8. American Hustle (O'Russell)
Four lives- a con artist, his lover, his wife, and an FBI agent- intertwine as all find themselves involved in the ABSCAM sting operation. With Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. Trailer.
American Hustle can hardly be called a movie, although it's certainly a smashing one. It's more like a wild animal, propulsively covering ground in a mad and disciplined rush, unfettered from the chains of mediocrity and prosaic formulas. I cannot overstate the heady rush of exhileration one experiences when watching David O'Russell's latest. You walks out of the theatre on that cinematic high you typically get in a Scorsese picture.
I wrote last year of Affleck's resurrection as a serious writer-director; O'Russell's renaissance is no less interesting. While he has always been acknowledged as talented, his reputation as an infantile, stubborn tantrum-thrower tended to dominate the conversation before 2005. There was the very public falling out with George Clooney during Three Kings. We remember the alleged head-butt, and the handwritten open letter by Clooney, ever reasonable, as he defended the rights of crew who were being verbally abused on set. Topping that was the infamous moment- caught on video, or we wouldn't believe it- wherein O'Russell chews out Lily Tomlin in 2003 using what NY Times' Sharon Waxman calls "the crudest word(s) imaginable."
Then there was Nailed, which shut down production in 2008 four times and was never finished, due to financial issues. While tantrums were not the cause for these problems, the chatter in the hallways of LA didn't hesitate to point fingers in O'Russell's direction, clucking with a lack of surprise: with him at the helm, did we expect anything else?
At the time it was assumed O'Russell's career was over. Careers can end on one movie, and when the nail is hammered this many times, there's no ambiguity about it (witness former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan's last five films, in which he dug himself deeper and deeper, each feature progressively worse in some way than the last). Extreme, drawn-out cases like this are unusual.
Which is why O'Russell's resurrection- the overused term really is appropriate here- is all the more staggering. Six years after Huckabees, his last theatrical release, and two years following the Nailed shoot, he came out in winter of 2010 with The Fighter, which opened to excellent reviews, broke $125 million domestic, and landed seven Academy Award nominations including Picture and Director.
He almost didn't get to make the film. It was shepherded into existence by Mark Wahlberg, who offered it first to Scorsese, who wasn't interested, having just explored the Boston setting with The Departed; next Darren Aranofsky signed on to direct, hired Christian Bale, and then begged off preproduction to do Robocop instead (which he also later dropped out of, favoring Black Swan). Wahlberg and Bale together turned to O'Russell, who then made the entire film in just 33 days on a paltry $11 million budget. When the awards started rolling in, O'Russell made his publicity rounds as the very picture of dignified humility, giving the world the picture of a repentant and disciplined craftsman intent on doing good work. Now, in 2013, more than enough time has gone by that we can see this is no act.
How did this metamorphasis happen? I prefer to let the man speak for himself, as he does in this excellent Huffington Post interview. "I was overthinking things," he says. "My head was up my ass." After a difficult period involving some significant life changes, he found new inspiration and grounding in "a kind of filmmaking about a kind of person....ordinary people living operatic emotions. Lives, predicaments and survival....I stay hungry like it's my first film or my last film. We mean everything in these films from the heart as much as we can."
Indeed, there is a palpable sense of unpretentious excitement in these three latest works of his. The highly mobile camera seems wired into the accelerated pace of the characters' inner lives; it moves as if completely untethered, gliding past faces and singing through rooms. Steadicam operator Geoff Haley deserves praise for making a punishingly difficult task so seamless. There's a high-energy joy to the camerawork not unlike that of Scorsese or '90s Paul Thomas Anderson.
As well, his aforementioned focus on the working class is a particular standout. A great majority of films are either about the very rich, or the very poor. Not everyone is a graphic designer with a condo in Manhattan, or a backwoods alcoholic in West Virginia. Who makes films about people who drive 1995 Honda Civics?
