True stories, high stakes, big spectacle, and big funny won the day with this year's movie offerings. Here's a countdown of my top cinematic experiences for the year now closing:
10 & 9 - This is the End/The World's End
Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg's directorial debut and Edgar Wright's third teaming with Simon Pegg & Nick Frost both offered humorous takes on apocalyptic themes, so it seemed appropriate to discuss them together. This is the End, while ostensibly set in the aftermath of the Rapture (comedy gold!), was really a sly jab at the self-obsession of outsized Hollywood personalities (and, by extension, all of us who idolize them) which manages to somehow survive even in the face of cannibal gangs, giant demons, and just general chaos.
With The World's End, Wright's loose trilogy of genre comedies (following on from 2004's Shaun of the Dead and 2007's Hot Fuzz) closes out in fine form. While it doesn't necessarily match the manic mash-up that was Shaun, the strong script by Wright & Pegg nonetheless manages to take a meditation on aging, toss in an array of alien space robots that bleed blue, and end up with something that's somber, scary, and absolutely hilarious. That's quite the bit of cinematic alchemy. Well done, chaps.
8 - Fast & Furious 6
As I mentioned last summer, this was the first Fast & Furious sequel I ever watched, and after seeing it, I started wondering what weird mental block had kept me from imbibing these precision confections until now. Closing out his four forays into the Fast franchise, director Justin Lin's bonkers caper flick is a sort of Avengers-with-cars, with our man Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) leading his motley band of hardcore drivers against their opposite numbers. And while the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker last month has understandably changed the trajectory of the series from here on in, it's easy to see how movie six ended up being the highest grosser in the twelve-year old series' history.
7 - Elysium
Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), director Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi parable starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster was as starkly polarizing upon its release last August as the film's central conceit, which posits a similar divide between haves and have-nots. What I loved about it was the way it took tried-and-true sci-fi tropes and redirected them in service of Blomkamp's unique aesthetic sensibilities. After the South African filmmaker first came to my (and most of the world's) attention with 2009's District 9, I was eagerly awaiting what he had to offer next, and I wasn't disappointed in the least with what we got.
6 - The Way Way Back
This one just kind of came and went last summer, which is understandable given the kind of fare that usually garners eyeballs and ticket sales during that season, but it was a shame nonetheless. Writer/directors Jim Rash & Nat Faxon crafted a stirringly heartfelt yet wickedly funny coming of age tale, which features terrific supporting turns by Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Rob Corddry, and Amanda Peet, but is firmly anchored by the the unlikely friendship between young lead Liam James and the criminally underrated Sam Rockwell, who delivers another great performance in a long line of great performances.
5 - Captain Phillips
This true life tale of modern day piracy from director Paul Greengrass came under fire during its theatrical run for supposed deviations from actual events, but that shouldn't take anything away from the white-knuckle achievement of the film itself. Telling the story of Richard Phillips, the freighter captain who found himself the hostage of Somali pirates in 2009, the screen adaptation (with script by Billy Ray) expertly uses the medium to wind the clock of suspense tighter and tighter, practically to the breaking point, and star Tom Hanks' emotional breakdown in the closing moments, as much a catharsis for the audience as is for the character, will most certainly land the ever-dependable star his first Oscar nom since the mid-'90s.
4 - Rush
Yet another true story, this one stars Chris Hemsworth as a callow youth who is talented but arrogant, and must learn the humility that's necessary to be a hero. If that sounds like familiar terrain for the Avengers star, make no mistake about it. While Hemsworth has morphed into a global box office force of late thanks to his larger-than-life, hammer-wielding alter ego, it's his turn as real life race car driver James Hunt that makes crystal clear his considerable presence, charisma, and talent. More than that, the story of the late Hunt's rivalry and unlikely friendship with German racer Nikki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) also readily demonstrates the considerable skills of director Ron Howard, making for his strongest film in years.
3 - Man of Steel
This big budget reboot of the Superman mythos (which also serves as the lodestone for the eventual DC Comics Cinematic Universe), was overseen by producer Christopher Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder, and was another controversial offering this past summer thanks to the perceived grimness of its early goings, and the bombast of its apocalyptic third act (not to mention the neck-snapper of an ending). While my initial high praise has settled down slightly, I enjoyed the film during its initial release, and I enjoy it still. Supporting turns are strong throughout, especially by Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, the biological and foster fathers of the titular titan, and Henry Cavill makes a confident entree onto the superhero stage, marking the first Superman to truly make the role his own since Christopher Reeve.
2 - 12 Years a Slave
When the credits rolled on 12 Years a Slave, I was awash in anger, fear, frustration, and even joy. For me, that's the mark of an extraordinary filmic experience, and that's very much the case with director Steve McQueen's unforgettable opus. While star Chiwetel Ejiofor has been a reliable supporting player for many years now in films such as Serenity and Inside Man, he will likely rocket straight to leading man status after his stirring turn as Solomon Northup, a free man who is sold into slavery during the 1840s. While the film ably benefits from the presence of Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Fassbender, it's Ejiofor who's the film's beating heart in the face of the inhuman suffering doled out by so many during this dark time, the extent of which few modern auds are likely aware of.
1 - All is Lost
Writer/director J.C. Chandor put Robert Redford on a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean for 106 minutes, and the result was my favorite movie of the year. Like the similarly-themed Gravity (which just missed this list) All is Lost depicts a primal struggle between humankind and nature. And like 12 Years above, All is Lost has imagery and themes that stay with you long, long after you leave the theater. The brutal minimalism of the film, which deprives Redford of co-stars, dialogue, backstory, and even a name (we know him only, by way of the end credits, as "Our Man") has has those of us in the audience pondering our own mortality right alongside him, the inevitably of fate floating ever closer with each new crisis he navigates. Rarely have I seen a pairing between filmmaker and star that's yielded something so revelatory.