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Critics Debate the Highs and Lows of 2013 -- And What to Expect in 2014

Indiewire By Eric Kohn, Andrew O'Hehir and John Powers | Indiewire January 11, 2014 at 1:5PM

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.
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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. 

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.

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

EK: Now that we've established your highlights, letdowns and favorite under-appreciated gems from 2013, let's turn to a more epistemological question (if you dare): Who are these movies for? You both single out a distinctive zeitgeist coursing through last year's movies dealing with race, but do their successes actually indicate a demand for these products or are filmmakers keenly working through issues that audiences didn't even realize they so badly wanted to see explored? I would even apply that question to the spectacles of "Gravity" or the nostalgia elements of "American Hustle." Do these films actually make statements on a dearth of quality or neglected possibilities in contemporary cinema? Either way, do you feel that their popularity has the potential to fuel like-minded efforts? Have at it.

JP: You had me at "epistemological" (which, being a mere reviewer, I much prefer to "ontological"). Before I get started with the new question, I'd like to say that what's funny about “Gravity” is that I put it on my 10 Best list AND agree with Andrew. It's a groundbreaking piece of almost purely cinematic showmanship that must daunt the heck out of, say, the mediocre J.J. Abrams, who currently has two outer-space franchises that he won’t be able to make nearly as visually exciting as Cuarón's film.  For that, “Gravity” won a spot on my list, making it one of the rare films I know of that I found both thrilling and almost completely uninteresting. Now that Cuarón has his big visual hit, I hope he goes back to making the movies that made me his fan.

But enough of that. On to epistemology! 

And I’m already floundering. 

IFC "Frances Ha."

It strikes me that there are basically two kinds of filmmakers – those who give the audience what it knows it wants (hi again, J.J.) and those who give the audience what he or she wants to give them. (This is, of course, simplistic. Most of the filmmakers who give the audience what it wants are, at the same time, giving the audience what he or she wants to give them.  They’re not selling out. They’re following their own taste, which happens to be the taste of the mass audience: E.g. James Cameron.) Both approaches can result in good -- or bad -- movies, both can turn out hits -- or flops.  While I generally prefer filmmakers who pursue their own personal vision, I was a whole lot happier watching "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" than watching "Frances Ha," which struck me as a pretentious female remake of "I Am Sam."

It’s undeniable that a slice of the audience is far more responsive to interesting work than the industry thinks it is. Indeed, every single year, there are equivalents to offbeat hits like "American Hustle," "The Butler," and even "Gravity" --  2012 had "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," "Magic Mike," etc.  

Still, I don’t think that anything that happened in 2013 was any kind of breakthrough or will change anybody’s perception of things. While industry bigshots will continue to back movies like the ones that have already proved popular – they’ll note that the hugely acclaimed "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis," and "Nebraska" aren’t exactly burning up the box-office – filmmakers who want to take audiences somewhere new will try to do just that. And with luck they’ll succeed both artistically and commercially: As my brainy GQ friend Tom Carson recently pointed out, the truly great stuff in pop culture sees how far it can push its audience without losing it. Of course, by those standards, even the films on my 10 Best list in 2013 weren’t particularly adventurous by the standards of the various ‘60s new waves or the sainted (actually oversainted) Hollywood ‘70s.

I don’t mean this gloomily. The sky isn’t falling. On the contrary, the world keeps changing and new talent keeps emerging, just not always from the U.S. or (as Andrew rightly says) the European art cinema. I saw more good films in 2013 from Chile and Mexico than from France, would second Andrew’s praise of Mungiu’s "Beyond the Hills," would toss in Anthony Chen’s "Ilo, Ilo" (the best movie ever made in Singapore), and would note how happy I was that, after so much trying, Rithy Panh finally found a way of fully capturing what he’s been wanting to say about Cambodia in "The Missing Picture."

"Middle of Nowhere."

AO: Yeah, as movie critics we don’t really have a voice in any debate on ontology, do we? At my politics-obsessed publication, I’m always trying to jump the fence and turn movie reviews into political essays (or vice versa), but that’s just moving between competing or overlapping epistemological frames, isn’t it?

Anyhow. Are 2013’s movies about race something the public actually wants? Are they, in fact, the "national conversation" President Obama promised us, back when Henry Louis Gates got busted breaking into his own house? It’s an interesting question, and the answer might not be no. I think everyone in the business was startled that "The Butler," ungainly as it was, turned out to be a big hit, and only Harvey Weinstein, consummate salesman that he is — because he genuinely believes in what he’s selling — could have turned "Fruitvale Station" into a genuine awards contender.

