Her (Spike Jonze, U.S.). To say too much about Jonze’s complex, cerebral fairy tale (to my mind, his best film yet) would be to betray Her’s unique magic. This ever-so-slightly futuristic romance between a lonely working stiff (Joaquin Phoenix) and his new artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) spirals as deeply into its lovers’ psyches as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—a film it resembles in many ways—while also posing questions about technology, evolution, and the future of humanity that, like all the most important questions, have no definite answers.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S.). See above: For all its flaws (OK, really just a couple minor niggles), this gorgeously mounted but firmly unnostalgic period piece is a movie to haunt your dreams, with a soundtrack that’s as functional as it is beautiful. The songs performed by the title character and his fellow aspiring folk singers are cannily deployed to reveal character, advance the story, and hint at layers of meaning left ambiguous in the opaque (but often hilarious) screenplay. The preternaturally talented Coens long ago achieved mastery of their craft, but for whatever reason, they haven’t made many movies that matter to me at a personal level. This one does.
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, U.S.). As I said in my review, this is King Lear on the Great Plains and possibly, looking back on it after two viewings, my single favorite movie of the year. Payne isn’t just one of our finest living directors, he’s one of our nimblest, able to move from comedy to tragedy in the space of a single shot. As a Nebraska-born septuagenarian making his way back to his home state to claim a bogus million-dollar sweepstakes prize, Bruce Dern gives a magisterial performance: fearless, funny, and bone-deep.
No (Pablo Larraín, Chile). Gael García Bernal plays an apolitical, none-too-bright ad exec under the Pinochet dictatorship who’s hired to create a TV campaign for the leftist opposition. No is a heady, hilarious, technically masterful collage that combines real footage from the 1988 plebiscite election with fictional scenes that are only made to look like they’re shot on cheap ’80s video. It’s also a sharp political satire that taps into both the sly wisdom of Robert Altman and the anarchic spirit of Hal Ashby.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada). Polley’s thrilling third movie works in a subgenre of documentary that I wish we saw more of: It’s sort of filmed autobiographical essay, with sneaky little touches of fiction here and there. This alarmingly gifted young director combines real Super-8 films from her childhood and interviews with her father and siblings with ingeniously faked home movies to reconstruct the twist-filled story of her now-deceased mother’s fateful (and long-undiscussed) infidelity to her father. Polley is introspective without being self-dramatizing and formally playful without being arch.
Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia). Everything about Wadjda is a miracle: its very existence as the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia since the theocratic government shut down the film industry (and all public movie theaters) in the early ’80s. The fact it was directed (in part clandestinely) by a woman in a nation where women aren’t even permitted to drive. The fact it’s that director’s debut feature. And above all, the fact that Wadjda—a sweet but sharp-edged feminist parable about a little girl longing for a bike of her own, starring the wondrous 12-year-old actress Waad Mohammed—is so thoroughly good. Because of its story, Wadjda has been compared to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, but the seriousness with which Al-Mansour takes the concerns of childhood at times evokes memories of François Truffaut.
* * *
And, because this really was a year of outrageous cinematic bounty, here are 10 more titles that were booted from the list with the utmost difficulty. It was especially hard throwing Robert Redford overboard.
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, U.S.)
Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Concussion (Stacie Passon, U.S.)
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, U.S.)
The World’s End (Edgar Wright, U.K.)
Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein, Israel)
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, U.S.)
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, U.S.)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)
The Wind Rises, (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)