Biggest Critical Head-Slapper: The Wolf of Wall Street
Only in our social-media era of opinion overload would such a non-starter of a conversation like the one that accompanied the release of The Wolf of Wall Street have given way to a major critical debate. Does Martin Scorsese’s rollicking, sickening comedy of debasement indulge in or gape horrified at the decadence of real-life protagonist Jordan Belfort? A little of the former; a lot of the latter. That this is a critique of its milieu is fairly evident if you do this one crucial thing: Watch the movie. Pay attention to niggling things like camera angles and compositions, cuts between shots, music cues, performance style. It’s difficult to believe that anyone who didn’t show up at the theater with his or her knives already sharpened could possibly take this portrait of a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah as anything other than a wade through a culture choking on its own excesses. Is it also amusing? Yes, the film wouldn’t make sense without a modicum of seduction, which here comes in the form of a bona fide movie star: Leonardo DiCaprio, as consistently charming as he is repellent. He’s our Beelzebub, guiding us through hell and purgatory, daring to make us laugh while everything around him—and us—crumbles. That a general ambiguity seems to have been perceived about how we’re supposed to take The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly a credit to the film as a work of provocation. But at the same time, I believe that those unsure how to read such a scene as the one in which DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and their cronies sit around a boardroom table and have a Final Solution–like conversation about whether or not to classify dwarfs as human beings probably need to examine themselves more than the film at hand. —Michael Koresky

Worst Opening Scene: Captain Phillips
Was the opening scene of Captain Phillips commissioned after the conclusion of shooting? And if so, did Paul Greengrass turn it over entirely to his second unit? And if so, was the second unit high on Mescaline? Filmed entirely at glancing angles that feel more like a parody of Greengrass’s signature shaky-cam style and featuring dialogue so powerfully on-the-nose that it’s the screenwriting equivalent of a deviated septum, this overture finds Tom Hanks’s titular seaman driving to the airport with his wife (a barely glimpsed Catherine Keener); if the effect of this sequence is to generate some preemptive empathy for a character who will soon be thrust into high-seas peril, it in fact has a strangely alienating effect. The falseness of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips’s exchange about the changing nature of American life and business, combined with the bizarreness of the filmmaking, puts Greengrass’s film pretty deep in the hole almost before it’s even begun . . .

Best Closing Scene: Captain Phillips
. . . and then, two hours later, Hanks puts it over the top once and for all. It’s hopefully not too much of a spoiler alert to reveal that Richard Phillips makes it to the end of the movie bearing his name in one piece, but the actor playing him does an amazing job of showing us just how tenuously this man has held together. Laboriously extricated from a cast-iron lifeboat after several days without food and water and covered in the blood of his abductors, Richard is brought aboard a U.S. Navy vessel and rushed below decks for medical treatment; the faraway look in Hanks’s eyes suggests that he’s reliving his ordeal even as his body sags into the helpless posture of an exhausted foundling. “He’s in shock,” explains the attending physician, and so are some of us in the audience, which has less to do with the harrowing details of Richard’s ordeal (though Greengrass deserves credit for handling the various suspense sequences with aplomb) as the reverse-spectacle of one of Hollywood’s most iconic modern movie stars vanishing entirely into his character’s broken body and frayed headspace. Hard as it may be to believe, in these moments, Tom Hanks disappears completely—a feat of illusionism to keep even David Blaine up at night. —Adam Nayman

Worst Font: Leviathan
Sure, Leviathan’s torturing of lightweight waterproof GoPro cameras to the point of image abstraction brought something new to cinema—experiencing it on the big screen is quite unlike anything else out there. Even so, this massive fan of the Sensory Ethnography Labs’s warmly humane and totally invested prior film, Sweetgrass, couldn’t escape a sense of detached academicism about the project, a feeling that wasn’t tempered by the film’s bludgeoning inhumanity (yes, part of the point, but still) and was massively heightened by the jokey, horrible Cinemetal-esque font used in the end credits. That most of the scrolling names were scientific classifications for various fish only tweaked my experience even more. Are we supposed to view the film as a rigorous piece of experiential cinema? Or is there some kind of inside joke that I missed? Whatever Leviathan may be, guys, it’s definitely not the new Blut Aus Nord record, so knock if off. —Jeff Reichert

“We Had Faces Then” Award:
The Grandmaster

Of all the great working filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai has always possessed the most sophisticated grasp of the medium’s ineffable pleasures. In his hands, we keep finding our way back to the blissful basics: a shimmy to a samba, the swish of a cheongsam dress, the lambent glow of a woman’s face. So it was with The Grandmaster. His take on the Ip Man legend was typically suffused with longing and wistfulness, and the fight scenes were reliably spectacular. But one shot plays in a loop in my head still, months after I first saw the movie. As the film settles in for set-piece fight, this time on a train station platform on a snowy night on New Year’s Eve (!), Wong Kar-wai pulls off an introduction that Sergio Leone would envy. The two combatants, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Jin Zhang), prepare for their pas de deux. Gong—impassive, dressed in fur, drop-dead beautiful—assumes her stance. As her arms flex out and her knees bend, the camera glides toward her in a portentous dolly. Steam and snow billow in the background; in the distance are the blurry lights of the station; she shimmers before us, in a fighting pose more graceful than threatening. It lasts but a couple of heart-stopping seconds, and it is the coolest damn thing I saw in a theater this year. The fight that follows is, sure enough, something to behold. But that overture—a mini-symphony of charisma, atmosphere, costume, choreography, and camera movement—encapsulates everything that got many of us hooked on movies. —Elbert Ventura

