So having completed the live blogging for the Oscars, this is my Baker's Dozen best of 2013, in no particular order:
World War Z:
This is grading on a curve. But basically, there are so many really shitty special effects spectaculars around these days that I feel an urge to give some recognition to a movie that's just a little bit different. Also, since I keep asking authors to revise their manuscripts, it's nice to see something in the popular culture where revision works. In particular, the ending of this major CGI-ridden summer spectacular release is quiet. One setting, one main character, a place where small little things count, where the tension is real. A place where the violence is earned, justified by the movie being what the movie is, and now entirely thrown in just because someone thinks it's fun to plow a starship into a building, or to destroy Manhattan for the 18th time and pretend like it isn't, like Superman didn't save Manhattan in Superman 2 over 30 years ago. This was a pleasant surprise, an over-achiever in a genre that keeps under-achieving. So I want to give it some credit.
The Spectacular Now:
Rumor has it that Miles Teller, the star of this spectacularly good adaptation of a YA novel, is going to be in a new Fantastic Four movie. What a shame. An actor as talented as Miles Teller shouldn't be wasting time in shitty SFX/CGI/superhero movies, please see my comments above on World War Z. See my comments on my live Oscar blog, and this is an example of where Roger Ebert can do something I can't, which is explain why a movie is good. This was one of the very last movies Ebert reviewed, and maybe I should just let his review speak for me. But I don't really want to. So let me try.
I always feel like one of the best achievements in the arts is to get me to like the kind of thing I don't ordinarily like. The New Yorker story that I can read must be a truly great story, or the generic slasher movie that I love can't be just a generic slasher movie, or the literary science fiction novel that grabs the Joshua Bilmes whose roots are in the Analog end of sf/f. And The Spectacular Now is a movie about a character I despise, a high school student really big into alcohol who is supposed to be lovable. And alcoholics aren't lovable. Behavior fueled by alcohol isn't lovable. There's nothing redeeming about a movie like Don's Party. Nothing pleasant about Leaving Las Vegas. Yet this movie walks the tightrope.
It has to be a team effort, here. Novel by Tim Tharp. Adapted by screenwriter Michael H. Weber, whose previous credits include the similarly successful (500) Days of Summer. Directed by James Ponsoldt, whose prior movie was Smashed, the kind of movie about alcoholism that I really don't need in my life, thank you.
But most importantly, a pitch-perfect performance by Miles Teller.
He's a likable alcoholic but never a lovable one. When he's given the chance to have more hours at work if only he would show up on time, he's self-aware enough to tell the boss that he knows it just won't work, he won't put the job before alcohol, and he won't be showing up on time. Capable of being the perfect boyfriend, except for all the times he's drunk and he isn't capable of being anyone's boyfriend.
You can understand a bit of why he likes his booze. He's from a broken home. Older sister he isn't on great terms. Struggling mother, who won't tell him where his father is. And when we finally meet the father, you know the apple didn't fall far from the tree, and you also see this glimmer of awareness that our lead character knows his father's a screw-up, that he's a screw-up, that one doesn't justify the other and he doesn't admire his father for being what he too often is, even though he can't stop himself from being it.
It's awfully damned good.
Short Term 12:
Another quiet little film that has probably gone under the radar for most of you. Brie Larson, who also has a supporting role in Spectacular Now, plays a counselor at a group home for troubled children. Jonathan Gallagher is another "veteran" at the home, which isn't saying much. It's a hard place to stay, the kind of place you burn out on real quick. But the two of them have somehow managed to keep at it for at least a little bit, and the film starts with a quiet scene of Gallagher giving some background on the place to a new employee. These characters have a lot more going on than we see at first, and the film peels back their layers slowly, carefully, way more so than any of us will ever be with an actual onion in our kitchen. While it's doing that, the film also slowly peels back some of the closely held secrets for the characters in the home, many of whom might want to be someplace else, all of whom are free to be someplace else if they can escape past the doors and the guards and get on to the street outside. It's a strange kind of thing, how the employees at the home can do just about anything to keep the kids from leaving but have no power to order them back should they leave.
So I'm not describing this like any film anyone is going to rush out to see. But the writing is really good. The acting is really good. The surprises along the way are never total surprises, yet we never quite see them coming way far ahead of time. Powerful stuff.
Great performances. Great soundtrack. Great photography. Great racing sequences.
It's not like this film, one of Ron Howard's best, didn't get some good reviews. It's not like it didn't get some recognition on the awards scene, with some acting awards especially. But certainly, in the US, the film didn't do as well as hoped. It's a shame, that.
12 Years a Slave:
It's a hard film to love, and I want to keep pushing it away, but it doesn't deserve that.
I first caught up with director Steve McQueen with Shame, an impressive feature about an IRA prisoner who went on hunger strike. Searing visual images, excellent acting, powerful story. Often hard to sit through.
I got to see McQueen in person when the Museum of the Moving Image screened his Shame. Didn't impress me so much there. The movie had the same stunning visuals, I can still see some scenes of the main character racing down deserted Manhattan streets that shimmer and gleam. Like Shame, hard to sit through. We don't really need visually stunning movies about sex addicts. And to have to listen to the director talk about all of the wonderful artistic decisions in making a film that nobody should have bothered with. It's the risk of these Q&A things. This wasn't as bad as listening to Alan Parker spout on about his genius in making The Life of David Gale, but it was close.
