Posts Tagged ‘Top 10’

You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 months in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their goal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particular conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seams of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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The top 10 is finished. I have the films selected, ranked and ready to go. In fact, I was about to skip the Number 11 post entirely and go straight to the business when I was struck by the sentimentality of tradition and the memory that my finacêe made me insist that I acknowledge *her* favorite movie of the 2016 at some point during my year-end posting.

Luckilly for her (and me, let’s be honest) is that her favorite movie also happened to be the 11th best movie of 2016. And that movie is…

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Arrival

Director Denis Villeneuve is on a pretty impressive streak, with this year’s “Arrival” coming after last year’s “Sicario,” and both “Enemy” and “Prisoners” in 2013. I haven’t seen his earlier work, but if what I hear about “Incendies” is true, then the streak continues.

His film are difficult to categorize, and none more so than Arrival, which is ostensibly a science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth but doubles as an examination of hope and the binding power of communication.

It’s also a showcase for actress Amy Adams, whose linguist and interpreter Louise Banks is the heart and soul of the plot. After a number of disk-shaped, hovering craft appear, Banks is scooped up by the U.S. government — along with Jeremy Renner’s mathematician Ian Donnelly — and given the task with communicating with the beings inside, a pair of tentacled forms that employ a written language of circular ink blots.

Beautifully shot and scored, Arrival is heavy on atmosphere, which hums in harmony with the largely abstract themes on screen. And in a year as divisive and rhetorically toxic as this one has been, it’s poetic — maybe fated? — and cathartic to watch a film that champions a rejection of competition and isolation in service of a greater good.

Optimistic and movingly heart-breaking, with an arthouse-quality production and craftsmanship, “Arrival” is the 11th-best movie of the year.

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For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors and actresses for its annual Oscar awards.

It’s difficult for me to write about diversity. As a Caucasian male, anything I would say inevitably comes across as the unholy union of white-splaining and man-splaining, or White Man-splaining, the Fox News of film criticism.

But this morning’s announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominations, as well as the ensuing and justified criticism that the awards, once again, are whitewashed, made me think thoughts. And despite my better judgement I’m inclined to share those thoughts, as succinctly as possible, in both defense and condemnation of The Academy.

Obviously, this entire post can be summarily dismissed by asking me to “Check my privilege;” I acknowledge that. But I’m also just a human being who 1) loves movies 2) thinks the industry should and must do better to be more inclusive of race and gender and 3) likes to see talent, in all its forms, recognized.

Here we go:

  1. The membership of the Academy is glaringly, inexcusably white and male. Steps have been made in recent years to address this, but considerably more needs to be done, and soon.
  2. BUT – and this is the main stick in my craw this morning – the Academy doesn’t *make* movies. Individual members of the Academy may write scripts, cast actors and hire directors, but the Academy, as a body, merely evaluates the films that have been made.
  3. For that reason, the *primary* blame for the lack of diversity in film lies with the studios, which produce the films that are then considered for awards by The Academy and other bodies.
  4. And I think most of us can agree that intentionally setting slots aside for diversity nominations, an Affirmative Action of sorts, or nominating films and actors solely to appease a hashtag, without regard to quality, would not be an appropriate solution to systemic under-representation in film.
  5. [Pause to Check My Privilege: I’m told I have a “shitlord” level of privilege with a score of 170]
  6. AS SUCH, the question we need to ask is what actors of color, who turned in awards-worthy performances this year,  were overlooked in favor of their white counterparts. But that is a highly subjective conversation, with many different opinions, and Academy nominations are based on a balloting system with the same weaknesses for majority rule as democratic politics. (#AmericaLovesCrap).
  7. Arguments have been made in favor or Idris Elba, for “Beasts of No Nation”, and Michael B. Jordan, for “Creed”. In my humble opinion, I would have liked to see Will Smith nominated for his turn in “Concussion” instead of Bryan Cranston for “Trumbo”.
  8. That said, it’s easy to see why an Academy of mostly 63-year-old men from the film industry would recognize “Trumbo”, a biopic about the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940s. Many Academy veterans entered their professions in the shadow of the Blacklist, and likely had personal relationships with the individuals targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  9. Alternatively, I thought “Carol” was mind-numbingly boring, and would have no issue removing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara from the actress categories. But that too is problematic, because my first choices to replace them would be Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron.
  10. [Checking privilege once more: still a shitlord]
  11. Point being, even if the demographics of the Academy membership were reversed tomorrow, that would not necessarily change the actors cast, directors hired, and films produced by the studios.
  12. NOW you might say, as my girlfriend did this morning, that I’m presenting a circular argument. Studios want to make award-winning films, and if the institutions administering those awards were more diverse, the studios would tailor their slate to that reality.
  13. Agreed, absolutely, which is why considerably more needs to be done, and soon, to increase diversity among the membership of the Academy.
  14. BUT that line of thinking ignores the role that audiences play in shaping the films produced in Hollywood. All those shiny statuettes won’t keep the lights on if no one buys a ticket.
  15. Last year, when #OscarsSoWhite was launched, Selma was overlooked in the acting and directing categories. That snub was the linchpin in most arguments about the whitewashed voting by academy members.
  16. But let us consider: Selma made $51 million at the domestic box office, putting it at 61st place for the year, behind the indie-Christian “God’s Not Dead,” the laughably race-inapropriate “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Fault In Our Stars,” about two white kids with health insurance who get cancer, fall in love, and die (more or less).
  17.  “Selma” made one-fifth the box office of “Maleficient,” which was a terrible movie.  A “Maleficient” sequel is already in the works.
  18. The point? Hollywood makes more of what makes money.
  19. None of this absolves studio executives, who seem hell-bent against acknowledging that films with a diverse cast can make obscene amounts of money. It doesn’t absolve the Academy, either, for its glacial attempts at modernization.
  20. That’s why its good to keep the pressure on, drawing attention to the excellent films and actors that deserve recognition for their work.
  21. But in criticizing (deservedly) the biases of the Academy voters, we also need to remember the limitations placed on them by the output of the studio system, and the role that filmgoers play by continuing to vote with their dollars for loud, useless, dreck.

