2013 was an excellent year at the movies, but I said the exact same thing about 2012. Film critic for The New Yorker, Richard Brody, chose to open his year-end summary with this quote, “The year 2013 has been an amazing one for movies, though maybe every year is an amazing year for movies if one is ready to be amazed by movies.” I am always ready to be amazed by movies, and 2013 did not disappoint.
I was consistently surprised how many movies continue to develop and unfold in my mind days, weeks, and months after I saw them. They refused to leave and I thought about and discussed them long into the night. Upon leaving the theater, I felt that Frances Ha was acidic and cool to the touch. A few months later, I was convinced it is one of the best portrayals of lost twenty-somethings in 2013, full of more joy and exuberance than I gave it credit for. Only God Forgives, Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12, and To The Wonder were all movies that blossomed in my mind and demanded a second viewing, simply too much to consume in just one. Enough Said, Populaire, and Nebraska left me with a smile but soon beckoned me to return, for no other reason than to return to their comfort and joy. And there were more, there were many, many more of the 185 new releases that I saw that I genuinely enjoyed. It was an excellent year at the movies.
The following ten selections are the movies I consider essential to the year 2013, a few of them being essential to any year. One movie that did not make my list was the French film from 2012 that saw a limited release in Los Angeles in early April. That movie was Renoir, not a masterpiece, but it has stuck with me, as have the moments surrounding it. I remember the weather that day, the cool breeze blowing through the window of my second-floor apartment, the jazz music playing as I drove home from the cinema, and the smell of the green tea I drank as I wrote my review. It was just another ordinary cinema-going experience, one I am prone to indulging in several times a week, but when I think of my moviegoing in 2013, this is the memory that rises immediately to the top.
12 Years a Slave — Steve McQueen does not allow the audience the ability to look away, forcing them to confront something that seems so atrocious now, but so normal then. The centerpiece of this movie (based on the memoir of Solomon Northup) is a brutally long shot where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced at gunpoint to whip fellow slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). It is an awful and excruciating scene, but there is nothing exploitative about it. It is part of America’s past, and a part of Solomon’s psyche now. It is etched on his wide-eyed face as he is freed from the plantation, a look of disbelief and unbelief. As those wonderful critics from The Dissolve pointed out, “Any good movie about the past will really, sneakily be about the present.” 12 Years a Slave is no exception. McQueen slyly reminds us that the history of America is the history of slavery. Solomon may have been born north of the Mason-Dixie Line, but he was just as much a beneficiary from the labor of slaves as the South was. Now we have passed laws that make it unconstitutional to enslave a person based on race, but it still exists in many different forms today. The idea of “America” and capitalism was a major topic in 2013, and 12 Years a Slave shows us what it took to get here, and it’s not pretty.
At Any Price — Making a living takes a lot of hard work. Getting ahead is even more difficult. If you want to be successful without putting in the time and work, then you are going to have to cheat. Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is just that kind of guy. Whipple indulges in a little business cheating here and there to get ahead, a little infidelity here and there to feel something and a whole lot of lying to himself so that he doesn’t throw up every time he looks in the mirror. Quaid gives Whipple a plastered on smile that looks as phony as it is wide and wears clothes that appear to be a size too big. Henry Whipple is not a real person, he is pretending to be one. At Any Price stays mainly with Henry, but it also takes time to explore the Father-Son dynamic with Dean (Zac Efron), the younger of two sons who don’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. There is a lot of Henry in Dean, and vice-versa, but their common bond (outside a relationship with Meredith (Heather Graham) that resembles a Greek tragedy) is how they both have failed at doing what they want to do, and now they have to convince themselves that what they are doing is their choice. Dean better start practicing that smile, it helps mask the pain.
