It's been far too long since I've been able to and it fills me with so much happiness to say this: what a phenomenal year for cinema the last 12 months turned out to be. 2013 was the annum in which the movies took an honest look at the upstart, critical darling that is modern "golden age" television and said: "We will not be ignored, we will not be usurped, we will not share the spotlight. We are movies, hear us roar!"
If the common opinion that 2012 was "the year of the writer" is to be given credence than 2013 was most certainly the year of the director. While many of cinema's established modern masters turned in some of the best work of their respective careers, many up and coming auteurs made names for themselves with bold, eye-catching, creative strides that eclipsed even the work of their industry elders.
After taking a break from my annual writeup last year (do in no small part to a difficulty in finding 10 films worth championing) I was elated to dive head-first into a new top 10 list for 2013, singling out the films that cut through the noise and got my attention like only the best ones can. Though I must admit it was more difficult than usual to whittle the list down to just 10. Bravo, 2013. You offered up an embarrassment of riches.
10. Chan-Wook Park’s STOKER
In 2013 we saw Spike Lee skin his knee attempting to remake Chan-Wook Park’s seminal 2003 revenge thriller OLDBOY. But earlier that same year Mr. Park made a towering English language debut with the little-seen but much-loved Hitchcock throwback STOKER. Park, his effervescent leading lady Mia Wasikowska, and particularly a deliciously malevolent Matthew Goode, dive headfirst down a sick and twisted rabbit hole of cinematic pleasures. Ostensibly a remake of SHADOW OF A DOUBT, Park’s film becomes so much more than that as Wentworth Miller’s corkscrew screenplay confounds prediction, veering off into it dark, unexpected narrative territory. STOKER pulls out all the stops, visually and dramatically, and gives us sequences that might be shockingly abhorrent if they weren’t so damned beautiful to look at. The incest-tinged, Phillip Glass duet at the piano is forever seared in my memory. (shudder)
9. Denis Villaneuve’s PRISONERS
If I’m being perfectly honest I can say unreservedly, while trying not to sound jaded, that it’s been far too long since I’ve had cause to actually grip an armrest tightly while in a movie theater. But there are sequences in Denis Villaneuve’s lean, mean, dark, dirty, angry, devastating potboiler that caused me to actually react physically to what was happening on screen. The fact that a film can still do that reminds me what a powerful genre "thriller" can be when it’s actually handled by professionals who know what they’re doing. And this film has nothing but professionals at the helm- Villaneuve, Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Deakins, all doing some of the best work of their respective careers. PRISIONERS is a tough sit, to be sure. Especially for anyone with children. But Aaron Guzikowski’s byzantine screenplay offers unexpected emotional payoff for those willing to take this haunting journey. Now... where did I put my whistle?
8. Asghar Farhadi’s THE PAST
Following up a universally acclaimed triumph like A SEPERATION is not an enviable task. Most filmmakers would be leery of returning to the same thematic well for fear of drawing criticism for lack of artistic range. But Asghar Farhadi is a confident enough artist to know that, for him, the subject of divorce fallout has far too many dramatic implications to be contained in a single film. So while THE PAST shares a similar jumping off point as A SEPERATION, the last thing anyone could accuse it of is being derivative. What it turns out to be is an even richer, more complex, and ultimately more devastating tapestry of mankind’s stubborn insistence on standing in its own way at. As our preeminent cinematic purveyor of human struggle and domestic drama, Farhadi has been compared to Checkov and Ibsen. But in cinematic terms I’d call him the heir apparent to Alejandro González Iñárritu. He’s a filmmaker who doesn’t so much wallow in the misery his characters can't seem to avoid, so much as he trains a microscope on how humanity reacts causally to pain and suffering. He’s a cinematic anthropologist of the highest order.
7. Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS
Love it or hate it. Become giddy or angry at the thought of it. Find it to be a self-aware meta-satire or trashy piece of sexploitation... SPRING BREAKERS is officially part of the cult canon and it is here to stay. Harmony Korine- never one to shy away from a taboo, is the kind of artist who regards the term “unfilmable” as a challenge, not a warning. Here, in his de facto masterpiece, he reacts to the criticism that he’s incapable of penetrating the “mainstream” by wildly overcompensating. After all, what’s more accessible than suiting up 4 nubile starlets (3 of whom have CVs that feature liberal usage of the words “Disney” and “ABC Family”) in bikinis and sending them off to raise hell in Tampa with a corn-rowed James Franco (in the role of his career?). Korine piles so many layers of excess into his sweaty, surreal, scantily-clad, Floridian bean dip (a fractured narrative structure that will occasionally fold in on itself, images so electric they seem to crackle right off the screen…) that it’s easy to forget which way is up (especially when Benoit Debie’s camera becomes inverted, which it is wont to do, often). But don’t worry if you have conflicted feelings. Don’t be alarmed if you start to feel guilty for having such a good time or if you're at odds with yourself trying to decode exactly what Korine is trying to say. Just let go. You’re in good hands. Give in to the power of SPRING BREAKERS… bitch.
6. Richard Linklater’s BEFORE MIDNIGHT
I think one can draw many similarities between the “BEFORE” trilogy and the TOY STORY trilogy. Wait, come back! At least let me state my case! Both trilogies feature first installments that bowed in 1995, feel like wonderful time capsules for that era of filmmaking, and are totally self-contained, satisfying stories. Moving on, both trilogies have second installments that seemed like terrible ideas on paper but actually surpassed the quality of their predecessors by digging deeper, investigating the pleasures and perils of nostalgia, and finding warmth and vulnerability in their characters that weren’t necessarily apparent the first go-round. This brings us to the respective third installments- again, bad ideas on paper (particularly after BEFORE SUNSET’s insta-classic final moments), made many years after their predecessors (over a decade in TOY STORY’s case), and immediately hailed as the best in their series’ for almost identical reasons: Both represented superior intelligence to the previous installments, willingness to go into darker, often more harrowing places, and above all, an affection for and understanding of their characters that only comes with age and mileage. BEFORE MIDNIGHT is a bona fide triumph. Here’s hoping it gets that rare second sequel best picture nomination that its spiritual sibling TOY STORY 3 received so triumphantly.
5. Abdellatif Kechiche’s BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
2013 was an uncommonly strong year for love stories. So a coming of age romance about 2 French women who share a dangerous, almost animalistic attraction, became the unexpected yet perfect reflection of contemporary cinema's relationship with uncompromised sexuality. That all sounds very highfalutin and convoluted. But BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR manages to achieve an unprecedented level of artistic sophistication by simply approaching a classical story of love and loss with attention to detail and unwillingness to flinch. Much has been written about director Kechiche’s literal and figurative bedside manner with his actresses (the sublime, heartbreaking Adèle Exarchopoulos and the soulful, magnetic Léa Seydoux). Calling his methods into question will certainly keep cinematic pundits talking for years to come. Regardless, what these 3 artists achieved together is nothing short of breathtaking- the life cycle of a love story, told over an epic timeline, that will haunt and confound hopeless romantics for years to come.
4. Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
There’s a moment about a third of the way through the Coen Brother’s latest film (during the already famous “Please Mr. Kennedy” recording session) when our eponymous, hangdog minstrel actually seems to lighten up. If only for a moment. The perpetual dark cloud than hangs above his curly mane (a perm so effortlessly coiffed that Bradley Cooper’s character in AMERICAN HUSTLE would turn green at the sight of it) lifts for a few beats as Llewyn Davis lets his guard down and gives in to the power of performance (no matter how ridiculous the song). This pleasure is fleeting however, and soon Llewyn must return to the grinding cycle of professional purgatory he has trapped himself inside- riding the rails from his most recent flop on the upper west side, southbound to Grenwich Village. Wearing all of the breathless anticipation on his face of a coal miner trudging once more under the ground. And it’s in this somber, melancholy place that the Coen’s find the perfect foothold for their latest existential, seriocomic farce- A true philosophical successor to their masterpiece BARTON FINK (Oscar Isaacs, in the definition of a star-making performance, even sounds like a young John Turturro) and a film that seems tailor-made to age just as well as its predecessor.
