It's that time of year again. The nominations are out, the awards circuit is humming, and the reviews and awards are stacking up. My great love of film compels me to share with you my list of the year's top ten films (actually, fourteen films) on a blog that simply has nothing doing with such matter. I've often wondered at how my intense love of public transit fits in with my passion for the arts. What could those two worlds possibly have to do with each other?
A fascination and love for humanity, thats what. In that respect film has everything to do with the frame of mind through which I observe the people. Great films are meaningful, truthful considerations of human nature, where ideas are presented with a high level of craft. In that spirit I see every reason to include these writeups alongside the bus stories, and I hope you enjoy them.
Starting with the bottom of the list first, here are the final four entries, plus some thoughts on a film that didn't make the list. Refer here for my thoughts on film in 2012.
11. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
True story of the 2009 American cargo ship hijacking, the first such event in two hundred years: Somali pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his cohorts overtake Captain Richard Phillips' (Tom Hanks) ship, the Maersk Alabama. Trailer.
Phillips' greatest conceit is to consider the above story a two-hander between American ship captain (Tom Hanks) and Somali pirate (Barkhad Abdi). This is not a film about The Other invading the world of The American Hero. Rather, it's about two men doing their respective jobs as they clash violently. Both are attempting to bring home a day's worth of bread to support themselves and their families. We begin with the home lives of both men, which could hardly be any more different, and watch as each is made aware of the similarities extant in the other. Mr. Greengrass' work, especially outside of the Bourne series, is intensely mature, in the traditional sense of the word; all the characters are intelligent people with disciplined skill sets and focused concerns. There are no kids, comic relief characters, or romantic subplots here.
Greengrass' technique remains unparalleled. He has practically devised his own genre of handheld verismilitude; cinematographers know there are many ways to shoot handheld, and his is intentionally chaotic, with the edits designed to keep the eyes moving. Shots follow shots in ways that violate any sense of where the eye anticipates the next point of interest to be.
Note how easily Rule of Thirds is violated, and the anachronistic sensibility of haphazard compositions being forced in to the rigorous Scope aspect ratio. The camera operator seems entirely unaware of how the action will unfold, and as such it all feels immediate and real- the camera never leads the action. At the same time there is a cinematic quality as well: nobody shoots documentaries in 2.35:1.
An outstanding, full-blooded piece of cinema, timely, probing, and concerned with reality. A triumph of technique and humanity- the final moments contain an emotional power as strong as anything on screen this year. Those last three or so minutes are undoubtedly the best acting Hanks has ever done, and the film is a success for getting us to see a pirate and a captain as equals, and to feel for both by the film's end.
12. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Two boys find themselves helping a runaway fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) in the backwoods of the Arkansas Delta. Trailer.
Mud contains more than mere echoes of Mark Twain. It evokes Mr. Clemens' canonical works in a deeply satisfying way, while also bringing the unique voice of Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), who wrote as well as directed. A richly textured piece about adults as seen through the eyes of children, replete with the authenticity of a director who has lived in the world he's depicting.
McConaughey knocks it out of the park with a carefully modulated performance blowing away anything previously seen in his entire career; in mid-2013 that was a surprise, but now, at the end of the year, with three other appearances on this top ten list alone, his prodigious talent is eagerly expected.
The film is also curious in its multiple definitions of what it means to be a man. Different adult characters harbor contrasting views on masculinity, and the film does an excellent job of portraying how bewildering the options are for young boys.
13. Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Charts the full course of a relationship between two young girls. Trailer.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain) has a nigh-exploitative gaze in this film, and I'm not speaking only about those sex scenes. I don't recall his other work being so eager to enter into characters' personal space. Kechiche's camera ventures close to the actor's faces regardless of their emotional state, offering lingering closeups of things we rarely see in films (people chewing with their mouths open) or things we thought we saw a lot, but really just had no idea (crying, crying, and more crying). I feel like I saw more tears shed in this film than the last decade of cinema. It's an exhausting experience.