Blue Is The Warmest Color — John Ford once told a collaborator on a deary day that they would forgo the landscape and shoot the most interesting subject in the world, the human face. Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour-plus adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel won the Palm d’Or at Cannes (the award was awarded to both actress as well as the director) and immediately jumped into the conversation with its extensive and explicit sex scenes. Blue is much more than a few shockingly explicit scenes, it is an honest and heartfelt study of a human being. Kechiche’s camera wants to know everything there is to know about Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), how she eats, what she reads, how she holds a cigarette between her lips, how she makes love, what she wears on a date, and how she looks when she sleeps. For three hours, we watch Blue and watch Adèle become a fully formed human being. Why is blue the warmest color? Blue is Emma (Léa Seydoux), the woman who brings Adèle out of her shell, introduces her to a whole new world, and lights the fires of passion. Blue is also home, and at some point, Adèle must move beyond Blue and move on with her life. That is what makes Kechiche’s final shot of Adèle walking away so poetic. She has finally broken free from her three-hour close-up, and we get an image of the entire woman, in the context of her surroundings. She is free from the gaze, and she is free to live her life any way she sees fit. This bird has flown.
Gravity — While watching Frozen (the latest Disney 3D animated movie) a thought occurred to me, Why cut between shots? The actors clearly didn’t botch the take, the camera was never hindered by an exhausted cameraman, objects in the way, or real-world problems. Continuity certainly wasn’t a problem. Of course, some editing is necessary for the purpose of emotional and spatial understanding, but why should we animate coverage? Why animate shot-reverse-shot? Why do animated movies have over-the-shoulders? The answer is because that is what we have become accustomed to, animation is still attempting to recreate a sense of the real. With Gravity, I felt that the makers were asking themselves those same questions and really trying to test those boundaries. Where are the limits of cinema? Or better yet, does cinema have limits? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the only limits cinema has are the ones we impose on them. The opening shot of Gravity is roughly thirteen minutes, but cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki admits that director Alfonso Cuarón considered drawing it out to twenty minutes. Eventually, they decided on cutting at the thirteen-minute mark because of the emotional impact the cut would have. This is cinema at work, the ghost in the machine. We cut not because we have to, but because it is best. Martin Scorsese said, “Cinema is what’s in the frame and what’s out,” and few films exemplify this quite like Gravity. It is a tour-de-force for Cuarón, Lubezki, their team of digital creators, and for actress Sandra Bullock, who shoulders this spectacle of psychological despair. It is in 3D, and even though I am not ready to see every movie in 3D, I am ready to see these kinds of movies in 3D. Avatar will always hold a place in the history books for being the one that opened the door to 3D, but Gravity is the first true masterpiece of the technology. When Avatar ran across the $1 billion mark, the conversation about 3D revolved around what kinds of movies would benefit from the technology. It should have been, “Now that we have this technology, what kind of movies can we make?” Apparently, that was the conversation Cuarón was having.
Inside Llewyn Davis — Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) wakes up in someone else’s apartment. Off in the distance, someone is playing Mozart’s Requiem. Llewyn gets up, noodles on his guitar, finds a record of his and his old partner (who killed himself), and plays it. The song is “Fare Thee Well” and within ten minutes it is obvious, this movie has something to do with death. Llewyn’s life is colored by the loss of his musical partner, Mike (whom we never meet) and he is drifting through Greenwich Village, and a sojourn to Chicago, to try to figure out where he fits. He doesn’t. Cursed to constantly repeat the cycle that is his life, Llewyn is incapable of getting out of his own way. He wants to be a successful folk singer, but it’s just not going to happen, you can’t always get what you want. How many young writers and wannabe directors have approached The Coens and asked them how to make it in the movie business? How many times have The Coens wanted to honestly tell them, just give up now before you hurt yourself too much? How many times have The Coens pitched an idea to an executive, only to have that executive stare back and speak the words of Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), “I don’t see a lot of money here”? When Llewyn walks away from the stage, after giving his best solo performance, he looks back and sees the shadow of a young singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan, who will fly higher and farther than Davis ever could hope. Inside Llewyn Davis is The Coen’s most melancholic movie to date. It resonates with the power, not of folk music, but with the blues. Sometimes the saddest songs touch the deepest.
