1) Her: The hook in writer-director Spike Jonze’s sci-fi tinged fantasy is the concept of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with a computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). But the film’s real subject matter is the depression that follows a difficult break-up and the beautiful, painful healing process that ensues. Love hurts, even when it’s virtual. (Opens Jan. 10)
2) Inside Llewyn Davis: Joel and Ethan Coen go small and personal, à la A Serious Man and Barton Fink, with this story of a hapless folk singer (Oscar Isaac) trying to catch a break in bohemian 1961 New York. Once again, the Coens take cynical delight in their protagonist’s constant failures, but there’s a melancholy undertone of respect and affection for him, too. Llewyn simply won’t give up, even though the world is aligned against him.
3) 12 Years a Slave: A great film destined to endure, not just for its cultural relevance or historical importance but also for its artful craft and restrained direction by Steve McQueen and indelible performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man sold into slavery and Michael Fassbender as a sadistic plantation owner.
4) After Lucia: After the death of his wife, a man moves to a new town with his adolescent daughter, who becomes the victim of vicious bullying at school. Writer-director Michel Franco’s punishing drama, which was little-seen outside of film festival and occasional screenings, uses its timely subject matter to explore the ways in which grief can paralyze us so deeply, we stop living and just start existing. The film’s long closing shot packs a wallop as powerful as all of Michael Haneke’s pictures combined. (The movie is currently available via Netflix under its Spanish-language title, Después de Lucía.)
5) The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary uses an ingenious approach to recounting the 1965 Indonesian genocide, asking the unrepentant death squad leaders who presided over the mass murders to recreate their experiences via short films of different genres, including a musical. Evil has a face, and it looks ordinary and human.
6) Before Midnight: The honeymoon is over in director Richard Linklater’s final installment in his trilogy of films about the decades-spanning romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). Now living together in their 40s with kids, their former walk-and-talk strolls aren’t enough to sustain their relationship. Real life, with all its complicated problems, gets in the way.
7) Only God Forgives: Nicolas Winding Refn and his Drive star Ryan Gosling reunited for this lush, atmospheric mood piece about a son’s relationship with his monstrous mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a Bangkok cop (Vithaya Pansringarm) who doles out merciless justice with a sword, not a gun. The year’s most divisive movie left little room for ambivalence: You either loved it or hated it. I loved it.
8) American Hustle: David O. Russell’s rollicking comedy uses the 1970s Abscam scandal as the foundation for an exuberant entertainment about double and triple-crosses between con artists, federal agents and politicians. The year’s best ensemble cast, with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence all at the top of their game, playing off each other like a troupe of trapeze artists.
9) Short Term 12: The relatively unknown Brie Larson anchored this small, beautifully observed movie about the counselors at a facility for troubled teens and the kids they look after. Writer-director Destin Cretton fills every character with life and dimension: The movie miraculously avoids its great potential for clichéd emotion, coming up instead with a combination of sadness, pain, love angst and, most importantly, hope.
10) The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese’s raucous, debauched look at the decadent life of a corrupt stockbroker (Leonardo DiCaprio) told from the inside out. The three-hour movie (cut down from an original cut of four hours) wallows in hedonism and depravity, but Scorsese gives the story a manic comic spin, resulting in his loosest, most energetic picture in years. The subject matter and crude humor is not for all tastes. But anyone who argues the film glorifies the crimes of its protagonist simply hasn’t seen it.
– RENE RODRIGUEZ
1) Her: Spike Jonze’s film isn’t merely an unconventional love story about a melancholy guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson); it’s also a personal, poignant, expertly filmed meditation on loneliness and the nature of love, forgiveness and letting go. (Opens Jan. 10)
2) 12 Years a Slave: Steve McQueen’s examination of the horrors of slavery deserves all of its accolades. The performances are terrific, in particular Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man abducted into slavery, Michael Fassbender as the fiendish plantation owner who torments him and Lupita Nyong’o as a slave who would rather die than endure another moment of hell. McQueen never allows you to look away, even when you badly want to.
3) Gravity: Watch this breathtaking space adventure about a mission gone wrong, and only one conclusion is possible: Director Alfonso Cuarón and co-stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney all went into space together to film the jaw-dropping opening sequence. I refuse to believe otherwise.
4) Before Midnight: If director Richard Linklater made a film every year about Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who fell in love one chatty night in Vienna, I would watch every one with rapt fascination. In his third installment, though, trouble is brewing in the 40something couple’s relationship, and their discontent is piercing and unforgettable.
5. Enough Said: Nicole Holofcener’s most accessible comedy featured two funny, sweet performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini as divorced, middle-aged people wondering if they’re too damaged to fall in love. Spoiler alert: They’re not, but problems arise in the form of his ex (Catherine Keener).
6. Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon’s brilliant contemporar
y adaptation of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy — shot in black and white in 12 days at his home and using much of the original language — is a great reminder of why the Bard’s work has endured: It’s not merely witty but also a shrewd commentary on how foolish our very human hearts can be.
7. Blue Jasmine: Audiences expected a comedy from Woody Allen, but what they got in this story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown was something else entirely. Allen wrings great performances from his entire cast, from Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins as estranged sisters to comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay as love interests.
8. American Hustle: Sometimes, it’s OK just to have a good time at the movies. David O. Russell’s latest film about con artists and FBI agents trying to outsmart each other in the 1970s is pure fun, served up with a killer retro soundtrack and some of the worst hair you’ve seen in decades.
9. Frances Ha: Each movie Greta Gerwig (Greenberg, Damsels in Distress, Lola Versus) stars in gets a little bit more interesting as her roles expand. In Noah Baumbach’s exploration of 20something anxiety, she’s mesmerizing, funny and more than a little sad as a young dancer who’s drifting through her own life.
10. Star Trek: Into Darkness: The obsessives who complained about insults to the canon and the return of Khan missed the larger point of J.J. Abrams’ film, the best action movie of 2013. This film is part of an ongoing reboot of the series, not a slavishly faithful remake; it’s designed to include and engage an audience that doesn’t know what a Tribble is and couldn’t care less, and it succeeds on every level. Enjoy the ride.
– CONNIE OGLE