31 January 2014

Best of 2013

I am comforted by patterns. 2013 confirmed that in even-numbered years the Giants win the World Series and in odd-numbered years all the best films come out.

Perhaps as importantly, last year also brought to my attention an anthem for our time:

The year in film was so good there is a countdown before the countdown. 

Four close-outs that don't make my best baker's dozen: Her>Inside Llewyn Davis>The Wolf of Wall Street>American Hustle (that's the ranking but it's a tight three-and-a-half-stars-y bunch).

Two excellent films from 2012 that I only saw in 2013: In Another Country and Tabu--Hong Sang-Soo and Miguel Gomes tell stories on film the way I'd like them to be told.

One legend who has lost me: Terrence Malick--after To the Wonder my anticipation for his releases moves from fevered to slightly piqued.

Best Supporting Actresses

If you've read the preceding reviews for The Counselor and Only God Forgives you know it's quite a battle between Cameron Diaz and Kristin Scott Thomas over the Most Scenery Chewing Award. Gun to my head I lean towards Diaz because of eye makeup. Zhang Ziyi is an excellent coiled weapon in The Grandmaster, poised to fight and full of swallowed pain. The best part of American Hustle is Jennifer "I put out the fire" Lawrence. I remember sitting down for Winter's Bone, hearing her say, "bred and buttered," and going full Dick Vitale: "She's a star baby! S-T-A-R, STAR!!" Scarlett Johansson has hopefully learned something from being sexier as a voice in Her than on screen in Don Jon. I thought the idea of nominating someone who never appears in the flesh was just the thing to make Academy voters feel clever (and think of the short term savings in their phone sex charges). But she'll have to settle for the WTT nod.

Best Supporting Actors

If Scarlett is recognized for her voice in Her then Rob Lowe should get it for his face in Behind the Candelabra ("Will I be able to close my eyes?" "Not entirely.") I begrudge Franco everything but have to give it up for Spring Breaker's Alien (Gucci Mane's method acting as Archie deserves further kudos). I enjoyed any number of tiny roles, including Giovanni Arcuri's Caesar in Caesar Must Die, Michael Shannon's stern and hilarious avuncular turn in Mud, and Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion and Fran Kranz's uproarious collective in Much Ado About Nothing: There's a nice cumulative effect from Bad Coach Taylor as the repetitious alcoholic in The Spectacular Now and Good Coach Taylor shit talking DiCaprio on the yacht in The Wolf of Wall Street. But perhaps the most memorable supporting acting is Jonah Hill affecting a waspy rasp and hashing out those cousin-humping Punnett squares in Wolf

Best Actresses

There are only two types of people: those who know that Suzanne Clément is the best actress of the year and those who have not seen Laurence Anyways. Her window-rattling explosion at a grande dame dinette waitress is hair-raising: "Serve coffee, bring food, take money and shut the fuck up." She steals the film, and with ease, from WTT fave Melvil Poupoud. Her win comes with apologies to Rooney Mara styling, Greta Gerwig running, Amy Seimetz suffering and Adele Excharpolous and Lea Seydoux being great with each other. (And I'm still awaiting the final tallies on the competition between Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now and Brie Larson in Short Term 12 for Miss Indie Teen 2013.)

Best Actors

First, I give the annual award for Most Acting to Bradley Cooper in American Hustle--he is in illustrious company. Watching Her, it was fun to spot Joaquin Phoenix's scar under that sad sack mustache. Oscar Isaac certainly made it look cold Inside Llewyn Davis. Toni Servillo stands at the end of culture in The Great Beauty, looking at the great ugliness of Rome, his own unhandsome face so desirable against the distended bodies flexing unsexily around him. Shane Carruth gives a starmaking turn in Upstream Color, though I hope he doesn't go on to act in anything he hasn't also written and directed. I've reserved my highest praise for Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave--he pulls off a most dangerous thing for an actor, using his eyes to speak the most important lines.

Best Pictures

(I've done one of my better jobs of seeing all potential placeholders--the only caveat is there's a 95% Claire Denis' Bastards would have made this list because she makes my world go 'round.)

