When I was writing reviews in Hollywood, I was determined to avoid a pitfall I saw even in the most cultured and perceptive reviews- namely, a tendency to synopsize, and a tendency to avoid discussing aesthetics. Synopsizing bores me because what a film is about isn't what makes it good, or interesting; as Roger Ebert famously said, "it's how it's about it." The Godfather is not a good film because it's about mobsters. It's a great film because it universal themes of filial duty, love and death, using richly developed characters and tremendous directing and acting. It elevates the mob movie to the level of myth, with those rich, shadowy brown and gold images, and in its approach becomes a film about the American ideal and what it does to the soul.
All that will not be conveyed by simply recounting the story points. As well, to try to discuss a film without considering its use of form is a gross oversight. Cinema is a too complex an animal- often, as with To The Wonder below, a tremendous amount of meaning is communicated not through binary elements like dialogue and performance, but through composition, camera movement, choice of angle, color, music, and editing.
Editing is what separates film from all other art forms and makes film unique- nowhere else can you juxtapose moving images next to each other. Directors know it is the tool for communicating to the audience: by placing one shot after another one, you're creating a third thing- meaning- that wouldn't exist without the juxtaposition. However, it's also unquestionably the part of the process critics discuss least- most likely because they come from backgrounds other than film (typically journalism or English instead), and either don't fully comprehend its value, or lack the terminology to express it. Sometimes filmmakers make the best critics. Just sayin'!
Listed here are my top three films of 2013, with the links to the remainder of the list below.
1. Le Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (Sorrentino)
A one-time writer in his sixties lives comfortably in Rome's party scene, finding beauty underneath the surfaces of a chaotic life. Trailer.
Most feel-good movies, like comedies and romantic comedies, or inspirational sports pictures, end on a note that feels temporarily satisfying... and also hollow. We know real life is more complex than what films like these show, and the feeling of goodness they engender passes quickly.
The Great Beauty, about a still-popular writer (Tony Servillo, regular Sorrentino collaborator) trying to decide if he should write again, ends up being a feel-good film as well, albeit by way of a circuitous route. But the goodness it instils within us is different: it is grounded, and deep. We feel great about life afterwards, not because we've been distracted by falsely hopeful images, but because we feel a truth of fundamental value has been revealed to us. The realization the protagonist experiences at the conclusion stands to me as one of the great moments in film, because it is one of the most valuable insights a person can have in this life. I'd like to give it away so as to discuss it more concretely, but I leave that discovery to you.
I'll instead mention how much the film lives up to its title. Every shot is a marvel of photography, whether through choice of color, composition, or use of light. The sun cascades through an open window, backlighting our hero as he considers writing again for the first time. The frame roves restlessly through rooms and parties, tracking behind children playing in an ancient garden, lie-affirming in its controlled movement and energy. The beauty of the female body seems less exploited than celebrated; the same for the crumbling, dirty metropolis known as Rome. Sorrentino doesn't hide the fact that the city is falling apart, but finds beauty in the textures of passing time.
The opening party scene is an editing marvel: figures gyrate under strobes of neon, and the images are arranged in sequence that proves hypnotic, combining the fast and the slow, quick glances of faces and gestures leaving an impression long after they've gone. Then there is the music, an expansive compilation of existing works, from Italian pop to Kronos Quartet to Arvo Part. It feels like a tapestry of all the many details of life- not unlike the film as a whole. Sorrentino seems to be seeking to show not a slice of modern life, but aiming for the impossible task of suggesting all of it, as seen through the lens of an older man whose studied perception is just as vibrant as anyone else's- perhaps moreso, because of the nigh-Taoist calm with which he sees it all.
This picture is a sensual overload, and it closes on a note of quiet joy utterly unique to itself. Far and away the film of the year.
2. To The Wonder (Malick)
A Parisian woman (Olga Kurylenko) moves to Oklahoma, struggling to find happiness while married to her husband (Ben Affleck). A local priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his faith. Trailer.
In the heady days when auteur theory was first burgeoning forth, courtesy of Andrew Sarris, Truffaut, and others, it was a taken a s point of pride and skill when a director could assert his authorial voice in his films such that you could instantly identify who its maker was. This concept still holds largely true, and I for one believe there's no better definition for a great director. Howard Hawks said it best when Peter Bogdonavich once asked him whhat great direction was: "when you can tell who the devil made it."
When you put on any film by Scorsese, Fellini, Welles, Mann, Antonioni- it doesn't take more than a few minutes to tell who the director is. The confident and dexterous clarity of voice these greats and others possess is, in my mind, the indicator of a great director by the same measure in wchich we evaluate great authors and composers.
Not everyone loves Malick, but everyone will agree that his films are instantly identifiable. His latest is by far his most divisive, but I think it's one of his best. To The Wonder follows a woman's (Kurylenko) relationship with her husband (Affleck) and a priest's (Javier Bardem) relationship to God. Both are searching for- what? happiness, self-realization, peace. Deep, inner satisfaction.
