PassMeThePopcorn.com contributor Lon Harris is a Writer and Producer of What’s Trending. Readers can follow Lons on Tumblr and can also check out Lon’s List of The Worst Films of 2013 here on the site!
#10: BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Richard Linklater’s “Before…” trilogy is maybe the most diverse set of 3 movies ever contained in Trilogy form. The first movie is a relatively light, effervescent indie comedy about 2 strangers who enjoy a spontaneous day sightseeing together. The second episode is a more weighty, but also charming look at the same couple meeting up years later and reminiscing about the significance of that one day long ago. And now this third film finds our heroes, Jesse and Celine, no longer strangers, but an aging couple with twin daughters locked in a troubled marriage. On the French New Wave scale, we’ve jumped right from “Jules and Jim” to “Contempt” in the same franchise. (Fortunately, without a detour into “Cleo from 5 to 7.”)
As with the powerful Blue Valentine from a few years back, Before Midnight gives us the unique opportunity to examine a relationship from beginning to (possibly) end, in a short enough timespan to comprehend but with a level of understanding and attention to detail to make it seem fully real. The results are emotionally draining – the bitter insults and petulant put-downs take on greater significance because we KNOW these two kids, and feel so deeply that they belong together. And once again, Linklater executes the final scene to perfection, leaving the film on a note that’s bittersweet and hopeful.
#9: FRANCES HA
On paper, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s lo-fi black-and-white 20s coming of age story sounds nigh unwatchable: The navel-gazing, twee story of a failed artist holding an extended pity party, paralyzed by the notion that she might not be a special, beautiful snowflake whose phenomenal creative, social and financial success was a pre-ordained birthright.
But Gerwig makes Frances’s sincerity and disappointment so palpable, her kinship with BFF Sophie so charming and deeply-felt, I was on her side immediately and never wavered. Frances’s story actually mirrors that of the protagonist of another “Top 10” film pretty closely, but while (spoilers!) Llewyn Davis sees distant aloofness as part of his craft and persona, there’s something undeniably touching about seeing a character who only wants to make a human connection, and to discover something greater than herself. This feels destined to be one of the key films people remember when discussing “The Movies of 2013,” a reasonably accurate snapshot of this moment in the culture, precisely because it’s not trying to do anything but tell one woman’s story well.
Matthew McConaughey had a ridiculous year, but he’s getting the most intense praise (and probably an Oscar) for the wrong movie! He was good in “Dallas Buyers Club,” sure, and the physical transformation was impressive, but obviously everyone’s missing his superior work in Jeff Nichols remarkable, disarming Mud. Here is one of the best movies I can recall about childhood, or more specifically, that moment when kids get their first troubling, sad glimpse into the world of adults.
Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan play boys from rural Arkansas who discover McConaughey, the titular Mud, living alone on an island, in a boat lodged in a tree. At first, they’re afraid of him, but they slowly get sucked in to his world, and in particular, his ongoing, seemingly-doomed romance with the beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, making a rare appearance in a watchable movie.) Nichols previously made “Take Shelter,” and as in that film, he once again finds ways to get us to relate to, and even sympathize with, mysterious, ultimately unknowable characters living on the fringes of society.
#7: ALL IS LOST
That OTHER movie about an isolated individual stranded in an inhospitable environment, desperate for any shred of hope that they may get to return home to the unseen life they have left behind, sucked up all the attention in 2013. But it was J.C. Chandor’s impeccable, haunting All Is Lost, anchored (har!) by a nearly-wordless performance from Robert Redford, that made the more significant impact on me.
The set-up is deceptively simple. Redford, the only actor who appears on screen, plays an unnamed character (known as “Our Man” on IMDb) whose sea voyage through the Indian Ocean is interrupted when his boat collides with a rogue shipping container. What follows is a non-stop battle against the elements, with the resourceful sailor finding it increasingly difficult to hold the sea water at bay. It’s more of an action movie than a horror film, but as the vessel continues sinking, and the circumstances get more dire, and we start to see fear creep in to Redford’s face (the performance is OBVIOUSLY Oscar-worthy)… things get more unsettling than a dozen Conjurings.
