This is the absolutely accurate, not subjective or opinionated in the slightest, 100% inarguable ranking of the best films of 2013.
(Kidding, you guys. I’m not that much of an asshole.)
I saw about 59 new movies this year, which averages out to a little more than one per week. That’s a flawed stat, however—Oscar season definitely skewed my viewing. In a period of 24 hours (Noon 12/18-Noon 12/19), I saw five films—in order: Lone Survivor, August: Osage County, Her, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and Nebraska—which broke my previous record of four (Christmas Day 2010, in order: The King’s Speech, True Grit, The Fighter, Black Swan). Do you care about any of this? Absolutely not, but now you know it anyway. Good luck forgetting!
I saw 164 movies on the whole. No, I’m not insane. It just means I go to film school. I’m required to watch things. Often I watch things for fun. My friends also enjoy movies and often we enjoy watching them together. And don’t even get me started on TV. (That comes later.)
I’ve seen 878 movies now over the course of my lifetime, which you’d think would make me qualified, but I’m no FILM CRIT HULK, who is easily the reigning authority in/on/of cinematic criticism (and intellectual twitter discourse) since the passing of the brilliant Roger Ebert. (Hulk’s writing recalls David Foster Wallace, in this guy’s humble opinion.)
So without further ado, let’s get to it. This was a great year for movies, with five films earning a rare 5-star rating, and over 30 films at least a 4-star in my book/Letterboxd. I only truly disliked 2 films this year, with others being mild nuisances at best—as Hulk and Tarantino say, never hate a movie—and only one of those films was critically and commercially acclaimed.
My criteria for best films of past years is unfortunately outdated and poorly articulated, as I’m sure this year’s will be in the future, but nonetheless, we shall proceed forward, with the enthusiasm of a naïve schoolgirl and the bravery of white knights (you can stop reading whenever).
Entertainment Value – Simply enough, how entertaining was it?
Romanticization – Filmmakers—and artists in general—have the power to romanticize anything. This has very little to do with the ‘message’ of the film, or what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish—it’s more of a Pavlovian thing. If moment X makes you happy, and X is memorable, you associate thing X with being good. Conversely, if X makes you unhappy, and X is memorable, you associate thing X with being bad. If a film is unmemorable, this is irrelevant—unless it is commercially successful and enters the national conversation, in which case it becomes exceedingly relevant. As my screenwriting professor—a talented, successful woman who has written huge tentpole films, including an upcoming film—says: “people don’t remember movies, they remember moments”. The key is to, through cinematic affectation, romanticize the right things, which to me are selflessness, endless love, and the understanding that everyone else has a life just as important as your own, among many other things. The best filmmakers are masters of this skill–Spielberg, Scorsese, etc.
Mainstream Appeal – None of the above truly matters if no one outside of an elite intellectual sect sees the film. Unfortunately, most of the best movies of the year go unseen, thanks to an unfair and sure-bet-oriented corporate culture at the major studios. (I worked for the fabulous development/production team at Focus Features this semester, and it was a bittersweet last hurrah for one of the last great studio-backed quality-friendly picture-makers in town, who brought us, among other great films, Lost In Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brokeback Mountain, Hot Fuzz, Pride & Prejudice, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Constant Gardener, Moonrise Kingdom, Shaun of the Dead and this year’s The World’s End, The Place Beyond the Pines and Dallas Buyers Club—here’s to hoping the new regime doesn’t stop great movies from being made in the name of commercial viability.)
Unfortunately, in such a crowded year, some things get left out. (Why the fuck I saw Fast & Furious 6 and not Before Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight or three hours of lesbian love w/ artful sex scenes apparently titled Blue Is the Warmest Color this year will remain a mystery even to me.)
Notable Films Unseen
Before Midnight (I’ve seen none of the trilogy, which are apparently my favorite movies ever according to everyone I know who’s seen them.)
The Place Beyond the Pines
Frances Ha (definitely seeing this one)
The Act of Killing
Blue is the Warmest Color
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
The Kings of Summer
The Bling Ring
Gimme The Loot
20 Feet From Stardom
Each of the films mentioned below merit a viewing—they’re casualties of an overstuffed, far too excellent year in cinema.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
Behind the Candelabra
The English Teacher
Star Trek Into Darkness
All Is Lost
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The World’s End
What You’ve All Been Waiting For (Or Not): The TOP 25 (Or 26)
25. The Way, Way Back and Much Ado About Nothing
(tie) Joss Whedon, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring the comedic heat in these two low-budget, high-hilarity pictures. While each has its flaws, both have an endearing charm and ace performances (Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nathan Fillion and Amy Acker, just to name a few) that bring some deeper emotional heft to otherwise flighty, we’ve-seen-this-before stories.
24. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games makes a triumphant return to the back end of my top films of the year list. The screenwriting is top-notch—the film is exactly what you want in a franchise sequel. Fun, well-acted and surprisingly politically relevant, Catching Fire sparks your did you really think I was gonna go there?
A cute, funny tale that manages to get the mind thinking about the pitfalls, and surprising benefits, of believing in God. A character study with some intriguing thematics, the script—by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope—is a delight. It also happens to feature one of my favorite scenes of 2013.
22. Dallas Buyers Club
I’ll admit I have a bias, having worked for the company that distributed the film, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance than Matthew McConaughey’s here, as a redneck, homophobic man who contracts AIDS and, given thirty days to live, starts up a club with a trans person (played beautifully by Jared Leto) for AIDS patients in need of drugs that the FDA won’t approve ‘cause they’re in bed with big pharma. It’d be higher on the list if it played in a part of the country that would both a) enjoy it and b) have something to learn from it. The script, by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, plays like gangbusters on the big screen. Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction, which often uses subjective techniques such as sound design and handheld cinematography to place you in the mind of the film’s ailing protagonist, is absolutely fantastic, and in a weaker year (like, say, 2011), he’d be assured an Oscar nom.
21. Don Jon
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut didn’t land as fiercely as everyone thought it would coming out of Sundance, but its insights into sex and modern love were fascinating, and the story moved in an unconventional, unexpected manner, which is so rare to see as a screenwriter who has seen most every pattern. Imperfect, sure, but top-notch performances and an assured directorial style make Don Jon a worthy lay.
20. This Is The End
Hands-down the funniest film of the year, the directorial debut of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg knows exactly how to use the many fine comic talents at their disposal in exactly the right way to create an effective apocalypse comedy with a great moral to boot. Amazing cameos and hilarious improv will make this one a definite rewatch staple.
19. Side Effects
Soderbergh’s supposed last theatrical feature reminds us (along with the similarly technically masterful Behind the Candelabra) why we’re losing such a treasure. Side Effects is a Hitchcock picture updated for the modern era, with more twists and turns than an early episode of Scandal (which is the fucking greatest, by the way—many more reputable publications, including the AV Club, agree). It also lays claim to one of the two great ‘holy shit’ moments of the year and an unbelievably overlooked and underrated performance by Rooney Mara (she turned down Zero Dark Thirty for this, which is a bummer for her, if only because her performance would have gotten much wider recognition in Bigelow’s film).
18. White House Down
Yeah. You read that right. Go ahead. Read it again. It’s not gonna change. Might move a few numbers down, perhaps, but it’s there. It’s on the list. White House Down is one of the best films of 2013. Combining a Capra-esque earnestness with a hilarious, self-aware sense of camp, Roland Emmerich’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House manages to be a masterclass in plant-and-payoff as well as a triumph of fun, yet oddly emotionally affecting, filmmaking. James Vanderbilt, kudos to you for writing such an awesome script. The ending is priceless.
17. Monsters University
While not on the level of Pixar’s best, MU is definitely a movie I’d want my kids to see, and be influenced by. It’s both funny and emotionally moving, just like all good Pixar, and also plays as a better college movie than most actual college movies have in recent years. Fun for any age, if I were you, I wouldn’t waitlist Monsters University (goddamnit, I went there, I told myself I wasn’t gonna do that…).
Two words: Roger Deakins. The world’s premier cinematographer again creates a gorgeous visual canvas. In a weaker year, this super well-executed whodunit B-movie would merit more Oscar consideration. While the plot never really ties up every interesting question Aaron Guzikowski’s sometimes-audacious script dares to ask, Villenueve’s direction and subtle, affecting work from actors Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and an almost unrecognizable Melissa Leo make up for it.
