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To attempt to distill a year in cinema to a list is always difficult, but this year it seems particularly so—finding a coherent thread through my Top Twenty films (yeah, I know I’m pushing it) is a nearly impossible task. Maybe the best I can do is group sets of two (two Soderberghs, two Ryan Goslings, two Bradley Coopers, two talkie anti-romantic dramedies, two in languages other than English, two in English by foreign directors). There are two masterpieces, and then a whole set of truly wonderful, important, and enjoyable failures.

American Hustle (#8), David O. Russell’s beautiful, destructive centrifuge of a film is magnificent not in the precise control of its auteur, but in the lack thereof. Watching it spin out of Russell’s hands is one of the purest cinematic joys in recent memory, so it’s disappointing to watch him try to wrap it all up neatly— the same breed of neat letdown as the end of Silver Linings Playbook. There’s a similar sense to Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines (#3), but Cianfrance’s reach was slightly less ambitious than Russell’s, and his ending feels pitch-perfect (in his, it’s only the middle that falters). As Daniel Lugo wisely puts it in Pain and Gain (#13) (as Armond White might write, “Pain and Gain > The Wolf of Wall Street“), “the one thing that unites great men is that their reach always exceeds their grasp.”

Then there are the controlled films—this year so controlled that they seem to vanish behind their own impenetrable outer surfaces. Side Effects (#9), Only God Forgives (#8), Stoker (#7), Behind the Candelabra (#6) are all like candy at the hard-crack stage, almost no water left in the syrup—if you hit them they might shatter. Even Chan-wook Park’s nebulous (nonexistent?) grasp of the English language somehow managed to be a positive: watching Nicole Kidman viciously dish out Wentworth Miller’s nonsensical script, one can almost see Park giggling with glee at the beauty of his crock-pot full of Hitchcockian mumbo jumbo—and doesn’t it taste good?

Another pair of films this year almost made me physically ill—The Hunt (#4) and Her (#11). Richard Brody distilled Her‘s moral to not “fall[ing] in love with your cell phone,” and people debated the practical feasibility of AI. But that ignores the central, uncomfortable truth: we are already in love with our cell phones and the  imaginary people that vivify them (our Facebook friends whom we never see, our text-message romances). But particularly unnerving was the tone; Her is no Philip K. Dickian dystopia in shades of bleak, but a pastel TV advert. The Hunt, which starts with An Enemy of the People before heading off into deeper, darker waters, is particularly disturbing in showing the additive quality of mistakes and misunderstandings, in implicating us in our own fear—the witch hunts we mount every day—by convincingly putting us in the shoes of the really, truly excellent Mads Mikkelsen.

Two near-musicals, Inside Llewyn Davis (#18) and I’m So Excited (#17), the second confectionary and the first bittersweet at best, function more as collections of great scenes than as great films. But I’ll be damned if they don’t each have at least one scene better than anything in any of the other films on this list. “I don’t understand how you thought it was a good idea to bring your little sister to a movie including gay orgies on mescaline,” my mother harshly intoned on our way out of the theater. But the values were good, Mom. They handled it all in a very generous, European manner; we could really use more movies like I’m So Excited.

Frances Ha (#11) and Before Midnight (#5) are the two anti-romantic romantic comedies, and both are Rohmerian delights about the trials of being an artist, being in love, and being a human being, which somehow is now all grouped under the banner of “White People Problems.” Well, your problems are your problems. Before Midnight suggests that, even when you get the girl and vacation of your dreams, you still need something to kvetch about. In Frances Ha, trust-fund-baby and headphone aficionado Benjy tells Frances, “You’re not poor. That’s offensive to actual poor people”— wryly inverting Nick Smith’s question in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan; “Has it ever occurred to you that you are the less fortunate?”

Then there are those two masterpieces: The Great Beauty (#1), and 12 Years a Slave (#2), though at this high level, ranking is perfunctory. How often does one see a movie even batting in this league, let alone hitting a homerun? With two of them, it’s been a good year. Paolo Sorrentino introduced The Great Beauty by saying he had tried to make a movie about a lot of things and wound up making a movie about nothing. That isn’t strictly true. He made a movie about being about nothing, or about trying to be about more than nothing. He made a deeply respectful, playfully rude, and thoroughly Italian examination of life, religion, and fundamentally everything, which, of course, might all turn out to be nothing. As The Great Beauty’s Jep Gambarella puts it, “Flaubert once tried to write a book about nothing. He failed. If he’d had you as a subject, he would have written a great novel.”

And 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s harrowing, perfect human drama—deserving of nothing less than every Oscar this year—manages to be both the kind of film the Academy likes to like and a magnificent piece of art, something that hasn’t happened since who-knows-when (since Schindler’s List is no where near as good a film as this one). It’s a lot less gruesome than the talk might suggest (not a Passion of the Christ) and a lot more than just a catalogue of horrors. It’s a lot less than the story of slavery in America, and a lot more than just the story of one man’s life. It’s a great movie of the sort I thought they didn’t make any more.

 

In the interest of brevity, here are my top twenty films of the year:

1. The Great Beauty

2. 12 Years a Slave

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

4. The Hunt

5. Before Midnight

6. Behind the Candelabra*

7. Stoker

8. Only God Forgives

9. American Hustle

10. Side Effects

11. Frances Ha

12. Her

13. Pain and Gain

14. Sightseers

15. In The House

16. Enough Said

17. Blue Jasmine

18. I’m So Excited

19. Inside Llewyn Davis

20. The Gatekeepers