Category Archives: Top Lists

Best Films of 2016

2016 went by in a flash but some of its films have still left an impact. Yes, it has been a while since the year ended, but this list’s lack of timeliness means many of the movies discussed here are now available on streaming services.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was not just the quality of films but the strength of new filmmakers. Several of the films below are made by first-time directors which bodes incredibly well for the industry as a whole and means there will be even more impressive films sure to release in the future.

15. Nocturnal Animals

The framing narrative can be stale at times with unneeded avant-garde flourishes, but the inner story is thrilling. Tom Ford’s take on a Deliverance-style encounter is a frightening look at the fragility of one’s existence. Seemingly perfect lives can be destroyed in an instant and even deep affections can turn into resentment.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

14. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson has never been one for subtlety and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The character development is saccharine but earnest and the action is gratuitous but visceral. He is a visual director whose skills come through in the wordless action scenes. Gibson deftly stages the many moving pieces of combat to create a deliberately disorienting chaos. The violence may be too gory for some, but he captures the pandemonium of battle with great success.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

13. The Witch

Stark and slow-moving, The Witch is a film that uses the bleakness of its period to full effect. It’s a horror film about the paranoia of a pilgrim family. When things don’t go according to plan and mutual mistrust builds, every character’s behavior becomes suspect. Even when the facts aren’t there to support assertions, it’s their perception of others and need for an easy explanation that leads to their downfall.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

12. Maggie’s Plan

Despite her busybody nature, the titular character is never anything but endearing. Greta Gerwig’s performance shows that her meddling comes from the best of intentions. As Maggie pulls strings in the relationships around her, the genuine affection she feels for her loved ones and sacrifices she makes for their benefit make her a lovable presence. Even as she fumbles her plans, her actions are filled with a palpable warmth.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

11. Love & Friendship

Who knew Whit Stillman’s arch humor would translate so well into a period piece? His clever phrasings and prim tone mix perfectly with the haughty manners of the setting. Kate Beckinsale as the deceptively loquacious widow is entrancing as she talks circles around her friends and family to get her every wish fulfilled. The swirling verbal dance she plays is a joy to behold, even when you know of her calculating nature.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

10. Hell or High Water

Hell of High Water is a film that strips a genre down to its core. It’s a modern western presented as a low-scale heist movie. Instead of relying on elaborate staging, it leans on the terse dialogue and body language of its characters. The acting is so expressive in its own subtle way that a brief conversation becomes as thrilling as a police shootout.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

9. Eye in the Sky

Drones have been a hot topic in the media lately, but Eye in the Sky is more than topical. It evaluates the minutiae of several stakeholders in each military mission. Politics, infantry, pilots, and data analysis all play a part in actions that have good intentions but inherent, often fatal, tradeoffs. The film succeeds by creating tension at each stage of decision-making and driving home the moral complexity behind every order.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

8. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook is known for his often transgressive plotlines but with The Handmaiden he adds a more playful tone. Returning to Korea after a brief foray into English language films, he is clearly enjoying his freedoms back home. The story swivels through different perspectives, each revealing new, film-altering context. Every twist is a face-slapping surprise as the director expertly – and repeatedly – flips over audience expectations.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

7. Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has created another world of marginal characters locked into stagnant existences. Like Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, it follows one animal as it travels in and out of the lives of its owners. The overwhelmingly depressing tone may be too much for some, but there is truth behind each person’s failures. Their missed potentials or bleak futures are products of their unfortunate situations. Even as the characters sink further into their miserable realities, their plight is deeply sympathetic.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Balancing over the top antics with a heartfelt message of belonging, Taika Waititi has created his best film to date. The unlikely duo of a 13-year old ne’er-do-well and a grumpy old man mistakenly becoming the center of a nationwide manhunt is an endless source of humor and only buoyed by an eccentric supporting cast.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

5. Girl Asleep

Set in an elaborately designed 1970s, Girl Asleep is a fresh take on the coming-of-age movie. The first half is a vivacious look into a teenage girl’s interactions with her quirky classmates and family, overflowing with panache, and the second half is a surreal exploration of the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile changing expectations in her transition to womanhood and independence. It’s an original experience that is as flamboyant as it is honest.