3. Jean-Marc Vallee’s DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
McConaughey truly is THAT good in his portrayal of AIDS victim Ron Woodruff and it really is the crowing achievement in his increasingly illustrious body of work. But it’s important to appreciate that the film surrounding the four on the floor performance is a brilliant, accomplished, and harrowing piece of work. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB doesn’t work without an actor completely committed (emotionally and physically) to the role. But the performance wouldn’t seem nearly as vital or lasting if the film itself weren’t an absolute knockout as well (when was the last time you bothered watching RAY again?). Not to mention a sharp and refreshing take on a well-worn subject. McConaughey and director Jean-Marc Vallée are aided in no small part by a never better Jennifer Garner, who injects an easily trivialized role with warmth and humanity, and the much lauded Jared Leto who, again, reminds us all (hopefully for the last time) that he will never be pigeonholed as merely a pretty face. But, lest we ever mistake it as merely a “message” movie or a saccharine “bad person finds his humanity” parable, DBC sidesteps sentiment at every turn and finds a bracingly matter-of-fact way to tell a truly fascinating story.
2. J.C. Chandor’s ALL IS LOST
What do you do after finding magnificent success with a debut film dependent on a large ensemble and a dialogue-heavy script that took place almost exclusively on interior sets? Why, you follow it up with a film featuring exactly 1 character (referred to in the very brief cast scroll during the end credits simply as “our man”) and virtually NO dialogue (save for one of the most justified uses of the word “Fuck” in the history of movies) that spends its running time on the high seas of the South Pacific. Obviously. J.C. Chandor takes an enormous gamble in his sophomore directorial effort by betting big on the notion that he can keep us engaged for nearly 2 hours of failure and dread as a lone sailor’s luck goes from bad to worse to abysmal (literally and figuratively). Fortunately for Chandor he has the ultimate Ace up his sleeve. The original Ace in fact. Golden boy Robert Redford, who kept audiences compelled as the only actor onscreen for long stretches of JEREMIAH JOHNSON, 41 years ago, absolutely inhabits “Our Man” in perhaps the role of his career. The simplicity, authenticity, and nuance of Redford’s approach, particularly in his physical commitment to the role, represents the finest male performance of 2013- A true tour de force that only an actor of Redford’s caliber and experience is capable of. To take the ALL IS LOST journey is to make an enormous emotional investment. But doing so pays off in ways that few man-versus-nature films can and only the very best ones ever do.
1. Woody Allen’s BLUE JASMINE
Over the course of 42 theatrically released features in 44 years (just think about that ratio for a second) Woody Allen has artistically lost his way, found his way, lost it, and found it again. Popular critical opinion seems to be that he most recently found it about 8 years ago when he made MATCH POINT, the first film of his so-called “European Period”. Since then he has achieved some of the biggest successes of his career, including Oscars for VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS- the highest grossing of his 42 films. And while I have nothing but respect and admiration for MP and VCB (I’ll plead the fifth on MIP), I’m of the opinion that he lost his way after 1999’s SWEET AND LOWDOWN (the last of his films I consider to be a true masterpiece) and didn’t actually find it again until BLUE JASMINE. And, like so many great artists, he found it in the most unexpected of places- San Francisco. Woody Allen, the perennial New Yorker, who was perfectly capable of falling for the great capitals of Europe, found a muse in the state of California- once his favorite subject of comic ridicule. By sending Jasmine Francis (embodied by Cate Blanchett in a career-defining performance), his afflicted, medicated Blanche DuBoise surrogate, to the city by the bay in search of the kindness of strangers, Woody uncovers an opportunity for some of the most satisfying dramatic fireworks he’s ever ignited. The film functions as perfectly enjoyable comic distraction for the first hour and only then do Woody’s true intentions begin to gel as the story’s tragic implications are thrown into sharp relief. BLUE JASMINE might just have the best final scene of any film in 2013 (a very close second would be PRISONERS)- a scene as devastating, as cynically satisfying as Woody’s best dramatic fare (I was reminded of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO for obvious reasons). That scene- as with Cate Blanchett’s performance and the film that contains them both, is startlingly vivid, brilliantly realized, and instantly iconic.
THE ACT OF KILLING
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
FAST AND FURIOUS 6
SHORT TERM 12
STORIES WE TELL
THE WORLD'S END
-Matt Knudsen 1/7/14