MOVIES OF THE YEAR
12 YEARS A SLAVE is a story amazing – and in no good way. Director Steve McQueen shines a bright light on the horrors of the past – a time when caged and tortured humans were fuel to the machine that is America. Ultimately, this true tale is one of survival, a screenplay written by John Ridley and resting firmly upon the shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who delivers a strong and soulful performance as Solomon Northup – a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. His injustice is set against the breathtaking beauty of Southern landscapes, which only serve to enhance atrocities disgracefully forgotten – and never before depicted with such raw intensity.
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AMERICAN HUSTLE is eight-track entertainment from the feet up – exposing the question, "What is façade and what is for real?" With no detail overlooked, no hair out of place, David O. Russell's masterful period piece wires audiences into the exhilarating cons of Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper. Enter Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner, with all players playing against type, and you have a tale of ambition that is rollicking and emotionally raw – and an anthem to the notion that the art of survival is a story that never ends.
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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS sails the high seas of heroism in this adrenaline-fueled thriller, where a blinking dot on a radar screen signals the collision of two worlds. Melding documentary realism with pure action filmmaking, Paul Greengrass' pulse-pounding narrative is anchored by a taut script from Billy Ray and a commanding performance from Tom Hanks, who again captures a character that we all live and breathe. Explosive turns by Barkhad Abdi and other first-time Somali actors ignite the film's urgent telling of a true tale – an extraordinary effort to save the life of one man and preserve an American ideal.
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FRUITVALE STATION illustrates the power of an art form to find the humanity in a headline. With a steady hand, Ryan Coogler conducts this haunting chronicle of injustice to its inevitable final destination by allowing audiences to share an intimate, bittersweet day with Oscar Grant. Michael B. Jordan brings a delicate, raw nuance to his portrayal of the struggling but hopeful youth, and Octavia Spencer's big-hearted mom adds to the power of the message – that change will come when we understand and appreciate each other as fellow passengers on a train toward tomorrow. Read the AFI Catalog entry
GRAVITY holds audiences with the power of a force of nature. Reaching skyward with pioneering ambition, Alfonso CuarÃ³n paints with a canvas so vast and visuals so breathtaking, that the film instantly rockets into the heavens of unforgettable achievements. A theatrical spectacle humbling beyond words, it is at its core a human drama that floats between wonder and terror, with a beating heart provided by two of America's brightest stars – Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Bullock's lead role is so deeply felt and epic in emotion that we stand with her at film's end, grateful to have experienced one helluva ride. Read the AFI Catalog entry
HER asks what it is to connect – and what it means to love. This near-future romance is a profoundly relevant valentine to today's world – a modern fairy tale written and directed by the mind-soaring talents of Spike Jonze. Deeply personal, vulnerable performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson tell the story of one man's passion for an operating system and her shared joy for him. The inevitability of human evolution is a concept scary to some and embraced by others, but this is art at its most powerful – to imagine "what if?" – and present it with a pure, beating heart. Read the AFI Catalog entry
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS embodies the spirit of a great American folk tale – but finds the power of a lyrical odyssey when told by the talents of Joel and Ethan Coen. With T Bone Burnett as their musical muse, the Coens brilliantly encapsulate the saturated soul of the early sixties, as they play this cyclical ballad sparked by a bar fight and a cat on an incredible journey. Oscar Isaac's finely tuned performance is inseparable from character as he wanders down the road to redemption; lost between undeniable talent and hopeless abjection, he sees his music as we see the film – it's never new and it never gets old; it's a folk song. Read the AFI Catalog entry
NEBRASKA paints a stark portrait of Midwestern America – a Rockwell drained of both color and nostalgia, but nonetheless infused with astounding depth and sentiment. Shadows cast with austere beauty by director Alexander Payne reveal innumerable shades of gray in the film's characters – evoking empathy, if not sympathy, for an embittered family on an unlikely pilgrimage. Bruce Dern's million-dollar performance as wayward patriarch Woody Grant creates a quietly stirring and darkly comic study on aging, and Will Forte shines as the son who helps Woody look to the future as the long, open road of memory disappears in the
