What to watch: films of 2013

I didn’t rank or score any of the following movies (although I will tell you which one was my favorite). But in a year of great movies, I whittled my list down to this lot — and that should speak volumes about their quality. Every film named below, each in its own way, is sensational; though some are, for one reason or another, certainly easier (or harder) to watch than others. I think they’re all must-sees, but I also pride myself on the versatility of my tastes and, children aside, there should be something here for everyone.

 12 Years a Slave

Plot: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejoifor), a well-to-do black man and accomplished musician, living free in New York, is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery from Washington D.C. in 1841. Traded between masters, each more savage than the last, Northup unjustly endures and bears witness to various quotidian horrors of the antebellum South for more than a decade.

Review: Director Steve McQueen, who’s made a name for himself depicting human suffering, though never to this degree, ensures every heinous act of racial violence is documented with visceral, unflinching vibrancy. He highlights not only the magnitude of these atrocities — the only time Northup tries to escape, he stumbles upon a lynch mob in flagrante delicto, and both Northup and the viewer then realize that the evil of slavery is all around him — but also their banality. After striking an overseer, Solomon is strung up from a tree and left to dangle, one slip of a toe from asphyxiation, while all other slaves go about their daily routine — there are even children playing — as if they do not see him hanging.

Irrespective of the brutality, Northup’s journey is also fiercely compelling because Solomon’s experience of slavery — as a foreigner, not yet inured to its dehumanizing vicissitudes — mirrors our own. (Steven Spielberg achieved something similar with the eponymous protagonist of his 1993 Holocaust-epic Schindler’s List.) And the incendiary performances, from Ejiofor on down (Michael Fassebender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson all give award-worthy turns), only fuel and intensify the barbarism that unfolds on screen, ultimately climaxing in a harrowing display (shot in a single take) late in the movie’s 134-minute runtime. The somewhat abrupt arrival of the conclusion (the film’s title is its own spoiler) is an emotional reprieve but also deeply unsettling; it’s McQueen’s final stroke of genius. Our happiness for Northup is swallowed up by our knowledge of the many more unlike him, still suffering. That bitter taste, McQueen seems to be saying, has yet to leave our mouths.

Verdict: Visually arresting, emotionally exhausting and poignantly convicting, 12 Years a Slave succeeds where other slavery narratives fall short (to wit, the loquacious Lincoln and the lurid, revenge-fantasy Django Unchained) by presenting an exceptional and unsparing portrait of the violence and subjugation visited upon blacks in the 19th century, the reverberations from which we still feel today.

 Her (2013 Top Pick)

Plot: Technological advancements in the near future lead to the creation of the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and nebbish writer, recently separated from his wife, downloads the OS, which is personalized to meet his every need, and falls in love with it.

Review: Her is, among many things, a miracle of execution. Spike Jonze, in his first feature as both director and writer, surrounds a high-art concept (the human-OS romance) with themes ripe for didacticism (love and connection in an impersonal, technologically driven age) and, for many of the film’s 126 minutes, follows only one (on-screen) actor. The possibility of failure is astronomical; if even one of those elements falters, the picture is doomed. A unique premise might not seem accessible, or Jonze might use the film as a vehicle for delivering a bludgeoning homily (movies are at their worst when they do this), or Phoenix’s character might try the patience, and strain the credulity, of the audience. But it’s not — the fact that Twombly’s relationship with his operating system seems only slightly weird is perhaps the film’s greatest triumph —, Jonze doesn’t, though there is some satire (Theodore works for a company called beautifullyhandwrittenletters.com that specializes in personalized love letters to and from clients too busy to write the words themselves), and when have you known Joaquin Phoenix to be anything but a splendid actor?

Scarlett Johansson likewise deserves heaps of praise for her work here as the voice of Samantha, Theodore’s amorous OS1. Though, ironically, words cannot sufficiently extol her ability in this purely vocal performance. Everything else, from Hoyte Van Hotyema’s creamy, pastel photography and the art direction and costume design (high-waisted pants, for the win) to the setting, which is near-future Los Angeles (the cityscape is actually a computer-generated amalgam of L.A. and Shanghai) and Arcade Fire’s ambient, piano-heavy score, works too. (And there’s humor, to boot!) The narrative is no exception. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, interspersed by wordless flashbacks of Catherine (Rooney Mara), Twombly’s estranged wife, dips and swells like any other, and takes an inevitable turn in the end, but the film’s message, dictated by Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s lone human friend, that falling in love is just a “form of socially acceptable insanity” but we do it anyways because we have to, is among the most profoundly romantic and insightful. So ultimately we leave Theodore knowing he’s better off than when we met him, and, for once, it’s really happily ever after.

