10. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers’ tale of a struggling folk musician in the Greenwich Village of 1961 nails the period with such extraordinary vividness that it’s a shock to realize the film’s authenticity is threaded with Coen-esque snark. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a gifted singer, but he’s also a morose, sad-sack jerk, with no idea that the folk scene he’s trying to succeed in has already passed him by. The Coens spin their own special brand of nostalgia shorn of romance, and if the result teeters on the misanthropic, the movie is also, in its cynical and haunted way, indelible.
This startling thriller seems to ingest and recombine the DNA of every vigilante and revenge film of the past 40 years, from Death Wish to Zero Dark Thirty. But it also takes you to scary places you’ve never been. As Keller Dover, a survivalist who abducts and tortures the man he thinks was responsible for his daughter’s disappearance, Hugh Jackman acts with a rage so real it pulls you in two directions at once: You’re never sure where morality leaves off and wrathful insanity begins. The movie is a meditation on crime, punishment, love, and violence, and in the performance of Melissa Leo, it conjures something many films try for and few succeed at capturing: the existence of everyday evil.
8. World War Z
A true epic horror film — not because it gooses you with zombie-videogame jolts, but because this unsettling apocalypse so excitingly evokes the spectacle of a world coming apart, with the undead hordes rising up to pick the bones of what’s left. The director, Marc Forster, draws on the speed and anxiety of Danny Boyle’s zombie films and does them one better, especially in the sequence set at a WHO facility, which is shot with a peering-around-corners tension that makes every moment matter. As a former U.N. investigator, Brad Pitt is earthy grace under pressure, so fearless he’s funny.
7. The Past
The Iranian director Asghar Farhadi confirms what his previous film, A Separation (2011), suggested: that he’s a modern maestro who has found a completely original way to infuse a tale of domestic turmoil with the charged tension of a thriller. Bérénice Bejo (the silent-movie flapper from The Artist) plays a Frenchwoman living in a run-down Paris suburb, and Ali Mosaffa is her estranged Iranian husband, who has arrived from Tehran so that the two can get their divorce. The way the plot keeps churning, turning, revealing new angles makes it seem, at times, like one of those Babel-style Rubik’s Cube narratives, only instead of hopping around the globe, Farhadi unfolds his tale in about seven rooms. The result is supremely unpredictable — and moving.
6. Blue Jasmine
In the most blisteringly topical film of Woody Allen’s career, Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a contemporary Blanche DuBois who falls from the ”grace” of her posh life married to a high-finance swindler (Alec Baldwin). The money was never real, and now that she’s lost all of it, that mirage of wealth is the only reality she wants to live in. Blanchett, in a performance of funny and pitiless brilliance, makes Jasmine a woman going crazy not because of brain chemistry, but because her stubborn dreams of entitlement won’t allow her to accept her fate. Blue Jasmine is scaldingly witty, arrestingly acted (the standouts in a marvelous cast include Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale), and staged by Allen with a time-leap structure that reverberates with loss.
Alfonso Cuarón’s luminous and transportive technological daydream puts us right up in space, along with a couple of U.S. shuttle astronauts. The film’s casual magic begins with how it places us on their been-there-gawked-at-that wavelength, even as the images are making our jaws drop. Then disaster strikes, and George Clooney (as a jaded veteran) and Sandra Bullock (as a troubled newbie) have to float their way to safety with nothing beneath them but a void. Some have accused Cuarón’s film of having a ”thin” story, but actually it’s just slender — and organic — enough to reinforce the feeling that every moment in Gravity is flowing into the next one. More than a ”ride,” the film is an experience, nearly tactile in its drama. The logistics of dodging hurtling debris, or of how to glide through a foreign satellite, very much become the story. So does the galvanizing image of Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, with nothing left to lose, deciding to embrace life in the void.
4. Fruitvale Station
In the wee hours of Jan. 1, 2009, a 22-year-old African-American named Oscar Grant III was detained on an Oakland train platform, and before anyone knew what was happening, he’d been shot and killed by a transit officer. His death was a moral calamity — but it was also, as Ryan Coogler’s powerful film knows all too well, another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news story out of the file marked ”senseless racial tragedy.” To bring that tragedy to life, Coogler dramatizes the 24 hours leading up to Grant’s death, employing his extraordinary camera eye and live-wire empathy to let us feel our way into the experience of a young man who was equal parts screwup, furtive pot dealer, and struggling devoted father. In a stunning performance, Michael B. Jordan makes Grant fully, complexly alive, which is just how you’ll remember him — and, Fruitvale Station implies, how maybe you’ll think of the next tragic victim of trigger-happy law enforcement who gets shoved into the news cycle.
3. Before Midnight
Love stories in the movies usually end before the most interesting part of a relationship even begins. But the third chapter of Richard Linklater’s beguiling romantic talkfest is a striking exception. It’s set 18 years after Before Sunrise, the movie in which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first met and spent one long, wistful night getting to know each other. They’re now a couple with twin daughters, and if anything, they know each other too well. Finishing up a getaway in Greece, they are tender, prickly, and weary, and when friends rent them a hotel room, their attempt at a retro honeymoon descends, line by line, into the most darkly intense and revealing relationship war since Scenes From a Marriage. Hawke and Delpy make every moment tinglingly spontaneous. We believe in this couple, and in Before Midnight they express the tensions and mythologies that divide women from men in the postfeminist age. The film says, quite movingly, that a relationship today may have to wither and collapse to be reborn.
2. American Hustle
It’s set in a late-’70s world of comb-overs, polyester lapels, and anything-goes amorality. Yet David O. Russell’s swirling, bravura tale of a con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), who gets lured into the equally slovenly FBI sting operation known as Abscam has a resonance that’s thrillingly contemporary. It’s a drama of people drugged by their own desperation. The exhilarating filmmaking evokes GoodFellas, only with a tribute to the high power of fraudulence that is Russell’s own. Bale is great as a lying sleaze with a hidden heart, Amy Adams is hell on wheels as his girlfriend, Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerizing as his crazy-sexy-bitter wife, and Bradley Cooper is all beady-eyed mania as an agent so bent on nailing corruption that he’ll violate every code of decency to do it.
1. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s agonizing masterpiece is the first movie to dramatize the experience of slavery in all its fear, madness, and horror — that is, in the terrifying intimacy of its brutality. As Solomon Northup, a free black man who is ripped away from his family and sold into slavery, Chiwetel Ejiofor lets his emotions breathe right through his skin. The film never lets you forget that Solomon is really a free man; its brilliant strategy is to use that fact to heighten the unnaturalness of slavery. Solomon is trapped on a plantation run by a master (Michael Fassbender) who senses, on some level, that this is not the natural order. That’s why he’s driven to enforce it with such inhumanity and terror. 12 Years A Slave is a suspensefully unsparing vision, with a violence that scalds (Lupita Nyong’o is staggering as a slave girl subjected to the torments of the damned). Yet the film balances despair and perseverance, pain and transcendence. As such, it is a true reckoning with history. To watch 12 Years A Slave is to know the primal sin of America in a way you didn’t know it before the movie began.