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1. Before Midnight, Richard Linklater
Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke made a sweet movie about youth and romance in 1995, then followed it up nine years later with a sequel about regret and being a little older that was still tender and hopeful. Pluckily, they followed it up in another nine years with this, stripping from the central relationship the wonder and unpredictability of romantic love and instead devoting their extraordinary filmmaking talents to the minutiae of what it takes to keep a relationship going almost 20 years later—when “romance,” despite a spectacular Greek setting, is hardly still a factor.
2. Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach
That said, not every movie can be about old people. Bravi to Baumbach and his star/cowriter/girlfriend Greta Gerwig for this kooky feature about being young and unmoored in your 20s, an homage to the French New Wave that truly captured the movement’s freewheeling spirit in both aesthetic and personality.
3. Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen
Cate Blanchett is a given as the year’s best actress for her performance in this meaty role, a modern-day Blanche DuBois gone to live with her working-class sister in San Francisco after her Bernie Madoff-like husband went to prison. Surprisingly, this movie was also hilarious, the exceptional supporting cast and Blanchett herself helping Allen to do the thing he rarely ever pulls off: successfully blend the serious with the silly.
4. Much Ado About Nothing, Joss Whedon
Hey, you know who else was good at blending the serious with the silly? Shakespeare, such as in this disturbing comedy, in which true love is almost sabotaged by the maliciously feigned appearance of infidelity. Whedon, shooting with a cast of his regular performers at his house over the course of a few days, did what the best directors of Shakespeare’s comedies do so often on the stage these days: make the humor sound and look like it were written yesterday.
5. Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski
The mumblecore wunderkind is all grown up, having made this examination of the early days of computer programming. As nerds try to build software that can take on grandmasters, the film becomes a means of investigating the age-old problem of mind vs. body, intelligence vs. passion, and what it is that makes us human.
6. Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine
I could write an essay about how Korine’s film about coeds on holiday turning to a life of crime to fund their vacation and satisfy their boredom, cast with Disney starlets and James Franco as a cornrowed, metal-mouthed rapper/kingpin, was a clever subversion of contemporary cultural tropes. Really, I could. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this movie most for being an artful romp through spring break debauchery in slow motion.
7. My Brooklyn, Kelly Anderson
This documentary about the Bloomberg Administration’s redevelopment of Downtown Brooklyn was the smartest explanation of gentrification I’ve ever watched or read, a concise and well-researched breakdown of how government conspires with developers and moneylenders to break and remake the city as they please, regardless of facts on the ground.
8. Somebody Up There Likes Me, Bob Byington
No movie this year made me laugh as hard and loud as did Byington’s epic about a man who doesn’t give a shit about anything yet still marries, has kids, gets divorced, starts a business, loses a business, and goes through the rest of things that typically constitute a life just because, eh, what else are you gonna do?
9. Room 237, Rodney Ascher
As a huge fan of The Shining movie, I could sympathize with the interviewees in this documentary who watched it so many times they devised persuasive arguments to support even their most far-out theories. (It’s an admission of guilt from Kubrick for faking the moon landing!) But through these disembodied voices over cleverly edited clips, Ascher doesn’t just get to the bottom of this fascinating film but also the nature of spectatorship—how art leaves the hand of its creator and comes to belong to the one who consumes it.
10. The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance
Rodgers and Hammerstein Americanized the opera in Carousel by not closing the curtain when the tragedy climaxed, instead giving the hero the chance to redeem himself through his love for his child—to create a better future. (America might be imperfect, but what makes it great is how it always strives to be better.) This gritty movie, loosely but clearly influenced by that musical, took it one step further, charting two individual tragedies (one of which was extremely Billy Bigelow-esque) and then letting their protagonists’ kids meet and influence each other’s lives. It’s a contemporary retelling because Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hope for the future is gone, and the happy ending is deceptive. The more you think about it, really, it’s surprisingly sad, just like the rest of the movie.