Most Leering Camerawork: American Hustle
It’s no shock when a major Hollywood movie grossly objectifies its women, but it’s unfortunate when it goes so unnoted, especially in such a widely acclaimed film as David O. Russell’s con job. Never does the film miss a moment when it can sneak a peek at a scantily clad Amy Adams. Watch this frisky pussycat get sexily frisked by a guard, his hands hiking up her mini-skirt to crotch level, the camera lowering itself accordingly. Get a load of her many knockout, cleavage-enhancing tops, so open-breasted the film ensures you won’t be looking anywhere else. Glimpse Adams pole-dancing in pasties, in little cutaway shots that have no character or plot motivation. By comparison, Jennifer Lawrence mostly gets off easy, although she does perform one needless bedroom strip-down, complete with an ass-in-the-air panther prowl across the sheets. We’re not to concern ourselves with these matters, of course, since the movie’s all about “style”’—a defense that might seem acceptable if the movie didn’t go out of its way to make its male actors into comic grotesques—erstwhile sex symbols Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper play a toupéed tub-o-lard and a Jheri-curled dingbat, respectively. Viewed one night before The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle seemed to me the far lewder film—worse for being so breezily confident, and unaware of its own sexism. —MK

Best Opening Shot: Faust
The first pair of shots, really: a descent through layers of cloud that eventually opens out onto a magnificent vista of digitally enhanced mountains, towns, and seas (at first, you might think you’re watching a production company logo), followed immediately by an extreme close-up on the genitals of a cadaver mid-autopsy. Like the rest of Alexander Sokurov’s noisy, delirious, essential movie, which is constantly slamming together the lofty with the vulgar, it’s at once funny and deeply jarring, a surreal example of what blockbusters would look like if more directors shared Sokurov’s mad nineteenth-century poetic vision and his improbably large budget. (And speaking of gusto—there’s something fittingly perverse about Sokurov accepting generous funding from Vladimir Putin for the sake of making a film about the literally demonic origins of authoritarian political power.) —Max Nelson

Best Closing Shot: Beyond the Hills
It is hard to overstate how fully Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills immerses us in the hermetic milieu in which it is set. Perhaps it's the spareness of the interiors of the monastery where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has sought refuge with a cultish Christian sect. Perhaps it's Mungiu's long-take aesthetic, which tends to favor static master shots over camera movements and cutaways, locating us in a social environment that looks and feels positively Medieval. Alina (Cristina Flutur), who comes to steal her friend Voichita away to Germany with her, never really belongs here—not spiritually, not socially, not even as a part of the mise-en-scène. The problem she poses the church’s leaders is also, in a metaphoric sense, something of a cinematic one: what is to be done with this disruptive presence, this thing that doesn’t fit? The movie's awful climax offers a solution that solves nothing. In eliminating the ostensible “problem,” it shatters the illusion of remove the church's sense of order seems predicated on, and thrusts the characters back into a very messy, very real contemporary world with laws and consequences. How fitting that this movie should end in a truck, with a camera grasping towards a dirty window looking out onto an urban street. This image is beautifully out-of-step for a movie that often feels like it could almost be taking place in another world. It clears the muck away, brushes aside the garbage, and reminds us that honest-to-goodness truth is sometimes straightforward in the most painfully obvious of ways. —Chris Wisniewski

Polished Turd Award: Prisoners
It’s no mean feat to paint a despairing picture of America’s suburbs, except that the images in Prisoners are so damned painterly that it’s kind of amazing. The hook-up between Quebecois style-meister Denis Villeneuve and legendary British shooter Roger Deakins yields its share of brilliantly composed and textured shots, particularly in the first half hour, which lays out the squalid geography of a residential Pennsylvanian enclave that seems to be rotting away in between its steel and concrete borders. The wetly fetid quality of Deakins’s cinematography here matches the pungency of a screenplay that goes sour after an hour (right about the time that Jake Gyllenhaal finds all those suitcases full of serpents) and makes Prisoners worth seeing in spite of its many, many flaws. —AN

Best Cartoon: The Devil in Post Tenebras Lux
Worst Cartoon: Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Least Involving Mano-a-Mano:
Walt Disney vs. P. L. Travers

