There are those, especially this time of year, who see the many lists and recaps and coverage of the year in movies, and ask: “How can you dare to rank art? How do you qualify one movie over another?” The bottom line is you can’t, and we get that, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Distilling twelve months’ worth of movie-watching in a numbered list forces one to reckon with what truly stuck out emotionally, creatively, intellectually, aesthetically and more, and come down to some hard choices on what films you’ll forever stamp as the best of the best. And that means sometimes an R-rated comedy will rank higher than the latest from an arthouse auteur. And at the end of the day, it’s that whole process that makes it fun, providing a window into an individual’s preferences and tastes when it comes to the cinematic experience. That’s really the point of a Top 10.
With that out of the way, please take a note that we’re doing things a bit differently with our Top 10s this year. The hodgepodge team that we are, scattered around the world, The Playlist members rarely try and make a collective large group Best Movies of The Year list because, well, voting would be difficult and laborious to say the least, likely splitting allies, creating new enemies and grinding our offices to a halt. Plus we’ve been more than snowed under with our assaultive Best of 2013 coverage that we’ve barely had time to think, let alone write our individual top 10 lists.
But, as various Playlist staffers sit down with some egg nog and sort out their Top 10s, we’ve decided to make this our one-stop shopping destination to check those out. As they arrive, we will add them to this feature, so if you care enough, bookmark this link or whatever one does to highlight a piece of content in 2013 (plus we’ll be flagging them up when each new list arrives; you’ll know). Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Katie Walsh and Jessica Kiang have theirs in with more to come. As always share your thoughts in comments section, and see you in 2014!
Jessica Kiang’s Top 10 Films Of 2013: First, a few disclaimers: these are films that I saw in 2013, though some haven’t had releases outside of festivals yet, and may be 2014 U.S. releases, where they get theatrical runs at all (I hope I’ve largely avoided spoilers, though). Conversely, because I don’t live in the U.S. there are some films that I haven’t been able to catch up with because of the vagaries of international release dates, including “12 Years a Slave,” “Under the Skin,” “Her” (missing “Don Jon” too means I’ve had a ScarJo-less year), “American Hustle,” “Short Term 12,” “In A World…” and others I’m no doubt forgetting—so the absences of these titles should not be considered pointed omissions. As opposed to the lack of “Spring Breakers” which I did see, and totally don’t get what all the fuss is about.
There was never any doubt for me about my number one, leaving the rest of the films I’ve picked to jostle for positions 2-10, not that any of us should place too much store by the ranking of this sort of list. If listmaking is itself a weird and always arbitrary act, ranking that list is doubly so, as the shifting sands of mood and memory are all we have to go on when deciding that, yes, Movie X is two positions worse than Movie Y but one up from Movie Z. So, pinch of salt, please. That said, this year the list was perhaps easier than last, not least because I could immediately discount every single major summer tentpole I saw—of that hugely disappointing crop, “Iron Man 3” “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Furious 6” were probably my favorites, but none was ever going to trouble my end-of-year best list. As a result I’m probably a little indie-arthouse-festival-centric as 2013 closes, though I’m surprised at the non-representation of Asian cinema and a little disappointed (in myself? the industry? who knows?) that in a year in which there was quite some discussion about female directors, not one of my top ten films was directed by a woman, though several are present in the honorable mention section.
Okay, then, without further ado, because this New Year’s Eve champagne ain’t gonna drink itself, here’s my top ten of 2013.
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Is “filmgasm” a word? If not, it should be coined to describe Martin Scorsese’s undisciplined beast which, in its overlength, overexcitableness and over-everything-ness provided me with some of my most defiantly entertaining moments of the year at the year’s very end–“movie” just doesn’t quite cover it. I found it utterly joyous in its infectious bawdiness, and so magnificently over the top in the depiction of the sheer awfulness of these grubby little men and their horribly shopworn versions of the American Dream, that I got another huge belly laugh when I read that there are those who think the film somehow glorifies these idiots?! Wha? To be honest, it feels like the coke-snorting, ‘lude-popping, tits-and-ass excess almost conceals the fact that actually ’Wolf’ takes aim at a pretty soft target, relatively speaking (if Belfort and his cohorts scammed millions, the sleek-suited anonymous grey men of Lehmans etc scammed billions and ruined entire economies, but are nowhere seen here), but it’s just such an entertaining target that even that didn’t really dampen my enjoyment. There is also I’ll admit, a sort of relief at work here: after the stateliness of “Hugo” and with Scorsese recently suggesting he has only a couple more films in him, it was just great to witness this level of ah-who-cares-what-the-fuck exuberance from him, because at his most buoyant, he is simply the pre-eminent American director. So even the film’s flaws like overlength, repetition and lack of formal discipline (the random way DiCaprio sometimes addresses camera, the occasional hearing-people’s-thoughts thing) didn’t bother me, partly because they seemed to arise from an abundance of enthusiasm, and mostly because the whole thing was sweeping past in the kind of heady, giddy, Scorsese-trademark rush that I don’t think I’ve experienced since the cross-cut cocaine/pasta scene in “Goodfellas.” Regular collaborators DiCaprio and editor Thelma Schoonmaker also bring their A-game (DiCaprio, of whom I’ve never been hugely fond, totally won me here) not to mention a great Jonah Hill and the million terrific cameos (McConaughey’s the one everyone talks about but I’m going to wave my pompoms for Spike Jonze). It’s a hedonistic blast of folly and hubris populated by rascals, cheats, snobs and imbeciles and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Filmgasmic.
9. “Death of a Man in the Balkans”
It feels kind of anachronistic to be including this film on my 2013 list, as it first made the festival rounds in 2012, and I caught it all the way back in January at the Goteborg Film Festival, so that I’d almost classified it with last year’s films too. But it’s a tiny gem that deserves more props than it got, though I can see how a combination of its title, rivalled only by “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” for sheer heart-sinking “do I have to?”-ness, and the logline which has to include mention that it’s all shot from one-locked off webcam position might have been enough to throw water on any potential distribution bidding war. It’s a real shame, because Miroslav Momcilovic’s small, oddball film is actually an immensely enjoyable, frequently laugh-out-loud funny story, and the conceit of the webcam is actually not so much a handicap as one its most inspired choices. Perhaps initially slightly awkward in its marriage of darkness and light, the film starts off with the titular death, as a man turns on a camera and solemnly proceeds to kill himself, leaving the camera running–unbeknownst to the succession of neighbours, policemen, undertakers, and pizza delivery guys who then one by one come to investigate the gunshot. Really it’s an absurd comedy of manners that observes the very different way people behave when they know they’re being watched as opposed to when they think they’re alone–all magnified in the presence of death. And it’s played with pitch-perfect anti-glamor by the cast as they trundle in and out of frame and the hilarious pettinesses of their reactions to the corpse in the corner are laid bare by the camera’s unblinking eye. It’s a tiny film, but the formal rigor of its approach and the truly terrific scripting and performances make it feel liberated, rather than constrained by its threadbare budget and lo-fi approach. And it’s very, very funny, did I mention?
8. “Blue Caprice”
I’ll admit I came late to this fictionalized account of the story of the Beltway snipers by first-time feature director Alexandre Moors, but I was hugely impressed when I finally did get to it–not quite sure what I was expecting, but certainly I couldn’t have anticipated just what a brilliantly unsettling, intelligent film it would be, with no hint of the kind of sensationalism its subject matter might suggest (largely due to the smart decision not to recreate the actual sniper attacks themselves, but to let news footage and 911 audio set the scene early on before skipping back in time). In fact, one of its great strengths to me was that “Blue Caprice” almost entirely eschews the drive to “put us in the mind of the killer” or to “explain what made him tick” or other cliches. Instead, it shows that the sniper attacks that claimed so many random victims and terrorized an entire region for weeks, were all the more terrifying for being the logical extension of a profoundly alien world view that sprang, not from the various societal and economic pressures faced by the killers, but actually from the deep-set, differently striped but mutually reinforcing fucked-up-ness that both men harbored. It’s a brave and rather unfashionable stance to take in these days when the drive exists to humanize even the most monstrous of behaviours–to render them understandable, explainable, and therefore somehow avoidable in future. But “Blue Caprice” is terrifying because it at least partially rejects that notion, and in its impressionistic recreation of the lives of these killers (brilliantly played by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond) posits the existence of a chilling, abject otherness that exists on the other side of the unbridgeable gulf between people who have a moral conscience and those who do not. And this low-key, dialed-down insightfulness is all the more startling for coming from a first-timer: Moors has clearly arrived onto the film scene fully formed from the off.
Without doubt the straight-up happiest film on this list, Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” is outwardly extremely simple: a portrait of an ageing divorcee and mother of two grown children as she experiences ups and downs in her romantic life and a love/hate relationship with her neighbor’s hairless cat. But the warmth and depth of the characterization of Gloria, as unforgettably embodied by Berlin Best Actress Paulina Garcia makes the film completely extraordinary–in fact it’s so unusual to watch a movie that finds this many tenors and layers in a character who’s not somehow essentially fucked up, that it took me a while to put my finger on what it was I found so compelling about it. But it’s just that: Gloria is a fundamentally decent, happy woman, with no tragic streak of misery or shady skeletons in her closet, getting by as best she knows how with a strong sense of humor about herself and about the indignities of being single this late in life. I can’t stress how much of an outlier this makes “Gloria” and how refreshing — she’s simply a completely wonderful human being with whom I fell so in love throughout the course of the film that I was really sorry to have to leave her as the credits rolled. Except that the final scene is of her dancing to the eponymous track by Umberto Tozzi and, in itself, provided me with one of my very favorite film moments from 2013–a perfectly uplifting, joyous ending to a movie that manages to be optimistic without being pat, funny without being scornful and happy without being slight.
