Sunday, March 2, 2014

More Interesting Than the Oscars 3: "Great Year For Cinema" Edition

As 2013 came to a close, a story started circulating that we had just witnessed one of the great years in film history.  Praise for the year as a whole was declared from the Telegraph to NPR to, and Vanity Fair even compared 2013 to 1939 (the de facto choice for Greatest Year in Cinema), running a photo of Blue Jasmine alongside Gone With The Wind.

Well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.  And besides, while Gone With The Wind is a masterpiece of production values, if it's the foundation on which 1939 rests, we may be viewing that legendary year with rose- (or Technicolor-)tinted glasses.  But all the hosannas for 2013 as a new high point get at one of the central concerns of being a cinephile today: that is, the nagging worry that movies simply stopped mattering as much as they used to.  After browsing through film history, you want to see a new release that "lives with you" the same way as the classics of the past, and you get disheartened when you don't find it.  As the main character of Peter Bogdanovich's Targets despondently put it, "All the best movies have already been made."

But this is, of course, largely an illusion, or a natural consequence of judging the past vs. judging the present.  When you look at the past, you hit the highlights; here and now, you have to wade through the filler.  I don't think we just lived through a miniature cinematic golden age; this year's Oscar nominees have about as many problems as usual, and I'm hesitant to apply the word "masterpiece" to the year's usual suspect.  But I must admit, as I browsed the festival circuit and even the multiplexes, I was captivated at the wealth of material this year.  Even up to last week, I was still catching up on new films I wanted to see, and there are many more, including James Gray's not-yet-released The Immigrant and Miyazaki's scarcely released The Wind Rises, that I haven't gotten the chance to.  So take heart that the sense of discovery is still alive and well.  After all, some of the best films of 1939 didn't get their dues until years later.

What defined 2013?  It was a year for satires of conspicuous consumption and the American dream (The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and even Behind the Candelabra).  It was also the year of running the gauntlet, of narratives that shoot a path straight through the storm with a hero who, by necessity, wants nothing except to come out of the other end alive (Gravity, All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave).  But looking at a list of my own personal favorites, I saw that another theme quite unintentionally rose to the surface: undecided fates, and stories that stop just shy of a definitive ending.  Make no mistake, something has changed since the beginning—progress has been made, and we've taken our first steps towards the realization of something important.  But by the time the end credits roll, characters or institutions or even entire countries remain suspended.  Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's the state of cinema, or maybe it's 2013.  But for a moment, we reach a point where everything is motionless.  And then the lights come up.

On to the films.  What follows is my Top 12 of the year.  Or really, a Top 10, plus two bonus candidates.  Because I cheat.

12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

"Subtle" is generally not a word I'd use for a three-hour string of (ironic?) orgies, drug freakouts, and on-the-nose speeches about stealing America's lunch money, but first impressions can be wrong.  I initially emerged from The Wolf of Wall Street exhausted, bleary-eyed, and browbeaten by the loud, repetitive surface, and the lack of focus on plot and psychology.  And yet something kept drawing me back to it, getting me high not on the excess, but the little details and smaller gestures.  So after lots of agonizing, it makes the cut, slipping in at the end.  The moral point of view (or lack thereof) is brilliant provocation, and even the title is misdirection—it's important to remember that we're not even on the actual Wall Street, but amidst a group of assholes on Long Island who fancy that they can create their own.  Of all the American dream satires that have dotted this year, Wolf is the best, and it's the most morally provocative because its sense of morality is handled with such ambiguous, disgusting, gaudy finesse.  And Kyle Chandler riding the subway home, an agent of Truth and Justice whose life apparently isn't interesting enough to make him the hero of his own movie, is the saddest happy ending of the year.

11. Nobody's Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea)

A young woman keeps falling asleep in public places, as her life and choices (most of them not good) play out around her.  This miniature from Hong Sang-Soo made the festival rounds but is currently unreleased here in America, where it will eventually play at a few theaters in New York, unceremoniously appear buried on Netflix a few months later, and generally be seen as something of an acquired taste.  Indeed, its sensibility takes some getting used to.  It's not immediately apparent because Hong's style is so subdued, serene, and "realistic", but this dramatic/romantic/coming-of-age comedy is actually as much a mindfuck movie as Mulholland Drive or Primer: a character sketch drawn in the gentlest kind of surrealism, where shuffled layers of dreams and reality complete one another, and build to a message as important as any 2013 has offered.

10. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA)

The ascendancy of Greta Gerwig climaxed with this wonderful comedy, in which the co-writer/star/muse helps director Noah Baumbach get out of his own head and hand in an eerily familiar film about being in your mid-20s in the 2010s.  "I don't know if I believe everything I'm saying" is definitely a line of dialogue for our time, and it helps that it's delivered without a taint of self-consciousness.  Baumbach provides the little moments, the gentle arcs, and the New Wave vibe, and Gerwig provides the film's reason for existing.  Another step forward for tales of aimless young people: the lack of emphasis on romance.

9. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

How do you organize every event you've experienced into a coherent narrative?  In our own memories, we do it without thinking; for documentary filmmakers, it's much trickier.  "Truth" (or whatever) is notoriously difficult to nail on film, so it's an elegant solution that Sarah Polley's beautiful chronicle of her thorny family history becomes a celebration of subjectivity.  It's a work both brainy and heartfelt, toying with verifiable fact and unreliable memory, and sifting through the emotions thereof.  And at the close, it offers this much as wisdom: if, in your life or your work, you're dealing with material of great sadness and confusion, you can't do better than ending on a joke.

8. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, USA)

Joss Whedon's Shakespeare adaptation was one of the most unexpected, enjoyable comedies of the year (really), and its pleasures are many.  There's the way it feels like a home movie starring underrated professionals; everyone shines in beautiful camaraderie, and if an A-lister ever stepped on screen, the atmosphere would dissipate.  Then there's the way Whedon has made a "hip", modern version of Shakespeare without altering the essence or poetry of the original text, for which high school English teachers everywhere owe him a debt of thanks.  But most of all, the cinematic achievement of Much Ado is the way Whedon takes the most rudimentary elements of filmmaking—a set (his house) and actors (his friends)—and finds ways to stage comedy that are worthy of Lubitsch.  Comparing this to, say, Kenneth Branagh's version is instructive, and not at all flattering to Branagh.  Branagh is striving for the highest artistic aspiration he can imagine, and Joss is out to give you a good time.  Much Ado reminds you that the two were never that far apart at all.

7. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)

Jia Zhangke is considered among many critics today to be not only a leading voice of Chinese cinema, but a leading voice of cinema, period—and here, we have something of a radical departure.  Jia's earlier works are subdued, elliptical stories of the working class in modern China: in a usual Jia film, the camera sits back, and there are few if any cinematic flourishes.  But then comes A Touch of Sin: an arthouse revenge flick, absolutely stuffed with cinematic flourishes, as Jia's ordinary people get fed up with a corrupt system and reach for weapons like avenging angels in a kung-fu movie.  (Reportedly, the Chinese government is none too happy with the film, and has banned local media from talking about it).  Coming from one of the 21st century's leading social realists, this approach catches you off-guard, and since the film played at Cannes it has divided or even baffled many of his supporters.  Personally, the shock won me over; I think Jia made the avant-garde statement of the year simply by becoming more "conventional".  But make no mistake, it's still very much the work of a great and unconventional artist, a yowl of anger with a head on its shoulders, condensing different strands of cinema and culture into one of the most electrifying, melancholy, urgent, and challenging films of the year.

6. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

If Stories We Tell was a tribute to subjectivity, this is the opposite—or at least, as close as a film can ever come.  This type of documentary is what they call Direct Cinema: no interviews, no voice-over, no music, no Errol Morris style or post-Michael Moore stunts—just extended, organized raw footage.  Never doubt that you're under the control of a director, but the goal of the film, much like the best college classes, is to invite reactions without prescribing any.  The film follows various strata of UC Berkeley life as one of the nation's top public universities is hit with the economic crunch, and what emerges is a vital portrait of patchwork unity, of a singular body made up of different and often confrontational identities.  And it's so full of ironies, tragedies, wonders, and contradictions that it's truly awe-inspiring.  Some may chafe at the idea of a four hour documentary with no central character.  But keep your eyes and ears open, and you get what feels like years' worth of experience and insights in less time than it takes to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA)