Saving Mr. Banks also deserves awards for Most Dubiously Motivated Drama (Mary Poppins’ fiftieth anniversary is this year!) and Least Fascinating Revelations (did you know that said Mary Poppins is less about a magical nanny than about absent fathers? Yes, I did . . . even when I was five). But its worst cinematic crime is that it’s entirely predicated on an epic tussle—pitched between Emma Thompson’s cartoonishly imperious Travers and Tom Hanks’s avuncular Mr. Universe, Walt Disney himself—whose foregone outcome isn’t in the least bit dramatically satisfying. Only for unthinking Disney hagiographers (and, perhaps, woman-haters) should the grinding spectacle of a stubborn, if principled, British lady with financial woes and crippling daddy issues being slowly broken down by a Los Angeles megalomaniac with the world on a string be remotely palatable. The Blind Side hack John Lee Hancock directs their circa-’61 head-butts as though these two were debating the Cuban Missile Crisis rather than the efficacy of using animated penguins during “Jolly Holiday.” A more sophisticated film could have transformed this lukewarm, stakes-free true story into an ambiguous battle of wills for which we each must choose our own side. Yet this Disney-produced film leaves little doubt as to how we’re supposed to feel. Ultimately Travers gets schooled for doubting Disney’s intentions. It’s a feature-length bitch-slap. Serves ya right, hater. —MK


Most Defensive Director:
Abdellatif Kechiche

The showbiz bullshit surrounding Palme d’or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color (difficult/illegal shoot, egomaniacal director, too much lesbianism, not enough lesbianism) constitutes one of the most robust arguments in memory for letting a work speak for itself. One of the most organically gripping stories brought to the screen in 2013, this three-hour film screams by—yet it feels like weeks have passed after it’s over. Forged with a deliberately unmanipulative, Truffaut-like aesthetic of exploration, scrutiny, and capture, it nevertheless contains a sign that when it came to the political question of filming women in love, Kechiche—and this makes his own willingness to speak out all the more perplexing—got his shots off first. The opening scene of Blue Is the Warmest Color features a basso profundo male schoolteacher directing two of his female students to read aloud from The Life of Marianne, a novel about a woman of the world written in the first person by male writer Pierre de Marivaux. The teacher—somewhat severely—instructs a student on how better to approach the reading (“‘I am woman’ is a truth, you understand, Saïda?”). Ostensibly setting up the dynamics of Adèle’s eventual meeting with lover Emma, these first two minutes offer a virtual cameo by Kechiche himself, commenting on the process he will undergo with his actresses to uncover the truths of Adèle’s story. Later, Kechiche seems to throw in a sly joke. When Emma asks Adèle to elaborate on her ice-breaker in the bar: “I love American cinema,” she continues: “Oh, you know, Scorsese, Kubrick”—a safe answer in context, but a droll one, given that she picked two of the great American filmmakers least likely to have filmed the story of her life. What was created by Kechiche and his actors turned out to be bigger than they could necessarily anticipate, but that isn’t to say that the work itself wasn’t anticipating its own backlash. —Julien Allen

Worst Doctoral Dissertation in a Movie: Blue Is the Warmest Color
At a dinner party for Emma (Léa Seydoux), one of Emma’s graduate student friends describes her dissertation on “morbidity in Egon Schiele,” in an attempt to intimidate Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who knows little about such sophisticated matters. This is the equivalent of describing the slitheriness of a snake, or the umami flavor of an Umami Burger. Not only is it mind-numbingly obvious, it also only superficially has anything to do with art, much less philosophy, the two fields this PhD candidate is apparently pursuing. The conversation continues onto the heated topic of whether Klimt can be considered decorative. (Owing to the Klimt poster that hangs on every other college student’s dorm room, the answer is a resounding yes.) If Abdellatif Kechiche’s intent was to portray Emma’s circle as pretentious and utterly insipid, he succeeded, and perhaps too well. It’s a wonder that Adèle, who has more intellectually stimulating discussions about the spelling of the word “onion” with her first grade class, doesn’t spend the entire party making spaghetti bolognese in the kitchen, away from these bloviators. —Genevieve Yue

Most Dubious Critical Obsession:
Blue Is the Warmest Color

For a good chunk of the year, it seemed that you couldn’t open the Grey Lady’s arts section without seeing another response to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. This was indicative of a larger cultural obsession. Some of these articles were worthwhile debate-starters, others were not. It’s encouraging that there was a conversation at all about the representation of female bodies in cinema and a discussion over whose gaze is being celebrated and/or exploited. Yet the longer this fascination went on, the more prurient it began to seem. It also ended up ideologically overburdening what was ultimately a rather touching coming-of-age story that contained one explicit and, yes, perhaps a bit over-aestheticized, sex scene—less than ten minutes in three hours bursting with good-natured and sympathetic emotional intimacy. How many of those who chose to dive in and question the legitimacy or “authenticity” of the film’s sex scenes really cared about the debate at all, and how many just relished an excuse to talk about the perceived ins and outs of lesbian sex? By comparison, was any controversy ignited a couple of years ago regarding the explicitness or realism of the sex in Andrew Haigh’s gay-male romance Weekend, a film that featured unapologetically cum-drenched chests? It seems the media’s concern with homosexual desire only swings one way. —MK


The Manoel de Oliveira Award for Late Style:
Raul Ruiz, Jonas Mekas, Hayao Miyazaki, and Claude Lanzmann

