Contributors: Dessa Bayrock, Jeremy Hannaford, Nadine Moedt, Michael Scoular, Tim Ubels, Jessica Wind – Email
Print Edition: January 15, 2014
20. The Grandmaster
Narrative, not just the sense of one being broken apart, really matters in The Grandmaster, which is why the Chinese cut is the only one worth watching — for one it actually introduces its two main characters, played by Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, in a bravura sequence that switches and displaces time for nearly the first third of the film, instead of being a puzzling fracture of names (as it is in the shorter-by 20 minutes North American cut). Wong Kar-Wai, who has always contextualized his missing characters and melancholy lovers in the bind of history, here takes on a formative period in Chinese martial arts and political change with an almost radically different way of constructing faces, movements, arcs of time: every piece is important, including a necessarily disconnected inclusion of a Hong Kong sideplot. Despite the biopic nature of things, this is still Wong’s world of regret and memory. For the first time, certainly with this amount of clarity, he attempts to show its passage in full: a passing on opens the movie, and the rest of The Grandmaster follows, a complete forgetting, followed by a new remembrance. That he does this, while also creating the three best action scenes of the year in what isn’t strictly an action movie, speaks to Wong’s continued ability as a visual artist to take the air out of a room with a despairing line, only to fill it again with a stunning, mortal image. — M.S.
19. Captain Phillips
Captain Phillips splits the stereotype of truth-bending historical films between everyday heroism and heightened human fear. While accounts that have come out since the movie’s release point to some serious tweaks to Richard Phillips’ ocean-piracy story, Paul Greengrass, keeping step with the claustrophobic thrillers of his past works, does so to display a specific point of view. While displaying a story about one man’s unexpected nightmare, he also shows the daily ones the Somalian pirates live in, leading to a crushing finale (the peak of an amazing performance from Tom Hanks) that stands as one of the best scenes of the year. — J.H.
18. Drug War
Drug War is Johnnie To’s first mainland China production (following 60+ from HK), and for awhile might seem a little close to that country’s censor-approved Entertainment. To, who works as both an action and romance director (and fuses elements of the two in some of his best moments) brings a cool, exact beauty to even his weakest movies, and Drug War starts out showing off an on-the-side-of-the-law drug bust plot, all gleaming hotel meetings, choreographed tactical shuffles, surveillance as a useful tool. But then it takes a turn, one signalled by the dual-identity To and his collaborators (Wai Ka-Fai, et al.) emphasize early on, that, through some heist-like humour, extended con machinery, and healthy mistrust makes Drug War an expertly-paced police thriller (it definitely doesn’t peak early). Sun Honglei gives a chameleonic performance as the main police captain the film follows, but it’s Louis Koo as the on-whose-side source of information that gives the film its uncertain footing, leading to a final 20 minutes where it’s impossible not to see a particular vision compacted and elegantly fractured. — M.S.
17. Like Father, Like Son
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film deftly draws the lines that fence in what appear to be two typical families with young children: a tightly-wound group of three managed by the demands of cultural expectations and a larger clan identified by their loud, ringing voices, sort-of management of a family business, and refusal to section off life into ‘work’ and ‘play.’ Like Father, Like Son introduces a news headline premise, but Kore-eda allows his characters to bend it beyond finding out ‘what happens,’ shifting perspectives effortlessly between the natural, un-strained child performances he’s internationally known for and the film’s adult characters. What starts out as a familiar, general question of how much of a person is possessed by their parents or by their culture becomes a complicated duel between kindness and the policies that simplify responsibility. Kore-eda’s work begins with easily-recognized summations (childhood comedy, family drama, after life, some combination of the three), gives the impression of stepping back, and lets natural entanglements take over in a way that resembles life (which is why it’s moving), but builds upon it (which is why he’s among the best directors working today). — M.S.
16. Before Midnight
Before Midnight is alarmingly aware of itself in a way the first two films that follow Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jessie (Ethan Hawke), were not. Jessie’s third book is discussed as more ambitious than the others, three perspectives on the permanence of romantic love emerge from a farewell dinner set in Greece, and the film is neatly divided into three sections. But Richard Linklater’s unique collaboration with Hawke and Delpy is — and has been from the first invitation to get off a train — interested in the role of acting and artifice in real life; with this third piece, it enters it completely and vulnerably. Where Certified Copy’s similar premise was concerned with the layers of what is original and what is fake, the Before movies present a cycle, moving around pretenses to arrive briefly at heartfelt truth, with a hundred moving pieces in between — a passage made not through the time so prominent in the title, but a seemingly incompatible mixture of closed-off dreaming and open conversation. — M.S.
