My aim is to make this round-up useful and fun, both for me and for you, but I’ve got forty or more new films to comment on, so let’s get right to it. I’ll start with the prestige pictures of the year, notable for award nominations or high critical ranking, continue with my own particular recommendations, and then work my way through various groupings by category or theme. (Included for each film -- links to Metacritic and Netflix, plus rankings in Film Comment and IndieWire critical polls for 2013.)
I already covered five of the year’s top films here, but the most acclaimed of all was Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave (MC-97, FC #2, IW #1, NFX), and I am no nay-sayer about that. It was an honest piece of work, and I found it an appropriate successor to Lincoln and antidote to Django Unchained, in historical films from the previous year. Well-directed by Steve McQueen and well-acted by Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, with a decent respect for historical accuracy, unflinching but not sensational, my only quibbles with this film were the almost-too-pretty cinematography and cameos by actors whose recognizability threw me out of the veristic sense of period.
I’m a dedicated follower of Paul Greengrass and his immersive documentary-like style, but going in, I put Captain Phillips (MC-83, FC #50, IW #41, NFX) more in a crowd-pleasing category with the Bourne films than with Bloody Sunday, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it effective in the vein of United 93, making the reality of a recent news story come alive with vivid immediacy and broad sympathy. Tom Hanks dials back the charm to play the matter-of-fact ship captain, and real Somalis play the pirates who hijack his container ship and take him hostage. The film elicited an intriguing disparity of opinion among reviewers I typically trust, with one finding it a “disturbing celebration of American power,” another suggesting that Greengrass “wants this victory to shatter you,” while a third wonders, “how does a left-wing conscience find room to maneuver in a right-wing form?” I side with those who find this film an exceptional success.
A different perspective on Somali piracy comes across in the Danish feature A Hijacking (MC-82, NFX). In Tobias Lindholm’s film, American military might is not involved, and the incident goes on for 134 days of tense negotiations by phone, with the pirate mastermind on one end, and a Danish shipping CEO on the other. The boss is all business. but not without a conscience, and can’t always accept the advice of his professional piracy consultant. This is “Getting to Yes” with a vengeance. Instead of slam-bam action, we get excruciating tedium with an ominous hum of potential violence, for an involving experience nonetheless.
Another approach to maritime adventure is applied in All is Lost (MC-87, FC #26, IW #19, NFX). J.C. Chandor’s film, quite a departure from the financial thriller Margin Call, follows a solitary sailor from the moment his yacht’s hull is breached by an errant flotsam shipping container to the time when, despite his inventive and arduous efforts, it sinks and abandons him at sea in the Indian Ocean. Unlike Captain Phillips, which was actually shot on a ship that was a corporate twin to the original, this was mostly filmed in a tank with a green screen background, but special effects and sound design convey a genuine sense of being at sea. Robert Redford, doing a lot of stunts for a 77-year-old, also does a lot of characterization with virtually no dialogue. We watch because the character is making an inventive and fascinating series of stabs at survival, but we really pay attention because it’s that familiar face, however weathered by the storm.
Going back to Best Picture nominees, there are three I haven’t seen yet, but one I sadly decline to recommend. There’s lot to appreciate in The Wolf of Wall Street (MC-75, FC #37, IW #21, NFX), but I found its extended length fundamentally unrewarding. You can see why Leonardo DiCaprio would want to play the financial sleazeball Jordan Belfort, a person who is all over-the-top performance anyway. And Martin Scorsese brings a good deal of filmmaking genius to the bad-boy spectacle, but no discernible soul, despite his typical autobiographical subtext. Much of it is funny, but in a disgusting way, Hangover-style. None of it is very enlightening.
As “Best Foreign Film,” The Great Beauty (MC-86, FC #24, IW #14, NFX) was a more reputable Oscar choice than many. I went into it with a certain skepticism, but came out reasonably enchanted. I’d even venture the heresy that it’s as good as the film it updates after fifty years -- La Dolce Vita -- not that I rank that benchmark among my favorite Fellini films, I much prefer the view of Rome in The White Sheik. And I have to say Paolo Sorrentino does a better job than Scorsese in satirizing decadence and debauchery without exemplifying it. Toni Servillo excels as the central character who holds the pulsing, scattershot energies of the film together. He’s a jet-set writer, just turned 65, who long ago swapped his commitments from literature to the high life, to become the party master of the Roman rich. He’s understandably weary of his world, but not yet dead to the beauties of his city.