I think those are small but tangible examples of that hopey-changey stuff, to quote a noted pop culture expert and former governor of Alaska. I’m actually going to call myself out on that one, going back more than a year, when I wrote about Ava DuVernay’s excellent indie drama “Middle of Nowhere," which was focused entirely on the lives of unstereotypical African-American characters, and pretty much made the assumption that no one would see it. I was wrong about that, and delighted to be wrong, but I think that assumption reflected my own bigotry about the nature of the indie-film audience (which is no longer entirely white) and also about the nature of the white indie-film audience, which is not locked into old patterns quite the way I suspected.

Lance Hammer's "Ballast."

Now, I think John is absolutely right that the best popular filmmakers aren’t whoring themselves or pandering to what they think we want; Cameron is a perfect example, but I would say approximately the same thing about Michael Bay, who has execrable taste but a clear aesthetic and one he appears to believe in. And my faith that John would be a great counterfoil in this exchange is fully justified by his remarks about "Frances Ha" versus "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." I totally agree! If they take away my card as a New Yorker and an art-film snob, maybe that’s because it’s time. Of course there are occasions when critics and festival-goers push into terrain where the audience doesn’t want to follow; both John and I admired Mungiu’s "Beyond the Hills," but the number of people who paid to see that film in North America is probably in the low four figures. Many of my friends assured me they were going to see "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," but I’m pretty sure none of them did. Consider the "mumblecore moment" of the mid-2000s or its immediate successor, the "American neorealism" represented by Lance Hammer’s 2008 "Ballast," a film I’m pretty sure only critics saw, or got anything out of.

By those standards, "12 Years a Slave," one of the most demanding films to make an appearance in the Oscar race for years and years, is pretty much "Jaws." "Gravity" points the way toward new technical possibilities, clearly, and "American Hustle" establishes that David O. Russell has cracked the code of making films that are tremendous fun and just meaty enough to feel meaningful while you’re watching them, and maybe even while you’re driving home. But I do think it’s possible that the set of movies tackling the issues of America’s racial past and present, a set that stretches across the artistic gamut from an essentially reassuring dramedy "The Help" to the profoundly unsettling "Blue Caprice," are addressing a real need in a country that spent much of the last year arguing about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and in which an intransigent, all-white political party has staged a blockade against a moderate black president. At least on the screen, and sometimes in other frames or on other stages, we’re looking at our real history and its real costs in a new way.

OK, so we’ve analyzed 2013 to bits. Now riddle me this: What are you looking forward to seeing in 2014? Critics may not have crystal balls -- though many like to pretend they do -- but even if you can't single out one movie you're anticipating more than any other, are there trends, filmmakers or mentalities that you hope to see reflected in the movies this year?

JP: I'm not sure that I can spot any new trends on the horizon, but here's what I'm looking forward to seeing.  At the top of the list is "Snowpiercer” by Bong Joon-ho, who is my favorite director to have emerged in this millennium -- he's made the best crime movie, “Memories of a Murder" (which recalls but surpasses “Zodiac”), the best monster movie, "The Host," and the best critique of Korean sentimentality toward motherhood in "Mother."  I'm just dying to see "Snowpiercer" -- and yes, I'm talking to you, Harvey Weinstein. Please release it. 

"The Grand Budapest Hotel"

I'm almost as stoked about Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Pynchon's “Inherent Vice,” which seems ripe for greatness -- Anderson working in a loose mood on his native turf of LA, and doing it with an enjoyable minor novel that there's no need to feel reverent about. Along with Spike Jonze, PTA is the good American director who does the most unpredictable work. Speaking of which, I would say I'm looking forward to seeing "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but because I work long-lead, I've already seen it and producer Scott Rudin made me sign a release saying that if I talked about it in advance, I agreed to having my family killed, our ancestral home burned, and the soil beneath it covered with salt. So heck, let's play it safe:  I'm really looking forward to the new Wes Anderson. 

I'm kind of revved up, too, by the two big, possibly wacky Biblical adaptations, Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" and Ridley Scott's "Exodus" with their respective laugh-a-minute stars, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.  And to finish, if you're not looking forward to "Nymphomaniac," there's just no hope for you.

AO: I think that's an awesome list of 2014 possibilities, although I hold out zero hope for anything Ridley Scott touches these days -- did you actually sit through "The Counselor," John? -- and my money is on Aronofsky's "Noah" joining the soggy pantheon of "Waterworld." I'm looking forward to seeing both the authorized North American release of "Nymphomaniac" and von Trier's longer Danish version, like a true film geek.

There are a whole bunch of things at Sundance this year I can't wait to catch, from the new documentary about Nick Cave to Anton Corbijn's John le Carre adaptation "A Most Wanted Man" to Gregg Araki's "White Bird in a Blizzard," with Shailene Woodley. If that's not enough, there's also Quebec director Denis Côté's rural lesbian experimental thriller "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear." Oh, and "Muppets Most Wanted," absolutely.

This article is related to: Reviews, Critical Consensus, Andrew O'Hehir, John Powers, Top 10 Films of 2013, Critic's Picks, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Beyond The Hills, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Noah





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