1. “12 Years a Slave”
“12 Years a Slave” is a movie that explores slavery as it was experienced and as we experience it today. Some scenes are framed like a recovered photograph — icy and frank — with the slaves looking out at their possessors. But when director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) sets his camera into motion, we observe horror as vividly as film can portray, and race becomes a tragedy. This film is not only about pain, but healing and empowerment. Never before have slaves been given such dignity. Gone are the caricatures; gone is the Antebellum romanticism. Storytelling can bring about a kind of justice by telling the truth. To tell those stories is a true act of kindness, however small, however feeble in the face of history. “12 Years a Slave” treats its material as something vital, as an inheritance of a history meant to be understood and not destroyed by it. So we must, as the film wants us to, ask ourselves: Who can erase 12 years, let alone a few hundred?
Space travel is supremely precise. From interior cabin pressure to launch timing, to the trajectory of multi-megaton machinery, every calculation must be accurate to the nth degree. The smallest imbalance poses potential for immense destruction. As one of the year’s most aggressive and relentless films, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” captures the aftermath of imprecision in its horrific sweep of a possible reality. No amount of clever engineering or genius-level intellect can be sufficient armament against the unforgiving vaccuum of space. And in a realm without gravity’s anchor, every certainty feels defeated, all emotions weightless, every circumstance subordinate to the elements. This is the film’s genius. The ripples of a tiny imprecision are amplified by the absence of gravity, as Cuarón removes the safe ground and drops his characters headlong into the destructive elements. What a remarkable journey that proves to be.
3. “American Hustle”
The camera focuses in on a bulbous, Santa Claus belly sticking out over 1970s swim trucks. The shot rises, revealing first tangled gold chains, then a scrappy beard, and finally Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale “Out of the Furnace”) sweaty, disarrayed comb-over. This is “American Hustle,” and it is a masterpiece. In director David O. Russell’s partially historically-based new film, Bale and Amy Adams play lovers working a cunningly low-stakes con operation before (permed) Bradley Cooper enters as a cockily incompetent FBI agent, bent on ending political corruption and getting the glory he craves. Jennifer Lawrence rounds out the A-list cast as Rosalyn, Irving’s loud-mouthed and dysfunctional wife. “Hustle” could have been a cheap cop drama, a 1970s sleaze-fest or a serious quasi-documentary; Through transcendent performances from all the leads and Russell’s brilliantly wacky script, it’s instead a forceful and uproarious story that defies genre. The film questions the meaning of loyalty, the power of love and the true nature of corruption, but these themes are deeply hidden beneath the flashy plunging necklines and outrageous bouffants. Russell has made a career out of challenging how we define filmic storytelling, and “Hustle” is a delicious romp into that gray area between drama and comedy.
4. “The Way Way Back”
It starts in the backseat of a 1970 Buick wagon, and it curb stomps your heart into pieces. It ends in the backseat of that same 1970 Buick wagon, and you leave with a smile on your face. That’s the beauty of the teen coming-of-age film: like its protagonist, it breaks you down and builds you up, leaving you stronger, happier. One could argue that this genre of film became outdated years ago, and perhaps it might have died with John Hughes, who directed all those ’80s teen movies like “The Breakfast Club.” Enter screenwriters/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. They take a story we’ve seen a thousand times and inject it with nostalgia, heart and sheer hilarity. Liam James as Duncan perhaps overdoes it on the awkwardness, but Sam Rockwell and an asshole Steve Carrell give scene-stealing, incredibly memorable performances. It’s a rewarding, even perfect film; John Hughes would be proud.
5. “Captain Phillips”
Based on the novel, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” written by the courageous captain himself, this riveting adaptation recreates the events that occurred in April 2009, when Somali pirates hijacked Richard Phillips’s cargo ship and documents how he sacrificed his personal well-being in return for the safety of his crew members. Tom Hanks shines as the devoted husband, caring father and selfless leader bruised and abused by a money-hungry, fearsome foursome of thieves. But the most captivating aspect of the story is the tension between his character and the pirates’ own identified “captain,” Muse (played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi); A chemistry-infused foil that vividly demonstrates the collision of two diametric worlds, life situations and political perspectives. Paul Greengrass, who directed the action-packed, true-tale thriller, “United 93,” demonstrates his propensity for building excruciating suspense within a historical blueprint; Phillips’s fate hangs in the balance until the very end. Batten down the hatches — it’s a wild ride.
