In the process of assembling my “Masterpieces” list, I look for the films that most deserve to be remembered as classics in future years. I’m talking about excellence in acting, writing, directing, and all the other myriad factors that go into the filmmaking craft. I’m looking for films that kept pushing the envelope through effort, ambition, creativity, and provocative artistic statements.
Put simply, if I was blessed with an AMPAS ballot, these would be my nominees for Best Picture.
This one makes the list for three reasons. The first two are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, both of whom turn in phenomenal work, especially when acting against each other. They make this movie good, but the race sequences make it great. The sound design is flawless, the effects are staggering, the editing is breathtaking, those races are heart-pounding on every level.
Tom Hanks turns in some strong work here, but it’s the pirates who (quite literally) steal the show. In particular, Barkhad Abdi came out of absolutely nowhere to deliver one of the year’s most captivating “villains.” Of course, the film’s other big star is Paul Greengrass, who keeps the proceedings tense while presenting some fascinating statements about the haves/have-nots conflict.
The statement “It’s a Coen Brothers movie” pretty much sums it up, since you already know that it’s going to be superbly directed and wonderfully cast, with a collection of memorable characters powered by fantastic writing. Yet even that statement fails to address the memorable soundtrack or Oscar Isaac’s career-making performance. Best of all, the Coens bring so many disparate pieces together to express themes about a struggling mediocrity lost between changing eras, while making the story fresh and funny.
I could talk about the film’s various themes regarding love and responsibility, as well as all the novel and humorous ways in which they’re expressed. But I really only have to point to Cate Blanchett. The actors and their characters are all delightful under Woody Allen’s direction, but Blanchett delivers the single greatest female performance of the year. She’s funny and heartbreaking, she’s despicable yet sympathetic, she destroys everything even though she means well. There are so many contradictions in the character of Jasmine, yet Blanchett makes it all work perfectly.
It’s a damn shame this film has such rotten camerawork, or I would have ranked it a lot higher. The movie goes into a lot of dark places where few other films would dare (abortion, living as an orphan, sexual abuse, suicide, etc.), and it takes those issues very seriously. Even so, the film has an unquenchable spirit of hope and optimism that’s expressed in deeply heartfelt ways. Every single character in this film feels authentic, and the performances (especially that of Brie Larsen) are all fantastic. The film is enlightening, it’s creative, it’s uplifting, and I can’t recommend it enough.
This year saw way too many coming-of-age dramas, but this was by far the best of the lot. Powered by a remarkable screenplay and some incredible use of symbolism, this movie expressed themes of teenaged love and faith in novel and powerful ways. The movie also features a remarkable turn from young Tye Sheridan, the best work that Reese Witherspoon has done in a very long time, and the year’s greatest Matthew McConaughey performance (yes, even better than Dallas Buyers Club). Jeff Nichols continues to prove himself an extraordinary filmmaker and he can’t get his due soon enough.
Wentworth Miller wrote a phenomenal debut script, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode are both charming in a scary sort of way, and Mia Wasikowska turns in her best work yet. But it’s director Park Chan-Wook who really makes this movie a masterpiece. The narrative is wonderfully tense, the cinematography and editing are mind-blowing, and the film’s use of recurring symbols is incredible. This movie is also notable for its Wasikowska/Goode piano duel, which is easily one of the greatest sequences I witnessed on film all year.
3. 12 Years a Slave / Fruitvale Station
Both of these films left me with an emotional gut-punch that I’m still feeling so many months later. Of course, it certainly helps that these were real stories, unflinching in their brutal depictions of real tragedies that happened to real people. Also, both films benefit from the fact that we know well in advance how they’ll end. One movie is called “12 Years a Slave,” so we have some relief with the knowledge that all the misery is confined to a specific amount of time. The other one opens with the main character’s death, which makes it so much more tragic and meaningful when we see this character going about his ordinary day and making plans for the future.
What’s more, the movies both portray racial injustice, but they do it in ways that are designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, and without beatifying their protagonists. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael B. Jordan both do stellar jobs with their respective roles, proving beyond doubt that they’re both worthy of immediate promotions to the A-list.
I love this film’s devotion to excess. This film is absolutely brilliant in how it depicts unprecedented levels of criminal debauchery, daring us to enjoy it before reminding us that this isn’t a work of fiction. The exploits of Jordan Belfort really happened, and white collar criminals are still partying just like him all throughout Wall Street as I type this. It’s a very bold and challenging kind of satire, delivered with gut-busting comedy, fantastic tension, and style to spare.
Still, this film ranks so high because I never even noticed that it was three hours long. A movie that long is something you generally feel, but I honestly didn’t care in the moment. I wanted Scorsese and DiCaprio to keep the good times coming, amusing and shocking me all the way. Noticeably bad editing aside, the film was paced and crafted in such a way that I’m still left wanting more.
In terms of ambition, scope, and innovation, no other film this year came close. The visual effects were flawless. The action scenes were epic. The moments of comic relief were good and the dramatic moments were great. The sound design was impeccable. The camerawork was staggering. Sandra Bullock gave a breathtaking performance as Dr. Stone, and her depiction as a symbol for the lonely human race in the middle of a great big void was brilliant.
No amount of text could express how much I loved getting swept away in the experience of this movie. This film excels on so many levels in such triumphant fashion that I have no problem calling it the year’s greatest movie.
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