Some time late July, deep in the heart of the summer blockbuster movie season, I had what you might call a film critic’s existential crisis.
It was the summer, you recall, of Grown Ups 2 and Iron Man 3 and Fast and Furious 6 (not to mention, The Lone Ranger and White House Down)—and I thought: I literally don’t care about any of these movies. If I had to slap on one more pair of 3D glasses or see one more action film with a number after its title, I was going to lose it.
I articulated this crisis of conscience while sitting with two friends—both film critics of far greater stature than myself—and they talked me off the ledge, so to speak.
“Wait until December,” they told me, in soothing voices. “There are many more good films to come.” It was the film critic’s version of the “It Gets Better” talk.
Well, I took their advice and damned if they weren’t completely right. It did get better. Much better. In the end, 2013 turned out to be a great year for film. The kind of year where I struggled to limit myself to a mere Top 10 list (the 10 runners-up were all seriously considered for the main list).
And because Year-in-Review lists compel us (sometimes artificially) to make connections among the year’s releases, it was hard for me not to notice that this was a year that celebrated rugged individualism and the indomitability of the human spirit.
While Gravity, All is Lost, and Lone Survivor all explicitly featured one human fighting alone for survival, films like Captain Phillips and Dallas Buyer’s Club also featured heroes who bravely spat in death’s eye. It’s a stretch, I admit, but even Inside Llewyn Davis was about going it alone (as an artist in this case), consequences be damned, and Nebraska was about one man’s need for a personal crusade.
So is there a reason why 2013 was the Year of the Individual? Umm, I could give you some New York Times-style think piece about these films being a reaction to our social media, crowd-sourced age or how we’re trying to find ways to praise the human spirit at a time when snark and cynicism are the prevailing attitudes, but that would just sound like so much twaddle. So instead I’ll say: Weird coincidence, dude.
Anyway, here are the films that made me glad I stayed in the film critics' game this year.*
1. Enough Said There were more important films this year, more serious ones, but that none lit up my particular pleasure sensors quite like Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said. It was funny, tender, and smart as it explored finding love in middle age and the whole “who am I now?” crisis that arises when kids leave the nest (especially for single parents). It had one of the great rom-com premises in recent memory—a woman finds out that her new best friend used to be married to her new boyfriend and does the absolute worst thing possible (tells neither of them and mines her friend for damning intel on her ex). It had a brilliant, arguably career-best performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who proved that she has dramatic chops that rival her comedic ones (and that’s saying an awful lot). And it was a nearly flawless step into the mainstream for Holofcener, long one of my favorite indie auteurs. My only regret, of course, is that this was Gandolfini’s last film, as his sweet, tender, sexy performance could’ve opened so many new doors for him. He was perfect. In my eyes, the whole film was. (My review)
2. Stories We Tell Six months after I’ve seen it, and my mind is still slightly blown by this genre-busting documentary that manages to be an affectionate character study of director Sarah Polley’s quixotic late mother, a riveting who’s-your-daddy mystery, a tender portrait of a relationship between a daughter and her emotionally reticent father, and a juicy family exposé. It’s also about perspective, and how the same story can morph and shift when told from different angles and about the importance of self-mythologizing. (Also, for you cinephiles out there, it’s about the very process of making a documentary film). It is one of the most honest and humane personal excavations I’ve ever seen at the movies. But what exactly is it? Well, that’s up to you to watch and decide for yourself. (My review)
3. Inside Llewyn Davis This wonderful film—one that somehow manages to simultaneously deflate and uplift— can be seen as a companion piece to the Coen Brother’s Barton Fink. That was about the nightmarish hell of writer’s block. This one is about the nightmare of trying to be an authentic artist in a commercial world. The setting is Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and Llewyn Davis (dazzling newcomer Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer who just lost his longtime singing partner to suicide. He’s a true talent—a singer of mournful, slightly cracked folk ballads—but he’s having a rough go of it as a solo artist. It doesn’t help that he has an abrasive personality (he heckles fellow musicians at the Gas Light Café) and that, at this particular point in time, it seems that everybody and their Great Aunt Irma has a folk album (this is one of the film’s recurring nightmarish jokes). He goes couch surfing, pissing people off along the way (including an amusingly ticked-off Carey Mulligan as a former flame), trying to make money and live life as an authentic artist. All the music in the film is wonderful, even the treacly ditties that Llewyn disdains. And then there’s this tabby cat. Any film can have a folk singer and a scruffy dog. But it takes the Coen brothers—with their slightly off-kilter perspective—to give us a folk singer with a squirmy, unreliable cat (or two, to be precise). Llewyn riding the subway, cradling the cat in his arms, is just one of the many indelible images of this film.
