Frank (2014) – Lenny Abrahamson

1-Frank“Children building castles in the sand in my town…” Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), pale and red-haired, squints at the ocean, pen and paper in hand. We hear his reedy voiceover as he struggles to get lyrical inspiration from his suburban surroundings. (“Lady in the red coat, whatcha doin’ with that bag?”) After a day of failed attempts, he tweets about “working hard at songwriting all day” and goes home to share a casserole with his parents.

This sad, struggling songwriter is our protagonist in Abrahamson’s strange and wonderful black comedy Frank. After their keyboardist tries to drown himself, alternative band Soronprfbs (never confidently pronounced by anyone in the film) has Jon fill in for a gig—and before he knows it, he’s being swept away with them to Vetno, a cloistered cabin in Ireland where they will push themselves to their furthest musical corners and record an album.

The band’s frontman is the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears an enormous papier-mâché head over his own head at all times—a reference to the real Frank, a creation of British comedian Chris Sievey. The rest of the band consists of their tortured manager, Don (Scoot McNairy); a French, floppy-haired guitarist (François Civil); a taciturn drummer (Carla Azar); and a hostile theremin-player named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who has no problem expressing her displeasure with anyone or anything around her—Jon in particular. (“Someone needs to punch you in the face,” she tells him sweetly.) Nonetheless, Jon is determined to make his mark on the band. Their sound is eclectic, to say the least—Talking Heads meets Pink Floyd meets The Doors with nonsensical lyrics—but Jon feels that they have the potential to make it big, and he plans to make that happen.

Frank is a peculiar and incredible balancing act of dark realism and hilariousness. At first glance, the characters are absurd—Frank shuffling around with his giant head, Clara glowering with tiny white circles painted inexplicably all over her face—but they soon reveal themselves to have real depth and dimension. We grow to see their vulnerabilities and to care about them. But by the same token, just as a scene is becoming intense and powerful, something funny will happen (Frank hits his head on a pole and stumbles backwards, Clara calmly stabs Jon in the leg) and we’re brought back to the realm of the absurd, laughing with surprise. The film is comprised of layers of ridiculousness and realism and ridiculousness again, creating an overall effect that’s bittersweet, funny, and uncomfortable. And it’s perfect, because isn’t that the artistic process? Ridiculous, real, weird, vulnerable. Sad. Full of complex layers. Uncomfortable when you fail, exhilarating when you’re inspired.

Frank_1_zps6a57dab1But how does one get inspired? That’s the question that haunts Jon as he continues his pathetic attempts at songwriting. Meanwhile, Frank finds inspiration in everything, from the eerie shrieks of Clara’s theramin to the scratching of a toothbrush. And that inspiration is clear in his compositions. Soronprfbs’s music, while certainly unusual, is compelling because of that inspired energy. Where does Frank get it? From his stint in a mental hospital? From a dark and tortured childhood? Does he simply have a God-given gift? Jon can’t figure it out, and his experience in the band is colored by his envy and frustration. I was reminded of Salieri’s jealous agony in Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) (incredible movie, one of my all-time favorites), especially as Jon’s unhappiness begins to motivate him to manipulate the band and, most importantly, Frank.

Frank is really the centerpiece of the film. Fassbender renders him surprisingly charismatic for someone who spends his life behind a cartoonish mask. He’s friendly and down-to-earth, kindly supportive of Jon and all his mediocre compositions. But Frank is also complicated; for how much confidence he has while songwriting or performing, he’s otherwise fragile and easily influenced. It’s striking from the first moment we see him: after an energetic musical performance, he stands limply on the stage until Clara unplugs his microphone, turns him around, and walks him off the stage with her hands on his shoulders. He’s a mystery, and much of the film consists of the band members fighting for control over him and attention from him, motivated by jealousy and admiration.

Frank’s fragility is important, because ultimately this is a movie about the humanity behind artistic achievement. It’s an examination of what it means to be an artist, to have integrity, to be talented, to be inspired, to have an audience. The film doesn’t offer any explicit answers, but contemplates these topics with creativity and nuance, never taking itself too seriously. Overall its greatest achievement is succeeding in being at once intelligent, thought provoking, and enjoyable to watch—a rare treat in general, but an especially welcome and unexpected one in a film about a man with a papier-mâché head.

