uses folk music like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" but lacks the charm. And it has the open ending of "No Country for Old Men," without the shock, awe and Chigurh.
"Llewyn Davis" may win awards, but only by the Coens riding their reputations. Still, an average Coen flick is better than most filmmakers' best efforts. This one deserves a spot for Oscar Isaac's Oscar-caliber performance, clever cat symbolism (Oscar = cat) and "Nashville"-esque songs (Justin Timberlake sings "Please Mr. Kennedy").
Director: Marc Forster
While "The Conjuring" was the year's scariest horror flick, my overall favorite from the genre was an action-horror combo. "World War Z" was one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, thanks to the hit zombie novel by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft's son Max Brooks, whose apocalyptic character testimonials would have been perfect for an episodic, found-footage film.
No matter, director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") brilliantly paces the action, continually reinvesting us in the characters, then jarring us with jump scares. Props to producer/star Brad Pitt, who ate the extra production cost to reshoot the ending, replacing a special effects extravaganza with an intimate lab thriller sequence, a gamble that paid off with a top ten grosser.
Director: Nicole Holofcener
When writer/director Nicole Holofcener set out to make a touching romantic comedy, she had no way of knowing it would be the last role of Tony Soprano.
The late James Gandolfini plays the sloppy love interest to Julia Louis Dreyfus, who develops a deep friendship with her massage patient (Catherine Keener), only to find out she was the ex-wife of Gandolfini.
After years of killing it on TV, from "Seinfeld" to "Veep," Dreyfus has proven she can carry a feature length film, rather than simply lending hilarious support in "Christmas Vacation," or quoting Brando's "Streetcar" by yelling, "Stella!"
Director: Steven Soderbergh
When Channing Tatum wasn't saving the president in "White House Down," he was dating the unstable Rooney Mara, alongside Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Side Effects."
The film arrived just three days before the Academy Awards, and unfortunately got buried in all the Oscar hype. But go back and revisit this one. It's a true thinking man's psychological thriller and a social commentary on our self-medicated society.
Most of all, it marks another stellar effort by director Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," "Sex, Lies & Videotape"), who also made headlines this year by directing Mike Douglas and Matt Damon in the Liberace TV movie "Behind the Candelabra."
Director: James Ponsoldt
"The Descendants" was one of the best movies of 2011, and many of its key players have found success this year. Director Alexander Payne went on to make "Nebraska," writers Nat Faxon & Jim Rash went on to write/direct "The Way Way Back" and star George Clooney went on to appear in "Gravity." But the most underrated part was up-and-coming actress Shailene Woodley, who now stars in "The Spectacular Now," this year's version of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
She is pitch perfect across co-star Miles Teller, who looks like a mix between Ben Savage and John Cusack. Together, the pair won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance "for two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency," leading a cast of familiar faces (i.e. "The Wire," "Breaking Bad").
More importantly, the writers of "(500) Days of Summer" prove they can tell a straightforward story just as well as they did with their time-jumping romance.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer/director J.C. Chandor burst onto the scene two years ago with a screenplay nomination for "Margin Call" (2011), a talky Wall Street thriller with plenty of characters. He went the complete opposite route in his follow-up, "All is Lost," in which Robert Redford delivers a one-man show as a resourceful sailor lost at sea.
It's not for everyone with its slow pace and minimalist dialogue, but joins the ranks of "Cast Away," "Life of Pi" and "Gravity" in lonely survival tales that speak volumes about our increasingly isolated society. An admirable experiment in visual storytelling.
Director: Brian Helgeland
While "Rush" captured the racing world, the year's best sports flick was "42," written and directed by Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") with music by Mark Isham ("Crash").
Harrison Ford transformed himself as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who integrated baseball by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947. Chadwick Boseman gives a bat-smashing performance to lead a deep cast: Nicole Beharie as wife Rachel, Lucas Black as colorblind teammate Pee Wee Reese, Christopher Meloni as womanizing manager Leo Durocher, Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith and John C. McGinley as legendary broadcaster Red Barber.
Like "Moneyball," it just cracked the Top Ten Baseball Movies of All Time.