The "I Wanna Rob" Section
13. Spring Breakers - This film tastes like Sour Patch Kids. Harmony Korine's casting choices are fascinating--the aforementioned Franco and Gucci Mane, Jeff Jarrett as an evangelical preacher, wifey Rachel Korine as the most libidinous reveler and Selena Gomez, with her open revulsion to appearing in the film. St. Pete's beach is the most spiritual place of all, full of lizard brain GIFing, days coated in sweat and malt liquor, nights the color of Virgin America cabins with Gatsby lighting provided by an Outback Steakhouse at the end of a pier. And Britney, good Christ, the Britney.

12. Bling Ring - The protagonists of this film might be even dimmer or, anyway, less cunning than their counterparts to the southeast. The blankness of the text: "Let's go to Paris," and the Eiffel Tower key ring they find under Ms. Hilton's mat. For those teenage nitwits, being there is like rolling around in the treasures of the grail. It's a full immersion in reality culture, the way Emma Watson asks, "what did Lindsay say?" in her terrifying accent. Cinematography is not reduced all the way down to GIFs but, for Sofia Coppola, this is more intercut and less studied--intentionally disposable. 

The Soderbergh Section
11. Side Effects - The characters are lit in a haze, or the poisonous fog that blurs everything around the depressive Rooney Mara. She gives Channing Tatum the Janet Leigh MacGuffin treatment and participates in what, back in February, seemed a likely candidate for the juiciest lesbian hookup of the year (was Catherine Zeta-Jones channeling Laura Prepon in Orange Is the New Black or the other way around?). Soderbergh's willingness to push beyond the limits of a serious drama about our prescription-drug-addicted country into a nasty little potboiler is commendable.

10. Behind the Candelabra - Here the scene is lit like, well, a candelabra the size of my apartment, picking out the individual spots of glitter in Liberace's hair. Michael Douglas was smart to take a break from his cancer-inducing tonguework to do Lee--he has so many wonderful lines, about Sonja Henie's thighs and looking like his father in drag. It's such a fabulous moment when he realizes he can adopt someone he's fucking. His sequin-tastic ensembles are spot on (I say this a visitor to the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas to see the originals) and the ensemble cast is perfect, down to the rheumy, shitting lapdogs. 

Steven Soderbergh has retired from film directing at his pithiest, his most playful, when the maximum amount of people will beg to have him back. As he finishes work on the miniseries The Knick, I wonder if, 20 years down the line, we'll find this a key moment where longform television passed film.

The Top 9
9. Something in the Air - Continuing from Summer Hours and Carlos, Olivier Assayas moves his camera through large groups and houses like a better version of Robert Altman. Clement Metayer's Gilles deals with the typical (French) teenage concerns: making love (to Carole Combes' Laure, a real firestarter) and art. But then there's also revolution, in fits in starts "After May," to which his friends say he must be totally committed. As one explains, "Art is solitude." That tension informs the rest of the film, one that further stokes my rage at not growing up in French schools, where communist manifestos are handed out before class and most 17-year-olds are familiar with John Ashbery and Gregory Corso. The floppy-haired cast blows across Europe like it's the only thing in the world. And it is.

8. Mud - Seems rather a forgotten film this awards season--Jeff Nichols' work might always be too subtle. The young stars never make it past a narrow, riverine range. Ellis and Neckbone's small boat pokes through some lovely landscapes but they are shot unpretentiously, like the jungles in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films. The story is more or less two kids tracing the arc of two fairly stupid adults in a death spiral together. But if the dumb grownups are Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, I'd want to keep watching too. Plus Matt says fun things like, "it's tough to make a meal out of pumpkin pie filling" while his skin is a Pantone match to pumpkin pie filling. For bonus points, Nichols takes on the challenge of an extended snake metaphor, running it from live cottonmouths and water moccasins to McConaughey's tats to the Bible.

7. Museum Hours - I spend a fair amount of time wishing for more W.G. Sebald in my life and this is a film for that. Between Johann and Anne there is something fresher than a love story: a film about walking around in the cold and occasionally coming inside to gaze at masterworks. As a security guard, Johann's job is watching--but even when he is not at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Art Museum he is out with a birdwatching group or playing online poker. Anne is good match, in that she also has a funny voice and enjoys inexpensive hobbies. I wish I had time for repeated visits to the same masterpieces, to allow for things I've never done, like finding all the easter eggs in a Breughel painting. With such exquisite moments--like Johann describing Rembrandt portraits to help a woman in a coma, or a young museum guard's theory that Dutch and Flemish still lives were depictions of burghers' bling, the equivalent of piling diamonds and flat screens on a canvas now--I wish it had gone on longer, or will pick up in another volume soon.

