My Top 50 Movies of 2015

I always have a hard time determining which films make the cut and which don’t. But in 2015 there were so many quality films that I found this especially challenging. A lot of very good stuff simply didn’t make it.

A quick word about qualifying for this list – something has to have received a non-festival U.S. release. This means some stuff that people consider 2015 favorites like ‘The Lobster’ or ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ are not eligible, as there was no way for Americans to have seen them from a limited release etc.

Sadly, there are also cases where I simply did not have time to watch everything. I try to make the best effort I can, but some movies like ‘Arabian Nights’ I just didn’t get to in time. If you have a question about something I may or may not have seen, I’d be happy to discuss.

Top Honorable Mention: Hard to Be a God


Of all the films I saw this past year, Aleksey German’s sci-fi epic is easily the hardest to rate. For starters, it’s a nearly impossible movie to recommend to someone. It is nearly three hours long, it’s shot in black and white, and it’s a subtitled Russian language film. None of those three things, many of which would be red flags for casual movie-goers, get anywhere near what makes this such a challenging film.

The story takes place on an alien planet that is similar to Earth, but with a culture that is vastly different. The society on this planet appear stuck in the medieval dark ages, as though awaiting a renaissance that will never happen. In fact, not only was there no artistic or philosophical revolution, but the society is committed to exterminating its intelligentsia in a genocidal fashion. This ensures that our protagonist, an Earth scientist named Don Rumata, is hopelessly adrift in a sea of filth and ignorance. He and his fellow scientists are under strict guidelines to observe but not intervene with the alien population. Yet, even if they wanted to, how could they usher in a new era of prosperity without giving themselves away as intellectuals? By the time we meet our leading man, he appears to be completely apathetic and nearly mad.

The feeling of frustration and madness seeps into everything in this film. There is no conventional narrative structure, and what little plot there is must be deciphered from cryptic encounters and random images. It’s difficult to put into words just how scattershot and meandering this movie can feel at times. One friend of mine who watched an advanced screening of it claimed that over half of the audience walked out, which does not surprise me at all. Watching it on my home theater, I will admit that I had to pause this film many times before finally reaching the end. It is a viewing experience that many will find exhausting.

So why is it here at all? Because it’s one of the most ambitious and unforgettable movies I’ve ever seen. The world that’s created here feels so visceral and fully realized. Everywhere you turn there are haunting images of muck and depravity, yet somehow it’s an incredibly beautiful film. The cinematography and world building are excellent, but it’s also a fascinating premise that leaves lingering questions about society and religion. As the days passed after seeing this film, I found myself thinking about it quite often. It’s a terrifying vision of what a failed society can look like, and it’s one that doesn’t seem so far fetched despite its science fiction plot.

50. Anomalisa


Anomalisa is co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, who is deservedly famous for his work on such films as Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here he has made a stop-motion animation film, teaming up with co-director Duke Johnson who has past experience working on this type of animation with things like Moral Orel. If this seems like an unexpected artistic direction, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking so. I’ve actually listened to a number of critics who still have a hard time figuring out why this story needed to be animated rather than live action.

The style of animation is not without purpose, though. It works in conjunction with other stylistic choices that tie into the film’s themes. The stop-motion animation puppets have a robotic aesthetic to them, even going so far as to show plainly how their heads are fake. The voices of the ancillary characters are dubbed identically, as well. For quite some time, the only character who appears to be genuine is the main character, Michael Stone. He is a man who appears emotionally lost in a world where everything feels disconnected and dehumanized (ironic when you consider his expertise is customer service) until he accidentally chances upon the character of Lisa. Despite her awkward and quirky demeanor, Michael immediately becomes infatuated with this young woman who he sees as the only other real soul apart from himself.

The plot of the film is surprisingly straightforward when pitted against Kaufman’s other screenplays. One could even argue that it’s more similar to something like ‘Up in the Air’ than ‘Synecdoche, New York’, for example. But while this may not be Kaufman’s most challenging narrative, there is something about this film that lingers in the mind of the viewer. There’s a deceptive amount of psychological depth to the characters and the story is tinged with melancholy. There’s a moment in the film where Michael tells Lisa that there’s something exceptional about her, even if he can’t say what it is. Whether this is a genuine statement on his part could be debated, but it sums up how I felt about the film when I left the theater. It’s a movie that rewards post-viewing reflection, as we consider who these characters are and how their experience changes them – or not, as the case may be.

49. Mistress America


As some who know me can attest, I haven’t been a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s work. While others celebrated Frances Ha, I wasn’t nearly as taken with it. I personally wondered if a credit for Fantastic Mr. Fox as co-writer was my favorite thing about him. So it was one of the biggest surprises of 2015 when Mistress America (a film I watched mostly out of obligation) ended up being this funny and endearing.

Mistress America plays out like a screwball New York comedy in the style of Woody Allen. If that sounds like something up your alley, then you’re likely to enjoy this. The jokes are fast paced and layered, giving the film a freshness and vitality that I find very endearing. As the plot moves along there’s quite a bit of situational comedy as well, which makes it increasingly engaging. This culminates in a chaotic episode at the posh house of Mamie-Claire, Brooke’s longtime rival who she contends stole her t-shirt idea and her cats. The craziness that ensues is genuinely delightful.

The chemistry between Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke is funny and works dramatically as well. Both actresses do an impressive job here, but it’s Gerwig who is the standout in this film, establishing herself as both a talented comedic actress as well as a savvy co-writer. Part of what I like about the script is that it’s not overly ambitious or be the voice of a generation like other indie films often try to do. Admittedly, Brooke’s character represents fading youth and is professionally adrift like a lot of her contemporaries. However, this is a movie that mainly thrives on its wit and the compelling relationship between these two young women. It’s a light film, but it’s a lot of fun.

48. The Forbidden Room


There were some very weird movies from 2015, but ‘The Forbidden Room’ might just take the cake. Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, this is almost the dream-logic equivalent of Nolan’s ‘Inception’ if it was playing out in your unconscious mind. There are layers within layers, the “plot” moving back and forth between absurd scenarios in ways that defy logic.

Just how crazy is this movie? For starters, there is a submarine with explosive jelly which is mysteriously boarded by a lost woodsman. There is a dream volcano that dreams the fiery dream of molten justice, presiding over cases like squid theft. There is an amnesiac woman who moves between different plots with no recollection of how she got there. There is a man who is so sexually obsessed with derrieres that he hires a doctor to carve out part of his brain… I could keep going. If this sounds like something that you’d be interested in, then this film is for you. Conversely, if this sounds like a taxing experience that you wouldn’t enjoy, you’re probably right. It takes a certain kind of viewer to appreciate the madness.

Personally, I found it to be a fascinating and at times hilarious experiment. It lets you know right away that while it may be unconventional, this is far from highbrow art cinema. It opens with instructions on how to take a bath, chronicling how the practice dates back to Roman times and instructing bathers on how to set the water and scrub themselves clean. This is paired with archaic film techniques, many of which hearken back to the era of silent films. Indeed, the whole movie looks like it was dug up from an ancient vault and randomly edited together. There’s an adventurous vibe to this dream logic production, as well as a playfulness that’s very welcome. If you’re a fan of absurd humor or just absurdity in general, I’d suggest taking the plunge.

47. Creed


Creed continues the story of the legendary Rocky Balboa, who returns this time as a trainer for Adonis Johnson, son of former rival/friend Apollo Creed. It’s a reboot of a franchise that I imagine a lot of moviegoers didn’t ask for and were not expecting, but the good news is that this is the best film in the franchise since the 1976 original.

Some may contend that this film follows too closely to the Rocky formula which has already spawned six films. It is true that there’s only so much you can do with the format, and this does stay true to a lot of the tried and tested scenes that have worked in the past. However, this expands and improves on this elements in a way that makes the film feel fresh. Part of this is due to it being a reboot, but much of the credit has to go to the strength of the cast and the impressive direction of Ryan Coogler. The production quality of Creed vastly exceeds a lot of the previous entries in the franchise. The most obvious improvement being the fight scenes themselves, which are sometimes glossed over in a montage fashion. In Creed, there is a round of fighting that is done in one continuous take. It’s far from a gimmick, as it really captures the essence of the brawl in a way I’ve never seen from a boxing film before. The fight choreography in general is head and shoulders above anything I’ve seen in the genre thus far.

Stallone (who I have never considered a great actor) probably turns in a career best performance here, working for the first time with an acting coach. Michael B Jordan is likely a star on the rise, but it’s Tessa Thompson who was, for me, the real standout performance in the film despite limited screen time. As one might expect, these dramatic characters and their story arcs are heavily featured. Rocky movies have long been about the life struggle that exists outside of the ring, and this film is no exception to that.

A bit of an aside, but I also enjoyed how this film was so distinctly Philadelphia. As a longtime resident of the city, it was nice to see shots of places I’ve been to. Even those who have never been to Philadelphia have praised the film’s use of environment. If nothing else, Creed finally got to explain to the rest of the world what a jawn is.

46. Phoenix


You may remember writer-director Christian Petzold’s previous film Barbara, which made my 2012 list. Like his previous work, Phoenix is a character drama that shows how major historical movements impact peoples’ lives in profound ways. The focus in this film is on a Jewish-German holocaust survivor named Nelly, who returns home after the war physically and mentally damaged. Having suffered disfiguring injuries, Nelly hopes to remake herself and seeks the help of doctors to perform facial reconstruction surgery.

The story becomes more complicated when Nelly encounters her husband Johnny, a man who may have been involved in her capture. Believing his wife to be dead, this case of mistaken identity leads to his plot to collect on her inheritance. What follows is a dramatic thriller in which Nelly’s husband coaches her to be… well, herself. The premise really locks you in because every scene is fraught with tension. When will Nelly call of the charade and reveal her true identity? Will she ever reveal herself to him, or does she seek retribution instead? Unveiling the basic plot points of the film is as far as I’ll go there. This is a film that relies heavily on anticipation, so I wouldn’t want to spoil anything significant.

I will say that the story is compelling both in terms of plot and metaphor. It plays out with tension, but there’s also an undercurrent of missing the obvious truth that’s sometimes right in front of us. This is bolstered by Petzold’s confident storytelling, but also by Nina Hoss’ strong performance in the leading role. Yet, in spite of everything I’ve said, it’s the finale of the film that really steals the show. It’s a compelling buildup, but the ending scene is honestly one of the best of 2015. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the last sequence before the credits roll.

45. Theeb


Theeb is director and co-writer Naji Abu Nowar’s debut film. It takes place during World War I in the wake of the Great Arab Revolt. The story centers around a boy named Theeb (meaning wolf), who must find a way to assist his brother and a companion guide as they take an Englishman across the hostile trek of the Wadi Rum desert.

One of the interesting things about this film is that the director chose to use non-professional actors. The pilgrim guides in the film are portrayed by last-generation Bedouins, who retired to a village sometime in the late 1990s. The young boy playing Theeb, Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, was raised in that village. I’ve long been ambivalent about child actors because I feel it’s extremely difficult to evaluate their talent. Children are either naturally gifted at make-believe or they’re not, but this tells us little about whether they’ll go on to hone their craft and become competent adult actors. That being said, Al-Hwietat clearly has the natural ability to play this role. While most of the awards consideration is being directed at Jacob Tremblay from Room, I feel that it’s Al-Hwietat that has the more compelling child performance of the year.

There are historical and metaphorical aspects of the story that I’d rather not delve into for fear of spoilers. Aspects are eventually revealed as the story moves along, but this is a production that should be accessible to almost anyone. It’s an adventure thriller about survival. It’s a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of a beautiful and unforgiving desert. The film effortlessly generates suspense while maintaining a feeling of authenticity throughout. The logistics of the journey are so apparent that even when you have long stretches without dialogue, there is no mistaking what’s going on or what’s at stake.

Thankfully, this film got a nod from the 2016 Academy Awards and was nominated for best foreign film. While it is not my favorite film among that group of five, it’s very nice to see such a beautiful and overlooked film getting the recognition it deserves.

44. Amy


Asif Kapadia, who directed the highly regarded biographical doc Senna, returns with a new biographical documentary about Amy Winehouse. As is the case with Ayrton Senna’s story, we already know that this tale won’t end well. Yet, like Senna, this is a meticulously constructed work that does a great job showing the human element hiding behind the celebrity name.

Pieced together using mostly archival footage, Amy starts out with a clip of her at a birthday party when she was fourteen years old. Her friends start to sing Happy Birthday, but they quickly stop and stare in silence as the young Amy bellows out the tune with the talent of a classic jazz vocalist. It’s a small moment, but it’s an unforgettable one all the same. It’s so obvious that she’s gifted with amazing talent, but watching this young girl shine in that small moment and knowing the eventual outcome of her life story almost made me tear up a few minutes in. How did this young girl with her whole life ahead of her and so much potential go down a path in which it was all wasted?

The answer to that question remains a topic of debate among those who knew her. Kapadia has also said that he doesn’t want the film to be the final word in Amy Winehouse’s story, acknowledging that there is room for interpretation and that others may have different vantage points. Despite that, the documentary certainly seems to shine a light on some very troubling relationships in her life – particularly with her ex-lover and her father. There are also moments where the paparazzi attention is so overbearing that it’s hard not be impacted by it, even watching it from afar. I recall one scene where Amy walks out of her apartment and we can see the flashing lights of the cameras envelope her so completely that the screen becomes a torrent of white light. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s a terrifying scene. One wonders if they would want to walk into something like that, or if they would be like Amy, content to avoid it all and sink into a spiral of drugs and isolation.

I must admit I didn’t go into this as a huge Amy Winehouse fan. I thought she had a great voice and I knew some of the lyrics to her songs, but I only had a passing knowledge of her work. That being said, one of the most striking things about the documentary is its use of the song’s lyrics and how it juxtaposes them with the story of her life. The audience is given subtitles transcribed over archival footage, so that there’s no mistaking the words from Winehouse’s vocal inflections. As we learn more about the context of the lyrics, they start to become overbearing and almost tragic. One could argue that it’s inherently tricky to ascribe meaning to a genre that’s inherently poetic, but it certainly seems as though they’re a reflection of the darkest chapters in her life. Just when she appears to be turning a corner in her life and moving on from drugs and a destructive relationship, the financial drivers around her conspire to get her back on stage to sing the very ‘Back to Black’ anthems that celebrated her self destruction. Had it been up to her, she might have avoided the touring altogether. But with all those around her standing to benefit so much, it appears that she was forced back into a world she very much wanted to escape from. I’ll personally never be able to listen to those lyrics the same way I did before the film.

43. The Tribe

The Tribe

One of the more ambitious films of last year, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is a Ukrainian drama done entirely in sign language and features no subtitles. Even if you’re familiar with ASL, you won’t be able to understand this particular type. This means that almost nobody is going to be able to decipher the dialogue in the film. Yet, because of the shared humanity and common themes in the story, it’s not a difficult film to understand.

The film depicts a boarding school for the deaf that doubles as an organized crime outfit. New students like Sergey are brought in and quickly indoctrinated into the group, a proposition that’s hard to refuse given the circumstances. We see one character who appears completely ostracized, choosing to spend a lot of his free time sitting by himself and nervously eating. You get the impression that at such a school you’d either have to fall in line or become a recluse, since the only other people you can communicate with are in this closed environment. I imagine most people would simply follow along, even if it means engaging in acts they’d never do otherwise. We often think about crime as a conscious moral choice, but a lot of criminality comes from circumstances beyond a person’s control.

The subtext in the film is fascinating, but the most important thing is that The Tribe manages to tell a compelling story. Though we know almost nothing about him, we empathize with Sergey’s situation as we watch him try to navigate the school’s hierarchy. He undergoes a stunning hazing scene, captured in a wide long take with dozens of classmates looking on. He is made to work his way up the ranks by brutalizing innocent victims and doing what’s asked of him. However, Sergey’s rise to acceptance in this organization becomes fraught after he falls into a forbidden love affair, forcing him to choose where his true allegiances lie. I won’t say anything else about the plot to avoid spoiling it, but watching this intimate struggle play out against the backdrop of the school makes for a tense and interesting watch.

This is clearly not a film for everyone. Most people I know probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the premise of a silent film without music or dialogue. Yet even if you’re fine with that, there are also some intensely graphic scenes of violence and sexuality that may be a bit much for some viewers. I personally don’t mind either of these issues, but if you’re selecting something to watch with a friend or a spouse etc. it’s probably worth considering. I would recommend this one to more adventurous viewers. It’s a unique and fascinating film, filled with impressive camera work and some unforgettable scenes.

42. About Elly

about elly

Originally released in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly did not get a proper U.S. theatrical and DVD release until 2015. Had it not been for the Oscar success of A Separation, I doubt that I would be writing this or much less have seen the film. That would be a shame, because while this may not be quite as impressive as A Separation, it’s a gripping story and one of the better films from last year.

The story follows a group of former college friends who are vacationing by the Caspian Sea. Sepideh decides to bring along an outside friend named Elly, a kindergarten teacher that she hopes to set up with the recently divorced Ahmad. Everything starts out great, as the group enjoys picnicking and games against the beautiful backdrop of the water. However, when Elly suddenly goes missing the group is thrown into a state of panic and confusion. They coordinate a search and seek the help of the authorities to track her down. It’s unclear whether Elly has drowned, but as time keeps passing the group begins to fear the worst.

Yet while everyone is concerned with Elly’s safety, hidden tensions begin to surface in the wake of her disappearance. Secrets are revealed that begin to unnerve the group, some of whom begin resenting Sepideh for bringing this mysterious woman along for the trip. I can’t say exactly what occurs or reveal the nature of these secrets, as this is a movie that plays out much better if you know nothing beyond the premise. What I can say is that this is the kind of tension filled human drama that you might expect from Farhadi considering his filmography. This is a director who is very interested in exploring the intricacies of human nature and how they play out in the most difficult of circumstances. This is riveting stuff and it proves that Farhadi was a great talent long before American audiences became familiar with him.

41. When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There

As the American author Mark Twain once said, “rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated”. Around this time last year I was writing about my number one film of 2014, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, as potentially being Studio Ghibli’s last film. I’m happy to say that they at least had one more ace up their sleeve with Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s ‘When Marnie Was There’. The fate of the studio still remains an open question, but I’m happy to report that Ghibli is currently hard at work at a new feature film, The Red Turtle. I’m also happy to say that their 2015 entry of Marnie is another strong entry in their rich film history.

Apparently, the story for this film is based on a book that Hiyao Miyazaki loves. There are even accounts that he required newcomers to the studio to read the story, as he felt it would give them an impression of what Ghibli was all about. It’s hard not to see why, when you consider how many of the elements in this film are seen in their filmography. It’s a deeply personal story that blends in elements which seem supernatural or otherworldly. The story follows an introverted young girl named Ana who is sent away to stay with her relatives in the country. During her time there, she chances upon a mysterious abandoned mansion and quickly becomes fascinated by it. As she begins spending more time around the house, she meets a charismatic extrovert named Marnie, a mysterious child who may or may not be real.

Since a lot of the film takes place in this middle ground between established reality and potential fantasy, I don’t want to go to deep into what this implies. I suppose if you watch a lot of movies you might be able to guess where the story is going, but to me that’s not a real knock on the film. The journey here is so emotionally captivating that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. The story can feel ethereal and light, but it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the darker or more unpleasant aspects of life. Like a lot of the best animation, this is a film that will resonate more with adults, but it’s also just the kind of animated film you’d want to show to your kid.

It should go without saying, but the animation of the Japanese countryside is classically beautiful in Ghibli fashion. Despite the studio’s financial woes, there is no shortage of production values to be seen here. Even the sound design is spot on. If you like Studio Ghibli or just good movies in general, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

40. Faults


Riley Stearns’ writer-director debut is about a desperate couple who believe their daughter Claire has been stolen from them by a nefarious cult. With nowhere else to turn, they enlist the help of an author named Ansel Roth who specializes in cult de-programming. Despite his questionable credentials, Ansel is so down on his luck that he’s desperate to accept any paying work. He agrees to kidnap the daughter and hold her in a hotel room until he can convince her to stray from the cult’s path and return into the loving arms of her family.

While I can’t reveal much, this is a film that unfolds like a stage play with the two main characters vying for psychological control. The script loves to play mind games and keep you guessing where it will go next. From the unconventional opening in the hotel dining area to the finale, I was fully locked in and at times on the edge of my seat. It’s a film with a high stakes premise and dramatic subtext, yet it also manages to have a dark sense of humor. Ansel’s predicament is so absurd that it’s hard not to laugh at the situation or (in some cases) at him.

I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about this film this year. Everyone who saw it at my local video store was a fan, but I haven’t heard a single person on a movie forum or social media group mention it once. There are some great cult films like The Master and some not as great ones like The Sound of My Voice. I feel that while Faults may not be a masterpiece, it’s an underrated gem in this rather limited genre. Riley Stearns shines in the leading role and Mary Elizabeth Winstead once again proves that she’s a seriously impressive talent. This is a fun and twisted movie that more people need to see.

39. Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is sure to rub some people the wrong way, even those who are fans of his work. Queen of Earth is a character drama, but it might be better described as a psychological horror film. From the opening shot of Elisabeth Moss’s disheveled face, makeup streaming down her cheeks as she sobs and screams, we can plainly see that this is a mentally disturbed person. The setup for the plot seems simple enough, as Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) joins her friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) for a lake house retreat in order to unwind and regroup. As we can see through a series of flashbacks, this is not the first time the two girls have been to the vacation home. The last time they were there, it was Ginny who was in emotional turmoil and used the home, as well as the company of her friend, to recover. This time, the shoe is on the other foot with Catherine struggling to regain her composure after being dumped by her boyfriend.

The plot seems simple enough, but it’s probably misleading to call this a character drama. In many ways, this is a psychological horror film. Instead of using the environment to recover, Catherine only appears to slip further into madness as time goes on. Ginny tries her best to help her friend, but quickly becomes frustrated by the extent of her insanity. It’s an often cringe-inducing dynamic as we watch this downward spiral continue unabated. Was Catherine always this mentally ill and it’s only now coming to light? Can the two girls possibly remain friends after something like this? Will Catherine have an epiphany which saves her in the end?

Both young actresses do a good job here, but it’s Elisabeth Moss who really carries this film. When trying to pull off a script like this, you really need a talented and committed actress in the leading role. I’ve long been a big fan of Moss and it’s refreshing to see her take command of a leading role, especially one this challenging. I honestly think she deserves awards considerations for this film, as she gives one of the best performances by an actress I saw all year. The claustrophobia of the screenplay is also enhanced by Perry’s direction and some clever cinematography by Sean Price Williams. There’s an old-school aesthetic to the film, shot on a short millimeter lens which catches some intimate perspectives of the characters and environment.

38. Eden


Eden is directed and co-written by Mia Hansen-Løve. The film starts off during the 1990s, when the French electronic scene was hitting full stride. It opens with a gorgeous underground party scene, bright lights and pulsing rhythms emanating from the end of a tunnel. The event, as is typical of electronic music parties, re-purposes an environment that is a long way from your typical nightclub. The patrons of this party are off in the woods, some of them huddling around an outdoor fire for warmth while others dance the night away. As someone who was involved in the U.S. electronic movement in the early 2000s, the opening setting made me miss those types of parties. It’s easy to see how our protagonist, Paul, becomes infatuated with the lifestyle. As the night is dying down, he walks over to the DJ and asks him about a record he’d spun earlier. The DJ recognizes the description and puts the vinyl back on for Paul, who smiles knowingly as the melody spins. It’s clear in this moment that he has found his life’s dream – to become a garage disc jockey.

The movie chooses to make frequent jumps through time, sometimes fast-forwarding years ahead from one scene to the next. This makes the story feel like a collection of memories from the past, a sort of mashup of the greatest hits of Paul’s life. While this does make some of the relationships and characters feel underdeveloped, there is a real intimacy with the leading character throughout. The vast span of time helps us to contextualize each event within the scope of his life and career. We also get to see the changing culture of electronic music at a macro level, both in France and the United States. But this is more than just a narrative device. Eden is only using the electronic music scene as backdrop, as it’s really about time itself.

This movie reminded me a lot of Linklater’s Boyhood, a story that also centered around one person as time inexorably moves forward. Like Boyhood, you don’t really gain an appreciation for the weight of what you’ve seen until the end. I won’t say where the story leads or how it happens, but there is a piece of poetry at the end of this film that I found very moving. Along the way we see the beauty of life and this artistic movement, yet so many of things inevitably fade with the passing of time. It’s a celebratory film, but it’s also a melancholic one. When the film ended, I re-winded to that opening sequence at the party and felt an immediate rush of nostalgia.

37. Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

In the 1960s, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley were hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the political conventions in the form of debate. At the time, ABC News was in dead last among the big three news networks. There was even a joke going around that if you wanted to end the Vietnam war, all you had to do was put it on ABC and it would be cancelled in a few weeks. Things were so bad that the set on which Vidal and Buckley were to debate collapsed before the first verbal sparring, requiring the crew to set up an impromptu curtain and a few seats. The whole thing was a last ditch effort to gain some advantage in the ratings and nobody knew if it was going to work.

What ended up happening was some of the most memorable debate in the history of television. These two men truly despised one another and felt they were fighting a cultural battle that had to be won. Yet while these men were ideologically polarized (Vidal on the left and Buckley on the right) these were not blowhards like we’re used to seeing on cable news today. These were, in fact, two of the foremost intellectuals of their day. Buckley and Vidal were wordsmiths and very skilled debaters, so that watching them spar was riveting and essential. The way each man could weave a sentence or react with a cold glance was excellent, and they touched on many of the biggest political issues of their day – topics that are very much still with us in modern America.

Yet while they gave the nation something revolutionary, they also sowed the seeds for the erosion of quality TV journalism. As much as these men heightened the value of nightly programming during their era, they have done far more harm (unintentionally, of course) to our political discourse. The late night comedian Jon Stewart touched on this problem over a decade ago when he went on the CNN show ‘Crossfire’, a program inspired by the Left vs Right contest that began on ABC all those years ago. But what comedian Jon Stewart rightly pointed out was that the format had devolved into partisan hackery. No longer were there intelligent men of letters having a legitimate debate. Instead, Americans now tuned in to watch personalities take sides along party lines and fight for our collective amusement. Somewhere along the way, TV news networks decided that they were in the entertainment business. The model worked, so it was emulated… even if what made it worthwhile got lost along the way.

36. The Martian

The Martian

It’s pretty exciting to see Ridley Scott, the man who brought us Alien, back at the helm for a new science fiction film. This is a very different kind of film than Alien or the recent prequel Prometheus, opting for a tone that’s much lighter and more friendly than those sci-fi/horror stories. While it may not be what people would expect, I think this is the best thing the director has given us in a very long time.

Based on a best-selling novel which takes place in a hypothetical future in which NASA’s budget remains intact, manned missions to the red planet are now a reality. But on one scientific expedition, a storm hits with unexpected force and causes the research team to evacuate on short notice. During the escape sequence, however, one of their astronauts is lost and presumed dead. But astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, miraculously survives the ordeal. The problem is that his crew has already charted an unalterable path back to Earth, while he is left to survive with resources designed to last only a month. It will be at least four years before another expedition can reach him, meaning Mark is going to have to have to find out how to contact NASA and grow enough food to survive in the interim. Or, as he so eloquently puts it – “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!”

This is a movie that feels like it was made for Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but anyone fascinated with space travel will probably love this film. There are gorgeous shots of space travel and the martian landscape that fuel the imagination. Not only is it grounded in real science, but scientific knowledge and innovation are the means by which our character will either live or die. The film presents the story as a series of problems that need to be solved, yet at no point in this film is it dull or uninteresting. It’s refreshing to have a movie that celebrates the importance of science and what the best minds can accomplish if they work together.

There was some controversy when the Golden Globe awards nominated The Martian for the best musical and/or comedy award. And while it’s certainly no musical, I actually do think that this film could pass as a comedy. It certainly had a lot more laughs than many so-called comedies of 2015. I’m of two minds about this, because on the one hand it makes an otherwise hard-sell more palatable for a wide audience and it really does infuse some fresh life into the film. On the other hand, those who watch a lot of movies can probably pick up on the vibe and realize that this is not Game of Thrones. You probably will have some sense of where this all headed, but that’s OK when the rest of the film is so compelling and fun to watch.

35. Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy

An Austrian psychological horror/thriller film from directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy is a bit tricky to say anything more about. I would actually recommend going into it cold and not even reading the synopsis, but if you must know what it’s about I’ll spell it out here and try not give anything away.

The film largely takes place in the Austrian countryside at a posh and stylish home. The house has quite a bit of acreage around it, giving the place a feeling of isolation against a peaceful backdrop of fields and trees. Though, as you may imagine, this is far from a subdued film. The trouble begins when two twin boys see their mother return home from a disfiguring accident. She is wrapped in bandages so they cannot see her face, and they start to notice that her behavior is erratic and suspicious. As time passes, the boys become increasingly convinced that this mysterious woman is not their mother after all. As they start to unravel clues as to her true identity, things become increasingly tense and frightening. The tone of the film becomes very dark as we see disturbing sequences begin to play out before us.

As I was watching this I couldn’t help but buy in to this dark and foreboding vibe. Everything about this movie and its setting were so transfixing that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The mood is so precise and it uses very little dialogue to tell its story. As is the case with a lot of horror films, I watched this one alone in the dark with the volume cranked up. Yet, even sitting there by myself, I couldn’t help but break my suspension of belief a few times and whisper things like “this movie is cool as hell”. It may not be classically scary in the way films like Babadook or Sinister are, but this is a creepy little messed up film with tons of intrigue.

The only thing that prevents this from ranking higher on my list is something I often complain about with horror films. It simply doesn’t have a strong ending, at least not in my view. For some people this can sully the whole experience, but I honestly don’t think that most horror films have good conclusions. It’s not an outright awful finale like 2014’s The Conjuring, but I really wish more genre films like this would have the courage to give us darker and/or more ambiguous endings. Despite all of this, I found the journey to be so enjoyable that I still consider this a very good film. For me, it’s one of the best horror movies in modern memory.

34. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary takes place during the demonstrations in Maidan square. A student protest movement gradually grew into a revolution, as Ukrainians flocked to the square to call for the resignation of Viktor Yanukovich and to demand the country honor the proposed alliance with the European Union. What started out looking like a traditional protest quickly turned into something much more, as riot police forcibly pushed back against the demonstrators. Stakes and tensions began to reach a boiling point, with the demonstrators refusing to back down they began to turn Maidan into a central hub of operations, choosing to dig in deep for a battle that would last months.

This documentary is one of the most harrowing and exciting I’ve seen in a long time. The footage that’s used here is absolutely breathtaking, and though I’ve watched other similar documentaries like Netflix’s The Square, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. As the protests go on, the images start to take on the look of a post-apocalyptic failed state. It’s truly amazing to see this area transform from a scenic town square into what looks like a war zone. There are sequences where cameras are filming against a barrage of beatings, amidst Molotov cocktails, burning tires and live ammunition. This stunning array of sight and sound is wonderfully edited and bolstered by a moving soundtrack. Some of the sequences in here are as gut-wrenching and emotional as almost anything I saw from 2015.

So why isn’t this film ranked much higher? I loved it and I do think it’s a great introduction to those uninitiated with this movement. However, there have been some complaints about how this film functions more as a propaganda piece than a work of historical journalism. Those attacks are not without merit, as the film does seem to portray the entire country as being unified in their desire to join the E.U., oppose Yanukovich and Russian interference. In truth, there are many segments of the population that disagreed with the protesters’ political goals or have very different ideas about what’s best for Ukraine. To use one anecdotal example, I was speaking with a young Ukrainian immigrant just a few days ago who felt the protesters were wrong and that the riot police should have used more force at the outset to quell the uprising. He feels that the revolution did nothing but cause further economic hardship and casualties in Ukraine since, and that Petro Poroshenko is no better a leader than Viktor Yanukovich was. Certainly the documentary could have shed some light on the complexities of the political situation, but much of this is simply omitted or glossed over. There is a note at the end about how many people have died since the Maidan protests, but this footnote is not sufficient by itself.

It’s still a very well made and impressive documentary, all the same. Anyone who has any interest in the subject should seek it out.

33. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of these people called Scientologists. But did you also know that the Church of Scientology is crazy? It’s true! HBO even made a documentary about it that aired last year.

Some of the stuff in this film is absolutely stunning. For instance, the story of how Scientology became a religion all stems from how they owed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. In order to get their back taxes expunged, they blackmailed the IRS by having as many people from their church file lawsuits against the IRS and its employees. While they were buried in litigation, someone told them that every single one of these suits would go away if only they’d declare Scientology a religion, and therefore tax exempt. As you may guess, the IRS caved to their demands. That’s just *one* example among many in this documentary, which features some truly shocking and disturbing accounts from ex-members of the cult. There are stories of what amounts to voluntary torture/abuse, a class hierarchy as wide as feudalism and people forced to “disconnect” from their loved ones that would dare leave to leave the faith. For me, it’s the disconnecting part that hit me the hardest. The idea that you’d be forced to forever break off all communication with a friend, a spouse, or a family member. In one especially devastating scene, a mother recalls her daughter saying goodbye to her for the last time.

Yet, despite how much that’s in here, there’s a ton of stuff that was left out by calculation. Because of the aggressive and sometimes vindictive nature of Scientology, the filmmakers had to be very careful about whether showing something could get them into trouble. The documentary was actually vetted by over a hundred lawyers, who what ended up making the final cut might have had nothing to do with what makes for compelling footage. There are a couple pieces online about everything that’s not in the film, but this HBO production is such a treasure trove of stuff that you’ll walk away getting the gist of it.

32. Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation

Cary J Fukunaga’s latest film is streaming on Netflix, but the subject matter is so challenging and the cinematography is so beautiful that it’s made for the theater. I was lucky enough to have one of the Philadelphia theaters near me play this for about a week or so, but I imagine many people will be watching this on their tablets or smart phones. I would suggest watching this on the best possible display you have, so if you’ve got to hook up your HDMI cable from your laptop to your TV it will be worth the effort.

As one might expect from a film about child soldiers, this is a very troublesome film that doesn’t pull a lot of punches. We see the innocence of childhood being lost at the outset, as the young Agu finds himself with nowhere left to turn but the Commandant’s army. While there are numerous battles and raids going on, the central narrative of the film is Agu himself and how the carefree boy we see in the beginning can become slowly indoctrinated into this death squad. Agu himself laments the loss of his humanity as the film goes on, yet he finds himself giving in to the comforts of obedience or even the bloodthirsty drive for revenge. Yet, despite this, I don’t feel that Beasts of No Nation is a hopeless film or too much to take in. I never got the sense that Agu was beyond saving, even as this becomes an increasingly distant possibility. Obviously, I don’t want to give away where it’s going, so you’ll have to see for yourself.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the production values here are excellent. The cinematography is gorgeous and shot by Fukunaga himself. He draws on inspiration from war photographers, including the technicolor war photos of Richard Mosse. The music by Dan Romer accompanies the film very well, eliciting emotion at just the right times and making other sequences feel epic in scope. Abraham Atta does a very good job in the role of Agu, while Idris Elba gives one of the most impressive supporting actor performances of the year in the role of the Commandant. I really do feel that Idris Elba deserved more awards recognition than what he got this year, though I think that may have more to do with this being a Netflix production than any type of racial bias.

This movie is probably not for everyone, as it goes to places that many studio films would find too troubling to depict. But if you’re interested in a very well made film about a difficult subject, then I would suggest checking this out.

31. Brooklyn


John Crowley’s film is adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel. It stars Saoirse Ronan as a girl who immigrates from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Unlike a lot of films these days, this one doesn’t really lend itself to trailers. It’s not based on a historical event, the romance element is complicated and its central conflict is a personal one. I saw it at a matinee showing and was the only person in the audience of a United Artists multiplex. Yet, despite not being the most marketable film, Brooklyn won over critics and audiences alike, and even got notable awards show considerations. All of this went on to help the film recoup its modest budget of $10m five times over. 

The immigrant story is not a new one, and this is a movie where you can see the strings if you look hard enough. It’s tugging at your heart in ways that may seem obvious or even manipulative, but none of that seems to matter when we’re watching. From the early scene where Eilis waves goodbye to her family from a boat, I found myself getting emotionally invested in this character and her story. The film looks and feels like an old fashioned character drama, which is not a criticism. It doesn’t overplay its hand with a big Hollywood score or overly dramatized bits. Yet when it wants to illicit a response from you, it does.

We see Eilis trying to make a new life herself, adjusting to her new environment and her place of work. Yet Eilis is profoundly homesick and wonders if she and her sister, who helped facilitate this plan, actually made the right choice. It isn’t until she begins a romantic relationship with an Italian-American lad named Tony that she starts to finally ease into her surroundings. This all seems as though it’s setting itself up for a fairly basic story, one in which we see this Irish girl transition to her new life while immigration themes subtly play out. However, events from back home call her back to Ireland suddenly, and this is where the film really hits its stride. I don’t want to give too much away, but she begins to linger there, realizing that her life may actually be better here than it would be in the United States. The forces of career, romance and family seem to be conspiring to keep her there. Eilis finds herself confronted with a very difficult choice, one that I found myself getting very anxious about.

One of the biggest reasons this film works so well is the quality of the acting. Every role is well executed and believable, but it’s Saoirse Ronan who steals the show as the leading woman. She’s so good that I honestly think she may have given the best performance by an actress this year. Her eyes are so commanding that you can almost feel the emotion in every scene just by the subtleties in her face. Every little detail about how she holds herself feels natural and appropriate. For a film that is really built around its central character and their internal struggle, this is very important. She’s the engine that makes the movie go.

30. Mommy


Mommy is written and directed by Xavier Dolan and earned considerable buzz at 2014 U.S. film festivals. I’m happy to say that the hype is deserved, and the film further establishes the young Canadian as a great talent.

Right away, we can see that several aspects of this film are unconventional. The story mentions that it takes place in a future Canada where a hypothetical new law has just passed regarding parental custody of troubled youth. From there, the film opens to a 1:1 aspect ratio. Most modern films are shot in 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1, so this decision is incredibly unorthodox but not without purpose. The ratio is used to accentuate the mood of the film, along with the constrained mental state of Steve and his mother Diane.

Steve is a violent and mentally troubled young boy, one who frequently acts out with uncontrollable or irrational behavior. He has been in and out of government run youth centers, but now he and his mother must attempt to make life work on their own, at least for the foreseeable future. As you might imagine, it’s a tough road for Diane to attempt to raise him as a single mother. Fortunately, she establishes a timely friendship with a neighbor named Kyla, a woman who quickly becomes an integral part of their lives. Together, the three of them are able to navigate Steve’s behavior a bit better than before. It’s not an altogether difficult journey, and there are even moments of joy and tranquility sprinkled in throughout. In a few of these moments we see the camera expand from 1:1 to a standard ratio and, coupled with the use of music, the effect is almost magical. There’s one montage that does this in particular, paired with Ludovico Einaudi’s song ‘Experience’, that is one of the most brilliantly cinematic things I’ve ever seen. In fact, Dolan talked about the idea for that sequence set to that music being the catalyst for the whole film.

This is an emotionally powerful experience that takes you through some highs and lows. It’s bolstered by three great leading performances and great artistic care by the director. If you haven’t already seen it, you should.

29. Tokyo Tribe

Tokyo Tribe

I’m a huge fan of Sion Sono, so when I heard that his latest film could be described as a Rap Opera set in a future Tokyo with warring tribes… well, let’s just say I was excited to see it. I’ve talked before about how Sono has all the command of a great director, yet he utilizes those talents to make truly bizarre and/or silly films. That sort of juxtaposition of craft and concept is part of what makes his work so compelling. I could easily see this film being a disaster in less competent hands, yet he somehow makes this hodgepodge of genres come together in a way that’s very entertaining to watch.

Trying to actually describe a Sono film is quite difficult and this latest is no exception. Mere words can’t really convey how utterly insane Tokyo Tribe is. There is a DJ grandmother who helps cut between scenes, a holographic overlord with an ensemble of dancing girls, a crime boss who sits at a lavish table with a giant ‘Fuck Da World’ engraved globe behind him, and a beat-boxing waitress… oh, my goodness, the beat-boxing waitress is so great. Most of the dialogue is sung as part of a rap verse, which gives the film this unrelentingly bizarre hip hop vibe. Yet all of this doesn’t really explain what makes the film so indelible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, critics weren’t really sure what to make of this film. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 50%, meaning that it’s the only movie on this list with a rotten rating from the critic aggregate site. Some have complained that the film is simply too weird, too much, or that it overstays its welcome. While I can see how some would feel that way, I obviously disagree with a lot of the negative feedback. I’ll concede that it may not be one of Sono’s best films, but this is still a ridiculously entertaining production that I have no problem watching again or recommending to people. There are moments in here that stand out as some of the most hilarious or ambitious stuff I saw all year. Never change, Mr. Sono!

28. Room


Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based on a novel about a woman and her son held in captivity. Despite the connection to horrifying cases like this which do take place, this is not a film that basks in exploitation or horror. It’s a movie that is more interested with the relationship between a mother and child. Even the room itself is fantasized and re-imagined for her son in a way to make the situation bearable. She is continually forced to make decisions about what’s best for her five-year-old son, all the while having to deal with the intermittent presence of her kidnapper and overwhelming logistical hurdles. You get the sense that the two of them, Ma and Jack, sustain each other in a very meaningful way.

I imagine people will be split on the film based on how emotionally resonant it felt. I tend not to be a very cynical viewer while I’m watching things, as my willing suspension of disbelief tends to take over. But I have spoken to a number of people that could never get past their initial misgivings about what the film represents, so they didn’t quite feel that emotional connection at key moments. One person said they couldn’t see it as anything other than using a miserable premise for Oscar bait. I personally feel this is an unfair view, but I can understand how some people might not be able to get those notions out of their head. I also feel that this is a movie that handles its subject matter with great care, and I appreciated how grounded the film felt from beginning to end.

Jacob Tremblay does a very good for a child actor and Brie Larson is very deserving of the praise she’s received for this role. This is her breakthrough performance for wider audiences, but what little she’s been in before like Short Term 12 already showcase her as a brilliant talent. I don’t think she’ll ever be marketable in a way that Jennifer Lawrence is, but she has an amazing commitment to her craft. For Room, she did some really crazy things to prepare herself for the role, since she viewed it as an almost insurmountable challenge to do justice to women with these experiences. In one NPR interview, she talked about locking herself away in isolation for months on end. She cut off communication with the outside world, including phone, TV, internet etc. and even reduced her diet to a very bland regiment. At first, she thought it wasn’t going to be too much of a challenge. But as the days turned into weeks, she says she found the task extremely difficult and that by the end it nearly broke her.

27. Tangerine


Sean Baker is quickly becoming a favorite director of mine. I adored Starlet from a few years back, which was a very intimate and emotional film. With Tangerine, Baker is still playing on themes of human empathy, but that’s not this movie’s key focus. In fact, Tangerine is a slice of life movie that is best categorized as a comedy, and it’s a damn good one at that.

Shot entirely on iPhones with a anamorphic adapters, Tangerine starts off with a lot of fast paced shots and edits. The aesthetic choice is an interesting one, and the lack of traditional camera tools heightens the frenetic pace of the script. The movie wastes no time getting right into its central conflict and from there it’s an unrelenting sit-com, as these two women tear through Los Angeles in pursuit of Sin-Dee’s cheating pimp and the woman he slept with. The film not only has this undeniable vibrancy, but both the characters and the setting feel very authentic. While I’ve never been to LA, some critics have noted that it gets the geography and locations just right. There was obviously a lot of effort by everyone involved in the film to make it feel as believable as possible. Every character in the film feels genuine, and the script empathizes with every character’s circumstances without resorting to melodrama.

But the real selling point here is the humor. Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s journey is filled with bizarre comedic situations, and the laughter doesn’t always hit you in ways you might expect. There is one scene in particular that takes place at a doughnut shop, which I consider the funniest of 2015. I won’t say how or why the scene is so great, but it plays out with all the brilliance and absurdity of a great stage comedy. I was honestly laughing so hard that I had to catch my breath.

I know some people have been apprehensive about watching this film. There’s a presumption that a movie starring transgender sex workers is likely going to dot certain ‘I’s and cross ‘T’s. I don’t think this mindset comes from any inherent bias against transgender characters, but it’s fostered by their under-representation in film and when there is one it tends to be handled in a predictable way like The Danish Girl. But thankfully, those people I spoke to ended up loving Tangerine when they finally got around to seeing it. This is because Tangerine is a really good and funny film, but it’s also because it handles its subject matter in such a matter-of-fact way. It’s refreshing to see a movie where the two leads are transgender actresses, but where that designation is not the focal point. Instead, this is a character driven comedy where the two leading women are un-apologetically flawed, much like every other person we meet. In other words, much like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a World War 2 movie that’s not really about WW2, Tangerine is a trans comedy that’s not really about the trans issue.

26. Spotlight


Spotlight is a film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic children abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It’s been mentioned in the same breath as All the President’s Men, received nearly unanimous positive reviews, and it’s even been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. So is all the hype warranted? The short answer is ‘yes’, because even if it’s not in my top 10 of 2015, I can’t deny that this is great cinema.

There are a lot of things that make this movie work so well. For starters, it has a terrific ensemble cast. There is no leading man or woman to be found here, yet each of the characters is integral to the story and they’re so well realized that each feels genuine. Another thing I like is that it draws on journalistic practices that are a bit inside baseball, yet the script manages to tell its story in a very clear and compelling way. It depicts the drudgery and grunt work of searching through folder archives and knocking on doors, yet at no point does the film feel dull or bogged down. In fact, by embracing the gumshoe reporting methods rather than shy away from them, each new revelation feels earned. Dramatic points in the story are that much more interesting as a result.

I also enjoyed how the film didn’t lionize these reporters or give in to big Hollywood moments. With the exception of one heated monologue, delivered by Mark Rufallo’s character, this is a film that’s approaching its subject in a dispassionate and objective manner that should make journalists proud. There’s talk early in the film about how Boston may be a big city, but it still has the feel of a small town. You get the impression that there is a tacit complicity working at many different levels of this society. In fact, the story isn’t really given the attention it deserves until Liev Schreiber’s character Marty Baron takes over the paper. You get the sense that you almost need someone not from the Boston area to approach this with fresh eyes. Because for all of the finger waving that goes on in the film, it’s also addressed that the Globe received pertinent information about this case years earlier and did nothing. This leads to some soul searching on the part of the reporters, and it injects some nuance into what might otherwise be a good vs evil narrative.

One of the things I really like about Spotlight is that it’s a cry for investigative journalism. The rise of the web has really hurt this type of reporting, as the decline of the traditional business model has led to budgetary constraints, forcing many local papers to fold or scale back, with fewer local reporters who are told to make more with less. The Spotlight team seems antiquated in today’s world of RSS feeds, opinion pieces and catchy web headlines that are re-purposed from AP articles. The idea that so many journalists would invest so much time into a single story is bizarre by modern standards, yet it’s the sort of thing that’s desperately needed.

25. Red Army

Red Army

Gabe Polsky’s documentary is about what’s arguably the greatest sports dynasty in history, the Soviet Union hockey team of the 1970s and 1980s.

Even if you’re someone who doesn’t have an interest in hockey or even sports, this movie should still be compelling. Yes, it’s a movie about sports, but it’s also about the intersection of sports, culture, politics and personal life. The Soviet Union understood that hockey was another means of propaganda. The USSR recognized that sport was universal across language and culture, so that if one team was utterly dominant the rest of the world would be forced to take notice. Hockey was the most popular sport in Russia, so tremendous effort was put into grooming star players from a young age. Having the best team implied that, by extension, the Soviet system was also the best.

As Vyacheslav Fetisov says, the team might have been called a “Red Machine” or “Red Army”, but it was made up of individuals, not robots. While they may have been playing for a coach and a political system that viewed them as cogs in a wheel, their personal dreams and goals ultimately clashed with that of the institution. As the system began to decline and the NHL contracts offered players big salaries, the notion of playing for country started to seem less appealing. This is especially true when you’re being kept in a camp 11 months out of the year and being forced to train so hard that some players pissed blood or were not allowed to see a father who was dying in the hospital. The decline of the national team was a microcosm for the decline of the Soviet empire. The very thing that made these teams great, the total authoritarian control over a team that functioned as a machine, was ultimately its undoing.

This may sound like a very serious and political film, which it is at times, but it’s also a very compelling story about these players lives. There are humorous stories and the film often takes a lighter tone than you might expect. We also get to see some very intimate glimpses into the emotions of these men, at least for those brief instances where they shed their armor of masculinity. It’s one of the best sports films in modern memory and it should appeal to almost everyone.

24. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars

By now, there’s very little I can say about JJ Abrams film that hasn’t already been said. In fact, I’m not even going to worry about spoiling things here, so if you’re one of the few people left who still hasn’t seen the film you may want to skip this entry.

I’ll start by conceding that I grew up as a Star Wars nerd. The original trilogy as an integral part of my childhood. I even read six books in the Star Wars universe that take place after the events of Return Of the Jedi. I played the Super Nintendo and PC video games, I read Star Wars comic books… you get the idea. You can imagine how excited I was when I heard that George Lucas was going to direct a new trilogy which would take place prior to A New Hope, but despite the immense hype those films fell flat for me as they did with most people. Following the disappointment that was Phantom Menace and the next two installments, it would be another sixteen years before we got a Star Wars film that might actually be any good. So when The Force Awakens was released, I shuffled my work schedule to take the day off and see it in an RPX theater at 9am. When the classic John Williams score came on and the words “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” came on the screen, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t one of my favorite movie moments of the year.

I say all of this to let you know I may not be the most objective when it comes to ranking this film, even though no work of art can be judged without the inherent subjectivity of the viewer. But while I obviously loved The Force Awakens, this isn’t to say it’s a perfect film or one that I wouldn’t have changed a few things about. The Starkiller base, for example, felt clumsily handled and rushed on many levels. At one point it seems as though the New Order decides “well, we can’t find the droid, so maybe just blow up the Republic now?”. Later in the film, the rebellion holds a strategy meeting for all of one minute, in which they determine “it’s another death star but there’s a way to blow it up probably so OK let’s go”. This all felt pretty jarring to me, and I can’t help but think that the film would have benefited from a slightly longer running time.

Yet at no point in the film was I bored or disinterested. It is, for the most part, brilliantly edited and executed. Many of the complaints about the film regarding Kylo Ren’s emotional vulnerability and unmasking, Rey discovering her powers without training, the striking comparisons to Episode IV A New Hope etc. are actually things that I either enjoyed or didn’t have a problem with at all. In fact, the more I re-watched the film the more I became convinced that it holds up under scrutiny. It’s tremendously fun to watch, it taps the well of nostalgia without overdoing it, and it introduces some juicy mysteries that are fun to consider. Daisy Ridley is brilliant in the leading role and the character of Rey instantly became one of my favorites in the entire canon.