15. Lone Survivor
Peter Berg isn’t the world’s best director, but his reverence for the source material and penchant for accuracy/attention to detail alleviate some of the not-so-great choices he makes (30 FPS doesn’t make things look more real—it just takes us out of the movie). It’s thankfully not a recruitment video, though it certainly loves and respects the soldiers and does them the honor of depicting the war in Afghanistan realistically—the good, the bad and the ugly—without demonizing all Afghans (as a semi-jingoistic movie like this could easily slip into that racist trap). A 45-minute battle sequence consumes most of the movie, and we feel as if we’re in the thick of it. The best war film since Private Ryan, though that’s not saying much—Private Ryan’s in a class by itself—Lone Survivor is a gruesome look (Greg Nicotero of The Evil and Walking Deads did the makeup) at the horrors of war.
14. Saving Mr. Banks
The pleasant surprise of the Oscar season, what at first seemed like saccharine, Disneyfied drivel turned out to be a heartwarming character study that examines the pitfalls of the Disney style of romanticization (finally) while also exploring its merits. Emma Thompson is magnificent, doing sublime work with Kelly Marcel’s taut script. (Sue Smith is also credited, but literally none of her work made it to the screen, so if this screenplay gets nominated, which it might, Sue Smith is riding serious coattails here, similar to Stan Chervin’s early work on the eventual Sorkin/Zaillian script for Moneyball.) Tom Hanks is getting all the attention for his supporting performance as Walt Disney himself, but it’s Colin Farrell who really shines among a cast of standouts (Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti and BJ Novak all come to play).
13. Inside Llewyn Davis
Not the Coens’ best, but like their 2009 film A Serious Man, Llewyn Davis explores the futility and hopelessness of a cyclical life with a sense of humor as black as Shaft and a soundtrack as awesome as your favorite album. Oscar Isaac gives a tremendous lead performance as an asshole that defies conventional wisdom by being eminently watchable despite also being fairly unlikable. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, a cat and the venerable F. Murray Abraham deliver strong performances in small doses. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is excellent as well, though I, like everyone else, miss Roger Deakins (the tradeoff, if you were wondering, was Skyfall, which was insanely gorgeous, so he gets a pass). The script is, as always, equal parts hilarious and insightful, especially into the mindset of a true artist, not content to simply exist.
12. Twelve Years A Slave
A thoroughly uncomfortable viewing experience that you all need to witness right damn now. While not the Schindler’s List of slavery as it was hyped, Steve McQueen’s opus is as brutal and upsetting as can be. His direction is most likely the best of the year, and if this film won best picture, I’d be damn happy. The performances are outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes match intensity with Michael Fassbender’s wildly physical presence, and let’s not forget Sarah Paulson or Lupita N’yongo, the latter of whom brings new meaning to the word pain. John Ridley’s script is intense and subtle, Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is crisp, precise and unique, and one scene in particular will have you gasping for air—one of, if not the best, scenes of the year.
T10. American Hustle
As a script, once known as “American Bullshit”, it oozed potential. David O. Russell got his Midas hands on it and made it a screwball comedy. Featuring great performances from an all-star cast (with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and even Louis C.K. bringing their comic A-games, that’s how loaded this cast is), Russell (who’s arguably the top ‘actor’s director’ working now) spins a tale that gets us to think about lies and the facades we put up for ourselves—the film is fluff, but it’s high-end fluff. J-Law’s the next Meryl Streep. The cameos are killer. And though technically, it’s not the best, it’s a rollicking good time.
T10. August: Osage County
Let it be known that the film is not the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play upon which it is based. It is, however, sharp as a tack and brutal as can be. John Wells’ direction admirably lets the talented cast—led by the still-the-goddamn-best Meryl Streep and featuring the exceptional talents of Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Roberts, and a surprising, subtle standout Julianne Nicholson—play Tracy Letts’ vitriolic and stunning material out. Is it perfect? Hell no. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for this era. I’m a dialogue guy, and it’s hard to top Letts’ work here…
9. The Wolf of Wall Street
…but Terence Winter makes a strong effort. His mastery of the ‘f’ word (aided by consistently fantastic improvisation by a superb cast) should be noted. Of course, however, this is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Three hours of consistent laughs and classless debauchery, a friend described the picture as “the Schindler’s List of Hedonism” and I’m inclined to think he’s right. The excess presented in the (very intentionally too-long-three-hour) film is portrayed honestly—it’s not glamorized or vilified by the filmmaker. It’s up to the viewer to determine, based on the events portrayed onscreen, what the fuck to think. As a result, the film has inspired a national dialogue, both about the film and the excess in our culture, which can only be a good thing. Also Quaaludes.
