By Eric Plaag
As promised, just in time for the Oscars, I offer you below my selections for the best films of 2013 that I have been able to see so far. I say that with a bit of disappointment, for two reasons: 1) Finding a way to see independent and foreign films in Boone, NC (my place of residence), and even some big budget pics, is a bit of a challenge, so some highly regarded films like Frances Ha, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Leviathan, and even The Wolf of Wall Street (which I am fighting hard to reserve judgment on, in spite of my spidey sense) simply have not shown up on my radar yet, and 2) as a general rule—in direct contradiction to what I have heard from so many other reviewers—I found 2013’s crop of films to be astonishingly weak.
On this latter point, let me offer some examples of the highly touted films (many of them Oscar-nominated) that left me wondering whether people still know that good filmmaking and storytelling, regardless of genre or subject matter, require looking beyond oneself as creator and connecting with something larger and more resonant. I went into David O. Russell’s American Hustle expecting a smart thriller and instead found a derivative 1970s caper film whose over-the-top dialogue and tone closely resembled the infamous off-screen bickering among Russell and the actors in I Heart Huckabees, so much so that I’m convinced Christian Bale based his entire Irving Rosenfeld character on Russell’s Huckabees rant at Lily Tomlin. (Upon further investigation, in fact, Russell actually looks like Bale’s version of Rosenfeld.) This kind of self-obsession and navel gazing showed up in other films, too, such as Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film I waited for nearly two hours to embrace eagerly but couldn’t because Malick wouldn’t move off his obsessive, often nonsensical nostalgia for a suburban Texas that is rapidly transmogrifying and allow what was an otherwise fascinating meditation on the essence of romantic love to sing, as he did so effortlessly with life, family, and loss in The Tree of Life. Rather than serving as a compelling backdrop and intoxicating miasma, as they did in Tree, Malick’s Texas digressions in Wonder were often the rhetorical equivalent of Malick pausing in the midst of a grand and poignant monologue on a lost lover, then spoiling the climax to ask his audience if he’s ever told them about the tree house he had in his backyard as a child.
There were several films that I thoroughly enjoyed for various reasons but that did not quite rise to qualification for my Top Ten list. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell was a fascinating and deeply upsetting exploration of Polley’s family, its deepest secrets about her mother, and the fictional worlds we all construct to make sense of and live with the truth. Some might argue that the film is just more of the navel gazing I have complained of above, but here there is purpose to it, forcing the viewer to confront his/her own storytelling constructions and conventions. In many respects, this same theme was evident in the third installment of Richard Linklater’s Jesse and Celine trilogy, Before Midnight. Another nine years later, Jesse and Celine are married with kids of their own and vacationing in an idyllic Greek paradise, a setting that persistently mocks the dysfunction, resentment, and uncertainty that have begun to creep into their relationship (although I would argue that all three have always been there lurking). The film turns on a fascinating, seventeen-minute dinner table conversation among five couples (while two partners are physically absent, their presence is nonetheless palpable in the conversation), each representing a different stage of life and love, and each demonstrating that how they talk about love reveals all. Like the characters at the end of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Jesse and Celine seem painfully aware of the violent storm that must come after dinner if their relationship is to change and therefore survive.
Other fine and recommended films this year included The Conjuring, Fruitvale Station, Mud, All Is Lost, and Gravity, and while none made terribly egregious missteps, each possessed a weakness that made it difficult for me to push them into my Top Ten list. In each case, the weakness in question broke the spell over me as I watched the film, if only for a moment. Gravity’s overemphasis on the space capsule as womb and its striking disregard for the realities of aeronautics were perhaps the most frustrating of these errors, as they seriously marred a film filled with stunning technical achievements. Perhaps this is the curmudgeon in me speaking, though, as I know that many other reviewers have found a way to see past the weaknesses of Gravity and the other films above and include them in their lists.
So, without further delay, I offer you my list of the ten best films that I have seen from 2013. With any luck, my friend, colleague, and blog partner Matt Smith will be along any day now with his list, too. And I can guarantee that they will look nothing like one another.
