Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Honorable Mention: The Best Outside of the Best of 2013

In leading up to my Ten Best Films list of the year, I wanted to first look back at all of the other films that I have enjoyed throughout the year, since we all know that there are a whole lot more than ten great movies within any given year. And sometimes, the specific years - the flimsy pedestals with which we choose to compartmentalize our favorites - can be a bit blurred. There were two films given Oscar-qualifying, one-weekend openings in Los Angeles in 2012, but were never actually seen by general audiences till 2013. The first was Promised Land, the Gus Van Sant directed, Matt Damon produced and written, anti-fracking propaganda piece that ended up being far less hand-wringing then anyone anticipated. Van Sant's film sucked the power of an unbelievable lead performance from Damon, who I think may be the most talented movie star working today. Promised Land didn't need to have as good of a screenplay as it did, and it proved that artists could still make protests without sacrificing the artistry. The other film was Ginger & Rosa, which didn't greet audiences until March. Ginger & Rosa is a brilliant representation of Cold War England, about a teenaged girl (played with astonishing clarity by Elle Fanning) who avoids the details of her parents' crumbling marriage and her father's subsequent affair with her best friend. She throws all her emotions into the anti-bomb movement. The film is by Sally Potter (Orlando) and contains autobiographical elements that give the film its powerful emotional edge.

Still in the early year, there was No, the Chilean submission for the 2012 Foreign Language Oscar which was shot on low-grade video tape and starred Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad agent chosen to head the campaign against the Pinochet government. It's visual gimmick aside, No represents the best of historical cinema: locating it's tale through a central character and led by a brilliant lead performance from Garcia Bernal. This was released side-by-side with the Stephen Soderberg's final theatrical release, Side Effects, a deliciously scribed, brilliantly acted noir in which Soderberg uses the movie star personas of Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Channing Tatum against its audience expectations. Side Effects seemed to be swept under the rug for the actual Soderberg finale, HBO's prestige Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra, but let there be no doubt: Side Effects was the best film Soderberg released this year.

In early April, we had the passing of Roger Ebert, arguably the very best film reviewer of his generation and a man unafraid to call out the silly behavior of writing about movies, while still giving nobility to his profession, which is usually filled with self-righteous cranks. And in the month of his death, we were given two very good films that seemed to embrace the very spirit of what Ebert loved about the movies. The first was Terrence Mallick's To The Wonder, a somewhat partner piece to his 2010 film, The Tree of Life, which was much less sprawling but just as meandering. It's sweet, tortured performance from Olga Kurylenko was much better than any of the acting in his previous film and its romantic nature made it simply a much more palatable film than Tree of Life. Then there was Mud, Jeff Nichols' Southern gothic that was probably the best narrative of the first of the year. It was a grumbling thriller starring a movie star (Matthew McConaughey) in a tattered role, but its heart was with the young actor Tye Sheridan who is the film's protagonist. The film possesses a connection with its children characters that is on par with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and it contains a romanticism for a child's wisdom over the melodrama of adulthood.

The 2013 summer brought little in the way of entertaining popcorn films, only Iron Man 3 really brought any exuberance and that all came from the seemingly endless well of Robert Downey Jr., who proves with every Stark performance why he's worth the giant payday that he just received from Marvel Studios. But the Summer did give us Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach's love letter to New York City, French New Wave films and above all, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig wrote the script with Baumbach and starred as the titular character with great nervous energy. The film is incredibly aware of its contemporary representations, and its Gerwig's performance and Baumbach's tricky editing motif that keeps the movie from drowning. And there was also This is the End, the collaborative film/hangout between Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Barichel, Craig Ferguson and Jonah Hill in which they played themselves trying to survive the apocalypse inside of Franco's home right off the Hollywood Hills. The film's chummy satirical nature should have produced something a lot more self-indulgent (hello, Grown-Ups 2!), but instead the film is strung together by a surprisingly well-structured script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the two also directed), and numerous supporting performances including Michael Cera, Emma Watson and, of course, Danny McBride who arrives in top form and nearly eats the film alive.

