In Spike Jonze’s very rich Her, he presents us with ideas about relationships, society and technology that are sure to push at the emotions of many of us. And the way they push at us will be different based on our own experiences. Whether you’ve had strong relationships or not, you can find something worthwhile to take out of Her. It isn’t about whether our society will be able to interact with a computer any time soon, it’s about the tenacity and fragility of relationships. Her is also a beautiful and consuming film to take in and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is something to admire.
9. The Counselor
Author Cormac McCarthy arrives in Hollywood with his first screenplay and boy is it something we all needed. There’s an ideal sense of madness, insanity and pure dread that creeps along in The Counselor. It’s a terrifying film. There’s trouble, fear and death around just about every corner. The world that Ridley Scott and McCarthy creates is full of these kinds of things without ever needing to tell us that. We know it and we can feel it from the pure terror displayed through the characters. This is Scott’s most interesting film in years and we are better for it.
8. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Alain Resnais is 91 years old and still making some of the most unique films in existence. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet caught me totally off guard. Starting with phone calls being made to various people asking them to attend a will reading of their friend, Resnais grabs early with intrigue and mystery. As the film develops, we understand they are all actors of different generations who have worked with the recently deceased playwright Antoine d’Anthac. When together, the actors who play themselves, are asked to watch a new performance of one of d’Anthac’s plays that they performed at one time or another.
What happens next captivates. The actors, sitting in d’Anthac’s home, begin acting out the play they are watching on screen. They begin reliving their parts. Some actors, now too old to resemble their younger characters, reach deep to find inspiration in a film that completely breaks from a sense of normalcy. We have breaks in the action, where the characters seem to remember what they are doing, but those last short moments. As a director, Resnais is paying tribute to the beauty of the stage, the way these wonderful actors can transform any setting into a believable and well-told story. We have three different versions of one play happening in front of us, and we can follow every note. Resnais keeps things interesting by tapping into his roots of surrealism by transforming the ordinary house into elaborate and hazy set pieces. He proves that even at 91 he has more energy and inspiration than some directors that aren’t even half his age.
7. Drug War
Johnnie To, man. The word craft comes to mind immediately after watching Drug War. As in, the way To crafts what is otherwise a rather simple and often seen story. What we could have here is a run of the mill story about police officers trying to bust up a drug cartel. Instead, we have one of the freshest films of its kind in the last many years. For starters, the film has this very fluid timeline of events that involves the viewer. There’s no disconnect and no filler. It all matters and it’s all good. To’s confidence shines through in that. The staging of many scenes, including the thrilling finale, are tops in the business. And the Haha scenes? Outstanding. To has been making interesting movies for a long time and it’s wonderful to see he still has it.
6. A Field in England
Ben Wheatley’s ability to tackle just about any subject, theme or genre in his films and make those films incredibly interesting and unique is rather unbeatable to me. A Field of England has all the psychedelic feel of a drugged out trip but without the colors. Wheatley opts for black and white for his story about a group of men who flee from battle. What starts innocently enough soon turns into a freaked out and surreal experience. For me, Wheatley has nailed it in all of films in his still young career and this bold and out there work is my favorite so far.
5. Before Midnight
To watch Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy grow throughout the trio’s Before series is wonderful. What I would give to have watched Before Sunrise on its release and to follow the three until the release of Before Midnight, the strongest in the series. Not surprisingly, this is Linklater, Hawke and and Delpy at their most mature. The power of their performances, their writing and Linklater’s directing is all that’s needed her. Celine and Jesse are one of the most entertaining couples to watch in film.
4. The Great Beauty
Paolo Sorrentino’s ambitious, beautiful and contemplative journey through the life of writer Jep Gambardella is one of the boldest films of the year. This seems like such a huge film, even though it’s about one man. It, without surprise, evokes the talents of Federico Fellini and other surrealists. Gambardella ponders life as he enters old age. He moves between friends, to party after party, meeting acquaintances new and old. And Sorrentino makes watch it all such a treat.
3. Laurence Anyways
I absolutely adore everything in Xavier Dolan’s three hour tale about male-to-female transsexual Laurence. From start to finish, I was enamored by Laurence’s life, mind, relationships, thoughts and decisions. They all mattered to me, making the character a standout in the year of film. This is also one of the most important films of the year and to think that people are turned off by it because of its length is troubling. If The Wolf of Wall Street can have three (very entertaining) hours to make us laugh, certainly Dolan can give Laurence the same amount of time. And it’s not like there’s nothing to see here. Dolan’s approach of telling Laurence’s life story is unique. As we travel time throughout Laurence’s life we are treated to visual candy. The opening scene, by far, is enough to suck in any viewer. And what makes Dolan’s achievement even greater is that though Laurence’s acceptance of being a transsexual, and the social issues that come with that, are the focus point, the film is about so much more. It’s about the loss of love, the loss of friendship and a struggle that no one else but Laurence can truly understand. All that is bolstered by outstanding direction and vivid imagery from Dolan and wonderful performances by Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément.
2. The Hunt
Mads Mikkelsen’s painful, shattering and powerful performance in The Hunt would be enough to carry a film if that’s all it had going for it. In the case of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, there’s a lot more to it that makes it one of the best films of 2013. Vinterberg tells the story of Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a man accused of sexually assaulting a young girl, and other children, at the kindergarten he works at. What makes The Hunt as strong as it is goes beyond a singular performance. The depiction of character, both before the accusation and during the backlash, is a strength. We see Lucas’ intimate, sweet and kind interactions with Klara, the accuser, and her family. And because only the viewer, Lucas and Klara know the truth, the emotions are swelling. This isn’t about finding the truth. It’s about a mob dealing with accusations and how we, as a society, react to these claims. The Hunt only exists in the tight-knit community that Lucas calls home. And the way we watch Mikkelsen portray Lucas’ pain is what makes his performance the best of the entire year. The Hunt will live long in my memory.
1. Spring Breakers
Of all the films I saw in 2013, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is the one that has never left my head. Korine’s neon-splashed fantasy is electric noir. It’s loud, it’s sizzling and it doesn’t stop. I liken the entire thing to a flashy pop music video but with a narrative that blends and flows at every corner. Korine does not hit the brakes, he just keeps pressing go. James Franco’s monster performance can’t be missed. Style aside, Korine’s film is a substantial one. I don’t think it’s made with much irony, I don’t think it’s made as an inside joke. That, at least, is how I read the film. There are messages of chasing dreams and wanting to find something better and more exciting that a lot of people can relate to, and watching how Korine plays those desires out is fascinating. This is Korine’s most accomplished film.