act-of-killingThe Act of Killing (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer, Drafthouse Films)

Anwar Congo and Herman Koto are the two most memorable characters I met at the movies this year. They are larger than life, full of charisma and swagger. They are also mass murderers. Director Joshua Oppenheimer sought out the victims of Suharto’s 1960s Indonesian death squads for what could have been a conventional documentary. But Suharto’s henchmen proved to be willing subjects themselves, making The Act of KIlling like no documentary before it. Oppenheimer dares to turn the tables on the cinematic act of killing by interviewing real killers, real oppressors, and finding them more vivid than any fictional character. As if that wasn’t bold enough, Oppenheimer gave these war criminals the tools to make their own movie-within-the-movie. The Act of Killing is a sober tonic for a culture that applauds movie violence, starring real killers who have performed real acts more brutal than Quentin Tarantino could ever imagine. The director shows Anwar and Herman not as inhuman beasts but as human beings. Do not for a second believe that this movie celebrates murderers. The Act of Killing shows us in unforgettable, even entertaining ways, the horrifying price of violence. – Pat Padua

before-midnight1Before Midnight (Dir: Richard Linklater, Sony Pictures Classics)

Nearly 20 years after director Richard Linklater introduced the initially simple romantic saga of Jesse and Céline, he rejoins with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (credited co-writers since the second installment, Before Sunset) to offers a riveting, painfully truthful examination of the way the flush of infatuation can harden into complacency and resentment once love becomes requited, and a cascade of compromises follows. The principals are now a committed couple, unmarried but together as a cohesive family unit. On a family vacation in Greece, they engage in the sort of quasi-philosophical conversations that have defined the series since the beginning. Here, though, there is a heavy undercurrent of dissatisfaction, Hawke and Delpy pulling their characters through troubled arguments that reveal embedded bitterness. The film is as witty and erudite as its predecessors, but it’s also strikingly raw and real, a sense heightened by Linklater’s daring long takes, leaving the actors without the relief of an edit. And when it comes to the extended argument towards the close of the film—the true centerpiece of the drama—the director’s commitment to every uncomfortable moment as two people who know each other tear deeply at weakness and worries, Before Midnight is devastating. – Dan Seeger

blackfishBlackfish (Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures)

Hundreds of thousands of parents take their children to zoos and theme parks every year, not only to entertain but to educate them about wild animals. Unfortunately, the majestic and highly intelligent orcas that they see in parks like SeaWorld aren’t free to live as they do in the wild but instead forced to endure a cramped existence in glorified swimming pools. In the documentary Blackfish, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite—one such parent who took her kids to SeaWorld—seeks to tell the tragic story of the captive whale Tilikum. In so doing, she illuminates a broader story of the dangers of keeping animals in captivity to perform cheap tricks for human entertainment. Presented as an exploration into a killer’s psychoses, the film delves into Tilikum’s history, from his initial capture to his current status as a performing whale and sire at SeaWorld Orlando, seeking to elucidate the theory that the traumas of captivity have an effect on whales’ psyches, making Tilikum (and others) the aggressive animal he is today. Cowperthwaite places a lot of emphasis on the disruption of normal social life for these captive orcas. Where in the wild they would remain in enormous pods surrounded by family members, at SeaWorld mothers and calves are frequently separated, and orcas are left to fend for themselves against other unhappy orcas. Blackfish presents a measured, persuasive argument about a very emotional issue. – Katherine Springer

blue-is-the-warmest-color1Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche, IFC Films)

It’s well-known by now that Blue is The Warmest Color is a title that a distribution company came up with to try and sell this heartbreaking French movie about the vicissitudes of being in love to American audiences. The original, French title is La Vie d’Adèle Chapitres 1 et 2 (The Life of Adele Chapters 1 and 2). Not surprisingly, the French title is by far the more appropriate one. “Blue is the warmest color,” as a phrase, is full of sexy innuendo, which makes sense on a certain level, since the movie features a whole lot of graphic, tender, realistic-looking sex. But the phrasing of the American title also hints that the movie is supposed to be as much about Emma (Léa Seydoux), a blue-haired, philosophy-spouting artist, as it is about Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the young preschool teacher who falls in love with her. As the French title correctly states, this movie is about the life of Adèle, and while it is an excruciatingly direct and tender depiction of her love for Emma, the story is resolutely and rightly about the younger woman. It is three hours long, and much more of that time is dedicated to watching Adèle grow up than to watching her make love. Just bear that in mind when this beautiful movie’s ad campaign tries to reel you in with the promise (not entirely false) of graphic sex. – Alex Peterson

captain-phillips1Captain Phillips (Dir: Paul Greengrass, Columbia Pictures)

Tom Hanks has always tempered his all-American image with brave role choices. In last year’s Cloud Atlas, he played multiple parts, including a violent British ex-con turned author who tosses a critic off a building. Although Richard Phillips has been hailed as hero (his ship was hijacked by Somali pirates), Hanks injects a very human performance into Paul Greengrass’ riveting film Captain Phillips, where he could have just rode on the rah-rah fumes of the film’s subject matter. Greengrass has stepped away from the Bourne films and returned to the same ground that fueled Bloody Sunday and United 93, creating one of the most suspenseful and surprisingly emotional movies of the year. Like the hijacking in United 93, Greengrass adroitly captures the horror when the Somali pirates take over the Alabama. However, this isn’t just an objective reenactment. We feel for the pirates, even as they terrorize Phillips and his crew.

