It was a better year than usual. In fact, the past twelve months at what we still call "the movies" amounts to a ray of hope, a candy-colored kaleidoscope of unexpected possibilities, a lineup of happy surprises as an antidote to the usual cynical, flabby product. Maybe it's the films themselves, maybe it's how and where we saw them, or perhaps it's just a dusting of movie magic. But we were enthused, especially by these 2013 releases (in alphabetical order):
1) 12 Years a Slave
2) Blue Jasmine
3) Crystal Fairy
4) Frances Ha
6) Inside Llewyn Davis
7) Kill Your Darlings
9) Spring Breakers
Let's work down the list from glitz to grunge, from the slickest to the roughest. No movie this year was slicker and more accomplished than Gravity, the spaceship adventure against which all future such spectacles will be measured. Since Gravity first splashed down in October, the marketplace has only confirmed what we knew all along. Alfonso Cuarón's crowd-pleasing procedural disaster pic — with the most exciting production values we've ever seen — represents a quantum leap forward in its genre and also in the wide-open universe of motion picture entertainment. Best of all, the biggest box-office hit in Cuarón's career (currently in sixth place on the 2013 grosses chart) does not sacrifice the things we love about his work: the humanism, the far-ranging international viewpoint, the essential skepticism, etc.
In Gravity's stripped-down two-character cast the pivotal part belongs to a woman: Sandra Bullock as heroic astronaut Ryan Stone. There's a lot of that going around. Six of our Top Ten entertainments are shaped by strong female characters, none more so than Cate Blanchett's dazzling performance in the title role of Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.
It isn't entirely necessary to know that Blanchett's Jasmine French is an update of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire in order to enjoy the show Jasmine puts on when she straggles into San Francisco in a cloud of vodka, pills, and self-pity. Seldom has misery been so amusing, nor foolishness so pathetic. Writer-director Woody Allen's best screenplay in twenty years provides the footing for the latest in a remarkable line of flavorful, brave performances by Blanchett. It's one of those actor-director pairings that we dream about on long winter nights. Factor in the enthusiastic support playing of Sally Hawkins, Andrew Dice Clay, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard, and Michael Stuhlbarg, and Blue Jasmine takes on an unforgettable luster. Allen's resurrection and Blanchett's triumph.
At first glance, Alexander Payne's Nebraska might seem like just another of the filmmaker's comic/wistful studies of his home state — à la Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt — but there's something unique about this particular Payne road trip back to the heartland: It's got Bruce Dern in it. The legendary actor's actor, prized for his heavies and weirdos in the films of Roger Corman, Hal Ashby, Walter Hill, and other Hollywood mavericks, has the Cornhusker State all to himself as Woody, the grumpiest man ever to steal the wrong farmer's air compressor. Payne delights in flawed individuals. Woody has imperfections to spare, but the lingering mood of Nebraska is one of forgiveness. It's one of Dern's very best acting jobs. It's a shame he had to wait until he was 77 years old to stretch out over the length of an entire feature film with such a richly drawn, complex character. Usually his guys are violently eliminated halfway through.
Few movie lovers think of the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, as sentimentalists. Yet that's one of the only conclusions we can come to after following them on a time-machine voyage back to 1961 in New York's Greenwich Village, to peer into the habits and opinions of a folk musician who never made it past the open-mic nights. Inside Llewyn Davis sprinkles its nostalgia with typical Coen observations about the fragility of best-laid plans, as the talented-but-irritating singer of songs meets obstacles everywhere he steps. Actor Oscar Isaac milks a surprising number of laughs — of the sour, inside-showbiz variety — out of Llewyn's wanderings, and we get to hear a bounty of new-old folk tunes sung by Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and the rest of the musical cast. But the true flavor of the piece, one of the Coens' most penetratingly bittersweet, is of lost romantic love. Is Llewyn a Dave Van Ronk stand-in or a Bob Dylan doppelganger? Only the Coens know for sure. Better forget all that and soak up the atmosphere and music.