I confess that I haven’t yet seen You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, so Alain Resnais might well be a fifth contender for this title—but still, has there been a year in recent memory in which so many aging masters released autumnal, swan-song-like reflections on their life and work? Night Across the Street, Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, The Wind Rises, and The Last of the Unjust (the latter technically a 2014 release) were all lovingly made films about the fragile link between cinema and life, each set somewhere between affirmation and frustration: in Lanzmann’s case, frustration over the ellipses and blank spots of historical memory; in Miyazaki’s, over the possible tension between art-making and political responsibility; in Mekas’s, over the limitations of the image itself; and in Ruiz’s, over the prospect of his own death. Ruiz passed away in 2011 after 70 years and roughly 90 features, but the other filmmakers are still with us. Their 2013 films are late, but not—let’s hope—last. —MN

Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty and Despair:
The Rock

In Pain and Gain, the erstwhile Dwayne Johnson plays a character who is, if not close to his heart, than at least within spitting distance of his previous vocation as the world’s most famous professional wrestler: an easily manipulated idiot built like a brick shithouse. What’s miraculous about Johnson’s performance—and to do good work in a Michael Bay film is a miracle about on par with turning loaves into fishes or pinning Brock Lesnar—is that he plays both to and against type at the same time. From his well-established persona as The Rock, Johnson borrows the oddly becalmed comportment of a man who knows he is physically superior to anybody he meets; from his own store of comic innovation, he locates the hysterical body language of man who subsequently and selflessly desecrates his self-erected temple. (Consider Johnson’s brilliantly bifurcated performance as a one-man version of his costar’s most famous movie—The Rock IS Boogie Nights!) In a movie that wears its meanings like a feather boa, Johnson’s Paul Doyle is a bulbous, ambulatory metaphor—a wannabe gentle giant who tries to control his appetites through religious dogma and ends up binging on sex, drugs and all the rest of it. Do I think that the spectacle of an aircraft-carrier-sized moron snorting cocaine and obliviously barbecuing severed limbs is a fair or even-handed avatar of the American character? No. Is Johnson’s impressively unself-conscious, deceptively controlled human-cartooning a feat worth noting and celebrating? Duh. —AN

Missed Boat:
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear

Critics (including some of ours) flipped their wigs this year for a self-reflexive documentary that investigated the medium while offering an acute cultural ethnography. Sadly, all the applause was directed at the blockbuster doc The Act of Killing, while the more tenuous and intriguing The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear was left on the sidelines. Killing is certainly a fascinating object, and the positive repercussions it’s had in the country in which it was filmed are certainly nothing to dismiss. But at the same time, there was a lot of ballyhoo about “formal ingenuity” surrounding a doc that is essentially made up of vérité, interviews, and re-enactment—a pretty traditional doc mix if ever there was one. If Act had chosen the same template and applied it to Indonesian farmers, would anyone have considered it revolutionary? Meanwhile, Tinatin Gurchiani put out a simple casting call in small towns in her home country of Georgia, taped whoever showed up, and then used the results as a framework for further investigation and flights of fancy into the everyday realities of Georgian life. The result is an open-ended, inquisitive, and pleasantly meandering window into a foreign culture that lands close to early Kiarostami in spirit and is every bit as lovely. More like this, please! —JR

Biggest Favor to Critics
The release of The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, The Canyons, The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, and The Wolf of Wall Street all within a span of twelve months allowed for fairly easy readings of Cinema 2013’s widespread critique of American consumption, solipsism, and excess—resulting in some critical musings not particularly different from James Franco’s “Look at my shit” monologue in Harmony Korine’s movie. For writers desperate to capsulize entire movie years, shared thematic and visual threads like these are more precious than gold-encrusted yachts. An unfortunate side effect, however, was the occasional disregard of other American movies disinterested in diagnosing our contemporary condition as hopelessly crass. Take a look at To the Wonder, This Is Martin Bonner, and The Spectacular Now for reminders of how generous and complicated the U.S. and its inhabitants can be. —MK

Worst Supporting Actress: Carey Mulligan
Either she has the best or worst agent in Hollywood. The British import, who first beguiled audiences with her dewdrop eyes and button nose in 2009’s forgotten middlebrow coming-of-ager An Education, keeps getting juicy parts in major films—for which she’s always notably miscast. As Drive’s dishwater-blonde L.A. mom dealing with an ex-con hubbie, the Londoner was singularly improbable, and as the sleep-singing sister of a sexually sinister sleazebag in Shame, she was hardly an apt nightclub chanteuse (even if she made Fassbender shed a single tear). In 2014, she got to give her dubious Yank accent two more tries in some high-profile films—The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis—and managed to stick out like sore thumbs in both. To be fair, Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, more of an abstract idea than a full-fledged woman, is a near impossible character to play, and the Coens’ be-sweatered part-time folkie Jean is among their most annoyingly one-note creations, just a tightly coiled, expletive-spewing fount of venom who serves as one of the many angry satellites in Llewyn’s devastating narrative of gradual disappearance. Nevertheless, Mulligan brings little to these women that isn’t on the page. Whether it’s cartoonish debutantism in the former, or dead-eyed vengeance in the latter, it all comes across as vacant posturing. There’s nothing that’s perceptibly her—that indefinable essence that makes a star a star. —MK

Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins
Remember when the supporting Academy Award categories actually meant supporting? When they honored character actors and featured players whose performances actually did the work of supporting their films and fellow actors rather than provided ways for stars in secondary roles to “get their due”? Me neither. It may have all started with Frank Sinatra winning for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, a high-profile star performance who just happened to have less screen time than Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift and was therefore relegated to supporting. Recent recipients Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Christoph Waltz, Heath Ledger, Jennifer Hudson, George Clooney—all in grandstanding parts that serve to support no one but themselves, a.k.a. leading roles. If Sally Hawkins were to get acknowledged for her fine work against Cate Blanchett’s steamroller in Blue Jasmine, it would buck the trend nicely. Like Mulligan, Hawkins is a Brit cast as an American, and her accent may occasionally be shaky, but the cheery, super-toothed Mike Leigh alum fuels her character, Ginger, Jasmine’s half-sister, with so much spirit and plays her with so much lived-in nuance that it hardly matters. Jasmine is a whirling dervish of self-obsession, while Ginger is a measured peacekeeper—that is, until she’s finally pushed to her limits. Though Jasmine has already alienated everyone in her life irreparably, her final kiss-off to Ginger feels genuinely tragic—the cutting of the one lifeline she had left, the one person who didn’t want to judge her. Hawkins convinces us that we all need a little Ginger in our lives. —MK

Funniest Cameo: Gus Van Sant in The Canyons
Honorable mentions go to the starry interlopers of Anchorman 2, whose sheer collective wattage energizes a movie in need of just such a jumpstart (and who knew that Marion Cotillard was funny?). But there can be only one winner here, and it’s Gus Van Sant. Nick Pinkerton has already written the definitive encomium to The Canyons, which for what it’s worth is a worthier contrarian-reclamation project than The Counselor or The Lone Ranger (or Anchorman 2), but I’d like to expand on his appreciation of its Elephant-director-in-the-room gag, which struck me as truly hilarious. Playing the court-appointed psychiatrist to Christian (James Deen), Van Sant presides over our antihero’s self-pitying spiel with the hauteur of a true authority figure; if Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’s film is really a satire of indie-film solipsism gone sociopathic, it’s possible to read Van Sant’s presence as a sort of indifferent benediction. This good doctor’s reluctance to intervene when his patient is working himself up into a murderous frenzy suggests that nobody in Hollywood cares much about what’s really going on behind the scenes. —AN

Worst Prop: Bastards’ Corncob
We really didn’t need to see it that second time.

Longest Movie: Her
We tend to talk about the aptness of movie lengths only when they extend past normal running time barometers. The Wolf of Wall Street was three hours. At Berkeley was 244 minutes. Norte, the End of History a leisurely 250! Spike Jonze’s Her, on the other hand, was a comparatively short 126 minutes, but for all the world it might have out-lasted Norte. Basically one note repeated over and over, like a funny-sad Death Cab for Cutie song you can’t get out of your head, Her might have made for a perfectly lovely high-concept short. The more Jonze’s movie plays, however, the more self-regarding it seems to grow, swooning over its own mix of whimsy, comic yearning, and melancholy romanticism. Its emotions seem as sleekly preprogrammed for our consumption as those of its OS love interest for Joaquin Phoenix’s protagonist. The extreme length also left us too much time to ponder: If Spike Jonze had kept the original voice-over by Samantha Morton (so superb as near robots in Minority Report and Cosmopolis), rather than replaced her with purring cutie-pie Scarlett Johansson, would the character have seemed more like an actual computer voice and less like a sassy girlfriend calling long distance? —MK

Best Bad Sex: The Counselor
Here, Reiner (Javier Bardem) describes the time that Malinka (Cameron Diaz) climbed on top of the windshield of his Ferrari, pantyless, and, writhing across its surface, effectively squeegeed herself to climax. Her body distortedly pressed against the glass was like “one of those bottom feeders,” he says with a pained look that evinces something like genuine sympathy. In a movie that is too coolly self-aware of its hyperbolic drug-running antics, this scene gets unintentionally close to the experience of its viewer: immobilized before an outrageous spectacle, and pushed far past the point of fascination. —GY

Can’t Take Our Eyes Off Her Award (part 2): Amy Adams
Last year, I marveled at how Paul Thomas Anderson carved out space in the masculine pas de deux that was The Master for a ferocious but subtle performance from Amy Adams, who without competing with the movie’s grandstanding male leads nevertheless made clear the decisive influence of feminine power in Anderson’s drama. Flash forward to American Hustle, where Adams, previously directed to compelling effect by David O. Russell as a feisty love interest to Mark Wahlberg’s titular boxer in The Fighter, was reduced to badly accented window dressing. No, Adams’s “Lady Edith,” a persona she takes on to decidedly unconvincing effect, is clearly not British. No, she’s not conning anyone. Yes, her cleavage is awesome. So is Amy Adams. But really, setting cleavage aside, she deserves a movie that takes advantage of just how awesome she can be. —CW

