Friday, December 20, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

My all-time favorite film is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). I’m particularly drawn to Scorsese’s visceral filmmaking that evokes, for lack of a better word, experience. And then there’s a very different kind of movie to which I’m often drawn, and that’s a quieter, mournful kind of film. Films like Goodfellas, The Departed (2006) and Casino (1995) fit into the first category, and in the second category I’d place About Schmidt (2002), The Last Picture Show (1971) and Wonder Boys (2000).

2013 had no shortage of rock ‘n’ filmmaking at its finest (particularly in the two American crime epics that top this list), as well as intimate, mournful odes to what might have been, and films where the two approaches intersect. The top four movies on this list are connected by their extraordinary soundtracks, whether it’s the pop-rock vitality of Billy Joel in The Wolf of Wall Street and the ELO-infused soundtrack to American Hustle, or the original folk music produced for Inside Llewyn Davis and Mark Orton's deeply moving score for Nebraska.

I don’t think there are four (well, technically five) working directors who inspire me more than Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Joel and Ethan Coen and Alexander Payne. I suppose it’s not surprising that their combined body of work represents what I feel is the finest filmmaking of the year.

Note: If James Gray’s The Immigrant received a theatrical release this year, it would rank near the top of my list. The film, which I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival, will be released theatrically in March, so 2014 already has one masterpiece.

1. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

I was invited to a work-in-progress screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street on November 1st, nearly two months before the film’s release. A few fellow interns from Sikelia Productions and I arrived at an Academy Theater in New York City, and took our seats in the screening room as Mr. Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and executive producer Irwin Winker, among others, entered the room and sat just behind us. Scorsese introduced the film to the audience – roughly a crowd of forty people – describing what we were about to see as a fine rough cut, but still a little too rough to call a fine cut. Of course, what followed was nothing less than a masterpiece. I don’t think I could properly articulate my thoughts on our feedback paper at the time after the screening ended, and so I've tried to refine my thoughts about this movie over the past two months.

The Wolf of Wall Street is truly one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen – in fact, I was laughing so hard (and experienced the added joy of hearing Scorsese’s infectious laugh from just three rows behind me) that the power of the film snuck up on me by the end. The true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a penny-stocks salesman who starts his own company and rises to the top of the food chain, The Wolf of Wall Street falls into Goodfellas territory as the FBI investigates Jordan for money laundering, fraud and just a generally outrageous lifestyle.

In the midst of all the debauchery and mayhem, I loved the brief, horrifying glimpses of sadness – such as the female employee who allows her head to be shaved, or the broker who kills himself, which Jordan mentions as a kind of aside. I was having such an amazingly fun time watching these characters misbehave that these moments of dark despair so effectively gave me a vivid sense of the costs of living in this world.

And then the picture builds to these incredibly surreal moments where the events seem like a kind of nightmare. After his yacht sinks and Jordan and his friends are rescued, Jordan looks out the window of the rescue boat, and watches in stupefied horror as their rescue plane goes down in flames. He turns to look at his friends, and but they’re dancing wildly to Gloria onboard the boat, oblivious to the crash. It’s such an unreal moment, and we instantly feel Jordan’s sense of unease. How did he survive? What has his life become? It’s a brilliant transition to his state of being sober.

I’ve never seen a film about our financial system – and the greed and excess that led to its near collapse – presented in this way before. Many films about Wall Street greed and culture seem to indict the behavior of these individuals with a kind of moral outrage. But The Wolf of Wall Street presents us with the uneasy truth that there’s a part of us that likes these guys and, even though we’re oftentimes appalled by their debaucherous behavior, we almost admire the fact that they’re able to get away with such madness.

It all comes down to an early scene in the picture in which Jordan tests his colleagues by asking them to sell him a pen – and, ultimately, nobody in the room can do it as well as Jordan. What keeps us rooting for and liking Jordan Belfort is that we all want to learn how to sell that pen. The film is about us, as beautifully articulated in the last shot of the film.

There’s also a powerful nuance and ambivalence about the nobility of middle-class life. Midway through the film, in a scene that shifts so effortlessly from easy-going banter to a kind of unsettling tension, Jordan invites FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) aboard his yacht and asks Denham if, at the end of the day – when he’s riding home on the subway with the miserable lot of New Yorkers – he’s a truly happy person. One of my favorite moments in the movie is the parting glimpse of Agent Denham riding the subway on his way home from work. Who are truly happier – the middle-class people riding the subway, or the rich wolves like Jordan? The film doesn’t have an easy answer. Because, despite living as a straight-laced, by-the-books detective, Denham seems almost drawn in at first by Jordan’s charm and the seductiveness of his lifestyle. And by the end of the film, Jordan goes to prison and Denham, in a way, has won. Or has he?

