Slowly, they’ve turned step by step, as the burlesque comics might say. Don’t look now, but while people have been paying attention to other things, a truly great movie year seems to have crept up on us. It has already included “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Blue Jasmine,” and the arrival of two of the very best and most important films of 2013 – J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” – is imminent.
Nor have we seen all that 2013 has to offer. Among those hugely promising movies still to come are Spike Jonze’s new media fantasy “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix; Martin Scorsese’s newest film with Leonardo DiCaprio, the upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street”; and David Russell’s “American Hustle” with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper in a tale of the New Jersey mob, the FBI and the Brit con artist caught in the middle.
In the case of “Her,” the combination of Jonze and Phoenix means that America’s most daring mainstream film director is combining with our most adventurous movie actor. In Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” we have what is rumored to be one of the wildest films in the entire Scorsese canon.
What happened in 2013 is that your friendly neighborhood theater stopped being a puerile zone full of dumbed-down twaddle made by filmmakers who only seemed to know about other movies, i.e. sequels, tributes, homages and monstrosities with nine-figure budgets meant to inflame the throngs at Comic-Con?
Not all Comic-Con cinema is bad. In its predictable and mercenary fantasy ways, some of it is almost as much fun as it tries to be. It’s hard for even peevish film snobs to, say, deny the abundant pleasures of “Iron Man 3,” for all of the film’s giant box office. And then, too, every once in a while, something like Chris Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” comes along and proves to be a $185 million art film.
But the movie story of 2013 is the return with a vengeance of that megaplex orphan of the recent past, the real world. And we’re not talking about English prime ministers and queens and their kingly fathers with speech defects either. What we laughingly call the real world is what movies have been focusing on since those first silent movie audiences screamed in genuine terror when that train on the screen seemed to be hurtling right at their laps.
So many of the earliest great screenwriters of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s came from journalism (Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Herman Mankiewicz, Sam Fuller) that movies were full of adapted front-page stories, fictional newspaper fables and tawdry tabloid tales transformed into some of the most compelling noir movies ever made. (“Citizen Kane,” the granddaddy of all newspaper movies, is unanimously considered one of the greatest films ever made.)
These new cinematic explorations of history and front-page reality don’t all work, of course. “The Fifth Estate” is a specimen under glass of too much talent poured into a movie whose script desperately needed to go for broke and didn’t. “Jobs” was a feeble biopic about Steve Jobs, the megalomaniac visionary whose Apple all but invented the digital world we live in. “The Counselor,” about Tex-Mex border corruption, was so clotted with pompously delivered literary soliloquies that the cinematic equivalent of a myocardial infarction dropped the movie dead in its tracks.
Most impressive of them all are the brilliant and moving Obama-era films about black history in America that, at long last, go many miles toward righting ghastly cultural wrongs in America: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” and, most important of all, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” (See GustoSunday for an interview with star Chiwetel Ejiofor.)
Brian Helgeland’s “42” reacquaints us with the harrowing real struggles of Jackie Robinson, whose breaking of baseball’s color line was the first major step anywhere toward a racially integrated America, even preceding Harry Truman’s executive order integrating the American armed forces.
Also to be noted is “Enough Said” by Nicole Holofcener starring James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. By no means great, but it was a film that deserves the largest possible audience for simply revealing how very different might have been the career ahead of extraordinary “Sopranos” star Gandolfini if he had lived past age 51. Nor is that all that could be on the list of what has made 2013 such a stealthily amazing year at the movies. You could add not too far down Roland Emmerich’s surprisingly rollicking “White House Down” (despite its unfortunate resemblance to “Olympus Has Fallen”), Sofia Coppola’s version of a real case in “The Bling Ring,” Zat Batmanglij’s fantasy about ecoterror cultists “The East,” Pablo Larrain’s version of Chilean history “No,” Steven Soderbergh’s big pharma tale “Side Effects” and even the surprisingly newest animated kids movie in the “Cars” franchise, “Planes.”
There’s even something good to be said for some of the more plump and juicy failures of 2013. You can’t entirely hate the documentary “Salinger,” despite the criminally obvious fact that it exhibits every quality Salinger ever loathed when he opted out of the world of publicity and publication and lived in convivial seclusion in New Hampshire. The companion “oral biography” that the filmmaker compiled with brilliant critic David Shields is even more full of new information and, as well, far more understanding of Salinger’s work and what we now know of his personality.
Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” was a massively disappointing tale of a future world that seems to have accelerated the uneven wealth distribution of the one we live in, but if it seemed a botch, you could always find lunatic pleasure in the future dystopia in “World War Z,” which was, let’s all admit, the greatest modern day zombie spectacular.
A movie for cinematic sophisticates and Comic-Con fanboys and girls alike? Maybe.
I have seldom slapped four stars on quite as many films as I have in 2013. Anyone who truly loves movies should find a way to see the following highly rated movies this year.
Directed by Richard Linklater.
The latest in one of the great film series. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke play one of the smartest, most articulate and compelling couples we’ve ever seen in movies. In this installment, it’s perhaps the best of all as they experience parenthood and approach middle age. ∆∆∆∆
Directed by Woody Allen.
One of Allen’s best movies with the finest performance by far in any of his films – Cate Blanchett in this seriocomic fantasy of a Blanche Dubois set loose in the world by the imprisonment of her Bernie Madoff-like husband. ∆∆∆∆
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”
Directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
A very free and powerful populist interpretation of the real story of a man who was a White House butler through eight administrations, including the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement. No better film fiction has ever been made about that. ∆∆∆∆
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Tom Hanks stars as the real cargo ship captain kidnapped by Somali pirates. The film ends with a few startling moments by Hanks that are all but unique in our movies. ∆∆∆∆
Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Based on a tragically real Bay Area event, this is the movie to see to understand the everyday American context that gives us incidents like the murder of Trayvon Martin. ∆∆∆ø
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
In its depiction of weightlessness, it may be the greatest space movie yet. And, like “All Is Lost,” it’s a truly primal American fantasy about resourceful and terrified people alone amid the total hostility of the natural universe. ∆∆∆∆
“The Great Gatsby”
Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Sight unseen, it should have been one of the year’s worst. But in thumbing its nose at every aesthetic virtue possessed by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest novel, Luhrmann gave us a crazily out of control “Gatsby” that might have been directed by Jay Gatsby himself. A movie so wrong that it wound up right. ∆∆∆ø
Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Terrence Howard.
The movie that finally turns upside-down our ingrained American love for vigilante justice on film. The ending is the year’s most artfully sinister joke. ∆∆∆ø
Directed by Gilles Bourdos.
The exquisite biopic about the great French painter and his future filmmaking son is the year’s greatest in a tradition that once gave us such classics as Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” and Peter Watkins’ “Edward Munch.” ∆∆∆ø
“Stories We Tell”
Directed by Sarah Polley.
The Canadian actress/director tells the story of her own family in one of the most remarkably creative first person-narratives some of us have ever seen on film. ∆∆∆∆