Gravity, the rare film that truly benefits from 3D and the immersive scale of a towering screen, starts out as a “can’t beat the view” perspective of outer space and the glory of the Earth’s aura before quickly turning into a harrowing crisis of human survival in the one place we are not meant to. Alfonso Cuarón (Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) delivers a scientifically half-true, nerve-wracking experience (a self-referential “one hell of a ride”), but more importantly, one with emotional intelligence. — J.H.
14. All Is Lost
In a way, J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is the same kind of gesture Jean-Luc Godard did for Fritz Lang with Le mépris or Peter Bogdanovich did for Boris Karloff with Targets: giving great film creators a fresh scenario to act years after the motion picture industry lost interest in them. To be fair, Redford has continued to make movies, but of a dead-on-arrival topical political kind. By contrast Chandor foregrounds an appreciation for actors that transcends whatever meaning a script might hold. For most of All Is Lost, the camera and whatever direction might be going on is simply information: Redford, reacting, processing the details of Chandor’s single-performer lost-at-sea scenario, is all that matters. Given the film’s largest chunk of dialogue to open the film, Redford sets the tone for the two storm-beaten, shrunken-hope hours to follow: slightly uneven prose intoned into poetry. — M.S.
13. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
If there’s one image burned into my mind after Catching Fire, it’s watching Mags (Lynn Cohen) disappear into the acid mist after a wordless goodbye to Finnick (Sam Claflin). The second film in the Hunger Games series ignores most sequel stereotypes. Where most middle stories struggle to find a balance between continuing plot lines from the first film and laying groundwork for the final, Catching Fire stands out on its own. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is thrust back into the games with her only-for-the-cameras fiancé Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but not before further confusing her teenage emotions with Gayle (Liam Hemsworth). Lawrence elevates Katniss’s character from emotionally inept to deeply fractured as she attempts to navigate the manipulation both in the game, and in the Capitol. While Lawrence is easily the best part about any movie she is in, the A-list supporting cast took Catching Fire well beyond its young-adult blockbuster status. — J.W.
12. American Hustle
I’m a sucker for period films, especially anything set in the ‘70s — Almost Famous comes to mind. I was more than pleased to add American Hustle to this list; the crocheted bikinis, collar-to-midriff-baring necklines, and giant glasses were as much a character of the film as the constantly-smoking protagonists. In terms of plotline it falls somewhere between a mob movie and a con movie, although it’s not violent enough to be the former and not quite clever enough to be the latter. This movie is what you get when add a whole lot of sexual tension, no small portion of it faked, to a deal between a small-time con man and an over-ambitious FBI agent, and the result is as hilarious and heartbreaking as Christian Bale’s comb-over. — D.B.
11. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
It wasn’t until Smaug bellowed to a fleeing Bilbo Baggins that I really believed Benedict Cumberbatch was somewhere under all that CGI. The second installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy lives up to many of the expectations he created for himself over the years between the adaptation’s announcement and its actual release. Certain choices to deviate from the original text are well integrated and lay the groundwork for further development in the third film; the love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), elvish guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) comes to mind. Where all the dwarves were introduced in the first Hobbit film, the second carves out space for more development, including a touching scene between brothers Kili and Fili. The Desolation of Smaug calls to question themes of richness and loyalty while situating itself comfortably as the middle child in the larger story of Bilbo’s grandest journey. — J.W.
10. Much Ado About Nothing
As if he wasn’t busy enough, Hollywood’s geek-in-residence Joss Whedon found time between shooting and editing The Avengers to film this charming and faithful black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation. The bard’s classic tale of gossip gone good and awry is the perfect fit for the director’s verbose and quick-witted style. Enlisting the help of frequent collaborators and friends to fill the roles while shooting over two weeks at the Whedon abode lends this movie a delightful homespun quality. Though a small role, Nathan Fillion’s bumbling police chief Dogberry lights up the screen. While mostly lightweight fare, Much Ado About Nothing deftly expresses a certain unvarnished movie-making magic only found in a labour of love. — N.M.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines
After the success of their no-budget release Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance and Ryan Gosling once again teamed up to bring a quiet and tragic character drama to the screen in The Place Beyond the Pines. Though the runtime of this three-part odyssey pushes 140 minutes, every moment of the film is filled with tension surrounding the correlation between dirty criminal Luke (Gosling), his ex-girlfriend Romina (Eva Mendes), and young officer Avery (Bradley Cooper). The film’s breathtaking cinematography and ambient soundtrack boosts it from an average crime thriller to a lesson about actions and their consequences. It seems as though only Cianfrance and fellow director Nicholas Refn truly understand how to utilize Gosling in their films, giving him enough prominence on screen to make an unforgettable impression. — T.U.
