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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