Friday, January 17, 2014

Best of 2013 Blowout: The Best, the Worst, and the Rest

Final wrap-up for 2013 as I go through what really stuck with me.

Best Director: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Steven Soderbergh described Carruth as the illegitimate child of James Cameron and David Lynch, and the description makes sense. He has the same thorough, tactile sense of how his world works like Cameron, and the same obscurantist tendencies as Lynch. But Carruth’s style is all his own, a gorgeous shallow focus, impressionistic edit visual symphony that was unlike anything else released this year.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew Bujalski could rival Carruth for sheer weird audacity with Computer Chess. Steve McQueen sacrificed none of his artistry for the galvanizing 12 Years a Slave. Spike Jonze made his most personal, most sensitive film with Her. And at 71, Martin Scorsese made his wildest, most formally exciting film in years with The Wolf of Wall Street.

Best Screenplay: Spike Jonze (Her)
It’s not just that Spike made what’s simultaneously the most personal and most universal love story of the year. It’s that he did it with such sensitivity and rich understanding of what brings people together, what drives people apart, and what helps us to move on, all with a wild sci-fi premise that could have easily been more heady than heartfelt.

Honorable Mentions: Then again, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke would rival Jonze for their extraordinary work in Before Midnight, the most mature love story of the year. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens gave us a half-funny, half-melancholy tale of an artist who didn’t make it, and why he was worth a damn. Terence Winter, meanwhile, wrote the funniest, most beautifully excessive script of the year with The Wolf of Wall Street, showing the crassest side of capitalism. And almost no one understands humanity as well as Asghar Farhadi, whose The Past confirms him as a modern day Anton Chekhov.

Scene of the Year: The Fight (Before Midnight)
It doesn’t quite top the beautiful ellipses that Before Sunset ended on, but Before Midnight’s finale sure came close. It’s a romantic getaway for Jesse and Celine, but after nine years of being together, the two have built up their petty resentments and suspicions about each other, and it all comes bursting forth at the worst time possible. Linklater and co. tear the hearts out of everyone who came to love these two, right before giving them hope again.

Honorable Mentions: Pacific Rim was more fun than scary, but a terrifying scene in which Rinko Kikuchi relives a traumatic event was the most frightening scene of the year. Upstream Color’s bizarre scene between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and a mind-controlling thief established the film’s roll-with-it-or-don’t style to intoxicating effect. Her had the year’s most tender “sex” scene as Theodore and Samantha first express their love for each other. And in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio proved that physical comedy might be his thing in a scene I’ll refer to only as “Lemmon 714”.

Best Editing: Shane Carruth/David Lowery (Upstream Color)
The year’s most essential use of editing. The abstract rhythms- which play more like a poem or a symphonic movement in the last third than a story- depend on how Carruth connects it all. What’s remarkable here is that while it’s difficult to piece together most of what’s happening, in context, it all makes some sort of bizarre sense. Even if we don’t know what’s going on, it’s clear that Carruth does, and that he trusts the viewer to find what makes it all cohere.

Honorable Mentions: Thelma Schoonmaker proved yet again why she’s one of the world’s greatest editors with The Wolf of Wall Street. Alfonso Cuáron and Mark Sanger, meanwhile, made every transition between long take after long take clear and precise in Gravity, while Allen Leung did the same on a smaller scale with Drug War. Joe Walker gave 12 Years a Slave its classical, almost David Lean-style sweep in the editing.

Best Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema (Her)
Hoyte van Hoytema established himself as a great cinematographer with his work with Tomas Alfredson, but in Spike Jonze’s Her, he proved himself to be one of the best. His shallow focus compositions perfectly isolate Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly from the rest of the world, making it clear, from the very beginning, how disconnected he is from other people. And yet, the world was inviting, because there’s something warm about the way Hoytema photographed the futuristic but not antiseptic surfaces.