I think we ultimately admire Jordan because he will not give up. He may be a free-market capitalist gone berserk, but there are moments that suggest another side of this man. I was moved deeply by a few moments that truly caught me off-guard, such as the tender moment when Jordan, giving his farewell speech to the firm, recalls hiring the female Stratton Oakmont employee who asked Jordan for a $5000.00 advance. As he tells her story, I began to understand how Jordan sees himself as a provider and a nurturer to his employees. In a kind of perverse way, he is helping people and helping others achieve ‘the better life.’ It’s a genuinely heartfelt moment that helps us understand how people like Jordan rationalize the morality of their actions, and it’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film with this subject matter.

The movie just flew by, and I was mesmerized by the meticulous attention to detail and the immediacy of every image, just as I am while watching every one of Scorsese’s pictures. The balls-to-the-wall soundtrack – which surprises you with wild covers of Mrs. Robinson and Sloop John B along with many other inspired choices (I love the way Joe Cuba Sextet’s Bang! Bang! is used in both this film and The Departed as our protagonists settle into their respective environments) – provides the same thrill as the rock soundtracks to The Departed, Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Casino, Goodfellas, The Color of Money (1986) and Mean Streets (1973). It’s been said often, but Scorsese knows how to use music better than any other filmmaker.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s confidence, charm and sense of humor have never been better used than they are in this movie. It’s the best performance in a career full of best performances, from his genius work in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), The Departed and Shutter Island (2010) to his recent tour-de-force performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011). Jonah Hill, as Jordan's right-hand man Donnie Azoff, plays the Joe Pesci character here (in a broad sense) and he’s amazing.

The actor of the year, Matthew McConaughey, makes his first of three appearances on my top twenty list. As Jordan’s mentor Mark Hanna, McConaughey only appears in a few scenes, but this character and his chest-thumping nuttiness are already legendary. I also loved Chandler’s complex performance as Denham, while Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, Jon Bernthal and Cristin Milioti make up another outstanding Scorsese ensemble.

There’s no doubt that The Wolf of Wall Street has an added significance for me. Shortly after the release of Hugo, I had the privilege of interning at Mr. Scorsese’s office in New York City for a year and-a-half. During that time, I was able to follow this film through its production. I was on set for the first day of shooting last year, and I made sporadic trips to the set in the weeks to follow.

As the movie was being made, I asked myself, how strange will it be to experience a new Scorsese picture having been given a somewhat inside-look at its construction? As it turns out, no amount of reading a screenplay or hearing a scene as it’s being edited can prepare you for what the final experience will be like. It’s not about the story being told, it’s about the how. And, as I always do with Scorsese’s pictures, I found myself transported by The Wolf of Wall Street, shaken alive by the visceral thrill of Jordan Belfort’s journey and the strange horror of his downfall.

I will never forget the three hours I spent experiencing this film with the very people who made it. But what’s most exciting isn’t simply that I was able to experience a Martin Scorsese picture with Martin Scorsese present, but that the picture in question is such a wonderful, complex and electrifying film.

2. American Hustle (David O. Russell)

With American Hustle, David O. Russell has made his kinetic companion piece to Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and it is a work of genius. American Hustle is one of the most electrifying pieces of filmmaking and ensemble acting I’ve ever seen. O. Russell directed last year’s best film, Silver Linings Playbook, and here, he outdoes himself again. Nobody can direct group scenes like this man.

Of Silver Linings Playbook, I wrote: “[The film] has the raw, energetic vitality and subjectivity of a Scorsese picture, and yet the camerawork isn’t nearly as stylized and polished. It’s all handheld and ideal for capturing the brilliant comic and dramatic timing of the actors.” That goes tenfold for American Hustle, which brims with life and seems to almost overflow with empathy and understanding for its many characters.

The film opens brilliantly, with con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meticulously crafting his elaborate comb-over in front of a mirror. He’s creating his image – and minutes later, as Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DiMaso tears down that comb-over, we immediately see an endearing vulnerability behind Irving. Okay, we’re with him.

The year is 1978, and Richie and the FBI recruit Irving and fellow con artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to help implicate and entrap corrupt local politicians (including Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito, the mayor of a town in New Jersey) in what’s known as ABSCAM. But American Hustle is really about a group of lonely people who are desperate to make a mark, even if it means hurting the wrong people.

