Gone in a Moment

An astronaut, a young African-American man in Oakland, a freight ship captain, a hard partying Texan, a 19th century violinist, and a lone boatman would seem to have little in common, but in 2013 films they had a shared bond. These six people are living normal lives one minute (or as normal as can be in the case of the astronaut). Then, in an instant, they each have to fight for survival. Normally I try not to read too much into what a year’s films may say about the current times. After all, movies are planned for years on different timetables. What might appear to be a relevant commentary in the film’s early development can be well outdated by its release. Still, it's difficult to overlook 2013 film’s common threads. They remind us that life is fragile and can change from one minute to the next. What you have today can be gone tomorrow. While that lesson is hardly unique to our time, it does seem to carry extra resonance now. In recent years, how many people lost their homes to foreclosures or natural disasters? How many people had seemingly stable jobs evaporate or lost their savings due to a long illness? How many people, such as the kids in Newtown or the runners at the Boston marathon, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Films have always reflected society’s fears as well as their hopes. In the 50’s the fear was often of nuclear conflict, communists, or the McCarthy witch hunts. In the 70s it was of the government. Today cinematic fears are not as clearly defined. It’s more of a general feeling that we can all be threatened by forces we cannot control.

That fear and unease has me reflect on 2013 with mixed feelings. While I am unsettled about what these films collectively are saying, I am thrilled by their overall quality. In the past few weeks when people asked me for a movie recommendation, I replied that it would be difficult (albeit not impossible) to make a bad choice. Yes, we had, and will continue to have pointless sequels, mindless remakes, and other movies high on marketing but low on story and character. But when I find it tough to cross films off my “Best of 2013” list, I know it’s been a great year at the movies. My Honorable Mention list by itself would be a worthy Top 10:

Fill the Void
The Heat
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Spectacular Now
Stories We Tell
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

Caucus, Stories We Tell, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks are documentaries reflecting a banner year for non-fiction. I could have easily included others such as After Tiller, Blackfish, God Loves Uganda, or The New Black. As for the features, Mud and The Place Beyond the Pines were the toughest to leave off the top 10. After much vacillating, I settled on these picks:

10. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón) -- One of the many joys of moviegoing is the chance that you can see something you’ve never seen before. That’s what Gravity gave me. Other films had shown astronauts spacewalking, but none from primarily the astronaut’s point of view. Cuarón and his team invented new technology to simulate the experience of drifting alone in space. It’s a purely visceral, intense ride. No other film since 2001: A Space Odyssey has captured space’s eerie quiet. Sandra Bullock, as astronaut Ryan Stone, helps keep the story grounded (no pun intended). Stone is a rookie, so she and the audience are going on this harrowing journey together. Bullock’s accessible everywoman quality has the audience instantly identifying with her. Some story elements do not hold up well, but the cinematic experience compensates. This is one to see on IMAX, 3D or whatever other tools are available to immerse you in this film.

9. What Maisie Knew (dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel) – Very few films have explored divorce’s effect on a child as poignantly or heartbreakingly as What Maisie Knew. Loosely based on the Henry James novel, the story has a young girl caught in a custody battle between two self-possessed parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan). McGehee and Siegel tell the story entirely through Maisie. So while Maisie’s parents are willfully oblivious of the hurt they inflict on their daughter, we in the audience know all too well. To the film’s credit, the parents are not monsters. They do love Maisie, but just love themselves much more. What Maisie Knew succeeds largely due to Onata Aprile’s tender, gentle performance in the title role. Like Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012’s The Beasts of The Southern Wild, Aprile was six-years-old during filming. Together Wallis and Aprile demonstrate that a child, even a very young child, can carry a movie. What Maisie Knew asks important questions, such as whether children’s true parents are those that bring them into the world, or those that give them the love and caring they need.

8. All is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor) – In its own way, All is Lost is even more daring and experimental as Gravity. Other films have depicted a lone man far from any other human contact. But usually the film either has the character narrate or speak out his internal dialogue. Or it will create a device for the man to talk (e.g. Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away). All is Lost does not give you any window into this man (Robert Redford) as he fights for survival on a failing sailboat. As “Our Man,” Redford shows stoic determination but does not wear his emotions on his sleeve. You simply observe him. This causes you to project your own thoughts and emotions onto him. Chandor does a 180 degree turn from his last film, the Wall Street thriller Margin Call. Not only does he focus on one man instead of a huge cast, but here he takes his time. Yes there are scenes where the man is fighting for his life, but Chandor also has existential moments with just the old man and the sea. Redford often imbues his characters with a quiet self-confidence, and does so again here. The man keeps his distance, which makes it all the more moving when he lets vulnerability and even desperation creep in. Chandor’s cinematic gamble paid off.

7. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass) – Another film about a brave seaman, but worlds away from All is Lost. This was a story that most of us saw play out on TV news in real time. Greengrass, as he did with Bloody Sunday and United 93, uses handheld camera work and naturalistic lighting to give immediacy to the real-life events being depicted. Screenwriter Billy Ray makes the Somali hijackers three-dimensional characters who we feel for even as we're rooting for Captain Phillips and his crew. He and Greengrass wisely include a scene depicting the conditions which lead to the hijacking, in no way excusing the hijackers, but putting their actions in context. As with Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks’s everyman quality quickly helps you instantly identify with Captain Phillips. His understated performance actually enhances the character’s heroism. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is equally compelling as the lead hijacker. Greengrass also gets great work from the supporting actors, especially those playing Phillips’ crew. As many wrote about an earlier Tom Hanks film, Apollo 13, Captain Phillips evokes tension and suspense even though we all know the story’s outcome.

