In my utter inability to find the proper ranking for my ten best (favorite) movies of the year, I have - for the second year in a row - created a non-countdown list for all of the titles that I cherished above all else last year. My mind is so volatile when it comes to my movie lists, the rankings changing with every passing day. So, to avoid embarrassing myself with a ranking I will regret only the very next day (I'm still gunshy from placing Atonement in my Top Ten in 2007), here is my Ten Best list in alphabetical order.
Before 12 Years a Slave, McQueen was an experimental filmmaker without much interest in narrative. His latest film certainly takes a much different tact. The power of Solomon Northup's true account from pre-Emancipation America was too ghastly and startling present to turn into another one of his visual art projects (both Shame and Hunger felt more like experiments in visual technique than narrative storytelling - which was fine since both films were fantastic). Enlisting the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, McQueen tells Northup's unbelievable story; living as a free man in New York with his wife and children, Solomon is betrayed and sold into slavery in the South. Ejiofor's Northup is proud, intelligent yet totally hopeless - this is not the kind of role that could have succeeded the same way in the hands of a movie star. A famous actor would have been too vain to also be so helpless to his surroundings. But despite the modesty, Ejiofor is shattering in his portrayal, framed brilliantly by McQueen's harsh, unflinching eye. McQueen also enlists his usual star, Michael Fassbender, as the brutal, self-righteous slave owner Edwin Epps who does his best to bend Solomon to his will with cruelty, both physical and psychological. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o stars as Patty, Edwin's doomed, chosen pet and fellow slave along with Solomon. 12 Years is the first mainstream film made about American slavery that is told purely from the black perspective. The story of Northup is amazing, painful in its savage display of dehumanization, but also remarkable in its eventual rescue. That he was able to tell his story is incredible and makes you wonder how many comparable ones are out there. Telling this story correctly seems very important to McQueen, to be honest to the real heart of Northup's tale. The result is a film uninterested in any of the white perspectives dealing with abolition, with its focus solely on the slaves themselves. It's quite possibly the greatest film ever made about the subject matter, yet that doesn't seem like McQueen's interest either. He seems mostly interested in making American audiences stare straight into the darkness of their history. Making us as helpless as Solomon.
Some documentaries show us a reality so twisted and grotesque, that it's hard to even fathom it. If we saw the events of The Act of Killing in a narrative film, we'd likely dismiss them as over-the-top. But these are things that really happened, and to some extent are still happening in Indonesia. Of all the disturbing images that we're privy to throughout Act of Killing, there may not be any more chilling than the list of crew members and co-directors listed in the film's end credits as "Anonymous", for fear of experiencing the consequences of such an unwavering portrayal of their home country. The movie's main subject is Anwar Congo, who was the leader of a group of killers hired by the Indonesian government to help in purging their land of all communists after a failed coup in the mid-1960's. Congo himself is said to be responsible for killing over 1,000 people. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spends a lot of time with Congo and his group of men, as they openly and gladly talk about the brutal killings they committed decades ago. These days, these men are treated as political celebrities, praised by the same draconian government that is still in place thanks in part to Congo's work in extinguishing opposers. Congo's group was inspired by gangster movies in their killings - their executions were creative, like something out of Caligula (at one point, one man explains how they killed a suspected communist but shoving a piece of wood up his anus till he died). As Oppenheimer gets deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, reality starts to become more blurred. Congo wants to re-enact how he killed so many, and with Oppenheimer he does so. One is a film noir, another is a musical number, one is like a scene from a war film. Their re-enactments begin putting Congo and his men in places of unfamiliar realization. As an old man, Congo sees the dramatizations and becomes uncomfortable. The evil of his past begins to reach the point of consciousness, and Oppenheimer captures the fascinating moment when Congo argues on the behalf of his soul.