It would wound the heart to reopen the historical discussion of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Yet British filmmaker McQueen's dramatization of slavery in the days before the US Civil War is so visceral, and so precisely depicted, that we'll probably be discussing it for years to come. So let's riff on one or two specifics. English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor does a very good job portraying Solon Northup, the victimized focus of the piece, but it's really the supporting players who carry the load. The more beastly they are, the nobler Northup looks, and the more outrageous Northup's treatment by the American slave apparatus, the more clearly the film's message rings out. What's that message, again? That all people everywhere in the world should be able to live in freedom, without fear. We're still working on that. In the meantime, the performances of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and the rest of the large cast effectively drench us in fear, hatred, and cruelty — for a good purpose. Special kudos to Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Nicole Collins, and the dependable Alfre Woodard, as Mrs. Shaw.
At the indie end of the scale, five new films tried to show us something we'd never seen before. Frances Ha, the very finest film of 2013, boasts the best actress (Greta Gerwig), one of the best directors (Noah Baumbach), one of the best screenplays (a joint effort of Baumbach and Gerwig), plus that indelible feeling that something fresh and wonderful has just arrived on little cat feet. Kill Your Darlings continues the fascination with 20th-century cultural avatars in the romanticized, convulsive story of poet Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe, the former Harry Potter), glimpsed as a 1940s college student transforming himself. Director John Krokidas is a major talent.
We head deeper into the jungle of human endeavor with Sebastián Silva's Crystal Fairy and Park Chan-wook's Stoker. The former, aka Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012, may indeed be the ultimate comic hippie road trip. It certainly puts actress Gaby Hoffmann (daughter of former Andy Warhol superstar Viva) on the map as the only actress you'll ever need when the time comes to have a stoned, naked American woman go on a scavenger hunt on a Chilean beach. Santiago filmmaker Silva (The Maid, Old Cats) is a major talent. Meanwhile, South Korean cult figure Park (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) makes an impressive Hollywood debut directing a bizarre family shocker, written by Wentworth Miller and outfitted with a high-wattage duo of Australia's finest, Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, doing what they do best. The subtexts in Stoker are inexhaustible.
Spring Breakers, manger dog of the Top Ten, didn't overly impress us when we went to the press screening back in March. That time of year is typically the burying ground for films distributors don't know what to do with, and writer-director Harmony Korine's (Mister Lonely, Gummo, Kids) over-amped chronicle of college-girl debauchery in a Florida beach town seemed a sure candidate for oblivion. We found it slow for all its noisy hyperactivity, with too many gratuitous lyrical interludes of the four squealing main characters cavorting in their underwear. Or were those their swimsuits?
But the broad implications of Korine's story stayed in our mind. That was partly because of James Franco's performance as Alien, the cornrowed rapper/drug dealer who takes the relatively sweet — for armed robbers, that is — coeds down the rabbit hole of commerce. It's been a hellacious year for Franco: Homefront, This Is the End, Oz the Great and Powerful, Lovelace, and a clutch of privately produced features and shorts known only to god and IMDb.com — including Interior. Leather Bar., a riff on Cruising. He also wrote a short story collection called Palo Alto, and assumed the role of Mr. Gucci. Then to remember him with a gleaming grill in his mouth, showing off his collection of assault weapons to impress four kids from flyover land, something clicked. Franco, with help from Korine's violent montage and music by Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, makes all the difference. All the conjecture about Franco and Korine spinning a critique of mercantile America — the land of bagheads, pimps, hos, and tomorrow's combat casualties — begins to make perfect sense, especially after a second viewing. Spring Breakers is not for everyone, but the truth never really is.
If there's one common denominator among the best movies of 2013, it's that undervalued commodity, character. Here are some narrative fiction films (in no particular order) that in another, less bountiful year might have cracked the Top Ten. All of them are crawling with personality: Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love; J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost; Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines; Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful; Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing; Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects; Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners; Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring; Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club; Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station; Brian Helgeland's 42; and David O. Russell's American Hustle.
Also: James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now; Richard Linklater's Before Midnight; Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy; Brian Percival's The Book Thief; Ron Howard's Rush; Johnnie To's Drug War; Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster (the longer Chinese version); Asghar Farhadi's The Past; and Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color. Plus one for the late-show crowd: Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives, with Kristin Scott Thomas as an expat criminal boss in Bangkok. And a couple of Guilty Pleasures: Rawson Marshall Thurber's drug-smuggling comedy We're the Millers and Shawn Levy's Google promo The Internship, featuring America's favorite lunkheads, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.