[Currently available on Netflix}

4. Swiss Army Man

While it will most definitely turn off viewers with its aggressively weird premise and moments of gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man is an incredibly emotional journey. It looks at the value of friendship from the angle of outcasts and examines the nature of conformity with Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse as the mouthpiece of the directors. It’s a call to break free from our own inhibitions and an indictment of the self-doubt that prevents us from being happy, filtered through the minds of two strange filmmakers.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

3. A Monster Calls

Movies are rarely more honest about grief than A Monster Calls, especially from a child’s perspective. At every turn, it eschews easy answers and delves deeper into the emotions behind the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Using beautifully rendered fairytale stories and a lifelike tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it tackles the seldom touched upon topic of guilt with uncommon sensitivity and insight.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

2. Sing Street

Sing Street is the most infectious movie of the year with an incredible original soundtrack and endearingly oblivious characters. As the kids start their own band in 1980s Dublin, their tenacious spirit and adorable naivete is irresistible. Whether it’s writing the next hit song or winning the affections of a certain someone, anything is possible. Director John Carney has proven once again that he is the master of the modern music movie.

[Currently available on Netflix}

1. Under the Shadow

Blending physical and supernatural dangers, Under the Shadow creates tension with every scene. The unexplained missing items, freak occurrences, and ingrained superstitions escalate into an unbearable level of suspense without ever resorting to frequent jump scares or cheap gore. I have never been more terrified of a piece of fabric in my entire life.

[Currently available on Netflix. DO NOT watch the dubbed version. Please change your settings to watch in the original Farsi.}

Special Mention: Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

Its appeal is incredibly small, but if you are in the specific demographic that grew up with the original web series, Pure Pwnage Teh Movie is going to be an unexpectedly successful modernization of an early-internet-video classic.

[Currently available for VOD rental on Vimeo]

Best Music Moments of 2016

Whether it’s used to enhance an emotion or add an interesting contrast, music has always been intertwined with movies. Some of my favorite scenes in all of cinema rely heavily on their music and last year’s lineup was no exception. Here are the best musical moments of 2016, in no particular order. Some minor spoilers follow, but will be called out before each movie as needed.

Captain Fantastic – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Beginning with gentle acapella vocals, this rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine starts out as an elegiac goodbye to a lost loved one and the past they carried with them. The children in the film are about to start a new chapter of their lives, but before the melancholy sets in they switch to a rousing, upbeat, acoustic sing-a-long. The jump in tone exemplifies the family’s resilience as they quickly move beyond their sorrow to face the future ahead, remembering the joy their mother brought them rather than their sadness at her absence.

Sing Street – Up

This is probably the most difficult film to pick an entry from, but also the most deserving. Like John Carney’s previous movies, Sing Street is filled with amazing original music. The film is an ode to the music of the 80’s and its songs come straight from the youthful hearts of the band members. Up may be my personal favorite from the soundtrack. It’s a boy basking the ups and downs of his first love. The vocals lift off to new heights as the singer experiences his first feelings of romance. His genuine naivete and joy are infectious. Be sure to also check out the other songs from the film.

Everybody Wants Some!! – Rapper’s Delight

The characters’ aggressive hypermasculinity of Everybody Wants Some!! was often repulsive as they continued to turn on each other for the slightest appearance of victory. However, their one moment of unity was in a short car drive. Between trading insults, they take a break to sing when the Sugarhill Gang comes on the radio. Their playful handoffs finally reveal the deep comradery hidden underneath the insults they normally hurl at each. It’s a welcome, exuberant expression of male friendship.