Honorable Mentions: It’s almost unthinkable to imagine a Coen Brothers movie without Roger Deakins, but Bruno Delbonnel’s hazy work on Inside Llewyn Davis made us never look back. Shane Carruth proved that sometimes one man can do it himself with his beautiful shallow focus compositions on Upstream Color. Emmanuel Lubezki, meanwhile, proved that he knows how to move a camera better than just about anyone else with Gravity. And some sort of special award should go to Matthias Grunsky for making Computer Chess look like something unearthed from the 1980s.

Visual Effects: Gravity
Duh.

Honorable Mentions: But it should be said, one more time, that Pacific Rim was as clear and as beautifully designed as the Transformers movies were ugly and incoherent. Shane Carruth’s lo-fi work on Upstream Color was nothing short of miraculous, while Star Trek Into Darkness proved that whatever J.J. Abrams’s flaws, he and his effects team really know how to craft an extraordinary sequence. And while Oblivion was awfully familiar, it sure was purdy.

Best Score: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Minimalistic but moving, alien yet inviting, Carruth’s score for Upstream Color was just icing on the cake for his masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Who knew that Arcade Fire’s best work this year would be their lovely score for Her? Tindersticks’s moody work on Claire Denis’s Bastards, meanwhile, was another electronic triumph. Alex Ebert’s work on All Is Lost played like a funeral requiem, like an old flute that’s playing its last tune. And Clint Mansell’s work on Stoker gave the film the creepy, operatic vibe it needed.  

Best Song: “The Moon Song” by Karen O/Spike Jonze (Her)
So simple, yet so moving, especially within the context of the film. Don’t know how much more I can expound upon it.

Honorable Mentions: “So You Know What It’s Like” by Keith Stanfield was one of the highlights of Short Term 12’s loose, terrific first half. Apparently there’s another version of “Please Mr. Kennedy” out there, but the goofy one from Inside Llewyn Davis provided one of the biggest laughs (and catchiest songs) of the year. Alex Ebert’s low-key “Amen” form All Is Lost was a perfect final note for the film. And the piano duet by Philip Glass gave Stoker was a perfect soundtrack to one of the year’s eeriest scenes.

Best Use of Preexisting Music: “Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me”/”Fare Thee Well” (Inside Llewyn Davis)
It’s hard for me not to just single out the whole soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, but this melancholy bookend performances best sum up where Llewyn is and what he’ll likely never get out of.

Honorable Mentions: The Wolf of Wall Street continued Martin Scorsese’s run of great movies with great soundtracks, but the use of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” in some of the most bacchanal moments was particularly memorable. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” in 12 Years a Slave showed the power of a simple close-up. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s out-of-left-field homage to the “Modern Love” sequence of Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang was the giddiest moment in a film filled with them. And Xavier Dolan’s messy but fascinating Laurence Anyways gave one of the year’s greatest images as two lovers walk side by side as clothes rain from the sky, Moderat’s electronic song “A New Error” bringing it to a new emotional level.

Makeup: Behind the Candelabra
For making Michael Douglas look old and sickly, Matt Damon look like a plastic surgery nightmare, and Rob Lowe look like a weird, cat-eyed monster.

Honorable Mentions: The paleness of the characters in Stoker was just one of the many unnerving things about the film. American Hustle is a bit of a mess, but look at those hairstyles and tell me you weren’t thrilled by them. Laurence Anyways’s transformation of Melvin Pompaud from man to transgender woman less showy and more impressive than what happened to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. And the makeup in Blue Jasmine helps Cate Blanchett look, in different scenes, like a goddess or a mess.

Production Design: Her
Much of it is Shanghai posing as L.A., I know, but the way Spike Jonze’s production design team made the future look both believably near and like a fully formed world deserves hurrahs.

Honorable Mentions: Everything’s a bit off in Stoker, which is as it should be – the production design made the world look like a gigantic, creepy doll’s house. Behind the Candelabra let us luxuriate in Liberace’s gorgeous home, while Pacific Rim crafted its own beautiful looking future. And the level of detail in the coffee houses and shabby apartments in Inside Llewyn Davis is a marvel.

Costume Design: Her
The pants. THE PANTS.