The film assumes your understanding of the basic plot and chooses to go deeper, dispensing with story and exploring instead the textures of this search. The approach feels both broadly sketched and startlingly intimate (especially in its use of voiceover) at the same time. Definitely the most abstract of Malick's already fairly abstract work, the content of To The Wonder is told mostly through its elliptically sequenced images. Affleck told audiences at Telluride that the film "makes Tree of Life look like Transformers," and indeed, it's a challenging film- but only if you're expecting a normal movie. I say let the images wash over you. The joy of the camera, swinging through the trees in Paris, making tangible the energy of early love; the mystery of the last two shots, which when paired together evoke a loss, but also the calmness of having been found; whispered nothings on the soundtrack, ruminations of lonely people, as they walk around in the corners of the widescreen frame. Don't try to decode everything- let the ideas and sensations work their way into you, right-brain style, of their own accord. Things will click together on your drive home, or a day later.
Suffice it to say that if you're feeling adventurous, and are someone who finds yourself ruminating often on whether or not love is connected to self-realization, or the existence of God, the frustration of not knowing people who are close to you, or breaking free from doubt... you'll find this film of interest. Certainly there is no more rapturously beautiful film to come out this year- wherever Malick turns his artful gaze, our perspective is transformed by his. Sight & Sound critic Nick Pinkerton writes on the subject better than I can:
"Malick is one of few filmmakers who could, in the space of a few images, go from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy to a fast-food drive-through in Oklahoma without implying a pejorative judgement about either, dismissing the Old World for the New or vice versa. At one point, Bardem’s priest preaches about the necessary will behind a husband’s conjugal love – “He does not find [his wife] lovely, he makes her lovely” – and Malick similarly does not film things because they are beautiful; they become beautiful because he films them."
Malick, a former Oxford Philosophy professor (he translated Heidegger's Essence of Reasons into English), invests his films with a wisdom of observation that makes the act of watching his films feel valuable- but never in a preachy way, as most of the meat of the picture is not explicit, but implicit in imagery and music.
Pinkerton's full review is one of the best pieces on the film; also insightful is Roger Ebert's- this was the last film Ebert reviewed before dying. Both men offer similar appraisals on the film while coming from very different places, and address some of the concerns brought up by other viewers. Not a film everyone will take to, but one I can't get enough of.
3. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
True story of a free black American who was captured and enslaved for twelve years before escaping. Trailer.
There isn't much to say about Slave that hasn't already been eloquently discussed elsewhere. Steve McQueen's new film is among the more powerful cinematic experiences I've seen in my life. It remains 2013's best-reviewed film, and I find the verdict of the critical community impossible to disagree with. I'll restrict my comments to those I feel are underrepresented in the discussion:
To open the pages of Solomon Northup's book is to be teleported instantly back in time. His memoir of his horrific experiences cuts across the intervening century with unexpected force, and the film, which sources the book heavily, possesses an authenticity I have not encountered in other films about the period. To have this document, written by a highly educated black man who lived through the events, is something approaching a national treasure. It reveals how much artifice there is in other supposedly historically accurate slavery films.
We know from evidence how much differently language was used in the 1940s as compared to films made in the 1940s; here, we see characters who speak in ways we've never heard in the movies before. The articulateness, the cadence and rhythm- all derive from Solomon's firsthand experience, and as such illuminate the world in ways that startle in their clarity.
Mr. McQueen's images are muted in their style as compared to his normal approach, but they are still visually compelling. Some reviewers have taken him to task for this, calling the film "too beautiful," but I have to go to sleep when I hear such arguments: using natural lighting in the American south is unavoidably going to give you vivid images. Part of the horror of the film is how such atrocities could occur in such a natural paradise. The distinctly southern landscape shots of the willow trees, sunsets and bayous contrast the horror, and in their containment of slavery help us see the land into how Solomon must've felt when in them: unremittingly ugly, and symbolic of cruelty.
As for McQueen's sophisticated use of chiaroscuro lighting and visually dynamic compositions, he is not aestheticizing the content, so much as doing his simply job as director- maximizing the potential of the image to be a device for communicating information to the audience.
For example, note the infamous flogging scene. Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o's character, cannot turn away from the torture inflicted on her; and so neither can we, because McQueen does not cut away at all during the scene, which is filmed in a single unbroken take. Her pain is relentless and without pause, and so then is the language of the camera, not breaking up the scene with edits, using pans instead (it's the only scene in the film with handheld pans). This isn't style overwhelming substance; it's style in the service of substance, making for a more unified and compelling experience. There is absolutely no reason why a film about human tragedy, or any other subject, for that matter, should be visually placid.
Critics who take McQueen to task on this issue are ignoring the inescapable fact of the inherent beauty and texture of the American south, as well as misunderstanding the director's responsibility as truth-teller and skilled visual communicator. They ought to be ashamed of themselves, in other words!
Among cinema's most valid reason for existing is its ability to engender empathy. Few other art forms are as potent in their capacity for getting us to experience the world through another person's shoes. Not everyone possesses this skill, and I think it's invaluable for being a useful member of the world community. There is still tremendous anger and unresolved frustration over slavery, the great and enduring embarrassment of our country. Although this is not an American film, I feel it only fitting that this be required viewing for every American; let it be shown in all the schools, that our children might more clearly understand the conditions of life their ancestors were forced to call commonplace. Slave is the first film about American slavery told from the perspective of a slave. Its journey and insights are deeply and cogently valuable to comprehending the human condition. Perhaps not the best, nor certainly my favorite, but definitely the most moving film I've seen in years.
The rest of the list:
5. The Past
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. Fruitvale Station
8. American Hustle
9. Before Midnight
10. Dallas Buyers Club
11. Captain Phillips
13. Inside Llewyn Davis
14. Blue is the Warmest Color