Some of the year's best movies took us to places we probably never thought we'd go, and our guides were often figures from real life. In each case, they offered new ways of bringing us into stories that, initially, seemed all too familiar.
Ron Woodroof, "Dallas Buyers Club." In this movie, set against the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s, our hero is -- surprisingly -- not a gay man but a virulent homophobe. His diagnosis with the "gay disease" is a bitter irony, but Woodroof (a ferociously good Matthew McConaughey, 40 pounds lighter and twice the actor he's ever been) eventually becomes a champion of the local AIDS community, even going so far as to befriend a transgender woman, Rayon (an excellent Jared Leto). Woodroof's journey toward tolerance is much like America's: slow and reluctant. That's what makes it so convincing.
Richard Phillips and Muse, "Captain Phillips." Paul Greengrass' movie about a cargo vessel attacked by Somali pirates in 2009 upended a few stereotypes as well. Richard Phillips isn't a square-jawed action figure but a working-class merchant marine played by a vulnerable and deeply empathetic Tom Hanks. Likewise, his captors aren't fanatical anti-Americans -- they're desperately poor fishermen (led by Barkhad Abdi as Muse) ruled by corrupt warlords. There is no ideology here, no us-versus-them. This is a battle between two lower classes, the have-somes and the have-nothings, and its backdrop is a troublingly skewed global economy. Both Phillips and Muse seem at the mercy of larger forces. We root for Phillips, and rightly so. But by the movie's end, it's clear that there's something wrong with the larger picture.
Solomon Northup, "12 Years a Slave." We see the insanity of the pre-Civil War South through the eyes of Northup, who was not born into slavery but kidnapped into it. That's an important distinction. This movie doesn't just ask us to empathize with its enslaved hero; it allows us to truly identify with him. Northup (a solemn, stately Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-respected, middle-class family man living peaceably in a mixed-race city. In other words, he's much like any of us. The white Southerners in "12 Years a Slave" can't let Northup forget that he's black -- it's the reason he loses his freedom and his dignity. But viewers of any color will find themselves walking in his shoes.
-- Rafer Guzman
Miley Cyrus She used the oldest tricks in the pop star playbook to grab attention for her new album "Bangerz" -- shock and awe -- and America fell for it all hook, line and twerker. Sex sells records! Who knew?
The overblown reaction to her sexed-up performance at the MTV Video Music Awards surprised even Cyrus, who thought the whole thing was hilarious. "How many times have we seen this play out in pop music?" she told MTV later. "It's a strategic hot mess ... If I wanted to do an actual sex show, I wouldn't have been dressed as a damn bear."
Throughout the year, she continued the tweaking-and-twerking to maintain her extraordinarily high profile -- from her strategically naked video for "Wrecking Ball" to her pronouncements on the sex life (or lack thereof) of the over-40 set, to twerking with Santa. If only she put this much attention to detail to her music ...
Kanye West Praise Yeezus. Though nearly everything with West (and fiancee Kim Kardashian) makes news now, he really does remain focused on creating things -- music, fashion, performance art, controversy.
West's take-no-prisoners approach to life works really well in music. His boasting, his complaining, his personal revelations -- it's all captivating when done in his rhymes, especially when accompanied by the first-rate sound collages of his album "Yeezus" and in his first-rate live show. It even worked well in the performance art that accompanied the album's release, where he projected his music videos on buildings around the world so that people could experience his new music together.
All of his pronouncements are not quite as effective, or entertaining, when they come in real life. But maybe he'll get to a point where that won't need to happen any more.
Justin Timberlake For his first album in seven years, "The 20/20 Experience," Timberlake didn't leave anything to chance. Everything about it was meticulously planned, from the collaborations with Jay Z that resulted in a pair of hits and a sold-out stadium tour to strategic partnerships with Target and Bud Light that helped maximize his exposure, along with a much-ballyhooed, though short, reunion with 'N Sync. He augmented his plans with movie roles in "Runner, Runner" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."
It was, with apologies to Jay Z, the blueprint for how future superstars are going to roll out their projects. And he was rewarded with the biggest opening week of the year with 968,000 copies sold and nearly 3 million in sales of both parts of "Experience."
Walter White, "Breaking Bad." Even though it has become a TV classic for the ages, Bryan Cranston's portrayal of a Walter Mitty-turned-Public Enemy No. 1 didn't really turn into a cultural phenomenon until the final season. But what new fans discovered was what veteran Walter White watchers had known all along: Their man wasn't so easy to pin down. Good, bad? ... hero, anti-hero? He seemed to pivot around some core value, but locating that core was the hard part, even if Walter liked to say that he did it "all" for his family. In fact, Cranston's was a portrait of ambiguity over 62 episodes. In his last scene with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), she says, "If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family ..." And then he breaks her off: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive." Finally, some truth out of Walter but -- infuriatingly -- not enough. By the end, he still remained slightly out of reach: One of TV's greatest characters, forever after a mystery.