“Her” fulfills everyone’s secret fantasy to see Joaquin Phoenix immortalized by a ’70s pornstache. Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, who wears high-waisted trousers and champions the awkward uncles who only hang out with the dog at family Christmases (His name is Twombly. What do you expect?). “Her” could have been a typical cautionary tale about the dangers of technology use, with by the hapless Twombly as a tragic figure, but instead it’s the opposite of preaching — it’s a mirror for the audience to reflect upon themselves. Director Spike Jonze gently and sorrowfully delivers his blows by revealing how we live: alone together. Feeling alienated in a crowd of living, breathing people, Twombly clings to his Artificial Intelligence like she’s a life raft. Jonze unravels the inevitable heartbreak with sensitivity and wisdom. “Her” is a plaintive, needed meditation on love and today’s self, and for a movie about A.I.s, it’s incredibly human.
7. “This Is the End”
Seldom are comedies truly of the moment; that’s the role of drama. “Of the moment” art means it adequately jackets the role of technology in our lives, how we communicate, generational divides and shifting existential outlooks. “This Is the End” in no material way changes the way we think about shit — however, it perfectly snapshots everything both wrong and right about relationships today in a hysterical, current unwrapping.
In Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s meta-dickstick movie, five morons and one bore put on a show that manages to keep even the pot-slinging beanie-rockers off their phones for 107 minutes straight. Word! Tight! It’s because these dudes are fucking funny, dude. And laughter, unlike melancholy tears or warmhearted joy, is the emotion most akin to narcotics; Once you get rolling, the only thing in life you need is another fix. Regret, embarrassment or confusion never follow laughter, it’s too surface for deep investigation — you’re just onto the next laugh. So, go on … piss your rosebud-stained jockeys.
8. “Blue Jasmine”
Writer-director Woody Allen’s latest witty dramedy follows snooty, Upper West Side socialite Jasmine, played by the lovely and very loopy Cate Blanchett, as she journeys from a place of privilege to her adopted sister’s couch when her cheating husband leaves her for a younger woman. But even after she has lost everything, a healthy disillusionment is not in Jasmine’s plan, and her refusal to accept her new, humble circumstances is as irritating as it is entertaining. Blanchett, who has already deservedly raked in dozens of accolades for her performance this year, is arguably a shoe-in for the Best Actress trophy. She is a certifiably scorned crazy woman who pathetically clings to denial like a life raft and regularly pops prescription pills just to stay afloat. She’s idiotically obstinate, she’s despicably ungrateful, she’s terribly tragic … and it’s a mesmerizing and visceral display of self-inflicted suffering that’s worth watching more than once.
8. “Saving Mr. Banks”
“Feed the Birds” always had a feeling of loneliness. It’s a song from “Mary Poppins,” and in my opinion, it’s the best in the 140-minute musical. It tells the story of an old woman who begs passers-by for a “tuppence a bag” to feed the birds. This song gains a deeper meaning near the film’s end when we watch Mr. Banks walk the rainswept streets to the Cathedral, but the bird-woman is gone. She has simply passed. The steeple stands over him dark and oppressive. As a kid, I couldn’t explain the feeling of seeing this man alone, contending with the entire universe. Perhaps this is why we learn to draw before we learn to write. “Saving Mr. Banks” explains that melancholy, and it does so with humor and snappy dialogue. It gives you performances of the kind that shape our perceptions of the actors themselves. It settles your suspicions of your favorite stories, that they are more than fiction to the artists. Watch “Mary Poppins” again. You will rejoice — this time with triumph — that Mr. Banks mends the kite.
