Before I kick off my annual reflection on the past year in cinema, I’d like to take a brief moment to say how annoyed I am having to wait until halfway into January before I can even come close to completing my conclusive Top Ten list. Many of the year’s best offerings came either at the tail end of December or the very beginning of January, technically still counting as part of the prior year (in the Academy’s eyes, anyway) due to limited theater screenings. It’s an irritating practice which continues to be a thorn in my side; why not just keep the 2013 movies in 2013, instead of delaying their release to a month when Top Ten of the Year lists have become largely irrelevant?
I digress. On with my best ofs, beginning with a few honorable mentions:
42 – In spite of some of the more recent racially-minded biopics of Awards season, I toss my hat behind a more inspiring, enlightening film about African-American social liberation. Great performances and a solid script make 42 a poignant film about overcoming social hardship.
Don Jon – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a touching look at modern sexual relationships, and the way both men and women carry distorted perceptions of them. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t feel concocted in a studio, instead living and breathing in the real world.
The Place Beyond the Pines – Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a mesmerizing odyssey of family pain. We watch two generations embody their father’s flaws, doomed to repeat their lineage. Shifting in characters and perspectives seamlessly, this April release proves a surprisingly meaningful experience.
Lone Survivor – While it doesn’t do anything new with the genre, Peter Berg’s pet project is a film about the qualities that separate humanity from the inhuman, the peacemakers from the warmongers. It is a film about why, in spite of overwhelming pain, we choose to sacrifice our lives for the good of others. And it’s powerful stuff.
The Counselor – Director Edgar Wright believes Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama to be a future cult film, and I completely agree. The unfairly reviled Counselor is one of the year’s most unforgivingly truthful films, boasting a great, if labored script by Cormac McCarthy. I suspect most critics had read the leaked script beforehand, and what they saw didn’t measure up to what they’d imagined. Or maybe they’re just dense. Probably a bit of both.
And finally, my picks for the best films of 2013:
10. Out of the Furnace
One of the many things I admire about Scott Cooper’s modern western is its defiance of Hollywood and revenge-thriller conventions – the hero doesn’t get the girl in the end, its shootout sequences only take place during the third act, and even after its conflict is resolved, so many questions remain about its protagonist’s choices. Most importantly, Cooper understands that the best revenge stories aren’t about the chase or the final kill. They’re about people, and about pain.
Out of the Furnace is dirty, down-to-earth, and deliberate, staging a family where brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are torn apart in their differing ideals. One makes an honest living in the steel mill, the other is a fighter, unwilling to work with steel the rest of his life and ignoring his brother’s protests. After a fight for a dangerous drug-addicted employer (Woody Harrelson), Affleck’s character seems to disappear, leaving Bale’s character to determine how to deal with his pain.
With some great performances and thoughtful direction, Out of the Furnace is a simple, yet subtle film that sucks you in to its world of hurt. I’d love to see Cooper helm an actual period-piece western next.
Like last year’s Joaquin Phoenix-starring The Master, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Her, a story of a geeky, lonely man named Theodore (Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent program (voice of Scarlett Johansson). It portrays, rather objectively, a disturbingly impersonal world not far removed from our own. Here, personalized letters are dictated by staff writers in the buyer’s own handwriting. Everyone in sight is looking down at his/her phone and holding a Bluetooth device in one ear. Technology has sensationalized, altered, and masked us from reality. It has become pornographic, turning us into selfish people craving on-demand updates and searching for instant gratification. Real human relationships are fewer and more far between.
Observe the brief scene with Olivia Wilde, who plays a beautiful woman on a date with Theodore. She essentially throws herself at him, desperate for a connection, but Theodore disconnects when he learns she wants a serious relationship. She recoils, saying, “You’re a really creepy dude.” And he is; despite his people-reading skills, a lost love has kept him from forming connections with others. It’s a commentary on the world we may soon occupy; before the date, Theodore pulls up her Facebook pictures during a video game session, and a kid playing the game with him online sees the pics, telling Theodore, “She’s fat.”
One could go crazy analyzing all there is to experience in Her. It is a profound study of love and human relationships, a timely look at today’s world’s generally declining ability to cultivate connections with one another. What forms does love take? How do we define it? Can technology define and convey human emotion? The film poses infinite questions about this technology’s relationship with humanity, many of which parallel that of real-life committed relationships – how two people can grow apart, meet other people, etc.
Her is also one of the most challenging films of the year, and yanked me out of my comfort zone with its innately polarizing portrayal of humanized machinery. I’m cold to its romantic conventions (which adhere a bit too closely to formula between the second and third acts), but that’s not really the point. Technology can be a great tool in forming and maintaining new relationships. It can appear wonderful and understanding on the surface at first. But technology doesn’t feel, and when we let it take control of us, well…it can only end in loneliness. There are powerful and gripping qualities about Her, and I hope to god society hears its message.