Nebraska — There are those who aren’t from the midwest who will see this movie and wonder why Alexander Payne is mocking these simple folks. Those that are from the states of Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and will watch and laugh heartily alongside the characters. These are not movie stars and celebrities, these are real people. As real as my father, my mother, my grandparents, and my seemingly endless supply of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Payne is not mocking anyone here, he is spending time with loved ones. Nebraska is about learning to accept people for who they are. Not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. Bruce Dern plays the patriarch, suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s, senility, or dementia, or he knows exactly what he is doing and is just tired of explaining himself to everyone. June Squibb plays the mother who has always had a loud voice but has grown louder and more explicit with age. Will Forte is the hapless son who isn’t sure where he fits, but he does know that he wants to fit into his family. All of them are beautifully rendered in black and white photography, which shows that Payne really doesn’t want us to look down on these people. If he had shot in color, the screen would have been overrun with dead browns, drab yellows, and a whole lot of gray. Instead, he films them in black and white, giving them a timeless and artistic quality. This is a movie that celebrates Middle America in all its quirks and mannerisms.
Pain & Gain — Their American Dream is bigger than yours. Based on the true story of three bodybuilders who kidnapped and held a sleazy sandwich shop owner ransom, Michael Bay explores the trappings of the American Dream, Capitalism, and the “Take your life and dreams back” mentality sold to schmucks via infomercials and hotel conference rooms. American Hustle, At Any Price, The Bling Ring, Capital, The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street… so many movies in 2013 looked to explain that the system is already broken and that those who want to get ahead either have to—or want to—lie, cheat, and steal. Pain & Gain is unique because it is not just a critique of excess and materialism in America, it is a critique of Michael Bay-type movies that celebrate and idealize that very excess. Who better to make the Michael Bay critique than Michael Bay himself? Using the same low angle hero shots, a lurid color palette, a sun-drenched Miami, and a signature camera move that connects simultaneous action by circling two different rooms, Bay doesn’t even need to step outside his comfort zone to get the desired effect, he just has to add a little tongue-in-cheek humor. In true Bay fashion, he adds a lot. Subtly is for suckers.
To The Wonder — Malick doesn’t just film actors and places, he films impressions, emotions, and dreams. His cinematic language is singular in the world, and his voice is as distinct as they come. To The Wonder is his most personal movie to date, almost as if Malick is standing naked before his audience, warts and all, and declaring, “Here I am.” However, what commonly garners Marina Abramović’s high praise in the world of performance arts, attracts buzzards in cinema. Revelation is indulgent, expression becomes narcissism, and tangents are deemed distracting, or worse, unnecessary. To The Wonder doesn’t have the grandiose scale of The Thin Red Line or Tree of Life. It doesn’t have the historical exactitude of Days of Heaven and The New World, and it certainly doesn’t have much of a plot to latch on to. It is Malick trying to wrestle with ideas, emotions, and spirituality through cinema. He has a problem that he needs to work out, and this is how he has chosen to do it. I was taken with it, not simply because I enjoyed watching Malick’s thought process, but because it helped me resolve some issues in my own life. Cinema can be therapeutic for the director, but it can also be quite helpful for the audience as well.
Wadjda — Even if this movie was far below average, it was headed for the history books. The first feature made entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country that closed its cinemas in 1979. It is also directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, another rarity that was destined to garner it attention. Thankfully, Wadjda isn’t just one for the history books, a requisite for film students of the future, Wadjda is full of life and makes the case that all nations should be allowed the language of cinema to tell their stories. Owing to a long-standing tradition, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), is an eleven-year-old girl living in Riyadh and dreams of owning a green bicycle. Wadjda immediately invokes the work of the Italians Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossilini, but its understanding of childhood and how children see the world is as tender and honest in Mansour’s hands as it would be in Steven Spielberg’s. Written and directed by a woman with a female protagonist in a country where women are not allowed the same freedoms and interactions as men, Wadjda provides an excellent insight into a world few consider. Wadjda is far more than an academic chore, Wadjda is a revelation. For two hours I sat before the screen and witnessed a world I thought little of, and now I just can’t shake it.
