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.


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.


Seven (Great) Films that Feel Like Summer

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in “The Spectacular Now”

The end of summer is nigh, and that realization is frequently accompanied by a deluge of feelings: confusion about where all the time has gone; dread for the impending (drastic) decrease in Fahrenheit; and the slightly hollow sensation that follows yet another 90 or so days without even the slightest glimmer of a romantic spark on the horizon. (Well, maybe that’s just me.) But it also means your local cineplex will begin its annual autumnal purge of all the CGI-heavy, style-don’t-bother-with-substance, dime-a-dozen (and often remarkably entertaining) action/superhero/sci-fi flicks to make way for the awards-season fodder. And, trust me, that’s something to smile about.

Don’t get me wrong: a board-shorts-and-tank-top release date doesn’t mandate a purely escapist, popcorn gorge-fest of a movie — we’ve already seen the debut of one inventively shot, emotionally compelling and incredibly socially relevant film. But that’s just the exception that proves the rule. Coincidentally, it is another one of those exceptions that inspired this list.

The Spectacular Now, which was adapted for the screen from a remarkably gripping, teen coming-of-age novel of the same name, has been quietly generating a lot of positive critical buzz. And although I haven’t yet seen the film (it’s currently making the rounds on a limited release circuit), I read — and loved — the book and I’m overwhelmingly excited to check out the movie. So that got me thinking: what other movies (of the romantic/comedic/dramatic variety) have defied formula (by either perfecting or transcending it), but done so without sacrificing an ounce of intelligence, insight or fun?

What follows is, to date, my almost-certainly incomplete list of must-see, award-winning, feel-good, intellectually provocative and affectingly evocative, perennial films (arranged in no particular order). The kind of movies that encapsulate everything good about the warmer months, or perhaps the kind of movies that might, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, inspire feelings of a “kind of peak that never comes again.” But unequivocally the kind of movies that, like the best summer memories, you wish you could experience again and again — for the first time.

  1.  (500) Days of SummerReleased August 7, 2009
    If Brick (2005) was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut, then this movie marks his mainstream breakthrough. He plays Tom, an aspiring architect who’s quintessentially underachieving, and who falls — hard — for Summer (Zooey Deschanel, typecast as everyone’s favorite, off-beat hipster), his boss’s new secretary.

The film is an indie picture through and through. Everything, from the protagonist’s occupation (Tom is a writer at a greeting card company) and the soundtrack to the day-in-the-life milieu, radiates a low-budget warmth and accessibility. And so do the acting and writing.

The characters are lovable because they’re relatable, if not familiar. Tom is genuine, perhaps a little too naive and idealistic, but he’s real and so you find yourself empathizing with him, and falling for Summer right alongside him. Not necessarily because she’s a great girl, or perfect for him, but because she’s what Tom wants, and that’s enough.

The movie begins by showing us the end of a relationship, the relationship really, and proceeds to dissect that relationship piece by piece — most poignantly when it presents the same montage in two contradictory tones and when it literally juxtaposes Tom’s expectations and his reality. So by the time you return to that opening shot of Tom and Summer, sad-eyed and off-center, holding hands on the edge of a park bench, you understand that even though it’s not where you hoped they’d be, it’s where they always were going to end up and you’re OK with it.

But it doesn’t end there, and the denouement will have you all smiles and buzzing inside. A little like that Hall and Oates song, but a little bit more like summer.

2.  Midnight in Paris — Released May 20, 2011
Roger Ebert described Woody Allen, the director of Midnight in Paris, as a “treasure of the cinema” — probably because he’s created at least two truly great films. This one could be his third.

The narrative revolves around a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil Pender (Owen WIlson) who feels artistically unfulfilled by his work, and who longs to produce something of lasting merit all while pining for a more bohemian lifestyle. Gil, along with his materialistic fiance, Inez (a startlingly abrasive Rachel McAdams) and her parents, travel to Paris on holiday where Gil’s free-spirited tendencies blossom.

