10. To the Wonder. In a year that included the likes of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Grandmaster, perhaps no popular film justifies use of the cliché “visual storytelling” more than writer/director Terence Malick’s To the Wonder. The underlying narrative (such that it is) covers the life cycle of a love affair (said lovers played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko). Alternating between the idyllic and the realistic, the dialogue (such that it is) becomes all but incidental. All we need is an artful shot of a single glance across a public swimming pool to feel the betrayal bred of a bottomless appetite. Unfortunately, the film falters in the second half, as Malick loses faith in the simple power of that narrative and shoehorns the spiritual crisis of a priest (Javier Bardem) into the thematic mix. That said, the first half of To the Wonder is perhaps the most powerful piece of film released this year. (To read my original review, click here.)
9. Inside Llewyn Davis. One could look at the Coen brothers’ latest film, starring the perfectly cast Oscar Isaac, as a character study exploring the fine line between the purity of artistic pursuit and pure snobbery. And maybe that’s all there is. But what about that desaturated, dreamlike softness to the palette? Certainly there is more than an invocation of nostalgia. And the musical choices? The ghosts that hover just above the narrative? The cats? Certainly there must be more to chew on. (To read my original review, click here.)
8. American Hustle. Co-writer/director David O. Russell and an outstanding ensemble (including Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence) let it all hang out in this epic tale of the straight con, the double con, and the self-con. As with its subject matter, American Hustle has its share of contradictions. Most notably, Amy Adams’ Sydney/Edith – the wildcard of the essential love triangle – is simultaneously the most intriguing element of the film and the reason why no ending could ever be completely satisfying (including the ending that we get). That said, amidst the 2013 Oscar bait, no other film keeps the viewer so engaged for 160 minutes.
7. Stories We Tell. Sarah Polley cannot help but cross line between documentary and meta-documentary – after all, she is an actress turned director, and the genesis of her very being (the true identity of her father) is the subject matter of Stories We Tell. Yet, from the title itself to the faux 8mm home movies mixed in with the real thing, Polley uses all that meta to temper the inherent self-indulgence and keep it all interesting without ever mocking the form or her subjects. Indeed, if the film has one flaw, it is Polley’s dogged insistence on such a equitable approach to all of the storytellers in the narrative of her life. (To read Stacey’s original review, click here.)
6. Side Effects. As “crime / drama / thrillers” go (as described in imdb), Side Effects is a hell of a ride. In what is supposedly Steven Soderbergh’s big screen swan song, everything we have come to expect from the director’s slickest genre films (e.g., Oceans Eleven (2001), Out of Sight (1998)) is on display, although genre itself turns out to be a moving target in Side Effects. But in the final analysis (pun intended), it is the cast (and the casting) that sells the rather curious script by Scott Z. Burns. Playing off the exquisitely elusive Rooney Mara, Jude Law brings the right combination of proper leading man appeal and real-world baggage to keep us on our toes throughout. (To read my original review, click here.)
5. Gravity. The long-awaited return of director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men (2006)) is essentially an exercise in tension, as two astronauts find themselves stranded in the vastness of space after their shuttle/space station is pummeled by a rain of deadly debris orbiting the Earth. To say Gravity is visually stunning would be the understatement of the year. Do the father-and-son writing team work way too hard to turn Sandra Bullock’s stranded mortal into a lost soul? Sure. Is George Clooney really providing anything more than a known quantity? Nope. All that said, it has been quite a while since I have physically felt the environment of a film so strongly, and in my book, that counts for a lot.
4. All Is Lost. As survival films go, the sheer visual experience of Gravity cannot be matched. But with his second feature film, writer/director J.C. Chandor is certainly no slouch in conveying this fictional story of one man trying to stay alive after his sail boat collides with a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. With a scant 37-page script, both Chandor and Robert Redford exhibit a level of faith in their audience that very few films in this subgenre do. As it turns out, we do not need a sob backstory to feel that the present is never a convenient time to face death; and we do not need the everyman to have conversations with a volleyball to keep us engaged. Add in a measured dash of socio-political subtext , and All Is Lost makes for some of the most engrossing cinema of the year.
3. Before Midnight. In Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), director Richard Linklater and actors, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, invited us into an insular realm of intimate conversation between two star-crossed lovers, Celine and Jesse. With Before Midnight set nine years after their last stroll through the streets of Paris, we find that their delayed indulgences do have consequences in the outside world. From the opening scene at an airport with Jesse’s child to a dinner party populated with ghosts of lovers past, present, and future, Linklater and company choose to take us on a detour from the two-party formula that characterized the previous two installments of this 18-year love story. But true to the series, that choice ultimately results in a film that is at once heart-breaking and hopeful. (To read my original review, click here.)
