Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Bests of 2013
2013 was the year that this blog gathered dust. Statistically speaking, I posted nine times, but even that sad number is misleading: three of those posts pertained to 2012 releases, one was my annual Eyes of March celebration and one was my reflection on Roger Ebert upon his death in April. Alas, the only 2013 theatrical release that I reviewed in this space was To the Wonder — the movie the showed me what it feels like to not fall under the spell of a Terrence Malick movie.
This wasn't by design. That is, mentally speaking, I didn't disassemble this blog, put it back in its box and stick it up in the attic for storage, although doing so would have eliminated some clutter in my mental living space. No, rather the blog was always there, never totally out of view, like a piece of exercise equipment once used regularly but now only functional for the purposes of air-drying delicates — a fitting analogy, actually, because on many occasions last year when I thought I was ready to start blogging again I was amazed at how quickly and completely my writing muscles had atrophied.
I won't bore you with the reasons for this hiatus except to say that there were several factors, personally and professionally, that demanded my attention and energies elsewhere. I guess that's my way of saying that it didn't feel like much of a choice. And I mention that now because I can't say I know if 2014 will be a return to earlier years of production or more of the recent trend. I certainly have a desire — and, to a degree, even a plan — for writing more moving forward, because I miss it. Oh, how I miss it. But until things actually change, it's just a fantasy.
All of the above is prologue to this: Not writing about movies has had a considerable effect on my relationship with them. At the most basic level, there's something to be said for the heightened attention of watching a movie with the intent to write about it — and the more I went without writing this past year, the more my mind was prone to wandering. But on a deeper level, this past year I gained a special appreciation for just how much the act of writing about a movie is tied to my basic understanding of it. I mean, it wasn't a total surprise: one of the reasons I've cited over the years for why I write about movies in the first place is because it helps me engage with them. But what I didn't expect was how fleeting a movie's power could be if I didn't make some attempt to write about it, even if "writing about it" meant just scribbling thoughts in my notebook I knew I wasn't going to have the time to reshape in a fully formed review.
The purpose of this post is to take a moment to look back on the new releases I saw this past year, and as I do that I have no doubt — none — that my picks for best movies of the year would be different if I'd written about all of these movies, turning them over several more times in my brain, holding on to their strengths and weaknesses a little longer and arguing about them in the comments section of this and other blogs. (Aside: More than the reviewing, that's what I miss: the written dialogue about movies with other movie fans. It's one of the reasons my conversations series with Ed Howard was so much fun, back before Ed became a father and I fell into this black hole of nonwriting. Comments sections are apparently passe now, which is a shame because Twitter just doesn't cut it, and the 140-character limitation is only part of the problem. There's something about the nature of that social media forum that seems to put as much focus on the who as the what, as if one can't reject or support the content of a tweet without simultaneously rejecting or praising the tweeter, which thus seems to create an environment in which respectful, lively debate amongst established friends is a rareity in that space. But I digress.)
That said, there's an upside to the slightness of my mental notebook: the movies that stand out in my memory stand out for good reason, with the noise of controversy, hype, contrarianism and so on mostly nonexistent. Thus, determining the films that had the greatest effect on me was remarkably simple. (For the first time in more than a decade, I didn't see a single new release more than once, so each movie got a fair shot.) So while I can't look back and remember the nuances of specific trees in the forest as I could in previous years, I gaze upon 2013 as if it's Monument Valley, with prodigious spectacles standing out in plain sight.
So let's do this ...
Of the 46 new releases I saw this past year, several were dull, bloated or uninspired. But thankfully only three movies were aggressively painful for almost their entirety: The Fifth Estate, The World's End and, yep, To the Wonder. The first of those three is brutally written and features a lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange that struck me as what it might look like to see Tilda Swinton portraying Manhunter's Francis Dollarhyde doing an impression of Cumberbatch's Khan. The second two films are monotonous, one-trick ponies about soulless robots who look a lot like real people but just aren't.
