The Films of 2013: Looking back

[EDIT: Since publishing this list, I've shuffled the order of my top three films.  It occurred to me upon greater reflection that I not only enjoyed Frances Ha more than any other film of the year, it's probably also the year's best made film.  That said, it, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Nebraska are all such great films--and in such different ways--that (re)ordering them seems somewhat arbitrary and meaningless.] 

2013 was a year of many very good films and almost no masterpieces.  I liked but couldn’t love either of the year’s two most highly regarded releases, Steve McQueen’s sober historical drama 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s balletic space odyssey Gravity, despite having responded very strongly to McQueen and Cuaron’s earlier work; both films seemed to sag under the weight of their own prestige, and while I responded to them in the moment they have since faded from my memory.  The better films this year were lighter, fleeter, and funnier (nos. 1 through 4 of my top ten are all comedies to varying degrees).  It was also a joy to see gifted but scattershot filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh deliver some of the best work of their respective careers—and to see a return to form from Alexander Payne, whose Nebraska is probably his best film since Election.  For what it’s worth, here’s what stuck with me:


The Films of 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Roger Ebert once wrote of Federico Fellini that his film language was so masterfully simple that it felt like breathing.  You feel that same sense of mastery in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen.  As many will no doubt already be aware, it’s set mostly in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, at the height of the folk music craze.  Its title character is a singer-songwriter fallen on hard times: petulant and often careless, he has alienated himself from many of his friends and colleagues, and he is told that his moody folk ballads aren’t marketable.  Much of the humor and pathos of the film comes from the Coens introducing even more complications—a runaway cat; a road trip with eccentric, unfriendly strangers; an unplanned pregnancy—to Davis’s already complicated situation.  Underneath (or inside) the absurdist plot devices and comic gags, it’s a character study about a talented person whose ambitions keep getting sabotaged, sometimes by his own stubbornness and pride, sometimes by forces that seem to be outside of his control.  (The film’s cleverly designed structure further suggests that Davis might be the victim of karmic fate, doomed to repeat his mistakes until he learns how to avoid them.)


The Films of 2013: Three more short takes

In preparation for making my annual year’s-best list, I recently caught up with three films that I had missed during their initial theatrical runs.  (All of them are now available on DVD and/or on demand.) 

Andrew Bujalski’s sly and funny Computer Chess succeeds on a number of levels: as an affectionate depiction of geek culture (it’s set c. 1980 at a convention of computer programmers and chess players); as a painstakingly wrought period piece (Bujalski went so far as to shoot and edit the film using decades-old analog video equipment); and as an existential comedy about romance, artificial intelligence, and the limits of knowledge (the programmers continually cross paths with members of a New-Age couples-therapy retreat being held at the same hotel).  As in his previous features, Bujalski’s characters are intricately awkward, and much of the pleasure and humor of Computer Chess stems from watching them interact; they’re technical whizzes, but they often fumble when it comes to more personal matters—as in a hilarious scene in which a bespectacled MIT grad student is propositioned by a pair of middle-aged swingers.  Fun fact: film critic Gerald Peary appears on-screen as the conference emcee and chess-master.    

Museum Hours, written and directed by the experimental artist and filmmaker Jem Cohen, muses about a different set of existential questions: what is the purpose of art?  How do we use it, and where does its value lie?  Ostensibly the story of an intellectually curious Canadian woman who, having traveled to Vienna to visit an ailing cousin, strikes up a friendship with a helpful museum guard, its loveliest and most interesting sequences are spent wandering through the galleries of the Kunsthistorisches, gazing at its prize collection of art works.  At the film’s center is a beguiling sequence set in the museum’s Brueghel room, where an erudite tour guide invites her audience (and us) to consider the great master’s paintings as windows onto humanity at its most variegated and contradictory.


The term “nature documentary” isn’t really adequate to describe Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan.  Set on a fishing trawler off the Massachusetts coast, the film is more of a moody, visceral tone poem about the sublimity and violence of nature, as represented by the ocean’s vast, black, churning waters.  Its editing, compositions, and use of sound sometimes border on the experimental; there’s almost no spoken dialogue, and many of the close-ups are so extreme as to seem abstract.  The low-res image is rough, grainy, almost pixellated in spots.  But the images themselves are frequently breathtaking, as during a sequence in which the camera repeatedly breaks through the surface of the water—as if gasping for air—to reveal a sky filled with a swarm of low-flying gulls.  As a statement on the relationship between humans and nature, its approach is more meditative than moralistic.


The Films of 2013: The Wolf of Wall Street

[NOTE: This post has been revised significantly since it was first published on 1/2/14.]

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street forms a loose triptych with two of his earlier films, GoodFellas and Casino, as a series of profane lessons in the history of post-war American crime.  Wolf’s white collar criminals, like GoodFellas’ mobsters and Casino’s Vegas kingpins, are driven by a vision of the American Dream taken to its most obscene limits—a desire to live the good life at any cost.  It’s also, incidentally, an example of a master filmmaker working, at age seventy-one, at the height of his creative powers, aided by a team of expert collaborators: longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, screenwriter Terence Winter, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose star turn as corrupt Wall Street dynamo Jordan Belfort is exhilaratingly unhinged.  (Jonah Hill also deserves mention as his bumbling, slow-witted toady.)  One would have to go back to 2004’s The Aviator, or even GoodFellas, to find a Scorsese movie so stylish and kinetic.  To find one as outrageously, perversely cartoonish, you’d have to go back further, to 1983’s The King of Comedy.