Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Honorable Mention: The Best Outside of the Best of 2013
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 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.
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.