6. Like Someone in Love - A possible formulation:

Sebald : walking :: Kiarostami : shots in cars

This film is the observation a young call girl, Akiko, being shepherded from one glass enclosure to another over the course of 16 or so hours. It begins with a tense negotiation between Akiko and her pimp in a glassy, Murakami-short-story jazz bar. From there she's shuttled via cab to Professor Watanabe's apartment and its large bay window. Finally, in the professor's car, she is forced to meet with her unhinged boyfriend, Noriaki, who knows her as a student without evening employment. Akiko never laughs but does sort of smile, speaking like a ventriloquist's dummy even when shouting. She's shocked by the sound of her own voice, the dexterity with which she can sharpen and soften her eyes.

There is a definitive Abbas Kiarostami situation in the car where Watanabe--moving seamlessly from role of john to grandfather--tells young Noriaki all he needs to know about being married: "If you know she's going to lie, best to not ask." When Akiko joins them, Watanabe shifts again, to a kind of couples counselor--it's all for naught, but the effort is lovely. The first night in his apartment, Akiko talks charmingly to Professor Watanabe about how she resembles the young woman in his print of Chiyoji Yazaki's painting Training a Parrot--but she is always treated like the bird.

5. 12 Years a Slave - Wesley Morris wrote the only column you need on the film--it makes clear that every movie featuring slavery before this one was insufficient. I would make an additional compliment to Steve McQueen: I greatly admire the tension he creates by holding an establishing shot for an extra beat before the characters go in motion, making a beautiful tableau that shatters at the next threat. The shot that kills me occurs late in the film, when Chiwetel Ejiofor's eyes pass through stages of terror and sorrow and unwanted hope against the ever-humming lushness of the bayou. This is where my tears started rolling in earnest--at the potency of his performance and the power of wordless cinema. I will have an active interest in a potential Oscar winner for the first time since No Country for Old Men.

4. Leviathan - I always complain about the boring presentation of documentaries, the way they are graded on a curve, without proper criticism of their flat visuals. Leviathan does that have that problem. Cameras make seamless moves into the underwater litter of fish guts or closeups on the Peckinpah red of gasping gills. The wings of the gulls seem to beat nighttime stars into existence. Obviously, I spent much of my time making metaphors of the action on screen. There are men working of course, and the deep fatigue in the captain's eyes as he tries to stay awake while watching shark week on TV is a wonderful contrast to the inhuman speed of the guy who sorts the clam shells on deck. I have never been more shocked at the quick passage of 90 minutes--I was locked in to my notetaking and I thought the film was perhaps halfway over when the credits rolled. Director Lucien Castaing-Taylor has attained "must-see" status.

3. Blue Is the Warmest Color - I swear to you--with full awareness of the checkered, horndog archives of this website--that this film does not rank so high because of its explicitness, its NC-17 titillation. It's not even erotic at the highest level, nothing like Bibi Andersson's description of sex on the beach in Persona or Michelle Jenneke's pre-hurdles warmup routine. Plus, the hardest thing for me to admit is loving a film that Steven Spielberg also loved.

And Blue requires so much defending. As a straight white male, of course I find critiques about "the male gaze" annoying (though The Male Gaze would be a pretty good title for a book about the history of cinema). If you can read just one takedown, check out Eileen Myles' bile spewing in the Twitter rant of the year. She says it's a hate crime, that they don't even fuck. I think the former assertion is laughable and the second is more a condemnation of a porn film than a film film (see also: real lesbians reacting to the sex scenes). Then there's the backlash to Abdellatif Kechiche's hard-driving direction of stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux...all I can say is you have no right to complain about mistreatment unless Lars von Trier won't unlock the giant wheel chained to your neck.

