kyra brought the goods a couple weeks ago with his excellent best-of-TV list running down 2013 (I fully agree of his top three shows, though I might reorder them slightly); I’m about to do the same with regards to the silver screen. 2013 was an excellent, fantastic, thrilling movie year—top to bottom perhaps the strongest I’ve encountered since I’ve realized I like watching a lot of weird movies (you can consult some of my old lists here, dating back through 2007)—and I set a deadline for myself of Golden Globes day for my official list of now-last year’s favorites. Not that you were waiting breathlessly for me to come down from the mountain with my top ten, but my list would’ve been even more superfluous after they start handing out awards, and I like to mark down my choices for posterity before a random collection of Hollywood nutjobs start weighing in if for no other reason than to finalize my rooting interests for January through March. Plus, since I spend most of my time in Chicago and Central Jersey I need a few extra days for those awards-season releases.
So, enough of my rambling—here is my
totally objective, foolproof, inarguable subjective list of movies that I loved from the past year, along with some additional titles meriting honorable mention and discussion of my favorite performances. To date I’ve caught sixty-four 2013 releases, and you can see a full list of what I’ve seen here, whether the little heart icon is lit up indicating whether I liked it or didn’t (it stretches onto two pages; I don’t use star ratings because I think they’re reductive, but inquire for my thoughts about those I didn’t review). As for the movies we’ve tackled on Room Eleven since we started blogging nearly a year ago, they should all be compiled here. You won’t agree with me, which of course is the whole point, the beauty of the movies is how they inspire such contentiously personal analyses.
THE TOP TEN
10. The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt
A refreshing teenage romance that earns its place here, for me, because it’s actually considerate of teenagers. The kids themselves, played wonderfully by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, have a lot more agency then a lot of other films in the genre would be willing to grant them—the film’s emphasis is not on how their parents or mentors influence them for better or for worse, but on how they choose to heed or disregard their elders, probably to their detriment. The pair come to a state of discovery, and not just emotional discovery—part of their journey involves the bittersweet realization we all come to in some way or another as teenagers, namely that we’re not as smart and worldly as we think we are. In high school, it’s too easy to get swept up in the enabling vortex of popularity contests and increased independence, and to have a film that approaches this from the adolescent’s and not the adult’s point-of-view is both refreshing and worrisome.
9. Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley
A riveting documentary that follows Polley as she reaches into her family’s buried memories to discover the truth about her biological father and her deceased mother’s romantic past. She elevates her personal tale above navel-gazing by asking universal questions about storytelling and about selective memory. One of the film’s most revealing details is how each subject interviewed seems to have a different opinion about Polley’s intentions; some are blunt with her, others would prefer not to dredge up something they’d purposefully ignored or repressed, some are peeved that Polley prevents them from fully telling their side of the story. The truth can be a scary thing, and to watch Polley’s family accept or resist her investigation is nerve-racking and exciting. Polley has boiled cinema’s inherent voyeurism down to an essence here, and she allows others in her family to turn the figurative camera back at her more than some of them might be willing to admit.
8. Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach
As I mentioned in my end-of-summer comeback, Frances Ha was the film that probably most exceeded my expectations this year. My expectations were due to its director’s frequent explorations of the tortured male psyche, and while Baumbach doesn’t shy away from his unlikeable male subjects, their petulance often comes across as abrasive. Collaborating with his girlfriend, Greta Gerwig, has chipped away at that cynical veneer, though—she’s as down on her luck as any previous Baumbach protagonists, but wears her insecurity much lighter, like more of a fun klutz than a pretentious narcissist. The movie’s outstanding black-and-white photography and location shooting match Gerwig’s charming untidiness, with added pep from what’s arguably my favorite soundtrack of the year. It’s a vulgar and quite funny snapshot of twenty-something listlessness.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
The Coens have staked the other claim to my favorite soundtrack of the year; Oscar Isaac’s performance of classic folk songs are soulful and heartbreaking, and the rest of the sweater-clad ensemble helps recreate a tonally accurate recreation of early-Sixties Greenwich Village. (As has been mentioned in other places, Inside Llewyn Davis is a great New York movie, and the Coens are incredibly faithful and detailed with their locations and set designs to recall the era.) What the Coens don’t have to worry about claiming is their status as probably our best purveyors of bleak comic despair, and like many of their protagonists Llewyn is cursed to be good but not great, at least in the eyes of those around him—he’s certainly got an inflated opinion of himself. Isaac’s perfomance (musical and non-musical) helps create empathy for Llewyn, and deepens the Coens’ despairing humor encircling him after his friend’s death.