Director Ron Howard is always at his best when he has a limited budget. Like the tête-à-tête of 2008’s Frost/Nixon, Rush, the story of 70s Formula One rivals Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), operates on a relatively microscopic level. The film perfectly captures the dangerous thrill and competitive nature of racing, and while Chris Hemsworth holds his own as Hunt, it is Brühl who steals the show. Portraying the relentless Austrian Lauda bent on becoming the greatest driver in the world, Brühl is almost unrecognizable from earlier roles (The Bourne Ultimatum, Inglorious Bastards) and helps make this film one of the year’s best dramas. — T.U.
7. Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers was by far the most memorable film of the year for me. There were moments when I didn’t know if I was supposed to laugh, stare, or scream in horror at what was being presented on screen. Every sequence has an ethereal, dream-like feel to it, particularly the film’s final scene, as director Harmony Korine replicates the frenzied party culture, contrasting their college life. Taking centre stage in the film’s second act, James Franco excels as the sleazy and deplorable Alien, introducing these college friends to his pseudo-gangster lifestyle. Even during the excessive montages of young adults partying on the beaches of Miami, the audience can sense the tension building. “Spring break forever, bitches!” short-lived. — T.U.
6. Star Trek Into Darkness
Hot on the heels of the first installment, Into Darkness hit Trekkies like a truck full of bricks last summer. It draws seamlessly on the original series movie Wrath of Khan without giving too much away to the seasoned fan, or confusing new ones with too much information. The film thrusts the familiar and well-loved characters into new situations — who can forget Uhura speaking Klingon and somehow making it sexy? — but still landed a giant emotional punch at the end that turns a good remake into a savvy and hard-hitting film pleasing old and new fans alike. — D.B.
5. 12 Years a Slave
Based on the 1853 memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery, 12 Years a Slave offers the fascinating perspective of a man who knows freedom and dignity before slavery, and can understand his experiences through eyes resistant to dehumanization and degradation. Steve McQueen’s vigorous attention to specific moments in Northup’s long suffering gives a very individual experience to an account that could easily become depersonalized. — N.M.
4. Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins give awesome performances in Woody Allen’s loose adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. The two sisters, separated by the classes they identify with, are both tempted by the material things supplied to them by men of a higher tax bracket, but discover that despite a societal emphasis on the material, the ability to supply a spouse with wealth is not synonymous with virtue. Blanchett gives one of her best performances as the foster sister with the “good genes” who falls from status and sanity and moves back in with her reluctant sibling. — N.M.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
Played in a loose, fantastic performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jordan Belfort is a silver-tongued devil not after legitimacy but the pure high of stock manipulation, sex, coke, ‘luudes and the cash that gives him access to all of the above. Yes, the film is sucked into his greed and unflinching power, but it also never forgets the destruction of lives, drug addiction, and affairs. It’s a mirrored portrait of self-interest. Terrence Winter’s script is comical in a refreshing, if dark way compared to other contemplations of post-2008 greed, and, like a classic Scorsese film, likely to reward with the perspective time lends. — J.H.
2. The World’s End
The World’s End marks the reunion of the satirical trio of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, but also the end of the beloved Cornetto trilogy (along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). While on the surface our heroes spend most of their time combatting zombies, ornery locals, and robots, at its core, each film in the series deals with fractured friendships, outdated traditions, and in the case of The World’s End, Gary King’s alcoholism. With subtle metaphors scattered throughout the film, like the 12 pubs working as an allegory for the 12-step program in AA, The World’s End benefits from the trio’s ability to squeeze more sinister themes into scenes involving fluidly choreographed bar and bathroom fights. The film has the technical precision and editing of the first two films with a script to match. — T.U.
1. Frances Ha
Played flawlessly by the incomparable Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is incredibly and uncomfortably relatable for anyone who has felt the aimlessness of his or her existence, or the anxiety of post-graduate life. The narrative is structured through vignettes of life that demonstrate the world Frances has created for herself in New York, all the while living paycheque-to-paycheque in a mix of studio flats, unsure about where she wants to go — career or otherwise. Shot in black and white (and co-written by Gerwig), Frances Ha masterfully captures those awkward conversations in life that not a whole lot of filmmakers like to explore — director Noah Baumbach tackles them head-on and successfully humanizes them. — T.U.