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Oh, what a year, what a lovely year.

Looking back on the last 12 months, it seems like there was a noticeable democratization of quality.

Instead of the traditional creative cluster at the end of the year, when the studios roll out their best and brightest in pursuit of awards attention and holiday box office dollars, each month seemed to coincide with the release of exceptional films, spread across genres, themes and styles.

Here are my selections for the Top 10 films of the year, beginning with a tie for number 10. I admit that it’s cheating, especially since I already named an 11th-best film, but 10 is an arbitrary number, and I make the rules around here.

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10. Love & Mercy (Tie)

Brian Wilson, the heart and soul of The Beach Boys, is a musical genius. And like many great minds, his personal story is a tragedy. He led the Beach Boys through years of critical and commercial success, only to suffer a collapse of his mental health, a reclusive period during which he was taken advantage of by his doctors (one in particular) and finally, a resurgence as a solo artist after years of treatment and recovery.

For Love & Mercy, his story is split in half, with Paul Dano playing the young and declining Wilson while John Cusack (in his best role in years) plays the mature Wilson struggling to put his life back together. It’s a musical, paying tribute to some of the most iconic songs of America’s cultural history, and a thriller, showing the threat of deteriorating mental health and the efforts of Wilson’s second wife to free him from what amounts to a psychiatric captor.

While juxtaposed, the Dano and Cusack segments work in harmony, showing two interpretations of the same man and deviating from the traditional biopic mold of a single actor in various stages of awkward period makeup (looking at you, J. Edgar). It’s an effective choice, anchoring the story in its major time periods for a stronger whole.

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10. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Tie)

Olivia Cooke has made a career out of playing doomed characters, first with cystic fibrosis as Emma Decody in Bates Motel and now with leukemia as the titular dying girl in this off-beat dramedy from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

But she’s not the center of the film. That role belongs to Greg (Thomas Mann), a lanky, ambivalent, high school senior jolted out of stasis after his mother insists he start spending time with Rachel (Cooke). That marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, albeit one with an expiration date as her condition worsens.

The script, by Jesse Andrews, is populated by a village of supporting roles (Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton, Nick Offerman) that each take a moment to shine and add dimension to the vibrant world that Greg, Earl and Rachel exist in. Despite the cloud of death hanging over every minute, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is bursts with life.

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9. Room

Another film in two parts, Room tells the story of a woman and her son, abducted and trapped for years in a shed, who escape and must build a life in the outside world.

Newcomer Jacob Tremblay is excellent, but the film rests on the very capable shoulders of Brie Larson, whose performance is simultaneous caged animal and numb reserve. While her character smiles sweetly at her son, the audience feels fear, rage, and desperation.

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8. Sicario

In Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) the world is a dark and dangerous place. Opening with an FBI raid in the Arizona desert, the film quickly hops to the U.S./Mexico border where a cat-and-mouse game between government officials and cartel criminals begins with an idealistic (or naive?) agent played by Emily Blunt at the center.

Blunt is fantastic, and surrounded by a nebulous alliance of characters who seem capable at any second of stabbing a knife in her back. It’s a movie of sustained tension, that occasionally vents in small eruptions before a final crescendo that sees the government team storming a network of underground smuggling tunnels.

There’s a lot of politics under the surface of Villeneuve’s film but he keeps them there, always in the subtext but never addressed head on. It’s as though the director has a story to tell, and is too busy or disinterested for big-picture detours, so the audience is left to sort out how they feel after the credits roll.

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7. It Follows

The horror genre has long used its ghosts and killers as a metaphor for sex and morality, punishing its teenage characters for their dalliance and promiscuity.

It Follows shakes up that trope by extending it to its logical extreme, creating a walking (literally) STD that relentlessly pursues its target and, after eliminating them, moves backward up the sexual chain. Add in a retro-neon pulse by director David Robert Mitchell, and you get a film that exists as a singular creation, eerie and disturbing with a self-aware wisdom and seductive visual style.

From its unnerving cold open, to its ambiguous final frame, It Follows is an impeccably paced, minimalist scarer that trades loud and effective shocks with chilling silence.

