Monday, February 24, 2014

Best of 2013: Movies

A film about a lonely man in the not too distant future, who finds that the one who understands him best is not even a real person. A film about what might have led a wrongfully enslaved man to take the whip at a fellow slave. A film about a zombie whose heart literally de-calcifies under the warmth of love.  A documentary about now venerated Indonesian paramilitary leaders who reenact for the camera, with queasy detail, how they killed thousands in the mid to late sixties. A film that watches a kindergarten teacher’s life come undone when he is accused of molesting a child. A film about a solitary man in a damaged boat who is lost at sea and hungering survival. A film about how exceptional artistic talent in a person may not always be matched with a good heart. An animated film about the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse.

These were only some in the stellar roster of 2013 films. This makes it hard for me to understand those who bemoan that this wasn’t a good year for cinema. I struggled to pare down my list even to the top fifteen films.

As in past years, I went by the simple tenet that each of the movies on this list needed to have turned something on within my emotional circuitry. How else to explain why many of the year-end critical darlings (American Hustle, Nebraska, The Wolf Of Wall Street) are not here. And also why two (!) films about zombies, ordinarily my least favorite genre, made it to the list.

So counting from the bottom up, here are my favorite films of 2013:

15. MUD
Two teenaged boys happen upon a mysterious man on an island. If this does not sound overly compelling to you, it is because films like this just don’t get made these days. Is this a coming-of-age story about a child learning to deal with divorce? Is it a modern reimagining of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn? Is it a commentary on fathers and sons? Or is it about the fragile, easily misunderstood nature of romantic relationships? Maybe all of those things. But what this also is is as close a film as I have seen about masculinity in America. In spite of an uncharacteristic veering toward the mainstream in its last act, Mud confirms Jeff Nichols as a truly original American filmmaker. Instead of the inept, insulting, overly publicized Dallas Buyers Club, this is the Matthew McConaughey film everyone should be seeing.

Films based on true stories so often strive to get the factual components right that they sometimes compromise on humanistic considerations. Not so, for Captain Phillips about the 2009 hijacking of an American freightliner by Somali pirates. Like all of his films, director Paul Greengrass uses the action genre only as a means to keenly observe individuals under sharp duress. To its great credit, the movie never once tries to sell Captain Robert Phillips as any manner of hero. His actions in the moment remain ordinary, reasoned and expected. But it is in the cumulative weight of all of his actions that his humanity emerges. This is a class example of how to do real-event films right. Oh, and the last five minutes provide a better example than any of why Tom Hanks’ name belongs in the league of the acting greats.

The gods have smiled upon us with top tier Woody Allen. The plot in Blue Jasmine is framed around two disparate sisters. Jasmine, long married into an Upper East Side life of privilege and affluence is suddenly left without social standing when her husband is revealed a grand embezzler; think Bernie Maddoff. And she is forced to come live with her very middle-class sister in San Francisco.  Borrowing freely from A Streetcar Named Desire, Allen’s writing here is so brilliantly on the mark that every scene locks into the next with a pleasing click. Allen has always been adroit with the female characters he writes. But Cate Blanchett takes possession of this role and runs with it, wrestling the film whole out of Allen’s hands, to the movie’s great betterment. There is tremendous indictment for Jasmine’s character the way Allen has written it; she represents the ugly underbelly of the privileged one-percenters. But Blanchett refuses to let this character become a caricature and roots it firmly into the believable. Jasmine may be deeply flawed and deluded, but she is never less than completely human.

The father of a pre-teen girl that has gone missing is willing to cross any line in the search for his daughter. Sounds like a cheesy, early-eighties B movie, doesn't it? But Prisoners is a film of considerable achievement.  The last time I experienced a queasy anxiety this potent was while watching The Silence Of The Lambs, and I cannot think of higher praise than to say that Prisoners can stand confidently beside that movie. On the face of it, this is a robust psychological thriller. But what elevates it is how it works as a provocation on many morally muddled issues. About the eagerness and haste to ascribe guilt to a person who fits the bill of the perpetrator of a heinous crime. About how the best amongst us can condone the worst of behaviors when overwhelmed with anger, and unconfined despair. About the scarred, troubled debate surrounding the ethics of using torture to extract critical information. About trusting a potentially fallible law enforcement system versus taking vigilante action. If a thriller can spur debate on such issues topics, it has done its job well. Featuring egregiously overlooked performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, this is a remarkably tight film even at a two and a half hours length. Also, Prisoners boasts likely the most perfect last scene of any film this year.

