Wednesday, January 15th, 2014 at 4:00 pm
Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, stated that “experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” This quote lingered within my thoughts for the majority of the 2013 movie year because there is a remarkable number of films that confirm Huxley’s statement with shocking clarity. During 2013 the majority of characters in cinema experienced a relentless assault of either irrepressible physical violence or emotional turmoil, resulting in each character clinging to their lives, praying that they won’t become defeated. Characters had to either sink or swim. No film provided for them a middle ground that would grant them an easy way out or provide a buoy for them. Characters had to act, and act fast.
In Gravity, becoming disconnected from her partner in the infinite void of space, Dr. Stone had to gain composure quickly or endure an onslaught of debris and isolation. In The Place Beyond the Pines, a cop had to rely on his survival instincts and the ramifications of his decision reverberated throughout generations. In Blue is the Warmest Color, a confused teenage woman, utterly love-sick, discovers the throes and pangs of first love and is left even more confused after the indelible experience. In Dallas Buyers Club, an AIDs victim with a guaranteed death-sentence uses his situation to give hope to thousands of other AIDs victims. And in The Counselor, a man’s experience overwhelms him and he is soon exposed to the most unsavory circumstances that are beyond his control and the most heinous individuals.
Without further hesitance, the best 2013 had to offer.
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
Starring Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux
A single glance is all it takes and soon Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) slips briskly into an intimacy with Emma (Lea Seydoux) from which she never fully recovers. Adele then discovers solace in the presence of Emma, who sports blue hair and devours the essays of Jean-Paul Sartre while frequenting the many hip bars France has to offer. From this concept director Abdellatif Kechiche produces a fully realized three-hour portrait of one young woman (Adele) staggering her way through life as a forlorn romantic consumed by a longing for an elusive love. It is completely unpretentious in its raw depiction of love, contains a wealth of detail and has a wandering, intimate camera that incessantly lingers on Adele’s face. Director Kechiche excavates and prevails the depths of Adele’s soul, highlighting the complexities that human sentiment can impose upon us. And this is the only film this year that truly attempts to explore romance, tear it apart and inspect it, with hopes of deriving from it an inkling of truth. Here is a brilliant observance of young lust and young love, a raw representation of the throes of romance and the unbearable truths that come along with it.
Over the hills and far away from the faintest semblance of civilization rests a quaint, remote monastery in the wintery farm lands of contemporary Romania. The environment seems to fend off all qualities of society, most noticeably human feeling and human contact, in exchange for a devout connection with God. Appreciating the joys of human affection is totally taboo in monastic life, and yet the inhabitants of the monastery scarcely understand the absence of crucial and life-sustaining aspects of humanity. Being one with God is all they yearn for. Only an unswerving worship reigns supreme as sisters (Cosmina Straton) and a priest (Valeriu Andriuta) are over-determined to praise their God fervently, oblivious to everything that isn’t religious oriented. When a sister attempts to bring her unreligious friend (Cristina Flutur) into the monastery all hell breaks loose. Director Cristian Mungiu’s perspective of this monastery in Beyond the Hills is astounding, as he evokes a bygone era when humans were petrified of what God’s wrath would incur.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo
There hasn’t been a police procedural that has sufficiently attained aspects of dreadfulness since David Fincher’s Zodiac. Like that film, Prisoners approaches its material with an indefatigable gaze that doesn’t waver. The film knows what it wants to do and director Villeneuve does it without deviating from its terrifically crafted script by Aaron Guzikowski. To procure such an unflinching meditation on the various forms of evil is undoubtedly a weary and daunting task. But with a continuously engrossing script Villeneuve is confident in his ability to weave a complex thriller. With every passing scene one can experience the painstaking care that he imbues his film with. To have a director this consumed with crafting an indelible thriller is much welcomed. Too many directors are ceaselessly churning out thrillers that don’t thrill; movies that don’t haunt; and characters that don’t warrant our sympathy. Prisoners leaves a permanent mark on its viewers once it’s all over. It crushes those punier movies that take the easy way out, rivaling the likes of Zodiac and Se7en in its unraveling and piercingly horrifying exploration into an unutterable chaos.