We’re treated to wonderful scenes with each of these characters in their home environments, and we come to understand how they feel trapped and are driven by desperation to make a name for themselves. But as the operation moves forward, they can’t help trying to one-up each other – not only professionally, but personally, as well.

The love quartet among Irving, Richie, Sydney and Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), Irving’s wife, almost plays out like a story about Fleetwood Mac creating Rumors. It’s rare to see romantic jealousy, hurt and exclusion evoked so vividly in the midst of a film that is so very much fun. The whole movies feels like high school theatre, in a way – a group of people creating a much larger act, but, along the way, a romantic drama breaks out among the leads. There’s a moment when Irving, alone in one of the laundry stores he owns, tries to reenact an earlier scene in which he and Sydney look into each other's eyes as an automatic dry cleaning rack spins around them.

There’s another sequence midway through the film – at a fundraiser for Carmine – where our group comes face-to-face with the mafia and are led backdoors to meet Victor Tellegio (a terrifying Robert De Niro). Irving, Richie, Sydney and Rosalyn are all heartsick and battling romantic devastation even as they face the possibility of getting whacked by the mob – their broken hearts threaten to destroy the entire sting. This sequence shows O. Russell at his most masterful – there are so many complex things going on in this scene, both plot-wise and emotionally with these characters – and O. Russell navigates us through every beat so masterfully. Each of these characters experiences something so raw and painful, and yet the scene is hilarious and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In a movie about con artists and performance, the relationships that are real are very touching. Consider Irving’s friendship with Carmine. He knows that Carmine, despite being a ‘corrupt’ politician, has a huge heart and is probably doing more good for the world than anybody else in the film. Midway through the movie, Carmine gives Irving a microwave as a token of their friendship. Later in the film, Rosalyn torches the microwave, and Irving seems less concerned about the fire and more distressed that his gift from Carmine is no more. It’s a strangely poignant moment.

Near the end of the picture, there’s a devastating scene in which Irving visits Carmine's home and tries to tell him that he and Sydney have been conning him. Understandably, their friendship is ruined. It’s fascinating to watch how Irving, who starts out as the ultimate con artist, grows more sensible over the course of the film, as Richie grows more and more power-drunk with his increasingly deranged schemes to make a name for himself. Bale’s performance is so magnificent because he makes us feel the growing dread and moral scruples building in this character as the con moves forward.

At one point, Irving says the following to Richie: “People just got over Watergate and Vietnam, all right, and you’re going to shit all over politicians again?” The line represents Irving’s character’s attitude perfectly.

This is one of the most stunning acting ensembles in recent memory, although the best performance in the film comes from Bale. His scene with De Niro is thrilling on multiple levels, because you’re watching the world's greatest actor, De Niro, sharing the screen with his cinematic heir in method-acting, Bale. Amy Adams gives the best performance of her career (which is saying something, considering her work in The Fighter and The Master). Cooper, Renner, Lawrence, De Niro, Louis C.K., Shea Wigham (who is also great in The Wolf of Wall Street) and Michael Pena are also amazing.

What brings Rosenfeld and Prosser together in the beginning of the movie is a shared love for Duke Ellington. As Bale soulfully raises his fist in the air as they listen to an Ellington record, I was struck by how O. Russell’s filmmaking feels like a kind of jazz itself. He has all of these talented actors who, in a different director’s hands, might overwhelm the screen, but he orchestrates them perfectly. American Hustle is another genius piece of work from one of the most talented filmmakers out there.

3. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

There seems to be a unique and unspoken sadness in the lives of many Midwesterners. Perhaps it’s their taciturnity and the dry wit that covers up any trace of sorrow – they don’t necessarily talk about their problems with each other in great detail or neurotically analyze their anxieties and fears. They make for wonderful film characters because they ask for no pity whatsoever, and yet the sadness buried beneath their eyes endears us to them. How many filmmakers besides Alexander Payne make movies about these kinds of people?

Even on its first viewing, Payne's new film Nebraska felt like an old, warm friend. Filmed in beautiful black-and-white by Payne’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (the film looked absolutely astonishing on the large screen at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center), Nebraska has many of the qualities that make Payne’s work so distinct and memorable (most notably, it's a road-trip movie, one of my favorite sub-genres and a Payne specialty). We are introduced to many characters who at first seem like slightly satirical Midwestern send-ups, but are revealed, with time, to have “private fortitude and sadness all their own,” as Nick Pinkerton so elegantly wrote in his 2011 Village Voice interview with Payne.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) of Billings, Montana believes he has won one million dollars, after receiving a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like company informing him of his fortune. Chided by everyone around him as crazy and senile, Woody insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his money - even if it means walking there by himself. Full aware that the letter is a complete scam, his son David (Will Forte) reluctantly agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, hoping for Woody to find some kind of happiness in his final years.