Girl Asleep – You Make Me Feel

An unwanted birthday party with everyone in your school invited is a wallflower’s worst nightmare. As the film’s shy lead stands in fear, the celebration ends up being something far beyond the normal. The party becomes surreal as each classmate dances their way in and drops off their gift. Just when it feels like things are back to normal the entire crowd erupts into an unexpected, synchronized dance number. It might be far-fetched but the 70s spirit is too contagious for anyone to care. This scene is a glorious abstraction and one of the grooviest moments of the year.

Hardcore Henry – Don’t Stop Me Now

As if Hardcore Henry’s action scenes weren’t exaggerated enough, the director uses Freddie Mercury’s bellowing vocals to take the film to the next level. Caught in a state of weakness and surrounded by enemies, Henry double fists shots of adrenaline and jumps back into the thick of it. The Queen song best exemplifies the film’s gleeful take on violence and has oddly appropriate lyrics. This isn’t about serious fighting. It’s a respite from the gritty realism of many modern action movies and a celebration of the euphoria that can be created with well-choreographed violence.

American Honey – American Honey

When the titular track finally plays, it’s more than background music, it’s a culmination of the lead’s aimless life. The song’s sweet, nostalgic vocals reminisce on a past long gone. For Star (Sasha Lane), it creates a moment of realization of what her journey has been and will continue to be. It’s a redefinition of what the American Dream is to young people like her. Not a path of upwards mobility, but a horizon of limited opportunity. As she looks around at the troubled youth just like her, the song becomes a farewell to her aspirations and an acceptance of her constrained future.

Swiss Army Man – Montage

Last year’s weirdest film also came with the most meta musical moment: a montage featuring an acapella track titled “Montage”. The strangely anthemic vocals underscore an uplifting spirit and narrate the actions onscreen as we discover just how many odd uses the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe has. It’s the arts-and-crafts quirkiness of Michel Gondry combined with Spielberg’s sentimentalism as the bond between the two leads grows and allows them to escape their own loneliness – and use a dead body as a machine gun. Honorable mention must be given to the film’s use of the Jurassic Park Theme. Remember: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit”.

Toni Erdmann – Greatest Love of All

A series of increasingly uncomfortable interactions created by an eccentric father trying to be involved in the life of his stressed out straight-laced daughter build to a moment of what could be pure embarrassment. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is forced to sing in front of strangers, something she is completely unprepared for and her performance is as cringe-inducing as it is funny. Her singing begins shyly as it takes several intros for her to even start but she unexpectedly escalates into a full, committed performance. Each note belted out and every sassy expression on her face is a masterclass in awkward amusement.

La La Land – Audition (The Fools Who Dream)

My opinions on La La Land were much more lukewarm than most, but the real standout moment of the film is during a crucial audition. Mia (Emma Stone) has been crushed by her constant rejection as an actress and only returns to Hollywood at the behest of her boyfriend. Instead of being guarded, she opens herself up and delivers a personal tale. The background fades to black as Stone’s increasingly mournful expression dominates the frame with a painful ballad of pursuing one’s dreams at all costs. The vulnerability and reflection of her unsuccessful career turn the song into an aching eulogy for her own failed aspirations.

Star Trek Beyond – Sabotage (SPOILERS)

Director Justin Lin brought a fun, frenetic energy to the action of Star Trek Beyond and nowhere is this more apparent than in the finale. After being attacked by a horde of interconnected spaceships, the only solution is to beam low-tech radio at the frequency of their communications and disrupt their flight patterns. Instead of some forgettable signal, the only available transmission is a Beastie Boys song. Their anti-establishment spirit and the silly setup make the film’s climax a playful wave of explosions that stick it to the man (err…bad alien).

Top Films of 2015

Yes, I realize it’s almost halfway through 2016 already, but I wanted to be thorough and make sure I watched as many of 2015’s output before finalizing my list. The year end onslaught of Academy Award-ready films can be difficult to keep up with when you have another full-time job to attend to. Without further ado, here are my favorite films of the previous year.