The Imitation Game (2014) – Morten Tyldum

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Something this movie has going for it: we all love games. I’m thinking about Ender’s Game, the Hunger Games trilogy, Michael Haneke’s 2007 thriller Funny Games (which I unexpectedly loved), and the horrific but popular Saw movies. There’s something thrilling about a game with high stakes—a pastime from childhood that’s thrust suddenly into the adult world. The concept has so much intrigue! And Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, while not technically about a game, hits that sweet spot.

London, 1939. “The game was quite a simple one,” mathematician Alan Turing tells us. “Every single German message, every surprise attack, every bombing run, every imminent U-boat assault—they were all floating through the air. Radio signals that any schoolboy with an AM kit could intercept. The trick was that they were encrypted.” The film is based on a true story—the Germans were using a machine called Enigma to encode their messages, and it had so far been impossible to crack. Turing (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) was hired with a team of cryptographers to do the impossible: to break Enigma and win Britain the war. Alexandre Desplat’s score pulses thrillingly as the cryptographers examine the Enigma machine and wrap their minds around the parameters of their task.

Evoking this sense of exhilaration is perhaps what The Imitation Game has done best. That and casting Cumberbatch, who’s won himself quite the cult following over the years, and not without reason. Cumberbatch, I’m coming to realize, has a Cate Blanchett–like ability to physically transform himself to suit his current role: his voice, his mannerisms, even his appearance change drastically from film to film. Here he is effeminate, stiff. This film is full of pale, slender, intelligent Englishmen, and Turing is the palest, slenderest, and most intelligent of them all, brilliant in his field but stumbling through conversations, and coming off as flustered, hostile, and arrogant in turns. But he’s also lovable in his vulnerability. Cumberbatch is marvelous to watch, earnestly determined in his attempts to build the world’s first computer, breathing life into a somewhat stilted screenplay.

Because, despite having a fantastic premise, writing ends up being this film’s weakest point. As my roommate pointed out when we were watching it together, this is an incredible story. It would be difficult not to make this movie exciting. They had their work cut out for them. Still, the writing falters. The script errs on the side of cheesy and cliché. The running theme—“Sometimes it’s the very people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine”—is cloying, and it only becomes more so each time it’s repeated. And we’ve seen the socially-awkward-genius story done so many times (A Beautiful Mind being a prime example—also Amadeus, and the BBC series Sherlock) that it’s hard not to spot familiar tropes in Turing’s scenes. This is the part where he’s rude and off-putting in his interview, but they’ll hire him anyway because of something he’ll say right before they push him out the door. This is the part where he polarizes his coworkers, but they’ll still unite behind him in the end. These scenes don’t feel fresh; they feel formulaic.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 3.58.54 PMThat being said, it is refreshing to have a mainstream film with a gay main character where his sexuality is prominently featured. My current obsession is the fact that gay characters rarely display physical affection in films (I recently watched Craig Johnston’s 2014 film The Skeleton Twins and was disappointed to see Kristen Wiig having multiple sex scenes with male partners, while her gay brother, played by Bill Hader, wasn’t even given a peck on the lips by his male romantic interest—go on, throw a gay kiss in, we won’t cover our eyes and yell, “Ewww!”), but in this case, Turing’s lack of physical intimacy is actually pretty appropriate. Isolation, particularly Turing’s, is a big theme of the film: isolation in one’s sexuality, social tendencies, top-secret career. And that theme is carried out effectively—indeed, heart-wrenchingly. There are vivid flashbacks between a young Turing (Alex Lawther) and his schoolmate Christopher (Jack Bannon), who becomes the love of his life, although it is never consummated and he could never really share it with anyone. (Turing later goes on to name the machine he’s building Christopher, which, as The New Yorker aptly pointed out, is an invention of the film’s and gives the whole project an unsettling Frankenstein vibe.) Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during Turing’s lifetime, and he was eventually condemned to chemical castration for his homosexual tendencies, leading to his death. Turing contributed to the modern world in an incredible way, but his personal life was riddled with pain and conflict, and the film would not be complete without including that part of his life.

And so we come to the other great flaw of the film, which is a problem in many biopics: how do you sum up an entire life in two hours? Is it possible to do effectively? (Spoiler alert: Yes. Go see A Beautiful Mind.) What I found with The Imitation Game was that the tone was emotionally dissonant, especially at the end. Is the film meaning to celebrate Turing’s incredible achievements, or to reveal the horrific way he was condemned for his sexuality? It’s confusing, messy. And not deliberately messy. It has the messiness of something that’s been shoved into a box that doesn’t quite contain it. While it’s important to include both the high points and the low points of Turing’s life, that story deserves a structure that incorporates both of those things coherently—or doesn’t attempt to incorporate them at all. Instead, they are haphazardly tied together with a perplexingly neat Hollywood bow.