Verdict: Without veering into pretentious message mongering, and despite an idiosyncratic set up, Jonze delivers his most assured, wistfully romantic film to date. A movie brimming with smart ideas and penetrating insights, about the journey towards self-discovery — as true a love story as there ever was.

 Gravity

Plot: Two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) search for a way back to Earth after a cloud of space debris destroys their ship and communication relays, kills their crew and leaves them stranded, untethered and alone in the void of space.

Review: A narrative synopsis of this movie beyond what I just described isn’t merely unnecessary, it’s actually superfluous. The reason for one to see Gravity will not be found in the film’s tale of survival against (I’m sorry) astronomical odds. Though Bullock’s performance, as a first-time space-walker and mission specialist Ryan Stone, and George Clooney’s work as Matt Kowalski — the veteran-astronaut version of himself — deserve proper commendation. And Steven Price’s score is especially chilling. But, no, neither the writing nor the acting nor the music (or even all three) are capable of outmatching the groundbreaking work of director Alfonso Cuaron and his longtime DoP collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. Simply put, Gravity is best movie I have ever seen — and I mean that in a very sensory-specific way (it wasn’t even the best movie I saw last year). One does not watch this movie so much as one experiences continuous wonder at the visual poetry on display before his/her eyes. Case in point: the movie’s opening shot, in which the camera zooms in and out, dips, swivels and pivots, is a nearly 13 minute, unbroken take.

In my estimation, a finer example (and another tracking shot) arrives about a third of the way into the movie when Stone (Bullock), in an effort to survive another barrage of debris — the cloud completes an orbit every 90 minutes —, frantically dodges the shrapnel and navigates the exterior of the International Space Station in search of an airlock. (For narrative reasons, the ISS is parked relatively close to the former site of Stone and Kowalski’s mission.) She survives, of course, and a rebirth metaphor is apparent, and the emotional power and catharsis of the moment, the flawless choreography and lighting, the strains of Price’s score, coalesce into one of the most searing and unforgettable images in Gravity. I felt so tangibly moved by the scene that I wished simultaneously (and instantly) to replay it at least twice, and for the movie to end immediately after the scene was over (it doesn’t) so that the image would linger even longer in my mind. However, I cannot go without saying that the movie has some shortcomings. The dialogue (from a script co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas), which possibly could have been eliminated altogether, stumbles in places and Stone’s backstory feels trope-y and excessively tragic; her character’s circumstances are empathetic enough. But these are minor quibbles against an otherwise astonishing, paradigm-defining movie. Not the kind of movie made for the UltraScreen, but the very reason for the UltraScreen’s existence.

Verdict: Alfonso Cuaron, directing with virtuosic flourish and bravura, surges past some slightly unpolished writing and produces a dazzling and nigh-peerless spectacle of technological mastery and visionary artistry. See it, if possible in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find.

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The good, the bad and the unchanged: the 2014 Grammys

I admit I gave up hope for the Grammys last year. After witnessing the most popular music awards show all but shun Frank Ocean (despite ubiquitous critical praise and tremendous commercial success, Channel Orange won a Grammy for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” — a category created for the purpose of giving Ocean the award), and reward — surprise, surprise — the record with the best sales figures (Mumford & Sons‘ Babel), I crossed my arms and stamped my feet and rashly declared the whole ceremony a wash. (It wasn’t; The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach came out all right.)

Granted, my opinion of the show dwindled significantly after Adele won everything two years ago, and when Kanye West’s peerless, hip-hop opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy somehow failed to earn an Album of the Year nomination. Ergo, wholly embracing my dispositional pessimism and writing off the Grammys as a farcical popularity contest where sales quantity was positively correlated with quality, and artistic merit only mattered in dollars and cents, seemed inevitable. (Again, not true; a number of critical darlings including Ocean, Miguel, Fiona Apple and the aforementioned Keys were recognized last year.)

All that to say I didn’t watch the telecast this year, I didn’t watch it last year either, save for the AotY announcement, but I did read up on the winners and, I have to say, as much as it pains me, there remains some justice in the music world. I loved Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which won Album of the Year, and Kacey Musgraves’ defiant, iconoclastic Same Trailer Different Park, awarded Best Country Album (the trenchant and acerbic “Merry Go Round” was also a winner), topping the heavily-favored Red, to my overwhelming delight. (Despite popular opinion, I don’t dislike Taylor Swift. The message of her music is misleading, and her new sound is at best nominally country, but she writes a killer hook and cranks out Top 40 hits, one after another, like a Gatling gun.)

Moreover, “Get Lucky” won a bevy of awards, Record of the Year among them, and was performed live to great success by Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams,  Stevie Wonder and, most surprisingly, the imitation robots themselves. (OK, I watched the performance, but on YouTube, ex post facto.) And Vampire Weekend snagged a gilded gramophone, Best Alternative Music Album, for Modern Vampires of the City. A real awards-show coup, right? Critical acclaim still means something! There’s hope yet for the Grammys! Hoorah!