8. The Spectacular Now
I’ve seen this film four times now, thrice in the theatre. Would I have done so on my own? Likely not. But it was always something my friends wanted to see, and as a result, I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for, and insight into, this film. I was lucky enough to sit in on a fantastic Q&A session with the director of the film, James Ponsoldt (of the also-awesome Smashed), and became thoroughly impressed both by his intelligence and attention to detail. Despite a limited budget, he pulled off one of the two ‘holy shit’ moments of the year and worked closely with the fantastic screenwriters, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber of (500) Days of Summer fame, to create a very honest, realistic portrait of teenage life. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley imbue their characters with genuine youth, and Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh add gravitas and upsetting realism to the adult characters. Jess Hall’s cinematography likes to let shots linger, and all the better for it. Naturalism reigns in a film that has a lot to say without ever outright saying it—about maturity, alcoholism, young love and redemption. The Spectacular Now will likely be looked back upon as one of the best teen movies of the decade.
7. Spring Breakers
I wrote this review of the film on November 13, 2013, after I’d seen the film for the first time. I’ll repost it here, because it’s the only way I could possibly explain to you my rationale. (Apologies for the lack of brevity. Brevity’s overrated anyway [see #9].)
What follows are immediate, probably very disorganized and repetitive thoughts on/reactions to the film which I have just (finally) seen:
It would be at least partially incorrect to call Spring Breakers a film. Harmony Korine hasn’t created a film, really, or even a dream. He’s created a memory.
Master lyricist Ben Gibbard puts it like this: “our memories depend / on a faulty camera in our minds”. Korine’s circular editing style treats the film as a continuous memory, with the perspectives of each of the five characters (really four, more on that later) used to form the cohesive whole–the narrative winds along, and as it does, the characters remember more, each pass giving more depth. The voiceover repeated at the end of the film is a prime example of plant-and-payoff.
By composing the film as a memory, Korine invites the audience in, allowing whoever sees the film to experience it, rather than simply watch it. There’s a reason Spring Breakers doesn’t leave anyone’s consciousness after they’ve seen it. Why they feel compelled to think about it. Discuss it. Analyze it. Even those who didn’t “get it” or “enjoy it” found themselves reciting Alien’s hilarious and poignant look-at-my-shit manifesto. (I did both, but the reason the film loses the half-star at the top is that most people fall into the less-than-enjoyable category, and while it performed decently at the box office, it still played pretty squarely to the crowd that DIDN’T need to see it–I would have loved for A24 to have screened this film at every frat and sorority in America for free to build buzz but what do I know.)
I don’t understand how anyone could say that this was not a cohesive narrative, or that it was exploitative for no purpose (if that’s you, and you have an ambition to write films, stop, now, before you create mediocre entertainment that continues to romanticize and glorify narcissism, if unintentionally). If it didn’t entertain you, okay, that’s fine. But the movie actually adheres pretty closely to the Syd Field/Eight-Sequence/Save-The-Cat structure, albeit with a few tweaks. For the majority of the film, the protagonist is not one person, but three (certainly a deliberate choice by Korine to accentuate the hive-mindedness of this current cliquish generation of girls–and guys, to some extent). When the antagonist (painted as a protagonist, because see the damn movie) is dispatched with (unconventionally, but smartly) at the film’s midpoint, we meet a new antagonist. A lot of filmmakers could learn something from Spring Breakers’ unique structural template–it’s really a great new twist on an old formula. Korine, intentionally or not, didn’t reinvent the wheel. He just built a different but equally effective one.
The performances here are stellar. Everyone talks about James Franco–he’s magnificent, don’t get me wrong–but to me, the unsung hero of the film is Selena Gomez, who communicates profound contradictions through her expressive eyes. She is given precious little to work with, but the way she handles herself in the situations Korine inserts her in allows us to sympathize with her, locking the audience into the world while also creating a vivid, three-dimensional character clearly torn between two worlds. Laray Mayfield’s casting here should be praised–the idea of presenting Disney/YA stars in this environment, whether it came from her or Korine, was absolutely genius, and pointed out the impossible dichotomy between the innocence of youth and the life-altering experience of, well, Spring Break.
