I haven't seen Rush, Before Midnight, Enough Said, 20 Feet from Stardom, and some of these other films making top-ten lists, but of the 101 films I have seen, these were the best.
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Star Trek into Darkness
This is the End
Good but not in my top 20:
All Is Lost
August: Osage County
Dallas Buyers Club
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Iron Man 3
Out of the Furnace
The Place Beyond the Pines
Thor: The Dark World
What Maisie Knew
The World's End
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - I almost put it in my Second Best Ten list, but I can't get over how distracting and blatant the product placement was for E-Harmony, Papa John's and Cinnabun. It felt like Ben Stiller was striving for something that would be artistic yet mainstream, which is what makes that aspect so disappointing. Otherwise it's beautiful and makes me want to visit Iceland.
My Second Best Ten
The Conjuring - The best scary movie in a long time.
Her - Quirky, offbeat look at what our technology-saturated near-future may look like, about a man who falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system. It's as if Joaquin Phoenix never took two years off to pretend he was crazy.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Francis Lawrence wound up being the right director to pick and carry the ball that started with Gary Ross. It's more focused, the action's better, the world's a little more realized, and even though the second book isn't as good as the first book, the second movie is better than the first movie.
Lone Survivor - A movie that's pro-soldier without being pro-war. This true story gives us a you-are-there feel to an Afghan operation gone wrong, with an unflinching look at just how hard it is to kill a man.
Philomena - What could have been a BBC TV-movie is elevated by the performances and chemistry of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It's not as simple as it may seem on the surface.
Saving Mr. Banks - It has more gravitas than the marketing would suggest, with several flashbacks to Colin Farrell as P.L. Travers' loving, fatally flawed father. It's not just about the conflict of collaboration and protecting an artist's vision, but about forgiving those we love. Emma Thompson should have been nominated for her work as Travers. Yeah, it took liberties with Travers and Walt Disney, but for what it actually is, I was touched.
The Wolf of Wall Street - This 3-hour tribute to amorality keeps growing on me. Martin Scorsese is in prime Goodfellas mode, but instead of mobsters, we follow brokers, who can be just as heartless and dangerous. Leonardo DiCaprio is ferocious in the role of Jordan Belfort, a remorseless s.o.b. who lied and cheated his way into millions of dollars. Good luck to the ClearPlay filter people keeping this longer than an hour.
World War Z - The undead overrun cities like over-angry army ants in this new take on the zombie apocalypse. Brad Pitt makes for a fine host with whom we want to globe-trot, and rather than bursting open for a third-act climax, it tightens into one of suspense, which makes the whole movie better.
You're Next - It may look like a typical home-invasion thriller from afar, but the filmmakers have more in mind, with sibling rivalry that doesn't pause even as people start dying, and one character who isn't who she seems once push comes to shove. One of the funnier movies I saw last year.
... my Top Ten
9. THE ACT OF KILLING - This is one of those documentaries that feels like it could help change the course of a nation's history. Reforms are underway in Indonesia, but this project started years before those began. Director Joshua Oppenheimer dared get in with some of the mass-murderers from the 1965 uprising that resulted in over 1 million deaths, and had since been whitewashed by that nation. It really felt like what Germany might be like in the 1980's if the Nazis had won.
As these guys were big movie fans, Oppenheimer and his crew took the approach that they'd have the original guys recreate what it was like in 1965, show on film how they killed people. They play along, and at the time to now they saw themselves as Jimmy Cagney, the Godfather, etc. They were gangsters, and they repeat throughout the movie that the word for gangster originated from "free man." To them, gangsterism is freedom. Freedom for themselves to kill whoever they want with no consequence, anyway.
Half of the crew is Anonymous, undoubtedly for fear of reciprocity from the men in power, most of whom have zero remorse and zero conscience about what they did. But good luck to Indonesia.
8. UPSTREAM COLOR - This experimental montage of a film worked for me, as I don't think this story could be told any other way. Writer/director Shane Carruth has gone to strange lengths in this metaphor for connections we have in life. Its elliptical narrative keeps the surface plot ambiguous, and to make it any clearer would damage the effect.
7. FRUITVALE STATION - I can think of no better way of honoring Oscar Grant III's life on film than by just showing a slice of his life, a normal, imperfect man trying to do right by his daughter, not knowing that he has less than 24 hours to live due to a stupid, overzealous cop. Writer/director Ryan Coogler is a talent to watch, and I'm glad this role is going to lead to bigger and better things for Michael B. Jordan.
6. PRISONERS - There's a lot going on in this kidnapping drama, and it's highlighted by strong "wouldn't mind if they were nominated" work from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It's about how far parents will go to protect their children, and Jackman is a brutal force, letting his beastly side come out in scary ways that Wolverine couldn't touch.
5. MUD - This coming-of-age drama in the rural South from Jeff Nichols evokes a Twain-like ability to comment on the complexity of adult behavior through the eyes of trusting youth. This movie invites you to take off your boots and sit a spell, soaking in the atmosphere while never being dull. Matthew McConaughey once again gives a good performance as a man being chased by his past, and the film has a lot to say about the power and fragility of love.
4. AMERICAN HUSTLE - David O. Russell's becoming the king of ensembles. After The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, this feels like a capper to a trilogy where he has announced his arrival. Everyone's having fun in this tale of con-artists, politicians, double-crosses and ambition. I enjoyed everyone but was most impressed by Amy Adams.
3. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS - Tom Hanks may have two Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but I think is the best role of his career. Amazed that he missed out on getting nominated. Director Paul Greengrass's urgent style compliments the tense proceedings.
2. GRAVITY - I hope you saw it in 3D on the biggest screen possible. This isn't a film to watch on an iPad. Director Alfonso Cuaron makes us feel like we're floating in space next to Sandra Bullock. It's a very basic tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does, but in an age where the quality of television looked like it might surpass film, Cuaron reminds us why movies still rule.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE - It may not be one people watch over and over, but it feels like it'll stand the test of time as the landmark cinematic portrait of slavery, just as Roots does for television. It's faithful to the autobiography of Solomon Northrup (which I read after), a free black man living in 1841 New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Through the point of view of a protagonist who knows freedom, it allows everyone in the audience to feel the injustice of his plight, of this peculiar institution that was treated as normal by so many, from the otherwise good-hearted and pious (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the demented and cruel (Michael Fassbender).