10. Captain Phillips
There are several reasons that I was reluctant to include this film on my list. Some have to do with the man himself, who has emerged (in part because of this film) into the public consciousness as an unquestioned hero, even though the realities of the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama off the Somalian coast in 2009 and some of the complaints of his crew since that time suggest that Phillips may not have been quite the hero he was made out to be. Indeed, this is a problem for the film, which is based on Phillips autobiographical account of the ship’s capture by Somali pirates and purports to be the “true story” of the event. At times in the film, I found myself questioning whether what I was seeing was truly accurate or just fabricated for narrative or dramatic convenience.
That said, Tom Hanks’s performance as Captain Phillips is quite strong, and Paul Greengrass’s direction verges on the masterful. Lost in the hubbub of the film’s many accolades for Hanks and Greengrass, though, is the haunting performance of Barkhad Abdi, the Somalian actor who portrays Muse, the leader of the hijackers, and who was working as a chauffeur when he was handpicked for the part, despite his lack of acting experience. The last hour of this film, spent almost entirely aboard a tiny, cramped lifeboat that frequently induces viewer claustrophobia, may be the most stressful and harrowing hour of cinema this past year, in large part because Muse’s escalating fear, uncertainty, and desperation as the hijacking falls apart are so evident and believable. Indeed, viewers may sometimes wonder whether Greengrass and Hanks were taking their direction from Abdi himself.
9. The Place Beyond the Pines
Named for the English translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s riff on fathers, sons, and the karmic evil that gets passed from one generation to another is the kind of picture that frequently leaves the viewer wanting to shake someone, or perhaps everyone, in the film so that maybe they’ll choose differently. But they can’t, or at least they won’t. At the center of the story is Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a bad boy motorcycle acrobat who quits that marginally honest gig to rob banks and thus generate enough support to win over Romina (Eva Mendes), a one-time fling who has given birth to his child. This paradox—doing wrong in order to do right—is mirrored in the actions of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious cop who frequently does right in order to accomplish what he knows to be wrong. Fifteen years later, all that karmic confusion whirls into a storm when Avery’s son AJ befriends Luke’s son Jason (Dane DeHaan) at school. Jason’s pursuit of the truth about his father, especially his climactic trip into the woods with Avery—pregnant with recollections of Miller’s Crossing—leaves viewers rattled and questioning their own senses of justice, as well as the terrible ways that the cycles of evil can trap even the best and most innocent of us.
8. 12 Years a Slave
I wrote glowingly of Tarantino’s Django Unchained in last year’s list, noting that no American film to date had “so effectively and accurately portrayed the various horrors of American slavery and the intricate, complex, and confounding relationships among field slaves, house slaves, poor whites, and slaveowners.” A year later, director Steve McQueen’s take on the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free New York black man kidnapped and sold south in 1841, is what might be termed a more scholarly, reserved, and—yes—balanced meditation on these same issues. Equally accurate and effective, McQueen’s 12 Years allows viewers to more thoroughly inhabit the worlds of such disparate slaveowners as William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch)—a good man who feels impotent to do right by those he owns—and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a drunken, divinely-inspired monster who pleasures himself with his female slaves without a hint of shame or self-awareness. Overall fine performances from the all-star cast, which includes provocative turns from Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt (in a pivotal cameo), help ground this mostly faithful historical narrative from ever wandering too far into melodrama or the saccharine territory of, say, Lee Daniels’s The Butler. The film’s only significant flaw, in fact, may be its refusal to examine (or even mention) the mysteries surrounding Northup’s disappearance in 1857, four years after his rescue from the south, probably at the hands of northern men hired to kidnap or kill him to prevent his testimony in the trial of his original captors (one of whom was also a northerner). Such an oversight only underscores the selective memory of our nation in relegating slavery exclusively as a “southern problem” and forgetting northern complicity in both its practice (the last slaves in Delaware and New Jersey were not freed until 1865) and its economic importance in supplying cheap raw goods to northern factories.