Director: Ron Howard
While "Thor 2" was a disappointment, Chris Hemsworth proved his acting chops in "Rush," a tale of the 1970s rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, played by an Oscar-worthy Daniel Bruhl.
While the script was a bit formulaic, Ron Howard directs the hell out of the racing sequences, with firing pistons and helmet reflections. His two lead performances are so compelling that we pull for both racers, making the climax all the more rewarding. "Rush" has a rivalry that puts "Grudge Match" to shame and racing that sends "Turbo" back to the animated drawing board.
In a year where "Fast & Furious 6" star Paul Walker died in a car crash, Bruhl's line seems almost prophetic, "I accept every time I get in my car, there's a 20 percent chance I could die."
Director: Woody Allen
I dare you to find a writer/director more prolific than Woody Allen. He's created gems in five decades: "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" in the '70s; "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Crimes & Misdemeanors" in the '80s; "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Deconstructing Harry" in the '90s; "Match Point" in the 2000s; and "Midnight in Paris" in the 2010s.
The script for "Blue Jasmine" doesn't quite measure up to these masterworks, but Cate Blanchett delivers arguably the best performance of any Woody movie, offering the most believable spiral into madness since Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) and Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951).
Director: John Wells
"August: Osage County" requires a major disclaimer: the subject matter is heavy, the conclusion is open-ended and the characters are f'd up.
But Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts give some of the most powerful performances of their careers, leading a deep cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Chris Cooper and Sam Shepard.
The script my lack a "story" in the traditional sense, but it expertly reveals new dark family secrets with each passing scene, keeping even the most engaged viewers guessing. Its tone reminded me of Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), another stellar stage-to-screen adaptation of a dark family drama.
Director: Shane Black
As the follow-up to Joss Whedon's smash "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3" kicked off Marvel Phase Two with a bang. Robert Downey Jr. proved once again why he's the best superhero star of his generation, funnier than Batman, tougher than Spider-Man and smarter than Wolverine.
Writer/director Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon") brought plenty of buddy comedy in Tony Stark's smartass banter with a little kid, while Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley combined for a hilarious villain twist. Any best list that doesn't include the year's top grossing flick is a sham. Movies are at least part democracy, and the people have spoken. "Iron Man 3" is the undisputed box office champion of 2013.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
A few months after the release of "Mud," Matthew McConaughey showed up looking completely different in "Dallas Buyers Club." The actor lost tons of weight to play a homophobic man who contracts AIDS from unprotected sex, then privately distributes cutting-edge HIV drugs that are not yet on the market.
McConaughey will compete for Best Actor ("Alright, Alright"), while Jared Leto ("Requiem for a Dream") leads the pack for Supporting Actor with a believable cross-dressing role, marking a powerful return to film after a hiatus to pursue music. My how far we've come in the 20 years since "Philadelphia."
Director: John Lee Hancock
While "Frozen" and "Monsters University" added to the studio's animated repertoire, the year's best Disney movie was a live-action flick about the making of "Mary Poppins."
Directed by John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side"), "Saving Mr. Banks" was my biggest pleasant surprise of the year, running circles around last year's derivative work, "Hitchcock," by getting to the painful childhood of "Poppins" author P.L. Travers and her relationship with her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell).
Emma Thompson kills it as the cynical Travers, who doesn't want her honest depiction sugarcoated, while Tom Hanks dazzles as Walt Disney, who wants to make it a musical and add an animated sequence. Together, they learn to compromise, realizing that just a "spoonful of sugar" helps our movie medicine go down in an effective blend of art and entertainment. Let the entire film industry take note: "Winds in the east, mist coming in. Like somethin' is brewin' and 'bout to begin."
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Baz Luhrmann's lavish style is a "love it or hate it" proposition, so it's no surprise that "The Great Gatsby" received mixed reviews. Many blasted "Gatsby" for using Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray music in a period piece, but anyone who saw "Moulin Rouge" should have expected it going in. If there were ever a realm where Luhrmann's over-the-top style would work, it was the world of excess in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Roaring Twenties.