All is Lost is many things. In its simplest form, it's a movie about facing mortality - how all the preparation that we spend to avoid death doesn't mean shit when it's staring you straight in the face. It's also a stunning referendum on the career of Robert Redford, a Hollywood legend who is a much better movie star than he is an actor. Redford plays a man lost in the Indian Ocean after his yacht crashes into a shipping container. Why Redford's yachtsmen is hanging out in the ocean on the other side of the world is never explained, because J.C. Chandor's film is not interested in humanizing Redford or creating sympathy. This is a movie about meeting your maker, being stripped down to your most basic survival instincts. When you've done everything that you can, you'd hope that that counts for something but, as All is Lost shows, all of this is basically silly when the forces of nature decide to that it's your turn. I enjoyed All is Lost a lot more as a directing vehicle for Chandor than an acting vehicle for Redford, but the actor's terse, nearly dialogue-less performance is executed perfectly. Chandor recognizes the Redford persona; throughout all of the actor's performances, especially the famous ones, there has been a stiff detachedness, he's not compelled to force the emotions of the character upon the audience. So Chandor strips away all the emotions and the sentimentality, gives Redford a laundry list of procedural tasks in the hopes of keeping his boat afloat and himself alive. There are no co-stars, with the exception of a view freighters who hum along, unaware of Redford's desperate pleas for help. We don't even learn the character's name. Because we don't need to. This is a universal human experience, an artfully-made example of the strength and the sham of the human spirit.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater's Before series starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feels like something so rare in today's movie climate. With franchises popping up left and right, growing larger and larger (splitting single installments into Part I & II), the idea of a trilogy of independent films starring two actors just talking and talking feels like an idealistic fantasy. But Linklater pulled it off, with the wonderful dedication of his two stars. Nine years after we saw Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) reunite in Paris in Before Sunset, Before Midnight catches up with them in Greece. They've been together ever since that reunion, have had twin girls and have enjoyed the success of Jesse's writing career. But Jesse's relationship with Celine destroyed all goodwill with his former wife which has put him behind the eight ball in having a relationship with his young son. Meanwhile, Celine finds herself having trouble adjusting to Jesse's unevolving boyishness, the charm of their nights in Vienna and Paris having worn off considerably. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were both romantic daydreams, focused on the idea that Jesse and Celine were meant for each other and not even Atlantic Ocean could keep them apart. Midnight throws all of that out the window, with the reality of familial politics and the strains of long-term relationships rearing their ugly heads into their idyllic lifestyle. Before Midnight is as much about love as the first two films are, but it's a very different kind of love; one stretched thin by the pressures of gender roles and conflicting personalities. It's the most mature film in this series for sure, but it might also be the most outright honest, led by incredible performances from Hawke and Delpy who, at this point, feel so undiscernable from these characters that I can see all of these conversations/arguments actually happening between them. Linklater's dream here, whatever it may have been eighteen years ago, has become fully visualized and I'm so glad they've kept continuing it.
Does anybody write better parts for women than Nicole Holofcener? It's hard for me to think of anyone. Yet her screenplays seem so effortless, it doesn't feel like she's going out of her way to write parts for women (like, say, Spike Lee goes out of his way to write parts for African Americans), it's just a beautifully natural development. Her latest film, Enough Said, is about one woman in particular named Eva, played by television legend Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Eva is a professional masseuse living alone with her teenaged daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) who is about to move away for college and take away the main emotional relationship of her life. In that Summer, she's introduced into two new relationships: one is with a client who is also a successful poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener); and the other is husky middle-aged man named Albert (James Gandolfini) who is attracted to Eva when they're introduced by friends. These new encounters fill the void that will be vacated when Ellen moves away. Marianne becomes her confidante whom they can both complain vociferously about their ex-husbands, while Albert shows Eva that it's still possible to love in middle age. But when it's discovered that Albert is actually the ex-husband that Marianne complains about so incessantly, Eva suddenly finds herself fighting against her own best judgment. This is easily the greatest film role that Louis-Dreyfuss has ever received and she delivers with high marks, effortlessly embodying Eva's desperate helplessness while also bringing the laughs that she's famous for. In a posthumous role, Gandolfini plays Albert with such sad-sack earnestness, a thrilling example of the actor's stunning range. Enough Said is such an unbelievably sweet film, completely aware of the sitcom gimmick of its plot, but totally unafraid to delve into the morass of what these themes can bring. It was the best romantic comedy of the year.