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6. The Revenant

Last year, director Alejandro González Iñárritu claimed the top spot on my Top 10 with Birdman, the frenzied, sleight-of-hand masterpiece starring Michael Keaton. For 2016, the director is back with his same penchant for visual trickery, albeit in a tonally opposite film compared to last year’s Broadway romp.

Shot using only natural light in the brutal elements of the Canadian wilderness, The Revenant is both a stunningly beautiful and a shockingly brutal tale about resilience and revenge. After being mauled by a grizzly bear, Hugh Glass (a committed, to say the least, Leonardo DiCaprio) crawls, scrapes and fights his way back to society in search of the half-scalped trapper (Tom Hardy) who murdered his son and left Glass to die.

Not enough can be said about the visuals of this film. The camera gazes heavenward to capture ever beam of twilight, and in the process makes every inch traveled by Glass seem daunting. And where most films shoot their action from the outside looking in, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is centered, spinning and sliding impossibly like the eye of God.

By ambition alone, The Revenant is one of the most memorable films of the year. But combined with a well-paced tale and the humane intensity of its lead (a lock for an Oscar nomination, if not the trophy itself) Revenant is also one of the year’s best.

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5. Sleeping With Other People

Simply put: Romantic comedies aren’t supposed to be this good.

The genre has become so mired in recycled blueprints that when a film like Sleeping With Other People comes along, blending laugh-out-loud comedy with pathos-drenched emotional depth, it’s jarring to the senses.

Years after a one-night fling in college, Lainey (Allison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect in New York City as damaged, emotionally-stunted adults. The result is a Harry and Sally-esque platonic friendship that pulls each character out of their respective ruts as they mature.

It sounds simpler than it is, because writer-director Leslye Headland successfully captures lightning in a bottle. Sudeikis is perfect, showing the dramatic range buried beneath his typical shtick, and the chemistry between him and Brie is electric.

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4. The Big Short

A very bad thing happened a few years back; you may have heard of it. In a nutshell, lenders offered increasingly ill-advised mortgages to people with no ability to pay them back, and those junk mortgages where then bundled up together into a big pile of rotting garbage that sunk the U.S. economy.

A few shrewd traders saw the crisis coming and bet against the market. They are the real-life individuals dramatized by The Big Short, which tracks the initial disbelief and later outrage of the small group watching Wall Street fiddle while the economy burns.

It’s heady stuff, made palatable by comedy director Adam McKay, who uses a series of fourth-wall-shattering techniques to add a spoonful of sugar to the economic medicine he’s feeding you. Margot Robbie explains subprime lending from a bubble bath, and a smarmy Ryan Gosling narrates the goings-on, occasionally stopping and addressing the camera to make sure you’re following along at home.

It’s an unconventional choice that works like gangbusters, taking a story about a rag-tag group of investors and turning it into a moral crusade against the as-yet-unpunished people who broke the country.

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3. Ex Machina

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a chess game between three characters: an eccentric inventor, a nebbish programmer, and a seemingly sentient robot.

After winning what he thinks is a vacation at his employer’s isolated laboratory, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he’s been selected to participate in an experiment to validate the artificial intelligence of Eva (Alicia Vikander), a charismatic and beautiful machine created by Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

It’s a film of nonstop mind-games as allegiances shift, motivations become murky, and every word eschews a hidden meaning. The male characters trade monologues on life and identity while Eva, sultry and suspicious, toys with the idea of gender and personality to get what she wants, whatever that may be.

Few films are able to achieve so much with as little as Ex Machina. From the acting to the story to the aesthetic – a blend of cold, metallic minimalism contrasted against the landscape of Nathan’s rural estate – every ingredient contributes to a feeling of unease and mystery, building to a flawless and unexpected conclusion.

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2. Spotlight

Few institutions are as seemingly invincible as The Catholic Church, but in 2002 a team of Boston journalists made the church bleed. After a year of investigations, the Boston Globe published a series of reports chronicling sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the implied cover-up by church leaders.

That team was Spotlight, one of the oldest-surviving newspaper investigative teams in the country and, in the film version, played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James.

What’s striking about director Tom McCarthy’s film is the drama and tension he’s able to squeeze out of an otherwise pedestrian tale of watchdoggery. The Spotlight team doesn’t have late-night meetings in dark parking garages with sources, chased down alleys by men with guns. Instead they knock doors, dig through archives and make the connections that the world around them was either unable, or unwilling to make.

The film makes a compelling case for the importance of investigative journalism, but it also recognizes the real-life toll that major stories like the sexual abuse scandal take on individuals. While focused on the Boston Globe, Spotlight never forgets that the names and dates refer to real people, damaged by an institution that was intended to be a source of comfort and trust.

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1. Mad Max: Fury Road

WITNESS ME!

What separates the cinema from other media is its capacity for eye-popping spectacle. A good book and a good play will give you three-dimensional characters with compelling arcs, but only the movies can provide that AND the sensory thrill of seeing the storytelling magic writ large on the silver screen.