Jay Gatsby was a role Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play, anchoring a cast of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Jason Clarke as George Wilson and Isla Fisher as the ill-fated Myrtle. Still, the biggest star is Jack White, who shreds a version of U2's "Love is Blindness" for a kickass trailer.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Move Gatsby to the '80s, have him snort cocaine off a stripper's behind and make millions off fraudulent penny stocks and you have "The Wolf of Wall Street," a hard right turn after "Hugo."
The film tells the true story of stock broker Jordan Belfort, who exudes excess, just like the film itself. The whole thing runs way too long with too many redundant scenes, while covering plenty of familiar "GoodFellas" ground.
But the film boasts moments of sheer directing brilliance by Martin Scorsese, a hilarious script by Terence Winter ("Sopranos") and a virtuoso performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has become Scorsese's new DeNiro after "Gangs of New York," "The Aviator," "The Departed," "Shutter Island" and now "Wolf."
Legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker could have taken a hacksaw to this thing, but it's worth putting up with the excess for a golden scene where Leo tries desperately to crawl to his car, despite being high out of his mind. It may be Scorsese's most vulgar, self-indulgent movie, but it's also an unforgettable dramedy that defies genre.
Director: Lee Daniels
"Fruitvale Station" and "12 Years a Slave" may be getting the awards buzz, but Lee Daniels' "The Butler" is exactly like its main character: subversively submissive. That is to say, it caters to the widest, safest audience, but will quietly influence more people during repeat airings on cable.
The film is the "Forrest Gump" of civil rights history, loosely based on a real White House butler who served eight presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan.
The presidential casting takes some getting used to (Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman), but Forest Whitaker shines alongside Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. The closing narration from President Obama is a tad heavy-handed, polarizing audiences that would have otherwise shared JFK's "change of heart." Still, the final scene of Whitaker meeting the first black president is the only way this story can come full circle.
Director: Alexander Payne
Like its very road trip plot, "Nebraska" takes a good 30 minutes to work its slow-paced spell, but by the time it reaches its destination, you'll have grown so close to your travel companions that you'll look back fondly on the ride.
Bruce Dern won Best Actor at Cannes as a crusty old man traveling from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes that may or may not exist. But June Squibb steals the show as Dern's wife and the foul-mouthed mother of Will Forte ("SNL") and Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad").
Writer/director Alexander Payne ("Sideways," "The Descendants") told The Guardian why he shot in black and white: "Ninety percent of the movies I watch are in B&W. It left cinema only for commercial reasons; it never left fine-art photography. ... Can you absolutely prove to me that fewer people saw 'Manhattan,' 'Raging Bull' and 'Schindler's List' because they were in B&W?" Anyone who has lived in small-town America knows it fits.
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
When it came time to present the year's top art film prize at Cannes, jury head Steven Spielberg hailed the virtues of "Blue is the Warmest Color," saying, "The film is a great love story that made all of us feel privileged to be a fly on the wall ... The director did not put any constraints on the narrative and we were absolutely spellbound by the amazing performances of the two actresses (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux)."
It was the first time the Palme d'Or was awarded to both the director and the lead actresses, but ironically, the film did not receive a single Oscar nomination, unlike Michael Haneke's "Amour" (2012) or Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011).
The extended lesbian sex scenes make it the year's most controversial flick, but just like actually making love, they make us fall for the characters, so that we can then feel their heartbreak.
The film takes its critics head on, defending its 3-hour runtime by saying, "I put down some short books after 2 pages," and foreshadowing its conclusion, "What we have here is a perfect example of tragedy. … It concerns eternity. It concerns what is timeless. It concerns the mechanism, the essence of humankind."
Director: Stephen Frears
He's directed numerous hits, from "Dangerous Liaisons" to "The Queen." But many forget the talent of British director Stephen Frears, who molds "Philomena" into a most unique blend of comedy and suspense.
Based on the book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" by Martin Sixsmith, the film tells the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who was kicked out of an Irish convent for having a child out of wedlock. Her search for that son takes her to America, a journey chronicled by a controversial journalist (Steve Coogan).
"Philomena" is an engrossing battle between the faithful Dench and the atheist Coogan that reveals more truth than either knew existed, especially in the context of the new Pope Francis.