Blue fetishizes, endlessly, a young girl's hair and lips--you have to get over that, the same way you get over the fact that the most influential love story in the Western canon is about two 14-year-olds fucking. Adèle (Exarchopoulos) lusts after Emma (Seydoux) and that lust is returned. There are 30 minutes of sex in a three hour movie, and they're not the best parts. You can read glib comments like, "OMG, even when they go to the museum they just look statues' butts!" But then they look at a work by Jean-Léon Gérôme, who does blue better, and perhaps warmer, than anyone else (not to mention Emma's surprising defense of Klimt over Schiele).

I agree with Myles that the sexiest thing about Adèle is her appetite at the table--her family's spaghetti is my favorite food I've never tasted. The strongest sequence in the film might be when Adèle cooks dinner for a party of Emma's artist friends, is a wonderful hostess, does all the dishes and, upon arriving in bed, receives instructions from her beloved on how she should also write, and be an artist herself. Kechiche captures the devastating reproach in the kind suggestion, the heartrending moments in life when you need your partner to say she loves you, she loves you just as you are and the words don't come.

Adèle and Emma break up and it's terrible. The film's rawness is not the sex, it's the ground giving way underneath Adèle's feet when Emma ends it and the horrendous bar scene where she tries to get her back. "I can pay in flesh and blood...I want you. All the time. And no one else." To have earned that. I saw Blue twice in theatres and would go again tomorrow. In France, this film is called La vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 et 2--I want to put the rent money into a Kickstarter for chapters 3 and 4 (after taking care of Zach Braff, obviously).

2. Post Tenebras Lux - Carlos Reygadas is switching places with Terrence Malick in my constellation of directors. In this film, all the scenes might not be in chronological order, but they work (and I say that as someone who generally doesn't like glowing red demons carrying toolboxes or Neil Young). If we are to take this as a self-portrait of Reygadas, it is self-lacerating. The protagonist's villa is isolated in violent countryside, filled with oddly-named and dangerous addicts. Juan himself engages in the unacceptable treatment of pets, explaining, "I always hurt the ones I love the most." His children, Rut and Eleazar, are charming, especially in the scene where the young man greets his parents by lobbing a used diaper at them like a hand grenade. 

Lux is less explicitly religious than Silent Light but still fills me with awe. There's the opening, where Rut toddles through the magic hour, speaking animals into existence, and the sweaty sauna Pieta, where Juan's wife is comforted under the ample bosom of a fellow sex tourist. The grandest scene of the year is an audacious pivot of memory at the beach--Rut and Eleazar stare out to rosy-fingered sea as teenagers and, by the time the camera pans back around to them, they have become children again.

1. Upstream Color - I saw this film under an auspicious star. I have a tradition of taking a redeye to NYC and powering through the first day, capping it with a film in the evening with my best friends in the world (among other notables, this series has included my first viewing of Silent Light). This April, Scott and I selected Upstream Color and it happened that we saw Kenneth Lonergan walking his dog on the way to the theatre in which Shane Carruth would be speaking after the screening. My sleeplessness, the La-Z-Boy reclinability of my seat and incredible film on screen gave me a rare sense of physical immersion in the picture. Was I watching sci-fi or horror or noir or romance or what?

I was first impressed with the complexity of the editing and sound design, the sharp starring role by the director and his willingness to respect a viewer's intelligence. Carruth acquitted himself well in responding to asinine audience questions and moved even further into my good graces by announcing that he picked Walden as a touchstone because he thought the book was dumb.

The gift and the curse of Carruth's films is not knowing exactly what you've just seen (Primer-watching supergeniuses excepted). But on the second and third and fourth viewings, Upstream Color moves higher and higher in my estimation. I'm still not certain of its genre but the film is like a thousand-year-old basket, handmade and still watertight. For now, the sequence that sticks with me starts with Carruth and costar Amy Seimetz, who are recovering from the same mysterious hypnotic violation, wondering whether the birds in the tree are grackles or starlings. Every time, the next two minutes make my scalp tingle. They chatter in circles, the idea of a shared past leading to confusion over whose childhood it is they're remembering. Just as I'm about to come unglued, a whistle blows and they stop talking. I pant together with them for a minute.

It's important to note that the best special effects of 2013 are mealworms and blue food coloring and the budget for this masterpiece was $100k. Allow me to make an overstatement for which I might very well be mocked--Shane Carruth can be our Orson Welles: inventive, fearless, iconoclastic. And Carruth was born at a better time--writing, directing and distributing the films himself. Long may he live on the outside.