Some may argue that it’s too similar or loyal to the original trilogy, but I think that’s a good thing. For example, when Lucas tried to re-invent the wheel he had Yoda doing triple back-flips in hyper-choreographed CGI lightsaber duels. But when I look at the relatively minimalist choreography in The Force Awakens, I find it incredibly refreshing and much more enjoyable to watch. That’s not to say there’s only one way to make a Star Wars movie, as I’m sure there are plenty of other interesting interpretations that can be done successfully. But this is a movie that reminded me why I loved the franchise in the first place. It was fun, it was funny and it was even surprisingly moving at times. When Rey steals the lightsaber out of Ren’s grasp and stands to face him, I legitimately got chills. When the film ended I wanted to see Episode VIII immediately.

23. Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk has been described by many as a horror/western, which is not a genre mashup that most people would be familiar with. It’s also a movie that slipped by a lot of people’s radars from 2015, as it didn’t get much of a theatrical release or promotion. I hadn’t even heard of it until a friend mentioned it to me last November, but boy am I glad that I found out about it.

This is a film that I’m going to have to be a bit vague about, since giving away more than the initial synopsis would spoil the adventure. The basic premise involves mysterious savages that attack the small town of Bright Hope, apparently abducting several townsfolk and one shady prisoner in the process. The town’s Sheriff assembles a small search and rescue team, but he does so against the advice of an American Indian man who claims these or no ordinary ‘savages’, arguing that the Sheriff and his crew would be better off presuming the captives dead. Not knowing what they’ll find when they get there, this posse of four heads off on a long journey to the hideout of their enemy.

The pace of the film may not be what you’d expect, given the badass title. This is not a Western with wall-to-wall gunfights or action, and much of the time is spent conversing around camp fires or riding on horseback. The film really takes its time setting up the plot and helping you get to know these characters. Yet, I don’t think most people will find this film boring, since the writing and acting are so good that it’s always compelling to watch. I watched it with a friend of mine who sometimes struggles to make it through slower-paced films, but he had no trouble at all focusing on this one. Like a lot of good storytelling, there’s a sense that everything in this film has a purpose, even if it’s not obvious at first. Bone Tomahawk is taking its time for a reason, trust me on that.

I really enjoyed the production aspects of the film, as well. I often don’t even notice things like sound design, but this film did some very interesting things like recording the horse riders while the camera shoots from far away. There were subtle things when it came to practical visual effects, makeup, costume design etc. that went a long way with what I presume was a fairly minimal budget. You can tell that a lot of care went into every aspect of this film. It may not be that well known, but I have a feeling that strong word of mouth might make this into a cult classic.

22. The Stanford Prison Experiment

Stanford Prison

In August of 1971, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo and a team of researchers conducted one of the most famous psychological experiments of the 20th century. The plan was to get a group of students looking to make some extra cash and put them in a fake prison. Half of the students would play the role of the prisoners, while the other half would be the prison guards. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but they never made it close to that goal. Long before then, the guards had taken things to such an extreme that the student prisoners were routinely subjected to psychological torture and abuse. This film is a dramatic reenactment of those events from director Kyle Patrick Alvarez.

I had thought that more people knew about this experiment, since it’s discussed in a lot of introductory psychology courses and is often relevant to current events (Abu Ghraib comes to mind). Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve found that most people are unaware of its existence. Also surprising is that this story wasn’t done a long time ago, since such a compelling true story seems an obvious choice for a movie. I’m hoping that more people can pick up on this independent gem and learn about it for the first time. But even if you’re already well versed on the topic, there’s something very different about watching it play out before your eyes like this. I knew how most of it was going to play out beforehand, but I was still on the edge of my seat.

It’s actually hard for me to imagine a better reenactment of this experiment. This movie has a remarkable ensemble cast, which is almost a who’s-who of great young talent like Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano and Tye Sheridan. It’s confidently constructed and executed, taking proper time to deal with each aspect of the experiment. It touches on a lot of the key questions that it ought to, but it trusts the viewers to interpret these concerns and draw their own conclusions. It’s appropriately disturbing when it needs to be, all while staying mostly true to the historical events.

This is a great film to watch and think/talk about afterwards. It makes for some excellent discussion and analysis, which is always a plus in my book. Why didn’t the researchers intervene sooner? Was the experiment even scientific? Is the only thing separating the authoritarian abuse of the guards and the prisoners really a coin toss? What does it say about human nature? Whatever conclusions you draw, the film probably won’t be easily forgotten.

21. Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

The latest Steven Spielberg film is a Cold War thriller with a script co-written by the Coen brothers. This may seem a bit of an odd recipe, since Spielberg’s style tends to be quite different from the Coens, but I thought the combination worked very well.

The film is about an American attorney who is asked to defend an alleged Soviet spy. Cold War tensions are running very hot, so James Donovan’s firm is asking him to do this in order to create the illusion of a fair trial. But as we’ve already seen earlier in the film, Donovan is a man who believes in following the rules. So to the chagrin of those around him, he decides to give the alleged spy, Rudolf Abel, the best representation he can. This leads to a chain of events in the second half of the film, where Donovan must act as a representative of the American government as he tries to negotiate a hostage swap.

I especially love the first half of this film, which focuses on the ideological struggle between liberty and security. Despite the film’s historic setting, this is a topic that is very relevant today with the U.S. War on Terror. There’s a great scene in a bar where Tom Hanks’ character is confronted by an FBI agent urging him to rat on his client. But rather than violate client attorney privilege, he makes a great argument about the Constitution being a rule book that defines us as Americans. These are the kinds of verbal exchanges and moral conflicts that make Bridge of Spies so good. This isn’t a Spielberg movie with big explosions or aliens, but it feels just as cinematic because the story plays out with these wonderful scenes of dialogue.

The talent of the lead actors is obvious, with Tom Hanks delivering another great performance and Mark Rylance giving arguably the best supporting actor role of the year. But everything else about this film is also meticulously crafted, from the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński, the script of the Coens and Spielberg’s direction. Much of the film takes place in enclosed rooms with people talking to each other, but somehow the film is gripping. Everything just flows from one scene to the next, since everyone involved in the project is a true pro. If you’re looking for a well made film of ideas, or just an engaging cold war thriller, this sure wouldn’t be a bad choice.

20. Son of Saul

Son of Saul

I often purchase a hot tea before my movie’s showtime. Since it’s too hot for my palate at first, I’ll let it cool down during the trailers and into the opening of the film. But when Son of Saul ended, I looked down and noticed I hadn’t taken one sip of my tea. It had been beside me for the full two hours and it was bitter cold. That’s never happened to me before. Son of Saul may not be my favorite film of 2015, but I can’t deny that it made a strong impression on me. Even half an hour later, I was walking around a convenience store in a bit of a daze, not knowing what to buy.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since much of the film is filled with tension and uncertainty. The basic plot point is that our protagonist, Saul, a Hungarian Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. As a Sonderkommando, his duties involve helping the Nazis exterminate incoming victims, procure their valuables and eventually dispose of the bodies. Since the Nazis didn’t want to do this sort of grunt work themselves, they force these men to do their bidding for them. We meet Saul at a point where he’s been doing this for quite some time, and he appears to be at his mental breaking point. After witnessing the death of a young boy he claims is his son, he makes it his mission to give his body a proper Jewish burial. How that unfolds and in what way is better left for you to find out.

One of the first things you notice about Son of Saul is that it has unique cinematography. The focal point and framing are very close to our main character, this looming third person perspective stays pretty constant throughout the film’s running time. That, combined with the aspect ratio, gives the film a claustrophobic feel. We’re meant to see everything through this character, so even when it’s apparent that there’s death and mayhem going on all around, we only see it happening from the edges. All of this makes it easy to forget that you’re watching a movie.

However, just because we don’t see a lot of the atrocities in wide sweeping shots doesn’t mean that we’re being shielded from the horror. We’re shown just enough that there’s never any doubt about what’s happening. If you have a weak constitution or just don’t feel like exposing yourself to this nightmare scenario, then maybe Son of Saul isn’t for you. As I said earlier, I watch a lot of films and it’s not often something shakes me up as much as this did. No other film about the holocaust has ever haunted me like this one has. The only other film with comparable subject matter that had a similar impact was Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death. It’s impressive that this is László Nemes’ first film, since it feels like the work of seasoned professional.

19. The Revenant

The Revenant

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant is based on the Michael Punke novel by the same name. It tells the (mostly) true story of Hugh Glass, a frontiersman in 1823 South Dakota. If you’re not already familiar with Hugh Glass or the novel, then I’d suggest keeping it that way. I personally went into the film not knowing it was based on history or a novel and I felt this added a lot to my enjoyment of the film. The only thing I will say about the plot is that it is a brutal story of man’s struggle to survive in an unforgiving wilderness.

When I say brutal, by the way, I’m not kidding around. This is one of the most intensely violent and uncompromisingly harsh films I’ve seen in recent memory. The film never shies away from showing us graphic images of violence to people, violence to animals, or the lasting effects injuries can have if left untreated. One theater in my area even had a large sign at the ticket window, warning patrons of just how intense it gets. I just say this to let you know that if you’re deciding on a film with a friend or a spouse who can’t stomach violence, then this is probably one you’re going to want to skip or watch on your own. For me, I really appreciated how the film embraced the hardships of the natural world. It gives you a sense of just how dangerous nature can be, while simultaneously showing how beautiful and awe-inspiring the open wilderness is. 

Despite strong performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, the real star of this film is Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki. If you’re a movie person then you’ve probably heard of Lubezki, as he’s one of the world’s greatest living cinematographers and it should be obvious to anyone that watches The Revenant. I can’t stress enough how breathtaking the cinematography is in this film. If you were lucky enough to see it on an RPX or IMAX screen, then congratulations, because it was truly epic. Making it all the more impressive is that there was no studio lighting used here. Chivo chose to use the light of the sun and the occasional use of fire, instead. This is insanely difficult to do and it created all sorts of complications for the production, because the actors would have to rehearse a scene throughout the day, knowing that they’d only have a very limited window of time to shoot it for real. All of this pays off, however, because The Revenant is one of the most beautiful looking films in modern memory.

Despite its dreamlike sequences and highly artistic production values, The Revenant is telling a fairly simple story. I’m not saying this as a criticism, since a lot of great films and even great storytelling comes from taking a simple premise and doing it well. There are very long stretches in the film where there are no words, but the audience can follow everything that’s going on without any difficulty. It’s an emotionally investing journey and one that is vicariously exhilarating and even exhausting at times. This is incredibly ambitious film making used to tell a gripping, minimalist plot.

18. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


When I first heard about the synopsis for Kumiko, I became incredibly intrigued. The story is about a Japanese woman who becomes convinced that Steve Buscemi’s buried treasure from Fargo is real. A quiet introvert stuck in an unsatisfying job, Kumiko (brilliantly acted by Rinko Kinkuchi) begins to spend all of her free time studying clues as to the treasure’s whereabouts. Eventually, she begins to plan her trip to North Dakota. Director David Zellner mentioned that part of the appeal of this was the notion of a 21st century treasure hunter. It seems like an antiquated idea, putting together a collection of clues and maps in the hopes of finding buried treasure. The film really plays on this idea, and much of it feels mythical or fantastic.

One of the first things I noticed about this movie is that it has a great eye. What could have easily been a by-the-numbers film opens with a gorgeous shot of Kumiko walking along a beach and another as she enters a mysterious cave. The cinematographer, Sean Porter, is able to consistently get great shots in a variety of environments (perhaps why this was why they chose not to release a DVD, making it a Blu Ray exclusive). This is paired with a very good score by the Octopus Project, adding in music that feels appropriately weird. Another thing you notice early on is that the film has a clever sense of humor. The comedy isn’t aggressive, but it’s consistently effective. All of these stylistic aspects help add to the experience, making an already interesting concept feel even more original and daring.

At its core, I feel that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a movie about belief. Our heroine is a recluse and introvert by choice, yet she increasingly finds herself unhappy with her life. By finding the old Fargo VHS tape in the cave, the idea of this treasure begins to give her a sense of purpose that had been missing. By pouring all her time and energy into finding the treasure, she desperately needs it to be real. But even if the treasure doesn’t exist, is Kumiko better off pursuing the fiction than wallowing in her misery? The story is able to show both sides of this without ever explicitly commenting on it, something I really appreciated. It’s the sort of film that lingers in your memory long after you’ve seen it. If nothing else, it should provide for some worthwhile post-viewing discussion and analysis. I’m very excited for whatever the Zellner brothers do next.

17. The Gift

The Gift

Easily one of the biggest surprises of 2015, The Gift seemed to be destined for failure after its disappointing and misleading trailer. Thankfully, I don’t watch trailers, so I immediately became intrigued by this movie that kept getting stellar review scores and internet buzz. All of the hype is warranted in this case, as The Gift is one of the best mystery/thrillers in a long time.

Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and starred in this film. It’s unusual for an artist to be involved in this many layers of a production, and it’s often an indication that the work is going to be very bad (The Room) or very good (Citizen Kane). In this case, Edgerton has done a great job with all three aspects. Edgerton’s character of Gordo is creepy but mysterious, at first appearing not to understand because social decorum, but as time goes in he starts to feel menacing. For instance, there are genuinely frightening moments where Rebecca Hall’s character, Robyn, is alone in the house and you can’t tell if she’s being stalked or not. As the movie goes on, the stakes and tension get ratcheted up. I don’t want to reveal specifics, but as I uncovered more information I began to reconsider my initial assumptions. I genuinely couldn’t see where the story was going at times and I loved that. This is a wickedly smart film that draws you in with intrigue and misdirection.

Those expecting a conventional horror film are going to be disappointed, since that’s not what The Gift is. Instead, this is a low-octane and pulse-pounding thriller. It takes its time setting things up, but once the tension and mystery kick in you won’t want to take an intermission. Just as its setting up the suspense, the film is also introducing its themes at a slow but steady pace. The story asks us to consider how well we can really know somebody, as well as the lasting impact of words and ideas on a person’s life. It may even cause you to look back and scrutinize your own past.

The three leading performances in this movie are each impressive. I loved Joel Edgerton and Rebecca Hall, though the most noteworthy performance is that of Jason Bateman’s Simon. Bateman is someone who has been consistently type-cast as the straight, deadpan guy in comedies. As a result, he’s the kind of actor that audiences may have a hard time seeing in a different role. Yet very early on in the film, I stopped seeing the guy from Arrested Development and only saw the character he was portraying. This is a potentially game-changing performance for him, as it shows he has tremendous range.

16. Inside Out

Inside Out

A lot of Pixar’s top talent has been getting plucked away by Disney, lately. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 2013 hit Frozen was worked on by a lot of key ex-Pixar minds. Meanwhile, the studio has been stuck in a bit of a rut since Toy Story 3. The only original concept they’ve introduced since then was Brave, a film that was met with mixed reactions from critics and audiences alike. The rest of their works have been sequels to franchises like Monsters Inc. or Cars, movies that may seem like perfectly adequate animated fare if not for the studio’s stalwart reputation. Yet somehow, Pixar managed to produce another incredible film in 2015.

Directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, Inside Out is about the emotions that govern our consciousness. If a movie about psychology seems a bit much for younger audiences, you’re not wrong. Like many of Pixar’s best films, this is one that is primarily for older audiences, yet it’s disguised as a colorful animated roller coaster that parents can take their kids to. But also like Pixar’s best works, this is one that kids will love. Some children may not be able to comprehend the film’s mature themes of psychology and fading youth, but I imagine they’ll be too wrapped up in the excitement to care. By the end of the film, I’d also wager that many of theme will have picked up on some of the basic themes, like how you can’t just be happy all the time and that each of these emotions has a role to play in our lives.

While some have expressed dismay at how the film works outside of the control station, it’s pretty hard to come up with strong criticisms of this one. Just about everything in this is done with skill and invention. It’s brilliantly cast, the animation is meticulous, the script is intelligent and surprisingly emotional at times. There are a few moments in this film where it’s difficult to fight back tears. This is destined to become a Pixar classic that can hold its own against heavy hitters like Wall-E or Up. If you’re a fan of the studio, then I imagine you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, then what are you waiting for?

15. Mustang


Directed and co-written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang tells the story of five sisters living in Northern Turkey. One day, the girls are playing innocently on the beach with some boys from school. But when they get home, their neighbor has informed their grandmother and uncle of what happened, which is misinterpreted as sexually deviant. In the blink of an eye, their lives change forever. They are increasingly isolated from the outside world and trained to become proper wives in arranged marriages. The house slowly becomes a prison for the five sisters, whose electronic communications are cut off and their windows are fortified with steel bars.

One of the things I loved about this film was how genuine these girls felt as characters and siblings. You really get a sense of who these young women are, especially since they live in a bubble where their sisterhood means so much to them. It’s also an aspect that makes the film very re-watchable, as it’s interesting to go back and examine each of the girls different personalities and how they fit in to the group. The most memorable of the sisters is the youngest, Lale. There’s a palpable sense of resiliency that the group has in spite of their circumstances, but it’s Lale who embodies this the most. She’s the most free spirited of the bunch, and as the story moves inevitably towards the arranged marriages of her older sisters, she is determined not to follow them down that same path.

I got the sense that Ergüven was trying to educate viewers about the societal hardships that go on in this Muslim communities. But, more than that, I got the feeling that it was a story that was intended to anger and emotionally frustrate viewers like myself. Even now as I’m writing this blurb, I find myself getting emotional thinking back on the film. It’s a melancholic and quietly devastating story, though it’s not without optimism or even humor. We’re shown the broad range of these girls’ experiences, which can come in the form of adventure or kinship, but also in scenes which are heartbreaking to watch. Like the film’s title would imply, this is ultimately a story of perseverance through difficult circumstances. Mustang seems to be arguing that freedom is not a given for young women in these environments, but that it can and should be fought for.

14. Boy and the World

Boy and the World

A story without any dialogue, Boy and the World is a beautiful tapestry of animation and ideas. It’s immediately apparent how imaginative the film is, as we see Cuca frolicking in a wildly colorful backdrop of nature. Despite the simplicity of the hand drawn characters, the aesthetic blends will with the geometry and creativity of the world around them. As we journey from the natural landscape to the industrial world, there is never a shortage of memorable images and places. A pond transitions to a plethora of plant life, a train winds its way through a pure white backdrop, and fireworks light up the night sky over a stadium. All of this is paired with a memorable soundtrack of recurring samba music and Brazilian hip hop.

Alê Abreu’s film unfolds like visual poetry. Since what little dialogue there is here is spoken in Portuguese and played backwards, it intentionally comes off as gibberish. It’s up to the audience to make sense of Cuca’s journey. His life upended when his family moves from the country to the city, we see him embark on this quest to reunite his family. Yet as he continues on this path, the story starts to sink deeper into the rabbit hole. It becomes less clear what his goals are as the world becomes more daunting and complex. We see the vastness of the city lights and the enormity of the industrial operations. As time goes on, Cuca befriends a mysterious stranger who becomes his companion through this whirlwind of sight of sound.

Some of the movie’s intentions are obvious, like its love of nature and aversion to environmental destruction. These are played out explicitly, even using real world footage to highlight these themes. But other aspects of the film are more poetic and mysterious. It’s not always readily apparent what’s happening in terms of the literal plot, so when aspects of the story are finally revealed they can be emotionally gratifying or even devastating. I was always engrossed by the world building and vibe of the film. Yet it wasn’t until I started to contextualize everything that the film elevated itself into something great. I genuinely loved this movie, and as the credits came on the screen with the closing music, I simply sat there in quiet appreciation until the screen went dark.

13. Man From Reno

Man from Reno

Directed and co-written by David Boyle, Man From Reno is a stellar mystery/thriller that flew under the radar last year. Man From Reno was made on a Kickstarter budget of less than $55,000 and despite getting little in the way of distribution, the film has been a hit in terms of critical response. It just goes to show that a solid script and a talented group of people can do a lot with a little.

The story involves a Japanese crime writer who finds herself in the midst of a real life crime mystery. Along the way, she’s assisted by an American detective as they hope to untangle this yarn. It’s hard to say more, since spoiling a mystery plot would be a bad idea. But if you’re a fan of noir detective stories, this is one that you’ll likely love. It’s an interesting blend of classic styles in a modern film, feeling rooted in its genre’s aesthetic and tone. For example, its San Francisco setting is shot in present day, but it feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Despite the retro feel, this is also not your run-of-the-mill genre screenplay. For reasons that I obviously can’t get into, the mystery felt fresh and even daring at times.

Despite its numerous twists and turns, the film is definitely a slow burn. Unless you’re a professional detective, you probably won’t have enough clues to piece everything together until the film’s last act. I personally enjoy stumbling around in darkness and trying to make sense of the story, but the movie is asking the audience to be attentive and patient. When everything is more or less concluded, I imagine a lot of people are going to walk away feeling it was very much worth the wait. This is a film that has a terrific ending, one that floored me and lingered in my mind long after seeing it. It also makes for an interesting re-watch, because once you’ve mastered the plot you can go back and see the story play out in a new light. It’s a shame they don’t make more films like this nowadays.

12. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

Gett Viviane Ansalem

Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz’s Gett plays out as a lengthy legal proceeding in a rabbinical court, one that is tied up in years of litigation and legal bureaucracy. This may sound like a hard sell for a movie, as audiences can be assured there is no romantic intrigue or action sequences here. Much of the film plays out through dialogue in the same small, bland looking courtroom. Despite all of this, Gett is absolutely riveting to watch.

Part of what makes the film work so well is its script. There are brilliant verbal exchanges between these characters, but the dialogue also takes a backseat to quite a few dramatic pauses where a person’s expression (or lack thereof) can speak volumes. Considering the vast amount of time the story covers, it’s surprising that everything feels fast paced. This is because the script has no fat on it, deciding to ignore the slice of life moments that take place outside the courtroom. Instead, the film will simply cut to the next scheduled court appearance months into the future. This doesn’t highlight the amount of time passing quite as much as Chaitanya Tamhane’s movie Court, but the edits have the advantage of keeping things fast paced and interesting.

Because it plays out in the style of a stage play, this is a movie that demands strong performances from its actors/actresses. Thankfully, everyone in this film does a great job with their respective character. It’s actually the lawyers themselves who do much of the talking. Menashe Noy is excellent as Viviane’s fiery attorney. Sasson Gabai is fascinating as Elisha’s lawyer, a man who takes a more dispassionate view of the proceedings. Though as you may expect, it’s Ronit Elkabetz’s performance that is the real emotional center of the film. She has complete command of this character and even when she’s not saying anything you can’t help but key in on her body language and expressions. I personally thought it was some of the best acting I saw all year.

Honestly, this movie is a lot to take in. It’s not without its more tranquil or even comedic moments, but the vast majority of its running time is packed with nerve-wracking drama. There were moments where I found myself standing up and pacing the room, just to help process with what was unfolding. I love it when a movie can make me feel this way.

11. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight

Older films tend to be more revered, whether it’s deserved or not. A film made by a director from twenty years ago has an automatic leg up on a film that came out a few months ago. I’ve been a part of post viewing Q&As or film discussions where people have said you can’t compare established classic film A to movie we just watched B. But at some point, classic film A was just another movie playing on a Thursday evening. It takes time for works of art to gain academic approval, and some deserving works simply aren’t seen by enough people to merit that consideration. In the end, however, literary professors will eventually concede Jane Austen wrote some good books. The reason I mention all of this is because I believe Tarantino’s last three films may be his best, so I’ll be very interested to see how people are ranking and talking about his filmography decades from now.

Part of what I love about this and Django Unchained, is that it feels like Tarantino is letting himself go and just having fun with everything at this stage in his career. He’s obviously been known to do unconventional things when it comes to genre-blending, but these last two feel especially humorous and playful. At my Christmas day screening in 70mm, there were by far more laughs than at any other movie I attended this year. At nearly every turn there’s a clever bit of dialogue or a ridiculous development that had me chuckling. Nearly everything out of Walter Goggins and Tim Roth’s mouth had me smiling, but every character in the script gets a chance to shine. Especially when it comes to Samuel Jackson, who delivers a monologue for the ages. Even a small recurring gag about closing a door works brilliantly.

The film breaks out the Panavision 70 with 65mm lenses, opening with a sweeping shot of a snowy landscape. You might imagine that this special camera would be used to shoot epic, sprawling scenes of nature. But this is nothing like The Revenant. Instead, most of the film takes place in closed environments like a stagecoach or a cabin. The ultra-wide 2.75:1 lens is used to get a lot in the shot, so that if you’re paying close enough attention you can identify things in the background of the cabin. The wideness of the shots also are meant to enhance the sense of claustrophobia. Tarantino had said that he made the actors come to his house and watch The Thing, just to give everyone a sense of what he was going for in terms of being trapped in a small space with a foreboding sense of danger.

Whether you like this movie will probably come down to how much you like Tarantino’s flare for violence and especially his dialogue scenes. If you’re someone who feels his scripts can get a bit too chatty, then this probably isn’t for you. There are very long stretches of talking without action in this film. I’m someone who loves the way Tarantino’s dialogue flows in his movies, so I enjoyed every moment of this nearly three hour script.

10. The Look of Silence

Look of Silence

By now, you’ve probably heard of Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing. This newest documentary, The Look of Silence, is a companion piece to it. Both films are focused on the genocide that took place in Indonesia in 1965. But while The Act of Killing takes a surreal and imaginative re-enactment approach, this latest work by Oppenheimer is structured much more like a conventional documentary. That’s not to diminish The Look of Silence or even imply that it’s an inferior film in some way, as it’s every bit as distressing and mesmerizing, albeit in a different way. It’s a stark and uncompromising look at what human beings are capable of in terms of thoughts and actions.

Due to Joshua Oppenheimer’s work on these projects, a family came to learn the way in which their son was brutally murdered. They also learned the identities of the men responsible, who are living their lives as though they did nothing wrong, like many who partook in the slaughter. The family’s youngest son Adi, who was born just after the genocide, finds himself struggling with this scenario. He wonders how it can be that the society simply accepts this dynamic, and he worries about raising his children in such a morally imbalanced world. Undeterred by the danger and profound awkwardness, he decides to confront each of his brother’s killers.

It can be extremely frustrating to watch a lot of these interviews play out, since those who were complicit in these crimes have no incentive or desire to repent. Even when you get the sense that some may be harboring private doubts, there is often little in terms of their demeanor to suggest a moral crisis is taking place. I suppose this is why the film is called “The Look of Silence”, because for much of the documentary it’s alarming to watch the indifference or double-talk surrounding these crimes. Some of these men say that they drank the blood of their victims in order to prevent going crazy, claiming that those who didn’t drink blood had since gone mad. Obviously, human blood can’t cure insanity, but perhaps this placebo effect really did work for some of them. It’s difficult to say when the human mind is capable of incredible fictions.

However, there are a few encounters where you get a sense that a perpetrator or their family are struggling with these horrors in their own way. One ex-leader gets so defensive that he demands to know the whereabouts of Adi’s family, retreating back into his shell of anti-communist rhetoric and intimidation. In another scene, a family is so distraught at what Joshua and Adi are showing them that they become loud and defiant, claiming that their mother has a heart condition and can’t be subjected to this. But, for me, the one moment that really stands out is when an older man and his daughter are confronted by Adi. The father is incredibly dismissive, while the daughter is horrified to learn of what her father once did. As the conversation goes on, we see a rare glimpse of someone actually empathizing with Adi and the loss of his brother. In the midst of so much indifference and hopelessness, it’s a sign that there is perhaps hope for the future generations of Indonesia. Perhaps this country will one day alter its narrative and learn from its past, even if that day seems far off.

9. The Assassin

The Assassin

From the moment Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin came on the theater screen until the time it ended, I felt like I was in another world. The visual aesthetic combined with the pacing transports the viewer to eighth century China, provided they’re able to give the film their full attention. I often find myself getting lost in movies, but it’s rare that it happens to this extent.

This will sound hyperbolic, but The Assassin may be the most beautiful looking film I’ve ever seen. Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography is so gorgeous that I occasionally found myself mouthing the word “wow” or looking on in stunned admiration. Every frame of this film is so good that you could pause it at any time, snap the screenshot and hang it on your wall. Interestingly, the film uses a near 4:3 aspect ratio for most of its running time, though we see it break into a more standard ratio for a musical scene involving a zither, for instance, which makes the instrument look full and majestic by contrast. There’s also the use of black and white to show scenes from the past, prior to Yinnian’s assignment in Weibo. The Assassin won the Golden Horse award and the Asian Film award for best cinematography, though it was sadly ignored at many other awards ceremonies. If you watch this film on a DVD you are doing yourself a great disservice, as Blu Ray technology exists for a movie like this one.

Despite its obvious strengths, this is a film that I’ve seen get a lot of criticism on social media and film forums. Some declare it a masterpiece, while others simply didn’t connect with it and found it plodding or dull. Admittedly, the story is not expository at all. Character motivations and plot points are very slowly revealed, and there were times during my first viewing where I was having trouble piecing it together. However, this seems like a deliberate approach on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s part. The film asks a lot of its audience, but it rewards attention to detail. As the script goes on, I think everyone will recognize the character motivations and political circumstances. This slow reveal makes things feel that much more exciting once we recognize what’s at stake, anticipating what decisions Yinnian will make before the story comes to a close. While I obviously can’t reveal the ending of the film, the closing shot is one that stayed with me for a long time. Like the film itself, it’s not the sort of thing you see every day.

Allow yourself the opportunity to get lost in this film. Honestly, there aren’t too many films that are as artistically ambitious as this, and even fewer that can pull it off with such grace. This is a beautiful and haunting work of art.

8. World of Tomorrow

World of Tomorrow

World of Tomorrow is only sixteen minutes long. It’s also drawn with stick figure animation and what seems like an almost non-existent budget. Despite all of this, the film is packed with some of the most original and provocative science fiction I’ve ever seen. The story involves a young girl named Emily who is contacted by a mysterious woman. The stranger reveals that she is this young girl’s future self, a third generation Emily whose consciousness has been passed along through hundreds of years in a transfer and cloning process. With an apocalyptic event imminent in Emily’s distant future, she has decided to reach back through time and speak to her young self about the life she lived. 

Using experimental time travel and memory transfer, the third generation Emily is able to show Emily Prime her future world in all its complexity and wonder. The two wander through seemingly random memories, though there are obvious thematic parallels in these shared visions. As we progress through them, we’re treated to a plethora of bold sci-fi ideas. Many of these individual concepts could make for a feature length film, yet they’re presented to us at a relentless pace. All of this makes World of Tomorrow eminently re-watchable and it provides excellent fodder for philosophical discussion.

The film is emotionally heavy, but it’s also able to utilize the audience’s sense of adventure and humor. Above all, this is an intellectually profound film that will challenge audiences in all the best ways. I’m sure that I’ll still be thinking about it years later. There’s really not much to say about this short film other than “Bravo, Mr. Hertzfeldt”. If you haven’t already, you should go watch it right now.

7. Youth


Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film opens with several minutes of music. We see a a musical performance of The Retrosettes ‘You’ve Got The Love’ at an alpine resort, the camera intimately close to the singer’s face as the circular stage rotates continuously. The luxurious Swiss backdrop is blurred, though we can see people dancing beneath the night sky. Several hours later, the film ends with another musical performance.

Michael Caine’s character, the composer Fred Ballinger, has a line in the movie about how he was never skilled with words. He claims that music is the only thing he was ever any good at, because you don’t need thoughts and experience to understand music – it just is. There may not be a better summary of Youth than this. It’s easy to get lost in the film’s complexity, as it’s loaded with themes and ideas that may seem all over the map. Yet the film is always captivating. There was never a dull moment where it wasn’t eliciting some type of response from me. It’s filled to the brim with comedy and absurdity, but there are moments of sheer wonder and even sadness. The film moves its audience like a beautiful piece of music, eliciting these emotional reactions in us even if we can’t say why.

On the surface, the film appears to be about two elderly friends played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel. The two men are living out their final years at an upscale Swiss resort, reminiscing on their past experiences and feeling melancholic about their loss of memory. Caine’s character is a retired composer who is refusing to do his conduct his simple songs for the Queen of England, while Keitel’s character is a director working on his final film entitled Life’s Last Day. We’re joined by other notable characters like Ballinger’s daughter, played by Rachel Weisz, a woman looking after her father and undergoing a rough breakup. Paul Dano’s character is a Hollywood leading man, yet he laments the fact that he’s only remembered for playing the part of a robot in a blockbuster film, rather than his work on independent films. This hodgepodge of plot and character develops in interesting ways, yet it’s all secondary to the experience of watching the film. It’s not the sort of movie that has a conventional plot, as it’s more interested in the overall experience than any individual character. There’s another line in the film spoken by Keitel’s character where he says “You say emotions are overrated. Emotions are all we’ve got.” Again echoing this theme of emotional resonance trumping narrative.

As you might expect, the film is brilliantly realized in terms of direction and acting. Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz are particularly excellent here, giving the caliber of performances that we’ve come to expect from them. I’m very interested to see what Paolo Sorrentino does next, as his last two films have been stellar. If you enjoyed The Great Beauty as I did, then you owe it to yourself to watch Youth. Likewise, if you didn’t enjoy The Great Beauty, then you probably won’t be won over here, as Youth covers a lot of the same thematic territory.

6. Carol


I’ve always been a fan of the saying ‘better a pebble with flaws than a diamond without’. It’s difficult enough to find examples of movies without flaws, and even when you do it’s often a mediocre product without any obvious problems. Not only am I unable to find any blemishes on Carol, but nearly every aspect of the film is exceptional. That’s an unusual thing, and Carol is a rare treat.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ adaptation centers on a female relationship in 1950s Manhattan. It’s about the relationship between a young store clerk named Therese and an older married woman named Carol. The marriage is one of convenience, however, and it doesn’t initially stand in the way of their bond and eventual romance. As Carol’s marriage begins to unravel she decides to divorce her husband Harge, but by then it has become increasingly apparent to him that Carol’s friend Abby is really an ex-lover, and that her current interest in Therese is romantic. With the law on his side, he threatens to revoke custody of their daughter if their marriage ends. Carol then finds herself faced with an impossible choice between the woman she loves and her own daughter.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have such a rich chemistry in this film. I’ve long been a fan of both actresses, so seeing them be able to play off one another is exciting. Some have argued that Blanchett gives the performance of her career in this film, which is a tall order when you consider her work on films like Blue Jasmine, but a case can certainly be made. Rooney Mara may actually be even better, which doesn’t shock me given her work on films like Dragon Tattoo. It’s often said that acting is reacting, and the subtle mannerisms and inflections feel completely real. So much of the communication between these two actresses is nonverbal, as a slight glance or the placement of a hand says so much without dialogue. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so emotionally invested in an on-screen romance.

I could keep going about all the positive aspects in the film. The gorgeous cinematography, impeccable set & costume design, the lovely score which boasts the best theme music of the year etc. all of it comes together in harmony. The social and political implications are obvious, exploring themes that still resonate strongly today. But at its core, this is a film about the anguish of forbidden love. For as long as there’s been romance, the heart has often wanted what it can’t have. The pain of unrequited love is powerful and knows no time period or gender. This is destined to become one of the all-time great romance films. It should be as resonant fifty years from now as it is today.

5. Wild Tales

Wild Tales

It’s kind of odd that there aren’t more movies like this. Wild Tales is basically an anthology film, telling six different stories in roughly two hours. The characters have nothing to do with each other, thankfully avoiding the gimmick of having the plots intersect. But the tales all have something in common thematically, as they each deal with people at their worst moments. There’s a common thread of revenge through these stories, and if you take the six plots as a whole it’s not hard to see writer/director Damián Szifron’s intention.

The most important thing to mention about Wild Tales is that it’s fun. It’s a blast, actually. Movies this outright entertaining don’t come out very often but I sure wish they did. As you might expect from an Argentinian film, the only theater that played it in my area was a more independent art house place. But even among a more highbrow audience, there were laughs and gasps the likes of which you’d expect at a raunchy comedy playing at a United Artists. For a movie that’s often quite dark, it’s filled to the brim with jokes. Even the most violent or twisted segments are captivating, like a beautiful disaster that we can’t help but look away from. The film is a roller-coaster of voyeuristic carnage and excitement from beginning to end.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into each plot, as each of these plays out better if you know next to nothing going in. I will say that some of my favorite segments were the road rage bit and the car towing fiasco. But, for me, the one that elevates the film to greatness is the final segment of the wedding. It’s probably at or near the very top if you’re talking about the craziest movie weddings of all time. Not only is it the most memorable of the six segments, but it’s the perfect thematic note to end the film on. When the music began playing and the credits came up on the screen, I knew I’d just seen something special.

A few of the segments aren’t as strong as the others, but even then they’re still very much worth watching. This is a sharply edited and energetic film with a really cool soundtrack as well. If you’re fan of short films or simply like being entertained, then you really need to see this one.

4. Ex Machina

Ex Machina

The author Sam Harris attended a private conference on artificial intelligence about a year ago. Although he was legally prohibited from mentioning who else was at the conference, as the event was shrouded in secrecy. He was a bit alarmed at the timescale that people were viewing the inevitable rise of A.I., which he had thought was nearly a half century away. But everyone at the event seemed to think this was something imminent in the next twenty years, or even sooner. An anonymous friend of his, who he has always thought of as a fairly reasonable guy and not prone to hyperbole, even claimed that the rapid rise of advanced A.I. was a greater threat to the long term survival of mankind than nuclear weapons or climate change. Harris’ friend isn’t alone either, as Elon Musk has also talked about the unchecked advance of A.I. as “summoning the demon”.

All the implications and perils of an advanced artificial intelligence are explored in writer/director Alex Garland’s latest film, Ex Machina. The story deals with a young software engineer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a lottery contest to spend a weekend at the estate of Bluebook’s creator and CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But as Caleb arrives at the gorgeous and secluded estate, Nathan reveals his true intentions. He has created an A.I. and wants to run a Turing test between his robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Caleb. As the test progresses, we’re introduced to a bevy of ideas about the nature of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. For instance, if you create a computer that is unbeatable at chess, would it even know what chess is or that it’s playing a game?

While Ex Machina is primarily a movie of ideas, it’s also a suspenseful mystery. Caleb increasingly wonders whether he can trust Nathan, as much of what he was told at the outset was false or misleading. But at the same time, we’re also left to wonder about Ava’s intentions. After all, what will happen to her if she doesn’t pass the Turing test? Even if she does, how does she know that her memory won’t be wiped for a more advanced model? It’s a life-changing experience for both Caleb and Ava, as each of them is encountering something new for the first time. As their understanding of one another deepens, how will their relationship impact the results of the study and where is it all headed?

Domhnall Gleeson is good, but as you might expect, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander are the ones that really shine. The film also has a visual flare to it, with the cinematography making good use of the house and surrounding environment. The visual effects team did a great job on such a small budget as well, even taking home the Oscar in their category. But, in my opinion, the real star here is the intelligent script that addresses fundamental questions about A.I. in ways that are rarely handled in movies. It’s the kind of story you’ll want to go back and look at a second or third time, as Ex Machina really benefits from repeat viewings.

3. Breathe


I didn’t hear about Breathe (aka Respire) until very late last year. The film got almost no distribution and nobody I knew was talking about it. But I was intrigued when I heard that Mélanie Laurent, the actress from Inglourious Basterds and Beginners, had directed a film. I’ve always liked her acting, but I wasn’t aware of her as a director until now. After seeing this masterpiece, I will always think of her as a director first and an actress second.

The film reveals its thematic focus early on. Our young protagonist, Charlene, is listening to her high school teacher ask the class whether passion diminishes our liberty. Do our emotions make us more free or less free? After all, we can’t control what we feel. Passion is harmful when it becomes excessive, he warns, which is most of the time. The film explores this idea through a high school friendship between Charlene and a new arrival named Sarah. Sarah is, in many ways, everything the diminutive Charlene isn’t – confident, spontaneous, and outgoing. Almost immediately, Charlene finds herself under Sarah’s spell. The two girls form an instant connection, spending nearly all of their time together and becoming emotionally intimate.

Somewhere along the way, however, the friendship starts to sour. As Charlene obsesses over the schism, the problem only worsens. In one particularly memorable scene, Charlene and Sarah reach their lowest point. From this moment on, it’s hard to see the two ever getting back together. The girl who was once Charlene’s best friend quickly transforms into her tormentor. The personal secrets she had shared with Sarah are now weaponized against her in the form of malicious gossip. Charlene could fight back, but she chooses not to. Instead, she recoils into her private world of misery and abuse. She does this because, despite everything she’s going through, she still loves Sarah and clings to the hope that they can be reunited.

Charlene isn’t alone in feeling this way, either. Other characters have relatively little screen time, but we see several examples of people who pin their hopes to people that may not deserve it. Before Charlene met Sarah, her best friend was a girl named Victoire. Even after the friendship with Sarah becomes poisoned, she continues to ignore a tearful Victoire who longs to be close to her old friend again. A boy named Lucas is infatuated with Charlene, yet she acts as though he doesn’t exist. Even Charlene’s mother is in a relationship filled with emotional abuse and infidelity, yet she continues to make excuses for the man she loves. In one memorable scene, she asks her mother why she always goes back to him, knowing how wrong he is for her. Her mother simply replies “because I can’t do otherwise”. So much for passion making us more free.

Mélanie Laurent directs this film like a seasoned pro, showing that she’s an immensely talented filmmaker. I hope someone out there is taking notice of Laurent, because it would be a tragedy if she can’t garner enough opportunity to make this a successful career. Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge are flat out brilliant in this as well, giving two of the better performances I saw last year. I could see both of them going on to be well-known actresses for decades to come. As for the film as a whole, I’ve already stated that I consider it a masterpiece. I watch films often, but it’s very unusual that I’m as shell-shocked from a viewing as I was here. I was literally walking around for days afterward thinking “Oh, my God, that freaking movie…”

2. Sicario


The first seven minutes of Sicario are going to give people nightmares. We arrive at a crime scene that is profoundly disturbing. But instead of showing us the horrifying imagery and moving on, the film comes back to these shots and hangs on them. The audience might want to look away, but the camera won’t let us. We’re meant to feel uncomfortable. We’re not supposed to forget what we’ve seen.

Sicario lays its cards on the table early. If you’re uncomfortable with what you’re watching, then you’re free to leave. But, more importantly, it’s letting us know what’s at stake. The only question left is how far you’re willing to go to stop this. When our protagonist is given the opportunity to join an inter-agency task force, she is asked by her superior to think very carefully before responding. She only asks one question – “Do we get a shot at the men responsible for today?” When the answer is yes, she immediately volunteers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize what she’s gotten herself into.

The real conflict of this film isn’t between the cartels and law enforcement. The battle is an ethical one, waged between our protagonist Kate Macer and the man in charge of the special operation, Matt Graver. Kate is an inexperienced but principled agent, someone who believes in the rule of law and doing things by the book. Graver is an uncompromising pragmatist, willing to get his hands dirty and skirt the rules whenever necessary. He is perfectly willing to use extreme measures like torture or placing innocents in harms way, so long as it achieves a worthwhile objective. Emily Blunt’s character is our eyes and ears, so it’s not surprising that she’s the moral center of the film. Yet the script also paints her as being in over her head or ill-equipped to deal with these problems. Her views are admirable, but their application in this war often appears naive. What I love about this script is that it’s asking some very difficult questions about whether the ends justify the means, and it’s not offering any easy answers. In the end, it’s up to you to decide what your principles are.

The film is masterfully done on almost every level. The three main performances by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin are excellent. A lot of people felt that composer Jóhann Jóhannsson had the best original score of the year, offering a dark, pulsing soundtrack that feels ominous and almost evil at times. Director Denis Villeneuve has been steadily upping his game, and with this film he should now have everyone’s full attention as a rising star in the industry. But the man of the hour is obviously Roger Deakins, who I thought did the best job of any cinematographer last year. Unlike The Revenant or The Assassin, much of Sicario takes place in fairly ordinary environments that you wouldn’t think of as photogenic. Somehow, Deakins is able to make magic out of nearly every frame of this picture, using a technical precision and attention to detail that’s stunning. There is a scene where a pack of black SUVs cross over into Juárez which I’ve seen over and over again, never tiring of its craftsmanship. Other shots, like the one I chose for this review, are so clever and beautiful that they almost seem obvious in retrospect.

This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, but it’s one you owe it to yourself to watch. Its script challenges our moral boundaries, and it makes for a fascinating reference point when discussing modern issues like America’s drone program or the drug war. The ideas at play in this film date back to thinkers like Machiavelli and Kant. There’s plenty to be said for the differing views presented in this film. It should make for some very interesting post-viewing analysis and debate. But if nothing else, it’s one hell of a ride.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max Fury Road

There’s a moment from Mad Max: Fury Road that I’ll always remember. Our protagonist, Furiosa, is driving a war rig into a massive storm. With three war parties in pursuit, she can either surrender or risk dying in the tempest. As the rig goes into the storm, the music shifts from a frenetic action score to a stunning orchestral interlude. The apocalyptic winds carry her pursuers into the sky, their bodies tossed amidst the lightning and explosions. Most movies couldn’t even dream of a scene like this. If they did, it would be saved as the epic finale after hours of buildup. But this isn’t a normal movie, and this amazing sequence takes place before we’ve even hit the half hour marker.

Much of the criticism I’ve heard regarding George Miller’s latest film is based on the screenplay. It’s not uncommon to hear someone deride it as nothing more than a two hour chase sequence. I’ll touch on some of these criticisms later, but whether these charges have merit misses the point. Regardless of what you might think about the script, it’s merely one aspect of a larger whole. No matter how good or bad a script is, it’s something that precedes every other aspect of film-making. At a basic level, the screenplay is going to need a budget. It’s going to need a director and a team of artists to pull it off. In this case you’re going to need costume designers, makeup artists, sound designers, sound editors, film editors, a cinematographer, a composer, stunt experts, production designers, a visual effects team, actors… you get the idea. You can go down the line and give it a nearly perfect grade in every category. It’s no accident that this film won six Oscars and more cumulative awards than any other film in 2015. Believe it or not, every aspect of film-making is important when it comes to making a good film.

But let’s take a step back and examine this maligned screenplay. A lot of the criticism stems from its lack of dialogue and character development, as we’re shown just enough to get the gears going. An unfavorable reading of this might argue that this is action porn like The Raid: Redemption, a movie that has spectacular action but is paper thin on story. I actually don’t feel this is the case here. In fact, what I think Mad Max: Fury Road does is actually very clever, though it’s admittedly difficult to see on a first viewing. While most big budget films give us too much exposition, this film intentionally gives us almost none. We have enough relevant information to follow the story, but there are layers here that you might not get until your second or third viewing. Further still, there are some mysteries that are left to viewer interpretation. A savvy viewer might realize that the dynamics between Furiosa and her crew suggest a long-standing relationship, and that she’s obviously done missions like this for Immortan many times before. When she talks about redemption, we don’t know exactly what she means, but we’re able to connect the dots. But when she says her line about being remembered, that’s something you’ll be left pondering whether you see the film once or eleven times. Furiosa’s character has a hidden back story that could probably be an entirely separate film, but she’s not the only example of how this film is imaginative and open to interpretation.

There are so many impressive things I could say about this film, like how there’s surprisingly little CGI and it uses incredibly dangerous stunt work for its choreography. I could go on about Junkie XL’s phenomenal soundtrack, or talk about how George Miller is a 71-year-old rock-star. But I imagine you don’t want to read a twenty paragraph review where I run down the list from A to Z. Suffice it to say, this film had a more profound impact on me than anything I saw last year. I consider 2015 to be maybe the best year in modern memory, but putting this film at the number one spot wasn’t a difficult choice. I admittedly wasn’t as excited for this project as many of my friends, but when I left the theater after my first viewing I was flabbergasted. I went back to see it again in the theaters. I re-watched it over and over again on Blu Ray. The more I see of this film, the more I’m convinced it’s a timeless classic and a true masterpiece. It’s the best action movie I’ve ever seen.


My Top 50 Movies of 2014

50. Starred Up


David Mackenzie’s prison drama centers on the character of Eric, a young offender with a propensity for violence and a disdain for authority. We immediately see why he is considered such a high risk inmate, as Eric’s poor impulses lead to physical confrontations with prison guards and verbal confrontations with prison officials. Several of the higher-ups quickly come to the conclusion that he is a lost cause, which does seem to be the case at first. But Oliver, a man who hosts a group therapy session with inmates, isn’t convinced. He puts his reputation at risk by going against the consensus of his colleagues and tries to help this young man.

As you might expect, the story focuses on themes of rehabilitation and to what extent this is possible with dangerous inmates. It’s also interested in the fatalistic circumstances of the characters themselves. For example, Eric’s literal father Neville is imprisoned under the same roof. While he does seem to care about Eric and attempts to steer him straight, it’s clear that this man’s criminal mindset and aggressive behavior has rubbed off on Eric, to the point where it’s no surprise that the two of them are locked up. Oliver’s back-story also seems to suggest he was destined for his current position, as he feels the need to help in whatever way he can. We know far less about the gestapo-esque Governor Hayes, yet even he seems naturally predisposed towards his position, and his absolutist worldview can result in extreme methods.

Some might argue that the plot of the father and son is a contrivance, or that we’ve seen much of this before in prison dramas. While I’ll grant that, there’s something so visceral about this film that I found myself captivated by it. As one might expect from a gritty prison drama, there’s not much room for bright colors or imaginative shots. But the cinematography in the film is very effective at portraying the sense of claustrophobia and drabness of the prison world. It’s a movie with several strong performances, but Jack O’Connell is arguably the best thing about the film. He does a stellar job here and may be one of the best young actors working today.

49. Inherent Vice


One of the most divisive films in recent memory, Inherent Vice is either a major disappointment from Paul Thomas Anderson or one of his best depending on who you talk to. While I enjoyed it, I personally feel that it’s one of Anderon’s weaker efforts and certainly a big step down from The Master.

Much of the film’s polarizing effect is due to the script, which is unusually difficult to follow. In fact, some people, like Philip Hensher, commented after seeing it that they “feared he’d had a stroke” because they understood so little of the plot or dialogue. Others said they needed a joint beforehand, a re-admittance ticket afterward, or both. I personally burned a lot of fuel trying to keep up with the constant introduction of new characters and plot threads. It’s only after quite a few encounters that one starts to realize this isn’t a detective film at all. In fact, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is in some ways the spiritual successor to the Coen’s The Big Lebowski, another film where the overly complex plot is not the essential part of the film. While it’s not nearly as funny as TBL, Inherent Vice does have a lot of retro Los Angeles style and its own brand of humor.

