Dec 30, 2013

2013 in Culture: Best of Film

By Josh Oakley

10. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
One of my most cherished film-centric memories involved spending a good couple of hours with some friends and a stack of paper, attempting to unravel the dense narrative of Shane Carruth's debut film, Primer (For the record, we figured everything out and it all makes sense, but I cannot recall an ounce of how it fits together). Carruth's long-awaited follow-up has a similarly impenetrable story, but this time he doesn't seem concerned with audiences solving the puzzle. Upstream Color cares more about the the heart than the mind, though it remains sublimely intellectual. Amy Seimetz turns in one of the year's best performances, shading in the obliquely characterized Kris who slowly discovers herself and the man (Carruth) with whom she shares some odd connection. Color is also impeccably shot by Carruth, who may be the most hyphenated multi-hyphenate around (in addition to directing, writing and starring, he served the role of cinematographer, editor, sound designer, composer and more). If Primer proved what sturdy tools Carruth was capable of playing with, Upstream Color more than lives up to that promise in its sensual and unique look at what connects us all, both within and without.

9. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a grand cinematic creation. He is a man who has seemed to outlive himself. You can feel the aches in his body as he creaks along the road, attempting to reach the titular state. His lapses in memory and cognizant understanding cause him pain and frustration. He would do a favor for anyone except, perhaps, his wife and children. He is not a cruel man and not a kind one. He is more lost than he was in his youth, though it seems that he may have never been quite all there. Dern fills out the corners of Woody, turning what could be a crotchety caricature into a nuanced human being who wears his flaws openly as he's grown too tired to conceal them. The film around Woody is grand as well. Alexander Payne speckles the landscape with memorably offbeat figures, from twins that find driving time uproarious to June Squibb's distinct and ornery matriarch. Dern and Squibb instill their married couple with remnants of the past that have been overtaken by the groans of the present. Payne's midwest is beautifully shot, instilling the open spaces with the emptiness the characters often feel, and giving gentle warmth to places considered home. Nebraska is, at times, a strikingly honest portrayal of a life that doesn't get better before it gets worse. The film is funny too, especially a scene in a graveyard where Squibb's Kate Grant firmly chooses spite over sentimentality. And the stagnant cold of midwestern winter informs all of these elements, making Nebraska a purposefully chilly film that somehow dismisses cruel pessimism. 

8. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)
Her is a delicate beast of a film, one that draws out its emotional content by warping the standard romance plot only so slightly. Or perhaps more than slightly, as the central relationship is between a man, Thomas (Joaquin Phoenix) and his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Yet the themes that Jonze grapples with here make a point of highlighting how similar this love is to any between two humans. The misfortune that comes with that affection is the weight of change, the reality of one partner growing while the other remains the same, or shifts in a different direction. The best material in Her doesn't even directly involve the fact that Samantha is an artificial intelligence. The film is never better than a brutal scene between Thomas and his estranged wife (a superb cameo by Rooney Mara). In a handful of minutes the audience fully comprehends what this relationship once was and why it has crumbled. Thomas' friendship with Amy (Amy Adams, in the role she should be getting awards attention for) is also stunningly realized, with the years between the two layered into every scene. This is also one of the year's best comedies, especially in its vision of the future of video games. This is one of the year's best films, not just because of the allegorical tension of human & computer love, but because of the shadings around that main premise. From the wonderfully and intelligently realized near-future of LA to Jonze's shuffling of stereotypical gender roles, Her is as unique of a presence as the romance it documents.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)
One of the oddest debates floating around the internet these days is the intent of Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street. Some claim that the film glorifies the life of Jordan Belfort (played here in a staggering performance by Leonardo DiCaprio), a real-life stock broker obsessed with his fortune and his 'ludes. The debate is confusing to my mind because Scorsese seems to fairly explicitly beat his point into the viewer's mind over the course of three hours: the guy is a fuck. The pitch-black comedy tossed around by rich white men in suits is hilarious, but horrifyingly so. The excess of obscenity on display becomes a barrage on the senses to the point of exhaustion. This is all with purpose. Not only does Belfort's life seem unbearable, but the man himself becomes atrocious. This is what makes DiCaprio's performance so powerful: he's not trying to make us feel for this man, but maybe, possibly, understand how a person like this could exist. The chilling final shot is subtle yet boisterous, dripping with cynicism that makes Scorsese's point clear. That clarity is not without complication, as a late scene featuring an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) on the subway proves. This is not a simple film, but the American Dream is far from cut and dry: we're told we can invent ourselves into anybody with a bit of hard work. But Belfort, and the weighty reality upholding The Wolf of Wall Street, prove that even this dream can curdle into a nightmare. 