It takes some time before we get a full understanding of how Woody’s family and friends marginalize and take advantage of him (although Nebraska certainly acknowledges Woody’s own faults, as well). Bruce Dern’s performance here is amazing because it slowly sneaks up on you. His most moving moments are entirely wordless; he has a kind of quiet understanding about his situation and how people perceive him, even though he is, by all accounts, decidedly deluded in his quest for his million dollars.

It’s these quiet moments – none of which ever come close to looking anything like 'acting' – that we see into Woody’s soul. We come to understand how important this money is for him and how his dignity is invested in collecting this million dollars.

I mention this because I don’t think I became entirely aware of the power of Dern’s performance until the end of the movie – this is a performance that could have simply been a man falling into incoherence and dementia. But in Woody, we see so much more – so much lost time, so many dreams deferred, so many regrets and yet that same Midwestern reticence. During the scenes in which the large pack of men in the Grant family stare at the camera as they all watch television together, even the smallest of small talk seems like a word too many.

Late in the film, when someone who works at the Publisher's Clearing House-like company in Lincoln asks David if his father suffers from dementia, David replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” That seems to be Woody’s weakness – he’s willing to take any and every thing at face value, and has allowed himself to be stepped on over the years.

Up until about two-thirds of the way through the film, we’ve only seen Kate (June Squibb), Woody's wife, humorously degrade and belittle her husband, and, like in many of Payne’s films, we think we have her figured out. But then Payne blindsides us. When the time comes, Kate stands up for Woody and defends him passionately to other members of his own family. In that moment, we see that she loves him deeply. The characters in this film are deeply full of love; most of the time, it's just masked and deflected by dry humor and a kind of laconic attitude. I see this in my uncles from East Texas. It makes me want to reach out and hug them tightly.

Roger Ebert once wrote that he does not "cry during sad moments in the movies, only during moments about goodness." During these moments, he experiences what he calls elevation when watching a movie - not exactly crying, but rather "the welling up of a few tears in [his] eyes, certain tightness in [his] throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing." There’s something to be said for the fact that nearly all of Payne’s movies, particularly About Schmidt, have this kind of effect on me. Nebraska continues the tradition. The end of this film has a moment of such genuine kindness and uplift that I struggled to keep it together. Payne knows how to end a movie. Everything I love about Sideways (2004), About Schmidt, The Descendants (2011) and Election (1999) is all here.

I want to acknowledge the amazing score by Mark Orton. Rarely is a director’s tone so well served by such moving and sometimes hauntingly mournful music. It’s never an outright sad score; like Rolfe Kent’s beautiful work on About Schmidt, it just feels honest. Papamichael's work is also amazing – one of the many reasons Nebraska is so powerful is because of the visual poetry and beauty of this part of the country. And the screenplay by Bob Nelson deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Revisiting Nebraska since I first wrote about it, I’ve been trying to think about why this movie has resonated with me as deeply as it has – and I think it comes down to the fact that I feel a bit like Woody Grant in many of my quests in life. I just want my million dollars, so to speak. And it’s a deluded quest, no doubt, but I keep going back, and back. There are so many moments in this film that haunt me. The way Woody walks toward Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) in silence and takes the letter from his hand, and gently folds it up and walks away. The face of Peg Nagy (Angela McEwan) as she watches Woody drive away from Hawthorne, looking on at the man she once loved. Here are the characters of Woody Grant’s life, watching as he says goodbye for the last time. I don’t think there’s another character from cinema this year who will live with me more than Woody – his failures, triumphs and, at the end of his life, one brief moment of being somebody, of being special. Nebraska has one of the most sublimely perfect, affecting and complex endings in some time.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Without spoiling the ending of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ll simply say that most of the Coens’ films have a cyclical nature – their characters run in circles, and oftentimes where they find themselves by the end of the movie is not terribly different from where they started. Inside Llewyn Davis is their first film, however, to literalize that cycle.