Alex van Warmerdam’s Cannes competition entry hasn’t seen a US release outside of the festival circuit yet, but I really hope a wider audience gets to see it and be alternately as tickled and as chilled by its clever, weird, off-kilter vibe as I was. It’s a spritely, dark and mischievous film, part home invasion thriller, part fairy tale as a chimeric and mysterious outsider inveigles his way into an affluent suburban home and things gradually turn murderous as he Pied-Pipers himself into the family structure. Twisted and pitch-black funny, it’s precisely and brilliantly played by the whole cast particularly Jan Bijvoet who perfectly preserves Borgman’s dangerous ambivalence and mordant sense of “play,” even as events get progressively more deranged. And it’s also very beautiful, with some of its imagery, like that of weighted dead bodies floating in a lake like fronds in an aquarium, lingering with me even now. Mostly though, it’s a triumph of control over its deliciously black, deadpan-ironic tone, the kind of unholy, pristine surreality that might result if Michael Haneke and Ben Wheatley got locked in the “Dogtooth” house. We’re not quite sure why there was as little buzz as there was for this one after its Cannes bow, and perhaps it is hard to see its chilled cerebrality finding a huge audience without the benefit of a better-known arthouse marquee name than Van Warmerdam’s, but if it does get even a limited release next year, beat a path to its door and let it trick and tease and toy with you.
It’s thin on story, the dialogue occasionally clunks, some of the twists strain logic and I don’t give a damn, because “Gravity” SENT ME INTO SPACE. Three times over, to be precise, I happily, giddily coughed up the 3D IMAX surcharge to watch Alfonso Cuaron’s thrilling, visceral, utterly beautiful film, and each of those three times it worked its astounding magic on me and gave me my most breathtaking cinema experience of this, and probably any other year. It was a film I wanted to eat with my eyes, and that lived as much in my nerve endings as in my brain, and while I can understand that as a negative for some viewers, I can’t be anything but grateful for and amazed by it–I say again, it sent me into space. And even if that had not been enough, I did find thematic and emotional resonance within the story where it left others cold. Perhaps my age-old obsession with space meant I came ready-equipped with a huge amount of my own enthusiasm I could map onto the slender bones of what is there, but the terror and stark beauty of space, the motifs of rebirth and renewal, the utter ridiculous implausibility of life and hope existing in this merciless universe at all, the miraculous nature of humanity’s presence as a whole, and one human’s survival instinct in specific–all of this the film brought home to me, providing me with more than enough philosophical and emotional material to render it a far deeper and more nourishing experience than the cut-and-dried fun park diversion that some of its detractors have reduced it to. I don’t just appreciate “Gravity” (and a shout out too to Jonas Cuaron’s lovely little companion short “Aningaaq”) I’m weirdly grateful for it, as I’m unlikely to ever actually voyage into space, but thanks to the movie, there is, right now, a tiny little mental version of myself, lit bright white against the velvety inky blackness hovering high above the blue sky, looking down, and I know how she feels.
4. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
I can’t remember exactly when it was during my screening of the Coen brothers’ folk music bildungsroman that I started to look forward to my second viewing, but it was either in the third or fourth minute. It was unexpected, because to be perfectly honest, a portrait of the pre-Dylan era Greenwich Village folk scene had never rated particularly high on my radar, and were it not for the filmmakers behind it I probably wouldn’t have bothered queuing two and a half hours in the rain (by far the longest Cannes line) to get in. But somewhere in that opening scene, as Oscar Isaac sang “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” in a voice so surprisingly lovely it could break your heart, and the smoky browns, ochres and greys of the autumnal palette worked their minor-key magic, I felt myself palpably relax, feeling impossibly warm and safe in the hands of those peerless storytellers. From then on the film unfolded in a bittersweet blur of gently disappointed dreams and self-defeating ambition, and now in retrospect it strikes me, in a year dotted with paeans to/takedowns of American excess (“The Bling Ring,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Spring Breakers,” “American Hustle” even “Pain & Gain”), it may actually provide the antidote, a soothing balm to smooth over the jagged garishness of those films’ depiction of ostentatious wealth. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” contrary to the modern ideals of striving and success and achievement, sings a sweet, sad song about the occasional nobility of failure, that builds into an appropriately melancholic anthem for the also-rans. It would be a confession too far to say just how much I identified with it.
3. “Blue is the Warmest Color”
What to possibly say about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes winner that hasn’t already been said, (and subsequently undercut by some tantrum thrown by one of the principals–man, I’ve never wished so hard that people whose work I admire would just shut up about that work)? Clear away all the hullabaloo that surrounded the film, from its graphic and, yes, (over)long lesbian sex scene, to the alleged heteronormativity of its positioning, to the acrimonious war of words that erupted between its three Palme d’Or winners (Kechiche, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos), and we’re left with simply one of the most wonderful, transportative film experiences of the year, and one that, like “Inside Llewyn Davis” does with Oscar Isaac, makes its hitherto largely unknown lead (Exarchopoulos) into a bona fide star in one fell swoop. That it can withstand all the issue-clouding babble that went on around its release is testament to just how much bigger a final film is than any one of its participants, even such an obviously talented director, and such stellar performers: ‘Blue’ is a hundred times the sum of its parts and, aside from the spell-breaking sex scene, perhaps, to break it down into its constituent elements is to deny yourself the glorious, immersive pleasure of living Adele’s life through these tumultuous and passionate years. Long after the recriminations have faded from memory, the movie will stand as a beautiful journey of discovery and recognition for anyone who’s ever fallen in love, and a furiously tender piece of transcendent filmmaking.
2. “Upstream Color”
There was a man in an orange high-vis jacket operating a cleaning machine on the deserted train platform where I waited after my late-night screening of “Upstream Color.” With no one else around, he pushed the droning machine up and down the platform in rigorously straight lines, passing me by occasionally in the flat, clinical light. And such was the lingering mood of the film that I found myself humming along to the machine, to try and achieve a moment of perfect resonance as it neared me–for this uncharacteristic whimsicality I entirely blame Shane Carruth and the unearthly techno-spell his sophomore film cast over me, a film that’s at the same time brilliantly precise in its intent, and silvery-opaque in its effect. More than anything else a very peculiar love story, the film bears astonishing testament to Carruth’s polymath tendencies, from the stunning photography–gauzy but cool, like a new dream rooted in an old memory that’s a little bleached from overwashing–to the soundscape in which effects blend with his self-composed score so that, in a theme that recurs, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, to the enigmatic, minimalist dialogue in which the words are only ever the tip of a gargantuan iceberg of unseen connections. Carruth has carved out unique territory for himself at the point at which science strays so far into the arcane that its mathematics become as intuitive and beautiful as any work of pure imagination, so while there is logic and causality at work here, it’s less the science fiction of laser cannons and spaceships than it is a voyage inward, into the psyche, into the emotions–into places where science might often fear to tread. Totally unique, shimmeringly bizarre and achingly lovely, I can’t recommend “Upstream Color” enough, if only for the new way you’ll look at a buzzing fluorescent light, or hear your desktop printer’s inner gears work, for days afterward.
1. “The Act of Killing”
It will surprise precisely no one who who knows me, or had the misfortune to be seated beside met me at a party or on a medium-to-long distance train trip, to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary, “The Act of Killing” nestle comfortably at my number one spot for the year. It is without doubt the film I’ve talked about, thought about and agitated for more than any other throughout the year, to the point that I’m less now an advocate than an evangelist. The reason is simple: when I think back to myself, stumbling water-kneed out of the Berlinale screening back in February, and missing my subsequent films (sorry, “Don Jon”!) due to the insistent buzzing of my brain and pounding of my heart, I just can’t think of any film that has had a more physiological effect on me. “The Act of Killing,” in its evocation of a genocide of which I had, prior to watching it, not one single goddamned clue, its masterful portrayal of the smiling, hearty faces of utter moral abnegation, and the way it convinces that cinema itself can be the chief purveyor of the most insidious mythologies (lies) while also providing an avenue for the reclamation of memory and the possibility of catharsis, if not redemption (truth), is probably the most intelligent and layered film ever to have frightened the living shit out of me. Because that was its real effect: it was simply terrifying. To witness the complete annihilation of humanity that Anwar Congo and his cohorts embody and then to discover that this moral collapse is not just unpunished in Indonesian society, but sanctioned, even encouraged? It was psychologically, emotionally and philosophically challenging, occasionally to the point of me wanting to shut my eyes, without ever being able to un-rivet my attention. In fact it feels like Oppenheimer’s storytelling unlocked bonus levels in my capacity for surprise–how is it possible that he can layer revelation on revelation, shock upon shock, and yet have each subsequent instance stab just as deeply as the last? It’s a merciless film in that regard, a difficult, queasy watch, a tumble down a fathomless rabbit hole of depravity, and, by maybe a mile, the very best movie I saw in a very good year.
