The Films of 2013: American Hustle

American Hustle opens magisterially, with a blast of jazz—Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,” from his Live at Newport album—ostensibly because, as we later learn, it’s the album over which the film’s central couple, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, realize that they share a deep connection.  But the use of Ellington is important in other ways, too, not least of which being that it signals to us the nature of the film we’re about to watch.  Its infectious soundtrack of ’70s pop hits notwithstanding, American Hustle is governed by the spirit of jazz; it’s a jazz performance, a jam session for five talented actors who might be called “The David O. Russell Quintet,” after the writer-director who here serves as their band-leader and showman.  The sheer pleasure of this film, which is otherwise pretty slight, lies in watching these five, four of whom are Russell veterans, riff together so ecstatically. 

The Films of 2013: Her

Her, the new film written and directed by Spike Jonze, is a post-modern love story founded on an intriguing “what if” conceit.  Where 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—written by Jonze’s sometime collaborator Charlie Kaufman—wondered about the implications of erasing one’s memories in order to cope with the pain of loss, Her imagines the possibility of romance between humans and operating systems sentient enough to experience feelings of love and sexual desire.  Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson play the film’s unlikely couple, both adrift in a subtly futuristic vision of Los Angeles.  Phoenix’s Theodore is a mopey, socially awkward writer who works for a service that drafts and sends personalized “hand-written” letters to customers’ loved ones.  Johansson’s Samantha is his “OS,” a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence program tasked primarily with organizing his hard drive and alerting him to important e-mail—a kind of virtual secretary.  But as Theodore begins to rely on Samantha for more personal tasks (she counsels him about dating, friends, and a pending divorce), and as she finds herself grappling with the limitations of her consciousness (she’s capable of human thought and emotion, but, lacking a body, is unable to experience physical sensation), their bond becomes curiously intimate.   


The Films of 2013: At Berkeley

You may not be familiar with the work of Frederick Wiseman, but the Boston-based documentarian has been making films since the 1960s (he’s now eighty-three) and recently won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics’ Circle.  Wiseman’s documentaries, though shot verité-style, without voice-over narration, interviews, or non-diagetic music, should not be thought of as objective; on the contrary, they’re cannily edited and frequently excoriating.  But many of them are also refreshingly, tantalizingly open-ended.  That’s true of his latest, At Berkeley, a four-hour-long panorama of the California public college famous for its radical politics and outspoken student body.  Wiseman shows us footage of faculty lectures and committee meetings, student performances and social events, administrators and janitors, undergraduates and groundskeepers.  Wiseman’s scope is vast, and, as with his most ambitious films (Near Death; Belfast, Maine), At Berkeley is not driven by argument so much as by a voracious appetite for observational detail.  These details are worked into a sprawling tapestry to be laid at our feet, leaving us to draw our own conclusions by tracing its many threads and patterns.  A demanding and uncompromising artist, Wiseman continually asks us: what do you see?


The Films of 2013: Nebraska

With Nebraska, Alexander Payne comes home: after recent jaunts to sunnier climes—California wine country in Sideways and Hawaii in The Descendants—the Omaha native is back in the American heartland that he knows best, and his return couldn’t be more welcome.  The new film, a road story in which cantankerous retiree Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) convinces his son Peter (Will Forte) to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska (he’s hoping to cash in a million-dollar sweepstakes letter he received in the mail), is firmly rooted in the Midwestern landscapes, rituals, mannerisms, and social spaces that Payne understands so instinctively and that haunt his superb early works Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt.  I think that Nebraska deserves to be placed among those films, in part because it taps more deeply into that lonely, aching, funny-sad hauntedness than anything Payne has done before.  Somewhat audaciously, it’s a family comedy built, much like Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, on a the bleak understanding that vast expanses of our country are made up of dead or dying towns populated by dead or dying people.  That Payne and his screenwriter, Bob Nelson, are able to find humor in these bleakest of places doesn’t allow us to shake the film’s eerie sense of the rural Midwest as a space out of time, a graveyard, a ghost world.  Phedon Papamichael’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography only emphasizes that ghostliness; the film’s characters, the average age of which is about seventy, seem to be going about their lives in a world lost to history, and the film even presents itself as something from a bygone era, right down to its vintage poster and reincarnation of forgotten ’70s-era stars like Dern and Stacy Keach.