This is late so my list will look a lot like many others. That just can’t be helped. So either you only seek your movie recommendations by waiting for my annual list and these will all be brand new to you, or these selections will simply reaffirm that most of the same movies you’ve already heard about really are good. Still, I hope a couple of these will be surprises.
Either way, as always, these are my favorites and we all know how subjective these lists are. If nothing else, it’s a list of movies I highly recommend you see and make up your mind about on your own. Enough with this. On to the-
Wait, another thing. These aren’t in any particular order because everyone who knows me how much I hate to do ordered lists.
On to the
Wait! One last thing, I promise: I haven’t seen all the movies I wanted to before compiling this list since there just wasn’t enough time. I’ll get around to it, but I’m pretty confident that these that I’ve picked as my favorites would remain there regardless.
And now on to the
12 YEARS A SLAVE
It’s hard to offer enough praise for director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley’s singular cinematic achievement. Never before has American slavery been depicted in such an unblinkingly honest way. It’s beyond long overdue for American audiences to face our tragic heritage. You can count on your hand how many films have truly tackled this subject, compared to the number about WW2 or Vietnam, it’s rather surprising. Yet somewhat understandable. Clearly our nation’s deepest and most complex blemish, it’s taken quite some time for African-American filmmakers to make up enough political ground in the filmmaking world to put forth something like this. But finally we have it, and it’s truly a stunning work of art.
This is a nightmare of a film, filled with the dread that I’d only last felt as a kid having dreams of being kidnapped away from my family. Despite all the incredible performances in other films this year, I imagine we’ll look back in the near future at Chiwetel Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o's heartbreaking performances as some of the best of the decade. A must-see for everyone. I’d even say it should become required viewing in standard high school history curricula.
SHORT TERM 12
Movies about troubled kids tend to veer toward the melodramatic. Which is why writer/director Destin Cretton deserves all the lauds he’s been receiving for his triumph based on his own short film. About a 20-something woman who’s going through her own life situations while guiding teenagers at a foster care center, SHORT TERM 12 hinges on the magnificent performance of Brie Larson. It’s the kind of star-making role that means she’ll likely become a household name in the vein of Jennifer Lawrence before too long.
In fact, Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield both would surprise me if they don’t both break out in big ways over the next couple years, since their heartbreaking, nuanced performances as troubled teens are so solid. An indie darling that lives up to its hype and doesn’t fall victim to the common tropes associated with the genre.
THE WAY WAY BACK
There’s definitely a theme here: all of these movies have incredible performances that take the material to the next level. This one is no different. In this case, it’s the relationship between Sam Rockwell’s water park manager and Liam James’ awkward teenager dealing with a summer staying at his mom’s jerk-boyfriend’s summer house. It’s a pretty standard coming-of-age flick, but it’s just full of such heart and charm that you can’t help but love it. I literally walked out of the theater with a smile on my face — and sometimes that’s exactly what you want out of a movie.
If you haven’t seen this yet, stop what you’re doing, go online, and see if it’s still playing in a theater in your state. If it is, drive there and watch it. I’m serious. I don’t care if it’s hours away. This movie is pure cinema magic, a film created specifically to be seen on the biggest screen possible. So go do that. Now. In IMAX 3D if that’s at all possible. Visually, it’s the closest thing most of us will ever get to being in space. It’s cliched to say but it’s also true: we’ve never ever seen a movie quite like GRAVITY.
But what elevates this above other technologically groundbreaking films (ahemAVATARblech), this has a solid if simple story and fantastic acting by all of two people. George Clooney is his charming self but it’s really Sandra Bullock’s show, and she knocks it out of the stratosphere… (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). Seriously, though, she’s incredible. Especially if you read about how they had to film it to achieve the unprecedentedly realistic zero-gravity scenes.
At this point if you haven’t seen BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, what have you been doing with your life? But if you haven’t, just knowing that this movie exists essentially gives away some of the wonderful surprises from its two predecessors — but I suppose you could watch this one as a standalone film and still have a great experience. I just wouldn’t recommend it. Do yourself a favor and watch all three in order.
Suffice it to say that somehow, someway, defying all cinematic odds, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and cowriter/director Richard Linklater have managed to create a perfect third entry to one of the more unlikely film trilogies (please, make it a quadrilogy or just keep going) of all time. I didn’t think that anything could top SUNSET, and truth be told, most movies will never hold a candle to that ending, but MIDNIGHT offers not just a continuation but the most brutally honest portrayal of forty-somethings in marriage ever. It’s not always pretty. In fact, it’s downright rough at times. But that’s life. Hollywood loves to depict relationships as happily ever after, meaning the hardest part is somehow finding and getting “the one.” Sure, that is tough, but the challenges are really just beginning. We shouldn’t feel like we’re the weird ones simply because we’re lead to believe that this part is all cake.
