'Inside Llewyn Davis,' one of Joel and Ethan Coen's finest, was also the finest film this year.
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s fitting that the Coen brothers should choose a broken-record motif by which to shape their portrait of an early-1960s folk singer. The opening scene loops around to the last one as Llewyn Davis surfs from couch to couch, repeating the same mistakes (he’s on his second abortion), incapable of caring even for a cat. Some might dismiss him as unlikable — though that’s hard to imagine, given the incredible warmth Oscar Isaac brings to the role — when the real question should be: Why would the Coen brothers make a movie about an asshole? Thematically, “Inside” is among their most profound pictures (with “Fargo” as the apex), revealing the selfishness it takes to be an artist and demanding what it takes to break the cycle.
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2. “12 Years a Slave.” Nearly a century after “The Birth of a Nation” comes this essential and scandalously long-overdue look at racial injustice, directly informed by the experience of a former American slave. While there is no excuse for how Hollywood has shied away from this subject for so long, Steve McQueen has opened the conversation, offering a vital opportunity for audiences to identify.
3. “Stories We Tell.” Every bit as gifted a filmmaker as she is an actress, Sarah Polley delves into deeply personal territory with her third feature — not so much a documentary as a self-aware memoir, in which she explores the way friends and relatives recall her mother differently, while reserving the right to manipulate and shape the resulting portrait as she sees fit.
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4. “Wadjda.” The first-ever Saudi Arabian feature sets a high bar for all to come. Inspired by the poetic simplicity of Iranian cinema (the sort where so much depends on a lost shoe or a lone goldfish), writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour uses the story of a schoolgirl determined to buy herself a bicycle to reveal her culture’s prohibitive gender dynamics.
5. “Her.” Audiences have read a wide range of contemporary relevance into Spike Jonze’s tender and heartbreaking virtual romance, focusing on what it says about interpersonal alienation and our growing dependence on technology. I responded in strictly analog terms, moved by how perfectly this fable illustrates the challenge of any relationship, in which two souls who connect at a moment when their personalities align must adapt as both parties inevitably grow and change.
6. “Our Children.” As a rule, I abhor films that lavish attention on real-world criminal behavior (the way stilted American Dream stories “Pain & Gain,” “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” did this year). This tough Belgian drama is different: An exercise in empathy, not exploitation, it seeks to understand the circumstances that could push a mother to murder her own children.
7. “Short Term 12.” Something shifted in American independent cinema this year, when a film passed over by Sundance went on to prove itself stronger than anything the Park City programmers unveiled in competition. Breaking Sundance’s grip was this genuine glimpse at life in a group home for troubled teens, enriched by writer-director Destin Cretton’s time working in such a facility and a fearless lead turn by Brie Larson.
8. “Dallas Buyers Club.” Lefty cinema often gets it wrong, relying on beatific civil-rights crusaders to inspire the public into embracing change. This scathingly un-PC portrait takes the opposite approach, presenting an unrepentant bigot as its protagonist and trusting that audiences will find that a more instructive example. Between this and “Mud,” Matthew McConaughey is working in top form (missing part of his tooth in one and 47 pounds in the other), while Jared Leto proves himself a chameleon unrivaled by his peers.
9. “Neighboring Sounds.” Made for virtually no money on Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s residential block (with scenes shot in his own high-rise apartment), this masterful debut explores the racial tensions between competing social classes living adjacent in modern-day Recife. Synthesizing the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s moral concerns with John Carpenter’s grip on suspense, Mendonca presents relatable everyday tensions in an ethereal new light.
10. “Mr. Nobody.” Four years after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, this paradoxically messy and meticulous sci-fi undertaking finally reaches U.S. theaters. Director Jaco Van Dormael’s magnum opus represents a radical experiment in which a young man’s life yields an infinite number of possible outcomes. The challenge isn’t trying to choose which path is the right one, but committing to the consequences, whatever they may be.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): “Blue Jasmine,” “C.O.G.,” “Don Jon,” “Frances Ha,” “Gravity,” “The Past,” “Prince Avalanche,” “Reality,” “Rush,” “The Selfish Giant”
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: “Attila Marcel,” “Awful Nice,” “Bluebird,” “The Fifth Season,” “Grand Central,” “Heli,” “Joe,” “Me, Myself and Mum,” “The Strange Little Cat,” “Watermark”