It’s always a challenge compiling a list of the year’s 10 best movies, especially when, thanks to the phenomenal rise of the independent film scene over the past decade, there seems to be an increasing number of impressive films to choose from.
This year’s crop included such diverse shortlist contenders as In The Family, Patrick Wang’s beautifully understated three-hour Southern drama about the conflict between an amiable gay contractor and the family of his late lover, who dies suddenly, over their young son; Intouchables, the French crowd-pleaser about the unlikely friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic Parisian widower (Francois Cluzet) and a streetwise, cocky Senegalese ex-convict (Omar Sy) who reluctantly becomes his caregiver; and Malik Bendjelloul’s shrewdly structured documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
Heck, I even agonized over whether Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy yet undeniably hilarious comedy Ted merited a spot.
None of the above made this year’s Top 10. It’s not that they weren’t deserving, just out-ranked by characters including an ostentatious tycoon, alcoholic airline pilot, ruthless Norwegian headhunter, cool British spy and endearing stoner.
Confidently cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s hottest directors after his stellar work on Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck crafted one of the year’s most entertaining, Oscar-calibre movies. Deftly blending humour, white-knuckle suspense and a brilliantly evocative flashback to 1979, when the Iran hostage crisis began, Affleck created a beat-the-clock political thriller that dramatizes the crazy covert operation concocted by CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), who poses as a Hollywood producer scouting locations for a fake sci-fi film to extract six American diplomats in hiding at the Canadian Embassy. Chris Terrio’s droll screenplay and a superb cast — notably Alan Arkin as a cranky has-been producer and John Goodman as a makeup artist who help the escaped American captives pose as the fake film crew — were among key elements that made this popcorn movie a compelling tale of fact being stranger than fiction.
The Scandinavians have done it again! So don’t be surprised when, as with Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the inevitable Hollywood remake surfaces of this dark, grisly Norwegian thriller about the meticulous machinations of Roger Brown, a ruthless corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief. It’s hard to imagine the Americanized version could be as diabolically entertaining as director Morten Tyldum’s twisty, nerve-jangling suspenser in which the corporate anti-hero with a Napoleon complex, desperate for more cash to please his wife, a beautiful Nordic art gallery owner he fears will leave him, becomes ensnared in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a vindictive client. While the mind-boggling action arising from a botched art heist grows increasingly implausible, it’s the film’s emphasis on the psychological underpinnings that motivate Roger’s lifestyle that spirals horrifically out of control, and the devilish way Tyldum defies our expectations, that sets this sleek heart-pounder apart.
Here’s a movie you’ll never see on an airplane. As terrifying as the film’s edge-of-your-seat, breathtakingly realistic flight-from-hell sequences are, Denzel Washington’s complex and persuasive depiction of the personal journey of Whip Whitaker, the resourceful, heroic yet tormented pilot with underlying addiction issues is as harrowing. Robert Zemeckis expertly builds tension and intrigue, offset with humorous asides on action flick terms, but it’s when the arrogant pilot’s pre-flight sex, boozing and coke-snorting and the midair chaos subsides, and the slow-burn human drama kicks in, that Flight soars. It’s an absorbing and unforgettable drama about morality, redemption and personal responsibility not to be missed.
4. The Queen of Versailles
I can’t think of any other movie this year as perversely fascinating as Lauren Greenfield’s riveting documentary about the rise and fall of David Siegel, the Florida time-share billionaire whose garish 90,000-square-foot Orlando mansion was inspired by the Palace of Versailles. It makes you laugh and cringe in equal measure. This cautionary excursion into American dream-fuelled excess gone awry after the 2008 financial meltdown at first seemed intent on ridiculing the 74-year-old tycoon with more money than taste, and Jackie, 43, his shopaholic trophy wife. Yet it humanized these caricatures, especially the unexpectedly endearing ex-beauty queen. Still, Greenfield isn’t above letting the couple hang themselves with unintended comedy, as when economizing Jackie takes the limo to McDonalds for Chicken McNuggets, or asks one of her kids “How was it, flying commercial?” and “What’s my driver’s name?” to a perplexed car rental agent.