Inherent Vice is one of the most difficult films to rank and write about this year, in my opinion. I would go so far as to say that part of my appreciation for the film is speculative. It seems like the type of movie that demands a re-watch, yet I haven’t been able to see it a second time. But I have confidence in saying this much about Inherent Vice; while many films of 2014 are destined to be forgotten, this one will likely become a cult classic. It’s the sort of film that enthusiasts will champion and some will watch over and over again. While a lot of the larger plot points are clear by the time the credits roll, there’s certainly a lot of depth to explore here and some interesting discussions to be had about everything from the story to cinema generally.

48. Predestination


One of the more interesting sci-fi efforts to come out in recent years, Predestination is a nifty time-travel film that should satisfy sci-fi fans as well as those interested in a good story.

While the plot can feel a bit strained at times it doesn’t delve into idiocy or obvious contradiction in the way that other modern time travel movies have been guilty of (I’m looking at you, Looper). Much of the film centers around a bar conversation about a person’s upbringing, so a lot of the key plot points surrounding time travel and the fizzle bomber appear extraneous at first. I’m not going to delve to deeply into the plot because this is a film that’s better unfolded to your own eyes, but I will say that I really appreciated how certain threads tied together. I have a few issues with some of the later parts of the film, but I still find a the questions it raises to be thought provoking. We’re shown just enough of this world that it mostly makes sense, yet there’s quite a bit of the story that remains mysterious by the time the credits roll. Even the big reveal of the film is never explicitly stated outright, even if the audience gets the connection. It’s not nearly as complex as something like Primer and it’s far more serious than a Back To the Future. Yet the film manages to be both fun enough and weighty enough to appeal to just about everyone.

While no time travel story can be completely original, I respect how Mike & Peter Spierig’s film does its best to create a unique world with its own look and feel as well as its own set of rules. Some of the retro scenes have a great visual aesthetic, and there are some cool details in the film, like how guitar cases are used as the disguise for time travel technology. It’s also refreshing that they understand that a compelling script is what makes for a quality sci-fi film, rather than big budget action sequences.

By this point, I think everyone has an opinion on Ethan Hawke as an actor. But it’s Sarah Snook that really steals the show here. I had never even heard of this girl before, but she was given a great character to play and wow, she sure took advantage of the opportunity. I don’t know whether she’s considered a marketable commodity in Hollywood, but she has serious talent and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

47. Omar


One of the more unique and daring films I saw last year was this Palestinian import by director Hany Abu-Assad. If you’ve seen Paradise Now, which Abu-Assad co-directed, the plot of this film will strike you as familiar. But to many people the subject matter and protagonist of the film are going to be controversial, as it humanizes a man that many would consider a terrorist.

The film’s protagonist plots to kill a random Israeli soldier. He and his compatriots train tirelessly to carry out this assassination at a nearby base with a sniper rifle, honing their skills and readying their escape plan. I’ll spare you the particulars, but this incident leads to a cat and mouse game between members of Israeli intelligence and Omar’s group. They find themselves constantly on the run and questioning the loyalty of those near them, worried that a potential capture could lead to coercion and spying.

This story of intrigue and unrequited love plays out more like a crime thriller than a heavy handed film. It’s easy to forget you’re watching something that seems so inherently political or even dangerous. Some of this is due to the tension within the script, which is undeniably captivating. But this is also a movie with surprising production values and well filmed action. There are several chase scenes in this film that are some of the most impressive sequences I’ve seen in any movie all year.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the controversial ending. I obviously won’t say what it is, but I personally found it to be a stunning and abrupt finale I’ll remember for a long time.

46. John Wick


One of the best executed US action blockbusters in recent memory, John Wick is an exciting return to form for Keanu Reaves and head and shoulders above most of what passes for action at your local United Artists multiplex these days.

Part of what makes the film so fun to watch is that it’s unapologetic about what it is. The initial parts of the film are a bit dark and emotional, but once the film takes off it’s as straightforward an action film as you’re likely to see. It’s also not a movie that takes itself too seriously, as it sets up a dark underground world with memorable and quirky characters. While a lot of the film is brutally violent and involves people getting shot in the face, this isn’t a humorless ride. The writers and directors seem fully aware of what they’re doing here, and the results are immensely entertaining.

The biggest strength of this film is, by far, the action choreography. There’s no Bourne-esque cutting to a different frame every second or two and there’s no obnoxious shaky cam. Much of what passes for decent Hollywood action these days is nowhere near this level of quality. You can always tell what’s going on in the fight sequences and they look great. It’s refreshing to have a film like this that can generate real excitement with its action, rather than over-stylizing it to the point where the audience is tricked into thinking they’ve seen something bold.

This final paragraph is a bit of a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film you might want to skip this – My only real issue with the film is that it begins to feel a little routine as it goes on. Wick is so effective at disposing his enemies and there really aren’t any viable challengers to his kill streak other than the next nameless goon with a bulls-eye on his forehead. I would have appreciated if the difficulty level had noticably increased as time went on, because while they continue to throw challengers at Wick the outcome never feels questionable. It’s interesting that the film is so ineffective at establishing tension, because it’s surprisingly effective at getting us to care about what is (on paper) a comical revenge premise.

45. The Drop


The Drop is written by Dennis Lehane and adapted from his story Animal Rescue. It’s a slow burn crime drama that centers around a Brooklyn drop bar. Bob and Cousin Marv, played by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, run a comfortable operation and appear settled into their station of moving money through their establishment. But when the place gets robbed and money goes missing, tensions start to rise and nefarious mobsters begin to take an interest in the case.

A popular criticism of this movie is that touches on a lot of familiar territory in the crime genre, but I feel that it’s elevated by the quality of its parts. Every level of the film’s production is solid, and I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the film’s mystery. It’s difficult to talk about without spoilers, but a lot of the subtler moments in the film mean that much more in retrospect. Viewers are unraveling some of these plot threads, but it isn’t until we see how it all comes together in the third act that we really appreciate it as a whole. In my opinion, the film’s final act pays off big-time. Some people may consider this a stylistic problem with the film or that the first two acts drag a little, but I was always engaged with The Drop. I found it to be a tense and unsettling script and it kept me wanting more.

The two things that really elevate this film are the quality of its final act and the talent of the cast involved. Tom Hardy is always great and in some ways steals the film here. But Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, and the late James Gandolfini are certainly no slouches either. After having seen Gandolfini’s performance in Enough Said and now this, it really hits me to know that we’re all losing such a talented actor. I feel like he was starting to break free from being pigeonholed as Tony Soprano and had so much range to offer. Unfortunately, this is the last of his films that will be released in theaters.

44. Wild


Based on the true story and novel of the same name, is the story of Cheryl Strayed. This is a young woman who goes on a hike across the Pacific Crest Trail to get over a tumultuous breakup, a down-spiral into drug addiction, and the death of her mother. This is a woman who has endured a lot of hardship and appears to be mentally unwell. Her hope is that by leaving the world she knows behind and going on this epic journey, that she can find peace with herself and walk her way back to the person her mother wanted her to be.

The film strays from a lot of Hollywood elements. You’re thrown into the hike from the jump and it is only over time that they reveal what she’s been going through that lead her. Those uninitiated with the book or story might be confused at first why Strayed is doing something that appears irrational, but I liked how they revealed this information over time and tied it in to her struggles along the PCT. There’s also a subtle shift in how these flashbacks are being utilized, as they peak during her more challenging moments and begin to subside toward the end of her journey. There aren’t any big life-changing events that occur on the trail, but through these editing techniques and the strength of Witherspoon’s acting we begin to sense that she is coming to grips with her reality and becoming a more enlightened person.

As someone who is interested in the potential benefits of solitude through retreats or meditation, this film spoke to me on a personal level. I imagine it will resonate with a lot of people. After all, who hasn’t once fantasized about leaving civilization behind to go on an adventure – whether for self discovery or personal enjoyment? A hike like the one Cheryl Strayed embarked on is certainly no picnic, but there is a freeing quality to such an adventure. At one point she remarks to a female hiker that she feels more alone back home than she does out here by herself in the wilderness. That may sound cliche, but I think anyone who has gone through some of the things she has (or simply worked a desk job) instinctively knows what she’s talking about.

There’s one scene in particular towards the end of the film that I really loved. She runs into an older woman who is caring for a young boy. It’s a really beautiful scene that seems to tie the movie together both on an emotional and thematic level. It’s one of my favorite moments of 2014.

43. Listen Up Philip


Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, Listen Up Philip is about a young author who is making a name for himself and has just completed his second novel. He’s also a full-blown narcissist that lacks any kind of empathy or sentiment. Although he is fully aware of these character traits, he seems to revel in them. As a viewer, it’s easy to see that his actions are ill-advised and that he’s actually something of a dim bulb. But you sort of have to sit there and watch his actions, which are often cringe inducing or comical. If you’re the type of person who finds it difficult to like a movie in which you don’t like most of the characters, then this is probably not your cup of tea.

In most other films, Jason Schwartzman’s character would evolve and grow into someone more likeable. There is actually a bit of a question of whether this will happen towards the end, but it’s predominantly the story of a man who is too full of himself and surrounded by corrupting influences to change his behavior. He is mentored by Ike, an elderly writer who has enjoyed far more success over the course of his career than Philip. Yet in some ways the character of Ike is even worse as a person than Philip, as his rampant narcissism and ego have gone unabated despite so many decades of life experience.

One of the things I really like about Listen Up Philip is how it utilizes the narrator. It’s often been said that the written word’s key advantage over cinema is its ability to articulate inner thoughts and motivations. There is a keen eye afforded to the novel that typically doesn’t exist in scripts and films. While this is mostly true, a film like this takes full advantage of the available tools and does an admirable job of blending these qualities into the story. For a plot that focuses so heavily on writers this is an appropriate use of the medium, and it makes it feel like you are watching a short novel unfold on screen. I wish more films would adopt this approach.

Also, it should be noted that Elizabeth Moss is a really good actress. So +1 for that performance.

42. The Unknown Known


Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, in which he interviews former defense secretary Robert McNamara, is probably my favorite documentary of all time. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Morris’ new film centered on former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There’s no doubt that Rumsfeld presided over one of the strangest and most catastrophic chapters in the history of American foreign policy, so a filmmaker of Morris’ caliber seemed poised to get some fascinating truths and behind the scenes insights.

Yet the film’s subject, Rumsfeld, is so slippery that we get none of this. He obfuscates and deflects at every turn. Morris describes it as possibly the strangest interview he’s ever done. There’s a mystery at the heart of it asking ‘who is this man?’, yet Morris doesn’t feel as though he is any better equipped to answer that question at the end of the project than at its outset. The answers Rumsfeld supplies to this line of interrogation are so deeply unsatisfying that many viewers and critics walked away feeling as if this was a failure on the part of the director, or even that Rumsfeld had bested Morris in some way. The poster for the film asks us ‘why is this man smiling?’, as time and again we see Rumsfeld’s self-satisfied smirk in how he neutralizes a pointed question. You can tell that Rumsfeld feels as though he’s playing a game and winning.

There’s something not only unsatisfying about Rumsfeld’s answers, but also genuinely frightening. When he is asked about the historical example of Vietnam and whether there were any lesson to be gained from it, Rumsfeld replies that if there’s a lesson it’s simply that “Some things work out. Some things don’t. This didn’t.” Everyone has their own version of evil, Morris tells us, but what if there is simply nothing there? What do you do then?

41. Foxcatcher


Bennett Miller’s latest film tells the story of John DuPont, played by Steve Carrell, and his dream to provide America’s best wrestlers with the tools and training to win Olympic gold. While the story may appear straightforward and the outcome is already widely known, there’s actually a lot going on here. This is also a film that touches on a wide variety of subjects such as the male ego to mental illness etc.

I will speak briefly about the acting, as everyone by now knows that this is a film heralded as much or more for its performances. However, I actually found that Steve Carrell’s performance wasn’t as strong as Tatum’s or Ruffalo’s. I am excited to see what Carrell does next, I felt that the other two leads gave arguably the best performances of their career. To some extent this is splitting hairs as all three of the leading actors do a good job and the awards buzz surrounding the film is warranted.

One of the more defiantly austere and atmospheric films of last year, Foxcatcher draws us into a world that is undeniably cold. The use of color and cinematography convey an environment that is emotionally drab, and the script (which centers more around Channing Tatum’s character Mark Schultz) adds to this sense of emotional isolation. Both John and Mark have grown up living in the shadow of others. For John, it’s his family’s fortune and the overpowering disapproval of his mother. For Mark, it’s the sense that no matter what he achieves in life he will always be seen as the younger brother of David Schultz. So when the two of them join forces to accomplish great things there is actually a time when the story feels headed in a positive direction. Mark initially sees John as a mentor and a heroic figure, but as time goes on the two grow more distant. This is largely due to some sensitive subject matter that the film doesn’t fully delve into, instead choosing to handle it in a manner consistent with the tone of the film.

The most lasting impression that I took away from the film was the arrogance of hereditary wealth. DuPont feels that his money entitles him to be an expert at everything from wrestling to ornithology, and his wealth does afford him the ability to feel he’s playing a vital role in helping the U.S. win a gold medal or in publishing a book about birds. Yet the closer you look it’s clear that he’s an Emperor without clothing. There’s a scene in the film where David Schultz is asked by a director to speak into the camera and say that he considers John a mentor to him. The pain and hesitation that Mark Ruffalo displays in this scene is palpable, and for good reason.

Money is not a guarantee of happiness. In fact, being born into money is no guarantee that you’ll avoid being petty or miserable. While this is a subject that’s been touched on in countless films, there’s something about the way Foxcatcher handles it that leaves a lasting impression.

40. Selma


There were a truly alarming number of biopics this year. Whether that was fueled by Academy Award preferences or it’s just a statistical anomaly is hard to say. What can be said is that most of these biopics weren’t very good for a variety of reasons. Ava DuVerney’s Selma, which chronicles Martin Luther King’s struggle to secure voting rights in Alabama, was one of the exceptions to the rule.

The film has a polished Hollywood feel to it much of the time. Some things are a bit trumped up for extra drama like a more antagonistic Lyndon Johnson than we’d expect, or the use of unsourced dramatic music in one car ride scene. But Selma is also a bold film that isn’t shying away from some of the pragmatic moral concerns involved in the struggle, or even the flaws Dr. King had as a person. You got to see some of the nuances of the conflict, as several members of King’s group disagree on how best to proceed or second guess his decision making. Other activists outside of his circle have radically different notions, as well. Anyone who has been in or around a political movement will understand that it can be a messy process.

DuVerney’s movie doesn’t make MLK into some larger than life figure, but humanizes him as someone trying to do their best in a difficult situation. This, combined with David Oyelowo’s performance, really brings King to life in a way that’s both new and familiar. The film might have been benefited by going into detail with some of the other people in King’s circle. Perhaps that’s an unfair criticism because of the amount of time allotted for a film, but there was some good material they could have explored here.

I have to give the movie a lot of credit for being emotionally moving. There were some sequences in [em]Selma[/em] that had me riveted or even close to tears. Some might argue that this has more to do with the history more than the story itself, but I’m not sure I agree with that. So many other biopics this year should have been emotionally engaging and simply weren’t. DuVerney deserves a lot of credit for this passionate and well constructed project.

39. The Immigrant


It’s surprising that a film with so much talent, production heft, and star power behind it went relatively unnoticed this year. The Immigrant debuted at Cannes in 2013 and has since proceeded to fly under most people’s radar. It was given an extremely limited release and received no awards consideration, despite the positive reviews from critics. It deserved a lot more attention than it got.

The film’s plot centers around a Polish immigrant in early 1900s Manhattan. Ewa, played by Marion Cotillard, is separated from her sick sister upon reaching Ellis Island. To make matters worse, she is immediately accused of indecent conduct and threatened with deportation. Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix, takes a special interest in Ewa’s case. He takes the woman under his wing, allowing her to come work for him in an urban underworld of burlesque and prostitution. Seeing little alternative to help her sister or provide for herself, Ewa begrudgingly agrees to this arrangement.

If 2013’s The Great Gatsby showed the opulence of the roaring 20s, then this film is almost its polar opposite. We’re constantly seeing rundown sets of shabby apartments, dirty street corners, or the inelegant cells of Ellis Island. The use of color is almost monochromatic, as half or more of the scenes utilize a golden brown hue. It can feel drab and repetitive, but there’s an over-exposure to the color in this film that gives it a surreal quality at the same time. That feeling of the unreal ties in nicely with the character of Orlando the magician, as well as some of the fabled elements of the story.

Although much of the film centers around a love triangle between the three main characters, I’m not certain whether any of the romance in the film is genuine. You get the sense that Ewa is caught between her circumstances and will do anything to help her sister, so it’s unlikely she finds either Bruno or Orlando’s romantic advances enticing. Orlando seems the type who might relish in competition with Bruno, more taken with Ewa than genuinely in love with her. Bruno seems the most convincing of any of them, yet he also shows a willingness to exploit Ewa for his personal gain. It’s not until the film’s third act that we get some resolution on this question, as the actions of one character appear to speak for themselves.

Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are great in this, as they are in most things. But the best thing about this film is its fantastic ending. I’m always a sucker for a good finale, and The Immigrant‘s ranks with some of my favorite final sequences of the year. It captures what the film is trying to say beautifully and it’s emotionally powerful. If I were ranking these films according to their endings, this one would be in my top 10.

38. Calvary


Anyone who has followed my lists closely will know that John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard came close to taking my top spot in 2011. His next film has a lot in common, as it tackles heavy issues with humor and intelligence. But while Calvary is a very good film, it falls short of that level of greatness.

The story follows Father James, who is played by Brendan Gleeson. One day at the confessional, a man tells him that he was molested by a priest as a child. When James urges him to make an official statement about it, the anonymous man informs him that the priest has since passed away. Unable to provide any good advice for this man, the mysterious figure lashes out with a threat on Father James’ life. He says he is going to kill him because he’s a good priest and has done nothing wrong. Killing a bad priest wouldn’t get anyone’s attention, but killing a good one? The people wouldn’t know what to make of that, would they?

Father James is seen as the figurehead of the Catholic Church in this small Irish town, which carries with it a certain amount of respect and disdain. Because of the recent child abuse scandals with the Church and the declining religiosity of those around him, he finds himself in the unenviable position of shouldering the blame for a grand institution while trying to provide spiritual counsel for people who are often disinterested in the role of the Church in their lives. Yet father James is a good man, and despite the looming threat on his life he feels compelled to do what little he can to help ease the burdens of those around him. He has to take on this task single-handed, as its clear that his simpleton colleagues aren’t going to be of much help.

Like The Guard, this is a film that may throw some people off with its lack of tonal consistency. I thought that The Guard did a better job at juggling its weightier themes and cutting sense of humor. Calvary isn’t nearly as funny, partly because it delves deeper into darkness as it goes on. A lot of the plot deals with some very heavy stuff, and although this works it comes at the expense of some laughs. Still, this is a uniquely intelligent and clever film that further cements John Michael McDonagh as one of the better writer/directors working today.

37. We Are the Best!


Lukas Moodysson’s latest film has an explanation point on the end which seems appropriate. It’s a coming-of-age story about three young girls who form a punk band, even though two of them have no musical talent whatsoever and are consistently told that punk is dead. Undeterred by their lack of expertise or the peer pressure around them, these young girls become an unstoppable trio who begin to form a bond as they struggle to write and rehearse their music. It’s a punk rock story that isn’t necessarily about punk rock. The 1982 setting of Sweden and the fading punk movement aren’t essential elements, they just happen to be the backdrop for this story. You could easily substitute all of this and you’d be left with a thematically identical script. It’s more about the idea of youth and counter-culture. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of youthful exuberance, where everything feels a bit rebellious.

Ultimately, even these ideas take a backseat to the main subject of the film which is adolescent friendship. The film doesn’t shy away from showing us some of the clumsy ways that these types of friendships can manifest themselves. As you might expect, boys come up at one point in the film. It also addresses the desire to pressure those in your circle to be more like you. These elements are familiar if you’ve seen enough coming-of-age films, but the film never goes so far as to become cliché. It deals with some of these topics because they’re true to life, not because it’s interested in manufacturing drama. The film flows with a joyful energy that never lets it get bogged down by these scenes, keeping the viewer engaged throughout.

The finale didn’t go quite as I expected it to, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense considering what the film is about. I was very satisfied after my screening ended, leaving with a smile on my face. Also, it brought up some compelling reasons for why we should hate the sport, so there’s that.

36. Joe


A major departure from the likes of Your Highness and Pineapple Express, David Gordon Green’s latest indie effort is far more serious.

Joe is a story about a man of the same name (played by Nicholas Cage) who runs a foresting operation. He and his crew go out into the woods to poison trees and clear the land for redevelopment. It’s technically not legal but nobody seems to make too much of a fuss about that, as everyone in the film is just trying their best to work and survive. One day, Joe runs into a young boy named Gary who is eager to to work hard and earn some money. It quickly becomes clear that Gary is wise beyond his years and a committed worker, but he also comes from a profoundly troubled household with an alcoholic, violent father. Joe must decide whether he’s willing to take on this added baggage or cut Gary loose.

This is one of the most impoverished looking films of 2014. It feels like most of it was filmed in the middle of nowhere or behind a dumpster. Far from being a criticism, this helps give the film a very distinct feel and sense of place. In addition, the use of cinematography and editing in this film is so good that it caught me off guard. There are moments where the use of visuals merges with the music to create some fantastic sequences and transitions. It’s obvious that a lot of care and talent went into the craft of this film.

Nicholas Cage is great in this, giving one of the most subdued and best performances of his entire career. Cage can often help make a bad movie watchable, but you can tell that he’s often collecting a paycheck. Seeing him turn in such a strong performance in such a quality film is refreshing. But it’s Gary Poulter, playing the role of Gary’s father of Wade aka G-Daawg, who really steals this movie. At first we think he’s nothing more than a mean drunk, but it quickly becomes apparent that this man is incredibly dangerous and prone to extreme actions to get what he wants. Poulter was a man with no formal acting experience, and instead was a real life alcoholic and homeless man. I had no idea that this was the case when I watched the film and was enamored with his performance the whole time as it felt so natural. Tragically, shortly after filming Joe, Poulter’s very real problems caught up to him and he was found dead in a river. It’s a damn shame, yet the movie serves as a lasting achievement to a man who might otherwise have passed on in obscurity. The film is worth watching for his performance alone.

35. Ida


Pawel Pawlikowski’s film takes place in 1960s Poland and follows the story of a novitiate nun named Ida. Having been raised from within, she only knows what life is like in the convent. Not only is she ignorant of the outside world, but she is ignorant of her family history and origins. That is, until the Mother Superior insists she visit her last known relative, Wanda Gruz. She insists that Ida stay for as long as is necessary with Wanda before returning. Although Ida is reluctant at first, she soon discovers a shocking truth – she is a Jew whose relatives were killed during the war. Curious to find out what happened to her deceased ancestors and intrigued by the decadence of ordinary life, Ida decides that she must stay and try to learn all she can before heading home.

In some ways, this is as an odd couple road trip movie. The character of Wanda, exceptionally portrayed by Agata Kulesza, is almost the polar opposite of the young Ida. While the young Ida is demure, Wanda is rash and uncompromising. An older woman who is fully attune with her sexuality, Wanda is unapologetic in her pursuit of earthly pleasures. She has no problem ignoring social decorum and speaking her mind to anyone along her way, all as the younger Ida looks on stoically.

It’s a morally complex film that doesn’t offer easy answers, both as it concerns literal events and how one defines the good life. The audience can feel like they’re taking a vicarious journey behind Ida’s captivating stare, always looking with interest but saying little. It touches on notions of identity politics, history, hedonism, and purity. Yet it’s up to us to decipher these ideas and come to our own conclusions. While Wanda’s character is well understood, Ida remains mysterious even after the end of the film. We must decide for ourselves what path she is likely to take, as well as what direction we feel is best for her.

The cinematography in this film is absolutely gorgeous. I had no idea going into the film that it would look this good, and that was actually one of the more pleasant surprises of the year. The look of Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays Ida, is one of the things that gives this its visual flair. The use of black and white gives her eyes a captivating, dark gaze that you can’t turn away from. But this is also a beautifully shot film that uses a lot of creative angles and wonderful images. Calling it one of the best looking films of 2014 isn’t an exaggeration.

34. Snowpiercer


Bong Joon-Ho’s latest film is based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob. Set in the near future, a chemical released to combat global warming has had unintended consequences. Rather than avert a climate catastrophe, the world has instead been plunged into an eternal ice age. Mankind is mostly extinct, with the exception of one train that runs on a miracle engine. Within this locomotive there exists a distinct class hierarchy. The have-nots are relegated to the rear of the train, forced to survive in dehumanizing conditions while feasting on energy bars made of waste and insects. The more affluent members live near the front of the train, where they are afforded luxuries beyond imagination given the planet’s circumstances.

The film has its merits as an action sci-fi film, but the thing I liked most about Snowpiercer is that it really is nonsense. What I mean by that is that the plot and the logistics of the world fall apart if you think about them for a few minutes. It’s as far-fetched as you can get, and we only go deeper into the rabbit hole as the film moves towards the front of the train. From a kindergarten classroom to a sushi bar to a club scene… this is a movie that becomes increasingly surreal, giving the film a hazy and dreamlike quality. Some will undoubtedly look at that as a major flaw, but it’s part of what gives the film such a cool vibe.

I don’t think that this is a particularly deep film or an insightful one. It’s an obvious class metaphor about ruling elites and the have-nots resulting in a bloody insurrection. It doesn’t have much new to say about income inequality or even environmental stewardship, for that matter. These themes are timely, but what makes Snowpiercer good is that it’s such a crazily imaginative, apologetically dark, and thrilling journey. I enjoyed getting lost in its madness and it’s not something I’ll forget anytime soon.

33. Two Days, One Night


The Dardennes latest film stars Marion Cotillard as a woman who learns that she’s lost her job. Rather than just being fired, Sandra is informed that her colleagues were asked to take a vote on whether to bring her back from sick leave or terminate her employment altogether. Her co-workers are incentivized to let her go when they’re informed that they will all receive 1,000 euros bonus pay if she does not return to the company. Initially, the vote is a slam dunk – Sandra is overwhelmingly voted out. But one of her close friends and colleagues urges her to fight, insisting that the boss pressured some into voting against her for fear they may lose their own jobs. Urged by her friend and her lover to fight this decision, she must now go door to door in order to convince those she worked with to give up their bonus and let her keep her job.

I left the theater wondering about whether this kind of thing happens. I’ve never heard of something like this in reality, but it’s plausible given the circumstances the film presents. In any event, the premise of the film does set up a great moral fable. The film seems to be holding up a mirror to its audience, asking to what extent we belong to a society or to what extent it’s just every person/family for themselves. As Cotillard’s character goes from one co-worker to the next, we’re left wondering which of these competing notions will win out in the end. The answer to the question “society or jungle?” doesn’t appear clear cut, especially in this type of economy. It isn’t until the film’s final act that we see the outcome, but even then we’re left pondering. A lot of this plays out like a thriller where you’re increasingly on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen. I personally loved the ending of this film, but I don’t want to say why.

Like the Dardennes other works, this is not a film with big set pieces or car chases. The plot of the film, though compelling, is small in scope. Yet despite the embellishment, this is a film that resonates with truth and emotion much like their other movies. It captures that fear of living life on a financial knife edge while managing to be a profoundly human narrative at the same time.

Marion Cotillard is exceptional in this, giving one of the best female performances of last year. While she is very good in The Immigrant, I personally believe that this is the better of the two performances and the better film as well. Perhaps flying a bit under the radar, Fabrizio Rongione is a great compliment to her and takes on an equally challenging supporting role.

32. The Babadook


Horror is perhaps the most lackluster of all movie genres, with the possible exception of romantic comedies. Even some of the most celebrated horror films of all time have their fair share of detractors, and it’s not uncommon to go a full calendar year without one good horror film being released. Hollywood has pummeled horror into the ground in recent years with tired clichés of found footage, exorcism, and creepy children. Honesty, I don’t even waste my time with most of them anymore. I’m more likely to find real terror in a well crafted documentary than your average horror flick.

But one of the most hyped films of the year, The Babadook actually lives up to its billing. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the film has genuinely frightening sequences that unnerved me as I was watching it. For a film of its type to resonate with so many people as being truly scary is rare. It avoids nearly every pitfall that modern horror tends to stumble into and it takes risks that you wouldn’t expect. The look and feel of the film draw you into its creepy world, while the script has you invested in the fate of its characters. A number of the fright sequences do rely on some traditional techniques, but it has enough of its own style to stand apart. This isn’t a movie with a lot of jump scares etc.

It features a brilliant performance by Essie Davis, who I now realized has been criminally underutilized for most of her career. I think the last thing that I saw her in was The Matrix Reloaded and that was roughly a dozen years ago (seriously?). I’m also excited to see what Jennifer Kent does next, as this film shows enough moxie and creativity to suggest she has a lot more left in the tank.

The only issue I have with the movie is that, like most horror films, I had mixed feelings about the ending. I won’t go into specifics and I recognize how the film is trying to have a metaphorical undertone and the horror of real life. I would have appreciated if it took itself more like a traditional horror film, though I can understand the counter-argument that we have dozens upon dozens of movies that do something similar to that. The Babadook, to its credit, is trying to do something fundamentally different and I respect it for that. I just wished I liked its conclusion as much as I enjoyed everything that led up to it.

31. Locke


It’s rare that a film like Locke comes along. Unlike a lot of films that things up regularly, this film starts and ends with Tom Hardy’s character in a car. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s doing one thing well and doesn’t let up. However, it takes good writing and a strong performance by the lead actor to pull something like this off. Thankfully, both are more than up to the task.

At first we know very little about why Locke is making this journey. Slowly but surely, the film starts to reveal the circumstances that our protagonist finds himself in. The more we discover, the more intense and stressful the situation gets. We’re told that Tom Hardy’s character is a man of the utmost integrity who is extremely confident, and we’re assured by the calming tone of his voice as he tries to put each caller at ease. However, the situation becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on. We’re left wondering whether this well intentioned, intelligent man is in over his head. I don’t want to say more than that, since the less you know going into Locke the more you are likely to get out of it.

The only film in recent memory this reminds me of is Buried with Ryan Reynolds. That’s a film with a very different plot, but it’s also a nearly one man performance outside of cell phone conversations. I was a big fan of each of these films, though I understand that they’re a hard sell to wide audiences. Neither film made much money, but I greatly appreciate the vision of a film like Locke that isn’t afraid to take a chance and chart a different course.

As much as I liked Tom Hardy in The Drop, this is the performance that defines him from last year. Given the film’s premise, Tom Hardy needed to carry this one and he most certainly did. I personally would have nominated him for best actor.

30. Love Is Strange


After spending over thirty years together, Ben and George (played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) are finally able to get married in a Manhattan ceremony. What should be the happiest day of their lives instead gives rise to a downward spiral that separates the couple into different housing. Once the news breaks, George loses his job teaching music at a Catholic school. Now unable to afford their apartment, the newlyweds are forced to call on help from friends and family to provide them with temporary living arrangements until they can get back on their feet.

The premise of the film might suggest that this is a message movie about gay rights or marriage equality. Surprisingly, Love Is Strange spends very little time going into this aspect of the story. Instead, Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias have written a screenplay that’s more concerned with human relationships than it is about politics. In fact, this is as much about the smaller memories we make between people as it is about romantic love. The film really nails those small moments that are true to life. There is no big plot other than the backdrop I mentioned earlier, but there’s a lot of heart and the low-key transitions across time help to make this one of the more affecting movies of the year. Some have actually compared it to Linklater’s Boyhood in terms of this storytelling style, though this is less ambitious in scope.

It’s worth noting that the chemistry between John Lithgow and Alfred Molina is great in this. It genuinely feels like a decades long relationship, to the point where you can sense the difference in the characters’ negative energy when they’re apart and the connection they have when they’re together. But as the two main characters spend so much time apart, a big focus of the script is on the platonic relationships of family and friendship, which isn’t always smooth but can give way to greater understanding and affection with time. As the title of the film suggests, love can work in mysterious ways.

29. Leviathan


There is a scene in Leviathan where several men go out into the countryside with firearms and vodka. They’re families are nearby, but they’re essentially off in the middle of nowhere. One of the men unveils some objects he’s brought for target practice – framed photographs of former politicians like Joseph Stalin and Boris Yeltsin. When asked if there are any modern mugshots that they can aim at, he replies that not enough time has passed for there to be a historical perspective.

Russian cinema seems to exist in an odd place at the moment. Very few major films come out of the country, so it was with some surprise that the most widely released import of 2014 was Leviathan, a movie that is scathing in its critique of the Russian oligarchy. Adding to the surprise is the fact that a lot of the film’s funding came from the Russian Ministry Of Culture, and that the biggest objections to it seemed to be language. In a year where we saw Iranian dissidents change their identities to avoid imprisonment in the filming of Manuscripts Don’t Burn, it really makes you wonder why it’s the foreign language film frontrunner for Russia at the 2015 Academy Awards. I’m hoping that Andrey Zvyagintsev doesn’t get in serious trouble for making this.

The story is reminiscent of Job. It’s about a man named Kolya and his family who live on a small plot of land near a fishing village. A corrupt mayor takes an interest in the property and attempts to seize it through a form of eminent domain. When Kolya is unwilling to give up his land, the State tries to seize the property by providing less than adequate financial compensation. Throughout Leviathan, you get the sense that average people are struggling against crushing bureaucracy. There are several scenes in which the law courts read out the verdict at a breathtaking pace, leaving the audience with a defeatist attitude in the face of such blatant corruption and institutional bias. However, the characters in this film seem to be unintimidated by the forces that be. Both the landowner and the lawyer are willing to press their case against extreme adversity, eager to take on the mayor and threaten him with corruption charges if necessary.

I don’t want to get into too many specifics about how things play out. Thematically, this is a film about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. The theme of the haves bullying the have-nots may be especially relevant in Putin’s Russia, but it’s something that people in any country could relate to. Every aspect of the society seems to conform to the institutional forces, whether it’s a religious leader telling a politician that his power is derived from the almighty or the common man who drinks copious amounts of vodka to deal with the frustration.

28. X-Men: Days of Future Past


There was a lot of buzz about Marvel superhero movies this year, as there seems to be every year. While I will grant that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy are better than a lot of previous entries in that field, the best comic book movie of 2014 was Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Based on the famous graphic novel, the X-Men find themselves in a futuristic hell-scape in which an army of sentinels roam the Earth. These unstoppable killing machines hunt down and extinguishing mutants of all types. Originally designed to target mutants like the X-men, the sentinels now target anyone with minor genetic mutations. This race of machines has grown beyond anyone’s control, and since they’re able to adapt to the powers of their adversaries they are simply too formidable to fight against. The plan then, is to use Kitty Pryde’s ability to channel time to send Wolverine into the past (in the original story Pryde is the one who goes back), to end the war before it ever begins.

This movie reminds me of two other sci-fi films that I love. It’s as though the X-Men franchise had been fused with Terminator 2 and Inception. Like T2, you have a post-apocalyptic future with an unstoppable robot army and the hope of traveling back into time to rewrite history. Like Inception, you have the different layers of time with the familiar face of Ellen Page guiding you through. Time travel and alternate realities are great storytelling devices if done right, and I felt like Singer and the writers handled this one really well. It’s rare that a superhero film’s main selling point is its plot, but in this case I think that’s fair to say. The modified source material they’re working off is so engaging, and the quality of the cast is so first rate that nearly every scene of dialogue is compelling.

Of course, there’s some good action in this film, too. The futuristic fight scenes with the sentinels are well designed a lot of fun to watch, as the mutants employ a lot of inventive teamwork to battle the machines. But the one that really steals the movie is a slow motion action sequence involving Quicksilver, a mutant whose power involves going really fast. Shot from his perspective, we see time appear to slow down as he runs along walls, manipulates bullets, and generally just kicks a lot of ass. It’s one of the best sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

27. Under the Skin


It’s arguably the most unconventional film of last year. Under the Skin challenged moviegoers and split people into love it or hate it camps. I’ve seen it at or near the top of top 10 lists, but I’ve also talked to some cinephiles that feel it’s a plodding, nonsensical mess.

The premise seems simple enough on paper: Scarlett Johanson plays a seductive alien who preys upon unsuspecting men in Glasgow, Scotland. But that synopsis doesn’t convey just how odd and atmospheric this film is. Much of the film seems to be operating in Kubrick-esque a 2001: A Space Odyssey mode where we’re shown a lot of mysterious sights and sounds but told very little. We’re seeing things through the eyes of the alien invasion, but we don’t fully comprehend their purpose or their methods. Are they plotting for an invasion or merely doing scientific research? Why do they take such an interest in imprisoning these men and what are they doing with their skins? Whether it’s a frightening sequence of submersion under black liquid or an even more unsettling sequence on a beach, we’re constantly wondering what’s driving the alien’s motivations as well as what the heck is going on.

While I can’t fully explain to someone what I watched in an elevator speech, Under the Skin is a haunting and memorable experience. A lot of this is due to the use of music in the film. The soundtrack is so bizarre and overpowering that it unsettles you, which is appropriate for a film like this. It may not be a horror film in the traditional sense, but there are some sequences in here which are as frightening as anything I saw last year. Other sequences are so visually arresting or thought provoking that I have a hard time shaking them from my memory. I was still vividly recalling moments from this film several weeks after seeing it. It’s rare for a movie to have that kind of lingering effect on me.

26. A Most Violent Year


As someone who avoids a lot of information before going to the theater, I was pleasantly surprised to find that A Most Violent Year wasn’t at all what I expected. Given the title and some miscellaneous clues I’d picked up about its story, I figured that this was going to be another period piece mafia/gangster film. It turns out that it’s an anti-mafia film, as its protagonist Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) is a man trying as hard as he can not to become a gangster.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the movie takes place in 1981 New York, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) run a heating oil company on the verge of acquiring some strategic new territory. The coveted loading dock exists by the river, and will give the Morales couple access to oil barges which could greatly expand their business. However, they must first give a down payment to the current owners and come up with the remaining 1.5 million dollars within a month’s time. It should run smoothly, but Abel’s trucks are getting hijacked at gunpoint more and more frequently. In addition to being an obvious security concern, this criminal activity is having a major impact on their bottom line. Making matters worse, an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo) is going after the company with a laundry list of fraud indictments.

At the time, it was very difficult for people in the oil-delivery business to avoid fraud and violence. For someone with Abel’s ambition, it seems counter-intuitive that he would be so desperate to acquire more money and power, yet unwilling to engage in retaliatory violence or become an ally of the mob. Yet Abel is insistent that he will not stoop to such tactics, despite the advice of nearly everyone around him that he, at the very least, allow his drivers to carry firearms for protection. It can be difficult to tell at times whether he is operating this way because he feels it’s the best strategy to achieve his goals, whether he feels morally opposed to such action, or some combination of the two.

I loved the ethical dilemma at play here and found it refreshing to see a film that takes such a different approach. Some have criticized A Most Violent Year for not having enough of a pulse or being too restrained, but I was captivated the entire time. There are actually some edge-of-your-seat sequences in this movie and much of the dialogue is intense or thought provoking. Bolstered by some great performances from the three main actors and a supporting role by Albert Brooks, this is one of the best casts of the year. Chandor has also managed to make a name for himself as a director to look out for, as each of his films has gotten successively better, in my opinion.

25. Housebound


Forced to return to the house she grew up in, Kylie is placed under house arrest and given an electronic ankle bracelet. The arrangement is less than satisfactory for Kylie or her parents. Her mother Myriam finds her to be a spoiled and unaccommodating brat, while she finds her mother to be an obnoxious blabbermouth. Myriam insists that the place is haunted, but this is brushed off by Kylie as the delusional rantings of an older woman suffering from dementia. However, it soon becomes clear that something with the house is not right. Slowly but surely, Kylie begins to understand that she may be in actual peril. Unable to leave the house, she must find a way to work with her mother if she hopes to survive another night.

The horror/comedy hybrid genre is very difficult to get right. Sam Raimi was able to have success with the Evil Dead trilogy, but audiences were split on his return with Drag Me To Hell. Even devoted cinephiles would be hard pressed to name a great horror/comedy film that’s come out in the past ten years. So I’m excited to say that the New Zealand import Housebound is a modern great in its genre. Some say that it’s able to succeed at being both frightening and funny. I’ll grant that Housebound is using some scare techniques in creative ways, but I think what makes this work so well is that it’s primarily a comedy in the guise of a horror film. I’m not sure I was ever genuinely afraid during it, which could sound like a big weakness, but it’s so funny and entertaining that it works. Part of what makes the humorous concoction effective is that Kylie is such an unconventional damsel in distress. At one point she’s asked what she’ll do if she encounters a hostile spirit, to which she replies “I’m going to smash it in the face!”.

I won’t get into a lot of the details about the plot, since this is also a mystery film where the protagonist is unlocking clues along the way. While the puzzle does help keep your interest, the real selling point here is the vibe given off by this quirky Kiwi film and its sense of humor. If this sounds like your cup of tea then you should absolutely give this one a go. I think Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound is destined to become a cult classic.

24. A Most Wanted Man


John le Carre’s story is adapted to the big screen in Anton Corbijn’s spy thriller A Most Wanted Man. Set in Hamburg, German intelligence gets wind of a Chechen man named Issa who has managed to free himself of torture and sneak into the country. Because he is seeking to gain access to his father’s fortune, counter-terrorism officials are wary of having another Mohamed Atta on their hands. It’s unclear whether Issa is simply an immigrant seeking to put his troubled past behind him, or whether he poses a legitimate danger in the form of financing extremists.

It’s a very intelligent screenplay. In fact, it’s probably the best script I’ve come across when it comes to the nuances of counter-terrorism. You could argue that there are no real villains in the intelligence community here, yet there’s plenty of adversarial behavior as you move through the levels of the bureaucracy. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Gunter, is met with some opposition by those around him for taking a hands-off approach. One of his colleagues, for instance, is afraid that Issa might do something disastrous at any moment. Gunter is more concerned with the long game than he is with making a quick bust. As he explains in one scene “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda and a barracuda to catch a shark.” From the Germans to the Americans, everyone seems to have their own personal philosophy on how best to cope with these types of situations. While the viewer empathizes and roots for Gunter, they can also see the wisdom of other approaches even if they believe his methods are ultimately the best.

The film moves at a steady but consistently gripping pace. There are no big Hollywood set pieces or car chases here, but it’s a thinking man’s spy movie with a lot going for it. I’m obviously not going to give the game away in this write-up, but I will say that the ending is excellent and provides for some interesting post-viewing discussion.

Sadly, this is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final role. He gives a brilliant performance here, reminding everyone just how great he was. It’s a performance that will probably not get mentioned among his best, as this is a film that didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. However, this is about as good as anything he’s ever done. His presence elevates the cast around him. You can tell he’s bringing his A game and inspiring those he’s working with to reach a little higher. RIP Mr. Hoffman… you will be missed.

23. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Alejandro González Iñárritu has been wallowing in misery for a long time now. While I personally loved Amores Perros, I was starting to feel that his last three films had become too one-note, culminating in Biutiful which was so senselessly bleak that I worried the director had jumped the shark. With Birdman, Iñárritu is still exploring some heavy themes of depression and mental illness, but he’s doing it a fun way… if that makes sense.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is just fantastic in this and worth watching for that alone. He pulls off a high wire act with his amazing long takes here. It’s shot with these beautiful and sweeping takes which give the impression that the movie is one continuous shot. All of this is bolstered by the film’s frenetic energy and jazzy drumbeats that move it along. Yet it’s also able to slow down and inject some serious show-stopping moments of beauty, poignancy, or sheer insanity. Some might argue that the long takes are a gimmick, but this is a film about a theatrical production so I think the illusion of one continuous performance is clever and appropriate. Also, our protagonist Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a delusional and schizophrenic narcissist. This stylistic eccentricity helps us see things through his eyes.

This is a funny and fast-paced fable about a myriad of subjects ranging from fame to art. Trying to touch on all of the ideas would be incredibly time consuming, so I’m not even going to attempt it. I will say that it’s fun to see a movie that jumps from social media commentary to a critique of critics on a dime, all while keeping the show moving and not looking back. It’s also nice to see some good actors that haven’t gotten much opportunity of late, particularly Edward Norton and Michael Keaton. Though I thought everyone involved in the project did a good job.

My interpretation of this film and its last act is different from some others I’ve spoken to. I’m far less trustworthy of Riggan than some seem to be, since I believe the man is so obviously nuts that it’s difficult to draw a line between fantasy and reality. The very first scene is him levitating mid-air, dressed in nothing but his underwear and listening to an imaginary superhero narrate his life. We literally see supernatural acts of telekinesis and flight, only to be shown later that he took a cab from here to there etc. So some of the more fantastical elements that happen later on can’t be taken at face value, in my opinion. It may interest some to go back and try to piece it all together, but I’m far more interested in how fun the delusional ride is than trying to determine what’s real.

22. The Double


2014 had two very good films about doppelgangers. Richard Ayoade’s The Double is more of an oddball dystopian comedy, whereas Dennis Villenueve’s Enemy was an incredibly dark and stylish thriller. It’s interesting that two films could have such a similar premise, yet they went about executing it in very different ways. To be honest, I have a hard time deciding which of the two is better.

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a man who is extremely uncomfortable in his own skin. It seems that he is consistently awkward and unsure of himself no matter the situation. He has been an anonymous office drone for many years, toiling away in a cubicle as his superiors as well as colleagues barely seem to notice him. One day, a man who appears to be his identical appears at the office named James Simon (also Jesse Eisenberg). James Simon is everything that Simon James is not. He is gregarious, confident, successful etc. and is almost immediately recognized and celebrated by all those around him. Nobody seems to notice that the two men look exactly alike, not even Simon’s crush Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). As James becomes more domineering and achieves greater success, Simon becomes increasingly marginalized and irrelevant.

The Double draws on countless influences that range from Dostoyevsky to Terry Gilliam. You could probably point to twenty other fictional works in film or literature that it’s drawing from (even Flash Gordon is in here). Some have pointed to these various influences as a negative, but I really enjoyed seeing a lot of these different elements come together to form a whole. It’s such a diverse and delightful tapestry that the film feels fresh. It also doesn’t dwell on any one stylistic element for too long, as the editing keeps the story flowing at an enjoyable pace. It’s consistently fun to watch in a way that few films are.

The story takes place in a dystopic world, overrun with bureaucratic nonsense and monotonous labor. It’s exploring a lot of heavy themes such as urban isolation and the oppression of individuality, but it’s important not to lose sight of how funny this movie is. In fact, its brand of dark humor makes this one of the funniest movies of the year.

21. Enemy


2014 had two very good films about doppelgangers. Richard Ayoade’s The Double is more of an oddball dystopian comedy, whereas Dennis Villenueve’s Enemy was an incredibly dark and stylish thriller. It’s interesting that two films could have such a similar premise, yet they went about executing it in very different ways. To be honest, I have a hard time deciding which of the two is better.

Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a mild mannered history professor who happens upon a movie one evening. In it, he notices something strange; one of the extras in the film looks exactly like him. This begins the mystery of Anthony Claire (Jake Gyllenhaal). Is the man really his exact double or is it a mere coincidence? Should Adam try to confront Anthony to discover the truth? Once this plot kicks into high gear it doesn’t look back. This quickly becomes one of the most captivating movies of the year as the pieces start coming together. A lot of this is because it’s such a mysterious narrative and I think it’s best if I don’t say too much about that.

Enemy is not a film of great thematic depth or insight. That’s not to say that this isn’t a thinking man’s movie, quite the contrary. It’s a stylish mystery/thriller that keeps you on your toes as you pick up clues along the way. But what really makes this great is a compelling script blending with elegant style. There wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t caught up in the mysterious plot, as I was kept on the edge of my seat from start to finish. The cinematography is excellent, featuring beautiful aerial views and intimate shots. The film uses a level of color saturation that is simply out of control, adding to the eerie vibe and giving it a very distinct look.

The ending of the film ties in to a lot of mysterious hints we got before. I have my own ideas about the final shot, but I love that so many people have varying opinions and conspiracy theories. Just about everyone that I’ve talked to has different ideas and it makes for a fun discussion. That ongoing mystery gives the movie more lasting appeal and re-watch value. However, it also works perfectly well if you have no interest in fitting the puzzle pieces together.

This is the obligatory ‘Jake Gyllenhaal is killing it these days’ sentence.

20. The Lunchbox


Ritesh Batra’s first film is not what you’re expecting. For starters, it’s an Indian film that has no music sequences or dance numbers. That might not sound incredible to some people, but it’s quite literally the only Indian movie I’ve seen that has none. It also looks like a cloyingly sweet romance from the box art and some of its advertising, but it’s more emotionally complex than you might think.

The story is about two desolate individuals living in Mumbai. Ila is a lonely housewife that longs for the affection of her emotionally distant husband. Saajan is a reclusive widower getting close to retirement. One day, the two make a connection when the dabbawalas deliver Ila’s lunchbox to Saajan by mistake. Rather than correct the error, Ila decides to keep sending the lunchbox to the wrong address, trying out new recipes to see what works. Over time, the two find themselves engaged in a written correspondence and begin to learn about the other person’s life. Yet things remain uncertain as they grow closer. Will these notes blossom into a romance over time? Will Ila become involved in an adulterous affair? Will Saajan be willing to love again after the death of his wife?

The Lunchbox captures the loneliness and sense of isolation that can fester in a big city like Mumbai. Whether walking through a bustling market or standing on a crowded train, there’s a sense in which you can feel alone amidst a sea of people. This story touches on the longing people can feel to reach out and make a real connection with a colleague at work or through a romantic interest. We can sense the emotional impact on the characters as they begin to develop these connections. We can hear the progression of the back and forth letters as they become more personally intimate, juxtaposed with montages of their experiences. I’m not kidding when I say that some of these sequences with the letters are some of the most emotionally heartwarming and heartbreaking moments of the year for me.

Also, for anyone who loves Indian food this movie will make you want to get some immediately after watching it. Navratan Korma is serious business.

19. Blue Ruin


Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a very basic revenge thriller that is masterfully told.

Much of the film is done without much dialogue, as it opts for a show don’t tell approach. This is especially appropriate given the film’s straightforward narrative of a homeless man seeking vengeance. Yet, despite the bare bones plot, this is more than just a slow-burn genre exercise. The script seems to be making a commentary on the ease with which stakes can escalate in our second amendment society. It’s also an insightful character study about a broken man set down a path of destruction and damnation. Even if we empathize with his actions, there is a fear of whether that old adage of violence only begetting more violence will come to fruition.