In the beautifully recreated Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), now a solo artist after his singing partner Mike commits suicide, scrambles around the city and plays the occasional gig at the Gaslight Café. There’s such a sense of sadness, regret and lost opportunity from the very beginning – Llewyn may even have a child out there somewhere.

It’s hard to imagine any aspiring artist not connecting immensely with this film (particularly any living in New York). If I had to identify with a screen protagonist this year, it would have to be Llewyn – at least in the sense that I understand his running around the city, feeling like a constant screw-up against whom fate has conspired, when in fact he may have brought much of this bad fortune on himself. Creative life often feels like a series of using up favors and wearing out your welcome, going for the gold and risking it all, but ultimately facing rejection.

Buried beneath the surface of every scene is a quiet mourning for Mike. Midway through the film, Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago to perform for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Gate of Horn, in a frantic attempt to make it big. After Llewyn performs, Grossman tells Llewyn that he doesn’t really work as a solo act and should get back together with his partner. Earlier, in a scene in Washington Square Park, Jean (Carey Mulligan) quickly mentions to Llewyn that she misses Mike. The movie does not linger on this sadness, but like the quick moments of dark despair in The Wolf of Wall Street, these are indicative of what the film’s about.

Perhaps the most moving instance comes when Llewyn is asked to perform a song for the Gorfeins, an Upper West Side couple who allow Llewyn to sleep on their couch, and their dinner guests. As he plays one of his and Mike’s songs, Mrs. Gorfein starts singing Mike’s part of the song, and Llewyn explodes. The Gorfeins treat Llewyn as entertainment for the guests, while he’s exorcising some very personal demons with his music.

Llewyn, in his own way, yearns for commercial success. But when it comes time to perform in front of Bud Grossman at the Gate of Horn, many film critics have noted that he almost deliberately picks a difficult, challenging song – “The Death of Queen Jane” – that likely won’t sell many records or impress a club owner. For Llewyn, it’s all about the art, and it’s all about expression. This is an admirable quality, and yet Llewyn almost knowingly sets himself up for failure by staying true to what he feels. For him, folk music is how he survives emotionally – and when he’s rejected, he runs away from the music business entirely, immediately telling himself, in effect, well, I gave it a shot, and I’m not going to make it. That’s it.

Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago is something I can’t quite get out of my head – it’s poetic, dreamy and doesn’t make much sense in all the right ways. The Coens are such masters of helping us feel something so specific, even though I often have difficulty articulating what that feeling is. Inside Llewyn Davis is not unlike a Bob Dylan song – some of the details, when taken literally, don’t make sense, but it’s the feeling – the sensory details, almost like out of a novel – that matters most.

I think about the few verses of poetry that the drifter Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund) mumbles in the car on the way to Chicgo. I remember the melting snow dripping from Llewyn’s feet as he sits at a diner drinking warm coffee. And the Gaslight Café exists in my memory now as strongly as the bowling alley from The Big Lebowski (1998).

After his final performance in the film, of the beautiful "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)," Llewyn says “That’s what I got,” only to be followed onstage by Bob Dylan. Suffice to say, Llewyn will never have the success of Bob Dylan. At the end of this film, though, I’m comforted. I can’t tell you why. But somehow, it’s okay he’s not Dylan. His story is almost more worth telling because of that fact.

And as my friend Alex pointed out, some things have changed by the picture's end. He doesn’t let the cat out of the apartment, for instance. Life keeps running in circles, but there are these small changes, and at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, I felt an acceptance of that by Llewyn.

This is a film, like Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), where the musical numbers are performed without interruption, and the storytelling in these performances is just amazing. I was amazed by the quiet power of the opening number – "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" – as I was so delicately invited into this special world and introduced to a character whose grief and inner life are illustrated in the span of a three-minute song. Every time I watch a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, I feel a sense of ease. I know I can lean back in my chair and surrender myself to two masters who never fail to take me on a journey that will challenge and move me.

5. Mud (Jeff Nichols)

With Take Shelter (2011) and now Mud, Jeff Nichols has established himself as one of the best and most original American directors. Tye Sheridan, who was outstanding in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), stars as Ellis, a fourteen year-old boy who lives on a houseboat in small-town Arkansas with his mother and father, who are going through a divorce. While sneaking out to a nearby island on the Mississippi River, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) come across a mysterious hermit named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in another amazing performance), who is living on the edge of town in a boat stuck in the top of a tree.

Hiding from the law, Mud asks Ellis and Neckbone to help him find and win back the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who still lives in the town. Meanwhile, Ellis falls in love and gets his heart broken for the first time with a girl at school. There’s a scene in this film in which the young girl rejects Ellis and he learns that he cannot always wear his heart on his sleeve that reminded me of a scene from one of my own films.