The Small Beauty Award: This Is Martin Bonner
Rare is the American movie these days that encourages you to crane your neck closer to the screen so you can pick up on every nuance. Chad Hartigan’s lovingly mounted, entirely unexpected character drama is such a film. Unlike so many other feel-good-feel-bad indies that grabbed wider attention in 2013 (Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Mud), nothing about This Is Martin Bonner comes across as telegraphed or overly button-pushing; Hartigan charts difficult paths without manufacturing false emotions. Through a quiet, simple examination of the converging lives of a middle-aged man (Paul Eenhoorn, wonderful, open, and wise), recently transplanted from the East Coast to Nevada for a volunteer job helping ex-convicts adjust to life outside prison, and one of his new assignments (Richmond Arquette), unable to easily function after more than a decade behind bars, Hartigan’s film reveals itself as a gentle meditation on aging, work, faith, and connection in a supposedly disconnected time. —MK

Best Porn Star in a Mainstream Film: James Deen in The Canyons
Worst Pornographer Making a Mainstream Film: Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives

Best Serious Scene in a Comedy: The World’s End
It’s hard to stay on the fence about Edgar Wright’s films, and not just because all of them (except Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) feature sight gags where fences are demolished once and for all. Like the films of his pal Quentin Tarantino, Wright’s immaculately crafted comedies (more immaculately in fact than QT) end up as referendums on their creator’s frame of reference, and if somebody were to say that his nods to comic books, action flicks, and Britpop fall in the category of “broad, not deep” (right alongside QT, it says here) then who am I to argue? Well, in fact, I will argue, on behalf of a key scene in The World’s End, which concerns a rural pub crawl enacted by five estranged former school chums that turns into a pitched battle against mechanized alien invaders. Stumbling into a dilapidated house a few steps behind his pals, Gary King (Simon Pegg) is suddenly accused of being one of the “blanks” infesting the hamlet of Newton Haven; to prove their humanity, the group all agree to show off bruises and birthmarks that would differentiate them from their robot doubles. A riff on The Thing, then, and yet Wright wrings a powerful variation on this trope by having alcoholic Gary refuse to reveal the self-inflicted scars on his wrists, offering instead to butt his head against a pillar to demonstrate he’s flesh and blood rather than fiberglass. As a plot point, this is funny enough, but as a quick, detailed sketch of an addict’s delusional logic—he’d rather keep hurting himself than admit to past self-harm—it’s concise and powerfully sobering. —AN

Most Overlooked Performance:
Israel Broussard in The Bling Ring

As the unassuming, unremarkable dude in a gaggle of Heathers—and our moral docent into the celebrity-obsessed world of his peers—Israel Broussard was The Bling Ring’s secret weapon. Playing like a visiting alien’s dispatch from a strange land called the Valley, Sofia Coppola’s film was largely ignored by critics. But there’s a real intelligence at work here, most evident in Broussard’s nuanced, even crucial turn. Emma Watson may have been the marquee draw, and newcomer Katie Chang its ostensible lead, but Broussard was the movie’s still-unformed soul, drawn (and, ultimately, quartered) by his pretty little peers and yet nagged by the germ of a conscience. Overshadowed by the hotties surrounding him, Broussard brings a welcome and affectless understatement to the movie. Let’s hope David O. Russell never finds out about him. —EV

The “We Just Think You’re Terrific” Award: Sergei Loznitsa
With two superb fiction features already to his name, My Joy and In the Fog, the latter released in the U.S. briefly in 2013, Belarus native Sergei Loznitsa is quickly becoming our new cinematic crush object. My Joy was the slightly more radical film, dispensing with the usual narrative expositions and taking a wildly unique approach to character in its portrait of a contemporary Russia wracked with systemic violence; In the Fog was remarkable on its own terms, a more meditative but no less technically bravura description of the compromises otherwise good people make in times of madness, this time U.S.S.R. during the German occupation of World War II. Like a purposely less spiritual kin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s ravaging Ivan’s Childhood and Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (with whom is shares a source author), In the Fog uses the chaos of war as a backdrop to burrowing in closer with his doomed characters. It’s intimate and tactile where My Joy was opaque and existentially terrifying. We breathlessly wait to see what he does next. —MK

Double Your Pleasure: Bruno Dumont’s Outside Satan and Camille Claudel 1915
Any movie year bookended by films from Sultan of Stern Bruno Dumont can’t be too bad. January saw the release of Outside Satan, his most mystical and inscrutable work to date. Acting in many ways as a summation of the grim pastoral reveries he’s now expert at, this beautifully lensed tale of drifter, who heals women through violent, frothy sex, and his equally mysterious female charge is a patience test even for those who went along with Dumont for the concluding levitation of Humanité or the shave-and-stab finale of Twentynine Palms. I was won over, but had to suppress more than a few “Oh, Bruno”s. His follow-up, Camille Claudel 1915, suggests the famously taciturn director knew he’d gone a little too far. For the first time he employed, in Juliette Binoche, an honest-to-goodness movie star, and he gives her room to run. And towards the end of the film, with the introduction of Camille’s mystical, inscrutable, and stern brother, he’s also created another first in his cinema: a character who functions as a neat stand-in and auto-critique of Dumont himself. The film’s heart lies with Camille, the most rounded and intrinsically compelling character Dumont’s yet put before his camera. Through her, a filmmaker who in the past has relied on rigorously controlling non-actors finds a worthy sparring partner, and gets all the better for the joust. —JR