And an excellent one. The result of this invasive camera is that we are drawn closely into the private worlds of these two characters in ways we are not accustomed. After seeing the film, one finds oneself wondering what the characters will do next, temporarily forgetting they are fictional. An intimacy is established in the language of the camera and also in the substantial runtime (179 minutes), allowing room for the scenes to breathe, and for complex emotions to be delineated. In a teenager's life, everything happening right now is the most important thing, and this urgency is well communicated in the high-impact approach.
The actors augment this with two searing, devastating performances which, though staggeringly effective, were had at a high price (witness this now-famous Cannes interview, wherein the two leads describe the ordeal of the film, calling it by far the worst professional experience they've ever had). The moment where the two leads first converse, as well as the scene in which they break up, alternately engross and stun the viewer in their communication of pure, unadulterated emotion.
Blue is also unique in its anticipation of criticisms. The film's text addresses criticism we might have, from within the film itself. The film's opening lines discuss digressions, fitting for a three-hour film; elsewhere, characters argue over what right males (such as Blue's director) have to depict female pleasure (such as the protagonists), and what validity there is in their attempts. It is a remarkably self-contained piece, incredibly focused and pulsing with the contemporary immediacy of young love, watching intently as the characters stumble, dance, and crash through their relationship, reaching out for that elusive and tenuous catharsis we find in the journey from self-absorbed to self-aware.
14. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Coen Brothers)
Based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, follows a week in the life of a young singer (Oscar Isaac) as he attempts to negotiate the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Costarring Carey Mulligan. Trailer.
The traditional narrative arc has conditioned us to expect a number of things when going into a film, no matter how avant-garde. The conceit of using film as a storytelling medium automatically repurposes it as a device best suited for exploring the lives of one, or perhaps two, protagonists. Film is an exterior medium, and the act of developing the internal states of the characters in a way that's relatable to the audience takes time. Too much more and the piece starts to collapse. Large-scale casts in the tradition of Altman or P.T. Anderson still operate on this conceit, simply expanding their scope to consider a larger number of individuals. Within their intercutting narratives, they are still exploring characters in the way more traditional single-protagonist narratives do, albeit with less time spent on each character. Only a few films truly seek to communicate the human experience in a manner other than through the perspective of a limited number of individuals. Malick's The Thin Red Line conceives of humanity as a collective; Ken Lonergan's Margaret incorporates the city of New York into his story, in an effort to remind the audience how insignificant the protagonist's concerns, or that of any individual person, ultimately are.
This tradition has led to other expectations as well. There are fundamental principles we are used to, such as a series of representational scenes intended to be considered in relation with each other, usually as a linear sequence; and, less abstractly, an expectation that the protagonist in question will learn or experience something of value at the film's climax. As humans watching human characters we care about, we expect closure in narrative, usually in the form of a success for the character. I don't care how avant-garde you are. We respond to catharsis, period.
The easiest way to provide catharsis is through a happy ending that also feels earned. We've all sat through generations of sports films, and experienced the rush- or the boredom- of success in the final game. Peter Berg's film Friday Night Lights is admirably refreshing for how it subverts this expectation while still providing catharsis. Inside Llewyn Davis is similar.
We know from Dave Van Ronk's real-life story that he never made it as a musician. It's no spoiler to say that the Coen's film follows Ronk's trajectory truthfully. But is his life any less worth exploring? We've been conditioned by the onslaught of movies about impossible true successes to imagine they happen all the time. We forget how many millions more try for material success, throw their whole lives into it, without ever finding it. Nevermind that they distract themselves out of ever considering whether that success would bring them any actual happiness.
Inside is a bittersweet picture, with a lot to chew on. Like Wolf of Wall Street, one of several pictures made this year about characters looking for success in all the wrong places, it asks the audience to provide the sort of solutions usually offered by the film itself. Both pictures present a persistent real-life problem and leave it unsolved at the film's conclusion, forcing us to do some mental weightlifting as we determine where we stand on such issues. I'd say more, but I don't want to spoil things. A sobering but worthwhile piece.
Photographic enthusiasts might ask why this is the first Coens film in decades to be made without ace cinematographer Roger Deakins; on the record it's because Deakins was busy with Skyfall. But with Deakins now saying he won't shoot on film again, I can only wonder whether the Coens, film purists that they are, will continue their collaboration with him. Inside, shot by the talented Bruno Delbonnel, has a very filmlike image, rich in tonal range and muted blues and grays. There seems to be hardly any direct sunlight, somehow befitting the Greenwich Village scene as well as the frustrated mind of the protagonist.