But even as all semblances of true love are falling apart around him – nearly all of the film’s characters have either irretrievably fallen into the spell of love, or have been hurt so badly that they advise against it at all costs – Ellis puts his hope in the love between Mud and Juniper.

The cast is extraordinary, with outstanding supporting performances from Witherspoon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, and Nichols has such an excellent control of atmosphere and place. When Ellis sits in the back of his father’s pick-up truck as he drives through town, I feel like I know this town, having seen such critical and formative parts of Ellis’ life occur in the various locations they pass.

If you want a real Gatsby-like character in a film this summer, look no further than McConaughey’s Mud, who attempts again and again to recapture his lost romance. By the end of the film, Mud and Ellis are forced to wake up from their romantic daydreams. In one of the closing scenes, Ellis moves into a new neighborhood and reluctantly nods at a few girls in their summer clothes, perhaps a little wiser about the realities of love. It’s a small and beautiful closing moment in an extraordinary film.

6. Her (Spike Jonze)

Spike Jonze’s Her is a wonderful film about what it means and feels like to be alone. The premise – in the not-too-distant future, a lonely man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his personalized computer operating system, named Samantha (the wonderful voice of Scarlett Johannson) – sounds a little cute, but the film transcends any such notion.

Mid-way through the movie, Theodore has a conversation with an old flame and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), in which she tells him that he shouldn’t feel embarrassed about falling in love with his computer. “We’re only here briefly,” she says. “And while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” It’s at this point that I fell in love with the movie. Before this scene, you get the sense that Theodore is still a bit wary about calling his relationship with Samantha a ‘relationship’ (even though he proudly tells others he’s dating his OS). But the advice from Amy is sound, and he takes it.

What’s extraordinary and heartbreaking about the film is that, ultimately, the reason Theodore can’t be with Samantha isn’t because she’s a computer. It’s because right as he’s willing to fully give himself over to her (after that talk with Amy), Samantha starts changing (as all people do, but for her, it’s at an exponential rate). They’re never quite able to meet in the middle.

The film is also very funny, but at some point you’ll stop laughing because you grow to accept their relationship as real. There’s one scene in which Theodore believes he’s lost Samantha forever, and he races through the city (presumably to take her into tech support, or something) until she suddenly returns. I felt more anxiety for Theodore and Samantha here than I have for a couple in any recent romantic drama.

Jonze is so talented at visualizing the way things feel. When Theodore tries calling Samantha from his office late in the film, she cryptically tells him they need to have a talk later in the evening. By the time Theodore gets back to his apartment, watch the way Jonze articulates Theodore’s dread as the camera pushes in on him in the elevator. The hole in the pit of your stomach when you know something isn’t right with your significant other – it really does feel like going up an elevator.

The world of Her is extraordinary. Through Theodore, we see fragmented glimpses of other people walking through this lonely Los Angeles of the future, talking to themselves, living in their own private, contained worlds. The movie consists almost entirely of long medium close-up shots of Phoenix, and it’s just riveting. Jonze is an extraordinary filmmaker. With Her, he’s made another movie as masterful as Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999), two of my favorite films. With his work in this movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and James Gray’s The Immigrant, Phoenix keeps proving he’s one of the best actors around.

It would be too easy to make a film that says we need to experience relationships with actual people and not computers. Her presents something much more complicated – a world in which we’re engulfed by technology, which, yes, has made it difficult to connect with other people, but has also made possible a kind of technology that can, in its way, make someone feel stronger emotionally and more alive with their senses than ever.

Her also doesn’t pretend that the answer is necessarily for Theodore to engage more with the outside world. With Samantha, Theodore finds a comfortable way of being alone – almost a kind of inner peace – which is a valuable part of life that too few films acknowledge or care to explore. Who is ultimately to say what’s right or normal if Theodore is a genuinely happier person with Samantha? In the end, there is a human connection, and it's wonderful - but the film does not discount the positive aspects of Theodore's relationship with Samantha.

7. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Blue Jasmine is writer/director Woody Allen’s best film since his incredible Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this new film is closer to tragedy than comedy. Allen has made some extraordinary films in the past few years, including Midnight in Paris (2011, for which he won an Academy Award), Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Blue Jasmine is the crowning achievement of his recent work.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, in one of the finest performances of the year) has lost everything – her husband (Alec Baldwin), an investment banker arrested for fraud; her wealth, including her Park Avenue mansion, taken by the government in the aftermath of the scandal; and her sanity. She arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, also amazing), telling a million lies to everyone in sight. The film hauntingly intercuts Jasmine in present-day San Francisco attempting to rebuild her life with scenes from her life as a wealthy New Yorker, almost as if we’re reliving her past with her.

