Rita’s Top Ten of 2013
10. Fruitvale Station
Anchored by a raw and complex lead performance from next-big-thing Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler’s debut feature about the shooting death of Oscar Grant does so much more than lament a real life tragedy (though it does that particularly well). It starts as an absorbing portrait of a young man struggling to figure out what the next stage of his life will look like, and gradually turns into a bracing elegy not only for Oscar Grant, but for the fragility of life in general. Jordan’s fantastic work is matched by that of Octavia Spencer as his mother, and especially by Melonie Diaz (a sorely underutilized actress who would be in pretty much every movie if I were in charge of such things) as Sophina, Oscar’s girlfriend and the mother of his child. Without its violent ending, Fruitvale Station would still be an effective slice-of-life drama about people we don’t see frequently enough on the big screen (namely: non-white, non-rich people). With the ending? It’s devastating.
9. Drinking Buddies
When you describe what happens in Drinking Buddies, it doesn’t sound like much. Its most dramatic plot point, taken at face value, is actually pretty tame. The real drama takes place almost completely within the hearts and minds of its characters, and reaches us only through the superb, understated performances of its cast. Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde play Luke and Kate, two flirty but basically platonic coworkers at a craft brewery, whose lives become a lot more complicated when they take a weekend trip with Luke’s girlfriend/pseudo-fiancée Jill (Anna Kendrick, sweet and neurotic and heartbreaking) and Kate’s comparatively casual boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston, warm and earnest and sexy). Almost entirely improvised, the film had no actual screenplay, but rather a loose outline with plot points the actors knew they had to eventually hit on. This strategy gives every scene a lightning-in-a-bottle quality that’s thrilling (and occasionally uncomfortable) to watch. Jake Johnson is as insanely charming and funny as any fan of New Girl already knows him to be, while also lending real heft to the more dramatic sections of the film. But the most pleasant surprise is Olivia Wilde, who I’ve always basically liked, but is not the first person I’d think of for a nuanced portrayal of a damaged maybe-alcoholic whose life is entering a sadness spiral. Surprise! Turns out she’s amazing.
8. American Hustle
People who dismiss this movie as an extended music video or an excuse for movie stars to play dress-up are, a) giving tragically short shrift to the sublime joy that can come from the exact things they’re describing, and b) somehow not perceiving the wealth of small, perfect, utterly real character moments that pop up between – and sometimes during – the showy set pieces. Like, seriously, can we talk about the very first moments of the film, wherein we observe Christian Bale’s Irving as he lovingly assembles his glorious combover, only to have destroyed in an instant by Bradley Cooper’s Richie, impulsively mussing it like an angry child would knock over his brother’s sandcastle? The building of the hair, the destruction of the hair, and the moment of loaded silence that passes between them afterward (not to mention Amy Adams’ expression as she looks on) is a perfect synthesis of ostentatious surfaces and genuine feeling. The movie is packed with moments like that. All the characters occupy different places on the continuum between realism and caricature (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence ably set up shop at either end while everyone else bounces between them), but everyone contains at least a little of both, adding up to a vibrant romp that’s light and silly, but never dumb.
7. Before Midnight
A perfect sequel to its predecessors as well as great film on its own, Before Midnight is equal parts gratifying and painful (they’re still together . . . barely!), and its observations of Jesse and Celine as romantic partners and as individuals are as keen and cutting as ever. The familiarity that director Richard Linklater and his stars (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are also credited as co-writers) have with these people is so deep and genuine that it’s impossible not to feel personally invested in every conversation they have, from the banal to the momentous. The second half of the film, basically one long argument, is a feat of true-to-life emotional screenwriting. Few things are harder than showing an intimate relationship in as much complexity and detail as they have in real life, but so far, the Before series is three for three.
6. Enough Said
Speaking of putting across the details of an intimate relationship, you know what else is difficult? Putting across the thrill, the awkwardness, and the joy of falling in love with someone new. The movies are full of people falling in love, but onscreen couples with as much chemistry as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Enough Said are unfortunately few and far between. Both actors are television icons and powerhouses of charisma, which makes their performances here – notably quieter and more vulnerable than we’re used to seeing them – that much more affecting. Nicole Holofcener’s work has always explored the ways in which people (especially economically privileged ones) struggle to live with each other, trying and frequently failing to keep their own selfishness in check, at least while others are watching. Enough Said tackles the same themes, plus aging, romantic regret, and the difficulty of relating to one’s children when they start to become adults. These more somber elements, combined with the fizzy fun of watching such winning actors meet cute, create a bittersweet love story that’s more fully-realized and touching than anything I’ve seen in a while.
