15. The Place Beyond the Pines - Melodrama, for good and for bad. In many ways, Cianfrance's commitment to creating mood and pathos overshadows the plot itself, which runs off the rails from time to time. But I like that this is such a sweeping, epic, novel-like story, and I like that it veers toward earnest dramatics over detached snark and irony. Sometimes appeals to emotion can be their own reward.
14. Give Me the Loot – Micro-budget indie film. I barely made it past the first few minutes due to amateur production values and acting that took a little time to adjust to. But I am very glad that I held strong. This is a fun heist/friendship movie that provides its racial/class commentary through observation, rather than heavy-handedness.
11. Before Midnight – I imagine that this film will rise up in my personal rankings as the years pass—it has certainly stuck with me in a way that many of these other films have not. To be honest, I think that my fear of turning into Jesse and Celine may be holding me back from completely surrendering myself. But yeah, it’s really, really good.
10. Gravity – This movie does not fully trust its audience’s intelligence. While Ryan Stone’s backstory works for me, the dialogue surrounding it is clunky, and the movie’s score pushes way too hard to indicate to viewers what they should be feeling. THAT SAID, the movie DOES make me feel. I was completely gripped and moved, overbearing score and all.
8. Valentine Road – A very important documentary. It is less about an anti-trans hate crime, and more about the scores of regular people who enable such acts to take place again and again, and about a culture that sympathizes with perpetrators more than it does with their gay and trans victims. I may be making it sound more like bad-tasting medicine than a good documentary, but it really is a good documentary.
7. Sister – This Swiss movie has a lot of superficial similarities to The Kid with a Bike, the Iron List champ of 2013. I loved them both, but this film manages to explore similar territory while maintaining a very different, much warmer tone. In other words, wonderful in its own right.
5. Nebraska – I think I let my utter disappointment over The Descendants convince me that the Alexander Payne I loved had gone away. But in my eyes Nebraska is a major return to form. I can understand the criticisms that Payne’s films show contempt for their Midwestern subjects, and I worried that the movie was moving in that direction as I watched. But in the end, dignity triumphs over snark in a major way. Now let’s just pretend that The Descendants never happened.
And this film is one of her best. Its deceptively trite/cute premise leads to an emotional release that is anything but trite. Above all, Holofcener writes real-life characters. Of course James Gandolfini is wonderful in one of his final roles. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the revelation here, creating a character whose sometimes cringe-inducing behavior only enhances her utter humanity. Far and away my favorite performance of the year.
2. Twelve Years a Slave – I acknowledge that the bar for “best slavery film ever” was a pretty low one to clear. But I was blown away by this film’s sheer willingness to be unrelenting, however difficult it can be to watch. Some may call it torture porn. I call it a much-needed historical corrective (and needless to say, an expertly crafted, beautifully acted one at that).