Part of what makes this film so intriguing is that Dwight is an unlikely and nebbish protagonist to take on a group of ‘bad guys’. This is the polar opposite of something like John Wick or something along the lines of Steven Seagal. That type of film can have its merits if done right, but we’ve all seen the macho revenge plot done to death. The character in this film makes the danger feel believable. That tension is only heightened by how these scenes are shot and edited. There are moments of violence or potential violence in this film that will have you holding your breath. It can be incredibly tense at times in the way that an Alfred Hitchcock or Dario Argento movie can be. I think the last time I felt this kind of tension in a film was the robbery scene in Refn’s Drive.

Some people have compared this to the Coen brothers debut film Blood Simple. Many will consider that praise to be effusive, but I do not. This is an indie film that lives up to that kind of hype. If this is what Jeremy Saulnier can do on a shoestring budget then I’m very eager to see what he does next. It’s a shame there aren’t more films like this one.

18. The Grand Budapest Hotel


Wes Anderson’s latest film is told across several time periods. Most of the film takes place during the reign of legendary concierge Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes) who tends a European hotel. The film recounts his adventures alongside a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who becomes his unlikely sidekick and friend. Much of the film focuses on the recovery of an invaluable work of art entitled ‘Boy With Apple’, as well as the fate of a large and highly contested family fortune. All of this plays out against the backdrop of the war and a quickly transforming Europe.

The film has a comedic bent to it and is focused on one plot point flowing to another, but there are also interesting ideas bubbling beneath the surface. It’s a melancholy story that’s interested in the allure of nostalgia. Zero has learned from Gustav the value of being a consummate professional, that a loving care for those in the establishment goes beyond financial gain or even just the hotel’s reputation. This sort of practice has sadly gone out of style. Indeed, as Zero remarks at one point, Gustav’s world was already vanishing during his tenure as a young lobby boy. The longing for this lost world, among other lost things, is painfully evident on the elder Zero’s face as he recounts these events from long ago. Yet these experiences retain their value even after all these years, shaping the man he is today and inspiring a new generation with the help of a curious writer.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the technical aspects that make this work. The film is accompanied by a very good original score, strong script writing, comedic timing, and quality acting all around (most notably Fiennes, who is excellent as Gustav). But the single most noteworthy element is the cinematography, which is simply brilliant. The camerawork and imagery pairs nicely with Wes Anderson’s vibe. Also, because this is a story within a story the playful mechanics of the cinematography feel uniquely appropriate here, rather than just something that was adapted to suit Anderson’s sensibilities. It’s certainly one of the more creatively shot and best looking movies of the year.

As someone who loves Wes Anderson’s previous two entries of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, I have to admit that my initial reaction to The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of mild disappointment. I recognized it to be a good film, but it also seemed scatter-shot and perhaps too quirky even by Wes standards. A few days after seeing it I was having trouble recalling elements of the plot, which is extremely rare for me and sometimes a red flag. I knew I needed to give it a re-watch, and when it started appearing on a lot of top 10 lists (and topping a surprising number of them) I was left scratching my head. Since then I have re-watched the film twice. Each time I see it my appreciation has grown considerably. Normally this doesn’t happen with me, but there’s something so endearing about The Grand Budapest Hotel that I feel drawn to it time and again. I would welcome the opportunity for another visit.

17. The Dance of Reality


Alejandro Jodorowky’s long awaited return comes in the form of a sort-of biopic entitled The Dance of Reality. Produced, written, and directed by Jodorowsky, this is his first feature film in an astonishing 23 years. I’m pleased to say that it lives up to the hype, as it’s one of the most delightfully imaginative movies I saw all year.

It’s technically a biopic, but it’s one of the most bizarre and artistic biopics ever made. The movie is about a young Alejandro Jodorowsky growing up in Chile, yet it’s also a double narrative about his father’s life experience and how his parenting methods helped shape the man Alejandro is today. It chronicles the events of this family, but it’s also refreshing to see that Jodorowksky has not lost his energy or sense of absurdity with age. While the wisdom of his decision making may not always be clear to the audience, there is such a gleeful enthusiasm to the ideas and images he presents that you can’t help but be captivated. [i]The Dance of Reality[/i] has so many outlandish and wonderful sequences that I can’t even begin to cover them all.

Jodorowky’s film is a celebration of diversity and human experience – no matter the ideology we’re all united in some way. There’s a scene in the film where an eccentric holy-man hands a young Alejandro a cross, a star, and a crescent. He explains that while each of these objects represents a different religious worldview, they’re all made from metal. If you were to melt them down, he explains, they would all become the same metallic compound. In another scene, a man is being interrogated by torturers demanding to know who Don Jose is. The man replies that everyone is Don Jose, which doesn’t stop the beating but this scene continues the theme of universality. Even the father figure comes to recognize many of the same admirable traits in his enemy, Ibanez, that he idolized in Joseph Stalin. Jodorowsky seems to be arguing that no matter or religious or political ideologies, our common experience of consciousness and the human experience is what connects us all.

Of course, the movie is just plain bonkers and so much fun to watch. It features boxing circus clowns, singing amputee coal miners, a cardboard cut-out tank pasted onto a jeep, a dress-up dog show etc. and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Yet somehow it manages to be have thematic substance and genuine emotion. I really hope Jodorowsky keeps making movies. He’s a mad genius and he creates things that – love them or hate them – you’ve never seen before.

16. Gone Girl


Arguably David Fincher’s best film, Gone Girl is a gripping mystery/thriller based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn. Fincher has a history of elevating his source material. I actually liked the movie Fight Club more than I like Chuck Palahniuk’s novel. I think that his version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is vastly superior to the Swedish one, even if neither film is working off what I’d consider a great story. But in this case it looks like we’re getting a chance to meld Fincher’s style with a really good story.

It’s very difficult to talk about this movie without delving into spoilers, so I’m forced to be a bit cryptic in this write-up. That being said, if you’re the type of person that doesn’t even want slight hints or inferences you may want to watch the film or read the book first. I will say that the thing I like most about Gone Girl is its thematic focus on the unknown. This is a story where we’re initially thrown into a literal mystery, a crisis situation involving a missing wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) and her husband and suspected killer Nick (Ben Affleck). We’re trying to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle, all while law enforcement and the media are coming to their own conclusions. There are twists and turns along the way, and the truth is eventually revealed long before the credits roll. However, the themes linger long afterward. For me, the biggest thing was the concept of how difficult it is to know another person (even your spouse) and how it’s nearly impossible to know what’s really going on behind the closed doors of another family. Yet in our modern society of media saturation and social media, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have a pretty good grasp on what this couple’s marriage is like or what this person’s private life entails. A story like Gone Girl dumps some much needed cold water on this delusion. As a college professor of mine once said “Any time someone claims to know the mind of another person, that individual is engaging in self-deception.”

As you might expect, this is also just a really stylish and captivating movie. There wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t either gripped by the story or enjoying the look and feel of it. Jeff Cronenweth has done another fine job here with the cinematography, using many of the techniques he’s known for but also adding in some interesting use of color and more ambitious shots in the flashback sequences. Ben Affleck and Tyler Perry are not actors I’m typically a fan of, though I thought they did an alright job here. I enjoyed Kim Dickens performance as Detective Rhonda, but the real standout in this movie is Rosamund Pike. Some of it is no doubt due to the quality of her role, but man did she knock this one out of the park. I have to say it’s one of the best female performances of the year.

15. Jodorowsky’s Dune


It’s sometimes referred to as the most influential movie that was never made. Alejandro Jodorowsky was given a million dollars and carte blanche by Michel Seydoux to kick-start any project he could dream of. Without hesitation, he decided that he wanted to do the sci-fi epic Dune. He had not read Dune, but he had a friend who told him it was fantastic.

What followed is an amazing story of how Jodorowsky assembled his team of “spiritual warriors”. He was working with a lot of untested people, but he was relentless in his pursuit of those he wanted for the project and ruthless in terms of his criteria. Despite the incredible special effects vision of the project, Jodorowsky even turned down Douglass Trumbull who had done the effects for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He believed that Trumbull was not passionate enough and was too corporate to be one of his warriors. However, the team Jodorowsky did assemble was filled with names that are stunning to think about in retrospect. Some of the cast and crew included Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, and David Carradine. These artists banded together behind Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune, as well as his aspirations to change the world through cinema. He describes his tremendous ambition as wanting to create a film that would simulate the experience of taking LSD through the power of cinema.

Despite the admirable creativity involved in the project, one also gets the impression that Jodorowsky’s reach was exceeding his grasp. What he was attempting was undeniably one of the most ambitious films in history. In fact, many described the scale of the project as being well beyond George Lucas’ Star Wars, which would not be made until years later. Whether Jodorowsky is a madman or a mad genius is in the eye of the beholder, but I can easily see from watching this why the financiers of this project would get cold feet. They would have been investing in a director who did not care about budgets or deadlines and was completely uncompromising in terms of his vision. He was making a movie about a popular sci-fi novel, but he was telling his own story without even bothering to familiarize himself with the source material. I got the impression that this project could have been a huge failure, but it remains an inspiring and at times heartbreaking story of artistic ambition that was squashed by the mechanics of Hollywood.

While the film never saw the light of day, Jodorowsky and his team of warriors did develop an enormous storyboard. It was so elaborate and imaginative that it began to catch fire, as people began to pass it around within the industry as an inspirational curiosity. It’s hard to say exactly how it correlates, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence to suggest that the members of Jodo’s team (like Giger with Alien) went on to use a lot of the work they had shelved in other films. The documentary also argues that elements of the failed project can be seen in some of the most seminal sci-fi films of all time ranging from Blade Runner to Star Wars.

So many unanswered questions surround the project to this day. Had the film launched and been a massive failure, perhaps studios never finance Star Wars. Imagine how different modern cinema would be if projects like that had never gotten off the ground? Or if it had received unlimited funds and been a massive critical and commercial success, can you imagine just how different the cinematic landscape would look after a drug-inspired sci-fi Jodorowsky epic became the gold standard? Regardless of what could have happened or should have happened, this is an incredible story. Anyone who loves motion pictures or art generally should seek it out.

14. Song of the Sea


Anyone who saw The Secret of Kells will be familiar with Tom Moore’s use of Irish folklore and unique visual style. I was a huge fan of Kells and I’m pleased to say that [i]Song of the Sea[/i] maintains that very high standard of quality. This is a film that creates a world of pure magic, pulling you in with it’s eccentricity and beauty.

The film begins with a young boy and his mother painting pictures on a nursery wall. Fast forward six years and we find that the mother has passed on. The newborn child, Saoirse, has grown into a young girl. She is mute and a bit mysterious, and we soon find that this is because she is a selkie — a child who turns into a white seal once she enters the sea — and she’s drawn to both the human world and that of the seals, whose bobbing heads beckon her into the water. However, her father does not fully understand the situation, so when Saoirse begins wandering the beach at night he fears losing another loved one to a tragic accident. Soon, Ben and Saoirse are taken away from their lighthouse home by their well-meaning grandmother, who believes it will be safer for them in the city. However, Ben and Saoirse both know that they need to return to the lighthouse and get back to the sea. Thus begins a fantastical journey home that is filled with numerous fairy tale creatures and wondrous imagination.

Although this is the type of film that will appeal to children, it seems almost wasted on kids to some extent. That’s not to say that it won’t appeal to children, but I imagine it will speak more to older and more sophisticated audiences. The plot feels very basic as it unfolds over its short running time, yet it’s introducing a wide range of ideas and characters. It’s only afterward that I started to realize just how much was going on. It’s a testament to the quality of the script that it can make a story that kids and adults can follow along with, yet also have enough variety and thematic weight to warrant a re-watch. There are some weighty ideas in here about the importance of heritage and coping with tragedy which I’m sure a lot of younger viewers won’t pick up on.

It’s the sort of tale that harkens back to one’s childhood, much like the mother’s bedtime tales that she reads to Ben and Saoirse in the film. You don’t need to be versed in Irish folklore to appreciate this, in fact, knowing little about the legends may add to the experience by making it feel more adventurous and new. All you need is a general appreciation of art and fables, as the production values here do the rest. The hand drawn artwork is unique and carefully crafted, allowing for grand epic scenes as well as smaller, detailed touches. All of this fantastic imagery is accompanied by a beautiful Celtic score, adding a level of emotion to the experience which is difficult to articulate in words.

13. God Help the Girl


Stuart Murdoch, best known as the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, has written and directed a film that will split people into camps. Some will find God Help the Girl unbearably twee. If you’re the sort of person that dislikes musicals in general, then this almost certainly isn’t for you. However, those who are receptive to its charms may come away feeling that this is one of the best movies of the year. Obviously, I fall into the latter category.

The plot centers around Eve (Emily Browning), who has taken her leave of a mental hospital and gone out into Glasgow for a change of scenery. She’s a troubled young woman who is low on self-esteem, but she’s also a musically inclined genius who sees the potential for song in everything around her. She soon crosses paths with James (Olly Alexander), an aspiring and opinionated musician who is trying unsuccessfully to put a band together. The two quickly form a connection as Eve takes up staying at James’ place and helping him with his musical aspirations. Once Cass (Hannah Murray) comes into the picture they begin to recognize that they have something going here. The three of them begin to form a friendship centered around their music and decide that they should form a band.

The music in the film isn’t just rehearsals or concert hall performances, though. It’s the type of movie that has no problem with characters randomly bursting into song, yet it’s also self-aware enough to joke about that. The song lyrics themselves can also shift from the humorous to the playful or poetic depending on the mood of the characters. Eve (Emily Browning) believes that you should sing what you know, so there’s a non-linear style to a lot of the musical productions in this where she is simply recounting her activities or life experiences. It’s not uncommon for the songs to focus on the newspaper purchased at a train station, or the cereal that was eaten for breakfast. The spontaneity is part of what gives this movie its fresh energy and appeal.

The two biggest selling points here are the music and the cinematography. A lot of those songs are ones I’m still listening to after seeing the film months ago. The juxtaposition of the music with the cinematography is simply incredible. There are very few films from 2014 that look this good, or that utilize such creative visual transitions from one shot to the next. Some of the visual treat here is due to the appearance of movement of the actresses and actors, particularly the photogenic Emily Browning. However, it’s obvious that Giles Nuttgens has done a fantastic job here and that it’s a huge part of why the movie works so well. There are musical sequences in here like ‘Musician, Please Take Heed’, ‘Come Monday Night’, or ‘Down and Dusky Blonde’ that have the production value of a great music video. These moments were show-stoppers for me that made me recognize I was watching something special.

12. Edge of Tomorrow


This action blockbuster uses the plot mechanics of the movie Groundhog Day and blends them with an alien invasion drama. While neither idea may be original in its own right, the two ideas merge together brilliantly in this case, making Edge of Tomorrow one of the most exciting movies of the past year.

Set in the near future, an alien race known as Mimics have invaded the Earth. They appear unbeatable by any conventional military standard, as they advance on every major corner of the globe. They also appear to have an uncanny ability to predict and intercept military intelligence, as though they were the enigma code breakers of the allies in the second World War. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a spokesman for humanity’s effort against the onslaught, but as the tide of battle begins to look more hopeless he is unceremoniously thrown into a major combat operation by General Bringham (Brendan Gleeson). He has no formal military training and is killed almost instantly. However, the Major finds himself resurrected at the start of the day, as contact with an alpha mimic has thrown him into a time loop. The famed war hero Rita Vatraski (Emily Blunt) had herself been caught in that time loop before and recognizes the signs. She tells Cage to “come find me when you wake up”. Thus begins a partnership between the two, as they must find a way to help him change the course of this war through living… and dying… over and over again.

Some of it reminds me of a video game, but the difference is that our protagonists are aware of this reset button phenomena and incorporate it into their strategies. They also have to decide how to utilize their knowledge of their future and who can be trusted, as the story sounds so incredible that it could lead to problems like the psych ward. This dynamic makes Edge of Tomorrow incredibly engaging, and the fast-paced editing which wastes no time between subsequent attempts works very well. I’ve seen this movie three times and I still find myself completely caught up in the characters’ struggles with each viewing.

Perhaps the only thing I dislike about this film is the finale. I don’t exactly hate it, but considering how great everything was leading up to it my initial reaction was one of disappointment. It has grown on me a bit since my initial viewing, but I still consider it to be the weakest part of the movie. Obviously, I won’t spoil why by getting into the specifics.

It’s a shame that this wasn’t more successful at the box office, as it’s one of the best movies of the year and seems to appeal to everyone who watches it. It’s impressively shot and edited. Emily Blunt’s performance is probably the best of her career, as she’s absolutely convincing in what may seem an unorthodox role. I would encourage anyone who’s skeptical about this movie to watch it.

11. Citizenfour


By now everyone should be at least be familiar with Edward Snowden’s story. He was such an influential figure that he was nearly TIME’s man of the year (Pope Francis ended up edging him out) and there was a period of several months where no matter where you turned his leaked information was either making headlines or inspiring heated debate among those calling him a traitor or a patriot. So what makes this documentary so good? Why is this story which some consider old news and many others argue “we knew all along” still worth delving into?

There are a number of reasons why this is essential viewing. First of all, Edward Snowden had planned his leaks long in advance. He was very much aware of the implications involved with being an NSA whistle-blower and had given it ample thought. As a result of this, he had contacted people like documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists like Glenn Greenwald prior to any revelations being made public. The result is a documentary that plays out like a real-time spy thriller, rather than a retrospective analysis. We have the privilege of seeing Snowden interviewed before, during, and after the leaks. There is a palpable sense of danger here, as Snowden and those near him have to discuss nuanced moral decisions about liberty and security, as well as his personal livelihood.

While it’s not pure advocacy cinema, Citzenfour is a film that views these issues of civil liberties and national security through the lens of Snowden. In doing so we see his motivations, and perhaps more truth than we’d care to about the dangerous implications of implementing those policies. There are also revelations in here that I did not get from media outlets during the leaks, some of which are difficult for me to explain given how important they seem. I normally trust my sources of news to bring me comprehensive information about pressing issues, but in this case I feel like they let me down. Regardless of your personal opinions about this subject, you owe it to yourself to see this documentary. The stakes for future generations and the moral ambiguity at play are too pressing to ignore. If nothing else it makes for a movie-going experience that you’ll be thinking about long after seeing it.

For the record, I think there’s far more to admire about Edward Snowden than there is to dislike about him. I respect what he did.

10. Force Majeure


Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, Force Majeure tells the comedic story of a Swedish family on holiday in the French Alps. It’s the perfect getaway for their picturesque family, yet somehow it all goes wrong. When they’re at lunch at a mountainside restaurant, what is supposed to be a controlled avalanche upends their vacation. The torrent of snow keeps getting closer, the haze of snow reaching higher as panicked diners begin fleeing. Tomas’ wife and children cry out to him, but sheer animal panic has set in. Rather than rush to save his family he retreats to safety, fleeing in a desperate attempt to save his own life.

That split-second decision weighs heavily on the entire film and the family’s vacation. What was supposed to be a respite from work and the cares of everyday life quickly devolves into a nightmare. Ebba begins to doubt her husband, both as a partner and a father. Their friends, Mats and Fanni, are even unwittingly caught up in this drama upon their arrival. Not only must they deal with the insanity that this couple is going through, but they’re forced to confront the situation as a hypothetical for their own relationship. Somehow, everybody gets caught up in these forces that they’re powerless to alter. The vacation begins spiraling downward as each individual tries to maintain some semblance of sanity.

Force Majeure is obviously focusing on issues of gender politics throughout. However, for me, the most relatable and lasting theme of the film was how hard it is to be happy. The families and couples in the film are in an idyllic vacation spot. They have nothing but fresh powder and their loved ones beside them. The typical worries that occupy most peoples’ thought in a given week have been removed – gone are work, finance, disease etc. It’s a fantastic opportunity to enjoy life, yet due to unforeseen events these people are completely miserable during their stay. Anyone who has ever had an unpleasant family vacation, honeymoon etc. will be able to relate to this film. I feel like it’s tapping into something inherent about the human condition, and it’s doing this in a way that’s intelligent and also very funny. There are moments in this film that had me laughing out loud but also recognizing the very real complications that exist in daily life. Try as we might, relationships can be fragile. We’re often victims of circumstances beyond our control.

9. Nightcrawler


Some of my thoughts on Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler are similar to Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street from 2013. Both films feature an unhinged and narcissistic protagonist who is willing to do whatever is necessary to get ahead. Both are social commentaries on American greed, even if neither is delving below the surface or saying anything profound. And, of course, they’re two of the most immensely enjoyable films of their respective years.

It’s surprising just how much fun I had watching Nightcrawler when you consider how dark it is. Unlike a lot of plots which start from some place of morality and steadily degrade from there, we’re thrown immediately into a world where our protagonist has no moral qualms whatsoever. He begins the film as a petty thief who is aspirational and articulate, yet he cannot find gainful employment. A chance encounter with a camera crew filming a fatal car accident changes all of this, however, when he realizes that filming crime scenes for TV news might be his calling. He seems proud of his ambition and his methodology, never once appearing apologetic. Part of this is an indictment of the economic conditions he finds himself in, which would explain how most people actually find themselves rooting for. Regardless of what you may think of Lou Blossom (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s fighting against the odds of his environment and succeeding.

Regardless of what one may think about the film’s other aspects, this is an absolutely riveting ride. I watch a ton of movies in a given year and unfortunately I can usually sense where they’re going. When I was watching Nightcrawler I really had no idea where it was headed most of the time. When you combine that with the pacing and momentum of the film, this becomes a visceral and entertaining experience. There are numerous sequences which had my jaw on the floor, laughing out loud, or just nodding my head in approval. It spans a broad range of emotions, but it is never dull for a moment.

There are several strong performances in this film such as Rene Russo and and Riz Ahmend. But the real standout here is Jake Gyllenhaal, who in my opinion gives the best performance of the year. A lot of people are going to focus on the weight loss, which is often an easy way to garner attention for a role. It’s just one of many factors working together that make Gyllenhaal unrecognizable in this movie. I was never conscious of the fact that it was him I was watching on screen – of course, logically I knew going in who the star of the film was. But this is similar to the willing suspension of disbelief I might experience when watching anything. When you completely lose track of the technical details in something and become absorbed into it that’s always a hallmark of quality in my mind. Watching this deranged psychopath on screen was engrossing and truly frightening.

8. Boyhood


Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is in some ways incredibly ambitious, but in other ways low key. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the project knows that this was filmed over the course of 12 years in order to depict life from the ages of six to eighteen. While there’s not a complete shortage of dramatic scenes in here, a lot of viewers were caught off guard at the juxtaposition of the project’s scope and how mundane or ordinary much of the film felt. Some might criticize this as a gimmick that doesn’t amount to much, but I strongly disagree with that sentiment.

What this film does right is that it captures the fleeting nature of life and memory. I can only speak for myself, but when I think back to own childhood (and my own past generally) it’s interesting to me what I remember and what I can’t. For example, I recall sitting on the rocks beside a lake at summer camp one morning with a childhood friend. I remember going to an Orioles baseball game with my family one night, even though I’ve never been a fan of the team or even baseball generally. I can still taste the cheesecake my mother made for me during family holidays. I remember those times I spent playing catch with my father in the backyard when he’d lob a football over the fenced pool. I remember my first date in high school. Yet these memories and all the other ones I can think of only encompass a tiny fraction of my life. Even momentous occasions in my own life and those close to me are sometimes only vaguely recalled. The first time I recognized this was when my mother passed away and I was – and still am – surprised that I can’t remember more of my time with her. Thousands upon thousands of hours spent someplace or with someone and what do we take from it? Maybe we recall a hundred hours vividly, give or take? Where did the rest of that time go? Why do we remember what we do and forget so much else?

It would have been very easy for this film to have given in to the dramatic. One person I spoke to believed that a reckless driving scene was sure to result in a catastrophic accident, perhaps because we’ve been conditioned to think that way in terms of how movies operate. Thankfully, Boyhood takes a different approach. That’s not to say the movie is drama free, of course, but it’s consistent with reasonable expectations of drama within any child’s life. Instead, Boyhood chooses to focus on a mixture of smaller moments and more significant ones. In doing so, this story taps into something that I feel is deeply human. This restraint and understanding is what gives the film its cumulative power and what makes it so emotionally resonant.

7. Interstellar


It seems as though Christopher Nolan may be the most controversial filmmaker working today. Cinephiles and critics seem to react to his works with gushing admiration or absolute revulsion depending on who you talk to. His latest film, the sci-fi epic Interstellar, is arguably the most polarizing movie of 2014.

David Brooks of The New York Times had a piece about Interstellar entitled ‘Love and Gravity’. In it, he writes that the film is revolutionary in its approach and something of a cultural event. It is about love, Brooks says, but not in the way movies traditionally are. There is almost no romantic love in Nolan’s film, but rather a generational love between family members across space and time. In addition, there’s the attenuated love our species has for the unborn in the form of frozen embryos, who may one day carry on humanity’s legacy in a distant galaxy. Nolan wants us to see the magnetic forces behind these connections and its connection to quantum theory, such as the principle of entanglement – that two particles that have interacted can react similarly regardless of spacial distance or time.

There are religious and philosophical overtones to Interstellar, but it’s a movie that mostly exists within scientific parameters. Largely because our understanding of the natural universe is ever evolving, we are uncovering perplexing realities that challenge our very notion of what it is to exist or what is to be conscious. The film explores relatively in terms of the gravitational bending of time, for instance. And if entanglement theory is correct that means that the world around us is communicating in ways that defy common understanding. In such a world one doesn’t need faith to consider extreme possibilities like the ones in this film, only an understanding of modern science and a creative imagination. While this is definitely science fiction it’s refreshing to see such a blockbuster grounded in real physics. Kip Thorne, who collaborated on the project, has a book out about the science of Interstellar. Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is often very critical of films for their falsehoods, gives Interstellar top marks for basing so much on known science.

It should also be noted that this is a riveting sci-fi adventure with far more heart than you’d expect from a Nolan movie. Often criticized for being emotionally distant in his execution, many people actually shed tears during this film. There are moments of sheer awe that tap into primal fears or the joy of scientific exploration. Even if you’re completely uninterested in looking at this from a scientific or philosophical angle, this is worth watching as a visceral treat. There are moments which, juxtaposed with Hans Zimmer’s very loud score, are simply brilliant. There are more casual moments of space travel that look incredible in IMAX 70mm, and there are incredibly tense sequences such as a docking scene and the one in the screen capture above which are worth the price of admission by themselves.

One of the major criticisms of Interstellar and Nolan’s films generally is how the complex plots are presented to a wider audience. Many bemoan the fact that there is expository dialogue or that complex notions of quantum entanglement or the soul are reduced to populist words like “love” time and again. I’m of two minds about this, because on the one hand it does detract some from my experience when I see two of NASA’s brightest minds talking about what a wormhole is moments before entering it. However, I also recognize that this is a calculated choice that exists for a reason. If Cooper had explained this to his younger daughter Murph 30 minutes earlier, much of the audience that presumably has no notion of astrophysics would be completely lost or wouldn’t recognize the significance of the moment. Indeed, almost half of the criticism of this film is from people that say it is too confusing or didn’t explain enough, even if so much criticism is coming from people who claim that Nolan needs to learn ‘show don’t tell’. There really isn’t a balance that will please everyone, but I respect what is Nolan is doing here. He is making compromises to communicate ambitious ideas to a large audience.

6. Whiplash


Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash looks like the kind of movie that you’ve seen before. The poster features Miles Teller sitting at a drum set, accompanied by short blurbs from critics such as “Astounding!” and “Electrifying!” and it has the type of crowd-pleasing rating in the high 90s on the tomato meter that you might expect from an uplifting movie about an aspiring musician. So it’s with a bit of surprise that this turned out to be one of the most disturbing and challenging movies of the year.

The story is about a drummer named Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Neyman is a very talented young man who is committed to becoming a great player, but he’s stuck practicing in obscurity and accompanying a second rate band. That is until Fletcher begins to take an interest in him, giving him the opportunity of a lifetime to earn his way into the top band in the school. But Fletcher is a man as well known for his ruthless methods as much as his accolades as a brilliant teacher, and the already driven Neyman is pushed to his breaking point as he is asked to sacrifice everything and risk losing his sanity in pursuit of greatness. What follows as an emotionally intense journey that goes to some dark places, raising provocative questions along the way.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Whiplash is how it deals with the topic of leadership. The character of Fletcher is ruthless in his methodology, believing that there is no limit to how far you can push a student. At one point he says that there are no two words more harmful in the English language than “good job”, and he believes that someone like a Charlie Parker never would have let anyone or anything stand in the way of greatness. In a world of participation trophies and overprotective parents, this approach will strike many people as insane. Yet in some ways Fletcher’s approach has merit. It’s often alluded to in the film that his jazz orchestra is considered to be the best in the country. Neyman, as a result of being broken down by his teacher, pushes himself to places that he might never have gone to without that pressure. There are coaches like Dick Vermeil who love their players like family, adopting a tough but fair approach as they try to balance the personal and the professional. There are also coaches like Bob Knight who will line their players up and risk harm by throwing basketballs at them as hard as possible to make sure they catch it in a game. The question of whether Vermeil or Knight’s approach is better, or whether there is some more ideal middle ground, is very much up for debate.

There’s a lot else going for this film other than a spirited debate about where the line should be drawn. This is a brilliantly edited film that follows its own unique rhythmic quality that really draws the viewer in. For my money this is also one of the best acted films of 2014. I’ve been a big fan of Miles Teller ever since I saw him in a bit role in the film Rabbit Hole years back, and while he hasn’t received major acting jobs since then I thought he was brilliant in The Spectacular Now. This film continues the trend of top-notch performances by him and I hope he goes on to have a very successful career. But J.K. Simmons in many ways is the star of the film, giving an iconic performance that is probably the best of his career. Some might argue that his character is over the top, but I think that’s the point. He is so committed to the character of Fletcher that it elevates the film, becoming the center around which everything else operates.

5. The Guest


Adam Wingard is best known for making a few of the VHS segments and the home invasion film You’re Next. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of his previous work, although I thought You’re Next was alright. His latest directorial effort The Guest is a revelation, though. It’s just an immensely entertaining and stylish movie from start to finish.

The story wastes no time getting started, as a mysterious young man named David (Dan Stevens) shows up at a family’s doorstep. He tells them he was a friend of their son and that he served alongside him in combat overseas. David informs the family that he was with their son Caleb when he died, and that his final wish was for David to check in on the family and tell them that he loved them. Any suspicions they may have had are quickly dispelled by David’s polite demeanor, as well as his presence alongside Caleb in a photograph that hangs over the family fireplace. David begins taking an interest in each member of the family and they begin to open up to him. However, as time goes by some mysterious events begin taking place, as David’s past begins to have a way of catching up to him. That’s about as much as I can say without delving into spoiler territory. So much of the fun of the movie is finding out exactly what’s going on and watching the events play out piece by piece.

Set amidst the backdrop of Halloween for no real reason and featuring an 80s synth soundtrack, The Guest is a genre tribute movie that plays by its own rules and doesn’t give a crap. It’s working off a lot of different genre elements, but it’s utilizing them in ways that are so exciting and multi-tiered. There are obvious differences, but the one movie it reminds me most of is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. A lot of that is due to the heavily stylized look of the movies, the 80s vibe from the excellent soundtracks, the quality of the editing, as well as a mysterious protagonist who takes an interest in a family’s welfare. I’m not saying that The Guest is a better movie than Drive, or even that people who are fans of one will necessarily be fans of the other. In fact, I imagine a lot of folks who found Drive boring will actually like this one.

It’s hard to convey just how much fun I had watching this 1980s style movie. David is such a ridiculous character that you can’t wait to see what this insanely intelligent and skilled man is going to do next, whether it’s addressing a bullying issue with the younger son at school or attending a party with the daughter’s social circle. There are some interactions in here that had me giddy with excitement or laughing out loud. At no point during this film was I even slightly disinterested with what was happening, as each successive scene had my undivided attention. I’ve already seen this movie several times and I would love to watch it again. It’s such a blast that you owe it to yourself to check it out.

4. The Raid 2


The Raid was an unapologetic action film with about ten minutes of plot and the remaining run time consisting of people getting shot in the face or engaging in epic martial arts battles. A lot of people championed the first film for having very little script other than plagiarizing the highrise premise from Dredd‘s script. I was a big fan of that approach and the original film generally. In the sequel, however, we’re taken deeper into the criminal underworld. That means a meatier script with a lot more complexity than we got the first time around, as well as a much lengthier running time.

It’s not difficult to point out a lot of the flaws in Gareth Evans newest martial arts flick. The different approach with the script opens it to a lot of legitimate criticisms about gangster film cliches, acting merits, character development etc. which isn’t to say that the script is outright bad, but it’s certainly not the selling point here. It’s a serviceable plot that mostly serves to set up action set pieces and establish plausible scenarios for the fighting to take place in various locations. The first film didn’t need all of that because the entire film took place in the same location. The sequel is far more ambitious when it comes to using its environments to its advantage, such as a muddy prison brawl or one of the most jaw-dropping car chase sequences ever put on film.

There are times where I feel like people get too caught up in what something isn’t that they lose sight of what makes it valuable in the first place. When the characters in this film start fighting… wow. There are so many spectacular action sequences in this movie that a lot of the consensus all-time best action films pale in comparison here. You could make the argument that this movie has raised the bar to a new level that other films must now strive to achieve. The only movies I can think of in recent history that are comparable would be Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins and the original The Raid: Redemption. I remember leaving the theater with a couple friends, both of whom had until then been praising the new Captain America film for having really good action. One of the first questions they asked me after seeing Berandal was if I had gotten around to seeing Winter Soldier yet. When I told them no, they both informed that I wasn’t going to like it now. Nothing, they explained, was going to live up to the action we’d just seen.

If you are in any way a fan of action movies this is essential viewing. The last twenty minutes alone are some of the most impressive action I’ve ever seen anywhere, even raising the bar on the already crazy standards established earlier in the movie. Those sorts of sequences make this one of the best movies of 2014 and very much in the discussion of greatest action movies ever.

3. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?


Sion Sono tends to make movies that defy conventional explanation. He’s a bit of a mad genius / lunatic director that makes some of the most ambitious and eccentric movies anywhere. Sometimes I get the sense that he’s talented enough to do anything, but he chooses to make these truly eccentric and wonderful films. He’s not always easily accessible, but I think he’s one of the best filmmakers working today. His 2013/2014 effort Why Don’t You Play in Hell? may actually have the most mainstream appeal of movie I’ve seen from him. It’s a little less challenging and more humorous than something like Love Exposure or Cold Fish. You could make the argument that, for Sono, this is almost a bit restrained by his usual standards. That’s not to say this movie isn’t a mad blast of decadence and over-the-top insanity, but it’s just so damn funny that I think someone who has never seen Sono’s work or Yakuza films could jump right into it and have a good time.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? features two simultaneous narratives. The first involves some young and aspiring filmmakers who call themselves the ‘Fuck Bombers’. They’ve been pursuing their dream with a single minded obsession, but fast forward ten years and they have little to show for it. They’re starting to wonder if their dreams of making a great movie will ever come true, or whether it’s time to hang it up. Meanwhile, the tension between Muto’s gang and the Ikegami has been bubbling for a decade. A series of ridiculously contrived events involving the two warring Yakuza clans and a toothpaste commercial from ten years ago (it makes sense in the context of the movie, I promise) finally give the Fuck Bombers the break they’ve been looking for. They will film the warring mafia clans, complete with a serious budget and 35mm cameras. The only catch is they’ll have to film a lot of people getting killed, but this doesn’t seem to phase anyone in their group.

It’s incredibly funny and deranged, but it’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen about making movies. I was reminded of all sorts of similarly themed projects while watching it, ranging from Fellini’s 8 1/2 to Carax’s Holy Motors. Obviously, this movie is its own beast and in many ways, but it’s such a thrill to see a visionary director craft a love letter to movies. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is an ode to Yakuza films and it’s definitely pandering to film fans, since there are nods to things like 35mm and Bruce Lee track suits throughout. You don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy this, but it certainly helps.

Some have criticized the obviously contrived buildup to the finale, as it takes a while to tie all the different plots together. I never once found this to be a problem and would assure viewers that once the pieces come together the payoff is fantastic. However, I’ll just give fair warning that there’s a jingle from a toothpaste commercial in this movie that is re-played constantly. Good luck trying to remove it from your memory.

2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night


Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian American making her feature film debut here, gets my vote for best director of last year. She’s obviously smart and talented enough to draw on some of the best influences. I got hints of everything from Wong Kar Wai to Quentin Tarantino in this movie, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that she’s constantly wearing shirts with gigantic imprints of her idols – Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Bruce Lee, Notrious BIG etc. Amirpour was interviewed on NPR not too long ago and (I’m paraphrasing) suggested that when given the opportunity to make a film, you might as well just go all out. Why not have it be filled to the brim with things you love? She’s certainly doing that by drawing on the best elements of various genres and styles, yet the end product feels like a wholly unique vision.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could be described as a Western Iranian Vampire movie. The story takes place in Bad City, a middle eastern ghost town filled with all manner of debauchery and sin. Arash (Arash Marandi) lives here, looking after his junkie degenerate father, who finds himself in debt to the local pimp/dealer. Dissatisfied with the father’s lack of payment, he takes Arash’s Thunderbird car instead. Meanwhile, walking among the clubbers and criminals is The Girl (Sheila Vand), pacing around at night wearing a dark chador and a striped sailor t-shirt, hungry for her next victim. Without giving too much away, Arash and The Girl find their paths intersecting on more than one occasion. Arash begins to take an interest in the mysterious young woman, but considering the logistical and supernatural circumstances that surround their relationship, can they really be together?

Amirpour’s script is bold and the execution is fantastic on every level. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film to look at, with stunning cinematography that is often juxtaposed with a mesmerizing soundtrack. The way one scene is shot or edited may be very different from the following one. It can also shift from creepy to humorous or from psychedelic to dramatic, but it doesn’t feel like a scatter-shot production. Everything feels like it fits in this dark and stylish film. There are a lot of little things to love about this film. When Sheila Vand and Ana Amirpour were preparing for the film, they watched a lot of nature videos on predators. They saw that the hunters would mimic the actions of their prey, so they were clever enough to incorporate that into the character of The Girl. Things that would normally be unimportant in most films get blended in to great effect, whether it’s the exhaustive casting used to find the right cat or the creative use of a young boy’s skateboard.

Although it’s in Farsi, it should come as no surprise that this wasn’t shot in Iran. I can’t imagine the ayatollahs would take too kindly to this film, even if it’s not in any way political. Bad City is actually shot in the sprawl of California and the actors are people who are from Iran but do not live there. Amirpour doesn’t believe that she could have ever become the director she did if her family had stayed in the country, but she and others involved with the project still find that their experiences there helped shape their identity. It’s possible this may be the only Farsi movie she makes, as her next film is set to take place in Texas. It’s a story about a community of cannibals, which prompted one interviewer to ask a serious question about whether there was some thematic theme at play here with vampires in one movie and cannibals in the next. Amirpour responded that she didn’t really know why she chose cannibals, but she thought it would be cool. That’s more or less how A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night operates. It may not be some profound insight into the human condition, but it is ridiculously good.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is my favorite animated film. That’s saying a lot considering how many great works have come out of Studio Ghibli alone, but it’s the truth.

The script is based on a 10th century Japanese folktale known as ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’, a title that is symptomatic of the patriarchal world that existed at that time. Takahata’s title rightly puts the focus where it belongs, on our spirited young heroine. Born of supernatural origin, Kaguya sprouts from a bamboo stalk in a mountain forest. An old bamboo cutter and his wife discover the mysterious child and choose to raise her as their own, believing that heaven has blessed them. The girl grows quickly and befriends the children of her village, sharing in their daily adventures and forging an emotional connection with her peers, particularly a young boy named Sutemaru. Theirs is a simple life of poverty and hard work, yet Kaguya seems perfectly content as she’s enamored with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. However, when a second bamboo shoot is discovered to have a bounty of gold, the bamboo cutter believes that heaven has commanded him to take the young princess away from their humble lives and bring her to the city. Sparing no expense to make her a proper princess, she is thrown into a life of opulent luxury and suitors begin lining up to court the mysterious princess. Yet despite her enviable circumstances she finds herself ill-at-ease with her new life, longing for those lost days of her youth.

With few exceptions, the story is very faithful to the thousand-year-old tale. As a result, the film feels quite different from many modern stories that follow a three act structure. Adding to this sense of ancient storytelling is the film’s unique use of animation. It’s drawn with watercolors and sketches, giving it the appearance of a story scroll or even concept art stretched over a two hour running time. There are moments of transcendent beauty in here that seem traditional in their approach, but there are also times when the style breaks with convention in order to subvert reality. For instance, there is one scene in particular when the film takes a darker turn and Kaguya is overcome with emotion. She crashes through the sliding doors, running away into the night as fast as she can, her garments flying off her as she sprints back to the moonlit countryside. The animation in this scene is so untamed and fantastical that it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. These artistic choices are very fitting for the film and give it a distinct feel that no other anime has. There’s the expression of “every frame a painting” and in that is quite literally the case here. Just about any shot from this film is something I’d feel comfortable having framed and put on my wall.

As you might expect from the man who directed Grave of the Fireflies, this is an emotional film with some heavy themes. It has a PG rating, but it doesn’t shy away from the more honest or tragic elements of the story, making it a film that will resonate much more with adults than with children. What stood out most for me was the notion of being true to oneself and how challenging that can be. The world of ancient Japan may be alien to us, but every society throughout history has had its own set of cultural norms and pressures. Society’s vision of the perfect life may not be consistent with one’s own, and this becomes abundantly clear when we view Kaguya’s world with over a thousand years of historical hindsight. There is also the notion of how the world is filled with grief and suffering, yet this is in many ways preferable to an insulated life without spontaneity or the full range of human experience. It’s a similar idea to what the Savage talks about in the novel Brave New World, in which he claims the right to be unhappy. I won’t delve into the specific scenes that highlight this for risk of spoiling them, but there are moments in here that are deeply emotional and at times profoundly sad.

It is the longest Ghibli film ever made at 137 minutes, but it honestly feels like it’s too short. This is especially true when you consider that this is likely to be Isao Takahata’s last film and could potentially be one of the last films by Studio Ghibli. When he was at TIFF, Takahata confirmed that the studio was running into major financial problems. So despite having so many other ideas that they’re excited for, the 79-year-old admitted that he didn’t know whether any of them would come to fruition. That’s a damn shame because Ghibli hasn’t just made some of the best animated movies of all time, they’ve made some of the best movies period. If this is, God forbid, the last movie that Studio Ghibli ever makes it would at least be a fitting end to their legacy. I can’t imagine them going out on a higher note than this one.

My Top 50 Movies of 2013

Honorable Mentions:

Stories We Tell
Gasland 2
The Angels Share
The Place Beyond The Pines
Dirty Wars
20 Feet From Stardom
This Is The End
A Hijacking
My Brother The Devil
Captain Phillips
Behind the Candelabra
The Kings of Summer
Simon Killer
Post Tenebras Lux
Gimme The Loot
You’re Next
Pain and Gain
Frances Ha
Pacific Rim

50. Like Someone In Love


From the film’s opening in a noisy Tokyo bar all the way to an elderly man’s disconnected phone call, the story seems keenly focused on the way that people communicate with one another. Much of the dialogue comes in the form of communication devices such as intercoms or voicemail recordings. The face-to-face interactions are often wrought with confusion or dishonesty, resulting from societal pressures or a desire to avoid awkwardness.

These interactions are never dull, in fact they can downright intense at times, but it’s also sad to consider how difficult truly open communication can be between people. The collateral damage that results from this can be considerable, and Kiarostami’s film doesn’t shy away from showing these consequences that result in ways that are both big and small. While these ideas are disconcerting, they are well worth thinking about. Like Someone In Love invites us to examine why these invisible barriers exist and how to navigate them.

49. Dallas Buyers Club


Despite the awards buzz and critical success, Dallas Buyers Club has been (in my anecdotal experience) one of the more controversial films of 2013. Many are quick to criticize the film’s depiction of the FDA politics and the demonizing of official medical channels by those in the buyer club community. While I agree with some of these criticisms I do not think that the film was wrong to display the palpable anger that many AIDS patients had at this time, even if that vicarious outrage simplified an inherently complex problem.

Unlike films made on the subject like How To Survive A Plague, Dallas Buyer’s Club is not inherently about the AIDS crisis. To me, this film is primarily focused on the story of Ron Woodroof and the emotional journey he undergoes after his diagnosis. It’s a compelling true story and the character is brilliantly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey. For these reasons I was willing to overlook some of the film’s more controversial elements and lose myself in the journey of this man both struggling to prolong his life while re-evaluating what makes life worth living.

48. A Band Called Death


A Band Called Death tells the incredible true story of a pioneering band that simply called themselves ‘Death’. They were an all-black punk band comprised of three brothers. It was the early 1970s, a time when Motown music was the norm for black musicians and their style was completely obscure. But the Hackney brothers were uncompromising, playing the music that they loved and even refusing a record deal because they wouldn’t change the name of their band.

I’ll avoid going into too much detail about the story, so as to avoid spoilers. But I will say that it’s an emotionally turbulent story with plenty of trials and tragedies for the band, as well as their family. In its own way it’s also an uplifting story about celebrating obscurity, perseverance, and the importance of family ties from one generation to the next.

47. The Counselor


The Counselor is one of those films that might simply be “too weird to live, too rare to die”. Despite its star-studded cast, a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, a big name director in Ridley Scott… the film was a colossal failure both with critics (it has a woeful 34% on Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers (it took in only $17m in box office sales). While it’s bound to show up on plenty of Worst Of lists for 2013, there is a small but vocal group of movie buffs that walked away from it pleasantly surprised. I am one of those people.

It’s unsurprising that many people criticize the lack of likeable characters or the uncompromisingly bleak script. But I actually admire the film for giving such a huge middle finger to these storytelling conventions and showing the raw ugliness of the drug trade. It leaves a strong, lasting impression of savagery that’s hard to shake. Not to mention the fact that it’s filled with some of the most stunning scenes of the year, including some shocking death scenes and a very unique story involving a car. In one scene, Reiner (Bardem) tells the counselor (Fassbender) that he regrets telling him such a shocking story and insists it would be best if he simply forgot it. I for one am glad for the experience, and I doubt I’d be able to forget some of these scenes if I tried.

46. Fill The Void


The story of Fill The Void involves an arranged marriage proposal between Shira and a promising young man. One day, Shira’s older sister dies in childbirth and leaves her widowed husband with a child that he plans to take with him overseas. Not wanting to lose her only grandchild, Shira’s mother urges her to marry her sister’s widowed husband.

Set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, there are times when their world seems completely alien to us. Yet Fill The Void explores the nature/nurture issue with empathy and understanding. We can see clearly why Shira is conflicted, but we can also see those invisible forces of family and tradition pulling her into this world and into a life that she’s not sure she wants to live. It’s a fascinating portrait of how easily one can become assimilated into the environment they’re born into, and how these cultures sustain themselves from within.

45. Beyond The Hills


Taking place inside an isolated Romanian convent, Beyond The Hills tells the story of Alina reuniting with her childhood friend and lover Voichita. But having been in the isolated convent for so long, Voichita is now devoutly religious and a changed woman. This unrequited love drives Alina to madness, as she desperately wants to elope with Voichita but increasingly finds the situation to be hopeless. What plays out next is something I won’t go into much detail about, since it’s better not to know too much going in. I will say that it becomes a very tense and ethically dicey situation, one that transpires without any clear heroes or villains.

It would be easy for Mungui to take this true story from 2005 and make it into preachy film about repression or the self-criminalization of religion. But the film never gives into this temptation. Yes, the priest is a harsh and devout man, but he is not motivated by malice. The convent is culpable in what goes on, but so are other secular institutions like the hospital. We understand that these people are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation, but perhaps no institution is capable of dealing with the underlying conflict.

Though the film is a tad overlong, it’s a fascinating story and its ideas stay with you.

44. Star Trek: Into Darkness


The latest (and potentially last) Abrams installment, Star Trek: Into Darkness, is a fast-paced thrill ride with moments of genuine tension and emotion. Yet it still manages to throw in quite a few jokes and references along the way. It’s a difficult task to infuse lighthearted humor into a film and still have the audience on the edge of their seat, but somehow Into Darkness manages this while so many other films fail to get it right.

This sequel is in some ways an improvement over the first. Much of the film’s quality is thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of ‘John Harrison’. The character is mysterious and captivating, and he keeps the audience guessing what he’ll do next as this chess game plays itself out. The action set pieces are abundant and the special effects are top notch, just as they were in the first film.

If you’ve seen the Star Trek reboot then you have some idea what you’re in for with this sequel. Some Trek purists are still going to be put off by how fundamentally different it is from classic Star Trek TV and film, bemoaning the fact that this morally complex sci-fi universe has essentially been transformed into a big budget roller-coaster ride. While they do have a point, I think it’s safe to say that most people will be too busy enjoying themselves to mind. It does just about everything right in the way of the Summer blockbuster.

43. The Selfish Giant

Selfish Giant

When the two boys, Arbor and Swifty, get kicked out of school they decide to scavenge illegally for whatever metals they can find and pawn off. Their working poor environment is a bleak one without much hope for a proper future, so despite Arbor’s bad influence it’s easy to see why Swifty succumbs to his friend’s bad influence and follows him down this self-destructive path. The two are consistently exploited and mistreated by the scrapyard owner, but the boys remain eager to do his dirty work for him – starved for whatever money they can get their hands on.

This story about the English underclass can be tough to sit through. It’s worth it, however, because Clio Barnard’s film is beautifully constructed and creates a vivid portrait of these children’s lives. It’s a film of desperation and hopelessness that leaves an indelible impression on the viewer, bringing to light a world that is often invisible to most people. Without giving anything I way, I’ll add that the final act hit me like a ton of bricks.

42. The Square


The Square is filled with excellent footage from Tahrir protestors, documenting a revolution that has spanned years of time. It’s rare that a film can show you what it was like to be involved in a historic political movement as its happening. This film does that and infuses all the anger and urgency of a disillusioned populace, willing to do whatever it took to take back their country from a corrupt dictatorship.

At times, the film can feel a bit jumbled, which makes it difficult to become more emotionally invested (there were over a dozen different editors working on the project). But what The Square lacks in quality editing it makes up for in the quality of its footage, the voices of its people, the maturity with which it handles its subject matter, and its value as a historical document of the Arab Spring.

