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1. Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen
A hilarious and heartbreaking look at the intersection of artistic worth, emotional problems, and not-quite-success from the Coen Brothers. Like many great auteur-driven movies, it manages to be both deeply reflective of the directors’ other films (dark humor! Repetition-rhythm dialogue! John Goodman!) while feeling like something new, too (as when the movie stops for full-song live performances of folk songs).
2. Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach
Watching this movie is sort of like, oh, I don’t know, running down the streets of Manhattan, jumping and twirling to the strains of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Which is to say: fast, familiar, ebullient.
3. Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron
This nailbiter-in-space succeeds not despite the seeming simplicity of its screenplay but because of it, and the way that simplicity interacts with its effortless-looking technical virtuosity. This is what survival looks like: elemental on the outside, insanely complicated just below the surface.
4. The We and the I, Michel Gondry
This movie, made in collaboration with teenagers in the Bronx and taking place mostly on an endless bus ride home on the last day of school, didn’t get much attention during its brief theatrical release. It’s a curiosity, to be sure, but a beautiful one: overwhelming at first, with its two-dozen-plus characters chattering away with excitement, hostility, cruelty, and affection. Gondry turns a familiar New York experience—sitting on public transportation with a bunch of rowdy kids—into something funny and thoughtful, with just the right touches of his handmade whimsy in cutaway bits. Bonus recommendation for a great double feature: another Bronx-set teenage-centric indie, Gimme the Loot.
5. Her, Spike Jonze
All that work directing Charlie Kaufman screenplays and coming up with high-concept music videos has paid off. What could have been a rimshot comedy about a man falling in love with his iPhone is, instead, a complex and involving romance about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and an operating system (Scarlett Johansson) developing a very real and imperfect relationship.
6. Stoker, Park Chan-wook
A few months before a bunch of people wasted time complaining about Spike Lee’s Oldboy not matching the Park Chan-wook original, the filmmaker put out his first American film—which turned out to be one of his best. He riffs on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt like a restrained De Palma, milking every floorboard’s creak for maximum (and often darkly funny) intensity.
7. The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann, and 8. The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola
Two ruminations on American materialism: Luhrmann sees the doomed romance in Gatsby’s quest to relive, revise, and rewin the past, while Sofia Coppola casts an appropriately dispassionate eye on privileged monsters of Los Angeles. Both movies are gorgeous to look at and contain candidates for shots of the year: Gatsby’s fireworks-laden introduction, and Coppola’s epic push-in on an in-progress burglary of Audrina Patridge’s house. Bonus recommendation: the lower-tier economics of selling yourself in American Hustle.
9. Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green
The director returns from his sojourn into studio comedy with an indie version of the mismatched buddies who populate movies like Pineapple Express or Your Highness. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch bicker and bond as almost-in-laws doing road work in the wilds of Texas; Green has the most direct vehicle yet for his love of juxtaposing the natural world with the decay of the industrial one.
10. Nebraska, Alexander Payne
Bruce Dern has been rightfully praised for his quiet, internal performance as deluded old crank Woody Grant, so let us also show support for June Squibb, hilarious as his ornery but more sensible wife, and Will Forte, a brilliant comic performer playing sadder and straighter than he has before.