Just beyond that small collection of memorably unpleasant 2013 movies are several that might have joined them if not for a few standout moments that almost made up for the entire experience. Movies like The Great Gatsby, which is graced by a beautifully orchestrated entrance by Leonardo DiCaprio as the movie's titular bigshot that marvelously weaves the actor's star power with that of the character. Movies like Man of Steel, which is utterly undone by its exhausting action sequences but includes some charming sequences with Kevin Costner, as Superman's earthly father, imparting the kind of tender love and care that you figure Ray Kinsella would have provided if the man of steel had crash landed in his cornfield. Movies like The Lone Ranger, which quite literally had almost put me to sleep when, roughly two hours into the movie, we get our first dose of the William Tell Overture, and I shot forward to the edge of my seat, reminded yet again of the power of a great score.
I won't waste time on all those middle-of-the-road movies, ones like After Earth, where in true M. Night Shyamalan fashion everything has a name and needs to be described, or Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which takes the quantity over quality approach to comedy and every now and then hits home (a joke about the capital of my home state of Oregon killed me way more than it should have), or The Internship, which made me laugh but left me unable to remember exactly why within 5 minutes of leaving the theater, and so on. Those are the movies capsule reviews are made for — and since I'll be doing nothing more than capsules for my favorite movies of the year, we should move along.
I also won't go into detail on the assortment of movies that I definitely admired and really wanted to love, and in some cases was profoundly affected by here and there, but that ultimately didn't linger with me. Movies like Frances Ha, Fruitvale Station, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mud, Nebraska and The Spectacular Now.
Nope, let's just dive into my top 10 movies of the year (listed in alphabetical order), which I identified as those that left the strongest impression and that, more than the rest, call me back to re-experience them.
12 Years a Slave: Knowing the subject matter, and director Steve McQueen's penchant for viscerally depicting gruesomeness and suffering, perhaps I went into 12 Years a Slave with too many layers of defense in place, because the one thing that's nagged me since walking out of the theater several months ago it is how startlingly unemotional the entire experience was. And yet the film has haunted me, not because of the despair of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, excellent as always), or the savagery of the Epps who enslave him (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, ditto), or any of the moments of grand brutality. No, what really shook me to the core are all those moments of passive cruelty. Much discussed, and rightfully so, is the memorable shot of Solomon hanging from a noose, digging his toes into the mud beneath him to try to avoid choking, as fellow slaves on the plantation go about their business in the background, both because they have no other recourse and also because a slave hanging from a tree isn't an unusual event on the plantation. But equally powerful is the way McQueen repeatedly shows the proximity of the ramshackle slave cabins to the Epps' mansion home, just off the porch, much the way a backyard doghouse might be in view of your living room window. Or the way the screenplay, by John Ridley, allows the slave whose children have been taken from her to remain in constant mourning — in defiance of her enslaver's casual insistence that they will soon be forgotten — because how could someone ever recover from that? It's these comparatively subtle elements that somehow cut deepest, finding skin to crack that hasn't already been scarred over by all our history lessons. As a story of one man, 12 Years a Slave is forgettable. But along the way it challenges us in surprisingly subtle ways to reexamine the vast amounts of suffering we watch happening around us almost every day, just off the edge of our porches, and dismiss in part because it's happening in plain sight.
All Is Lost: Robert Redford's restraint in this picture is remarkable. Not because Redford is an actor known for chewing the scenery. Not because his character hardly speaks. But because Redford is so damn expressive despite almost never even employing many, you know, expressions. You couldn't watch 5 minutes of Homeland this past season without Claire Danes or Damian Lewis getting into a panting contest, but over a 106-minute film in which Redford is almost always on screen he hardly does as much as sigh, and he certainly never mutters to himself. Think about that for a second. No, really. Stop and consider that. Because this is essentially a silent film, but the movie speaks constantly. Redford's character does, too, it just happens through action. I'm not crazy about the ending of writer/director J.C. Chandor's film, but he, Redford and cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini have created perhaps the most cinematic picture of the year.
