(Sasha Stone’s Top Ten)
1. Wolf of Wall Street
“What is it you’re looking for in this endless quest? Tranquility. You think if only you can acquire enough worldly goods, enough recognition, enough eminence, you will be free, there’ll be nothing more to worry about, and instead you become a bigger and bigger slave to how you think others are judging you.” – Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full
In its own way it could almost be called Tom Wolfe of Wall Street in that Terence Winter and Scorsese, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, are satirizing the whole concept of a hero’s rise to fame and fortune. It is satire and it isn’t. Or, more to the point, it would be funny if it weren’t so true. Scorsese has made the year’s best film and in so doing has created almost as much controversy as he stirred up back in 1976 with Taxi Driver. Leave it to Scorsese to kick the hornet’s nest. The debate about the rightness and the wrongness of it, though frustrating, is a reminder that people are mostly good. What we see in this film — is an unflinching telling of the most rotten concentration of qualities we see around us every day. I admire people who don’t see corruption everywhere but for those of us who do, at last the definitive slap in the face. Top to bottom, head to toe, from the first note to the last, Wolf of Wall Street is an exceptional work by an exceptional filmmaker, among the very best this country has ever produced.
That this film has stirred “controversy” tells you all you need to know about film criticism 2013. It isn’t really film criticism at all. Movies, not television mind you, have become a kind of church. We gather there to finalize our morality. If a movie doesn’t point to our moral north, it is worse than bad. No one can dismiss this brilliant work of art and entertainment as purely a bad film, so they have to pick it apart in other ways. They wanted it to be American Hustle, a movie that skates past the issue by not taking a point of view. It’s dizzying and fun, though it says at the beginning “some of this shit happened.” You know there is nothing at stake particularly. You can laugh at the clowns and walk out clean. But Wolf of Wall Street takes a specific, harsh, truthful point of view. You can’t walk out unaffected. You saw something — some of it was alluring, you have to admit. But much of it was gotten by illegal trickery, exploiting the poor and well-off alike so only the brokers got richer. It was all a slippery shell game. Scorsese pulls back the curtain on a red room, a dirty room — and in there somewhere human nature resides, not the idealized kind, but the flawed, imperfect, sexist, immoral, greedy, narcissistic kind. How many filmmakers went there this year? A few of them did. Nicolas Refn went there with Only God Forgives. Ridley Scott went there with the Counselor. And Scorsese, the only one of the three who hit it right on the nob, twisted it mercilessly, but unlike the other two the writing was so wildly entertaining and nimble-minded it never collapses under its own weight. It glides like a wide-winged pelican whose beauty is obscured the moment it dives underneath, zeroing in on its prey.
They did this film without backing down, without holding our hands and explaining things to us, the way you would to a child who has yet to learn about death. Here is the rare adult film that challenges the viewers to use their own brains and form their own conclusions about what they’re seeing. The response to it, of course, has likewise been illuminating.
This isn’t to say that anyone who “doesn’t like” the movie is wrong or square or a prude. They are good people looking for the goodness in life and in humanity. That’s a lovely disposition for those able to go there, or wanting their art to reflect that. But for those of us with a darker view of humanity, how delicious to finally see this smeared all over the wall, bloody and shitty but on point in a way few films are. The cumulative anger we walk around with every day — Wall Street, plastic bags, health care, the Iraq war — all driven by greed has, finally, a place to go with this film. To see them exposed this way is the very definition of sweet, liberating Schadenfreude. “But they have to pay!” many moviegoers expect and demand. “What about the victims?” You are sent out the door with those two thoughts to ponder. The film doesn’t have the answer, it doesn’t hand down justice. It is not letting us off that easy. If we look deeply into the madness of the Wolf of Wall Street you might see something you recognize. We live in the midst of homophobia, misogyny, greed, gluttony, addiction — it is everywhere. We hope to erase it by forcing filmmakers to adhere to a cultural ideal. In so doing, though, we might suck the life out of art. Art is one of the few remaining places for the truths to be revealed, the grotesque and the glorious alike.
