Tuesday, February 04, 2014
It was clear that 2013 was going to be a strong year for movies early in the year. Usually, spring is a dumping ground for subpar studio fare and a time when we mostly have to wait for the good stuff. But Spring 2013 saw the release of Spring Breakers, The Lords of Salem, To the Wonder, Upstream Color, Evil Dead, Room 237, Mud - movies that, whether you loved or hated them, were certainly unique and worth discussing. During both Spring Breakers and The Lords of Salem, I was baffled by the fact that I was watching each in a multiplex. If the summer was a little heavier than usual on big-budget dreck, there were still plenty of treasures at the art house, and interesting genre fare like The Conjuring and Pacific Rim. The fall and winter were packed with strong movies from legendary filmmakers and those, like Steve McQueen, who are well on their way towards being counted among the greats. As divisive as many of these movies were, any cinephile would have had an easy time finding at least a handful of movies to be passionate about.
A lot has been written about the many movies in 2013 that were in some way about America's unchecked greed and excess and, perhaps, the gun-toting cuties of Spring Breakers or the cocaine-fueled orgies and dwarf-tossing of The Wolf of Wall Street as symptoms of an empire in decline. Personally, the movies that resonated for me were largely about characters existing within much larger systems beyond their control - capitalism, but also family, technology, time, the laws of physics and, especially, mysterious pig-farming identity thieves - who stumble towards finding meaning and happiness in their own lives. This identification probably has a lot to do with my family's searching for and, ultimately, buying and moving into a new house, the first I've lived in since I moved out of my parents' home. With everything that decision entails about committing to and building a life with another person, it makes sense that I was drawn to movies about relationships this year; it felt right to bookend my list with two movies about couples. It wasn't just relationship movies that resonated, though; shortly after we made a bid on the house - a farmhouse that was built in 1875 and has all of the character that suggests - I saw The Conjuring. Afterwards, I joked to my girlfriend that it was a perfect primer for the problems of home ownership. As I have a work schedule that enables me to be at home with our kids most of the week, I couldn't help feeling for Lili Taylor's character - if there are any ghosts in this house, I'm the one they're going to give a hard time.
That The Conjuring, a movie I liked very much, didn't make my top ten, along with the rest of the year's crop of interesting horror movies, gives an idea of what a strong year this was. There are years where I've had to round out my top ten with flawed but interesting films, but this was one of those years where my honorable mentions list would be about as worthy as the top ten. To be honest, my rankings this year (minus my top two, which were both released in the first half of the year and stayed firmly at the top of the list despite strong competition) are mostly irrelevant; I can't remember another year where deciding which movie was my third or fifth or seventh favorite of the year was as much a matter of splitting hairs. I've never included an honorable mentions list, but this year is a good time to start. Here are all of the movies not on my top ten that I'd rate 4 out of 5 stars or higher:
John Dies at the End, The Lords of Salem, Frances Ha, Berberian Sound Studio, This Is the End, World War Z, Fruitvale Station, Pacific Rim, The Act of Killing, The Conjuring, Blue Jasmine, The Spectacular Now, Captain Phillips, American Hustle
And, in the interest of full disclosure, movies on Metacritic's Top 30 that I haven't seen yet:
Stories We Tell, Short Term 12, The Great Beauty, Dallas Buyers Club, A Touch of Sin, Leviathan, The Past
And now, the top ten:
Simply put, Before Midnight was the best moviegoing experience of the year for me. After my girlfriend and I saw this, we talked about where we are now and talked about the future. We talked and talked and ate good food and talked and made love and talked and talked and talked. If one of the reasons we love movies is because of how they reach us where we are and help us make sense of and find the poetry in our own lives, than no movie came close to Before Midnight for me this year. Of course, it also helps that's a perfect movie and the perfect end to one of the all-time great movie trilogies; I'm torn between the desire to revisit Jesse and Celine in ten years and the suspicion that this story may have already ended with a perfect balance of uncertainty and hope.
