Hold the envelope, please1/22/2014
After every year rolls over, our syndicated film writer, Cole Smithey, announces his top 10 picks for best movies of the year — the productions he’d put on the podium for an Academy Awards if it were up to him. But, it’s not up to him, and, as it usually goes with many critics, not everyone agrees with Smithey’s opinions. Industry experts on the Oscar judges’ panel, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, shared half of Smithey’s favorites.
Oscar nominees were decided last week, and the winners will be announced during the live broadcast on ABC on Sunday, March 2. But as far as Smithey’s concerned, these are the best films of 2013.
10. “The Heat”
Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock brought big laughs in Hollywood’s funniest movie of the year. Screenwriter Katie Dippold invents a new genre, the female-buddy-movie. I haven’t laughed so much since “Django Unchained.” McCarthy and Bullock share a down-and-dirty comic energy that borders on an insane marriage of polar opposites. They’d make a great married couple.
McCarthy’s comic timing and delivery never lets up. Bullock’s description of her past relationship leads McCarthy to ask, “Was he a hearing man?” with such a deadpan manner that you just might choke on your popcorn. A senseless ball point pen tracheotomy takes the movie into shameless Grand Guignol territory. Don’t let the fact that too many critics didn’t get the comic genius on display. “The Heat” is one hilarious buddy movie that stands up to repeated viewings. Need a good laugh? Give my name, you’ll get a good seat.
9. “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”
Big Star was every rock critic’s darling during the early ’70s. The Memphis rock outfit recorded three albums, each making Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 albums of all time. Co-directors Drew DeNicola and Oliva Mori use a standard documentary form to deliver a haunting soup-to-nuts history of Big Star that will have you humming songs like “September Gurls” in your sleep. A tasteful labor of love, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” is an enthusiastic documentary about enigmatic musicians whose music still sounds as fresh and essential today as when it was first recorded. This movie goes straight to your heart.
8. “Before Midnight”
The first collaboration “Before Sunrise” (1995) introduced romantically inclined couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) travelling on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Sparks of curiosity and lust ignited to the strains of Vivaldi, Straus and Kate Bloom. “Before Sunset” (2004) found the lovers reuniting for a one-night-stand of sorts in Paris where Jesse — a successful author inspired by the events in the first film — reads from his latest book. Things got complicated.
Now the couple live together in France with twin daughters. The family’s six-week summer vacation in Greece sharing the exotic home of a fellow author and his family is coming to an end. A real-time conversation plays out between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their host’s house while the girls sleep in the back seat. A staggering number of relationship reference points made draw the audience inside their casually intimate style of communicating. No topic is off limits. Politics, sex, religion, literature and economic realities all come percolating to the surface. The dialogue shimmers. A stay at a resort hotel promises the couple some welcome alone time, despite Celine’s possible bipolar disorder crashing the party. Jesse reaches deep into his pocket of tricks to offer her a romantic reality built as much on fantasy as it is on a unifying method for achieving relationship harmony.
(“Before Midnight,” is an Oscar nominee for Adapted Screenplay.)
Although a relative newcomer — “Blancanieves” is only Pablo Berger second feature — the writer/director displays an absolute mastery of cinema language with a litany of homages to filmmaking techniques from the past 100 years. Seville, Spain circa 1920, witnesses one of its beloved matadors, Antonio Vallarta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), being gored, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down. When the former bullfighter’s wife dies giving birth to the couple’s daughter Carmencita on the same day, Vallarta’s evil hospital nurse Encarna (exquisitely played by Maribel Verdú) seizes the opportunity to seduce and marry him. Carmencita is relegated to live in the mansion’s coal cellar, left alone to bond with her father, while Encarna enjoys a BDSM affair with the chauffeur. Despite its old-fashioned trappings, there is nothing staid about the layers of narrative and visual complexity at play.
6. “Drug War”
Johnnie To’s gritty police procedural, involving a Tianjin police department sting operation, shares William Friedkin’s muscular sense of filming techniques (see “The French Connection”). Car chases move with a palpitating sense of real-life suspense and unpredictability, and random shoot-outs intensify the action. The storyline comes ripped right from modern headlines. Police squad leader Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) captures drug kingpin Tian Ming (Louis Koo) after a meth lab explosion, and he uses the perp to get underworld connections and arrange a massive drug deal. Zhang adopts a false drug lord identity. The acting on display here is strictly top-drawer, as this estimable cast delivers thoroughly believable performances, and the escalating story’s climax and coda hits like a ton of bricks. Brutal and full of plot surprises.
5. “All is Lost”
Robert Redford gives his finest performance in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s literal and metaphorical tale of one man’s attempts to survive on the high seas. Redford carries this one-man showcase with a depth of character and emotion that speaks volumes in spite of the film’s nearly complete lack of dialogue. Water pours into Redford’s unnamed character’s 39-foot yacht, which gets lodged on the puncturing corner of a giant red cargo bin afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Decisions and repairs must be made, and the protagonist’s brawny adaptability meets every escalating challenge that nature throws at him with a stoic resolve that is fascinating and inspiring. “Our Man’s” constant struggle takes on a macro-micro vision of cool-headed logic against increasing odds, and the captain must improvise and learn on the fly. Redford’s stoic character perseveres with grace and determination in spite of the fierce conditions he faces. Not only does Redford, at 77, do nearly all of his own stunts, he weaves narrative wool with his every gesture and facial expression.
(“All Is Lost” is an Oscar nominee for Achievement in Sound Editing.)