6. The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright)
The Cornetto Trilogy, a group of films tied together by ambition and talent rather than narrative thread, concluded this year with The World's End. This time around writer/director Edgar Wright and co-writer/lead actor Simon Pegg imbued the wry comedy and genre tinkering with a profound sadness. Pegg's Gary King is a miserable fuck-up who has spent the last twenty years dismantling bridges between himself and anyone who may have cared for him. His last-ditch attempt to reunite the old gang is soured by, yes, an alien invasion, but even more so by his own pathetic faults. Everything layered onto this film is allegory, as it is in the best science fiction, from the "Starbucking" of local establishments to resolution that supports human nature in a backhanded manner. The structural ambition of The World's End aids its frantic energy, especially noticeable in the key scenes that take a breath and examine the broken mind of King. Arguing over the best in a great trilogy is often a futile waste of time, but The World's End makes a strong case for its position at the peak. This is a film with setpieces to rival Hollywood's best and the funniest window punch-out in cinematic history. But there's also a maturation going on in the work of Wright and Pegg, and this look at how the past can never be truly recaptured proves that growing up doesn't have to be dull.

5. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
What a magnificent year for third installments. Before Midnight, like The World's End, takes elements of the series' previous films and imbues them with an older, more experienced perspective. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been together for the years since Before Sunset and the weight of the shared time is obvious. Their conversations, the main focus of the all three films, still dazzle thanks to Richard Linklater, Hawke and Delpy's elegant script. But there is less discovery present here. Their talks, especially an impassioned fight in the third act, feel more rehearsed, as if they've said much of this before and will say much of it again. It's to Before Midnight's credit that this neither hurts the film nor insults the lives of married couples. Jesse and Celine have an envious compatibility with each other, and despite their vicious quarrel do seem deeply in love. Delpy and Hawke are magnificent, realizing and playing the shifts their characters have taken after almost a decade together while understanding what personality traits are never truly lost. Midnight trades the romanticism of Sunrise and Sunset for a nuanced look at what form love takes after it's been through more than one night in Vienna. I hope the series is far from over, but if Midnight serves as conclusion it does so powerfully.

4. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
Sarah Polley's document of her family's history, Stories We Tell, grapples with the basic idea of narrative, both in a cinematic and personal sense. While telling one's own genealogical tale could seem self-indulgent (as one of Polley's siblings points out), the film is more interested in how this specific family drama serves as a macro example of the way we shape our lives. Conflicting histories highlight the discrepancies between the truth of the past and how our memory takes shape. Polley's most inspired decision was to combine authentic footage of her late mother with scenes recreated by actors. By shooting the latter in the style of the former, it becomes difficult on first view to tell them apart. This, of course, is Polley's point. Our interpretation of previous experiences become those experiences to a certain degree. We elevate those no longer around (one interviewee describing the mother: "There's this misconception that she was this thing") and joggle assumptions and facts. Stories We Tell is also filled with complex, fascinating characters, none more so than the man who raised Polley, an actor with a penchant for off-handedly spitting out poetic truths. The central narrative concerns the director's true parentage. The twists found in that thread should be discovered in the film, not for fear of spoilers, but rather for the ways in which the reveals influence the larger themes at play. Stories We Tell begins as a simple look at a handful of people related by blood and becomes an essay on our foolish insistence on conforming all of life to a simple, understandable series of plot points.  

3. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
There are two scenes mentioned in every discussion of 12 Years a Slave. These moments, a near-hanging and a vicious whipping, make similar and vivid points about the brutality of slave life with their excruciating length and focus on one character's inability to help another in need. And while these moments stick in the mind, the true centerpiece of the film is less obviously harrowing. Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the year's best performance) stands near the grave of a man who died from being over-worked. Around him slaves sing a spiritual, but Soloman stands quiet, perhaps the most shaken we've seen him. It is not merely the death of this man, but the realization that it could have just as easily been him buried in the ground that day. He begins to understand that this may not be a life from which he can escape. He is losing faith in his future, and to combat or to cope or to give up or to fight back, he begins to sing as well. It is a moment of strength and of surrender. He is both recognizing himself as a slave, like those around him, and in doing so connecting himself to the dead man and the live ones he has pushed himself away from. The scene ends in a close-up of Soloman bellowing the song, pushing every angle of his experience into an emotional and spiritual high, opposed to the physical extremes of the aforementioned beatings. It is here that Ejiofor reveals the full heft of his ability. Though some have accused the film of being cold and detached, this moment, along with many like it, prove the humanity at its core. That humanity, richly explored by Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, makes the reality of 12 Years a Slave's world as cruel as it is stunningly realized. 

2. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
The key for a film such as Frances Ha is a sense of self-awareness. The tribulations of a 27-year-old urbanite dancer lacks the inherent weight and meaning found in the history of American slavery, or even the consequences of evil men swinging their dicks about Wall Street. God bless, then, that Frances Ha is a seemingly featherweight comedy that manages to wring true pathos from events such as searching for an ATM near a cash-only restaurant. The scene in question is funny, with light skippy music scoring an eventual pratfall. But the exploitations of Frances (a terrific Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with director Noah Baumbach) ring hypnotically true to anyone who is or has been in similar shoes. The haggling of rent with roommates, the admission that calling oneself poor is an insult to those actually in poverty and the quaint and lovely sojourn to a childhood town are just a handful of moments in this episodic film that give the world of Frances Ha a textured and achingly true color (ironic phrasing, as the film is beautifully shot in wistful black and white). If this movie were merely a sublime portrait of a struggling 20-something it would still rank among the best of the year. But what elevates it even further is the authentic focus on friendship over romantic love. The importance of Frances' relationship with Sophie (a breakout performance for Mickey Sumner who deserves every great role she'll likely receive in the near future) is present in even the scenes where the latter is absent. There is something romantic about great friendships, and that, along with the romance of the city and being young, are far more interesting to Frances Ha than what guy the protagonist is dating this week. The strikingly profound last shot drives home the purpose of all of Frances' struggles, when the meaning of the film's title is revealed to be about how we reinvent ourselves, and our bonds with those around us, until we arrive somewhere we can truly call home.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
Many of the films on this list make vocal arguments about aspects of American history, along with lesser efforts from this year (The Great Gatsby, American Hustle). Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't attempt to make the most grandiose statement, but it speaks the loudest in its specificity. Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a perpetually beat-down folk singer who has recently lost his friend and singing partner to suicide. The film visits a week in his life, jumping from scene to scene, more interested in the essence of a moment than narrative momentum. This technique lends itself nicely to the aimlessness of Davis, a man who brought nearly every hardship upon himself but somehow doesn't seem to deserve all of the pain. Part of our sympathy relies on Isaac's deeply-felt performance. He's able to play the rough edges of Davis against the glimpses of softness and create a whole, complicated being. While Isaac at the center is a marvel, the characters surrounding him help give texture to the world, especially Johnny Five, a gruff, silent poet played by the perpetually underrated Garrett Hedlund. Carey Mulligan also gives one of her best performances to date in an important role that shows why Davis is a difficult man to fully give up on. And the Coen brothers rebuilding of 1960's New York City is a gorgeous playground for the hysterical and painful interactions between Davis and those he knocks up against. Then, of course, there's the music, namely Isaac's versions of "Fare Thee Well". The musical performances in the film are striking in any context, but they work to give even more layers to the already rich cast of characters. Near the film's close a voice sings, "with my head, my heart and my hands, my love, I will send what I learn back to you." With this achingly personal portrait of a lonely man and his guitar, the Coens have done just that; they've used their head, heart and hands to enlighten us on what it means to be alive and how it feels to be alone.

The Next Fifteen

11. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
12. Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
13. Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)
14. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
15. Prince Avalanche (dir. David Gordon Green)
16. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
17. Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen)
18. About Time (dir. Richard Curtis)
19. The Way Way Back (dir. Nat Faxon, Jim Rash)
20. This is the End (dir. Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)
21. C.O.G. (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
22. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
23. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon)
24. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
25. Stoker (dir. Park Chan-wook)


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