As I explained yesterday in our round-up of the year in books, I haven’t seen every movie released in American theaters this year, and there are several still to screen that I can imagine deserving places on this, including American Hustle, which I’ll be seeing tonight, and The Wolf Of Wall Street. But these fourteen movies are the ones that I’ve thought of over and over again since seeing them this year, for their cruelty, their kindness, and often for their unexpected humor.
12 Years A Slave: A great movie about slavery in America that derives much of its greatness from focusing on how black Americans learned to accommodate themselves to the strangenesses of white privilege, rather than on how good white people rise above the unfair advantages granted them by the violence of white supremacy. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir captures the gorgeous impenetrability of Deep Southern geography, and he gets incredible performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender as the two men who purchase him, and Lupita Nyong’o, as a woman in fierce pursuit of her own dignity, even at cost of her body and potentially her survival. A cameo by Brad Pitt is a bad mistake, but it can’t detract from the acting, the cinematography, or John Ridley’s terrific script.
After Tiller: A look at the few remaining doctors in the United States who provide late-term abortions, After Tiller is a remarkable and deeply compassionate look at what it’s like to provide a medical service that makes you a target of violence and hatred. And it’s a kind and clear-eyed look at the circumstances under which women and their partners seek these procedures, cutting through ugly rhetoric to emphasize that no one wants a late-term abortion.
The Bling Ring: Before Miley Cyrus hopped on the Video Music Awards stage and started to twerk, Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of the real story of a group of Los Angeles teenagers who burglarized celebrities’ homes offered up a sly, clear-eyed commentary about white appropriation of hip-hop culture, and the brain-rotting power of privilege.
Don Jon: One of the most welcome trends this year was the rise of the unromantic comedy, movies about couples who grow by learning that they aren’t supposed to be together. The best of them was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, a silly, highly-structured story about a Jersey boy from a Catholic family who finds his porn consumption and his new relationship in conflict. Casually diverse, kinder to men than your average bro-comedy, and featuring Brie Larson in a role that proves that she can steal any scene she’s in without saying a word, Don Jon makes me very eager to see what Gordon-Levitt does next.
Fruitvale Station: Ryan Coogler’s strikingly assured debut feature makes the death of Oscar Grant a tragedy by providing a riotous, sexy, often extremely funny celebration of the last day of his life. And it’s not as if we needed even more proof that Michael B. Jordan should be an enormous star, but he filed yet another brief on his own merits in taking on what could have been a stiffly noble role, and instead is a gorgeously human one.
Her: My review of Spike Jonze’s innovative romantic comedy is embargoed until next week. But his exploration of a blooming relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system, named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, liberated from her body, to great effect) is also a story about humanity as a whole getting attached to a new kind of technology. It’s funny, charming, very sad movie that pulls of something relatively rare–it’s fair and clear-eyed about all of the participants, as well as wise and moderate in its vision of the near future.
Loves Her Gun: I’m not sure Loves Her Gun has found distribution, which is too bad, because this chronicle of an accidental shooting foretold is a powerful brief on women, violence, and guns that makes the most of its Austin setting.
Pain and Gain: Some of my fellow critics think Michael Bay isn’t self-aware enough to have fully pulled off this adaptation of a true story about three Miami bodybuilders who kidnapped, tortured, and extorted a local businessman for his assets. But, by God did I enjoy watching Mark Wahlberg, Dwanye Johnson, and Anthony Mackie rampage through Pain and Gain, a glorious, ridiculous exploration of the compelling power of American dumbness. “Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts,” Johnson’s Paul reflects at one point. “One of them is knocking people the fuck out.” Whatever you need to tell yourself.
Short Term 12: Based on director Destin Cretton’s experiences working in a group home for teenagers who’d been removed from their families, Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr., giving tremendous performances as staffers at a similar facility who are terrific at their jobs because of past traumas they share with their charges. It’s a rare movie that can detonate and clear the ground on a genre–in this case, Troubled Children Saved By Dedicated Adults–that’s become a horrific, insulting cliche and then build something gorgeous and funny on the old foundations. Short Term 12 pulls that off, while also offering a resounding brief for the power of niceness.
Twenty Feet From Stardom: Few movies marry greater artistic pleasures with sharper social commentary than this documentary from Morgan Neville about backup singers. The music is glorious, and the stories about stolen careers are heartbreaking, though the movie also raises questions about the ambition and ego it takes for a woman to walk from the back of the stage to the lone microphone at the front.
Upstream Color: “Is it all right that I have that there?” Jeff (Shane Carruth) asks Kris (Amy Seimetz), the woman he’s just begun dating, in Upstream Color, Carruth’s second feature. “Will you fall down if you don’t have it there?” Kris asks him, not willing to be tender with him just yet. “Yeah, maybe,” Jeff tells her, offering her his vulnerability with no expectation of reciprocity. The movie’s got pigs, a mysterious collector of sounds, parasites and orchids, but all of its strangeness is in service of a powerful exploration of love and risk.
Wadjda: In most countries, a story about a little girl who wants to buy a green bicycle would hardly be revolutionary. But when that story originates in Saudia Arabia, is the first feature film directed in that country, and when it’s directed by a woman, it’s something much more important. It would have been too bad if Wadjda turned out to be a charity case, then. Fortunately, it’s terrific: spirited, sharply-written, funny, and well-performed from bottom to top, with hardly a moment that isn’t richly invested with meaning without stifling the movie’s humanity.
We Steal Secrets: Alex Gibney’s documentary about Julian Assange has an unsettling structure that almost lead me to walk out of the theater when it seemed like the film wasn’t taking the sexual assault allegations against Assange seriously. But Gibney, in a moment in his career when he seems dedicated to fiercely interrogating his own assumptions and first reactions, delivers a sharp interrogation of Assange’s personality and how a transparency movement has been undermined by Assange’s sense that he deserves a deference he wouldn’t extend to anyone else.
Zero Dark Thirty: Kathryn Bigelow’s striking, gorgeously shot, volcanically acted chronicle of the search for and execution of Osama bin Laden technically opened wide early in 2013. And while the furor over it has largely faded in the excitement of a new Oscar season, it’s still one of the most important, complicating chronicles of our time, especially in a year where other cultural explorations of the War on Terror have ebbed in power and insight.