2. The Hunt. We crave a world of heroes and villains; but I am willing to bet that there are not nearly as many really good and really bad people as one might gather from sampling contemporary cinema and television. And for this reason, the films that seem most authentic – with the most potential to enlighten and disturb – are those that expose the evil that arises from everyday average people succumbing to fear and doubt. As a sort of narrative flip side to Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s international breakthrough, A Celebration (1998), The Hunt is a bold look into the destruction that ensues when we choose to jettison an otherwise healthy sense of skepticism in order to protect our children. In lesser hands, The Hunt would be a legal drama designed to illicit knee-jerk emotions for teams of protagonists and antagonists; but Vinterberg is more concerned with people than procedures, choosing instead to shed light upon the humanity of all of his characters (for better or for worse). (To read my original review, click here.)
1. Her. Believe the hype. In a relatively weak year for film, and in spite of my propensity for being hypercritical when it comes to movies with such an elevated critical consensus, writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her is the standout film of 2013 (of the 85 releases viewed as of this post, anyway). Set in a not-so-distant future when trousers are once again worn the way they probably should be and mustaches are no longer creepy, Her is both a sanguine and melancholic examination of the inevitable evolution of the individual within a monogamous relationship and a prophetic and disturbing peek into a possible endgame in our growing bond with technology. Besides boasting the best ensemble cast of the year (take that, scene-chewing-loving Harvey Weinstein), Jonze’s signature style serves this particular story quite well – exemplifying the art of editing and substituting what would otherwise be intrusive flashbacks with sequences of 2 to 4-second visuals that tell us all that we need to know. The overall effect is an elegant efficiency. (See also “My Favorite Film of 2013: Her.”)
Most overrated (I’m talking to you, imdb and metacritic): The Act of Killing, The Conjuring, Gimme the Loot, Room 237, and The Wolf of Wall Street.
So there you have it, as there is nothing else with a U.S. theatrical release date in 2013 that I am burning to see. But in the spirit of awards season, the following is a list of my favorite performances:
Best Lead Performance by an Actor. How should the elderly be portrayed on screen? Most roles are written and performed along one of three tracts based on the expectations of popular culture: (a) the curmudgeon with no filter; (b) victimized by dementia; and/or (c) defiant, spunky, and engaged in Things Young People Do. Stereotypes do tend to hold some truth, and there is a bit of all of that in Bruce Dern‘s Woody Grant in Nebraska; but beneath the surface, there is a whole lot more. As viewers, we are never really sure if Woody’s all there or not (and when). He could be forgetful, or he could just be lying. He could be mean-spirited, or he could just be too tired to engage in niceties. In other words, Dern serves up a human being. And that is why it works. Runners-up:
- Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
- Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
- Robert Redford (All Is Lost)
- Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Best Lead Performance by an Actress: There is oh so much more than the controversial lesbian sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color, which come across as natural as the prosthetic naughty bits that had to be used. We also tend to get a few too many leering shots amidst a 3-hour film that desperately needed an editor. And yet in spite of the indulgences of French director Abdellatif Kechiche, the performance of Adèle Exarchopoulos alone justifies a viewing. Call her natural. Call her authentic. Call her whatever you want, but in every beat of this longish film, she is utterly captivating. Runners-up:
- Amy Adams (American Hustle)
- Rooney Mara (Side Effects)
- Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
- Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Best Supporting Performance by an Actor: Every once in a while, my first choice for one of the major awards may actually win. This year, that choice is Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. Yes, his performance in was physically convincing, as many have already noted; but there was much more to it than weight loss. In a promising film that ultimately devolved into genre clichés, Leto eschewed the one-note flamboyance that typifies Hollywood’s view of transgendered AIDS victims and wholly humanized Rayon as an exhausted survivor. Runners-up:
- Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
- Ben Foster (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints)
- Will Forte (Nebraska)
- Thomas Bo Larsen (The Hunt)
Best Supporting Performance by an Actress. By the time we meet Lupita Nyong’o‘s Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, she is already a shell of a woman, eager to cast off her mortal coil. And yet, the depth and range of that performance leaves us all the more haunted with the question of who Patsey could have been. Runners-up: