The Act of Killing—In this unique, appalling documentary, the killers from the Indonesian troubles of the mid-60s re-enact their crimes without apparent shame. It’s hard to watch, and maybe not without its opportunistic side, but unforgettable. Another eye-popping documentary, Narco Cultura, explores a similar theme.
Philomena—Judi Dench looks for her long-lost son, given up to and sold into adoption as a toddler by the nuns when she was an unwed teenage mum in Ireland. Steve Coogan is the sophisticated investigative journalist helping her. This blood-boiling real-life tearjerker is played as a buddy-road comedy by director Stephen Frears and the stars, to delightful effect.
12 Years a Slave—The famous slave narrative is dramatized with intense visual storytelling on a par with the great silents. It’s beautiful, epic, absorbing and terrifying. Superbly acted, too.
Captain Phillips—Tom Hanks does some of his best acting in years in this account of the Maersk Alabama piracy case, and the procedural-thriller direction is expertly handled by Paul Greengrass.
Fruitvale Station—This charged-up, lucid recounting of the killing of BART passenger Oscar Grant, a knockout feature debut by director Ryan Coogler, is heartbreaking, infuriating drama and exhilarating cinema. Michael B. Jordan gives an instant-classic performance as Grant.
Her—Joaquin Phoenix falls in apparently requited love with his computer’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Another strange concept from Spike Jonze that shouldn't work but does, the film is fascinating and relevant, even if the usual banalities of relationship dysfunction keep Jonze from finding a satisfying ending.
All Is Lost—As with Nebraska, this is another triumphant piece of laconic, taciturn acting by a 77-year-old, in this case Robert Redford, lost at sea, methodically and near-wordlessly working to survive. His restraint, like Dern’s, is a brilliant acting strategy; we write their characters for them in our heads.
42—This retelling of the Jackie Robinson story felt, to me, almost more like a religious epic than a baseball picture, and it was enjoyable in the old-fashioned-Hollywood way that both a Biblical epic and baseball picture can be.
In a World…—The actress Lake Bell wrote, directed and starred in this peculiar comedy set in the weird, envious world of voice-over artists. I thought this movie didn’t get its props; it’s not perfect, but it’s truly funny and imaginative, and at its best it had, I thought, something of the flavor of an early Howard Hawks comedy.
Also worthwhile: Matthew McConaughey did a bunch of fine work this year, including the title role of the rich Southern gothic Mud, but his performance in Dallas Buyers Club as Ron Woodroof, who founded the title exchange for then-unapproved (by the FDA) AIDs medications, was perhaps his most impressive turn. Then there was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, James Gandolfini’s poignantly funny swansong Enough Said, Peter Berg’s scary Afghanistan actioner Lone Survivor, the excellent and overlooked political thriller Closed Circuit, the zombie movies Warm Bodies and World War Z, the Coens’ maddening but never boring Inside Llewyn Davis, the underrated fantasy Jack the Giant Slayer, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, Disney’s Frozen, Monsters University, Last Vegas, The Great Gatsby, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, The Armstrong Lie, The Croods, One Direction: This is Us (sorry, but The Kid asked to be taken to it again, and I wasn’t bored the second time), Parkland, Inequality for All, Thanks for Sharing, Man of Tai Chi, Parental Guidance, A.C.O.D., The Wolverine, Gravity, Despicable Me 2 and The World’s End.
Highly flawed movies in which I nonetheless found some merit this year include: The Purge, Admission, Riddick, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, We're the Millers, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Machete Kills, The Lone Ranger, White House Down, the Red Dawn remake, Escape from Planet Earth and The Last Stand.
I should also mention a movie I haven’t yet seen, an indie about foster care called Short Term 12 which keeps showing up on lists by my critical colleagues. I should try to catch that ASAP.