The Act of Killing ― The year’s best film is a film within a documentary. Director Joshua Oppenheimer won the trust of an Indonesian gangster named Anwar who massacred more than 1,000 people in the 1960s during the country’s bloody attempted coup. Never prosecuted, he and his cronies are now local heroes who agree to reenact their slayings as a sprightly musical comedy. It’s an arresting look at villains turned history textbook victors and an elderly murderer fighting off his fear that he’s done a terrible thing.
Her ― The year’s best romance is between a man and his phone, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s felt that sweet thrill of relief when a lost iPhone turns up safely in a pocket. And it shouldn’t surprise fans of Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix, both turning in work that’s as good as ever -- i.e. flawless. Her is so stylish that it almost risks people overlooking its bruising truths about love and loneliness. But, judging by the sniffles I’ve heard the three times I’ve seen it in theaters, they aren’t. And, yes, Scarlett Johansson deserves a best-actress nod for her voice work.
Nebraska ― Alexander Payne loves the Great Plains with the same affection a hunter has for his beloved, bed-wetting bloodhound. Will Forte and Bruce Dern’s road trip across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska is humble and harrowing, full of rich, quickly sketched, complicated characters that city folk call “local color” but the rest of us call aunts, uncles and cousins. The stakes never get higher than a man’s pride, and that’s plenty.
Pain & Gain ― Sure, Scorsese sent Leo howling through the bowels of Wall Street. But Michael Bay’s comedy about three bodybuilders who kidnap a wealthy weakling was this year’s wildest takedown of the American Dream. Their victim is a creep, our heroes are killers, and the moral gray area between them grows and darkens until the whole world feels bleak, despite the guys’ bitchin’ neon spandex shorts. And when Mark Walhberg sighs, “I was looking at another forty years of wearing sweatpants to work,” it’s a rallying cry for every dude and dudette stuck in a dead-end job and desperate for better options.
Frances Ha ― Is Greta Gerwig a too-serious indie princess or a got-lucky goof? The answer is both and neither. Frances Ha was made (literally) for Gerwig ― her boyfriend directed it and she helped him write the script ― and it hews to her on-screen stereotype: She’s a struggling artist and charming imp scampering around Manhattan begging for someone to love her. But every few minutes, Gerwig does something raw and honest, and her talent hits you like a slap ― or, truer to her temper, like a playful elbow to the ribs.
Inside Llewyn Davis ― Every musician flick follows the same arc: A genius gets discovered, gets rich, gets drunk, and gets the hubris knocked out of him or her before a closing-credits comeback. Unless it’s by the Coen Brothers. Inside Llewyn Davis is frustrating: We’re waiting for something good to happen to their titular, made-up folk singer, Oscar Isaac’s lived-in creation, until we realize that, like the tortures that befell the Coens’ hapless leads in A Serious Man and Burn After Reading, this is yet another cosmic prank. Is Davis sabotaging himself? Even if he’s not, the dark truth is that not everyone can succeed.
Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie ― Morton Downey Jr.’s talk show was on the air for only two years, but you can still hear his scream. The failed lounge singer would do anything for attention. As a Democrat in 1980, he ran a fat-chance presidential campaign; as a raging conservative in 1987, he threatened to puke on Ron Paul. What’s fascinating about this documentary on the charismatic, weak-chinned warrior isn’t just his quick rise to media dominance and the fist-pumping fans who hooted their approval like Romans at the Colosseum. It’s how quickly he was forgotten, despite his desperation to stay famous. Meanwhile, in Beck, Limbaugh and Imus, his scream still echoes.
The World’s End and Drinking Buddies ― Bar-hopping is a blast, but these two very different comedies by Edgar Wright and Joe Swanberg both ask what happens when it’s time to sober up. Tipsy, Simon Pegg and Olivia Wilde are king and queen of the pub ― at least in their own heads. Yet we see through their false confidence and root for them to put down the beer and show true bravery, be it fighting aliens or being vulnerable enough to love the right man.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty ― Ben Stiller’s passion project is more heart than brains ― but, boy, what a heart. Judd Apatow gets the critical respect (even though his middle-class-microcosm flicks are a snooze), yet it’s Stiller who takes real risks for intermittent rewards: slathering Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, touting himself as the world’s most handsome man, and, here, daring to release a high-budget, high-concept uplifter that couldn’t give a shit about cynicism. Look closely, and you’ll see that he’s also Hollywood’s deftest director of physical comedy since Mel Brooks.