I always like to say that cinema is a menagerie, not a horse race. In support of that sentiment—and because my list employs no faultless critical methodology; my love for #25 is just a hair’s breadth away from my love for #1—here are 15 additional titles, listed in alphabetical order, before I even begin: The Act of Killing, Après mai, Before Midnight, Computer Chess, Drug War, The Grandmaster, Leviathan, No, Stories We Tell, This Is Martin Bonner, 12 Years a Slave, Upstream Color, Viola, The Wind Rises, and The Wolf of Wall Street. (For yet more, you can see this year’s Indiewire poll and #12FilmsaFlickering, in both of which I participated.)
Furthermore, here are 10 performances that just barely missed my list (but I guess actually did make my list, since I’m listing them here): Gael García Bernal, blending ad industry satire with political revolution in No; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, two magnificent actors bound together by love and venom in Before Midnight; Anna Margaret Hollyman, catatonically depressed among holiday cheer in White Reindeer; Sun Honglei and Louis Koo, giving a pair of symbiotic performances as the narcotics officer and his snitch in Drug War; To the Wonder’s ethereally feminine Olga Kurylenko; Saskia Rosendahl, the ideal Grimm fairy tale heroine for Lore; Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color as a woman whose identity is upended by loss; and Miles Teller, who exudes such friendliness in The Spectacular Now.
Each year I give an award for the Best Performance in a Documentary, past recipients of which have included Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), and Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter). This year’s winner is the “star” of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo.
10) Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen
Rippling out from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to the cold city beyond its walls, this uncommonly humane film blurs the border between great art and the real world. Structured by the happenstance friendship of two lonely strangers, Museum Hours dabbles in streetside documentary while capturing a plethora of artistic practices: the paintings of the Old Masters, the music of actress Mary Margaret O’Hara, the architecture of this old European city. It’s a gentle movie, and comforting like a thick winter coat.
Lola Crèton was good in Après mai, but cuts even deeper as a nonverbal abuse victim in Bastards, registering trauma in her bruised body and blank face.
I love the oblivious grin that stays on David Cross’s face while he endures history’s most awkward brunch in It’s a Disaster.
9) To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick
Elements of Malick’s style—the impressionistic montage, the pensive voiceover, the magic hour lighting—are becoming commonplace in ambitious new indies, but nobody can pull them off quite like Malick himself. His camera snakes its way through present-day Oklahoma, discovering beauty, passion, and embattled faith at every turn. It’s brash filmmaking, earnest filmmaking, sculpting less a story than a whole emotional environment out of Middle America.
I hated The Great Gatsby, but I loved Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian actress who plays Jordan Baker with sinuous movement and suggestive eyes.
Nick Frost takes a turn as straight man in The World’s End, counterbalancing Simon Pegg’s comic wildness before drunkenly brawling all through the film’s second half.
8) Bastards, directed by Claire Denis
Your unconscious is the soil, Denis is the gardener, Bastards is the seed. The flowers, presumably, will smell rotten and be nothing but thorns. Laced with Tindersticks’ throbbing score, this noir-horror nightmare leaves dark impressions of erotic and financial transgression, of a world where everyone and everything is a bastard at heart. Denis builds this bleak story from the top down, letting images and actions accumulate; by the time you realize what’s going on, you’re already right at the bottom.
Zhang Ziyi is impressive in The Grandmaster not merely due to her elegance, steeliness, and graceful kung fu but because of the palpably broken heart she carries beneath it all.
In Computer Chess, Patrick Riester represents nerdy introversion sympathetically, yet with an undercurrent of extremely deadpan comedy.
7) The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright
Mixing boozy verbal comedy with John Wyndham-style sci-fi and virtuosic action set pieces, The World’s End is pop filmmaking at its finest (and most affecting). Even as its story expands, putting the fate of humanity in the hands of a few beer-soaked Brits, the film stays intimate, letting its characters mull over their regrets and tangled relationships. Riotous comic motifs like “Let’s Boo-Boo,” The Three Musketeers, and “selective memory” froth with both linguistic wit and increasing poignancy, and it all unfolds at a pace so frantic that it’s easy to lose track of how inventive the whole thing is.
Like Lola Crèton, Lupita Nyong’o plays a victim in 12 Years a Slave, a woman who experiences constant abuse and humiliation, but does so with jarring resilience and a gleam of strength mingling with terror in her eyes.
Rob Lowe’s hair and demeanor in Behind the Candelabra are bone-chilling, yet impossible to look away from. He’s like the Dr. Pretorius of plastic surgery.
6) Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Playfully, meticulously, like someone designing a puzzle, Kiarostami has built his follow-up to Certified Copy out of audiovisual information. He couples 360° of sound with very selective individual frames, telling us exactly what we need to know about young escort Akiko and the men in her life as she drifts through the neon-dotted Tokyo night. It’s an ambling, elliptical film of false surfaces and well-played roles; a puzzle that lacks a solution, but still contains several of the cinematic year’s most unforgettable car rides.
Emma Watson in The Bling Ring puts every “Millennials” thinkpiece to shame with her satirical tweaking of 21st century vanity and greed.