Korine lures us in with the promise of romanticizing what our culture loves to romanticize–sex, drugs, faux-intellectualism present in the college-partier mentality, and guns–and then RIPS THE FUCKING RUG OUT FROM UNDER US. This is exemplified by the music. At the top, it’s Skrillex’s dubstep gift to the god of Hedonism and by the end that song is a bittersweet, string-laden backdrop to the same tragedy depicted at the film’s open in a very different light. That’s what’s amazing. It titillates, it fetishizes, and yet, it makes us feel dirty. It’s a morality play that manipulates the audience into hating the narcissistic, violent, thoroughly unnecessary and upsettingly hedonistic culture that Britney Spears and Riff Raff and Alien and Michael Bay and Katy Perry have shoved like the world’s tastiest cake down our throats. And I’m not just talking about the guns or the video games or the meaningless, mindless sex (the latter two I’ll admit to enjoying)–I’m talking about the motivation for loving all of that. It’s why our hydra protagonist is never fleshed out. THE ONLY MOTIVATION IS PLEASURE, raw pleasure, pure as the mud after a rainstorm or a shit straight from the ass. At the top, it’s beautiful. By the end, it’s dirty and bloody and scary and icky and uncomfortable.
This is where Benoit Debie’s cinematography, which deserves an Oscar nomination that it will likely never even be considered for, comes in. Debie is famous for shooting Gaspar Noe’s films, which are renowned for their sick sense of beauty (look no further than his amazing album cover shot for Sky Ferreira’s recent album, which plays a lot like Spring Breakers in its misleading catchiness over satirical elements). Korine wanted that look here, and it works perfectly. The deeper the girls get enmeshed in Alien’s otherworldly universe, the blacker, the uglier things get. What at first feels sunny, bright and gorgeous to look at morphs into a neon fantasy, which gradually becomes bleak, with vomit-inducing oversaturation and garish coloring. The use of color in this film could merit a book of essays all on its own. The angles also become gradually more and more off-center, off-kilter, until the end, when we finally see that the world has turned upside down.
Spring Breakers is a memory, created by the faulty camera in our minds designed by Harmony Korine specifically for the purpose of making us feel as if we have experienced the journey of these five individuals, thereby causing us to subconsciously react as if we would to a memory of our own—by forming an opinion on what happened and making a choice about where we stand as a result. He leaves it up to the viewer to determine his or her own resolution, obviously, but it’s clear that hedonism will never be viewed as fondly by anyone who’s seen this film again.
Most films do this by placing you in the position of a character and asking you to ask—what would I do in this situation? This film makes you feel that you’ve already done said actions and asks you to ask—what will I do now? That is the genius of the constructed memory that is Spring Breakers.
“We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. … I know we’ve made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. … Something so… magical. So beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect, like it’s never gonna end. … Spring break forever, bitches.”
6. Captain Phillips
That last scene. That last fucking scene. Paul Greengrass is an underrated filmmaker, and pairing him with this material (and actors Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi) was a genius decision (I’m looking at you, Sony execs). **SPOILERS** On one hand, it’s surprising that no one has ever depicted the trauma of the ‘return’ at the end of a film before, and yet it’s totally not. **END SPOILERS** Greengrass’s choice to show the reality of the situation, to stay true to, well, the emotional truth, elevates an already amazing action-thriller to near-classic status. I never felt like I was watching a movie at any point during Captain Phillips, and no obvious structure seemed to seep in (yay!). Though the audience thought they knew the story, the twists and turns felt exciting and unexpected, and the characters were not black-and-white heroes-and-villains in the slightest, which made for both compelling and thought-provoking cinema. In most other years, this is a surefire best picture nominee.
5. Blue Jasmine
If you know me, then there’s absolutely no doubt in your mind—a good Woody Allen movie will end up in my top five. And you’d be right, ‘cause Blue Jasmine is a brilliant late-period work from the master of neuroses. Is it basically a modern Streetcar Named Desire, opened up to a wider cinematic setting in San Francisco and New York? Sure. Is that also the reason why it’s great? You bet your ass it is. Cate Blanchett’s performance is the Oscar frontrunner in a heavily crowded year for good reason. The comic tragedy Allen is so adept at creating comes through in a taut, uncomfortable and intelligent screenplay that takes a distinctly current issue and extracts its timeless challenges. His direction plays realistically and never loses its grasp on the intimacy of its setting until it necessarily needs to breathe. The film’s unusual structure allows for a twisty narrative that never feels forced, and Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale each bring a unique and dynamic character for Blanchett to play off of.