Not on the Top Ten list, or anywhere near it: Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)
An aging father incorrectly believes he has won a million dollars, and sets off through the midwest with his adult son to claim it. Trailer.
At the risk of completely discrediting myself in your eyes, I'm obliged by my strong feelings to share with you how intensely I disliked this film. I hated it, and I never use the word hate. I don't hate anything- except perhaps Nebraska. The film has multiple nominations including Best Picture, excellent reviews (86 Metacritic, 91/96 Rotten Tomatoes), and a number of awards and festival wins, most notably Best Actor for Bruce Dern at Cannes- in essence, a unanimously rapturous reception from the critical community and the less-discerning Academy.
I hated it.
I saw the film when it opened in LA, before it received the nominations it has, but I still knew at the time of its excellent reviews. Additionally, I'd never seen an Alexander Payne movie I didn't like. Francois Truffaut famously said "there are no bad films, just bad directors," and I agree; what he meant was that a good director won't make a bad film, but an interesting one. Look at the lesser efforts of the great directors; they're never terrible. They're flawed but fascinating, often with moments of greatness.
Which is why, upon walking out of Nebraska, I was more confused than disappointed. Mr. Truffaut's rule just doesn't hold here. Could Mr. Payne, director of the excellent The Descendants, and Sideways, really have turned out such a misfire? Dustin Hoffman recently said that acting has gotten to a general level of quality that if a film is bad, it's rarely because of the acting. But here, even the acting is lacklustre; only Dern holds the frame, and he's hampered by the script. Will Forte seems to be phoning it in, and June Squibb's lauded performance is in my mind one-note, its appeal having more to do with the writing than what she brings to the table.
Bob Nelson's script contains moments of humor but hardly any moments of compelling human interaction; what glimmers there are are shot down by the non-starter of a premise. From the first scene we know there is no million-dollar reward. That's fine, but instead there needs to be some sort of drama in the interaction between Father and Son, some kind of growth or catharsis or revelation- but no, there are only superficial victories. No character is deeply developed- the supporting characters are cardboard cutouts, and Dern, prodigious talent that he is, is forced into scene after scene of stumbling around in bars and provoking others. I don't mind if a film's characters don't learn anything (See Scorsese's work), but the audience needs to feel justified for sitting through two hours of unlikable characters.
Then there are the visuals. In my mind, few things are uglier or more noticeable than digital black and white. Payne has never been strong on visuals, the strengths in his work normally being the writing and performances; here where those two are oddly lacking, the banal nature of the cinematography is doubly apparent. I'm convinced the only reason this film is up for Cinematography is because it's in black and white. Had the film been in color, I'm convinced the Meta and RT scores would be twenty points lower than they are. Compositionally, the shots go nowhere, never venturing beyond the most boilerplate mise-en-scene. Capable lenser Phedon Papamichael's lighting is flattened, hindered by Payne's decision to go digital B&W.
Film's beauty in part results from its grain structure, which gives the impression of a "living," organic, breathing image; it is also unique in its tremendously wide latitude between light and dark, and its vast tonal range. Digital lacks all of these elements, and on digital black and white images, the reduced range of tones flattens the image, and in a moving image, the lack of grain is especially noticeable. Compare Frances Ha (digital) with any of the New Wave films it draws from- from Cleo From 5 to 7 to Vivre sa Vie. Compare Nebraska with Night of the Hunter, La Notte- anything shot on B&W film, really, from low-budget work like
Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) to much older work (L'Atalante), which still looks better. There's no comparison. Faithful readers know how much I adore film, and while I admit digital has its values, it has no place being used to shoot moving images in black and white.
Why am I ragging on a film with obviously good intentions? Somebody has to. We all have that film which everyone else loves, and which we are mystified by. Not only does Nebraska have stellar reviews, it has, incredibly, no negative reviews by any major publication. I must do my part as the lone wolf in the wilderness. Please, feel free to love Nebraska. Everyone else does. But if you have a nagging feeling about it, well, I guess that's why I'm here.