This year has proven to be easily the best of the century so far for movies, and picking just ten great films to represent the year’s best has been harder than usual. Since I can’t see literally everything that comes out in a year, I always note that these were my ten favorites, the ones that shook me with the most thrills, laughter or tears.
1.) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
This adaptation of a classic short story by James Thurber was a passion project of star-director Ben Stiller. The movie itself is an ode to the dreamer in us all, depicting a lovable loser who’s lost in constant flights of fancy until a work crisis forces him to take highly adventurous and often funny action in the real world. Jet-setting from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan, it’s one of the most epic and ambitious comedies I’ve ever seen, and it packs an emotional punch as well.
CONTENT: Best of all, morally it is almost perfectly clean and appropriate for families and viewers of any stripe.
Writer-director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) has made some of the most unique movies of the past 15 years, but his divorce from fellow director Sofia Coppola knocked him for a loop that severely limited his output of films. His comeback, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the most likable role of his career, depicts a nice-guy loner in near-future Los Angeles who falls in love with the sweet and sexy voice (delivered by Scarlett Johannsen) on his computerized Operating System when it starts to develop the artificial intelligence to converse emotionally. “Her” is a deeply profound exploration of what really matters in love and whether humans are losing the ability to truly communicate in this era of texting.
CONTENT: An average amount of foul language for an R-rated movie, meaning about 40 F words and several uses of other words, albeit much of the foul language comes in outbursts from a satirically angry animated character in a video game. There is an implied phone-sex-style scene between the man and the “female” operating system in which their dirty talk is heard but unseen on a dark screen, and a lengthy foreplay scene between the male lead and a woman which he ultimately walks away from when she’s in her underwear. But the vast majority of the movie has a deep, sweeping romantic feel that far outclasses the offensive moments. (In theatres Jan. 10; reviewed at length next week)
Co-writer-director Alfonso Cuaron takes his time making movies (his prior one was “Children of Men” in 2006) but when he does finish them, they’re like no one else’s. Here he takes Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a two-person cast of astronauts and depicts how things go terribly wrong on a satellite-repair mission in space. Perhaps the best use of 3D effects ever put on screen, “Gravity” also nails its human drama due to its superb performances.
CONTENT: Aside from the use of one F word, this movie had mostly clean language, no sexual content and some intense peril in space. Perfectly fine for anyone over the age of 10 or 12 to see. (On DVD now)
4.) “Blue Jasmine”
Woody Allen’s late-life creative renaissance continues, with the story of a blue-blood woman (Cate Blanchett) whose life slowly unravels in both comic and tragic fashion when her husband is convicted of Bernie Madoff-style fraud. Forced to move in with her total-opposite, working-class sister in San Francisco, she has to mix it up with all manner of loudmouths. While Blanchett is drawing deserved praise as the likely winner of this year’s Best Actress Oscar, the true surprise of the year was former foul-mouthed comic Andrew Dice Clay delivering a hilarious and touching supporting performance.
CONTENT: Some foul language and sexual humor, as well as a mild depiction of a sexual near-assault. Perfectly fine for older teens and adults. (On DVD)
5.) “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Based on the story of the longest-serving butler in White House history, who worked under presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan, “The Butler” featured one of the year’s strongest ensemble casts. Best of all, it gave juicy roles to plenty of talented black actors, including Cuba Gooding Jr., who are normally underused these days. Forest Whitaker as the title character and Oprah Winfrey as his wife are likely shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, and the overall movie deserves its own nod too.
CONTENT: Violent depictions of authoritarian backlash against 1960s civil rights protesters, an implied adulterous affair is a brief plot point but is shown negatively, a woman struggles with alcoholism, and a contentious father-son relationship that is ultimately repaired plus a mild amount of foul language. Perfectly fine for teens and adults. (On DVD Jan. 14)
6.) “Fruitvale Station”
The most tear-inducing movie of the year, this docudrama was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old African-American man shot to death by Oakland police in a controversial confrontation. Michael B. Jordan was the acting discovery of the year in the lead role, portraying a young man who wasn’t a saint, and who made some mistakes in life like the rest of us, but who definitely didn’t deserve to die the way he did.
