1. Upstream Color
Upstream Color is one of those special movies that rarely come along that traverse new territory. Writer/director/actor/producer/cinematographer/composer/camera operator Shane Carruth does an amazing job with this strange, complicated story that conveys a familiar but often not discussed feeling. It’s when you sense you’re part of a cycle, but you don’t know what that cycle is or your role within it. You don’t know if you’re damaging others or helping them. Carruth shows this feeling through the story, images, and sounds to amazing effect. I can’t remember the last time a movie took me to a feeling no other film had touched, at least not as truthfully or deeply.
Additionally, Upstream Color goes somewhere magnificent exploring the idea of power. There are a lot of business movies that cover why American business is the way it is, like Margin Call, Wall Street or The Wolf of Wall Street, but I find that Upstream Color is much more apt in an indirect way. It highlights the way an ecosystem exists, that leads to a highly unusual overarching structure created by singular acts. That’s the thing about movies like Upstream Color, they’re so true to human feeling that they can be applied in all sorts of surprising situations. It’s a common characteristic among masterpieces, of which Upstream Color certainly is.
2. The Past
Asghar Farhadi’s films deftly peel away the layers of their characters and the complex moral conflicts he establishes. Like A Separation, The Past meanders around a central conflict, exploring each person’s unique perspective, and in this case suffering, to establish complete understanding. As is now expected of Farhadi, each portrait is fully realized. A handful of times I couldn’t hold back tears, as Farhadi slowly pulled back the curtain. Like one rarely does at the cinema, I felt the full depth of characters’ emotions. I felt the character Lucie so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn't stop caring about her. She represents that rare instance when I’m upset that I can’t meet a character and know them in real life. However I suppose that's because Farhadi’s characters aren’t characters, they’re human beings.
The tragedy of The Past is not that we’re all different. It’s that all human beings are essentially the same, and our inability to see this often causes tremendous pain, whether that be in minor quibbles or death. The Past touched me deeply, and I will never forget it.
My review of The Past can be found here. I hope to write a more in-depth look at the film when it's out on home video. My recent second viewing in theaters was even more incredible than the first from Telluride.
Grief and depression are small, personal emotions that feel insurmountable. When the space accident first happens at the beginning of this film, Stone (Bullock) is detached from the ship and Kowalski (Clooney). The resulting panging in my chest of true horror actually had me in tears both times I saw the film. Cuarón patiently uncovers Stone's anguish from losing her daughter. Make no mistake, this is a masterful screenplay. Minimalism and simplicity are not necessarily lack of depth (my detailed look at the film can be found here).
Cuarón has created a masterpiece and frankly this has little to do with new technology, great 3D or being a thrilling edge of your seat experience. Gravity is a masterpiece because it conveys a common yet intense emotion more effectively than any film I’ve ever seen.
4. Beyond the Hills
I first saw Beyond the Hills at the New York Film Festival in October 2012 and it has stayed with me all this time. Mungiu is not a filmmaker with a purpose, he tells a deeply compelling story and allows the viewer to find the meaning. Beyond the Hills continues to reveal his mastery of cinema that we saw with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.
Beyond the Hills explores the relationship between two women in a convent at a remote location in Romania. Don’t look too far into the plot of this film, just watch it. It mesmerizes, especially when Cosmina Stratan is on screen, as she delivers one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. I implore you not to look into what this film is about because if you go in blind, like I did, the last hour will shock and revolt you. I’ve not shaken this film for over a year, and I expect to be thinking about it for more years to come.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
I’ve been obsessed with this movie since I saw it in mid-November. I bought the soundtrack the subsequent Tuesday (upon its release), and haven’t stop listening to it since. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. This is not a normal Coen Brothers movie; Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange kind of road movie, moving from couch to couch and diversion to diversion. It’s effective because all the pieces fit together perfectly, and it's bursting at the seams with heart and soul. I’m still not sure exactly what I think about it, but I know that I feel a ton of emotions, and that’s good enough for me. I'll be revisiting this film many more times in my life.
You can find my initial review here.
6. Before Midnight
The "Before" trilogy is a remarkable achievement in exploring human relationships. The truth in things unsaid between Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight gives me the chills. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have created characters that have been deeply ingrained in my mind since I first saw Before Sunrise in high school. What I love about them, is how they recognize love in the face of our transience.