11. Shaun the Sheep the Movie

Immaculately detailed and expertly choreographed, Shaun the Sheep is yet another great stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, the makers of Chicken Run. The film pulls from the best silent movies to produce an endearing, slapstick comedy with endlessly entertaining visual gags.

10. Predestination

presdestination1“What if I could put him in front you, the man that ruined your life?” Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent traveling through time with his recruit Sarah Snook to prevent the bombings of a terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber”. The plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead makes use of the strong performances from its leads to explore the nature of cause and effect. Predestination is fun, twisty sci-fi at its best.

9. The Gift

The directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton is a psychological thriller masquerading as a horror film. After Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move to Los Angeles they run into an old friend of Simon, Gordo (Edgerton), who begins making unannounced visits and giving overly generous presents. Slowly the relationship dissolves and the past between Simon and Gordo is brought into question. Edgerton’s film draws heavy influence from Michael Haneke’s Caché in that it focuses on the guilt and repercussions of the past. Does time really heal all wounds? The Gift has a response to that question.

8. Meet the Patels

Meet the Patels is a heartfelt, often hilarious, documentary about the issues faced by 1st generation Americans caught between the culture they experience every day and that of their heritage. Co-directed by brother and sister Ravi and Gita Patel, the film shows Ravi as he takes the plunge into finding a spouse through an arranged marriage. Instead of making this overly serious, Meet the Patels affectionately focuses on the importance of bonds between this charismatic family.

7. 99 Homes

Centered on the 2008 housing crisis, 99 Homes looks at the human cost of financial disaster. Andrew Garfield plays a young construction worker kicked out of his family home by Michael Shannon. What ensues is an unexpectedly tense exploration of both the winners and losers of the collapse. It shows what greed, desperation, and even success can do to the relationships we value most.

6. Spotlight

Spotlight features news reporters tackling a deep rooted problem deliberately hidden by the powers that be. The year’s best ensemble cast featuring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo deal with the struggle of not only finding the truth but clashing with the culture of a city and a religion. Always somber and honest, Spotlight treats its serious subject matter with the respect and attention to detail it deserves.

5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This film follows a boy and his friend as they begin a relationship with a girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer. While it falls into many of the standard Sundance tropes, it elevates above these with the gravity of its subject matter. The main character has to come to terms with his friend’s condition as well as his own changing life. Part coming of age story and part tribute to cinema (the film features “sweded” parody versions of classics a la Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind), Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is an expertly directed film about dealing with loss during adolescence.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller revives his classic franchise with some of the best vehicular combat ever shown on screen. The film is a 2 hour long car chase that uses incredible practical stunts that put the standard CG effects to shame. With breakneck pacing and surprisingly poignant quiet moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the automobile action movie we’ve been waiting 30 years for.

3. The Tribe

Filmed using only deaf actors signing and lacking any subtitles, The Tribe is an experiment in visual storytelling. At first, the decision seems troublesome as it immediately alienates the audience, but as the film continues the subtleties of each scene begin to tell the story. The gait of a character, the way they stand next to others, or the speed at which they sign all convey the actions taking place. As The Tribe explores an underground crime ring at a school for the deaf, it uses its purely visual approach to wordlessly express complex emotions.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

2. Wild Tales

Composed of six unrelated humorous revenge stories, Wild Tales showcases scenarios exaggerated just slightly beyond the realm of reality but not out of its reach. The characters, while seemingly normal, always overreact to their situations leading to ridiculous outcomes. The film is bursting with manic energy and earns its laughs through creative set ups. Easily the funniest film of the year.

