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In Focus

The 10 best films of the year

About the author

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a writer and film critic based in New York.

  • 10. Enough Said

    In writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s wonderfully urbane chamber piece, an imperfect middle-aged woman – divorced, dubious about ever finding love again and dreading the empty nest once her daughter goes off to university – meets an imperfect middle-aged man. Sparks don’t fly; sparks are for kids. But with plenty of missteps along the way, the woman – played by Seinfeld-to-Veep TV star Julia Louis-Dreyfus with a revelatory lack of vanity – re-learns how to trust and to be trustworthy. And the man – played with heartbreaking sweetness and dignity by the late James Gandolfini in one of his final roles – asserts himself with disarming candour.

    Always a connoisseur of the humour in coddled neurosis, Holofcener has made a specialty over the years of stories about the company of articulate women, such as Walking and Talking, Friends With Money, and Please Give. But Enough Said represents a grand creative and emotional leap forward: the movie is as wise as it is wry. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

  • 9. All Is Lost

    The year’s most austere yet rousing, harrowing yet thrilling and philosophical yet utterly practical-minded adventure-drama features Robert Redford alone in a boat – an old man and the sea, with barely a word spoken. The title of JC Chandor’s resonant follow-up to his terrific 2011 bad-business drama Margin Call sets the tone for a riveting demonstration of what it means to live in the present, drawing every drop of human ingenuity a man can muster to be saved, not lost. Redford, as a solo unidentified sailor on the Indian Ocean in an acutely damaged boat, concentrates on the present, moment by moment, task by task, to stem a cascade of life-and-death crises.

    It is that balance of vastness, aloneness, and one man’s resourcefulness that makes All Is Lost such a moving experience filled with majesty right up to its mysterious final moments. That Redford – the Sundance Kid himself, now a sun-weathered 77 years old – allows himself to be water-weathered, too, is an elemental part of the pleasure. (Lionsgate)

  • 8. Fruitvale Station

    It so happens that this riveting, punch-in-the-gut dramatic recreation of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man shot to death by a white transit cop in Oakland, California on New Year’s Eve four years ago, is the first feature from director Ryan Coogler. But even if it were Coogler’s fifth project, the movie would be a stand-out for the artistry with which the filmmaker builds a nuanced portrait of a young man who was neither saint nor devil. The movie captures the short life of one flawed citizen, with a family, a girlfriend, a little daughter, and a life assembled – as most are – of good intentions and mistakes, small pleasures and big challenges.

    Named for the train stop where the killing took place amid escalating, poorly-handled chaos, Fruitvale Station has a sure sense of pacing and detail. It also showcases a breakout performance by Michael B Jordan as Grant, and a vivid, primarily African-American supporting cast working with the hot blaze of shared sadness and anger at their backs. (The Weinstein Company)

  • 7. The Act of Killing

    In a year of fine documentaries – The Square, A River Changes Course, At Berkeley and Blackfish high among them – this one is a jaw-dropper. It is a hallucinatory tour of the minds of gangsters who led death squads in North Sumatra in the mid 1960s, now aging men who re-enact their murdering ways with a kind of chilling glee. Because they are on camera and they love movies! Because they are mad about musicals, westerns and gangster flicks!

    And when the revulsion we feel catches up with one of the most notorious of the death-squad killers, the urgency with which the gangster – a grandfather now, an old gent who likes Elvis Presley – expresses his own self-horror results in a surreal episode of howling and retching, a soul turned inside out. Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his filmmaking team never let us forget that the monster is also a man. (Drafthouse Films)

  • 6. A Touch of Sin

    There is a fury galvanising the newest movie by the great Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke: a rage at corruption, greed, and cultural destruction in the name of Chinese modernisation and globalisation. We are used to seeing a more contemplative, documentary-style of storytelling from Jia, whose previous films, including Platform and The World, are marvels of observation and accumulated small moments in the lives of ordinary people, building to dramas of great emotional resonance. Here he attacks what he sees as decay within his own colossal country with the violent energy of a pulpy popcorn thriller, creating a propulsive saga in four parts. His profoundly disgruntled protagonists include a miner driven mad by local corruption, a migrant worker on a shooting spree, a humiliated woman and a young man who cannot get a foothold in the working world. At the age of 43, Jia is one of the reigning global masters of his medium. A Touch of Sin finds him incorporating a powerful new vocabulary into his ardent declarations of art. (Koch Lorber Films)

