Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Best Films of 2017

At a primal level, movies serve as a way to escape reality, and let's face it--the reality of America in 2017 was often so utterly depressing that the need to escape it, even if just for two-hour chunks here and there, was more urgent than ever. First among those who made the year so unusually grueling to endure is, of course, Donald Trump, who approached his first year as President of the United States with bungling incompetence, spiteful cruelty, alienating arrogance, and hideously undiluted racism. And as brave victims of sexual harassment and assault in the film industry have come forward to share their stories, many men who possess far more talent and intellect than Trump have been proven to be nearly as slimy. Even those of us who generally find it very easy to separate the art from the artist can see the necessity of purging certain predators who use the workplace as an arena for groping (or worse). All of this meant that keeping up with the daily news in 2017 amounted to an invitation to non-stop wincing.

So it takes nothing away from the best films of the year to say that every theatrical release in this period felt like a life saver to desperately cling to. (I didn't see The Emoji Movie, but surely it's not as torturous as checking in on the latest Trump tweets.) And it's noteworthy that many of the year's cinematic highlights offered a treasured quality that feels like it's in short supply: hope. Whether via women fighting back with magical lassos and roadside signs, soldiers taking on Nazis in WWII, or journalists exposing the U.S. government's deceit, these films provided much-needed optimism. So here are the best movies of 2017:

1. The Lost City of Z (James Gray). The brilliant neo-classicist behind Two Lovers and The Immigrant, Gray gets his biggest canvas to date with The Lost City of Z, resulting in a transporting, wondrous adventure epic. The true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) discovering evidence of an advanced, now-extinct civilization in the Amazonian jungle in the early 20th century is filled with beauty and peril, captured with screen-filling grandeur by Gray and director of photography Darius Khondji. Underneath this sumptuous surface is a haunting, resonant study of pushing against limits--those of English society, which refuses to believe Fawcett's findings of alleged "primitives" who made pioneering advances the British empire previously laid claim to, as well as the limits of obsession, which overtakes Fawcett's entire being as he searches for the Amazonian lost city, leaving his wife (Sienna Miller, who, like Hunnam, does career-best work here) and family in the dust. That makes this an old-fashioned yarn with a troubled, modern soul as deep as the Amazon itself.

2. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach). When Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler, proving how intuitive an actor he can be with the right material) gives a drug-fueled speech at an event honoring his sculptor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), he bluntly questions his dad's legacy, musing, "If he wasn't a great artist, that means he was just a prick." Due to aforementioned reveals of sexual predators in Hollywood, we now know that Hoffman, the actor playing Harold, is both a great artist and something of a prick. It's a coincidence that, in a weird way, speaks to the bittersweet human complexity at the heart of The Meyerowitz Stories. Harold and his sons, Danny and Matthew (Ben Stiller), can be arrogant, selfish, and needlessly competitive with each other, but writer-director Baumbach generously embraces their just-as-evident virtues. He is perhaps most affectionate towards the women stuck in the Meyerowitz family, particularly Harold's sardonic daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, priceless), and free-spirited current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson). With dense, singularly witty dialogue and an ingenious structure that uses recurring motifs to connect isolated chapters, Baumbach has created a family portrait of beautiful specificity.

3. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins). There are plenty of qualities that mark Wonder Woman as a throwback within the growing world of comic-book movies--its World War I period setting; the showmanship and earnest but light tone that director Jenkins, making an astounding segue from indie to big-budget studio fare, effortlessly pulls off; the snappy, Ninotchka-esque verbal back-and-forth between Diana (Gal Gadot), the mighty princess of Themyscira, and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the American fighter pilot who serves as her guide through Earth's less exalted realms, which gives the film a sincere human core. But as the audience cheers that greeted the sight of Diana confidently striding into No Man's Land can attest, Wonder Woman is also a rousingly zeitgeist-tapping genre treat. There's a cathartic feminist kick in seeing Diana stand up to male warmongers, and the movie is also ingenious in using Diana's belief that Ares, the god of war, has corrupted mankind as a metaphor for reckoning with the dark side of humanity. Through Diana's alien eyes, we get to experience the anger at man's capacity for evil anew, and in Gadot's fierce, star-making performance, we get to celebrate the ability to confront it.

4. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler). The difference between poetry and prose in ultraviolent B-movies is beautifully illustrated by how leisurely and flavorful writer-director Zahler makes the journey leading up to when drug-runner-with-a-code-of-honor protagonist Bradley (Vince Vaughn) enters the titular cell block. Zahler similarly took his sweet time with his Western debut Bone Tomahawk, and in this audacious sophomore outing, his patience allows the viewer to savor his precise, colorful dialogue and the nuances and brutish charisma of Vaughn's career-best performance, as well as to become invested in Bradley's dedication to his flinty wife, Lauren (a feral Jennifer Carpenter). So when Bradley is incarcerated and goons threaten Lauren to force Bradley to carry out a mission in the prison's maximum-security cell block, the deliberate set-up pays off in elevating Bradley's arc to the realm of powerful B-movie myth--he's a brawling Orpheus descending into ever-gnarlier pits of hell for the woman he loves. And for those who treasure prison movies as eloquent as they are vicious, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is some kind of heaven.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). Given the narrative zig-zagging of writer-director Johnson's previous work, like the con artist caper The Brothers Bloom and the sci-fi thriller Looper, it's not surprising that the filmmaker has freshened up this beloved franchise of space operas with a few well-placed curveballs. While some of his subversions--like making one-time Jedi warrior Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, exhibiting stronger gravity and control as an actor with age) a bitter recluse, and having Rebel pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), who possesses a Skywalker-esque fearlessness in an X-wing, chastised (by a no-nonsense Laura Dern, no less!) for practicing the same kind of hot-dogging heroism that made Luke a savior--angered certain fanboys, they helped make this the richest, most surprising series entry since The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the one with the strongest, most touching sense of the power of political rebellion. Johnson's aesthetic flair (the color red here is showcased to a Powell-and-Pressburger-esque degree) and command of spectacle honors the cinematic traditions of a series that he refreshingly goes his own narrative way with.

6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh). When Mildred (Frances McDormand, peerless at digging into the souls of stubborn hard-asses) rents out a trio of billboards to bluntly confront the local police force for failing to pursue any suspects in the tragic case of her daughter's murder, she becomes a surrogate for all Americans who have felt betrayed by the institutions intended to protect them. This doesn't mean that McDonagh, the profanely witty playwright whose previous film triumphs In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths established his gift for despairing dark comedy, wants to position Mildred as an entirely virtuous heroine. Nor does he settle for relegating Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, in a role that showcases his vast range), the oafish, racist cop who has allowed Mildred's daughter's case file to gather dust, to a stock villain role. In McDonagh's world, the characters are all like the beetle helplessly wriggling on its back glimpsed in the billboard office early in the film--creatures persevering in the face of a universe that has cruelly knocked them down. McDonagh quietly sympathizes with that act of defiant perseverance, while simultaneously finding a bracing, vinegary blast of humor in its futility.

7. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan). In telling how Allied troops under constant attack from the Germans in World War II were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, visionary filmmaker Nolan boldly eschews conventional approaches to narrative and characterization, opting instead for full sensory immersion and an intricate time-nesting structure. Aided by the churning intensity of composer Hans Zimmer's score and the IMAX-screen-filling grandeur of Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography, Nolan has reconfigured the war movie as an abstract symphony of sand, water, fire, metal, and bodies in near-constant motion. By the time the film's heroes--and, by extension, the overwhelmed audience--are finally able to evade enemy attacks and take a breath, the film reveals itself as a wartime hymn to those who live long enough to fight another day. That Dunkirk arrives at this inspiring purpose through strictly cinematic means of expression is a testament to the medium that Nolan has always championed with a justifiably monk-like dedication.

8. Coco (Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina). The imaginative wizards at Pixar Animation Studios have transported viewers to the secret societies that toys, fish, and monsters form behind humans' backs, but they aren't usually as interested in the diversity of the everyday world in front of us. One of the low-key delights of their incredibly moving latest adventure Coco is how young aspiring musician Miguel's (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) family life in Mexico is rendered with such affectionate authenticity; the representational focus on south-of-the-border culture and traditions breathes fresh life into the animation giant. As it happens, the dance between life and death is a major theme of the film, which takes Miguel into the Land of the Dead--a colorful, visually rapturous take on the underworld--to discover the origins of his family's strict no-music ban. Miguel's journey is filled with ingenious twists, and the eventual emotional payoff is devastating. As culturally specific as Coco is, its celebration of our bonds to family members we have lost will resonate with everyone.

9. After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda). Caught in a pattern of failure, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the protagonist of Kore-eda's remarkably wise and perceptive drama, can't overcome the crippling writer's block that's preventing him from penning a follow-up to his acclaimed first novel, and he ends up gambling away the money he makes from moonlighting as a private eye. That means he often scrambles to pay child support to his ex-wife (Yoko Maki), though he desperately wants to live with her and their son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) as the family they once were. When the three of them seek shelter from a rainstorm, they find themselves again under the same roof, and Kore-eda captures the melancholy of yearning to recapture something that may be gone forever. But, as the writer-director conveys with gentle humor, compassionate warmth, and the help of an excellent cast (Kirin Kiki as Ryota's mother is a particular highlight), everyone's daily battle to be his or her best self goes on in spite of the past glories that have been lost to the sands of time.

10. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino). In the hugely cathartic father/son talk that comes near the end of Guadagnino's sensual tale of young love and that has quickly become its most beloved scene, Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg, incredibly touching) assures teenage Elio (Timothee Chalamet, nailing the roiling emotional currents of his character down to the most minimalist nuance) that Elio's romantic connection with Oliver (Armie Hammer) has "everything and nothing to do with intelligence." The film bears this observation out in its very form. While the pleasingly erudite screenplay by James Ivory ensures that Elio and Oliver's discussions carry the right intellectual charge, director Guadagnino, as well as the intimacy of Chalamet and Hammer's performances, capture the physical and chemical nature of the two young men's infatuation with each other--in other words, the part of it that has nothing to do with intelligence. The duo's swimming, dancing, bike riding, and playful roughhousing acquire the suggestive heat of foreplay. And Guadagnino surrounds them with beautiful relics--classical music, the statues that Mr. Perlman uncovers--to drive home the point that love affairs like this have been human achievements for all of history.

And here are the next ten runners-up:

11. Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh). Thank goodness that director Soderbergh didn't stick to his stated goal to retire from making movies, because he's made a hell of an entertaining one with Logan Lucky. It's a heist movie whose narrative turns and stylistic control superficially resemble Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy, but its Southern milieu--portrayed by the filmmaker with both sincere affection and gentle mockery--gives it a scruffy, laid-back identity all its own. Its left-field pleasures include Daniel Craig goofing it up as an explosives expert named Joe Bang, a gang of prison inmates infuriated at writer George R.R. Martin's lack of productivity, and a school talent show performance of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" that may bring a tear to your eye.