Bob Benson, "Mad Men." Speaking of mysteries, "Who is Bob Benson?" became one of the favorite guessing games of "Mad Men's" sixth season. The sexual orientation of James Wolk's character was but one matter, but he otherwise seemed to be anyone you wanted him to be -- a spy, a journalist, perhaps an assassin. Who knew? He was good at small talk in the corridors of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, good at blending in, good at offering a helping hand -- or coffee. Wolk's terrific chameleon performance captured one of "Mad Men's" enduring themes: Some people, hollow at the core, can make themselves into anyone they choose. That after all has been the story of Don Draper.
Sarah Manning, "Orphan Black." Sarah Manning is waiting for a train, when a dead ringer for Sarah, also on the train platform, commits suicide right in front of her. Shocked at first, then the thought occurs to Sarah -- why not steal the dead woman's pocketbook? A grifter and small-time con, she grabs the bag and off she goes into a brand-new life, for Sarah decides to go one step further and steal the dead woman's identity, too. There are other Sarah clones out there -- 10 or so at last count -- and Tatiana Maslany, in a tour de force, plays them all. But the series is essentially refracted through Manning -- a multifacet of a human being herself, who is struggling to learn her own identity while (literally) on the run through life. This BBC America series is in part about the meaning of "self," and the search for identity but Maslany's tremendous performance brings these lofty themes fully, and vividly, to life.
Olivia, "Twelfth Night." She appears to be floating along the floor, this Olivia from Shakespeare's Globe. She takes quick, tiny steps, unseen beneath her long, intricately structured gown with a corset that would seem to contradict both her vulnerability and her irresistible self-possession. And yes, she is played by a he -- Mark Rylance -- the preposterously gifted British force of nature behind Broadway's all-male double bill from Shakespeare's Globe.
Uncle Benjamin, "The Apple Family Plays." Imagine playing a brilliant, aging, former leading actor whose memories grow dimmer as his hyper-articulate adoring nieces and nephew chatter around him. Then imagine that Uncle Benjamin evolves and devolves and explores all phases in between in all four evenings of Richard Nelson's intimate epic, "The Apple Family Plays: Scenes From Life in the Country" at the Public Theater. The entire six-member cast is so tuned into nuance that it is hard to remember this is not a family. But Jon DeVries, as the fading star, is amazing, calibrating an infinite range of reactions, indignities and confusions with little more than a baffled, searching look in his eyes, a helpful smile and spurts of impotent outrage.
Alex More, "Buyer & Cellar." Michael Urie stars as Alex, an unemployed actor hired to curate the imaginary mall in Barbra Streisand's basement in Jonathan Tolin's one-person, multi-character play. Urie morphs between the actor and the diva with a beguiling performance that doesn't imitate. He re-creates.
-- Linda Winer
Jonny, from "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," by Teddy Wayne. Told from the perspective of an 11-year-old triple-platinum pop star modeled on Justin Bieber (right down to the haircut), "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine" is a canny satire of the entertainment industry as well as a convincing, haunting look inside child stardom. Alone in his endless series of hotel rooms playing a video game and eating room service, Jonny Valentine is a branding, marketing and singing prodigy who has millions of fans and not one true friend. His heartbreaking misapprehension of his relationships with his tutor, his bodyguard, his warm-up act, and even his drugged tiger of a mom are evoked in a voice so real you want to climb inside the book and save him.
Boris, from "The Goldfinch," by Donna Tartt. The greatest fun in "The Goldfinch" is provided by an unsupervised 15-year-old badass named Boris Pavlikovsky, Russian by way of Australia, who befriends the narrator in the surreal, sunstruck Las Vegas suburbs where they have landed in mid-adolescence. Boris will take "Potter," as he calls the bespectacled narrator, under his wing, and initiate him into alcohol, drugs and the truest of friendships, founded on endless afternoons of pizza, petty crime and philosophical speculation. Boris understands Theo as no one else does, and saves him when no one else can, chattering nonstop in a hilarious patois of Russian-flavored English.
John Brown, from "The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride. James McBride's portrait of the fanatical abolitionist John Brown is an inspired literary rehabilitation, taking a man who was very likely a dour, chilling vigilante and turning him into a crazy roisterer for Jesus, a charismatic maniac whose might have stepped out of a Mark Twain novel or a Coen brothers film. The key to the portrayal is the eyes through which we see Brown, those of an 11-year-old slave freed in one of Brown's raids through no fault or wish of his own. "Onion," as Brown nicknames him, tells us things about Brown that history just cannot. "The Old Man was always broke and delayed in everything ... I sometimes reckon that Old John Brown wouldn't have started no trouble at all if he didn't have to feed so many people all the time." See -- he's just like us!
-- Marion Winik