In years past, I’ve often found myself with one or two obvious choices for my favorite movie of the year, followed by a long list of movies I thought were pretty good. This year, no single movie jumped out at me as the unequivocal best; I probably could have put any of my first five in the top spot and been satisfied. I saw a lot more movies that grabbed my attention and stayed with me long after they ended, making this one of the strongest and most varied best-of lists I’ve ever put together.
1. Mud A rich Southern coming-of-age story with phenomenal acting (especially from Matthew McConaughey as the title character), an astounding sense of place and wonderfully realized characters. Available on home video.
2. Like Someone in Love Beguiling and inscrutable in an enticing way, it’s another beautiful and touching meditation on the nature of identity from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (working this time in Japan). Home video release date TBD.
3. Lore The teenage daughter of Nazis flees Allied capture following World War II in this haunting, impressionistic drama about the people dragged along by perpetrators of war. Available on home video.
4. Frances Ha Noah Baumbach’s exuberant character study of a rootless 20-something (played by co-writer Greta Gerwig) is witty and wonderful, with a light touch that reveals a deep soul. Available on home video.
5. Stoker Korean auteur Park Chan-wook brings his distinctive, disquieting style to this brooding thriller about an extremely dysfunctional family, led by Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman in effectively unsettling performances. Available on home video.
6. Before Midnight The third chapter in Richard Linklater’s, Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s remarkable long-term chronicle of a romance is more tempestuous than the first two, but no less honest and emotionally affecting. Available on home video.
7. Gravity A simple story of survival told with cutting-edge effects, reclaiming space as a place of desolation, foreboding and wonder. Now playing at Century Suncoast; available on home video February 25.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis The Coen brothers bring their unique, skewed sensibilities to the NYC folk scene of the 1960s, telling the story of a hapless never-was and his thwarted dreams. Opens in Las Vegas January 10.
9. Blue Is the Warmest Color Yes, there is some steamy sex in this French romantic drama, but its core is a fascinating, insightful look at the entire life cycle of a relationship. Available on home video February 25.
10. The Bling Ring Sofia Coppola examines the toxic results of celebrity obsession in this stylish, wry take on what could have been a throwaway E! special. Available on home video.
As ever, many of the year’s most remarkable films never received a commercial run in Las Vegas, or indeed much of anywhere apart from New York and LA. Even there, they tended to be largely overlooked—consensus forms quickly these days, and a given year’s “important” movies are frequently identified as such long before anybody has even seen them, providing a momentum that carries them all the way through awards season. Most of those films are missing from the list below, though I did quite like some of them. These are the ones that stuck with me.
1. Frances Ha Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) teamed up with actress Greta Gerwig to make this scintillating black-and-white portrait of a young New Yorker’s adventures in apartment surfing. Available on home video.
2. First Cousin Once Removed A poet losing his memory to Alzheimer’s disease gets a magnificently poetic, nearly avant-garde tribute in Alan Berliner’s documentary, which was primarily screened on HBO. Airs on HBO in December & January; available on HBO On Demand & HBO Go.
3. Computer Chess Set around 1980, in a hotel hosting both a computer-chess tournament and an encounter session, this sui generis oddity examines the merger of analog and digital. Available on home video.
4. The Counselor Some critics declared this the worst film of the year, or even of all time. It’s not for most tastes, but writer Cormac McCarthy’s corrosive vision has real integrity. Home video release date TBD.
5. Upstream Color Shane Carruth finally managed to self-finance a follow-up to his brilliant Primer, telling an off-the-wall tale of a symbiotic relationship involving humans, orchids and pigs. Available on home video.
6. All Is Lost All this movie offers is a man (Robert Redford) alone in the middle of nowhere on a sinking ship, trying desperately (and silently) to stay alive. It’s more than enough. Available on home video February 11.
7. The Past The newest film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) is another masterful, agonizing study of human nature’s sheer messiness, this time starring Bérénice Bejo (The Artist). Opens in Las Vegas February 14.
8. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet So insists 91-year-old legend Alain Resnais, who served up an ideal potential swan song with this poignant performance piece featuring many of his favorite actors. Available on home video.
9. Leviathan The year’s most astounding visual experience, Leviathan is a nearly wordless documentary shot entirely on and around a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. Available on home video.
10. Drug War Hong Kong master Johnnie To bides his time in this seemingly typical cops-and-robbers tale, but he’s building to an epic finale that’s well worth the wait. Available on home video.