6. The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
My favorite documentary of the year comes from Indonesia and centers on Anwar Congo and some of his old associates—or henchmen, rather—from his paramilitary death squads that executed thousands of alleged Communists and ethnic Chinese after Suharto’s takeover. It recalls the adage that history is written by the victors, and it’s truly haunting just how openly boastful Anwar and his acolytes are of their psychopathic, murderous deeds; Oppenheimer doesn’t need to rely on newsreel footage because he convinces Anwar to re-stage his killings for a movie shoot. Anwar and his friends happily oblige—they’re the guys who glorify hoodlums in mob movies (see The Wolf of Wall Street controversy) and strut around like cartoonish Dick Tracy villains—given that their self-styling as “gangsters” (it means “free man,” they say) is practically officially endorsed by those still in power. (A government minister arrives at the re-enactment of a village massacre to praise Anwar and the paramilitary organization only to realize he’d better change his PR approach with cameras rolling.) The result is frightening and leaves ambiguous how much Anwar and his troupe are willing to genuflect, given that the recreations are nothing approximating the actual horror perpetrated with masculine vitriol so many years ago.
5. Her, directed by Spike Jonze
This is probably the film on the list with which kyra most vociferously disagrees with me, and hopefully we’ll get to debate Her as awards season rages on. In fact, it’s probably the film on the list I’d be least surprised to learn that people didn’t like, because it’s sweetness and sincerity may come across as overbearing (this isn’t illogical in films where the characters break out into song). I totally get Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s flaws, but the film is, in my opinion, much more introspective than it appear at first glance. For one thing, its statements and attitude towards technology’s place in society takes its cue from the computer voice Samantha, not from Phoenix’s mope. And if you’re turned off by how sensitive Theodore is, you’re supposed to be—identify with him too much and you’ll be called out on your selfish hogging of emotion, as the film does to its lead. What I most appreciated was its humanist perspective about our innovative species and the responsibilities that come with it, and an acceptance of the future rather than a fear of it—too often we like to say we’re open and tolerant and go-with-the-flow, only to retreat into what we’re used to. Her welcomes where we’re headed—it’s not as scary as some might warn, though it might be full of heartbreak—and ponders our social aptitude to engage modernity.
4. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Steve McQueen got his start in those strange modern-art-museum short videos, the kind that usually feature naked people jumping around with beach balls and such. His three films, of which 12 Years a Slave is the latest, have inherited that same sort of detachment and have developed a gift for composition. There’s a sense McQueen uses his camera not unlike the way Romantic painters looked at a canvas; his films are dark and his characters struggle violently against forces out of their control, acting out in extremes of behavior. His films are, I think, as much behavioral and psychological as they are physical, ironic considering their depictions of a hunger strike, a sex addict, and the barbaric founding sin that was slavery. Yes, there is a brutal whipping scene, and another in which a plantation mistress smashes a slave’s head with a decanter stands out as particularly violent, but the torturous root of the institution germinated in some rich white landowners’ mind. It rendered futile the existence of a race of human beings and perverted the minds and dealings of rich white landowners. In the face of something so unforgiveable, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon Northrup stands tall for its quiet power as his debasement gives way to confusion, then helplessness, then finally the uncertainty of returning to his former life after his freedom had been stripped away. McQueen’s gorgeous palate belies the discordancy between the natural landscape and the unnatural activities occurring thereon.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese
I hope you’ll forgive me if I admit to not completely understanding what the self-perpetuating hullabaloo surrounding this movie is really all about, or trying to accomplish. As was the case last year with Zero Dark Thirty, a cardinal premise of movie watching is to separate content from the director’s intention in including that content. Because Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is so self-indulgent, so loathsome, so inconsiderate, so greedy, and so hubristic—a guy who gut-punches his wife, shrugs off the effect of his extreme chauvinism and misogyny, and distorts his story so that he can bluff and brag at you—that the conclusion can’t be anything other than a denunciation of this guy, and the lack of resolution should engender anger and resignation. Here is a man whose energy sucks up entire buildings and who is amusing to keep up with until you realize his rank debauchery would leave you under the table—Scorsese is the master of documenting the perils of masculine temptation, and there’s a clear line running from his acknowledged classics through his most recent effort. If you’re jealous of Jordan Belfort, congrats on being a craven asshole. I laughed along for most of the three hours, but the film’s undercutting of Belfort’s persona, and its frankness about haves and have-nots, color the humor with darkened hues.
