10. American Hustle: This movie evaporated from my mind like snow falling on warm ground. Yet it left a pleasant aftertaste. The strength of the ensemble is difficult to ignore. Jennifer Lawrence puts another feather in her cap here, believably creating a woman far removed from Winter’s Bone’s Ree Dolly but possessing a similarly fierce, leonine strength. Christian Bale, as always in his collaborations with David O. Russell, is weirder, funnier than he is elsewhere (e.g. in his work with Christopher Nolan). Bradley Cooper creates another motormouth role; has there ever before been a Sexiest Man Alive who could so effectively channel neurosis? I could not follow the effervescent twists of this movie’s plot but its essential tone is celebratory, embracing the American con man as an archetype of ingenuity, ambition, and even deep-down good-heartedness. As Roger Ebert said of the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the very term makes being one okay. But that good-natured quality also imparts a slightness to this film; nothing really seems to have been at stake in the end and the final impression I have is that all the characters should have danced together as the credits rolled, while, somewhere, Rodney Dangerfield looked down upon them and smiled in benediction.
9. Drinking Buddies: I knew little of Joe Swanberg’s work prior to this film except for watching perhaps forty minutes of Hannah Takes the Stairs, which I found borderline incomprehensible. Swanberg is known as a mumblecore stalwart, discoverer of Greta Gerwig, and a few other things. This time around he has crafted a fine, if modest, comedy-drama about the tactful management of inappropriate sexual tension between friends and coworkers whose romantic attachments and obligations lie elsewhere. As has been said of Nicole Holofcener, Swanberg here creates characters who seem actually to be trying to navigate their lives, rather than blundering into dramatic confrontations and life-changing mistakes. The result, while hardly likely to set the cinematic world ablaze, is highly satisfying.
8. Her: Here is a companion piece to James Cameron’s The Terminator: another vision of the Singularity, filtered through the lens of a different genre, the romantic drama rather than the action-adventure. Where Cameron’s post-AI future imagined Armageddon, Spike Jonzes’s film contemplates something almost scarier – abandonment, indifference.
7. Blue Is The Warmest Colour: The hype surrounding its sex scenes has obscured the numerous other good qualities of this French drama – most particularly, the heroic lead performance by Adele Exarchopoulos. The sex scenes are important because they evoke the inarticulable, grasping passion that binds Adele to her lover Emma (Lea Seydoux), but notice also the smoldering, muted, courteous agony that Exarchopoulos brings to the painful scenes of the last half-hour, when life rolls on as banally and tranquilly as ever, except that her heart is broken, apparently beyond repair.
6. Gravity: Gravity is one of those movies that sweep you away at the time but leave you wondering, afterward, if the filmmakers had pulled a fast one on you. That may not be a bad thing: there is a tradition of gleeful charlatanry in movies going all the way back to Melies. When the dust has settled we must admit that some of the dialogue is rather corny, that Sandra Bullock’s Moving Backstory and Hollywood Character Arc are redundant in the face of a primal life-or-death struggle – a mistake not made in J.C. Chandor’s sparser, leaner (and, alas, less entertaining) All Is Lost. But what does not fade away is the memory of that gripping first half-hour, an extended sequence of such sustained technical virtuosity that you are compelled to ask: how did they do that? Whenever you ask that question, your armor of jadedness has been pierced, and that is a gift. The afterglow of that first half-hour was, for me, so strong that when a certain Preposterous Twist occurred, I found myself feeling that I could forgive the movie whether it turned out to be All In Her Head or not. That’s a lot of good will.
5. Frances Ha: Lighter and airier than Noah Baumbach’s other recent films, this black-and-white confection has the intoxicated quality you get once in a while when a film’s director is transparently in love with its star. (You see it, also, in Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which starred Cybill Shepherd and which has recently been resurrected from a forty-year purgatory after a new-and-improved cut surfaced on Netflix.) Greta Gerwig possesses the same hesitant charm as in her previous films, but there’s a more brightly shining core of optimism this time, and greater physicality resulting from the conceit that her character is a dancer. Though it feels like a sophisticated Allen-esque romantic comedy, Frances Ha is, refreshingly, not a love story. Its two main themes are the development of the adult self and, more poignantly, accepting the trauma of separation from a dear friend. There is nothing particularly profound about Frances Ha, but it is elegantly photographed, acted with sincere commitment, and occasionally dipped in real joy.