I was tempted to go to 12 entries but made myself stick to the ten for some masochistic reason, however the two films that would have been at the eleventh and twelfth spots, respectively, were Soderbergh’s deceptively touching “Behind the Candelabra” and Lisa Langseth’s “Hotell” starring Alicia Vikander which I saw in Marrakech (review here). And then there are a whole host of other strong films that I considered for inclusion but didn’t make my final cut–I’ll link to their reviews where I can: “The Selfish Giant” is genuinely heartrending and boasts the most astounding child performance of the year from Conner Chapman; “A Field In England” drove me slightly insane, in a good/terrifying sort of way; “The Broken Circle Breakdown” might have taken the ‘lovely sad film about musicians with a killer soundtrack’ ribbon any year that ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ wasn’t released; Alain Guiraudie’s Cannes winner “Stranger by the Lake” is a very strong, very creepy story of summer murder; more in genre territory I really dug horror remake “We Are What We Are” by Jim Mickle; I loved Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” until the final overwrought third that for me undid a lot of the film’s terrific work till then; JC Chandor’s “All is Lost” is my cream of the crop of this year’s many survival movies (“Gravity” aside); “Frances Ha” I liked a lot, though maybe I wasn’t quite as enraptured as some of my colleagues; Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Grand Central” is the other Lea Seydoux movie I saw and really enjoyed this year, also starring “The Past”’s Tahar Rahim; while James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” were two Cannes films I caught that were also both top of mind when I thought about compiling this list. Less well-covered, perhaps, Andrea Pallaoro’s “Medeas,” an extraordinarily quiet, and astoundingly well photographed film, and Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are The Best!” (which we’ll be reviewing soon) were two films I caught in Marrakech that I liked equally but for totally different reasons, and another year (or another day, another mood) could have nudged their way higher.
And that was my year, written down in the closing moments of 2013 while I’m still sober enough to remember it. Happy New Year everybody, and thank you for reading.
Katie Walsh’s Top 10 Films Of 2013: I tend to like to pick a theme for my Top 10 list, but this year has proven difficult to settle on just one. Much of 2013 was about the ugly excesses of capitalism and explorations of that effect on human nature. Films like “Spring Breakers,” “Pain and Gain,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle,” and “Blackfish” looked at the ways that crimes of capitalism can often pay, but at the expense of your soul. Even smaller indies like “Nebraska,” and “Frances Ha,” took up the issue of poverty, money, and class mobility as themes in their larger stories. Clearly, filmmakers this year have their minds on money and money on their minds, and that theme resonated with me this year.
On the other hand, I found myself increasingly drawn to work by and focusing on women. Often a female perspective created a film that resonated deeply with me on a level that even the flashiest and splashiest of indictments of bad people having fun doing bad things couldn’t touch. From shows like “Orange is the New Black,” to “Girls,” to films like “Touchy Feely,” and “After Tiller,” these female-created works burrowed themselves deep into my soul. It should surprise few that I am a proud feminist and feel a duty to the honest exploration, celebration, and discussion of women-created works, and this year was a fantastic one of that, happily.
Also a note: I’ve tried to catch up with all or most of the major releases this year, but I haven’t seen everything, so bear that in mind.
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Martin Scorsese’s latest isn’t quite up to vintage Scorsese standards, as it never really achieves the glorious transcendence that something like “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver” does (two perfect films, in my estimation), or even the taut and tight “The Departed.” “The Wolf of Wall Street” is excessive in its excess, and while that’s what they seem to be going for, it feels a bit baggy. Still, it’s remarkable work and Leonardo DiCaprio is working overtime as Jordan Belfort in one of the most insane physical performances I’ve ever seen, from vein popping sermonizing to ‘lude-induced near paralysis. Jonah Hill goes toe to toe with the formidable DiCaprio, and their relationship is one of the best love stories in cinema this year. If you consider ‘Wolf’ in the lens of Scorsese’s other works, it falls into many of his oft-repeated themes: obsession, homosocial relationships, the dark depths of the human soul, religion. The religious theme was especially interesting to consider in such a godless movie, but the speeches that Jordan delivers to his subjects at Stratton Oakmont feel like tent revivals, his preaching lathering up his minions into a religious, almost cult-like fervor as they pound their chests in the rhythm of Matthew McConaughey’s hypnotic chant. For all the sex (which isn’t even that sexy—another Scorsese hallmark), drugs, shipwrecks, ODs, and wild criminal excesses of the film, these scenes of blind worship at the altar of money are the most important takeaway, and one hopes that those who are swept away by the titillating bad behavior understand that this is not a celebration but an indictment. It should be noted, that for however long and excessive the film is, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is the most visually brilliant part of the film and is the engine behind the complicated storytelling. Both Schoonmaker and DiCaprio deserve every award and plaudit for this flawed but often great film.
9. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
“Catching Fire” made me believe in big Hollywood filmmaking again. Somewhere around July, whenever movie blogger Twitter collectively lost its shit over whatever dumb villain was revealed by Marvel in San Diego, and in the wake of a disappointing screening of “Pacific Rim” (total silly nonsense) I just decided that nope, I was boycotting big budget, action, superhero movies. They are never really that good to begin with, so that standard by which we hold them is drastically different from that to which we hold other movies. Then I saw “Catching Fire,” which utterly swept me away. Okay, so I’m a fan of the books, but this film is a near perfect adaptation, which is a very difficult thing to do. I was emotionally immersed from the get go, taken with the performances, design, storytelling, etc. But what “Catching Fire” gets so right, which is the downfall of most other big superhero action movies, are the stakes. Everything in the film has deadly serious consequences—every smile, every look, and every action of Katniss (the always excellent Jennifer Lawrence) carefully considered and used for or against her, and these stakes, big or small, are pitched perfectly. The film truly makes you care if the characters live or die and that there is actual weight and heft and consequence to their actions. Every performance is near career best, from Stanley Tucci to Elizabeth Banks to Jena Malone to Jeffrey Wright. Basically, I loved every second of it, flaws and all, and I had a huge smile plastered on my face the whole time. Katniss made me believe in superheroes again (I’m still not seeing “Batman vs. Superman” though), and I can’t wait to watch it with my tween niece.
8. “Frances Ha”
“Frances Ha” is reminiscent in its style and milieu of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” with Greta Gerwig’s Frances as the neurotic struggling protagonist. It’s nice to have a new Woody Allen, especially since our feelings about the old one are pretty conflicted, both personally and professionally (Cate Blanchett IS remarkable in “Blue Jasmine,” but that is NOT a women’s picture. It’s a picture about a man’s idea of women, and a rather mean-spirited one at that). The broad planes of Gerwig’s face, her large eyes and blonde hair soak up the black and white cinematography of “Frances Ha”—she’s like a Lempicka portrait, with her almost Art Deco facial structure a perfect complement to the cityscape. As much as Frances is looking for (a modern) love, and struggles with being undateable, what we learn is that it’s really the story about the twilight of a romance between best friends, and ultimately a love story of Frances and herself. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have created a character who rings with the delight and sadness of recognition: we see Frances in ourselves and others, but the greatest achievement of Frances is that we only want to see more of her.
7. “The Act of Killing”
Many get caught up in the sheer psychological horror of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about Indonesian war criminals and murderers, but the film is about so much more than the act of killing, it’s about the impact of films and filmmaking itself. These death squad leaders (former movie gangsters who scalped tickets) took inspiration from their favorite Hollywood movies for their acts, and Oppenheimer uses the filmmaking process as a way too elucidate and illuminate for these men the horrors that they visited upon innocent people. The look of devastation that finally cracks Anwar Congo’s face when the true impact of his actions dawns on him illustrates the power of the reflective mirror of cinema. “The Act of Killing” is unlike anything else, and it careens from the absurd to the horrific to the sublime, never allowing the viewer to stew in a particular emotion for too long. It’s hilariously funny at times and exceedingly grotesque at others; it leaves a feeling of deep spiritual and intellectual destruction long after it has ended. More than just an exposé of these crimes, it’s a landmark documentary that pushes the form of storytelling in the genre and demonstrates the power of what this medium can do.
6. “The Punk Singer”
Coming in late in 2013, this documentary bio of Kathleen Hanna, feminist punk icon and founder of the riot grrl movement, instantly made its way onto my list of favorite films for the year. Archival videos capture Hanna at her most vital: pure bouncing energy radiating off the stage as the lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and interviews with other grunge and punk artists as well as feminist thinkers add context and commentary. The film (directed by Hanna’s friend Sini Anderson) seeks to understand why Hanna stopped performing in 2005, and while that quickly drifts away in the retelling of the legend of Kathleen Hanna, later in the film it is finally revealed that Hanna has been suffering from late-stage Lyme disease, nearly debilitated by the mysterious autoimmune disorder. Despite the drama and tragedy of the disease, that the film is really about her and her legacy more than anything else demonstrates what an iconic force of energy Hanna is. And her relationship with Beastie Boy Ad-Rock is the best rock love story of the year. Inspiring and enlightening, here’s hoping “The Punk Singer” will introduce Hanna to a new generation of fans.
5. “Touchy Feely”
Lynn Shelton’s latest isn’t perfect, but damn if its highs don’t exceed just about everything else I’ve seen this year, packing more emotional wallop into a single scene than most films do in their entire running time. In the story of a physically detached massage therapist, Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt), and her brother Paul (Josh Pais), a dentist who discovers his own healing touch, Shelton expands the scope of her cinematic universe with more characters and relationships, creating a web of missed or fleeting connections. Abby’s niece Jenny (Ellen Page) is stuck in limbo working for her father and harboring an illicit crush on Abby’s younger boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy) who is utterly mystified by Abby’s new bodily disgust (Allison Janney as her Reiki guru steals the show as always). Shelton’s films find the fantastical in the everyday, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the magic in the mundane, but it’s all grounded in reality, which is both devastating and uplifting. Culminating in a song by Tomo Nakayama, exes Abby and Adrian (Ron Livingston) share a moment, while elsewhere others find connection in different combinations all too briefly. This scene is a moment of true love but also an emotional gut punch, packing both a swoon and heartbreak. It’s lovely to see Shelton’s progression, and we’re lucky to witness her continuing to work and grow as a filmmaker.