The real draw, though, is Hanks, doing some of the best work of his career, especially in the film’s tense final section where the pirates take him hostage in a cramped escape vessel. Stoic up to that point, Hanks allows fear to creep into his performance, raising the bar not only on his body of acting work, but elevating the four unknown Somali actors to his level of acting greatness. Every emotional reaction is earned in Captain Phillips. It is easily one of the best films of the year. – David Harris

computer-chess1Computer Chess (Dir: Andrew Bujalski, Kino Lorber)

A film innately concerned with technology—both in the forcefully clunky version exhibited in its ancient video aesthetic and its actual subject matter—Computer Chess explores both the boundless possibilities of human ingenuity and our infinite capacity for failure. Finding a common point between people and machines, this exceedingly odd film finds director Andrew Bujalski creating a perfectly rendered simulacrum of early ‘80s nerd culture, a world where computers were still an odd passion for hobbyists. It makes a show of how far we’ve come since then, yet despite the flipped dynamic of our present day, a world defined by automation and systematic order, we’re still subject to the same problems and failures experienced here, still trying to comprehend the effect of cold, logical systems upon our lives, our interactions still fraught with nagging kinks and bugs. – Drew Hunt

drug-warDrug War (Dir: Johnnie To, Variance Films)

Johnnie To’s masterful action films and comedies have struggled to find U.S. distribution, but he made what meager American support he could get count with Drug War, which offered the director his widest Stateside exposure yet with one of his most epic works. To trades the cramped urban concentration of Hong Kong for the expanse of China’s Mainland, yet perversely his frames have never felt more constricted, and the rich color palettes of earlier films turn to steely blue-grays. In all other respects, however, this is unmistakably a To film, with anamorphic frames curving establishing shots of vast but lined interiors and a total focus on visual storytelling that requires one’s attention to pick up key details that will be dropped only once, and usually in terms of a silent clue. The action sequences in particular are a marvel, with a warehouse raid that consistently reshapes the boundaries of a set even as spatial relationships between cops and drug soldiers are kept perfectly clear, as well as a final shootout that crystallizes To’s bleak view of a state-mandated drug war that turns cities into battlegrounds. To, who has worked exclusively through the independent company he co-founded in the mid-’90s, is as much producer as director, and the shifting realities of an Asian market beholden to Mainland viewers, and thus Mainland censor boards, has brought out his political side. That this film’s ruthless vision of authorities’ futile, self-destructive quest for righteousness received the full endorsement of said censors only makes its critique of a blinded state all the more biting. – Jake Cole

frances-ha1Frances Ha (Dir: Noah Baumbach, IFC Films)

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the director’s finest, most mature work to date, in no small part because it offers a markedly clear-eyed vision of the quiet, comic anguish of parting with the hope and possibility of youth as the crushing reality of adulthood settles in. The film centers on a sparkling star turn of endearing vulnerability by Greta Gerwig (also a co-writer on the film), a dancer coming to terms with unwelcome change: in her occupational aspirations, her determined friendship with Sophie (the winning, crafty Mickey Sumner) and even in her address, the last one repeatedly. In part offering a homage to great black-and-white, New York-set films, such as Manhattan and Raging Bull, Baumbach captures the flagging spirit of a certain time of life with piercing accuracy, showing the ways Frances holds onto gentle self-delusion as a defense mechanism against a life that’s not always willing to hew to her preferences. There are indignities heaped on the character, to be sure. Even with that, the film is primarily Frances’ champion. Frances Ha is about personal survival, and the ways in which it eventually, kindly delivers relief and revelation. – Dan Seeger

inside-llewyn-davis1Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, CBS Films)

The Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, tells the story of a heartbreaking and often morbidly funny week in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Enduring a harsh winter in 1961 with no place of his own and nothing but a corduroy jacket and flimsy shoes, Davis struggles with what a lesser film would chalk up to basic bad luck and the trope of artistic irresponsibility. In the hands of the Coens, however, his plight becomes a harrowing story of loss and mistakes, of a man who is not wholly irredeemable, yet who is unable to fully understand the concept of cause and effect. He strives to express himself artistically yet spends most of his emotional capital negotiating tragedy, career missteps and broken relationships. The bleak winter gray of New York City is gorgeously framed by Bruno Delbonnel (largely responsible for the authentic early-‘60s look of the film), who creates a visual tension to reflect a world on the verge of incredible change. Inside Llewyn Davis also features pitch perfect performances from Isaac and Carey Mulligan, as well as charming turns from Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the Gorfeins. This aging academic couple are the owners of the wandering cat who is a metaphor for, among other things, Llewyn’s perpetual also-ran existence, always playing catch up, never coming out ahead. – Stacia Kissick Jones

leviathanLeviathan (Dir: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Cinema Guild)

Practically wordless (even the dialogue between seamen on the fishing vessel profiled by the filmmakers is muted by the roar of wind, waves and industrial noise), Leviathan nevertheless speaks volumes about the ecstatic truth of its milieu. That term comes from Werner Herzog, whose own obsession with nature’s contentious relationship with its most hostile creation provides a parallel for this film’s own harrowing depiction of an unforgiving sea, yet it is as far as possible from Herzog’s didactic, manipulative approach. If anything, this film is the realization of the work of late Jean-Luc Godard: by handing off Go-Pros that the filmmakers themselves did not know how to use to the fishing crew, the directors achieve the socialistic formalism Godard chased for decades, giving the narrow focus of film away to everything it records. And through it all, it is the horror film of the year, a blast of white noise and death that is at once the most oblique and truest adaptation of Moby Dick yet made, even without a whale. – Jake Cole

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