In the sci-fi romance Her, a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) finds love in a rather unexpected place — with a computer operating system named Samantha. In Short Term 12 — named for the youth facility where it's primarily set — John Gallagher Jr. Robert Redford stars in All Is Lost as a solitary man struggling to make his yacht seaworthy again after it collides with a rogue shipping container adrift in the Indian Ocean.
The latest film from celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, The Wind Rises, centers on the engineer who designed the plane used in the kamikaze attacks during World War II. Let the Fire Burn documents the MOVE fire of 1985, which killed 11, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes.
Fran Kranz stars as Claudio in Joss Whedon's new take on Shakespeare's classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor play Patsey and Solomon, two slaves on a Louisiana plantation, in 12 Years a Slave.
Originally published on January 2, 2014 4:44 pm "It was a miraculous year," film critic David Edelstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. At a time when Hollywood is churning out Blockbusters and superhero movies that are guaranteed to make money at home and overseas, "it's really great when so many interesting movies, somehow or other, manage to bleed through," he says.
Spike Jonze's futuristic comedy is an exquisite meditation on love, friendship, human connection and the singularity that might enlarge (or possibly contract) our definition of what that connection means. Russell rewrites the late-'70s scandal known as Abscam into a rollicking comedy about people who reinvent themselves and con one another.
His stock company — everyone in howlingly awful '70s clothes and hair — is marvelous: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and that mischievous comedienne Jennifer Lawrence. There's a breakthrough performance by Brie Larson as the counselor wracked by her own history of abuse. Chador's one-man disaster picture — a cunningly edited procedural about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) trying to keep his damaged yacht afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Caesar Must Die: More Shakespeare, from the great Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who fictionalize the efforts of a group of maximum-security prisoners — most organized crime members — to rehearse a production of Julius Caesar. Blue Is the Warmest Color: Abdellatif Kechiche's intense, three-hour lesbian coming-of-age movie (with graphic sex scenes) hasn't pleased everyone.
Even if it isn't, actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux indelibly capture the intensity of sexual discovery and dependency.
Fruitvale Station: Ryan Coogler's debut film dramatizes a day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders' cellphone cameras. Jordan, who makes Grant the most recognizable kind of martyr — an unstable child-man whose motor runs tragically fast in a world as jittery as this one. They rise to the occasion with alacrity, and the result is one of the most lucid portraits of evil you'll ever see. 20 Feet From Stardom: Despite a thread of melancholy, Morgan Neville's hymn to so-called back-up singers (among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer) goes from bliss to bliss.
Let the Fire Burn: Jason Osder weaves together archival footage of the bombing of the African-American "anarcho-primitivist" group MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985, and the results are electrifyingly present tense. Blackfish: Gabriela Cowperthwaite's haunting film begins when a whale named Tilikum kills a trainer before a horrified Orlando SeaWorld crowd and then flashes back to show the grim history of whales driven mad in captivity. The Crash Reel: Lucy Fisher chronicles the near-fatal head injury of champion half-pipe skier Kevin Pearce — and the frightening world in which would-be Olympic athletes suffer and die in the name of faster speeds and more medals.
It turns out to be so much fun because it's fast and it's casual and these people really know how to speak the verse. They really don't linger in this method-y way on certain words, so it ends up being comprehensible. On why 12 Years a Slave didn't make it into his top 10 People will notice 12 Years a Slave is not one of my best films of the year.
It's also a very bludgeoning film and there are lot of people saying, "Well, of course it's bludgeoning. I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he [was] searching for more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies — that you can sort out your own responses. There are still very few that cross over, and none of these documentary directors [are] getting rich.
At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films hold up against the best fictional films. I know title, maybe I know who is in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions.
I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away.
I would encourage people to sometime walk into a movie that you don't even know what it's about.
You may be enthralled and surprised in a way that you can't be when you've kind of steeped yourself in all of the material that surrounds these films before they come out.Copyright 2014 NPR.


A little later our TV critic David Bianculli will be here to talk about the year in television.
