10. Only God Forgives / Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s harsh rebuttal to all expectations. A budding young maverick, joined with the pop-culture hearthrob of Mr. Ryan Gosling, ONLY GOD FORGIVES could have been a slick, action-packed joyride to follow up the duo’s smash success in DRIVE. But, Refn chose instead to take a left turn, and enter the red alleyway of our Lynchian nightmares. Audiences and critics everywhere came out dissatisfied, I personally heard one theatregoer exclaim that “this is the worst movie [he’s] ever seen,” but Refn makes the list because he denied a bunch of big budget offerings, and instead of watering-down his highly nuanced style (ahem, Steve McQueen, 12 YEARS A SLAVE), the brash auteur went full force into a type of filmmaking all his own. Let’s just hope his audacity didn’t cost him a career.
9. Gravity / Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Never has an art film captured the attention of the masses in such a gigantic way. There’s not much to the script, but Alfonso Cuaron’s efforts in creating a film that is just downright new were highly effective, in GRAVITY. Cuaron deserves major attention for wrangling a project so immense, so weird and physically faked (though it doesn’t feel so in the film), it’s a wonder that a man can conceptualize cinema like that. Finally taking the camera off of its shackles, GRAVITY feels like the first true transcendent piece of blockbuster cinema, bringing American action film to entirely new level. Also, he’s finally given merit to the 3D IMAX viewing experience— $20 well spent.
8. All is Lost / Director: JC Chandor
Robert Redford returns to show us that we don’t need space, 3D, IMAX, or even dialogue to make an exciting film. JC Chandor’s one-man-show deserves a notch higher than Cuaron and Bullock, because while GRAVITY astounds, LOST reminds us that there is no excuse for unstimulating cinema, at any level. By harnessing the explosive silence and charisma of long-time legend Robert Redford (finally, a director honoring the old guys), Chandor’s film delivers a deeply satisfying drama in the most simple level of cinema: camera, man, conflict. While the direction in the film may not be exemplary, it’s wonderful to see what happens when you put a champion onscreen alone for 90 minutes, and let him lead us through the story he was born to tell. Now if only someone would do this sort of thing with De Niro…
7. Museum Hours / Director: Jem Cohen
Speaking about movies that break open the form, Jem Cohen’s latest gem is every bit as defamiliarizing as both the former action films— but this one is almost devoid of even a narrative at all. Loosely based on the observations of a Vienna museum guard, MUSEUM HOURS somehow occupies the mind of an anxious, yet enthusiastic traveler, addressing the big themes: art, love, family, and what they all mean together. Cohen’s film astounds, because it sticks to its form of not having a form. If the story wants to plunge into a painting, and tell us all its legends and secrets, it does, without explanation; if it wants to pick up on a lonely traveler in Austria, it goes right ahead as well. The best way to describe this film’s significance is, in the opening, it just starts. There’s no fade in. No opening monologue, no voice-over explanation. The picture just cuts into the screen, and we’re watching it, taken by surprise, until it finishes up in the end, and we wonder if what we thought we saw really meant anything at all…
6. Before Midnight / Director: Richard Linklater
Continuing Richard Linklater’s unprecedented exploration of the relationship of Jesse and Celine, BEFORE MIDNIGHT forges forward in the genre. But just what is this genre? Surely, it’s not “romantic-comedy,” because while BEFORE SUNRISE is lighthearted enough, the ending is crushing, BEFORE SUNSET even harder to stomach, and now this one, by the end, just downright brutal. But these films don’t inject Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpys’ characters’ relationship with drama, what makes them so hard to categorize is, the relationship themselves are drama. By the end of MIDNIGHT, the line between movie drama, and real life borders on an uneasy edge, until we’re forced to consider the strange question of, if Celine and Jesse’s relationship has existed these past 27 years, if its grown and matured in real time, if they have problems that develop right alongside ours, aren’t Celine and Jesse just as real as say, you and I? Linklater bends the precipice to an alarming point with this latest entry, threatening to bust in on our reality and change the definition of realism entirely.
5. The Great Beauty / Director: Paolo Sorrentino
This film makes the list not because of any efforts to revise, or push forward, but rather to remember, and reminisce. Gaudy and garish, THE GREAT BEAUTY is like the illegitimate child of a Fellini film, that has wandered lonely through the streets of an ever-deteriorating Rome, and now fifty years later, has returned as a fully-formed piece of cinema, with it’s own voice, however similar to the Italian masters of old. Jep Gambardella is this grown-up orphan of Mastroianni and Fellini, and Tony Servillo’s portrayal of him, wonderfully quiet, is perhaps the strongest male performance of the year. Sorrentino is the lucky star of the Italian film scene, and, like his film, he reminds us that, although lately it’s tough to find, his nation has a heritage of greatness— great beauty— and sometimes we just have to pay our dues.
