16) The most fun I had at a movie this year was unexpectedly Roland Emmerich's proudly cheesy action thriller White House Down. 15) There were several excellent “celebrities in peril” movies this year. I didn't see All is Lost, but I did see the Best Picture Oscar shoo-in Gravity, as well as the comparably terse Captain Phillips. 14) The Place Beyond the Pines was and intense and contemplative intergenerational tale. 13) Part realism, part Huck Finn, Mud was a fascinating crime drama. 12) I wish I could go more into detail about the complexities and heartbreak of Her. 11) And who can forget the hard, hard rock of Metallica: Through the Never, one of the better concert films?
David O. Russell's firecracker of a movie, all about a real-life scandal from the 1970s, is sublimely enjoyable and – get this – genuinely lighthearted. Simultaneously a stirring crime caper, a twisted con, a comedy of manners, and an in-depth character piece, American Hustle pops like a champagne cork. It also features some of the best performances of the year, most notable from Jennifer Lawrence as a complex floozy, and Christian Bale as a charming sad sack.
The third Richard Linklater film about the romantic conversations and arguments between a familiar and seemingly fated couple (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), Before Midnight finally shows cracks in the idylls these two laid down all those years ago in Before Sunrise. Linklater has an ear for conversation, and he has been working with these actors for 20 years now, so Before Midnight, while calm and unflaggingly natural, feels like a magnum opus in many ways.
Greta Gerwig plays, and helped co-write, the title character of Noah Baumbach's quarter-life-crisis film. She is a character you may not want to love, but kind of do anyway just for her tenacity and good humor. Frances is 27, and she's finally growing up, trying to move past the couch-surfing years and into... well she doesn't really know what. It's about responsibility, yes, but it's also about how your college friendships must eventually turn into adult friendships.
No one does hopeless filth like Harmony Korine, and his latest – despite its neon-pink, ultra-slick party aesthetic – is still plenty filthy. While the film is largely about crime and hedonism, it can also be seen as an essay on how young people are encouraged by pop culture to think of crime and hedonism – and all of life – as an unending Spring Break beer party. James Franco gives one of the best performances of the year as Alien, a demon with cornrows.
Kind of the opposite of Spring Breakers, in that it's a film about teens learning to be mature. While it's most certainly a sweet, honest, and stirring romance, James Ponsoldt's movie is a coming-of-age tale in a much more important way. It's not just about early love and sex, but about how those things force us to grow up and actually, y'know, begin sympathizing with people. This is a film that is sensitive to teenagers, allowing them to feel, to screw up, to have flaws and addictions, all without punishing them or judging them.
Ecstatic, romantic, sexy, moving, and utterly gorgeous, Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour French lesbian drama is pretty much a litany of every single conflict that can arise in a new relationship – all told with a casual, realistic naturalness rarely seen on the big screen. It's about growing up, it;s about sexual release, it's about finding your vocation in life, it's about living with someone, it's about breaking up. The length of the film allows it to breathe and meander, very much the way life does.
Totally surreal and wonderfully original, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color is a psychedelic sci-fi odyssey that plays like a romance. Or perhaps it's a romance with psychedelic elements. The story is essentially a love tale between two bitter and damaged people who were brought together by a bizarre identity theft experiment that involves rare blue flowers, forcibly ingested worms, psychic links to piglets, and Walden. Upstream Color is striking in the most important possible ways, refreshingly oblique, and the work of an auteur.
The premise: Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer approached Anwar Congo, a chief executioner in the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, and asked him to recreate, on film, his memories of his experiences. Congo doesn't seem to feel anything but pride in his work, and the good-ol'-boys attitude surrounding he and other executioners is compelling and devastating. This film will destroy you. The act of killing may be a natural part of us. Or maybe regret is lurking in there somewhere.
While just as weird and as fatalistic as all their other films, The Coen Bros. have managed to make a film that is grounded and earthy, all about a put-upon human rather than a quirky weirdo. It's odd and absurd, but still moving. It just feels right. The music is dead-on, natch, and the period detail makes the Boho world of the 1960s feel lived-in rather than affected. Inside Llewyn Davis may be The Coens' best film, although I'll have to let it stir for a few years to be sure.
Although not as aspirational or as great as 2011's The Tree of Life, this “lesser” Terrence Malick movie is still profoundly moving, grandly meditative, and still touches on the filmmakers' usual interests in an engaging and thoughtful manner. It's a love story of sorts, and a tale of faith, and how those things can wash in and out of our lives in a patterns as reliable as the tides. The film is abstract and slow-moving, but that's what gets me going. It was a tough decision, but I put To the Wonder on the top of my list.