2. 12 Years a Slave
After Shame and Hunger After Shame and Hunger it could be said that Steve McQueen had already made his mark on cinema, mostly by examining human suffering. 12 Years a Slave would be one of the best films of the year even without its timely subject matter — that it comes a year after Django Unchained, in the second term of the Obama presidency, when the Academy is making a deliberate effort to diversify, it feels like the film that speaks directly to our time. 12 Years a Slave is about slavery, yes. It’s about identity and the inability to escape the color of one’s skin. But it is also about redefining the history of African American slaves seen through Hollywood’s eyes. The last film to win Best Picture that had to do with slavery was Gone with the Wind in 1939. That’s far too long and that is a rather shameful reflection on our historical past. Here at last a film directed and written by black filmmakers that the critics actually approve of. Usually there are dozens of complaints by now for a film that deals with such a heavy social issue. The beauty in McQueen work is seen through the vicious performances – Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson — and in the stoic endurance of its protagonists – Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. McQueen, ever the visual master, has Ejiofor looking straight at us, holding his stare, as if to remind us how easy it must have been to look away rather than to see. It is one of the most memorable films of the year, maybe of the decade, and certainly among the rare films about slavery that hovers in the realm of fine art.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
It really took T Bone Burnett’s own words to help me understand what Inside Llewyn Davis was really about. It’s a folk song. The verses take you down a few different possible roads. When the song starts back over again it might have a different ending, maybe a better one, maybe a worse one. What I do know about the Coens is that they often depict stories of doubles, parallel characters who are somehow the same, yet somehow different. In No Country for Old Men, Llewyn Moss is doubled up with Anton Chiguhr, in The Big Lebowski, there are the two Lebowskis and in Inside Llewyn Davis there are two Llewyns. In one trajectory he’s a successful man and maybe that would make him a successful musician. In another, he’s a failure on all levels. It could have gone so differently for Llewyn if he were different, if he had been smarter along the way, or less short-sighted. Oscar Isaac is spectacular as Llewyn Davis, singing surely one of the songs of the year, Dink’s Song. The film is really about the many stories of those who tried and failed to become famous. We’re so used to stories about success, great people who have their place in the sun. For all of the Bob Dylans there are thousands of Lleywn Davis’s. The film does offer Llewyn the potential for something more, something worthy of his precious time on earth — a woman, a child. But in the singular quest for success everything that makes life worth living has fallen by the wayside.
In that way it might be the Coens’ most optimistic film — make the most of life even if it means dwelling in obscurity. The film has resonated since May, never losing a single drop of its appeal. The movie is so dense and layered you could watch it ten times and find something new each time. T Bone Burnett’s influence is felt throughout, like a shimmer layer. This film is a celebration of the collaboration of Burnett and the Coens, two distinct points of view on American music and film history. Full of Coen moments, like an overly sincere folk singer eating cereal first thing in the morning, a couple with an ugly baby, and a cat — in one moment, Llewyn and the cat turn their heads at exactly the same time. We didn’t need that shot to tell us that they were doubles — two cats, one doomed, the other saved. Two Llewyns, one doomed, the other also doomed. Two folk singers — Llewyn and Dylan — all of the vast space between them. What a film.
The first few moments of Gravity, the deep infinite quiet of space, are among the most memorable of the year. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney precariously dangling off some space equipment. We are immediately set off balance by Stephen Price’s tense score. Once Bullock is spun out, Gravity becomes a one-woman survival story. It is so much more than that, of course. It is a marvel of filmmaking and visual effects. Gravity is groundbreaking in so many ways, the least of which that it stars a woman who is almost 50, and has become one of the years highest grossing films. Bullock was given the role despite protestations by one studio that the role be cast with a man. As a woman, however, a deeper metaphor locks into place, one that might be seen as gravity’s effects on women, how it’s often viewed as a curse. No woman, however, will watch the film and not be appreciative for having her feet on the ground. It is a thrill ride, to be sure, but one that is surprisingly moving at its core. Bullock’s character wants to live, that is what ultimately drives her character towards survival. How much easier it would have been to die quietly in space. Desire to live is different from the endurance test that All is Lost and Nebraska are. Desire to live means risking your own life to find solid ground. 2013 will be remembered for Gravity, it is the first and only of its kind — spirited and inventive, ambitious and cathartic — the harmonious collaboration of Cuaron, Bullock and Price make for a space ballet of sorts. Oh, what visual effects can do now, seamless in their construction. Space never felt so lonely.