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Oh yeah, the sex movie!!! Of course, I thought much more highly of this film than that. An intimate coming of age story with an epic scope, I appreciated immensely Kechiche’s ability to portray humanity as a mix of intelligent beings with souls and consciences who are also animals that cannot resist their primal urgings to eat and fuck. (Eating is incredibly central to Blue Is the Warmest Color.) When we’re the same age as Adèle, the film’s lead, it’s quite surprising and weirdly illuminating to learn just how horny we are and just how unable we are to control what the heart, the mind, and especially the body all want. That she’s learning about her sexual appetite at the same time she’s reading Sartre and other French literary titans marks her education as stimulating both mentally and physically. The film charts Adèle’s course from child to adult, an experience which is liberating in more ways than one, and by the film’s conclusion, thanks to a passionate and at times grueling affair with an older artist, Emma, she has a few more tools at her physical and intellectual disposal to bring with her in her more enlightened, more independent state.
1. Before Midnight, directed by Richard Linklater
This isn’t a career achievement award or anything for Linklater, Julie Delpy, or Ethan Hawke, though the Before series probably encapsulates my favorite work from all three of them, and though the first two are masterpieces in their own right. I can confirm that Before Sunrise echoes your twenties’ naïve romanticism, and I’m guessing that its follow-ups are at least as insightful with regards to your following two decades. Midnight is the most emotionally wrought of the three; whereas previously the characters’ not living together resulted in honesty and frankness, now that we now they live and have kids together their frankness with each other comes not from the possibility of never seeing each other again but from the more disturbing gradual nonchalance of living with the same person and pet peeves piling up. In sharing their momentary annoyances—one wonders if this isn’t the first fight they’ve had, considering we’ve just followed them for a day—Céline and Jesse share their opinions on the roles of men and women in relationships, cross-border heritage (she’s French and he’s American), and growing old. You fear that their affection only sparks when they lock horns rather than when they have sex, but you understand that their shared history and acceptance of aging has helped foster a bond that survives scenes that would make even Ingmar Bergman cringe.
Don’t Be Afraid of Subtitles Division: Among the films I am almost surprised did not make my final ten favorites—and easily could tomorrow—are a quartet of foreign imports. One I caught just this week is The Past, directed by Asghar Farhadi (who helmed my favorite movie of 2011, and one of this young decade’s best, A Separation). Farhadi has moved from his native Iran to the Parisian suburbs, but his wizardry with familial drama, and his deft perspective on how adults’ bickering affects children, is just as present. Give the dude a house, parents, and a kid, and what the master work. Over my break I also caught The Great Beauty, which, and I mean this in the best way, is an incredibly Italian movie. Its director Paolo Sorrentino recreates a more firmly grounded interpretation of Fellini’s operatic visions, and its star Toni Servillo has a more modern take on Marcello Mastroianni’s Fellini characters. A ridiculous blend of the sacred and the profane arises from Rome’s hills as the protagonist takes stock of his life. And then there are two movies I saw much earlier in 2013, No and Beyond the Hills. The first, which documents a campaign to remove Augusto Pinochet from power in the late Eighties, demonstrates the delicate power of advertising, specifically how humor can make a point much more smoothly and convincingly than dire reminders of a regime’s crimes. The latter makes brilliant use of an inherently spooky setting—a convent—by intentionally eschewing effects even when it stages an exorcism; it’s a starting example of the danger of social isolation.