4. Blue is the Warmest Color Take away the controversy—the disgruntled lead actresses, the seven-minute sex scene that some saw as voyeuristic—and you’re left with Abdellatif Kechiche’s remarkable achievement: A three-hour film about a subject no less well-trodden than a young girl’s first love that is absolutely mesmerizing from beginning to end. As the girl, Adèle Exarchopolous is extraordinary. She takes us through the entire emotional repertoire of female adolescence. Of course, defending a film against accusations of the “male gaze” can be tricky. (And the fact that the central love affair is between two young women only adds to the sense that Kechiche is projecting his own desires). But aren’t all films essentially the “gaze” of the director? Yes, Kechiche’s film is abundantly sensual—fleshy, you might even say. But he doesn’t only apply this gaze to the sex scenes. He eroticizes a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese as much as a naked breast. The whole film is an orgy of human desire. (My review)
5. Nebraska Does any living director capture the rhythms of the open road better than Alexander Payne? His latest is about a father/son road trip that defies all expectations. The trip itself hardly a grand quest, but in fact, meaningless: Old Woody (Bruce Dern) is convinced he has won a million dollars in one of those Publisher’s Clearinghouse-type sweepstakes and is determined to claim his prize. The bonding, between Woody and his sweet, sad-sack grown son (Will Forte) is neither sentimental nor obvious. There are no “I love you, man”s, no great epiphanies. Instead, there is a grim but tender understanding that grows between them. The film suggests that Woody knows his mission is futile: He wants to live for something, he wants a quest, a mission—it’s his way of reasserting some control over his own life. As he did so wonderfully in About Schmidt, Payne gets to the heart of a certain kind of taciturn, Midwestern persona. He shoots the film in an affectless black and white, mirroring the stoicism of its characters and the flat Midwestern landscape. In more than one scene, Woody and his brothers —reunited at an aunt’s house—sit in front of a TV, gaping wordlessly at the screen. This is the torpor that Woody wants to break free from. The film is often quite funny, but the overall tone is elegiac. As usual, Payne is clear-eyed and unsentimental, until the very last frames, at which point he allows himself (and us) a few explicitly touching moments. Heck, we’ve all earned it. (My review)
6. Short Term 12 There are two scenes in this film, about a melancholy young woman name Grace (Brie Larson), who works in a home for troubled teens, that stayed with me long after the credits were over. In the first, a disillusioned teenager named Marcus (Keith Stanford) sits on the edge of the bed with Grace’s boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), also a counselor at the home, and raps about his life. “So put me in your books so you know what it’s like,” Marcus raps, as Mason thumps along on a bongo, “to live a life not knowing what a normal life is like.” That scene destroyed me. Later, Grace sits with a young girl who reads a children’s book she has created. It’s clear through the metaphors in story—about a rapacious octopus—that the girl has been sexually abused. As stirring and powerful as these scenes are—they trust the audience to just sit and listen to the power of self-expression through art—the film also has a fair amount of levity, a loose and frisky sense of daily life in the home. Ultimately, the film shows how damaged people can find solace and self-healing by advocating for others. It ends on a note of profound optimism.