It's been six months since I last watched Upstream Color, and in trying to describe what makes it special, it feels more like trying to recount a dream. While Shane Carruth's haunting, elliptical sci-fi romance about love, memory and finite beings controlled by infinite organisms welcomes multiple interpretations, I don't think anyone will be able to create a timeline that explains it all, as someone did for Carruth's first movie, Primer (it would look more like a very dense Venn diagram). While Upstream Color is as conceptually ambitious as Primer, it's also got a surprising amount of heart - take away all the sci-fi trappings, and what's left is a story about two survivors of a traumatic experience that has altered their concept of reality helping each other rebuild their lives by creating new, shared memories. Carruth (who not only wrote and directed the film but was also the cinematographer, editor (with David Lowery), composer and male lead) demonstrates remarkable control over his film's idiosyncratic tone; his work here has been compared to Terrence Malick and David Cronenberg, which is true in that all three directors possess an incredibly unique and self-assured vision. As the term "independent film" becomes increasingly muddled, here's a movie that is truly independent; it owes its existence to the democratization of film production and distribution, but it's ambitious in a way that few DIY filmmakers attempt. It's a great movie anyway, but as a no-budget filmmaker, it gives me hope.
I honestly can't imagine what a relatively privileged white guy like me could say about 12 Years a Slave that could possibly be of interest. I don't mean for this to sound reductive, but I honestly feel like it's our job, as white audiences, to sit down, shut the hell up, watch the movie, allow the brutality - not just physical violence, but the way slavery breaks down Solomon Northup's sense of self - to wash over us and contemplate what the movie has to say about not only our terrible history but the legacy of privilege we continue to benefit from. I'm not trying to say the movie is perfect or beyond criticism, but when I read stuff like "Meh, I thought a few scenes were overdone" - no offense, but do you know how you sound? 12 Years a Slave is a punch to the gut, a descent into a hell that, it implies, we all have the potential to be complicit in creating. But it's not just the movie's intentions that make it great, as there are lots of well-intentioned but so-so movies on the subject of race. It's director Steve McQueen's ability (aided immeasurably by his remarkable cast) to be unflinching, to not just preach at us about the horrors of slavery but make them feel viscerally real and immediate, but also to find surprising moments of beauty and grace that serve to make the evils on display that much more tangible by contrast. McQueen is rigorous and precise, but never denies even the most loathsome of his characters an essential human frailty, which denies us the detachment of saying "That could never be me." I had a conversation with some friends, many of them black, who insisted that they had no interest in seeing 12 Years a Slave because the narrative is so ingrained in their culture and upbringing that they don't need a painful reminder. That makes perfect sense to me; conversely, if I had the power to do so, I'd show 12 Years a Slave in every predominantly white high school in America.
Or, as my friend Kevin dubbed it, Panic Attack: The Movie. Kevin was being a smartass, but it's also true. While Gravity is remarkable as a believably immersive experience, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Louis C.K. both missed the point when they criticized it for not being 100% scientifically accurate (though Louis C.K.'s point about Sandra Bullock's character as a "reluctant astronaut" is hilarious and duly noted). It's a great ride, but it's more than that. That I was moved by the emotional journey Bullock's character, Ryan Stone, takes in the film instead of being annoyed by her (admittedly somewhat awkwardly presented) backstory probably reveals my limitations as a critic (a friend asked a while back why I'm not writing about movies professionally, and as nice as the compliment was, I think I'm just too easily moved to hack it). Gravity plays like a more technically ambitious but also more intimate B-side to Alfonso Cuarón's previous film, Children of Men; both are about finding hope in the face of absolute darkness, made frighteningly literal in this film as Bullock is sent hurtling into the abyss. No movie engaged me on a primal, visceral level the way Gravity did this year, which is the kind of reaction that's easy for cinephiles to underestimate but is also essential to why we go to the movies.
