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"It was a miraculous year," film critic David Edelstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. At a time when Hollywood is churning out Blockbusters and superhero movies that are guaranteed to make money at home and overseas, "it's really great when so many interesting movies, somehow or other, manage to bleed through," he says. " ... You really feel as if directors are taking chances in their storytelling. They are creating a new syntax for every story."
Here are his favorite movies this year:
Her: A lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix in the year's best performance) forms a wondrous bond with his Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — which (who?) becomes more and more sentient. Spike Jonze's futuristic comedy is an exquisite meditation on love, friendship, human connection and the singularity that might enlarge (or possibly contract) our definition of what that connection means.
American Hustle: David O. Russell rewrites the late-'70s scandal known as Abscam into a rollicking comedy about people who reinvent themselves and con one another. His stock company — everyone in howlingly awful '70s clothes and hair — is marvelous: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and that mischievous comedienne Jennifer Lawrence.
Much Ado About Nothing: While in postproduction for The Avengers, Joss Whedon gathered a bunch of friends (TV actors, mostly) and shot a Shakespeare movie in 12 days in his own rambling L.A. house. The casualness works.
Short Term 12: Destin Daniel Cretton's fictionalized portrait of a Southern California short-term care facility for at-risk teenagers is a complicated weave: grim, funny, exhilarating, unspeakably moving. There's a breakthrough performance by Brie Larson as the counselor wracked by her own history of abuse.
All Is Lost: J.C. Chador's one-man disaster picture — a cunningly edited procedural about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) trying to keep his damaged yacht afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is pushed to the limit of his own self-containment.
Caesar Must Die: More Shakespeare, from the great Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who fictionalize the efforts of a group of maximum-security prisoners — most organized crime members — to rehearse a production of Julius Caesar. You're inside and then outside the play, immersed and then distanced. The Tavianis dissolve every artistic boundary they meet.
Blue Is the Warmest Color: Abdellatif Kechiche's intense, three-hour lesbian coming-of-age movie (with graphic sex scenes) hasn't pleased everyone. Is it true to the lesbian experience? Even if it isn't, actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux indelibly capture the intensity of sexual discovery and dependency.
The Wind Rises: Hayao Miyazaki's supposed last film (released in New York and L.A. for a week to qualify for awards and set to reopen in February), is a romantic, tragic, exquisitely strange and dreamlike portrait of a Japanese boy (then a young man) who dreams of creating wondrous flying machines — which are then used to rain death and destruction in World War II.
The World's End: The third of writer-director Edgar Wright's genre-bending black comedies starring Simon Pegg (who co-wrote) and Nick Frost is the year's most entertaining sci-fi comedy romp; the story of a middle-aged child-man on an absurd quest to relive his university days and drink his way through 10 pubs in a single night — and driven to his senses in the act of defeating conformist body-snatchers from outer space.
Fruitvale Station: Ryan Coogler's debut film dramatizes a day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders' cellphone cameras. The movie is principally a tour de force for actor Michael B. Jordan, who makes Grant the most recognizable kind of martyr — an unstable child-man whose motor runs tragically fast in a world as jittery as this one.
The Act of Killing: Josh Oppenheimer asked admitted Indonesian mass murderers to write, direct and re-enact their atrocities from 40-plus years ago. They rise to the occasion with alacrity, and the result is one of the most lucid portraits of evil you'll ever see.
20 Feet From Stardom: Despite a thread of melancholy, Morgan Neville's hymn to so-called back-up singers (among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer) goes from bliss to bliss.
Let the Fire Burn: Jason Osder weaves together archival footage of the bombing of the African-American "anarcho-primitivist" group MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985, and the results are electrifyingly present tense.
Blackfish: Gabriela Cowperthwaite's haunting film begins when a whale named Tilikum kills a trainer before a horrified Orlando SeaWorld crowd and then flashes back to show the grim history of whales driven mad in captivity.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks: Alex Gibney's gripping, deeply ambivalent portrait of Julian Assange angered people on both sides of the Wikileaks debate — not necessarily a bad thing when the issues are this complicated.
The Crash Reel: Lucy Fisher chronicles the near-fatal head injury of champion half-pipe skier Kevin Pearce — and the frightening world in which would-be Olympic athletes suffer and die in the name of faster speeds and more medals.
The Square: Jehane Noujaim's penetrating, revelatory documentary begins in Tahrir near the end of Hosni Mubarak's rule — and shows how tragically ununified the Egyptian opposition truly is.
On the year's biggest surprise
I think Much Ado About Nothing was extremely surprising. Here you've got [Joss Whedon], a director of superhero films and also Buffy the Vampire Slayer ... and a bunch of TV actors who have eight or nine days on their hands, and they decide they're going to shoot it in black and white and essentially in his backyard. ... It turns out to be so much fun because it's fast and it's casual and these people really know how to speak the verse. They really don't linger in this method-y way on certain words, so it ends up being comprehensible.
On why 12 Years a Slave didn't make it into his top 10
People will notice 12 Years a Slave is not one of my best films of the year. It's a very powerful film, and it will get a lot of awards. It's also a very bludgeoning film and there are lot of people saying, "Well, of course it's bludgeoning. That's what slavers did — they bludgeoned their African-American slaves! Are you a slavery apologist?"
From a political standpoint, it's easy to see why the film is so vital, but for me, I got the feeling that ... [director] Steve McQueen likes to fix his camera on people whose bodies are being defiled. They were starving to death in Hunger. They were shaming themselves sexually in Shame, and now they're being tortured on camera. I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he [was] searching for more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation.
But, it's important to say ... there are so many movies that are competing for people's time and entertainment dollars, and I often find that if I have reservations about a film like 12 Years a Slave or the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, people say, "Oh, you're saying I shouldn't see it."
That's not it at all. I want people to see 12 Years a Slave, I want people to see Inside Llewyn Davis. See it. Wrestle with it. Be a part of the conversation, and don't be afraid of ambivalence. Don't be afraid if your thumb doesn't go up or down. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies — that you can sort out your own responses.
Some people show up for [documentaries]. There are still very few that cross over, and none of these documentary directors [are] getting rich. At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films hold up against the best fictional films.
On Oscar campaigns
You do not know what is happening behind the scenes. You do not know what the Academy voters — how they're being bombarded ... every second: phone calls, parties, leaflets, swag of all kinds. ... A lot of films screen for one week in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, and then they open again in February just to get on these Oscar short lists. Everything opens around Christmas and December so it's fresh in people's minds.
On not seeing trailers in advance
I never watch coming attractions. Because it's my job. I'm lucky enough to be able to go into a film not even knowing the genre. I know title, maybe I know who is in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions. I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away. ...