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10. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Who could guess, after the meandering first feature in a seemingly unnecessary eight-hour trilogy of films based on a novel of less than 300 pages, that Peter Jackson had such a vigorous and thrilling middle episode in store? With Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves finally done with introductory dawdling, they dive into a nonstop adventure among the noble Elves, the rough-hewn humans of Laketown and the ferocious dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). This time, Andy Serkis has not lent his presence to Gollum, but his work as second-unit director is spectacular. Each complex encounter, especially a flume-ride escape of the dwarves, boasts a teeming ingenuity of action and character. A bonus: the budding romance of the warrior Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf hunk Kili (Aidan Turner). In all, this is a splendid achievement, close to the grandeur of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
9. 12 Years a Slave
Southern whites of the pre-Civil War plantation aristocracy believed themselves God’s chosen, and their slaves inhuman. As shown in this searing film document — an anti-Gone With the Wind — the masters were the madmen, inferior but in charge. The first two feature films of Anglo-African director Steve McQueen, whose first two features, Hunger and Shame, proved him a picture poet of physical degradation. Here, working from John Ridley’s script based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker abducted into servitude, McQueen immerses viewers in the magnolia-scented hell to which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was exiled. You will recoil at every punishment, feel each slur, with an immediacy that makes the long-ago, “peculiar institution” of slavery sting like a whiplash. To this hot content, McQueen applies cool imagery. The movie has the eerie impact of a museum exhibit; it is a diorama of atrocity, populated by varying forms of monstrosity (Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch as the main slave-owners) and benevolence (Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist), and humanized by the smoldering restraint of Ejiofor’s performance.
8. The Act of Killing
In 1965, the thug Anwar Congo was hired by the Indonesian government to stamp out the threat of Communism; he and his fellow gangsters formed paramilitary squads that tortured and killed thousands of innocents. Nearly a half-century later, Anwar and many of his colleagues are still around, still protected by the politicians in charge, and ready to reenact their atrocities. Joshua Oppenheimer’s amazing documentary gives that opportunity to men who grew up idolizing Brando and Pacino and are pleased to star in their own crude biopics. To more closely resemble his young self, Anwar dyes his hair and gets new teeth. He rehearses garroting a man with a wire, to the laughter and applause of the women watching. Making the movies, which vault from film noir to bizarre musical, eventually gets under Anwar’s skin and into his dreams; the pearly killer is finally afflicted with nightmares. For any viewer, the effect is no less haunting.
Princess Elsa has powers of sorcery beyond her control: she can and does cast a nuclear winter on her northern kingdom. Her sister Anna is the normal one, falling in love at the first sight of any eligible male, yet bound to confront her sister and save their realm. The first animated feature in the Walt Disney studio’s glorious history to offer two princess heroines, Frozen transforms Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” into a fable of modern, timeless sisterhood. For this full-musical enchantment, Writer Jennifer Lee and co-director Chris Buck tapped some of the Broadway musical’s brightest lights — composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and actor-singers Idina Menzel (Elsa), Kristen Bell (Anna) and Jonathan Groff (as the gruff mountain man Kristoff) — and poured all comic inspiration into the snowman character Olaf (voiced with irrepressible enthusi-woozy-asm by The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad). His show-stopping set piece “In Summer” provides the finest two minutes of cinema you’ll seer this year.
6. Furious 6
Planes, trains and automobiles collide spectacularly in the fourth Fast & Furious movie to be directed by Justin Lin and written by Chris Morgan. In a reunion of Vin Diesel, the late Paul Walker, their gang and girlfriends and DEA agent Dwayne Johnson, Furious 6 vrooms from Tenerife to Moscow to London, with astounding stunts in each location, and hitches a ride on a military cargo plane for the final brawl. Where Fast Five heralded the New Hollywood’s exaltation of sensational action over subtle character, Furious 6 revs everything up, purifies and improves it to a level even cooler and more aerodynamically delirious than its predecessor, if such a thing is even mathematically possible. This adrenaline-stoking series is addictive, for its chases, crashes, crushes — and for its poetic limning of the closest camaraderie many men can ever know: with their cars. Owning one, some auto-holic says, is like a marriage. “Yeah,” another guy replies, “but when you break up they don’t take half your shit.”
5. The Grandmaster
Running at 2 hours and 10 minutes in its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Wong Kaw-wai’s dreamy biopic of martial arts master Ip Man was cut by 22 minutes — one-fifth of its running time — by U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company. That’s a crime akin to cutting random holes in a Bosch or Breughel painting; but what’s left is choice. The Hong Kong director makes superb movies (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046) that ignore narrative drive for tales of romance and regret in a rapturous visual style of slo-mo imagery and hazy closeups of wistful stars. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who looks like a more beautiful Obama, plays Ip Man as a poet of gestural precision, in combat scenes choreographed by the great Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix, Kill Bill). Leung’s partner in reverie is a female doctor, daughter and martial artist played by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon); she exudes a goddess’s solemn grandeur and is given a diva’s final aria — a fittingly elegiac climax for a world-class filmmaker who’s always in the mood for lost love.
In a future Los Angeles so near-Utopian that no scene takes place in a car, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has a job composing love letters for other people. Profligately romantic, bruised by the failure of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), he has enough sentiment left over to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a computer operating system who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Their virtual affair might be the springboard to satire, but writer-director Spike Jonze instead creates a splendid anachronism: a modern rom-com that is laugh-and-cry and warm all over, totally sweet and utterly serious. Or, if you will, utterly Siri. Phoenix corrals the dulcet melancholy of a man whose emotional pain finds refuge in Samantha’s embrace, in a love that, to misquote Phillip K. Dick, is “more human than human.” Phoenix and Jonze show what it’s like when a mourning heart comes alive — because he, Theodore, loves Her. And I, Richard, loved her.
3. American Hustle
History remade as sparkling farce: the FBI’s late-70’s Abscam investigation of political corruption, which led to the conviction of a U.S. Senator and seven Congressmen, becomes this headlong tale of romance and recklessness. In director David O. Russell’s third consecutive movie about mismatched couples and their crazy families, after The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, A New York con artist (Christian Bale) juggles a mouthy wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and a cunning girl friend (Amy Adams) while reluctantly cooperating with the sting — supervised by a federal agent (Bradley Cooper) — of a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner). “Some of this actually happened,” reads the movie’s opening text; but Russell and cowriter Eric Warren Singer aren’t going for verisimilitude. This portrait of the ’70s revels in the decade’s gaudiness — its disco dancing and casino dreams, its ugly coiffures and facial hair — and in the eternal abrasion of sexy women and covetous men. The five stars form a fabulous ensemble cast, in the year’s most knowing explosion of flat-out fun.
2. The Great Beauty / La grande bellezza
“What’s the matter with nostalgia?” asks an aging poet in this masterpiece of divine decadence. “It’s the only thing left for those of us who have no faith in the future.” Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, whose Il Divo blended political bio-pic and Ovidian satire, views modern Rome in all its excess through the jaded eyes of “the king of the socialites,” journalist Jep Gambardella (Il Divo’s Toni Servillo) — and, further back, more than a half-century, to the Eternal City as seen by Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita. This profligately cinematic achievement shows an affection for nearly all of its outsize characters, and a melancholy that the flaming creatures of Jep’s acquaintance will soon burn out. Giving even the cynics a faith in the vibrancy of movies, The Great Beauty is the year’s grandest, most exhilarating film that takes place on Earth.
When NASA travellers Sandra Bullock and George Clooney get lost in space, all awe breaks loose. Losing contact with Mission Control, as well as access to their oxygen supply, they are alone together, with time and options running out. An epic of desperate peril and profound wonder, Alfonso Cuarón’s thrilling 3-D drama is a testament to human grit and groundbreaking technical ingenuity. It deserves to be seen once for the wow factor and a second time to try to figure out how Cuarón and his digital savants managed to make the impossible seem so cinematically plausible. No one had dared even to imagine this stuff — like the astounding 13-minute take that opens the movie — yet here it all is, vividly and sumptuously realized. In depicting the fearful, beautiful reality of the space world above our world, Gravity reveals the glory of cinema’s future; it thrills on so many levels. And because Cuarón is a movie visionary of the highest order, you truly can’t beat the view.
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