6. Fruitvale Station (dir. Ryan Coogler) – Writer-director Coogler, with his debut feature, evokes tragedy from the ordinary. He drew from the true story of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man killed by transit police. Coogler focuses on the last day of Grant’s life, giving a glimpse into the man’s strengths, flaws, and dreams. He doesn’t seem all that different from his friends, or any other young man in his environment. Coogler shot the film in many of the same locations where Grant lived, giving the film an authentic feel. Michael B. Jordan gives a layered, natural performance as Grant that fits perfectly with the film’s tone. You truly believe that you could meet this man on the streets of Oakland. Octavia Spencer proves her Oscar for The Help was no fluke, bringing gravitas to her role as Oscar’s mother. Just through Spencer’s eyes, you see the sadness and heartbreak the woman has endured. Coogler, Jordan and Spencer don’t overplay the pathos inherent in Grant’s life and death. In a way, that’s what makes film so touching, for this could have been anyone.

5. Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée) – Since 2011, Matthew McConaughey has reinvented has career, culminating with his magnificent turn as Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. As Woodruff, a Texas electrician and bull rider diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, McConaughey pushes his easygoing good ol boy persona in new directions. It’s that he’s so credible as a guy just wanting to have a good time that makes Woodruff’s transformation so astonishing. As Schindler’s List demonstrated, it’s not the do-gooder, but the reformed sinner, that often makes the most compelling hero. Woodruff is initially just trying to survive and make money by illegally importing AIDS drugs from abroad. Only gradually does he develop the real commitment to help his fellow AIDS patients, such as the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto). Leto disappears so completely into his role that many didn’t even realize he was in the film. He and McConaughey play off each other well as reluctant partners. Vallée keeps the film more focused on character, and does not overemphasize the film’s lessons. Still those lessons come through, especially for anyone who remembers the 80s AIDS fear, misinformation and paranoia.

4. Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears) – In 2002, Peter Mullan wrote and directed The Magdalene Sisters, a powerful recounting of the horrific conditions suffered by these young girls forced to work as virtual slaves to the Catholic Church. Philomena, while not connected to the earlier film, is a worthy follow-up, as it depicts the lasting damage, the Magdalene system caused. In this case, it was the forced removal and adoption of these young girls’ children. Judi Dench goes against type as Philomena, a mild-mannered woman searching for the son taken from her by the Magdalene nuns. So does Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, a journalist helping Philomena. Philomena deftly blends a touching story of regret and redemption with a buddy comedy, as the worldly, arrogant Sixsmith and the simple, hopeful Philomena get to know each other. Frears continues what has to be one of the more underrated careers in film history. He shows just the right touch, letting both the drama and the humor play out naturally.

3. Her (dir. Spike Jonze) – Other science fiction films have tackled how dependent we are on technology or what could happen if this technology became self-aware. But mostly films have played these issues on a grand scale with technology sapping people’s human rights or turning against mankind. Jonze, who wrote and directed, looks at these issues on a much smaller, more intimate scale. What do we want from technology beyond just making our lives more convenient? If artificial intelligence would have a human’s feelings and desires combined with a computer’s speed and memory, how would that AI then relate to us? Jonze picks his spots with the sci-fi elements, making Her as much of a romantic comedy as anything else. While Jonze keeps the story focused on the relationship between the one man and his operating system, he gives you glimpses into other similar relationships and hints that these are enabling people to retreat into their self-contained worlds. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson both give sweet, tender performances and have wonderful chemistry. Truly remarkable given that Johansson, as the operating system, only uses her voice. Her is funny, thought-provoking, and a little frightening.

2. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell) -- American Hustle was the most fun I had the movies last year, and not just because of the 70s clothes and hairdos. Many have compared the film to some of Martin Scorsese’s best work, and for good reason. The first-person narration, fluid camerawork, and energetic pace all fit that mold. American Hustle also echoes The Sting and some of David Mamet’s best work in exploring the mindset of con artists. Early on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) proclaims that “People believe that they want to believe,” in explaining why cons succeed. Is the talking just about the victims, or also the conmen? Do the conmen trick themselves into believing that they don’t hurt anyone, or if they do, that their victims somehow deserve it? Like The Sting, American Hustle weaves an intricate story, setting cons on top of other cons. It surprises the audience without shortchanging them, a difficult feat. Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner all deliver some of their best work, in roles very different than anything they have done before. With American Hustle coming on the heels of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell has established himself as one of our most exciting and dependable directors.

1. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) – Watching 12 Years a Slave is not easy, but in a strange way that’s a compliment. Any film that truly captures even a fraction of slavery’s horror and degradation will be tough to sit through. McQueen is unsparing in showing the brutality. He even holds shots for extra time, as if to say, “Look at this! This really happened!!” McQueen wisely chose a tale of Solomon Horthup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free man kidnapped into slavery. Northup discovers what slavery means along with the audience. Ejiofor powerfully holds your attention every minute on screen. He burns with suffering and desperation while never losing his dignity. Lupito Nyong’o also gives a harrowing performance, while stellar turns by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson illustrate how slavery, in a perverted way, robs the oppressors of their humanity along with the oppressed. 12 Years a Slave is so powerful that you feel angry leaving the theater; angry that a “free” country allowed these atrocities for nearly 90 years.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2014

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