We are in the middle of the golden age of Indian cinema; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. How else do you account for a year that brought us the swooning, wilting romanticism of Lootera. Or the transgressive construct of the three leads in the marvelous Shuddh Desi Romance.  Or first among equals, consider Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani that takes a few young characters and visits them at two different times in their lives. Like the sublime Wake Up, Sid from the same director, this film speaks authentically to what it is like to be young and searching. And searching and searching. Do we change with time, or are we hostage for life, to our fundamental personalities? A little of both, the film argues. This is a quietly observant movie masquerading as a big masala blockbuster. Sharply written, cleverly assembled, and warmly acted, it does Indian cinema good.

This was the most fun I had at the cinemas in 2013.  Yes, unlike the source book on which the film is based, the movie misses out on the opportunity to comment on how a zombie apocalypse would become an instant social equalizer within the world. But as a pure popcorn summer film, this movie got its job done. Other summer blockbusters did too, but the reason World War Z is on this list is because of its final act. Eschewing the usual mass explosions and hazy mayhem that round up the final minutes in popcorn films (Man Of Steel and Iron Man 3, I am looking at you), World War Z had the good sense to set its final act in a closed off laboratory, where the protagonist has to wade through zombies to get at a potential anti-serum to abet zombie infection. Claustrophobic, tight and breathlessly paced, this final act understands that tension will trump mindless action. I left the cinema with a smile on my face. 

Much has been made of the bravura filmmaking in Gravity, the new technical standards set by the film, the impeccable choreography that plays with POV. And how Gravity has single-handedly found reason for the elusive moviegoer to make the trip to the cinema. That is all true, yes, but the thing that got to me was not the visual hijinks, it was the ability of the film to get into the final gasp headspace that few movies have been able to: when confronted with certain death, do you close your eyes and wait, or do you get into that state of reckless delirium where you roar out raging, as hopeless as it may be.  Like All Is Lost with which it shares its DNA, it is not bad for a nearly plotless survival film to evoke existential questions. 

Too bad director Nicole Holofcener already used the title Lovely And Amazing for a previous terrific film because it would have been great for her latest, Enough Said. A mature, wry observation piece on the behaviors of mature, wry characters is reason enough for being grateful. But to Holofcener’s credit, while the film primarily focuses on its forty-something leads, the writing also finds some of the most realistic teenagers depicted on screen. I cannot sing enough the praises of the actors in this film; whoever thought to put Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini together - not exactly an obvious pairing – must have had the hand of cinematic gods on their shoulder. No one in film, or television right now, does better reaction shots than Louis-Dreyfus. And Gandolfini uses every facet of his scrappy, dog-eared, warmly intelligent persona to make for a credible male romantic lead. The film pulls off one sleight of the hand after another in fleshing out, with remarkable skill, so many relationships: mothers and daughters, ex-wives and ex-husbands, employers and employees, friends and confessors. It all works. 

This film is a wolf-howl to all the misfits of the world. And I howled right back at it. Directed by the writers of The Descendants, this film follows an awkward teenager as he fumbles to come unto his own during a summer vacation when his single mom decides to spend time at the beach house of her jerk of a boyfriend. Even as the story turns familiar corners – the teenager finds someone who takes him under his wing and reinforces his confidence; he stands up to his mother’s boyfriend; he connects with a girl his own age – the film is constructed with so much charm that those developments shine as examples of doing cliché right. Of all the films I saw in 2013, this was the only one I truly, consciously felt sorry to see end. You cannot be passionate about films and be closed off to how movies make you feel. For me the heart always trumps over the head. And this film has heart to spare. 

A film about a young girl who brings out the protective instinct in a zombie shouldn’t amount to much. But this film crept up on my inner romantic. I have an affinity for the films of Jonathan Levine to begin with, and here he takes on an exhausted genre and betters it. Plus how can you not warm up to a film that finds the means to throw in a Romeo and Juliet balcony scene in the middle of its narrative? You will not find this film on any other year-end lists, but I have fierce love for it. 

At about the halfway point into Disconnect I forgot that I was watching a film. I was in it, breathing it. I have gratitude for films that wrestle me down and take me over. This one did. The film pans across several stories, all of which deal with our increasing dependence on electronic communications. It would have been easy for the film to be a shrill diatribe against those unable to interact with other human beings and who instead use the internet to connect to strangers online. But the film explains why sometimes a stranger online might be able to provide support (that the closest of family or friends may be unable to), because they are the ones who have been through the same devastating experience and therefore best understand your situation. Superbly acted with soulful turns from Jason Bateman, Andrea Riseborough, Paula Patton and Jonah Bono, and expertly put together, this is a film that deserved a wider audience. 

