My best films of the year list (for whatever they are worth) keep coming later and later. More than half way through 2014, I present my list of best films for 2013. I’m embarrassed. Seriously, the month is August.
Theoretically, I could write them sooner but I usually hold out to see most of the movies that I think may be contenders on the list. I have significantly cut back my movie theater budget so rely on the often delayed Netflix queue to see the latest. Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on some of the best movies I saw that were released in 2013:
The plot synopsis of this film doesn’t sound as compelling as the movie actually is: a man falls in love with his computer operating system. Our protagonist, Theodore (played by the underrated Joaquin Phoenix), seems eerily like any of us. He works his job and checks his email and goes home and is lonely. This is a part of the brilliance of Spike Jonze’s Oscar winning screenplay. We can identify with the circumstances and life of the main character but at the same time: this is a futuristic, science fiction film. Jonze, who also directed this movie, is making strong commentary on people’s “relationships” to their phones, tablets and computers. Also, perhaps, observing our society’s relational disconnect…or is that relational evolution? The film is decidedly not preachy so should we feel disturbed by the proceedings or welcome them as a part of our quite possible future?
9) About Time
Michelle told me that this may be her new favorite movie of all time. I admit that I greatly enjoyed “About Time” as well. Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson) discovers via his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family can travel back in time by their own volition. Tim decides to use this gift (probably not far fetched at all) to get a girlfriend (Mary played by Rachel McAdams). Just when one thinks this could be another rip-off of the classic “Groundhog Day”, the film goes off in wildly different directions. There are some rules regarding the time travel that are not-so-coincidentally revealed around important plot points but who cares. The story as a whole is enjoyable and is distinctive from the typical serious Oscar-baiting stuff the Academy usually goes for in their nominations. The film is a love story between Tim and Mary and the family they build together. It is also a genuinely moving story about a son’s relationship with his father. And even beyond that, the theme is about a person coming to terms with time and being at peace with it ever passing by.
I’m a fan of the films of Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and “Nebraska” is a worthy entry into his canon. Shot in black-and-white, the film features Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David Grant (Will Forte) taking a road trip to claim a million dollar mega sweepstakes prize. This is all about Woody trying to make or prove something about his life before it is gone. His son, David, learns to accept Woody’s largely wasted life and fool’s errand quest to claim the junk mail prize. A surprisingly very moving and funny…in that quirky sort of way. The screenwriter, Bob Nelson, is a resident of Kent where I grew up so essentially, this movie has to be on this list.
Matthew McConaughey got the Oscar win and more notoriety as a serious actor for his work in “Dallas Buyers Club”. While that movie is certainly powerful and well worth seeing, I really liked McConaughey’s lesser known starring vehicle “Mud”. It has been awhile since I have seen a solid and engrossing coming-of-age film and “Mud” transcends most movies in that genre. Two boys living on the banks of a river in Arkansas discover a fugitive (Mud played by McConaughey) living on an island. They all make a pact to help Mud escape vigilantes on his trail and help him attempt to reunite with his loss love (played by Reese Witherspoon). Of course, the boys learn the perils and complexities of love and hard life lessons. The film is mostly realistic but has an odd (and welcome) mixture of fantastical elements (for instance, Mud lives in a boat that is way up in a tree). In other words, all through the eyes of children.
6) All is Lost
The plot is simple. An unnamed man sails the Indian Ocean and gets caught up in a massive storm. The story is purely about survival and that is all. We don’t necessarily know why the older man is out on the ocean, if he is going somewhere, if something has happened in his life that has led to him sailing off by himself. The audience can read what they want into the film. We feel the man’s desire to survive and his fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. We feel his connection to his sail boat. There are no other cast members than Robert Redford (in a truly remarkable performance) and hardly any spoken dialogue besides an opening monologue (below) and Redford talking into his radio, trying to call for help. The film is mesmerizing in its simplicity. There are all kinds of metaphors that one can apply here and the movie isn’t about assigning one for the audience.
“13th of July, 4:50 pm. I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here, except for soul and body, that is, what’s left of them, and a half-day’s ration. It’s inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit? That I’m not sure, but it did. I fought ’til the end. I’m not sure what this worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all. I will miss you. I’m sorry.”
Oddly enough, this movie will always be special to me in a unique way. After Michelle and I watched this film in the downtown Edmonds Theater, we came back home and discovered we were pregnant with our daughter, Naomi. An exciting revelation after watching a film about child abduction and a grieving father torturing people for information on his daughter (and friend’s child’s) whereabouts. This is a movie that, when one watches it, they will see how the acting in this work really was overlooked. As Keller Dover, Hugh Jackman gives a disturbingly true performance as he adopts a “ends justifies the means” mentality in trying to find out what has happened to his kidnapped daughter. His motto is: “pray for the best, prepare for the worst”. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a solid performance as well portraying Detective Loki who arrests Alex Jones (who was parked in a dilapidated RV near the Dover home the day the girls disappeared) but releases him due to lack of evidence. Dover would have none of the police procedural. He kidnaps Jones and systematically tortures him for information on where his daughter is. The haunting aspect of the film is whether Dover’s instincts are right in his pursuit of Jones or even more troubling…is Jones actually innocent of the crime? If Jones is guilty, how on earth does anyone still justify the course taken by Dover in attempting to obtain information? This is a messy film with surprising revelations that lead to deeply unsettling places. I will leave it at that.