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” makes visible a deep space reality that has never before been captured. At its heart, “Gravity” is a two-man play that shifts into a solo act of survival defined by personal obstacles and harsh external forces 375 miles above Earth’s surface. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock might imply romantic comedy more than science-fiction misadventure, but Bullock’s dramatic acting skills are grossly underestimated. Her nuanced performance complements Cuarón’s technical virtuosity note for note. The story is deceptively simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first outer space mission to make repairs to the Hubble telescope with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), when a self-destructed Russian satellite sends the astronauts scrambling. Shrapnel flies at blinding speed at the audience, thanks to an effective use of 3D that makes the action terrifying. Other shots by a seemingly free-floating camera glides and follows. It is the closest many will come to ever experiencing space on a terrifyingly lonely level.
(“Gravity” is the Oscar grand-slam nominee this year, up for Best Picture, Leading Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Music, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects.)
3. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” hits the ground running. Oscar Issac plays the title character, a folksinger patterned loosely on Dave Van Ronk, without pretense. Issac accompanies himself on guitar, singing the old-style song that Van Ronk once recorded — “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” — in a West Village café just before the folk music movement exploded with the likes of Bob Dylan. The movie offers a composite musical vantage point of the era’s social realism against a backdrop of Cold War America. A large male figure awaits Llewyn to give him a nasty back-alley beating for reasons that will become clear momentarily. Despite Llewyn’s musical talents, most people treat him with a depth of contempt usually reserved for mangy dogs, an apt comparison, as Llewyn schlepps around figuring out whose couch he will sleep on next. A visit to his sleazy agent lands Llewyn in the crosshairs of greed-based hostility. The film’s centerpiece occurs after Llewyn shares a contentious ride with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a drug-addicted blues singer and his less-than-friendly driver (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn makes his way through snowy Chicago streets to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a famous club owner and talent manager who takes literally the title of the album Llewyn pitches (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and requests just such a view. Without ceremony, Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” with enough controlled passion to peel wallpaper. Social changes on the horizon killed off a vibrant genre of music as quickly as it had grown. The Coens’ gift for making their audience feel like welcomed members of an elite club has never felt more sincere.
(“Inside Llewyn Davis” is an Oscar nominee for Achievement in Cinematography and in Sound Mixing.)
2. “The Act of Killing”
At once the most micro and meta combination of cinéma vérité, documentary and docudrama filmmaking techniques ever assembled, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is an Earth-shattering cinematic experience. The 1965–1966 genocide of more than half a million accused “communists” (ethnic Chinese, intellectuals and union organizers) in Indonesia by right-wing paramilitary and freelance death squads — many consisting of self-proclaimed “gangsters” (a.k.a. “free men,” really unemployed racists) — serves as the stepping-off point for Oppenheimer to inspire, enable and encourage a handful of aging remorseless killers to dramatize their heinous deeds with whatever artistic trappings they choose. A shadowy film-noir set, or a cheesy take on a ’60s-era American war movie, gives the former executioners artistic cinematic opportunities to act out stylized versions of their ideal selves when they tortured and killed thousands of men by hand for the fun of it.
The leader of one such squad is Andrew Congo, a grandfather with a skinny frame and thinning gray hair living in the town of Medan in North Sumatra. Congo fancies himself a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He breaks into a cha cha routine on the patio, where he personally killed hundreds of men either by shooting or by strangling with a long sturdy piece of wire fixed to a pole at one end and a wood handle at the other.
The film’s provocative title echoes throughout the movie in expanding meaning. “Killing” as an “act” takes on a host of different subjective and objective definitions from the personal to the political. Congo and his equally culpable associates retain their gangster bond nearly 40 years after their punishment-free crimes. No amount of description can prepare an audience for the sickening levels of surreal irony of witnessing Congo and his men act out staged scenes of the violence they perpetrated against their neighbors, friends and associates. Every audience will be affected differently, but every single one will be changed by it.
(“The Act of Killing” is an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature.)
1. “Blue is the Warmest Color”
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. It would diminish this beautiful film to pigeonhole it to a modern standard-bearer for the LGBT movement (which it is), as its tremendous depths of emotional intimacy demand more than that. Watching the three-hour love story unfold is a simultaneously transgressive and transcendent encounter in which the audience is compelled, in no uncertain terms, to fall head-over-heels in love with the film’s romantic heroine.
An epic coming-of-age romantic drama between two captivating forces of feminine nature, “Blue” is as intimate a representation of erotic and romantic love as has ever been committed to cinema. Graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex, it circumvents any accusations of pornographic intent by being hopelessly and sincerely sensual. If that sounds confusing, it should. What director Abdellatif Kechiche achieves is unprecedented.
The camera worships everything about lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos. It contemplates her persuasively wanton lips, which wait in a constant state of a half-open invitation to be kissed. Using the actress’ real first name blurs the line between the comely Exarchopoulos and the exotically nubile character she plays.
At the start, Adèle is a French 16-year-old high school junior exploring the boundaries of romance as informed by the male classmate who pursues her. Yet Emma, an older woman with blue-dyed hair Adèle passes in the street, fans her inner desires. A chance meeting during her first visit to a lesbian bar introduces Adèle to Emma in a meet-cut sequence full of overflowing curiosity and erotic ambition.
Loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel “le bleu est une coleur chaude,” Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix create extended, seemingly real-time, sequences that allow the characters and story to develop in an organic fashion.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a monumental cinematic achievement that must be experienced by anyone passionate about film. That the movie also encompasses national, familial, political, personal, sexual, intellectual and artistic themes brings the narrative to an epic level of romantic drama. Still, it never overstresses its implicit nature as an all-inclusive portrait of love. CV
Cole Smithey — The Smartest Film Critic in the World — has covered every aspect of world cinema since 1997. His reviews and video essays are archived online at www.ColeSmithey.com.