12. The Big Sick (Michael Showalter). One of the many things that make The Big Sick an uncommonly smart and satisfying romantic comedy is that the obstacles keeping comedian Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the autobiographical script with wife Emily V. Gordon) and psychiatric student Emily (Zoe Kazan) apart opt for real-world gravity instead of lazy contrivance. They're divided first by cultural expectations (Kumail's parents demand that he marry within the Muslim faith), and then by medical emergency once Emily falls into a coma. This singular journey to "happily ever after" is marked by big laughs and rendered with palpable emotional authenticity. Ray Romano and the wonderful Holly Hunter add to the plausibility with perfectly lived-in turns as Emily's parents.

13. mother! (Darren Aronofsky). With wicked imagination and formal assurance, the one-of-a-kind allegory mother! charts an egomaniacal artist's (Javier Bardem) careless destruction of his long-suffering muse (Jennifer Lawrence, fearless)--and that's just one layer of this open-to-interpretation, boldly abstract auteur curio. Lawrence's character has been viewed by others as a stand-in for Mother Earth, yelling in anguish as countless people leave her home in ruins. And it's just as possible to walk away with a more superficial reading of the film as a portrait of how annoying unwanted houseguests can be. Either way, Aronofsky's film pulses with a nightmarish intensity that's hard to shake off.

14. Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow). Action specialist Bigelow has always been an aggressively physical director, one whose control of space, texture, and movement has a visceral effect on the viewer. Watching the incendiary docudrama Detroit, the viewer is bound to want to escape when Bigelow focuses in on the Algiers Motel, where a face-off between white cops and innocent black men ends in unwarranted violence. This is a purposefully abrasive cinematic experience, but its power, energy, anger, and clarity about racial power dynamics in America can be cleansing for those open to its toughness. A frightening Will Poulter as the most sadistic cop and Algee Smith, touching as a victimized singer, stand out in a woefully underrated ensemble cast.

15. The Square (Ruben Ostlund). The world of contemporary art is an ideal playground for Ostlund, the Swedish provocateur whose precise compositional control is balanced with a cynical, mischievous sense of satiric humor. He skewers the pretensions of gallery culture as amusingly as expected in The Square, but what elevates the movie to greatness is its probing, open-ended inquiry into the difficulty (or is that impossibility?) of doing one's part to transform urban society into an idealized utopia. Ostlund's most electrifying set piece exploring this occurs when a wild ape-man performer (Terry Notary) terrorizes a banquet hall full of gallery patrons without any heroic interference to obstruct him. It's a scene so vibrant and unpredictable it feels like it's unfolding live, and it points to why Ostlund has emerged as such a vital talent on the international scene.

16. Wonder (Stephen Chbosky). It goes without saying that a family film about a boy born with facial deformities (Jacob Tremblay, proving his Room performance was no fluke) braving public elementary school for the first time carries with it a high probability for sappiness. But Chbosky, the onetime novelist improving on his already striking debut The Perks of Being a Wallflower, possesses the intelligence and empathy necessary to sidestep the premise's potential for mush, and delivers an emotional powerhouse that earns every tear shed. With a novelistic structure that gives vividly drawn supporting characters each a chance to shine, Wonder smartly addresses that the cruelty of kid society, much like that of the adult world, is a result of everyone fighting an unseen battle. So it's best, as the movie says, to "choose kind"--a motto that's profound in its simplicity and daring in its sincerity.

17. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson). Compared to auteur Anderson's mammoth epics like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, a period chamber drama about a fastidious fashion designer (Daniel Day-Lewis, as chameleonic as ever) and the headstrong waitress (Vicky Krieps) who challenges his routine existence feels minor at first glance. But on second viewing, Phantom Thread reveals itself to be uniquely insinuating and resonant--a love story that uses specific quirks (it's delightful to see that .gifs have been made of the Day-Lewis character's odd tantrums) to arrive at universal truths about long-term relationships. The film nails how what's exasperating about love is inextricable from what's intoxicating about it, as well as detailing the initial difficulty and eventual contentment of compromise.

18. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos). A dark comedy of sinister elegance, The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a close-up of a chest cavity being operated on, which is an apt curtain-raiser for a dissection of how the instinct for self-preservation reduces us all to quivering flesh and blood. The basic premise of a mysterious teenager (Barry Keoghan, in a chilling breakthrough performance) terrorizing a wealthy surgeon's (Colin Farrell, as perfect a deadpan match for director Lanthimos as he was in The Lobster) family sounds like stalker-thriller material, but luckily, Lanthimos is far more interested in mining queasy laughs from tangents focusing on the frailty of the human body. By the time Farrell's doctor is shouting maniacally at his wife (Nicole Kidman, game as ever) about magical pubic hairs, the audacity of the film's morbid absurdity becomes something to cherish.

19. Atomic Blonde (David Leitch). This year proved that the co-directors of 2014's sublime action movie John Wick are each just as formidable when working alone. Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 2, which (spoiler alert for the end of this blog entry!) placed right outside my top 20, delivers in a way sequels rarely do. And Leitch's Atomic Blonde is a kick-ass Cold War spy movie with its own unique sensibility. The Berlin Wall serves as not just a key setting in the film, but as its organizing principle--the divide between the weary cynicism of the double-crossing characters onscreen and the exuberant pop surface of glistening neon lights and '80s New Wave soundtrack cuts that Leitch creates is just as pronounced. At the center of it all is the mighty Charlize Theron as badass spy Lorraine Broughton. A hypothetical team-up movie with her and Wick would melt all the faces in all the world.

20. Raw (Julia Ducournau). Making a remarkably assured debut, writer-director Ducournau merges horror and coming-of-age genre tropes to create a strange hybrid that's simultaneously lyrical and savage. When teenage vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) embarks on her first year at veterinary college, she soon discovers that she has an appetite for a kind of meat that's strictly taboo, and that she may not be the only one in her family who does. Ducournau bites into the central metaphor of awkwardly trying to form your own self once you leave home behind with as much relish as Justine feasts on flesh. The ample gore is imaginatively rendered, and complemented by beautifully expressive filmmaking, occasional gallows humor, and insight into the struggles of young adulthood.

And here are seven more 2017 standouts:
21. A Cure For Wellness (Gore Verbinski).
22. The Post (Steven Spielberg).
23. The Disaster Artist (James Franco).
24. John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski).
25. The Florida Project (Sean Baker).
26. Song to Song (Terrence Malick).
27. Stronger (David Gordon Green).

Special Recognition for Non-Eligible Work: It's essentially a no-brainer that this goes to Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch), a TV event with such formidable cinematic chops that some critics and cinephiles have gone ahead and labeled it an 18-hour-long film so that it would be eligible for their year-end lists. No matter what medium you think it belongs to, superlatives like "stunning" and "breathtaking" feel almost insufficient in describing Lynch's constantly surprising, immaculately crafted achievement. Ever since it's left the air, I've missed the sensation of getting in front of the TV every Sunday and having absolutely no clue what kind of mad genius Lynch was gonna throw at me.

As Yet Unseen: Faces Places, Loveless, Girls Trip, Jane, Hostiles, Lady Macbeth, Princess Cyd, Ex Libris, Foxtrot, Beatriz at Dinner, Dawson City: Frozen Time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

In an age where digital streaming services offer a dizzying array of TV and music options that can easily be enjoyed at home, the simple act of going to see a movie on the big screen threatens to become an endangered pastime. That's why the need for new filmmaking voices is arguably now more vital than it ever has been--their artistic passion serves as proof that the medium is still very much alive and kicking. Luckily, if the work that many relatively green filmmakers turned out in 2016 is any indication, film will have no trouble thriving in the near future.

This may seem like a surprising assertion coming from a dyed-in-the-wool lover of veteran auteurs such as myself, and to be sure, household names like Scorsese and Eastwood contributed dependably brilliant work in 2016. But when noticing that a little over half of the films on my list below of the best movies of the year come from directors who are fewer than five films into their career, a sense of optimism over where filmmaking newbies are taking the art form is only natural.

So while the year proved that inexperience is not an ideal quality for a White House candidate, it also confirmed that the same quality can be something much more positive for a director--a starting point for a possible future master. Here are the best films of 2016:

1. La La Land (Damien Chazelle). Opening with a dazzling song-and-dance number set in maddeningly congested LA freeway traffic and captured in a fluid simulation of a long take, La La Land immediately announces that Whiplash writer-director Chazelle has taken to his biggest canvas yet with confident showmanship. The sequence is perhaps even more impressive when viewed as an analogue for the movie as a whole; finding exuberance within the hell of gridlock reflects the film's complex, exquisite balance between unbridled joy and crippling melancholy, the escapism of movie fantasy and the harsh inescapability of reality. Ryan Gosling and especially the emotionally luminescent Emma Stone are perfectly cast as the central pair of aspiring-artist lovers, in that they exude both the glow of young love and the eventual heartache of realizing that love may ultimately not be enough to sustain their union.

2. American Honey (Andrea Arnold). The tale of a young woman (remarkably intuitive newcomer Sasha Lane) who escapes her impoverished, dysfunctional home life to join a group of wildly misbehaving teenagers for a life on the road selling magazine subscriptions, American Honey carries echoes of Oliver Twist and the carefree Lost Boys of Peter Pan. But in the hands of writer-director Arnold, making her best and most ambitious film yet, it's also its own, thrillingly original thing--a scrappy, empathetic, and immersive epic of the open road. Arnold and director of photography Robbie Ryan offer glimpses of the American heartland nearly tactile in their vividness and detail, and the young cast performs with unfussy spontaneity. This is a movie you don't just passively watch--you truly experience it.

3. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch). So many of writer-director and indie-film pioneer Jarmusch's films are treasured primarily for how effortlessly cool they are in fusing style, music, and deadpan humor that it's easy to overlook the heart he puts into his work. But that's not a mistake anyone could make with Paterson, his most gentle and humane movie yet, and arguably the one most grounded in recognizable, everyday experience. The title character (Adam Driver) is a New Jersey bus driver and aspiring poet who sees his daily routine not as a grind, but as a chance to appreciate the little events and details that make every day special in spite of familiar work and home obligations. Driver's quiet, soulful performance is perfectly matched with Golshifteh Farahani's feisty energy as his wife. Jarmusch treats these characters, their dreams, and the working-class community they reside in with a subtly touching warmth.

4. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins). It's always a treat when a film's ambition and profundity sneak up on you, which is the case with writer-director Jenkins' sophomore effort, Moonlight. Divided into three chapter-like segments, Moonlight follows young, black Miami resident Chiron from childhood to adulthood as he wrestles with his homosexuality (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes achieve remarkable performance harmony playing Chiron at three different stages of his life). Each segment is so well-observed, and so assured in mixing voluptuous style with unblinking realism, that the cumulative portrait of a man reckoning with how time ultimately reveals your real self and not the person societal pressure demands you to be lands with surprising force. The richness extends to the supporting performances, including beautifully nuanced work by Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris as complicated parental figures in Chiron's life.