8. “Wolf of Wall Street”
When I taunted my 52 year-old father about his unlikely approval of “Wolf,” he snapped back, “I’m no prude!” This man rarely curses, tears up in Disney Channel Originals and probably hasn’t seen a line of the devil’s dandruff since ’82. Point is that there’s something alluring to us all about bacchanalia and rashness: Everything. People in the Finance biz will be disappointed that more time is not spent looking at the ins and outs of Wall Street. Not dissimilarly, bleeding anti-capitalists praying for corner office mea culpas, too, will land short of expectations. The truth: Helmer Scorsese and marquee bookrunner DiCaprio and the pic itself are having too much fun to even bat one coked-out, bloodshot eye at either of those hopeful prophecies.
With sparing fourth-wall-shattering addresses by the lead left DiCaprio, copious drugs and boinking, free-float lensing and the masterful storytelling we always expect from the brainfather of “Goodfellas,” the final deliverable is the following: a dark comedy that refuses to stop for anything … except another hit to keep going.
8. “Much Ado About Nothing”
“Much Ado About Nothing” could be the biggest and quietest surprise of 2013. A shotgun movie filmed in 12 days at director Joss Whedon’s house, it’s been fairly unnoticed in theaters, but it sucker punches a steroidal dose of Shakespeare. What? Shakespeare and steroids in the same sentence? “Much Ado About Nothing” is just as absurd. The film is modern but shot in monochrome, and crammed with hilarious interpretations of Shakespeare’s patented comedy. You’ll laugh until you wheeze and then be stunned by sudden turns of tragedy — the entire ride is as messy as a five-year-old while finger painting — but it all crystallizes in a beautiful finish, and you realize that the whole time the kid was painting “Starry Night.” “Much Ado” is a hidden gem.
9. “Before Midnight”
Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” is exceptional. It combines an effortlessly brilliant screenplay with terrific performances, managing to capture the essence of romance for the third time in the trilogy about love and separation. In every great film series, there is always a chink in the armor, always one film which doesn’t fare as well as the rest and comes off as slightly disappointing. This is not that film. It comes off as unique while staying true to the emotional core that is so definitive of the entire trilogy, and manages to provide a suitable ending to one of the most endearing cinematic relationships of all time. It’s almost as if nine years have transpired in the blink of an eye, and the actors have picked up where they left off with nonchalant aplomb, keeping the easy relationship between them glitch-free. “Before Midnight” rounds off one of the finest movie trilogies of all time, making it a set of movies that will speak to generations to come.
9. “Dallas Buyers Club”
Matthew McConaughey exceeds expectations in this based-on-real-events story of Ron Woodroof — addict, gambler, womanizer, rodeo rider — who contracts HIV at the height of its reign of terror in the mid-1980s. As his health declines, he forms a “buyers club” in Dallas with the intent to distribute drugs that have been proven effective in treating the disease — they’re just not FDA-approved. Jared Leto returns to the big screen after a six-year absence and gives one of the most heartbreakingly vulnerable performances of the year as Rayon, a transvestite dying of AIDS who befriends Woodroof and alters his homophobic outlook on life. Jennifer Garner charms as Woodroof’s physician who diagnoses his condition and then eventually joins his fight to circumvent the FDA’s attempts to shut down his philanthropic operation. The performances are strong and devastating; the writing is witty and morose; and the editing is subtle and imposing: Expect a spectrum of emotions.
10. “Don Jon”
More than just a soft-core porno, “Don Jon” boasts originality, honesty, the unbeatable duo of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson, an Academy Award worthy editing rhythm and most importantly, relevancy. Writer/director/star Gordon-Levitt bravely shines a light into the darkest corners of the socially taboo topic of porn addiction. Most intriguingly, he investigates how modern media portrayals of love and sex lead their consumers to harbor unrealistic expectations for romantic relationships. However, porn isn’t the only target. This unorthodox rom-com hates rom-coms, and in a clever bait-and-switch, Gordon-Levitt uses his and Johansson’s movie star good looks to pull the rug out from under the idealized, Hollywood fare. Both actors play their roles perfectly, with Gordon-Levitt radiating bro-tastic machismo and Johansson exuding spoiled-princess syndrome. “Don Jon” lacks the emotional punch of some of this year’s more dramatic films, but its oft-avoided themes give audiences some thought-provoking views to chew over with their popcorn.