4. “Crystal Fairy”
I didn’t expect to be so taken with the hippie-dippie road trip film “Crystal Fairy,” but Gaby Hoffmann’s brave and intoxicating return to the screen, and Michael Cera’s brilliant playing against type, combined with a trio of chill Chileans completely won me over. Sebastian Silva’s film seems light on the surface: well-off American asshole Jamie (Cera) goes on a journey to find a hallucinogenic cactus with his Chilean buddies and a tag-along hippie named Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann). The film has an easy way about it, charming and quirky, with laughs at the expense of Crystal’s copious body hair, and Jamie’s neurotic jerkiness. But towards the end, it reveals a much darker, and more loving, side to it than expected. It’s really a film about transformation, and about acceptance of oneself through the acceptance of others (and vice versa?). Hoffmann, a former child star, has recently returned to acting, and she is simply magnetic on screen (she’s also the standout of the forthcoming “Goodbye World“). It’s refreshing to see Cera working a different groove, proving there’s more to him than expected; and Silva’s brothers, as their Chilean buddies, are utterly winning. A gem of a picture.
3. “After Tiller”
For their documentary debut, Lana Wilson and Martha Shane bravely took on one of the most controversial subjects that begs for discussion in this country: abortion. The result is a delicately wrought, sensitively told, and deeply intimate film that pays loving tribute to the four doctors in the U.S. who continue to perform late-term abortions, as well as the women who seek out their services. Wilson and Shane were granted access to confidential counseling sessions (shooting the women and men from the neck down), which allows them to capture details such as a hand wringing a Kleenex, or a nervously tapping shoe, but also, the heartbreaking decision-making process that these women and couples have had to go through. These sessions also capture the deep sensitivity of these doctors, so often labeled as “monsters” by anti-abortion groups, and which this film portrays as anything but. The remarkable thing about a film like “After Tiller” is the way in which Wilson and Shane take such a political topic and turn it into something so personal. The feminist movement that bore Roe v. Wade declared “the personal is political,” and it seems Wilson and Shane are attempting to remind us of that in a world that, politically, remains staunchly divided and antagonistic. While lawmakers debate the ins and outs of women’s reproductive rights, “After Tiller” quietly and steadfastly shows us the personal stories of those who are most affected by those laws. In their exploration of the world after the late Dr. Tiller, a film like this reminds us of his motto: “trust women.”
2. “Spring Breakers”
Harmony Korine’s tribute to/skewering of the American tradition of spring break was one of the most radical, anarchic films of recent memory, rippling with a heady, revolutionary energy. I have referred to “Spring Breakers” as “Scarface 2013,” for its similarities in colorfully depicting what is essentially a capitalist existential crisis, all in an outrageously outré package. “Scarface” (1933) and “Scarface” (1983) were films that represented the violent appropriation of the American Dream by those who were denied fair access to opportunity in America—racially outcast immigrants. “Spring Breakers” creates a world in which young women (similarly oppressed, but in different ways), take up this gangster narrative in order to insert themselves into this system. Objectified and sexualized by society (see: opening sequence), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) use their sexuality as an in to this dark underworld, and then take it over from the inside. But regardless of these associations and allegories, the film is a remarkable piece of art: a dreamy, woozy film that abstracts memory, fantasy, horror and debauchery into a neon-smeared, cannabis-dusted work that’s one of the more immersive cinematic experiences of 2013. An “Apropos de Nice” for the millennial generation. Spring break forever, bitches.
1. “Short Term 12”
Destin Daniel Cretton’s second feature is a finely crafted piece of cinema that excels in every aspect: performance, cinematography, emotion, storytelling, and tone all coming together to create a film that is specifically of a piece, and what a piece it is. Cretton’s ability to balance the dark and light moments of life at a short term foster care facility, and taking the effort to focus on each character’s story creates a film that feels very authentic and very fresh. He also has a sensitive and devastating way of revealing information about the characters and their stories, peeling back layer after layer, weaving a story of trauma, sadness, and ultimately hope. Brie Larson, as the troubled Grace, gives a stunning performance of a woman trying to balance it all and her own fucked up past, and she is riveting, by far one of the best female performances this year. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well, capturing every aspect of life: humor, desperation, devastation, rage, love. Emotional and perfectly balanced, Cretton’s sensitive storytelling is the kind we need to see more of.
The “12 Years a Slave” Question:
Steve McQueen’s work is challenging in a way that not many other films are. He presents total abject suffering in beautiful and painterly ways, his mastery of cinematic form and ability to elicit performance unparalleled. However, when I paid my 14 bucks and sat down in my seat, my only feeling was dread. “WHY am I paying to do this to myself?” I asked out loud. And there were two sequences where I was slouched down almost horizontal in my seat, hands over my eyes, repeating the mantra “I don’t want to do this,” under my breath (yes, my film going companions were extremely annoyed). “12 Years A Slave” is a crucially important film that many, many people should see and experience, but I don’t know if I loved or even liked it. Those words seem woefully inadequate to even describe a film like this. Particularly compared to last year’s “Django Unchained,” which I found offensive and tacky in its portrayal of slavery, McQueen’s vision is sorely needed and desperately important. But it was one of the most miserable film going experiences I’ve had in a long time. And, really, that’s kind of the point.
Other Notable Releases:
The Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” has continued to grow on me the more I think about it, and Oscar Isaac is fantastic, but the film is so egregiously shitty to its female characters who are either harpies, bitches, hags, or all three that I can’t in good conscience put it on my Top 10. The soundtrack is great though, and it’s really stuck with me. I also loved the big dumb “Pain and Gain,” a blast of sheer energy—the American Dream on ‘roids. “Mud” was fantastic, with Matthew McConaughey just hitting it out of the park, as he also does in the great “Dallas Buyers Club.” “In A World…” is probably my favorite feature debut of the year, and I can’t wait for Lake Bell’s next. “Nebraska” is a sweet slice of nostalgia, fusing old time values with new world realities. “American Hustle” is a total mess, but it’s almost worth it for the scene of Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams disco dancing (a remake of “Saturday Night Fever” starring those two could be awesome), and Adams is the absolute best of that film.
On the doc side, “Blackfish” rendered me absolutely speechless—a snuff film that skewers corporate capitalism and PR speak on the tip of its harpoon. Both “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City” celebrated the heyday of making music in two very different and very special places. Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” was a fantastic approach to non-fiction storytelling, but something about the reenactments left me a bit cold. Still, Polley is one of the most creative filmmakers working today. The Robert Reich doc “Inequality for All” lays out the problem of wealth inequality in stark, yet humane ways—a double feature with “Wolf of Wall Street” would be stunningly sobering.
2014 Films To See
I was lucky enough to see a trio of films by female filmmakers this year that were truly remarkable, medium-pushing and daring in voice that I must recommend seeking out. The first, “It Felt Like Love,” directed by Eliza Hittman, paints a vibrantly honest and authentic portrait of adolescent female sexuality that is anchored by two stunning performances by newcomer actors Gina Piesanti and Ronen Rubinstein. It played in the 2013 Sundance NEXT category and will be released in early 2014. A dark and dreamy debut, definitely keep an eye out for it. The others were documentaries that played at Rooftop Films this summer: “i hate myself :)” by Joanna Arnow and “Elena” by Petra Costa were the two most creative and innovative documentaries I saw in 2013 and pushed the boundaries of the medium in new ways. In “i hate myself :)” Arnow fuses cinéma vérité with Lena Dunham-style confessional cinema, turning the lens on herself and her relationship with volatile poet James. Quickly though, the film becomes less about him, and more about her, her relationship to herself, her sexuality, her family, and to the filmmaking process itself. It’s very bold and very brave. “Elena” is a tribute to Petra Costa’s late sister, an attempt to recreate and retrace her steps; to bring her back to cinematic life (in attempt, a bit like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” in result, more like the abstractions, memories, and poetic cityscapes of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil”). The film is sensual, intoxicating; a heady brew made up of home videos, letters and diaries read by Costa, and footage of New York City and their native Brazil. Abstract, artful and heartbreaking. I highly recommend all three when they become available, and perhaps they may even make it onto my 2014 list.
Oliver Lyttelton’s Top 15 Films List: Damn, what a year. I’ve had tough decisions to make when it came to putting together my year-end list before, but never as tough as this time: I could have fairly happily gone through 50 picks and still be talking about movies I liked a lot, but I figured I’m being indulgent enough with 15 rather than 10 as it is.
A quick word before we start: while many writers, including Playlist colleagues, stick strictly to U.S. release dates when compiling their lists, I simply go by whatever I’ve seen, providing it’s relatively new, and in theaters. Being based in the U.K, release dates sometimes get wonky, but beyond that, I’d rather reflect my own moviegoing year and come up with something personal than stretch myself to write about a movie that I saw eighteen months ago at a festival. That means that “Wadjda,” “The Hunt,” “Stories We Tell,” “No” and “Sightseers,” all of which made my list last year, aren’t on this year’s list: if you’re a stickler for release schedules, feel free to insert them wherever you feels appropriate.