7. The Counselor
Few films leave me speechless, numb, and jaw-agape all at once, but this fascinating thriller from novelist/screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (The Road) and director Ridley Scott (Alien and Gladiator) is an ugly, messy, disjointed, and vicious stab at the consequences of overweening greed, ambition, and pride in a world filled with ugly, messy, disjointed, and vicious people. To be clear, all of those adjectives are compliments. Michael Fassbender’s title character seems to have the perfect life—high-end connections, a gorgeous fiancée (Penélope Cruz), and the ability to jet anywhere in the world whenever he pleases. Lured by one of those connections (Javier Bardem) and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who are the type of people who keep cheetahs for pets, the Counselor ignores the warnings of a former client (Brad Pitt) and agrees to facilitate a highly lucrative drug deal. What follows is a descent into various circles of hell that would have shamed Dante to explore. Many critics hated this film, calling it too bleak, its dialogue too talky and smart, and the script itself ignorant of the conventions of moviemaking, which only begs the question of what they would have been expecting of the pairing of an iconoclastic master like McCarthy and a dark visionary like Scott on what is, at its heart, a true film noir.
6. Dallas Buyers Club
Any discussion of the impressive merits of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s biopic on Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConnaughey), the homophobic rodeo cowboy and electrician startled to learn in 1985 that unprotected sex with drug-using women has saddled him with AIDS, must begin with the preparation put in by McConnaughey and Jared Leto, who plays McConnaughey’s transgender hospital roommate, Rayon. Reports vary, but McConnaughey is believed to have lost nearly seventy pounds for the role and Leto a nearly identical amount. As both men grow sicker, in large part because of their treatment with AZT, they partner to form a social club that funnels alternative but illegal medicines, imported from Mexico and Japan, to AIDS patients in the Dallas area, incurring the wrath of a local hospital administrator (Denis O’Hare) and eventually the federal authorities. While the script follows many of the conventions of tearjerker medical dramas, including a seemingly unnecessary female lead (Jennifer Garner) who must leave behind the world she knows to do right by the people she loves, the film nevertheless avoids the usual traps of pathos, instead highlighting the cruel, illogical policies of government bureaucracy in the face of crisis and reminding audiences that sometimes we must break the law in order to change it.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s (Incendies) provocative thriller reworks the well-trod territory of serial killers and abductions to focus on the choices made by families in the wake of such terror and grief. When Thanksgiving dinner at the neighbors’ house results in the disappearance of their daughter and another young girl, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are quick to suspect the guilt of an awkward loner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is arrested nearby on the day of the disappearance by local detective David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). In spite of Alex’s obvious creepiness and shady past, lack of evidence results in Jones’s release, prompting Keller to seek his own brand of justice. What follows is a riveting and squeamish hunt for a kidnapper at times reminiscent, in both look and feel, of Seven, with the additional layer of Keller’s brutal imprisonment of Alex in the hopes of making him talk. Mazes play a recurring role throughout the film, and with good reason. In the greatest of all stories, the hero must die his death before he can emerge from the depths of the labyrinth, something Villeneuve takes both literally and figuratively throughout. To say more would be to spoil what may be the finest nail-biting final act of the year, but know this: you’ll think twice about everyone you think you know, including the folks you’re sure are the good guys.
When Woody Grant (in a remarkable and no doubt exhausting performance by Bruce Dern) decides he needs to go from his home in Montana to Lincoln in order to claim his magazine sweepstakes prize, his sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk), as well as his wife Kate (June Squibb), dismiss him for the loon they’ve gradually suspected he is becoming. When he tries to walk there, David decides that a trip together is the only way to convince his father that his plan is misguided. A series of misadventures land Woody and David in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where they are soon joined by Kate and Ross and housed with Woody’s extended family. Gossip spreads that Woody thinks he’s a millionaire, and in quick order extended family and old friends, including Woody’s former business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), all want their piece of the prize. It’s been billed and promoted as a dark comedy in many venues, and while director Alexander Payne’s (Sideways) exploration of dementia, family, nostalgia, and regret has its frequent comical moments, its real strength and raw emotion lie in its ability to cut through appearances to see its characters and those who afflict them for what they really are. Shooting it in gorgeous black and white only amplifies these themes, and Payne’s glorious tempo and willingness to linger long and wistful on the decay of the American heartland says just as much about our culture’s collective dementia as it does about Woody’s failing mind.