In my review of Rush, I described a film about the contrasting ideologies and bitter opposition of two men driven in their professions. It is a film not so much about the racing of cars as it is the people behind the wheel. It’s an important stipulation, one which writer Peter Morgan indeed channeled while writing the film:
I thought no one was ever going to come to me and say ‘Please will you write a story about an Austrian and an Englishman and examine the cultural differences between the two?’ That would never occur to anybody. So I thought ‘I’ll write it because it interests me.’
The approach is all the better for Rush, an accessible yet sophisticated blockbuster in the typical Ron Howard biopic vein – it details both James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda’s (Daniel Bruhl) backstories, their characters, their respective love lives, and their tragic hubris. In the end, Rush has no winners or losers, just a lifelong relationship between two men with very different outlooks on racing, and in turn, life.
7. Saving Mr. Banks
It took John Lee Hancock’s latest period piece to remind me just how much Mary Poppins meant to me as a kid. Is it strange that I still catch myself whistling “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and countless others at my age? No matter; even more passionate than I about the film was the original novel’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). And in her and Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) conflicting visions for the film, Saving Mr. Banks presents the timeless and important message that even a reconciliation of truth and imagination can be just as, if not more poignant than the truth itself.
We watch Travers’ heartbreaking childhood as her father (Colin Farrell) fosters her creative energies, yet begins drinking himself into oblivion. We feel for her and her fight for her work as she clings tightly to the most minute details of the novel’s story, really her life story, on her quest to redeem her father. We feel for Disney, who just wants to make a fun, engaging picture for children, something to mask them from the reality of the world they live in. Both Thompson and Hanks nail the speech and mannerisms of their respective characters, and the script is an excellent one.
Saving Mr. Banks is one of the most heartfelt films of the year, a delightful walk down memory lane which hits all the right emotional notes. It’s charming, it’s poignant, and it’s sugarcoated, but…just a spoonful.
6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
What shines most in the second act of Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit saga is the incredible stuntwork and action sequences. The returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) once more flies around in gravity-defying fashion, no doubt to the seething of die-hard fans still cringing from the archer’s shield-surfing abilities in The Two Towers. But above all, these stunts provide something we’ve never seen on film before – a fantastic mid-film barrel-riding sequence, which sees Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Co. travelling down an out-of-control river trapped in barrels, all while being pursued by a vicious pack of Orcs. Jackson’s camera is so integrated in the action, you’d swear you’d been whisked away onto a wet theme park ride.
As I’ve endlessly gushed before, The Hobbit films are some of the most well-designed, enchanting fantasies put to film. Not only are the effects outstanding, but the storytelling, combining the more fantastical leanings of the novel with Jackson’s more blockbuster approach, is equally brilliant. How do they get around the many talking animals of the novel, not present in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films? Make it so their speech can only be heard when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) puts on the ring. Smart. Then there’s the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, providing not just a deliciously evil voice for the dragon, but a deliciously evil mo-cap performance.
People will continue to bitch and moan about the Hobbit films not covering nearly as much story ground per film as the Lord of the Rings films did. And no, unfortunately, the films don’t seem to want to have much to do with their title protagonist. But The Desolation of Smaug is another Middle-Earth outing from a master of the escapist adventure yarn that yet again manages to deliver a brilliantly-crafted, outstandingly-designed piece of storytelling.
In discussing his latest film’s back-and-white color palette, writer/director Alexander Payne says he chose the look because, “[he] just knew it from when [he] read the script.” Yet only a true master of the art could make such a decision and have it work so beautifully. It’s a testament to Payne’s ability to downplay the thoughtfulness he exudes so fluently in his work.
Nebraska is a film about fathers and sons, families and legacies. We laugh watching the older members of the family having short, trivial conversations with siblings they haven’t seen in ages. It always seems like family reaches a point where they simply run out of things to talk about. The exception is of course June Squibb’s character, who speaks candidly about her sex life as if she were 50 years younger. She has a great scene defending her husband Woody (Bruce Dern) against the vultures that are now their family members, asking for a share in Woody’s purported million-dollar winnings.
It’s another of Payne’s dramedies that captures both the pain and the humor of life, examining the true nature of people and creating characters that feel so genuine they could easily be real. This time, Payne provides quite a few flattering shots of the Midwestern state, painting a pitch-perfect image of the setting in gorgeous black-and-white. I’d speculate that color scheme is intended to reflect Woody’s single-mindedness in collecting his million. Maybe Payne just has an innate sense for these things.
4. Man of Steel
Like Batman Begins before it, Man of Steel isn’t merely an excellent comic book movie, but an excellent film period. The traditional Superman mythology is rebirthed into something fresher and closer to reality, yet remains as hopeful and heartfelt as any of the character’s greatest adventures. And like Begins, it answers the simple question of why its hero exists as one of the greatest of his kind, not just for modern times, but for all time.