One night after a wine-tasting, Gil gets lost amidst the labyrinthine streets and encounters a car full of peculiarly dressed strangers who urge him to join them. He does and he soon realizes that he’s been whisked back through time to the 1920s, an era he idolizes. He then meets and befriends a number of artistic and literary paragons (Cole Porter, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway among them) as well as an enchanting and mysterious inamorata named Adriana (Marion Cotillard), all of whom force him to reexamine his relationship with Inez.

Aesthetically, Allen does for Paris what Manhattan did for NYC. Every shot, beginning with the three-minute, postcard-view montage, is washed in glowing amber, swirling blues and vibrant greens and yellows that infuse the film with a powerful impressionistic quality: you’re not always immediately certain of the beauty of what you’re seeing, but then, by simply watching, it suddenly becomes clear and you can’t tear your eyes away.

And, of course, there’s something resplendent about the magical realism in the story as well. I abhor spoilers, but in a film about being content with where you are — though not necessarily always who you’re with — and just how little agreeing on the “big things” can matter, the conclusion has to be done right, and you can rest assured that it is.

All that to say, there’s an undeniable je ne sais quoi allure to this picture. Like those sweltering nights in mid July when the thunderstorm breaks a week-long heat wave and you realize suddenly, in the pit of your soul, that there’s just something beautiful about the rain.

3.  Sideways — Released October 12, 2004
Too often movies billed as “comedic” fail to emote — even humor, on occasion. And many of them lack originality. So the pleasure they’re capable of delivering is threadbare, like a punchline worn thin from overuse. But that’s exactly what sets Sideways apart. It’s a comedy/drama film that is, at turns, uproariously funny and heartrending; a movie capable of transforming peals of laughter into tears and back again.

Of course that’s thanks, in no small part, to Paul Giamatti and a gaggle of virtual unknowns (Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen) who all bring their A-game. And with a script to match, which was co-authored by Alexander Payne (The DescendantsAbout Schmidt) and Jim Taylor, who adapted the story from a novel of the same name.

Our protagonist is Miles Raymond (Giamatti), a wine-aficionado who’s been living out a lonely and unfulfilled life since his annulment. An aspiring writer, Miles tries to pour these feelings into a disparate, semi-autobiographical novel but frequently ends up drowning them in a bottle of Pinot Noir instead. His best friend, Jack (Haden Church), a serial womanizer and an aging actor, is about to tie the knot and so the two of them take a trip out to the Santa Ynez Valley for one last, fine-wine infused taste of freedom.

Along the way, they encounter Maya (Madsen), a waitress at Miles’ favorite restaurant, and Stephanie (Oh), an employee at a local winery. Mid-life crises ensue: Miles wants to reunite with his ex-wife and Jack gets cold feet. There is some drunk dialing and some licentious behavior and, of course, subterfuge. But there are also consequences — Jack takes a beating and Miles gets rebuffed by Maya and a publishing company — and all these dreary things are brilliantly dichotomized with the sun-dappled California countryside in all its warm, muted-light glory.

More importantly though, there are revelations and epiphanies. And they hit you like a sledgehammer in the stomach. Jack commits. Miles moves on — lurches out of neutral — although he’s not sure what lies ahead. And you wonder about him, too, until a phone message allays most of those doubts and a sudden road trip all but erases them.

Sideways leaves you feeling more relieved than satisfied, but also optimistic. Like that moment when you reach out and grab the hand of the girl you’ve been crushing on all summer and, against all odds, she squeezes back.

4.  Say Anything… — Released April 14, 1989
The litmus test for great children’s books and great coming-of-age movies is the same: if you can’t enjoy them as much when you’re an adult, they were never any good to begin with. That’s what makes Say Anything… so, well, great. It’s got all the teenage appeal (a kegger, a love story, smatterings of existential crises and a stellar soundtrack) but it’s presented in a very been-there-survived-that manner that exhibits almost documentarian levels of authenticity. And it doesn’t skimp on humor or heartwarming to boot.