1. Love

When Gaspar Noé announced his next movie was going to be called Love, I thought the title must be ironic. Surely the man who directed Irreversible and is often accused of nihilism wasn’t actually covering that territory. Yet, that is exactly what he did. Love is simultaneously Noé’s most personal and most indulgent work. There are characters named both Gaspar and Noé with the latter played by him and some scenes are exercises in unnecessary exhibitionism. Most of the news covering the film has focused on the details of its production and its explicit nature, but that is missing the point of the movie. Love, flaws included, is exactly the film Noé wanted to make. It’s a film that explores all aspects of the titular emotion. The spark of a new relationship, the heartbreak that can follow, and, unlike other films, physical desires. In other movies, intimate scenes between characters are unnecessary and voyeuristic, almost like a requirement needed to show how “adult” a film is. Here, Noé builds the entire film around these scenes. The physical contact is an extension of the emotions felt by the characters. With only a few exceptions, they are meaningful scenes that develop the characters and build their relationships. Combined with Benoît Debie’s beautiful visuals and an entrancing soundtrack, the film casts a hypnotic spell, pulling the viewer into the feelings – both physical and emotional – that love brings.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sicario
  • Brooklyn
  • About Elly
  • Steve Jobs

Best Movies for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s that time of year again, so here are some movies to watch with your significant other. Or by yourself. No shame in that. You can view this as “Best Valentine’s Day Movies” or more accurately “Best Romance Movies”, a genre that is too often overlooked because of the swaths of formulaic rom-coms you have to filter through to find the hidden gems. Fortunately, I’ve done that work for you.

In the Mood for Love

The overwhelming atmosphere of romantic melancholy of In the Mood for Love will envelop you to the point you never want to leave. While not a fast movie by any means or a film of action, it draws you in through the looks in the eyes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. The restraint in the direction and acting make this film. Unlike other movies that rely on melodramatic professions of love in the rain to get a point across (guess what movie I’m talking about here), this movie uses a tension that suffuses every frame. The hues of red, the ornate textile patterns, and the sultry sound of Nat King Cole’s voice coalesce into something greater than any other romance I have ever seen. There is something in the air and the conflict between desire and duty, passion and propriety, are entrancing. Likely my favorite movie ever, romance or not.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

The Before Series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight)

The Before series captures so many aspects of romance. The first movie, Before Sunrise, is about the initial spark of love. The infatuation that comes with connecting with someone on a level you didn’t think was possible. Before Sunset, picks up 9 years later with the characters reuniting. This movie still contains the connection of Sunrise, but adds in the regret that comes with age. What if things had worked out? Where would they be now? Do they still have a chance together after all these years? Finally, Before Midnight takes place another 9 years later. Unlike almost any other film franchise, the Before series has improved with each iteration. Each new movie retains the allure of the previous while adding new complexities and Before Midnight takes this to a new level. It is the funniest, best written chapter but also expands into new territory as it explores the difficulties of long term relationships. Your own personal ranking of the films may vary, but you’ll never regret spending time with Jesse and Celine. Here’s to another film 9 years after Before Midnight. I don’t know how they could improve on it, but that’s also what I said after Before Sunset.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

3-Iron

Director Kim Ki-Duk is well known for the extreme violence of his films. 3-Iron represents a departure from that trend. The story follows a young man who breaks into people’s houses while they are out of town that ends up rescuing an abused housewife. She becomes his partner in (mostly harmless) crime. The two move between empty houses each night, never taking anything and instead doing household repairs or chores in exchange for their uninvited stay. They never speak a word and their relationship slowly develops through the actions they take to look out for each other. The movie has an otherworldly, almost ghostly quality to it and indeed the latter half of the film shifts into the ethereal. If you follow the film to where Kim wants it to go, you will be rewarded with a haunting, understated romance.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman were at the height of their careers with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film is about a couple that decides to have their memory of each other erased after a messy end to their relationship. Gondry’s arts-and-crafts practical effects make the transitions between the real and surreal found in Kaufman’s writing seamless and allow the characters to explore their true desires. Eternal Sunshine succeeds based on its ability to convey the emptiness that can be left by someone. Erasing their memory may have removed the dissolution of their relationship but it couldn’t fill the hole left by each other’s absence. The film shows the lengths people will go to preserve their memories of love, even if they come with memories of heartbreak.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Notting Hill