As much as I loved this movie, I'm kind of sick of discussing it, at least the way the debate has been framed - between the controversy over Scorsese's film and the torture debate over Zero Dark Thrity last year, I'm ready to testify to Congress about the need to ban pundits from writing about movies. Once the dust has cleared, though, it'll be easier to place Jordan Belfort alongside other Scorsese protagonists who use money or violence or celebrity or something else to attempt to fill a spiritual void that, usually, they're not even aware is there. Two things set Belfort apart - with the exception of Rupert Pupkin, no Scorsese protagonist has been as unconflicted in his scuzziness, and unlike Pupkin and all the other gangsters and loners in the Scorsese filmography, Belfort's brand of amorality is almost completely legitimized and encouraged. I was so overwhelmed by the insane excess the first time that it took a second viewing to appreciate how great the movie is, particularly DiCaprio's performance, which is a remarkable feat of sustained insanity. It's wonderful that a great director in his seventies can still surprise us, and I'm not just talking about the sex and drugs - who knew that Scorsese had this kind of Felliniesque take on surreal excess in him? And though his movies are filled with great verbal humor, who knew he had such a knack for staging large-scale physical comedy? I always expect a lot of things from a new Scorsese movie, but I never expected to find him channeling his inner Jerry Lewis.
On the Cinephiles podcast, Keith Uhlich marvelled at the contrast between the bleakness of The World's End's final message and the exuberance of the filmmaking. I mostly agree, but without going into spoilers, my reading of that ending is a little less bleak than Keith's. As bad as things get and as much as we're "fuck-ups" who are responsible for our own self-destruction, there's an odd sort of hopefulness in framing the story of humans in the 21st century as a tale of addiction and recovery; it's only after hitting bottom, after all, that we can grow, as the triumphant final shot implies. It's such a consistently hilarious movie that it's easy to miss how much it has to say about addiction, self-destruction and the perils of nostalgia, not to mention how tightly constructed it is. Simon Pegg's performance has been terribly underrated - it's not easy, as Pegg must in the early scenes, to find humor in being deliberately unfunny, to play the guy who used to be the life of the party but long ago passed a point where his attempts at clowning reveal the desperation underneath. The rest of the cast is great - this is Nick Frost's best performance, and I love the unspoken joke of Martin Freeman playing the Ian Holm role - and Edgar Wright has grown into one of the best visual storytellers in comedy or any genre. I can't wait for Ant Man, mostly because Wright might be the rare director that benefits from having a ridiculous amount of money at his disposal.
Allow me to explain a theory that I literally just thought of: Mud is a southern Gothic Peter Pan, with its young protagonist and his best friend drawn into an adventure with an eternal child who teaches them what they have to leave behind, even as it ends with him arriving in his own Never Never Land. Mud (the movie, not the character) isn't sexist or misogynist, as some have suggested; it's that it so completely takes the point of view of its young protagonist that it's largely about what boys know about women and adult relationships and, as the ending suggests, what Ellis will soon outgrow. Writer/director Jeff Nichols does a great job of evoking the kind of wide-eyed boys' adventure that is very hard to pull off convincingly, while at the same time giving us just enough information that we can understand the larger narrative happening around Ellis. He's a great actors' director, too: Matthew McConaughey continues his recent hot streak, but the adult cast all excels in their supporting roles, and the performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are believable and compelling in the way that can only happen when talented kids are paired with a patient, empathetic director. Beyond that, Mud is just a wonderful, entertaining yarn that left me feeling genuinely elated in a way that no other movie last year quite did.
I don't like to accuse people who disliked a movie I liked of missing the point. However, I think that Room 237 is great for reasons that have little to do with whether you think its subjects' interpretations of The Shining are worthwhile or completely bonkers. Director Rodney Ascher does an excellent job of using film clips to evoke the effect the movies can have on our thought process, how we make associations between one movie and another and memories or other parts of our frames of reference. If some of the theories on The Shining are questionable, and their theorists frighteningly certain that theirs is the only correct interpretation, that's not a knock against the film. For one, they're a hoot, but they're also an extreme example of how all of us who love and obsess over the medium can get a little too deep into our own heads. There was a moment when I said to my girlfriend, "This is what the inside of my brain looks like." Not the moon landing nonsense, though. I think it was the map of Danny's path around the Overlook on his Big Wheel. Bonus points, obviously, if you've been obsessing over The Shining for 25 years.
