10. Gravity dir. Alfonso Cuaron
A big-budget passion project of this level is no small event, and in a way it’s disarming that Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s four-years-in-the-making sci-fi opus, is so thematically simple. But on a level of craftsmanship, it’s insanely complex, and finds Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at the absolute peak of their game. Dr. Ryan Stone’s journey through open space, floating from one wreck to another, is not only a moving ode to the will to live, but one of the greatest special effects achievements in cinema history. And if you didn’t manage to catch it in 3D — where those thousands of debris flecks, space station corridors, and the surface of a helmet line the z-axis with perfect compositional confidence — well, you blew it.
9. At Berkeley dir. Frederick Wiseman
Long a chronicler of the institution, Frederick Wiseman’s study of The University of California, Berkeley finds him in his most comprehensive and daring mode. At Berkeley is a self-consciously slow and detailed film, one that demands a near-interactive commitment from its audience to yield its best rewards. But when that commitment is made, details and connections between its scenes slowly surface, all culminating in a massive sequence detailing both a student protest for free tuition (among an incoherent slew of other demands) and the institutional response to it. Wiseman’s conclusions may surprise you.
8. To the Wonder dir. Terrence Malick
The Tree of Life was just about as seminal an arthouse phenomenon as they come, and most any follow-up was bound to have its flaws put under a microscope. To the Wonder isn’t another rewriting of the narrative ruleset, but it is another work of astounding and emotional craftsmanship. Terrence Malick has placed more faith in the emotional power of elliptical editing than ever, and that in conjunction with his customarily sweeping, swirling visuals and expressionist sound design gives a sense of love’s dance between intimacy and estrangement, and the faith needed to survive that struggle.
7. Computer Chess dir. Andrew Bujalski
A film whose budget and production scale is low enough to circumvent much of the studio system’s infernal apparatus is always appreciated, especially when it uses its means to such unusual and invigorating ends. In the guise of an 80s pseudo-documentary shot with black and white video cameras from the 60s, Computer Chess follows a national competition held in a hotel conference room, where the often eccentric or maladjusted competitors face irrational breakdowns in both their computers and their day-to-day lives. It’s an Altman-esque ensemble comedy that isn’t afraid to get weird, and when it does, it’s equal parts funny and profound.
6. Before Midnight dir. Richard Linklater
The third film in a series now spanning three decades, Before Midnight ambles back into a day and night in the life of a couple who met in Vienna in 1995, and finds that their lives and relationship are more complicated than ever. The series’ usual high-minded intellectual dialogue is present, as is its skill of embedding in that dialogue conflicts and backstories that explode in the climax. But Midnight excels on a different level than its predecessors, as middle age brings Céline and Jesse to a new place in the trilogy (for now), where fleeting decisions of love and family are now for keeps.
5. The Act of Killing dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
The Indonesian killings of 1965-1966 — an act of total political retribution involving political executions, mass extortion, and genocide — have long remained nationally underexposed. Like the great Holocaust documentary Shoah, The Act of Killing evokes the past not with archival footage or photos, but by examining its effect on the present. Director Joshua Oppenheimer invited former members of a notorious death squad to stage filmed re-creations of the atrocities, to which they enthusiastically agreed. The result is more surreal, more damning, and more complex a study of perpetrators as human beings than anyone could have expected.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street dir. Martin Scorsese
As black as comedy comes, Scorsese’s biopic of ultra-hedonist stockbroker con-man Jordan Belfort is one of the most formally alive films in years, in the truest sense, hyperactively leveraging its conceits to remind and engage us with its structure. The Wolf of Wall Street fires off unreliable narration, battling voiceovers, chronology switch-ups, and more, constantly calling attention to Belfort’s performative charisma. Even the three-hour length, utterly exhausting given the insane pace, is a tool to exhaust us and make the last hour’s less-entertaining fall from grace as unromantic as possible. And any doubt of whether Scorsese condemns Belfort’s ilk is erased by the gut punch of a final shot.
3. Side Effects dir. Steven Soderbergh
It comes as no small joy that Side Effects is the most complex and difficult work of Steven Soderbergh’s career; one that’s been long marked by genre dissection and structural gamesmanship. The coup of Side Effects’ Hitchcockian shift (more Vertigo than Psycho, really) is that the seemingly divergent narrative tones work so well on their own terms. Side Effects betrays our sympathies and expectations, to be sure, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts: its move from takedown of the pharmaceutical system to a psychological thriller about obsession is not just a nifty trick, but a comparing of bureaucratic systems with personal motives that grows richer the further past its surface you dig.
2. Leviathan dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
At least as recognizable as “horror” as it is “documentary,” Leviathan builds upon the sheep-watching splendour of Sweetgrass, co-director Castaing-Taylor’s previous film, with an intense and surreal view of offshore fishing. Leviathan’s endless visions of gulls, spilled fish guts, and the gruelling tedium of seamanship are harrowing enough on their own, but its up-close visuals lift GoPro cameras to expressionist heights that are matched by the film’s overwhelming sound design. Leviathan feels like the most furied and complete response to the ever-expanding possibilities offered by consumer cameras, creating a sensory experience unlike any other documentary.
1. Prisoners dir. Denis Villeneuve
Prisoners is first and foremost a straightforward thriller, more in the vein of hardboiled detective novels than the realist police procedurals that earn so much more praise these days. That might belie its allegorical power; Prisoners is far from the lousy kidnapped-kid cash-grab that trailers suggested. It subtly reveals itself as a savagely powerful investigation of torture and undue process. Condemnation and sympathy often emerge in the same breath. But what makes the film really astounding is its superlative craftsmanship, particularly its astounding visual splendour and metaphor, which marks both a career-best for world-best cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a major breakthrough for Canadian auteur Villeneuve.