A transporting experience. Much of the time during this immersive documentary, set aboard a commercial fishing vessel, I didn’t know where I was, what I was watching or what I was hearing. Sound, image, light, motion – it all washes over you as if you’re in a sensory amplification chamber. If you give in to the disorientation, however, you’ll discover you’ve arrived at the heart of cinema itself.
Wrenching as a historical dramatization of American slavery, 12 Years a Slave is equally compelling as a consideration of how we watch dramatizations of past atrocities. When Chiwetel Ejiofor (an absolute force in the lead) looks directly into the camera, it’s not an accusation, exactly, but an invitation: to experience oppressive history with the comfort of the fourth wall removed.
3. Enough Said
I’ve been waiting for this. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has been a top-ten near-miss for years now, and this triumph finally lands her a spot on one of my lists. She gets a career-capping performance from the late James Gandolfini and a revelatory one from Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a divorced masseuse and single mother. When they begin a sweet and increasingly complicated courtship, Enough Said blossoms into a wise and funny romantic comedy with a somewhat radical observation: that how we love may be more important than who we love.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews some of the men behind the mass political killings that were committed in Indonesia in the 1960s, men so blase about their crimes that they proudly re-stage them for the camera. Oh, and they mount elaborate fantasy musical sequences as well. The Act of Killing boggles the mind and, in its final moments, enacts a small measure of justice. It was the year’s most harrowing experience, by far.
5. Pain & Gain
Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make your own. Well, the best critique of the crass consumerism of Michael Bay movies has come from … Michael Bay. Mark Wahlberg – totally in on the joke – leads a group of dim-bulb bodybuilders in an ill-advised kidnapping scheme that goes wildly awry. Bay’s bombastic, barely coherent style perfectly serves the movie’s underlying (and possibly unintentional) theme: that the new way to live big in America is to cheat your way to the top.
This biopic from legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki envisions the life and work of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the dreaded Zero fighter plane used by Japan in World War II. An odd subject? Only if you doubt that animation can be a place for nuance and complexity, as well as beauty. The Wind Rises is at once celebratory and mournful, a consideration of talent corrupted or, as one character puts it, “cursed dreams.”
My love for Nebraska increases with each passing day, so it probably won’t be long before it becomes my favorite film from director Alexander Payne. Bruce Dern is shattering as Woody, a retiree whose doddering is either a symptom of dementia or a wily form of self-defense. En route from Montana to Nebraska to claim a gimmick prize from a marketing company, Woody passes through his childhood home town, where jealousy, past grudges and familial silence come into play. Dignity here is like a needle in a haystack, but Woody’s going to grasp if even if it’s the last thing he does.
Yes, I liked The World’s End quite a bit too, but I prefer the ramshackle, improvisational idiocy of this Stateside apocalypse comedy, with Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill and other celebrities playing themselves while holed up in Franco’s mansion as the world burns. In its evisceration of Hollywood, this is a younger, fouler version of Robert Altman’s The Player – with some amusing eschatology thrown in.
A haunting horror movie, all the more so because it initially doesn’t seem to belong to the genre. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur are equally mesmerizing as friends who grew up in the same orphanage, but have gone their separate ways: the former has become a nun, while the latter wants to do away with any semblance of a religious life. In director Cristian Mungiu’s hands, this becomes one of the most unsettling exorcism movies I’ve seen (yes, more so than The Exorcist). It’s the disturbing story of two women lost in the shadowy land between superstition and faith.
One of the year’s most precise character portraits. Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, the life of every high-school party. As the movie proceeds, Sutter begins to realize what Matthew McConaughey didn’t in Dazed and Confused: that this isn’t much of a life once graduation has come and gone. Bonus points for regarding teen alcoholism as something devastating and tragic.