Though Jonze’s script is beautifully written, it is the outstanding work of his production, set, and costume designers who make the not-too-distant future look vibrant with a realistic, lived-in feel that eludes most films.
- Her | Her is a rare love story that dismantles the artificial appearance of love that is so often portrayed in movies and reveals to the audience the true sad-sack face of love (personified by Joaquin Phoenix in his schlubbiest performance to date). Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed the film, manages to perfectly capture what love looks, sounds, and acts like: insecurity, jealousy, and all. The story of a writer, Theodore (Phoenix), who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), explores the way people experience love through how Jonze builds his characters’ personalities and the way they interact with the world.
Though Jonze’s script is beautifully written, it is the outstanding work of his production, set, and costume designers who make the not-too-distant future look vibrant with a realistic, lived-in feel that eludes most films. The world of Her is almost identical to our own, but different in subtle, hard-to-discern ways. In addition to the excellent performances by Phoenix and Johansson, the artistic team is one of the key reasons the film is so profoundly inspiring.
- 12 Years a Slave | Steve McQueen is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today, and 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece early in what will be a great cinematic career. Anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s outstanding portrayal of a free man sold into slavery, 12 Years is a flawless work of cinema while also a punch-in-the-gut depiction of the horrors of slavery.
- Gravity | With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron has ushered in a new era of possibilities for filmmakers’ imaginations. Collaborating with the best artists in the field to invent new technology specifically for this project, Cuaron brought his vision to life after a four-year odyssey to make physical limitations bend to his will. The story of a medical doctor-turned-astronaut (Sandra Bullock) who finds herself lost in space is breathtaking in its scope and size, yet also exhilarating with anxiety-inducing depictions of her struggle to survive.
- Inside Llewyn Davis | The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, have crafted yet another brilliant work of cinema, this time focusing on a self-absorbed but immensely talented folk singer (Oscar Isaac) struggling to find success in Greenwich Village in 1961. As to be expected, the film is filled with razor-sharp dialogue, absurd situations, and characters that only inhabit the Coen universe. It is also a terrific meditation on success, perseverance, and existential quandaries to which we can all relate.
- Prisoners | Forget the Dark Knight and his crime-fighting ways. The shocking and disturbing reality of vigilantism is that it’s rarely so black and white, and that often even the hero finds him- or herself turned into a villain. In Prisoners, we watch as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) brutally tortures the man he believes kidnapped his daughter. Through Denis Villeneuve’s elegant direction and Aaron Guzikowski’s gripping script, we get a glimpse of the real face of renegade “justice,” and it isn’t pretty.
- Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary exposes the horrific treatment and exploitation of orca whales in theme parks such as SeaWorld. Weaving the narrative of one particular whale, Tilikum, who attacked a trainer, Cowperthwaite pulls back the curtain of what really happens at these parks and how underprepared these “trainers” actually are.
- American Hustle | The cast. The too-insane-not-to-be-true story. The hair! David O. Russell’s American Hustle is hilarious, ostentatious, and smoother than a used car salesman. We get two more incredible performances from Christian Bale (as our lovable con man) and Jennifer Lawrence (as his very unstable wife), but the film’s strength comes from Russell’s ability to unfurl a very complex and convoluted story without ever losing the audience along the way.
- The Hunt | There are two sides to every story. In The Hunt, we follow devoted teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) as his life and career are threatened by the false accusation that he molested one of his very young students. Mikkelsen gives perhaps his best performance, as Lucas does everything in his power to protect his livelihood and reputation all while continuing to care about the girl who accused him. The Hunt shows how easily the imaginations of children and adults alike are influenced by those around them.
- Pacific Rim | If there was one reason to pay extra for IMAX 3D this summer, it was for Guillermo del Toro’s excellent monster movie/sci-fi mashup Pacific Rim. Del Toro and his visual effects artists created both interdimensional alien creatures as well as human-built robot fighters with as much care and detail as most period pieces put into their costumes and makeup. This is why we go to the movies.
- Mud | Most people have forgotten Jeff Nichols’ quiet river rat noir Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey as a shady character who develops a very parasitic relationship with two young boys enamored with his approach to life. With only three films under his belt, Nichols is proving to epitomize what American filmmaking is through his simple yet layered stories and his sense of authenticity for dialogue and characterization. Mud is a film that will blossom with new meaning upon each repeat viewing. | Matthew Newlin