Part of what I like about The Square is also what I find frustrating about it. The documentary offers no solutions to the relentless corruption and cycle of political corruption other than rallying at Tahrir square. So while the enthusiasm and resolve of the protesters are inspirational, I was left wondering how much good (if any) was being accomplished by the activists. It’s always refreshing to see a documentary present these problems without framing them. After all, complex political problems like those in modern Egypt are not easily resolved. At the same time, it can be discouraging to see so much passion for political reform run into corruption time after time.

41. Blackfish


The most compelling film about the ethical treatment of animals since The Cove. Blackfish explores the disturbing relationship between companies like Sea World and the whales that they hold in captivity. Dealing with several famous incidents of whale violence against human trainers, the film delves into what causes these otherwise peaceful animals to attack. Unsurprisingly, the conditions of their captivity are appalling and suggest that such outbursts (while rare) are the direct result of human behavior.

Blackfish can at times be heartbreaking to watch, but much of the emotional turmoil doesn’t come from the vivid footage, it comes from stories recounted by those involved and from the shocking information we’re given about the lives of these captive whales. The film is at its best when it is exploring the ethical implications of animal cruelty, but it can get a bit distracted at times, fixating on the legal process involved in workman’s compensation relating to the attacks. Clearly it’s an impassioned advocacy film, but it’s an effective one. It’s hard to imagine people walking away from this justifying the imprisonment of these majestic animals for entertainment.

This film made me recall my experience at such a show when I was a young child. I enjoyed myself at the time, but it never occurred to me that I might be participating in something inherently unethical. I also recall being brought on a field trip once as a child and seeing dolphins held there. Our teacher asked our class how the captivity of dolphins related to the problem of slavery, which caused all of us to snicker and make snide remarks. But because of films like Blackfish, I now fully understand what she was saying. She had a point.

40. Nebraska


Nebraska’s mid-western landscapes and black-and-white footage may be reminiscent of a Bella Tarr film, but don’t be fooled. Alexander Payne’s film is a comedy/drama that often feels more like the former than the latter.

The story centers around David’s father Woody, who is convinced that he has just won a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes and must go to Lincoln Nebraska to collect his prize. David knows it’s a scam, but his efforts to convince his father fall on deaf ears. Finally, David begrudgingly agrees to drive his father to Nebraska. It’s a modest story, but it’s also a very endearing one.

As we go on this journey with David and Woody, we watch them learn about each other and develop a father & son connection that appears lacking earlier in the film. We also begin to understand more about Woody’s character when he’s juxtaposed with some unscrupulous folks who mean to take advantage of him. The earlier portrayal of him as an alcoholic father begins to fade, and even though we recognize that his faculties are slipping we begin to understand him and root for him. It’s a heartfelt film, boosted by quality performances from the entire cast. And for a story that’s so simple, it actually manages to produce one of the better endings of the year.

39. The Past


I wasn’t as fond of Asghar Farhadi’s latest film as I was with A Separation, which I felt had more thematic depth and a more compelling narrative. But this is still a truthful and tense domestic drama that is another strong addition to his resume. He seems to be a modern master of making mountains out of moguls, finding high stakes tension within families that on their surface appear nondescript or ordinary.

The Past is beautifully acted and contains an explosive plot. At times the film may seem slow, as life often does, but there are intermittent bursts of sheer tension or tragedy that are on par with some of the best thrillers. Aptly titled, the film explores themes of past regrets and the inability to right wrongs committed. Characters who might find happiness if only they could let go of what transpired and live in the present, but their troubled pasts won’t let them resolve things so easily. Perhaps the only thing I didn’t like about the film was the ambiguous ending, which felt disjointed from the rest of the film’s narrative. Otherwise, this is a gripping and often painful drama that is well worth your time.

38. Wadjda


Wadjda is the first feature film to ever be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. It’s the first Saudi film ever made by a female director and the only film I’ve ever seen from the country. It’s perhaps fitting that such a unique film would advocate religious and social reform through its protagonist, Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who aspires to buy a bicycle and race alongside her male classmates. It’s a straightforward narrative, but it’s so compelling because of its unique setting. No film I’ve seen has ever given me this kind of insight into what it’s like for women in an orthodox Muslim country, so while many of the storytelling elements seem familiar it all feels fresh and unique. We root for Wadjda despite her constant troubles and disappointments. We know that the world she inhabits isn’t fair, but we admire her struggle and her character in the face of such adversity.

Waad Mohammed is absolutely delightful as Wadjda. I don’t know where they found this girl, but she fits the role perfectly and you fall in love with her character from the very first frames. The film is worth watching for this reason alone.

37. Blue Jasmine

blue jasmine

Woody Allen returns to form with Blue Jasmine, or what I sometimes like to jokingly refer to as Schadenfreude: The Movie. We see Jasmine’s character in the aftermath of her fall from grace, married to a wealthy husband who ran into legal trouble and wound up with his life destroyed. But despite these hardships, Jasmine is unwilling to adjust her lifestyle or find any humility. She’s a downright mean and self-absorbed woman, whose antics consistently astound the viewer. The character is brilliantly portrayed by Cate Blanchett, who sells it so well that we completely forget we’re watching an actress in a role. Some could argue that she gives the best female performance of the year, and while I wouldn’t put her at #1 I’d be hard pressed to criticize that choice.

It’s a film filled with dark humor and clever dialogue. The outlandish premise allows for plenty of memorable exchanges as we watch this woman’s fall from grace, leaving behind a life of privilege that she experienced but never earned. Blue Jasmine does take a bit of a somber turn towards the end, when it’s revealed in full detail how these present circumstances came to pass. I imagine some viewers may have radically different interpretations on this, part of which would depend on whether you began to empathize with Jasmine’s character or simply found her unredeemable. I personally thought the final act was emotionally complex but ultimately satisfying.

36. Side Effects


It can be difficult to talk about Side Effects without delving into spoiler territory. The film is constantly taking twists and turns, starting in one direction before delving into full-fledged thriller territory. The audience is left trying to put the puzzle pieces together as new bits of information are slowly revealed. We’re not entirely sure what to think until the film’s final act, when everything becomes perfectly clear. Scott Burns script kept me on the edge of my seat throughout most of the film and I walked away from this story impressed with its unrelenting intrigue.

If this is one of Soderbergh’s last films then I believe it’s one he can look back on and be proud of. It’s a compelling mystery yarn that’s very well edited, and it features some standout performances from Rooney Mara and Jude Law. It may not be a film that has much to say about the human condition or the business ethics of pharmaceuticals, but it’s one of the most exciting movies of the year.

35. The World’s End


The World’s End is the third installment in what may be considered Edgar Wright’s trilogy of comedy. As you might expect, the combination of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg is as good as ever. The gang’s signature brand of humor is what we’ve come to expect, and this one delivers plenty of laughs as it builds towards the inevitable chaos. But what separates this installment from Hot Fuzz and Shaun Of The Dead is its focus on nostalgia. Even though Gary King is a bit of a twat, it’s easy to understand his motivation to re-live the glory days of his youth. There is an emotional center to this film that seems genuine, whereas the character dramas in something like Hot Fuzz always seemed ironic and purely comedic.

Some have questioned whether this installment lives up to Shaun Of The Dead or Hot Fuzz. Is it as good as the previous installments? I think it comes up a bit short, to be honest. That’s not to say that this isn’t a very good film or that isn’t a worthy addition to their body of work. It gets a bit messy at times, sure, but there’s plenty of laughs and enjoyment to be had here. It’s a great movie to see with your friends and grab a pint afterwards. If nothing else, we’ll always have the disableds.

34. Lore


Lore tells the story of Berlin’s downfall in 1945, but it’s told entirely from the perspective of a fourteen year old German girl. Left to fend for herself and her destitute siblings after being separated from her SS parents, Lore must find a way to ensure the safety of her family and make it out alive. The children cross paths with a young Jewish man, who takes them under his protection despite Lore’s obvious misgivings about who he is. There is an awkward dynamic between Lore and what she discovers, both in this young man and the world around her. Much of the narrative she was told throughout her life is called into question, and she must decide whether to ultimately trust in this young man or cut ties.

The film has several transcendent moments of music and cinematography, sequences that are immediately arresting. The style of the film feels fresh, almost like a fairy tale, and this atmosphere is heightened by the feel of the forests they walk through and the haunting glances of Saskia Rosendahl. We are never quite sure what she is thinking, yet we hope for the sake of her and the other children that she’ll adapt quickly. It is only in the final act of the film that we get a clear sense of what direction she will go. An unexpected sequence of events quickly transform into regret, as Lore must come to grips with her disillusionment.

33. Mud


A lot of Mud is almost like seeing a classic American novel coming to life onscreen. A number of viewers and film critics have compared it to a Mark Twain story, and it’s easy to see the similarities. Sure, the characters of Mud and Ellis aren’t destined to go down alongside Huck Finn or Jim in the annals of American storytelling, but the film has a richness to its characters and setting that is rare in modern American cinema. Matthew McConaughey and the young actors, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, help bring these characters to life with their raw performances.

The script is far more layered than your typical coming of age film, showing many different aspects of adulthood that intrude on Ellis’ life. It’s interesting to see such a savvy young kid coming to grips with his perceptions being shattered. It also explores some interesting themes about the dynamic between men and women, at least from the male point of view. Mud and Ellis both seem to be guilty of idolizing women who don’t seem worthy of such adoration, nor do these women seem to reciprocate those feelings.

The problem is that while the film is excellent for much of its running time, I feel that the film stumbles a bit in its final act. The script suddenly becomes crowded with pivotal events, and much of the tone and truthfulness that worked earlier in the film begins to get lost. A more grounded finale might have served the story better, but when Mud works it works very well.

32. La Camioneta: The Journey of One American School Bus


One of the most thematically rich and thought provoking films of the year, La Camioneta follows the journey of a decommissioned U.S. school bus as it makes its way to Guatemala. Upon arrival the bus is re-painted, decorated, and given a colorful new life as a popular mode of transportation. These flamboyant looking buses play an important part in the everyday lives of people, and they are also the centerpiece of a major political problem in the area. Local gangsters often demand protection money from the buses operators, and if they are not paid there are occasionally mass murders or assassinations involved as a penalty.

Though the film does go into detail about these problems, it is not a political advocacy film. Mark Kendall’s documentary is more concerned with exploring philosophical notions of resurrection and shared experience. The film asks whether there is something transcendent about the buses themselves, something that lasts beyond the physical transformation. It’s similar to the idea of the human soul being separate from the physical body, able to survive death. The same nostalgic bus that you rode to school may migrate and intersect with the lives of others a continent away, so in that sense the bus still lives on, becoming something entirely new yet strangely familiar.

31. All Is Lost

all is lost

I imagine All Is Lost is not a film for everyone. It features virtually no dialogue and no human interaction. We do not even know the protagonist’s name or back story. The film is simply Robert Redford’s character adrift at sea in the Indian Ocean, struggling to do everything in his power to survive a catastrophe that is leading him inexorably towards his death. Some might find this slow or difficult, but if you are able to lose yourself in the story it becomes a compelling vicarious experience. The minimalism allows us to feel as though we are truly adrift at sea, sharing in our protagonists experience as though we were him.

This minimalist journey is beautifully shot and acted, and is an engrossing experience to lose yourself in. We know that our protagonist is likely doomed, yet we cling on for any chance of hope or to see just how bad things might get. The sense of environment and the feeling of peril is palpable throughout. The experience of walking out of the theater and back to a loud, bustling reality was jolting in all the right ways. You almost feel as though you’ve been adrift at sea for days on end.

The story makes an interesting 2013 compliment to Cuaron’s Gravity, which is also a nearly solo performance taking place amidst a nightmarish struggle to survive. Though the execution of each film is so strikingly different that I’d say the similarities mostly end there.

30. Eega


It’s a story as old as time itself. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy, boy gets killed by an evil rival for his love, boy is resurrected as a vengeful fly.

What’s interesting about Eega is that for its first half hour it’s a very by-the-numbers production. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything special about it. But when our hero meets with an untimely demise and returns as a fly, that’s when things start to get a bit crazy. The film quickly escalates into the realm of the absurd, but it doesn’t overplay its hand by becoming a pure comedy. There are a number of intended gags throughout the film, but there’s this odd juxtaposition of scenes that are played straight and others that are intended as humor. Some might consider that a weakness, but I liked it because the core concept is so outlandish that it often doesn’t need anything else to be entertaining. My favorite scene (the one before the intermission) is actually played as tense and serious.

It’s a completely bonkers film, because how could it not be? If you’re looking for something a bit off the beaten path you could do a lot worse than Eega. Don’t expect a cinematic masterpiece, but expect to be thoroughly entertained. I can safely say that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

29. Only God Forgives

only god forgives

Arguably the most controversial film of 2013, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest has been blasted by critics and booed at festivals. It’s not hard to see why, either. This is an incredibly stylized and violent film with a challenging script. Not only that, but the film sees to gleefully defy audience expectations. Whether you love or hate it, Only God Forgives is an undeniably bold film from a director who doesn’t need to take such risks at this point in his career. I think it’s admirable that Refn has the courage to tell the kind of stories he wants.

Only God Forgives is one of the best looking films of the year, it has one of the best characters of the year in Vithaya Pansringarm’s Chang, it has a gorgeous soundtrack that’s dark and edgy, and some of the scenes in here are absolutely brilliant. All that being said, this is not a perfect movie. Even after watching it twice there are some storytelling elements that (in my opinion) don’t work very well. Some of the violence feels gratuitous, which didn’t bother me, but was an issue for a lot of viewers. It’s such a radically different film from the norm that mainstream audiences in particular will loathe it, and quite a few film critics would be eager to echo those sentiments. But the elements of this film that do work are so incredible that I have to overlook many of its sins. This is a movie that people will watch half a century from now and still debate. It’s just that unique.

28. Philomena


Based on the true story of Philomena Lee, this buddy dramedy stars Steve Coogan and Judie Dench in the search for an elderly woman’s long lost son. Delightfully scripted and well acted, the film manages to navigate smoothly between comic scenes and the weight of its subject matter. It’s often tough to watch, but it strikes an overall balance that most people are comfortable with. It would have been easy to take this story and turn it into a messy, sentimental mess of a film. Thankfully, Philomena skillfully avoids these pitfalls to deliver a film that is both funny and heartfelt.

The film does take a few creative liberties with the story of Philomena Lee, and although I can understand why they did these from a storytelling perspective I don’t feel that it was necessary. Philomena’s story is already so compelling and emotional that the additional window dressing strikes me as the film’s one real flaw. Some have criticized the film as anti-catholic, but I think that’s a misinterpretation of the film. The ending of the film puts both extremist Catholics as well as secular liberals in their place, because this story is ultimately about ethical values and how we deal with being wronged. It is not an agenda film, but instead it’s a human story about one mother’s struggle to come to grips with her past.

One of the film’s final moments is among my favorite scenes of the year.

27. Enough Said

enough said

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said is a middle aged romance with a twist. Two single parents, Eva and Albert, are about to face empty nest syndrome and face the prospect of being alone in their houses. The two meet at a party and hit it off, with everything seemingly going well. But soon after this Eva learns that her new massage trainer and friend, Marianne, is actually the ex-wife of Albert. Rather than reveal this connection and risk losing one of them, she continues to play innocent and continues meeting Marianne to get the dirt on Albert.

While that might sound like the premise for a wacky rom-com, Enough Said’s script is actually playing it honest and straight. The conflicted Eva and her lies by omission are believable, not wanting to get hurt again after having been through a divorce. But there are also tense ethical dilemmas she faces. Is she poisoning the well by finding out everything wrong with Albert? How far does she go to find out everything she can?

James Gandolfini & Julia Louis-Dreyfus both give standout performances, and the addition of Catherine Keener makes this a strong ensemble cast. Gandolfini’s performance is bittersweet, since he’s showing a side of his talent than many people never saw. Louis-Dreyfus honestly surprised me more than any actor or actress from last year. I never would have considered her someone that could handle serious dramatic content, but she really did it justice. The emotional connection between the two feels so authentic. The dialogue in the film deserves a lot of credit here, since Holofcener appears to have a great eye for subtle moments in conversation.

26. Europa Report


One of the most intelligent sci-fi films to come out in years, Europa Report takes a plausible concept to make a movie about man’s search for extraterrestrial life. Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has a glacial surface but a molten core, meaning that beneath that thick layer of ice there is an underwater ocean with thermal heat down below. If mankind will ever make contact with an alien species, it seems probable that Europa will be where it happens. This film explores what such a mission might look like in the near future.

Many might dismiss the film as found footage sci-fi horror, because much of the film’s marketing campaign makes it seem this way. This would be a mistake, because Europa is a film that tries to stay grounded in a hypothetical reality, rather than adding on plot elements that might cater to a box office campaign. The filmmakers recognize that actual space travel is claustrophobic and frightening enough, without any sort of alien virus or supernatural occurrences taking place during the months en route to their destination. It puts a premium on authenticity that is refreshing in today’s landscape of sci-fi.

The film asks questions about how far we ourselves would be willing to go as the situation becomes increasingly high stakes. Would we risk our own lives to further one of mankind’s greatest potential discoveries? A contemplative and tense film, Europa Report is a thinking man’s science fiction. If someone like Neil Degrasse Tyson had a film studio, this is the sort of movie he might produce.

25. No


No takes place in Chile in 1988, when a referendum was held to determine if Pinochet should remain in power. An advertising campaign was launched to convince people to vote ‘No’. René Saavedra is hired to spearhead this campaign, but he thinks the current campaign is too concerned with showing the atrocities of Pinochet’s regime. “I think this doesn’t sell” Saavedra says, and he undergoes a campaign of commercial advertising in order to bring about political change. But his methods of advertising rub those within the No campaign the wrong way, after all, many of them have lost family members. The use of mimes or dancers seems tacky, so they’re hesitant about using the same methods that sell cola to run a political campaign of this magnitude.

Even if you’re already familiar with the story, the film plays out like a political thriller. It’s shot entirely with archaic cameras, resulting in a visual representation that is messy, but that captures the political time and place. The footage appears ugly, much like the political period that it represents. It even splices in a lot of footage from the No advertising campaign, and due to the consistency of presentation the film never ‘drops the baby’, maintaining its feel of authenticity throughout.

Monahla Dargis had an interesting comment, saying that Gael García Bernal’s René might represent a different kind of tyranny, one in which freedom is reduced to the freedom of consumer choice. While I find that intriguing, I personally think the character also represents a kind of pragmatism in the face of extreme adversity.

24. 12 Years A Slave


Some will consider this film an unassailable masterpiece. Others will argue that a film like 12 Years A Slave is unnecessary, exploitative, pornographic, or manipulative. After all, do we really need a film to tell us that slavery is wrong? Is Steve McQueen’s vision of Solomon Northup’s story really necessary in 2013?

While it’s not the transcendent movie that some reviews or awards might lead you to believe, it’s still a very powerful film and a part of our history that we probably don’t talk about enough. It’s true that we had Django and Lincoln in 2012, but McQueen’s film just goes for this in such a gruesome and unflinching way. It’s the kind of movie you might expect about slavery that the director of Hunger and Shame might make, giving us a vision of slavery that I won’t be able to shake. Part of this is due to just how stellar the cast is – Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender are all excellent and help to disguise what weaknesses the film might have (let’s all just forget about the inclusion of Paul Dano).

Maybe the biggest compliment I can give the film is that I’ve honestly never seen a film about American slavery like this. You’d think that this would be a more intense version of a film that has been made dozens of times over, but 12 Years actually feels like a completely fresh and unique vision. Seeing’s Northup’s story on the big screen is the closest I’ve ever come to vicariously experiencing the horror of slavery in cinema. Several scenes of the film, and the final sequences especially, are among the most emotional and memorable scenes I’ve witnessed all year. The final scene actually made me shed a tear.

23. Like Father, Like Son


Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, Like Father Like Son tracks the story of two families who face a shocking revelation. When the wealthy Nonomiyas want their six-year-old son Keita to get into a prestigious school, a standard DNA test is issued to verify that he’s actually their child. The results come back negative, and from there the hospital must step in to inform both the Nonomiyas and the Saikis that their biological children were somehow switched at birth. The parents of each family must come to grips with this and ultimately decide whether they will choose to raise their biological child, or keep the son that they have raised for the past six years as their own.

The two families are from very different social positions, one which is more well-off and uptight, whereas the other is a more care-free and working class family. It really delves into the notion how we mold our children in our own image and how we define family. There’s a line in the film about how with each passing day the children will begin to look different from the family who raised them, increasingly resembling their true biological parents. Is everyone going to be comfortable knowing that they raised the child of someone else when this biological truth becomes impossible to ignore? Yet, how do you simply discard those six years you spent raising your son, thinking that he was your own blood?

If you’ve ever seen a Koreeda film, then you know that this is a film that isn’t going to succumb to heavy drama or sensationalism. This is a story that’s handled with a delicate touch, yet it’s a quietly powerful story that doesn’t pretend that there are easy solutions to its nature vs nurture dilemma. He’s so good at crafting human stories and directing child actors that you don’t view it thinking you’re watching a film about an issue. It flows smoothly as a human drama, always feeling as though it earns everything it achieves through its genuine portrayal of these characters.

22. War Witch


Written and directed by Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen, War Witch is a harrowing story about a 14-year old girl named Komona who is forced to murder her own parents and join a rebel army in the Democratic Repulic of Congo. When she becomes the sole survivor of an attack on her squad, aided by her visions of ghosts who direct her to safety, she is branded as a War Witch by the rebel army and employed by the army’s leader Great Tiger. She is suddenly seen as a valuable tool in winning this war.

The world that Komona inhabits is so alien to me that the experience of watching the film is like being transported to Mars. The environment is one that is so rich with mysticism and superstition that it would strain credulity in almost any other setting. Nobody seems to question Komona’s powers, or even view them as something incredibly unique. Great Tiger had already employed several War Witches before Komona, and she is warned that if she doesn’t perform her duties adequately she will meet the same demise as those who preceded her. The moral universe she inhabits is equally shocking, as the circumstances that surround her and everyone else cause people to do otherwise unspeakable things as a matter of course. It’s horrifying to know that such things go on in our modern world, so being closely exposed to them is a jarring experience. Is it an accurate depiction? I honestly couldn’t say, but apart from the magical visions the film feels visceral and authentic in a way that few others do.

21. Museum Hours


Museum Hours is the tale of two adrift strangers who find refuge in Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum. Anne is a foreigner, visiting a relative who is facing a medical crisis and slipped into a state of unconsciousness. Johann is a museum guard who spends his days quietly observing the paintings. The two cross paths and begin to form a deep, yet platonic, connection. They begin to spend a great deal of time together and share their thoughts on art as well as intimate details about their lives.

What separates this from a film like Lost In Translation is its focus on the value of art and how that interacts with life. There are moments where they’re inspired reveal these details about themselves due to the ideas the paintings inspire in them, showing that the art on the walls is not static, but interactive. In the same way that they observe the paintings, the paintings are observing them, conjuring up past memories and helping them to forge a better understanding of themselves. There are several brilliant scenes that focus on Bruegel’s paintings, both articulated by Johann and a tour guide who explains the pieces in extensive detail.

Museum Hours is a beautiful film about art and friendship. But perhaps the film’s greatest attribute is that it helps is to see the world in a fresh new way. It challenges us to question how we budget our attention. Is the focus of the grand set piece painting the great historic figure scaling the mountain, or is it the small child standing apart by himself? Is the value of Anne’s journey in seeing her dying relative, or is it the unlikely chance encounter with a museum guard, someone who would often blend into the background and go entirely unnoticed? For a long time after seeing the film I was inspired to look at my seemingly mundane surroundings in a new way. Whether I was walking down a snow covered road and observing how the ice formed around a street lamp, or seeing the unattended blankets of a homeless person amidst rush hour traffic in center city. Museum Hours reminds us that art is all around us if only we take the time to look.

20. Frozen


I recently learned that Disney has bought out a lot of the creative talent from Pixar. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that Pixar has been declining (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University), while Disney has been ascending rapidly in terms of quality. With Frozen, Disney seems to have cemented their place in modern American animation. Yet despite the influx of talent from America’s former #1 animation studio, Frozen is in many ways a throwback to the classic Disney musicals of old, like Lion King and Aladdin. That’s not to say that Frozen doesn’t depart in some ways from the formula, because it does, but audiences expecting something along the lines of Pixar’s golden age are going to get a different product. Characters will burst out into song quite often, and the pace is more in tune with these Disney classics. There is nothing quite as adventurous as the opening sequences of films like Wall-E or Up.

A refreshing aspect of Frozen is that it doesn’t follow a lot of conventional narrative structures Disney is often know for. For instance, there are unlikeable characters but there is not your classic Disney villain anywhere to be found here. The film casts aside a lot of the usual patriarchy we’re used to seeing. The story really hones in on the relationship between Anna and Elsa, which is quite rare when you consider the dynamics we typically find among siblings in animated films. This is a refreshing new territory for Disney, and it allows for a few surprises in the film’s final act, even if much of what leads up to it seems like a familiar journey.

You can tell that a lot of effort went into crafting this film. The animators really burned the midnight oil, even managed to integrate different types of snow and melting into the computer graphics. The resulting CGI is often gorgeous to look at and feels surprisingly real. The songs are catchy and show a wide variety of range, since is there isn’t one consistent musical style used throughout the film. Actresses like Kristen Bell are surprisingly good in their roles. The film has a lot going for it to recommend it as much more than a family outing at the theater, though it works quite well in that context, too.

19. Happy People: A Year In The Taiga


Werner Herzog’s latest documentary focuses on the indigenous people living in the Siberian Taiga. The colossal wilderness that surrounds this place is one and a half times the size of the United States. In the village of Bakhtia there are roughly 300 inhabitants. The village is so remote that the only ways to reach it are by helicopter or taking a boat down the river Yenisei. There is no telephone, no running water, and no medical aid. The inhabitants lives also haven’t changed much of the past few centuries.

The film closely follows several fur trappers over the course of four seasons. These men spend much of the year away from the village, living lives of solitude out in the great expanse of wilderness and shuttling from one small cabin to the next. These solitary trappers go up against incredibly cold temperatures, inclement weather, and food scarcity. They must survive off the land by using their honed crafts and do so without many of the modern amenities that most of us would consider essential. Apart from their snowmobiles, their lives represent a throwback to the days of prehistoric man. Yet the title of the film, Happy People, appears fitting given much of what we see. This is clearly a lifestyle that Herzog deeply admires, and he seems to believe that there is a kind of tranquility in returning to nature. They essentially exist without government, without taxes, without technology, without car payments, without an employer etc. One simply gets to work and live in the beauty of the Taiga, and the only person they must answer to is themselves.

The footage of the Taiga is beautiful and compelling. There are images and moments in this documentary that I will remember for a very long time to come. It’s also a philosophically rich film that asks us to consider how we define happiness in our own lives. These individuals face incredible adversity, yet they’re also free of many of the burdens of modern society. Although I doubt I’d last very long in such conditions, I was honestly finding myself admiring their way of life at times and considering the benefits of what such an existence might bring. I think a lot of men have at times fantasized about living this way. With Happy People, we’re given a rare glimpse into that world.

18. Rush


I’m not a Ron Howard fanboy and I don’t follow Formula One racing. But this film is without question one of the greatest sports films I’ve ever seen.

I actually think that I benefited greatly from not knowing about James Hunt and Niki Lauda’s infamous rivalry back in the 1970s. There’s a reason why this tale has become a legend among Formula One enthusiasts, and why the two men are still so well remembered to this day. The two men challenged each other and prodded each other, each motivating the other to be better. Despite their shared profession and comparable talents, the two men are nearly polar opposites. The Austrian Niki Lauda is meticulous and calculating, far better at setting up the car and assessing strategy. The British James Hunt is a reckless playboy who succeeds because of his fearlessness in the face of death and his God-given talent. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl do a great job of bringing these legends to life.

The film looks terrific, doing a great job capturing the feel of the 1970s. The cinematography and racing sequences are really well constructed. You get a palpable sense of the danger and excitement involved when it’s just you and a thin layer of metal separating you from the high speed chaos around you. Some of the shots, like this first person perspective of a race that takes place in the rain, are legitimately terrifying. Lauda often reminds himself that there’s a 20% chance of death in his profession, and when you see it from that vantage point you instinctively know he’s telling the truth.

Rush is an incredibly thrilling sports film, but above all it’s just a great story. It reminds me a little bit of the film Warrior, in the sense that we’re shown two different men who we both empathize with and who are competing for the same prize. I went into it thinking that James Hunt was essentially the protagonist, but later on in the film I actually found myself identifying with Niki and rooting for him. It’s a thrilling battle between these two competitors, who must push themselves to their limit and risk absolutely everything to win.

17. The Spectacular Now


Based on Tim Tharp’s novel by the same name, The Spectacular Now is both familiar and fresh at the same time. It’s a sensitive and poignant coming-of-age drama, and the film overturns many of the cliches we typically find in the genre. It surprises you with a lot of subtleties and unsentimental screenwriting.

The story follows Sutter Keely, a popular high school guy who enjoys his parties and enjoys his booze a little too much. After undergoing a breakup he crosses paths with a reclusive, nerdy girl named Aimee Finecky. At first glance the two seem completely wrong for each other, but they begin to develop a relationship that slowly blossoms into something special throughout the course of the script. I like how it’s not written as though Aimee is changing herself for Sutter or pining after the popular guy. She doesn’t change herself in any way for him, although she seems to have some incremental influence on Sutter which causes him to reassess some aspects of his character throughout the film. Sutter isn’t exactly transformed, and he still carries a host of emotional problems and remains an alcoholic. The film never actual uses the word ‘alcoholic’, which is surprising considering that James Ponsoldt directed last year’s Smashed, but it’s clearly an important element that is touched on in several scenes. These kind of subtleties and intelligent writing help this story shine. The relationship between Sutter and Aimee is beautiful and always believable throughout the highs and the lows. The film does take creative liberties with the ending of the novel (which I did not read), and while I’m not sure the change is an improvement it is still a fitting way for the story to end.

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are brilliant in this film, each of them turning in one of my favorite best actor/actress performances of 2013. The supporting cast which features the likes of Brie Larson, Bob Odenkirk, Kyle Chandler, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead really shine as well. Some of them only step in for brief scenes, but they’re all important to the story. While there are some comedic moments in the film this is mostly a dramatic and emotional script, so having such a great dramatic ensemble was very fortunate.

A hit at the Sundance film festival, The Spectacular Now is a beautiful and moving film that you owe it to yourself to watch.

16. Upstream Color


Upstream Color may be the most challenging film of the year, and it’s certainly one of the most difficult to write about. For those that saw Shane Carruth’s Primer, this will come as no surprise. He’s a filmmaker that takes on challenging narrative puzzles that explore interesting sci-fi concepts. I personally thought that the story was great (even if I’d need multiple viewings to understand some of its elements). My interpretation of the film hinges a lot on an unexplained link between the physical world and what might be considered the soul. The chemistry at work in the film seems to suggest that there is some mysterious connection that is bridged by the use of this drug that, while physical in nature, has a permanent impact on the psyche and shared experience of living creatures.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these sci-fi elements were inspired by a real drug known as The Devil’s Breath or Scopolamine, considered by many to be the most dangerous drug in the world. A single gram of it would be enough to kill five adults, so it only requires the slightest amount to fall under its spell. Once the subject has been intoxicated, they lose their capacity for free will and must do whatever they’re told. To the casual observer, the person may not even appear to be drugged, but if you asked them to give you their bank account information or their valuables they would have no choice but to comply. The drug in Upstream Color isn’t entirely like this, but the sequence in the house with Kris reminded me of it and made me wonder.

The production values in Upstream Color are off the charts. It has incredible sound design, arguably the best soundtrack of the year, beautiful cinematography, a wonderfully original screenplay, and solid acting. Aside from the fact that the film is going to be logically incoherent for a popular audience, there’s very little to criticize or dislike in the film. In fact, I would say that even if you’re left completely baffled by the story there is enough going on here to justify seeing it. I can say that about Upstream Color in a way that I can’t about Primer, which I feel doesn’t have nearly as much going for it aside from its narrative puzzle. It’s an emotional journey of two broken people as much as it is science fiction mystery. The question shouldn’t be whether Upstream Color is worth watching, but rather, how many times should you see it?

15. Wolf Children


Despite all those nice things I said about Frozen, it was not the best animated film I saw from last year. That distinction belongs to Mamura Hosoda’s Wolf Children (or as cultured anime enthusiasts might call it, Okami Kodomo No Ame To Yuki). You may recognize Hosoda’s iconic style from his other films like Digimon: The Movie, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars. In my opinion, this is his finest film to date. With the upcoming retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki it’s entirely possible that Hosoda will be carrying the baton as the greatest living director in Japanese animation. If he can keep producing films of this quality, then that statement will be uncontroversial. I’m sure that Studio Ghibli has considered re-hiring him.

The story of Wolf Children follows 19-year-old Hana, who falls in love with a mysterious young man while studying at university. Unbeknownst to her, he is actually one of the last living werewolves, and has the ability to freely transform between his human form and wolf form. Undeterred by this, Hana never wavers in her love, even bearing two children (Ame and Yuki, or Snow and Rain) over the course of her relationship. The screenplay turns a lot of tradition werewolf lore on its head, reinventing the mythology to better serve this story of romance and motherhood. But despite their benign differences from normal humans, Hana knows that the outside world would never accept them for who they are. They are forced into a life of solitude and obscurity, which only becomes more intense as unexpected tragic events unfold. Eventually, Hana must move the children to a remote part of Japan where they live essentially as hermits, preparing her children for the inevitable choice they must face – to join the natural world as wolves, of to somehow find a way to embrace human society.

There are so many things to like about this film, but mostly I enjoyed it for its compelling story about a struggling mother and her children. It’s at times incredibly emotional, ranging from moments of joy to the profoundly bittersweet or tragic. The characters feel so genuine that we really empathize with all of them. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, particularly the shots of nature around the family’s remote mountain home. There are some images that I wouldn’t mind hanging on my wall.

The ending is sure to divide people, but I personally thought it was excellent. It tied together many of the themes present in the film, and I thought it was a moving finale.

14. Before Midnight


The third installment in Richard Linklater’s Before series, Before Midnight meets up with Jesse and Celine roughly one decade after the second film. We’re immediately shown the consequences of Jesse missing his flight and choosing to leave his wife for Celine. The opening sequence takes place in a Greek airport, where Jesse begrudgingly parts with his son. The opening shows that this third installment isn’t going to shy away from showing the repercussions of the life decisions that each have made, and the rest of the story follows suit. This is certainly the most volatile and challenging of the three movies, and there are times when it takes some dark turns that the other films do not.

In a sense, this is a cautionary tale about love. We know the depths of compassion in this relationship and have seen them play out at their best. But given a long enough timeline nearly every relationship encounters turbulence. To see such a loving couple encounter many of the same hardships that lesser romances run into is humbling, but it’s also essential. It’s almost unheard of for relationships to span so much time without running into these kinds of problems, so when it occurs in Before Midnight it doesn’t seem as though it’s an excuse to insert drama. It feels like a natural byproduct of the couple’s time together and the logistical sacrifices they’ve made in their marriage.

Part of what makes this film effective is in knowing what came before it. It’s nearly impossible to discuss or evaluate Before Midnight without having seen the prior films and putting it in its proper context. We’ve seen their intimacy unfold over the course of several decades, and in this installment we see verbal drama play out that feels troubling and authentic. Like the previous two films, the clever dialogue transports us into the moment. It’s almost as though we’re engaging in a kind of voyeuristic exercise, hearing private conversations that we’re not sure we ought to be. The film succeeds simply because of this smart dialogue and the captivating performances, which is a bit of a rarity these days. But for those familiar with the trilogy, the quality of the scipt and execution will come as no surprise. This is an installment that absolutely lives up to the first two films, even if its quite different, and it’s one of the most authentic examples of human relationships that I’ve ever seen.

13. Short Term 12


Written and directed by Destin Cretton, Short Term 12 is an encouraging example of what cinema can be. It’s an independent film done without much fanfare or advertising, I had honestly never heard of it until after its release and everyone seemed to to be buzzing about how good it was. After seeing it I have to agree that this is one of the most compassionate and powerful films in recent memory.

The film takes place in a short term facility for troubled teens. Grace and Mason are a romantically involved couple who work together at this facility, though they both seem drawn to it for different reasons. Mason seems to have a very loving and compassionate family upbringing which helped inspire him to make this part of his life’s work. Grace, on the other hand, seems as though she is coming from a very different background and was almost forced into this profession out of sheer desperation. We’re given hints about what might have happened to Grace as a minor, and it helps us to understand just how driven she is to help these children, even if she’s in many ways as troubled and conflicted as they are. Their relationship feels heartfelt in a way that few young relationships are in cinema these days, and the balance struck between their work and personal lives feels authentic.

It’s a sincere portrait of troubled teens and those who devote themselves to making their lives better. John Gallagher turns in a strong performance as Mason, and the child actors (like Lakeith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever) are great compliments. But the real standout here is Brie Larson as Grace, who gives the most noteworthy performance of her career and should now be considered among the best young actresses in modern cinema.

There’s not a single moment in this film that feels false, thanks to a very intelligently crafted script and great acting. I never felt like it was overdoing it or minimizing its subject matter. Short Term 12 aspires to show us the challenges and benefits of social work. There are no easy solutions to the problems these teens face, and the film doesn’t try to tie everything up in a neat bow. However, when I walked away from this movie I did so with a smile on my face. I knew that I’d seen something special and the story made me feel a little bit better about the world. The idea that there are people out there who care so deeply for these children is inspiring.

12. Drug War

drug war

One of the best thrillers I’ve seen in some time, Johnnie To’s Drug War intelligently written and well paced. It doesn’t waste any time getting into the thick of things, choosing to forgo character back story and sentiment. The film begins with a car crash and quickly delves into a double agent plot to bring down a major drug cartel from the inside. It’s just as well, because the intricate web of ulterior motives and betrayals is entertaining enough on its own without any unnecessary flashbacks to a character’s family or their troubled past. Some might look at this as a weakness, but I think that in the context of this film it’s a strength. It’s a lean 107 minutes that’s packed with intrigue and action. It’s a film that knows what it is and what it wants to do.

To’s film is an atmospheric work about the cops and criminals surrounding the Chinese drug trade. It’s a riveting and often subversive look at the Chinese drug trade that’s filled with twists, action set pieces, and tension. The protagonist of the film, a high ranking meth dealer named Timmy Choi, isn’t all that personally endearing. But one of the things I find most interesting about the film is that the law enforcement agents aren’t endearing either. We’re not given cues about who to root for which you might expect. There’s also a considerable amount of fallout in the film, and while a lot of can be pinned on Choi there is a sense in which nobody in the film is blameless. There are no squeaky clean characters in this mess, which is perhaps a commentary on the nature of drug prohibition itself. The collateral damage is the byproduct of overly ambitious drug enforcement as much as the drug trade itself.

Perhaps the only criticism I have of Drug War is that there is a moment where Chinese censorship rears its ugly head. There is a scene where someone is asked to prove themselves by snorting some lines of meth. While it’s considered to be very strong meth, it’s highly unlikely that two lines of crank would render someone incapacitated in the way we see on film. It seems as though Johnnie To had to make some compromises in the film to appeal to government censors and make the drugs seem even worse than necessary. While this is the only thing that stood out to me, I do wonder what else (if anything) had to be altered in the making of this film. That being said, it doesn’t detract much from the overall product, and quite frankly it’s amazing that a film about drugs was allowed to be made at all in China.

11. Blue Is The Warmest Color


Clocking in at three hours, this feels like a romantic epic that spans years of time. Some may wonder whether this length is necessary for a romantic drama, but I would argue that in this case it is. When you really dissect it there doesn’t appear to be anything that is unimportant and the film never drags. According to IMDB there were over 800 hours of footage shot for this film, which is absolutely crazy and makes its running time seem almost constricting in context. Because of its editing and vast scope, it’s almost like we’re watching a series of films unfold in a single sitting.

This is a movie that plays with storytelling in some creative ways. It even breaks the fourth wall in one scene, acknowledging that there’s an aspect to literature that can be unappealing. Knowing too much about a characters thoughts and motivations, Adele argues, is not necessarily a good thing. The mystery that comes from not knowing is sometimes more interesting, because it allows for artistic interpretation. Much of Blue Is The Warmest Color’s screenplay operates on this assumption, as we’re often given very little to go on in terms of what’s happening in the privacy of each character’s mind. This is a stylistic choice that some may consider a fault, while others will embrace it, as Adele would. We’re never given enough information to say anything definitive about each character, which leaves us guessing, just as we would be left wondering in life.

There is something so visceral and real about Blue Is The Warmest Color. There are moments between these young women that feel incredibly intimate, and I’m not just talking about the scenes that you might think I’m talking about. Some of this is due to the quality of the storytelling and direction, but I think most of it comes down to how good these actresses are. Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos give what I consider the best acting performances of the year, regardless of gender. The chemistry that these two display in the film is nothing short of remarkable. I’d go so far as to say that it’s historic, and that we’re unlikely to see this kind of dynamic for years to come.

It’s not going to be an easy watch for a lot of people. It’s at times emotionally devastating, and the film got an NC-17 rating for its lurid content. But it’s such a powerful romantic film that to ignore it for these reasons would be foolish. It’s one of the best love stories I’ve ever seen.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis


The Coens have always been some of the most imaginative and challenging filmmakers of the modern era. With Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s no reason to think they’ve lost any of their edge. Breaking just about every convention imaginable, this film presents a strongly unlikeable but oddly talented musician who is trying to make a name for himself as a folk singer in the early 1960s. If you’re expecting the usual narrative arc of a man who grows as a person and triumphs as a platinum artist, then you’re going to be left sorely disappointed.

Our protagonist is actually a total prick. Not only does he fail at basic life decisions time and again, but he has a stubbornness and mean streak that make him very hard to empathize with. When Jean calls him an asshole there is nothing we can say to argue. While it’s hard not to root for a struggling musician who is the center of this narrative, Llewyn doesn’t give us much else to go on in terms of cheer-leading.This troubled artist is well realized by Oscar Isaac, who I almost didn’t recognize at first from his role in as Standard Gabriel in Refn’s Drive. I don’t recall seeing him in anything else, which coupled with his talent helped me see Llewyn Davis as a unique individual. He’s very well cast for such a role.

It’s worth nothing that the film also has one of the best soundtracks of the year, one I’ve listened to many times since seeing the film. It runs the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow, from one style to the next. Apart from the truly bizarre “Please Mr. Kennedy” song, there seems to be an implied merit to all of these musical numbers regardless of their styles. Songs ranging from ‘Hang me, oh hang me’ to ‘Five hundred miles’ are both worth listening to for different reasons, showing how subjective and diverse the medium can be. It’s fitting that this kind of ambiguity exists in the films soundtrack, which also seems to be present in Lewin Davis’ character and his art. We’re never quite sure what the Coens think of Davis, both as an artist and a human being. There are aspects of his character that are endearing, but we also see his failings in terms of being a selfish and callous man. We see some of the talent he has in terms of his music, but whether he’s considered an overlooked gem is a questionable proposition.

I admire the Coens’ for taking such an unconventional approach, and they’ve crafted a script that is filled with layer and nuance. It may actually be the Coens’ most re-watchable film, which is a heavy compliment considering their body of work. I feel as though I could see this film many times and come away with different impressions and ideas on each subsequent viewing. The ending in particular, which is a further exploration of the film’s opening sequence, is ripe for discussion and interpretation.

9. The Hunt

the hunt

A lot of people will probably go into The Hunt thinking that this is a mystery movie. But Thomas Vinterberg’s film makes it clear from the outset that this isn’t the case. It’s the story a falsely accused man whose life is turned upside down by a random lie. Before the plot of the film kicks in we’re shown about a half hour of Lucas’ life and come to see him as a good man. We also see the circumstances that bring about this lie in full detail, so that when it happens there is no doubt it’s untrue. This makes the charges of child molestation all the more difficult to take, and without the ambiguity the film is able to focus entirely on this modern day witch hunt and the fallout to Lucas’ career and personal life.

Throughout the story we can fully understand each character’s motivation and how they react to the scandal. There is not a film about villains or assigning blame to any one person, though there’s a collective herd mentality that is disturbing. Part of the film is about how eager society can be to condemn someone in the court of public opinion, which is often born out of a twisted appetite to demonize the other as much as it is from moral outrage. There’s one scene that takes place in a grocery store, for instance, where Lucas becomes indignant and refuses to leave. The store clerks take some extreme measures to make it known that they want no part of him, yet Lucas does the best he can to stand his ground.

Mads Mikkelsen has long been one of my favorite actors. In this film I believe that he gives one of the top performances of the year, and it’s a refreshing role for him. We often see him play dark or villainous characters, so to see him portray such a likeable everyman allows us to see the range of his talents. But this central performance is just one of many reasons to see this film. It’s an incredibly engrossing and psychologically disturbing drama. At times the tension can almost feel unbearable, yet the film seems to be arguing that such emotional turmoil is necessary as a thought provoking exercise. It asks tough questions about human nature, and the way it goes about answering them is often brutal.

Oddly enough, I actually was reminded of Rashomon while watching The Hunt. Obviously not in terms of design or storytelling, since the two films are nearly opposite in these respects. But part of what I took away from each film was that it’s always dangerous to make assumptions about the truth. There’s a reason why in legal contexts the burden of proof is on the State, rather than the accused. It may allow for the guilty to go free, but such a system still engulfs innocent men and women. It’s far messier in the court of public opinion, where a man like Lucas might have some chance at avoiding legal repercussion, but has no chance of washing the stain away completely.

8. Spring Breakers

spring breakers

Spring Breakers is a completely insane and wonderful film. Yes, it’s indulgent and funny, but Harmony Korine also infuses dark and melancholic tones into the film. It comes across as a sincere depiction of youth culture taken to the absolute extreme. Yet Korine seems to simultaneously revel in this stuff while also offering a cautionary message about the dangers of unbridled excess. It’s not hard to see why the film was so widely misunderstood or so controversial among critics and audiences. Nobody said it better than the man himself. In an interview with the New York Post, Korine said “I make a specific type of film, and it goes hard. It’s not always for everyone.”

The film features my favorite performance by an actor last year. James Franco’s Alien probably wasn’t destined to get the awards recognition he deserved, due to the film’s lurid content, mixed reviews, and Korine’s reputation (his last film was called Trash Humpers). But this character is so impeccably acted by Franco that I was mesmerized every second he was on screen. Rarely have I seen anyone transform so completely into a role. And while it doesn’t hurt that the script and makeup crew gave him a lot of help, complete with the ever quotable ‘Look at my S**t’ monologue, it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off such a chameleon role the way Franco did here.

Spring Breakers features my favorite scene of the year, too. There is a montage sequence set to Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime’ which is one of the most surreal and captivating things I’ve ever seen in a movie. I had to laugh a little when I first saw it, because there was such a profound sense of ‘what am I watching right now?’. Even after seeing this scene countless times it still resonates with me and hasn’t lost its edge. The sequence, like much of the rest of the film, is an odd combination of satire and sincerity. While the song is undeniably kitsch and the activities witnessed are clearly over the top, there is also a hallucinogenic beauty to it all.

One of the great things about Harmony Korine’s latest film is that it managed to sneak up on audiences. Not only was the film hailed as one of the year’s best by film enthusiasts, but it was also decried as ‘the worst party movie ever’ and one of the worst films of all time by many who saw it in theaters. I have to admit that seeing people getting tricked into watching art films can be a lot of fun by itself. Some young people at my screening walked out of Spring Breakers with their brains completely scrambled, probably anticipating a fun excursion like Project X, but instead seeing something more reminiscent of Godard.

Spring break forever, bitches!

7. The Great Beauty


Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty is a film that pays homage to classics of Italian cinema. There are obvious nods to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for instance. While it takes inspiration from its predecessors it is also very much about modern day Rome. Sorrentino has said that he wanted to show the juxtaposition of the city’s proud history and culture with the vapid decadence of a post-Berlusconi Rome. But even for those with no knowledge of Fellini’s work or modern Roman culture, this is a film that is exceptionally captivating all the same.

It’s impossible to see the sights and monuments without in some way comparing yourself to the majesty of what came before you. Yet the film’s protagonist, despite achieving financial success and his life’s goal, seems to feel as though his life is missing something important. He hasn’t written another book in over forty years, and the news that one of his lovers from his youth passed away suddenly causes him to evaluate how he’s been living. Jep Gambardella came to Rome at a young age with the goal of becoming not just the life of the party, but to have the ability to make parties a failure. As an older man he achieved this goal a long time ago, yet now that he’s close to the end of his life and seems to look back and wonder whether there was a point to it all. He surrounds himself with like-minded individuals who are, like him, spiritually bankrupt. He and those in his circle consistently party all night long and sleep all day, caught in a never ending cycle of indulgence as the time fades away.

However, the film is not as nostalgic as you might imagine. It actually brims with energy. Perhaps the most important thing to say about The Great Beauty is that it’s just so much fun to watch. There’s a lot in here to dissect if you want to delve into it, but the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s more of an emotional film than a cerebral one. It plays with the viewer’s expectations and emotions, switching from poignancy to frivolity on a dime, sometimes transitioning from a high class party to the tranquil beauty of an abandoned museum or going from a series of jokes to a crushing insult. The opening sequence of the film shows a tranquil scene of tourists taking in the sights as choir music echoes from a nearby building, and then we’re immediately taken to a rooftop party to end all parties as electronic music blares loudly amidst the chaos. It’s easy to fall under the movie’s spell as we’re shown these incredible shots and sequences, accompanied by one of the best soundtracks of the year. Some may contend that the film is more style than substance, and while the film traverses some very familiar territory about the unexamined life it does so in such a beautiful and imaginative way. When the style is this good, I’ll take it.

6. Stoker


I probably won’t get a lot of people to agree with me on Chan Wook Park’s Stoker, but I think it’s a fantastic film. Apart from Oldboy I actually consider this to be Park’s best work. But for everyone who feels the way I do (and I have met some people who think this is the best film of the year) there are dozens who range from thinking it’s merely OK or even not that good. I think a lot of this comes down to the film’s unconventional style and execution, opting for mysterious circumstances and a foreboding sense of dread while most films would have a more coherent narrative with a rooting interest.