9. Inside Llewyn Davis
Perhaps the smartest thing about Inside Llewyn Davis is that it never really tells us whether it thinks its struggling musician protagonist is any good or not. Without the validation of critical recognition or commercial success, anyone attempting to make music or art of any kind is left with the question of whether their work has value. Some find a way to work towards a different measure of success, while others, like Llewyn, indulge in self-pity and bitterness towards a culture they feel has rejected them. The easy thing for the Coens would have been to romanticize that self-pity, but they do something more complex here, finding the humanity in a character that isn't easy to like even as they don't shy away from his more assholish tendencies. That Oscar Isaac, as Llewyn, is able to project warmth even as his performance never begs us to like Llewyn helps a great deal. The Coens have long been preoccupied with our place in the universe, particularly how much of our suffering can be blamed on fate or chance or our own choices, and they've adapted subtly different positions in each film. Here, Llewyn has some bad luck, but the tragedy of the movie is seeing how a series of shortsighted choices, often forced by poverty, result in Llewyn sending himself to the purgatorial loop he seems to be caught in. You don't have to like Llewyn Davis to like Inside Llewyn Davis, but it's hard not to feel for the guy at least a little bit.
I usually shy away from recommending movies to people, because tastes are unpredictable and people can be a little resentful when they feel like you talked them into seeing a dud. But the day after I saw Her, I wrote a Facebook page (fittingly enough) urging my friends to check it out. It's amazing how, from what seemed like a weak, gimmicky premise, Spike Jonze tells a story that says so much about love and loneliness; watching it, I thought not only about my own experiences, but several of my friends and how they would find something to relate to in it. Jonze's collaborator Charlie Kaufman has this same ability to start with a strange central conceit and take it someplace deeper; where Jonze differs as a screenwriter for Kaufman is his warmth and essential optimism. It's refreshing, after so many movies in the past few years that envision a scorched-earth future, to see a vision of where we're headed that holds out hope for our ability to grow. When I was younger, I asked an older friend what he thought of a movie that I found schmaltzy, and he said "I loved it! It had such warmth!" I snickered inside at his description at the time, but I'm ten years older now, and I'm starting to appreciate what a rare quality that is.
And the rest of my ballot for the 2013 Muriel Awards, the results of which are coming soon (you can follow them and check out previous years here):
1. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
2. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
3. Simon Pegg, The World’s End
4. Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
1. Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
2. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
3. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
4. Amy Adams, American Hustle
5. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
1. Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
2. James Franco, Spring Breakers
3. Nick Frost, The World’s End
4. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
5. James Gandolfini, Enough Said
1. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
2. Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
3. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
4. Scarlett Johansson, Her
5. Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now
1. Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
2. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
3. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
4. Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
5. Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
1. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
2. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, The World’s End
3. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Jeff Nichols, Mud
5. Spike Jonze, Her
1. Emmanuel Lubezki, To the Wonder
2. Hoyte van Hoytema, Her
3. Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Benoît Debie, Spring Breakers
5. Simon Duggan, The Great Gatsby
1. Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger, Gravity
2. Paul Machliss, The World’s End
3. Shane Carruth and David Lowery, Upstream Color
4. Thelma Schoonmaker, The Wolf of Wall Street
5. Kirk M. Morri, The Conjuring
1. T-Bone Burnett (music supervisor), Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Steven Price, Gravity
3. Griffin Boice and John 5, The Lords of Salem
4. William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her
5. Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, Spring Breakers
1. Room 237
2. The Act of Killing
3. At Berkeley
1. Debris, Gravity
2. "Roll, Jordan, Roll," 12 Years a Slave
3. Lemmon 714, The Wolf of Wall Street
4. Basement/Hide and Clap, The Conjuring
5. Pub fight ("I hate this fucking town!"), The World's End
6. "Everytime," Spring Breakers
7. "Please Mr. Kennedy," Inside Llewyn Davis
8. Mako's memory, Pacific Rim
9. "That's not my blood," Captain Phillips
10. Airplane attack, World War Z
1. Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
2. Rodney Ascher, Room 237
3. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
4. Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing
5. Fede Alvarez, Evil Dead
1. Emmanuel Lubezki (To the Wonder, Gravity)
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street)
3. Sandra Bullock (The Heat, Gravity)
4. Steven Price (The World's End, Gravity)
5. Jonah Hill (This Is the End, The Wolf of Wall Street)
1. The World’s End
2. 12 Years a Slave
3. The Wolf of Wall Street
4. American Hustle
5. Inside Llewyn Davis