1 – The Wolf of Wall Street
Only Scorsese could’ve made this film as exhilarating to watch as it is. Epic spectacles of excess that take you on a roller coaster ride with despicable, conscienceless men who dupe average Joe’s out of millions and build an empire out of it. A three-hour film about the rise and fall of real life sleaze Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the greed and drug-addicted lifestyle that eventually led to his company’s demise. It’s one zany story after another that Scorsese wisely keeps on rapid fire throughout to not let you realize this movie you are enjoying so much is about horrible, immoral people. Tragic, yet undeniably funny, The Wolf of Wall Street ranks up there as one of Scorsese’s finest works. Not only is it a harsh truth about the world we live in and the darkness shrouding our financial system, it’s a cautionary tale with great relevance to headlines ripped from the front page of our modern society. DiCaprio and Jonah Hill’s balls out bravado, Terrence Winter’s biting script, and Scorsese’s best directing effort in years make The Wolf of Wall Street the best movie of the year. The pure chaos and comedic brilliance of scenes like the “Popeye Quaaludes” scene were quickly etched into my cinematic memory as some of the most memorable scenes in years. I was in awe of how this story was put together for the screen. I can hardly wait for repeat viewings. Just make sure and put the kids to bed first.
2 – The Place Beyond the Pines
Criminally underrated and unrecognized, Derek Cianfrance’s epic tale of cops and robbers and fathers and sons moved me in more ways than one. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper own the screen exploring the tricky relationship between fathers and sons. No matter how bad a young man’s father is, he always wants to try and emulate him to a certain extent. A boy’s hero worship for his father is generally unstoppable and the film takes the subject on with such layered storytelling, disguising the human drama of the flawed as a genre movie. The end result is a mesmerizing film full of gut-punching twists that I can’t wait to revisit again.
3 – Gravity
Cast Away in space is a very crude way to describe a film like Gravity. But that’s the basic premise. But, Gravity is much more than a survival movie. It’s much more than a space movie. A giant, heartfelt movie about the power of the human spirit. Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and the spellbinding, breathtaking special effects are an amazing achievement on their own, but combined that with two actors at the top of their game, and an earnestly triumphant story, Gravity is one of my favorite cinematic experiences of recent memory. My generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
4 – Pacific Rim
I don’t find it difficult to get excited about a blockbuster directed by Guillermo Del Toro about a battle between giant robots and monsters, but to see the way Del Toro’s vision of Pacific Rim came out as a cinematic finished project is astonishing. Rarely is blockbuster this fun and technically sound all at the same time. Beautifully realized and equally entertaining throughout Pacific Rim is easily Del Toro’s best work to date. Filed under the same category as The Lone Ranger as the other big studio tent pole that went misunderstood and underachieved domestically, Pacific Rim deserves to be watched and watched again. Monsters vs. Robots people!
5 – American Hustle
Fun. Fun. Fun. With its pitch-perfect ensemble performances and fast-talking story American Hustle dazzles from start to finish. Russell triumphs by borrowing from the greats. His Scorsese zoom pans almost are used ad nauseam, but I was having too much damn fun to really care to knock him for it. The key to making this Russell’s most confident film to date was realizing who to borrow from and he shows true inspiration with his choices. Whatever small negatives I could find quickly faded into the background of this con-artist caper. Russell’s first two features Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster showed promise. I rather enjoyed Three Kings too, but I felt like he had slight misses with I Heart Huckabee’s and The Fighter after that. Then came last year’s wonderfully insane love story Silver Linings Playbook. Russell builds on that momentum and finally hones his penchant for dysfunctional characters with good hearts. American Hustle is Goodfellas meets Silver Linings Playbook and the combination is one hell of a good time.
6 – Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens deadpan storytelling reaches new heights with somehow making audiences empathetic to a protagonist that is pretty damn unlikeable. A film about the path to stardom and the fact that it never leads to anywhere for most who travel down its weary, winding roads. Oscar Isaac’s showcases his supreme talent as we follow Llewyn on his self-centered trek seeking folk stardom. It features all the caveats that we are used to with a Coen Brother’s film: Amazing music, funny and sharp dialogue, and amazing supporting performances. But, the main thing that stood out about this one for me was that it was the Coens most succinct film to date. Tightly woven and expertly directed, Inside Llewyn Davis had me grinning and chuckling for all 104 minutes of cold weather without a winter coat that Llewyn had to endure.
7 – 12 Years a Slave
Director Steve McQueen takes a page out of one of our country’s darkest historical periods. Based on the book of the same name, the film follows the harrowing journey of Solomon Northup, who was born a free man, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s turn as the mistaken slave pours out with emotion and not only has you feeling his frustration as a free man trapped, but also keeps you rooting out loud all along the way. McQueen triumphantly brings Northup’s story to the screen with his usual straightforwardness and gives one of the clearest pictures of what it was probably like to see slavery as it was. Nudity and blood are no strangers in McQueen’s films and here you get an uncomfortable amount. Fassbender’s heartless plantation owner Epps is ferociously evil yet represents the moral justification that existed from the white majority at the time. As visually punishing as some of the graphic violence in Northup’s story is, it’s worth enduring through for a gratifying ending that is sure to move all that make it through the gut-wrenching story that is 12 Years a Slave.