Blue Jasmine has an inspired ensemble. Some of the most underrated actors currently working are used here to perfection, including Peter Sarsgaard as an aspiring politician who genuinely loves Jasmine, Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s passionate boyfriend Chili (how our ideas about Chili shift throughout the movie is a testament to the genius of Allen’s writing), and Andrew Dice Clay, who gives the film an unexpected heart as Ginger’s ex-husband.

Jasmine may make mistakes and lie about her past, but the film isn’t afraid to acknowledge when she’s right, which makes her downfall even more tragic. What’s remarkable about Allen’s film is how it neither condemns nor endorses the moral failings of these complex characters. Blue Jasmine defies expectations at every turn, and my evaluation of every character was challenged with each new scene.

At the same time, Jasmine is responsible for nearly everything that ends up destroying her, and watching her lose her mind, muttering to herself and reenacting moments from her past, is pretty devastating – especially since Allen gives us such a vivid sense of the darkness that consumed her perfect life in Manhattan. In a film full of characters who delude themselves into happiness, Jasmine is the least successful of them all.

8. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

I saw Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha at exactly the right time in my life. It’s amazing to me how many movies can inspire maybe only a few thoughts or feelings, and then one dense eighty-six minute movie like this can address so many of my anxieties and fears in such an artful and graceful way. This is the loveliest and most delightful film I’ve seen in a long time.

My friend Mike and I both watched the movie in June nodding and smiling throughout, recognizing our own behavior in Frances, the wonderful lead character played by Greta Gerwig, an aimless and good-hearted post-graduate young woman moving from address to address in New York City, dealing with the changing nature of her relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and struggling to make her way into a dance company.

Where to start with what this movie gets right? There’s not a central romance in Frances Ha - we’re not given a lead character who is constantly successful in relationships. Frances is one of the most refreshingly honest and unconfident characters in a long time, apologizing for how she’s speaking while she’s still speaking and always openly critical of herself. Characters in films rarely behave this way.

When Frances goes out to dinner with another, more successful dancer in her company, Rachel (Grace Gummer) and some of Rachel’s friends, someone describes Sophie as incredibly smart and brilliant. Frances laughs at this, pointing out that, having lived with Sophie, she isn’t really smarter or more brilliant than anyone else. Immediately, Frances feels guilty for saying this, and apologizes for talking poorly about her best friend. And you get the sense that Frances – one of the sweetest and most genuine characters in recent years – is going to spend the rest of the evening thinking about how she badmouthed Sophie, when the others probably won’t give it a second thought.

This moment is so wonderful because Baumbach and Gerwig let Frances express a common annoyance – when perhaps you know a friend well and someone starts going on and on about how “brilliant” and “smart” that friend is (when you know that there’s not necessarily an extraordinary brilliance behind your friend’s exterior) – and then immediately Frances becomes conscious of her own badmouthing and apologizes.

Baumbach and Gerwig take it a step further, though. Although we’re meant to see Frances as the awkward character at the dinner party making constant social faux pas, the filmmakers later give room for Rachel to tell an off-color joke that does not go over well with anyone. How often do you see a movie that allows for so many of its characters to be, you know, human beings? Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) does it exceptionally well, but there aren’t many other great examples.

There’s a beautiful speech that Frances gives at the same party, in which she explains that what she desperately wants from a relationship is that feeling you have when you’re at a party, and you look across the room at your significant other. As you make eye contact with your partner, there’s a shared moment of contentment between both of you, the knowledge that you’re together even when you’re on opposite sides of the room. It’s the most moving and beautiful moment in the film. At the end, when the movie honestly and realistically fulfills that wish for Frances in a way I didn’t expect, tears came to my eyes. I felt as if Baumbach and Gerwig created a female version of the lead character in my senior thesis film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory.

The music in the film is something else, too – I can’t explain why, but somehow Every 1’s a Winner by Hot Chocolate perfectly captures that ephemeral feeling of visiting a foreign place randomly and, instead of actually seeing the sights, just sleeping in and being alone with oneself. The section of Frances Ha in which Frances travels to Paris articulates that loneliness as well as any movie since Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003).