5. Frances Ha
I’m a big fan of the HBO series Girls, but even I am occasionally worn out by its characters’ narcissism and misanthropy. At least Greta Gerwig’s Frances Halladay is a good-natured narcissist who finds joy in things like running/dancing down the streets of New York to a David Bowie song. While it’s largely about the pains and anxieties of young adulthood, the most exciting moments in Frances Ha also show some of what’s great about being that age. Gerwig’s performance is amazing. Simultaneously clumsy and graceful, she can go from irresistibly charming to remarkably off-putting and awkward in the course of a single scene – and does, a couple of times. Co-written by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, it’s filled with moments and lines (“But your blog looks so happy!”) that really nail what it’s like to a unmoored 20-something with an uncertain future.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street
If Leonardo DiCaprio’s hilarious, unhinged, Icarus-as-a-smarmy-dudebro performance were the only good thing about The Wolf of Wall Street, it would still be worth watching. Luckily, this is far from the case. Scorsese’s rollicking catalogue of 1980s excess is a great roller coaster ride, right down to the fact that it might make you kind of nauseous. It’s undeniably fun to gawk at these weirdos as they indulge in every conceivable type of debauchery, but Scorsese also allows us some brief glimpses into the sad ickiness from which these behaviors stem (the scene in which Jordan and Donnie discuss the idea of a life without drinking and drugs – something Donnie can hardly conceive of – is particularly telling).
Despite its ridiculous-sounding premise (take a look at YouTube and see how easily it lends itself to parody), Spike Jonze’s tale of a lonely man who makes a love connection with his operating system is startlingly immediate, emotionally honest, and even wise in its depiction of romantic relationships, our dependence on technology, and what those things might or might not have to do with each other. In a time when everybody and their mom has written a pearl-clutching think piece on whether technology brings us closer together or farther apart (spoiler alert: the answer is both, and only as much as you let it), Her‘s take on the topic is refreshingly non-alarmist. Yes, many people are friends and even lovers with their computers, but the idea that this spells an end to face-to-face intimacy between humans isn’t even entertained. Furthermore, it suggests that the two types of relationships might not be all that different from each other. The human-computer romance ultimately fails, but the human-human romances in the movie don’t fare much better. Amy Adams sums up the theme of Her when she says that basically, love is just a socially acceptable form of insanity anyway. It’s essentially the “most of us need the eggs” moment from Annie Hall, with a contemporary twist.
2. Short Term 12
Destin Cretton’s drama about life in a foster-care facility for teens is powerful stuff. Brie Larson gives my favorite female performance of the year as Grace, an employee at the facility who’s a product of foster care herself, and whose personal experience of abuse is a big help in connecting with the kids she cares for, but frequently a hindrance when it comes to confronting the flaws in the system without flying off the handle. Perhaps its most towering achievement is the way it portrays recovery from a traumatic past as a never-ending process, offering hope for all of its characters without tying anything up too neatly or eliding the fact that for many of them, the pain will never be completely gone. Intense, eloquent, and unerringly warm-hearted in the face of its dark subject matter, Short Term 12 burned itself into my brain in the best way possible.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Everyone knows it can be harder to describe why you love a movie than why you hate one. With that in mind, would it be grossly unrigorous to say that it feels like I’ve spent my entire life with a hole in my heart the exact size and shape of this movie? And now that I’ve seen it, that Inside Llewyn Davis-shaped hole is at long last filled? Because that is exactly how I feel. There are many things about it that deserve praise – Oscar Isaac’s terrific performance, the gorgeous faded-photograph cinematography, the beautiful soundtrack. But the things that make it really great are tough to put into words. It’s a meditation on grief, mortality, and personal failure that’s somehow as funny as it is melancholy and heartfelt. The bare-bones plot is sort of quotidian one on hand, but mythic and dream-like on the other. Most of all, it’s wonderfully, appropriately ambiguous. The back alley confrontation that opens and closes the film casts a mysterious pall over everything it bookends, and prompts questions about whether we’re witnessing the beginning or the end of Llewyn’s story. I have absolutely no idea what happens to Llewyn after the movie leaves him, which is exactly as it should be, because Llewyn doesn’t know, either.