Don’t be deceived, this isn’t an American Pie precursor (although that’s another Cameron Crowe film). It’s something refreshingly original. The adults aren’t punchlines and all the characters have flaws, and their mistakes sometimes have dire consequences. So, you know, it’s realistic. And what’s that people are always saying about the journey being more important? Yeah, that’s absolutely in play here too. Plainly, because the film’s story catalogs arguably the most transitional period of time in a young person’s life: the summer between high school and the future.

And who wouldn’t want to make that trip with someone like Lloyd Dobler? Diane, (a spirited Ione Skye) Dobler’s love interest, describes him as basic, and that’s just what he is. With his Peter Parker-esque, every-man charm (sans web slingers and a MENSA-level IQ, of course) and his blue Chevy Malibu, he’s perfectly ordinary. He’s also probably an average student — he spends his free time kickboxing, not studying or applying to colleges — but he’s an extraordinary companion. The kind of guy who knows and gets along with everybody; the guy who lights up every room he walks into. He’s three-dimensional and Cusack doesn’t make a single misstep.

Opposite him (diametrically opposed, really) is Diane Court. A valedictorian with the body of a game show hostess, as one character describes her. A prestigious international fellowship for her is just another stop on the road to success — something to tick off the to-do list. She’s best friends with her dad and she claims not to have a social life, and you believe it until Lloyd comes along. Their interactions comprise the crux of the film, which is all about their journey (told ya) from friends to lovers. The development of their relationship is miraculously simple: Lloyd calls her up to ask her out; he visits her at work; he makes her laugh. His most extravagant show of affection comes in the form of a sentence-long letter. “I’ll always be there for you,” it says. Yeah, it’s that good.

He knows exactly who he is but not exactly what he wants to do. She has always known exactly what she wants to do but she’s still trying to figure out who she is. She gives him a purpose and he fleshes out her personality; you root for them. Then, all of a sudden, they’re separated but not by contrivance. It involves an IRS investigation and selfishness on her father’s (John Mahoney) behalf, and it’s totally (mostly) plausible. But fear not, this movie’s a crowd pleaser through and through.

It seems simple, doesn’t it? To create a movie about two real people falling in love in a real way? It’s not, but that’s OK because every great success story seems to start with an unrealistic goal. And what a success it is. This film has no expiration date — that’s why they call it a classic.

5.  Silver Linings Playbook — Released November 16, 2012
There’s something rapturous about watching an actor you previously thought to be one-dimensional defy type and obliterate your expectations in a movie and with a supporting cast that does the same. It’s the kind of stuff that defines great cinema: a film that’s two parts original and unusual, and four parts accessible. That’s the potent cocktail; the precarious balance required to satisfy the desires of the movie-going masses (who generally crave escapism) and to withstand the scrutiny of film critics (who value the craft and the art of cinema). And to cram all of that into a romantic comedy? It takes a Herculean effort.

The actor to whom I am referring is Bradley Cooper. Jennifer Lawrence already had her day in the sun with a star-making turn in 2010’s harrowing, Appalachian thriller Winter’s Bone. That’s not to say she didn’t deserve the Oscar for her performance here; she did, and we’ve come to expect nothing less. But Cooper’s filmography includes titles like Wedding Crashers and Limitless and, of course, all three parts of The Hangover, so you’re allowed to balk at the thought of him in a serious role. Well, no more. His work here is nothing shy of revelatory; a performance so nuanced and natural you’d think he was a veteran of the genre.

He portrays Pat Solitano, Jr., a Philadelphia native with bipolar disorder, who returns home after an eight-month stint in a psychiatric hospital where he was remanded for a violent outburst that cost him a job, a marriage and his freedom. But all that time away seemed to do him some good. He’s got a new body, a new motto (“Excelsior!“) and a new philosophy. (Spoiler: it involves “silver linings.”) So Mama and Papa Solitano (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro, respectively) are hopeful but wary, because Pat Jr. also has a plan: he’s going to win his wife back.