4. Blue Jasmine / Director: Woody Allen
What’s left to be said about Woody Allen? Apparently, lots. BLUE JASMINE is not only Woody’s best film since VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, but it’s also his first new film in years. That breakthrough is worthy of the list enough, because the infamous curmudgeon has made so many imprints on the American film landscape, with BLUE JASMINE, he’s brought us to an entirely new place: the 21st Century. Cate Blanchett soars, just about as scathing as one can be, and her character becomes just another testament to the genius of our greatest living auteur, arguably America’s most prolific film artist. Like the other directors listed here, Woody deserves recognition for his efforts in reinvention, not only of his own filmmaking, but of the very modern comedy format that he helped create.
3. Her / Director: Spike Jonze
Like Number 4, HER is an important reminder on where we’re headed as a people. Spike Jonze’s first original entry as a writer/director, this film composes a conventional love story about an unconventional relationship. Joaquin Phoenix, firmly establishing himself as one of today’s greatest American actors, plays this role with a certain tenderness, a personality, that is not unlike the film itself— every shot, every color, all of HER seems to be just bursting with intimacy, as if Jonze went in and painted every frame himself. We’re reaching a point in our cinema where the love story has been done, redone, subverted, revised, again and again, until there seems to be nothing left of it. Sometimes, we get a film that reclaims the excitement of a relationship in a joyously new way. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR is one of these sorts of films— but, unlike HER, BLUE is done with a forced superficiality, a big boldness, demanding that we realize what is “new”— HER wins this spot because, while Scarlett Johannson’s Operating System is in fact a superficial gimmick, Spike Jonze chooses to portray this gimmick in such a loving, personal way. Cinema doesn’t need to make bold proclamations, sometimes it can just be a sad love story and that’s enough.
2. To the Wonder / Director: Terrence Malick
Severely overlooked this year, TO THE WONDER is yet another achievement by elusive master Terrence Malick. If HER is filled with intimacy and personality, TO THE WONDER is boiling, downright overflowing with directorial duty. Malick’s films are characteristically spiritual, but this one really takes flight. In a film so transcendent, language is even thrown by the wayside, as the actors talk in their native tongues, all of them communicating on a grand, hyper-human level. It’s like Malick has the key to the 6th sense, that of sympathy, and he can choose to glide in and out the world of wordless feelings whenever he pleases. Whereas his recent THE TREE OF LIFE researches the basis for man, TO THE WONDER expands on our best quality: love. Apparently, Malick can handle modern day tales just as well as explorations of the beginning of time.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis / Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
It’s hard to find a fault with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. One could argue that it doesn’t push the medium forward, like GRAVITY or ALL IS LOST. There’s nothing terribly heartbreaking about it, no BEFORE MIDNIGHT heartbreak, there’s no MUSEUM HOURS reinvention, and the Coen Bros don’t implement any groundbreaking BLUE JASMINE contemporary comments or HER/ONLY GOD FORGIVES directorial revelations. One could say that describe the film is even bland— on the surface, it’s just about a lackadaisical folk singer tramping his way through Manhattan, relatively unsuccessful. But Lars Von Trier says a film should be like a pebble stuck in your shoe. Every other film in this list, in addition to countless other great movies from this year, do something important for us. These films are necessary, they each say something essential. But, LLEWYN DAVIS is stuck in my shoe. Like the scene in which Llewyn plays “Queen Jane” to a quiet, dismissing manager, the Coen Bros’ latest is so subtle, it exercises such overwhelming restraint, that at times it feels like the projection screen itself is about to tear open and explode with a lustful fervor. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS picks, picks, picks away at you, it gets right in between your toes, it sticks with you all day long, and when you wake up in the morning, it’s still there, as if to say, “hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone / wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the laying in the ground so long, poor boy…” The film is incessant. It’s a masterpiece.
The industry’s changing and films are changing with it. Cinema persists, and if 2013 showed us anything, it’s that, regardless of all the complaints swirling around the dying support from studios, the loss of interest in independent film— there will always be great movies, for those of us who want to seek them out. Films that deserve recognition but didn’t make this list, are, in order of merit, COMPUTER CHESS, AMERICAN HUSTLE, and TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE.