31 December 2013

The Year in Film: Hustle and Isolation


Last year made Academy voters feel good about themselves, but in 2013 films about the life-affirming power of love, collaboration and unity were replaced with greed, corruption and isolation.

Three very prominent winter releases were about conning the system or using it to enrich yourself. Dallas Buyers Club chronicled the true story of Ron Woodroof and his efforts to find alternative treatments for HIV. American Hustle told the tale of Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser's transition from conning the public to doing it for the FBI. Perhaps the biggest picture about corruption was Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street based on the life of Jordan Belfort, the titular lead of the film, a man who did everything (and everyone) he could to make a name for himself.

2013 was also the year for actors given limited contact with other actors. Smaller, more indie-oriented films featuring largely solo casts are not surprise worthy, but when that movie is a blockbuster like Gravity turned out to be, that is something noteworthy. Not to be outdone by Sandra Bullock, Robert Redford took a trip on the Indian Ocean by himself, and Joaquin Phoenix headlined a couple made up of one person.

What these themes appearance in a few films ultimately says about 2013 is anyone's guess, but interesting to note how far the pendulum has swung from 2012. With that said, these are my favorite films of 2013.

Just missed the cut: Rush, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and Nebraska

10) The Place Beyond the Pines - Derek Cianfrance's followup to Blue Valentine follows the actions of fathers and sons mirroring each other in a three-tiered story that burns with feeling. The first act may trump the following material, but its ambition should not be ignored.


9) The World's End - The gleeful hijinks of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead are present, but this is Edgar Wright's most mature work and maybe his most poignant. We may be saying goodbye to the Cornetto trilogy, but Wright has asserted his place among directors for decades to come.

8) The Counselor - Cormac McCarthy and light fare never mix, but this Faustian tragedy left viewers with their jaws dropped. There’s a pure path of creativity at work in The Counselor. Ridley Scott utilizes his several decades behind the camera to illuminate the script given to him and parlay that into something stunning. The Counselor plays with resisting our natural desire to structure things and resisting that urge is partially the point of the film: Life waits for no man. Once the world you have created starts spinning, it can’t be stopped.

7) Before Midnight -  Two people who connect at one moment in time aren't the same five, ten years down the road. Both partners inevitably grow and change and the challenge is to adapt. Meeting cute is the predominant focus of nearly all romantic comedies, but what gets lost in those films is that relationships take a lot of work to maintain. It was hard to foresee their being a third entry into the Before Trilogy, but this world would be a sadder place without one more evening with Jesse and Celine.

6) The Wolf of Wall Street - The Wolf of Wall Street is a first-rate satire that is unapologetically insane. Leonardo DiCaprio tears right off the screen as Belfort and Scorsese fires on all cylinders. This high-energy, cocaine-fueled binge of immoral behaviors and earnings could only be made by a director at complete control of his craft. The film could add seven hours to its three hour run-time, and I would still watch it all regardless. This movie should be required viewing for anyone who loves movies.


5) Her - We use artificial intelligence to find love, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise when people fell in love with A.I. but before humanity goes beyond the point of no return, Jonze's film reminds us that we are alive in this world, we should be present here too. As bold and original as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her captures the simultaneous warmth, joy and pain that comes with loving someone.

 4) 12 Years A Slave - To say that there is a definitive film on any subject is erroneous, but 12 Years A Slave is as close as it comes. Some films are declared "must-see" because of their dazzling special effects, some because of their twists, but this film must not go unseen because of its magnitude. Steve McQueen's direction coupled with Chiwetel Ejiofor's immersive performance results in not just a film, but an experience.

2t) Inside Llewyn Davis - An intimate, yet funny portrait of a man at odds with himself and the world around him, Joel and Ethan Coen may have just created one more classic to be oddball along with Fargo. Considering their body of work, it is high praise indeed when I say that it's one of the brothers' finest pictures to date.

2t) American Hustle - A caper film destined to be included with classics like The Sting, the film has all the manic energy of Martin Scorsese in his Goodfellas-era prime. With the aid of a monstrously talented cast and a director at-tune with his most chaotic instincts, American Hustle succeeds not only in its recreation of the time, but by filling its world with unique, enthralling characters that are sure to delight audiences for a long time to come.


1) Prisoners - Fear and anger are some of the most primal emotions in human behavior, and also the most dangerous. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal give phenomenal performances as two sides of the law trying to find two missing children before it's too late. A perfectly crafted thriller, Prisoners sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Happy New Year!