That is the singular beauty of Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment in George Miller’s dystopian saga about a drifter highwayman perpetually besought by roving bands of warring marauders. It is two hours of sustained chaos, rendered in physics-defying choreography and eschewing computer trickery for the tactile thrill of burning metal and beading sweat.

In Fury Road, the Maxian torch is passed to Tom Hardy, who is abducted and held captive by the War Boys, zealot offspring of the despotic Immortan Joe, who rules from a fortress called The Citadel. When Joe’s slave brides attempt an escape, the War Boys make chase with Max in tow, kicking of a diesel-fueled hunt across the scorched desert wasteland.

Much has been written about how Max takes a secondary role in the film, frequently deferring to the leadership of Charlise Theron’s one-armed Imperator Furiosa. In large part, the success of the film lies with Furiosa, who supplies the desire for freedom and the despair of a dead world next to the stoic and monosyllabic Max.

It’s a brilliant choice, enriching and expanding the world created by Miller in 1979 by moving beyond, without supplanting, the scope of protagonist’s view. Like something out of mythology, Max is a nomad pulled into the struggles of strangers out of a shared need for survival.

It’s larger-than-life, and frequently over the top, but handled deftly with an unflinching eye for production and entertainment value. While other movies may do better at the box office (Star Wars) and at the awards shows (Spotlight), no other film provided as good a reminder for why we go to the movies in 2015 as Mad Max.

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I’ve put this off long enough.

I love movies — I assume that much is clear. And I love recognizing good movies. There are few things that warm my heart like a friend telling me that my recommendations prompted them to seek out a new film.

Ranking movies, however, is torture, and especially this year was tortuous. But as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit, and a list of 10 films is much more digestible than an incessant profusion of cinephile fandom.

So here are my Top 10 films of the year, beginning with number 10. And bear in mind that almost every day I’ve changed my mind about the ordering of the top 3 and will likely continue to do so after I push “publish.”

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10. Wild

A good character study is hard to come by these days, but Wild paints an engaging and at times hypnotic portrait of a woman putting the pieces of her life back together after being shattered by grief. The movie, set in the isolated, wandering expanse of the Pacific Crest Trail, tracks Cheryl Strayed as she battles the elements and her inner demons through California and Oregon. Wild jumps between beautiful vistas and moments of tense menace as Cheryl encounters both man and nature on her quest, while giving us a glimpse into our heroine’s mind through scattered glimpses at her past.

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9. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is, in a word, intense. As a morally ambiguous video-journalist capturing the nocturnal evils of Los Angeles, Jake Gyllenhaal creates a character that is a volcanic cluster of manic energy barely contained by a smiling, steel-eyed shell. But Gyllenhaal’s performance, incredible as it is, is only one of the many triumphs on which Nightcrawler can hang its hat. Director Dan Gilroy fashions a pulpy, lacerating examination of our blood-soaked craving for carnage media, making the audience complicit in morally ambiguous attempts to get that perfect shot of a crime scene or traffic accident’s aftermath. The movie starts on edge, stays there, and culminates in one of the most thrilling car chases ever captured on film, underlined by a pervasive sense of unease, and curiosity.

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8. Life Itself

It’s hard to love movies without loving Roger Ebert, the celebrated entertainment journalist who approached film criticism from the perspective of the American public rather than the self-aggrandizing intelligentsia. His reviews were sharp, witty and thoughtful, offering constructive criticism when needed and effusive praise when deserved. And in Life Itself, we get more than some two-dimensional portrait. We see the fight against alcoholism, the petty squabbles with his on-screen partner Gene Siskel and the moments of depression as he battled the illness that took his voice and ultimately his life. But throughout his life, he remained a champion of film as an art, or as he described it — in one of my favorite quotes — as an empathy machine.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

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7. Gone Girl

Can you ever really know another person? That’s the question at the heart of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s twisty, and twisted, adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. At the heart of the story is the failed marriage of Amy and Nic Dunne, a pair of New York City journalists turned Southern suburbanites whose professional and emotional resentments toward each other reach a critical, and deadly breaking point. Fincher’s moody pallete, showcased in films like Se7en, Zodiak and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, proves perfect for Flynn’s tale. It’s a seedy tale of heroes and villains where every character is a little of both. If you haven’t seen the movie you’ve probably read the book, and if you haven’t done either then you’re just doing it wrong.

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6. Interstellar

There’s only a handful of American directors with the industry chops to attempt a movie like Interstellar — a mega-budgeted original work of science fiction that would rather play with space-time equations than laser guns and explosions — and thankfully Christopher Nolan is one of them. Having earned his keep with the Dark Knight franchise, Nolan was given the keys to the kingdom to make his 3-hour epic about love, family, wormholes and 4th-dimensional extra-terrestrial beings.

For some, it was a little long in the tooth. For me, it was a hypnotic roller coaster ride, beautifully shot and elegantly constructed, that I never wanted to end.