That’s where Lawrence fits in. She’s Tiffany Maxwell, a recently widowed sex addict who’s got an in with Pat’s estranged wife. And she’s willing to exploit that relationship, but only if she gets something in return: Pat’s participation in a local, ballroom dance competition. He’s reluctant; the sum of his dancing experience is zero, and Tiffany kind of freaks him out, but he agrees. They make a handsome couple and their chemistry is electric; shocking, at times, but it gives the film its pulse. Pat can barely make it through a conversation without bringing up her dead husband and Tiffany calls him on all his bull, like thinking she’s crazier than he is.

But Pat’s reacclimation to a “normal” life with his family and friends is every bit as emotional and entertaining. His brother is a douchebag (the kind you want to be friends with), his dad is a bookie with OCD and his friends include his therapist, Tiffany’s sister’s husband and a fellow patient, Danny, who only appears in bursts — often with side-splitting results.

The nature of these characters leads to some very loud sequences (shouting matches, some commotion at a diner and more than one emotional outburst), and those things all have their place, but the most powerful moments of this film are also some of the most restrained. The sorrow in Pat Jr.’s eyes when he recounts his wife’s infidelity, the conviction in Tiffany’s body language when she reveals how her husband died and the falter in Pat Sr.’s voice when he finally confronts his shortcomings as a father — he makes up for it later, trust me — all carry a hefty sentimental punch.

So say what you will about the Academy, “They care more about the weight of subject matter than the quality of story,” or “They’re all too left-winged,” or (my personal favorite) “They’re all so pretentious,” but if you allow your reaction to the media to determine your viewing habits then you’re missing out. Because, this time, they got it right. This time, the Academy and I have something in common: we both want you to see this movie.

6.  Before Sunset — Released June 17, 2004
Jesse’s missed connection story trumps yours: being stood up by a woman he barely knew but loved on a boarding platform at the Vienna train station six months after their first chance encounter, shortchanged his ego (and his romanticism) but, naturally, gave him something to contemplate. So he returns to New York bereft and $2000 in debt. At least he got her name though: Celine.

Eight and a half years later, he’s channeled all that emotion and rumination into a book about the experience (the falling in love, not the standing up), and it’s a best-seller. That’s how Before Sunset resumes the story of Jesse and Celine. He’s in Paris on a book tour; she, having read the book and residing in Paris, tracks him down. The conversation picks up right where it left off – but there’s a caveat: Jesse has a flight to catch.

What follows is 81 minutes of real-time discursive chatting so fluid it seems almost entirely improvised. Of course it’s not, but credit Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for their immersion in these characters; and their mercurial chemistry. Tip your cap to director Richard Linklater (The School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) for stepping back and capturing it all in voluminous long takes and tracking shots. Finally, applaud the triumph of authenticity over the mawkishness Hollywood’s known for.

That seems to be the point Linklater’s trying to make: the fairy-tale Vienna connection was doomed from the start. Diabetically-saccharine romances are best left to Nicholas Sparks novels and Hallmark cards. Conversations constitute much more of real relationships than swoony displays of affection or impassioned osculation. Actions cannot be articulated; they merely reinforce what’s already been said. And there’s always so much to say. It’s a fiercely original dogma; a special kind of vérité a la Robert Altman.

Granted, the minimalistic plot might be off-putting to some. And Jesse’s intellectualism and Celine’s environmentalism potentially polarizing; but their humanity is universal. Gone is the optimism, the ebullience of youth that percolates Before Sunrise; the compromise and pragmatism necessary to survive adulthood now firmly in place. But the longing for a love beyond practicality, like staying together for the kid’s sake, still consumes them both.

And after a wrenching, impassioned argument during the drive back to Celine’s apartment (in the car meant to deposit Jesse at the airport), after a prolonged embrace, a “just one drink” invitation from Celine, “just one” song and then another, the consummation’s all that’s left. The choice to act on the desire a matter of another missed connection.

That cab driver didn’t stand a chance.

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