Triple Your Fun: Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy
This year saw the U.S. release of three (!) Ulrich Seidl films. His Paradise Trilogy follows three related women—a mother, her overweight daughter, and the mother’s sister—over one summer vacation as they go their separate ways. All three films feature Seidl’s potent mixture of the upsetting and the empathetic, but the first, Love, which tracks the exploits of a handful of fifty-something Austrian women sex touring in Kenya pushes past mere discomfort. It’s gross and horrifying in ways that The Wolf of Wall Street cannot even dream of, and its climactic bacchanal may well be the most affecting piece of cinema I saw all year. Faith’s look at a Christian self-flagellant and her handicapped Muslim ex hits its one joke a little too hard, while Hope’s tale of an overweight teen girl soliciting the attentions of her fat camp’s doctor isn’t queasy enough, but taken together the three films have a novelistic sense of completeness to them. It’s a textbook case of a sum that’s much bigger than its parts. —JR

The Alfred Molina Award for Overacting: Paul Giamatti
Twice this year, everyone’s favorite capital-C CHARACTER ACTOR popped up unexpectedly in small roles of the sort usually given to less recognizable name actors. Whether he was putting humans on the auction block as a self-righteous slave trader (12 Years a Slave) or chauffeuring the author of Mary Poppins around Los Angeles with a twinkle in his eye (Saving Mr. Banks), Giamatti burst onto the screen with all the subtlety of a jalapeño. Of course, most of this is simply casting: technically precise and overwhelming, Giamatti is too grandiose a performer to continue to convince in such tiny roles. He no longer blends into the scenery, no matter how much he’d probably like to. Unsurprisingly, his best work this year was in a leading role, in Phil Morrison’s little-seen All Is Bright, a better vehicle for his brand of camera devouring. —MK

Most Inappropriate Title: The Conjuring (nothing gets conjured)
Most Appropriate Title: I’m So Excited (yes, just you, Pedro)

The Lucille Ball Commemorative Trophy:
Julia Louis-Dreyfus

This award is clearly also for the former Elaine Benes’s stellar, side-splitting work on the HBO series Veep, but special mention needs to be made for her big-screen triumph in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, which works as well as it does because of Louis-Dreyfus’s sublime neuroses. She is perhaps our greatest contemporary screen comedian, able to put an unexpected twist on her every line of dialogue that not only surprises with its intonation but also seems to reveal a new level of psychosis in her character. She wields her comic timing as a surgeon brandishes a scalpel, though hopefully your surgeon wouldn't be so marked by doubt, worry, and a shakiness always on the verge of tipping into a full-on pratfall. In this latest performance, Louis-Dreyfus may be overshadowed by James Gandolfini—both because of his untimely recent death and because she seems especially diminutive in his enormous presence. Yet the film is hers. And by commanding every scene she's in, she allows one to overlook the off-putting class obliviousness and female masochism endemic to Holofcener’s movies. —MK

Most Endearingly Silly Southern Drama: Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker, with its freeze-dried corpses and hilariously on-the-nose piano-seat seduction scene
Most Cringe-Inducingly Silly Southern Drama: Jeff Nichols’s Mud, which features, a) Reese Witherspoon adopting a thick drawl for the role of a battered, Daisy Duke–sporting damsel in distress named “Juniper,” b) a scene in which a 14-year-old boy screams “I trusted you!” to a disheveled Matthew McConaughey on the shore of a mid-river island, and c) a prominent character called “Neckbone.” Playful self-parody or stone-faced would-be character study? All signs, as far as I can tell, point toward the latter. —MN

Least Convincing Outlaw:
Rooney Mara in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

The Bonnie to Casey Affleck’s Clyde in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, gaunt, pensive Rooney Mara mustered all the gravitas she could in David Lowery’s Malickian idyll. But her porcelain mien and shabby-chic wardrobe were in perpetual conflict with the role of a former outlaw turned single mom, waiting for her partner in crime to finish his prison term. Part of the problem is the film itself, which makes rustic Americana a prettified style choice (the décor is to die for, and probably on sale at your favorite vintage flea stall) rather than a lived-in environment. In flowing dress and rugged boots, Mara, walking down a dirt road at magic hour, looks less like an Okie outlaw than a model in an Anthropologie shoot. Pretty it is, persuasive it ain’t. —EV

Most Self-Conscious Self-Referential Self-Profile: Stories We Tell
Often during her documentary auto-portrait about her search for the facts of her parentage, Sarah Polley tells us the truth is tricky and malleable, and reminds us that memories and storytellers are unreliable. It’s a great, purposely untidy thesis, yet as far as I could tell by the end of her very cannily constructed film, she seems to have told one concrete, rather unambiguous story. Polley’s insistence, via narration, that reality is fiction and fiction is reality makes for a tantalizing premise while we’re watching, but by protesting too much, she overburdens a rather fascinating little story about the lies we tell ourselves and each other. —MK

Too Many Themes Award: Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity was wildly praised for deftly intertwining one woman’s fight for survival in outer space with her overcoming the personal demons that plagued her back on Earth. For me, the problem with this twin-themed formulation is that it offered one too many. Is there any person on Earth, who, when faced with her or his own mortality, really needs the reminder of the emotional inertia that resulted from the death of a child to do whatever needs to be done to just simply not die? And thus another well-mounted, effective actioner dies a slow death, sacrificed at the altar of the cruel pagan gods of Screenwriting 101. —JR