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5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson only knows how to make films one way, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The director’s hyper-stylized whimsy and dollhouse set design exists in a world that is pseudo-fantasy and often surreal. With Budapest, Anderson created one of his most expansive worlds, largely centered in a luxury hotel but more broadly in fictional pre-WWII Europe, and populated it with some of his most colorful and winning characters, none more so than Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated concierge Mr. Gustave H. It’s a film filled with humor, thrills and a fair amount of melancholy sadness, all placed within a visual masterpiece.

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4. Snowpiercer

American cinema has long been fascinated with the end of the world, but few post-apocalyptic stories have created a vision of the end as simultaneously bleak, bizarre and fascinating as Snowpiercer, the graphic novel adaptation directed by Bong Joon-ho. In a world covered in ice, the last remnants of the human race inhabit a train perpetually circulating the globe, divided into a very literal caste system with the affluent and comfortable occupying the front — near the engine — and the huddled, starving masses populating the back — or “foot” as the deranged villain played by Tilda Swinton explains. The conditions lead to revolt and a slow and steady push to the front of the train, with each new car providing Bong Joon-Ho with an opportunity to create a fully encapsulated micro-world for our heroes to explore and fight through.

Put simply, there’s just nothing like Snowpiercer, which avoids stereotypicality at every turn, subverting expectations and leaning, full-tilt, into bonkers banana land. It may not be the best movie made this year, but I would say it’s the first thing you should make sure to see.

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3. Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more hamful than ‘good job’.”

So goes the mantra of Terence Fletcher, the sadistic music instructor played to perfection by J.K. Simmons who berates his students into excellence in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Fletcher’s latest target is Andrew (Miles Teller) a drummer who just might have it in him to be one of the greats if he can push himself hard enough, or be pushed hard enough without breaking.

In Whiplash, first time director Chazelle creates a haunting story of master and pupil that vibrates with crashing intensity. Under his direction, Teller’s drum solos have more energy than even the most expensive Michael Bay action sequence. It’s an incredible feet for a young filmmaker, that suggests very interesting things to come and all but certain Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons.

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2. Boyhood

Filmed over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a triumph of filmmaking that sees a family age and evolve literally before your eyes. Setting aside the technical achievement of the film’s existence, which can’t be ignored, Boyhood is more than just a gimmick. The story told, through the eyes of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a beautiful, natural, soft-spoken thesis on life, from childhood fears to first crushes to the precipitous approach of adulthood. It’s a bold, daring project, that highlights what film is capable of as a storytelling medium.

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1. Birdman

You could talk a lot about the incredible performances in Birdman, from A-list stars like Edward Norton and Emma Stone to against-type casting like Zach Galifianakis to the central role of Riggan Thomson played to droll perfection by Michael Keaton. You could talk about the meta-commentary on fame, with a former superhero franchise actor making an artistic comeback by playing a former superhero franchise actor attempting an artistic comeback.

You could talk about the technical wizardry of the film, edited to look as though it was filmed in one continuous sequence, or the way it uses visual tricks to play with its surrealist elements, tip-toeing between what is real and what is imagined in the delirium of Thomson’s decaying mental state.

You could talk about the soundtrack, an at-times cacophonous jazz riff of percussion instruments that perfectly captures the frantic not-quite-right mood of the film.

You could even talk about the story, which revolves around the staging of a Broadway play and which gives you a peak into the interworking of the NYC theater world.

But really the only thing you need to talk about, and what ultimately makes Birdman the best movie of 2014, is how it’s just so much darned fun to watch.

 

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Another year, another Top 10. The last 12 months have been an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cinema. Yes, big-budget tentpole films are getting bigger-budgeter tentpoler and yes, sequels, reboots and remakes have taken center stage while original stories struggle to find an audience. BUT, this also was a year full of unexpected surprises and visionary spectacles.

We saw the vast expanse of space and the horrors of slavery like we’ve never seen them before. We watched heroes triumph, villains fall, and a folk singer with a tabby cat.

Enough nonsense, let’s do this.

10. Blue Jasmine

We can all imagine how it might be challenging for a 1%-wealthy person to live like the rest of us after losing it all. But in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, we witness the remarkable collapse of Jasmine, a wealthy socialite whose fortune evaporates after her husbsand’s Maddoff-esque antics are exposed.

Cate Blanchett’s performance is captivating and her Jasmine teeters on the edge of a mental breakdown. She is poised confidence on the outside with a boiling madness flowing in her veins as she refuses to accept her new reality (a struggle represented by frequent flashbacks to her posh former life at the arm of Alec Baldwin’s wealthy criminal).

The film is an homage to A Streetcar Named Desire and alternates between the heady psychosis of Jasmine and the proletarian challenges of her sister, whose life is abruptly invaded by Jasmine’s presence and who is made to feel lesser for her stature despite Jasmine’s superiority being little more than an empty shell. It is witty, sharp, provocative, fascinating and one of Allen’s best works.

9. Fruitvale Station

The tragic irony infused in this retelling of the life of Oscar Grant, a real-life 22-year-old man who was accidentally shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009, is thick enough to cut with a knife. Here we have a man who suffered a needless death at the hands of a transit police officer (he later claimed to have been attempting to reach for his tazer and not his gun) and from the first moments of Fruitvale Station we know how the story ends.