It’s like the quote from the dinner scene in Before Midnight: “It’s just like our life, we appear and we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just… passing through." These films are rare among romantic comedies. They accept death and life’s darkness, alongside love and beauty.
7. The Act of Killing
Sometimes you’re shocked to find out what humanity is capable of. Even worse, sometimes you have to sit through it and experience this terror. How can people do things, and then just move on? The Act of Killing is about Indonesian leaders re-living the genocide they committed in the 1960s. It’s stunning, an absolute must-see.
I saw Her the day before finalizing this list, so I haven't quite had time to let it simmer. Every year there's a film that I know belongs on my list but I need much more time to figure out than is permitted (Amour and Zero Dark Thirty are recent examples). For context, I've seen seven of my top ten films multiple times already...so once is just not enough, especially for such an unusual and complex film. On top of that, Spike Jonze is my favorite artist, so expectations were high (I'm Here is one of my all time favorite films, and I'm also a huge fan of Where the Wild Things Are, What's Up Fatlip (the documentary), Adaptation., and Being John Malkovich).
Her is a remarkable film. It didn't blow me away at the level of Gravity or Upstream Color, but frankly, those didn't do so on the first try either. The relationship portrayed stunningly by Phoenix and Johansson is a unique achievement that deserves even more praise than it's getting. They show what's it's like to fall for someone, despite the unusual sci-fi circumstances presented in the film. This astounding achievement and its implications are provocative, however on first watch, I'm more drawn to reflecting on Phoenix's personal conflicts. Thus, I've barely begun to plunge into the sci-fi elements of the film. I'm still purely caught up in loneliness of this puppy dog guy. So at this point I have some reservations about Her, but that's just for now. We'll see how I feel this time next year, I'm guessing it'll place higher on the list.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines
Some movies bash you over the head. If the message is strong and the presentation is sincere, these films can work. The Place Beyond the Pines certainly fits this category, which kept me at the distance upon my first viewing. But when I watched it again, the film worked tremendously since I accepted some pretty unlikely coincidences. There’s a poeticism to Cianfrance’s images, like in Blue Valentine, but unlike many skilled auteurs, Cianfrance imagines his new film with a whole new visual palette, in terms of blocking, movement and color, and it’s equally stunning. The Place Beyond the Pines is haunting. Sometimes hauntingly sad and other times hauntingly beautiful. There's a moment of forgiveness and mercy in this film, which shines as a beacon of light bursting through the overwhelming hopelessness of the rest. Watch this movie for the first time, or re-watch, and remember this time to let it wash over you like a poem. Hopefully then you'll be moved by it like I was the second time.
10. Labor Day
Labor Day is a very different film for Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air). Rather than being sharp and quick-witted, it’s careful and considered.
It struck me as being about parenting. The boy’s father is around once a week, but he’s not truly mindful and present. Somehow this escaped convict comes into their lives, and touches both mother and son, because he truly pays attention to them. Only a great filmmaker can take a seemingly absurd premise and put the whole theater in tears. Reitman achieves this with grace, further revealing how exceptionally talented he is. You can find my review of Labor Day from Telluride here.
Honorable mention: Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue is romantic and real, pulsing with uncomfortable sincerity. Kechiche is by no means trying to exploit these two girls. It’s not a coincidence that we see Adele eating spaghetti casually like when no one is watching. The film doesn’t just focus on Adele in the bedroom, but rather as a lost high school student discovering her identity.
This is the kind of film that I forget is a movie; I feel like a voyeur watching someone’s real life. I’m still somewhat shocked at the idea that Adele and Lea aren’t actually just playing themselves, it’s that convincing. You can find my review of Blue from Telluride here.
Honorable mention: Fruitvale Station
This film, based on the true story of Oscar Grant, is my favorite take on race since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled. It’s not an in-your-face, commentary. It’s a brief look at the life of an African-American male, mostly reveling in him as an ordinary person. Yes he sells drugs, but he doesn’t hold to your idea of a “thug”. Fruitvale is best when it’s showing him as an ordinary father loving his child, or an ordinary son buying Maryland crabs for his mother’s birthday dinner. This approach makes the shocking ending truly horrifying, revealing the tragedy of modern racism.
Additional honorable mentions: Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Laurence Anyways
Biggest misses: A Touch of Sin, The Armstrong Lie, At Berkeley, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Wadjda