Yes, it’s a Hugh Grant film, but you know what? It’s the best Hugh Grant film. Grant is at his most likable here as the average guy owner of a used travel book shop who mistakenly bumps into and starts a relationship with a world famous actress (Julia Roberts). Is it a little cheesy? Yes, but the schmaltz is sincere and always endearing. The interactions between Grant and Roberts are sweet and the problems they face, despite the crazy scenario, are eminently relatable. Notting Hill is a statement that, no matter their station in life or related complications, all relationships are just a connection between two people, in this case, “just a boy” and “just a girl”.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

About Time

Also written by Richard Curtis and this time directed by him too, About Time features many of the standard Curtis tropes, but with a slight sci-fi twist. Domnhall Gleeson plays the Hugh Grant character, but is able to put his own goofy charm into the role. At the age of 21, Tim (Gleeson) learns that the male members of his family can travel in time. His initial actions are what you would expect of a man his age. He goes back in time again and again to undo the mistakes he makes as he dates Mary (Rachel McAdams). But soon About Time transforms into something more. It shifts its focus from romance to family. There is a reason the movie isn’t called About Love. Curtis expands his scope to examine the value of familial bonds, the consequences of actions, and the joys overlooked in everyday life. If you are a stickler for plot holes, you will hate this movie. About Time sets up and then proceeds to ignore every one of its rules about time travel. I can’t fault Curtis for this though. He understands that sci-fi was never really about aliens or space ships, it was about using a premise to explore emotions not encountered in regular life. If you can look past the plot holes and instead look to the emotions experienced by the characters, you’ll find a deep, surprisingly life-affirming adventure.

[Available to stream on Amazon]

Chungking Express

Chungking Express, also by In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar-Wai, approaches love from a different perspective. Composed of 2 stories of Hong Kong cops coming off of breakups, the film is looser and more improvisational. Unlike the characters of In the Mood for Love, these people are in their early twenties and the film’s style reflects their point in life. Their future is uncertain, but hopeful. Wong’s signature longing is still present here, but more optimistic and sprinkled with affectionate humor. The characters may not know what is in store for them, but they’ll keep trying for love regardless.

[Available to stream on FilmStruck]

Brooklyn

The newest entry on this list, Brooklyn, is a period romance about finding a sense of belonging through a relationship. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant, moves to the US only to find herself horribly homesick until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American. The two have instant chemistry and their magnetic performances make you root for the characters as their relationship faces struggles. John Crowley directs his actors to gentle, intimate interactions. In particular, Eilis’s articulate educated speech contrasts with Tony’s stumbling dialogue for adorably awkward moments. Their soft-spoken demeanor combined with the polite manners of the time make for an incredibly charming courtship.

[Available to stream on HBO Go and Amazon]

Top 10 Films of 2013

[BS Note: This list was originally written in early 2014]

With the Golden Globes behind us and the Oscars coming up this weekend, it is a great time to celebrate some of the year’s best films. 2013 was a great year for film-making it was difficult to bring this list down to ten entries, but these are the films that resonated.

10. In a World…

Lake Bell (No Strings Attached) makes her feature writing and directing debut with In a World…, a comedy about a vocal coach, Carol (Bell), failing to find a place in the male dominated voice-over industry. Bell smartly mixes humor with the realities of attempting to break the glass ceiling, elevating the film from lighthearted comedy to sharp societal commentary.

9. Gravity

Gravity, like other films on this list, is about survival. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) plays a medical engineer on her first trip to space when a catastrophe occurs. Enough cannot be said about the way this film looks. The computer generated visual effects are stunning and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life) long takes with precise direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) make the Gravity a gripping thrill ride in space.

