5. The Wolf of Wall Street – The best Scorsese film since The Departed and a spiritual successor to Goodfellas and Casino. Based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild ride of excess and debauchery, detailing the drug-addled, booze-filled exploits of Belfort, following his rise and fall in the stock market. DiCaprio is great. Jonah Hill is great. Both are deserving of their Oscar nominations. Matthew McConaughey is a scene stealer. But the real master is Scorsese here who makes the audience complicit in the debauchery and excess and criminality of Belfort before yanking the rug out from under us with a very intense scene about 80% of the way through the movie between Belfort and his wife, played by young up and comer Margot Robbie. And it has me questioning the general backlash against this movie, because it completely misses the point of the movie. You’re enjoying everything that is going on in the film. And when Scorsese yanks the rug out from under you, you realize that Scorsese has made you complicit in their acts. It made me rethink everything I had enjoyed and laughed at up to that point, from the conference room powwow about midgets to the eating of goldfish to the Lemmon 714 Quaaludes scene. While all of that was highly entertaining, you also begin to realize the destruction left in the wake of Belfort and Co’s extravagance and excess. I have a feeling this movie may gain in stature for me in the coming years.
4. Gravity – This was easily the most visually stunning film of the year. Too often films are called spectacle because that is all there is to them and they don’t live up to word. This was truly spectacle filmmaking in the best sense of the word. Most movies do not benefit from being 3-D, it’s just a cash grab. Gravity takes a rightful place alongside Avatar as the best of the rare movies that are actually made better by seeing them in 3-D. It heightens everything about viewing it. Cuaron is a top-notch director, known for long takes, which the opening 13 minutes of this film is made to appear to be through clever camerawork. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are a good pairing. Clooney mostly gets to play Clooney, and is able to provide some much-needed humor but also a certain level of command. Bullock is fantastic, playing a medical engineer working on the Hubble telescope. She embodies all of the terror and tension on her face and in her voice that everyone in the theater feels about being lost in space. The film does a fine job intertwining personal themes with the experience she is going through, being untethered from life and struggling to survive on the edge of existence. Amazing camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki, who should win the Oscar for Best Cinematography in a landslide. The most beautiful scene in any film was Bullock in the space station curling up into the fetal position after a portion of this trying ordeal, signifying a rebirth or basic comfort in the face of extremely life-threatening circumstances. A visually and emotionally gripping movie.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis – Right off the bat, let’s get the obvious out of the way: This is the soundtrack of the year. Hands down. Just as with O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens have crafted a soundtrack that really stands out. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the titular character, Llewyn Davis, through a week of his life as a struggling folk singer trying to make ends meet in 1961 New York City. He lives from couch to couch of his friends’ apartments. His manager isn’t doing him any favors. This film has a timeless nature to it, similar to its musical subject. Yet Llewyn also only seems to be interested in the present, trying to move on from his past in more ways than one, and wanting to put off decisions about the future, also in more ways than one. The cinematography has this really beautiful, effective gray tinting to it. I also love that the structure of the film maybe hints at a cycle of living that Llewyn is caught in and doomed to repeat unless he makes some changes in his decisions. Oscar Issac is great as Llewyn. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play two of his musician friends. John Goodman has a small role as does F. Murray Abraham. This is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film since No Country For Old Men. I see some similarities to Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but this one feels a bit more hopeful than those other two Coen Brothers films.
2. Her – Everybody was snickering about this film when people started talking about it back in the early Fall. A man falling in love with his OS? Was this film financed by Mac and Siri? But Spike Jonze, in his first outing as writer and director, has made a very thought-provoking, contemplative film set in the near future that has ended up being perhaps the most relevant film of the year because of its commentary about our obsession with our technology and the “relationships” we may already have with our phones, our computers, and tablets. How many people already feel like they can’t live without their phones? The best sci-fi, and this is light sci-fi, set their events in the future, but speak to our present condition, and Jonze and his cast do that with stunning elegance and sincerity in this film. Joaquin Phoenix is the main character Theodore, a lonely writer that strikes up a relationship with his OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlet Johansson. Phoenix is terrific as a man who has cocooned himself away from much of the outside world as a result of a failed prior relationship. Johansson, with just her voice, gives one of the best performances of her career. The relationship is played very much like a long-distance relationship. And Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson really make it work.
1. 12 Years a Slave – Sometimes you see a film and something about it just lingers with you. Sometimes you see a film and as the credits role and you are taking a moment to collect yourself, you know that you’ve seen the best film of the year, despite the fact that there are still a lot of films left to be released before the end of the year. This was my experience with 12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup. So much of this film still lingers with me. Steve McQueen is a very visceral filmmaker. He’s taken it to varying extremes in his previous two films, Hunger and Shame. Here, he is at his most judicious with his talents. Northrup is a free man who is captured and sold into slavery in the 1840s. Chiwetel Ejiofor is amazing as Solomon. His identity taken and his freedom lost, he decided he must wall away his true self in order to survive. He shuts off his emotion as much as possible, in order to endure and maintain what he can of his dignity. Michael Fassbender is incredible and terrifying, embodying the cruelty of slavery as the slave owner Edwin Epps. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o should win best supporting actress for her portrayal of Patsey, a slave girl who catches the eyes of Fassbender’s Epps. Slavery, obviously, is a stain upon the history of this country. But so often we only read about it in history books or see films that deal with it indirectly. What makes McQueen’s film so impressive is that it removes any artifice and puts us in mire and mud of this world. It feels so incredibly foreign and out of place to see the barbarism and coldness with which plantation owners and slave traders treated fellow human beings. It rends your heart to see a mother plead with an uncaring man to not separate her from her children at auction. Some of it can be uncomfortable viewing at times; none more so than the failed lynching attempt on Solomon. Hung up on a tree limb with just his tiptoes barely touching the muddy ground, Solomon is made to dance in place for dear life. And the camera just lingers. And lingers. And children go about the laying in background as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Other slaves go about their regular everyday work. It is incredibly jarring. It may not have the direct social commentary that a film like Her has on the world of today, but the ripple effects of the subject of the film are still felt today. And slavery may not exist in the same form today as it existed in the antebellum South, but human trafficking, sex trafficking, child soldiers, and other injustices that could be considered forms of slavery, persist throughout the world still, even in the United States. It’s not an easy film to watch, but one that is worth watching nonetheless.