2013 was not a great year for movies up until about the last three or four months. Luckily, the last quarter saw one good movie open after another and most of them found an appreciative audience too, probably because we were all starved for quality after a very so-so summer. I already picked my best in horror for the year (http://exm.nr/1jVChgO). And today, with but one full day left until 2014, I'm picking my ten best of all films in general for the year.
As as I poured over my list, I realized that they are very much about the times we live in. The theme of loneliness showed up a lot in films this year and is it any wonder when so many have lost their faith in government, the press, the church and their community? Who’s got our backs? Who's looking out for the average Joe?
That sense of loneliness is all over our movies this year. Robert Redford is the old man making a last stand against the sea in "All Is Lost". Chiwetel Ejiofor loses his freedom and spends "12 Years A Slave". Joaquin Phoenix is so removed from connecting with people that he ends up dating his computer in "Her". No one can be trusted in "American Hustle". And Leonardo DiCaprio is such an evil broker in "The Wolf of Wall Street" that he throws his customers money away, literally, by the hundreds into the garbage can (http://buswk.co/1hR7jlF). It's even in our lighter fare like "World War Z" where Brad Pitt is the only one who sees what’s going on and in "Saving Mr. Banks" where Emma Thompson does battle against the Disney machine.
Yet, it would seem our loneliness makes for some very riveting stories on the big screen. Here then are my picks for the best in film this past year - a dark lot, true, but an impressive roster nonetheless.
What made Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece so enthralling for so many, and why it was one of the year’s biggest critical and box office hits, was the fact that it was truly transporting. It put you right there, smack dab in the middle of the stars, lost in space. We shared in the feeling of being alone in the void with Sandra Bullock’s astronaut and her desperate situation completely. She was tethered to nothing except her own wits, luck, and a hand from God in the form of George Clooney. Her survivalist tale was the strongest metaphor for a world where few bother to hear you scream anymore. It is rare that a film can take us out of our world so completely yet be grounded in it so wholly too. For me, it was the most vivid film experience of the year.
On the surface, this film is a scathing black comedy about the Abscam scandal from the 1970’s, with a sharp script, A+ production values, and clever performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. But what David O. Russell’s comedy of manners is really about is acting - the acting that we all do to get through the day. His con artists here hustle to make a living, just as we all do, learning how to pretend, go along, say the right thing to keep our job, marriage and station in life intact. This is a period piece, but it couldn’t be more about how we all have to operate today, doing what we can, faking it when needed, due to the fact that we’re all too often pushing the water uphill on our own.
This love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his computer’s operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) may take place in the not-too-distant future, but it is all about today as well. It’s a mournful commentary on our modern society where people spend way too much time nattering about in their own head. Writer/director Spike Jonze is examining how we don’t see friends; we see their exploits on Instagram. We don’t use our phones to talk; we use them to type. We use ear buds to keep the world out of the concert going on in our heads. We’re losing the ability to connect. And how cheeky of Jonze to play out his technological love story with the exact same beats that every relationship goes through - from the first flush of intimacy to the last sputters of the breakup.
Alexander Payne’s latest film is shot in black and white, and it’s as dry and droll as the Midwestern plains captured by Phedon Papamichael’s austere cinematography. The story is about loneliness, and Payne knows his pain. Bruce Dern plays Woody, an old coot that believes he’s won a million dollars, but that’s really just his cover story. What he’s truly after is some attention. He’s been an afterthought to his family and friends for decades so he claims he won a sham sweepstakes to get them to take notice. And when he finally has their attention, he holds his head high and basks in it, knowing that it may have come late but at least it has arrived.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Relationships are messy. And breaking up with someone is the messiest thing of all. It doesn’t matter if your American heterosexuals or French lesbians, relationships are tough for all of us. And this film by Abdellatif Kechiche boasts a brutal honesty about love that is rarely captured by the movies. His two female stars (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) play the lovers and they give this story an emotional and physical nakedness that is startling. It’s a full realized examination of the trajectory of a relationship, from the start to the very lonely and bitter end. And it resonates so deeply because we’ve all been there.
The year’s best horror movie impressed the hell out of me when it premiered this summer (http://exm.nr/JAGmX0). It earned its scares because it was played with a realism seldom found in the genre. Based upon a true paranormal activity story from the casebook of 1970’s ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, this frightener kept audiences on the edge of their seats with genuine dread and not cheap scares. And in the end good conquers evil, though with the devil the door always remains open for a rematch. There's plenty of franchise potential here as the Warrens investigated many cases, including that of the Amityville horror
Another tale of a fight for survival like "Gravity", only this one stars Tom Hanks as a barge captain who's kidnapped and ransomed at sea. He’s more everyman than Navy SEAL and he has little more than his wits as weapons against the well-armed Somali pirates. Greengrass is superb at tightening the screws and creates a nail-biter here that is all the more incredible because it really happened. And when Tom Hanks breaks down at the end, it’s one of the most moving scenes of the year. Trust me. See it and you'll be sobbing too.
Cate Blanchett plays a Manhattan society dame, down-on-her-luck after her shyster businessmen husband left her virtually penniless. She shows up at her sister’s crappy apartment in San Francisco, looking for a place to stay, and soon is driving everyone around her bonkers. She resists all opportunities of kindness that come her way and keeps everyone at arms length. She chooses her own loneliness. And at the end she's got no one, not even herself as she's gone 'round the bend. It shouldn’t be funny but it is because Woody Allen is one of the world's best filmmakers (http://bit.ly/1kX5rKA). And, as always, he's a biting social critic.
THIS IS THE END
Just because actors in Hollywood are rich and live like kings doesn’t make them special. That’s the lesson that James Franco, Seth Rogan and their Tinsel Town cronies all come to realize after the Apocalypse and they’re left waiting for the rapture. This was the most uproarious comedy of the year, yet it wasn’t mindless frat house high jinks. Instead, Rogan and Goldberg shrewdly stick it to our celebrity culture that invests too much into everything a Kardashian does when there are so many more important things going on in the world.
Two children are kidnapped on Thanksgiving and not enough is done to find them by the authorities, so macho dad Hugh Jackman takes the law into his own hands by kidnapping the number one suspect. It’s an gloomy film with a darkness in everything from its cinematography to its host of great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo. Again, the themes of helplessness and loneliness play throughout this taut and tense thriller, the most disturbing one of the year.
Those are my choices for the best of the year. I also really enjoyed "The Great Gatsby", "Stoker", "The Bling Ring", "Enough Said", "About Time", "Mama", "Blackfish", "Dallas Buyers Club" and "All is Lost", to name a few more. So what impressed you this past year? Happy New Year, and here's to great cinema in 2014.