The only new release this past weekend, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, struck me as a depressing way to ring in a new year. Had I not closed out 2013 laid low by pig flu or whatever it was, I might have had the energy to have fun with a bad movie. Instead, I've decided to start 2014 on a note of positivity. So here are my top 10 movies of last year, in no particular order.
SIDE EFFECTS. Supposedly Steven Soderbergh's last theatrical release (we'll see about that), it deserved better than the February release date and lack of promotion it received. It's a fun, suspenseful, consistently entertaining film noir spiked with potent social commentary.
THE CONJURING. James Wan fully won me over with this, and that's no small feat. More spooky than shocking, it is as much about the production design and cinematography as it is about ghosts. Set in 1971, it balances homage to old-style horror and modern technique with creepy aplomb.
YOU'RE NEXT. Maybe my biggest surprise of the year. A gory, scary, darkly comic horror picture for people who love the cinema, it transcends genre with its intelligence and style.
PRISONERS. If I had to pick a favorite, this would be it: a great reminder that imagination and skill can elevate something as boilerplate as a police thriller to high art. Gorgeous, perfectly paced and heart-poundingly suspenseful, it also features some of the finest performances of the year. Hugh Jackman, in particular, blew my mind with his intensity as a father forced to desperate measures.
DON JON. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's surprisingly self-assured debut as a writer/director features some of the best, most insightful writing about digital-age sex in mainstream cinema. Gordon-Levitt also plays a neat trick, using the titular New Jersey club-rat and his family as a hook to draw us into a pointed, nuanced portrait of contemporary American life. It's not a perfect movie, and it's sadder and more mature than the ads led us to believe, but it is a remarkable first effort.
GRAVITY was one of the most talked about, well-liked movies of the year, and I'm kind of a sucker for it. Some have criticized it as all style and no substance, but I disagree. While the themes — strength in the face of adversity, recovery, loss — aren't so complex, they are genuine. And taking on a project this technically immense and carrying it off this well is a testament to the skill, vision and guts of co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS showcases the action-drama chops of director Paul Greengrass, sure. It's probably the best example of his distinct type of filmmaking, and it's deeply satisfying on that level. But Tom Hanks really surprised me with the depth and vulnerability of his lead performance. Especially in the scene in which Phillips is trying and failing to keep it together in acute shock, Hanks is revelatory.
12 YEARS A SLAVE. There isn't much left unsaid about this one. It was the year's best-reviewed movie, and for good reason. Director Steve McQueen's painterly, patient style is a perfect vehicle for a devastating true story. The cast is uniformly excellent, but lead Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance that is like a master-class. He barely has to move to convey the horror and hopelessness of his character's situation.
DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB. A tough, concise little independent brought to life by heartbreaking lead performances. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto disappear into these characters, and we experience all their triumph and tragedy on a visceral level.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is probably the most divisive major release of the year. It's a three-hour long bacchanal, carpet-bombed with expletives, nudity and drugs. It is deeply, significantly funny and features fantastic turns by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. But what some have failed to recognize is that it is also deeply sad and depressingly topical. Martin Scorsese is still full of surprises, and this might be the most exuberant movie he has ever made.
A Top 12 would likely include The Way Way Back and All Is Lost, but then we're getting perilously close to bargaining, and that way lies madness. From my seat, 2013 was a remarkable year at the movies, the best of which gave us a little of everything: quiet observation, technical wizardry, and high seas adventure. The year had its low points, to be sure, but on balance I think we did all right. Happy New Year.
— John J. Bennett
HER. What if HAL crossed with Siri and sounded, you know, hot? Joaquin Phoenix is an introverted writer who falls in love with his upgrade. R. 126m.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The Brothers Coen tour the folk scene in 1961 Greenwich Village through the eyes of a struggling singer. R. 105m.
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES. Kellan Lutz hits the gym and everything else in the fantasy origin story of the demigod hero. PG13. 99m.
LONE SURVIVOR. A Navy SEAL team mission in Afghanistan goes sideways leaving Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch between the rocks and the Taliban. R. 121m.
NEBRASKA. Gin-blossomed Bruce Dern hits the road with his estranged and skeptical son in pursuit of supposed sweepstakes winnings. R. 115m.
47 RONIN. Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada rock kimonos and wreak vengeance in a samurai-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings supernatural CG fantasy that defies the odds and comes out boring. PG13. 119m.
AMERICAN HUSTLE. David O. Russell takes a stellar cast, including Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, back to the '70s for an ambitious and entertaining ABSCAM-inspired caper. R. 138m.
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES. Will Ferrell and his street-fighting news team keep it classy and skewer info-tainment. Goofy fun that's mustache and shoulder pads above the competition. PG13. 119m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell voices a girl who braves the snow to save the kingdom from her sister's frosty spell. Standard Disney Princess fun with a Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. PG. 108m
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Impressive beards and exciting action as Bilbo and the dwarves go after a treasure-hoarding dragon. Director Jackson ups his game with this sequel. PG13. 161m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Katniss and Peeta are back in the dystopian fray. The actors are game, but with a sanitized production, the odds are not in their favor. PG13. 146m.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES. More demonic possession and "found footage" when young Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) bumps into things that bump in the night. R. 84m.
SAVING MR. BANKS. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson bring engaging characters and affecting drama to what might have been merely Disney propaganda. PG13. 125m.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Ben Stiller is Thurber's titular daydreamer who finally breaks out of his office for a globe-trotting adventure. Doesn't quite live up to the dream. PG. 114m.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS. Prehistoric CG fest about a runt in a migrating dinosaur herd. Voiced by Charlie Rowe and Karl Urban. PG. 87m.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. A raucous cautionary tale of greed, girls and schadenfreude with Leonardo DiCaprio as double-breasted douchebag Jordan Belfort, a self-made '80s stock tycoon who runs afoul of the Feds. R. 180m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill