*Disclaimer: I haven’t seen a lot of the awards show frontrunners, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Stories We Tell, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
I haven’t been able to get the music from the Coen Brothers’ film out of my head, but even more than that, the film’s melancholia has really stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the day after I saw the movie at Union Square, the frigid, snowy New York I had journeyed to onscreen arrived in real life in the form of a snowstorm and freezing temperatures. Suddenly, as I walked through snow flurries with my reddened fingers stuffed in my pockets, my mind flashed to Llewyn. Something about that character has burrowed into me, in a way that feels—like the movie—sort of funny and sort of uncomfortable and sort of poignant.
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color
The image above is from a scene that is typical of the three-hour love story Blue Is the Warmest Color: the main character, Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), takes a break from a breach trip with her primary school students to float in the ocean. It’s a scene that is not particularly plot-driven—the camera sits on Adele in close-up as she immerses herself in the water—but that doesn’t make the shot simple. In fact, it’s incredibly layered, and at once challenges and welcomes the audience to imagine what Adele is thinking and feeling. This film, at its core, is the portrayal of a young girl finding and losing love, and in that process finding and losing herself. It’s a beautiful piece with extraordinary performances. When Adele floated in the water, I thought of The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier, so galvanized and subsequently broken by her own sexual and emotional self-discovery. It’s easy to feel an intimate connection with a literary character, whom we can connect with through first-person or close third-person narration. The connection between audience-member and onscreen character can be harder to forge, but Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adele feels as alive as anyone on the page or in the world.
3. 12 Years a Slave
My favorite scene in 12 Years a Slave is a quiet one, when Steve McQueen’s camera meditates on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he sits in the woods, simply trying to convince himself to survive. The moment may be quiet, but it is not a respite. There is no safe space here; the film is full of awful sequences in the most antiquated sense of the word—”awful” used to connote a state not simply of horror, but of awe—of reverence, even. McQueen crafts images that are at once terrible to watch and visually luscious to the eye. There is immense power in that friction, and in the work done by Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupito Nyong’o.
4. The Great Gatsby
Is The Great Gatsby a perfect film? Definitely not. It has an extremely clunky framing device. Some of its visual interpretations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose are so literal that it’s embarrassing (Leo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby literally reaching for the green light across the bay, for one). Its special effects border on cartoonish. But for me, when DiCaprio turns around as Gatsby in all his glory, framed by fireworks and backed by, what else?, Rhapsody in Blue, it’s a wonderful cinematic moment. Is it over the top? Yes, but so is Fitzgerald’s story; so was the age he sought to capture, and director Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic take on the American tragedy is perfectly fitting of Gatsby. Plus, Leo DiCaprio sparkles in his first role in a romance in years.
5. Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler’s portrait of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was killed by transit police in Oakland, California, features a powerhouse performance by former TV favorite Michael B. Jordan. Jordan is a personable screen presence, but with edge—Coogler and Jordan don’t let Grant become a martyr, and the film is much better for it. It is heart-wrenching because it celebrates something American society often overlooks or demonizes: a young black male’s humanity.
6. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s winsome comedy portrays a very specific social milieu: the vaguely privileged, vaguely employed, vaguely creative, very white world of young New York professionals. And while the script delights in the specificity of that world, the film—ultimately a coming-of-age story—manages to be universal but not simplistic, quirky but not self-indulgent, romantic but not cliched. Cinematographer Sam Levy sets a high bar by conjuring memories of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with Frances Ha’s black-and-white New York, but the film meets those expectations.
7. Enough Said
Nicole Holofcener’s comedy made me lough out loud more than any other movie this year, and features great insights into the ways we communicate and connect. Her vessels are Julia Louis-Dreyfus, equal parts sweet and salty, and James Gandolfini, all warmth.