That dark cloud hangs over the proceedings like the hand of fate as Grant tries to be a better man for his young daughter and girlfriend. The film portrays only the last day of Grant’s life, presenting him as neither sinner or saint, and asks the question of what might have been if this man had been allowed to live.

But part of the film’s strength comes form the world it arrived in, with the nation’s attention turned to the death of Trayvon Martin in a tragic incident all-too-easily comparable to that of Oscar Grant. The makers of Fruitvale Station could not have predicted the racial debate their film would arrive in, but they didn’t need to. What Fruitvale Station, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin show is that the question of race relations in America is far from settled, and despite our progress these tragedies continue to occur.

8. Blackfish

A documentary does not have to be shocking to be good. One of my favorite docs, for example, is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which tells the story of a Donkey Kong arcade champion. But the power of documentaries is that they portray real-life events, and when that medium is used the expose the obfuscated actions of powerful organizations, the result is nothing short of magical.

So it is with Blackfish, a documentary about the killer whales of Sea World and particularly Tillicum, a male Orca that has been involved in — if not the intentional cause of — several deaths and injuries of park trainers. Sea World has spent the last several months actively denying the allegations raised in Blackfish, but the diligence of the filmmakers is hard to question.

Through a series of interviews and truly breathtaking footage, we watch Tillicum move from one park, where he was kept in the oceanic equivalent of a jail cell and a trainer died, to Sea World, where he was attacked by the female Orcas and yet another trainer died. With the help of some amazing – and at times disturbing – archive footage, we watch an employee drug repeatedly to the bottom of a water tank, his foot pinched between an Orcas’ teeth. We see park employees scrambling to obscure the view of a whale who rises up out of the water to solute the crowd, exposing several bleeding wounds on his side where the other whales have “raked” him with their teeth. And we watch a female Orca pressing her face against the glass making piercing cries after her child was taken from her.

We hear the interviews of former park trainers, who decry the barbarity of what they saw and the heavy-handed attempts to silence dissent. And in perhaps the most memorable interview, we hear a salty sea dog reminisce about his days as a whale trapper. You can’t help but believe him when he says he’s seen some things in his day, but it’s the whaling that haunts him most.

The film is profound and at times horrific, and makes you feel complicit in a crime for ever having attending an Orca show.

7. All Is Lost

After Life of Pi and even Captain Phillips, there is a temptation to dismiss JC Chandor’s All Is Lost as just another tale of a man at odds with the sea. But even with Pi’s tiger, and Phillip’s gun-toting Somali pirates, it’s All Is Lost that dazzles with the relentless abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, in this case a grizzled Robert Redford in an almost wordless role.

Chandor — who made his debut in 2011 with the spectacular Margin Call — goes all in on his star, and the bet pays off. Redford is outstanding, relying on nothing but expression and demeanor to convey the terror in his eyes as his ship is first punctured by a stray shipping container and then besought by stormy seas. It’s a surprisingly action-filled performance for the 77-year-old actor, who is tossed about relentlessly by the crashing waves before making his way onto a life raft in a seemingly hopeless attempt to survive.

6. The Kings of Summer

In Kings of Summer (full review here), three friends tired of the overbearing pestering of their parents head into the wild to build a shelter, forage for food and live as men. It’s a simple premise, but one that is presented with an almost intoxicating level of free-spirited liberation as our heroes run, jump, laugh, scream, and do as they please.

The performances are spectacular, particularly Moises Arias in a scene-stealing breakout role, but also Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso who each deliver fully-realized characters as the other kings and Nick Offerman and Megan Mulaly as the doting parents. The dialogue is hilariously witty, trading between the ebullient simplicity of youth with the dour, stoic practicality of adulthood all while moving through perhaps the most charming story of the year.

5. American Hustle

In the late 70s, a con man and his accomplice are forced to assist the FBI in taking down other ne’er-do-wells in exchange for their freedom. What ensues is a loopy tale of deception, greed, pride and corruption that balloons out of control and is only half as crazy as the real Abscam case it’s based on.

At it’s heart, American Hustle is the story of Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a beer belly and a garish combover. But orbiting his world are Amy Adams as his mistress/partner, Bradley Cooper as an increasingly unstable FBI agent who thinks he’s in charge, Jennifer Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s absolutely unstable wife who most definitely is in charge and Jeremy Renner as a well-intentioned politician who is unfortunately dragged into the mess.

It’s an All American tale of dirty people doing dirty deeds in the pursuit of fortunes and the unsuspecting victims who get left with the bill. In American Hustle (full review here), everyone’s a crook, except the crooks and especially the crooks, but they’re not always the same people that get punished.

4. Before Midnight

It’s a common complaint levied against romantic comedies that they end precisely where they story should begin. Sure, our hero just ran through the rain to profess his love at our heroine’s doorstep, but it’s what happens after they kiss that’s truly interesting. The morning after, as it were, is when the drama begins.

It’s that sense of realism, not relying on casual tropes but interested in a true examination of what “love” is, that has always endeared the Before franchise to fans. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train and spend the next day walking through the streets of Vienna talking about, well, everything. Nine years later in Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine meet again in France only now he’s married with a son and she’s in a relationship, but the attraction remains.