American Hustle: My favorite David O. Russell film by a mile. The acting is superb — playful and yet authentic. (Aside: The last two movies I saw this year were Her and American Hustle, and to that I say: Amy fucking Adams, ladies and gentlemen! I can't think of another actress who could play such polar opposites so effortlessly. Even in American Hustle, where she plays a character playing a character, and often struggling to figure out which character is the real one, it never looks like "acting." Phenomenal.) But what really impresses me about American Hustle is its structure. I'm not sure if I should credit the screenwriters (Russell and Eric Singer) or the editors (Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers), so how about all of them, because here's the thing: in the best way, American Hustle feels like one big tangled ball of yarn. One shot and scene leads to the next, and the next, and the next, and somehow none of the scenes feel like standalone pieces that could possibly be cut out. It's all one big lovely cinematic experience, zigzagging here and there and looping back. Fun!
Before Midnight: I can't imagine we'll ever see another trilogy like this one. Each of the films works distinctly on its own. All of the films are elegantly linked. Which is the best? They all are; each film captures Jesse and Celine perfectly in that space and time. It's clear that director Richard Linklater and his stars and fellow architects Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy care deeply about these characters — but somehow they avoid being too precious with them. Each of these films has reveled the everyday ugliness of these characters (their insecurities, their annoying habits, their self-delusions) with a frankness that is tough to match, yet without ever losing compassion for these characters. It's because their faults are so apparent that their love is so moving and heroic.
Blue is the Warmest Colour: Here's all I know about the controversy surrounding this film: Apparently the two main actresses felt that the director treated them with cruelty. I'm sorry to hear that, because the end product is wonderful — one of the most convincing depictions of young love I've ever seen. I believe there also was a degree of controversy (or at least hype) about the length and graphic nature of the sex scenes in this film, and that's not surprising. But in a film almost exactly 3 hours long, those scenes are perfectly balanced with a handful of others that stretch beyond what was minimally required to advance the plot but that ultimately contribute to the film's extraordinary power: the scene in which Adele braves a gay bar and meets Emma; the scene in which Adele is hazed by her friends; the scene in which Adele intentionally loses herself in her party hosting duties because she doesn't feel comfortable amongst Emma's art world friends; the scene in which Adele and Emma scream at one another in their apartment; the scene in which Adele and Emma meet at a restaurant in the aftermath. This movie chronicles this relationship in the same way many of us would chronicle our own experience with love: it obsesses over those defining moments that would linger in memory for years to come. Because of that patience and thoroughness, when the movie ends it indeed feels as if time has passed; Adele has aged before our eyes. The camera loves actress Adele Exarchopoulos (Adele), and she and Lea Seydoux (Emma) provide performances that at least artistically justify their emotional and physical nakedness, if not necessarily their treatment on set.
The Broken Circle Breakdown: I'm not sure any fiction film was quite as moving for me as this one, and yet I'm going to write little about it because of the high likelihood that you haven't seen it. Like some strange combination of Once and Blue Valentine, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a musical and a gut-wrenching tragedy that is as adept at portraying love and passion as it is at conjuring anger and despair. It's certainly not a flawless picture. There are some George W. Bush references, for example, that can be architecturally defended but that in actual practice seem dated, forced and ultimately distracting. But the movie is devastating anyway (in the way I wish 12 Years a Slave would have been). Lead actors Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens deliver vulnerable performances and mine nuance from the bluegrass music that dominates the film. One example can be found near the end, in a performance of "If I Needed You," which is full of longing, loneliness, pain, disillusionment and desperation far beyond the overt lyrics of the song. There's so much going on between the main characters in that scene that I was stunned when I downloaded the soundtrack afterward and realized "If I Needed You" is but 3 minutes long. I will return to this movie only when I'm ready.
