Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn, Andrew O'Hehir and John Powers
January 11, 2014 1:05 PM
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Critics Debate the Highs and Lows of 2013 -- And What to Expect in 2014

EK: Andrew, now that the 2013 top 10 list mania has settled down, we can stop worrying about reducing the year to bite-sized chunks and look back on the whole thing as a single moment in the history of the movies. Or can we? In your year-end article, you said you saw 175 films throughout the year; surely there were some great ones that didn't even make it to your runner-up list. Is it possible to extract an overall narrative of the year in film that does justice to all the great movies released during that time -- or at least most of them? What, if anything, would you consider to be defining characteristics of 2013 cinema? And what got more praise than it deserved?

ANDREW O’HEHIR: I always dread year-end discussions about a whole bunch of movies connected by the accident of chronology, if it is an accident. They remind me of the kind of bogus thumbsucker the NYT Arts & Leisure section used to specialize in, a decade or so ago. You remember: If three or four movies about married couples had come out in a given year, we had to read a 2000-word article about "How Hollywood understands marriage," featuring interviews with whatever academic sociologist was currently peddling a book on the topic.

But John's clearly right that the election of Barack Obama, five years ago now, and the emergence of several high-profile (and often very good) pictures about race this year are connected. I like John's ideas about procedural films and films about isolated heroes, although I'm inclined to think that's more likely to be coincidence than anything else. Filmmakers are also clearly wrestling with the issue of social and economic inequality in America -- it's the issue of our still-young century, so far -- and with the aftermath of another 2008 event, the financial crash.

I don't want to ascribe too much cultural meaning to the awards-season brouhaha pitting supporters of "American Hustle" against supporters of "Wolf of Wall Street," but both pictures are trying, in similar ways and also in strikingly different ways, to get at some essential questions about the American present by examining the American past. It's always fun to watch critics bashing each other, and maybe this makes me a namby-pamby liberal (a label I am always eager to resist!) but it's possible to enjoy both movies for what each does well, without accusing the other one of being pandering garbage. "Wolf" is for me probably a more important movie (whatever that means), but there's tremendous vivacity -- and tremendous social commentary, too! -- in the performances of Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence in "Hustle."

As a certified foreign-film snob, I sadly must second John's conclusion that this wasn't a great year for non-English-language cinema. But there are reasons to hope, or anyway to be curious about what lies ahead. Genre movies continue to grow in importance; the horror filmmakers of Europe, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific regions, in particular, have pretty much left the Yanks behind when it comes to inventive storytelling and pure skullfucking terror. I never reviewed Adrian Garcia Bogliano's Tijuana middle-class horror-thriller “Here Comes the Devil,” for example, but it stuck with me more than most of the movies I watched this fall. I'm beginning to wonder whether the whole Great Man model of Euro-art-house filmmaking has finally expired, much as I love people like Desplechin, Denis, Michael Haneke and so on. The global genre-film wave, movies made inexpensively and consumed largely outside conventional cinematic contexts, is only going to grow.

Jack Plotnick in Quentin Dupieux's "Wrong."

John's very funny on the subject of "Iron Man 3," which along with the second “Hunger Games” movie and the “Hobbit” sequel (and “Fast Furious 6," inexplicably) will be at the very top of the accounting charts when all the 2013 dollars are counted. I actually enjoyed all three of those movies pretty well (didn't see "FF6"), but they epitomize the obvious nature of the theatrical business right now, in which people go in large numbers to mall theaters that strongly resemble Burger King to watch overblown, mechanically produced dramas about conflict and rebellion with highly predictable and reassuring outcomes. It's a strange moment, but one (or so my inner Marxist claims) that is pregnant with possibility.

If we want to pick a fight, I'll say that John's otherwise excellent fave-raves include "Gravity," which left me almost entirely cold. It's brilliant showmanship, I loved the first few minutes, I loved Clooney and I loved the mysterious phone call from Uzbekistan, but the whole latter portion of the film was like the Coney Island Cyclone except not as much fun. I almost wanted to believe the truther theories about how Bullock's really dead at the end! Which no doubt reflects my desire to turn it into a Kubrick or Tarkovsky movie instead of what it is.

A few films to which I wish I'd shown more year-end love: Cristian Mungiu's bleak but powerful "Beyond the Hills," the Taviani brothers' "Caesar Must Die,” the Eastern European sci-fi chiller "Vanishing Waves," the Kubrickian doc "Room 237" (which I simply forgot to include on my list) and Quentin Dupieux's absurdist masterpiece "Wrong," one of the funniest and least appreciated films of the year.

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  • trustie | January 15, 2014 3:34 PMReply

    Great discussion. Perhaps Indie should make this feature more frequent.

  • marsha mccreadie | January 13, 2014 5:48 PMReply

    And how did the quote marks get transcribed to those little "a"?

    Apologies for my program.


  • marsha mccreadie | January 13, 2014 5:42 PMReply

    How great to see a thoughtful discussion like this, and get a peek at some of the intellectual backstory that goes into critic selections. I was especially gratified to see the mention of Caesar Must Die, though I must say it gave me a pang or two, as I had wanted to list it in my 2013 “10 Best” for rogerebert.com, but had listed it the year before. At the time I was writing for the Voice, and asked my then-editor, who had requested “Bests,” if I could list a film I had seen at the NY Film Festival that fall. His response was “Sure, if you saw it last year.” Well, yeah . . . Technically yes, though it still didn’t seem quite right. Though of course a great film in any year, aesthetically innovative, wonderful acting.

    The listing did get me a pull quote alongside A.O. Scott’s in an ad for the film last February, so I guess you could say I was extremely early (or an unwitting cheat) in listing Caesar Must Die as a “10 Best.” It does point up the problem of a movie which opens so early in the year that it can get trampled in your memory bank by other more recently released, even aggressively marketed, movies. And of course brings up the over-all the issue of dating, and opinion-making, for movies which have opened in other spots, some time ago. Did somebody say Nymphomaniac?
    Marsha McCreadie
    Reviewing these days for rogerebert.com and Film Journal International. And much more carefully checking “theatrical release dates.”

  • fernand | January 13, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    Gravity is bit more than a publicity stunt.

  • ernest | January 13, 2014 11:46 AMReply

    Great piece. Thanks.

  • afsahsadgf | January 12, 2014 12:16 PMReply

    Gravity is overrated as shit take away the 3d and you have ok acting a terrible story and some of the most basic symbolism ever seen

  • LS | January 11, 2014 7:04 PMReply

    Confused. How is Frances Ha related to I Am Sam? If you wanted to argue it was a pretentious Woody Allen rehash, sure, okay. Did a name get confused?

  • David Ehrenstein | January 11, 2014 4:52 PMReply

    Grievously ignored: "Hannah Arendt," "Kill Your Darlings," "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet," "The Happy Sad," and "What Maisie Knew."

  • pam | January 11, 2014 3:11 PMReply

    Andrew O'Hehir, can you please explain how the Iron Man movie & Catching Fire can have similar "reassuring outcomes"? I thought John Powers comments on Iron Man were accurate & devastating, (& you seemed to agree with him). That is a movie featuring a wealthy white man who acts to preserve the world in which he lives & to maintain the status quo. In Fire a young poor white woman opposes poverty & a despotic government, (& she does not get to do this from within an iron suit!). How can you not include Fire as one of the movies exploring the
    "issue of social and economic inequality in America"?

  • Lawrence | January 11, 2014 1:26 PMReply

    Wonderful read. Just one thing--unrelated to film: is it possible for you guys to have a "view as single page" button? It just makes it easier when viewing on mobile or when I want to use an app like Pocket to save it for later.