15. “The Kings Of Summer”
For the most part, form follows function with big-screen comedy. There’s the odd exception (more than one on this list, not coincidentally), but for the most part, even A-list comedy directors like Paul Feig and Adam McKay, both of whom delivered films in 2013 that were stacked with laughs, seem wildly uninterested in doing much more than pointing their camera at funny people. That “The Kings Of Summer” wants more is one of the things that makes it so exciting: it’s a comedy that’s genuinely beautiful, with a lyrical, borderline-expressionist feel that proves you can be balls-out funny and aesthetically pleasing. But it’s not just a picture-postcard with some gags, either, because there’s real substance here. While the dominating theme of cinematic comedy of the last decade has been of arrested development, of the perpetual man-child, this feels refreshing because it’s about the reverse: kids who desperately want to grow up before they’re quite ready to, and amidst the belly-laughs, there’s a yearning, melancholy tone that imbues meaning without drifting into sentimentality (it’s about five times more effective than the similar-on-the-surface “Mud,” for one). It also announces, in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, writer Chris Galletta and its absurdly talented young cast, the arrival of a host of hugely exciting new voices. The film might have been overlooked on release, but I’d wager that a decade from now, it’s going to feel like the arrival of a new wave of comedy filmmakers in the same way that, say, “Freaks & Geeks” did fifteen years ago.
14. “Starred Up”
This tiny, fierce little British prison-set gem was overlooked by most at Telluride and TIFF this year, and it’s easy to understand why: a cast of mostly unknowns, a director (David Mackenzie, of “Young Adam” and “Hallam Foe“) who’d never quite lived up to his potential, and a genre, the prison flick, that’s inspired almost as many terrible Britflicks as “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels.” But when I caught up with it at the London Film Festival, it bashed me around the head like a sock full of snooker balls — it’s a firecracker of a movie, a brutal, yet deeply tender drama that’s lingered long after more prestigious and hyped fare has come and gone. The film (written authentically and even a little poetically by former prison psychologist Jonathan Asser), sees borderline-psychotic ultra-violent young offender Eric (Jack O’Connell, who’s about to become a huge star) sent to the same wing of the same prison in which his dad (Ben Mendelsohn) has been serving a life sentence since Eric was knee-high. Father doesn’t want much to do with father, and vice versa, but there’s soon a three-way battle for Eric’s soul, as both creepy crimelord Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) and compassionate psychologist Oliver (Rupert Friend) start to make impressions on the young’un. It’s an uncompromising and brutal film (Eric spends one entire early scene with his teeth clamped onto the genitals of a prison guard), but the violence feels real, never stylized or glamorized, and the tos-and-fros of prison life have the quiet assuredness of “A Prophet.” And in O’Connell in particular (though all the cast are great), it has a performance for the ages: a feral nightmare one moment, a scared little boy the next. Fans of muscular, no-nonsense crime films, you need to mark your diaries for this when it hits in 2014.
13. “The Wind Rises”
If you’re going to go out, go out on a high. Steven Soderbergh did that this year, with “Behind The Candelabra,” if you believe he’s retiring, and Hayao Miyazaki, the animation genius behind “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away,” among many, many others, did it too, announcing his retirement on the day that “The Wind Rises” premiered for international audiences in Venice. And it’s a remarkable way to end a remarkable career: a film with all the artistry that we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli, but by some distance proving to be a more grounded and realistic work, doing away with the giant cat creatures and courier-witches and flying pigs and moving castles that have defined his work. “The Wind Rises” is a deeply personal story, one of a man obsessed by his craft — in this case, airplane design, rather than animation, but hardly a million miles away. It’s an almost unique insight into the mind of the director, who makes his driven hero a figure of sympathy even when he’s ignoring his dying wife or, more controversially, that his planes are going to be used as war machines the latter sparked a backlash, though I’d say that the film absolutely and clearly deals with the price that Jiro pays for his obsession). It’s rich, thematically speaking — though sometimes chafes against the biopic structure, probably the reason I won’t rank it with “Princess Mononoke” and “Porco Rosso” among Miyazaki’s very best — but appropriately, it’s the artistry that shines through, with images and moments (the earthquake, the paper planes, the wedding sequence) that stop your damn heart. It’s the perfect note on which to say goodbye to one of our very best.
Holy shit: it speaks to the quality of the year we’ve had, that a film like “Gravity” can’t even crack my top ten. So much has been said already, in every quarter, about Alfonso Cuaron‘s bravura spectacle: I’ve had conversations about this more than any other movie in the last twelve months, and it’s undoubtedly the one that, when we look back on 2013, will be the film that defines the year. My first viewing, at the premiere screening in Venice, was the thrill ride: one of the tensest experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, a quite literally nail-biting 90 minutes. But it was the second viewing, months later, that hammered home why I don’t think I’ll ever understand those who see the film as nothing more than an amusement park attraction. There’s a soulfulness to Cuaron’s film that’s rare in the blockbuster world, as Sandra Bullock‘s astronaut goes from a shut-away loner who wouldn’t be all that unhappy drifting off into space, to someone fighting desperately to make it back to the rest of humanity. No, the backstory isn’t especially innovative, or subtly introduced, but thanks to Bullock’s performance, it proves enormously affecting. But of course, it’s Cuaron that’s the star here, and as someone who considers “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Children Of Men” two of the best films of the 00s, it’s enormously satisfying to find Cuaron finding critical and popular acceptance on this broad a scale.
11. “Only Lovers Left Alive”
Historically, I’ve never especially gotten on with Jim Jarmusch — “Ghost Dog” made an early impression on me, and I love “Dead Man,” but I’ve mostly failed to connect with his early work, and actively disliked the more recent likes of “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits Of Control.” But no such problem with “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which I straight-up adored on just about every level, and again, I’m sort of puzzled that this isn’t in my top five, let alone my top ten. Excuse the pun, but Jarmusch somehow manages to find new blood in the vampire genre, which has otherwise faced increasingly diminishing returns over the years, by playing up the ennui: Tom Hiddleston‘s Adam and Tilda Swinton‘s Eve are mostly just bored by their many centuries (millennia?) of life, just about in love with each other to keep going, but starting to realize that their civilized existence may not be the way forward. It’s a wickedly funny and quietly sexy little film (thanks principally to the two stars, who are the best screen couple of 2013 and 2014), but one infused with a deep melancholy, not least when John Hurt‘s Christopher Marlowe comes on screen. More than anything I saw this year (with maybe one exception), this had a mood quite unlike anything else, a killer soundtrack and some top-notch photography by Yorick Le Saux combining with Jarmusch’s effortless command of mood and tone to build a world that I’ve spent months wanting to return to.
10. “The Great Beauty”
If this was a list of the Most Movies of 2013, “The Great Beauty” would happily sit on top: in a year where Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, Harmony Korine and David O Russell, among others, documented American excess with excess, it took an Italian to show how it’s really done, with a two-and-a-half hour epic that felt like a dozen films crashing into each other. Paolo Sorrentino‘s film has been divisive, and I can absolutely see where the detractors are coming from: it’s indulgent, unruly, self-absorbed, overly indebted to Fellini, messy, probably overlong, certainly unevenly paced and sometimes baffling. But all of that can be true, and it can still also be vital, gorgeous, deeply rich, and genuinely soul-stirring, as Sorrentino eventually corrals his episodic stops into the story of a man who’s searched for beauty his whole life and found mostly corruption and rottenness. It does (just) add up to something satisfying, but really, it’s a film both about, and glorying in, the little moments: the astonishing party sequence that out-Gatsbied “The Great Gatsby,” the child art prodigy, the glimpses of Rome at dawn, the ancient nun making a pilgrimage up a stone staircase, the incomprehensibly beautiful teenage girl who can haunt an entire lifetime. It’s a film about, and in celebration of, beauty, and the sharp stings that so often come with it.
9. “12 Years A Slave”
Sometimes it takes an outsider to really get to the heart of the problem, and it’s sort of notable that by far the best American movie about slavery — or really, any movie about slavery — comes from a British filmmaker (albeit one with his roots in Grenada). There’s no politeness in “12 Years A Slave,” no desire to forgive or excuse, and no reluctance to offend, but simply a retelling of one man’s story in the same clear and sparse style that director Steve McQueen brought to “Hunger” and “Shame” (the latter of which could easily have lent its title to this film). There’s no interest in shielding the viewer from the many indignities and outrages of America’s greatest disgrace, from the monstrous — that unforgettable flogging sequence, which made me feel physically sick, something that I’m probably not alone in — to the, well, more quietly monstrous — Benedict Cumberbatch‘s character, who’s as kind to Solomon as he could be, given that he doesn’t consider him to be a human being. And it could risk being unwatchable, were it not for the finely modulated tone of McQueen, who knows his own technique just well enough to keep it palatable, and for the deeply humane performances at the center. In particular, it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who towers above everyone: my favorite working actor finally gives the performance that lets everyone else know what a once-in-a-generation talent he is.
For a minute, it seemed like I wasn’t going to catch up with “Her,” which was almost heart-breaking: I loved Jonze’s first two films, “Where The Wild Things Are” topped my 2009 list, and I very nearly included “I’m Here” on my top 10 the year after, despite the latter only being a 30-minute short. Thankfully, fate came through, and I managed to catch up, and my heart got to break in an entirely different way: with “Her,” Jonze has delivered his most personal and idiosyncratic film to date, one that unexpectedly hit me like a dump truck full of iPhones. Undoubtedly a close cousin of the “I’m Here” short, Jonze (in his first solo self-penned script) delivers a delicate break-up record of a movie, one wracked with self-loathing and pain, as Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that somehow, is at least the equal of his seemingly-untouchable work in “The Master” last year) attempts to get over his broken marriage and unexpectedly falls for his artificially intelligent operating system, only to find himself being left behind again. It would be so easy for the film to become mopey and self-pitying, but somehow Jonze keeps it away from bleakness, in part thanks to how good Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams (the latter in particular being the most inexplicably overlooked performance of the year) all are. As personal and deeply moving as it all is, Jonze has more on his mind, though, and he sneaks in one of the most complex and engaged examinations of the singularity (and sets in the most rigorously and convincingly designed near-future we can remember), all under the guise of a love story. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jonze himself might be some highly advanced artificial intelligence: it’s the only way that he can pull all of this off so effortlessly.
