In some ways, year-end top 10 lists are completely pointless, if not pretentious. Quality is almost entirely subjective, so anything approaching a “definitive” list is impossible. Also, there’s always bound to be movies that you miss, so a more appropriate title is “the top 10 films that I saw this year.” As a non-professional who has to pay to see things, there are many important films I’ve yet to see. All is Lost, Short Term 12, Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis and Her are a few that immediately come to mind.
With those caveats in place, I still adore top 10 lists, especially when film-goers have a chance to highlight films that they believe have been overlooked along with heaping further praise on the more “obvious” but no less deserving choices. I’ve put a lot of thought into my list, and I hope it shows. How do I choose what makes the cut? Well, I tend to go for movies that surprised me in some significant way. Whether I laughed more than expected, was lifted higher than I imagined or thrown for a loop in a way I didn’t anticipate, surprise is something so rare in the cinema, but so valuable. These movies all provided that value. Enjoy.
10. THE WORLD’S END
Could we have imagined such a completely satisfying conclusion to Edgar Wright’s bonkers Cornetto trilogy? The team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz reunited for this third outing, which finds stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost playing losers once again facing a supernatural menace (aliens, in this case).
What puts this movie above the others, for me, is the brilliant supporting cast, including Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine. But what truly anchors the film amidst all the madcap insanity is Pegg’s mesmerizing performance as a man who finds himself living in the perpetual “glory days” that Bruce Springsteen sang about. It’s alternately funny and tragic, like the film itself, and a sobering reminder that no one gets Oscars for “comedic” performances. That’s a shame, because this one was so much more.
9. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Every time we think we’ve seen everything Tom Hanks can do, he reinvents himself and enthralls us anew. As Captain Rich Phillips, he gives perhaps the best performance of his career, because not an inch of him looks or acts like a movie star. Equal praise goes to native Somalian Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain. Their game of wits, based upon the true story that enthralled the nation in 2009, provided some of the most intense moments in cinema this year. Not surprising, considering that Paul Greengrass is one of the most exhilarating filmmakers in the business. And good lord, that ending. Be ready for it.
Don’t mistake this terrifying film for a typical revenge thriller. If anything, it’s a reaction against almost every one made in the last few decades. Pulling career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall as the man determined to find his daughter at all costs and the cop doing all he can to help, Prisoners is a slow burn, and a disturbing one. But its moral complexity, found in Jackman’s Keller Dover and his intense Catholic faith, make every decision feel as weighty as it should. Dover knows torture is wrong, for example, but what else is a desperate father to do? We may not approve of his decisions, but we can understand why he would make them. It makes this thriller so real, and atones for the sins of a thousand thoughtless slaughter fests from Segal, Stallone, Gibson and company.
7. STORIES WE TELL
In a killer year for documentaries, Sarah Polley’s layered film stands out by reminding us why we tell stories in the first place. Polley’s breathtaking oral history of her family centers on her mother, and some family secrets that come to the surface in some surprising ways. To say anything more would ruin the impact of the film, which unfolds like a can’t-put-down novel, as revelation after revelation glues us to the screen. We tell stories, Polley suggests, primarily to lie to ourselves. After all, life and memory don’t always play out as straightforward narrative. They’re messy, and Polley calls us (and herself) out on our willingness to coalesce human experience into a convenient narrative. While many documentaries are didactic or polemical in nature, Stories We Tell trades more in ambiguity. Kind of like life. It’s essential viewing for anyone who has ever desired to tell a story. And really, isn’t that all of us?
6. FRUITVALE STATION
Seeing Fruitvale Station at a packed theater at the Sundance Film Festival is one of the movie highlights of my life. Seeing first-time director Ryan Coogler’s real-life depiction of the life and death of Oscar Grant (a great breakthrough performance by Michael B. Jordan), a bay-area black man senselessly killed by a white BART officer in 2009, reminded us of our obligation to our fellow man. We laughed, we cried, we pleaded that the story would turn out differently, that Jordan’s mother (a brilliant Octavia Spencer) would never have to bury her son. But, of course, she did, and that knowledge imbues the film with a sense of dread and urgency that even fuels the many joyful moments in this brilliantly acted, exhilarating debut. I can’t wait to see where Coogler and Jordan go next.
