My Top 10 Movies of 2013
“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) to his nephew, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.” “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”
So with the movies. I talked about the trash earlier. Here are some of the keepers.
2013 started out awful (“The Last Stand,” “A Good Day to Die Hard,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” rahhrrrr), but that's typical. But it didn't get much better over the summer (you should've been better, “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” etc.), while fall brought a slew of critically acclaimed but thin portrayals that left me appreciative but lukewarm (“Aint Them Bodies Saints,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Short Term 12”).
Then came December.
I had trouble with Nos. 1 and 2. I kept switching them in my head. “American Hustle” is the tighter film, and it almost never stops being fun, but I had more to say about “Wolf of Wall Street.” It kept reverberating in my mind. The controversy helped in this regard. I keep having to return to it to defend it. Plus it challenges us more. It challenges our notions ofthe American Dream.
I actually left a screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis” somewhat disappointed, but it’s worked on me since. The work began almost immediately with the Salieri connection. Leaving “Kapringen (A Hijacking)” during SIFF, I felt the opposite, blown away, devastated, and “Captain Phillips,” the other Somali pirate, only made the Danish film seem that much better. I really don’t get the lack of attention for “Philomena.” Well, I guess I do. It’s a straightforward story with a surprising midway turn and a good ending. I think it’s underrated. I think Judi Dench is being taken for granted. Stop it, you.
I reviewed more than 100 movies in 2013 and 80 of them were 2013 movies. These are the best I saw.
10. MUSCLE SHOALS
Having grown up hearing how white performers made a mint off of, or stole outright, black music, it’s fascinating to see just who was backing some of the great black performers of the 1960s. Wilson Pickett on “Mustang Sally”? White dudes. Percy Sledge on “When a Man Loves a Woman”? White dudes. Aretha on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? The same white dudes, a group of guys from or near Muscle Shoals, Ala., called the Swampers. In this doc, they’re variously called “funky,” “groovy,” and, courtesy of Aretha, “greasy” with a z, but the best description comes from a man who never played with them. Bono, U2’s frontman, calls them “a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket around the corner.”
“Mud” is an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism. Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior, and a mother who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability. He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees
It isn’t perfect. Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, pushes the differences between the two characters to an unnecessary comic degree. He turns Sixsmith into too much of a Steve Coogan character and makes Philomena more daft than she probably is. But Dench is perfect. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena lost, but these, to me, are almost unnecessary. We know what Philomena lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.
What does the title refer to? It's obvious, right? In 1988, international pressure led Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet to hold a plebiscite on whether he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.That's what NO means, and our hero, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist and a former exile himself who now works in advertising, agrees to advise the NO campaign. But might the title also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
On the cargo ship, a few of the men get closer to a few of the pirates. It’s an unequal relationship, of course. One side is always this close to being humiliated, or this close to being killed. They run out of food, catch a fish, sing “Happy Birthday.” The one song everyone knows. But as the days grind on things get bad. Mikkel isn’t shot but he is psychologically abused. A skinny pirate follows him around, keeps placing the barrel of a gun on his neck, keeps pulling the trigger. Click. Remember the “Mao mao” guy from “The Deer Hunter”? Like that. We want to kill the guy. Mikkel goes the other way. He breaks. Pilou Asbæk gives a stunning performance. In the beginning, in his gregarious stage, he reminded me of a scruffy, bearded Joshua Jackson. By the end, with his thousand-yard stare, I kept thinking of Michael Shannon. Either nobody’s home or the person that’s home is curled up in a corner in the basement. And be careful about ringing the doorbell.
How much do the movies inure us, blind us, unite us with the powerful onscreen rather than the powerless? To what extent do we take the lies of Hollywood from the theater and try to recreate them in our own lives? And is that what the various movie gangsters, including Anwar Congo, did in 1965 and 1966 as the aided an Indonesian military coup? Did they see themselves, even as they killed, even as they became death-squad leaders, as the heroes in their own Hollywood movie? However the movies worked upon the mind and soul of a man like Anwar Congo, it was acting in a movie, this one, that helped him find empathy. So does “The Act of Killing” ultimately redeem movies? Or does it only redeem acting?
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn sings in the beginning, and for the rest of the movie the Coens come close to doing it. Do Llewyn’s travails make him a better performer? That would be the easy way out of the story. That’s what most Hollywood movies would do. Llewyn is on this odyssey, often with Ulysses the cat, and he comes back a wiser man, and that wisdom leads to success. That’s the lie Hollywood often tells us, because it’s the lie we often tell ourselves, because otherwise why all this? Why travails, and pain, and sorrow, if it doesn’t lead to something? But here Llewyn’s travails lead to Bob Dylan’s success.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), 65, wise in his age, bemused in his stance, idle with his time, is on a sort of search. He’s not searching for meaning so much as a reason to keep going. At one point he says, “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and this is just before he disappears rather than look at the naked photos of a beautiful woman, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari). So: high standards. At another point he sees a giraffe, a beautiful giraffe staring down from on high and surrounded by a half-circle of ancient Roman columns; and the two, Jep and the giraffe, stare at each other until Jep’s magician-friend arrives and explains the giraffe. It’s part of his act. He makes it disappear. And Jep leans close and asks, “Can you make me disappear?” That’s when we realize the extent of Jep’s ennui. He shows the world a bemused face, but inside, particularly in the morning light after another party, he’s desperate.
“American Hustle” earns the “American” in its title. It’s big, brassy, energetic, corrupt, and has great cleavage. It’s a movie that never sits still. It also earns the “Hustle” in its title. It’s about people hustling/striving to get ahead and people just hustling/conning everyone else. Usually the two go together. You’ll hear a lot about the acting, but it’s not in the weight Bale gained nor in his elaborate combover nor in Bradley Cooper’s perm. It’s in the eyes. The con, and then the concern, in Irving’s, the need in Richie’s, and the fear, the dizzying fear, in Sydney’s. It’s the death stare of Victor Tellegio, delivered as only De Niro can deliver it. It’s in the officious blankness in Stoddard Thorsen’s eyes. A small favorite moment: After all that Richie puts him through, there’s no vindictiveness in Stoddard’s eyes in the end. His eyes remain blank and officious. Like he’s simply wondering when he can go home.
There’s been controversy over the movie. The raunch. The debauch. The misogyny. One side says “Wolf of Wall Street“ glamourizes this life and makes a hero of its villain. The other side, including Leonardo DiCaprio, says, no, it’s an indictment of that life and that man. Well, it is and it isn’t. That’s why the movie’s great. Jordan Belfort is an ass but he’s also the American id, acting out, and stirring the suppressed id within each of us. The movie is both lesson and blueprint. It passes the test of a first-rate film: it holds two opposing ideas in its head at the same time and entertains. It informs us and challenges us. ”See, an IPO is an initial public offering, the first time ... You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying." That.
Honorable mentions: 12 Years a Slave, 20 Feet from Stardom, All Is Lost, Anchorman 2, Blackfish, The Bling Ring, Blue is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, The Deep, The Gatekeepers, her, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, The World’s End.
Movies I haven't seen yet but will soon: The Past, August: Osage County, The Hunt, The Grandmaster, Cutie and the Boxer, Frozen.
Until next year, kids.