5. Premium Rush
If you haven’t taken David Koepp’s taut, kinetic thriller about the exploits and subculture of daredevil New York bike messengers for a spin yet, do it now. A rush is exactly what this thrill ride delivers as Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s Wilee zooms around Manhattan on a brake-less bike, with a rogue cop (a dependably demented Michael Shannon) in hot pursuit. Even before the film clicks into high gear as Wilee dodges yellow cabs, baby carriages and other vehicles, it’s a relentlessly gripping blast. Terrific sight gags, pop-culture references and slickly edited slo-mo replays of Wilee’s sudden visions of potentially deadly “what-if?” traffic outcomes make up for a contrived plot that takes a back seat to the action.
Daniel Craig came closer to dethroning Sean Connery as the best Agent 007 in the 23rd entry in the James Bond franchise, with palpable weariness and vulnerability to match his quicksilver wit and physicality. The aging, introspective spy’s obsession with obsolescence expands a human dimension that might not sit well with James Bond popcorn-movie purists who miss all those gadgets, but we loved this navel-gazing depth. Not only did Sam Mendes’s gutsy direction keep the requisite glamour, picturesque locales, from Shanghai to the Mediterranean, and ridiculously entertaining action sequences intact, it slyly accommodated Javier Bardem’s gleeful high-tech adversary and Ben Whishaw’s boyish, nerdy new Q. It also successfully dared tamper with M (Dame Judi Dench) among other sacred elements, subversively capitalizing on the nostalgia essential to the continuing adventures of this old-school spy adapting to a young man’s game.
7. Silver Linings Playbook
One of the year’s most surprisingly satisfying movies was also a revelation on several fronts. Writer-director David O. Russell’s crowd-pleaser showcased Bradley Cooper’s dramatic acting chops as Pat, a bipolar Philadelphia schoolteacher just released from a mental hospital he was committed to after assaulting a colleague he discovered having sex with his wife. It also demonstrated that Jennifer Lawrence, the hot young Hunger Games star whose Oscar-worthy, ferociously affecting performance as Tiffany, an unbalanced widow Pat befriends while foolishly trying to win back his estranged wife, is no flash-in-the-pan. In Russell’s capable hands, what could have been a treacly Hollywood rom-com became a hilarious and heartbreaking comedy-drama about the resiliency of the damaged human pysche.
8. Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Not much happens in this eccentric little comedy-drama from Jay and Mark Duplass, the brothers who brought us The Puffy Chair, yet that’s part of its off-kilter charm. So is its refusal to judge its quirky title character played to dopey perfection by Jason Segel, a 30-year-old pothead who lives with his widowed mom (Susan Sarandon) and obsesses on the deep existential meaning of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, yet somehow seems more together than his “successful” older brother (Ed Helms). Funny, touching and filled with sly emotional truths, it’s as amiable and shaggy as its title stoner — a charming and humane oddity that grows on you, with scripted dialogue that often seems improvised.
9. Ruby Sparks
It was as easy to fall in love with this enjoyably subversive romantic comedy as with the idealized girlfriend of the title literally inspired by Cal, a lonely, blocked novelist (Paul Dano). Mercifully, this wasn’t one of those juvenile male fantasies like Weird Science, but a charming, quirky and bittersweet comedy scripted by Zoe Kazan, whose surprisingly complex performance as the sexy, free-spirited dream girl who springs to life, unware she’s Cal’s creation, exerts more emotional pull than expected. Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed what could have been just an innocuous curiosity. While their Pygmalion twist imagines some amusing possibilities as Cal “rewrites” Ruby’s behaviour to suit him, it morphs into a smart “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, refreshingly from the “perfect” girl’s perspective.
10. End of Watch
I’ve lost count of how many clichéd police thrillers I’ve seen, but writer-director David Ayer’s harrowing, atmospheric cop drama stands apart because of its primitive edginess and gritty authenticity while shadowing two Los Angeles street cops working South Central. If it recalls Denzel Washington’s Training Day, it’s because that was also penned by Ayer, who recaptures that film’s urgency, street-speak and air of impending danger. It helps that Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena bring such conviction to their roles as the risk-taking partners targeted by a Mexican drug cartel. If these decent cops don’t always play by the rules amid the shootouts, chases and gang activity, it’s not in the exaggerated manner found in many buddy cop movies. And while you occasionally might feel like you’re watching Cops, Ayer ratchets up the tension by having Gyllenhaal’s character, a film student, bring along a dashboard-mounted camcorder that effectively lets us ride shotgun.
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