Then we arrive at 12 Years a Slave. And we're starting to see some patterns here. There are stunning visuals, and the movie is hard to sit through.
But it's a worthy movie in better ways than a lot of other worthy movies. It isn't a movie that uses white people to tell the story of the black struggle. It isn't Richard Attenborough or Bernardo Bertolluci who choke on their own artifice half the time. See Gandhi for worthy and dull, or The Last Emperor. See Cry Freedom. No, this is told with passion, with emotion, with an abundance of good acting.
Tom Hanks gives a great performance, and the film shows director Paul Greengrass at this best, with great photography and great editing in the service of some real-life drama.
A documentary about The Shining, kind of.
If you like The Shining -- and I like it very much -- it's hard to see it just once. You want to keep seeing it, over and over and over again. And when you see a movie over and over again, you notice things about it that you may not notice on the first viewing or the thirtieth. And it's a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, whom some consider to be technocratic and cold, so in control of every frame that he suffocates human emotion. So when you see one of his movies over and over again, and you notice things, you know that everything has to be there for a reason.
So this movie introduces us to people, whom we hear in voiceover over clips from the film but don't actually see on-screen, who have very clear ideas of what The Shining is all about. Notice how the carpet has things that look like little rockets, and this is a movie about the faking of the Apollo rocket launches. Or notice the food in the pantry and realize it's a movie about the treatment of the American Indian. Or realize that the window in the hotel GM's office couldn't really be there and go someplace else from there. All of these theories can't be right, and likely none of them are. According to Kubrick's right hand man on the film, even the control freak director sometimes has a particular thing appear on the screen because they happened to need something and that was at hand on the particular day they shot a particular scene where they needed this particular thing.
I have a confession to make. I never realized the window in the office couldn't have been a window. I have stared at the screen a gazillion times trying to figure out if the bathroom window that Danny has to climb out of can really be a window in that particular place. I've yearned to look at blueprints because I never quite believe the architecture of the hotel, and now I find out that I might be able to go on the internet and find the blueprints I'm looking for. But do I want to? I like my mysteries. I like my The Shining.
It's funny, sometimes funny-scary, it's insightful about the creative process, about our interaction with creativity, about obsession. .
The funny version of the not so funny story of the Magdalene laundries in Ireland. Excellently acted by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
I saw Before Sunrise when it came out 18 years ago, at the UA Lynbrook on a day when I rode out there to visit the accountants for the Scott Meredith Agency, whom I used for a couple years when I struck out on my own. If memory serves, I've not seen the movie again, though the idea of it sticks around. And then Before Sunset came around, 9 years after, and it sticks around. You can't quite believe how much tension you can get out of wondering if a guy's going to leave to catch his flight or not, and this movie left me as rapt about that small little decision as if there were a red timer counting down for the bomb that might go off and destroy the world. And now, Before Midnight. Once again, Ethan Hawke, Juliet Delpy and director Richard Linklater collaborate on a little movie with a long aftertaste. Ethan Hawke didn't make his flight. Now, he's got a son from his prior marriage, the one that broke up in part because he didn't make that flight. And he's spending some tense time in Greece with his girlfriend, Delpy. And they ride around in a car after dropping their son off at the airport, and they talk while the beautiful Greek scenery glides by. And they talk over lunch with friends, while chopping the vegetables and eating the result. And they talk some more while they walk back to their hotel, an extended take tracking them through relics. And it all comes to a head when they get to the hotel, 18 years of history and resentment and love and bitterness and shared experiences and things they should've done together but didn't. Nominated for an Oscar in the screenplay categories. The movies seem like they're being made up on the spot, but as I read in one interview, you can't go filming across the Greek countryside, closing roads, doing multiple takes, and make it all up as you go along.
One of the best sf films in a long time. Winner of an Academy Award for Original Screenplay.
The Wolf of Wall Street:
Not quite up to the level of Goodfellas, but an amazingly good film by Martin Scorcese, with an exceptional lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and good supporting work by Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler and others. Leisurely, finding its own rhythms, and certain to be talked about for a very long time.
I realized as I was typing that I needed to add this to my list for reasons mentioned in what I say above about The Spectacular Now. I'm nearing 50. I don't do horror movies the way I used to. I hardly do them at all. But I went to see this one, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way, I was using my arms or my knees or my anything to keep myself from seeing what was happening on the screen because I was scared. The movie's of a type, but it's among the very best of it's type that you'll find.
New-fangled technology and old-fashioned great acting from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Visually stunning to look at, suspenseful to sit through, one of the few films I wish I'd paid more to see.
There are several hundred films released each year, and I see only a small percentage of them, somewhere between 90-110 in a typical year. So ya know, my list isn't as valid as some critic who is paid to see movies and sees 400 of them, but it also isn't full of too many obscure films that only a critic would have or could have seen. Room 237, Short Term 12, Spectacular Now are the more "obscure" of the movies on my list, but hey, I just round a Room 237 DVD lurking in Costco, so how obscure can it be!
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.