There are, as always, a stream of foreign films that I should have seen already, but I have not (e.g., Farhadi's "The Past," "The Great Beauty," "Blue is the Warmest Color"), so take that into account when perusing what I feel are the best films of the past year. 2013 proved to be quite a strong year, with some great entries from some of our most talented directors.
1. "Only God Forgives"--You will see this movie on no one's top-ten list this year, I swear it. Nicolas Refn's bloody romp through the underworld of Bangkok received some of the worst reviews of the year. It was simultaneously booed and applauded when it premiered at Cannes this past spring. "The Guardian" posted diametrically opposed reviews of the film: one calling it revelatory, the other insisting it was mere revenge porn. The way I felt about this film was the way many fanboys felt about Harmony Korine's "Springbreakers:" I was in love and watched it 3 times in one 24-hour period. The film has no viewers who are ambivalent: it is either full-on fascination or disgust. What no one denies is that the film is gorgeous. Refn and his cinematographer Larry Smith have created an amazing succession of beautifully composed scenes. I would argue that you could pause the movie at any point and find yourself a wonderful tableau. Many critics have missed the wonderful use of camp in this piece. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a terrifying matriarch, who is clearly Lady Macbeth tinted with the spray tan of Kris Jenner. It is this character who has the most dialogue in the entire film, even delivering the fiercest Oedipal monologue you have ever seen. This universe is upheld and set in motion by the strange Thai Javert-like police lieutenant who says little, but delivers some stirring karaoke performances and beats the heck out of Ryry Gosling. It is available streaming on Netflix. Watch it now.
2. "Gravity"--Alfonso Cuarón's cinematic artistry has never been questioned, whether it was "Y tu mama tambien," or the 3rd Harry Potter, Cuarón has been able to inject a singular directorial vision into all of his work, even within the Potter universe. "Gravity" is thin on story; he fought with his studio to avoid placing flashbacks for Bullock's character that would have explained in a literal fashion her desire to be in space. But this avoidance to spell out the details leads to some of the tensest 90 minutes of cinema you will ever see. I realized partly way through that I had not let go of the arm rests of my seat because I was convinced that I, too, would go hurtling towards the earth, if I let go. Cuarón's technical feats, which are many, are complemented by the fact that he chose to cast a woman in the lead, rather than Clooney in the main role. In a day and age, when even I think to myself, I can wait for that to come out on Netflix, Gravity forced people out of their home entertainment systems and back out to theaters.
3. "12 Years a Slave"--bell hooks and other scholars have certainly criticized the sentimental aspects of this narrative, but I would argue that the sentimental structure of this piece helps lead to its political importance. By taking on "Gone with the Wind" with its own language, Steve McQueen has succeeded in creating a vision of slavery contained within the very universe of Scarlett and Rhett. The luscious cinematography and fine performances forces us to rethink the mythology of the "Lost Cause," simply because we can imagine the scenes of brutal oppression happening in the universe of Roots, GWTW, or Raintree County. This film demolishes any notion that women on a plantation could form alliances between races, mostly through the vital and powerful performances of Lupita Nyong'o and Sarah Paulson, who expose the various forms of oppression and misery on an antebellum plantation. Even the putative "kind" slaveowner is implicated in a gross system of continual denial of the humanity of its victims. I always think of the adjective "necessary" being appended to a description of a movie as hyperbole, but here I think it is fitting.
4. "The Act of Killing"-- Another real upper. This time we follow the lives of several paramilitary leaders in Indonesia who massacred supposed Communists after Sukarno's fall in 1965. In most such films, the director would have interviews where the alleged criminals would deny any wrongdoing, or a set of excuses that would range from Nuremberg to twinkie defenses. Not here; rather, these men celebrate their crimes, seeing them as necessary to the nation's security. They are excited to tell of their murders. When Joshua Oppenheimer does mention that they are being filmed and could be brought up on charges in The Hague, these men become even more excited, proposing to Oppenheimer that they re-enact their crimes, so it can be more like a De Niro gangster picture. It is a disturbing and important movie demonstrating how much work is to be done in the arena of human rights.
5. "Her"--Spike Jonze's film about a man falling in love with Siri on his 10th generation iPhone is a powerful meditation on how we fall in love with the reality we construct in our minds. Joaquin Phoenix's character has structured a deep, romantic relationship with a cyborg with whom he only speaks. When only one sense is involved, it allows that individual to imagine a reality that exists nowhere outside of his mind. All of us are susceptible to imagining our realities in such a way that they can never be achieved. This movie takes a powerful look at the dangers of trying to achieve that reality.
6. 'Philomena"--Stephen Frears and Steve Coogan collaborated on a movie that sounded like a Hallmark TV movie: an Irish widow goes searching for the son she gave up for adoption. Instead, this piece maneuvered very deftly the territory between tragedy and comedy, never losing its sense of humor in the face of very dark circumstances: Irish nuns actually sold Philomena's child, and many others, to the highest American bidder. Judi Dench has proven herself, yet again, to be one of the great actresses, in a performance of heartbreaking subtlety. Although Cate the Great's performance in "Blue Jasmine" is far showier, Dench demonstrates the very difficult terrain of resignation, hope and emotional solidity in the face of grand obstacles. No other actress could have pulled it off and kept you laughing when she says for the millionth time: "I wouldn't have imagined it in a million years."