rear-view mirror. Read the AFI Catalog entry
SAVING MR. BANKS soars to the highest heights, elevating the memory of one of American film's most celebrated stories. Magic leaps from the pages of Sue Smith and Kelly Marcel's script, as director John Lee Hancock brilliantly blends the story and the back story of MARY POPPINS' flight to the silver screen. Icons as icons, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks spar deftly and delightfully as P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, beautifully embodying the struggle inherent in creating a character so deeply personal and then sharing it with the world. Like Poppins herself, the film is practically perfect in every way. Read the AFI Catalog entry
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET howls at a moon hanging high above an atavistic America. This cinematic exploration of excess is a cautionary tale, administered like a dangerously addictive drug by a master of cinema. Here, Martin Scorsese and his talented team – with Terence Winter's script as guide – write another chapter in the history of New York crime families, with Leonardo DiCaprio's fearless performance hypnotizing those who believe that money matters above all else. Complicit in his transgressions is an all-star ensemble – with Jonah Hill emerging as his colorful partner in crime. Read the AFI Catalog entry
TELEVISION PROGRAMS OF THE YEAR
THE AMERICANS embeds audiences into a seductive study of the conflicting loyalties between undercover Soviet spies and their adopted American suburbs. Joe Weisberg's taut Cold War thriller doubles as a portrait of a troubled middle-class marriage – with stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys providing the glowing core to this new take on the nuclear family.
BREAKING BAD held the world captive in its addictive final episodes – breathlessly waiting for word on Walter White's cancerous descent from sympathetic family man to the darkest of villains. Vince Gilligan and his crack creative ensemble missed no opportunity for conflict and character development as they cooked up an epic conclusion worthy of the series' undeniable place in the pantheon.
GAME OF THRONES soars to new heights on dragons' wings. Rare are the moments when a series so thoroughly shakes its audience with a grim marriage of shock and bloodshed – but in an epic feat, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss execute an exquisite betrayal, turning a strategic alliance into a red wedding so infamous that the world was left gasping for breath.
THE GOOD WIFE raises the bar in its fifth year with an audacious act of reinvention. Creators Michelle and Robert King upset the status quo with the dissolution of the series' core legal team – making politics deeply personal in a delicious dance played out by a sparkling, sophisticated ensemble led by Julianna Margulies.
HOUSE OF CARDS has built a monument to revenge with the careful hand of Beau Willimon. With equal parts bravado and bluff, Kevin Spacey flourishes as a mastermind of Shakespearean ambition – one whose instantly iconic asides reveal the darkly comic and deeply cynical underbelly of the American political system.
MAD MEN cuts a fashionable figure in its impeccably tailored sixth year – which finds Jon Hamm's Don Draper and a stellar ensemble careening through the dark days of 1968. Creator Matt Weiner's stylish stories serve as both a poetic recreation of America's past and a sobering reminder that nothing endures but change.
MASTERS OF SEX remembers a time before the world was awash in images of sex – and in doing so, finds the ground to become the rare work actually about sex. Michelle Ashford's lushly produced period piece embraces both the kinky and clinical aspects of Masters and Johnson's pioneering research, allowing the series to lay bare its subject with candor and humor – raising consciousness as it raises eyebrows.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK escapes conventional TV models with a liberating look at life inside a women's prison. Jenji Kohan's fearlessly funny and intensely dramatic stories navigate a new world, where fiercely original characters remind audiences that gender and race should be explored and celebrated – on the inside and the outside.
SCANDAL is a grand opera of passionate political delights – amplified for modern day by maestro Shonda Rhimes. Hot topics are handled with a matter-of-fact approach to diversity that makes the series incisively relevant. Operating on all cylinders is Kerry Washington, who dazzles each week as she leads her gladiators into the world to fix the lives of all but their own.
VEEP is second to none in today's television comedies. Armando Iannucci's satiric eye peers into the office of the Vice President – embodied by the hilariously deadpan Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her oafish entourage of snakes and sycophants. This incisive indictment of government dysfunction finds humor in bureaucratic bad behavior – a political reality that's so painfully funny because it might just be true.