Baltimore City Paper


1. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, United States) What connects a scam artist, a young woman, a brooding dude with a secret, and a field recordist/pig farmer? On one level, a parasitic organism. On another level, connection itself. That neat bit of meta allows Shane Carruth’s gorgeously filmed, hand-rolled enigma to pull you into its beguiling mysteries and encourages you to parse them, one by one. Part spec-fic mindblower, part love story, Upstream Color’s underlying vision of our fates as linked to the earth—and ultimately to each other—both beatifies and disturbs. (Lee Gardner)
2. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and anonymous others; Denmark, Norway, United Kingdom) Young small-time gangsters/cinephiles become mass murderers during Indonesia’s 1965-66 communist purges; decades later, those men, some of whom are members of the ruling Pemuda Pancasila paramilitary organization, reenact those mass executions for a movie. Enduring this indelibly uncomfortable film spotlights the chasms that separate historical fact from malleable memory, screen violence from real violence, and the complicity of storytelling (be it journalistic, cinematic, or historical) in all of it. (Bret McCabe)
3. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen; United States, United Kingdom) Calling artist/director Steve McQueen’s gorgeously unsentimental movie a “slavery” film dilutes its searing indictment of capitalism. Yes, the dozen years of inhumanity suffered by the free-born Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Eijiofor) is a specifically American abomination, but McQueen’s achievement here is the banal depiction of the social order that consents to degradation as the road to modernity. An unforgettable reminder that the bootstraps America pulled itself up by were cut from human skins. (BM)
4. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, United States) A young black man on the cusp of getting his shit together is killed face-down on a subway platform on New Year’s Day 2009 by Bay Area transit police. The tragic story of Oscar Grant III, played by the always-likable Michael B. Jordan (of The Wire), unflinchingly wrings anger and sadness out of its audience. And while nothing can reconcile its bleak, invariable ending, director Ryan Coogler’s first-time feature honors Grant and his family in its straightforward narrative and clear-eyed acting. (Jenn Ladd)
5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, United States) Before Spring Breakers—Harmony Korine’s Disney-pop sexploitation dream/dirge gone radically feminist revenge flick and half-stepping race pontification—got dropped on our heads, we all declared, “YOLO.” Since its release, those in the know longingly, drunkenly whisper “SPRANNGGG BREAKKK.” James Franco’s white-boy aspiring rapper/dope-boy mystic Alien is endlessly quotable (“Bikinis and big booties, y’all,” “I got Scarface on repeat,” “Look at my shit!”) and strangely haunting, while Vanessa Hudgens and her gun-toting, bong-ripping crew beat Miley Cyrus to the dead-eyed #DGAF twerk ’tude by a few months. We just don’t get that many legitimately confounding cult movies like this anymore. Don’t take our word for it: Spring Breakers topped John Waters’ year-end list in Artforum. (Brandon Soderberg)
6. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, United States) No talking heads, no voiceover, no title cards, no narrative—just the darkness, spray, and cold-blooded carnage of a fishing boat pitching on the North Atlantic in all its Gothic, hypnotic detail. While the fishermen eventually come into focus—silent toilers bent over hard work—the dank, clanking trawler and the murky ocean it dares are the true stars, visually reinvented via the groundbreaking use of a brace of hardy GoPro video cameras. This is cinema as immersion, documentary as hallucination. (LG)
7. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, United States) The black-and-white cinematography and opening montage of carefree middle-class urban white-girl fun promises a rousing round of Precious Privilege Theater. And then you get to know Frances (Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote), suddenly estranged from her BFF (Mickey Sumner) and at a loss as to what sort of person she should be on her own. Not only do you come to feel you know Frances (you notice her clumping, mannish walk), you come to feel you know people who know her (and make fun of her walk), resulting in as hapless, sweet, and fully rounded a character as you’ll meet in any fictional medium this year. (LG)
8. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada) Actress/director Sarah Polley’s paternity had been an open family question since her teens. When she began seeking answers to that question in the mid-2000s, she not only discovered whose DNA she shares but how people do and don’t remember the past. The documentary she crafts from the experience includes interviews with her family and extended friends about her late mother’s life, which she organizes into a collage of talking heads, home movies, and staged scenes that resemble home movies. The result is both the story of Polley and a kaleidoscope of storytelling, a reminder that who we are depends on who is doing the telling. (Bret McCabe)
9. Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, United States) Floppy-haired nerd-turned-debonair action star Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed this film, which masqueraded as a romantic comedy in its trailers but is closer to a cultural commentary-laden Bildungsroman. The central conflict—a porn addiction—may not be freighted with the most gravitas, but it’s one that resonates deeply in the internet age. Pitch-perfect performances from Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, and Glenne Headly beef up the comedy and substance in this smart take on modern relationships. (JL)
10. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, United States) After a seven-year hiatus, Alfonso Cuarón returned to the director’s chair with this surprisingly intimate tale of space disaster, created with digital visual effects that rank as perhaps the best of our time. Gravity balances breathtaking interstellar vistas and thrilling upper-atmosphere explosions with a heart-rending performance from Sandra Bullock (who was isolated for up to 10 hours a day on set during filming, communicating with the crew via headset). As much a successor to Jack London’s White Fang as it is to Alien, the film explores how we face death and shows the strength of the human spirit in a story that could only be told today. (Max Robinson)