The Wolf of Wall Street — Once I heard that Martin Scorsese was releasing a new movie, I knew that it was going to be one of my favorites, sight unseen. What I was not ready for, was how much I would like The Wolf of Wall Street. This was the only movie of the year that I raced back into cinemas to see two days later. I couldn’t get enough. Like Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio) and like Scorsese, I wanted more, and more is never enough. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of pure cinematic heaven, or hell depending on what you require from your protagonists. If you are hoping that Belfort will suddenly realize the errors of his way and turn his life around, you are watching the wrong movie. Read an interview with the real Belfort, and you’d realize the same thing. People only apologize when they think they have done something wrong, and as far as Belfort is concerned, the only thing he did wrong was get caught. He truly is a hideous thing inside. Consumed by his addiction to women, substances, but mainly money and the power it wields, “With money, you can donate to the church, your political party, with money you can ever save the spotted owl!” Belfort turned out to be a pretty good broker, a better scam artist, but he excels as a motivational speaker. The day his firm releases a new stock into the market, Belfort hops on the mic to rally the troops. The speech he gives is an incredible and honest perspective of what capitalism has become, “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich.” This is not a modest movie about modest people, this is the American Dream writ large. Don’t believe me? It’s all there in the very last image, the frame packed with faces like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, a huddled mass, yearning, not to be free, but to be rich. Filthy rich. Cast your fate to the wind, and come and be a wolf like me.
A Complete List of New Releases Seen in 2013
12 Years a Slave, 42, 56 Up, A.C.O.D., The Act of Killing, Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, All Is Lost, The Angels’ Share, Antiviral, The Armstrong Lie, At Any Price, A Band Called Death, Before Midnight, Behind the Candelabra, Berberian Sound Studio, Bert Stern: Original Madman, Beyond The Hills, Birders: The Central Park Effect, Blackfish, Black Rock, Blancanieves, Bless Me, Ultima, The Bling Ring, Blue Caprice, Blue Jasmine, Blue Is The Warmest Color, The Book Thief, The Brass Teapot, Breakfast With Curtis, Bridegroom, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Broken City, The Canyons, Capital, Captain Phillips, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, C.O.G., The Company You Keep, Computer Chess, The Conjuring, The Counselor, Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus, Cutie & The Boxer, Dallas Buyers Club, Dead Man Down, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, Despicable Me 2, The Dirties, Dirty Wars, Don Jon, Drinking Buddies, Drug War, The East, Electrick Children, Elysium, Ender’s Game, The English Teacher, Enough Said, Europa Report, Evil Dead, The Family, Frances Ha, Fast & Furious 6, The Fifth Estate, A Field in England, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, Future Weather, Gangster Squad, The Gatekeepers, Gimme The Loot, Ginger & Rosa, Go For Sisters, The Great Beauty, The Grandmaster, Gravity, Grigris, The Great Gatsby, The Hangover Part III, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Haute Cuisine, A Hijacking, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Homefront, How I Live Now, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunt, I Am Not A Hipster, The Iceman, Ilo Ilo, In A World…, In Another Country, In The House, Inequality For All, Informant, Inside Llewyn Davis, Instructions Not Included, Into The White, Iron Man 3, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, It’s A Disaster, Jobs, Kill Your Darlings, The Kings of Summer, The Last Days On Mars, Laurence Anyways, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Let The Fire Burn, Leviathan, The Lifeguard, Like Someone In Love, The Lone Ranger, The Look of Love, Louis C.K. Oh My God, Lovelace, Love Sick Love, Magic Magic, Man of Steel, Man of Tai Chi, Monsters University, The Motel Life, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Muscle Shoals, Nebraska, No, Now You See Me, Oblivion, Oldboy, One Life, Only God Forgives, Out of the Furnace, Oz: The Great & Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain & Gain, Pandora’s Promise, Philomena, Pieta, The Place Beyond the Pines, Plimpton: Starring George Plimpton as Himself, Populaire, Post Tenebras Lux, Prince Avalanche, Prisoners, Reality, Red Obsession, Renoir, Room 237, Rush, Salinger, Saving Mr. Banks, Shepard & Dark, Short Term 12, Side Effects, A Single Shot, Some Velvet Morning, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Something In The Air, Somm, Sound City, The Spectacular Now, Spinning Plates, Spring Breakers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Stoker, Stories We Tell, Thanks For Sharing, This Is Martin Bonner, This Is The End, The To Do List, To the Wonder, A Touch of Sin, Touchy Feely, Trance, Unfinished Song, Upstream Color, Wadjda, The Way, Way Back, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, Welcome to the Punch, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, World War Z
As always, a very special thanks to Lindsay for her constant assistance and support.