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
From the Oscar-winning writers of "The Descendants" and the studio that brought you "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," "The Way Way Back" was the best summer comedy that no one saw. It follows a shy 14-year-old boy trapped on a summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and soon-to-be jerk stepfather (Steve Carell), while finding refuge at a zany water park.
Allison Janney carries the laughs as an alcoholic neighbor in the first half, then hands the comedy baton to a brilliant Sam Rockwell for the homestretch.
Surprisingly hilarious and absolutely tender, "The Way Way Back" proves that clever summer comedies can also have real dramatic weight and plenty of heart, raising the bar for all to follow.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Last year, "Zero Dark Thirty" turned a Navy SEAL success story into an Oscar-nominated tale of Bin Laden's demise. This year, "Captain Phillips" chronicled the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship and the Navy mission to rescue Captain Richard Phillips.
Director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum") is no stranger to silver screen treatments of real-life events; his 9/11 film "United 93" outclassed Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" in 2006.
Here, he directs Tom Hanks in his best performance since "Cast Away," particularly in the film's final scene of post-traumatic shock. Still, the film belongs to boney newcomer Barkhad Abdi, whose lead Somali pirate should compete for Best Supporting Actor.
Director: Denis Villenueve
Anyone can make a bad thriller. A gory jump scare is cheap and easy. But it takes a true master of suspense to do it well. Just ask Hitchcock or Polanski.
Denis Villenueve's "Prisoners" instantly joins "The Vanishing" (1988), "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), "Se7en" (1995) and "Mystic River" (2003) as the best crime thrillers of the last 25 years.
Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello invite Terrence Howard and Viola Davis over for Thanksgiving, only for both couples' daughters to go missing. A twitchy detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigates the driver of a mysterious RV (Paul Dano), where the girls were last seen playing. But as Jackman grows impatient with the investigation, how far will he go to find his daughter? At what point does the abductor become the abductee? And what secrets lie beneath this sleepy little town? "Prisoners" is chilling, released in the shadows of the real-life Cleveland kidnappings.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Current events have a way of shaping our movie conversation. While last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi propelled "Argo" to Best Picture, this year's Trayvon Martin verdict came the same week as "Fruitvale Station," which chronicles the racially-charged shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland 2008.
Forest Whitaker produces, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer shines and Michael B. Jordan is a revelation as the latest alum from "The Wire" to find stardom this year (Stringer Bell stars in "Mandela" and Omar appears in "12 Years a Slave"). Promising new director Ryan Coogler foreshadows the fatalistic finale with moving trains, living room rough housing, and symbolic talk at a grocery store deli.
The film's cops aren't beacons of justice, but they aren't inherently evil either, and the victims aren't saints, but rather real people with real flaws and the occasional chip on the shoulder. Together, these forces clash in a domino effect of mistrusts, misunderstandings and victims of circumstance that won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director: Richard Linklater
While David O. Russell made the year's best Scorsese-style flick, Richard Linklater made the year's best Woody Allen-style film in "Before Midnight," the third installment of a most unique trilogy.
Every nine years, we check in with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), first in their 20s in "Before Sunrise" (1995), then in their 30s in "Before Sunset" (2004), and now in their 40s in "Before Midnight." Linklater prefers long takes, following his characters as they walk and talk through European streets.
Here, it all builds to a hotel argument that's a cinematic master class in writing, directing and acting. As the camera pulls away into a crowd of people on a patio, like the first film's final montage of empty spaces, we realize the world exists eternal and we're just passing through. You must watch this trilogy in order, as the love story only gets sweeter with time.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
If Alfonso Cuaron loses Best Director, it will be a travesty similar to Kubrick losing for "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Carol Reed won for "Oliver!" in a make-up for "The Third Man").
"Gravity" reinvented cinema, opening with a mesmerizing 17-minute single-take in weightless orbit, seamlessly moving in and out of hyperventilating POV shots and having a tear drop float toward us (3D as emotion rather than gimmick). Like "Children of Men," the film is a better showcase of directing than writing, with a superficial back story and far-fetched plot devices (i.e. the fire extinguisher).
