Welcome to Critical Consensus, Indiewire’s recurring column in which two critics from our Criticwire Network discuss topics in current cinema with Indiewire critic Eric Kohn. This week, Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir trades e-mails with Vogue’s John Powers about the best and worst of 2013 as well as what they’re anticipating in the new year.
ERIC KOHN: John, your top 10 list overlaps with Andrew's to some degree, although you include two major fall season films absent from his list: "Gravity" and "American Hustle." Taking these studio movies into account, do you think this was a more promising year than usual for Hollywood filmmaking? The studios had a rough summer, but do these films make up for it? Or would it make more sense to look at these films as anomalies in an otherwise crass machine?
JOHN POWERS: I don't think that this film year reveals much about Hollywood that we didn't know before. The year's biggest movie, "Iron Man 3," was in a way symptomatic -- an effects-laden sequel that the audience loved even though (because?) its central idea would flatter the most self-regarding of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs -- it's about a billionaire mogul who not only saves the world but gets to be hip while doing it -- and its star is a once-marvelous actor who's now reaching for the paycheck even more nakedly than Robert De Niro.
As for the movies on my list, it's part of the structure of the crass machine (as you dub it) that Hollywood will always turn out a smattering of anomalous films that critics can put on their 10 Best lists and that industry people can not hate themselves for making. Nearly always, such films are directed by the same 10 or 15 people who, thanks to earlier box-office success, a reputation for "genius," or the ability to knock people out in the room, are able to get financing.
On my list this year, those names would be Coen, Cuaron, Jonze, Linklater, McQueen, and Russell -- no real surprises here. (One who would've been surprising, and to my horror, I stupidly left off my list, was Alexandre Moors, whose “Blue Caprice” didn't get the attention it deserved -- including from me.) And if you look at other critics' lists, you'll find names of other established auteur brands -- Scorsese, Allen, and Payne (whose "Nebraska" I found disappointing, perhaps because I'm also from the Cornhusker State and have a vivid memory of it being in color).
There undeniably were trends in American film this year -- a spate of procedural movies like "Gravity," "All Is Lost," and "Captain Phillips," a series of movies about profoundly isolated, even marooned heroes (add to the previous three "Mud," "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "12 Years a Slave"), not to mention the first real flowering of Obama Age films, most of them dealing more or less well with race.
But, when it comes to quality, it all struck me as business as usual. If I seem to be championing a lot of work from Hollywood, that's because 2013 struck me as a down year for non-English-language cinema, especially by directors whose work I've often had on my list: Almodovar's airplane comedy was mirthless, Arnaud Deplechin's "Jimmy P." was as about alive as a cigar-store Indian, Claire Denis' "Bastards" was so laughably rotten that her champions have knocked themselves out acting like it's a brilliant commentary on Late Capitalism.