First we're going to talk with our film critic David Edelstein about his picks for the best of the year. EDELSTEIN: Well, given Hollywood's cataclysmic turn away from middle-range so-called grownup movies, the Peter Pan in me hates me lauding anything grownup, but still when you just see a steady diet of blockbusters, comic book Marvel hero movies they can clean up with overseas, particularly in Asia, it's really great when so many interesting movies somehow or other manage to bleed through.
Well, you know that it's a 10 best list of fictional movies, and then I have five documentary, nonfictional movies.
The first is "Her," Spike Jones' story of a man who falls in love with his operating system, and it is a soaring romantic film. The third is Shakespeare, "Much Ado About Nothing," Joss Whedon's - essentially his home movie he shot on a break from "The Avengers" in his backyard, best Shakespeare comedy on film, comedy not tragedy. Number six is a very small movie, "Caesar Must Die," more Shakespeare, the great Taviani brothers, the great Italian directors. Number eight, "The Wind Rises." This is Hayao Miyazaki's supposedly last film, animated by not for kids.
Number nine, "The World's End," the rollicking Edgar Wright genre-bending black comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
Number 10, "Fruitvale Station," which is Ryan Coogler's debut film about the shooting of a young man in - north of San Francisco with a deep and searching performance by an actor named Michael B. GROSS: Well, of those films, which surprised you the most that maybe you didn't expect to like, and it ended up on your 10 best?
Here you've got a director of superhero films and also "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," let's give him credit, and a bunch of TV actors who have, what, eight or nine days on their hands, and they decide that he's going to shoot it in black and white, essentially in his backyard, one of Shakespeare's, you know, great comedies.
And it turns out to be so much fun because it's fast, and it's casual, and these people really know how to speak the verse. You know, they don't linger in this Methody way on certain words so it ends up being incomprehensible. He's been such a dull actor over the last 20 years, and yet this movie kind of pushes him to the limit of his own self-containment, and I thought it was enthralling.
GROSS: So you have a separate list of the best documentaries of the year, and it seems like it's been, for the past few years, that documentaries have really become popular, that there's a place for them in theaters. It's still - there are still very few documentaries that cross over, and none of these documentary directors is getting rich. At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films, you know, hold up against the best fictional films. The five I want to choose are "The Act of Killing," which is Josh Oppenheimer's documentary in which he has Indonesian mass murderers reenact their atrocities from 40 years ago. I mean, a million Indonesians were killed in the late '60s, and these guys are still around.
The next film is "Twenty Feet from Stardom," Morgan Neville's film about backup singers, which actually has broken through. And these singers have had - their careers have had a new life, people like Darlene Love and Mary Clayton and Lisa Fischer. And yet stitching together all this footage from the time, he's able to create the kind of present-tense excitement that you rarely get in a documentary. And finally Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which is much more traditional documentary, but I think everybody should see it if they want to know the story of Julian Assange. GROSS: So David, one of the things that makes end-of-the-year lists and award nominations at the end of the year fun is that you can compare your own taste with the tastes of, you know, the critics you're hearing or the nominations you're reading about. So when you compare your list to the films that have been nominated for awards or have already received awards, where do you feel most in synch and most out of synch? EDELSTEIN: Well, people will notice that "12 Years a Slave" is not one of my best films of the year. And I know that there are people out there saying well of course it's bludgeoning, that's what slavers did, they bludgeoned their African-American slaves. But for me, I got the feeling that the director, whose name is Steve McQueen, likes to fix his camera on people whose bodies are being defiled. And I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he was searching for something more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation. Nowadays, there are so many movies that are competing for people's time and their entertainment dollars, and I often find that if I have reservations about a film like "12 Years a Slave" or the Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis," people say oh, you're saying I shouldn't see it. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies, that you can try to sort out your own responses. GROSS: You know how some years there's like prestige movies, and you know that these movies are designed to get Oscars? EDELSTEIN: Well, a lot of these films, you know, it's such a - man, these Oscar campaigns, you do not know what is happening behind the scenes. Every second, phone calls, parties, leaflets, you know, swag of all kinds by people who are pushing their nominees. Well, it's largely forgotten now except for Oprah Winfrey, who has the money to mount, you know, a colossal Oscar campaign for herself.


