**Notes: The following list is presented in alphabetical order. A longer, ordered Best Of list will be presented at the end of the year*
Most of us already know the story of Jane Eyre, the 1847 Charlotte Brontë's classic in which a young girl takes a journey of self-discovery, leading her from a harsh boarding school upbringing to the shadowy corridors of Thornfield Hall, the home of the mysterious and alluring Mr. Rochester. It's a tricky thing, holding the attention of an audience who already knows the outcome of the story you're telling, but it's a task that Sophomore Director Cary Fukunaga and his team are more than up to. Under Fukunaga's watchful eye, all elements of craft are beautifully realized, from Adriano Goldman's stunning camera work, to the gorgeously melancholy score by Dario Marianelli. The acting is in fine form here as well, up-and-comers Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender taking up the lead roles, both exuding passion and thoughtfulness in One emotional veiled scene after another. But in the end, this is Fukunaga's party, and he invites in all of the gothic, sinister tones that the book itself contained. The perfect counter-argument to anyone who says that a remake can't be special and alive.
While I've liked Limitless from the first time I saw it, the movie has grown on me over the several months since its release. By no means is Neil Burger's anti(or is it pro?)-drug movie a perfect piece; It's screenplay can be clunky from time to time, and there are more than a few loop hole to poke fun at if you really want to. But despite its deficiencies, what sets Limitless apart is that its phenomenal entertainment, gripping, stylish, and unpredictable from beginning to end. In his first attempt to genuinely headline a movie, Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a struggling writer who stumbles across a pill with the power to increase the brain activity of its users Ten-Fold. But as with all too-good-to-be-true medications, this One comes with side-effects. Cooper turns out to be a hugely fun leading man, ladling out the charm and smarm as only he can do, his compelling performance grounding the movie's absurd proceedings. Burger has all kinds of fun with the premise, pulling out One wacky effect or stylistic flourish after another, and having nearly all of them hit their mark. Limitless is pretty much exactly what I hope for from Hollywood: An escapist page-turner with fine work both in front of and behind the camera, with style to spare.
Like a certain other movie that I'll be discussing at the end of this article, Meek's Cutoff proves an insufferable viewing experience for both the impatient or those attached to closure, but its divisiveness is just what makes it special. Director Kelly Reichardt existentialist western (a genre that has somehow already produced Two movies this year (Rango)) stars Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and others as a band of lost travelers on the Oregon Trail who have both their faith and their allegiances tested in a number of unexpected ways. Shot in Reichardt's native Oregon, and in an old-school, boxy 1.37:1 ratio that neglects to cover the entire screen, Meek's Cutoff is no less than miraculous when it comes to prompting a physical reaction: You can almost feel the dust fill your nostrils as you watch it, feel the parched tongue's of the movie's many dehydrated characters. It's the exact kind of movie that could be accused of having, 'nothing happen,' and if that doesn't sound like your thing, then I'm going to bet that its not. But those with the patience and endurance to take the trek with Reichardt and crew will be handsomely rewarded with picture-esque cinematography, wholly believable performances, and a handful of philosophical concepts that will rattle around in your head for days. No, this is not your Dad's Western, and thank god for that.
Midnight in Paris
Before I launch back into the realm of movies enormous and daunting, let's take a moment to celebrate a movie that takes off relatively small bites, and chews them with confidence, exactness, and grace. His first genuinely sunny movie in ages, Woody Allen's newest stars Owen Wilson as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris. Finding himself disinterested in the activities of his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her pedantic friend (Michael Sheen), Gil sets out to walk the city streets One night, and finds himself magically transported into the 1920's, rubbing elbows with his literary idols like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Earnest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). It's an intoxicating mix: Beautiful shots of Paris, a bevy of famous actor's playing legendary writers, and a plethora of cheap jokes related to classic literature. I can't help but think that an English major like myself might have more fun with this One, but Wilson's easy-going charm is undeniable, as is the warm feeling that seems to waft of off every frame in the film. It's a simple movie, requiring neither a bloated budget, nor lengthy bouts of exposition, but its charms are tried and true, and the moral that it finally arrives at is simple, beautiful, pure, and true. Long live the Woodman!
The Tree of Life
The most polarizing movie of the year Twice-over, Terrance Malick's Fifth feature in his 38-year-old directing career is the literal definition of ambitious, attempting in its 138 minute runtime to explain... well... everything. Haggard and jaded, Jack (Sean Penn) looks back on the entire story-arch of his life, beginning with the big bang, continuing on through the evolution of life on the planet, the dinosaurs and their extinction, and finally ending up in a 1950's Texas suburb, where we watch Jack as a boy (Hunter McCracken) be raised by his warm, loving mother (Jessica Chastain), and his domineering, demanding father (Brad Pitt). Malick leaves just about everything up to interpretation, a fact that has led some to call it a euphoric masterpiece, and others to call it a boring, wrong-headed waste of time. There's not to much middle ground with this One, so I'd might as well pick a side and stick with it. I love The Tree of Life: its authentic performances, its unending fountain of visual beauty, and its endless mysteries, both slippery and profound.