While I’d like to talk about some of the things I love about this movie, it’s simply not possible to do so without delving into spoiler territory. So much of the film plays with misdirection and intrigue. Even basic scenes are filmed in such a way as to confuse the viewer, only tying things together towards the end of the sequence and showing you what’s really happening. Much of the same could be said about the movie as a whole, which keeps you guessing about what’s going on inside the privacy of these characters’ minds until the final act. There are even moments where the cinematography is doing the same thing, like a brush combing long hair that slowly fades into a field that looks the same. While this all may sound reminiscent of bad twist endings, Stoker does it a little differently, only giving you enough information to get by. When we learn what’s really going on with the people in the film these aren’t really twists as much as they are reveals. Once the closing credits role, everything that preceded them begins to make perfect sense. Watching the film a second time is recommended, because it allows us to revisit these scenes with a brand new understanding. Seeing Stoker again was almost like watching a different movie, and I loved that.

Park really outdid himself with his use of style and mood. It’s the presentation of the story that makes this gothic thriller work. The film is just so eerie and intriguing, yet it’s also so well shot and edited that it goes by at a rapid pace. I was captivated from the word go, and was on the edge of my seat as this dark and creepy film unfolded. When the ending finally came I knew I’d seen something uniquely great. It’s a film I’ve seen multiple times already and look forward to watching again.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street


There were a lot of films that came out last year that dealt with the unexamined life. Three of them are even here on my top ten list. But none of those other films were quite as good as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. This is arguably my favorite Scorsese film, and it showcases both him and Leonardo DiCaprio in rare form.

First of all, I think it’s important to say what The Wolf of Wall Street is and isn’t. Does the film offer some profound insight into the world of business ethics or the nature of capitalism? No, it does not. Despite all the monologues and its epic running time, this is not a film that’s going to give audiences any better understanding of financial markets or change someone’s political worldview. The film seems to be self aware of this much of the time, including one sequence where Belfort speaks directly to the audience about an Initial Public Offering taking place. Instead of finish with this basic bit of information about what an IPO is, he cuts off halfway and jokes to the audience that they probably don’t care anyway. “The real question” he asks “is was all this legal? Absolutely ****ing not!”

So if that’s the case, what makes this epic film about crooked brokers so good? Quite simply, this is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in years and it’s the funniest of 2013 by far. It’s incredibly well acted, edited, scripted, and shot. Despite its length, there is never a dull moment in here. It honestly may be the quickest three hours I’ve ever sat through in the cinema. Some of these scenes (like the boat sequence or the lemmons incident) are destined to become some of the more infamous moments of 2013. Nearly everything about this wild ride is handled brilliantly, so I have no doubt that this one is going to be quoted and talked about for the rest of my life.

Many of the initial reactions to Scorsese’s latest have been critical. Some have cited that the film isn’t very deep, which I would agree with but don’t mind. Some have stated that the film’s excessive drug use, sex, and foul language are offensive. I can’t dispute that these elements are in the film, so I would just say that this is not a film to watch with your children or grandparents. Others feel that Belfort and his crew are being idolized, or that this portrayal is an endorsement of their greed and depravity. This I think is misguided. Martin Scorsese has been depicting morally dubious characters in an unapologetic fashion for a long time. Part of what’s great about cinema is its ability to take us into the mindset of other people. By showing the film entirely from Belfort’s point of view and avoiding much of the collateral damage that’s left in his wake, we’re able to understand what makes him tick and how someone could engage in such activities. As Kathryn Bigelow said in regards to last year’s Zero Dark Thirty “a depiction is not an endorsement”.

4. The Act of Killing


Produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing may be the most unforgettable film I have ever seen. That’s not something that I say lightly, but this is a documentary so shocking and so bizarre that many of its scenes will be etched into my memory for all time. Forty years from now I will still be able to vividly recall the waterfall scene, the giant fish with its dancing girls, the tears of those shaken by acting out the parts of the victims, and the look on Anwar’s face as he watches his own performance.

The film itself is a testament to the confrontational power of cinema. These Indonesian executioners took part in a genocide in the 1960s, purging communists, communist sympathizers, intellectuals etc. in a wave of violence that claimed at least one million lives. But the political infrastructure that was responsible for these atrocities is still in place to this day. Men like Anwar Congo did not have to go into hiding or repent for their mass murder, in fact, many still treat them as national heroes. They are not remorseful for what they have done, even though these men executed people in mass numbers. Oppenheimer gives them the tools to tell their story through a movie, and the documentary follows these men on their journey as they go about constructing this motion picture, eager to tell their story to the world.

The Act of Killing deals with a some familiar subject matter, like the banality of evil. But a lot of this film is simply unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and asks some unique questions that don’t have easy answers. Is it possible to commit such unspeakable crimes and suffer no penalty for them? And this is not necessarily penalty in terms of legal consequences or retribution, but even if you’re never ostracized or dragged to the Hague to stand trial, can you really just walk away from so much killing and remain psychologically stable as a person? Some of the men in this documentary seem to rationalize their actions to the point where they claim they’ve never had nightmares or regrets. Others, like Herman, almost appear incapable of empathy to great extent, but Anwar Congo seems to have moments where you can sense he is struggling to come to grips with it all. There’s plenty of room for debate here when it comes to neuroscience, nature vs nurture, and the concept of karma. But one of the more intriguing aspects for me was that while Adi appears not to be remorseful, someone like Anwar does seem troubled. Anwar’s reaction is born out of what we would define as healthy emotions, but is he better off for it? A person like Adi may never have to suffer these mental consequences, while Anwar will probably be haunted by nightmares and emotional turmoil for the rest of his life.

There are quite a few moments in here that are so stunning and surreal. Many of the cinematic choices made by these former executioners are audacious and flabbergasting. And by the end of it all, it’s difficult to say what lessons might have been learned. Joshua Oppenheimer is optimistic that this documentary will help to challenge people and educate them, perhaps making the world a better place in the end. But producer Errol Morris is more cynical. He feels that despite how provocative and interesting the exercise is, in the end we learn nothing.

3. Her


Spike Jonze’s Her is a science fiction story set in the not so distant future. In this reality, people are more intertwined with technology, and new software aims to become the world’s first fully personal operating system. Through user customization, the OS1 becomes a unique artificial intelligence that caters itself to the user’s personality. Yet the AI is so advanced that it’s difficult to distinguish whether the software coding is any different from our DNA, and if there is something like a soul there it would be possible to fall in love with that AI, which people begin to do. Our protagonist, Theodore Twombly, is one of these people.

The premise for Her may seem outlandish, but it doesn’t feel this way when you’re watching it. Much of this is due to the quality of the performances and how intelligently written the screenplay is. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha feels emotionally authentic. You can understand why Theodore would fall in love with her/it, and a lot of people in this futuristic world seem to feel the same way. There is a social stigma attached to dating an OS in this world, but a lot of people seem to be supportive and even curious about what it would be like to take part in that kind of relationship.

What I actually find most interesting about Her are the philosophical questions it raises about ‘reality’ and how we define real experience. Throughout the film we’re constantly reminded about this conflict between the real and the unreal. In one scene, Amy shows a documentary she’s working on about sleep. Nobody seems to understand why there’s such a long take of her mother lying unconscious, but Amy insists that it’s worth seeing and thinking about because “we spend a third of our lives asleep”. In another scene, Samantha tells Theodore that the past is essentially not real and that it’s “just a story we tell ourselves”. Theodore’s place of work involves him forging letters that come out of a printer as though they were handwritten in cursive, and while the quality of his writing is considered to be very good, should it matter to the emotionally satisfied father/lover/etc. that the letter was written by a complete stranger? Even the elevator in his building has a black and white image of a forest moving through the backdrop, creating the pleasant but false illusion of the natural world.

Consider how much of our own lives are consumed with unreal activities. Whether we’re sleeping / dreaming, watching movies or television, reading literature, playing video games, spending time on our smartphones or computers, spending time lost in thought etc. we start to realize that for many of us the unreal actually exceeds what many of us would define as real experience. But how do we define real experience and what makes it inherently more valuable? With Her’s hyper connected digital world and central relationship between man and machine, the film seems to be challenging us to ask how far is too far? At what point does the unreal start to become too intrusive, becoming a dystopian nightmare? Some will find Theodore and Samantha’s relationship to be sweet and wonderful, while others will see it as unnatural and frightening.

2. Gravity


It’s often said that literature is a superior medium to film. There’s a strong case to be made here, because the written word can do things that movies can’t do. A brilliant writer like Leo Tolstoy can reveal subconscious truths about characters or offer profound insight into their private thoughts, allowing for a richness of detail that doesn’t translate into moving pictures and sound. That being said, cinema can do things that the written word cannot. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, we’re given one of the best representations of this in movie history. Gravity may not be an intellectually challenging film, but it’s an astounding sensory experience.

Nearly everything in this ninety minute adventure is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in cinema. When Cuaron first expressed a desire to make this film the technology to do so hadn’t been invented yet, so he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had to wait four and a half years from the time the screenplay was finished until the final product was completed. The project was so ridiculously ambitious that there were times when they would be working on scenes with no idea what they would look like, so they simply had to have faith that it would somehow work in the end. Thankfully, all that patience and hard work paid off, because the end result was unlike anything ever seen in movie history. The cinematography may not appease purists, but there are long takes in here that are so and give us such a vicarious sense of dread and excitement. Every technical aspect of the film from the sound design to the special effects are superb, and help to further the willing suspension of disbelief.

While this will inevitably be compared to some of the all-time great science fiction films, it should be noted that Gravity is not a film of ideas in the way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is. The film does have some rather obvious symbolism about life, death, and man’s place in the cosmos. But this is a screenplay that has more in common with Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s not a complicated story, and it doesn’t have to be in order to be scary or effective. The Cuarons know that a simple story about the struggle to survive is all that’s needed here. Other than one or two lines of clunky dialogue, I really love this screenplay coupled with its execution. I was so invested in what was going on at every turn, and it had more of an emotional impact on me than just about anything I saw all year. We’re thrown into the plot right away and the tension rarely lets go until the film’s stunning climax.

Gravity is a film that demands to be seen on the biggest, best display possible with the nicest speakers you can find. After I saw it in IMAX I knew that I was going to have to return time and time again to get the full 3D experience in that setting. It’s rare that we get to experience anything like this in the theater, so when the opportunity presented itself I wasn’t going to let it slip away.

1. Let the Fire Burn


Let The Fire Burn covers the disaster of May 13th, 1985 in the city of Philadelphia. Years of escalation between city government and a small urban group known as MOVE resulted in a deadly confrontation. The assault on the house was of such a scale that residents within the surrounding neighborhood were ordered to evacuate their homes before it began. The headquarters of the MOVE organization was then surrounded by scores of police officers who were armed with automatic rifles, helicopters, and military grade aerial explosives. By the time the conflict had ended, over 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired on the fortified house, a bomb had been dropped on the roof which caught fire, eleven people had died, and due to an order to ‘let the fire burn’ the flame spread until 61 row-houses were destroyed.

How did the unthinkable become reality? Jason Osder’s documentary attempts to answer this question by piecing together archival footage from that time period, including a hearing panel that was set up to investigate how things escalated to this point. The crackling footage is edited together so brilliantly, it feels tense and visceral even three decades later. The film is often heartbreaking to watch, but this is not an advocacy film. Osder is only interested in showing us how things progressed on both sides of this conflict over an extended period of time. In doing so, we start to see how nearly everyone has a legitimate argument to make. This is a story that is filled with moral complexities, so that even when we disagree with an action taken by MOVE or the Police we can at least understand why they did it. All we can do is watch and listen as a tragedy born of stubbornness and ideology unfolds before our eyes. The film is almost a microcosm of how communication can break down between groups, or how countries go to war with each other.

One of the more amazing things about this story is how little it’s talked about or remembered. I’m a Philadelphia resident and I was surprised to learn that many people had never heard of the time the city bombed MOVE. Yet for those that do remember, the stains of the past are still relevant today. You can go to Osage avenue and see the area that was attacked. Although there is nothing to indicate the significance of the location, no plaque commemorating the eleven lives that were lost on that day, the evidence of that disaster is still there. The homes that burned down were hastily rebuilt by the city, but the area was largely neglected by local government and the city residents. Walking through that part of the city today is eerie. Almost nobody lives there, and the experience of being there is almost like visiting a ghost town. The tragedy still lingers in that area, a stain on the city’s past.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about this documentary and the incident involving MOVE came from a clergyman who spoke on the hearing panel. He reminded everyone what this story was about and why the investigation into the events was worthwhile. In the heat of such anger and procedure, he said, it’s easy to forget that the person on the other side of the conflict is a human being.

My Top 50 Movies of 2012

Honorable Mentions:

Anna Karenina
The Hunter
Middle of Nowhere
Sleepwalk With Me
The Impossible
Seven Psychopaths
The Innkeepers
21 Jump Street
Monsieur Lazhar
Wreck-It Ralph
Hara Kiri: Death Of A Samurai
Turn Me On, Dammit!
Magic Mike

50. Life Of Pi

Life Of Pi is arguably the most beautiful of the year, making excellent use of 3D technology and CGI effects. There are many occasions where I was in awe of this film’s gorgeous shots, though the scene I’ve selected above is probably my favorite. The visuals alone make this a compelling film to sit and watch, but it also manages to tell a compelling story, succeeding where many 3D spectacles fall short. As a survival tale the film is captivating and vicariously exhausting (which is a good thing for a film depicting 200+ days at sea).

It may be flawed, but Ang Lee’s film is far more thoughtful and artistic than what we’d normally get from a Hollywood blockbuster. Fortunately, it stays true to its source material. The film pulls no punches when it comes to the harsh realities of nature, and the ending retains the dark twist found in the book.

It may not be the most profound comment on religion and it does oversimplify the faith vs reason dynamic. But I think that the message of the film is one that I can get behind, even though I’m personally not religious. It is addressing why many people choose to believe in something. In some ways the point of this film is similar to that of Pan’s Labyrinth, though I feel that film made its case for belief in a more compelling and profound way. I acknowledge that there are times where the literal or scientific view is an unpleasant alternative to faith.

49. The Deep Blue Sea
The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies’ film adaptation sets a nostalgic mood with post war London for this tale of tragic passion. Beautifully photographed and well cast, this film version of the famous play manages to avoid sliding off the rails into excessive melodrama. The story is certainly not uplifting, but it has a ring of truth to it about broken hearts as well as the difference between physical passion and sincere affection. Hester is unable to give her heart to her husband, though his love for her is genuine. Her heart wants someone else, so we watch as she spirals downward, unable to pry herself from infatuation and lust.

One excellent scene that stands out in my mind is the flashback to the subway during the bombing of London. Through a long take that spans a great distance of the subway and its patrons, huddled beside each other with lanterns and coats, we listen to the Irish folk song Molly Malone. The song is led by a man at the far end of the subway, his voice echoing through the tube as others gently echo the lyrics of the song. This was one of the most memorable scenes of the year and the highlight of the film, in my opinion.

Tom Hiddleston and Simon Beale give strong performances but the real standout is Rachel Weisz, who gives a fantastic and heartbreaking portrayal of Hester. You could argue that she gives the best female performance of the year.

48. Argo

Ben Affleck’s Argo has been raking in the awards this season and the film looks poised to win the Academy Award for best picture, even without the director nod.

I’m not as high on Argo as a lot of award shows seem to be, but I can’t deny that this is a well crafted historical thriller. Based on an amazing true story that was unknown to the public for decades, this film chronicles the efforts to rescue six Americans during the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck’s film blends Hollywood schlock with high stakes tension. It has scenes that range from edge of your seat anticipation to laugh out loud humor. If you’re looking for profundity or political insight then Argo may leave you disappointed, but if you are looking for an engaging two hours at the movies then this one will not disappoint.

Oddly enough, the weakest part of Argo may be Ben Affleck’s acting. It’s a shame that he couldn’t have cast someone else in the lead role, since he clearly has talent as a director but was fairly wooden and unimpressive as an actor here. It’s not as though he’s so bad that it sabotages the film, but it would have been better if he had cast someone else in the role.

47. Smashed

Most movie patrons skipped this film in favor of Flight, though James Pondolst’s Smashed is a far superior film about alcoholism. It’s a movie about addiction and the road to recovery, but it is free of a lot of the cliches and melodrama that you might expect. The film actually paints a fairly nuanced and honest portrait of how difficult it can be to overcome such an addiction, and how sobriety might not magically solve all of your problems.

Aaron Paul and Mary Elizabeth Winstead portray a couple who clearly care for one another, but whose bonds are severely tested by Kate’s desire to stop drinking. Their marriage is based on love, but it is a relationship rooted strongly in their alcoholism. This among other factors make the path to sobriety a challenging one for Kate and we’re often left wondering if it has all been worth it, given the amount of hurdles she endures along the way.

While this film has a lot going for it as a story about substance addiction, the true strength of this film is Winstead. She gives one of the best performances of 2012 in this film, and while I’ve always been a fan of hers I honestly didn’t know she was this talented until I saw her portrayal of Kate.


Takeshi Koike’s Redline is a seven year project may not be high art, but it’s an out of control adrenaline jolt that features great animation and a pounding electronic soundtrack. The storyline doesn’t break new ground or defy convention, and while it may be a bit cheesy at times it’s never boring and manages to put a smile on your face.

If anyone has ever played futuristic racing games like F-Zero or Wipeout then they might have some idea what to expect from this film’s races (though these cars have wheels). Cars are modded with all kinds of weapons and features and the vehicles move at breakneck speed. The film starts off with an intense race sequence, with the expectation that this is just the beginning of the madness to come. As we follow JP on his journey to the dangerous Redline tournament, the race sequences that follow do not disappoint.

The presentation is larger than life and the film creates such an imaginative sci-fi universe as the backdrop for these high stakes races that I wish we’d had more than 100 minutes to take it all in. Perhaps sequels and spinoffs might be in the works? I’d definitely be interested in watching them.

45. It’s Such A Beautiful Day

It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a feature Hertzfeldt completed in three parts over the course of five years. It is comprised almost entirely of basic stick figure animation and the main character is only distinguishable from others due to his hat. But don’t let the stick figure animation fool you. This is a film that is emotionally complex and philosophically rich.

One of the strengths of this film is its unique use of the narrator. The narration of the film does a great job of capturing the inner voice of Bill, allowing the viewer to glimpse into the mind of the character in ways that we often only get through works of literature. Our protagonist suffers from mental and physical illnesses which is never fully explained, though there are hints of family issues with schizophrenia coupled with hallucinations. While this kind of inner voice can be neurotic and cloying at times, it is a vivid account of this man’s experiences through his trials and tribulations.

The ending of this film takes an unexpected and beautiful turn that I did not see coming. One of my favorite sequences of the year, the conclusion of this film left me in a state of reflective appreciation, contemplating my own mortality.

44. The Kid With A Bike

The Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike is an inspirational film about random acts of kindness, but it certainly doesn’t take an easy path to get there. Normally we’d be inclined to be sympathetic towards a young boy who has been abandoned by his father, though in this film that kid is ill-behaved, ungrateful, and intensely disobedient. This makes our affection for him something born out of appreciation for his unfortunate circumstance, rather than a relationship dynamic that pulls at the heartstrings in the usual way. Still, there is a bit of the film’s young protagonist, Cyril, in every childhood. His behavior rings true in ways that are painful to recollect but it reminds us of our own youthful imperfections.

The Kid With A Bike deals with the inherent complexities of peoples’ inner thoughts and motivations. Amidst these complexities one simple truth is made clear; people need genuine human connection to feel whole. A meaningful parental relationship can have a transforming impact on one’s state of mind. It plays a pivotal in shaping how children mature and it can be just as valuable for the adult.

43. Rust And Bone

One of the most defiantly optimistic films I’ve seen in recent memory. Jacques Audiard’s latest work may not be on the same level as Grand Prix recipient A Prophet, but I found it to be poignant and emotionally satisfying. It also doesn’t hurt that Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give great performances, reminding us that they are among the best in the industry.

Rust And Bone is devoid of pity, despite the seemingly miserable circumstances that one might get from a plot synopsis. It would have been easy for the director or the leads to overplay their hand and give in to excessive emotion or sentimentality. Thankfully, the film is able to juggle its difficult subject matter and maintain a triumphant vibe. It’s worth noting that some viewers did not find this to be the case for whatever reason, and while I disagree with those people this remains one of the more polarizing films of 2012 among viewers. The film did receive an impressive number of festival awards and it got mostly positive reception from critics, but Audiard is clearly not a director for everyone.

This is a film with a worldview that I agree with and I feel that it makes a strong case for resiliency in the face of adversity. While not every event in life can be overcome, many things that may seem tragic on the surface do not prevent us from living a fulfilling life and can even give way to new opportunity.

42. Killer Joe

William Friedkin’s Killer Joe is a truly bizarre NC-17 noir.

Matthew McConaughey is in his element here, turning in an commanding performance that inspires menace and intrigue. His morally reprehensible character fits right in with a cast full of vile cretins, each of them willing to do despicable things to advance their own self interest. The only true innocent in this film may be Dottie, played by Juno Temple, an enigmatic and dreamlike young woman who glides through the film on a separate wavelength altogether.

While the rest of the film is good, no synopsis or review of Killer Joe would be complete without mentioning the ending. I will spare you details in case you haven’t witnessed it, but I will say that the ending of this film is one of the most insane and strangely satisfying conclusions I’ve ever seen. When the end credits came up on the screen I burst out laughing. I admire the hell out of any film willing to pull off such a crazy finale.

I imagine that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re in the mood for a depraved, funny, and imaginative film then I highly recommend this one.

41. Tabu

Tabu is unique in a lot of ways. Miguel Gomes employs black-and-white imagery and a 4:3 aspect ratio, paying tribute to a bygone era of cinema. These archaic techniques are not just for show. They also tie in to the film’s themes of memory, lost youth, and nostalgia. In addition, Tabu blends verbal storytelling techniques with cinematic execution. For instance, we’re often watching a conversation where the participants are talking to one another, but we cannot hear what they’re saying. Instead, we only hear the storyteller recounting the events. It’s as though we are watching our imagination on screen and the real story is being conveyed orally.

Tabu is a story split into two parts. The first half is set in Lisbon in the present day, while the second half is set in Africa several decades earlier. An elderly woman named Aurora appears to lead an uninteresting life in Lisbon, but after a pivotal event in the film we begin to hear accounts of her life in Africa and learn that she led a very exciting past. What follows is a fascinating tale of a bold huntress and her dangerous love affair with a man named Ventura. I won’t give too much away in this review, but it’s worth noting that the film is not what it appears to be at first glance.

The film is deeply nostalgic. By juxtaposing the past and present day, we can see the joys and tragedies involved in looking back at days gone by. We’re left a sense of eager longing for the past, but also notions of painful regret and thoughts of what might have been.

Speaking of memories, much in the same way that I can’t hear ‘The Mamas And Papas – California Dreaming’ without thinking of Chungking Express I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to hear ‘The Ronettes – Be My Baby’ (covered in the film by Les Surfs) without remembering Tabu.

40. A Simple Life

Ann Hui’s A Simple Life is a simple and compassionate film. It doesn’t have bold ambitions or sexy plot twists. This is not a tearjerker or an overly sentimental production. This is merely the portrait of a human being.

That portrait is of an elderly woman who has played the role of servant for the Leung family since she was a teenager. After sixty years of service, Chung Chun-Tao now finds herself in the position of being cared for by Roger, the one person of the family who still resides in Hong Kong. After suffering a stroke, Chung Chun-Tao decides that she would prefer to retire and live out her remaining days at a nursing home. Roger helps oblige her and does his best to look after her and see that she is well taken care of.

The film be straightforward, but it is emotionally resonate and deeply human. Through small acts of kindness and anecdotal accounts we begin to appreciate who Chung is and how she has managed to leave an indelible impression on those around her. That impression is strongly felt by the audience when the credits come on screen.

39. The Cabin In The Woods

A playful melding of genres, Cabin In The Woods is to horror films what Space Balls is to science fiction. Anyone expecting genuine tension or scares might be disappointed with this one, since the film is firmly established in the horror/comedy genre with an emphasis on comedy.

Joss Whedon’s quirky style might not lend itself to all subject matter, but it works like gangbusters here. Taking a page out of the Sam Raimi and Wes Craven playbooks, among others, this twisted story of a cabin vacation gone horribly wrong is one of the most imaginative and enjoyable mash ups to come around in a long time. This is a film that that simultaneously utilizes and pays homage to many different genre tropes. Not only does Cabin take its inspiration from a lot of classic sources, it also manages to come up with new twists on an old genre. This level of creativity and meta humor really elevate this film and make it one of the year’s best.

38. In Darkness

Based on a true story set in Nazi occupied Poland, In Darkness tells the tale of a sewer worker and thief who one day encounters a group of Jews fleeing the liquidation of the ghetto. Using his knowledge of the sewers he agrees to hide them underground for a considerable fee. Leopold Socha isn’t exactly your hero archetype, but he is a man that sees the potential benefits of such a scheme and he is adaptable to his circumstances.

Agnieszka Holland’s film is suspenseful and morally challenging. It can also be tough to watch. Much of the film takes place in a cold, rank, and claustrophobic sewer system. Given the considerable run time, we begin to feel the effects of this prolonged isolation and paranoia. There is a real sense of disorientation once the film ends.

While it will remind people of other holocaust themed atrocities in film, In Darkness sets itself apart with its unique circumstances, an intensely personal connection with its victims, and an unlikely protagonist who must face morally dicey decisions along the way that have bad and worse outcomes. It’s a deeply unpleasant film, but one that also has glimpses of hope and a defiant nature.

37. I Wish

A film written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, I Wish is a beautiful portrait of the world through the eyes of children. It’s a coming of age film that flows with a relaxed pace, in tune to the wonders of everyday life and childhood imagination. It is a rare treat for a film to capture the experience of youth in such a natural way. I’m not sure if the pacing of this film would work for young children, but adults will certainly appreciate what Koreeda has accomplished here.

The grandparents in the film become discouraged that one of their favorite candies, karukan cake, is no longer easy to find. So they set out to make their own batch so that they can enjoy this delicacy that they were once so fond of in their youth. The children of the modern day, however, don’t seem as impressed with the cake’s lightly sweet flavor. But the subtle flavor of the cake begins to grow on the older brother Goichi, even if his younger sibling can’t appreciate it yet. In many ways the film itself resembles the karukan cake. It is a simple and delicate film, sweet but not cloyingly so. It is easy to lose sight of a gem like this in a world filled with loud blockbusters and more sensationalized drama. But for those of us willing to take the time to let a film like I Wish work its magic, we are rewarded with something special.

36. Oslo, August 31st

There were quite a few movies about substance addiction in 2012, but none were better than Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st.

The film follows a suicidal addict named Anders who has been released from rehabilitation to attend a job interview. Along the way he meets old friends, acquaintances, potential colleagues, and strangers. In one particularly striking scene at a cafe, we hear Anders overhearing the conversations of many different strangers as their discussions range from the deeply personal to trivial joviality. The juxtaposition of this ever moving world and our troubled protagonist is haunting.

Oslo never comes off as preachy, nor does it even claim to have some deep insight into the nature of addiction and how it can be overcome. We see a man faced with many paths that he may or may not choose to follow. Every moment presents new opportunities for Anders, but we are ever mindful of his disease and we’re often left discouraged at the decisions he makes. It is easy to second guess Anders at every step, but despite his poor judgment we can’t help but feel for him. The film is ultimately a deeply empathetic vision of addiction and the toll it can take on a person’s life.

35. Footnote

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnic are Talmudic scholars who have devoted their lives to their profession. The father, Eliezer, has been largely forgotten in the academic community. The son, Uriel, is considered one of the most important and influential professors alive. But the tables turn one day when Eliezer receives a phone call informing him that he has been chosen to receive the Israel Prize, the most coveted award that one can aspire to. Eliezer is overjoyed that he is finally getting the recognition he believes he deserves. There’s just one problem… Eliezer was phoned by mistake due to a clerical error with the last names being the same. Uriel is informed of the mix up behind closed doors, but how can he claim the prize for himself when doing so would be devastating to his father?

You don’t have to know much about Judaism or academia to appreciate this thoughtful human drama. Joseph Cedar (who wrote and directed) is mainly concerned with the father son dynamic and the tricky ethical issues that stem from the film’s premise. The film pokes fun at the ego-maniacal world of academics, but it’s also a challenging morality tale that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that the final shot of this film is one of the more unforgettable of the year.

34. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi

Jiro Ono is 85 years old and runs Sukiyabashi Jiro, a ten seat sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite this meager setup, his is the first sushi restaurant to ever be awarded a Michelin 3-star rating and Jiro is considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef.

Even if you don’t care for the cuisine, this is a thought provoking film about a man’s love/obsession with his work. In many ways this is an inspirational documentary, because it illustrates just how much you can accomplish through hard work and dedication to your craft. Something as basic looking as sushi is richly complex and demanding if you are trying to be the best in the world at it. Jiro understands this and has been working tirelessly at it since he was a young boy. However, there are moments in the film where you wonder whether Jiro is a cautionary tale about workaholics. In one recounted story we hear about his young children running to their mother in fear because there was a “strange man in the house”. Jiro had come home early that night from work, which was exceedingly rare, and his sons did not recognize their own father.

I believe that anything worth doing is worth doing well, but while I can appreciate Jiro’s mastery of sushi I do not feel that his level of dedication is healthy. In this way the film serves as an insight into the viewer because you’ll walk away from this film with awe or concern, and possibly both. I believe there is a balance to be struck between one’s work and personal life. Trying to figure out how to draw that line is different for everyone. This is the kind of film that will encourage serious reflection on that topic and should provide for some interesting conversation.

33. The Dark Knight Returns (full)

Based on the 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller, this two part animated recreation brings the famous story to life on screen.

For those who aren’t familiar with the premise, the story begins with Batman retired for a decade after the government banned superhero activity. But the disappearance of Harvey Dent and the ongoing brutality of the mutant gang begin to force Bruce’s hand and he decides to resume doing what he does best. From these meager beginnings the story starts to branch out in a lot of different directions. The result is an incredibly fast paced film that spans multiple plot threads that include Two Face, a Mutant gang, the Joker, and even Superman. Oh, and there’s even a young girl named Kelley who plays the part of Robin. As you might imagine, there isn’t a lot of time to catch your breath.

Jay Oliva directed the film and has worked on the storyboards Batman: Under The Red Hood as well as Batman: Year One. Several other Batman veterans were involved in the making of the film, and you can tell that this was a project handled with loving care and one that respects its source material. The result is a gritty, violent, and epic conclusion to the Batman legacy. If you’re even remotely interested in this sort of thing then you owe it to yourself to check this out.

32. Barbara

Christian Petzold’s Barbara has intrigue and mystery, but it doesn’t take long to settle in to its basic plot. Barbara, played by the impressive Nina Hoss, is a Berlin doctor who has been banished to a rural East German hospital during the Cold War. She feels out of place and makes no efforts to connect with her colleagues or the environment around her. Already she is scheming of ways to get back to the West and the man she loves, despite constant Stasi surveillance that has her living in a perpetual state of fearful paranoia.

Barbara is not an earth shattering drama, but it’s a very wise and insightful film. The film succeeds at recreating the feel of the rural GDR environment and the culture of fear that the protagonist must endure, but these are not the most important aspects of Barbara. It is at its best when it deals with human connections and moral obligations. The relationship Barbara forges with her colleague, Dr. Andre, is sincere and captivating. Her relationship with her patients reveals a deeply personal side of her that we don’t see initially in the film. All of this builds towards a final act that brings the film to a beautiful and memorable conclusion.

31. The Secret World Of Arrietty

A long time animator for Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi established himself as a visionary director with The Secret World Of Arrietty.

The most noteworthy thing about Arrietty is how beautiful the animation is. I found myself marveling time and time again at just how gorgeous the images were from this imaginative, hand-drawn world. In my opinion this deserves recognition alongside films like Life Of Pi, Prometheus, Skyfall etc. as one of the most visually excellent films of the year. I would strongly recommend watching this on Blu Ray with subtitles for the full immersive effect, assuming you have access to a copy.

Based on the book series ‘The Borrowers’, this is a film that tells a simple story with sincere emotion. I thought that the story was at turns delightful and deeply nostalgic. It left a much stronger impression on me than I was expecting, reminding me of how I felt after walking away from other Ghibli classics like Spirited Away. And while I don’t think it surpasses my favorite Ghibli films, this is a very worthy addition to their cinematic library and my favorite animated movie of 2012.

30. Somewhere Between

I can’t say that I was excited to watch this documentary. I’ve never been too interested in issues of racial identity and cultural heritage. As a Caucasian American descended from Scottish ancestry, I’ve always found it hard to relate to the issue. I did not even bother to visit Scotland when I had the opportunity overseas. So you can imagine my surprise when this documentary about adopted Chinese girls living in the U.S. turned out to be one of the most emotional films of the year.

China implemented the One Child policy in 1979. Since 1989, 150,000 children from China have been adopted around the world. 80,000 of them live in the United States and most of them are girls. Linda Knowlton’s documentary follows four of these teenagers and lets them tell their stories. These girls speak candidly and display a wisdom beyond their years, offering some fascinating insights into how they deal with the notion of being abandoned and how they see themselves in society.

Towards the end of the film one of the girls makes the trip to China and makes an effort to see if she can find her parents through the adoption agency, despite the lack of records and the improbability of success in such a vastly populated country. What follows are some of the saddest and most emotionally gripping scenes I’ve seen in years.

29. Goon

Goon is a violent sports comedy with a surprisingly heartfelt performance from Seann William Scott. The story centers around Doug “The Thug” Glatt, an exceedingly nice but dimwitted guy who gets hired to be an enforcer for a local hockey team. Doug has never played hockey before in his life. In fact, he doesn’t even know how to skate. But he makes a name for himself when a player charges the stands and gets leveled by Doug’s fists.

One of the most interesting things about Goon is that it breaks a usual convention found in sports films. There isn’t a real antagonist anywhere to be found in this movie. Even Doug and his key rival, an aging enforcer named Ross Rhea, share a mutual respect for each other. In one of the film’s best scenes, Doug and Ross Rhea happen upon each other in a diner and Ross talks about how his career is coming to a close. He believes that Doug is his replacement and compliments him on having “the stuff”, even if he doesn’t consider what they do to be hockey. They understand that they’ll have to fight each other at some point, but this is mainly so that Rhea can end his career by giving the fans what they want – a bloody showdown between Ross “the boss” and Doug “the thug”.

Goon is vulgar, exceedingly violent, and often ridiculous. It’s also one of the funniest films I saw all year and it holds up impressively on repeat viewings. It isn’t often that a comedy can have me laughing this loud or this frequently. It can stand on laughs alone, but this one even works as a sports film about team camaraderie and sacrifice.

28. Brooklyn Castle

In Brooklyn school district I.S. 318 the cool kids are the chess players. Despite 65% of the students living below the poverty line, this inner city school has the highest ranked junior high chess program in the United States.

The film takes an unexpected turn when the economic crisis begins to cut severely into the school’s budget. Normally something like field trips to chess tournaments would be considered a non-essential expense and a no-brainer when it came time to make hard cuts. But everyone from the school’s principal, the chess teacher, the parents, and the children themselves sees the value in the chess program and fights to keep it alive. Pobo Efekoro, nicknamed “Pobama” by his classmates, even launches a student presidential campaign with the goal of restoring a million dollars lost in the budget cuts so that the chess tournaments can continue. It’s easy to see why everyone rallies behind this unorthodox goal as a major academic priority. Chess has given this school and these kids so much more than trophies or medals. It’s a program that has helped transform lives and given these young people confidence.

Katie Dellamaggiore’s documentary is an inspirational journey and you really fall in love with the students and teachers along the way. By the end of the film you come to know these characters intimately, because their personalities and their stories are so easy to relate to. It’s one of the most uplifting movies of the year.

27. The Dark Knight Rises

I spent more time thinking about how to rank this film than any other this year. On the one hand it was a great theatrical experience in IMAX and I enjoyed it enough to see it twice in that format. On the other hand, the further removed I get from my initial viewing the more troubled I become by this film’s flaws. I have seen it four times now, which is a testament to the film’s quality but it has also brought me to recognize that this may be Nolan’s messiest film.

Still, this is a film that got a lot of major things right. It has a great cast, gritty atmosphere, solid action sequences, good music, and a real sense of tension that is often lacking in modern day blockbusters. This tension is made possible by a fantastic villain in Tom Hardy’s Bane, who is as menacing as he is formidable. He may not be as mesmerizing as Ledger’s Joker, but he is one of my favorite villains in comic book movie history and he is able to get the better of our protagonist in ways most other hero movies wouldn’t dare.

While I like the ending, I feel that Nolan could have made the last act of this film darker and more daring. I would have preferred if the uplifting reveal at the end had been omitted, since I feel that would have been a historic conclusion and one of the most memorable sequences ever. Ultimately, this final installment may not be the best of the trilogy, but it’s an emotional and thrilling conclusion to a series I’ve grown to love over the years.

Also, Nolan ripped a real plane apart in mid air. That has to count for something, right?

26. Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic dramedy. Juggling heavy subject matter with laughs is a delicate balance but the film manages to pull this off this off and succeeds at both. I appreciate the film’s ambition, since most rom-coms are content to fill their run times with fluff or whimsy. Silver Linings goes to some dark places on occasion, many of which deal with problems of mental illness and depression. The result is a film that feels sincere, even as it consistently uses dark comedy to get laughs. The film does have a tonal shift during its last act that many have criticized, and while I do acknowledge that the later scenes are far more conventional I don’t agree that this is a misstep. I thought that the conclusion managed to tie things together nicely and I left the theater without any major criticisms.

In addition to a a well written script Silver Linings Playbook also boasts a great cast of actors in Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, and Jacki Weaver. All of them do a commendable job, but the real standout here is Jennifer Lawrence, who is exceptional in her role as Tiffany. I was quick to sing her praises as one of the best actresses after her performance in Winter’s Bone, but she was relatively obscure back then. With this and Hunger Games it appears that she has finally arrived as a household name, and I’m happy to see people giving her the respect that she deserves.

Romantic comedies are normally a very weak genre, with countless sub-par titles released each year. A film like Silver Linings Playbook is the exception that proves the rule. We should appreciate it for the rarity that it is.

25. Dredd

It’s hard to understand why Dredd was a box office flop. Perhaps moviegoers associated it with the awful Sylvester Stallone film from the 90s. It’s also possible that the “Dredd 3D” title made viewers cautious, thinking it was another gimmick to squeeze their wallets. Whatever the reason, Dredd lost a considerable amount of money and it’s unlikely that we’ll see any more films set in Mega City One. That’s too bad, because this movie is seriously entertaining.

The basic premise of the film is that Judge Dredd and his rookie sidekick, played by the gorgeous Olivia Thirlby, must fight their way through the slum highrise of Peach Trees. The building is controlled from top to bottom by a brutal gang leader named Ma-Ma who has ordered the judges killed. The gang also manufactures a new drug called Slo-Mo, which makes time seem like it’s passing at one percent of normal speed. If the premise sounds like an excuse to feature a bunch of action sequences, well, it is. If the drug sounds like an excuse to show off the pretty special effects and 3D, you would be correct in assuming that, too. But none of the contrivances seem to matter when you’re watching the film, because Dredd has thrilling action sequences and great eye candy. The film also revels in its self-satire and deadpan humor without compromising its source material.

If you’re looking for philosophical depth then I suggest you look elsewhere. But check out Dredd if you like to indulge in some quality, lowbrow action every now and again. You could do a lot worse.

24. Chasing Ice

The most frightening movie of 2012 is arguably the most important. Chasing Ice chronicles the disappearance of ice caps and glaciers through time lapse video.

The footage was captured by the tireless efforts James Balog and his crew, who had to install and monitor electronic equipment in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. They did it because knew that despite the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, climate change remains a polarizing issue among the general public. So if the scientific community is unable to persuade the electorate through charts and peer reviewed study, perhaps there was a more direct way to show climate change’s real impact on the environment. The video and images they capture are beautiful to behold on the big screen, but they are also wrenching. Watching these glaciers recede over months and years in a matter of seconds or minutes is emotionally devastating.

My only real criticism of this documentary is that it often spends too much time focusing on James Balog’s bum knee or his family. I understand the thinking behind this, because it makes the story more personable and accessible as human interest. I just personally think that with a subject this important (and a run time this brief) that more time could have been devoted to the video images and the science. Those time lapse videos are some of the most astounding sequences I’ve seen at the movies and they’re a testament to the power of moving images.

23. The House I Live In

I admire the hell out of Eugene Jarecki and David Simon. I’m also opposed to drug prohibition and feel that it causes more harm than good on the whole. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that Jarecki’s newest documentary was going to be a critique of the War On Drugs. It’s a hugely ambitious subject to tackle, because the problems it presents are so complex and the amount of critical research involved is daunting. It is also a subject where it can be difficult to persuade people into changing their minds, since it is a sensitive political issue that inspires passionate feeling on both sides of the debate. So does Jarecki succeed at making a great documentary about the drug war? The answer is (for the most part) yes.

The documentary features some impressive guest interviewers, the most notable of whom is David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire. Some of the most fascinating testimonials in the film come from those involved in the system itself. An Iowa U.S District Court judge and an Oklahoma corrections center security chief hold nothing back and give a scathing critique of a system they feel powerless to change, yet find themselves intimately involved with on a regular basis. It’s not hard to see the institutional injustices that are at play or the devastating impact they have had on minorities and the poor.

It’s a remarkably intelligent, well-researched documentary. I just wish that it had been a bit more diplomatic in its approach. There are times where I find myself agreeing with the larger point, but was worried that by using words like “holocaust” many people would respond to that emotional cue unfavorably rather than see the nuanced point being made. Sadly, it appears that some of this did make the film’s points less effective than they could have been.

22. The Day He Arrives

Hong Sang Soo is fond of dividing his films into segments that explore similar circumstances or characters through different vantage points. In The Day He Arrives, we see the story through a filmmaker named Seongjun who spontaneously arrives in Seoul to meet a close friend. We explore his arrival the next day under similar circumstances, as though we were viewing a hypothetical reality. Soo appears to be asking us to think about what the day would have been like if Seongjun had happened to arrive on another day. Despite the seemingly minor variations, we can see that these small differences have a dramatic outcome on the trajectory of the day and the dynamic of human interactions.

Are we witnessing different possibilities of what might have been? Is our protagonist aware of his recurring arrival? It’s difficult to say, but it’s not very important in the end. The film works as a philosophical exercise that has a dry comedic wit. It explores the geometry of human relationships while asking us to reflect on the role of chance and circumstance in our ever day lives. As someone who is skeptical about free will, this was a delightful and thought provoking journey. It’s a shame that this film did very little at the box office and the one copy at my local video rarely gets rented, because this is such a lovely film.

21. The Loved Ones

Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones is a truly demented ride. This Australian oddity blends different genre elements into one extremely violent film that is complete with dark humor and an inventive script. Clearly aspiring to more than torture porn, this is a film that makes unexpected shifts that keep us on the edge of our seats or squeamishly recoiling in shock.

The film is carried in large part by Robin McLeavy’s brilliant performance. She plays one of the most memorable screen villains in years with Lola, a psychotic young woman that you don’t want to refuse to go with to the school prom. The Loved Ones is almost worth watching just for this character, but fortunately the film has a lot more to offer in terms of originality and fast paced thrills. There is no doubt that many will refer to this as a horror film, and while that is understandable given its subject matter, I found it to be more tense than frightening. That’s not a bad thing, but those expecting a one note genre flick are actually in store for an emotional roller coaster. There was never a single moment where this film bored me.

Unadventurous viewers might want to pass on this one, but if you can handle something truly wild and deranged then you owe it to yourself to give The Loved Ones a watch.

20. The Queen Of Versailles

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is a flabbergasting look at the super rich during the recession, but it could also double as a recruitment video for eastern religions.

For several years, Greenfield’s camera crew follows the family of David and Jackie Siegel, whose obscene wealth came from creating the largest time share company in the world. The film begins with the family triumphantly constructing the biggest house in the U.S., a 90,000 square foot mansion that was inspired by their trip to Versailles. But when the real estate bubble bursts and the economic crisis begins, David’s time share business starts to run into some serious problems. Construction of their palace is halted, workers are laid off, their tower in Las Vegas confronts foreclosure, and David Siegel painfully admits that he does not consider himself a billionaire anymore.

The film doesn’t set out to vilify the Siegels, nor does it ask us to feel pity for what their reversal of fortune. The camera simply observes this family’s excess in its natural habitat, and the resulting footage is simply surreal. These people live in an alternate reality, the likes of which it is difficult to imagine. I was constantly astounded by what I was seeing and on many I occasions I laughed out loud. I never felt hatred or pity for these people, nor did I feel any envy. I simply couldn’t believe what I was watching most of the time. I’m shocked that this movie was even made and that the Siegel’s would want to receive this much attention. But then again, considering how alien their family is to us perhaps they have no concept of how they appear to the outside world.

Tom Long had a great line in his review of this film: “Seriously, if this was the American dream, couldn’t we have come up with something better?”

19. Skyfall

Sam Mendes’ Skyfall is the stellar sequel to Casino Royale that we’ve been waiting six years for (let’s all just agree to forget the lackluster Quantum Of Solace). Its key strength is that it’s an exceptional action film, but it also goes further than the previous Daniel Craig installments at re-imagining the character of James Bond. It’s nice to see that the creators aren’t afraid to take risks with the source material, and I think it benefits the franchise greatly here. Supermen are not as fun to work with, in my opinion. So while I can’t claim to be a Bond connoisseur I can say that these creative liberties are a welcome change.

The cast is nearly perfect in their roles here. I personally love Daniel Craig’s Bond and the surrounding cast of Dench, Fiennes, and Whishaw are great compliments. But the standout performance comes from Javier Bardem in the role of Silva. An eccentric but menacing hacker who has a personal vendetta against M, Bardem’s Silva steals the movie and is arguably the best screen villain from last year. Between this and his role of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old men, I’m starting to wonder if Bardem shouldn’t play the bad guy in everything.

The film is bolstered by Roger Deakins amazing cinematography and the film’s amazing visuals. Skyfall is a joy to watch and easily belongs in the discussion of most visually appealing films from last year. Some of the images, particularly in China, do not serve as anything other than gratuitous eye candy. But honestly, who can complain when Skyfall looks [i]this[/i] good?

I don’t mean to imply that Skyfall is wildly original. It does shake things up but at the end of the day it is, after all, a James Bond film. It’s comes with most of the lowbrow elements and formula we’ve grown accustomed to from this type of franchise. But it’s hard to imagine someone making a Bond film that’s significantly better than this. Skyfall is so well made from top to bottom that I doubt many could walk away from it unimpressed.

18. Pitch Perfect

This is my fourth time writing a top 50 list and this might be the biggest surprise I’ve ever encountered. To say that Pitch Perfect caught me off guard would be an understatement. I was seriously considering skipping the film altogether, because everything about it appeared to be really cheesy and uninteresting. Its one saving grace was the positive reviews, which begrudgingly got me into the theater for the sake of being thorough and giving everything a chance.

Pitch Perfect is the best comedy of 2012. An affectionate spoof of its genre that’s filled with loveable characters, this movie easily pitch-slapped my inner cynic. Anna Kendrick is a breath of fresh air with her endearing personality and surprisingly good voice. Rebel Wilson is in many ways the comedic soul of the film, playing the part of Fat Amy and uttering more than a few classic lines. The funniest of all might be Hana Mae Lee, who plays the soft-spoken Lilly. The rest of the girls are too numerous to list here, but all of them exude a confidence and sense of humor that helps this film thrive. They know that they’re playing cliche characters (that’s part of the joke) but they really own their roles and go all in.

I was laughing throughout the vast majority of this film. It can stand on its own from pure laughs, but this one also manages to have some incredibly entertaining and oddly moving musical scenes in spite of its silliness. Some of the later musical numbers helped to solidify this film as more than just a comedic genre parody. When I left the theater I knew that I had just seen something special.

Do you guys wanna see a dead body?

17. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

Based on the Stephen Chobsky novel, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a coming of age tale about an introverted and mentally unstable young man in his freshman year of high school.

The real strength of this film is that it captures the experience of adolescence in a way that is truly sincere. While few viewers will find their experiences identical to Charlie, Sam, or Patrick the film resonates with people as emotionally genuine. I experienced many of the same things these characters did, including some depression, which I imagine is fairly common among high school students. The film deals with the highs of going from a social outcast to finding oneself in music and close friends. But it’s also a challenging film that addresses subjects like lost friendships, emotional chaos, and the pain of unrequited love.

Emma Watson will clearly receive most of the attention due to her celebrity status, and while she is good she is not in the same league as Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller. Both deliver fantastic performances here and help elevate the script to greatness. Ezra Miller is probably one of the best young actors working today, in my opinion. I would definitely have nominated him for a supporting actor award if I were casting award show ballots.

I would say that this is one of the best coming of age stories I’ve ever seen.

16. Sleepless Night

If I were talented enough to create my own action/thriller it would probably look a lot like Sleepless Night.

It doesn’t take long for Sleepless Night to arrive at its main location. Once it does, the film becomes a frantic, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride for the majority of its duration. The movie plays out like a delicious blend of Taken, Die Hard, Point Blank, and Infernal Affairs. Yet part of what makes this film so interesting is that our protagonist is no John McClane. Vincent is a mysterious character that we know little about going into the labyrinthine night club to rescue his son. It’s clear that he is not a professional and that he is in over his head. He’s simply a man caught in a desperate situation and he is struggling against overwhelming odds, often ineffectively.

The tempo and tone of the film are excellent. It’s unfortunately quite rare these days for something to capture brisk mayhem in the way that Sleepless Night does. This is the type of breakneck action/thriller that I wish we’d get every year. It succeeds at creating tension nearly every step of the way, which is incredibly refreshing in a world of Jason Bournes and glossy big-budget productions. Without giving too much away, I’ll also say that the ending might not be what you’d expect. I was glad to see this film take an uncompromising approach from the first frame to the last.

15. Starlet

Almost nobody went to see this film and I don’t expect you’ll find it on many year end lists, but Starlet is one of my personal favorites of the year. Sean Baker’s film tells the extraordinary, moving tale of how two forgotten souls forge an unlikely connection in the San Fernando Valley, despite being separated by about sixty years of life experience. These individuals come together when Jane buys a thermos from Sadie, which contains a large amount of money inside. She is pretty sure that Sadie never knew the money was there, but she is unsure what to do about it. Curiously, she begins to approach Sadie and tries to get to know her better.

I can understand people’s skepticism about this film’s premise. Some might pigeonhole this as a December-May relationship film that we’ve seen before, but that would be unfair. Sean Baker exploits these elements at times, but he cautiously reigns them in. Starlet finds fresh ways to tell its story. It poses some thoughtful questions about morality and what lies beyond external appearances. When it comes to examining human relationships this film is much different from something like The Intouchables, a vastly inferior film from last year.