Easily the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. Watch it alone, at night, in the pitch dark, and just try not to freak out. Sure, the plot is pretty much standard haunted house fare but the performances (yup, again) and the solid directing by James Wan manage to take common scare tropes and make them fresh and downright scary by always showing just enough to get your imagination rolling before eventually revealing the beastie. I thought about throwing this one down into the Honorable Mentions list but it’s rare that a horror flick jumps into the best-of conversation so I gave it the benefit of the doubt.
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Gosling. Cooper. Liotta. Yup, strong performances aplenty in a film, but the bold narrative choices by writer/director Derek Cianfrance elevate this one from being a run-of-the-mill crime drama. Challenging to a typical Hollywood audience, PINES offers twists and turns that aren’t simply there for shock value, instead adding to the overall impact of the various stories spanning multiple generations in upstate New York. The kind of movie that makes you think afterward, not just about the different characters and their circumstances, but what it says about our society and ourselves as a whole.
By far the most difficult film in this list to explain, I’m not really going to try. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth hit the indie scene with PRIMER almost 10 years ago. His cinematic absence created a cult following behind not just his film, but around himself. Fans couldn’t wait to see his followup, which ended up being UPSTREAM COLOR. With expectations as high as this, disappointment is always more likely than not.
Well, Carruth beat the odds. In a major way. Completely different from PRIMER – other than Carruth remaining in the lead role – this is unlike any movie you’ll see this year. Part sci-fi, part love story, part grief examination, part silent film, it’s all cinematic brilliance demanding multiple viewings.
I avoided this one for a while. The cover, the black-and-white, the actress and director all screamed pretension — the type of film that turns “indie” into a four-letter word. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach fashion a charmingly honest tale about a twentysomething dancer not only finding her way in NYC, but taking that next step in adulthood as her best friend moves closer to marriage. It was so refreshing – and beyond overdue – to see a film about a woman, trying to grab a hold of something to steady herself in the maelstrom of life, not find an anchor in a man, but rather within herself. An excellent message for both genders, FRANCES HA treads familiar territory while blazing its own confident new path.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The way the Coen Brothers churn out classic after classic makes their two-film stumble of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS that much more shocking. Thankfully that’s way off in the rearview. One of the smallest films the Coens have made, DAVIS might be their most intimate. There’s none of the heightened reality like in BARTON FINK, the hilarious hijinx in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, or the suspense of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
And that’s perfectly fine, because in their place, there’s Oscar Isaac’s endearing yet assholish folk singer, Llewyn Davis, mooching his way through 1961 New York as he tries to find his place after the death of his musical partner. Plot is eschewed in favor of compounding personal conflicts, which are numerous when you’re a bit of a jerk like Davis is. But he’s not so much so that we aren’t able to identify with him and his plight. Full of wit, of course, but the surprise is how tender it gets — which is something new and welcomed coming from the Coens.
Who knew that the most touching film of the year would be able a guy falling in love with his computer. But it’s true. It hinges on the chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice, yet it’s Spike Jonze’s masterful filmmaking that turns it into something truly special. HER speaks to the concept of love in ways that we rarely see portrayed so honestly in Hollywood, or any cinema for that matter.
What could’ve been a high-concept movie that collapsed under its own cleverness 30 minutes in, HER turns into one of the most heartbreaking and heartwarming experiences at the movies this year. Between this and FRANCES HA, I’m left optimistic that, while we’ll never lose the rom-com entirely (nor should we), we’ll be seeing more realistic portrayals of single 20/30-somethings of all genders going through life, and that they don’t need to be so black-and-white.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
What a masterwork by one of the best filmmakers of all time. That Martin Scorsese cranked this flick out at the spry age of 71 is just one reason he’s a national treasure. That he made this at all shows just how much of a command he has with the language of film. Based on a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio is spellbinding as ever portraying the despicable Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who rips off his clients to amass a giant fortune and basically get away with it because white collar criminals are treated differently than everyone else.
And it’s entertaining as all hell to watch. Which is what has brought a bunch of negative attention, most notably the Christina McDowell article making the social media rounds, because some confuse making a ridiculously fun movie about a bad guy with glorifying and condoning his behavior.
Badass Digest writer Devin Faraci nails it in his own review of WOLF with his analysis that this is the third film in Scorsese’s thematic trilogy starting with GOODFELLAS and continuing with CASINO. The inarguably classic first entry depicts crime as an organized yet underground syndicate, while the middle installment portrays how the criminals have crept into legitimacy. WOLF takes it that final step, with organized crime going mainstream, Wall Street bankers being the gangsters of the present. An important and masterful late-career film from one of the best to ever get behind a camera.
