Monday, December 30, 2013

MY PICKS FOR THE BEST FILMS OF 2013


2013 wasn't a great year for movies. It had a pretty awful summer too, with no release during the hottest months truly capturing the zeitgeist. However, the fall started a series of movies that were both critical hits and made money too. The Academy won't have trouble picking 10 Best Picture nominees from 2013, nor did I have any real difficulty coming up with a 10 Best List. 

Now, picking the best amongst such a year’s slate isn’t all that difficult. My list has a lot of overlap with the lists of most others out there making up such things. Even so, as I poured over my list, I noticed a significant trend in my selections. Most of my picks for the year’s best tended to be very much of the moment, reflecting the mood of our time.

And what is that mood?  Loneliness.

I suppose the theme of isolation is reflective of a time where so many have lost faith in their government, press, church and community. A time where Facebook passes for friendship, where used car salesmen have better reputations than our elected officials, where equal rights are still in question, and banks make record profits while the middle class disappears. Who’s got our backs? Makes you feel alone, doesn’t it?


It’s all over our movies this year. Robert Redford is the man against the sea in ALL IS LOST. Chiwetel Ejiofor loses his freedom and spends 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Joaquin Phoenix dates a computer in HER. No one can be trusted in AMERICAN HUSTLE. And Leonardo DiCaprio is such an evil broker conning his customers that he's literally able to throw away hundreds in the garbage can in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. This captures our sense of being screwed, of having to fend for ourselves with no 'wingmen', no one looking out for us. 

That sensibility can even be found in fluff like WORLD WAR Z where Brad Pitt is the only one who sees what’s going on. It's there in SAVING MR. BANKS where Emma Thompson has to go up against the Disney machine. It's there as Matthew McConaughey can’t even get the appropriate drugs from his own doctors to fight his case of AIDS in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. These films, and so many more, are filled with tales of the lone individual up against a world that just doesn’t seem to give a crap about them.

There’s no AVENGERS-style “we’re a team, dammit” theme this year, even though it was so prevalent last year. We’re so polarized today, with a viciousness driving every news cycle, that it’s no wonder this year’s roster feels so much darker and desperate.

Yet, it's made for some truly great films. Our despair is good for drama on the big screen. Here then are my picks for the best in film this past year - a dark lot, true, but nonetheless stunning.

GRAVITY
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron

Of course its special effects were truly spectacular, its simple yet dramatic story was as poetic as it was powerful, and its star turn by Sandra Bullock could net her another Oscar. But what made Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece so enthralling for so many, and why it was one of the year’s biggest critical and box office hits, was the fact that it was truly transporting. It put you right there, smack dab in the middle of the stars, lost in space. We shared in the feeling of being alone in the void with Bullock’s astronaut and her desperate situation completely. She was tethered to nothing except her own wits, luck, and a hand from God in the form of George Clooney. Her survivalist tale was the strongest metaphor for a world where few bother to hear you scream anymore. It is rare that a film can take us out of our world so completely yet be grounded in it so wholly too. For me, it was the most vivid film experience of the year.

AMERICAN HUSTLE
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Eric Singer and David O. Russell

On the surface, this film is a scathing black comedy about the Abscam scandal from the 1970’s, with a sharp script, A+ production values, costumes & makeup, and clever performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But what David O. Russell’s comedy of manners is really about is acting - the acting that we all do to get through the day. His con artists here hustle to make a living, just as we all do, learning how to pretend, go along, say the right thing to keep our job, marriage and station in life intact. This is a period piece, but it couldn’t be more about how we all have to operate today, doing what we can, faking it when needed, due to the fact that we’re all too often pushing the water uphill on our own. It’s a cheeky, timely piece. And it’s got the luminous Amy Adams in plunging necklines throughout. What’s not to love?


HER
Written and directed by Spike Jonze

This love story, between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), may take place in the not-too-distant future, but it is all about today as well. It’s a mournful commentary on our modern society where people spend way too much time nattering about in their own head. Writer/director Spike Jonze is examining how we don’t see friends; we see their exploits on Instagram. We don’t use our phones to talk; we use them to type. We use ear buds to keep the world out of the concert going on in our minds. We’re losing the ability to connect. And how cheeky of Jonze to play out his technological love story with the exact same beats that every relationship goes through - from the first flush of intimacy to the last sputters of the breakup.


NEBRASKA
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Bob Nelson

Alexander Payne’s latest film is shot in black and white, and it’s as dry and droll as the Midwestern plains captured by Phedon Papamichael’s austere cinematography. The story is about loneliness, and Payne knows his pain. Bruce Dern plays Woody, an old coot that believes he’s won a million dollars, but that’s really just his cover story. What he’s truly after is some attention. He’s been an afterthought to his family and friends for decades so he claims he won a sham sweepstakes to get them to take notice. And when he finally has their attention, he holds his head high and basks in it, knowing that it may have come late but at least it has arrived.


BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Directed by Abedellatif Kechiche
Written by Abedellatif Kechiche, Ghallia Lacroix and Julie Maroh

Relationships are messy. Living together, sharing a bed, sharing a bathroom – messy, messy, messy! And breaking up with someone is the messiest thing of all. It doesn’t matter if your American heterosexuals or French lesbians, relationships are tough for all of us. And this film by Abdellatif Kechiche boasts a brutal honesty about love that is rarely captured by the movies. His two female stars (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) play the lovers and they give this story their all, with emotionally and physically naked performances that are startling. It’s a detailed and nuanced examination of all the moments in the trajectory of a relationship, from the very start to the lonely, bitter end. And it resonates so deeply because we’ve all been there.


THE CONJURING
Directed by James Wan
Written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes

This was the year’s best horror movie and it earned its scares because it's played as so incredibly real. (And without the benefit of handheld ‘cinema verite’.) Based upon a true paranormal activity story from the casebook of 1970’s ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, this frightener kept audiences on the edge of their seats with genuine dread and not cheap scares. Wan expertly dramatized very good people battling very bad demons without laying on blood or gore. And in the end, good does conquer all, but then again, when has the devil ever taken no for his final answer? It sets the stage for sequels and is a potential franchise that has plenty of stories to tell. After all, the Warrens did investigate the Amityville horror.


CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Billy Ray

Another tale of survival like GRAVITY, only this one stars Tom Hanks as a barge captain who's kidnapped and ransomed at sea. He’s more everyman than Navy SEAL and he has little more than his wits as weapons against the well-armed Somali pirates. Greengrass is superb at tightening the screws and creates a nail-biter here that is all the more incredible because it really happened. And when Tom Hanks breaks down at the end, it’s one of the most moving scenes of the year. Trust me. See it and you'll be sobbing too.


BLUE JASMINE
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Cate Blanchett plays a Manhattan society dame, down-on-her-luck after her shyster businessmen husband left her virtually penniless. She shows up at her sister’s crappy apartment in San Francisco, looking for a place to stay, and soon is driving everyone around her bonkers.  She resists all opportunities of kindness that come her way and keeps everyone at arms length. She chooses her own loneliness. And at the end she's got no one, not even herself as she's gone 'round the bend. It shouldn’t be funny but it is because Woody Allen is a biting social critic. He reinterprets Blanche Dubois and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with this film that sticks it to all those in the 1% who think that the rest of us have created our own woe in the world today. 


THIS IS THE END
Directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
Written by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg and Jason Stone

Just because actors in Hollywood are rich and live like kings doesn’t make them special. That’s the lesson that James Franco, Seth Rogan and their Tinsel Town cronies all come to realize after the Apocalypse and they’re left waiting for the rapture. This was the most uproarious comedy of the year, yet it wasn’t mindless frat house high jinks. Instead, Rogan and Goldberg shrewdly take the piss out of our celebrity culture by indicting not only the celebrities but the celebrity culture and press that invests too much into everything a Kardashian does when there are so many more important things going on in the world outside L.A.


PRISONERS
Directed by Denis Villenueve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski

Two children are kidnapped on Thanksgiving and not enough is done to find them by the authorities, so macho dad Hugh Jackman takes the law into his own hands by kidnapping the number one suspect. It’s an ugly film about coerced justice and the gloomy look of it was perfectly suited to the story. Everything is ashen, from the stark locations to the gray skies to the distraught faces of its impressive cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo). Again, the themes of helplessness and loneliness play throughout this taut and tense thriller, the most disturbing one of the year.

And, for the record, I also must mention that DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, BLACKFISH, ENOUGH SAID, SPRING BREAKERS, STOKER, MAMA, THE GREAT GATSBY, ALL IS LOST, THE BLING RING, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, RUSH, THE BOOK THIEF and ABOUT TIME all struck me as quite special too. 


So, those are my choices. What are yours? And Happy New Year to you, my followers and here’s to the coming year at the Cineplex. 

2 comments:

  1. This is the year that acting ruled the screen. It's the year we discovered Jennifer Lawrence could play beyond her age. It's the year we rediscovered Bruce Dern-of whom Jack Nicholson said back in the 70's was is "only real competition." Even in the FX heavy Gravity it was Sandra's performance, not the hocus-pocus, that carried the day.

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  2. Well said, Mr. Mullen. Great points, particularly the one about GRAVITY. As awesome as the thrills and special effects were, it wouldn't have the lasting power or resonance without the Bullock character's story. She made it all the more palpable and eminently real, didn't she?

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