7. ” Upstream Color”
It’s fascinating when a filmmaker changes course completely, especially when they’ve left years between projects. Whatever I was expecting from Shane Carruth‘s second feature, nine years on from his first, it probably wasn’t “Upstream Color,” which is almost exactly the opposite of his debut “Primer,” while clearly and evidently coming from the same filmmaker. While “Primer” was intellectually dazzling, but chilly and technically makeshift, “Upstream Color” is a virtuoso, hugely accomplished piece of filmmaking that puts emotion above narrative coherence. Emotion might not even be the right word for it: Carruth’s after something more primal here: the lurch you get in your stomach when you’re attracted to someone even if you’re not sure why, the desperate panic when loved ones are in harm’s way, the breathlessness and nausea when you think your personal space, or even body, has been invaded. No film in 2013 made me feel more than “Upstream Color,” and an early morning festival screening meant walking around in a haze for hours after, not quite sure what I’d just seen (though I think it’s more narratively coherent than many give it credit for, especially after a rewatch), and almost wanting to shake it, but also not willing to trade the experience for anything. Even if “Upstream Color” was the only great movie to be released in 2013 — and as we’ve already seen, that’s far from the case — Shane Carruth’s return alone would have been reason to celebrate.
6. “Frances Ha”
Sometimes, it’s all about seeing a film at the right time. There was probably no better audience, then or now, for “Star Wars” than someone who was eight-years-old in 1977. And in the same way, no-one, my older self included, will ever love “The Matrix” like I loved it at holy-shit-that’s-cool thirteen, or fall for “Donnie Darko” like I fell for it at who-knows-what-my-hormones-are-doing sixteen, or cherish “The Red Shoes” like I cherished it at fell-asleep-during-it-in-class-with-my-first-love’s-head-on-my-shoulder nineteen. And “Frances Ha” is probably one of those films. I suspect that I’ll still adore it in forty years, because Noah Baumbach‘s filmmaking is top-flight, because the dialogue sparkles and sings, because Greta Gerwig is ludicrously wonderful in it, and because the music’s great. I’ll show it to my children because it’s a film about female friendship and lord knows there aren’t enough of those, and I’ll show it to significant others, because if they don’t swoon a little as Frances dances to “Modern Love,” or beam at the final shot, then I won’t be entirely sure it’s going to work out. But no matter how many times I rewatch it, it won’t have the same impact as when I sat down to watch it for the first time, a couple of months after turning 27 (like Frances, “not a real person yet”), and a couple of weeks after, probably foolishly, leaving a full-time job to focus on being broke and shuffling between accommodation and doing creative things for no money. It’s like Baumbach and Gerwig had bottled up all my insecurities and nighttime panics and hopes and dreams, shot them in gorgeous black-and-white and cut them together with a featherlight, almost Lubitschian touch. And that’s why I couldn’t have loved “Frances Ha” more than I did in 2013.
5. “The World’s End”
There are not many perfect movie trilogies. Some major achievements — “Lord of the Rings,” “The Godfather,” “Star Wars,” “Back To The Future” — go off the boil with the final film, others — Nolan’s “Batman” — kick off slowly. But 2013 saw the “Toy Story,” “Three Colors,” “Apu” and “Dollars” trilogies joined by an unlikely newcomer — the Cornetto trilogy. “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” already numbered among the best comedies of the past decade, skillfully and uproariously turning out some of the most rewatchable and quotable films in recent memory, but Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nira Park et al excelled themselves with the trilogy closer “The World’s End.” Consolidating the themes of the early films — individualism, selfishness, pubs, ultraviolence — and adding all kinds of new concerns, it’s also the most technically accomplished film of the three, Wright taking the Hollywood tricks he picked up on “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and bringing them to a commuter-belt British new town with a secret. But more importantly, it’s also the strangest and richest of the trilogy, a film that, like many of the best comedies knows when to step off the gag pedal. I was expecting the intricately-designed, always-paying-off-and-paying-back screenplay, and the astonishingly good fight sequences, but I wasn’t expecting a final product that was so profoundly sad, a raucous, but melancholy sci-fi action-comedy about addiction, friendship, aging, the way that You Can’t Go Home Again, and humanity’s inalienable right to be fucking awful. Gary King & co are the crowning achievement of the Cornetto trilogy, and more than ever, reason to be enormously excited about what Wright & co end up doing next.
There might not be a better feeling, as a watcher of movies, than taking a chance on something and having your head blown off your shoulders as a result. That’s what happened to me with “Ida,” a little black-and-white wonder of a movie that I happened to watch on screener during the London Film Festival this year, based less on buzz from elsewhere (there wasn’t really any), and more on my love for British-based Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski‘s “My Summer Of Love” a decade ago. And thank God I did, because the brisk little Bressonian miracle (which went on to win the top prize at the LFF) is one of the best-crafted films of the year, and an absolute must-see when it rolls around to non-festival audiences in 2014. It’s a simple tale, barely breaking the 80 minute mark, but Pawlikowski makes his story — of an orphan woman, a trainee nun in 1960s Poland, on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers she’s Jewish, and goes on a road trip with her sole living relative in search of her parents’ burial site — as rich and rewarding as a novel. It’s shot in an enormously striking manner in Academy ratio black-and-white, flecked with wry humor, deep humanity and Soviet chic cool, and blessed by a pair of outstanding performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, but it’s also grappling with big questions for such a little movie, with faith, death and the Holocaust, even if it’s ultimately got more modest aims. With immaculate framing, crystal-clear storytelling and slow-burn pain like this, it’s a wonder that Pawlikowski isn’t considered among the top rank of international filmmakers, but as more and more people catch up to “Ida,” that should change before long.
3. “Under The Skin”
No film this year had a more appropriate title than “Under The Skin.” When the closing credits roll on the gorgeous, horrifying, almost indescribable new film from “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” director Jonathan Glazer, you suspect you’ve seen something remarkable, but you’re not quite sure: you’re still processing, unpacking and puzzling over it. And then, over the next few hours, days, and even weeks, it becomes apparent that Glazer’s film has embedded itself in you like a parasite, making it difficult to do anything but process, unpack and puzzle over “Under The Skin,” a film that seems to have penetrated every pore of you. Opening with a series of abstractions that seem like Glazer sticking two fingers up at an audience expecting a sexed-up “Species” re-do, the next couple of hours parcel out some of the most spectacular, searing images I can remember on the big screen, with DoP Daniel Landin showing a Gordon Willis-like capability for photographing darkness, and one FX-aided image in particular proving especially haunting. And at the centre is Scarlett Johansson, in her second great otherworldly performance of the year, but while “Her” relied solely on her voice, “Under The Skin” rests entirely on her physicality, and it’s a movie-star turn, sultry and innocent simultaneously, without which the film wouldn’t work. Her turn, along with those images, the hypnotic rhythm, and the instant classic of a score by Mica Levi, burrowed deep into me when it screened in Venice and, four months on, still haven’t let go.
If you’re going to go to another country and back for a day to see one movie, your expectations are naturally going to be a touch higher than they otherwise would be. So when The Playlist sent me to Paris for the afternoon in order to see the uncut, original version of Bong Joon-Ho‘s “Snowpiercer,” which was being released in France, but may or may not see the light in the rest of the world, the pressure was on. But the man behind “Memories Of Murder,” “The Host” and “Mother” wasn’t about to start letting me down, and his first English-language film happily sits along his Korean masterworks, and in a year where a number of my favorites included sci-fi elements to various degrees, feels likely to enter the genre’s hall of fame near the very top. A dystopian vision set entirely on board a train ploughing through an icy wasteland, pitting the have-nots at the back (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt) against the haves at the front (personified by a glorious, vicious cartoon of a performance by Tilda Swinton), and it’s a movie of perpetual motion in more than one sense, with Bong’s command of the movement and direction of his camera even more accomplished than in his previous work. It’s also as thrilling as any blockbuster that’s come along in recent times, but with a sense of surprise and invention that Hollywood tentpoles mostly abandoned long ago, with fierce political substance and character turns that would have been noted away in a big studio version before cameras even started rolling. Funny, textured, with a very fine ensemble of performers (Bell and Song joining Swinton as the stand-outs) and thought-provoking, it deserves to be seen by audiences in the U.S and elsewhere without losing a frame.
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Like I said at the top, getting this into any kind of order was a Sisyphean task, given the quality of the films I was considering, and the impossibility of picking between them (ask me again tomorrow, and the order might well have changed: it’s shifted more than once since I started writing the piece). But when it came time to choose the number one pick, it proved relatively simple, when i really thought about it. Ultimately, the Coen Brothers are among the best filmmakers we have working, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of their very best films. So how could I possibly pick anything else? Closer in spirit in tone to “Barton Fink” and “A Serious Man” than to “Raising Arizona” or “O Brother Where Art Thou,” the Coens’ sixteenth feature is both deceptively simple — a folk musician with asshole-ish tendencies bounces from episode to episode, and doesn’t learn much — and fiendishly complex — the circular structure, the road-movie-like tangent trip to Chicago, the layered nature of every relationship. Like “A Serious Man,” this is the Coens at their most novelistic, with a richness and obliqueness that can leave a first-time viewer flailing, but only grows more in stature every time you think about it, and with a command of image (the soft-toned, nostalgic photography by Bruno Delbonnel), and music (that amazing soundtrack) that you could never get from a novel. And at the center, is Oscar Isaac — an initially against-the-grain choice who immediately demonstrates that he’s a titan, with a performance that’s one part insufferable to three parts heartbreaking. It’s a movie that’s, in part, about failure and mediocrity, and the fear of those things, and it’s a particularly Coen-esque joke that the movie itself is a wild, astonishing success.