7. American Hustle The story of a couple of con artists helping the FBI ensnare some corrupt politicians with the help of a fake sheik is so ridiculous it has to be (at least partly) true. And director David O. Russell mines the full comic potential of this absurd scenario, giving us a 1970s straight out of a Tony Manero fever dream and broad, hilarious performances from the leads. Everyone here is great: Christian Bale as the vain but shrewd Irving Rosenfeld, a con artist and, more importantly, a survivor; Amy Adams as Sydney, his wily mistress, a born hustler, and the love of his life; Jennifer Lawrence as his sultry, bored, manipulative wife; Jeremy Renner as his good-hearted mark, a populist New Jersey mayor whose desire to please his constituency makes him vulnerable to bribes; and Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, the twitchy, crazed-with-ambition FBI agent who sets the whole thing in motion. (Also, kudos to Louis C.K., as the only sane man at the FBI and Alessandro Nivola as Richie’s enabling boss). Still, all of this broad hilarity would be meaningless if we didn’t somehow believe in and root for these characters, and we do. In fact, despite all the double-crossing, deals, decadence, and partying—American Hustle is ultimately a romance, about the lengths a couple of grifters in love will go to stay together.
8. 12 Years a Slave When I was a young girl, I saw the mini series Roots and it had a profound effect on me, as it did for many of my generation. But in a way, by focusing on the plight of a single man—Solomon Northrop (Chewetel Ejiofor), a free man captured into slavery—12 Years a Slave packs even more of a visceral wallop. Director Steve McQueen gets in close—at times impossibly, unflinchingly close—so that we feel every threat, every humiliation along with Solomon. And Ejiofor is just remarkable as a man whose survival instinct is strong enough to see that he must suppress his pride and his anger and simply . . . wait. Equally vivid: Michael Fassbender as Epps, the sociopathic plantation owner who makes Solomon’s life a living hell, and wondrous Lupita Nyong’o, as the slave Epps is sexually obsessed with. There are a few scenes of almost unbearable brutality, but one that will haunt me forever: As punishment for presumed insubordination, Solomon is strung up to be lynched, but given a last minute reprieve. Instead of being cut loose, he’s left dangling, still too high to plant his feet. Two tip-toes dancing on the ground are Solomon’s only means to stay alive, for hour after hour, as life on the plantation continues around him apace. It is truly one of the most chilling images I’ve ever seen on film. (My review)
9. Her In the not so distant future, a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an intuitive operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Meanwhile, his friendship with a recently divorced female friend (Amy Adams) flourishes. You think you know where this story is going—except that you don’t. Because writer/director Spike Jonze is simply too interesting, too weird (in the best possible sense) to tell us to embrace humanity over technology. Instead, he suggests that happiness, even artificial happiness, is not something to be trifled with. Jones’s future, where people walk down the street so plugged into their interactive devices they barely notice each other, is not that far off from our present. But he doesn’t judge, he simply observes, with humor and humanity. This is science fiction, through the eyes of a poet.
10. Blue Jasmine Woody Allen’s understanding of class and, in particular, the near panicky snobbism of the upwardly mobile, is at the forefront of Blue Jasmine, featuring a brilliant, fearless performance by Cate Blanchett in the titular role. As the film starts, Jasmine’s ideal life has been shattered—her investor husband Hal has been caught red-handed (both as a marital cheater and a financial one) and she is broke and ostracized by society. So she goes crawling back to her kid sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins, in a marvelously unpretentious performance), a good-natured, unfussy girl living in San Francisco, who nonetheless adores and even idolizes Jasmine. Blanchett plays Jasmine’s class consciousness as a physical thing—she literally recoils from things that she finds distasteful, and that includes virtually everything and everyone in Ginger’s life. Jasmine knows that she has no coping skills—her only hope is to latch herself onto a successful worldly man. When she does, briefly, to a wealthy aspiring politician (Peter Sarsgaard), her palpable relief has more than a whiff of desperation. This is the genius of Cate Blachett’s performance—Jasmine is a horrible person, but she secretly knows it. She sees herself as ridiculous, albeit in a tragic, glamorous sort of way. Her life was perfect, but it was also a carefully constructed illusion. Allen watches, not exactly kindly, as it all crashes down. (My review)
Runners Up (in alphabetical order): All is Lost, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Don Jon, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, It Felt Like Love, Much Ado About Nothing, The Spectacular Now, The World’s End.
*In some cases, I have lifted direct passages from my previous reviews. Links included.
**I’m seeing The Wolf of Wall Street this Thursday, so it was ineligible for this list.