The Imitation Game is a fun watch—at least at first. Then it is a stressful watch. Then it is a heartbreaking watch. Performances from Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley render the script more believable (sadly, the same can’t be said for my true love Matthew Goode, who does little but smolder and drop snide one-liners—although that’s not really his fault, the script doesn’t give him much to work with), and the story is an important one to tell. The overall effect comes up a little bit short, but I’ll give them this—biopics are a tough code to crack.

5 Best Films I Watched in 2014

I’m back! With a stupendous list. 2014 wasn’t a big movie year for me—I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to dedicate to movies, and out of the ones I did watch, a lot of them were disappointing (American Hustle was a weird mess of over-narrating and distracting hairstyles, Nymphomania Vols 1 & 2 was six painful hours of hateful characters and alarming sex (although with a title like that, what did I expect?)). In lieu of just listing every movie that I liked at all this year, I’ve decided to do a top 5 instead of a top 10—just the best of the best. To note, these are not necessarily movies that came out in 2014, but just movies that I watched for the first time this year.

…except The Darjeeling Limited. I’d seen that before. Bear with me, folks.

5. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – Wes Anderson

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This is technically cheating because I first saw this movie a couple years ago, but I rewatched it this year and it really changed for me. I usually like Wes Anderson’s films when they’re neat, contained character studies: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom. The first time I saw Darjeeling, which tells the story of three estranged brothers (Adrian Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) who go on a journey to India, it felt too sprawling—the constant train rides, the exotic location, the amorphous plot. It took a second viewing for me to tune in to this stranger, slower pace.

Two things ended up winning me over. Firstly, the characters, who are (in true Anderson fashion) melancholy, idiosyncratic, and loveable—caricatures and painfully real all at once. And secondly, the subtle method to the madness of the plot. True, the narrative sprawls from temples to deserts to convents, but there’s a graceful circularity to it and significant parallels from beginning to end. You have to look a little closer with this movie, but it’s worth it. It’s also incredibly funny.

4. Boyhood (2014) – Richard Linklater

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I reviewed this one when it came out this summer. The concept is pretty unforgettable—director Richard Linklater filmed Boyhood over twelve years, so we’re able to see the main character Mason (and actor Ellar Coltrane) grow from boy to young man throughout the film. The effect is a fusion of documentary and fiction, and it’s a staggering cinematic achievement. The plot is meandering—it’s more a series of glimpses of a family’s life than anything else—but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s a moving, beautiful look at the beginning of a life.

3. My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – Hayao Miyazaki

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What an absolute delight this film is. I’ve just recently started getting into Miyazaki’s movies on the recommendation of my roommate, and I’ve been loving them—they’re gorgeously animated, quirky, and surreal. Out of the ones I’ve seen so far, Totoro is surely my favorite: the story of two little girls who move into the countryside with their father, and the magical creatures they meet there. As is the case with a lot of the best fantasy, the magical elements serve not only as a dazzling adventure but also as a poignant way of coping with reality, as we soon find out that the girls’ mother is in the hospital recovering from a long-term illness. It’s the type of movie where you’re giggling over the adorableness of everything (because many parts of it are excruciatingly adorable), and then the score changes and suddenly you find yourself swallowing the lump in your throat. A sweet, lovely film.

*** Note: Miyazaki’s films are truly works of art in terms of the animation. The climactic scene of Totoro takes place at DUSK, with a backdrop of watercolor sunset that slowly fades into milky blue twilight. It’s impressive to the point of being obnoxious. We get it, Miyazaki, you’re incredible.

2. Her (2013) – Spike Jonze

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This one was a close call for first place. I wrote a review when I first saw it earlier in the year—what a gorgeous piece of movie. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a writer living in near-future Los Angeles and struggling to get over his recent divorce, who downloads a highly intelligent operating system onto his computer. Her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Her is Theodore and Samantha’s completely compelling love story. Beautifully filmed, emotionally powerful, and gently philosophical, to boot.