O'Russell's three newest pictures have in common their interest in the working class, and I find this incredibly refreshing. He invests the films with an energy revealing how real and immediate ordinary lives are. Each of the performances in Hustle (incredibly, all four leads are nominated for their respective roles) is rich with nervous energy and carefully observed details. Note the enthusiasm with which Bale talks about his dry-cleaning business, or the casual brilliance of the intertwining narration when Christian Bale and Amy Adams' characters first meet, letting us in on each person's private thoughts. The film is a positive deluge of such moments of creativity.
Each film expands in scope from its predecessor, and Hustle is the largest yet of O'Russell's new phase, with its multiple relationship dynamics and mechanics of the con. It sets itself apart from- and above- other con movies in being more focused on character than plotting; because of this, the film will hold with time. Most great films are character-based. Don't listen to those who tell you story is everything. When the plot is the focus of a film's text, it loses value on repeat viewings because we already know what will happen. The drama of humans learning, behaving, and misbehaving is endlessly more fascinating. We watch Citizen Kane over and over not because of how much we like the story developments of a newspaper tycoon's business falling apart. Nobody remembers the story progression of Kane. It's the downfall of the character and his tragic transition from childhood to material success that captivates us so. We are people, and are thus fascinated by the lives of other people. American Hustle knows this, and carries it all off with an unaffected aplomb.
9. Before Midnight (Linklater)
The third in a trilogy, following Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, exploring the romance between lovers Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). Each film is set and was filmed nine years apart. Trailer.
In September of 2012 the news broke that Hawke and Linklater were "in the writing stages" of Before Midnight, working out some ideas. "If it works out, we'll film it, and if it doesn't, we won't. It's not really worth talking about. I'm just here developing," Hawke said at the time. Just over a week later they announced that they had actually already finished the film, and were taking it to Toronto! The film has been riding a wave of accolades ever since, and deservedly so.
Before Midnight contains the best special effect you'll see all year- and by that I mean the acting. As with the previous two films in the trilogy, Linklater trains the camera on his actors and lets the film roll, and roll... and roll. He'll use a full magazine (about ten minutes) on one continuous shot of the two leads talking. There's one such scene early on of Delpy and Hawke in a car. The complexity of the dialogue they're performing would be impressive no matter how it was filmed, but to see the actors read it out with no breaks is staggering.
The unbroken take is one of the last proofs of actuality in cinema. When Buster Keaton did all those physical feats of derring-do he was so adept at, we looked on in shock and awe, since we know that's really him on top of that train. This feeling of being stunned by cinema's ability to document has waned, and is today all but gone. We assume technical wizardry is involved whenever confronted with amazing imagery onscreen.
Have you ever seen a sunset in life so beautiful that, were you to see it in a film, you'd be convinced it was a fake? During the filming of the climax of Tony Scott's Man on Fire, which involves a man walking from one side a bridge to the other, a volcano some distance behind the actors suddenly erupted. Initially Scott was thrilled- what could possibly be more dramatic? But upon looking over the rushes, Scott saw that he could never put that footage in the final film because, in his words, "it looked like a damn Disney movie." It was real, but our belief in the veracity of the film image has largely evaporated. Nobody would've believed it.
However. The unbroken take is a very hard thing to replicate using digital effects without being very obvious. We know, watching the opening of Touch of Evil, or The Player, or the climactic nine-minute shot in Children of Men, that what we are seeing is undeniably continuous. We can see, in the famous seventeen-minute dialogue shot in Steve McQueen's Hunger (what is now simply called The Scene, which contains 28 pages of dialogue with no cuts; the camera was adapted to hold a longer film reel), that we really are looking at two people talking for seventeen minutes. It stands in contemporary cinema as one of the last hallmarks of truth-telling- there are no cuts to hide behind. While it's possible to blend shots together in post (Spielberg's minivan shot in War of the Worlds does this), such instances are rare. The whole point of a continuous take is to show that something is real.
All the Before films contain plenty of long-running shots, and they're a joy to behold. Many have said acting is the best special effect, and that truism is on full dsplay here.
