This year saw me watching a lot more films than usual, which, if anything, made me appreciate the cream even more. As per our age, there’s a lot of “content” out there begging for our attention, but precious little of it that feels like it was made with passion. Here are 10 that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, have some personality.
1. “Cloud Atlas”: Completely blown away. Critical mind restored, yes, I could find a few flaws in “Cloud Atlas,” but they are far outweighed by the ambition and sheer cinematic virtuosity on display. Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer create an epic, karmic, kaleidoscopic tale of recurring lives and human interconnection sprawling over several centuries and using the same actors in multiple roles. This generation’s “2001″; they just don’t know it yet.
2. “Rust and Bone”: Director Jacques Audiard was No. 2 on last year’s list with “Un Prophète,” and after his latest, I hereby declare he’s one of the top three directors currently working. The material sounds tough — an orca-trainer who loses her legs gets involved with a bare-knuckle boxer — but the emotional payoff is transcendent.
Not a film about disability so much as two people learning what it really means to need someone.
3. “Moonrise Kingdom”: I’ve always been a Wes Anderson sceptic, but this one made me a believer. My review described this story of tween runaways on a New England isle as “a nouvelle vague film directed by Pee Wee Herman”, and I can’t improve on that. Set designed to death with immaculately composed shots and deadpan to a fault, it’s as hermetic a world as the animated one of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, and just as irresistible.
4. “Gravity”: Alfonso Cuarón’s space-accident survival thriller is problematic in that it makes you realize how crap most other 3-D films are. Cuarón brings a fresh situation, perfect pacing and incredible visual effects to lift this one far above any other mainstream Hollywood release in 2013. Big screen or nothing with this one.
5. “Twice Born”: You’ve never heard of it, and you probably won’t believe me, but this Italian film starring Penélope Cruz and Emile Hirsch as star-crossed lovers in war-torn Bosnia will shatter your heart into a million pieces. Starts off slow, full of big Italian emotions, but it moves into some profound territory. More evidence that Cruz is great whenever she’s in a non-English-language film.
6. “Side Effects”: This is the suspense film done as well as it can be done this side of Alfred Hitchcock. Steven Soderbergh had an ace year — with “Magic Mike” and “Behind the Candelabra” also hitting Japan screens — but this psychotronic thriller of psychiatry, murder and meds will throw you for a loop. Rooney Mara cements her rep after “Dragon Tattoo” with a multi-leveled portrait of a woman on the brink.
7. “Wreck-it Ralph”: A paean to old arcade games, a sharp parody of ultraviolent boys’ vs. candy-pastel girls’ video games, and a great character-driven story in there as well. Director Rich Moore is a “Simpsons” alumnus and it shows in the sharp, zany humor that’s a cut above that of most other animation.
8. “On the Road”: 55 years after it was published, Jack Kerouac’s beatnik classic finally makes it to the big screen. Everyone complains that there’s no story, but really, that only makes me wonder if they ever read any Kerouac. Not so much “On the Road” per se as an expanded view of the experiences that shaped the book, but director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) mostly succeeds in capturing the vibe.
9. “The Place Beyond the Pines”: A plot synopsis would render it boring, but going in knowing nothing about this Ryan Gosling/Bradley Cooper flick of bikers, bank heists and the sins of the fathers, it will enthrall. Rather like Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” it manages the difficult feat of shifting main characters and story arc not once but twice. Director Derek Cianfrance, whose “Blue Valentine” was also exceptional, is clearly one to watch.
10. “Saving 10,000″: If we’re talking heartfelt films, nothing can touch this one. Irish expat Rene Duignan is not a filmmaker, but he was inspired to make this doc after a neighbor’s suicide. He looks at Japan’s alarming suicide rate — which once reached 35,000 a year — from a variety of provocative angles, with the goal of saving some lives. The most shocking aspect is clearly how many suicides are related to financial pressures.