I Also Loved: It’s possible that, with a second viewing, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” could have cracked the final list — I was a bit nonplussed when I caught up with it a few days ago, but it’s stuck with me, and if nothing else, it feels like Scorsese’s most substantial work in at least fifteen years. If we were talking about the best films of the year, I’d also probably include Tsai Ming-Liang‘s “Stray Dogs,” which is astonishing, but also easier to admire than to love, and my heart ultimately favored other picks.
The opposite is true of “Short Term 12” — I know, intellectually, that the script is too neat for the messy subject matter it deals with, but I also connected very personally with some elements of the film, loved the tone and every performance, and it only just missed the cut. Frederick Wiseman‘s “At Berkeley” is also astonishing, a four-hour documentary that I could have kept watching for hours longer. Ralph Fiennes‘ “The Invisible Woman” was a film I loved unexpectedly (read more here), while in almost any other year, “All Is Lost,” “Computer Chess,” “Before Midnight,” “The Past,” “Stoker,” “What Richard Did,” “Night Moves” and “Tom At The Farm” might all have cracked my list too.
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Pacific Rim” were the most satisfying tentpoles of the year by some distance, while I also found a huge amount to love, if not unreservedly, in “Of Good Report,” “Mistaken For Strangers,” “Locke,” “We Are The Best!,” “Miss Violence,” “A Field In England,” “You’re Next,” “The Last Stand,” “Side Effects,” “Nobody’s Daughter Haewon,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Conjuring,” “Blue Is The Warmest Colour,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” “In The House” and “The Spectacular Now.”
Catching Up: 2012 movies that I didn’t catch up with until the early months of 2013 were led by “Zero Dark Thirty,” a propulsive, gripping and impeccably acted procedural that (not to drag this debate up a year on), doesn’t even remotely come close to endorsing torture, any more so that “Inside Llewyn Davis” endorses unprotected sex and being an asshole. It might have topped my list last year if I’d seen it in time. I also had a blast with “Cloud Atlas,” which divided Playlist staff on release, but which I found bold, exciting and always eminently watchable, even in the moments when it doesn’t quite work.
Worst Film: “A Good Day To Die Hard,” which is barely even a film, more just a collection of fuck-ups, and misreadings of what works about the original “Die Hard.” “Gangster Squad” and “Dom Hemingway” were also thoroughly dislikable, but a bit more competent.
Gabe Toro’s Top 10 on the next page.
Gabe Toro’s Top 10
10. “Blue Ruin”
There are two things I strongly dislike about end-of-year
features. One is including a film like “Blue Ruin” that the general public has
not had a chance to sample, as the picture awaits a 2014 bow. The other is the
phrase “game-changer” for how it further trivializes cinema, already a trivial
enterprise, as something that can be won, like a unanimous victory can somehow
be achieved. With that out of the way, Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” is a
genuine game-changer, the type of picture that’s going to capture the
imaginations of several future filmmakers for decades to come. This
ripcord-tight suspense thriller, about a meek loner who engages in an
ill-advised attempt at revenge, debuted at Cannes, and after seeing it at TIFF, stuck in my head all throughout fall and winter. As I sat through
a raft of ineffectual revenge pictures like ”Out of the Furnace” or the
“Oldboy” remake, I was reminded of Saulnier’s film, which takes every silly
genre trope and reveals it as the petty gimmickry it really is.
9. “The Act of Killing”
There are few words that accurately capture a human reaction
to the horrific truth at the heart of “The Act of Killing,” a contemporary
are-you-watching-this shock that prevents you from looking away. Joshua
Oppenheimer’s doc is a close analysis of the history of modern Indonesia through
the eyes of the “victors,” elderly members of Indonesian death squads who dealt
death door-to-door and lived to laugh about it, free of judgment. What starts out as horrifyingly grotesque becomes
perverse, bizarre, darkly funny and in the end almost touching: the picture
commits the rare feat of feeling breathlessly alien, and also achingly
intimate, crafting contradictions that force the viewer to re-evaluate whatever
fake social consciousness one derives from watching heavily-politicized
documentaries. It’s cinema as catharsis, and it’s unforgettable.
8. “Sun Don’t Shine”
There are few young actresses as electric as Ms. Kate Lyn
Sheil, and as the leading lady at the start of Amy Seimetz‘s feature-length directorial debut, you see her
and immediately register concern. The blush of her cheeks is both disarmingly
vulnerable and ponderously threatening, as if she were a volcano ready to
explode. This gripping thriller finds her in the passenger’s seat for a long,
unexplained drive, with gas running low and secrets in the trunk. Each hint
regarding the nature of the plot not only informs the relationship between this
doomed couple, but also the chasm that separates them, one they don’t even
realize exists until it’s far too late. “Sun Don’t Shine” lives up to its title
visually, but it’s also insanely hot, beholden to the Florida humidity seen
onscreen; it almost makes it seem as if the screen is raining. Within that vibe
is the feeling of desperation, of outrunning the world, the sexual charge that
comes from having someone by your side to dodge your troubles.
7. “Like Someone In Love”
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest gently playful exercise about
identity and perception follows a feeble, elderly Japanese man who orders a
young escort, only to insert himself into her life. His transaction is one of
gentle companionship, even though she plays up a kitten-ish sex appeal, and
ultimately they find a common ground. It’s when her boyfriend makes the mistake
of interpreting him as the girl’s grandfather where a peculiar sort of love
triangle occurs, with each side having their own truth. It’s a sweetly observed
story about the illusions of relationships, yet one that features a provocative
final scene, a moment that suggests the ugly repercussions of relationships as
active performances. Kiarostami’s experiments with formalism have settled into
a playful observational style, and “Like Someone In Love” carries an
almost-musical sense of back-and-forth between its characters, a song that ends
in a way that makes the singers almost sound like prophets.
6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
This loosely-drawn but detailed sketch of the early ’60s folk scene narrows its focus to capture a very specific, earthbound sort of
Coen character. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, fantastic) himself is a bastard of a
guy, a broke, careless snob who sneers at the success of others and persists in
an unattainable sense of integrity that he hides from those who would
ostensibly love him. If you haven’t experienced failure in your life, if you
haven’t been forced to scoop the bottom of the barrel, if you haven’t surfed
couches and relied on the kindness of strangers you treat terribly, if you
haven’t broken someone’s heart, then I’m honestly not sure what one can derive
from “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s a movie you almost want to hide from family
and loved ones, to shield them from the beast that emerges from the failure to
live up to expectations.
Claire Denis remains one of the most provocative filmmakers
in the world, and I fear her dip into “genre” waters with her latest led her
usual fans to dismiss this as something inherently skippable. But the fact that
this is, superficially, a revenge noir hasn’t dulled her evocative storytelling
skills, which take hold of a straightforward story and twist, mangle and
pervert it to cast doubt on the morality of violent justice. “Bastards” is a
picture that sickens and disturbs, but in Denis’ usual way it also titillates and
mesmerizes: the opening alone, with its typically erotic slow-burn Tindersticks
score, is a masterful miasma of images and sequences, each of which tells a
thousand stories on their own. As the core narrative of “Bastards” takes shape,
those stories don’t fade away, down to the most upsetting final few minutes of
Inevitably, I am uneasy calling “Her” a romantic film.
There’s a lot going on in this, the latest from a director who has quietly been
building a staggering filmography of classics about the co-opting of joy and
pleasure in a crooked world. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombley, just the
latest in a string of near-classic post-“retirement” performances, is a broken
man in a lot of subtle ways. But whereas his kindness, pleasant demeanor and
emotional intelligence are tremendously endearing traits, he’s like a lot of
people, too selfish to accommodate a mature relationship, a companion that is
consistently changing, growing, maturing. “Her” is ultimately something of wish
fulfillment, a harrowing metaphor for humanity in the days before a
technological singularity approaches. But it also has the warmth and laughs
that come from the caress of a lover, the shared laugh between you and another
person, the ways in which we can suddenly see the world through someone’s eyes.
In some ways, it may be the loneliest comedy ever made.
3. “Computer Chess”
I sat through the first five minutes of “Computer Chess”
like an absolute snob. Why does this movie look like shit? Why do all these
actors look like blotchy nerds? Why am I wasting such nice weather watching
something that looks like crappy cable access when I could be in the park,
sipping on a nice Scotch underneath a waterfall? It wasn’t until a half hour
later when I settled in and realized that I probably wouldn’t nearly have as
much fun at any movie this year than I would at Andrew Bujalski’s wonderfully
acerbic no-fi comedy. The setting is simple, a weekend hotel summit by computer
programmers attempting to teach artificial intelligence to defeat humans at
chess. What’s really going on is the birth of the modern world, in slow,
tentative steps, the kind of minor evolution that serves greater notice about
the world we would soon live in than any jejune rock montage in “Jobs.”