Now, I want to delve more into WOLF and its polarizing response in relation to Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS. You must not misconstrue as being a member of my Favorites list, but it’s still an important piece of cinema worthy of discussion. My other lists will continue after so if you want to skip this essay, I understand. But first:
Satire, Glorification, and an Understanding of SPRING BREAKERS and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
I love what SPRING BREAKERS does by showing the ugly, real side of the misogynistic American concept of “Spring Break” but the film experience itself is unpleasant, oftentimes boring, and meandering. Then again, that’s the point. Our nation’s annual rite of passage isn’t the amazing experience that its been hyped to be, reaching its decadent nadir on early-2000s MTV. In reality, it’s a place for predatory males to take advantage of drunken young girls, for those same girls to think that’s a good thing, and for society to reinforce the notion that women are merely objects.
Both BREAKERS and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET are satires; one of our male-gaze sex-fueled concept of post-adolescent “fun” and the other of the new American Dream, a scorched earth approach that means taking everything you possibly can from everyone else for as long as you can get away with it. Both showcase elements that some might find titillating: owning yachts, 20-something girls in tiny bikinis (or less) gyrating in slo-mo, the fun of doing drugs, getting away with murder literally and figuratively, the downside of doing drugs. And both are held up to us, the viewers, not as instructions on how to act, but rather to force us to confront these notions and rectify our conflicting feelings on our own.
Yes, we love the idea of having so much money we can buy a huge home with all the frills, but are we okay with the moral and collateral costs both to our own souls and to the financial livelihoods of strangers — sort of the whole moral quandary of if someone somewhere on the planet you never met died would you “blank” question, but in much more real terms. And, yes, young physically attractive women are physically attractive, but are we okay with the emotional and physical costs associated with the dehumanizing element that is part and parcel to these escapades.
The difference between the two, and one of the reasons why more people are currently discussing WOLF more than BREAKERS, is that the latter is unpleasant to sit through. It’s not fun. It’s pacing is uncomfortable. The plot thin. The characters grimy. The situations a bit far-fetched. It’s a satire, but also a parody. Not of another movie, but of our own culture. It so thoroughly eviscerates the illusion of the pleasure in the hedonism found on the Beach (and on college campuses all over the country) that it’s not fun for the viewer. It’s so clearly depicted as a morally filthy exercise that there’s no question as to what we’re supposed to feel. And while there will still be people who identify and glorify James Franco’s Alien, most viewers can sleep comfortably imagining that type of person and sleeping easy knowing he’s already a marginalized figure in our society.
Not so with WOLF. It’s a ridiculously entertaining ride. It’s paced like the hits of cocaine the characters regularly snort. It’s plot so jam packed that it’s dumbed down so as to not slow down the roller coaster ride. The situations fetched far enough to be audastic but not unrealistic. It’s a satire, but not a parody. If anything, it’s more like a mirror.
And here’s where the trouble comes in. Mirrors aren’t subjective; they reflect back exactly what looks into it. But things get murky and subjective the minute what you’re looking at is yourself. It’s up to the person in the mirror to decide what they see. Most of us give passes to our own imperfections in ways that we never allow for others’ because they’re ours, we’re used to them, we know them, we’ve learned how to live with them over years of accruing a concoction of denial and acceptance. Most likely, it says more about the character of those who find Belfort a sympathetic figure than the intentions of the filmmakers themselves.
For me, I’ll take WOLF over BREAKERS for repeat viewing any day. For better or worse, I simply find it to be a more entertaining film. And for those who have scorned the WOLF filmmakers for their alleged glorification of a white collar criminal, I get it: more people will see WOLF for that very reason, and since it’s more ambiguous (in that it’s not overly subjective; I think for any discerning moviegoer it’s plainly obvious that the filmmakers are not remotely condoning any of Belfort’s behavior) more people will likely take away the wrong message, possibly making for a net negative to our cultural progress. That’s what happened with WALL STREET and all those idiots glorifying the villain, Gordon Gekko. But, that’s not right either. That wasn’t Oliver Stone’s fault because the “greed is good” mantra was already the new national motto even if it hadn’t yet been memorialized so eloquently.
Ambiguity leads to tough conversations, and those tend to include lots of blaming. At least with WOLF there’s an easy direction for the real blame: the widespread corruption of money in politics that allows for massive money laundering criminals to be given minuscule sentences compared to minor marijuana infractions (for example) that allows for the wholesale liquidation of the middle class to the top .1%. With BREAKERS, it’s not so simple. You can blame the girls, you can blame the boys, you can blame drugs, you can blame guns, you can blame parents, you can blame MTV, you can blame godlessness. You can blame reality TV but you also have to blame the brain-numb millions who watch it. Realistically you need to blame culture in general and the overall hyper-sexualization and objectification of women. But blaming culture is too amorphous. We are culture.
Neither film is perfect. Both films approach their satire differently. Both filmmakers clearly are critical of the events and characters they’re depicting. But where Harmony Korine judges blatantly onscreen, Scorsese leaves it up to us.