4. Before Midnight: The third installment in Richard Linklater’s (I hope) nonology about the romance between a pair of endlessly-verbose smartypants who like to wander picturesque European locales ad nauseum, is the best of the bunch because it cuts the deepest emotionally. The door that was cracked during the remarkable limousine scene in 2004’s Before Sunset has here been battered down, revealing an interior landscape of raw feeling that has the embarrassing intensity of eavesdropping. Jesse and Celine love each other, it’s true, but under that love are unveiled waves of sarcasm (male) and ferocious scorn (female) that leave the viewer almost as exhausted as the participants. This surgical laying-bare of the accreted pitfalls and kindnesses of a marriage between two people a little too in love with their own verbal potency reaches its peak in an astonishing argument scene in a hotel room which, in its way, is as true to the perilous inner lives of codependents as anything since Bergman.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street: This is probably the funniest picture I have seen in years. Its effect on a suitably-primed audience is electric. I haven’t resolved for myself the question of whether it is adequately condemning of Jordan Belford’s antics, nor whether such a judgmental balance is necessary to the film’s aesthetic or moral (they are not the same thing) completeness. What I have determined is that, if the film downplays the effect of rampant financial swindling on the victims – who mostly exist as disembodied voices on speaker phones – it quite clearly depicts the effect on the swindlers, whose essential humanity is distorted through a funhouse mirror of excess, comical aggression, tribal loyalties, and drugged-out incoherence. As in his sublime Goodfellas, Scorsese zeroes in – instinctively, perhaps – on those primal satisfactions of male camaraderie and raucous merriment which resonate more powerfully than any violence or betrayal that follow in their wake. We still think of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, first, as a funny guy, and when we see Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) engage in body-wrecking drug escapades with his best friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) our first instinct is a sort of admiring cackle: “Those fucking guys.” Still, for all the yachts and naked women, it’s difficult to envy them. Perhaps Scorsese is corrupt and lacks a moral anchor, but the truth I think is that he is too fine an artist to get caught up in moralizing – unlike the estimable Oliver Stone, who counterbalances his own Lucifer, his greatest dramatic creation, Gordon Gecko, with the lamely proselytizing apparition of Martin Sheen. Above all, perhaps, it is a relief to see Scorsese working again in the modes where he is most comfortable: cocaine-crazed mania, the twisted yet compelling morality of the wolf pack, and a leading character whose rat-a-tat intensity motivates, and justifies, a virtuosically swirling camera. This is Scorsese’s most sheerly entertaining film in 23 years, and it is Di Caprio’s best performance since, well, ever.
2. Twelve Years A Slave: What struck me about Steve McQueen’s antebellum slave odyssey is how it belongs in a continuum of literary as well as historical development. I suspect that Solomon Northup and his editors, writing in the 1840s, were – consciously or otherwise – fitting the narrative into the acceptable forms of the day. So, Northup’s saga takes shape as a sort of anti-picaresque, a mirror image (or, perhaps, color negative) of something like Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. The episodic, sequential structure; the way characters drift in and out of Northup’s life at the whim of circumstance; the occasions in which he is delivered not by his own efforts but by sheer luck – all of these are formal signposts of the picaresque. Lyndon is the tale of a low man making his way high, and then falling; this one is the tale of a middle man brought low and then forced to claw his way back to where he was. Lyndon is tragic (or tragicomic) because the hero’s greatest misfortunes are self-caused; Twelve Years ends on a, not lighter, but less miserable, note because the flaw this time is not in the hero but in the world around him. He is a good man in a broken society.
As with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Twelve Years focuses on the story of “one that got away,” concluding with something at least approximating a happy ending, while skirting history-book horrors all along the way. Perhaps there is no other way, in a popular medium, to tell the story of an unimaginable crime – if we had to sit through a chain of misfortunes culminating merely in bondage or death (as was the reality, uncountable times) the psychic burden would be too much to bear and audiences, catching word of mouth, would simply decline to go.
Yet such films must also, in passing, tell the stories of those who did not get away. If nothing here is executed with the astonishing efficiency of that single shot in Ben-Hur when, having been released from slavery, Charlton Heston’s Judah glances briefly at the benighted denizens of the galley below him, McQueen still shows that Northup’s circumstance is anything but typical. Some slaves make accommodations by becoming the mistresses of plantation owners; some work stubbornly, finding their only joys in collective song; some simply die in the field. “It is all night, all night forever,” said an actual slave, and Twelve Years evokes that – providing along the way the firmest corrective thusfar to Gone With The Wind’s still-potent evocation of an idyllic, pastoral South.
As to those torture-porn allegations, it is true that McQueen wants to make us very uncomfortable at times. There is, in particular, one shot that goes on, and on, and on, daring the viewer to look away. Its unusual length – far past the point of conveying the narrative meaning – is as concrete an example of deliberate directorial prerogative as movies provided in 2013. It is perhaps naïve of me to think that McQueen’s primary goal is neither more nor less than to bear witness – to proclaim “this thing really happened” – but I’m inclined to think that anyway.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis: There is a scene in this film in which the titular protagonist, a prickly folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, performs a song for a talent manager played by F. Murray Abraham. Halfway through the song, Llewyn drops out the guitar accompaniment and sings a capella. It is a baring of the artist’s breast, a moment in which the act of performance becomes a sort of offertorial, and it is heartbreaking. Abraham’s response, not cruel, merely crushingly accurate, is note-perfect. The whole of this film might be seen as an artist’s version of that Stephen Crane poem. Llewyn says to the universe, “Sir, I sing,” and the universe’s varied (but seldom encouraging) response is the business of the ensuing two hours. Best of all, Isaac channels the Coen brothers’ anti-sentimental ethos in his performance: the total incompatibility of his hard-won art with the needs of the world is a source not of anguished breast-beating but of weary, disgruntled irritation.