1. Birdman (2014) – Alejandro González Iñárritu

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BIRDMAN! Birdman. I lost my mind over this movie. It’s bizarre and beautiful and utterly compelling from start to finish. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor who achieved movie fame in his younger years playing the superhero Birdman. In an attempt to do something meaningful with his career, he’s now directing and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway—while also trying to get along with his recently-out-of-rehab daughter (Emma Stone); keep tabs on his volatile fellow actor (Edward Norton); and debate with the gravelly voice he hears in his head whenever he’s alone. Oh, and he can also move things with his mind?

Part of what’s so fantastic about this movie is this way it combines realistic drama with something unearthly. It’s unclear whether events happen in real life or in Riggan’s head. The entire movie has the appearance of being filmed on one seamless, ever-moving shot (! I know), which adds to the surreal quality—the camera circling around the characters on stage and following them into maze of dressing rooms; time expanding and compressing dreamily. The film has real energy and momentum. And it’s tremendously acted—Norton steals the show, but not by much—and wonderfully written, the weighty concepts balanced by fresh dialog and well-placed comedic moments. Go see it. Go.

Boyhood (2014) – Richard Linklater

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Boyhood isn’t a tough sell. A movie that takes place over the course of 12 years and is filmed over that same period of time, so the actors and characters grow up before our very eyes — who wouldn’t want to check that out? It’s a stunt. Something we haven’t seen before.

The real challenge on the director’s part is to make a film that goes beyond that gimmick, something that means more than just watching a child age in fast-forward. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and while Boyhood isn’t flawless, it’s a momentous achievement. Richard Linklater manages to capture not only the passage of time, but also the emotions and meaning that go along with it.

The plot is amorphous. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mother (Patricia Arquette) in Texas. Their father (Ethan Hawke) makes periodic appearances, taking the kids bowling and camping, playing guitar for them; where their mother is responsible, their father is unreliable but loveable. The film begins when Mason is six years old and ends when he is heading off to college. We see him go through a series of haircuts, crushes, best friends, and hobbies. We see him change schools several times, and struggle with the “parade of drunken assholes” that are his mother’s new husbands and boyfriends. The transitions between his different ages are seamless, a tasteful choice that allows the film to focus on the overall narrative, rather than the effect of the actor changing with age. The passage of time is marked instead by songs on the radio, pop culture references, Oregon Trail on the computer, iPhones in people’s hands.

In my eyes, Boyhood’s success lies in two factors and the interaction between them: Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s acting. Linklater has a knack for developing characters through rich dialog, and the conversations are really what make this film work. In interviews, Coltrane has discussed how when the actors grew old enough, Linklater would simply provide scenes with a basic structure and then allow the actors to improvise and take on the characters themselves. The result is that the characters feel real, and their conversations interesting and authentic (sometimes hilariously so, sometimes heartbreakingly so). Coltrane is also a joy to watch, open and genuine and confident even in the throes of puberty. By the end of the film, we’ve fallen in love with Mason — how can we not? We feel like we just grew up with him. The combination of Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s performance means that Boyhood doesn’t feel like a movie; it feels like something lived through.

Hawke’s performance is another big standout. At first Mason Senior seems like the classic young father who isn’t ready for the responsibilities of parenthood, but he quickly sheds that archetype to become one of the more multidimensional characters. As impulsive as he is, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the film’s emotional message — to be present, to seize the moment and let the moment seize you.  His story is particularly interesting when contrasted with Mason’s mother’s, a more traditional and responsible route, but a route that seems to leave her unfulfilled.

The film is not without its flaws. There are some sentiments that border on saccharine. There are a few brutally heavy-handed scenes (a moment of bullying in the junior high bathroom, some textbook peer pressure involving high school boys and beer) and some characters that are never fully fleshed out (most noticeably Samantha, whom we experience only as the snarky older sister). But ultimately, it’s easy to forgive the film of any missteps. Boyhood isn’t a meant to be neat, perfect package. It’s a messy and meandering film, and in that way it’s life-affirming and gorgeous.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – Anthony Minghella

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Tom Ripley didn’t go to Princeton.  The Princeton jacket he’s wearing was borrowed from a friend.  But when Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipbuilder, assumes that Tom went to college with his son Dickie, Tom doesn’t miss a beat: “How is Dickie?”