At one point in the finale(?) of Richard Linklater's exquisite trilogy, Julie Delpy mentions that she once saw an old black and white movie where an unhappily married couple visits Pompeii.  Unless I'm not mistaken, she's talking about Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, and it's a knowing reference on the film's part.  Voyage is about an upper-class, middle-age man and wife traveling through Europe, growing tired and distant, sniping at one another, falling out (sound familiar?), and eventually reconciling in a sudden happy ending that still makes movie buffs complain.  This reference is both a skeleton key and a crowning touch for Before Midnight.  A valedictory for the Gen-X indies of the 90s (whose practitioners are getting old, and not always gracefully), it's also a revision of the alienated relationship dramas of the 60s, which Voyage kicked off.  If Rossellini's happy ending has been received as a spiritual statement, Midnight has a happy ending because working your ass off towards one is the best anybody can do.  This means a lot, especially from one of the few directors today who knows that a conversation between two people is worthy of an entire film.  A warm testament to talk, to late summer, to outdoor cafes, and to collaborative filmmaking.

4. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA)

Few film this year lifted my spirits as much as Andrew Bujalski's delightfully bizarre shaggy dog comedy.  Sundance titles post-Garden State too often feel like studio movies where the characters are wearing hoodies, but this one was both a return to the lo-fi spirit of 80s/90s touchstones like Stranger Than Paradise plus its own kind of step forward into the zeitgeist.  If you're looking for a movie about how we arrived in our new techno-driven millennium, you can keep Mark Zuckerberg endlessly clicking Refresh at the end of The Social Network—just let me keep the story of a hacker convention and a weird New Age sex therapy group trying to share space in the same hotel.  Entrancing, inventive, and surreal.

3. Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

Like Antonioni's Blow-Up plus gay cruising (but much funnier than Antonioni ever was), this is a peculiar kind of murder mystery.  It's not that the murderer's identity is ever in doubt—we see it happen.  But the mystery, scarcely resolved, is why the crime took place, and why a young witness finds himself so fatally attracted to the perp.  Time and again, "Queer cinema" faces an uphill battle.  On the one hand, its distinct identity is essential to its existence; on the other hand, it risks ghettoization, of being something that straight audiences assume doesn't apply to them.  Stranger By the Lake walks this line to perfection, turning its deliciously minimal mircocosm—a rocky shore where everything except sexual appeal/desire/identity has been removed—into something specific yet intensely universal, and always compellingly mysterious.

2. No (Pablo Larrain, Chile)

Shot on beautifully cruddy 80s videotape, Pablo Larrain's media satire is a deeply ironic crowd-pleaser, and the fact that it can be both those things at once says a lot about how film and television work.  Its view of how social change can best be accomplished (if at all) through vague promises of happiness make it one of the most clever, provocative comedies of the year, and the archival footage it unearths, seamlessly blended into the fiction, is almost too hilariously strange to be believed.  (Overthrow a dictator!  Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Reeve want you to!).  Of course the good guys will win, but the film's hero and its ending make for a magnificent question mark.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA)

The Coen brothers enter their fourth decade as feature filmmakers this year, and though their reputation is crystallized as "the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski", the duo are still evolving.  With this and A Serious Man, they deviate into trickier structures and ambiguous endings, spinning modern folk stories and character stuides, shouldered by certifiable non-celebrities and liable to bounce off in a new direction at any time.  Llweyn is a film that slowly sneaked up on me.  Coen movies have always had wit, character, atmosphere, pop-surrealism, and a morbid sense of humor, but this may be the first one to really have soul.  In part because of the music, in part because of Oscar Isaac's performance, and in part because the Coens themselves seem to be reaching for new levels of emotional depth, the film manages to do justice to the sense of despondency that so often exists on the fringe of their comedy.  It's a quintessentially American film, a mythic tall tale of success and failure where a road trip to Chicago can be a journey to the underworld.  Of all the films of 2013, this is the one that's come to live with me as much as any of the old classics.  I suspect Inside Llewyn Davis will have to sneak up on the movie-going world in general, but if someone wanted to say that this is the best the Coens have ever done, I wouldn't complain.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

Bastards (Claire Denis, France)

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, USA)

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA)

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)

The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)

Leviathan (Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA/UK/France) 

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan/France)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA)

The World's End (Edgar Wright, UK)

On to 2014...