5. Silence (Martin Scorsese). At one point early on in this gorgeous and powerful spiritual epic, Portuguese missionary Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, in a performance of enormous physical and emotional commitment) says of the Japanese villagers that he ministers over, "I worry they value signs of faith over faith itself." And yet isn't that exactly what Rodrigues does when, later in the film, he refuses to apostatize by stepping on an image of Christ, even when his refusal threatens the lives of other Christians? Such thorny conundrums lie at the heart of this breathtakingly complex film, which reveres the courage it takes to hold onto one's religious beliefs in the face of violent opposition while at the same time criticizing the way that spiritual devotion can be twisted into pride, arrogance, and colonialist impulses. And Scorsese's masterful visual storytelling ensures that repeat viewings will unearth as many hidden cinematic treasures as there are intellectual and philosophical issues to grapple with.

6. Sully (Clint Eastwood). Throughout his directorial career, Eastwood has been fascinated with the demythologization of heroism. In the moving, brilliantly structured Sully, he continues this exploration not by undercutting the achievements of the titular pilot (Tom Hanks), who executed a tricky emergency landing of a passenger plane on the Hudson River, but by showing how bureaucratic, bottom-line-obsessed ass-covering and post-traumatic self doubt chip away at the perception of heroism. The ever-dependable Hanks faultlessly charts the dark interior journey of a man forced to question his life's work, while the non-chronological storytelling mirrors his troubled psyche. Eastwood ultimately validates the aptitude of Sully and everyone else on that legendary '09 flight, revealing that the true "miracle" on the Hudson was bravery and professionalism under pressure.

7. Hail, Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen). The story of a beleaguered Hollywood studio fixer (Josh Brolin, effortlessly balancing anachronistic stylization and recognizable humanity in his performance) trying to rescue a marquee star (George Clooney) who's been kidnapped by Communists allows peerless writing-directing team the Coen Brothers to hop freely between genres. As Brolin's Eddie prowls the studio lot, we see glimpses of various films being shot--an extravagant biblical epic, a toe-tapping musical, an elegant drawing-room comedy, you name it. This reflects the movie-saturated fabric of Eddie's day-to-day life, and on a deeper level, the existence of the film-savvy Coens themselves. And as the film's characters turn to religion or politics to give life meaning, the Coens seem to be arguing that the movies can act as a site of refuge and worship for some searching souls. It's a notion worth hailing, as is this witty, layered delight of a comedy.

8. O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman). Along with FX Networks' alternately witty and tragic TV series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Edelman's dizzyingly dense, nearly-eight-hours-long documentary marked a year in which the '90s murder trial of "the Juice" surprisingly formed the basis for some of the most provocative long-form entertainment out there. O.J.: Made in America played in select theaters before airing in installments on ESPN, and Edelman's gifts for storytelling momentum and fluid non-fiction montage justify its categorization as cinema. The portrait that emerges of a black celebrity who sought to "transcend" race in shaping his image until it became a legal convenience for him to embrace his blackness makes this documentary a thoughtful, searing meditation on wealth-protected hypocrisy and the sad inability of America's racial wounds to heal.

9. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie). Not only are the central characters in this exceptionally flavorful modern-day Western richly three-dimensional; every fringe-dwelling bit player manages to stand out with a salty personality of his or her own. So while director Mackenzie deserves credit for nailing the dry, pungently sweaty atmosphere of this Texas-set yarn, writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, also excellent) is the film's MVP, granting everybody onscreen dialogue so tangy that you can't wait to hear what they say next. A quietly commanding Chris Pine and the brilliantly mercurial character actor Ben Foster form an affecting fraternal bond as bank-robbing brothers, while the other side of the law is represented by a pair of Texas Rangers played by a deadpan Gil Birmingham and national treasure Jeff Bridges, who has aged into a true poet of grizzled masculine authority.

10. Zootopia (Byron Howard and Rich Moore). Bringing animated Disney family fare boldly into this current age of political divisiveness and caught-on-webcam police racism, Zootopia is a ballsy, unapologetically topical allegory of institutional and cultural bigotry. The colorful, elaborate design of the animal-populated metropolis the film takes place in and the imaginative chase sequences will delight kids, while adult Chinatown fans will be absorbed by the twisty, corruption-uncovering mystery narrative. And viewers of all ages will value how the story of headstrong bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) overcoming others' prejudices to become a cop, only to have to face her own deeply ingrained species-ism when circumstances force her to work alongside con-artist fox Nick Wilde (an appropriately sly Jason Bateman) imparts vital lessons on how best to navigate within a society overly fixated on reductive labels of "predator" and "prey."

And here are the next ten runners-up:

11. Manchester By The Sea (Kenneth Lonergan). The way that family members can messily go from combativeness to affection with each other in the blink of an eye is rarely captured accurately in movies, but this funny, emotionally raw drama gets it right. Writer-director Lonergan is just as unerringly honest when it comes to grief, showing how past tragedy keeps psychologically paralyzed janitor Lee (Casey Affleck) from being able to stay in his hometown and care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies. In a piercing, lived-in performance, Affleck reveals the soul of a broken man.

12. Kill Zone 2 (Soi Cheang). Don't let the title fool you--this is a stand-alone feature with allegedly little connecting it to its (unseen-by-me) predecessor. All one needs to bring to it is a love of dazzling fight choreography and operatic emotion. The story of a Thai prison guard (Tony Jaa) whose daughter urgently needs a bone-marrow transplant teaming up with a Hong Kong undercover cop (Wu Jing) to take down an organ-trafficking ring cleverly foregrounds the action genre's usually unspoken reliance on the frailty of the human body. That reliance also manifests itself in stunning action sequences that showcase both the acrobatic wonder and the bone-snapping limits of the body's abilities.

13. The Nice Guys (Shane Black). With a body of work that includes The Long Kiss Goodnight, which he wrote for director Renny Harlin, and his directorial debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black has become a specialist in wildly entertaining, noir-tinged buddy action-comedies. This estimable tradition continues with The Nice Guys, which pairs wry, beefy Russell Crowe as a brutish enforcer with an uninhibited, never-funnier Ryan Gosling as a drunken private eye. As the private eye's no-nonsense daughter, Angourie Rice is a revelation. Black gives this trio plenty of hilarious dialogue to deliver, and is just as generous when it comes to offering up vivid LA-in-the-'70s atmosphere and inspired, absurdist non-sequiturs.

14. 20th Century Women (Mike Mills). Considering that writer-director Mills' autobiographical portrait of his father's late-in-life coming out of the closet, Beginners, earned Christopher Plummer an Academy Award, it's a shame that Mills' latest cinematic memoir didn't even score an Oscar nomination for the magnificent Annette Bening's note-perfect performance as a Santa Barbara-dwelling single mother based on Mills' own mom. At least the Academy rightfully recognized Mills' screenplay with a nomination; its expansive exploration of generational divides, cultural shifts, and female sexuality, as well as the way it intermittently digresses to fill in characters' backstories, make it pleasingly novelistic. By the time this warm, compassionate film came to a close, I felt like I was saying goodbye to real people I had met.

15. Pete's Dragon (David Lowery). The best of Disney's recent remakes of their own properties is this touching re-do of their 1977 live-action/animation hybrid, which replaces the cheesiness of the original film with a disarming gentleness. Director and co-writer Lowery, who previously demonstrated a keen eye for nature in the indie Ain't Them Bodies Saints, allows the scenes of orphan Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon pet/guardian Elliot frolicking in the Pacific Northwest woods play out with an organic patience. That way, when Pete must leave Elliot behind for civilization and life with a kindly park ranger's (Bryce Dallas Howard) family, the tears that flow feel fully earned. Lowery and his team of CGI wizards make Elliot so authentically dog-like that those tears will be especially plentiful for those of us who have ever lost a dear canine friend.

16. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater). During one bong-fueled discussion in writer-director Linklater's hangout movie par excellence, a stoner riffs about "finding the tangents within the framework." In a way, that's what Linklater has done throughout his remarkable career. He takes a strict timeline--in this case, the weekend before a college baseball team in '80s-era Texas begins the schoolyear--and then sets a loose, conversationally free-wheeling rhythm within that timeline. The film's characters, for all their testosterone-powered braggadocio, prove to be socially adaptable enough to fit in wherever they party--be it at a discotheque, a punk club, or a drama-major shindig. Their openness is exceeded only by Linklater himself, whose affection for these youngsters proves contagious.

17. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer). They don't call 'em "motion pictures" for nothing, which is something that impressively assured debut filmmaker Holmer intuitively understands. She fills every frame of this bracingly unique, hypnotic coming-of-age portrait with dynamic movement, which is fitting for the tale of an 11-year-old tomboy (magnetic newcomer Royalty Hightower) used to boxing training with her older brother joining the more feminine realm of a dance troupe. As members of the troupe begin falling prey to mysterious seizures, the film's mood is caught between eerie dread and euphoric empowerment--in other words, exactly the psychological tightrope many young girls find themselves on.

18. 13th (Ava DuVernay). The title of DuVernay's impassioned, purposefully infuriating documentary refers to the Constitution's 13th Amendment, which bans slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The film persuasively charts how that exception has been exploited to keep black Americans oppressed, whether via the criminalization of civil-rights activism or the beefing up of punishment for minor drug charges. Numerous depressing recent headlines, most glaringly Trump's recent rolling back of Obama's plan to phase out private, for-profit prisons, make this necessary viewing for Americans wondering what happened to their country.

19. Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier). Combining the lean efficiency of a B-movie thriller with the shadowy aesthetic beauty and gruesome shock tactics of art-horror films, Green Room is wickedly unrelenting in its intensity. Writer-director Saulnier, considerably upping his game after the promising if ultimately underwhelming revenge movie Blue Ruin, pits a wet-behind-the-ears punk band (whose members include the talented, gone-too-soon young actor Anton Yelchin) against a pack of murderous neo-Nazi skinheads for a harrowing "survive the night" scenario. Squeamish viewers will want to steer clear, but for everyone else, this is one wild, sinister ride very much worth taking.

20. Jackie (Pablo Larrain). It's always refreshing to encounter a biopic that thinks outside of the traditional, birth-to-death narrative box. An excellent example is this cinematic snapshot of First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days immediately following her husband's assassination. The tight focus allows Noah Oppenheim's thoughtful script to ruminate on how a President's legacy is like a narrative that continues to be shaped after his or her death, and Larrain's strikingly poetic, non-chronological storytelling feels just as liberated. Portman gives an emotionally forceful, intelligently layered performance, and is aided by a haunting score by Mica Levi that feels like a direct expression of the character's grief-stricken fragility.

And here are ten more of the year's standouts:
21. Captain America: Civil War (Joe and Anthony Russo).
22. Cafe Society (Woody Allen).
23. Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg).
24. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone).
25. Little Men (Ira Sachs).
26. High-Rise (Ben Wheatley).
27. De Palma (Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow).
28. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke).
29. My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin).
30. My Life as a Zucchini (Claude Barras).

Special Recognition for Non-Eligible Work: Beyonce's boldly abstract video album Lemonade (Jonas Akerlund/Beyonce Knowles Carter/Kahlil Joseph/Melina Matsoukas/Dikayl Rimmasch/Mark Romanek/Todd Tourso), which first premiered on HBO, and the infectiously joyous, only-on-Netflix concert film Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Jonathan Demme) didn't play in theaters, but they turned music into pure cinema.

