Even though I still haven’t seen “Her,” the Spike Jonze movie that is making so many 2013 best-of lists, I had to narrow down a list of my favorites films in time to record the show that we do for Spokane Public Radio – “Movies 101.” So here it is.
Let me just emphasize that 2013 was one of the best years, overall, in recent memory. In past years, many good films, everything from “Frances Ha” to “The Dallas Buyer’s Club,” might have made the list. Indeed, we did just live through a good year. Let’s hope 2014 offers half as much quality.
12 Years a Slave
No film in 2013 had more of an effect on me than this examination of slavery, directed by the British visual artist Steve McQueen. Based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, McQueen’s movies tells the story of a free black man living in New York who was lured to Washington, D.C., then kidnapped and sent south where he spent a dozen years living in a series of plantations. This is no fantasyland life-on-the-plantation tale such as “Gone With the Wind,” nor is it a revenge fantasy such as “Django.” It is an ongoing nightmare of cultural sociopathy, in which religion is used as the excuse to treat fellow humans as little more than beasts of burden. Given McQueen’s background as a visual artist, it’s no surprise that the film is shot well. It’s also acted well, not just by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender as an insane master but also by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, Lupita Nyong’o and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Woody Allen is 78 yet, based on his last few films, he is showing more energy than ever. And fueled by one of the great-ever screen performances, by Cate Blanchett, it is an artistic exercise: How do you rouse sympathy for a woman who is so vulnerably, painfully and hatefully un-self-aware? Allen answers that by documenting her slow meltdown, beginning with a typical Allen moment – seeing the woman chattering on an airplane, which we discover is her badgering of her fellow passenger. Aided by an able cast, including Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin and even Andrew Dice Clay, “Blue Jasmine” is a dark-spirited Allen film that both savages its protagonists and yet invites you, maybe even convinces you, to feel sorry for her.
Directed by Richard Linklater, this is the third entry in a series that began in 1995 with “Before Sunrise” and continued in 2004 with “Before Sunset.” The story of the couple Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, seems to have come full circle as, now parents trying to balance dueling careers and raising two cuter-than-bug children with all the pressures that comes with any marriage, not to mention one that bridges cultures, they seem to be falling apart. It’s touching, heartbreaking and reaffirming all at once. The series, which was basically Linklater’s idea at first, has become a true corroboration as Hawke and Delpy have partnered with him to help write their characters’ stories.
Based his film on a true story that happened on New Year’s Day 2009, writer-director Ryan Coogler captures everything that led up to, and includes, that day’s fateful and fatal event: the shooting of Oscar Grant III in an Oakland BART terminal by a police officer. Yet most of the day involves Oscar going through his everyday life, trying to get back the job he lost, showing all the youthful impetuousness that both makes him charming and demonstrates the frustrations that can erupt in anger at any moment. This is fiction done as if a documentary, and it is propelled by a stirring performance by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar, Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend and baby-mama. Powerful and moving.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Famous for its sex scenes, which are graphic and memorable even if they make up only a fraction of the near-three-hour running time, this film by Tunisian-French writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche is actually a coming-of-age tale, centering on a young woman’s slow realization of love, lust and what it means in particular for someone whose sexual orientation is toward her own sex. It features a star-making performance by newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos and a fine supporting role for established star Lea Seydoux. All three shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, for the first time the award has been presented to a movie’s cast members as well as its director.
Short Term 12
Speaking of emerging stars, Brie Larson is another hot commodity, appearing in three 2013 films: “The Spectacular Now,” “Don Jon” and “Short Term 12” – and she is so different in each that she’s virtually unrecognizable. Here, she plays Grace, the aptly/ironically named head of a facility that houses troubled teens. Written and directed by Dustin Cretton, the film follows Grace as she struggles to help her charges, have a relationship with her work partner Mason (John Gallagher Jr. of HBO’s “The Newsroom”) and resolve her own troubled past. Powerful yet restrained, never striving to be anything more than a mere revealing of this various cast of characters, “Short Term 12” is memorable for the effect it leaves: realistic but hopeful.
The Spectacular Now
Coming-of-age teen films are so common that it feels as if every possible story line has been done. And that feeling applies to “The Spectacular Now,” a film directed by James Ponsoldt that follows our protagonist Sutter (Miles Teller) as he begins his senior year seemingly on top of the world. But Sutter has love affair with alcohol, and when he loses his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson), then picks up with “the girl in high school no one ever seems to notice” Aimee (the ever-excellent Shailene Woodley of “The Descendants”), he slowly comes to realize that he is headed nowhere, with a bottle of booze shakily in hand. Painful and revealing, “The Spectacular Now” gives us something refreshing: a familiar tale told with a new feel and told spectacularly well.
Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants”) gives us another familiar storyline: a guy in his late 30s, still struggling to find a life, suddenly cast into the role of parental caretaker. In this case, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Will Forte is the guy, David, and 77-year-old Bruce Dern is his father, Woody. Seems Woody is intent on traveling from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up his sweepstakes million-dollar “winnings.” David, being the decent, ineffectual guy he is, agrees to drive his dad there – and, along the way, he comes to a grudging kind of resolution about his father and, one hopes, his own place in life. Dern’s performance was enough to win him a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Inside Llewyn Davis
One of the most opaque movies the Coen brothers have given us, this period piece is set in 1961 during the folk-music revival. It centers on a talented, if troubled, singer played by Oscar Isaac (Prince John in the Russell Crowe “Robin Hood,” the troubled husband in Ryan Gosling’s “Drive”). Llewyn is struggling to make it in the folk biz after his former partner has, unaccountably, committed suicide. Beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”), “Inside Llewyn Davis” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A kind of looping road movie, it’s a fable for the vagaries of fame and fortune in show biz, contrasting Llewyn’s real talent for singing plaintive songs “(Hang Me”) with a talent manager’s dismissive attitude (“I don’t hear see a lot of money here,” F. Murray Abraham says). It closes with the sounds of a Bob Dylan type warbling in the background, prescient as to what would happen next.
Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most dependable directors working today, having made everything from sci-fi (“Chldren of Men”) to fantasy (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) to coming-of-age studies (“Y Tu Mamá También”). This study of what happens following an accident involving the International Space Station is a cinematic theme-park ride that is the best example of 3-D big-screen thrills since “Avatar.” It’s not a deep meditation of being and nothingness, but it is a perfect example of how good adventure cinema can be with just a bit of imagination and directorial know how. It also helps that the actress Cuarón cast, Sandra Bullock, both looks good in closeup and is capable of pulling off the emotional moments needed for our suspension of disbelief to be complete.
My second 10: “Captain Phillips,” “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear,” “Mother of George,” “La Grande Belleza,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle,” “Stories We Tell,” “The Act of Killing,” “Philomena,” “Much Ado About Nothing”