Honorable Mentions: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Counselor, The World’s End, and Stoker come showed what great costume design really is: design that tells us something about the characters, whether it’s John Goodman’s jazzman in Inside Llewyn Davis or Simon Pegg’s wild card in The World’s End

Sound: Berberian Sound Studio
But seriously, can anyone think of a more essential use of sound this year? It’s not just that it’s about sound design – it shows how the making of those sounds can have a jangling psychological effect on us, even if we know where it’s coming from.

Honorable Mention: We’re hyper-aware of every creak and every weather sound in All Is Lost, while the muffling silence of space was just as nerve-wracking in Gravity. Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t just make the songs sound great, but helped make the 1960s milieu feel alive. And Pacific Rim’s sound design was clear without being deafening, the kind of sound that gives blockbusters a good name.

Most Overrated: The Conjuring
You are all on drugs. A slight improvement on the incompetence of Saw and Insidious doesn’t make up for the endless shock cuts, horror clichés, and inept storytelling that are part of James Wan’s M.O.

Dishonorable Mentions: Fruitvale Station boasted a great performance by Michael B. Jordan and a harrowing climax, but writer-director Ryan Coogler doesn’t trust us to care about its hero without turning him into a cardboard saint. American Hustle sees David O. Russell more invested on a performance level then on a storytelling level, with most of the film getting lost in pastiche. Captain Phillips is rarely less than competent, but with the exception of its heartbreaking final minutes, it never really feels like it’s about much of anything. And as formally exciting as Spring Breakers was, you can’t convince me that Harmony Korine has anything interesting or insightful to say about teenage culture or the American Dream, no matter how much he repeats it.

Most Underrated: The Counselor
Not a perfect movie, but the film this year that was most willing to forego genre payoffs and really alienate people, which I found thrilling.

Honorable Mentions: Sure, it’s silly, but if you go along with Stoker’s grand, operatic horror, it can be plenty fun as well. Brian De Palma’s Passion suffers from a weak script and stilted performances, but when he goes into De Palma Set-piece Mode, there’s no stopping him. Oz, the Great and Powerful does see Sam Raimi going a little heavy on CGI, but it’s also charming and inventive. And the “inventive” label also goes to The Lone Ranger. Come on, guys, it’s not that bad.

Worst of the Year: Movie 43
It is that bad. It is as bad as you expected, if not much, much worse.

Dishonorable Mentions: The Internship was less a movie and more a cynical, feature-length Google ad. Sharknado gives “so bad it’s good” a bad name, the kind of hyper-ironic, actually really boring debacle that thinks it's a lot funnier than it is. Prisoners might have ended up on my “Overrated” if not for the fact that it belonged here more, as stupid as it was hateful. And Off Label was the single most incoherent movie of the year, a documentary so completely lacking in focus that it changed what it wanted to be on a moment-to-moment basis.

Worst Performance: Jodie Foster (Elysium)
With the possible exception of Sharlto Copley’s much derided work in Oldboy (which I did not see), there wasn’t a more disastrously  received performance this year than Foster’s, a stilted Cruella De Vil villainess performance made worse by a bizarre accent of indeterminate origin (South African? French? Elysian?).

Dishonorable Mentions: Maybe Emory Cohen can act, but I haven’t seen him in anything else and he was the worst part of The Place Beyond the Pines, doing an overplayed bro act that nearly made me forget about the strong work done by the rest of the cast. Bruce Willis says he’s bored with action movies, and he looks it in his sleepy A Good Day to Die Hard performance. Charlie Hunnam, meanwhile, was blandly All American (but with a terrible American accent) in the otherwise delightful Pacific Rim. And I was too easy in my original review on Hugh Jackman’s one-note ROAAAAR of a performance in Prisoners.

Special Award for Best Performance in a Pile of Shit Movie: Jake Gyllenahaal (Prisoners)
Speaking of: I hate Prisoners, and I hate the way the script turns Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from a genius detective to an idiot depending on what the scene needs, but he’s the one performer who isn’t overexerting himself or otherwise being underused in the film.