Her visualizes a new existence, one that's pretty foreign from our modern society yet something that seems like such an inevitability. Jonze is one of the few artists that isn't bitching about our culture's dependence on technology, unafraid to show that the fraying of personal relationships with all our gadgets isn't always a terrible thing. This kind of technological world-building is Jonze's specialty, but this time around Jonze is working by himself. He no longer has the narrative voice of Charlie Kaufman or Maurice Sendak to guide him. The product of that is an insanely personal film (it's as much about his failed marriage to Sofia Coppola as Coppola's Lost In Translation was) that has the hubris to try and speak about all of us as a whole. Joaquin Phoenix, completely transforming from his monstrous performance in The Master, plays Theodore, Jonze's sad-sack protagonist who is struggling to cope with the crumbling of his marriage to an accomplished writer (Rooney Mara). His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who designs video games about Supermoms, has a troubled relationship of her own. When they both get their hands on the new Operating System called the OS1, they're fascinated by the OS's thought capability. Theodore's OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), is caring and interested in her own ability to learn - and soon enough, Theordore and Samantha fall in love. The love is as unorthodox as anything that you've seen in the movies, but Jonze frames the romance in the appropriate context, it all makes sense in the world he's created. The performances from Phoenix and Adams are incredible here, showing heartbreak in a surprisingly modern and thoughtful way, but it's Johansson's voice work here that gives Her its heart. It's hard not to feel like this is Spike Jonze stripped bare, without the bells and whistles to hide behind, even if Her is about people finding anything they can to hide behind. It's being pushed as a modern love story, but recovering from heartbreak is the real tale Jonze is trying to tell.
Thomas Vinterberg blew the doors off of theaters with his 1998 film, The Celebration, which was the first film of Danish DOGME film movement, a militant group of filmmakers dedicated to making movies without all of the fake Hollywood buffoonery (no artificial lighting, no make-up, no extra-cinematic camerawork). The movement quickly died after The Celebration - no other film even came to being as good as the first one - but the principles of that group has held a particularly nostalgic place in the heart of Danish filmmakers, particularly Lars von Trier, contemporary film's upmost provocateur. So what of Thomas Vinterberg? It's been mostly quiet since 1998, but his latest film, The Hunt is a film about equally disturbing subject matter with a stripped, harsh reality and brilliant lead performance from Mads Mikkelson. Mikkelson plays Lucas, a former professor who now works at a preschool with small children. Lucas is great with the children and the job is giving his life purpose after his divorce, but when a horrible misunderstanding leads many in the school and then in the whole town to believe that Lucas may have sexually assaulted one of the children, he's made a marked man. The stigma of child abuse proves hard to scrub off as the few people that Lucas felt he could trust turn on him violently. Vinterberg's film moves like a slow, unmerciful avalanche - focusing on the random strings of chance and coincidence that can turn out to define your entire life. It's free of judgment; we root hard for Lucas but know full well that we ourselves would become victim to the mob mentality, all hanging on the tenuous words of a small child who doesn't even understand what she's saying. Vinterberg is un afraid of taboo material, the effects sexual assault - or in the case of The Hunt, even the accusation of it - being one of his more major themes. But this film, combined with the brilliant work from Mikkelson, tackles the topic unlike any other film I've ever seen.
Alexander Payne's latest movie seems uniquely American compared to the rest of his filmography. It's hard not to get the sense that in all of the settings throughout his other movies - Omaha in Election and About Schmidt, Southern California in Sideways, Hawaii in The Descendents - that his affections for these areas reaches only as far his affections for his characters. There was always something to poke fun at: a cultural oddity, a village idiot. Not that Nebraska leaves the residents of Hawthorne, NE, unscathed but it's easily the nicest movie he's ever made. The surroundings don't seem so contemptuous, the sprawling flatlands of middle America shot in romantic black & white. The film is about Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a dementia-addled boozer who's convinced he's won a million dollars from a Mega Sweepstakes company. Everyone he loves knows it's a scam, including his nagging wife Kate (a hilarious June Squibb) and his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody's younger son, David (Will Forte), doesn't buy it either but since Woody won't stop running away to try and walk all the way from their home in Montana to Lincoln, NE (where the prize can be claimed), David comes up with a plan. Drive to Lincoln, show Woody that it's all a hoax and get some much-needed father-son time in process. Forte's David is classically Payne-ian in his forlorn gaze, filled with melancholy - he's the only one who sees that it might help Woody to be told in person that he's not a millionaire. But most of Nebraska actually takes place in Hawthorne, where David and Woody stop on the way. This is where Woody was raised, where he eventually met Kate and married her, where David lived as an infant. The rush of the past comes flushing in and David is finally compelled to ask Woody all of the questions that never interested him before, only Woody is no longer in the right state of mind to articulate himself. Dern's performance here is one of a true veteran professional, it's grumpy, mostly silent with words chosen carefully. The relationship between David and Woody is Nebraska's core, but it's themes spread out more than that. It's about loyalty, nostalgia and the true heart of America.