On Mr. Greenleaf’s dollar, Tom (Matt Damon) finds himself on a voyage to Mongibello, Italy, to track down his supposed school friend and convince him to return to his parents in America.  All Tom knows about Dickie (Jude Law) is that he’s living with his fiancée Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), spending hours on his sailboat, burning through his allowance, and listening to jazz, so Tom makes it his business to align himself with these interests — particularly by buying jazz records and memorizing everything he can about the genre.  After staging a chance encounter with Dickie and Marge on the beach, Tom is easily able to befriend the young couple and to convince Dickie that they share an alma mater.

Right from the start of this exquisite period thriller, Tom is obviously untrustworthy.  He admits (jokingly, Dickie believes) to having a talent for “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody,” and throughout the film he does just that — deceiving Mr. Greenleaf, Marge, and Dickie, and even introducing himself as Dickie to a wealthy socialite named Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett).  We know very little about his actual identity; he seems to try on whichever identity strikes his fancy.  Given this, it’s unsurprising that his friendship with Dickie never quite rings true; Tom’s every move is calculated to win Dickie over.

Homoerotic undertones — heck, let’s call them overtones — abound.  There’s an especially charged scene in which the two men are playing chess while Dickie is in the bath, and Tom asks if he can get into the tub.  “I didn’t mean with you in it,” he amends, seeing the repulsed look on Dickie’s face, but the true meaning of his question is clear.  Tom’s fixation on Dickie is more than just a straightforward crush, though; there’s an almost Black Swan–esque quality to it, an attraction comprised of both wanting someone and wanting to be them.  Dickie is gorgeous, reckless, charming — everything Tom is not — and he’s the very image of privilege, using his father’s money to travel around Italy and do whatever he pleases.  Tom, who makes a living cleaning up after musicians back in New York, has presumably never experienced such luxury before.  Now that he’s had a taste of Dickie’s lifestyle (which describes as “one big love affair”), he wants it for himself, and he’s willing to take it at any cost.

ripleyThe premise of this film is admittedly a little far-fetched (would Mr. Greenleaf really be so quick to pay a stranger one thousand dollars to take a trip to Italy?  Would Dickie and Marge really welcome Tom into their lives so readily, having no memory of him from college?), but it’s made believable by the all-around fantastic performances from the cast. Law as the handsome, petulant Dickie, with whom it’s difficult not to fall somewhat in love; Damon as the friendly, easygoing, and increasingly unsettling Tom; Paltrow as the pretty fiancée, paid little attention by the men but ultimately more lucid and perceptive than either of them.  Particularly strong supporting performances come (unsurprisingly) from Blanchett, chatty Meredith falling more and more in love with Tom — or rather “Dickie” — as they discuss the pleasures and burdens of great wealth; and the late, extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dickie’s friend Freddie, slick and blasé and unimpressed by Tom from the start.

Supported by a jazz soundtrack that’s sometimes manic and sometimes unsettlingly saccharine, The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of my personal favorite films, conceptually complex and beautifully told.  The story is terrifying both in its specificity and in its universality: because who hasn’t ever envied the beautiful, wealthy, and charismatic people of the world?  I think many of us would happily live that life if given the opportunity. The question is how far we’re willing to follow Tom Ripley in his determination to get it.

Her (2013) – Spike Jonze

her-movie-wide-560x282This film is really something special.  Lately there’s been a good amount of art focused on the way technology is reshaping our lives (Dave Eggers’s new novel The Circle being a prime example — read it, it’s stupendous), but Her has done something unique with that subject matter. The film takes place in a lightly futurized Los Angeles, and Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who falls in love with the operating system on his computer.  But this is no ordinary operating system; her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and she has been programmed to grow and learn through her experiences — essentially, to have a real and evolving personality.

Theodore is a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he crafts professional “handwritten” love letters (which he dictates to his computer, and the computer then prints out in a loopy scrawl).  He’s a melancholy man — “Play a melancholy song,” he mumbles to his smartphone as he walks home from work — and is still reeling from the recent collapse of his marriage, so it makes sense that he would download an operating system that could provide him with some sort of artificial companionship.  Equally believable is his attraction (first platonic, then romantic) to Samantha, who is instantly likeable: upbeat, curious, spirited, and — let’s face it — kind of sexy.  Characterized only by her speaking voice, her personality is distinct and appealing from the moment she appears in the film.  Which is important.  We understand Theodore’s love for Samantha; in a sense, we fall in love with Samantha ourselves.

Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is this ability to make us care deeply for its characters.  Phoenix renders Theodore particularly sympathetic — genuine, thoughtful, softspoken, sensitive.  (“You are part man and part woman,” a coworker tells him seriously after reading one of his letters. “It’s a compliment.”)  We like and care about Theodore, and by extension we care about his relationships: his romantic relationship with Samantha, his affectionate friendship with his college buddy Amy (Amy Adams).  This allows the film to be very intimate; we share the characters’ emotions, we have a stake in their interactions.

In some ways, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is just like any other romantic relationship: they argue, they have thoughtful conversations, they make each other laugh, they have sex (so to speak).  But of course, they also inevitably run into challenges that are specific to their obvious differences.  Samantha struggles with frustration over the limitations of not having a physical body.  Theodore finds himself “coming out” to friends and coworkers, revealing that his girlfriend is an operating system and not a human being.  Some don’t bat an eye, while others (namely his ex-wife, volatile and coldly beautiful, played by Rooney Mara) scorn Theodore for dating “his laptop” instead of having a real relationship.  “Is it not a real relationship?” Theodore later asks Amy, his brow furrowed.  What is a real relationship?  What constitutes a real person?

And that’s the film’s second great accomplishment: its ability to resonate so gracefully on both an emotional and an intellectual level.  This is an incredibly emotional and evocative story — it will make you cry, laugh, marvel, ache inside.  And it’s also gently philosophical, considering existential questions, questions of love and relationships, questions of the role technology plays and should play in our lives. The concept of this film could have easily proven to be gimmicky, but writer/director Spike Jonze avoids that trap by engaging deeply with the feelings and ideas the premise raises.  Her is complex, captivating, and — for all its involvement with technology — an exquisitely human film.

The 10 Best Movies I Encountered in 2013

It’s been a while since my last post, but that’s because I was brewing up this magnificent list!  Not the top ten films that came out in 2013, but the top ten films I watched for the first time this year, whether I was watching it on the big screen or squinting at a tiny, pixilated player on my laptop. (I did notice that this year’s list includes many more in-theater films than last year’s list, though — maybe because I’m living in a city instead of being tucked away on a college campus, or maybe because I got tired of squinting at tiny, pixilated players on my laptop).

So here it is, in ascending order.  Enjoy, and feel free to share your own top 10! 

10. Django Unchained (2012) – Quentin Tarantino

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Gritty, terrifying, and farcical all at once, Django Unchained has become one of my favorite Tarantino films (I reviewed it earlier this year).  Filmed in the style of old Spaghetti Westerns, the story centers around Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave in the Deep South who is on a mission to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the infamous plantation Candyland.  The subject matter is weighty and at times incredibly upsetting, but it’s tempered with Tarantino’s trademark snappy dialogue, exaggerated comic-book violence, and dark humor.  It’s worth seeing if only for the fantastic supporting characters: in particular Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, dentist turned bounty hunter, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the ruthless master of Candyland.

9. The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Michael Mann

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This film features gratuitous smoldering on the part of Daniel Day-Lewis.  Taciturn, shoulder-length-haired, weapon-wielding smoldering.  You have been warned!  The premise: in the midst of the French and Indian War, Native American–raised trapper Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) strives to ensure the protection of a British Colonel’s daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Alice (Jodhi May).  This is a classic adventure story, complete with chase scenes, epic battles, and some steamy romance on the side.  What makes The Last of the Mohicans particularly stand out, however, is its brutal, lifelike twist — there’s a realistic edge to the violence, an almost Game of Thrones–esque willingness to kill off characters.  The end result is something both romantic and realistic, a compelling combination.

8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) – Kathryn Bigelow

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I went into this film with some doubts, unsure of whether it was too soon to make a blockbuster about what the trailers were calling the greatest manhunt in history, but I shouldn’t have worried.  As we saw in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has a way of handling the events of war thoughtfully, tactfully, and with an almost Hemingway-esque injection of emotion that you barely even notice until it hits you.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a young, feisty, and incredibly intelligent CIA officer who becomes obsessed with the search for Bin Laden and, after years of investigating, ultimately leads the troops to his whereabouts.  The film is exciting, as any good mystery/thriller should be, but it’s also hesitant, bittersweet.  There are implicit questions about who we are as a country right now and what we’re trying to do.  I was rooting for it for best picture last year (somewhat halfheartedly because it seemed like Argo was kind of a shoo-in).

7. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – Jean-Marc Vallée

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Based on a true story, this film follows Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a rough-and-tumble rodeo man who is given a shock when he’s diagnosed with HIV and given an estimate of thirty days left to live.  Before he knows it, Ron’s entire life has changed direction, and he finds himself starting a buyers club with an HIV-positive transvestite named Rayon (Jared Leto) to provide alternative treatments for HIV/AIDS.  Considering the content, Dallas Buyers Club is surprisingly upbeat and uplifting, focusing on human resilience in the face of disease and hardship.  The film is also carried by tremendous performances from McConaughey and Leto, who give nuanced renderings of characters who are at once strong, flawed, and loveable.

6. Spring Breakers (2012) – Harmony Korine

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Scored by Skrillex and featuring gun-toting former Disney Channel stars, Spring Breakers could have easily been one of the worst films of the year — and indeed, I fully expected it to be.  Instead, director Korine somehow managed to fashion an evocative and strangely alluring fever dream about four college-age girls who get carried away with the autonomy that spring break provides.  There was a slew of films this year about decadence and irresponsibility — Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, to name a couple — and Spring Breakers handles the material in a completely unconventional and effective way.  The film draws you into its circling, nonlinear narrative and leaves you haunted.  I wrote a full review this summer.

5. Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud

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My pride is the only thing keeping me from making this movie #1 on the list.  I couldn’t have loved it more!  There is some semblance of a plot — lovable former-villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is living a domestic life with his three adopted daughters when he’s forced to return to the field, this time teeming up with agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) — but the main focus of the film is, shamelessly, sheer adorableness.  Most scenes revolve around the delightful, butter-yellow nuggets that are Gru’s minions bouncing about and jabbering in their helium-high voices, and Gru’s daughters causing trouble and tugging on Gru’s (and all of our) heartstrings. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh till you cry.

4. Stoker (2013) – Chan-wook Park

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A tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Stoker tells the story of a young woman named India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies, and what happens when her handsome, enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to visit.  From an aesthetic standpoint this film is perfect.  I raved about it in my review this summer; director Chan-wook Park has created a neurotic, unsettling, and tremendously beautiful world, balancing every shot and amplifying certain details, letting us into India’s subjectivity. The film’s content is twisted and dark but every moment is visually magnificent, and that combination of horror and beauty is captivating.

3. Blue Jasmine (2013) – Woody Allen

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Like much of Allen’s work, this film is cleverly written and incredibly uncomfortable.  Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a wealthy New Yorker who arrives in San Francisco to stay with (read: impose on) her adoptive sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) while recuperating from the collapse of her marriage.  Blanchett gives a truly outstanding performance as the neurotic, unstable Jasmine — radiant and poised in some scenes, frighteningly haggard in others, and constantly struggling with an undertow of panic and desperation.  Also featuring Alec Baldwin, Blue Jasmine has that sort of painful, cutting insight that is a hallmark of Allen’s work, and humor that is not without sting.

2. Taxi Driver (1976) – Martin Scorsese

Taxi-Driver-4Taxi Driver is widely recognized as a classic, and I certainly expected to be impressed, but the film grabbed me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.  Travis (Robert De Niro) is a former marine who takes a job as a taxi driver to cope with his insomnia, and slowly the job changes him into someone emotionally, intellectually, and physically unrecognizable.  The film features its own bizarre kind of worldbuilding, nighttime New York becoming a seedy city of the underworld colored by the slick black streets and the lurid clothing of prostitutes.  Travis’s journey from being a generally likeable (although somewhat adrift) person to being a person with a frightening, violent sense of purpose is aided in no small part by the repeated appearance of a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), whom Travis feels he must personally rescue from this damned place.  Scorsese draws you into Travis’s perspective and takes you with him as far as you’re willing to go.  It’s terrifying, evocative, exciting, and strangely beautiful.  Full review here, in the NYC roundup I posted this summer.

1. Sleepwalk With Me (2011) – Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish

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I gushed about this film when I saw it in February.  I would go so far as to compare Mike Birbiglia to David Sedaris in terms of the caliber of his storytelling (high praise!).  Sleepwalk With Me is an autobiographical story that follows Birbiglia’s early pursuit of a career in standup; his crumbling relationship with his long-term girlfriend; and his experience with a rare sleeping disorder in which, to put it simply, he wreaks havoc while sleepwalking.  The story is at once funny and heartbreaking, and it’s so earnest that it’s difficult not to love.  Keep an eye out for Birbiglia — he has good things coming.