Eventually the look, which spotlighted a truly unique black-and-white palette,
weaved into the film’s many period-and-place signifiers, all of which were
loaded, like the hotel lobby prostitute with a flimsy wig, the sweaty Luddite
who brings too many drugs, or the repeated, uncomfortable “inclusive”
acknowledgement of the single girl present. By the time the film ended, I
laughed long and hard and wished the projectionist would let it unspool again.
2. “Spring Breakers”
Harmony Korine’s sly deconstructionist crime film is
considered a treatise on “youth culture,” which seems horribly minimizing. It
really seems about the accepted birthright that is hedonism, a birthright the
movie doesn’t outright condemn. Which makes others uncomfortable because of
course it does. Korine is a pusher, and he’s pushing sex, drugs and hip-hop as
the currency of the 21st century. Maybe technology isn’t the enemy:
maybe, as drug-dealing fool Alien notes, it’s “humblin,’” the only thing that
keeps us on the ground when the excess of bad behavior lifts us up. The degradation
implicit in the beach scenes feels primeval, rooted in ugly traditions of human
behavior, divorced from a young-old
divide. This is something America has had coming, Korine is arguing. As Selena
Gomez (not a girl, not yet a woman, she would sing) rambles on the phone to her
grandmother, we see the spirit of inclusion, the sense that yesterday’s
transgression is today’s transcendence—her obliviousness comes from how she
feels closer, almost assimilated with her elder. I don’t think Korine is
mocking these characters: Alien himself has a slight dorkiness that manifests
at random times, but he’s genuine in his feelings, and these girls see in him a
chance to become something new, to transform, to transcend. By the time they’re
in front of a judge, he calls them “spring breakers” as if he were addressing “The
Avengers.” Korine’s proudly cinematic movie would be worth it even if it looked
like garbage. But in fact it’s thrillingly cinematic, with Korine rifling
through filters like a restless child, creating images that burrow deeply
inside your brain. No one walked away from “Spring Breakers” and forgot about
1. “Upstream Color”
When I saw Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” I was
transfixed, seduced, and like all Malick films, ultimately in love. It says a
lot about the quality of this year that I couldn’t find a spot for it in my top
ten (or 20). But I couldn’t avoid this nagging sensation that the experience
was overshadowed by Shane Carruth’s second feature, which I had seen a day
earlier. Malick’s vocabulary always seemed interested in pushing narrative
forward, evolving film into something ethereal, supernatural. And here was
Carruth, pushing the medium more than any other filmmaker this year, utilizing
a few of the Malick tricks to create something thorny, difficult, and in its
own way quite romantic. I have never seen narrative storytelling quite like
this, so evolved beyond the clunky plot-point-to-plot-point way of processing
film that we continue to humor from inept, intellectually-bereft film school
grads given massive studio budgets. In Carruth, here was a man determined to
push things forward: it kills me that such narratively polite pictures like the
pedestrian “Philomena” and the ethically-dimwitted “Saving Mr. Banks” are
figuring into end-of-year conversations when Carruth has made a picture so
intoxicated with the spirit of invention He’s crafted a bent, upsetting love
story from two lovers, one that jumps back and forth into the narrative to
properly convey the way time shifts when you find yourself unwillingly falling
in love, against your wishes, and beyond circumstance. Real romance isn’t like
film romance, where one person selects the other; more often than not, falling
in love is like entering a slipstream, where time becomes an oval, and we rock
back and forth inside it. You can see “Upstream Color” five times and it’s
never once the same film, each moving part feeling like it’s shifting into a
separate direction, breaking off towards a pattern you only recognize from a
dream. It’s the sort of narrative leap-forward no one’s been making, like taking
a time machine to 1937 and showing them “Fight Club.” As our film culture
evolves—and it’s bound to evolve if we have many years like 2013—we’ll see
in “Upstream Color” the seeds of what we’ve become.
I look forward from the discussion raised by Catherine
Breillat’s “Abuse Of Weakness” as well as Aaron Schimberg’s peculiar,
distribution-less festival hit “Go Down Death.” There’s a strange David
Lynchian Iranian movie called “Taboor” that has future cult classic written all
over it, and James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is another success in the increasingly
personal filmmaker’s body of work.
As mentioned, I was greatly shaken by the work of Kate Lyn
Sheil in “Sun Don’t Shine.” But I also found great humanity within Michael
Shannon in the otherwise-dubious b-picture “The Iceman,” as he brought a rocky
gravitas to the sadistic Richard Kuklinski. Julia Louis-Dreyfus also gave one
of the all-time great romantic comedy performances in “Enough Said,” quite
nearly matched by the late James Gandolfini—she’s absolutely radiant, even
when other characters attempt to shame her into spinsterhood. And while the
film was roundly ignored, Rosario Dawson completely held court in the daffy
heist film “Trance,” reminding Hollywood that we’ve been ignoring this
generation’s most over-qualified on-screen Alpha Female.
WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
I found the politics of “The Purge” to be odious and
insincere, and its execution laughable, just another one of the horror industry’s
attempts to remake “Home Alone” (and another in a consistent line of garbage
from Platinum Dunes). Similarly, the politics of “Saving Mr. Banks,” sexual or
otherwise, seemed cowardly and dull, though I shouldn’t have expected anything different
from the director of “The Blind Side.” In a surprisingly decent year for
massive blockbusters, the storytelling in “Star Trek Into Darkness” was
remarkably retrograde, and its visuals tacky and empty. And if I had to guess,
I’d say a certain generation was being pandered to with the glittery yearbook
that was “CBGB,” the credit-card commercial called “The Secret Life of Walter
Mitty” and “The Big Chill” for even worse people that was “Grown Ups 2.” Though
there was something special about the awfulness of “R.I.P.D.,” sort of a
found-badness that almost feels accidental. For something so big, loud and
expensive, it was preciously awful. I want to wrap it up in a shawl and be nice
to it, without ever once contradicting the terrible things people have said.
THE WORST MOVIE OF 2014
Let’s call it: it’s obviously going to be Platinum Dunes’ “Teenage
Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
DIVERSITY, ON OUR TERMS
There are many reasons why the end-of-year awards are going
to the punishing “12 Years a Slave” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” over stuff
like “The Best Man Holiday,” and I get it. That makes sense to me. What doesn’t
make sense is how the industry isolates those films, as if it’s only acceptable
to see black men and women struggling, and in the past. Contemporary black
exceptionalism feels like some sort of verboten topic in Hollywood, and the
tokenism of casting people like Idris Elba and Anthony Mackie in bit parts is
no longer any sort of progress (nor is it progress to keep Elba out of “Pacific
Rim” posters and Mackie removed from “Pain and Gain” DVD art and replaced by an
anonymous white woman). This is an industry that didn’t even bother to screen “Baggage
Claim” for critics, but whom sent me a DVD for “12 Years a Slave” with a
fetishistically-fancy “For Your Consideration” flip book and a reminder before
the DVD to “enjoy” Steve McQueen’s tale of the horrors of slavery. I sat in
during a screening of “The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete,” from director
George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Soul Food,” “Men Of Honor”) and stuck with it for
twenty minutes. And during those twenty minutes, there was academic expulsion,
drug abuse and prostitution, with the peerless Jeffrey Wright as a homeless man
on the street, and Jennifer Hudson injecting drugs in front of her son. I didn’t
even stick it out for Mackie’s appearance, never mind a reversal of sorts
towards hope from Mr. Tillman, a director who tends to push that sort of positive
narrative. Instead, I left. I look forward to seeing it during a different
period, where this sort of problem isn’t an industry epidemic.
What I don’t understand is that we can have both,
miserablism and hope, tragedy and success. “Blue Caprice” was credited for Isaiah
Washington representing some sort of black boogeyman, but his work in that film
is stellar, hypnotic even, and the film properly captures the sort of mental
chemistry imbalance seen in Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane.” And if
the sweet pot comedy “Newlyweeds” earned as much positive talk as the
handwringing from white critics over a new ‘Madea‘ movie that they aren’t even
going to watch, it would be an awards contender. These films feature upsetting
violence and drug abuse in equal measure, but also feature brilliant
performances, superb direction, and a portrait of the contemporary black
experience that doesn’t feel mired by the requirements of a contemporary “black”
film. This is a world where Jay-Z and Wyatt Cenac have to put their names on “An
Oversimplification Of Her Beauty” just to get it into a tiny East Village
theater, while Zack Snyder is given $200 million budgets. That doesn’t seem
FAVORITE FILM EXPERIENCE OF THE YEAR
Every year I head down to Philadelphia for Exhumed Films’ 24
Hour Horror-Thon, a full-day experience where older horror films from all
countries, decades and sensibilities are screened. And every year, it’s the
highlight, as Exhumed manages to secure prints of films both classic and
unbelievably obscure. The magic of the experience, which usually crams 14 films
into a 24-hour period in addition to vintage trailers and shorts, is that none
of the ticket-buyers are told in advance what will be shown.
The event needs no help being publicized, as this year the
tickets sold out within two hours. Ironically, I was in the theater when this
happened, seeing “The Canyons,” an acidic movie about how the movie industry
basically ends (I was eventually able to procure a ticket from a friend). But
ultimately, this is what a movie lover is all about: dimming the lights with
others in front of a big screen, where you have no idea what’s going to
unspool. You only know that it’s going to be something different, something
unfamiliar, something exciting. Original prints too, some of them scratchy, blotchy,
beat-up, and none of them in high-definition or projected digitally, because
all great movies look and sound exactly the same: great. No matter how many
braindead action films come and go, how many covertly capitalist or racist
messages are embedded in movies, how many dull wastes of time there might be,
you can’t remove the purity of the viewing experience itself.