Dwayne Johnson’s born-again doofus in Pain & Gain is like the Second Coming of Curly Howard, growing funnier every time he says the word “Eldad.”
5) The Unspeakable Act, directed by Dan Sallitt
I won’t bullshit you: this is a movie about incest. But it’s not even remotely the kind of the movie that the words “about incest” conjure up. It’s not sensational, miserabilist, or provocative. Instead it’s a coming-of-age story told patiently, modestly, with many quiet scenes playing out in long takes. Jackie does want to have sex with her brother, but she’s also a teenage girl with a razor-sharp intellect who’s growing up in Brooklyn and trying to figure herself out. I want to see more indie dramas as self-defined as The Unspeakable Act, a film whose emotions and sense of humor may be subdued, but are no less powerful for it.
Sun Don’t Shine’s Kate Lyn Sheil made for a genuinely scary femme fatale, at once sweaty, unpredictable, and childlike.
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest avatar of white-collar crime, with a black hole ego and a knack for druggy physical comedy.
4) Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh
Supposedly Soderbergh’s final feature, this is a showbiz biopic that’s been filtered through Fassbinder and mummified in camp. Set deep within the glitzy, gay heaven/hell of Liberace’s estate, the film’s rife with betrayal and body horror—but it also aches with an authentic desire for love. Power and sex are exchanged as Lee tries to become Scott’s “father, lover, brother, best friend,” a gesture that’s both sweet and frightening. Behind the Candelabra intertwines the bodies of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as they give life to a reality smothered beneath the artifice of the entertainment industry.
Stoker makes a lot of sudden swerves and feints, but Mia Wasikowska is consistently extraordinary, her face flickering between agony and arousal.
Paul Eenhoorn’s very mild-mannered in This Is Martin Bonner, yet his work’s still so powerful, with notes of regret and spiritual confusion submerged within.
3) Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu
Step by harrowing step, this religious drama moves toward its predestined end. No one wants it that way—certainly not the well-intentioned nuns at this drab rural convent, nor their young victim Alina—but the options grow fewer in number over the film’s sprawling run time until finally the story comes to a dead end. Neither Alina’s erratic behavior nor her love for a childhood friend (now wholly committed to God) fall within the order’s narrow moral parameters. So in agonizing static shots, she’s pushed and pulled by medical and economic forces beyond her control. Mungiu’s austerity contains empathy, but the most prominent feeling here is despair at the cost of faith.
As the star of Concussion, Robin Weigert breathes new life into the “bored suburban housewife” type. Her obliging smiles, weariness, sexual willingness, and yes, marriage to a woman all make this performance something different.
Who better to lead the audience through Chinese history than Tony Leung, playing the debonair and ass-kicking yet wistful Ip Man in The Grandmaster?
2) Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coens have made a musical comedy where the comedy’s gone sour, and the music stings of the pain that went into making it. It’s a period piece that doesn’t gloss over a single ugly detail of early ’60s Manhattan. And it’s a character study about an artist who keeps losing people and missing out on opportunities, usually through his own short-sighted decisions. Wrenching in its absurdism and cold as the winter air, Inside Llewyn Davis is structured like an odyssey that winds up back at Troy. Good thing, then, that Llewyn’s music (unprofitable though it may be) is still cathartic as all hell.
Acerbic and idiosyncratic, Tallie Medel’s work in The Unspeakable Act resists cliché while pushing deep inside her thorny character.
I still find it hard to believe how dynamic, pathetic, pained, and hilarious Simon Pegg is as he talks a mile a minute through The World’s End
1) Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach
I’ll admit to a certain demographic vulnerability where this movie is concerned. Like Frances, I’m a liberal arts grad and aspiring artist in my mid-twenties who has trouble socializing and earning money. But this movie’s pleasures go so much farther than merely seeing oneself onscreen. It’s musical, whether that refers to the soundtrack’s snatches of Bowie and Georges Delerue or the rhythms that accumulate among its shots, scenes, and bits of plotting. It also has the most biting dialogue in recent memory, flowing in every direction throughout the movie. (I could spend days just unpacking and reveling in Mickey Sumner’s “This douche is my affianced.”) Speckled with joys and tinged with sorrow, Frances Ha is definitely a movie for “now,” but I suspect it’ll be a movie for the decades to come, too.
(If you want more, by the way, a clip of me discussing Frances Ha was included in The Cinephiliacs’ “2013 Favorites (Part 1)” episode, starting around 33:00.)
Of course, Frances Ha couldn’t be what it is without co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, who physically manifests her character’s awkwardness and self-deceit, wrings self-deprecating punchlines out of every encounter, and makes even her feeblest victories feel hard-won.
Nearly matching Gerwig is Oscar Isaac, who plays Inside Llewyn Davis’s sullen title character. He utters resigned “Okay”s like white flags raised toward Fate. He sings as if his world-weariness left him no other choice. Llewyn’s is not the voice of a generation, and Isaac lets us know that it couldn’t be any other way.
[Movies I have yet to see include At Berkeley, Captain Phillips, The Counselor, Enough Said, The Last Time I Saw Macao, Laurence Anyways, Post Tenebras Lux, and A Touch of Sin.]