#6: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Several modern American films have depicted slavery, or contained memorable scenes and images showing the lives of slaves. But I’m hard-pressed to come up with a movie that seems to present a more complete, complex and thorough examination of what it was to be a black slave in the American South than 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps this is because the character of Solomon Northrup (played essentially to perfection by Chiwetel Ejoifor) – a sophisticated Northerner to whom the audience can immediately relate – gives us such a distinct, idiosyncratic view of the practice.
But I also think there’s an attention to detail here that’s simply lacking in even the very good films that have previously looked at this period in history. We’ve seen the brutality of slavery before, though a scene where a character is nearly hung here, and another where a slave is repeatedly, gruesomely whipped, are as chilling as any similar sequences I can recall.
But writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen also point to the smaller, but still felt, indignities of slave life. There’s a moment where Northrup’s then-master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), presents him with a violin, and then remarks that they will both get a lot of joy out of Northrup’s playing for years to come. The way what Ford certainly thinks of as an act of kindness stings – as we come to understand that, yes, even this seemingly nice man intends to OWN Northrup for the rest of his life – speaks more about the horror of slavery than, say, the entirety of Spielberg’s Amistad. (I still love you Steve but… come on…)
I also have to mention Michael Fassbender’s turn as the vicious Edwin Epps, the year’s most terrifying cinematic adversary. I legitimately felt sick to my stomach sometimes when he would enter the frame.
In any other year, this would have been a strong contender for the #1 spot. I liked it that much. But man… 2013, right?
Spike Jonze’s near-future romance seems at first like it will be a consideration of technology, its intrusion into every aspect of our daily lives and the ways that it both isolates and unites people. And it is all of those things. But what impressed me most was the fact that Her still totally works without the core “gimmick” – just as a thoughtful, nuanced, insightful film about relationships. The fact that one of the two lovers is an artificially-intelligent operating system is interesting, but ultimately kind of incidental.
Also of note is Jonze and his team’s tremendous eye for detail in the look and feel of almost-now Los Angeles. (There are several “in-jokes” for people familiar with the present version of the city, like when Joaquin Phoenix futuristically manages to take a subway to the beach.) The buildings, the fashions, the gadgets – it’s an imaginative but still potentially accurate glimpse into where we’ll be in a decade or two.
#4: THE SPECTACULAR NOW
At 35 years old, I sort of thought I was done with “teen movies.” There were still examples I’d see and enjoy – The Perks of Being a Wallflower comes immediately to mind. But my enjoyment of them was academic, removed, at a distance; I could theoretically have children as old as the “Wallflower” gang.
But The Spectacular Now hit me the way a drama, as opposed to a TEEN drama, would. The characters are young, but they’re people first and teens second. Without having to fit their dilemmas and experiences into a pre-determined “coming of age” mold, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and director James Ponsoldt free themselves to just tell the story of troubled alcoholic Sutter (a brilliant Miles Teller) and his new shy but adventurous girlfriend, Aimee (an equally brilliant Shailene Woodley).
The film just feels viscerally real in a way films about young characters never do. Once you dispense with all the usual Bildungsroman tropes – dated slang, voice-overs about who’s in what clique or the “rules” of navigating high school, hamburger phones – what’s left is a beautifully rendered, painfully honest movie about making choices at the point in your life when they matter most.
Seeing American Hustle – a well-acted but flat attempt to recreate the Scorsese “inside a criminal enterprise” formula – within a week of “Wolf” really highlights the director’s immense talent (not to mention that of his long-time editor, Thelma Schoomaker.) His movies have an energy and a vitality that few others can even come close to replicating.
All of Martin Scorsese’s organized crime films are, on some level, comedies. Individual criminal acts aren’t necessarily funny, but on a macro level, dedicating your entire life to an ongoing series of grandiose, ultimately ill-conceived crimes is a crazy thing to do, and self-selects for colorful, amusing, unpredictable kinds of characters. But it’s still exciting and surprising in the moments, as a viewer, you first realize “Wolf of Wall Street” will be a 3-hour satirical comedy, and arguably the director’s funniest film to date.
You sense, on some level, Scorsese still relates to the gang from “Mean Streets,” or Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Casino. He wouldn’t have made the same choices, but there’s an understanding of their humanity – these are people who got caught up in something bigger than them and lost themselves in it. (I mean, Goodfellas opens with Henry as a kid, so we almost have no choice but to understand why he ended up living the life he did, with his personal set of values.)
But Jordan Belfort’s story is not a Portrait of the Shyster as a Young Man. It’s hard to find even a glimmer of humanity behind Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, even in the early “naive” scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street. Interesting that DiCaprio was once favored to play Patrick Bateman in the American Psycho adaptation, and now, 14 years later, he’s been invited to inhabit the same kind of character. Only based on a real guy, this time.
Also, people who complain that the film’s “too long” or “could have been cut by an hour” miss the point. Belfort’s entire life story “could have been cut.” Nothing that he does is essential, or important, or noteworthy for anyone but himself. He could have stopped stealing from unsuspecting marks at any time and retired to a beach somewhere, but the grinding, repetitive, constant need for further meaningless acquisition – as if he were locked in competition against some fictional Lex Luthor-esque evil billionaire – is what drove him in the first place.
I’d say, after 2 viewings now, this joins the ranks of the greatest all-time Coen Brothers films, and that is REALLY saying something. It’s a Fargo or Millers Crossing level achievement.
Joel and Ethan’s somber comedy (a som-com?) beautifully recreates the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene and populates it with strange, fascinating characters. (John Goodman is in like 3 scenes and it’s still among his more memorable recent film appearances.)
But at heart, this is a story about one struggling artist and his daily choice, to give up on his dream or press on in the face of constant rejection and negativity. Call it depressing if you will, but there’s real beauty in this kind of honesty; it’s very easy to tell someone to “follow your heart,” but decisions are rarely so cut and dry. Should you still follow your heart if it means you don’t eat? You can’t take care of your loved ones? You can’t stand to look at yourself?
This is the Coens’ first collaboration with ace cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and it’s filled with memorable imagery – as well as perfectly capturing the oppressiveness and isolation of cold winters in big cities. Oscar Isaac’s performance is so nakedly vulnerable that it’s almost difficult to watch at times – even when you hate him, you still want someone to let him inside and help him find his cat. And the soundtrack is filled to bursting with great songs that wonderfully evoke the era and speak to Llewyn’s personality and outlook as much as his spare, frequently irascible dialogue.
I loved it loved it loved it. How is this not my #1 movie of the year?
#1: THE ACT OF KILLING
Oh, yeah, right, because this came out.
I’ve seen many thousands of movies in my life, and I have never seen anything remotely like The Act of Killing. It’s a cliche to say, after seeing a documentary, “It’s too crazy to be real,” but the moments that Joshua Oppenheimer has captured here legitimately don’t seem to have any place outside of fiction. (In a sense, this is the whole point of the movie – the only way to deal with these truths is to fictionalize them in some way.) Human beings aren’t supposed to have revelations like this about themselves. We’re only supposed to have them when reflecting on situations involving other people, after the fact. Seeing it really happen in a documentary sort of breaks the whole system down. I wasn’t even sure how to deal with it.
But let’s back up a bit. In 1965, a new military government took control of the nation of Indonesia, and during this time, they recruited local thugs and gangsters to stop committing petty crimes (like scalping movie tickets) and convert into death squads that would hunt down and kill suspected communists and dissidents. It’s estimated that, in the next year, 500,000 people may have been killed.
This government is still in control of Indonesia, and thus the leaders of these death squads (who are still alive) are well-treated and sort of held up as heroic revolutionaries. Even though most Indonesians still know what they did.
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer wanted to make a movie about this event from the victim’s perspective but was finding it difficult to get anyone to talk to him, so instead, he started making a movie about the killers. They were happy to talk to him. (At this point, they have come to think of themselves as heroic revolutionaries.) They also agreed to stage and star in cinematic re-enactments of these killings.
I won’t say anything else except that this movie effortlessly and entertainingly deals with the weightiest themes there are – the nature of good and evil, man’s inhumanity to man, how memory influences our sense of self – and may make you reconsider how you understand them. It was easily, without a doubt, the best and most important film I saw in a year of great, essential filmmaking. It’s on Netflix Streaming right now. Watch it!