As Yet Unseen: Chevalier, Dog Eat Dog, Fire at Sea, Goat, Life Animated, Neruda, Your Name.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

EARLY REVIEW: "American Honey"

Any movie with the word "American" in its title that opens with its teenage heroine (Sasha Lane) dumpster diving in order to feed her family can reasonably be counted on to offer a scathing commentary on the cultural and economic ills currently affecting the U.S. And on one level, British writer-director Andrea Arnold's singular, brilliantly immersive road movie American Honey functions as just such a critique.

Shortly after crawling out of the dumpster, Lane's character, Star, is drawn to a wild pack of misfit teens who ride around in a giant van and frighten the zombified masses shopping at a chain department store with an impromptu group dance to Rihanna's "We Found Love." Her flirtation with the group's smoothest talker, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who Star pointedly teases as appearing Trump-esque in his dark suit pants, is enough to convince Star to ditch the alcohol-soaked dysfunction of her home life in favor of taking a chance on this energetic crew's itinerant existence.

The teens get by financially via a carefully worked-out system of breaking off into pairs and going door-to-door pretending to sell magazine subscriptions. They then reunite and give their swindled earnings to Jake's girlfriend and the real power behind the throne, Krystal (Riley Keough, who nearly steals the movie with the specific, subtly damaged toughness that she grants the character). After Star tells Krystal that she disapproves of the lies Jake spins to snag money from suburbanites, Krystal coldly rationalizes to Star that Jake isn't lying--he's simply making money.

It's in this vision of marginalized, lower-class outcasts reaching for success by being just as shady and deceitful as those who occupy the top of the economic food chain that American Honey imparts its sharp take on state-of-the-nation inequality and scavenging. Thankfully, though, Arnold is hardly a didactic filmmaker, and she has fused the gritty realism of her coming-of-age chronicle Fish Tank with the nature-obsessed lyricism of her stunning adaptation of Wuthering Heights to create a primarily experiential film that just happens to have a sociopolitical sting to it. Arnold prefers observing people and places to pushily shouting out the movie's message.

Observation is the key manner in which Arnold and her ingenious director of photography Robbie Ryan (who also collaborated with Arnold on all three of her previous features) convey that America, for all its disillusioning troubles, is still a land of plentiful beauty and hope. This point is made most explicitly in a lovely, Springsteen-scored scene between Star and a sweet-natured truck driver, but it's made most seductively in the cascading flow of nearly tactile visual details that Arnold captures. Every patch of flyover-state land that Krystal's crew travels to offers a bevy of invigorating new sights--wide vistas glimpsed out the van window, beautiful dogs, creepy insects. Even the rot of the string of motels the gang resides in registers as gorgeously authentic. This is "America the beautiful" image-making at its most entrancingly alien.

Arnold's heart proves to be as wide-open as her camera eye. Even though she has moral points to make via her characters, she's too generous to ever veer into full-on "the kids today" moralism. There's a joyousness to the teens' spirited sing-alongs in the packed van, and even Jake, whose cockiness and philandering trysts with Star make him the most potentially repellant character, is ultimately hard not to like. (LaBeouf's charisma has always depended on a motor-mouthed, paradoxically insincere sincerity, which makes him perfectly cast and at his best here.) And most importantly, Arnold's most empathetic embrace is of Star, whose watchful intelligence, brashly tell-it-like-it-is honesty, and youthful impulsiveness is brought to life in a star-making (irresistible pun intended) performance by the assured Lane.

Some may leave American Honey feeling that Star's episodic journey doesn't warrant the film's nearly-three-hour runtime, and that's fine. The expression "not for everyone" certainly applies to Arnold's intentionally rambling, narratively loose approach. But if you find yourself attuned to the movie's exhilarating feast-for-the-senses wavelength, you may find it to be the rare epic that you wish would never end. Grade: A


Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Best Films of 2015

Many critical discussions of the movie year 2015 have revolved around the word "diversity," and almost all of them situate that word within the same context: the lack of non-white artistic voices represented in this year's Oscar nominations, evident in the eight Best Picture nominees and the four Caucasian-dominated acting categories. Fixating on the Academy Awards as if it's the root of the movie industry's racial diversity issues rather than a symptom of them is problematic--shouldn't we be asking studios to commit to projects showcasing non-white talent rather than generating pissy clickbait thinkpieces about the uniformity of a popular awards-giving group's particular choices? More than that, though, it's frustrating that so many awards-season bloggers don't exhibit much imagination in their suggestions of which 2015 films featuring actors and filmmakers of color were snubbed by the Academy; they focus primarily on Straight Outta Compton, a quite good and refreshingly energetic if overstuffed biopic, merely because industry guilds viewed as influential Oscar precursors recognized the film. What about Creed, a more emotionally robust crowdpleaser than Straight Outta Compton and a sequel/reboot to 1976 Best Picture winner Rocky, or Chi-Raq, the latest cultural grenade from this year's recipient of a career-achievement Honorary Oscar, Spike Lee? To put it bluntly, why should any analysis of the Oscars' lack of diversity be let off the hook for being so stiflingly not diverse in and of itself?

Beyond the tribe of journalists dedicated to the movie awards circuit, critics with a wider range of focus did a fine job of celebrating performances left out of the conversation. To name a few examples, Rolling Stone and Slate contributor David Ehrlich and Screen Crush's Matt Singer have championed Samuel L. Jackson's characteristically fluent grasp of Tarantino-ese in The Hateful Eight; Movie Mezzanine and Spliced Personality writer Sean Burns supported Ben Vereen's startlingly deglamorized turn as a homeless man in Time Out of Mind in both his review of the film and his Boston Online Film Critics ballot; and on Twitter, film historian and Cinephiliacs podcaster Peter Labuza has frequently given well-deserved props to Viola Davis' effortless badassery in Blackhat. 

Another kind of diversity that keeps moviegoing fresh and exciting is the diversity of genres, tones, and storytelling approaches out there, which is reflected in my list of the best films of 2015. Mother-and-child melodramas, sleek science-fiction, piercing documentaries, an uplifting sports movie, a bleak Western, a pair of Noah Baumbach comedies, and a healthy amount of globe-hopping espionage can all be found in this inventory of the year's cinematic highlights. And topping all other 2015 releases is an Aussie action juggernaut like no other:

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller). Tucking a rousing, unapologetically feminist rise-of-the-oppressed narrative within what is essentially a feature-length, multi-vehicle chase scene, Australian maverick Miller's continuation of his post-apocalyptic franchise has both passion and momentum to burn. A feverish, hallucinatory, kinetic genre masterwork that boasts a ferocious lead performance from Charlize Theron and some of the most dazzling action choreography ever captured on film, Mad Max: Fury Road is practically a living thing--a wild, untamed beast.

2. Mommy (Xavier Dolan). Twentysomething French-Canadian virtuoso Dolan reaches a new level of emotional maturity with this devastating portrait of a widow (Anne Dorval) struggling to raise her volatile teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) with the help of a damaged but stronger-than-she-seems neighbor (Suzanne Clement). The warts-and-all complexity of these three characters mesh beautifully with Dolan's knack for grand stylistic gestures to create a melodrama that's at once proudly movie-ish and lifelike in its embrace of beautiful human messiness. Raw and powerfully acted, Mommy has the lingering effect of great tragedy.

3. The Martian (Ridley Scott). There was a lot of understandable eye-rolling in response to the studio behind The Martian's decision to submit it as a comedy for Golden Globes consideration; no one will mistake this high-stakes tale of the efforts to rescue a stranded-on-Mars astronaut (Matt Damon, as likable and nuanced as ever) for a Judd Apatow joint. But the film's delightful lightness of touch--evident in Damon's way with a tossed-off quip and in the expertly deployed soundtrack of disco hits--is a big part of what makes it such an unexpectedly brash treat. It's hugely stirring, as well as rewardingly cerebral in its space procedural problem-solving, but it's also just plain fun--the special kind of crowdpleaser that'll be worth rewatching over and over when it inevitably becomes a TNT staple.

4. Room (Lenny Abrahamson). The premise of Room--a young woman (Brie Larson) who's been imprisoned by a sexual assailant for years plans to escape with her born-in-captivity son (Jacob Tremblay) in tow--is so reminiscent of stomach-turning headlines that chief among the movie's most remarkable achievements is how it manages to sensitively put a human face on the kind of story the news media often paints in sensationalistic strokes. Larson and Tremblay forcefully convey how a parent/child relationship forged in the most dire of circumstances can be just as loving as a conventionally conceived one, and Abrahamson beautifully captures how the world looks to fresh eyes.

5. Brooklyn (John Crowley). Wearing its heart proudly on its sleeve and downright unfashionable in its quaint throwback appeal, Brooklyn is a gem of neo-classical storytelling, handsomely crafted by Crowley and infused with wit and stealthy structural genius by writer Nick Hornby. Young Irish-to-America transplant Eilis' (the luminously expressive Saoirse Ronan) journey is graced with a stranger-in-a-strange-land specificity, but is also profoundly universal in nailing the moment when everything that forms the nexus of identity--family, career, who we love, where we call home--clicks into concrete place.

6. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer). A jolting glimpse into the horrific sight of evil trying to justify itself, this powerfully humane documentary gives an Indonesian optometrist the chance to confront and question the still-in-power soldiers who killed his brother in the genocide that scarred the nation in the '60s. With a stronger sense of moral purpose and a more hypnotic sense of place than The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer's previous documentary on the subject, The Look of Silence represents non-fiction filmmaking at its most courageously probing and aesthetically assured.

7. Mistress America (Noah Baumbach). Ever since Kicking and Screaming, his insanely quotable debut, writer-director Baumbach has been a master of off-kilter comedic dialogue. With its diamond-cut witticisms and collisions of characters whose hypocrisies are regarded with equal parts affection and satiric sharpness, Mistress America distills this gift of Baumbach's to its Oscar Wilde-esque essence--it's a drawing-room farce for the modern age. Greta Gerwig deserves credit not only for helping shape the non-stop zingers as co-writer, but also for being the perfect actress to bring Brooke, the film's most iconic dreamer/sellout combo, to such vividly funny and honest life.

8. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi). A group of friends gather at a seaside villa with the harmless ulterior motive of playing matchmaker for two members of their party--what could go wrong? Plenty, it turns out, especially in a nation as socially rigid as Iran. About Elly, even more than Farhadi's great A Separation, plays as a suspenseful model of narrative escalation while you watch it and as a multi-layered tragedy when you reflect on it later. This film's arrival on U.S. shores six years after it premiered overseas makes it a true gift from the movie gods.

9. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen). Mixing animation, archival footage, and an enveloping musical soundscape, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is powered by the same inventiveness and dissonant beauty of its subject, the iconic, deceased frontman of pioneering grunge-rock band Nirvana. Rejecting talking-heads-driven Behind the Music formula, Morgen seems to tap into Cobain's psyche with his intuitive documentary-collage approach. And he knows when to let the songs speak for themselves--allowing Cobain's wrenching MTV Unplugged rendition of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" play out in its entirety is its own kind of mic drop.

10. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino). Whereas Tarantino's last film, Django Unchained, was a Western that filtered its take on the Civil War's effect on America's racial divide through a folk hero worth rooting for, The Hateful Eight covers similar terrain while offering no clear protagonist. True to the film's title, everyone onscreen is a despicable scoundrel. This gives the film a bracingly nasty charge. There's a resonant critique of the way prejudice can lead to resentment and violence to be found within the film's caustic bitterness, and Tarantino's visual mastery (in 70mm!) and flavorful dialogue remain viciously on-point.

And here are the next ten runners-up:

11. Creed (Ryan Coogler). The rise of Adonis Creed (a brooding yet accessible Michael B. Jordan), the son of the previous Rocky film's champ Apollo Creed, into a boxing force all his own is detailed by Coogler with so much grounded human nuance as to make the film's crowd-pleasing finish that much more rousing. Sylvester Stallone's return to the Rocky character is a remarkably touching and graceful career high point.

12. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh). As a woman who discovers her soulmate of the last four-plus decades (the great Tom Courtenay) may actually be something of a stranger to her, Charlotte Rampling gives arguably the year's most magnificently controlled and subtly powerful performance. Haigh writes and directs with impressive, unfussy precision, cementing his status as one of the more perceptive chroniclers of complicated romances to come around in a while.

13. Trainwreck (Judd Apatow). Writer and star Amy Schumer's TV-sketch-honed gift for crafting clever scenarios of cheeky sexual candor marries perfectly with Apatow's goofy/sweet humanism in creating a refreshingly sharp romantic comedy that's hilarious, affecting, and wise about navigating the treacherous waters of commitment.

14. Inside Out (Pete Docter). Pixar Animation Studios' ability to bring lovingly detailed worlds to eye-popping visual life is evident once again in Inside Out, which renders the mind of an 11-year-old girl in crisis as an imaginatively conceived environment populated by anthropomorphic emotions and personality-defining islands. With occasionally heart-stopping poignance and a bevy of ingenious throwaway gags, the film admirably argues for the necessity of both joy and sadness in life.

15. The Mend (John Magary). A portrait of fraternal dysfunction and drunken assholery graced with amusingly profane wit and vivid filmmaking that swings from the authentic to the operatic, The Mend is an audacious dark comedy that marks Magary as a talent to watch. As a mischievous fuck-up who takes up uninvited residence in his estranged brother's apartment, Josh Lucas is a wild, impish revelation; casting off the shackles of his bland-studio-romantic-comedy past works wonders for him.

16. Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie). Intrepid IMF-agent hero Ethan Hunt's ambiguous dance with Ilsa Faust (formidable series newcomer Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 agent who may or may not be working with the evil Syndicate, gives this installment in the remarkably consistent Mission: Impossible franchise the same hesitant spy-world romanticism of Roger Moore's best James Bond outing, The Spy Who Loved Me. All the action sequences stun, with the standout being an elegant, Hitchcockian face-off at a Viennese opera house.

17. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee). Lee has never been a filmmaker interested in muting his anger, and the outrage that animates Chi-Raq, an alternately bawdy and mournful quasi-musical that tackles America's gun-violence epidemic with bold bluntness, has a blistering forcefulness. That fury lends coherence to the film's shifts from smutty sex gags to elaborate dance numbers to impassioned eulogies. As with much of Lee's best work, it brims over with emotion, ambition, and cinematic invention.

18. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve). A tightly coiled, moody thriller that smartly doubles as a cynical lament for the loss of ethics in the War on Drugs waged along the U.S./Mexico border, Sicario is the film that matches Villeneuve's well-honed stylistic control with the meaty substance that his earlier, good-but-flawed work has lacked to some degree. Emily Blunt is sympathetic yet unsentimental as the film's moral center, while Benicio Del Toro is rivetingly enigmatic as a more ruthless operative.

19. Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwait). I didn't really know anything about Barry Crimmins, the stand-up comedian at the center of this documentary, before seeing it, which turned out to be ideal. At a certain point, Call Me Lucky shifts from being a life-of-a-comic trifle to an incredibly moving testament to the human ability to productively transform trauma into the basis for comedy and social activism. A former stand-up himself, Goldthwait has become a unique, fascinating comedy auteur, and the emotional gut punch he delivers here makes it his best film yet.

20. Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg). 34 years after E.T., Spielberg is still making compassionate studies of protagonists adrift in far-from-home environments--even when they're in the guise of a Cold War moral thriller, as with Bridge of Spies. Paralleling a Russian spy's (the masterful Mark Rylance) imprisonment in the U.S. with an American negotiator's (Tom Hanks, a reliably sly Everyman) dislocation when he travels to Germany to hammer out a prisoner swap, the film is a rich, empathetic, gorgeously crafted adult entertainment.

And here are nine more great 2015 releases:
21. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams).
22. Mississippi Grind (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck).
23. Spy (Paul Feig).
24. Spectre (Sam Mendes).
25. Furious 7 (James Wan).
26. While We're Young (Noah Baumbach).
27. Blackhat (Michael Mann).
28. Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad).
29. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney).

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

The filmmakers who defined the American independent film boom of the late '80s and '90s electrified audiences with their daring, idiosyncratic approach to style and narrative. But these days, with mainstream crowds clamoring for big-budget superhero larks and critics typically hyping Cannes-minted international auteurs, is there any room for the pioneers of the American indie movement to draw attention to their contemporary work?


The movie year of 2014 answers that question with a resounding, encouraging "yes." Directors who precociously asserted themselves in the indie-boom era positively fluorished. Texas-born iconoclasts Richard Linklater (Boyhood) and Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) became bona fide Oscar darlings. Documentarian Steve James paid affectionate tribute to a critic who was pivotal in getting his landmark '90s non-fiction chronicle Hoop Dreams to the masses with the Roger Ebert portrait Life Itself. Neo-classicist James Gray's latest, The Immigrant, played to sold-out crowds in its first weekend in Los Angeles in spite of distributor Harvey Weinstein's loathsome attempt to bury it. (Weinstein reportedly wanted Gray to cut the merely two-hour-long film, and Gray wouldn't oblige.) Either most or least audaciously, depending on one's perspective, Doug Liman and Bryan Singer succeeded within the system, making studio tentpoles defined by layered storytelling and progressive themes--Liman with Edge of Tomorrow, and Singer with the Marvel sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past. And while the indie movement's hippest founder, Jim Jarmusch, may not have found either box-office or Oscar success with his vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, the film still inspired the kind of passion within critics and the director's fans to ensure a longevity comparable to its protagonists' immortal existence.


As it happens, my list of the ten best films of the year is topped by a singular comedy that poignantly speaks to the lasting power of art, from a '90s-indie-scene fixture who last scored a #1 placement on my annual lists with 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums:


1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). Using an ingenious nesting-doll narrative structure, Anderson begins his simultaneously jaunty and melancholy wonder of a movie with the young fan of a noted, deceased novelist (Tom Wilkinson) visiting the novelist's gravesite to pay her respects. One of the novelist's works essentially becomes the movie we're watching, and it's to Anderson's great credit that he's crafted a story that fully earns this meta suggestion that it has the resonant power to endure beyond its creator's grave. When fussy, eccentric Gustave (played with absolute mastery by Ralph Fiennes, who can turn on a dime from the character's elegant poise to his eruptions of hissyfit rage), the concierge of a fictional European country's most posh hotel, enlists the help of dedicated lobby boy Zero (sweet and deadpan Tony Revolori) to claim an inheritance that the deceased's evil clan aim to keep from him, the farcical adventure yarn that follows zips along with giddy energy and imagination. But it's Anderson's reflection on what can and what can't be ravaged by time that gives The Grand Budapest Hotel its lasting, surprisingly emotional power. The titular resort, grandly designed by Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen, may decay as time passes, but the cultural-boundary-crossing friendship that blossoms between Gustave and Zero, who hails from the war-torn Third World, is a bond that neither time nor the fascist forces that flood Zubrowka can touch. Love fluorishes in the face of war--and so too does great art.


2. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier). Honoring the brain as the body's biggest sensory organ, von Trier's wildly ambitious--and just plain wild--magnum opus targets the intellect rather than the libido. Perhaps that's why Nymphomaniac has proven to be so divisive, but for anyone who treasures an investigation of human sexuality's connection to morality, music, philosophy, religion, and, yes, fly fishing over titillating kicks, the film is a dizzyingly rich cinematic feast. The sheer density of Nymphomaniac's stylistic and narrative digressions makes it understandable that the film's American distributor split it into two separate volumes, released independently of each other, but make no mistake--this is one movie, a giant and unforgettable one. As guilt-stricken nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, even more nuanced than she is fearless) relays her erotic history to moral relativist Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, an ideal onscreen listener), it's tempting to read the exchange on one level as von Trier, whose career-long depictions of suffering women never fail to polarize, self-reflexively interrogating his own moral assumptions of recklessly carnal women. However, such a reading neglects the obvious, unambigous affection that von Trier has for Joe. Right down to its blunt avenging-angel coda, Nymphomaniac is a heady, exhilarating epic about a woman who triumphantly maintains her sense of self and control over her own story even while caught in the throes of addiction.


3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater). Arguably no contemporary filmmaker has experimented with time more fruitfully than Linklater, as in his nine-years-between-series-entries Before trilogy. So leave it to him to craft a 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of a boy's (Ellar Coltrane) growth from childhood to young adulthood and make it feel not just effortless, but piercingly honest and emotionally profound. We get to know Mason, the boy, and his family so well that they feel more like acquaintances than movie characters. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke turn in career-best performances as Mason's parents--a mother whose intelligence outshines a series of cretinous suitors, and a father whose natural warmth ultimately triumphs over his rascally immaturity. Like all of Linklater's best films, Boyhood is charmingly modest and low-key, yet what it achieves feels momentous--like nothing less than life unfolding before our eyes.


4. Selma (Ava DuVernay). What makes Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Gus Van Sant's Milk so much richer than the majority of period pieces focusing on American history is their rejection of standard biopic formula in favor of a nuts-and-bolts look at the intricate, difficult process of enacting social change in this country. Selma, which depicts the Martin Luther King Jr.-led protests that paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is only DuVernay's third film, and yet it merits comparison to those two docudramas from seasoned masters. What's more, it has a fire in its belly all its own--a burning passion that all but turns the screen to ashes. That palpable crusading spirit suits a story that, despite the period trappings, is depressingly timely. DuVernay and writer Paul Webb's meticulous portrait of an America institutionally rigged to keep its white citizens in power and its black citizens disenfranchised speaks provocatively to the present and the future as surely as it does to the past. As King, David Oyelowo is both majestic and touchingly vulnerable--a born leader weighed down by the psychic toll of the bloody sacrifice it takes to win the war of human equality.


5. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle). So organic in its storytelling it feels plucked from the ether fully formed rather than written into existence, Whiplash turns the seemingly simple tale of a drumming student's (Miles Teller) trial-by-fire via the tutelage of a psychotically demanding music teacher (J.K. Simmons) into a complex and continually surprising study of what it takes to achieve true artistic greatness. Chazelle and editor Tom Cross make beautiful music of their own with their precise, dynamic cutting, building in intensity to a breathtaking finale that practically demands a standing ovation--and earns it, too. Teller confirms his status as one of the most refreshingly authentic young actors around, but the movie belongs to the ferocious yet controlled Simmons, whose Fletcher is as riveting a barking-mad monster as Ben Kingsley's underworld Mephistopholes in Sexy Beast and R. Lee Ermey's high-decibel drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket.


6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch). The vampire lovers at the center of the utterly hypnotic Only Lovers Left Alive, played with elegance by the perfectly paired Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, are weary of the small-minded failings of the mortals they must exist with. What keeps them from giving up on the human race entirely is their deep appreciation of the great art and music that non-bloodsuckers occasionally turn out--they're even Jack White fans! The genius of the film they occupy the center of is that it adopts this worldview too; as dryly cynical as it often seems, it can't help but surrender to a hopeful romanticism. Jarmusch makes it such a soothing soak in pure, intoxicating style that it's clear he shares his protagonists' love of aesthetic pleasure. The flow of beautiful images and entrancing music is so continous that it's possible to have a different subjective experience with the film each time you see it. And Swinton and Hiddleston, who exude the comfortable affection of partners who've known each other for centuries, provide the perfect (in-)human core for Jarmusch to work his visual and aural magic around.


7. Gone Girl (David Fincher). Unlike Jarmusch, Fincher isn't a director prone to tempering his cynicism with detectable doses of romanticism, which makes him an ideal fit for writer Gillian Flynn's scathing, witty portrait of marital combatants who use the tabloid mediascape as their battleground. As savvy with subtext as he is with technique, Fincher critiques the human tendency to build perceptions of other people, even loved ones, around tidy, self-serving narratives--narratives that may turn out to be far from the truth. Flynn keeps the shocking twists and the icily clever banter coming. The ensemble cast is one of the year's most purely enjoyable to witness, with Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry (!), Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, and Patrick Fugit all turning in memorable supporting work. Occupying the film's central ethically soiled marital bed is a shrewdly self-parodying Ben Affleck and, most importantly, the formidable Rosamund Pike, who dons several different masks with a dazzling range and charisma that almost makes you root for her Amy in spite of yourself. Considering that Fincher has been called a modern heir to Hitchcock's studio-master-misanthrope throne, it's tempting to call Pike a sharper-fanged Grace Kelly.


8. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho) Set in a dystopian future where survivors are divided by class into separate train cars hurtling over an icy wasteland, Snowpiercer mixes wildly imaginative sci-fi spectacle with pointed social commentary so forcefully and seamlessly that it recalls the instant-genre-classic impact of The Matrix. Korean visionary Bong's distinctively dark, perverse voice (check out his excellent monster movie The Host if you haven't yet) survives the translation to an English-language project thrillingly intact, and he brings the self-contained worlds of each individual train car to eye-popping life. Tilda Swinton, making her third appearance on this list (!), is brilliantly daft as the evil enforcer of the train's rigid social order. Watching the film's heroes, led by Chris Evans' Curtis, fight to overthrow that unjust social order makes the film a rousing experience--a movie set on a moving vehicle that can genuinely be called a wild ride.


9. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois). The How to Train Your Dragon series has been like a beautiful rose growing in the creatively sludgy swamp of DreamWorks Animation, and what's strikingly impressive about How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the way in which it feels at once both more epic and more intimate than its great predecessor. DeBlois takes gangly young hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his loyal, ridiculously adorable dragon Toothless beyond their home of Berk, to magnificently imagined new realms, including a wild-dragon sanctuary where the beasts fly around in a gorgeous riot of primary colors. But just as much work has gone into the emotional shading of the unique family reunion at the movie's core--Hiccup; his alpha-macho father (Gerard Butler); and his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett, as flawless in her vocal work as she is at in-the-flesh roles), who abandoned her husband years ago to become a sort of Jane Goodall of the dragon world. The movie's suggestion that the "feminine"-coded sensitivity that Hiccup inherited from his mom grants him the potential to be a better leader of Berk than his masculine warmonger dad is thoughtful, subversive stuff for animated fare, but it's also not surprising coming from a series that has covertly become one of the contemporary studio system's most impassioned pleas for pacifism and universal compassion.


10. The Immigrant (James Gray). Gray's milieu has always been the tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods of New York City, so his sublimely moving 1920s-set melodrama The Immigrant feels in a way like an origin story. It depicts the generation that arrived at Ellis Island from far-away countries and struggled to find footing in the teeming city, paving the way for the later generations that populate the films Gray made before this one. Gray and supremely gifted director of photography Darius Khondji give the film a dark, burnished glow influenced by the similarly immigrant-experience-centered De Niro section of The Godfather Part II, and they certainly know the value of what Marion Cotillard can bring to an exquisitely framed close-up. Cotillard's Ewa arrives to New York from Poland determined to make a better life for her and her sister, and the actress' expressive eyes convey the strength that pushes Ewa through the indignities she suffers in the alleged land of promise she's arrived at. (Cotillard had quite a year, offering another stunning portrait of resilience in the Dardennes' Two Days, One Night.) As Bruno, who becomes both pimp and protector to Ewa, Joaquin Phoenix reveals the raw, naked humanity of a man forced into brutishness by the wheels of capitalism. Bruno's true feelings for Ewa come pouring out in a devastating final scene guaranteed to haunt the viewer long after the credits roll.


And here are the next 10 runners-up, with abbreviated capsules:


11. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh). Leigh's work is an acquired taste I've only started acquiring in recent years, and the beautifully detailed J.M.W. Turner biopic Mr. Turner makes me glad I've come around. Leigh's method of cooking up scripts via improv sessions with his actors grants a funky, lived-in humanity to this riff on the artistic personality and the artist's role in society. Humor and emotion arrive in small, authentic bursts, like brush strokes. As Turner, the glorious Timothy Spall provides an acting master class.


12. Life Itself (Steve James). Anyone can make a documentary that builds a case for Roger Ebert as a great film critic. James went the extra mile and illustrated through the immensely cathartic Life Itself what made Ebert a great man, dedicated to his family and fans, committed to his calling till the very end, and ever-eager to do whatever he could to give rising filmmakers (such as Selma's DuVernay, interviewed here) the spotlight they need to move their careers forward. Ebert's death was a major emotional blow for me, and this film provides the best kind of closure: an inspiring celebration.


13. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans). For the sequel to the thrilling single-setting action pressure-cooker The Raid, Evans takes to a bigger, more epic canvas with the infectious enthusiasm of a child at play. A hybrid of The Departed's undercover intrigue and Sergio Leone's grand-scale Westerns focused on warring good, bad, and ugly factions, The Raid 2 is a genre-movie geek's dream, culminating in a ferocious, beautifully choreographed mano-a-mano kitchen brawl that's truly a thing of brutal beauty.


14. The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner & Ryan White). When Proposition 8, which defines marriage as being only a heterosexual union between a man and a woman, was passed in California, it was truly a depressing, shameful time for the state. That makes The Case Against 8, which details two same-sex couples' triumphant attempt to overturn Prop 8 as unconstitutional, a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel source of joyous inspiration. This documentary refuses to lazily preach to the choir, and is especially complex and rewarding in depicting right-wing Bush supporter Ted Olson as an unlikely hero--a lawyer who came to the couples' defense and who defines himself as a staunchly anti-homophobia Republican. Any film that proves that phrase not to be an oxymoron is one possessed of a very special humanity.


15. Get On Up (Tate Taylor). Taking its artistic cues more from Todd Haynes' masterfully abstract Bob Dylan portrait I'm Not There than from mainstream-friendly biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Get On Up conveys James Brown's rise from a childhood of abuse and prejudice to his reign as the strutting Godfather of Soul in impressionistic, non-chronological fragments that flow with gorgeous fluidity and stream-of-consciousness psychological clarity. As Brown, Chadwick Boseman gives the year's most sadly under-recognized performance--an effortless embodiment of the musical icon that shines with charisma and reveals the vulnerability underneath the peacocking exterior.


16. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman). Warner Bros. didn't market this simultaneously brainy and spectacular sci-fi yarn particularly well, eventually resulting in a disastrous attempt to re-title the film Live. Die. Repeat. for DVD release. But the upside is that viewers discovering Edge of Tomorrow can be surprised by the many inventive variations on the Groundhog Day-esque premise of a reluctant warrior (Tom Cruise) re-living the same day repeatedly in order to win a war against sentient machines that writers Christopher McQuarrie and Jez & John-Henry Butterworth have cooked up; at least the ho-hum trailer didn't give them all away. Making the female lead (Emily Blunt) a fierce fighter while Cruise's military flack is essentially a cowardly wuss is a fun subversion that Cruise and Blunt, both in full-wattage star mode, really go to town with.


17. The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Chris Miller). It's rare that a studio entertainment bites the hand that feeds while maintaining an essentially sweet-natured disposition, but the layered playfulness of the giddy, gag-every-second The Lego Movie achieves just that. Lord & Miller are undeniably talented postmodern jokesters who can be hit-and-miss for me, but this is the best distillation yet of their alternately silly and satiric absurdity. They've made a vividly colorful lark anarchic enough to question the conformist mentality of the corporation that provide's the movie's title and building blocks, yet sincere enough to act as a hymn to how creativity can pass from one generation to the next.


18. John Wick (Chad Stahelski & David Leitch). Keanu Reeves, in full command of his brooding charisma, dispatches with the goons who killed his heartbreakingly cute puppy in a series of long takes that render the action as vicious dances. So of fucking course this makes my top 20.


19. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry). Fans of erudite New York wits Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach will love the delicious verbal sharpness of Listen Up Philip, though be warned: this character study of an arrogant novelist (Jason Schwartzman, hilariously tart) drips with even more bile than, say, Husbands and Wives or Margot at the Wedding. But like those films, this contains the highest-grade acid, spewed from the expert tongues of Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, and the cast's true standout, a marvelously seething Elisabeth Moss.


20. Wild Tales (Damian Szifron). In the wrong hands, the subject of class warfare in Argentina could become fodder for a Crash-like sermon. But in the hands of Szifron, who announces himself as a directorial talent to be reckoned with, the topic forms the basis for an audacious, darkly comic anthology film made up of sketches that pack a savage bite. Wild Tales throbs with an energy and unpredictability that reawaken one's appetite for cinema that feels truly alive in its kicking-and-screaming unruliness.


And here are the year's remaining standouts, ranked in loose preferential order:
21. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo).
22. Stranger By The Lake (Alan Guiraudie).
23. The Guest (Adam Wingard).
24. Bird People (Pascale Ferran).
25. Le Week-End (Roger Michell).
26. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer).
27. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor).
28. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller).
29. Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre).
30. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent).
31. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn).
32. The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones).
33. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda).

