by David Schloss

It was a rather good year for films, to my pleasant surprise. I found myself making meta-value judgments to sort out all the contenders, so many of which had many serious merits. It was a pleasure.

1. American Hustle. Great serious screwball script that sustains its complicated logic throughout. Great ensemble cast, with Christian Bale’s best performance, the always wonderful Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper, with remarkable cameos by Robert De Niro and Louis CK, et al. Finely paced direction by David O Russell, with more ambitious themes than his Silver Linings Playbook, sustaining a core sweetness despite all the ugliness and violence inherent in a crime string operation. A memorable Classic.

2. 12 Years a Slave. Director Steve McQueen’s breakthrough film, of real social import and impact. Intense performances by Michael Fassbender (as always) and Chiwetel Ejiofor anchor the melodramatic material. McQueen finally allies his aestheticism with his serious themes of his two previous features (Hunger, Shame). The atmospheres and drive of the emotional action is supported by a large cast of cameos, all incisive. An important document.

3. Blue is the Warmest Color. A remarkable long form exploration of youthful emotional lives has intense cumulative impact. Adele Exarchopolous’ and Lea Sedoux’s risk-taking performances anchor the wrenching passions generated by their affair.  Director Kechiche (the Secret of the Gain) brings a particular intimacy of focus to bear, as he did in his previous work. This work for me is the only one comparable in length and pay off to Jean Eustache’s 1973 late New Wave masterpiece The Mother and the Whore.

4. The Patience Stone. A great performance by Goldshifta Ferahani in what is largely a single character monologue during civil war-time in Afghanistan makes tragically memorable this beautifully composed chamber drama in a French-shot co-production, written by Jean Claude Carriere, who worked with Luis Bunuel and Claude Chabrol. The beauty of the images belies the nightmare surrounding the characters’ circumstances. A sophisticated artistry controlls the horror of the situation, achieving a kind of grace.

5. Fill the Void. Asa Bernshtein, an Israeli Hassidic woman, directed her first film with the poise and clarity of a Jane Austen novel. Composed and meditatively unfolding, the struggle of a young woman to make a complex moral decision  while staying true to herself and her tight-knit Hassidic community creates an intensity of regard remarkable and surprisingly moving in this unusual intimate look into a hitherto unrepresented world.

6. Before Midnight. The deepest of the trilogy (so far) by Richard Linklater with the full collaboration of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset appeared 9 and 18 years before and now the emotional stakes have deepened in this Eric Rohmer-like discussion fest regarding sophisticated interactions and exchanges in their intimate relationship. Lots of tracking shots capture the conversations in very long actor-focused takes. The emotional payoffs are intense and convincing, often surprising and revelatory.

7. All is Lost. JC Chandor’s Margin Call was the most intelligent, well, made film on the Wall Street debacle. This film is something completely different, but equally adept. The occasionally limited Robert Redford is very well used in what’s one of his best performances, an almost silent portrait of survival against all odds of a man alone at sea, It’s a similar plot to Gravity, but deeper and more spiritually earned. Also, better directed for all of Gravity’s eye-popping 3d. This is the individualist struggle film that may be a paradigm of of our perilous economic and political times.

8. Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley’s meta-documentary, which seems to be a searing examination of her parents’ marriage, but turns out to be reenacted by actors and scripted (by her, her step=father, who is directed in his readings of said script) as she searches for her “real “father” (who is played opposite her by an actor. The convolutions and complications of “reality” are generated by this audacious work of “fiction-making” about family history and family romance. The same obsessive themes as in Polley’s Away from Her are to be found in this multi-layered examination of subjective truths versus reality. Intellectually scintillating.

9. Prisoners. Denis Villenueve (Incendies) directs this genre film about a kidnapping that evolves into a much darker meditation on the limits of people in desperate situations, not unlike Incendies in that regard. Noirishly dark throughout and etched with memorable performances buy  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllanhaal, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, this is part horror film like Silence of the Lambs and partly a descent into hell a la Roman Polanski. Very stylish and very disturbing, less tragic than Incendies but it transcends its genre roots nonetheless.

10. Her. Spike Jonze continues his off-kilter darkly comic examinations of the modern world (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) with a near future love story of man and machine. But the machines transcend the human and lonely lovers are left behind in all their limitations. A cautionary fable with tragic overtones, ably embodied by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson as a computer app.  The visual design is bland and creepy as a vision of an affectless near future in store for those left behind.

Very Honorable Mentions:

11. Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s (Election, Sideways) portrait of his home state, with Bruce Dern and Will Forte on the very flat road. Antic and surreally funny eventually in a totally deadpan delivery. Sharp black and white rendition of space and textures and sly comic turns that build to a touching denouement. It’s a highly selective visual exhibit of the Nebraskan wilderness, with minimal condescension.

12. Philomena. Stephen Frears, director of many sophisticated comedies, balances a witty script with heartfelt outrage and vehemence. Direction, script, and acting make the difference here. Judy Dench is luminous as usual, Steve Coogan (co-writer and comic actor) is surprisingly rounded, serious, and real in this tale of abuses of Church power and its human toll. Serious and entertaining, eventually quite moving, a rare balance sustained.

13. Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen’s best in ages, and maybe ever. Cate Blanchett’s performance of fallen obliviousness into a desperate future as potential bag lady, upholds the brutal cynicism at Allen’s core. But this time there are humane emotional stakes, and she’s surrounded by a gallery of nicely etched characters. Owes too much to Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, perhaps, but the specific observational virtues transcend the plot contrivances with committed performances by all, and (very rare for Allen) a fully inhabited female psychological character.

14. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Leo Tillman directed this unusual tale of two pre-teen boys abandoned by by their drug addicted prostitute mothers to a summer on their own in a crime-ridden housing project in NYC. Their survival takes on an emotional dimension that surprises and goes way beyond sentimental expectations.  The survival mechanisms of these two young leads are charming and often remarkable. Realistic and never bathetic, it delivers a gritty punch, way beyond the melodrama of Precious, etc.

15. Short Term 12. A semi-docudrama of a half-way house for abandoned teenagers, with a couple of committed counselors struggling to balance how they manage the pain of those teenagers, this is a surprisingly clear- eyed view of interpersonal dynamics of damaged people struggling simply to survive. Very powerful and often moving low budget film by Destin Creston. with Bree Larson and Keith Stanfeld convincingly inhabiting their roles.

16. Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass’ energetic rendition of Somali pirates led by Abdullah Abdi confronting Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain. Greengrass’s hyperkinetic style serves this material well, though there is a long rescue sequence that stops the film in its tracks. Hanks’ meltdown at the end is among the very best acting he’s ever done.  Some script weaknesses, but an even-handed recognition of vicissitudes from both sides of the awful desperate equation.

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