  • 5. Her

    Man meets Operating System. Man loves OS. Man loses OS. Set in a brave new world just near enough to be recognisable and just beyond reach enough to be eerie, Spike Jonze’s singular, and singularly beautiful, futuristic romantic drama probes deep philosophical issues about connection, loneliness, sexual expression and the boundaries between human and artificial intelligence. Joaquin Phoenix is so alive as Theodore, an Everyman simultaneously sad about his impending divorce from a real woman (Rooney Mara) and excited about his deepening connection with Samantha, the non-human OS ‘woman’ in his ear – voiced with melting warmth by Scarlett Johansson – that it is easy to forget the actor is on the screen alone for most of the time.

    With typically exquisite Jonze-ian attention to nuances of color, sound, architecture, costume and language, the filmmaker who conjured Where the Wild Things Are and Being John Malkovich offers the first great heartbreaking movie love story set on the frontier of technology. (Warner Bros)

  • 4. The Great Beauty

    In this gorgeous swoon of a movie about his homeland Italy, filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino salutes his countryman Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita. But the director, who captured Italian rottenness of a particularly political kind in Il Divo, swans and meanders on a tender, rueful and bemused tour of beauty and damnation very much of his own distinctive making. As a charming, sybaritic journalist who has traded efforts at literary greatness for a life of wealth, ease and frivolity, the indispensable Italian actor Toni Servillo becomes our guide through circles of damnation that his countryman Dante Alighieri might recognise. Both visually and aurally ravishing – the soundtrack is enchanting – The Great Beauty lives up to its title. (Janus Films)

  • 3. Before Midnight

    Amazing. It has been 18 years since audiences first encountered Ethan Hawke as Jesse, a young American traveler abroad, and Julie Delpy as Céline, a young French woman who would change his fate on an all-night prowl through Vienna, in Before Sunrise. It has been nine years since we reunited with them in Before Sunset. (They are the fictional equivalent of the living souls we have watched grow up in Michael Apted’s seminal Up series of films.)

    Now, in middle age, Jesse and Céline have never felt more real, as they talk and talk and talk their way through the challenges of keeping a relationship alive – a relationship between a man and a woman who think they know one another. Plus, they do so in a glorious Greek setting. The collaboration among Delpy, Hawke and director Richard Linklater in developing, writing and enacting the couple’s story – is itself one of the great relationship sagas in contemporary moviemaking. (Sony Pictures Classics)

  • 2. American Hustle

    Rude, wily, sexy and bursting with brio, David O Russell’s portrait of a late 1970s American scam can pass, if you squint, as an inside-out version of Inside Llewyn Davis: While Joel and Ethan Coen find inspiration in the lives of men for whom being pretty good at what they do is no guarantee of success, Russell is jazzed by the lives of men – and one adventuress of a woman – who barrel ahead on gusts of confidence in their own lies. Using the FBI’s sting operation known as Abscam as the basis for his story, Russell presides, with giddy confidence himself, over a dead-serious farce in which the con is king – personally, professionally, politically – and it is difficult to tell the bluffers from the believers. You won’t find a better ensemble of terrific actors having the time of their lives. You won’t find a more amazing hairdo, either, than the thing Christian Bale arranges on his head. (Sony)

  • 1. Inside Llewyn Davis

    Choosing the best movie of the year defies standards of analysis, or even logic. So, on a solid list of outstanding titles of equal merit, number one ought to be reserved for an expression of unquantifiable love. Hence, for this list-maker, it’s Inside Llewyn Davis. The setting is the early folk music scene in 1960s New York City, and the protagonist is an exasperating piece of work who makes messes in the lives of those around him but who also happens to sing sad ballads with clear, unvarnished eloquence. Nothing much good comes for Llewyn Davis, nothing too tragic either. Enhanced by a golden soundtrack of folk song ballads, many sung with quiet feeling by Oscar Isaac, so magnetic in the title role, the Coen brothers display a maturity of perception – about aspiration and the randomness of the universe, about scene-setting and narrative pace – that silences old charges about the siblings’ coldness of heart. Surprise! Inside Llewyn Davis is a tender place. (CBS Films)