At first glance, writer-director Spike Jonze’s (Being John Malkovich) film about a man who falls in love with his operating system might seem to be an exercise in the absurd. And on some levels it probably is, but it’s also the most moving, romantic, and heartfelt film of the year. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, shy, and socially inept writer a mere eleven years in our future whose occupation itself—he is employed by a corporation to compose touching, handwritten letters on behalf of people who don’t know how to emote—is Jonze’s pointed commentary on where we are already as a culture. Separated from his wife (Rooney Mara) and reluctant to sign the divorce papers, Theodore’s closest relationships are with a 3-D videogame alien and his married, frustrated friend Amy (Amy Adams), so Theodore takes a chance on a new operating system interface that promises a revolutionary AI that will learn and grow through every personal interaction. Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) proves to be all that he is missing from his life in a friend and mate—available, interested, entertaining, curious, affectionate, supportive, and eager to soak up everything about him and be consumed by him—and even willing to share him with a surrogate woman to consummate their union. But as with all things whirlwind, the affection between them is pregnant with unspoken disappointments lurking in the future. Amy may be right when she tells Theodore that falling in love is “like a socially acceptable form of insanity,” but as Her demonstrates, it’s a risky, often desperate, and always painful act that binds us as a species. As our culture continues to fracture over its digital but distanced sense of connectivity, Jonze’s film is a cautionary science fiction tale worthy of Bradbury, Ellison, and Philip K. Dick.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen have suffered a terrible disservice from NPR and other media outlets who have inaccurately promoted this heartbreaking film as a riff on the early New York folk music scene, a tale loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, and/or a clever wink-nod tribute to the “talent” of Bob Dylan. While there may be the tiniest grain of each of these items present in the film—there is folk music and it’s set in New York, the Coens did choose the idea of Dave Van Ronk being beaten up in an alley as their jumping off point, and a Dylanesque figure is visible near the end of the film, but in a profoundly unflattering way—none of them even remotely captures the film’s more noble soul and purpose. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a uniquely talented but profoundly unlikeable figure whose life and career are in tatters. Broke and homeless, and his former musical partner a suicide, Llewyn sponges off of doting admirers and an ex-lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who fears her fetus is his rather than her boyfriend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake). When Llewyn misplaces a host’s cat, fate casts him onto the road in search of answers to his existential malaise, leading him into the clutches of a jazz musician (John Goodman) who represents everything Llewyn abhors about the business, humanity, and his own terrible life choices. The return from the heroic journey is a frequent theme in the Coens’ original material, and it resurfaces here, as Llewyn must confront what he has become, what he has abandoned, and the consequences of all that has come before. No, Llewyn is never loveable, and yet this masterpiece resonates so profoundly because every one of us, if we are honest, will recognize ourselves in his failings and his intense desire just to be left alone by the world.
1. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Its release warranted barely a blip in the film world, and yet the best film of 2013 outduels the heavyweights in nearly every category of filmmaking and is also the year’s best Terrence Malick film not made by Terrence Malick. Little known writer/director David Lowery uses a strikingly thoughtful, spare style as well as wondrous editing and cinematography to convey the story of Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), a two-bit outlaw in 1970s Texas who has taken the rap for his wife Ruth (Rooney Mara) for shooting a deputy (Ben Foster) during a robbery gone wrong. Whiling away his days in prison, Bob writes Ruth regularly, promising that he will be coming soon to reclaim her and the daughter he has never met so that they can hit the road and be free. True, it’s a familiar sounding plot, but in Lowery’s hands there is a persistent, invigorating urgency that bubbles to a boil with every passing frame, and the combination of Affleck’s unwavering confidence and Mara’s lip-biting patience invite hope where logic insists there can be none. Some reviewers have complained that the film is too dark, both visually and thematically, but I have always admired filmmakers who embrace both kinds of darkness, for it is in those shadows that the truth often lies. When Ruth admits, “I haven’t slept in four years. And I’m tired. I’m so goddamn tired,” the weight of Bob and Ruth’s tragic choices hangs heavy in the air and in the hearts of viewers. We know their love is doomed, but because it is so genuine—the kind of bond we wish for ourselves—we root for them anyway, even though it’s going to hurt something fierce. Affleck is becoming one of the best of his generation of actors, and it’s a crime that once again Hollywood failed to notice this year.
We welcome your thoughts on Eric’s choices for this year in the comments section.