As usual, the most esteemed foreign release was not even nominated for an Oscar, though it did not lack for notoriety. Blue is the Warmest Color (MC-88, FC #12, IW #8, NFX) is best known for its explicit lesbian sex scenes, and would probably be better with them cut, given the three-hour running time, but Abdellatif Kechiche has plenty of other stuff to offer in his follow-up to The Secret of the Grain. This film has an intimacy that goes well beyond sex, as we follow Adèle Exarchopoulos as a character named Adèle in tight, constant close-up, registering every change of color or expression on her face, from a schoolgirl who develops a tortured passion for an older art student, into a teacher of young children trying to put her life back together after their break-up. It’s a rich emotional experience, and your heart goes out to Adèle as hers breaks.
Turning to films rated among the top fifty of 2013 in critical polls, I’ll start with two I personally would rank higher, and then go on to five I’d rank lower.
I expect to like any film by Nicole Holofcener, but Enough Said (MC-79, IW #47, NFX) surprised me with delight. It’s honest and funny about romantic relationships in a way rarely seen this side of Eric Rohmer. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a divorced LA masseuse who meets a possible mate (James Gandolfini, in one of his last roles) and a new best friend (Catherine Keener) at the same party, but later finds out they know each other, and keeps the secret from both. Meanwhile each of them has a daughter about to go to college. The slight but significant story follows each character with wit and empathy, and offers a steady stream of sparkling dialogue.
Short Term 12 (MC-82, FC #47, IW #16, NFX) is set in a foster care facility, and clearly bears the fruit of direct observation from writer/director Destin Cretton. Based on his previous short film, which had a male protagonist, this film revolves around Brie Larson, who may prove a star with real gravitational pull. She certainly holds this group of kids, and this film, together. The character’s name is Grace and she displays plenty of it, in a modest, understated way, as she supervises the facility. Clearly subject to some neglect and abuse in her own childhood, she is adept at caring for her charges and dealing with her fellow staff members, with one of whom she’s romantically involved. Potentially grim, with sad stories of damaged children, this film celebrates small steps and glimmers of hope, with humor and heart.
As for films that worked better for some other people than they did for me, I’ll start with Upstream Color (MC-81, FC #10, IW #9, NFX), a freaky sci-fi-ish thriller/romance/something by one-man-band Shane Carruth. I was content to let some of the spectacle wash over me, but I didn’t care enough to try to figure out the enigma.
In Frances Ha (MC-82, FC #9, IW #10, NFX), Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig get to play out their mutual attraction through a scrim of early French New Wave visuals and music. Like the 20-something title character, footloose and at loose ends in NYC, this film is endearing up to a point, and then it’s a little much, or not enough.
Large claims are made for another small film, which had its moments, but made no strong impact on me – Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (MC-83, FC #11, IW #20, NFX) tracks the passing connection between two lonely middle-aged people, a Canadian woman in Vienna to watch over a cousin in a coma, and a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where she idles away the waiting hours. The pair are appealing enough, but the proceedings are so low-key that the most exciting thing in the film is a gallery lecture on Bruegel. Nonetheless, I would definitely consider showing this at the Clark, if I ever wind up showing anything at all.
Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster (MC-72, FC#20, IW #33, NFX) is a splendid visual spectacle, with Oscar-nominated cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd, and serious about the philosophy of martial arts, while delivering all the outlandish kicks and jabs that the genre demands. But it’s an insider’s film that leaves me on the outside.
Some people keep announcing Woody Allen has made his best film in years, and I keep feeling that I don’t care whether I ever see another Woody Allen film. Blue Jasmine (MC-78, FC #25, IW #27, NFX) is worth viewing for Cate Blanchett in full-diva mode, as someone like Mrs. Madoff after the fall, but not much else held my attention or earned my appreciation.
Of other highly ranked films, I’ve already expressed my love for Polley’s Stories We Tell (FC #16, IW #12), my admiration for Bujalski’s Computer Chess (FC #8, IW #18), and my ambivalence about Malick’s To the Wonder (FC #31, IW #23). After the jump, I will comment on two good indies about run-ins between the police and African-Americans, three films from the Middle East, four teen comedies, two made for viewers mad about Mads, two about intellectuals and two about artists, and three foreign films titled with a woman’s first name.