The film is bolstered by strong performances from Dree Hemingway and her 85-year-old co-star Besedka Johnson. Although we don’t get an intimate glimpse into their past histories, we feel that we come to know these characters intimately. Throughout the course of the film we come to understand why these two continue to share a relationship for as long as they do.

If you stick with this film and pay attention then you will be amply rewarded. The ending of this film may just be the best conclusion I saw all year. The final scene was deeply moving and it’s something I’m not going to forget any time soon.

14. A Royal Affair

Despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair appears not to have received much attention this year. I can’t say that I understand why, since I found it to be an exceptionally crafted film that packs an emotional punch.

It probably helped that I was historically ignorant of Denmark’s political history during the 18th century. The story behind this film is rich and fascinating, as well as the historical characters on which they are based. The ideas of the Renaissance come careening into traditions of the ruling elite when Johann Friedrich Struensee becomes the mad King Christian VII’s personal physician. He attempts to influence the mentally unstable ruler with these ideas of the enlightenment, which are viewed as dangerous by the political council. As you might imagine from the film’s title, an intense attraction begins to develop between Struensee and the Queen, Caroline Mathilde. This dangerous attraction, coupled with the risky political maneuverings of Struensee, make for a plot that has considerably more tension than your average costume drama.

All three of these characters are portrayed sympathetically. The performances are compelling and the sets are elegantly photographed. There’s really nothing about this film that isn’t well made, in my opinion. I have heard some critics complain that the ending is disappointing, frustrating, or that it doesn’t leave a lasting impact. I could not disagree more with that assessment, because I thought this film had one of the most powerful conclusions of the year.

13. Safety Not Guaranteed

Safety Not Guaranteed is a film about the emotional needs that time travel satisfies.

The premise of the film can be summarized by the classified ad which a magazine writer and two interns seek out for their new story:
*Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.*

While the film has elements of romance and comedy, I think it would be an oversimplification to call this a rom-com. This is a film with a lot of subtle philosophy and sci-fi mystery thrown into the mix. Many things in the film are not what they first appear to be, including the characters themselves, who appear to be stereotypical on first glance. The best example of this may be Jeff, who is brilliantly realized by Jake Johnson. The film takes many of these traditional elements and breaks them down over the course of its run time, resulting in an experience that is richly layered and intensely personal. Each character in this film is troubled by past regrets or feelings of inadequacy. The notion of what might have been or what might be is ever present throughout the film, and this ties directly into the concept of a time machine.

In my experience people either walk away from this film head-over-heels in love with it, or they fail to see what the big deal is. I absolutely love this film, but I think much of that hinges on the emotional journey of the characters and the final scene. The ending of Safety Not Guaranteed was considered a disappointment by some, but it’s one of my favorites of the year. This is a movie that reminds me why I love going to the movies.

12. The Master

Paul Thomas Anderon’s latest film is a mesmerizing portrayal of one man’s encounter with a cult. The Master is apparently inspired by L Ron Hubbard and the Church Of Scientology, and it’s one of the more intriguing films I’ve ever seen on the concept of belief and group mentality.

Set in post WWII America for no other reason than (as Paul Thomas Anderson claims) that era is filled with delicious costumes, sets, and environment. The film centers around a PTSD veteran named Freddie Quell, and while we don’t know what he was like going into the war we can see that he is a deeply troubled and erratic man who is attempting to reintegrate into normal society. Freddie’s life takes an interesting turn when he meets up with Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic cult leader of an organization known as The Cause. While Freddie is intriguing to Dodd, his personality presents unforeseen challenges that call into question the very nature of The Cause and its practices.

It’s an absolutely fascinating film that boasts quite possibly the best cast of the year. You’d almost have to flip a coin to determine whether Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Joaquin Phoenix gave the better performance in this film, as both are absolutely brilliant and deserving of any awards they receive. Amy Adams gives one of the most impressive supporting actress performances of 2012 here as well. In fact, even if you don’t care about anything else in this film it is worth seeing simply for the sheer quality of thespian craft on display.

Thankfully, this is a film that succeeds with its narrative and subtext as well. The Master may even require multiple viewings to fully appreciate these themes. It may inspire some of the most interesting post-viewing discussions of any film this year. I think this is an absolute must-see and I don’t begrudge anyone that would rank this as their #1 of 2012.

11. Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is arguably the closest you’ll get to perfection this year. By that I mean there isn’t one aspect of this film that I can criticize. Everything in this gritty, realistic spy thriller works. If you’re looking for high octane entertainment or a sensational re-imagining of history then you’re in the wrong place. However, if you want a flawless recreation of an amazing true story then this one delivers in spades.

If you didn’t already consider Jessica Chastain one of the best actresses working today, Zero Dark Thirty should convince you that she is worthy of the hype. Her character of Maya is apparently based on the same intelligence agent that inspired Homeland’s Carrie, and for those of you familiar with that show the comparison will come as no surprise. Chastain is not as unhinged as Claire Danes, but she is playing the part of an obsessive and often extreme agent who is willing to go to any lengths necessary to achieve her objective.

Unfortunately, too much has been made of the torture in this film. I’m hesitant to even address it in this synopsis, but it has been such a topic of debate that I can’t help but say a few words about it here. In short, I think that this film has handled the matter in an appropriate way. I’m personally opposed to torture and as far as I know Bigelow is as well, but one cannot make a counter-terrorism film that spans the Bush and Obama presidencies without addressing the “enhanced interrogation” methods employed at Guantanamo and Black Sites around the world. It would be ridiculous to white wash these unpleasant realities from history, and the fact that Bigelow has the courage to stick to the real story is something that I applaud her for. This is a tasteful film that is able to balance realism with sensitivity (as evidenced by the opening black screen).

This is a beautifully crafted and compelling film. There are some shots in Pakistan that will linger in my mind for many years to come. Also, the raid on the compound during the last half hour of this film is absolutely remarkable. It’s one of the most amazing sequences I’ve seen in a long time. If people are able to view that and claim that Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t deserve a director nomination then I don’t know what you need to do to get one. Seriously, what was the Academy thinking?

10. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas

2012 was one of the more controversial years in memory. Depending on who you talked to many films were either masterpieces or garbage. But perhaps no film was more polarizing than Cloud Atlas, the nearly 3-hour epic based on David Mitchell’s best-selling novel. Whether you loved it or hated it, you have to concede that Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious and courageous movies ever made.

The film was a blockbuster bomb, perhaps doomed in advance by its lofty premise and immense scale. Sadly, it was not uncommon to see Cloud Atlas play to empty theaters. Most patrons opted instead for the safety of re-makes, sequels, or proven formulas. This was truly unfortunate, because Cloud Atlas was a marvel that blew the lid off cinematic conventions. Most of this film’s faults (and it is not without its share of flaws) come from an attempt to grandly succeed and break ground in places most films never go. By all rights the film should not even work, but it does.

It manages to be one of the best edited films I’ve seen in years and it sports some impressive production values. There was never a moment in this epic where I felt bored or disengaged, because the film moves forward with such an uncompromising vision. Watching the film is like being transported to a a kaleidoscope reality with complex layering and stories that run parallel with each other across the centuries. Some might find it challenging to keep up with all these narratives, but even if you find it difficult to make the thematic connections you can still be swept away by the experience.

I have to admit that I do not buy into any notions of Karmic re-birth or destiny, but I don’t mind them being used as a narrative device in order to tell a good story. Cloud Atlas uses these ideas to craft a truly unique viewing experience. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I may never see anything like it again.

9. The Imposter

If this weren’t a true story it would probably get ridiculed for its absurdity. This is one of the most unbelievable and bizarre tales you are ever likely to hear.

Rather than attempt to tell the story as a mystery, the film is narrated by imposter Frederic Bourdin and titled “The Imposter”. This feature documentary tells the tale of Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old boy who goes missing in Austin Texas in 1994. Three and a half years later he is found alive in Spain, with horrific stories of kidnapping and torture. Before he can return to the United States he must be picked up by a family member and prove his identity. But the only problem is this is not Nicholas Barclay, only someone claiming to be him. Any doubt as to whether this is the real Nicholas Barclay is resolved in the first five minutes of the film, but that doesn’t prevent this from being an edge-of-your-seat ride with twists and turns along the way.

This is a must-see film if you are interested in true crime or human psychology. There is scarcely a moment when this film is not intense or fascinating. It is certain to inspire some very interesting conversation and linger in the mind long after the credits roll. Without giving anything away, there is an interesting reveal towards the end of the film that makes this story even more bizarre and controversial.

Perhaps truth really is stranger than fiction.

8. Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is a good example of the auteur theory. In Moonrise Kingdom, I believe he has made his most distinctive and personal film to date.

Anderson said in an NPR interview that Moonrise Kingdom was “a memory of a fantasy” he had as a child, which is an eloquent way of summarizing this film about two twelve-year-olds who make a secret pact to run away because they feel fated to be together. As you might imagine, their disappearance throws the peaceful island community into turmoil as concerned adults seek to locate Sam and Suzy. The two children have no feasible long-term plan (they pack things like a music player and batteries rather than stockpiling food and water) but they are determined to follow through with their plans for escape. What follows is a heartfelt, humorous journey about youth and love.

There is a delightful air of nostalgia that permeates this film. You may find yourself reminiscing about your own childhood experiences, usually impractical in retrospect but often poignant and beautiful to look back on. The story evokes awe and the magic of escapism, and it also brings that humorous charm we’ve come to expect from Anderon’s films. It is a quirky film, but it is also deeply human and disarmingly hopeful. In my opinion, this is Wes Anderson’s best movie. It’s hard to imagine anyone not liking this.

7. Samsara

The most beautiful film of 2012, Samsara is an astonishing visual treat that demands to be seen on the big screen or in high definition. If you were looking for a Blu Ray to show off your home theater display, you may have found it here.

Samsara has no plot and no dialogue. Ron Fricke’s movie was shot in twenty five countries on 70mm film, over the course of five years. If you’ve seen Baraka, this is essentially a sequel to that film shot 20 years later. There are themes in this film, but a lot of the time we’re left to form our own impressions on the juxtaposition of sight and sound, or the transitions from one part of the world to the next. Each viewer brings their own personal experiences and worldview into the film, which in turn shapes the viewing experience and makes it personally unique.

No film can fully capture the world in the ways Samsara attempts, but it’s marvelous to behold the scope of this film. When the film reached its conclusion I left the theater feeling much different than I had going in. You feel as though you have just returned from somewhere else, and you begin to look at everyday things from a different vantage point. At the risk of sounding cheesy, this is the type of film that can have leave a strong impression and might even have some impact on the way you view the world. It’s a wondrous and thought provoking work of art.

6. The Raid: Redemption
Raid Redemption

The Indonesian action film The Raid: Redemption never pretends to be something it isn’t. The film takes a few minutes to establish its plot and characters, but after that we’re in an armored police van headed towards a raid on a highrise building. Once we arrive at the dark and menacing tower the film rarely allows us to catch our breath. The film is incredibly raw and violent from start to finish, featuring a stunning martial arts and brilliant stunt work. There were 14 doctors on the set. After watching the fight sequences, you’ll understand why.

The strength of the film is its amazing fight choreography. Even the extras in this movie exhibit considerable talent and a willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the film. The most impressive by far is Yayan Ruhian, who plays the villainous fighter Mad Dog. Small in stature but absolutely lethal in action, Ruhian might be my favorite martial artist to grace the screen since Tony Jaa. He actually trains the Indonesian Special Forces in Silat, which doesn’t surprise me given his skill. I really hope that we see him in some future projects, because he steals this movie. If we’re not watching someone getting shot in the face then we’re probably seeing some incredible fight scenes or epic confrontations. There are inventive uses of space and tactics, especially one sequence that involves multiple floors and a fridge that has been rigged to explode.

This is about as lowbrow as movies get, but its an amazing action film and one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen in the genre. If that sounds like your kind of movie then there’s no excuse not to watch it. I have a feeling that this will go down in history as one of the best action films of all time. It certainly deserves to.

5. Amour

Amour is an unflinching masterpiece that is well deserving of its title.

Michael Haneke’s film is a courageous undertaking, both by himself and the two lead actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Both of these amazing actors deliver fantastic performances, fully committing themselves to the script. Riva is especially moving in her portrayal of Anne, which at times can be difficult to watch.

While the apartment that Georges and Anne inhabit can be suffocating and the subject matter can be frightening to some, I think that this is ultimately not a film that is about fear or tragedy. At its core this is a story about love and responsibility, a beautiful portrayal of a couple who have lived a full life together and must now confront what it means to commit to your partner “til death do us part”. Whether it is a visiting pupil or their concerned daughter, Georges encounters opposing views on how best to care for Anne. The pupil wants to show sympathy for her condition, the daughter wants more proper medical care in a hospital environment, but Georges can see that these approaches are the wrong way to handle her condition. Everything that he does for Anne is done with her best interests at heart, as he tries to maintain as much normalcy and intimacy as possible before her time expires. His love for Anne is so sincere that it makes an otherwise bleak film heartwarming, even optimistic.

I’m not going to pretend that Amour isn’t devastating at times, because it is. This film made me cry and it brought back some painful memories about what it was like watching my mother’s condition deteriorate from cancer. Anyone that has ever watched a loved one succumb to a disease will find this film to be intensely emotional and the realism on display will cause them to recollect their own past experiences. This film isn’t for the faint of heart, but mature moviegoers will find a touching love story at its center.

4. Searching For Sugar Man

It’s difficult to talk about Searching For Sugar Man, because the less you know going into it the better it’s likely to be. I only knew that it was supposed to be good and I entered the theater without any knowledge of the artist Rodriguez or anything else, so I’ll try to spare you any details that might impact your enjoyment of the film. Even though I’m going to be very vague, you might want to skip this blurb if you haven’t seen the film or if you dislike mild spoilers.

First let me say that this is the best documentary of the year, not because it’s the most important or even the most well crafted. It’s my favorite documentary of 2012 because it tells an incredible story that leaves a lasting impression on you. The film is about a failed musical artist named Rodriguez from Detroit in the early 1970s, who many music producers considered to be extremely talented and a rising star in the industry. But Rodriguez’ albums did absolutely nothing and he was soon let go by his label. With his music career in shambles, Rodriguez disappeared into obscurity. But somehow his record “Cold Fact” made it to South Africa and became a bootleg sensation. In time his reputation and popularity grew to the levels of super-stardom in South Africa, and he even managed to influence some of the anti-apartheid music culture there. To South Africans, his records were some of the most famous of all time, but in America nobody had ever heard of him.

There was no information about Rodriguez after his second album. Nobody in Africa even knew which part of America he was from, what had happened to him, or which version of his suicide was true. So in this film a couple musicologist detectives seek to find the answers to these questions, so that they can put the pieces together and tell the story of what happened to this man who was simultaneously a colossal failure and a huge success.

This film is simply unforgettable. It features songs from Rodriguez’ albums which are surprisingly good, a fascinating tale about the fickle nature of artistic success, and an amazingly uplifting vibe despite the tragic elements involved. If you haven’t seen this beautiful film you owe it to yourself to watch it. It’s the best documentary I’ve seen in years.

3. Holy Motors

Leos Carax has made a truly unique and exhilarating cinematic experience in Holy Motors. This is one of the wildest and most original films you’re likely to see from this or any year. Holy Motors has been described as everything from a lunatic odyssey to a cinematic Rorschach test.

Holy Motors touches on themes of changing technology in cinema and the absence of an audience. The film laments the passing of 35mm film and the rise of things like Netflix and BitTorrent. At one point in the film our protagonist, Oscar, speaks nostalgically about a time when the cameras on sets were bigger than the actors themselves. In Oscar’s present day reality the cameras are invisible and the audience is nowhere to be seen, yet he soldiers on because he still respects the beauty of the act.

While these elements are very much present in Holy Motors, I do not think it would be fair to say they are what the film is solely about. These philosophical musings are important to understand the mentality of Oscar’s character and they help to put the film in its proper context, but I believe that the film is mostly a celebration of make believe. In that sense this a movie for people that love movies, crafted by a director who wears his passion on his sleeve. It’s a truly surreal journey that takes the audience down the rabbit hole, allowing us to invest ourselves in these absurd segments all the while knowing that we are layers removed from any concept of reality. Several scenes play with this layering, as though we’re viewing them inside a dream.

It should also be mentioned that Denis Lavant is fantastic in the lead role, as he inhabits one character to the next with conviction and mastery. It’s perplexing that he is often being overlooked when people mention the best actors of the year, because he unquestionably gave one of the best performances I saw in 2012.

Some people probably burn a lot of fuel thinking about how each segment fits in the context of the film or why certain things happen the way they do. Personally, I feel that this is a movie to have fun with. Go along for the ride and appreciate the absurd fantasy Carax has given us. Few things are this enjoyable or interesting, so I find myself savoring it as amazing entertainment that plays with my willing suspension of disbelief. Holy Motors is pure movie magic.

2. Django Unchained

Tarantino has always been about pulp entertainment, and in Django Unchained demonstrates his mastery of this craft. I’m not going to get a lot of people to agree with me on this, but I think this is Quentin Tarantino’s best film and the type of movie that suits him perfectly.

Django Unchained is pure entertainment from start to finish. Yes, it deals with heavy subject matter in the form of slavery, revenge fantasy, and horrific violence. But unlike many of his previous films, Django is full of charm and humor. It may not be a comedy film, but I’d be lying if I said that any other movie from 2012 was this funny or got so many big laughs. In many ways this makes Django his most unique film, because it has a distinct vibe which is all its own (despite the familiar plot mechanics). This might not work in other contexts, but it’s effective at creating a hilarious and enthralling film that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, the cast and music in this film are excellent. Jamie Foxx might be the weakest link, but this is only because he is surrounded by the likes of Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L Jackson. Waltz is especially great in this film, playing a character that is similar to Hans Landa in some respects but by other standards couldn’t be more different. Jackson inhabits one of the best roles we’ve seen from him in ages. The musical choices help make the scenes gel or get the audience to connect emotionally with each scene. I especially like John Legend’s “Who Did That To You”, but there are quite a few others to like here, including the old school Django theme which plays during the opening credits.

Some have complained that the loss of Sally Menke had a negative impact on this film’s editing. While it’s possible that Menke could have done a better job I had no problems at all with the pacing of this film. In fact, I’d love to see an extended version at some point. There wasn’t a single moment where I found myself becoming impatient or disengaged. Even on repeat viewings I was enthralled from start to finish.

This film is so incredibly enjoyable that I couldn’t help seeing it multiple times in theaters. It’s extremely rare that I get to have that much fun at the movies, so when an opportunity comes along to see something like Django in a packed house with electric energy, I make sure to take advantage. I don’t think there’s anything I dislike about this film (not even the comedic Tarantino cameo) and I even thought about whether this movie should rank as my #1 of the year.

1. Girl Walk // All Day

Earlier this year, there was a piece in the Washington Post about a man playing the violin at a subway station. During the time the musician played, thousands of people passed by the on their way to work. Only six stopped to listen, while twenty gave money but continued walking. When the violinist finished his 45 minute set there was no applause or recognition, and he had received $32. Nobody knew it, but the performer was Joshua Bell, considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest musicians. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces of music ever written on a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days prior to his subway performance, Bell had played to a sold out theater in Boston with an average ticket price of $100.

Girl Walk // All Day is not a film you’re going to see on a lot of top ten lists. It isn’t going to get nominated for anything at an awards show. It was not made available through cinemas, commercial DVD sales, or even torrents. In fact, the majority of pedestrians we see in the film do not seem to acknowledge that they are in a movie, much less pay attention to the dancers who are performing beside them. It can be difficult to recognize greatness if we’re not conditioned to look for it.

I spent an enormous amount of time watching films from 2012 and I saw quite a few films I would consider great. However, I can’t justify ranking any of them ahead of this movie. It is, quite possibly, the most fun I have ever had watching anything. Girl Walk // All Day bursts onto the screen with sheer joy and intoxicating energy that doesn’t let go for its 77 minute run time. It has more than a few moments of transcendent brilliance where even the most cynical viewer would have to acknowledge that they’re seeing something special.

The plot of the movie is almost non-existent, but it could best be described as a dance and music video of epic proportions. The music is from DJ Greg Gillis aka: Girl Talk, who takes mash ups of hit songs and strings them into albums he releases for free online. This means copyright is a legal grey area for GW//AD and commercial distribution of the film is nearly impossible through the usual channels. Because of this, the film is distributed freely through Vimeo and Youtube.

The film follows three dancers as they make their way through Manhattan. These characters are The Girl, The Gentleman, and The Creep. Each of these individuals has their own distinct style and personality. While you could argue who is the most talented from a technical standpoint, the best performer in the film is easily Anne Marsen who plays the part of The Girl. In fact, I’d go so far as to say she gives one of the best performances of the year. Her personality is the center of the film through which everything operates, and it is through her unbridled optimism that the film is able to maintain its concept without ever once feeling stale.

Girl Walk // All Day is an absolutely delightful film that I’ve watched many times already and will watch many times more. As Anne Marsen says “Life is short and dance is so much fun.”

Watch the film at
“Buy” the DVD at

My Top 50 Movies of 2011

* I was unable to see Into The Abyss, Tyrannosaur, House Of Pleasures, The Yellow SeaThe Kid With A Bike and Being Elmo.

Top 20 Honorable Mentions:

Meek’s Cutoff
X-Men First Class
Source Code
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams
The Trip
Super 8
Batman: Year One
Martha Marcy May Marlene
The Descendants
Certified Copy
Ip Man 2
Hobo With A Shotgun
Le Quattro Volte
Page One: Inside The New York Times
Waste Land

50. Senna
U.S. Theatrical Release: August 12 2011
U.S. DVD Release: March 6 2012

No Fear. No Limits. No Equal.

This documentary about F1 racer Ayrton Senna is composed entirely of archival footage. Director Asif Kapadia manages to take these clips and create a seamless, expertly crafted work of storytelling. There’s hardly any narration or obvious agenda here.

Like many Americans I was totally unfamiliar with Ayrton Senna’s Formula 1 legacy. While this documentary has been highly celebrated among F1 Racing enthusiasts, it’s probably best to go in knowing as little as possible. It’s such a layered life story that I was excited by the twists, the controversies, and the sense of danger. This is an entertaining and emotional ride that’s worth taking, even if you have no interest in sports.

49. The Turin Horse

The Turin Horse is one of the most unique films I’ve seen in years. It’s also one of the most polarizing, as it caused quite a few walkouts even among art house movie crowds. The reason for this? It’s slow… almost painfully so. Director Bela Tarr has said that the film was intended to portray the crushing monotony of daily life, and he has certainly succeeded in doing so with this uncompromising vision.

That’s not to say that The Turin Horse isn’t captivating. It has some amazing camera shots, a haunting theme music that plays throughout the film, and it can be intensely provocative at moments. I walked away from this film feeling that it was the cinematic portrayal of that famous Socrates quote “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. Mere survival is not good enough.

48. Tucker & Dale vs Evil

This horror/comedy sitcom isn’t exactly highbrow entertainment, but it’s filled with plenty of morbid humor. It’s definitely worthwhile viewing for anyone that enjoys films like Shaun of the Dead.

It involves two redneck buddies who invest in a fixer-upper cabin, looking for some simple rest and relaxation. However, they run into a band of college kids who mistake them as a threat. One things leads to another and suddenly Tucker and Dale are in over their heads, as the kids begin to take drastic measures to protect each other from these otherwise harmless vacationers. As you might expect this is a bloody and twisted affair, but if you can appreciate a very dark brand of humor this is one to look out for.

47. Fast Five

Yeah, a Fast & The Furious movie made this list. I’m as surprised as you are that Fast Five ended up being this good. I even put off seeing this for a while because I doubted anything from this franchise could live up to this amount of hype. However, after nearly a dozen personal recommendations and an impressive 78% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes I knew I had to check it out.

What I learned was that this movie is indeed “the big box awesome”. It never pretends to be anything other than a full throttle action film with physics-defying stunts and plenty of eye candy. If you’re looking for philosophical depth or naturalism look elsewhere. I found myself falling for this film in spite of myself. In a year of great action films, this may not be the best but it certainly deserves a mention on this list. The final chase scene is worth the price of admission by itself.

46. Mysteries Of Lisbon
U.S. Theatrical Release: August 5 2011
U.S. DVD Release: January 17 2012

When I first saw the run time for Mysteries Of Lisbon I assumed it was a typo. I soon learned that its stated 4hr32m length was accurate, complete with a theatrical intermission.

Based on the 19th century Portuguese novel, this adaptation by director Raul Ruiz is a rare kind of immersion into a foreign world. Despite its length it flows at a brisk pace thanks to its colorful characters and complex intertwined narratives. This story spans three generations across Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy. Joao’s journey of discovery is the closest thing we get to a central narrative, but there is no real protagonist here.

If you are adventurous enough to take the plunge I feel that this is a rewarding experience. Ruiz’ use of cinematography adds a surreal element to the film and the period is so beautifully realized that it’s easy to lose yourself in this epic.

45. Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol

Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol was adored by critics and audiences. Many have declared it the best movie in the series, which is probably a fair assessment. The film moves at a blistering pace and is jam packed with impressive effects sequences. The rogue team is filled with likeable characters who have a sense of humor in addition to their obvious skill sets.

The only major criticism I have is that the film seems to skip around a lot, playing fast and loose with the plot. In a lot of the scenes we barely know who anyone is outside of the main crew, other times we’re barely given any information at all. This is complicated by the lack of a central villain… and while I don’t necessarily need something on the level of Phillip Seymour Hoffman from MI:3 it would have helped if there was more of a protagonist/antagonist dynamic.

In the end MI:4 is a fun roller coaster ride that I really enjoyed seeing on the IMAX screen. It could have been more than that, but I appreciate it for what it is.

44. Submarine

This Welsh coming-of-age film is extremely eccentric, but it also captures the experience of adolescence in a way that few others can. It has a lot in common with Wes Anderson films, but Richard Ayoade’s Submarine is a bit more grounded in reality because it’s intended to be a semi-autobiographical story.

While its quirky style might not resonate with everyone it definitely worked for me. It’s a warts and all depiction of childhood love that deals with some painful subjects, yet it’s also one of the funniest movies of the year. It’s hard not be succumb to its charms.

43. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

On the one hand Ceylan’s film is a straightforward story about a murder investigation, while on the other it’s a surreal and philosophical work. The stark realism is juxtaposed with moments of fantasy, where aspects of life and death are dealt with as if they were out of a fairy tale. These themes of objective reality and myth come full circle in the film’s final act.

This Turkish import takes a while to get going, but it has beautiful scenery and a rich atmosphere. It’s an intriguing film that will stay in your head for days or weeks after seeing it, so those who don’t mind its languid pace will be in for a rewarding experience.

42. Tomboy

Celine Sciammi’s Tomboy is a beautiful coming of age story that addresses its gay/lesbian subject matter with great empathy and heart. There’s never a moment where any of the characters feels unbelievable in their role. This is partly because it’s a film that’s more concerned with characters’ psychological motivations than plot devices. I appreciated the style and the way in which it addressed Michael’s gender struggles with an open-ended approach.

While it does deal with issues of gender identity this film should remind anyone of what it was like to be this young and innocent. There are beautiful scenes of children at play outside the apartment complex that took me back to a simpler time in my own life.

41. Moneyball

Aaron Sorkin’s script for Moneyball has more to do with leadership and outside the box thinking than it does about sports. Most films in this genre focus solely on teams or athletes, but Moneyball is about the men like Billy Beane and Peter Brand who work behind the scenes to build a contender. But for anyone who knows anything about modern day baseball, the game is won and lost on payroll. The lack of a salary cap is the driving engine behind this tale of saber-metrics. The Athletics try to compete with teams like the Yankees and Red Sox… not by outbidding them, but by outsmarting them.

The film really captures the struggle and anguish of sports, as well as the joy of rooting for an underdog. As someone who doesn’t even watch regular season baseball I was still caught up in the drama. Sorkin’s script helps humanize these characters and draw us in, even if we don’t know the first thing about OPS.

40. I Saw The Devil
U.S. Theatrical Release: March 4 2011
U.S. DVD Release: May 10 2011

It sometimes seems like South Korea is the land of a hundred revenge movies, so even though I Saw The Devil is another in a long line of films addressing that theme it does so in an original way that should keep viewers guessing what will come next. This is a film in which there is no real hero to root for, only immoral behavior ranging from bad to monstrous.

Kim Jee-Woon’s revenge thriller is certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s extremely violent and disturbing even by the standards of its genre. However, I don’t consider this is not an exploitation piece. It’s an uncompromising film that makes us think about how to confront evil, both in others and ourselves.

39. Shame

Shame is a film that’s more about addiction than it is about sex. Brandon seems like a character that a many men would envy, but as we watch his life through his own eyes we realize that he’s a deeply troubled individual. Despite his professional success and sexual conquests, he is unable to establish an intimate connection with anyone – not even his own sister. Brandon’s insatiable need leads him down a path that causes harm to others and is ultimately self-destructive. His pleasures are fleeting by their very nature and all he can do is reiterate them as many times as he is able.

This film features strong performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Steve McQueen’s direction gives the piece a very distinct and spellbinding feel. Shame’s distribution was hurt by its NC-17 rating so if your theaters were unable to show it I’d recommend renting or streaming it once it’s available.

38. Pariah

When I first saw the trailer for Pariah I didn’t have much interest in seeing it. It looked as though it was some kind of emotionally manipulative dramatic cliche, the kind that tries too hard to win you over with its lack of subtlety and cloying sentimentality. But then it started getting rave reviews…

It turns out that Dee Rees’ film is an extremely authentic and complex drama about sexuality and identity. Not only are the actors (particularly Adepero Oduye) great, but the characters they portray are rich and complicated. Even when we see people display shocking behavior we’re able to understand how it fits into the context of their environment and upbringing.

Pariah is a small movie about a very big subject. It’s simultaneously tender, enlightening, and heartbreaking. It just might be the best film I’ve seen about homosexuality.

37. Henri Georges Clouzot’s Inferno
U.S. Theatrical Release: None
U.S. DVD Release: April 26 2011

Henri Georges Clouzot is considered one of the giants of French cinema to this day. This documentary is about a film he worked on in 1963 titled “L’Enfer”. Because of his incredible reputation Clouzot was given full creative freedom and an unlimited budget. He took full advantage by hiring many of the biggest stars in Franc at the time. He booked three different camera crews, ran up countless overtime, and began experimenting with avant garde film techniques that he believed would revolutionize the genre.

But the film was never even released. The whole project was a disaster and the celluloid was hidden away in a dusty archive for nearly half a century… until now.

This is the story of the movie that never got made. It’s a fascinating and cautionary tale about artistic hubris that has to be seen to be believed.

36. Beginners

After Oliver’s mother passes away his father Hal steps out of the closet and begins to pursue a gay relationship at the age of 75. Despite his old age and a cancer diagnosis, Hal is undeterred in his quest to seek out companionship and realize his sexual identity. It isn’t until Hal finally succumbs to his cancer that Oliver tries to end his loneliness by courting a new love interest named Hanna.

If you read the synopsis you might think that Beginners is a tear jerking film about self pity and lost opportunity.However, this is a genuinely lighthearted, funny, and whimsical movie. I found the whole thing to be delightful and even life-affirming. It has a lasting emotional impact without ever succumbing to melancholia.

This movie also has an awesome dog. I just thought I’d throw that out there…

35. Don 2

It seems like every year we get a dozen superhero movies. It has gotten to the point where nearly every comic book hero has been given a film adaptation or is in the process of being rebooted. These good vs. evil stories make for decent entertainment, but I have to admit that I get tired rooting for Superman to save the day.

Don 2 is a super-villain movie, which is probably why I found it so refreshing. The protagonist of the film, Don (played by Shahrukh Khan) is a cross between The Joker and James Bond. He’s so effective at controlling the drug trade of southeast Asia that other mobsters fear him and conspire to kill him. A wanted man in every country, Don must devise a scheme that keeps him out of harms way while staying one step ahead of the law. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s also a very ambitious heist attempt.

Although I enjoyed MI:4 I must admit that I got a lot more fun out of this Indian import. It’s relentlessly entertaining and fast paced despite its 2 1/2 hour run time. It does have some formulaic pieces and cheesy one-liners, but who cares? This is a movie where we can cheer for the bad guy as he tries to succeed against impossible odds… I love that.

34. Young Adult

I give the creators of Young Adult a lot of credit for having the guts to make this film. Nearly everything about it flies in the face of conventional, modern comedies. Some have argued that Bridesmaids pushed the envelope with its unlikeable female protagonist, but this is a different kind of animal. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is so profoundly self absorbed and immature that it would take serious effort to empathize with her. However, this allows for some edgy dark comedy and makes the movie one of the funniest of 2011.

The whole film revolves around Mavis’ desire to return to her hometown and steal her high school sweetheart Buddy back because (in her mind) the two of them are meant to be together. The only problem is that Buddy Slade is happily married with a newborn baby. As you might expect there is a great deal of twisted humor and painfully awkward moments. It’s the kind of unapologetic, dark film that offers no real redemption… so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that audiences are split on it. I personally loved it, but Young Adult is currently sitting at 58% fan approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron turn in very impressive performances here, each understanding the subtlety of their parts and breathing life into this unconventional script. If you’re tired of the typical Hollywood comedy you should definitely seek this out. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in years.

33. Rango

Rango was hands down the best U.S. animated film of 2011. Granted, Pixar seemed content to take the year off, but it’s still worth noting that this is streets ahead of competitors like Rio or Puss In Boots.

It’s a movie that will delight younger audiences but it’s also loaded with film references and adult appeal. Trying to categorize Rango is difficult… it’s a film noir, a fish out of water story, an action movie, and a comedy. It can shift from slapstick comedy to philosophical introspection on a dime and it references everything from Chinatown to Clint Eastwood. It should also be noted that this is one of the most beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen. The detail of each character is astounding and watching it on Blu Ray is visual tour de force. There’s one chase scene that has so many moving pieces you wonder how the animators were able to blend so much beauty and chaos onto the screen.

32. Midnight In Paris

I went into Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris with low expectations and ended up falling in love with its sense of humor and science fiction premise. It’s easy to be seduced by its unabashed love for Paris and the arts in general.

As Gil (Owen Wilson) is abandoned by his fiancee one evening he’s left to wander Paris on his own. He soon finds himself being led into a magical cab that transports him through time to 1920s, an era he’s deeply nostalgic for. He soon meets iconic figures like Fitzgerald and Picasso. Gil finds himself addicted to this past and finds himself returning to it each night.

It’s a breezy, funny, and romantic film that’s sure to delight fans of the city as well as many who have never been there. The film also challenges the notion that the grass is always greener, as some in the 20s are nostalgic for their past. We’re reminded that while there may be plenty to like about prior eras the present is always full of exciting possibilities.

31. Cell 211
U.S. Theatrical Release: None
U.S. DVD Release: August 29 2011

Despite being a 2009 Spanish film, Cell 211 only played at a handful of U.S. film festivals and wasn’t released on video until late 2011. It’s a shame that it suffered such poor distribution, because this is one of the best prison movies I’ve ever seen.

The film involves a riot in a maximum security Spanish prison. One of the new guards gets left inside during his first day on the job, so he now must try to pass himself off as one of the inmates in an effort to make it out alive. It’s a creative and topical idea that creates palpable tension throughout. As the story progresses we begin to constantly re-evaluate notions of morality, as seismic events occur one after the next. The audience is kept on the edge of their seat right up until the final minutes.

30. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Thomas Alfredson (known for the amazing Let The Right One In) teams up with the best cast of the year to recreate John Le Carre’s classic tale of cold war espionage. The result is one of the most intelligent and complex spy thrillers I’ve ever seen. The cold war setting is portrayed brilliantly, as is the sense of pervasive tension throughout.

This is about as far as you can get from spy films like James Bond or Mission Impossible. I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be a spy, but this feels like the most realistic film I know of in that genre.

The only real criticism I have is that the story has far too many moving pieces for a two hour run time. I feel like a lot of the characters and plot elements could have benefited from another half hour.

29. Win Win

Paul Giamatti plays a family man named Mr. Flaherty who devises a scheme to save his struggling law firm by becoming a false caretaker. But his questionable behavior is threatened when Alex runs away from to live with his grandfather. The young boy soon becomes part of the Flaherty’s lives through no plan of their own.

Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is a film about second chances and the challenges life throws our way. It poses some tough questions about moral boundaries and how far we’re willing to go for the sake of those we care about. It’s a very funny, honest film that doesn’t gloss over the complexities of human relationships.

28. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
U.S. Theatrical Release: November 11 2011
U.S. DVD Release: Februrary 14 2012

This sequel to Tropa De Elite is a major improvement over the original. This is a brutally intense film that is fueled by rampant violence and corruption in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro.

Unlike the first film which dealt primarily with the conflict between BOPE and the gangs, this paints a much more complex portrait of corruption within the halls of power as well as the slums. As the former head of BOPE steps into politics, he begins to discover just how deep the corruption goes and is forced to make hard choices regarding his loyalties.

The editing moves at a frantic pace in this Brazilian action/crime drama and no punches are pulled. This is a big, bold film that wears its heart on its sleeve.

27. The Skin I Live In

Trying to talk about Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In without giving away key plot elements is difficult, so I won’t say too much. What I will say is that this is a twisted film that turns traditional notions of gender and victimization on their head.

This is not the kind of project that would ever receive universal appeal, but I find its gutsy storytelling to be refreshing. I thought it was much more provocative than his previous film Broken Embraces. It’s a testament to Almodovar’s skill as a director that he can craft such a deeply unsettling and memorable experience.

There’s even a guy in a tiger suit. What more do you want?

26. Melancholia

I’m normally not a big Lars Von Trier fan, so I was fairly surprised that I ended up loving Melancholia. Unlike his previous film Antichrist this film has a much more coherent structure to it, even if it is divided into two distinct halves. On the one hand we have Justine’s wedding, which deals with social discord and crippling depression. On the other hand we have Claire’s story which carries over from the first act, but deals with a potentially apocalyptic sci-fi premise about a fly by planet that could potentially collide with Earth.

The use of sight and sound is brilliant in this film. Von Trier uses Wagner’s music as well as ideas from his operas, weaving them into the fabric of the story throughout the film. I’m not a Wagner buff, but I found that this added a lot to the theatrical experience.

This is certain to be a polarizing film among seasoned and casual movie-goers alike. But even if certain aspects of it aren’t to your liking it’s hard not leave the theater with some kind of emotional reaction. I found myself thinking about this movie’s ending for many days after I’d seen it, and several scenes are almost unforgettable.

25. Point Blank

The French action/thriller Point Blank is the kind of nail-biting thrill ride that we don’t see often enough. At a run time of just under 90 minutes this is a long ways from your typical French film. It opens with a chase sequence and just continues to accelerate from there. There are only a few moments to catch your breath as the story continues at its frantic pace until just before the very end.

Fred Cavaye’s film isn’t high art by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s terrific entertainment. If you’re interested in seeking out a relentless thriller then look no further. This is the sort of film that Hollywood often promises but so rarely delivers.

24. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher accomplished a nearly unprecedented feat with his remake of the 2009 Swedish original. It’s not often that you find a U.S. remake of a foreign film that can claim to be as good as it’s foreign counterpart, but in the case of TGWTDT Fincher’s version isn’t just comparable… it’s a gigantic improvement. Even knowing everything that was coming I found myself on the edge of my seat, captivated the entire time. This is made all the more impressive due to the fact that Stieg Larsson’s source material isn’t a masterwork of storytelling. I suppose the lesson here is that the way you tell a story is sometimes more important than the story itself.

Everything in this version is operating at a very high level. The Reznor soundtrack, the cinematography, the pacing, and the acting are all top notch. Fincher’s version boasts a truly great performance from up-and-comer Rooney Mara. A virtual unknown, Mara accepted the part for a mere $200k and took full advantage of her role as Lisbeth Salinger. It’s arguably the best female performance of 2011 and I expect you’ll be seeing a lot more of her very soon.

23. We Need To Talk About Kevin

This adaption of Lynne Ramsey’s novel is arguably the most disturbing film of 2011. Bolstered by great performances (Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly, and Ezra Miller) this tale of nature over nurture has been described by some as the ideal contraceptive.

Kevin is essentially every parent’s worst nightmare. He is a child who relishes in the suffering of others. He is manipulative and cruel to those in his own family and he appears to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Told through a non-linear stream of events we see this disaster unfold through the eyes of the mother. We know that Kevin has done something horrifying, but we don’t know exactly what until the end of the film. Every minute Ezra Miller is on screen is profoundly discomforting and menacing. Wecan feel the suspense building throughout the film, but we can’t look away.

22. The Tree Of Life

The other day a friend asked me “What is The Tree Of Life about?” It was a simple enough question but one that’s difficult to answer. I took a moment to reflect before responding “Everything”.

Defiantly non-linear, Terrence Malick’s film has drawn comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: ASO due to it’s open ended approach and cryptic philosophical overtones. The film is about the book of Job, the conflict between nature / grace, Plato’s allegory of the cave and countless other ideas depending on who you talk to. Much of the film’s meaning is left up to the viewer, as each individual will experience it differently.

When I first saw it I left the theater in a kind of stupor and had very mixed feelings. It has astonishing visual poetry and cinematography. It also inspires a great deal of philosophical introspection and post-viewing discussion. However, certain aspects of the film (like the last 10 or 15 minutes) come off as self indulgent even on repeat viewings. I don’t believe this is a perfect movie but I do think that its amazing strengths overcome its flaws.

21. Attack The Block

Attack The Block breathes new life into the alien invasion premise by throwing the hostile creatures into one of the U.K.’s roughest neighborhoods. A band of young thugs are eager to take on the invaders, but soon realize that they may have gotten more than they bargained for.

The film has a dark and twisted sense of humor. It blends horror, comedy, and political commentary without missing a beat. The script is full of quotable lines and as far as pure entertainment goes this is one of the year’s best. I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a cult classic. It’s certainly one of the most quotable of 2011.

Much like other films on this list, Attack The Block features some morally questionable protagonists. A lot of viewers, especially those from Britain, were put off by the young chavs and their bad behavior. I personally don’t have a problem with moral ambiguity, but this was a polarizing film for that reason.

20. Incendies
U.S. Theatrical Release: April 22 2011
U.S. DVD Release: September 13 2011

When Nawal Marman dies she leaves her children with the knowledge that they have a father who is still alive and a brother whom that they have never met. This information leads the twins to Lebanon. They begin to uncover their mother’s mysterious history during the Lebanese civil war, but nothing can prepare them for the truth.

Incendies is a family drama, a mystery, and a political commentary all wrapped up in one. While it may strain believability at times it’s an intensely engrossing and powerful film. It has all the elements of a Greek tragedy. No matter what you think of the controversial final act, you won’t be able to forget it.

19. 50/50

It’s probably misleading to call this a cancer comedy, but 50/50 skillfully blends its weighty subject matter with humor. Based on the true story, this film is emotionally powerful and inspirational. An intelligent script and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance are the cornerstones that holds this story together, keeping the film from drifting into made-for-TV sappy territory. It’s no surprise that this was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike.

I watched someone in my family die from cancer many years ago. Having gone through that experience may have influenced my reaction to 50/50. It’s rare that a film can move you emotionally and make you laugh, but this one does. It’s a story about friendship, love, and making the most out of life even in the worst of times.

18. Chico & Rita

This star crossed love story simply jumps off the screen. It has an incredible sense of artistic style, fully transporting the viewer to 1948 Cuba and mid-20th century Manhattan. The music combines with the animation to create an intoxicating blend of sight and sound.

The story behind Chico & Rita captures the struggles of the era while also celebrating Cuba’s musical culture. The relationship shared between the two lovers is at turns delightful and painful, much like the rest of the film. I’m hesitant to say more about the progression of the relationship because I don’t want to give anything away.

This is a rich viewing experience that should appeal to just about anyone. I think it’s clearly the best animated film of 2011.

17. Nostalgia For The Light
U.S. Theatrical Release: March 18 2011
U.S. DVD Release: September 13 2011

Patricio Guzman’s Chilean documentary is a fascinating philosophical work about the study of the past. The film juxtaposes the archeological work that goes on in the dry desert with the astrological observatories that scan the clear skies. These scientists tirelessly research the distant past, yet Chile’s atrocities under Pinochet have been mostly forgotten by people living there today.

Nostalgia For The Light is about how indispensable memory is to the human condition. The same urge that causes us to look out into the heavens and understand our origins motivate us to try and make sense of our own history. While the rest of the world tries to forget, some relatives of Pinochet’s victims continue to scour the desert over two decades later, hoping to find the remains of their loved ones.

It’s a profoundly thought-provoking and human documentary that more people need to see.

16. Warrior

The single biggest surprise of 2011. I figured there was a chance that Warrior could be a decent MMA movie but I wasn’t expecting anything more than that. The trailer made it seem like formulaic garbage designed to cash in on the lowest common denominator. Boy was I wrong…

It turns out that this film, while formulaic in some ways, is a lot more original than people have given it credit for. It has less to do with MMA fighting and more to do with the human struggles going on within a tragically broken family. Terrific acting helps make the dynamic between this family believable and moving. There’s even one scene in here that moved me to tears.

One of the main things I like about this movie is that we know that both brothers can’t win the same competition, even though we’ve been conditioned to root for both of them. This is such a clever and effective approach. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done before in a sports movies.

15. Project Nim

There was an amazing 2011 film about human experimentation on chimpanzees and it wasn’t Rise of The Planet of The Apes. It’s Project Nim, a provocative film about the line between man and animal.

James Marsh’s documentary deals with the controversial experiment to raise Nim as a human child and teach him sign language. Those that had an involvement in Nim’s life are now able to look back and recount what happened in the 1970s with the luxury of hindsight. The hubris and naivete are very evident, yet a few of these individuals care deeply for Nim and are concerned for his future beyond the scope of the project.

The film raises many tough questions without providing easy answers. Where do we draw the ethical line on experimentation? How can a chimp raised as a human being be re-introduced into a society of chimps? Can another species really learn to communicate like a human being?

Not since The Cove has a movie about animals been this moving or unforgettable. Nim’s story is as thought provoking as it is heartbreaking.

14. The Artist

It’s pretty much guaranteed to win ‘Best Picture’ at the Academy Awards. In my opinion, it would be the most deserving recipient of the award since No Country For Old Men won it for 2007.

The Artist may not be the kind of highbrow experience that some film buffs were expecting, but it’s a wonderfully unique crowd-pleaser that had me smiling from ear to ear. I found myself completely absorbed by the triumphs and tragedies of George Valentin and his canine companion. Despite the seemingly simple story about the transition from silents to talkies I was more invested in this emotional roller coaster than the vast majority of 2011 releases. It’s a reminder that we don’t need cutting edge technology to have a great time at the cinema.

If I could sum up The Artist in one word it would be “delightful”.

13. The Man From Nowhere
U.S. Theatrical Release: Conflicting information / Not released in my area
U.S. DVD Release: March 8 2011

This Korean action/thriller reached U.S. shores with virtually no fanfare or buzz. In fact, I had never even heard of it until it was recommended to me by a video store employee. Once I saw it, however, I fell in love. I began recommending it to anyone and everyone I know who enjoys films in its genre.

The Man From Nowhere might best be described as South Korea’s answer to Taken, although I feel like it’s a much better and much darker film. It’s a pulse pounding, brutal ride complete with amazing action sequences and emotional force. The camera work during several of these scenes is excellent, particularly during a window jumping sequence and a knife battle. The soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard all year and adds a lot to the overall experience.

For my money South Korea has become the best source of movies in the world outside of the United States. Edge of your seat entertainment like The Man From Nowhere should help convince a lot of people to feel the same way.

PS: The RT Tomatometer score for this movie is incorrect. It says 48% but the majority of reviews link to rotten scores for the movie In Time.

12. Le Havre

Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre is a light film that deals with a major political issue on a small scale. It’s a utopian vision of human empathy juxtaposed with the harsh realities of immigration.

Marcel must find a way to help a young immigrant named Idrissa who is on the run from the law and trying to reach his family in London. At the same time, his wife Arletty is dealing with a fatal diagnosis that she keeps hidden from him. Yet despite its heavy subject matter Le Havre is (for the most part) a joyful and funny film. It has Kaurismaki’s signature style throughout, including a rock and roll performance by local celebrity Little Bob. The film effortlessly pulls us in, making us feel as though we live in this world for 93 minutes.

It’s a charming film with a simple yet important idea at its center. Marcel decides to violate the law because he is appealing to a higher law. There are moments where all of us do this in our lives, but we often do so without thinking about it. When a woman is pushing her stroller in your traffic lane and there is no oncoming traffic any decent human being would drive onto the wrong side of the road. We violate the letter of the law because it’s the only humane thing to do.

11. Take Shelter

Easily one of the most intense films of 2011, Take Shelter is a drama that often feels like a psychological thriller or a horror film. The story centers on a family man named Curtis who begins to have apocalyptic visions, many of which center around a massive storm that he believes will soon threaten the safety of his wife and child. As the film progresses, these visions get more severe and Curtis begins to take radical measures to ensure his family’s safety by constructing an expensive tornado shelter.

To us (and even to Curtis) this behavior seems like that of a paranoid schizophrenic. His actions are entirely irrational, yet they are born out of the purest of intentions – the desire to protect the people he loves. The final act of this movie has spawned a great deal of discussion and debate. I’ll spare you the details to avoid spoilers, but the final 20 minutes of Take Shelter are incredibly captivating.

It’s worth noting that Jessica Chastain is great in this and that Michael Shannon delivers arguably the best male performance of 2011.

10. The Interrupters

The best documentary I saw all year. The Interrupters tells the story of the Chicago Violence Interrupters who try to prevent bloodshed from destroying a community that some politicians labeled a ‘war zone’. Many of these individuals used to be the perpetrators of violence and crime in the very same areas, so their street cred allows them to have greater influence with young gang members.

It would be easy for such a sensitive subject to descend into cloying melodrama, but The Interrupters stays grounded. It’s an unflinching portrayal of how broken the community is and there are times when we’re left wondering if these workers are having any impact at all. Yet we continue to root for them and the troubled individuals they counsel, hoping that their work might be able to save even one person.

It’s an emotionally inspirational documentary. At times it can be hard to be watch, but it’s absolutely worth it.

9. A Separation

Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a glimpse into foreign world, yet it paints such a human portrait that anyone could relate to it. Combining an excellent script with top notch acting, this story of best intentions gone awry is one of the most captivating dramas in years.