Still, the film is a visual game changer and a clever thematic inverse of "2001," which started with the Dawn of Man and moved outward toward space, while "Gravity" starts in space and moves inward, as Sandra Bullock howls like a wolf, then crawls from the water like a newly evolved human. The film could fade in the Oscar race as small-screen viewings don't translate as well as 3D/IMAX, but this was the movie theater experience of the year.
Director: Spike Jonze
Believe it or not, "Gravity" wasn't the year's best reminder of Kubrick's "2001." That title belongs to "Her," which turned the concept of HAL 9000 into a highly unique romance.
A year after his brilliant performance in "The Master," Joaquin Phoenix plays a loner in the near future of Los Angeles who falls in love with a state-of-the-art operating system, a la Siri (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The premise may seem bizarre, but is it any crazier than love itself? As co-star Amy Adams says, "Falling in love is a form of socially acceptable insanity."
The result is the most impossibly touching love story since "Harold and Maude" (1971), saying so much about where we are as a digital society losing face-to-face interaction.
After directing a pair of modern masterpieces -- "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" -- from scripts by the wonderfully weird Charlie Kaufman ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), "Her" is the first original script Spike Jonze has written for himself. He should do it more often.
Director: Steve McQueen
Carve yourself some alone time and get your mind right. As the "Schindler's List" of American slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is the year's hardest movie to watch, but also the hardest to forget.
It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and passed around plantations from 1841- 1853. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a revelation, leading a deep cast of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, while Lupita Nyong'o should contend for Supporting Actress.
Director Steve McQueen ("Hunger," "Shame") forces us to watch horrific images, particularly a long single take of Solomon hanging in a noose, his feet barely touching the ground. This should be required viewing the way "Roots" was in the '70s, showing the darkness hidden by Scarlett O'Hara's raised fist and proving that some things are best gone with the wind.
Director: Destin Cretton
If you missed it over the summer, stop what you're doing right now and add "Short Term 12" to your Netflix queue. The setup is a little bit "Dead Poets Society" and a lotta bit "Cuckoo's Nest," only instead of Nurse Ratched we get a sweet, selfless Brie Larson, who runs an institution for at-risk teens where a new arrival reminds her a lot of herself and her own inner demons.
Anyone who loves filmmaking has to love the success story of young Destin Cretton, who wrote and directed the 22-minute short "Short Term 12" (2008) based on his own experiences working with troubled youth. When the short picked up several festival awards, he expanded it into his first full-length feature, which won both the Jury Prize and Audience Award at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.
"You need to get ready, 'cause it's so unbelievable," says co-star John Gallagher Jr. "It depends if you tell it right," replies Brie Larson, to which Gallagher insists, "There's no way not to tell this right. It is a storyteller's wet dream." You are so right.
Director: David O. Russell
In 2010, David O. Russell directed Christian Bale to an Oscar alongside Amy Adams in "The Fighter." Last year, he directed Jennifer Lawrence to an Oscar alongside Bradley Cooper in "Silver Linings Playbook." This year, he combines all four in their crowning achievement.
"American Hustle" follows a pair of con artist lovers (Bale & Adams), who are recruited by an FBI agent (Cooper) to bring down the mayor of Camden, N.J. (Jeremy Renner), while Bale's trashy wife (Lawrence) threatens to blow the whole thing. Most importantly, Bale develops a deep friendship with the very mayor he's about to take down, and therein lie the tragedy beneath the "science oven" humor.
Each cast member gives a career performance, while Russell channels Scorsese by matching daring images to rock 'n roll hits, from Elton John to ELO. At first glance, the flashy approach may seem like "more style than substance," but repeat viewings reveal an array of symbolic camera moves and song lyrics in a cinematic tapestry that recalls Lawrence's own nail finish: smells like flowers with just a hint of trash.
Fifty years from now, list-makers may choose "Hustle" to represent what I hope will be a decade of Russell-Lawrence-Cooper-Bale-Adams collaborations. Bravo.
ANALYSIS: "American Hustle."
21 / 50
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