5. AMERICAN HUSTLE
Is there any more consistently exciting director working today than David O. Russell? When his films arrive, it’s like the carnival’s in town and we’re all invited. It’s hard to not be swept up in his effortless energy, his brilliant writing and his ability to bring the best out of today’s most talented actors. In his loose fictional interpretation of events surrounding the Abscam bribery scandal of the ‘70s and ‘80s that took down a number of big Jersey-area politicians, he does that and more. He channels his own inner Scorsese, resulting in a rich crime drama full of memorable characters, a great pop-filled soundtrack and some of the best hair ever committed to a screen. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams are all at the top of their respective games, and great supporting performances from the likes of Louis C.K., Jeremy Renner and Robert DeNiro only sweeten the deal. I could watch Jennifer Lawrence singing “Live and Let Die” in yellow rubber gloves for hours. And that’s only one scene.
4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
A perfect ending to what may go down as one of the best trilogies in movie history. Director Richard Linklater reunites with stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for a bittersweet meditation on love, commitment, and the way life both strengthens and whittles away at both. If the previous films worked more like romantic fables, Before Midnight is so real it hurts. The possibility that these passionate lovers’ relationship may be on the rocks is beyond heartbreaking. If Linklater’s dialogue might be a bit too existential for some, Hawke and Delpy go a long way in making it feel as natural as breathing. The Before trilogy is one of the great triumphs of modern independent filmmaking; all you need is a good idea, a couple of passionate and talented artists, and a little bit of money. No pressure, right?
Combine the best elements of Stand By Me, The Goonies and the plays of Tennessee Williams, and you have a newly minted American classic on your hands. Director Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter, is one of the best films of the decade so far, and Mud continues the trend. This southern gothic tale, set on the Mississippi bayou, is filled to the brim with warm characters, beautiful locales and that ever-approaching mix of fear and excitement over growing up that is the cornerstone of any great coming-of-age story. Tye Sheridan provides one of the more natural and engaging child performances in recent memories, and Matthew McConaughey complements an incredible year as the title character, showing once again why he’s the most surprising actor in Hollywood. Along with amazing performances in The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, he’s ready for a date with Oscar. It’s more a matter of when, rather than if.
Wow, wow, wow. What else is there to say about Alfonso Cuaron’s revolutionary space film? I’m bored by conversations over how Gravity will hold up in years to come. Who cares? In the here and now, it is one of the most emotional, exhilarating and audacious experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Maybe it’s an obvious film for a top 10 list, but it’s on almost everyone’s, so that probably just means it’s really, really good. And it is; if all big-budget spectacles were this spectacular, I would have no life. Sandra Bullock is so exhilarating to watch; it’s the finest performance of her career by far. She has to carry most of the film on her shoulders, and she does so with impressive physicality and a quiet resolve. From its breathtaking opening to its haunting final shot, Gravity is the work of a true master. It will be emulated for years to come, but no one will come close to replicating this space opera for the ages.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
The word “essential” should be very rarely used in the word of film. But, with 12 Years a Slave, it is entirely justified. Director Steve McQueen’s films have come off as a bit cold in the past, but in his treatment of American slavery his relatively objective lens lends the true story of Solomon Northup an appropriate level of gravitas and reverence. Northup, a free black man living in 1840s-era New York who is captured and sold into slavery in the south, is played with an aching level of passion by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the performance of the year. In his expressive eyes, we see not only Northup’s pain but also his unquenchable spark of hope. The supporting cast is all-around brilliant too, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Brad Pitt to Michael Fassbender. And Luptia Nyong’o as Patsy is one of the most wrenching breakthrough performances in memory.
12 Years is not an easy sit, and some might be looking forward to seeing it like they would a root canal. I did. I was shaking when I entered the theater, and I was shaking when I left. But that intensity underestimates the film’s aching beauty; from its sensuous cinematography and costumes to the quiet moments of hope and joy that can be found in the film’s small moments. The most memorable scene is not a whipping, or an act of verbal torture, but rather, a group of slaves, burying one of their own and singing, with both pain and hope, to the God that is still with them, even as others use the same God to subject and demean them. It’s rare to be reduced to a blubbering mess by a movie without feeling emotionally manipulated, but 12 Years is a passionate, beautiful masterpiece that earns such a heartfelt response.