7. Drug War
Directed by Johnnie To
Starring Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Yi Huang
Director To, with remarkable ability at diverting Chinese censors (government won’t permit such brutality on film), presents to us a relentless excursion through China’s criminal underworld. Drug War is beyond bloody and violent, as it is a fixated meditation on the brutally harsh realities of the drug world. A mere 50 grams of meth in China results in a death sentence. After a dealer (Honglei Sun) is caught by authorities (Yi Huang), it is up to him to work with the police to bring down multiple drug lords. The film is impeccably crafted, replete with tense and taut action sequences that rival any others this year.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Much has been discussed about Gravity’s jaw-dropping visual effects. Gravity aroused in the audience an irrepressible need to sigh in astonishment at what they perceived on screen. All of the praise has undoubtedly been warranted, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the technological advancements created by director Alfonso Cuaron. Since the technical aspects have been absorbing the countless accolades, it seems that the script, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron, is something merely trivial and lacking profundity. Gravity finds its way onto my list because of the script and its wholly original way of recreating the “rebirth” narrative. With brilliant imagery evoking rebirth (a character in a fetus position, a character emerging from the water incapable of walking and who has to crawl for a bit), Gravity renders a normal and ubiquitous narrative into something distinct. The visuals here are astounding. This was expected. What wasn’t expected was director Cuaron crafting a majestic story about life.
5. The Hunt
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Alexandra Rapaport
A word of a child invariably outweighs that of an adult’s. A true insidious hatred, which is camouflaged by innocence, is triggered by behavior that is misinterpreted. When Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher, scolds one of his students, Karla (Annika Wedderkopp), for kissing him on the lips, the result is dreadful. He soon gets informed that he supposedly sexually exposed himself to Karla. The adults and authorities quickly jump to conclusions without any supportable evidence. It is a sea of dread appearing from nowhere for Lucas, who tries to stay afloat, overwhelmed by what has unfortunately occurred. It is Mikkelsen’s performance that cuts deepest. He attempts to maintain a demeanor that can resist the most arduous of circumstances, but his stare, his eyes, indicate much more pain. His stare is haunting and striking, capable of evoking an inordinate amount of pain and sadness. Mikkelsen gives us a man not only suffering due to a random lie, but also a man tormented by the uproar of his friends. The Hunt is a powerhouse as it depicts the imminent downfall of an innocent man, the quickly dissipating camaraderie, and the capabilities of those able to offer forgiveness and those who forever harbor vengeance.
4. The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHann, Emory Cohen
Something in Avery’s (Bradley Cooper) soul is rising, rising, ceaselessly, painfully, and refusing to be still. It is a burning anguish, deep within his heart and conscience that is incapable of dying. To even comprehend this feeling in cinema, let alone delve headfirst into a sprawling epic narrative that spans multiple generations, is a wonder to behold and results in an experience that is pure immeasurable delight. This feeling arises when Avery, a Schenectady, NY police officer, receives an on-duty alert that there is a bank robber (Ryan Gosling) fleeing authorities on his motorcycle, confidently weaving through traffic, cemeteries and narrow back alleys. This encounter Avery experiences with Luke, the bank robber who moonlights as a stuntman at carnivals, shapes Avery’s entire life. The weight he soon after bears is unbearably burdensome. Director Cianfrance has crafted a grandiose narrative in which he is in complete control of. He never falters in creating a large, expansive dark story replete with camera dissolves, a powerful score and a vision that exceeds most directors today. It is a powerful and unrelenting film that continues to thrust towards its satisfying climax. The movie peers at how the ramifications of choices and how heedless decisions can shape generations.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
It chills the marrow to endure and witness the relentless assault, both physically and emotionally, that Solomon Northup is bombarded with in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. There is a cruel elegance that McQueen injects his picture with. The violence isn’t depicted to cause quivering, but rather as a vehicle to plunge us into the bowels and into the soul of Solomon. What an immersive experience this movie provides for us. Through Solomon’s epic journey, McQueen debunks all previous notions of cinematic slavery, bludgeoning us over the head with a truth that is agonizing to truly behold. He peers at this specific era with an undeterred eye, ready to capture the permeating disdain, evilness and scorn running rampant. Here is a film about the true life horrors that Solomon, a free black man from New York who is captured and sold into slavery, had to withstand. In the year’s best performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor maintains Solomon’s serene dignity despite his dreadful travails. In a scene where he can no longer suppress his longing to sing a Bible hymn, Ejiofor makes us feel the profound sadness of Solomon. His perilous journey allows him to encounter vicious slave owners (Michael Fassbender and Paul Giamatti) and somewhat considerate ones (Benedict Cumberbatch). But it is director McQueen’s remarkable ability for astutely depicting the travesties that afflict the human spirit, bluntly and unflinchingly examining the eradication of morality and the perseverance of the human spirit that refuses to be suffocated.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Scarlett Johansson