Of course, viewers of Sunrise and Sunset will not be surprised by this. Midnight is shot and performed in the same impeccable manner as the previous films, once again using dialogue written- not improvised- by the actors. What can we say about this latest entry that sets it apart?
Before Sunrise contained the budding excitement of burgeoning romantic youth. Sunset found the couple nine years later, and showed the complexities and challenges that live alongside the beauty of love. Midnight, set a further nine years later, follows the arc of this trajectory, throwing us full-force into the mire of unhappiness relationships can become. Whereas unhappiness was but a faint glimmer in the first film, here it is happiness which is so relegated. Midnight is a sobering experience, but a truthful one. It pulls no punches in its depiction of the aching experience of collapse. I hesitate to reveal more except to say that with the exception of Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, there is no more thoroughly studied and complete cinematic depiction of the full course of a human relationship than what is offered in this trilogy. I can't recommend it enough.
10. Dallas Buyers Club (Vallee)
True story of Ron Woodruff, an electrician, hustler and rodeo man who in 1985 contracted AIDS and, through illegal means, helped thousands of AIDS victims get the medication they needed. Costarring Jared Leto. Trailer.
McConaughey is a revelation here. The story allows for many moments of juicy scenery-chewing, not least of which is the moment when Woodruff discovers he has AIDS, and McConaughey makes the most of the role in a performance at once subtle, brash, and thoroughly lived in. His natural charisma melds well with the character's wily, high-energy self, and the resulting vitality centers the film and propels it forward. McConaughey himself was instrumental in the long and arduous journey of getting the film made, and his passion for the project is more than apparent in the performance.
Jared Leto, as a flamboyant cross-dressing man who ends up befriending the notoriously homophobic Woodruff, is also magnetic, most of all in a scene in which Leto's character confronts his father. We expect Leto to be great, however. The world is still acclimating to the thought of McConaughey as one of the best working actors. After this film and his other performances this year, there can be no doubt on the matter.
As well, Jean-Marc Vallee's (The Young Victoria) direction is as much of a surprise. It isn't simply competent, as many actor-centric awards pieces are (Beautiful Mind, The Queen), but noticeably and effectively creative. To be frank, I wasn't expecting this. Many fourth-quarter dramas find themselves overpraised critically because the language for critiquing acting and writing is well-worn, since those disciplines have origins in other art forms. Film critics often hail from journalism or literature backgrounds, and are primed to analyze these components. They're thrilled when something is strong on themes, dialogue and performance.
Much less often do they have experience with the filmmaking process, or an understanding of direction, cinematography, and editing- those elements which truly set film apart, and are every bit as important. When the (stellar) reviews became coming in for Dallas, a film by a little-known director, I was expecting something strong on narrative and performance, but not much else. I was wrong.
This is more than an acting showcase. Vallee manages to get away with transforming important subject matter into a wild, entertaining ride. His aesthetic sensibility is rich and propulsive. He uses the 2.35 frame well, making the film seem larger with strong, muscular compositions. The images are drenched in soft pastels and muted warm tones, evoking a time period without over-relying on costumes and cars to remind us where we are. He'll use color to set a mood, allowing the dialogue the freedom to explore other concerns. Some of the film's best moments are the brief occasions of silence in a loud, chaotic life- Woodruff alone in his car crying, hiding behind sunglasses and bravado. Vallee centers him in the composition here; usually Woodruff is careening around in the frame, or pushed to one side. His placement in the frame is linked to how he feels at that moment in the story- confident, exposed, nervous. Great films do a lot of their communicating visually, and Vallee's directorial choices are no exception. The spare use of music is commendable in its own right, and all the more compelling when used.
There is a vigor in this film that is undeniable. When a man can overcome his prejudices and open up his worldview, while also doing good for others- really, what could be more rejuvenating to witness? It's not surprising in the end that Dallas is deeply affecting. What's surprising is how utterly entertaining it is as well.