Existential Despair Division: The most visually stunning movie was almost certainly Gravity, and its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Alfonso Cuarón deserve special praise for their stunning rendition of space. The story has come in for criticism; I’ll say here that I liked the backstory, and if I was bothered by anything it was by Clooney’s NEVER GIVE UP speech and one of Bullock’s monologues, because it was there that the film insisted on its themes when it didn’t need to. The images sure did plenty, though. Nowhere near as visually stunning but just as claustrophobic as Gravity was All Is Lost, featuring a well-cast Robert Redford as a near silent sailor—writer-director J.C. Chandor was wise to use Redford, whose just the kind of guy you’d expect to be sailing a yacht in the Indian Ocean in retirement. It’s a well-written film despite the lack of dialogue, and Redford is an excellent vessel for getting inside the captain’s head; you’re right there with him as he’s trying to figure out what he needs to survive after his boat capsizes. It was released before either, but the ethereal documentary Leviathan answers some of Gravity‘s script problems and All Is Lost‘s CGI problems—it’s a punishing visual and sonic (if wordless) experience made possible by attaching cameras to a fishing trawler and its workers on the seas off the New England coast. How the film managed to shoot some of the ship, the waves, and the creatures that inhabit the deep are beyond me, but it contains an eerie message of coexistence (the film includes alongside the fishermen in the cast credits the Latin names of all the species shown on camera) that seems to credit every living organism for temporarily conquering Nature’s force through the sheer fact of being alive.
Camp Division: A moment of silence in memory of Paul Walker, please……there. What wasn’t silent was one of the most shamelessly enjoyable films of the year, Fast & Furious 6. Completely ridiculous in every way, containing a plot I couldn’t even begin to describe if there is one at all, and featuring as its climax a twenty-minute ensemble fight inside and around a plane moving at full speed down a runway, it was plain stupid fun. Considering the sustained applause, it was pretty fucking contagious. Just as campy, though it was directed towards a larger point about celebrity and identity, was Behind the Candelabra from Steven Soderbergh. Douglas, Damon, and Rob Lowe were fantastic as wax museum totems who are living lies in plain sight, though none of them are very good about concealing either their plastic surgery or sexual orientation. The tragedy was that they couldn’t come right out and say it when everybody else was too ignorant to think otherwise.
I’m Getting Old Division: Another success this year from Alexander Payne, he the chronicler of the Midwestern psyche. Nebraska is far from his funniest film, but it combines light humor with pathos and a pitch-perfect ear for how old people from the Plains actually talk. (Which is to say, not much at all, besides the weather or the latest corn crop.) People accuse Payne of condescension, but I don’t sense that from him unless one of his characters really warrants it; I’d actually argue the opposite, that he is forgiving almost to a fault. An excellent late-career performance from Bruce Dern, matched by his less noticed companion Will Forte in a sublime supporting turn that allows his frustration with his father and unspoken of cosmopolitanism compared to the other characters to silently stand out.
MASTER THESPIAN SOCIETY
Speaking of performances, a brief word for my two favorites: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color. These two are independently asked to carry every scene of a three-hour movie, and both are utterly captivating in giving heightened physical and emotional performances. What unites both, if I can stretch, is their insecurity, though they manifest their insecurities in different ways—DiCaprio through acting out and performing as if he were a soul singer, Exarchopoulos by nervously pursuing romance without knowing what the consequences will be.
Here are the films I most regret I didn’t get to in 2013, or the first two weeks of 2014. I had the opportunity to see At Berkeley last week, but I chose Ohio State basketball’s failed comeback bid at Michigan State over paying ten bucks to see a four-hour documentary. Priorities, people. I also regret to say that I never got around to Short Term 12 and Rush, two films that won’t be available to rent until this week. I mean, how inconsiderate of their distributors to not wait for me. But alas, I do hope to get to those titles.
And that’s it folks. Now you know who I’ll be pulling for the next six weeks.