10. Room 237
(dir. Rodney Ascher)
A must-see for any Kubrick fan, this documentary exploring different theories surrounding the subtext of The Shining is equal parts mesmerizing and ridiculous. Using only footage from Stanley Kubrick films, the wide array of conjecture on what Kubrick was trying to tell us are conveyed through recorded interviews played over images.
Some are frighteningly plausible like how The Shining is really about the mass genocide of Native Americans or how the moon landing was faked, but some are pure hogwash like how it’s really about latent homosexuality based purely on the way two male characters bump into each other. What the documentary really digs at, is the refusal of fans to accept that the master behind 2001 and Dr. Strangelove made a fairly straight forward thriller. Even if some of it doesn’t add up, Room 237 was one of the most intensely cerebral movies of the year.
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9. American Hustle
(dir. David O. Russell)
The only film this year that I actually liked more after I initially saw it. David O. Russell’s flashy 70s crime caper follows a sleazy con man (Christian Bale) and his sexy partner (Amy Adams) who get pulled into a set-up by a desperate FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to catch mobsters and a New York City mayor (Jeremy Renner) accepting a bribe.
While the costumes, production design, soundtrack and the direction are all extraordinary, my chief complaints with American Hustle is that it’s characters aren’t well developed, coming off almost as caricatures, and the film lifts it’s entire structure from GoodFellas. However, most of this can be forgiven by how amazingly well it is all put together.
8. Spring Breakers
(dir. Harmony Korine)
Bizarre and hilarious, Korine’s incredibly black comedy is a brilliant satire on the increasing cluelessness and narcissism of the youth generation. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine play four wild party girls who don’t bat an eye at robbery or murder but come running home to mom the second they get the slightest bit hurt.
James Franco, in his best performance to date, plays Alien, an eccentric and delusional drug dealer who indoctrinates the girls into his crew. Extremely surreal and over-the-top, Spring Breakers plays like a crazy neon nightmare that uses vibrant and disturbing imagery to hammer home a surprisingly moral message. It also features an off-the-wall sequence where the girls clad only in bikinis and pink ski-masks, toting machine guns, join Alien on the piano for a soulful rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime.”
7. Frances Ha
(dir. Noah Baumbauch)
I’m usually not the biggest fan of quirky little indie flicks, but whenever Noah Baumbauch is at the helm, I know I’m in for something pretty spectacular. Shot completely in black and white, Frances Ha follows Frances, a ballet dancer played by the phenomenal Greta Gerwig, struggling to make ends meet and find herself in New York City.
With an incredibly sharp screenplay full of cringe humor and fantastic performances all around, Frances Ha feels like a more intelligent and refined 90-minute episode of Girls.
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(dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
The most heart-wrenching film of the year for any animal lover, Blackfish uncovers the truth about how Sea World illegally poached killer whales and confined them, then tried to dodge any and all legal responsibility when their employees got hurt or killed.
Compiled from interviews with former trainers and whale poachers along with actual footage of brutal attacks, Blackfish shows how enslaving an animal as intelligent as a killer whale has powerful consequences for everyone involved. It will also make you hate those old photos of you and the family at Sea World getting splashed.
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5. The Wolf of Wall Street
(dir. Martin Scorsese)
Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Sexy and hilarious, it’s a fast-paced adrenaline shot to the heart that allows you to live vicariously through Jordan Belfort for three hours. Played with ferocious power and intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, Belfort was a low level stockbroker turned multi-millionaire CEO.
Like some kind of twisted prophet, Jordan puts together a team and teaches them how to basically be him. Belfort’s boardroom speeches are disturbing and eccentric, calling to mind Peter Finch’s ‘I’m Mad as Hell’ tangents in Sidney Lumet’s Network. While Jordan’s exploits are shamefully fun for a while, the repetitiveness of them gets to you after two hours and you start to realize the hollowness of it all. Jordan Belfort is certainly a shallow individual, but the movie is never shallow, offering a shockingly honest examination of the (materialistic) desires of an American man.
(dir. Spike Jonze)
Her is one of the finest and most original films to involve the future. Taking place in a world where technology basically runs people, Joaquin Phoenix plays an emotionally introverted writer who begins a relationship with his female operating service.
What’s most surprising about Her is it’s ability to seamlessly switch gears from a witty and charming rom-com to a devastatingly sad examination of unhealthy relationships. Boasting the best screenplay of the year, Her is the magnum opus that Spike Jonze has been building towards.
3. The Act of Killing
(dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Far and away the most grueling cinematic experience of 2013, The Act of Killing is a reunion story of sorts surrounding a couple Indonesian death squad leaders who tortured and killed suspected communists on behalf of their government. Back together for the first time in several years, they film dramatizations of their brutality along with sharing their feelings and nightmares over the atrocities they committed.
While The Act of Killing explores the moral grey area of murder when one’s country demands it of them, the film’s final moments show that taking lives ultimately shatters your own humanity.
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2. Blue is the Warmest Color
(dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
There really wasn’t anything more radical that hit theaters this year than this extremely controversial 3-hour NC-17 rated lesbian coming of age story. Blue is the Warmest Color wasn’t radical because of it’s extremely graphic sexual content, but rather for it’s extremely unconventional method of filmmaking. Over 800 hours of footage was shot for Kechiche’s film, resulting in a much publicized feud between the director and the two lead actresses.
While I can’t comment on whether this was “abuse” or not (since I wasn’t there), I can say without a shadow of a doubt this laborious style of filmmaking was wonderfully effective. Every shot in the film is composed so well with beautiful colors and symbolic imagery, but the film belongs to it’s two leads, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. These two performers bring such gritty raw emotion and energy to their characters, it makes you wonder how much of it was the actresses’ frustration with their director. Whatever the root cause was, the result was the two best performances of the year in the second best film of the year.
1. 12 Years a Slave
(dir. Steve McQueen)
The year’s best film by leaps and bounds, 12 Years a Slave is a landmark in cinema. It’s the first film to honestly depict the horrors of slavery. What gives 12 Years a Slave it’s edge is Steve McQueen, easily one of the most talented and unique directors working today. Acting almost as a fly on the wall, he’s able to completely omit all of the sentimentality and soft-pedaling these harsh historical pictures often contain. McQueen simply observes his characters and allows the viewer to make their own assumptions. Chiwetel Ejofor is riveting and heartbreaking as Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery.
Michael Fassbender, possibly the best actor of his generation, seasons his slave owner with unexpected layers of depth making him all the more terrifying. Newcomer Lupita N’yongo should be a shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Patsey, a sexually abused slave that reminds Solomon of his own humanity. Gorgeously shot by McQueen regular Sean Bobbitt and featuring a chilling score by Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave shines a light on the worst stain on our culture. It’s absolutely impossible to shake.
Fruitvale Station, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunt,
Enough Said, In a World…
Good but Not Great:
All is Lost, The Conjuring, Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis,
Gravity, Mud, Nebraska, Only God Forgives, The Place Beyond the Pines,
Side Effects, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Stoker, Stories We Tell, This is the End, The Way Way Back, The World’s End
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Blue Jasmine, The Butler,
The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, Short Term 12,
The Spectacular Now