The middle of the Summer did provide a few cherished indie films, including Avengers maestro Joss Whedon's black and white, super sparse translation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Whedon fills this super cheap version of the play with his usual Whedonites - including Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice - and adds such a devilish charm to the story's already inflated sense of mischief. The Way, Way Back was a coming-of-age tale about a young man (Liam James) who still struggles with the split of his parents. It contains two amazing performances by two gifted comedic performers, with Steve Carrell playing the young man's dangerously insecure step father who does little in the way of filling the void left by his father, and Sam Rockwell as a water park owner who's able to instill the young man with the confidence needed to get through the most awkward years. That movie said a lot about the abilities of Carrell and Rockwell, which is much more copious than their roles would seem to indicate. And then Woody Allen came out of left field with Blue Jasmine, his own hair-brained version of Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, which contains a performance from Cate Blanchett that is so monstrously brilliant that she has done nothing but destroy any peers in the Best Actress race since the film's premiere in July.

On the heels of the horrible George Zimmerman verdict, the Weinstein Company released the racially charged Fruitvale Station. The film could have been preachy, but instead counted on its incredible performances (particularly from its lead, Michael B. Jordan) to tell the story of Oscar Grant's last day alive. Both Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz give tremendous supporting performances as Grants mother and girlfriend, respectively. Fruitvale smartly capitalized on the swirling emotions of the time without feeling exploitative - it earns the right to rile you up about racial injustice. In August, two more indies made great impressions. David Gordon Green took a break from his lowest-common-denominator comedy and returned to his true auteur vision with Prince Avalanche, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. It represented the very best (the stunning visuals, the intoxicating connection to its atmosphere) of what used to be a very promising young filmmaker. Newcomer David Lowery produced the moody Western Ain't Them Bodies Saints which had the beauty of the best of Mallick, but a drum-tight screenplay to work with as well, and amazing lead performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster.

In October, we were given what was probably the best month of movies of the year. Amongst the heaviest of hitters was the highly anticipated Alfonso Cuaron space saga Gravity, which put Sandra Bullock in a pixie cut and George Clooney in a space suit (and made it look like that was what he should've been doing all along). The film was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki in 3D and took the country by storm. And rightfully so, it was the visual summit of 2013, a movie which made its atmosphere its best character, while still having a bitingly tense, fantastically sparse story which did just enough to keep you engaged while the suspense of space kept you grounded into your seat. A week later, there was Captain Phillips, which starred Tom Hanks and also showcased the power of a movie superstar. Hanks de-glammed for the title role in this one and delivered a tremendous performance within a movie that leapfrogs political landmines with such authorial skill and does the right thing: shows the Somali pirate situation in as close to objective terms as could have possibly been. The film was by Paul Greengrass, a master of the handheld docudrama who can make important movies that don't come off feeling self-important.

By the end of the year, we were met with prestige film glut, but amongst the desperate movies hunting for Academy Award glory were several films of great merit. American Hustle was the latest from David O. Russell, and it included so many great performances that it didn't matter that the improvised nature of the story totally threw it off of its base. Special thumbs up to Amy Adams who continues to prove that she's not only one of the best actresses now working, but also one of the coolest and the sexiest. The Coen Brothers made Inside Llewyn Davis, an ode to Dave Van Ronk and the pre-Dylan folk scene of 1960's New York City. Oscar Isaac's performance in the title role was one of the most transcendent in a Coen movie, and one that should make him a movie star. August: Osage County had the most star-studded cast of the year and managed to capitalize on all of that promise. Surprisingly well made, the film contains the best ensemble performance in a movie this year, led by the immortal Meryl Streep, who performs what should have been the work that got her that mischievous third Oscar. Lastly, Christmas came just earlier this week and brought Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. I don't want to plagiarize too much of what I just wrote, but let's just say that his three-hour epic is a perfect cap to a fall movie season obsessed with the consequences of capitalistic American culture.

2013 felt like a particularly great film year for me. A few of the greats (Scorsese, the Coens, Woody) brought forward their best films in several years, while newcomers like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Destin Cretton (Short Term 12) showed that there was much to hope for in the future. There were even a few that redeemed themselves after contemporary work left them out of my good graces (namely, Meryl Streep and David Gordon Green). The whole year felt like a terrific success. Up next will be my Ten Best Movies of the Year.

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