Henry Cavill was born to play this more human Superman, making for one of the best onscreen incarnations of the character yet. The rest of the cast, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, and more, all fill their roles memorably and ably. Clark’s relationship to Lois Lane is the story’s heart, the latter no longer acting as his damsel in distress, but his connection to humanity, his savior just as much as he is hers. The film’s final scene proves the most interesting moments of their new dynamic are yet to come.
It’s a shame that so many, including Superman: Birthright author Mark Waid, were so quick to dismiss Man of Steel based on its controversial resolution, which I felt to be the perfect way to illustrate exactly how Superman came to his immovable, unwavering ideals. Since my original review, I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is no Superman: the Movie, but truly, there is something here for every Superman fan to love, bits taken from every era of comicdom, yet a whole that rings an entirely new tune. For all his faults, director Zack Snyder musters a heroic iconography, a visual palette to this point unseen in the subgenre. And kudos to Goyer’s smart script, taking what could’ve been another predictable, mundane origin story to some unexpected places. Luckily, it doesn’t neuter the character in the slightest, only his surroundings, boiling the Superman mythology down to its core of a man lost and alone in the world, looking to find his niche and help people wherever he goes. It’s real, it has pathos, and proves that, above all, Superman is like us. A man.
3. American Hustle
Hustle’s original script was titled “American Bullshit,” and for good reason – the film is a defining look at the fronts we put up, the masks we wear, and the lies we tell. There’s a reason why every character in the movie has bad hair – watch Christian Bale in the opening sequence, going through a lengthy morning comb-over ritual to mask his insecurities.
American Hustle sees bullshitters bullshitting each other in its tale of con men in search of riches. But no character is able to escape his/her flaws – Bale’s character’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) has a set of lipstick and makeup which she uses to “keep him coming back.” The accessories are flower-scented, but “with a hint of garbage.” It’s that hint of garbage that Bale’s character can’t stand, and which is always there to send well-laid plans up in flames…literally.
I had a blast watching and dissecting director David O. Russell’s latest. His style doesn’t always work in the film’s favor, but when it does, it does beautifully. Set to a fantastic retro ‘70s soundtrack and boasting some excellent performances (including a surprise Russell alum who’s perfectly cast), Hustle is my early prediction for a well-deserved Best Picture win.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
I saw Martin Scorsese’s bombastic new film in a packed Saturday matinee showing, where I was seated next to two elderly ladies, both of whom clearly hadn’t the slightest idea of the kind of film they’d walked into. Every time a scene involving over-the-top sex or drug use played, the women were taken aback, thoroughly offended. “This is disgusting,” one of them groaned in protest, amongst shared complaints about the film’s length and how much longer their bowels could stand to be held.
Ordinarily I’d be pissed. I wasn’t. I smiled at every comment, because their whining told me Mr. Scorsese had done his job and done it beautifully.
The Wolf of Wall Street packs three hours of hilariously indulgent black comedy portraying the unbelievable life of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Belfort occasionally addresses the audience directly, taking us through his exorbitant lifestyle fueled by greed and excess. Like a sort of Bizarro-Jesus, he inspires those around him to act the same way, saying, “Give me them young, hungry, and stupid, and in no time I’ll make them rich.” Eat your heart out, lady liberty.
It’s DiCaprio’s unforgettable performance that makes the film, his sheer amount of range bringing Belfort to life in a way no other actor could. If this film doesn’t prove to be his first Oscar win, the Academy are thieves. And it’s his director Scorsese, whom DiCaprio convinced to do the film in the first place, who once again knocks it out of the park, proving he’s one of the few remaining American New Wave directors who hasn’t lost a beat. Many have spread the idea that Wolf advocates for Belfort’s lifestyle. Are they daft? It’s no more a celebration of Belfort’s life than Goodfellas was of Henry Hill’s. And it has me praying that Scorsese isn’t as close to retirement as he may think.
1. To the Wonder
I regret to admit that 2011’s Tree of Life led me to write off director Terrence Malick as pretentious, his lofty intentions exceeding his abilities to tell a coherent, compelling story. I was nonetheless inclined to check out this, the subject of critic Roger Ebert’s final, glowing review. To the Wonder is everything he claimed it to be and more, and I was left awestruck by the magnitude of its simple, majestic beauty.
It’s a story we’ve heard before: boy meets girl, boy plans to marry girl, boy has doubts, girl leaves, boy has flings elsewhere, boy returns to girl. And yet, there is a profound sense of unfamiliarity here, the story told more meaningfully than perhaps I’ve ever seen it told. Stars Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko shine in their deeply nuanced performances, conveying so much with so little.
In my original review, I described the film to be like a moving painting, or a homemade video of a family member stumbling upon a series of intimate moments. Perhaps To the Wonder is best described as visual poetry; as we listen to the monologues from character to character, we are inundated with Malick’s graceful, naturalistic visuals, the very grace that Javier Bardem’s priest character is struggling to find. It’s a style all it’s own, and truly, Malick’s work represents some of the highest-caliber art a film can reach. Many will dismiss it as too demanding, but I maintain To the Wonder rewards every ounce of attention you lend to it.