American Hustle: Meeting Victor Tellegio David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook was the best movie of 2012, and his follow-up, American Hustle, is almost as good. It’s the director’s ability to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether to laugh or duck from one scene to the next, that gives his movies an electric charge. The best sequence in Hustle takes place at a New Jersey casino, where Bradley Cooper’s FBI Guy, Christian Bale’s con man, Jeremy Renner’s small-city mayor and a fake Arab sheik meet a dangerous mob boss — played by Robert De Niro in a cameo, no less — who can make their casino development dreams come true. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence (playing Bale’s wife) and Amy Adams (playing his mistress) have a tense showdown in the hotel bathroom.
Gravity: Walking in space The best popcorn movie of the year, Gravity opens with a long-ish (10-plus minute) sequence involving a spacewalking George Clooney and Sandra Bullock shooting the shit and fixing a satellite before a storm of debris arrives to seriously interrupt the flow of their day. Director Alfonso Cuarón captured the magic of dangling miles above the earth and turned it into a cinematic thrill ride. Finally a movie that made the extra few bucks for 3D seem worth it.
Inside Llewyn Davis: The Chicago audition A quintessential “Coen Brothers moment” is a meeting between the main character and a powerful man sitting behind a big desk. The Coens come back to it again and again throughout their films, and the terrific Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. That said, here they also provide an interesting variation on the theme. After a long, disconcerting road trip from New York to Chicago, folk singer Llewyn Davis gets an audition before a club owner looking to hire. Davis plays a beautiful folk song, the pathos, yearning and talent nearly dripping from the guitar strings. And then at song’s end, the powerful man (sans desk) delivers a one-liner that is both hilarious and unexpected. Genius.
Blackfish: Tilikum’s life at Sealand Blackfish is a moving and poignant documentary about the plight of killer whales held in captivity, and of the orca Tilikum in particular. Tilikum gained notoriety after killing a veteran trainer at Sea World Orlando in 2010, but Blackfish makes the case that the real cause of death was the years of physical and psychological abuse the whale had suffered both at Sea World and at previous parks. The tale of Tilikum’s days at Canada’s now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific, where he spent most of his time stuffed into a relatively tiny metal box with other whales that would repeatedly attack him, is the stuff of PETA nightmares.
The Wolf of Wall Street: Discussing the finer points of dwarf tossing Was there a less-PC movie this year? The first 90 minutes or so of The Wolf of Wall Street are like an infomercial for hookers and blow, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and their band of low-rent penny stock pushers sucking, fucking and snorting their way to a small empire. There’s also some in-office dwarf tossing (i.e., little people in Velcro suits being thrown at a wooden target), but it’s a later conversation in which the boys discuss the ground rules for the event that had me gasping through the laughter. So wrong, yet so right.
A Place Beyond the Pines: That amazing first shot This was the best shot of the year for me, made all the more disappointing because it came at the front of the rather crappy Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper crime opus A Place Beyond The Pines. Starting with a close-up of Gosling’s tatted-up torso, his hands playing with a butterfly knife as he paces, the camera follows without cutting as the actor exits a shitty trailer, walks through a carnival and into a tent crammed with people, jumps on a motorcycle and rides it into a wire-mesh ball for a thrilling stunt show. Too bad the movie falls apart 45 minutes later.