8 – Her
What more can I say about Joaquin Phoenix. Easily one of the top actors working today, he continues to slither in and out of his characters like a reptile’s skin. He has also been very good about choosing who he collaborates with. This time out he and Spike Jonze along coupled with the voice-over of Scarlett Johansson create a futuristic world that explores where our relationship with technology may be heading. Fresh and original, Her works simultaneously as entertainment and a think piece. A dark social commentary with a lot of big laughs and poignant moments, the script penned by Jonze, should be the chalk come Oscar night. I feel like Her will be even more profound years from now when our reality creeps closer to Spike’s vision. Jonze and Phoenix continue to march to their own drumbeat and I hope neither one of them ever take a different route.
9 – This is the End
If you want to pee your pants, you should see This Is the End. I laughed so hard throughout its entirety I thought I might soil myself at any moment. Luckily, I made it through with zero accidents. In a hilarious send up of their Hollywood celebrity personas, This Is the End worked in every way for my funny bone. Generally when you get this many talents in one vehicle it tends to be bloated and extremely watered down. But not here…This Is the End is funniest movie of the year. It finds fresh and original ways to make the all-star cast stay in sync with each other and keep the story moving along one hilarious bit after another. Rogen and Goldberg were smart enough to give us a nice story that finds a way to show a little heart shine through amongst the dick-jokes and graphic post-apocalyptic FX. That’s the sign of a good comedy – when the characters are so loveable and funny that there is no amount of crudeness that would turn you off. That’s what This Is the End does, it makes you laugh a lot more than most comedies, but it also is written and directed in a way that both the story and the horror scenes keep you entertained when you have a few moments in between laughs. In the old school tradition of Cannonball Run, Rogen and Goldberg steer an all-star cast through heaven and hell to swim through a sea of cameos in one of the year’s best movies.
So many comparisons have been drawn to Prisoners. Films like Mystic River, Seven, and even Zero Dark Thirty seem to keep coming up. But for me, I drew parallels with another film Gyllenhaal excelled in, David Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s similarly paced, with solid performances, and Fincher never lets you count any suspect out until the very end of that jigsaw thriller. Director Denis Villeneuve lays out the web of damaged characters by subtly revealing their back stories with little, yet precise details. Couple the ensemble cast’s strong effort with the super talent of cinematographer Roger Deakins beautifully framing the murky details through rainy grey windows and pitch black night exteriors and you have a winner here. I quickly figured out that critics and fans alike were divided into love and hate camps with this film and even though I correctly identified the who in the whodunnit halfway through, there were more than enough great qualities about Prisoners to keep me well entertained until the two and a half hour running time expired. This movie does not take you to a happy place by any means, but it is high-grade entertainment for all of us grown-ups.
11 – Mud
Mud is a film that harkens back to legendary literature classics of yesteryear. It oozes Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and even though set in modern times, it could’ve just as easily been 100 years ago. The story takes place mostly on the river banks of the Mississippi and involves two boys happening on a mysterious and potentially dangerous loaner hiding out on the river. Although McConaughey and Witherspoon share virtually no screen time the casting is just right. McConaughey continues his hot streak with another spot on performance and Witherspoon, hides years of pain behind those eyes. Both actors turn in stellar character portrayals with a striking subtlety that’s quite refreshing. Tye Sheridan’s turn as Ellis evokes just the right amount of innocence, so that we can really recognize it being stripped away in the third act. Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, and Paul Sparks complete a solid cast. Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who’s been somewhat of an indie darling, has turned out one intellectually stimulating film after another with great storytelling in both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He follows suit with Mud, his best film to date. Nichols realizes that a great story doesn’t just happen; you have to read and turn the next page to get the full effect. There is no instant gratification with Nichols’ films. Some may even call his pace slow, but Nichols knows the value of classic storytelling of the past…and it’s good to know they actually still do make em’ like they used to. Mark Twain would’ve been proud.
12 – Spring Breakers
I can’t remember a film that I was so bored with in the first act that made such a surprising comeback in the second and third acts. Harmony Korine’s film could’ve been labeled as a pure fetish film if you just watched the first 30 minutes, but as this weird little flick got off the ground it was one of the most refreshingly unique and entertaining works I saw all year. A lot of it can be attributed to James Franco’s powerhouse performance as a wannabe gangster Alien, and surprisingly effective turns from Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson as the bikini-clad gunners. Whether or not you want to read into how much of this film was a social commentary on meat-head millennials or just a neon-laced heist movie, Spring Breakers stood out as 100% weird, and that ends up being a good thing.
13 – The Lone Ranger
Why this was one of the most widely panned movies of the year still is a bit mind boggling to me. Goofy and fun, but extremely well crafted, The Lone Ranger was one of the most entertaining blockbusters of the summer. Sure this was a new take, a re-imagining of the classic TV series. Tonto (Johnny Depp) is now pretty much the lead and he’s not taking any of The Lone Ranger’s (Armie Hammer) shit. But even though it was a new spin director Gore Verbinski took up where he left off with Rango, his other magnificent collaboration with Depp. With nods to the classic Westerns and silent films galore, The Lone Ranger was funny, action-packed, and has a story that had more to say than most probably cared to realize.
Frances Ha, The Act of Killing, We’re the Millers, Behind the Candelabra, Nebraska, Out of the Furnace