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

On the surface, 2013 as a year in movies appears to offer nothing to quarrel about. The sheer abundance of great films released throughout the year has inspired many critics and list-makers to hail 2013 as the most exceptional year for movies since at least 2007, and arguably since 1999. Those fond of criticizing the Academy Awards for favoring populist "message movies" will find no The Blind Side equivalent among the Academy's nine nominees for Best Picture this year, and they'll even find on that list a few idiosyncratic critical darlings that didn't catch on with the wider public (Her, Nebraska). And a high number of the movies that did click with ticket-buying masses, including Gravity, Frozen, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, delivered gratifyingly strong female protagonists and convention-skewering narrative choices.


But in this seeming void of cinematic matters to rationally complain about, cinephile skirmishes still dominated social-media sites. The so-problematic-it's-comical motivations for these online quarrels only served to strengthen the notion that the movie year offered little to really fight over. Certain fans of director Martin Scorsese's satirically vicious The Wolf of Wall Street attacked partisans of David O. Russell's somewhat-Scorsese-influenced humanist caper American Hustle, and vice versa; lost in the nonsensical debate was the acknowledgment that history is filled with both cold-blooded and warm-hearted great movies. Similarly, those who pitted the backstory-heavy Gravity against the audaciously spare All Is Lost failed to realize the simple value of having two impeccably made survival stories that take such wildly divergent storytelling approaches in theatres at the same time.


So if 2013 is to be remembered as a year of bickering, let it be for those squabbles that transpired onscreen rather than those that took place between Twitter pals offscreen. After all, it was an unusually strong year for portrayals of the kind of arguments so wounding they can only happen between people who love each other. American Hustle, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Laurence Anyways, The Wolf of Wall Street, Blue Is The Warmest Color, and the ineligible-if-still-plenty-cinematic HBO film Behind the Candelabra all featured stinging domestic disputes that recall the work of director Mike Nichols, the master of heated romantic conflicts. One can only hope that Nichols, who hasn't worked in six years, will take this proliferation of lovers' battles as a thrown-down gauntlet.


Speaking of thrown-down gauntlets, here is my list of the ten best films of 2013:


1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen). The greatest living American filmmaker is not a lone individual but a pair of brothers whose rich, comic, multi-faceted glimpses into the country's psyche demand repeat viewings to excavate their tricky layers of meaning. At first glance, Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers' ballad of a prickly folk musician (Oscar Isaac, in a flawless, low-key bit of character inhabitation that effectively erases his frankly awful Sucker Punch scenery-chewing from memory) chasing a success in early-'60s New York that constantly eludes him, is already formidable--a funny and melancholy life-as-a-cosmic-joke character study in the Barton Fink and A Serious Man mold, yet more relatively naturalistic than one would expect from the normally artifice-embracing Coens. A second viewing reveals the reasoning--and the genius--behind the removal of distancting effects: to plug the viewer into the aching pain of a man whose response to a recent tragedy (the specific nature of which isn't revealed until late in the game, in sly Coen fashion) is to shut out all meaningful human (and feline) connections in his life and reveal his feelings only to the scattered strangers who see him musically pour his heart out on coffee-shop stages. Inside Llewyn Davis belongs to a great tradition of contemporary musicals--Once and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd are two other examples--that allow their songs to play out at full length and that aren't so much interested in making you feel "good" as they are in making you feel their characters' tangled emotions. In its cryptic way, this resonant masterwork refuses to provide hard answers to the questions of art and commerce that lie at its core, but its existence is proof enough that a dark, sad, and strange work of art has the power to connect.


2. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese). Fairly late into The Wolf of Wall Street, the savage, wildly energetic chronicle of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio) efforts to swindle others in order to feed his ever-expanding appetites for drugs, booze, and hookers, the film mischievously switches form into a consumer-grade-camera-shot infomercial for Belfort's "Straight Line" get-rich-quick seminars. The style, along with Belfort's practiced patter, is designed for maximum consumer pacification, until Scorsese masterfully disrupts the infomercial's slick appeal by having a squad of FBI agents run into frame and apprehend Belfort, knocking the cheap camera down in the process. This sequence so clearly and cleverly lays bare Scorsese and writer Terence Winter's view of Belfort as a charismatic bullshit artist trying his best to bury the illegality and toxicity of his practices with savvy manipulation of his marks as to render anyone who accuses the film of valorizing Belfort as not just foolish, but possibly cine-illiterate. The Wolf of Wall Street is entertaining to a pointedly "addictive" degree, its three hours of profane hilarity, bling-y style, and timeline-shuffling editing wizardry (courtesy of the peerless, mystifyingly Oscar-snubbed Thelma Schoonmaker) leaving one begging for even more. Its drive to entertain is therefore inextricable from its satiric rage--it's a long, exhilarating scream of an epic. Throwing himself into the high-decibel fray with magnetic abandon, DiCaprio delivers a limber, unforgettable star turn that gives both Belfort's essential scumminess and his messianic ability to rally his debauched troops a high-voltage excitement and a warts-and-all honesty.


3. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron). With his boundless imagination and gift for graceful, fluidly immersive long takes, Cuaron is the ideal visionary to create an outer-space-set adventure that you don't see so much as experience in a transporting, sensory-engulfing way. That's exactly what he's pulled off with the spectacular Gravity, aided immeasurably by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and army of specialists in visual and sonic effects. It's a movie you all but float around in, especially when viewed in IMAX 3D. At the same time, though, Cuaron is a touchingly sincere poet whose interest in characters struggling to cling to hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances has united films as superficially diverse as Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men. So while Gravity is a hell of a suspenseful and awe-inspiring ride, it's also a moving portrait of a grief-stricken woman who's given up on life forced into a situation where the choice to survive is neither an idle nor an easy one to make. That woman, Dr. Ryan Stone, is played by Sandra Bullock in a career-best performance defined by haunted eyes, frayed nerves, and eventually a primal resilience. Gravity is the kind of movie that feels like a full-on journey, and watching Bullock bring Dr. Stone's arc to emotional life makes it a very rousing one.


4. American Hustle (David O. Russell). The GoodFellas-esque camera swirls and '70s rock favorites on the soundtrack are obviously what have led some champions and many detractors of American Hustle to pinpoint Martin Scorsese as the key influence on Russell's film. But I'd argue that Russell is really offering his own neurotic-screwball take on the kind of romantic-yet-cynical, character-driven studio entertainments that the great Billy Wilder used to specialize in--love stories where the sheer amount of characters lying or prostituting themselves injects a harsh bitterness that balances out the underlying sweetness of the narrative arc. Also like Wilder, Russell delights in the simple pleasure of getting people in a room and giving them plenty of spiky, witty dialogue to hurl at each other. The staggering quality of the cast--Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, all at the top of their game--ensures that every possible permutation of that people-in-a-room arrangement yields equally dazzling interpersonal fireworks. An affectionately candid acknowledgement of the messy romantic and sexual entanglements that can sometimes invisibly cause the wheels of law enforcement and politics to turn, American Hustle is the reliable Russell's richest and most ambitious achievement since his 1999 Gulf War comedy Three Kings.


5. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen). The story of Solomon Northup, an African-American concert violinist living as a free man in the North until he's kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South of 1841, could've easily fallen into the trap that so many well-intentioned but dramatically flaccid prestige pictures plummet into of defining its protagonist as a noble but essentially passive victim. Instead, as written by John Ridley and as played with searing urgency and power by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon is active, resourceful, and impassioned--a man desperate to assert his identity in a monstrous system that insists he sacrifice it. McQueen and Ridley use Solomon's forced entry into the plantation economy of the South to provide a newcomer's point-of-view of an unjust society that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to our own: one plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a compassionate liberal too spineless to enact positive change, while another (Michael Fassbender, chilling yet recognizably human) is an abusive Bible-thumper whose manipulative wife (the perpetually underrated Sarah Paulson, summoning an icy bitterness) uses the slaves as pawns in the game-playing of her fading marriage. McQueen never loses sight of this contemporary resonance even as he brings the period setting to life with evocative specificity, and he organically weds the Kubrickian rigor of his earlier films Hunger and Shame to a more robust, conventional narrative. 12 Years A Slave builds to a conclusion that is emotionally pulverizing in its catharsis; the phrase "there wasn't a dry eye in the house" feels fully earned.


6. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater). The hopefulness of Before Sunrise and its more regret-soaked follow-up Before Sunset thrived on the tension of the audience knowing that lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) should spend their lives together without the characters themselves having figured that out yet. Before Midnight, the third film in Linklater's luminous, observant trilogy, audaciously begins with the revelation that Jesse and Celine have been living together as a couple for nine years. In realistic fashion, the unconsummated hunger these two felt in the earlier films has been replaced by a cozy familiarity and, more bracingly, the accumulation of simmering resentments. The resentments--authentically centered on kids, conflicting career goals, an ex-wife--come to a full boil in a climactic hotel-room argument rendered with a more lethal version of the dazzling verbal density that writers Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have established as a defining trait of the trilogy. But the lovely trick of Before Midnight is that for all its painful honesty, it still manages to be as blissfully romantic as its predecessors. The relaxed beauty with which Linklater captures Greece, Hawke and Delpy's undimmed chemistry, a final romantic plea made at a seaside cafe--it's all swoon-worthy, even in a film complex enough that real love isn't entirely about the swooning.


7. Rush (Ron Howard). Sports movies too often fail to convey the passion and commitment of athletic competition to the unconverted--a camp I must honestly admit I belong in. However, that's certainly not the case with the dynamic, surprisingly affecting Rush, a seamless merging of spectacle and character psychology that centers on the Formula One racing rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Hunt thrives on the adrenaline of a profession that brings him close to death, like the protagonist of a Kathryn Bigelow or Michael Mann film, while the anti-social Lauda approaches racing with the unyielding perfectionism of a never-satisfied artist. Both racers' devotion is portrayed with an accessible universality, and the hostile, shit-talking competitiveness of their relationship is built on a foundation of mutual admiration, making this a platonic love story played in a macho key. Hemsworth shores up his swaggering charisma with real depth, but it's Bruhl, in one of the year's most enjoyably detailed performances, who steals the movie. Howard's direction exhibits a restless, feisty energy, especially in the thrilling racing sequences, that has too seldom been tapped in his career, while writer Peter Morgan, who previously collaborated with Howard on the similarly excellent Frost/Nixon, demonstrates a flair for salty, off-the-track taunting. Like the heroes of their movie, these filmmaking collaborators bring out the best in each other.


8. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki). There's no denying Miyazaki's gift for animated images that glow with a pristine, painterly beauty, and the surreal dream-logic of his narratives springs from a playful imagination. But with a couple exceptions, his earlier films (Princess Mononoke, Ponyo) prioritized down-the-rabbit-hole strangeness at the expense of emotional engagement. That tendency is nowhere to be found in the rapturous, moving The Wind Rises, which finds Miyazaki trying his hand at the animated equivalent of the kind of sweeping historical epic commonly associated with David Lean and Steven Spielberg. Miraculously, he manages to reach the creative heights scaled by those masterful forebears. Miyazaki wisely doesn't abandon his pet theme of dreams; his protagonist, Jiro, loses himself in fantasy visions of flying. But as Jiro abandons hope of becoming a pilot due to his near-sightedness and instead pursues his revised dream of being an aeronautical engineer, Miyazaki grounds this dreamer's journey with a wealth of rich ideas and narrative strands--a touchingly delicate romance; an artistic-procedural-style immersion in the details of Jiro's plane designs; a portrait of Japan caught in the sea change of tradition transitioning to modernity; a consideration of the sad irony of Jiro's creations being used for the destruction of World War II. If Miyazaki follows through on his announced plans to retire, he's at least gone out with the most mature, elegant, deeply felt work of his career.


9. The World's End (Edgar Wright). Wright is another director who turned in career-best work in 2013, though "mature" is hardly le mot juste for the boisterous, beer-soaked, sensationally entertaining The World's End. Wright's past collaborations with co-writer and star Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, had their moments, but were too derivative and uneven for me to join the cult audience that adores them. That The World's End has converted me to the Cult of Wright is deliciously ironic, since it's a film that's sneakily profound about the fear of conformity--the concern that buying into a corporatized, 9-to-5, brand-name-dominated existence like most people is not quite what the human animal really desires. Pegg's Gary King has avoided that kind of manufactured life, and the movie is complex enough to admire his never-give-in integrity while at the same time recognizing his desperate efforts to replicate his high-school glory days as pathetic. It's this fetishization of the past that leads Gary (played by Pegg with hilarious elasticity and rumpled bravado) to round up his old mates (Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine) to finish an epic pub crawl they were unable to complete as teenagers. The ensemble camaraderie is so enjoyable that The World's End would succeed even if it stopped at being a sozzled buddy comedy. Instead, it turns on a dime and morphs into Wright's most inventive and insightful movie-nerd genre riff yet. This is the kind of endlessly funny and exciting entertainment that becomes irresistibly rewatchable--especially after you've had a pint or 12.


10. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass). Familiar suspense-movie tactics are no match for a premise that pits two ordinary men who need to put food on the table against each other, which is vividly illustrated in the electrifying Captain Phillips. Greengrass and writer Billy Ray take the real-life story of a band of Somali pirates who hijack an American cargo ship and refuse to render it in broad, hero-vs.-villain strokes. They take the richer, more rewarding path of treating the ship's captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks, in a subtle, thoughtful, and ultimately devastating performance), and the pirates' captain, Muse (Barkhad Abdi, able to shift imperceptibly from fearsom to fearful), as co-protagonists, men whose actions are guided by a need to adapt to a Darwinian global economy. That makes this the rare thriller that's as compassionate as it is intense. Greengrass fuses the jittery momentum of his Bourne movies with the matter-of-fact verisimilitude of his docudramas. Captain Phillips is so breathless that by the time its climax comes to an end, there's superficial catharsis--a chance to exhale, anyway--but also the sad realization that this isn't a story that could've ever led to a happy outcome. It's legitimate tragedy of a uniquely nail-biting sort.


And here are ten runners-up, with minimized capsules:


11. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee). Vallee, whose kaleidoscopic coming-out epic C.R.A.Z.Y. is one of the major underseen gems of the last couple decades, tells the '80s-set story of a homophobic, HIV-positive electrician (Matthew McConaughey) and a saucy transgender woman (Jared Leto, sensitive and nuanced) who go around the FDA to get unapproved drugs to the HIV and AIDS patients who need them with a loose-limbed naturalism and anti-authoritarian passion that merits comparison to the work of Milos Forman and Hal Ashby. While throwing around '70s-movie-comparison superlatives, it's worth noting that McConaughey, on a hell of a roll, exhibits a live-wire spontaneity and unpredictability reminiscent of the young Jack Nicholson.


12. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen). There have been even more great performances in Woody Allen movies than there have been reductive "think"-pieces written about the writer-director's personal life, but there's something uniquely special about how palpably collaborative his work with Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine is. His camera lingers on Blanchett's Jasmine, a once-pampered woman who loses her money and much of her sanity after her husband's (Alec Baldwin) white-collar-crime arrest, as if waiting to see what feverish combination of rage, regret, and vulnerability the actress will offer up next. The anticipation extends to the audience. Blue Jasmine is guided by Allen's effortless touch with human tragicomedy, and the entire ensemble shines (even Andrew Dice Clay!). But the film is unthinkable with anyone other than Blanchett in the title role.


13. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley). In just her third directorial effort, Polley shakes up the form of the autobiographical documentary in audacious and profound ways. As she uncovers secrets about her parents that challenge everything she believed she knew about her background, the film itself reflects her uncertainty in the way it plays with what "truth" in a documentary really is. Even the by-now-tiresome documentary trope of "talking head" interviews is revitalized by Polley's compassionate insistence on giving each one of her relatives who steps in front of the camera equal weight, even when their memories conflict with her own. Stories We Tell is a moving testament to the notion of "family history" as a shared collection of subjective, personal impressions.


14. The Conjuring (James Wan). The crafty, creepy Insidious already earned Wan forgiveness for unleashing the loathsome Saw on the moviegoing populace. But with The Conjuring, Wan manages to take everything that worked with Insidious and elevate those qualities to a higher level, in the process creating something that was in danger of becoming an oxymoron: a great horror movie. The Conjuring has an even stronger emotional core than Insidious in its focus on one mother (the ever-impressive Vera Farmiga) risking her life to save another mother (Lili Taylor, also very good) whose family has been threatened by some very pissed-off spirits. Wan's compositional sense has never been sharper, and he uses every filmmaking trick in the book to scare the bejesus out of the audience. Mission accomplished.


15. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan). After Frederique (Suzanne Clement) receives the news from her longtime boyfriend Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) that he's a woman who plans to undergo the physical transition into his real, female self, can she stay with the person she loves even as she, as a heterosexual woman, loses her attraction to that person? That's the thorny question that drives the emotionally raw Laurence Anyways, which charts the course of Fred and Laurence's relationship over a decade-long span and within just under three hours of screen time. As can be expected of any hugely ambitious undertaking shepherded by a filmmaker who isn't yet 25 years old, Laurence is not without a few whippersnapper-ish indulgences. Doesn't matter. Dolan is so devoted to the interior lives of his two central characters that you become bonded to Fred and Laurence as if they were close friends, and Clement's jagged wonder of a performance would be racking up Best Actress nominations if this was an American film rather than a French-Canadian one. Laurence Anyways is a bona fide intimate epic that leaves one happily heartbroken.


16. Nebraska (Alexander Payne). I wasn't particularly a fan of Payne's last film, the calculated grief-porn wallow The Descendants, but Nebraska marks a welcome return to form for the filmmaker. He's lost none of his About Schmidt-honed gift for finely detailed Midwestern portraiture, and the story of an aging, stubborn man, Woody (Bruce Dern) who drags his son (Will Forte) along on a quixotic quest for sweepstakes money that he hasn't officially won allows Payne to organically tap into veins of humor and melancholy. There's the haunting sense that Woody, with his myopic pursuit of a non-existent fortune, is a stand-in for any senior-age American looking back with regret on a life that appears more mundane than momentous in hindsight, but Payne makes a gently humanist case for Woody's existence as one of achievement. Dern portrays Woody's encroaching senility with bold, meticulous commitment, while June Squibb is indelibly flinty and funny as Woody's firecracker of a wife, Kate.


17. This Is The End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg). It would be fair to classify This Is The End as a "dumb" comedy--no one will mistake it for a Woody Allen movie, and its side-splitting highlight is a graphic, amusingly overextended argument between James Franco and Danny McBride (playing themselves, as are the other cast members) over the latter's masturbation habits. But the satiric fun it has with audience assumptions about how well spoiled, hedonistic celebrities will fare when the Apocalypse hits and the sweetness of the Rogen and Jay Baruchel friendship that becomes its emotional center distinguishes it as dumb comedy done very smartly. Behind-the-camera neophytes Rogen and Goldberg merge the humor and the apocalyptic horror elements with Ghostbusters-esque verve, and as writers, they keep the laugh-out-loud moments coming with impressive consistency.


18. Her (Spike Jonze). In portraying the romance between lonely, freshly divorced Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his artificial-intelligence operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), as both a credible, two-entity relationship and as a chance for Theodore to satisfy his emotional needs while (in theory) avoiding the thornier aspects of intimacy, Jonze taps into thought-provoking questions of human connection in the technology-heavy modern world. Heady stuff, to be sure, which makes it odd that on first viewing, Her struck me as slight compared to Jonze's bigger-in-scope collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. However, a second viewing revealed that Her's "small" qualities are bold in their delicacy; much of the movie is just Theodore talking with Samantha, and the refreshing patience with which Jonze directs these conversations speaks to a confident belief that a movie with a huge heart doesn't need any additional bells and whistles. Her may be timely in its examination of a post-Siri technological age, but its exquisite tenderness makes it equally timeless.


19. Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green). Prince Avalanche is a movie of boundless generosity, which is most evident in the way it turns the story of two road workers (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) repairing a wildfire-damaged Texas highway while at a low point in their respective personal lives into a buoyant celebration of the human capacity for renewal and rebirth. It's also generous to Rudd and Hirsch, two fine actors who have too often labored in projects undeserving of them and who respond to the rich leading roles offered to them here with their best work in years. But perhaps the most welcome form of Prince Avalanche's generosity is its indiscriminate embrace of both highbrow and lowbrow entertainment. Green has made both Malick-influenced art films (George Washington) and crude stoner comedies (Pineapple Express), and this film is a synthesis of those two strains of his work. For anyone whose taste encompasses both Waiting for Godot and Dumb & Dumber--as readers of this list have already figured out, that definitely describes me--that's a very welcome combination indeed.


20. Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Korean cult favorite Park has always possessed a flair for delirious set pieces that recall Brian DePalma in their ostentatious camerawork and frenzied-yet-precise editing. His English-language debut, Stoker, confirms what my favorite of his Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance, already suggested--that his cinema-of-excess gifts are best applied to female-centered melodramas instead of the (still fun) macho bloodbaths that he seems to favor. After all, the form of melodrama is one inherently dependent on exaggeration, and writer Wentworth Miller's script for Stoker--a Gothic coming-of-ager centered on a young girl (the quietly forceful Mia Wasikowska) who finds herself gravitating towards her charming yet sinister uncle (Matthew Goode)--might as well have been punctuated entirely by exclamation points. So pouring Park's extravagance on top of dramatically overheated material is like topping a sundae with an avalanche of cherries. The sheer indulgence of it is bliss.


Here are 10 more 2013 runners-up:
21. Byzantium (Neil Jordan).
22. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino).
23. 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville).
24. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg).
25. Simon Killer (Antonio Campos).
26. Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee).
27. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor).
28. Something In The Air (Oliver Assayas).
29. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach).
30. Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin).


Special Recognition for Ineligible TV Work from Film Auteurs: Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh) and Top of the Lake (Jane Campion). Both are masterful.