Best Kept Secret in the Most Talked-About Movie: Aningaaq
Remember that strange moment in Gravity when Sandra Bullock’s stranded astronaut picks up on a radio frequency with a barely intelligible earthling of indeterminate origin and proceeds to bark like a dog in a desperate desire for human contact? In a modest high-concept twist, the other side of this mysterious dialogue is dramatized in Alfonso Cuáron’s son Jonás’s seven-minute short film Aningaaq, in which we meet the Inuit fisherman who shares with Bullock's Ryan Stone what she believes will be her final conversation. Simple but effectively so, Aningaaq is awash in a white nothingness as enveloping as the pitch-black of outer space that defines Gravity. The Greenlandic-speaking fisherman’s familial contentedness (he is accompanied by his wife and baby, as well as a slew of huskies) provides a poignant contrast with Stone’s isolation, while the fact of the film’s existence helps mitigate the awkwardness of Bullock’s performance in that scene in retrospect. How provocative—and helpful—it would have been for Warner Bros. to show the film in theaters before Gravity, a way of both expanding the film’s perspective and bringing it back down to earth. —MK

Worst Ending: Saving Mr. Banks
Yes, go fly a kite. Or really, do anything you can to avoid staying all the way to the end of this awards-baiting panderer. Emma Thompson, as the author responsible for the Mary Poppins books, weeps—for joy, catharsis, self-loathing? Who can say?— at the movie premiere that concludes this bald-faced attempt to assert the Disney studio's accomplishment in bringing P.L. Travers’s stories to the silver screen. The closing moments of this lousy making-of period piece are indicative of the movie’s larger shortcomings: too timid to fully exploit the source material, it instead relies on an ill-conceived attempt to spin its bargain-basement psychologizing of Travers’s creative inspiration into a coherent making-of narrative by trumping up her influences beyond any believable measure. Either way, it doesn’t work, and the only excuse we can find for Emma Thompson’s tears is that she should be associated with such dreck. —CW

Worst Actor: Shane Carruth in Upstream Color
Even for those who didn’t think that Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to Primer was an overly vague, willfully obfuscating tap-dance around a hollow center would have to agree that the writer-director-editor-cinematographer-composer’s decision to cast himself as the adorably demented romantic lead was probably a mistake, right? Right? Once the film’s intriguing first act—following the bizarre kidnapping-by- brainwashing of Amy Seimetz’s Kris—gives way to the tough-love rom-com cuteness of part two, the film begins to rely too heavily on Carruth’s performance, which is defined by stilted line readings, self-conscious adorability, and overly telegraphed neuroticisms. Yes, even our anointed low-budget visionaries can be shticky. It may seem uncharitable to harp on Carruth’s acting, but these things matter to the fabric of a film. His non-presence might be just one explanation why Upstream Color often feels like it’s evaporating right before our eyes. —MK

Welcome Back Award: Phil Morrison, All Is Bright
In 2005, Reverse Shot was all aflutter over an American independent film by the name of Junebug. The film was Southern Gothic by way of Terence Davies (though perhaps The Neon Bible got there first), and its sensitive, ingenuous direction portended great things for director Phil Morrison. And then, nothing. Years went by with little more than rumors of a rock-music-related project. For the entirety of this decade, it seemed like we might not hear from Phil again. And then emerged, with little fanfare, All Is Bright. A seriocomedy about two losers from Quebec who head down to Brooklyn to sell Christmas trees, it sounds terminally indie on the surface, and Melissa James Gibson’s script seems terrified of messing with that playbook. But look a little closer: at the rich palette of zooms Morrison employs, the off-kilter editing that shakes familiar-feeling montage sequences into something new, and that ever-so-fragile tone that hovers between the downbeat and awestruck and you’ll find the handprints of a sorely needed director elevating an average piece of material at every turn. —JR

Best Retro Textures: No and Computer Chess
Looking back and thinking forward, Chilean director Pablo Larraín and American indie vanguardist Andrew Bujalski each made the decision to shoot their latest films on outmoded, analog video cameras—U-matic in the former, a Sony AVC-3260 in the latter—and managed to realize non-gimmicky artistic statements. The aesthetic choice (giving both films a primitive feel) is revelatory. In Larraín’s heartfelt remembrance of the mad men behind the ad campaign that helped oust dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988, the narrative is made to feel visually continuous with the archival footage of the television commercials themselves. In Bujalski’s whimsical whatsit about a competition among cutting-edge chess software programmers in the early eighties, the viewer has the uncanny sense of viewing the action from a technological remove. No is fiery and passionate where Computer Chess is detached and cold, but both are equally bold. Their makers could have come across as the latest practitioners of geek chic. Instead, they’ve created genuinely eccentric, even moving paeans to times gone by. —MK

Tempest in a Teapot Award: The Debate over Vulgar Auteurism
The great sandbox fight of 2013 is surely a tale we’ll be telling our grandchildren. Which side did you end up on? And why do there have to be sides? And why do we have to position ourselves at all? Could it be that we’re all just terribly insecure? Either way, we think we have the final word.