A big surprise to me during the 2013 season was Philomena. Michelle and I were watching the best picture nominations that included this film. I didn’t know anything about the movie and suspected the producer Harvey Weinstein had probably bought his way onto another best picture list. I was wrong. Judi Dench masterfully plays the title character who had her son taken from her decades ago while she was in a convent. She now sets off to search for him with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (portrayed by Steve Coogan). The result is a moving experience that has surprises and meditations on faith. Sixsmith is an atheist. Philomena a strong believer in God as she has been influenced in her Catholic faith. The movie has been accused in some quarters as being anti-Catholic. It certainly doesn’t portray some members of the Catholic church in a positive light but overall, I don’t think the result is necessarily negative about faith at all. People may actually debate the ending and the different perspectives along the lines of justice and mercy that the atheist (Sixsmith) and the believer (Philomena) take in their approach as events unfold. In a sense, they could both be right in their perspectives at the end of the story but the work is deeply sympathetic to Philomena. This is a great film and Dench, for her performance, should have won the Oscar.
3) Captain Phillips
Leave it to director Paul Greengrass (“Bloody Sunday”, two of the “Bourne” movies, “United 93”) to take a true story and make the film every bit as thrilling and suspenseful as if the audience doesn’t know what is coming. Tom Hanks delivers another captivating performance as Captain Richard Phillips who was in charge of the MV Maersk Alabama when it was hijacked by Somali Pirates in 2009. Hanks is almost matched in acting by newcomer Barkhad Abdi as the lead hijacker Muse. A critical thing I have noticed about films by Greengrass is his attempts to portray both sides of a given conflict in humanitarian terms. We understand a little about the hijackers, their motivations and what they face where they live. “Captain Phillips” could have been a flag-waving American film but the unfolding of the narrative is more melancholy and complicated. The events of the finale and subsequent performance of Hanks during those moments is a kick to the gut.
2) 12 Years a Slave
One of the most devastating and heart-wrenching films that I have seen in a long time. To my knowledge, there has never been a better movie that re-creates the horror of American slavery. The true story (makes this all the more haunting) follows Solomon Northup, a free African-American from the north, who is kidnapped in Washington DC and sold into slavery. His rights, dignity and family forcibly taken away from him. With the horrors and torture that he will receive and witness against other human beings, there will be no method to challenge. The government conspiring with a racist economic system created one of the most radically oppressive social systems in our nation’s history.
Director Steve McQueen may now have inherited the “uncompromising filmmaker” moniker from the great Stanley Kubrick. He does not flinch in showing the brutality of the American slave trade. In one scene, his camera lingers for several minutes (from multiple angles) as we see Northup hanging from a tree and extending his toes desperately trying to stay on the ground. McQueen doesn’t rush this shot. He burns the hanging into the psyche of the audience. He is boldly confronting, in one of the most chilling and effective ways imaginable, America’s original sin.
1) The Wolf of Wall Street
The best movie of the year also pissed the most people off. Conservatives protested the partying and blatant hedonism of the characters. Liberals were aghast that the movie did not preach explicitly against the morals and actions of Wall Street swindlers. Director Martin Scorsese was reportedly booed at screenings and angrily confronted by other filmmakers about “Wolf” (http://radaronline.com/exclusives/2013/12/this-was-no-wolf-whistle-martin-scorsese-heckled-at-wolf-of-wall-street-screening/).
All of that to say, this is one hell of a movie and in the brilliance of Scorsese’s career, one of his finest. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter were not interested in moral messaging or sermonizing but in rubbing America’s face in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. People missed the point of the whole film: excess and Wall Street’s addiction to more, more, more. The entire film can really be summed up as characters continually succumbing to one addiction or another. Any moral consideration for Jordan Belfort (outrageously- in a good way- portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cohorts is irrelevant. He starts his practice in Long Island, NY as a penny stockbroker and proceeds to defraud investors including poor people. Belfort glorifies these actions and revels in them. The only thing that frustrates him is that he only made $49 million dollars in one year which was short of a million a week.
The film is stocked full of party scenes, rampant drug use and unapologetic greed. Interestingly enough, rather than having the audience make judgments upon what they are seeing on screen, Scorsese seems to turn the introspection back onto the general public. The Wall Street investors are the rock stars of today. These are the guys that people in the general public want to be like and the lifestyle that they are envious of leading. This is America’s idolatry and we all have created the environment in which these guys can thrive with a little “hard work”. When considering Scorsese’s career, I feel that this movie will be in the conversation as one of his most hard hitting and best.
To talk about the best movies of 2013 is definitely a little late in the game at this point, but if anyone wants to add to the list or further discuss these films, please feel free to do so.