CONTENT: Some foul language including F words, but not excessive in the context of its characters/setting and the R rating. A tragic shooting and its resulting death is shown. Brief, clothed sex scene is shown between co-habitating couple. Man wishes to sell marijuana but stops, realizing it’s wrong. Emotionally wrenching film is fine for adults. (on DVD)
7.) “We’re the Millers”
The funniest movie of the year by miles. Jason Sudeikis played a pot dealer who has to sneak an RV filled with marijuana over the border from Mexico when he’s robbed of a huge stash of pot and cash, and decides that the only way to avoid drawing attention from the authorities is to pretend to be on a family vacation. So he hires a family composed of a stripper playing his wife (Jennifer Aniston), an annoying teenage boy as his son and a tough teen runaway girl as his daughter. Countless things go wrong from there. It’s not Oscar material, but it hits a hilarious home run from there.
CONTENT: This is definitely only for adults who are not easily offended. Lots of drug-related humor, a fair amount of R-rated profanity and sexual jokes along with a comically-intended yet sensual striptease by Aniston that stops at her underwear, and a quick shot inside a man’s shorts after a spider bites him. It is nonetheless an undeniably funny movie for those who can handle films in the vein of “There’s Something About Mary,” otherwise steer clear. (On DVD)
8.) “Olympus Has Fallen”/”White House Down”
The year’s nuttiest, giddiest action movies both featured plots in which the White House was captured by bad guys. “Olympus” took itself slightly more seriously, with Gerard Butler as the hero who fights off a horde of North Koreans in a “Die Hard”-worthy extravaganza of explosions. “Down” took things even farther, with Jamie Foxx as the president who straps on his sneakers and picks up a grenade launcher to fight back alongside his Secret Service agent, played by Channing Tatum.
CONTENT: “Olympus” has more-graphic violence and a fair amount of R-rated language, but is nothing any fan of “Die Hard” can’t handle, good for adults and older teens. “White House Down” has little foul language and lots of fun, outrageous action without being as graphic about the carnage. It is fine for teens and adults. (Both on DVD)
9.) “The Spectacular Now”
This emotionally powerful film about an alcoholic Ferris Bueller-style high school king, the nerdy girl whom he falls in love with, and the transformation they effect in each other was the best teen romance since “Say Anything” nearly 25 years ago. Miles Teller delivered the best acting performance of the year in a movie too few people saw. He is one to watch, the possible heir to Tom Hanks.
CONTENT: About 30 F-words, mostly in brief bursts as the male lead tries to “loosen up” the overly rigid teenage girl. He drinks irresponsibly throughout, but this is shown in a very negative context with the movie clearly trying to provide a sensitive depiction of a teen alcoholic who has to overcome denial to get help. The most troubling aspect is a scene showing the girl initiating her first sexual experience, which fades out after a brief clear depiction of implied intercourse, and the movie’s non-judgmental attitude towards teen sex. However, the message of helping others in trouble is a positive one and this film is fine for adults and possibly for older teens with a strong sense of sexual morality. (On DVD)
A recovering alcoholic Catholic man (played by Hugh Jackman in an Oscar-worthy turn) finds his young daughter was kidnapped, and when the cops let the lead suspect go, he kidnaps him himself and tortures him in the hopes of learning where she is. But what if the suspect really is innocent? A harrowing ride through the darkest impulses of humanity, it’s a powerful morality tale that places viewers squarely in the midst of wondering what they would do in a similar situation. The most intense movie of the year by far.
CONTENT: Bursts of R-rated foul language, but understandable in the context of unbelievably stressed and angered parents. Strongly implied torture with the audible results of pain. Shocking images of the beaten man, and the revelations of who is actually responsible for the area’s missing children are highly disturbing yet are not excessive to the film’s milieu. Powerful depictions of a prayerful man in genuine crisis, torn between revenge and forgiveness and redemption. Overall, a powerful film for adults who can handle grim fare like “Seven” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” but keep this away from children and teens.
Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.