The star of Brie Larson is forming and 2013 was her biggest year yet. With small but key roles in The Spectacular Now and Don Jon, Larson's biggest role came in the year's best little indie that could, Short Term 12. Larson plays Grace, the self-placed leader at Short Term 12, a foster care facility housing troubled children. Grace, herself, has dealt with parental abuse in her childhood, but she has a surprisingly open heart despite it, and she dedicates all of her time and emotion to the kids at her facility. So much so that she barely has enough love left over for her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), a bearded charmer who also works with here. Amongst the children there is Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a spoiled, angsty teen whose situation so mirrors Grace's former troubles that she can't help but get particularly attached. There's also Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an angry young man with a talent for rapping who has his own heartbreaking story of betrayal and loss. Grace's struggle to find peace with herself is the movie's main arc, but filmmaker Destin Cretton - in only his second feature - has an eye for finding the pockets within Short Term 12 to peer in for interludes throughout the story that are often hilarious but sometimes tragic. The film understands that for most of these kids that the line between the comedy and tragedy is incredibly thin, with only a reminder of where they come from needed to send them back into a dark place. It's hard to really quantify how incredibly good Larson is here; the performance has moments of frustrating mutedness, but Larson seems to sense when she needs to burst. Her performance's guidance of this film is nearly as important as Cretton's. The term "indie" has been bastardized and widened to conclude the works of major filmmakers - the Coen Brothers are no longer "indie filmmakers", hate to break it to you. But Short Term 12 is the best of what actual independent film has to offer, using your limited resources and focusing on the best of what you have. For this film, the focus is Brie Larson.
I've seen a lot of documentaries with families that are a lot more dysfunctional than Sarah Polley's. Hell, I've even seen it firsthand. But those families didn't include the actors, performers and storytellers that Polley's does. Polley documents them all as they recite the family scandal, the one that came to define the family as a whole and bring Sarah into the world. The first major character is Sarah's mother, an actress named Diane, a firecracker of a woman who had five children and loved them all with an overwhelming enthusiasm. Then there's Sarah's father, Michael, an actor who turned into a lawyer to provide both his wife, Diane, and their children with more stability. Then there's Harry Gulkin, a Einstein-haired film producer in Montreal who met Diane and fell in love - their affair producing a pregnancy and the birth of Sarah. Stories We Tell starts at the beginning, Diane meeting Michael and Diane meeting Harry, then Sarah being born. It leads all the way to Sarah's 20's, where she learns the truth for the first time: Harry Gulkin is her real father and Michael Polley, the man who raised her alone after Diane's death when Sarah was still a young child, was only a stand-in. Considering the scandalous nature of the proceedings, Polley does best by not focusing on that aspect. Instead, she's much more interested in all three of her parents - real and honorary - and their performances in life, the way storytelling plays a part in how we few the past. Diane Polley is the movie's posthumous star, filled with several images, archival footage and home videos that give off the mother's contagious energy. There is no blaming, guilt or self-righteous hand-wringing that may have appeared had another filmmaker tried to tell the Polley story. No, it's obvious that Sarah Polley - quickly becoming a master filmmaker - fills this entire story with love for all of these people that played a hand in the creation and formation of her life. Stories We Tell is closer to narrative than documentary, and it's not afraid to tell you so, but by the end we learn that out of the entire family, Sarah Polley may end up being the best, most creative storyteller of them all.