Documentaries weren't quite their usual compelling selves this year for some reason, possibly having to do with "outrage doc" overkill. But these domestic and international docs shone through the mist: Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog's Happy People: A Year in the Taiga; Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom; Bill Siegel's The Trials of Muhammad Ali; Jehane Noujaim's The Square; Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett's A Band Called Death; Greg "Freddie" Camalier's Muscle Shoals; Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp; Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley; Jacob Kornbluth's Inequality for All; Joshua Oppenheimer & Anonymous' The Act of Killing; Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish; Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie; and Teller's Tim's Vermeer.
Six horror pics we couldn't get out of our head: Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are; Andrés Muschietti's Mama; James Wan's The Conjuring; Xan Cassavetes' Kiss of the Damned; and a pair of superlative remakes: Kimberly Peirce's Carrie and Fede Alvarez' Evil Dead, with Sam Raimi producing.
Let's hear it for the Danes. Some interesting cinematic treats came out of Denmark (including Only God Forgives): Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking, a much more satisfying Somali-pirate adventure than Captain Phillips; Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, with actor Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused of a sex crime; Susanne Bier's frothy romantic comedy Love Is All You Need, and Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's oceangoing adventure doc Kon-Tiki.
All the films in the Ten Best list have been shown in East Bay theaters sometime this year. The big-screen, advertised, scheduled, ticketed, popcorn-littered, shared-entertainment way of "going to the movies" has been around a long time, but it's in the middle of a major shift. The event-driven process of waiting until a movie "opens" near you in an auditorium is steadily giving way to a bewildering array of platforms. Web-based delivery systems and home video software in all its forms now compete with theatrical movie events, and suddenly the flicker fanatic is swimming in a vast ocean of choices stretching from the beginning of the art form more than one hundred years ago to the latest YouTube meme. No one critic could possibly see every new movie released in 2013. There are hundreds of new (and old) movies we might enjoy that simply will never get an East Bay booking. It's time to think outside the 'plex. Just for fun, here's a list of five titles that almost made it to local theaters this year but which can still be found if you dig hard enough. Call them Five Excellent Films You Didn't See This Year (Yet):
Capital (directed by Costa-Gavras): The maker of Z and Missing remains one of the world's most incisive directors of politically charged dramas, in this case a rapid-fire 2012 meditation on the international financial octopus, centered on a French bank exec (Gad Elmaleh) who lucks into a powerful job and proves more ruthless than the rest. A hit at the Mill Valley Film Festival, it never got an East Bay booking.
Far from Vietnam (various directors): A group of angry auteurs put together this anthology combo of doc and narrative in 1967 as an anti-Vietnam-war statement, and it's still giving off heat. Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Joris Ivens, William Klein, and Agnès Varda, among others, contribute to the outcry. New on DVD from Icarus Films.
I Am a Ghost (directed by H.P. Mendoza): The San Francisco-based writing/directing talent behind Colma and Fruit Fly is responsible for one of the best indie horror movies of the year, the story of a tormented soul (actress Anna Ishida) trapped inside an old dark house. Simplicity itself, and hella frightening. Showed only at CAAMFEST, aka the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and other one-offs.
In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey (directed by James Cullingham): The cult of influential acoustic guitarist John Fahey gets examined by experts in a roots-rich DVD from First Run Features, loaded with performances by the late Fahey and tributes from such admirers as Chris Funk of The Decembrists and The Who's Pete Townshend.
Le Joli Mai (directed by Chris Marker): The re-release of Marker's 1963 free-form documentary portrait of Paris belongs with the best of the "city symphony" docs for its flaneur-like approach to the metropolis and its denizens — including a complaining menswear merchant, the inhabitants of a slum overjoyed to be moving to a public housing project, the inmates of a women's prison, and a man who doesn't realize he has a spider living in his suit. It opened and closed at Landmark's Opera Plaza in San Francisco.