1. “Inside Llewyn Davis” – My favorite movie in years is the Coen brothers’ most melancholic reverie, ditching their usual clockwork plotting for a loosey-goosey drift through a rotten week in the life of an acerbic, itinerant Greenwich Village never-was. The deadpan indifference of the Coens’ cruel universe has never been so deeply felt, so soulfully sung, or more mordantly hilarious. It’s a triumphant ode to failure.
2. “The Great Beauty” – Director Paolo Sorrentino’s dazzling fantasia positions itself as a sort-of sequel to Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” with sad-eyed Toni Servillo as the dapper, aging darling of Rome’s decadent social scene, realizing a couple decades too late that a life spent wasted might have been a wasted life. Rocketing through go-for-broke set-pieces both seductive and surreal, the film conjures an exhausted spiritual yearning.
3. “The Wolf of Wall Street” –Another Scorsese gangster picture, only white-collar this time around and played as a broad, bilious farce. Pumped up with testosterone and cocaine, it zings at warp speed from one fiendishly entertaining, appalling outrage to another. But over three hours the grotesque excess becomes deadening and the emptiness chilling. It’s an obscenity, an abomination, and the movie this country deserves right now.
4. “Gimme the Loot” –This depressingly little-seen debut from writer-director Adam Leon is full of mischief and joy. Two teenage graffiti artists from the Bronx try to tag the apple at Citi Field, but the film is really a celebration of New York’s oddball, shit-talking characters and a uniquely craggy, we’re-all-in-this-together sense of community. The city feels like a playground where anything can happen.
5. “Before Midnight” – After eighteen years, that impossibly romanticized Vienna tryst between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise” has been dragged down to reality. Two movies later, jobs, kids and the petty annoyances of prolonged cohabitation reveal that the course of true love requires negotiation and compromise. So funny and wise, it’s all about how happily ever after is harder than it looks.
6. “Her ” – I don’t know how he did it, but writer-director Spike Jonze has turned the story of a guy who falls for his smartphone into a bracingly tender, ruefully witty meditation on modern relationships. Achingly concerned with a world in which we are all in constant communication, yet seemingly lonelier than ever, this is a one-joke movie that blossoms into something of a miracle.
7. “Drug War” – Johnnie To’s no-nonsense procedural is the year’s bluntest instrument. Dropping us without a whit of exposition into a complicated undercover play by Chinese drug enforcement agents cracking down on a meth ring, this is about as lean and mean as crime pictures get. No subplots; character is defined by action. There’s not an ounce of fat on this baby, it’s all storytelling muscle.
8. “All Is Lost” – A spellbinding exercise in pure cinema, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s sophomore effort puts Robert Redford alone on a sinking boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean… and that’s pretty much that. What follows is wordless problem-solving as things proceed from bad to worse, rebuking the pandering Screenwriting 101 tropes that dragged “Gravity” down to Earth, allowing viewers space to forge their own interpretations.
9. “Blue Is the Warmest Color” – First love’s seismic qualities have seldom been captured with such immersive abandon as in this sprawl of heartbreak, shot on a vast, widescreen panorama that scarcely strays six inches from a young woman’s mouth. Every raw, unfiltered emotion ripples across Adele Excharpoulos’ face as if through a microscope, the relentless proximity making a familiar story feel like it’s happening for the first time.
10. “12 Years a Slave” – Contrary to some reports, this is not a triumph of the human spirit over adversity. It is an autopsy of a systemic pathology that poisoned a nation, laid bare once and for all by a filmmaker without a sentimental bone in his body. We’ve seen movies about the horrors of slavery before, this one is about the process. Welcome to the machine.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Spring Breakers,” “Something In The Air,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Short Term 12”