Frances Ha is a very funny movie, but the hurt that Frances experiences is still there beneath the humor – there’s a wonderful scene early on in the film where Frances knows she is overstaying her welcome at a friend’s apartment, but she can’t bring herself to leave, because the night isn’t over and she still hasn’t found the happiness she wants.

9. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)

Of all the amazing survivalist films to come out in 2013 (12 Years A Slave, All is Lost, Gravity), the one that took me by the biggest surprise was Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Richard Phillips of the MV Maersk Alabama, which was attacked by armed Somali pirates in 2009.

Though the entire film is brilliant, the ending of Captain Phillips is as emotionally and politically complex a piece of filmmaking as I’ve seen. There is a sort of doomed inevitability that hangs over the characters in the second half of this film – Phillips knows, and actively tells, his captors that the United States would rather sink their lifeboat and kill all of them than let the Somalis win by reaching the African coast. And so Phillips becomes almost a kind of pawn in the larger game of American foreign policy.

Greengrass has always been a very experiential filmmaker – he’s determined for his audience to experience exactly what something feels like, often using the immediacy of handheld camerawork to achieve that effect (he is also interested in the minutia of how a ship works and how the crew would realistically respond to an attack like this, which lends the proceedings an unnerving authenticity). I have never been more affected by his style of filmmaking than I was here (Captain Phillips rivals 2006's United 93 as Greengrass' finest film). I felt like I was in that lifeboat with Phillips and the Somali pirates, and I felt the complex moral stakes for all of them that most other filmmakers would have ignored.

In the last five minutes of this film, Tom Hanks does some of the finest acting of his career. Overcome with shock, Hanks breaks down as the American medical team examines him. But it’s more than just shock. Although Phillips is safe, he's covered in the blood of the men with whom he's spent the past few days fighting, obeying and, at some points, understanding. It’s a victory, but it’s also strangely horrifying. I’ve never felt quite like this at the end of a movie.

In those closing, cathartic minutes of the film, I was suddenly able to grasp the horror of what I had just seen over the past two hours - as if the rest of the picture were an old memory, almost too immediate and unnerving in the moment to fully comprehend. The ending of Captain Phillips embraces all of the moral ambiguities inherent in such a story, and struck me similarly to the ending of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – it's a triumph for the United States, but at what cost for the film’s protagonist?

10. At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)

My friend and I saw the last New York City showing of Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price back in May. I was excited to see the picture, as I loved Bahrani's Goodbye Solo (2009) and At Any Price received Roger Ebert's final four-star review before his passing. I nearly missed the movie altogether - and if I had, I would've missed a rich and moving film with an awe-inspiring performance by Dennis Quaid. We were two of only a handful of people in the theater, and it troubles me deeply that more people aren't seeking out this kind of exceptional, well-made movie. Don't ever tell me there aren't masterful films currently in cinemas - they're just usually not playing at the multiplex. 

With Ebert's passing, we're losing our champion of medium-sized pictures like this. At Any Price is not some inaccessible art-house film - it's an adult American drama with movie star turns from Quaid and Zac Efron (and, like Nebraska, the movie explores a part of the country that's rarely represented in major cinema). I'm disappointed in critics that celebrated the mediocrity of so many of this summer's tentpole movies but dismissed ambitious American movies like this one (the same nearly happened with Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret two years ago, but then there was a critical reassessment at the end of the year). Bahrani is a master filmmaker, and At Any Price is a great film.

The Rest of the Best:

11. Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)

12. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)

13. All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)

14. Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve)

15. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

16. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

17. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

18. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)

19. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

20. Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

21. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

22. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)

23. Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper)

24. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

25. Oldboy (Spike Lee)

Other Movies I Loved and Admired

Philomena (Stephen Rea)
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
Elysium (Neill Blomkamp)
Rush (Ron Howard)
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock)
The Family (Luc Besson)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
White House Down (Roland Emmerich)
The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash)
Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence)
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Runner-Ups: Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Christian Bale, American Hustle; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club; Robert Redford, All is Lost; Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave; Joaquin Phoenix, Her; Dennis Quaid, At Any Price

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Runner-Ups: Amy Adams, American Hustle; Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha; Brie Larson, Short Term 12; Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now; Judi Dench, Philomena; Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Mud and The Wolf of Wall Street
Runner-Ups: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street; Will Forte, Nebraska; Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave; Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners; Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

Best Supporting Actress: June Squibb, Nebraska
Runner-Ups: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street; Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis; Scarlett Johannson, Her

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