Beautiful and unique, Her is by far Spike Jonez’s most complete, emotional and mature film to date. Written and directed by Jonze, the film is set in a near future Los Angeles that seems to have been inspired by Tokyo, Jones sets out to fathom relationships, ones that are near and ones that are distant, and how individuals are capable of reconstructing their current drab perspective of life into one that seems to perceive the world for the first time. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is just attempting to adapt to life without his soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara). He mingles with only a few friends, one being Amy (Amy Adams), who sympathizes with all Theodore feels. Fearful of embarking on a new journey and interacting and committing to human relationships, Theodore purchases an operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that he can seamlessly interact with, share emotions with and even miraculously make love with. In other words, his ideal woman. Jonez chronicles Theodore’s odd journey to attain love with a master’s touch. Exploring many different narrative landscapes (romance, loss, tragedy), what may be most exemplary of all is Her’s awareness of the potential of what may possibly await us in the future. Our current reliance on technology is startling but Jonez heightens this fact tenfold, creating a subtle dystopian tale in that process that focuses on the slow disintegration of intimate human relations. Ultimately, the film allows Jonze to peer into the human soul and make vivid all of its intimate longings, suppressed emotions and the unrealized potential that each and every one of us harbors.
1. American Hustle
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
“People believe what they want to believe.”
Meticulously manipulating his hairpiece, Irving (Christian Bale), a small-time con man, is demonstrating not only his astute attention to fine detail, but also his every day tendency to conceal his rapid baldness. With a stare of dismay upon his reflection in the mirror, Irving, sporting a proud beer belly, won’t be content until he believes his baldness is no longer perceptible. This is an apparent metaphor for his willingness to conceal his own debasement, vile behaviors and warped morality. As a character states in the movie, “people believe what they want to believe.” This is indisputably the jarring reality of our world today. In David O. Russell’s world characters are suffering a dreamlike distortion of perspective. Soon American Hustle will reveal to us characters that are equally or maybe even more exponentially immoral and deluded. Irving’s con-partner Sydney (Amy Adams) fakes a British accent to attract desperate individuals seeking a loan; Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a coke fiend who curls his hair, is a FBI agent willing to cut many throats in order to attain success; Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) is mayor of New Jersey and has an unwavering intent to resurrect NJ from its deplorable state, even if it means mingling with crooked politicians and powerful members of the mafia; and Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is Irving’s extremely seductive wife who is incapable of discerning the scum around her. Every last one of these characters possesses a ruthless intensity, which they hope will lead them to wealth and success. All are interjected into the Abscam bribery scandal that occurred during the late 70s, where politicians were bribed to expedite a gambling breakthrough, which led to casinos in Atlantic City. “Some of this actually happened,” the film begins by stating. But the plot is meaningless. The film is truly about individuals and relationships completely absorbed and sidetracked by the delusions they have created for themselves. But when some delusions grow so large, some characters get in too deep and there is an irrepressible desire to immediately rearrange their lives and begin anew. The mentalities in this film are that distorted and impulsive. O. Russell is determined to keep up with his characters’ unremittingly tumultuous lives. It is this task that O. Russell takes on that makes his movie the spectacle that it is. It is astounding that American Hustle is able to succeed at sustaining such a frenetic pace throughout its entire runtime. O. Russell shows zero signs of struggle and, most astonishingly, seems to improve upon each subsequent scene with glorious camera techniques that recall a young, vibrant Scorsese (zooms, pans, close-ups). It is truly staggering to witness consummate filmmaking at this level. He appears to be imbibed with a surplus of energy that permits him to effortlessly juggle drama, comedy, tragedy and romance. His work here blatantly captures the ineptitude and indolence of contemporary filmmakers. American Hustle has the most vitality of any film this year, wonderfully structured, fully realized and terrifically acted. Refusing to subdue its tenacity, the end result is the year’s most complete film as well, passionately evoking the style of the 70s, a soundtrack that constantly delights (America, Tom Jones, Steely Dan, Elton John and The Bee Gees), and a virtuosic directorial effort that is unrelenting in its genius. Like Rosalyn’s nail polish, O. Russell vividly portrays the sweet and the sour, the good times and the bad times, constantly providing for us scenes that make us beg for more.