A heart-pounding and hauntingly meditative 21st-century adventure tale centered on the Sandra Bullock’s walled-off NASA engineer, and her reliance on George Clooney’s more experienced astronaut, as they maneuver through sensationally rendered outer-space catastrophes. The visual imagery is astounding, the action thrilling, and the conclusion quietly moving.
2. Dallas Buyers Club
Ron Woodroof was a Texas redneck who contracted HIV in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. On death’s door, he became an activist, taking on his doctor, the FDA, and big pharma—while lining his own pockets. An important reminder of the battles that were fought in the 1980s, the film is also an affecting portrait of an alcoholic bigot with a compassionate streak, via Matthew McConaughey’s bravely authentic performance.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Based on the real-life autobiography of Saratoga resident and free man Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s adaptation captures the horrors of slavery in all their mundane and demonic variations as Northup (soulful Chiwetal Ejiofer) is kidnapped, sold, traded, and almost hanged, yet still manages to keep his humanity, and hope, alive. It’s being called the best movie ever made about slavery in America: faint praise for a film this committed to its subject.
4. American Hustle
David O. Russell puts the moves on Scorsese territory with a high-octane and crazily sardonic interpretation of the Abscam scandal. This confused morality tale makes it on the strength of ebullient performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and especially, Jennifer Lawrence as a dim-witted, walking wrecking ball.
A documentary about killer whales confined and abused for the billion-dollar marine park industry, this unforgettable expose centers on Tilikum, an orca that killed two trainers and was still used for performances at SeaWorld. It convincingly—and heartbreakingly—succeeds in making the argument that these emotionally evolved and highly intelligent mammals are made psychotic by captivity.
6. Out of the Furnace
Furnace is set in a downtrodden rust-belt town, where a steel worker (Christian Bale) goes to jail for an accident, and his volatile, veteran brother (Casey Affleck), gets involved in illegal bare-knuckle boxing outside of Pittsburgh. Admirably harsh and unexpectedly tender, it deals in hard truths about hard times.
An exciting and thought-provoking sci-fi actioner, this dystopian vision from the writer-director of District 9 is about the global one-percent in the year 2154, and a factory drone (Matt Damon) who becomes a robo-rebel on behalf of earth’s exploited masses.
8. All Is Lost
In its minimalism and almost poetic attention to detail, this one-character film captures something ineffable and primal about the struggle for survival as a lone sailor (Robert Redford, superlative going solo) faces a catastrophe at sea.
9. The Summit
An insider’s view of the spectacular and terrifying sport of high-peaks mountaineering, this investigative documentary examines a deadly two-day climb in the Himalayas with the participation of the survivors and the addition of their extraordinary video footage.
10. This Is the End
A really funny satire on self-obsessed millennials, as exemplified by Hollywood stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jonah Hill (with excellent Jay Baruchel as their less successful, less sociable friend), that goes completely off the rails into horror-movie absurdity.