It begins as a story about a family on the precipice of major change, including a likely divorce between Razieh and Simin. Razieh must find a way to care for his grandfather who is suffering from dementia, but with his young daughter around he must look for outside help to ensure adequate care. I won’t go into spoilers, but there are significant events that send this story down a different path. Soon, the family situation is only the backdrop for a heated legal dispute. The remainder of the film is incredibly tense and fascinating. There isn’t a single character whose motives we can’t empathize with, yet we know that the results could be disastrous for certain individuals.

From the opening sequences right up until the stunning final shot, this film has no shortage of amazing scenes. It’s the kind of experience that lingers in the mind and the soul long afterward.

8. The Muppets

It seems like an eternity since Jim Henson’s creations graced the big screen. As a child I always loved the Muppets franchise but when I grew into adulthood these characters faded into a distant memory.

The Muppets returned in 2011 with an insane musical comedy that would make Jim Henson proud. I was expecting to enjoy this but I didn’t anticipate just how funny and endearing the experience would be. I was overcome with nostalgia at certain points, yet the film is so good that even people unfamiliar with the Muppets were won over in a big way.

In addition to its awesome musical numbers this is one of the best comedies to come around in a long time. There was rarely a moment where my audience wasn’t laughing or smiling and I was no exception. This is a love letter to childhood and a celebration of joy. It may not be a popular pick for a top 10 list, but who cares?

7. Love Exposure
U.S. Theatrical Release: September 2 2011
U.S. DVD Release: December 19 2011

The experience of watching Love Exposure is one of the most unique cinematic experiences that’s possible to imagine, or that there has ever been. Clocking in at just under 4 hours, this Japanese epic never slows down. In fact, more happens in any given half an hour of Love Exposure than some full length feature films.

The story blends sex, religion, and unrequited love into an amazingly bizarre experience. At times the film carries emotional weight, making the recurring use of Beethoven’s 7th symphony feel appropriate. A lot of the time, however, the film is just so laugh out loud crazy there’s simply no way we can take it seriously. This may sound like a criticism, but it’s really not. I loved how this movie played with my emotions and combined the ridiculous with the sublime. If you haven’t already seen this I suggest you bid farewell to your sanity and dive in.

6. Hugo

I really had no idea what to expect going into Hugo since I had never read The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The prospect of seeing a Scorsese family film in 3D seemed interesting, but I had no idea that it would be this good.

Hugo is not just the best use of 3D I have ever seen, it’s also one of the best films of the past several years. The juxtaposition of modern 3D with the birth of special effects in cinema works brilliantly, making this a wonderfully unique viewing experience. Scorsese takes full advantage of the technology right out of the gate, opening with an amazing shot that begins outside of the train station and finds its way through to Hugo’s clock tower.

It’s a movie for people that love movies and a beautiful tribute to the early pioneers of cinema. This film conjured up powerful feelings in me seemingly without effort. At one point there’s a montage of some of the earliest works of cinematic storytelling, after people realized that this new technology could be used to tell stories. In one particularly heartbreaking scene we’re told about old film footage being melted down to make women’s shoes after World War I. Scenes like these help make the emotional points feel earned rather than forced. While it’s deeply sentimental it never feels cloying or manipulative.

I saw Hugo in a beautiful old theater with a crowd of all ages. When the movie ended the whole place began to applaud loudly… I was clapping with them.

5. 13 Assassins
U.S. Theatrical Release: April 29 2011
U.S. DVD Release: July 5 2011

Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film is one of the greatest action/samurai movies I have ever seen. The plot involves a sadistic ruler named Lord Naritsugo who will soon become the political adviser to the Shogunate. Despite their dutiful upbringing, several in Naritsugo’s midst recognize that if he gains further political power it would spell disaster for society as a whole. As a result, a small band of samurai accept a suicide mission to assassinate Lord Naritsugo.

The first half of this film is filled with anticipation and intrigue. We’re given a horrifying glimpse of Naritsugo’s evil nature and watch as a desperate plan is hatched against him. The second half of the film is sheer chaos. The final conflict between the assassins and Naritsugo’s men is easily the longest action sequence I have ever seen, clocking in at roughly 50 minutes. This incredibly elaborate battle is fought with brutal finality as we watch the body count increase steadily on both sides.

I won’t go into much further detail for fear of spoilers. I will say that every detail of this film from the buildup to the battle is meticulously realized. Miike even went so far as to train the actors to use an older Japanese dialect that’s more authentic to the period. This is a rare cinematic treat and a must-see for fans of Samurai period pieces or action films.

4. City Of Life And Death
U.S. Theatrical Release: May 11 2011
U.S. DVD Release: October 25 2011

Lu Chuan’s City Of Life And Death (Nanjing Nanjing) might be the hardest movie I’ve ever had to watch and I don’t say that lightly. Dealing with the fall of Nanking in December of 1937, this film is almost unrelenting in its depiction of brutal atrocities and human suffering. For some people this may be too much to handle, but I personally found it to be a bold and uncompromising work about the obscenity of war.

By the time the film passes the one hour mark I would wager that many people either cried or stopped watching. I’m not at all ashamed to say that this experience wrecked me and had me shedding some tears. In fact, I’d be a bit worried if someone made it through the whole thing without some kind of visceral emotional response.

All of this might make City Of Life And Death sound like a gratuitous exploitation piece or nationalist propaganda. I want to stress that this is not the case. Simply put, this is the antidote to commercialized films that deal with atrocity and war. Some of you may be familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s quote about how Spielberg’s Schindler’s List got it wrong because it was a movie about success while the Holocaust was really about failure. This film is that story about failure that Kubrick would have wanted to see.

It’s worth mentioning that Lu Chuan’s direction here is outstanding. Despite the hellish landscape this is a beautifully shot film with breathtaking images. It’s a movie that has the ability to draw you in, making the stakes feel uncomfortably real. If you can stomach it this is an incredible film that you’ll never forget.

3. Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a masterfully crafted thrill ride. I found every second of this film to be incredibly captivating, even on a re-watch. It’s rare that a film can combine lowbrow excitement with art house quality but Drive succeeds at this admirably.

The experience of watching it is completely enveloping. There are moments of tranquility where I lost myself in its beauty, yet there are other times when the film can become so tense that I felt like my heart was going to give out. It’s true that this is not the Fast & The Furious movie some went into it expecting, but the action sequences that are in this film are excellent. There is one scene where a car is put into reverse that made me want to jump out of my seat.

Upon my first viewing I left the theater in a state of euphoria. I was so excited at what I’d just witnessed that I was almost ready to declare Drive the best movie of the year. While I don’t think it’s quite deserving of that honor there is very little separating it from the two films ahead of it. It has a phenomenal cast, amazing direction, the best soundtrack of the year, and it’s just freaking awesome to boot. I actually have a hard time understanding why this movie is so polarizing. As a wise man once said: “haters gonna hate”

2. The Guard

There’s no such thing as the perfect movie, but John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard comes pretty close. I’m going to go big early and just say that this is one of the best comedies of all time. It’s brilliantly written and executed the whole way around. I honestly can’t find anything wrong with it.

This role of an eccentric, wisecracking cop is the part Brendan Gleeson was born to play. It’s also hard to imagine a better fish out of water counterpart than Don Cheadle. The two of them have amazing screen chemistry and elevate the material to greatness. Each of them understands the nuances of the relationship and the tone of the script. There’s no doubt that this is a hilarious comedy, but it’s also surprisingly effective at dealing with more emotional subject matter without making it feel out of place or overbearing.

This is a movie that’s entertaining and hilarious from it’s opening scene to its final act. In fact, The Guard has one of the best opening scenes and ending scenes of 2011. The choice for the finale was perfect, as is the song chosen for the closing credits. I challenge anyone to walk away from this movie unimpressed.

1. Poetry
U.S. Theatrical Release: February 11 2011
U.S. DVD Release: August 23 2011

“Anyone who starts a film going to poetry classes is eventually going to come up with a poem. The one Mija finally delivers will rip your heart to shreds.”
– David Jenkins

Despite having only seen three of his films, Lee Chang-Dong has quickly become my favorite director working today. Each of his works has been exceptional, but his latest film Poetry is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The story centers on Mija, who is wonderfully realized by actress Yun Jeong-Hie. She is an elderly woman who takes care of her grandson and leads a fairly routine existence. This pattern is interrupted when she is diagnosed with alzheimers and then further complicated when she learns that her grandson has committed an unspeakable crime. Soon, the poetry class that Mija began taking for reasons she can’t articulate becomes the center of her life. She struggles to find beauty in the world around her, even in the midst of so much ugliness and cruelty.

Trying to explain what makes this film the best of the year is difficult to put into words. It does a wonderful job dealing with emotions and ideas that are difficult to convey using conventional language. Lee Chang-Dong deals with the film’s difficult subject matter in such an elegant and fearless way, refusing to offer us easy solutions to complex questions of life and art.

The final scene of Poetry is my favorite of the year. I’ve always been a sucker for a great ending and this film has one of the best I’ve ever seen.

My Top 50 Movies of 2010

50: White Material

Claire Denis’ latest film White Material is stylistically similar to her other works. In other words, don’t expect a lot of explanation or fast paced editing.

It has been described as anti-colonial by some, although I feel the true intentions of the film are more complex than that because much is left to the imagination. It manages to be a haunting portrait of African politics and white naivete. It’s a thought provoking film that stays with you.

49: The Fighter

The Fighter has been nominated for ‘Best Picture’ and while I think that praise is unwarranted, I can’t deny that it’s one of the better boxing films to come around in a long time. It may not be War And Peace, but this is a raucous crowd-pleaser that has a lot going for it. It’s possibly the best acting performance I’ve seen from Christian Bale, and I’m normally not a big fan of his.

48: I Am Love

Tilda Swinton is easily one of the most talented actresses working today. In her latest film, the Italian I Am Love, she plays a wife in a loveless marriage with a wealthy husband. Although she is afforded every conceivable luxury, she starts to pursue a forbidden romance. While it takes some time to pick up steam, this becomes an intense and operatic family melodrama that will reward those who stick with it.

47: Easy A
Easy A

Definitely one of the biggest surprises of 2010. I went into Easy A with minimal expectations and couldn’t believe how funny it was. The script is far more intelligent than most of what passes for teen comedy and Emma Stone is kind of a revelation. I can’t believe I’m saying this but some of the biggest laughs I had in 2010 were from this movie.

46: Rabbit Hole


How would you cope with losing your child to a senseless accident? That’s the premise behind Rabbit Hole, a brutally honest film that explores the pain one married couple endures as they try to overcome the death of their only child. Somehow they have to maintain their marriage and move on with their lives… but that’s easier said than done. As one might expect, this film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to your emotions.

45: MicMacs

If you thought Amelie was off the wall, wait until you see Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MicMacs. It’s good whimsical fun and provides for some moments of sheer comic brilliance. Some have accused it as being too quirky or even laborious, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Some of the methods used to perpetrate their stunts are very clever.

44: The Town

There are a lot of ways a movie can be considered good. For Ben Affleck’s The Town, that one thing is simple: action. It doesn’t have much originality or a memorable story… but man, those heist scenes and car chases are worth the price of admission.

I’d almost call it a poor man’s Heat. Although nothing in here lives up to the epic bank heist from the DeNiro/Pacino classic, the scenes in The Town are intense and well directed.

43: I Love You Phillip Morris

A pleasant surprise and very funny to boot. Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor are great in their roles. Devotchka adds to the musical backdrop and there are plenty of classic moments here to entertain. I suppose you could call it a romantic comedy, but its style is so unique that it breaks the mold.

This seems like a hard film not to like, but some will probably have an issue with it being a gay love story.

42: The Tillman Story

A documentary that’s incendiary despite its level headed approach and lack of sensationalism. The story of Pat Tillman is widely known but this documentary goes into such extensive detail about Pat’s family, his life and his death. It really is an incredible story on a lot of levels… both good and bad. This film serves as an anti-mythic record of Pat and is the final chapter in restoring his true legacy.

41: Barney’s Version

Barney’s Version is the story of a twice-married man who falls in love with a woman at his own wedding. What unfolds is a thoroughly interesting journey that’s bolstered by Giamatti’s talents and the novel that inspired the film. I loved the premise from the jump and it exceeded my expectations. It’s too bad it’s buried in obscurity, because this is head and shoulders above best picture nominees like The Kids Are All Right and even The Fighter.

40: You Don’t Know Jack

Al Pacino is Dr. Jack Kevorkian in this aptly titled HBO film. Unless you had an HBO subscription you probably haven’t seen this yet. It’s currently available for rental and I’d urge you to check it out. Not just a great return to form for Pacino, this is a powerful film that deals with heavy moral issues of life, death and suffering. I thought I was educated about Kevorkian but this film was an eye-opener for me. No matter what your opinion is on the right to die this is worth watching and worth talking about.

39: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

I’ve never read the original source material, but Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was an enjoyable watch. The cinematography and editing were great and there’s a lot of clever humor in here that adds to the appeal. If you’re a video gamer or a younger person you’ll probably relate to this more than other demographics, but this one should still appeal to most viewers. Unfortunately, I saw the alternate ending and found it to be a much better conclusion. It’s too bad they changed the finale at the last minute, because the original cut was poignant and something you don’t see very often these days.

38: Vengeance

A lot of films (especially Asian films) deal with the topic of vengeance but they all seem to address the same moral issues. Chinese director Johnnie To’s Vengeance deals with it in an entirely new way and raises moral questions that are a lot more interesting. Is it still important to avenge a terrible tragedy if nobody is left alive to remember or care? Does that matter? Bolstered by some of Johnnie To’s best action sequences to date, Vengeance features exciting gun battles and psychological depth.

37: Get Low

Terrific performances by Robert Duvall, Bill Murray etc. go hand in hand with a compelling script. This aged hermit with a villainous reputation has decided to host a funeral party while he’s still alive. Knowing his death is imminent, Mr. Bush wants everyone to come to his funeral who has a story to tell about him.

We think we know where Get Low is going… we are wrong.

36: The Ghost Writer

Some have joked that it’s a thinly veiled Blair allegory. There may be some truth to that, but the themes in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer transcend modern day politics and it raises important questions about foreign influence and government.

The film works as a paranoid thriller as well as a political commentary piece. I’m also a sucker for a good ending and this film had one of the best finales of 2010.

35: Machete

If you enjoyed the Grindhouse movies this one should be right up your alley. Robert Rodriguez and Danny Trejo team up to turn the Machete promo from Grindhouse into a full-length feature film. The result is one of the most outrageous motion pictures of 2010 that’s a blast to watch. There’s almost zero substance to it despite its political overtones. But if action/comedy is your thing and you can appreciate a little absurdity now and then, Machete delivers. It also doesn’t hurt that Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba are in this.

34: How To Train Your Dragon

Those who were lucky enough to catch How To Train Your Dragon in IMAX3D got a real treat. The visual artistry and flying sequences made the experience a lot like a roller coaster. While it’s hard to gauge how this would look on your television, there’s enough appeal here aside from the graphics to make it worth your while. No, it’s not quite at Pixar’s level. Yes, it’s essentially a kids movie… but it’s a really good kids movie.

33: Dogtooth

No film from 2010 was more bizarre than the Greek import Dogtooth. Probably the best counter-argument to anyone who has ever said “that’s my kid and I’ll raise them however I want.” Extremely disturbing, eerily layered and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. This is not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, but it may be the most daring film I saw all year.

32: Inside Job

One of the more important documentaries of the year, Inside Job does its best to explain the financial crisis to those without a business degree. It sheds a pretty damning light on the financial services industry and as the title would imply there is quite a lot of deliberately risky behavior by banks and wall street tycoons as they play Russian roulette with peoples’ financial futures and U.S. tax dollars.

The only criticism I have is that the documentary spends time attacking Wall Street for personal vices such as hookers and cocaine. I don’t really care about their personal vices… I care about whether they’re ruining the economy.

31: Rare Exports – A Christmas Tale

This Horror/Comedy from Finland is based on old world Christmas myths. Forget what you know about the “Coca-Cola Santa Claus”, he isn’t real. The actual Santa Claus is a demonic beast, unearthed by an American expedition team eager to rob his grave. But when Santa is broken free from his ice prison the townspeople are terrorized and naughty children begin to disappear. Destined to become a holiday cult classic, this Finnish import shares a lot with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.

30: OSS 117 – Lost in Rio

This French spy comedy is what you’d get if you crossed Austin Powers with James Bond and made him racist and misogynist. Way too silly to ever be taken seriously, OSS 117: Lost In Rio is one of the funniest movies to come out in the past year. It’s a hilarious retro journey and worthy sequel to Nest of Spies.

29: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech is very likely to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Obviously I don’t think it’s the best film of the year, but it’s still very good.

The acting is terrific all around and it’s impeccably cast. The music is derivative of classic composers, but it works quite well without being overbearing. It’s a quietly inspiring film and it’s based on a true story that somehow went unnoticed until now.

28: Never Let Me Go

Based on the popular novel, the film Never Let Me Go is a frightening tale of hypothetical science fiction. It has drawn comparisons to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a cautionary tale about science without humanity. As if that wasn’t enough of a downer, the story is also about a love triangle and the pain of unrequited love.

Featuring great performances by Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley there is a lot of emotional weight added to these characters and their plight. Did I mention it’s depressing?

27: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

U.S. Theatrical Release Date: April 23rd, 2010
You could call it a South Korean western. The Good, The Bad, The Weird is outrageous entertainment that features train robberies, gun battles and epic chase scenes. Inspired by the classic Clint Eastwood western The Good, The Bad & The Ugly this Korean film isn’t a remake as much as an energetic re-imagining of the western genre.

26: Restrepo

Although I’ve never served in combat, Restrepo feels like one of the most honest films about war to come out in a long time and for good reason. A documentary crew followed a platoon in Afghanistan’s deadliest region for a full year and this movie was the end result. Due to its restrained journalistic approach you really come to feel like you’re a part of the platoon.

You also get a profound sense of how alien a world Afghanistan is through the interactions with the villagers. It’s a war experience that can’t be communicated through newspapers or letters.

25: The Social Network

The Social Network is a great example of something that doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. The script? Very clever – allegedly borrowing inspiration from Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The acting? Pretty great all around. The soundtrack? It fits the film beautifully. The editing? It’s brilliant.

Yet the story behind Facebook’s creation isn’t inherently interesting enough for this film to live up to its insane hype. It has been called the defining movie of our generation and compared to the great American classics. I’m not quite ready to go there, but this is an undeniably good movie.

It’s worth your attention. More than the minimal amount…

24: Mother

Korean director Bong-Joon Ho’s latest film Mother deals with a woman trying to free her mentally handicapped son from prison. Convicted of a murder that he hastily confesses to, the son is locked up by the system and the case is closed. His mom is certain of his innocence and must go to great lengths to try to prove it.

It’s an outside-the-box thriller that deals with the unconditional love we have for those in our family.

23: Animal Kingdom

The Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom was the winner of the Sundance Film Festival for a reason. It’s a compelling thriller that sneaks up on you and then punches you in the face. A family of bank robbers must deal with a threat from the inside after blood is shed between them and the police. The youngest in their family, Jay, is a threat to become a star witness against them despite his desire to remain neutral. With tensions mounting and peoples’ lives at stake, how long will it take before the structure of the family unravels into chaos?

22: Buried

Paul Conroy has just woken up in a coffin… buried alive. He has a cellular phone and roughly 90 minutes of oxygen. That’s the premise behind Buried which is easily one of the most intense and terrifying films of 2010. If you are claustrophobic this may be too much for you.

I can understand why this film didn’t get a wider release. After all, being trapped inside a coffin with Ryan Reynolds doesn’t sound like the biggest box office draw. But this is a bolder horror film than what we’re used to seeing. It’s also an impressive performance by Reynolds – frankly, I didn’t know he had it in him.

21: Aftershock

Xiaogang Feng’s Aftershock is a film about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. As you might expect, this film pulls at the heartstrings and can be profoundly depressing.

Yet the vast majority of the film is far from emotionally manipulative. Seeing the consequences play themselves out over years… over decades… we’re given a restrained portrait of sentiment and guilt. We come to see how a tragedy can have subtle impacts on a person’s life and behavior that may never go away.

20: 127 Hours

James Franco gives a great performance in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. Based on the incredible true story, this is a visceral film that has caused seizures, fainting and crying in theaters throughout the USA. In fact, someone passed out in the middle of the aisle during my screening.

It’s visually impressive despite its seemingly bland premise. Emotionally investing and unique, 127 Hours is a movie that lives up to its own hype.

19: True Grit

The Coen brothers take on True Grit may not be high art, but it’s one hell of a western. It’s also surprisingly funny at times, with Hailee Stanfield’s performance as Mattie Ross stealing the show. This is a simple film that happens to be brilliantly executed. While it touches on ideas like the consequences of revenge, feminism etc. it’s never explicit about them. This is a movie with a lot of entertainment value and not much else… and that’s fine by me.

18: Carlos

A well crafted political gangster film about Carlos “the Jackal”. The real version is over 5 hours long, although the popularized U.S. version is roughly 2 1/2 hours. It’s a fascinating portrait of a an ego maniacal man who believes fervently in what he’s fighting for. The problem is that the world is moving on without him, making the experience of traveling back in time to watch Carlos’ terrorism a very strange history lesson.

17: Winter’s Bone

Jennifer Lawrence delivers the best performance of the year in Winter’s Bone. The rest of the cast and the atmosphere help make this one of the year’s best movies, too.

Ree’s father cooks meth for a living, but when he skips court he neglected to mention that the family house and property were put up as bond money. Now that he’s considered a fugitive, Ree, her seriously ill mother, and her two younger siblings stand to lose everything. The 17 year old girl must find the courage to go asking around after her father… who for all she knows may be dead or alive. The sense of danger is palpable and the setting of the Ozarks is portrayed brilliantly.

16: Of Gods And Men

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men won the Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes film festival. Based on a true story, these Catholic priests must decide whether to leave their monastery in Algeria. Muslim extremists are waging war with the army and there’s a strong possibility that if they don’t flee they’ll die.

Knowing that the local villagers have come to rely on them for medical care and feeling a strong comradeship with each other, they decide to stay.

The film is a quiet and powerful piece about courage under fire. It’s hard not be affected by it.

15: Another Year

Mike Leigh’s Another Year may not feature any gun battles or car chases, but don’t let that fool you because this is one of the more engaging films of the year.

It’s about how some find happiness and others, for whatever reason, may not be capable of achieving it. Funny at times and poignant at others, Another Year sneaks up on you and stays with you. Lesley Manville’s performance is unforgettable.

14: Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass was either loved or hated by most people that saw it. I happen to have been on the love side of the aisle, finding it to be a hilarious action/comedy and probably the best film in that genre since Kung Fu Hustle. I imagine the haters will be brandishing their pitchforks, but this was probably the funniest movie I saw all year.

If you’re willing to go along for the ride and not take it too seriously you’ll be amply rewarded. Oh, and Hit Girl is arguably the best role of the year. Her character ends up stealing the movie. Come to think of it, Chloe Moretz’ agent probably deserves a raise.

13: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is an enigmatic and disturbing thriller about ballet and live performance. Some have called it a psychological horror film, which isn’t too far from the mark. It has more in common with Aronofsky’s works like Requiem and Pi than his more recent The Wrestler.

Despite its more distracting elements Black Swan features stunning cinematography, great music and strong performances.

The point of the story has been and will continue to be a subject of debate. Personally, I found it to be a metaphor for the pressure artists go through to suspend their disbelief and inhabit a character so unlike themselves.

12: Mesrine

This two part french gangster film doesn’t take long to reach 140 miles an hour. After that it rarely takes its foot off the accelerator.

While it may not do much to shed light on the notorious criminal Jacques Mesrine, it’s one hell of a ride. Feauring a strong lead performance by Vincent Cassel and several intense action sequences, this is definitely one of the more viscerally entertaining films of the year. I still don’t understand why it took so long for this to get an American release.

11: Let Me In

Let Me In is the American remake of my favorite 2008 film, the Swedish Let The Right One In. The two films are nearly identical, as the remake is essentially a plagiarized version of the first film without much deviation. This makes it almost impossible for me to objectively review it. On the one hand I appreciate that it’s a respectful interpretation of one of my favorite films. On the other hand, I felt like I’d already seen this movie many times.

I do have to admit that it’s one of the best remakes of a foreign film I’ve seen out of Hollywood. That it’s a remake doesn’t change the fact that the story is haunting and beautiful. Everything about it is well made and I’m pleased about that considering this will be the version most people see. There are even aspects of the remake that improve on the original: no CGI cats, no mannequin crotch shots etc.

10: Ip Man

Ip Man is loosely based on the life story the martial arts legend Ip who would eventually mentor Bruce Lee. The story takes place in 1938 Foshan China during the Japanese occupation. Although it may not be a masterful work of storytelling, Ip Man is one of the most epic martial acts films to come around in a very long time. If you’re looking for some kick ass fight scenes this is your movie. Just sit back and watch the Wing Chun master do his thing.

9: The Illusionist

Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist may be a French film, but there is virtually no dialogue and doesn’t require subtitles. If you’ve ever seen The Triplets of Bellville then you’re familiar with the style of both the animation and the lack of spoken words.

Watching The Illusionist is like being held in a waking dream. The animation is superb and the story is rich. It has a lot in common with Sofia Copolla’s Lost In Translation from a plot standpoint, while also dealing with things like the loss of wonder and belief in magic.The ending is one of my favorites of the year.

8: The Secret of Kells

U.S. Theatrical release: March 11th, 2010
The Secret of Kells has a unique and beautiful animation style that’s reminiscent of Samurai Jack. It’s also backed up with an intelligent story and the feel of something like a Hayao Miyazaki film. One critic, Jeffrey Chen, summed up The Secret of Kells like this: “emphasizes such lessons as the retainment of knowledge, art, and spirit as perhaps the most valuable act for any surviving society.”

It’s a shame that a gem like this is buried in obscurity. This is a sophisticated animated film that’s enjoyable enough to appeal to any age group.

7: Mugabe & The White African

Robert Mugabe has brought death to many thousands who have opposed him. The iron fisted dictator of Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s rule goes unchallenged. But one man, Mike Campbell, was willing to stand up to him.

This is the story of a family that refused to surrender to Mugabe’s anti-white policy of land redistribution. Motivated by their Christian faith and the idea that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, this one family of farmers must risk their lives as they attempt to set a legal precedent for others.

This is daring and inspiring documentary film making. An emotional roller coaster that can feel like a thriller at times.

6: Blue Valentine

“You always hurt the one you love. The one you shouldn’t hurt at all.” These lyrics sum up the premise of Blue Valentine, a brutally honest film about falling in and out of love.

Romances often present us with a ‘happily ever after’ type of ending. We’re led to believe that when a couple finds true love, everything is going to be grand. This cliche is essentially bitch-slapped by a film like Blue Valentine.

Told through a series of present day events and flashbacks we can see the joy this couple experiences in the earlier years of their relationship juxtaposed with their struggling marriage. Gosling and Williams should have received more recognition for their performances, as the film deserves a best actor and best actress nod at every award show this year.

5: Gasland

Josh Fox’s Gasland is a profoundly disturbing documentary about natural gas drilling in the United States. The process of hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act because of legislation passed in 2005. The 500+ chemicals that are infused into literally trillions of gallons of water each year are considered proprietary like the recipe to Coca-Cola and therefore exempt from EPA study.

In other words, the only things we’re even allowed to know about these processes and the damage caused to people’s livelihood, the environment etc. are by the work of independent film makers and rogue scientists that aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions.

So… can you light your water on fire?

4: Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is the best film of the trilogy. I would have never guessed that going into it but I once again learned that you never doubt Pixar. This film is about the magic of make believe. It’s also about obsolescence, death and the loss of childhood. Pretty heavy stuff for a mainstream animated film, but as we’ve been seeing from works like Up and Wall-E, Pixar isn’t shy about pushing the envelope.

This is an incredibly entertaining and poignant film. It will definitely make you laugh… and it might even make you cry.

3: Secret Sunshine

Lee Chang-Dong’s Secret Sunshine is an emotionally devastating work about coping with tragedy. The film pulls no punches and raises difficult questions about how to cope with loss, exploring complex questions ranging from religious salvation to madness. This is one of the most intense movies I have ever seen, but it’s also a truly great film. If you can handle it, you owe it to yourself to watch it.

2: Exit Through The Gift Shop

The title Exit Through The Gift Shop refers to the place where art and commerce meet. A fitting name for this street art pseudo-doumentary.

In this film Banksy raises some important questions about art generally. What makes good art good? What makes bad art inferior? Why are you some of you morons willing to pay hundreds of thousands for a painting at auction?

Too outrageous to be 100% true, we’re all left wondering what Banksy himself would say about MBW’s ‘Life Is Beautiful’ exhibit. Where does the fiction begin and the reality end? No matter what the answers are, this is a challenging film that will make you question the absurd subjectivity of art.

1: Inception

“Inception made my brain hurt. And it hurt in the most wonderful way.”
– Tim Martain

In my opinion, Inception is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s a bold work of science fiction that breaks new philosophical ground at the cinema. While it’s true that there have been quite a few reality-bending films throughout history (Paprika, The Matrix, Dark City etc.) none have ever been this impressive or intricate.

Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan’s Inception could probably be seen by a dozen different people and produce a dozen equally plausible interpretations. Many have accused it of being too explanatory, but even though the film does its best to explain aspects of the dream science we’re left with far more questions than answers. Each repeat viewing leads to new discoveries and new theories.

Among its many strengths Inception boasts an all-star cast, the best soundtrack of 2010, great cinematography and an iconic ending. It’s hard to imagine how anyone doesn’t like this, yet it has its share of naysayers. Haters will rotate, after all.

One of my favorite aspects of Inception is that it explores Zeno’s dichotomy paradox in the form of the van hitting the water. This paradox suggests that before the van hits the water it has to go 1/2 of the way there… then 1/2 of the remaining distance… etc. and in theory never reaches its target. Inception explores this age old paradox and fuses it with the power of the human mind.

 I’ve seen it five times and still find it to be an immensely re-watchable and entertaining mystery.

My Top 50 Movies of 2009

50: Thirst

Chan Wook Park’s Thirst is a provocative vampire film. The protagonist struggles with his own sense of morality and faith as he tries to make sense of his disease of vampirism and how to best cope with his environment. But as time goes on events begin to spiral beyond his control, giving way to cruelty and self indulgence. This is a film that has more in common with something like Macbeth than Twilight.

49. Broken Embraces

Pedro Almadovar’s new film deals pretty heavily with unrequited love and tragedy. It’s a haunting picture that’s competently directed – with an obsession on the use of film within film and the blurring lines of reality and memory. Penelope Cruz turns in a solid performance. I’m sure some people will want this ranked higher.

48. Il Divo

While it may be a little disorienting for those with no knowledge of Italian politics, this is still a film that can be appreciated for its universal themes about government and the use of power. It’s the story of Giulio Andreotti, a member of the Christian Democrats who served as Prime Minister of Italy three times and was Senator for life. Its fast editing and relentless pace make it unique among mobster films and Toni Servillo is perfect as Andreotti.

47. Up In The Air

It was a great year for dark comedies. Even lesser films like “Observe and Report” provided grim laughs and Up in the Air was one of the standouts this season. Touching on the economic recession and the crowded isolation of American life, UitA is a film that works on many levels. It falls short of being exceptional, but it’s still a smart movie that succeeds as a drama and a comedy.

46. Big Fan

As an Eagles fan, it’s a bit strange for me to give props to a film that portrays a Philly fan as its key villain. This is a fascinating portrayal of “Paul from Staten Island” who is the self-described world’s biggest Giant’s fan. Although he works at a parking garage and lives with his mother, he doesn’t aspire to anything more than football on Sundays and calling into the local sports talk radio show to engage in a verbal war of words with “Philadelphia Phil”. It’s a fairly dark film and Patton Oswalt is surprisingly good.

45. Mary and Max

This is a very unique animated film. The only other films it reminds me of are Lost in Translation and Let the Right One In. What M&M shares is the idea that two people alone in the world will eventually find and comfort each other. Seymour Hoffman is excellent and the theme music is memorable in a good way. It may be a little too weird for some, but I recommend it.

44. The Messenger

This movie is intense, which is no surprise given its subject matter. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play the roles of Captain and Staff Sergeant – tasked with delivering the worst possible news to the next of kin. It’s a movie without a political agenda and it’s very well made

43. Watchmen

Watchmen was a comic book / movie adaptation that was supposed to be un-filmable. While the director’s cut version clocks in at roughly 3:30m comic book purists have still complained that it leaves out a lot. All that being said this is a very faithful adaptation and one of the more mature graphic novel films ever made.

42. Julia

This is gripping thriller with a standout performance by Tilda Swinton, who should have at least been nominated for Best Actress. It’s nerve-wracking at times but it’s always compelling. Julia is a  tense roller-coaster ride that you can’t take your eyes off of.

41. Sugar

I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a movie like this before. Sugar tells the story of “Sugar” Santos, a DR pitcher who is called up to the KC Royals minor league system. A fish out of water in the U.S., Santos must find a way to step up his game or risk losing his shot at the big leagues. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but it was not what I expected going in.

40. Tokyo!

This is an almost impossible film to describe. It’s divided up into three short films, all taking place in Tokyo, all of them directed by a non-Japanese director. The stories have absolutely no relation to each other. The first act is the weakest in my opinion, but acts 2 and 3 by Carax and Joon-Ho are mesmerizing and offer us something we’ve never seen before. Part of the fun is seeing which of the three is your favorite.

39. Two Lovers

I’m not really sure why, but I resisted seeing this one for a long time. When I finally watched it I was surprised at how involved I was getting and how skillfully it was made. This is a really fascinating (and unlikely) love triangle that forces us to think about the role that chance and opportunity play in relationships. Good acting all around, a solid script… better than The Sound of Music.

38. World’s Greatest Dad

Robin Williams revitalizes his career (at least in terms of quality) with World’s Greatest Dad. This is a relentlessly grim comedy in which a father has to cope with a truly awful son. It deals with a range of subjects from unconditional love to celebrity worship. For those that don’t mind their humor or drama dark, this is very good stuff.

37. Ponyo

If you enjoy Miyazaki’s other films like Spirited Away then you’ll like Ponyo. If you’re not into his style… well, then you probably won’t like this one either. I like Ponyo because (like his other films) it’s a surreal journey of animation – almost like dreaming while awake. I know they hired some big name American actors, but please watch it in Japanese.

36. District 9

District 9 is one of the most original films of the year. Even though some of its elements are derivative of other movies, everything has been before. Looking vastly more impressive than its budget D9 is a film that touches on everything from life in the universe to apartheid, racism, abortion, superstition and the evil men do. In fact, if there’s one real criticism of District 9 it’s that it’s too ambitious and touches on too many subjects in a hurried way. Still – this is very good and entertaining science fiction.

35. Taken

A pleasant surprise – Taken didn’t get stellar reviews but it succeeds as an action film. Engaging from start to finish, Liam Neeson pulls off a character that could give Jason Bourne a run for his money… and all without the shaky cam! Taken’s action sequences are shot with long takes making it easy to follow what’s going on without losing any of the excitement.

34. Bronson

What a wild ride this is… based on the true story of Britain’s most violent criminal, Bronson is a glimpse into the mind of a violent psychopath. While we may all be happy that this man is behind bars, it’s still an entertaining spectacle. We’re not asked to sympathize with him – just to marvel at his life. Did I mention that Tom Hardy is the man?

33. The House Of The Devil

I imagine not everyone will agree with this. Set in 1980s America, this retro horror film is a breath of fresh air for anyone tired with mainstream U.S. horror. While it’s a tad controversial in terms of viewer reaction, what horror isn’t? This was my favorite film in the genre this year (sorry Paranormal Activity, Drag me to Hell and Pontypool). THotD excels at creating tension and exploiting the horror of things unseen. I liked it enough to purchase it on Blu Ray.

32. Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are was one of the most controversial of the year and while I’m not going to rank it #1 or #2 of 2009 like some prestigious critics have (AO Scott, Michael Phillips) I do have to give this one a lot of respect. The director even said that this is not a film made for kids, so get any ideas of this being a childrens movie out of your head. This is a painfully nostalgic look at childhood and in some ways, the loss of childhood. Adolescent wonder and mature themes collide in this film, which moved me in ways I was not expecting.

31. 24 City

Part documentary, part recreated history… Jia Zang Ke’s new film 24 City is a reflection on the stories of Chinese life over the past half century. The state-owned factory 420 shuts down to give way to a complex of luxury apartments called “24 CITY”. Three generations, eight characters: old workers, factory executives and yuppies. Many of the stories are profoundly moving and it’s a fascinating glimpse into a foreign world.

30. The Hangover

Yes, THAT Hangover. I’ll probably catch some flack for ranking it this high but it’s one of my favorite American comedies in recent memory. I went into it expecting it to be decent and ended up laughing the whole time along with my friends and the rest of the theater. From a tux delivery system on wheels to an inappropriate wedding singer all the way back to Mike Tyson’s tiger… it’s tough not to enjoy the twists and turns of this wacky comedy. I’m glad to be part of the wolf pack.

29: Red Cliff

John Woo passes on flash gunplay and instead does a recreation of Chinese military history. Red Cliff is epic in budget, scale and was originally released as two separate movies with a running time of over four and a half hours. The U.S. version is roughly 2hr40m and it feels like a completed product to me. If you love military action on the big screen this is sure to give you your fix.

28. Flame & Citron

You could call Flame & Citron a real-life Inglourious Basterds. It’s a movie based on the lives of two Danish resistance fighters who routinely assassinated their Nazi enemies in Copenhagen. Based on real history and inspired by the famous Army of Shadows, Flame & Citron is a noir bloodbath that’s fast paced and challenging. I’m shocked that this story hadn’t been made into a movie before.

27. The Road

How did this not get wider distribution? While I haven’t read the novel I’m told that this is an extremely faithful adaptation. Some have even criticized it for being a little too much like the novel, arguing that it could have been more emotionally engaging if it had broken free of its source material. Whatever the case, this is a film that draws you into its world in a way few others can. We find ourselves becoming desensitized and paranoid – just like the survivors. Yet you have to keep going on somehow or some way… carrying the fire inside us no matter how bad life gets.

26. Star Trek

I’m not a big Star Trek fan, but this reboot was ridiculously entertaining. It starts off with a bang and the pace never slows down. JJ Abrams has breathed life into what had become a dead franchise by literally re-writing history and assembling a nearly perfect young cast, each of whom are instantly recognizable in their roles. I only hope that the inevitable sequels can live up to this!

25. The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon won the most prestigious prize in all of cinema in 2009, taking home the Cannes film festival Palme D’or. While it doesn’t quite live up to that lofty standard, this is still a challenging and haunting film by Michael Haneke. Set in a northern German village prior to the start of World War 1, evil misdeeds are taking place and the culprit remains at large. As we try to solve the mystery we’re confronted with cruelty and malice at every angle.

This is a pessimistic film about the evil of man and the collapse of society. It’s not the most entertaining film of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most unforgettable. I highly recommend it.

24. 35 Shots of Rum

Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums is a beautiful and patient story about the connections we make with family and loved ones.  Minimal in scope but big on thematic relevance, this is the kind of film that has an inner beauty we rarely see at the cinema. For anyone who has ever loved or let go this film will ring true.

23. Moon

This is a film for people that love intelligent science fiction. Clint Mansell’s original score adds beautifully to this low-budget project. Sam Rockwell turns in (arguably) the best performance of the year as Sam Bell, a lonely miner on a Lunar Industries moon base who is nearing the end of his 3 year contract. Unable to communicate in real time, Sam must send recorded messages back and forth to his wife and child – his only companion is the base computer Gerty (Kevin Spacey). But not everything is as it seems on the Lunar base and Sam fears he may be losing his sanity.

22. A Serious Man

The Coen brothers’ (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski) new film A Serious Man is sure to inspire a lot of controversy. Some love it and declare it the best film of 2009 while others find it confusing and pointless. In my opinion this is a good comedy that touches on some profound themes in a skillful way. The ending is sure to get your mind working as each viewer must determine what it means to them in the context of the film. The more I re-watch it the more I like it.

21. Sin Nombre

Carey Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre is a thriller about two star crossed individuals – Sayra and El Casper. She was taking the dangerous journey from South America through Mexico with her family, trying to reunite with relatives living in New Jersey. He was part of the MS13 gang before starting the same perilous journey. This is a gangster film, a thriller, a star crossed love affair and a movie about illegal immigration. It’s also riveting storytelling from start to finish. Hard to believe this is a debut effort.

20. Fish Tank

There was a really great coming-of-age story that came out of the UK this year… and it wasn’t An Education. It’s Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, a nifty import with a strong performance by first-time actress Katie Jarvis. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, this is a fearless film that doesn’t shy away from anything. Summarizing the plot would spoil the movie, but I’ll say that I’ve never seen anything quite like the ending of Fish Tank – it stayed in my head for days.

19. Goodbye Solo

Ramin Bahrani is known for his minimalism and forgoing Hollywood flash for more true to life cinema. While his earlier works have shown great promise, I think Goodbye Solo is his best film yet. It’s the story of a North Carolina taxi driver from Senegal named Solo who meets a suicidal old man named William. William offers to pay Solo a large sum of money if he’ll drive him to a mountain on Oct. 20th and leave without him. Solo accepts the offer but starts to get curious about William’s life, even attempting to reach out to him and trying to be his friend. This is a powerful human drama with an ending you can’t forget.

18. The Hurt Locker

This is arguably the most suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat movie experience of 2009. Following the stories of the bomb squad heroes who disarm IEDs in Iraq, this is the first movie set in the war that isn’t about the war. Instead, Kathryn Bigelow paints a portrait of the men who take the risks and keep going back for more. A psychological thriller about how people react to the rush of combat, The Hurt Locker is the film for anyone who has ever wondered how soldiers, police, astronauts etc. can consistently risk their lives. The only knock on the film is that certain scenes are unrealistic according to some who have served overseas.

17. You, The Living

This Swedish film is a blending of dozens of scattered scenes illustrating the truth, beauty and absurdity of life. It has elements of a musical, a comedy and a serious philosophical piece… this is a surreal film that suggests we should treasure the life we have. One critic called You, The Living a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Monty Python, which sounds about right. This is a wholly unique film that reminds us that – even when life is bad – we can still dream.

16. Passing Strange

Spike Lee’s new movie consists of footage from a broadway musical called Passing Strange. Filmed on the show’s last night, this is a coming of age story about a young man who feels out of place in 1970s LA. He decides to start a brand new life for himself and heads off to Europe in his quest for “The Real”. This is a play that’s funny and full of life. The four main performers do almost all of the acting despite the constantly changing time and locations. Oh… did I mention the music by Stew and crew is really good?

15. (500) Days of Summer

In the genre of romantic comedies, mediocrity is often the goal. Studios try to conform to cookie cutter stereotypes in order to meet audience expectations and cash in on date movie box office numbers. This is not one of those movies. Some have even debated whether this is a rom-com at all, but for the purpose of this summary I’ll call it that.

The hit of the Sundance Film Festival, (500) Days of Summer is a romantic coming of age story about a boy (Tom) who falls in love with a girl (Summer) and has to cope with losing her. The cinematography is excellent and the film is funny and touching. The scene “Expectations vs. Reality” is one of the best of the year.

14. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably his best movie. It’s an incredible imagining of the Dahl children’s book and very difficult not to like. Its humor can be appreciated by adults and children – this is a very funny, quirky affair that I’m looking forward to purchasing on Blu Ray. I can’t say enough good things about it – Excellent voice acting all around, the stop motion animation is a labor of love… one of the most entertaining of 2009.

13. ANVIL! The Story of Anvil

I had no idea what to expect of Anvil going into it. I knew it had received stellar review scores and was called a “real life Spinal Tap” but that was all. When I finally rented it I was blown away. This is an incredibly entertaining and surprisingly moving documentary about a band who had their 15 minutes of fame back in the 1980s and inspired several big name metal groups. While others went on to make millions they withered in obscurity. Now in their 50s, the band is working on their 13th album and still trying to get recognized. This is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in a while and it will make you question the merits of following your dreams and never calling it quits. You don’t have to like heavy metal music to enjoy this one.

12. Black Dynamite

Anaconda Malt Liquor gives you OOooooohhhhH!!!
Black Dynamite is the coolest, baddest cat around. He drives a $5,000 car and wears a $100 suit. Can you dig it?

Seriously, just watch this hilarious blend of 70s blaxploitation spoofing. It wasn’t widely released (less than 100 theaters screened it in the U.S.) but it’s one of the funniest movies to come out in recent years.

 11. The Chaser

Na Hong-Jin’s The Chaser is an edge-of-your seat thriller. It’s filled with palpable tension and horrifying imagery, yet it also manages to blend  in subtext about bureaucratic ineptitude and moral redemption. This may be the most pulse pounding film of the year and while it’s not for the squeamish I would recommend it to just about anyone. Ha Jung-Woo plays an amazing and iconic villain.

10. In The Loop

All roads lead to Munich! In The Loop is, for my money, the best comedy of 2009. It’s incredibly witty, sharp, and relentlessly absurd. The premise involves a brewing war between the US/UK and an unnamed middle-eastern country. The only other film I can compare it to is Dr. Strangelove although ItL is more of a pure comedy.

As we follow these career-minded individuals we begin to see that at every level there is rampant egoism and incompetence. This is chalk full of quotable lines and big laughs. If you love great satire or political humor you’re going to love In The Loop.

9. Revanche

I could go into a lot of detail about why Gotz Spielman’s Revanche is one of the best of the year, but this is a film that is better unfolded to your own eyes. The title is German for revenge, however, so I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to mention its theme. Lots of films have dealt with the topic of revenge in recent years but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done this well. Part thriller and part psychological drama, this is bold film making that will resonate with you long after it’s over.

Heads Up: first 20 seconds have no subtitles because it’s in Russian and if you were Austrian you wouldn’t be able to understand. The subs resume shortly after this.

8. Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage make beautiful music together in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, a darkly comedic film about police corruption. This role of a drug-abusing cop the part Cage was born to play. While it does address themes about law and society, this film is so insane at times that we can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. One of the most entertaining and original films to come around in a long time, you owe it to yourself to see this gem if you haven’t already.

7. The Cove

I didn’t expect The Cove to be this good or this thought provoking. No matter what your opinion on animal rights this documentary is sure to be talked about. At the very least, this will stay ingrained in your memory for a long time. The film begs a lot of tough questions about man’s role in nature and how we value other intelligent life.

Ric Barry flies to the town of Taiji Japan in his attempt to expose their hidden activities of dolphin brutality. He is followed and harassed at every turn, eventually having to put together an Oceans 11 style team of recon men and tech savvy helpers in his quest to expose the truth. It’s a documentary that feels like a thriller and it’s emotionally powerful.

6. A Prophet

Jacques Audiard’s latest film Un Prophete is one of the best crime dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s a journey into a world of prison politics that none of us would ever want to inhabit, and yet this is where our 19-year-old protagonist Malik El Djebena must find a way to survive. As time goes by he undergoes a transformation, becoming absorbed into the criminal element by the Corsicans who use him as their Arab on the inside. I won’t say much more because it risks spoiling the plot, but this is one film that absolutely lives up to the hype.

5. Avatar

Why did I rank Avatar this high?

First, I have to admit I saw it in IMAX3D so my impression may be different from people who saw it in a normal theater or on their computer screens. Second, of all the movies I’ve seen this may be the hardest to rate- and I’m not just talking about 2009.

Why is it so difficult to rate Avatar? Because it is, quite simply, one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences of my life. Entertainment value is not the sole criteria by which you judge a movie… but it’s important, especially for a sci-fi action film. Judging it as an action/adventure blockbuster and a technological achievement I thought it was great. When I walked out of the theater for the first time I had a smile on my face and felt elated like I was twelve years old. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just being honest.

Does Avatar have flaws? Of course… from cheesy dialogue to a mix of cliche story elements, it’s not hard to see why so many people criticize it. Almost anyone could identify these on first viewing and for some, these flaws make it impossible to enjoy the film. While it’s hard to ignore the poor dialogue, the story still managed to move me emotionally because of one very simple reason: capitalist thugs and genocidal imperialists are cliches. They are based on cliched thinking. There’s a reason these stories re-occur through human history and why they’re re-imagined in films from Dances with Wolves to Braveheart.

4. Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino’s latest film may also be his best. Inglourious Basterds is a fantastic romp through 1940s France as U.S. Jewish soldiers are tasked with killing as many Nazis as they can. Brutally violent, incredibly suspenseful… as always Tarantino is the master of style. The script challenges all prior assumptions about what a World War 2 film should be and the screenplay is boosted by the best character in Tarantino’s film history: Col. Hans Landa of the SS.

Christoph Waltz is the best actor in any film I saw this year. He’s that good and the character is that good. While pacifists may cringe at QT’s vision, it doesn’t change the fact that this is outstanding film making and a celebration of cinema. That’s a BINGO!

3. UP

The first 13 minutes of Up are pure movie magic. This film was able to accomplish more in its opening scenes than some films fail to do in 3 hours of run time. Not only that, but it was done with virtually no dialogue or character development. I believe this is Pixar’s most mature film to date and it doesn’t shy away from love, loss, and the inevitable coming of old age. It has a beautiful balance between dreams differed and dreams realized. It’s consistently funny, the animation is gorgeous, the music is perfect… it’s a nearly flawless animated film that can be enjoyed by 7 year olds and 70 year olds.

In my opinion this is the best American movie of 2009. It may be my favorite Pixar film, although it’s tough to choose just one.

2.Tokyo Sonata

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first film to break from the horror genre, Tokyo Sonata is a beautiful and at times bleak portrait of a modern Japanese household. On the surface everything appears to be normal with the Sasaki family, but as we look closer we can see that the father secretly lost his job, the mother is emotionally distant, the youngest son is in trouble at school etc.

Slowly but surely each of the family members’ lives begins a downward spiral and the family unit starts to break apart. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the finale to Tokyo Sonata is possibly the best scene of any 2009 movie and one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen.

1. Burma VJ

People throw around words like ‘courageous’ and ‘brave’ a lot when it comes to film making and the arts, so much that the words can start to lose their meaning. When talking about Burma VJ these aren’t just appropriate – they may be understating it. This is footage shot by Burmese activists who are literally risking their lives and their freedom to smuggle footage out of the country. If caught, they face the possibility of a life sentence or, in some cases, death.

For those less familiar with Burma’s military dictatorship this will probably be a shocking eye-opener. Documenting the recent political uprising of the monks and citizens, the footage in here is profoundly moving and inspiring. It raises some very difficult questions about how to deal with tyrannical governments that feel the citizen is the property of the state. Living in a civilized democratic country, it’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it would be like to live even a day under one of these regimes. A documentary like this immerses us in the culture of fear and depicts the brutal struggle for human rights. If ever there was a testament to the power of moving images, this is it.