7. 12 Years a Slave

best 12 years a slave

We all know that slavery was (and still is, sadly) a terrible, vile thing, but Steve McQueen‘s third feature is still a bit of an education for far too many. Its greatness goes beyond being simply a teaching tool though as it strives to tell not just a tale of human suffering and cruelty but one of perseverance and forgiveness too. Beautifully shot and powerfully acted (by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and others), the film is an emotionally draining experience that I will probably never watch again.

6. All Is Lost

best all is lost

This year saw at least three high profile films featuring characters isolated and fighting for their very survival. Gravity and Captain Phillips are the bigger of the three and fine films in their own right, but it’s J.C. Chandor‘s stripped down tale of one man lost at sea that managed so much more with so little. Robert Redford‘s performance relies almost exclusively on expressions, actions, and the look in his eyes that runs the gamut of fear, conviction, and resilience. Chandor’s script lacks dialogue, but it respects viewers’ intelligence by only offering what’s necessary and letting us connect the dots.

5. Stories We Tell

best stories we tell

The second documentary on my list is at once both the simpler of the two and the more intricately designed. Sarah Polley turns her cameras on her own family in an effort to understand and explore how her parents, themselves artists and storytellers, crafted perhaps their greatest collaboration in her. It’s a sweet and funny film, but it’s also as full of twists, turns, and surprises as any thriller. Polley finds some interesting truths here about herself and about creative personalities in general.

4. Blue Ruin

best blue ruin

It’s rare that I’ll see the same movie twice during a film festival, both because there’s always so much more to see and because I wouldn’t want to prevent someone else from seeing the movie for the first time, but I made an exception for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier‘s latest. A synopsis risks leaving the impression that the movie is simply a low budget revenge tale when in reality it’s something much greater. It actually puts “Hollywood” revenge films to shame with its performances (especially lead Macon Blair) and a script that smartly inverts much of what the genre has taught us to expect.

3. Her

best her

Who knew Spike Jonze was such a romantic? His latest film puts a mildly sci-fi layer atop a story about love, self-awareness, and the connection we share with others, and the result is something of rare beauty. Joaquin Phoenix leaves behind the affectations and quirks that have marked too many of his past roles and delivers one of the year’s best and most affecting. It’s not falling in love with an artificial intelligence that’s scary, it’s opening up to the idea of loving yourself so that someone else can do the same that terrifies.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

best inside llewyn davis

Joel and Ethan Coen may be critical darlings, but it wasn’t until this year and their sixteenth feature that I truly and fully fell in love with one of their films. I’ve liked some of their movies before of course, some very much, and I’ve strongly disliked others, but their tale of a folk singer struggling against the music scene and against himself has left me in awe. Llewyn Davis (and Oscar Isaac‘s achingly honest performance) pulled me along on his journey like so few characters do, left me immersed in his frustrations and failures, and helped make a film that looks damn cold remarkably warm instead. But I still don’t like folk music.

1. Upstream Color

best upstream color

My first viewing of Shane Carruth‘s sophomore feature was almost a year ago at Sundance, and the fact that it has resonated with me so strongly for so long made it difficult to choose anything else for the top spot. The film’s narrative is deceptively simple but buried behind a creative structure that’s only as dense and difficult as you want it to be. Go beyond the mind games, pigs, and karate, and you’ll find a smart, beautiful, and wise tale about identity brought to life with sharp vision and an incredible lead performance by Amy Seimetz.


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