You remember the first time you saw The Matrix and you were like—holy shit, that’s so cool, how did they do that? And then you saw it again and you were like—hey, there’s a lot of really cool philosophical and thematic stuff going on here in the imagery and narrative design? That’s basically Gravity. It’s a bare bones survival story, with a lot of awesome imagery (the film is about rebirth, and the shots of the severing of the umbilical cord, Sandra Bullock in the womb and the final shot of her emerging from the goo tell that story beautifully). While the script isn’t the best, the tension had me on the edge of my seat throughout, the long takes were stunning, and both Bullock and Clooney give bravura performances. Some of my friends cried. Also, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki LITERALLY INVENTED A NEW WAY TO LIGHT AND SHOOT A MOTION PICTURE ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.
T2. Short Term 12
A couple of years ago, I made my first legitimate short film—by made, I mean co-produced and wrote, the direction was handled by the talented Rikke Heinecke—with the help of loads of family and friends. It went on to play a couple festivals, but not under its original title. The film was a comedy about hipsterdom in Seattle, initially called i am not a hipster (all lowercase because duh). While it was not our best film, it was a good learning experience, and a few people liked it enough to put it in their festival lineup, so I can’t complain. But it played at festivals under a different name. Turns out, simultaneously, a different film was in the making by an unknown director by the name of Destin Daniel Cretton—with the same title as our film (though without the lowercase styling because I dunno). Our film became titles are too mainstream and their feature film went on to play Sundance. I think things worked out pretty well.
Fast forward two years.
Film Crit Hulk recommends a movie, calls it a masterpiece. Says there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at SXSW, where he saw the film. It’s called Short Term 12, and it goes on to win the Audience Award, as well as a 99% rating on RottenTomatoes. And who is this film by? Why, of course, it’s Destin Daniel Cretton. So I saw the movie. Fucking A. It’s exactly as good as everyone said it was. Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. gave performances worthy of Oscar wins, much less considerations—the latter I found to be one of the most relatable screen personas in, well, my filmgoing era. And yeah, I cried. You will too, once you see it. The drama was so real, so tangible; it was as if I was always right there with the people in the film—people, not characters—in the situations they were in, which is kind of insane seeing as this kind of setting has never really been effectively put to screen before (at least not in recent memory). That in and of itself is insane, as the issues plaguing the characters of this film are far more universal and relevant and real than any blockbuster. This would be my #1 film in any other year, but this year there are not one, but two masterpieces with which Short Term 12 has to compete.
T2. Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler’s only 26. He graduated USC’s grad film program what, a week and a half ago? And yet here he is, delivering one of the most profound and profoundly human stories of the year. Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Coogler paint a daringly human portrait of the true-life Oscar Grant—a flawed man, destined for an unpleasant end, just on the path to recovery. Both a comment on racism in modern society and a testament to humanity’s unique ability to overcome the heavy burdens of circumstance, the film is unflinchingly honest and heart-wrenchingly sad. A small film, that unfortunately very few people will see, which if its audience was larger, could change lives. Even Insensitive Cell Phone Fuck, who was on his phone, lighting up the theatre for everyone else, bawled like a crying baby at the end because of how much he felt in his cold cold heart. Everyone did. Myself included. And it was a beautiful communal experience, one that will affect me for the foreseeable future. (Which has always struck me as a lousy aphorism, ‘foreseeable future’—more like an oxymoron really—but hey, you get what I’m saying, right? … right? Eh, fuck it.)
When Spike Jonze shopped this film around to Hollywood, he had one thing on his mind—a wide release—and thankfully, he got what he wanted. On January 10, 2014, Her will hit screens nationwide. And hopefully, sometime after that, we can gather on the internet to discuss it, as a people, and hopefully, sometime after that, we’ll know something about ourselves that we didn’t before. And we’ll feel new feelings we never knew we were capable of feeling, and think thoughts we never thought we could think of. This is the potential blessing of Spike Jonze’s meditation on love, romance, technology, the future, intelligence, divorce, relationships and feelings. You’re probably thinking, okay, we get it—you can go kill yourself now. Well, go see the movie. Then maybe I’ll contemplate suicide. If you still want me to. But here’s the thing.
Her is a singular cinematic achievement that manages to nearly perfectly articulate what it’s like to be human.
