Director Alfonso Cuaron’s previous film, “Children of Men,” set a high bar both for science fiction and for his next effort. “Gravity” doesn’t capture the same human drama, but innovation, ambition and imagination easily make up for it. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Lt. Matt Kowalski’s (Clooney) quest to survive the debris-ridden aftermath of a missile strike is tense and horrifying and edge-of-your-seat in ways most blockbusters could only dream of. It could’ve used a little less dialogue, particularly towards the end of the film. Still, it’s often hauntingly beautiful and great performances find the lead actors at their most likeable and sympathetic. What more can be said? James Cameron was right. “Gravity” is the greatest space film ever made and the best to come out this year.
Every now and then we could use a reminder that you don’t need a lot to make a great film. Or, at least, you don’t need a lot of money because “Frances Ha” is not short on talent. Greta Gerwig is endlessly charming (and frustrating) as Frances, a 27-yearold New Yorker whose dreams and living situation are thrown into chaos. Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach avoid coddling or condemning her, allowing us to see a character who is her own worst enemy but still very much capable of succeeding. It’s a brief 86 minutes, but, in a good way, it feels like we’ve been with her for much longer. It’s a film that is so sweetly triumphant, it may just earn one of the few genuine smiles you get from a film this year.
“12 Years a Slave”
Decidedly not warm and fuzzy, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s autobiography is about as brutal and depressing as film can get. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers the performance of his career (and possibly the performance of this year) as the free man who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film is filled with powerful performances, but Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender are the standouts and are sure to receive nominations alongside Ejiofor. This is a story in which hope is in short supply and indulging in it only makes the horrifying inhumanity seem that much more inescapable. Not since “Roots” has something shown us just how little we understand about this piece of American history. It’s a film you may only want to see once, but you unquestionably should see it.
“Blue is the Warmest Color”
Whether or not this film deserved to win the Palme D’or is up for debate. Actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, on the other hand, most definitely did deserve such a prestigious award. The coming-ofage story follows Adele (Exarchopoulos) as she comes to terms with her sexuality and eventually focuses on her relationship with Emma (Seydoux). It’s one of the most convincing and endearing onscreen romances in recent memory, and it seems near impossible to over praise that central part of the film. The sex scenes, though few (and infamous), are overlong and the film doesn’t quite earn its near three hour running time, but the cumulative impact of the story won’t leave you feeling as though much time was wasted.
The last decade hasn’t been kind to Woody Allen, but “Blue Jasmine” continues the recent upswing in this late period of his career. Cate Blanchett turns in a knockout performance (expect a nomination) as the titular Jasmine, a once-wealthy socialite now on the verge of a mental breakdown. She’s a shift from Allen’s usual neurotic woman. It’s easy to laugh at all her ticks early on, and there’s no shortage of comedy in the film, but it soon becomes clear that she is a tragic character. Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay and several others round out a fantastic cast. Allen’s still got it, and that’s some of the best news we’ve received in years.
Crime and poverty can form a vicious cycle and no film demonstrated this better than “Fruitvale Station.” Based on the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, the story is almost devoid of drama. We see a man who wants to make his life better. He wants to be there for his daughter, he wants to hold a steady job, he wants to make his mom proud and, for that day, he either does it or seems damn near close to it. This is helped greatly by Michael B. Jordan’s absolutely phenomenal turn as Grant. An Academy Award may not be waiting for him this year, but he will win one (hopefully several), and probably sooner than later. Octavia Spencer, Melanie Diaz and Ariana Neal are also great, and do just as much to build Grant’s character as they do their own. There are some heavyhanded moments. A scene involving a dog could have been left on the cutting room floor. Still, this is a film that is shockingly powerful and remarkably subtle. It’s the first film for director Ryan Coogler and, much like Jordan, it looks like he has a great career ahead of him.
Not so much a film about Ip Man as it is a film about martial arts and why he is important, “The Grandmaster” certainly didn’t lack talent. Director Wong Kar-wai and choreographer Yuen Wooping frame kung-fu in a way that’s never been seen before; an achievement in and of itself considering the abundance of films in the genre. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi deliver characteristically great performances and Karwai’s direction and writing provide ample flash and substance. It stands strong, despite the Weinsteins taking a (perhaps) literal axe to the running time. If you can dig up the original cut of the film, that is absolutely the route to go.
Walt Disney Animation seems to be recapturing some of that Golden Age magic. Proving that there’s still plenty of life in both princesses and animated musicals, “Frozen” is the best animated film to come out this year. Anna’s journey to reunite with her sister Elsa after the kingdom is inadvertently thrown into a permanent winter gets off to a slow start, but it speeds along quickly once it finds its feet. It’s not missing anything, but it’s over so quickly that a sequel would not be unwelcome. Olaf, Christoph and Sven make for some memorable (and hilarious) allies. Olaf, in particular, will keep you smiling through the whole film. “Frozen” also has a habit for breaking norms. Independence is a big theme here. These girls don’t need a man, a refreshing shift in the princess formula. There’s also a lot of talk about a certain song performed Idina Menzel as Elsa. Expect “Let it Go” to be added to the cannon of great Disney songs, and deservedly so.
Steven Soderbergh began the year (and ended his Hollywood career) with one of his best films. It’s a stunning hitchcockian thriller and that’s about all that can be said about it without getting into spoiler territory. Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum do a terrific job with a script by recent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns. It’s a tense, constantly twisting film, and not one to be forgotten amidst the Oscar shuffle.
And, last but not least, we have the best horror movie of the year. Opting for refinement rather than reinvention, “The Conjuring” has some of the most frightening, well-earned scares in recent years. Ghosts, demons and haunted dolls abound, director James Wan manages a near-perfect balance of tension and fear. It doesn’t hurt that we have some genuinely likable characters in Ed and Lorraine Warren and the Perron family. It’s not too often that we get a horror film worth remembering (there are more than a few we’d like to forget), but “The Conjuring” seems set to haunt many a future Halloween.