As many others have said, this was a good year for movies. While there were plenty of embarrassing big-budget flops—RIPD, Elysium, The Lone Ranger—there was an embarrassment of riches among smaller films. Among those that didn’t make the cut but easily could have: the excellent, minimalist All Is Lost; the dark and twisty procedural Prisoners; and Steven Soderbergh’s “last” theatrical release, Side Effects.
One final note: As I will not be able to see The Wolf of Wall Street until sometime after Christmas (and possibly not until the new year) I reserve the right to update this list to include it. Until then, however, this is the definitive list of the ten (or so) best films of the year, ranked in order from least-awesome to most-awesome.
10. American Hustle and Lone Survivor (tie)
These two films represent the real two Americas. On the one hand there are the hardy, honorable men keeping us safe from terrorists in Peter Berg’s riveting, infuriating film about Operation Red Wings. While I cannot review the film until its official release, suffice it to say that Lone Survivor will reside alongside Black Hawk Down and HBO’s Band of Brothers as one of the keenest insights into the ethic of America’s fighting men.
On the other hand, there are the scumbags of American Hustle: conmen and corrupt cops and dirty pols and gangsters. They are the flipside of the American coin, the fraudsters who skirt the law and abuse the desperately vulnerable. If the subjects of Lone Survivor are America’s best, David O. Russell’s latest features America’s worst. And, perversely, both sides of the coin are equally fascinating.
9. This Is the End
The meta-stoner comedy This Is the End made me laugh harder than any other comedy this year, earning it a spot on this list. The film stars the stalwarts of the Apatow circle—Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, etc.—playing themselves as the rapture takes place. Self-deprecating without lapsing into solipsism, This Is the End deftly skewers Hollywood sensibilities and subtly examines the nature of friendship. Plus: Danny McBride!
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
I can’t really discuss this film yet, as it will not be released for another week or two in D.C. Suffice it to say, the latest effort from the Coen Brothers is quietly funny, if a bit disjointed. But I have a feeling this is one of those Coen Brothers films that will grow on me over the years. And even lesser Coen Brothers is better than 98 percent of what is released in any given year.
7. 12 Years a Slave
Reviewed here. A powerful film that spends more time luxuriating in misery than developing a compelling plot, 12 Years a Slave has been justly celebrated (and justly criticized) for its strengths and shortcomings.
6. The Counselor
Reviewed here. A controversial choice, perhaps, but you’ll just have to deal with it since this is, as I noted, the definitive list of the best films of the year. Less a heist film than a deconstruction of a heist film, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s look at the immutable forces surrounding, shaping, and controlling us is relentlessly bleak. McCarthy violates practically every rule of screenwriting—there are speeches, there is inscrutability, there are superfluous characters—yet I don’t care. The Counselor is compelling in its horror and does subtly what 12 Years a Slave tried to do with brute force.
5. Room 237
Reviewed here. A documentary about The Shining and conspiracy theorists that was practically designed in a lab to light up my brain’s pleasure centers. In a year of fascinating documentaries, this is the one that stood out to me.
4. Man of Steel
Reviewed here. I understand the complaints that the final 80 minutes are a bit overwhelming for the easily over-stimulated. But there’s so much to love—the competing moral centers represented by Kal’s Two Dads; director Zack Snyder’s Kryptonian design; a sterling cast delivering rock-solid performances throughout—that I’m happy to include it in this list and am excited to see what Snyder does with the character going forward.
Spike Jonze’s latest deals with a concept found throughout his oeuvre; namely emotional isolation and the efforts we make to connect with others. That he keeps finding interesting ways to do so is impressive. I should have a full review closer to the film’s release date, but suffice it to say that the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his artificially intelligent operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson felt real and touching and tragic all at the same time.
Reviewed here. Delightfully reactionary and featuring the best performance by a supporting actor this year, Spring Breakers—along with The Bling Ring and Pain and Gain—savagely critiqued the perversion of the American Dream into little more than a pursuit for wealth. Harmony Korine’s tale of spring break gone wrong was the best of this triptych, however, putting an ethereal gloss on a grimy subject.
Reviewed here. My response to Gravity was less intellectual than physical: I felt drained after watching it. Films are frequently described as “roller coaster rides,” but this is the first I’ve ever seen that actually felt like one. I left the theater with an elevated heart rate and trembling extremities. Any film that can inspire that kind of response deserves a spot on this list.