And now, 18 years after their initial serendipitous encounter on that train, Jesse and Celine are married and vacationing in Greece with friends. They are full-fledged adults, having spent a significant portion of their lives together and having settled fully into the routine machinations of married life. When their friends gift them with a hotel room in a nearby town the pair get some privacy, only to see the romantic getaway devolve into a bickering argument spurred by miscommunication and misunderstanding and the latent frustrations of what they’ve each given up to be together.

In Before Midnight, we see that the previous two films have been leading to this and appropriately, the third film is the best one yet. It takes an almost unbearably honest  approach to the idea of marriage as our pair go from loving each other to hating each other and back again in the space of a single conversation. If that’s not modern romance, I don’t know what is.

Allow me to add my voice to the many that have come before me. Please, give us Before Noon in 2022.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Is there anything more universal than the feeling that life has conspired against us, stopping us from catching a break? That’s the emotion that sums up Inside Llewyn Davis, a period piece about a struggling folk singer in an unending cycle of near-misses, disappointments and failures. He’s a drifter, relying on a rotation of friends’ couches to provide shelter from the cold while playing dive bars for a pittance and peddling a box of records like every other no-name head of hair with a guitar.

But the beauty of the Coen Brother’s film is how it pulls back the camera and shows the events as if from the perspective of some omniscient being. Llewyn’s situation is less a matter of bad luck as it is a series of self-destructive decisions. He passes up opportunities because of his high-minded artistry, neglects the few sympathetic people in his life and refuses to accept the hands that are offered to him. It’s a cosmic joke the audience is aware of from our perch in 2013 – at one point a producer suggests there’s no money in Llewyn as a solo act, but maybe if he played backup vocals in a trio being put together, which sounds an awful lot like Peter, Paul and Mary? Llewyn thanks him for his time and walks out.

It’s a highly symbolic tale, filled with themes and imagery that suggest the importance of being at peace with one’s self. But on the surface is a deeply comedic drama about a misanthropic folk singer who is perhaps defined by his failure and layered with the best soundtrack of the year.

2. Gravity

The most lasting image from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (full review here) is that of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone spinning uncontrollably in a vast expanse of black space. She is utterly helpless, adrift in an inhospitable environment with the taunting image of a blue Earth before her eyes and no way to reach it.

That image comes early in Gravity’s 91-minute running time, suggesting that some change is coming to her situation, but its impact is no less terrifying. In Gravity, Cuaron presents us with the most comprehensive and transformative representation of the horror and grandeur of outer space. It is a symphony of sensory and emotional cues, as we witness with white knuckles the catastrophic destruction of shuttles and space stations obliterated by debris from the frantic perspective of our protagonist trapped in a race against time.

What Cuaron has accomplished with Gravity is a pure spectacle, raising the bar for what is possible with film technology while still delivering a deeply emotional tale of survival. Every moment of screen time is exhilarating, filled with breathtaking and pulse-pounding images that go beyond what was previously the frontier of “edge-of-your-seat” thrills.

1. 12 Years a Slave

In Steve McQueen’s brutal, haunting film, we see the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he suffers unspeakable horrors for more than a decade before regaining his freedom.

The power of the film comes from two sources. First, the caliber of performances delivered by the cast, and in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Second, the directorial choices of McQueen, who’s camera lingers on the atrocities until they become unbearable only to linger a few moments more. To wit, in one particular scene we see Ejiofor’s Solomon hung by the neck, the tips of his toes barely reaching the ground, for what feels like an interminable eternity before he is finally cut down and collapses in a wheezing heap. It is as raw as it is uncomfortable to watch but also carries with it a profound dramatic weight.

The desire of that scene and others like it (and the decision to depict them so graphically) is not just a thirst for audience effect. No movie could ever truly capture the horrors of slavery and McQueen knows this, and so when we reach these dark portions of the story he does not pull away, he leans in, filling the screen and presenting us with the inescapable wrongs of our shared past. He forces us to confront one of the ugliest scars of American history in a visceral way that only film can.

Paired with the heartbreaking humanity of Ejiofor’s performance, McQueen’s work is a triumph, exposing a dark past in the hope of a brighter future.

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Wow! What a year.

I’ll dispense with the pomp and circumstances of a long, tedious intro but I couldn’t help but stop and remark on the amazing year of cinema we’ve just enjoyed. Also, I should add that despite my best efforts, I was not able to gain access to a screening of Zero Dark Thirty before it’s wide release next month. From what I’m hearing, that movie would have surely made the top 10 but alas, I haven’t seen it.

So without further ado…

10. Ruby Sparks

Yes, you could say that it’s just keeping the seat warm for when I finally see Zero Dark, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ruby is an exceptional little indie, that alternates between light romantic humor and surprisingly dark emotional drama.

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are aces as a brilliant novelist who skyrocketed to early and unsustainable success and the woman that he somehow manifests with his mind. The ending is slightly underwhelming but the climax is shockingly raw and unforgettable.

Read my full review here.

9. Les Miserables

Director Tom Hooper‘s decision to tape his actors singing live was always going to be divisive and I understand where the criticisms come from. Ultimately in comes down to whether you prefer the musical power of a staged performance, or the gritty realism that only a movie can deliver.

For me, it was an easy choice. Yes, a lot of the actors (Crowe particularly) came off as airy and light, without the usual punch-in-the-face sound that we’ve come to expect from the stage or even other studio-scrubbed musicals, but the raw and sincere emotion that crept into the lyrics as the result of the musical and dramatic flexibility given to the actors, in my opinion, made up for the difference and more.

8. The Queen of Versailles

For all the yelling and chest-thumping about the evil “1%” done in the wake of the economic recession, it’s hard to truly understand the void between the have’s and have-not’s in this country. Then came this riches-to-rags documentary, about Westgate Resorts mogul David Siegel and his family, which put the American class system front and center as the financial collapse put the breaks on their construction of the largest private residence in the country.

The Siegels are not bad people, and there is something to be admired about the self-made nature of their fortune. But watching as they let one, then another, and another of their hired help go and “cut back” in the face of frozen assets, only to find that their life of luxury has made them too lazy to clean up after themselves or even feed their pets, you can’t help but feel an almost exhilarating amount of schadenfreude pulsing through your veins.

Read my full review here.

7. Looper

Every movie that has ever attempted to tell a time-travel story has had to deal with some amount of logical inconsistencies. It is, after all, impossible, and therefore difficult to tie up all the narrative loose ends with a pretty pink bow. While most of these plot holes are the result of lazy, half-hearted storytelling (I’m looking at you Men In Black 3) others, like Looper, are simply the collateral damage of balls-to-the-wall bravura.

In this twisty sci-fi noir, Rian Johnson establishes his own rules for time-travel chronology and leaves the finer points on the cutting room floor as he charges ahead. For the first act, you almost find yourself asking “but…wait, what?” only to see Johnson just scoot your worries aside with a hypnotically chilling scene where a man literally falls to pieces before your eyes. It’s when you know that, questions or no questions, you’re watching something truly special and you can then sit back and enjoy the ride.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect high school movie than Steven Chbosky’s Perks. The three leads’ performances are stupendous, particularly Ezra Miller but not to discredit Emma Watson or the film’s star Logan Lerman. The idea of a group of misfit toys assembling to survive adolescence is not a new one, but where those films dwindle in melodrama, Perks soars with heart, sincerity and an acknowledgment that even in the darkest times of life there are moments of true beauty.

Read my full review here.

5. The Dark Knight Rises

Few franchises have been handled with the same care and success as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. Most three-quels limp to the finish line, weary with exhaustion and ready for something new. And while many would agree that Heath Leger’s Joker and The Dark Knight make the 2nd bat a superior film, most also agree that Nolan somehow managed to reward his fans with a satisfying, natural ending, while still probing the kinds of moral questions and social commentary that elevated his superhero tale above the mold in the first place.

There are valid criticisms, but to end your story with this kind of power is no small feat, and for that TDKR makes the top 10 and, hopefully, a nomination for Nolan.

Read my full review here.

4. Argo

Part spy-thriller, part political drama, and part Hollywood tribute comedy, Argo is the rare “True story” that’s actually true, and manages to keep you on the edge of your seat despite the ending being a foregone conclusion. Ben Affleck, post-renaissance, just seems to get better and better and, frankly, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

I’ve long been a fan of Wes Anderson’s style, but even so Moonrise Kingdom blew me away with it’s pseudo-fantastic tone and it’s simple sense of fun. The tale of two young lovers on the run from family, a police officer and a troop of boy scouts is just about the most charming time you’ll have in front of a screen all year.

Read my full review here.

2. Silver Linings Playbook

Most movies today are about big things: big action, big drama, big romance, big suspense. Linings, however, is a comparably little story, about a man who returns home after an emotional breakdown and tries to put the pieces of his life back together. In the process, he crosses paths with another damaged sole, in the form of the electric Jennifer Lawrence, who steps back into her indie roots after the mega-behemoth Hunger Games and who, I might add, has never looked more captivatingly beautiful (and yes, I’m including the red dress she wore to the Oscars in 2011).

The story spins gold out of the quiet dramas of non-extraordinary life and, under the direction of David O. Russell, pulls an extraordinary performance out of every actor who steps on screen — Chris Tucker is a revelation and De Niro turns in some of his best work in years. And, in probably the movies most impressive feat, it somehow manages to inspire without the slightest hint of sanctimony or insincerity.

Read my full review here.

1. Lincoln

There’s no point talking around it, Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in Lincoln is so good it defies description. Were that the film’s only attribute it would be enough, but add to it superb acting from one of the largest casts ever assembled, crisp writing that captures humor, despair and victory, and all the talents of one of the greatest Hollywood directors to ever pick up a camera and you have, in a word: Art.

I left the theater feeling like I had just watched one of the greatest movies ever made. I could find no fault (except that it didn’t end at the right moment), and was both educated and entertained in the viewing.

I still feel it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. I toyed for a while with re-arranging my top 3 but the choice, in the end, was clear.

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