Well, not so fast.

That Jay-Z (Or is it “Jay Z“?) won anything (Best Rap/Sung Collaboration) for a song off the phoned-in drivel titled Magna Carta Holy Grail borders on sinful, and Ben Haggerty’s sweep of the remaining rap awards, for his gay-is-OK anthem “Same Love” and The Heist (with Ryan Lewis), somehow trumping Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, feels to me like political posturing and message mongering from the industry that blew their chance at it last year. (Frank Ocean famously announced that the inspiration for Channel Orange came from his romantic entanglements with another man.) Though, if that is the case, at least Macklemore’s ideology and this quasi-endorsement of it share a shameless heavy-handedness. So they’re honest about their myopia.

And Imagine Dragons’ Best Rock Performance win, for “Radioactive,” is baffling to say the least, mostly because the song has more in common with EDM than rock (Think maybe the song’s popularity bolstered its chances?), but I suppose it was silly of me to carry a torch for Queens of the Stone Age, who as yet have not won a single Grammy award. (Seriously though, …Like Clockwork kicked major tuchus.)

Disappointment and confusion aside (“Holy Grail,” really?), I didn’t turn away from 2014’s list of winners with disgust and indignation — though I will never forgive nor forget the snubbing of Frank Ocean — which I consider a major step forward for someone like me, whose baseline temperament, especially regarding the Grammys, hovers near contempt. And, in a way, the list made me feel validated. Some of the albums I adored received their due recognition and admiration, and I’ll be the first to tell you there’s little else I enjoy more than being right.

Which rightly begs the question, have I changed my mind about the Grammys? Has my faith been restored, my skepticism vanquished?

Well, there’s always next year.

‘The Spectacular Now’: unmissable, unforgetable

The Spectacular Now, adapted for the silver screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the duo behind (500) Days of Summer — from a young adult novel of the same name, is nothing short of its titular superlative.

It’s the story of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior with a drinking habit and an absentee father (the two are entwined in more ways than one), and an attitude that epitomizes the Millennial Zeitgeist: he only cares about the moment he’s in and chasing the one to follow. He makes friends like he breathes, without effort, and plays matchmaker for his buddy Ricky, but he’s not without relationship issues.

Sutter’s girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson, of 21 Jump Street) dumps him because she can sense he’s a dead-end, an act that hurtles Sutter into a drunken tailspin, crash landing him on a stranger’s lawn in an unfamiliar neighborhood, blocks away from his abandoned car and miles away from home.

He wakes to find Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a bookish but comely girl, standing over him. Sutter offers to help her with her morning paper route in exchange for a ride back to his car, wherever that might be. And thus their somewhat cliched, party-boy/unpopular-girl relationship begins. Except it’s not what you think. (Well, maybe a little.)

Sure, they learn from one another — for Aimee that means not letting those she loves walk all over her, Sutter included; and for Sutter that means dispensing with his bumper-sticker philosophy (“serious about not being serious”) — but Sutter only makes a pass at Aimee after Cassidy’s made it clear she’s moved on, and he only kisses Aimee after she takes a pull off his trusty flask and shouts some expletives. The rest unfolds mostly unpredictably: a jealousy-laced trip to the prom, an eye-opening encounter with Sutter’s estranged dad (Kyle Chandler), and a promise made by Sutter for all the wrong reasons then broken for all the right ones. Not to mention an open-ended conclusion that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.

Deftly directed by James Ponsoldt (who’s apparently fascinated by alcoholism), and vibrantly photographed by Jess Hall, The Spectacular Now deserves as much praise for its craft as well its defiance of formula. Two single-shot, long takes comprise two of the most memorable scenes (the couple’s first kiss and their first — ahem – sleepover), and the performances by Teller and Woodley are magnificent, their chemistry undeniable.

Despite occasionally almost veering into douchebaggery, Teller’s Sutter is equal measures affable, charming and empathetic, like a young, booze-swigging John Cusack during his Say Anything… days. But it is Woodley who’s the more memorable star — if only slightly.

She climbs inside the skin of her character, projecting a self-effacing intelligence and beauty that’s remarkably genuine, and a naive, saucer-eyed hopefulness that everything will work out for her in the end, to poignant effect.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mary Elizabeth Winstead likewise excel in small but important roles as Sutter’s mother and sister, respectively.

The Spectacular Now, like the novel upon which it’s based, is a startlingly tender, wholly authentic coming-of-age story about gaining perspective, learning to take the time to truly appreciate the few watershed teen moments there are (and all who make them possible and worthwhile), and the rarity and uncertainty of second chances.

Don’t miss your first chance to see it.

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