There's no reason from that apart from the fact that it opened in August, and all these other movies are fresh in people's minds. But I do think "Her" and "American Hustle" are opening in time for big awards and are extraordinary films, and they're opening within three days of each other, and they're two of the best American films I've seen in years. A few years ago, Julie Christie won all the critics' awards for her extraordinary performance in "Away From Her." And everybody thought she was going to be a shoo-in for the Oscar. She was somewhat reticent, whereas Marillon Cotillard, who was in the Edith Piaf documentary, they brought her to Hollywood. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that her charming all those Oscar voters led directly to her Academy Award. Well, David, it's holiday season and, you know, there's a bunch of films that are opening for the holidays or have just opened. EDELSTEIN: Well, "American Hustle" is of course on my 10 best list, and I could not recommend it more highly. So the movie is this stuffed, overstuffed bounty of cameo roles and the weirdest, most absurdist slapstick imaginable. It does not all work, but you really are seeing people trying so desperately to be weird, to be - and to do something different and to kind of bombard you with surrealism in a way that you don't see in many comedies. People will go to see "The Wolf of Wall Street," the new Martin Scorsese film with Leonardo DiCaprio. I think it's absolutely nightmarishly awful, but there are colleagues of mine who disagree. It's three hours, essentially, of watching this jerk steal money and be an insider trader, scam people and celebrate by snorting cocaine off the buttocks of hookers and cavort and sleep with everybody and consume conspicuously.
And there are scenes that run on and on and on of Leonardo Di Caprio making these insane speeches about the beauty of capitalism. And the only person who does well in the movie, I think, is Kyle Chandler from "Friday Night Lights," who underplays everything and is surrounded by these desperate over-actors. The one that I recommend for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality is a film called "Labor Day." It's directed by Jason Reitman from a kind of hopelessly bad book by Joyce Maynard. And it is - it's one of the worst films I've ever seen, but it's so hilariously terrible that I think it could turn into a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or a "Mommy Dearest," where people just sit there and they yell at the screen and they have these rituals. It's about an escaped convict who hides out with this mother and son and becomes a surrogate father.
And they're sitting there, he's fixing up the place, and he's becoming a dad, and then there's a little bit of sort of PG-13-rated bondage in there to add to the sort of romantic literature, you know, kinkiness of it, just a great time hooting at this movie. I know the title, maybe I know who's in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions. I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more people, more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away, on the Internet or in theaters, having read reviews or heard reviews like mine.
I would encourage people just sometime walk into a movie that you don't even know what it's about.
On the other hand, you may be enthralled and surprised in a way that you can't be when you've kind of steeped yourself in all the material that surrounds these films before they come out.
GROSS: Do you not watch trailers because mostly you're going to screenings where they are not showing trailers, or do you actually making a point of leaving when the trailers are on? EDELSTEIN: When I see movies in theaters, which I do all the time, I either plug my ears or I leave the seat.
They show you oftentimes every beat of the story, or a film like "Nebraska," one of the worst trailers I've ever seen, and I don't necessarily blame the people who made it, I think they're trying to sell this very quiet movie, it gets a lot of its power from scenes that kind of carry on in real time in a very low-key way. When you cut it up in order to make it look like some outrageously quirky movie about this crusty old oldster and people cheering him for - you know, that he's going to be this rich man, when you see a movie like that, that gives such a strong misperception of the film, you oftentimes don't even want to see the movie, or you come to it with, you know, the worst kind of prejudices. Nicole Holofcener, who made "Enough Said" this year, I'll go to any film Nicole Holofcener makes in a state of great excitement.
So many films this year, what's remarkable about them, the bad and the good, you really feel as if directors are taking chances in their storytelling. They are finding new and extraordinary ways of - maybe it's even familiar material, but they're going at it through the back door or the side door, or they're mixing up the syntax.
A lot of us have been raving over the past few years about great television shows like "Breaking Bad" that have done narratively what film cannot, by immersing you in a story for 60-some-odd episodes and allowing you to track a character over time.
Maybe movies can't compete narratively with television in that way, but they have extraordinary elasticity in terms of the language of what they can do, of the order in which they can present things, of the technical magic that they can use.
You know, even if a story, even if it's a formula story, to be able to see it with new eyes, from a new perspective, that's what movies can do that no other medium can. EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for allowing me to do reviews for this wonderful show.



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