All 2013 Films Seen This Year:

1.     The Act of Killing (87/A-)
2.     Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (54/C+)
3.     All Is Lost (93/A)
4.     All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (41/C)
5.     American Hustle (61/B-)
6.     Around the Block (31/C-) (seen at Toronto, and you will never hear a word about it again)
7.     August: Osage County (36/C-)
8.     Bastards (75/B+)
9.     Before Midnight (97/A)
10. Behind the Candelabra (87/A-)
11. Berberian Sound Studio (75/B+)
12. Beyond the Hills (83/A-)
13. Blackfish (56/B-)
14. The Bling Ring (39/C)
15. Blue Is the Warmest Color (86/A-)
16. Blue Jasmine (60/B-)
17. Captain Phillips (66/B)
18. C.O.G. (76/B+)
19. Computer Chess (89/A-)
20. The Conjuring (44/C)
21. The Counselor (79/B+)
22. Crystal Fairy (74/B+)
23. Dallas Buyers Club (56/B-)
24. Dirty Wars (56/B-)
25. Don Jon (37/C)
26. Drinking Buddies (67/B)
27. Drug War (84/A-)
28. Elysium (40/C)
29. Enough Said (59/B-)
30. Escape Plan (64/B)
31. Evil Dead (47/C+)
32. 42 (46/C+)
33. The F Word (39/C) (slated for release next year)
34. Frances Ha (86/A-)
35. Frozen (64/B)
36. Fruitvale Station (50/C+)
37. A Good Day to Die Hard (28/C-)
38. The Grandmaster (87/A-)
39. Gravity (85/A-)
40. The Great Beauty (71/B)
41. The Great Gatsby (43/C)
42. The Green Inferno (76/B+) (coming out next year)
43. Her (97/A)
44. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (52/C+)
45. I Killed My Mother (70/B)
46. Inside Llewyn Davis (90/A-)
47. Insidious: Chapter 2 (30/C-)
48. The Internship (3/D-)
49. Intersexion (40/C)
50. Iron Man 3 (52/C+)
51. It’s a Disaster (73/B+)
52. Kai Po Che! (20/D+)
53. Kick-Ass 2 (29/C-)
54. Laurence Anyways (62/B-)
55. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (48/C+)
56. Leviathan (82/A-)
57. The Lone Ranger (57/B-)
58. The Lords of Salem (67/B)
59. MANAKAMANA (81/B+)
60. Man of Steel (23/D+)
61. Man of Tai Chi (70/B)
62. Movie 43 (0/F)
63. Mud (78/B+)
64. Nebraska (84/A-)
65. No (80/B+)
66. Oblivion (66/B)
67. Off Label (15/D)
68. Only God Forgives (24/D+)
69. Out of the Furnace (52/C+)
70. Oz the Great and Powerful (59/B-)
71. Pacific Rim (86/A-)
72. Pain & Gain (45/C)
73. Passion (67/B)
74. The Past (85/A-)
75. The Place Beyond the Pines (60/B-)
76. Prince Avalanche (73/B+)
77. Prisoners (14/D)
78. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (64/B)
79. Rafea: Solar Mama (64/B)
80. Room 237 (77/B+)
81. Rush (55/B-)
82. Saving Mr. Banks (21/D+)
83. Sharknado (4/D-) (and that’s not a “so bad it’s good” rating, this thing is fucking boring)
84. Short Term 12 (70/B)
85. Side Effects (53/C+)
86. Something in the Air (53/C+)
87. The Spectacular Now (82/A-)
88. Spring Breakers (49/C+)
89. Star Trek Into Darkness (73/B+)
90. The Station (68/B) (Presumably coming out next year, though I’ve heard mum)
91. Stoker (78/B+)
92. Stories We Tell (72/B)
93. Therese (71/B) (coming next year, given the retarded retitle In Secret)
94. This is the End (66/B)
95. To the Wonder (83/A-)
96. 12 Years a Slave (96/A)
97. Upstream Color (98/A)
98. V/H/S/2 (62/B-)
99. We’re the Millers (40/C)
100.                The Wolf of Wall Street (95/A)
101.                The Wolverine (65/B)
102.                The World’s End (77/B+)
103.                World War Z (57/B-)
104.                You’re Next (70/B)

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