In a year with films by The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Jason Reitman, David O. Russell and Woody Allen, Spike Jonze beat them all. I’m not saying you have to see it–I’m just saying you’ll be living in the dark until you do.
The performances are brilliant, with standouts being an unrecognizable Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson’s Voice, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Portia Doubleday and Olivia Wilde (so basically everyone).
The script manages to articulate emotions and feelings (as my friend so wonderfully put it, ‘nebulous concepts’) that have never been fully articulated before, at least not in a way that’s so universally interpretable. Spike Jonze said no to any studio that wouldn’t guarantee him a wide release, and boy am I grateful for that. If this movie becomes a hit, the world will be a much smarter, more intuitive and far kinder place.
Jonze knows just how to position Hoyte Van Hoytema’s eye to place you directly inside Theodore’s head (a perspective that even invites the audience to feel shame, which is a unique experience in a theatre as far as I’m concerned), Arcade Fire knows just how to enhance the mood, and editors Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan know just when to cut. You can feel Theodore’s inner monologue, ’cause you’re thinking it too. The jokes are funny. The characters aren’t characters. They’re people, plain and complex and brilliant and stupid and contradictory and sweet and acidic and guilty and innocent and experienced and naïve and simple–even, and especially, the OS Samantha, voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson, who makes a strong case for the first ever voice-only Oscar-winning performance (a friend of mine, the same friend, a wonderful writer named Cameron Evans, so aptly stated: “Johansson imbues Samantha with so much charisma, childlike curiosity and existential terror that I can confidently say she is one of the most real, developed characters of the year”). Theodore’s ex Catherine, played to perfection in a small dose by Rooney Mara, could even be a stand in for Sofia Coppola, Jonze’s ex-wife, as Giovanni Ribisi was for Jonze in Coppola’s similarly brilliant Lost In Translation.
It’s a sci-fi, too. The production design is understated and smart–Jonze’s future LA never feels unreal. Landmarks are recognizable. This ain’t no Blade Runner, and it doesn’t try to be. No VFX feels like VFX and there’s a surprising amount of practical effects that really enhance the world, and I want to live in it, despite its clear faults, unlike most sci-fi futures.
Philosophically interesting, intelligent, hilarious and thoroughly entertaining–Her is a masterpiece, and an instant addition to the canon of best films of the 2010s.
It’s Best Picture, if I had to choose.
- Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
- Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12
- Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
- Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
- Spike Jonze, Her
- Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
- James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now
- Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Christian Bale, American Hustle
- Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
- Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
- Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
- Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
- Joaquin Phoenix, Her
- Amy Adams, American Hustle
- Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
- Sandra Bullock, Gravity
- Brie Larson, Short Term 12
- Rooney Mara, Side Effects
- Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
- Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Best Supporting Actress (yeah, there are a lot)
- Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12
- Selena Gomez, Spring Breakers
- Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
- Allison Janney, The Way Way Back
- Scarlett Johansson, Her
- Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
- Melissa Leo, Prisoners
- Lupita N’yongo, 12 Years A Slave
- Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Sarah Paulson, 12 Years A Slave
- Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Olivia Wilde, Her
Best Supporting Actor
- Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
- Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now
- Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks
- Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
- James Franco, Spring Breakers
- John Gallagher, Jr., Short Term 12
- Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
- Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back
Best Original Screenplay
- Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
- Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
- Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
- Spike Jonze, Her
- Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay
- Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, Philomena
- Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12
- Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
- Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now
- Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, This Is The End
- Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Sean Bobbit, 12 Years A Slave
- Don Burgess, 42
- Roger Deakins, Prisoners
- Benoit Debie, Spring Breakers
- Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Stuart Dryburgh, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
- Hoyte Van Hoytema, Her
- Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Best Editing (again, a lot to love)
- Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
- Pete Beaudreau, All Is Lost
- Alan Edward Bell, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
- Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen, Her
- Joel Cox, Prisoners
- Roderick Jaynes, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Darrin Navarro, The Spectacular Now
- Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
- Nat Sanders, Short Term 12
- Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects
- Joe Walker, 12 Years A Slave
- Lauren Zuckerman, Don Jon
Best Production Design
- American Hustle
- Dallas Buyers Club
- Inside Llewyn Davis
- Short Term 12
- Spring Breakers
Best Original Score
- Arcade Fire, Her
- Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim
- Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips
- Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
- Rob Simonsen, The Spectacular Now
- Joel P. West, Short Term 12
- Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel
- Man of Steel
- Pacific Rim
- World War Z