8. 12 Years a Slave

It would be easy to look at the story of 12 Years a Slave and think that it is Oscar bait. A film based on a true story about a free man kidnapped from the North and sold into slavery in the South? The Academy should love that. But the movie is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and he has no interest in the sentimental. The films depicts the horrific realities of life as a slave. What is most frightening is how common these acts were. Each brutality is accepted as a part of the natural order. The film’s traumatic imagery ensures that this period of US history and the film itself will not be forgotten.

7. Her

Set in a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, Her follows Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) playing Theodore Twombly, a man who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of strangers unable to do so. He is separated and lonely until he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha played by Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers). Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) uses Samantha’s lack of a body to emphasize the emotional connection craved by Theodore. He lives in a crowded city but feels isolated from the people around him. The film shows each phase of their relationship and how Theodore changes as it progresses. Her succeeds by making a romance with a disembodied voice feel remarkably human.

6. The Hunt

The Hunt is probably the most aggravating film of the year. In a good way. Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a kind, well-liked preschool teacher falsely accused of a terrible crime. The film follows him as he is ostracized out of every part of his small town. Because of the nature of the accusation his former friends and colleagues immediately abandon him. Innocent until proven guilty? Not for this crime. His descent continues as the film shows just how easily even the strongest relationships can shatter when someone cries wolf.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines is really a triptych: three stories linked by one key event. The first story is about a stunt motorcyclist turned bank robber played by Ryan Gosling (Drive). The second is about the cop that tries to catch him played by Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook) and the third is about the sons of the two. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the film is at its best during small moments. The character interactions have a raw intensity that make them feel honest and real. The film shows that each action has its consequences and how each generation deals with the aftermath of the pervious.

4. The Past

The Past is a companion piece to Asghar Farhadi’s previous Oscar-winning film A Separation. Both films are about a divorce, but The Past is about characters dealing with the ramifications of their previous actions. It is a film that presents a relatively simple situation, a long separated couple finally filing the paperwork for divorce so the woman can marry her new boyfriend, and peels back layer after layer revealing the complicated, morally ambiguous chaos underneath. Farhadi manages to do this without creating “good” or “bad” characters. Everyone acts in a realistic, understandable way but also commit tragic mistakes that make the situation even thornier and his even-handed direction causes your sympathies to shift with each new revelation.

3. All is Lost

All is Lost is a demonstration of how great acting can carry a film. Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) plays a nameless man on a solo voyage through the Indian Ocean whose boat springs a leak. His performance, under the direction of J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), expresses feeling through subtle actions. A grimace or sigh conveys the struggles of the protagonist more than most voiceovers in other films. Despite containing no dialogue and only a few spoken words, it commands attention. The continued determination and resourcefulness of an elderly, but experienced sailor in the face of possible death make the film a tense and affecting adventure.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) have made yet another excellent film containing their signature dark humor and sardonic wit. Starring Oscar Isaac (Drive), the film has something unusual for the Coens: sincerity. The film is about a folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who wanders from gig to gig trying to find a record deal. He is mean to most of his friends and dismissive of other singers as sell-outs, but his quest for artistic purity gives the film an earnestness that elevates it above most of the Coen brothers’ works. Despite him being more or less detestable, the film creates empathy for the character because he is unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if that means he is never successful.

1. Before Midnight

The experience of watching Before Midnight is like reconnecting with two friends you have known for decades. Friends that will squabble, joke, and ramble about anything and everything. But that’s the best part: listening to them talk. Set 9 years after Before Sunset and 18 years after Before Sunrise, the Before series continues its tradition of charmingly garrulous dialogue, yet it surpasses its—already excellent—predecessors by confronting the struggles of long term relationships. The warmth of a perfect connection from the previous films is still present but so are the cracks of reality that affect even the best relationships. This allows the film to continue to feel new and fresh while retaining the affection built up in earlier installments. The series, like love at its best, has grown stronger over time. Before Sunrise is great, Before Sunset is even better, and Before Midnight is incredible. It is, in my opinion, the best example of a sequel done right and easily the best film of the year.

 

Honorable Mentions: Enough Said, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street.