What happens after you have acquired the one true love of your life. The one you have pined for all along. What happens after you get this person. What then. You find that this impossibly perfect person you have long idealized is shockingly human. With neuroses and all too banal insecurities! Featuring better writing than other film this year, this is the third outing of Richard Linklater’s Before series, which has followed two characters, Celine and Jesse every 7 or so years, from the terrifying exhilaration of finding the right person, to the despair of knowing the impossibility of being with that person, to now having miraculously settled in with that person. Celine has been fiercely intelligent as seen through Jesse’s eyes up until now because she has so long been the object of his unattainable desire. But now that they are married, they start to see the painful, ugly sides of each other. While the first two films were giddily in flight, Before Midnight has its feet planted firmly in dusty reality. And the grounding effect brings unexpected power to the wondrous writing in this film; it is too close for comfort, but also thrillingly authentic. The two characters are now no longer the starry aspirations of the audience member; with this film, Jesse and Celeste have become the audience members. 

3. HER  
This film is messy. And it is absurd. But it is also wonderful. And often profound.  And wildly original. A man in the not too distant future falls in love with his computer operating system. One may approach this film with some trepidation since this concept sounds like a joke (like Lars And The Real Girl). What happy surprise to find then that Her is a meditation on the human need for connecting, and to be understood. Yes it is a story set in future, but that is only a ploy; the film speaks to how we live now. And it comments in its own way on how becoming an adult is in many ways realizing that ultimately everyone will disappoint you, and to move on in life in spite of that. That to mature in life is to realize that everyone is evolving at a different pace than your own. The film does two glorious things. One is that it abandons a tired narrative structure which sets the actors free to do gentle, quiet work, such as Joaquin Phoenix's work in this film. Or the astonishing voice-work from a Scarlett Johansson at the peak of her gifts.  And the other thing is that Her creates its own, particular, visual world. We see a future Los Angeles so achingly beautiful such as it will probably never exist. This is the most ambitious film of the year. 

Like the best films, this one reflects the universe through the experience of a single person. Only it is a universe nobody wants to talk about. There are many who complain that 12 Years A Slave is getting lauded based on its subject matter alone, that it is yet another tiresome exercise in politically correct chest beating. They are dead wrong. Plain and simple, this is a magnificent film; that and only that is the reason for the accolades the movie is receiving. Devastating, unflinching, and angry, the movie asks: how dare we forget our not too recent history. In the 19th century, America traded more slaves than other country, and much of the nation’s economy is built on that. It is part of American history and we need to be talking about it. Now.  By sticking close to the true story of Solomon Northop, a free black man in New York who was tricked and pushed into slavery in the antebellum south, the film is able to comment on the psychology of oppression. Director Steve McQueen’s camera refuses to back away from the horror of the situation, and in its unflinching gaze manages to do what other films on slavery weren’t able to. It doesn’t allow the audience the luxury of looking away. 

1. SHORT TERM 12  
We have stopped expecting what earlier generations did from films when they saw say, It's A Wonderful Life or Casablanca or Singing In The Rain or Citylights. We have stopped expecting a film to be a fully rounded emotional experience. One that makes us simultaneously reflect on the inequities of life and be happy with our own condition. Sentimentality has become a pejorative cinematic ideal. But sentimentality when well-earned and done with authenticity can make for the most potent of film experiences. And this is what makes Short Term 12 an exceptional achievement.  It is the rare film that can claim possession of that emotionally purity. Set in a facility for foster care adolescents and the young employees who work there, this film could have wallowed in pious sanctimony at every step. Instead it takes every one of those tricky situations and makes them honest and grounded as the film builds to great power. I surrendered to the thrill of this film on a minute by minute basis, waiting for the film to falter, but it never did. Its greatest merit may be that it flies its flag of humanism proudly in the face of cynicism and non-traditional story-telling that has come to define excellence in cinemas these days. I have unreasonable love for this film. 

So good a year this was at the movies that I cheated and picked top fifteen films instead of the customary ten. And even then, there were many that had to be left out. Honorable mentions go out to The Act Of Killing, All Is Lost, August: Osage County, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Broken Circle Breakdown, Drinking Buddies, Ernest Et Celestine, Frances Ha, The Great Gatsby, The Hunt, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Place Beyond The Pines, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Rush, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, What Maisie Knew, and Wolverine

What a year for cinema. 

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