Captain Phillips: "Tom Hanks. Everybody loves Tom Hanks." If you didn't watch the footage of Steve Martin receiving his honorary Oscar, dedicate 20 minutes to it and watch Martin Short's remarks, followed by Tom Hanks' introduction and Martin's acceptance speech, from which I borrowed the quote. It's everything the Academy Awards should be, and while it's frustrating that these lifetime achievement awards have been removed from the program proper and sent to their own ghetto, the upside is that they get more tribute time. But I digress. Yes, everybody loves Tom Hanks, and yet we take his talent for granted. So far as I can tell, he's a guy without established moves. He doesn't do the wide-eyed, loud thing that Pacino does. He doesn't do the squinty thing De Niro does. He doesn't point to his forehead like DiCaprio does. He doesn't shield his face in a moment of embarrassment like Hopkins does. And so on. No, what makes Tom Hanks so superb is that he has the confidence to give each performance exactly what it needs and nothing more. Not all his performances need to be dialed up to 11, and he doesn't try. And in Captain Phillips, a movie that's a nice tight procedural thriller and then starts to lose steam, Hanks salvages everything with what might be the finest 10 or so minutes of his career. Minutes in which he goes there. Goes to 11. Does it in a way that seems utterly new — like nothing he's done before, like nothing that any other actor has done before. It's moving and it's staggering, and it's just pure excellence. And credit to director Paul Greengrass because one of the reasons that Hanks' final scene has such tremendous power is because of who he acts with: a woman playing a military doctor who for all I know is a real-life military doctor portraying herself. The scene works because the doctor is just doing her job — a job she's done before. She doesn't know that she's in a movie, that this is a big moment, that if Steven Spielberg were directing the thing that John Williams would be conducting the orchestra just to her left. Nope, she just does her job, and Hanks goes there, because the moment demands it.
Gravity: This is the weak link in this list. I want to be clear about that. I was tempted to list perhaps Blackfish or The Act of Killing, which got under my skin more than any other movie that didn't make the top-10 here, and certainly more than Gravity did. But even though I wasn't utterly wowed by Gravity, even though it often made me think of two relatively recent science fiction movies I like a heck of a lot more (Steven Soderbergh's Solaris and Danny Boyle's Sunshine), even though I found George Clooney's character to be completely obnoxious, even though I thought director Alfonso Cauron undercut the femaleness of his main character by making Sandra Bullock look like a sexless cyborg and, finally, even though the backstory about Bullock's character is absurdly and clumsily forced into the plot, well, I've found myself wanting to revisit it. So it makes the list. We'll see if that second viewing increases my admiration or the reverse. But despite its faults, yeah, I'm gonna go there: Gravity is pulling me back. (Oh, almost forgot: It's 91 minutes long. Points for efficiency.)
Stories We Tell: Based on single viewings, this is my favorite movie of the year — heartfelt, thoughtful and moving. In theory, this is Sarah Polley's investigation into her own life, into her mother's past. But the effect of her film is far greater. Cable TV has been dominated in recent years by two outstanding shows, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, that have lead characters with dual identities — and much of the fascination of those shows is trying to figure out which of those identities is most authentic. But Stories We Tell deftly demonstrates that we all contain multitudes, and that these multitudes aren't either/or, they're all/always — brought out by context and circumstance. When we face life's challenges we often feel compelled to try to understand what happened, to trace a mystery to its source the way Polley tries to trace her paternal lineage. Stories We Tell shows the pointlessness of that pursuit. Life is too messy, too complex to be tied up with a bow.
The Wolf of Wall Street: It's straight outta Goodfellas and Casino, and thank goodness for that. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best pictures of Martin Scorsese's career. (Related: If Yo-Yo Ma stops by your house, hand the guy a cello.) This movie is alive — it oozes confidence and is overflowing with the thrill of great cinema. That some people are interpreting that thrill of great cinema as some kind of endorsement of the characters here, well, it baffles me. The characters in this movie are monsters, and there's not a hint of nuance in that. Do they have a good time? Sure, just like any addict consumed by the high of their drug of choice. Do we have a good time? If you can get high from great cinema, absolutely, which isn't an endorsement of the characters either. The only thing holding this back from being the greatest movie of the year is that it makes the mistake of so many action movies these days and believes that more is more. That said, if you're going to spend more time than necessary watching grand destruction, better to do that with this potent, relatable, weighty picture than amidst the crumbling skyscrapers of so many superhero movies.