7. "Blue Jasmine"--No other Woody Allen movie since "Interiors" has ended on a such dark note. As I said when I left the theater: 'That movie makes me want a strong drink, a Xanax and a shower." The entire film rides on Cate's powerful performance of a 21st-century Blanche Dubois, flittery and fey, unable to focus, but a victim of tragic circumstances. Cate's performance seems to fight against Woody's attempts to showcase the silliness of the character. Cate has committed to the tragedy of this woman, and somehow your sympathies are with her, something solely attributed to this powerful performance. I truly wish I could give Oscars to both Cate and Judi this year.
8. "All is Lost"--Correct, this is "Gravity" in water, but watching Robert Redford attempt to navigate his tiny yacht through the Indian Ocean as it slowly sinks makes for some powerful cinema. Unlike Zemeckis' "Castaway" that focused on the context of someone being lost at sea and the consequences of that separation on the loved ones once he returns, JC Chandor's film has no interest in backstory or context, he simply asks: how would someone try to survive? There is no volleyball to talk to, no one to miss and long for, it is an old man and the sea. Robert Redford has never been better, and yet again he was passed over for an Oscar nomination. This is not the first time: in 1985, Jon freaking Voight was nominated for "Runaway Train," over Redford in "Out of Africa."
9. "Saving Mr. Banks"--Another film that suffered in the avalanche of Oscar love that went to Russell's "American Hustle." Emma Thompson, who could have easily phoned in a performance that would have been good, was actually electrifying in her performance of PL Travers. Her emotional restraint covered her traumas that were revealed slowly and masterfully. John Lee Hancock's overly sentimental direction gave a bit too much time to his never-ending flashbacks, but Emma holds the movie together showing us a woman with little heart who gave the world a great literary character of depth and heart.
10. "The Wolf of Wall Street"--The film has been a lightning rod of discussion. Some have criticized its misogyny and its celebration of hedonism. I am not sure that Scorsese is advocating for either of those. In fact, Scorsese has given us an incisive and penetrating (in all senses of the word) representation of white male privilege. Jordan Belfort treated his women like valuable possessions to be showed off, and Belfort, after serving time in prison, returned to American society without much repercussion becoming a bestselling author, motivational speaker, and now the subject of a Scorsese biopic. That is the American dream, right there: fuck up and end up getting rewarded with a movie made about you. Of course, the great irony is that Belfort's dealings were small fry in comparison to the large systemic greed implemented by the financial giants at Goldman Sachs, AIG, Countrywide, Lehman, etc., leading up to our great crash of 08.
11. "Inside Llewyn Davis"--I am actually surprised that this film has underperformed in Oscar nominations and in commercial receipts. The film highlights the numerous traits of the Coen Bros.: their ability to gain sympathy for rather unsympathetic characters, their brilliant use of John Goodman, the creation of a lush T Bone Burnett soundtrack (along with the brilliance of "Please, Mr. Kennedy"). Somehow in as crowded a year as this, the Coen Bros. get ignored completely.
12. "Frozen"--Disney has not had an animated movie garner over $300 million at the domestic box office since the Lion King (barring Pixar movies). The movie has some problems: its marketing campaign made it seem like it was a tale about a snowman and a reindeer, it is a movie with musical elements but not a full-blown musical. When Frozen shines, it sparkles. "Do you wanna build a snowman?" is the most heartbreaking movie in animated cinema since the opening of "Up," while the snowman's aria is one of the most uplifting moments in cinema this year.
13. "Nebraska"--I avoided this for weeks, but ended up enjoying it because of the fantastic June Squibb. "I loved her, but what a whore!" Best line of the year.
14. "Fruitvale Station"--Complex and complicated, ethical but not moralistic. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan will go on to great things.
15. "At Berkeley"--I watched all four hours (!) of Wiseman's documentary about a day in the life at the famed California institution of higher education and loved it. If you have any interest in the operations of a university at its highest level of administrative (mal)functioning, this is a must see.
16. "Frances Ha"--Gorgeous cinematography, a deft performance from Greta Gerwig, and an ending that pays off the frustrations of the first hour.
17. "Before Midnight"--Although I think Ethan Hawke is no better than James Franco--pretentious, arrogant, not as talented as he believes--the third part of this trilogy shows the continued navigation that a couple must face as they continue to age and fight the inevitable growing apart that eveyr couple endures.
18. "Museum Hours"--A charming tale of the sort of romance between a Dutch museum guard and an American tourist.
19. "Short Term 12"--The lead male character irritated me as the writer-director's own self-idealization, but Brie Larson's complex performance makes up for some of the problems in character delineations.
A word about "American Hustle:" I am in full Russell backlash mode, much like last year with "Silver Linings Playbook," or "The Figher," two years before that. Each time I have fallen for the hype, convinced I will view a vital, even necessary, piece of American cinema. For the first thirty minutes of a Russell movie, I believe that this time he has pulled it off, this will be his masterwork, but, inevitably, by the end I am confused, irritated and convinced that Russell has failed me yet again. No different with "American Hustle." Here we have two great actresses at the top of their game and the only brief scene they are given is to argue over a fat, bald Christian Bale. It was a failure of the Bechdel test at its most epic level. So much that was set up in the first act went nowhere: why was everyone contributing voiceover narration, only to vanish by minute 45; the only moment of tension dissipates over a rather comedic set piece. I did, however, love the wigs, thus I am surprised that it failed to get a nomination for makeup and hair.
All in all, this year gave us a crowded field. There are certainly ten performances in each of the leading acting characters that deserved nominations. A powerful set of films on the long list for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film. We will be catching up with our Netflix queues for several months.