Josh’s Top Ten of 2013
10. Captain Phillips
I’m surprised that I liked Captain Phillips as much as I did. The movie takes its title from the lead character, and for good reason. It’s not about a hijacking. It’s about what this man does to deal with the hijacking, physically and emotionally. Paul Greengrass, famous for the Bourne Identity franchise places a decidedly non-Jason Bourne type (perhaps more of a Larry Crowne type, if you will) in a Jason Bourne type situation. He has to cope with constant physical danger, protect the lives of his crew, and he can’t do any of it without keeping his cool. He has to act in control even though he’s never in control. Also notable in Captain Phillips is that it doesn’t take the bait and turn its Somali hijackers into victims of their circumstances. A lesser film would have given into the “noble savage” nonsense and treat these hijackers as a wise peaceful people who are forced to do this. Neither does the film swing too far the other way and paint them as inhuman monsters. They’re people, but they’ve made the choice to hurt others for their own gain, and the film makes that clear.
9. American Hustle
I love the direction that David O. Russell is going as a writer and director. American Hustle continues a trend of films that focus on brilliantly flawed characters. It seems a given that much of the dialogue from these characters is improvised, as the dialogue is quick, overlapping, and very real. Russell takes a step forwards with American Hustle by raising the stakes. With The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, we enjoy watching and listening to the characters, but there’s rarely any suspense to the drama – the worst that can happen isn’t really that terrible. This time around we’re dealing with betrayal, imprisonment, and the mob. Watching these characters react to that conflict makes this one of Russell’s best films to date. As always, much of this is due to a fantastic cast – Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence being stand outs.
8. The Act of Killing
There’s a morbid fascination that draws people to the Act of Killing. Real-live murderers re-enacting their crimes? How could such a thing even happen? From the first frames of the documentary, we can tell we’re entering a world that feels so surreal it’s hard to reconcile it with reality. We watch soldier/politicians as they solicit bribes. We see them proudly describe the details of strangling prisoners. Oddest of all is the weird fantasy-driven “film” they are creating to chronicle their feats. Not only does the film follow this startling reality, it shows us several moments where these men are forced to face the morality of what they’ve done. Nothing in their culture tells them it’s wrong; still, something bubbles up, whether it comes from watching a re-enactment, or exploring the motivation of the victims within their “film.”
Wadjda is the first film ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. The story is about a girl who wants a bike, but is disallowed from buying one because it is seen as “shameful” in her culture. This is particularly poignant considering that the film’s director is a woman, who had to often direct from inside a van because the culture finds it similarly shameful for a woman to be a film director. And yet, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film manages to express the Saudi Woman’s struggle without castigating her homeland. There are real issues of inequality here, but the insider’s view can’t afford to blame a faceless evil third party. That Al-Mansour is able to question her culture’s traditions with such a loving critical eye makes this story truly affecting.
6. The Place Beyond the Pines
The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie about the futility of using the future to make up for the past. It’s not fatalistic – there’s still a hopefulness to the film. Yet it finds its characters violently trying to control the future, only to watch it slip through their fingers. Despite the sprawling plotline there’s a humble simplicity throughout, something that makes it comfortable to live with these characters, even when we’re uncomfortable with their choices. Some notably great performances from Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, and a small turn from Ben Mendelsohn.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
Llewyn Davis is living in a folk song. He’s got no one to love him, his best friend’s dead and gone, he’s emotionally (though not physically) miles away from home. This kind of melancholy is what makes a good folk song, but it’s hell to live through. The Coens’ film conveys the pain an artist goes through, pain that is necessary in order for them to create the things they do. Most especially, the film explores what it is to feel completely alone. Alone in your pain and struggles, alone to constantly question every decision you’ve ever made. The film’s dark, cold palette dulls everything – the world is worn and has lost its shine. The film’s world is believably unkind to Llewyn, and yet it’s still full of such beautiful music. The Coens’ are returning to familiar ground in exploring the beauty and misery that coexist in the universe.
4. Only God Forgives
There’s a good chance you hate this movie. As much as I might disagree, I’m not sure I can blame you. It’s weird, with very little plot, with Ryan Gosling turning in an almost placeholder performance. But there is something that I love about Nicholas Winding Refn’s films. He creates a unique atmosphere, a feel, a haunting tone that I feel like I could watch for hours, coherent plot or no. It’s dark, brooding, ethereal – like wandering through a neon haunted house on opiates. He’s dedicated first to a visual style, and everything else wraps around and supports that. That kind of dedication yields unforgettable results, even if we’re not sure what’s going on.
Let’s get over the negatives first. Yes, the script to Gravity is very simplistic, maybe even bad. Yes, it’s littered with scientific impossibilities. All of this is beside the point. Alfonso Cuarón created a film that creates a unique experience – it’s more than just watching a story. The film visually and thematically puts you in the place of stranded astronauts. I can’t picture how a film could more fully express the physical feeling of being lost in space. The technological achievements in Children of Men showed us that Cuarón was a magician when it comes to visual storytelling, and he doesn’t disappoint. Granted, this is a film that may not fare as well in home video – the experience will never be the same as it will in 3D IMAX (and I say that as someone who generally hates 3D). Still, if Alfonso Cuarón can give us a good reason to go out to the theatres instead of wait until we can watch it at home I say more power to him.
At the very least, Her is a fantastic imagining of a future world. From the advances in technology to those in fashion, architecture, gaming and more, Spike Jonze’s film has created a complete and fascinating world. But beneath that, there’s a deeper film about technology, human relationships, and their ever-growing intersection. The operating system “Samantha” becomes the romantic HAL 9000 to Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely Dave. Only instead of encouraging a mistrust in technology, Her questions its replacement of face-to-face interaction. Is there a difference? Does it matter? Maybe we’re too entranced with technological progress to realize what we’re missing. Phoenix, who has to carry almost the entire film on his shoulders, gives a beautifully subtle performance. Coming on the heels of his powerhouse performance in The Master, this only goes to show his amazing range.
1. Frances Ha
Truth be told, I’m an unashamed Noah Baumbach apologist, but not without discernment. Even though I greatly enjoyed his much maligned Margot at the Wedding, I recognize the weaknesses in a misstep like Greenberg. In Frances Ha, Baumbach is doing the best at what he does best. Fun story, quick and witty dialogue, verbose characters hilariously unaware that they don’t really have much to say. Frances sets an objective path for her life, not realizing that for crying out loud she’s twenty-seven years old and a lot can change. When it does, she falls all over herself trying to correct her path, before she can eventually realize that having your entire future all planned out isn’t as oh-so-serious as it seems. Bringing Greta Gerwig in as co-writer with Baumbach allows her to fully inhabit the character in a way that’s just brilliant. We really get the feeling that she’s been there. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been there in some way, and it’s fun to laugh at the way we were. Stylistically, the movie is a loving homage to the French New Wave, and expertly captures the whimsy of Antoine Doinelle or Zazie dans le Metro. My most enjoyable evening at the movies this year.