On the road with Alexander Payne has taken us through three significant movies in the director’s career, starting with Sideways, where Miles accompanies his best friend on the eve of his wedding. Then on through About Schmidt, where Jack Nicholson lives out his retirement phase and now, Nebraska, with Bruce Dern, the oldest and most confused of the three men. As expendable, living out yet another life of quiet desperation, Dern’s Woody is hoping for the best as he chases down a dream he almost surely knows isn’t true: that’s he’s won a million dollars. At the end of these journeys there is some relief. Miles finds it in Maya, Schmidt finds it in Ndugu, and Woody finds it in the simple kindness of his son. Through black and white simplicity, Nebraska is one of the films this year that echoes the drained wasteland much of America has become. Shaking off futility, trying to find meaning underneath the consumerism, Woody eventually emerges as a man whose disappointments in life could be erased by something as simple as a new truck, an air compressor and a drive through town. Bruce Dern has never been better as the forlorn Woody, who seems to be suddenly shocked to discover that his life is already almost over. His emotion plays out in secret, glimpsed in revealing moments but never fully exposed. It is a masterful study in conveying meaning with few words.
Spike Jonze seems to respond to his ex-wife Sofia Coppola with this dreamy love story for the modern age. Her is, of course, not just about Samantha, the OS Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. It’s about his own marriage, which he failed to hold together. By the end of the film it becomes clear that Jonze, in his own way, has found a way to reach out and perhaps offer up a lovely apology. To that end, Lost in Translation and Her are coupled. Both star Scarlett Johansson. Both are set on a dream landscape, driven by thoughtful conversation, and musical influences. Both are about communication and love lost. The hopeful future Coppola’s main character is left with at the end of the splendid film isn’t so far off from the options given to Phoenix’s character. Jonze has never been this exposed. Love has never felt like such a gift either — it comes on so unexpectedly. Is it meant to last? Or is it meant for right now? And what’s in the space between the words? In the future Los Angeles will be bigger. We will be more isolated from each other. We will be locked into our electronic devices, living alone together. That makes Her more vital than cautionary; it isn’t warning us that in the future we will fall in love with electronic people. It is reminding us what we already have right in front of us.
7. All is Lost
For his follow-up to Margin Call, JC Chandor took an extraordinary artistic leap to explore the metaphysical realm of endurance, survival, existence. His conduit for this is Robert Redford. Now in his 70s, finally this beautiful mythic creature has aged. It is more than just a vanity-free performance — he carries the entire movie with no dialogue whatsoever. Redford has an intimate relationship with the lens — being one of its most beloved subjects, then having an eye behind the camera studying stories about beautiful people who get credit for things they don’t really deserve. His films are usually about everyone else. All is Lost it is about getting on with it, as everyone else has to, never giving up hope, and ultimately surviving. Chandor’s film in aqua blue contrasted with Redford’s famous auburn hair is mesmerizing from the first frame through to the end.
8. Captain Phillips
The last few minutes of Captain Phillips are really what makes this film so memorable. You don’t have to go that far but you might find that you too have finally exhaled. The film is driven mainly by Tom Hanks’ riveting performance as Phillips, alongside the amazing Barkhad Abdi — two captains on two very different ships, in two very different worlds. Paul Greengrass makes the deliberate point of showing the juxtaposition between us, the super power, and them, the scrappy pirates. Our Navy dwarfs everything else but most especially the tiny vessel Phillips and the pirates are on. It is a sad and frightening story, with no easy answer. Finally, it is so much about that last fifteen minutes where the masterful Hanks takes the story in such a wildly unexpected direction he completely dismantles the notion of machismo. He was scared out of his mind. He almost died. He almost saw his crew murdered. Finally, he witnessed a tragedy that had no other possible outcome, not once the events were set in motion. Even if he could have saved the Somali pirates, he couldn’t have saved the Somali pirates. This is Greengrass’ most emotional, most moving film by a long way and easily one of the year’s best films.
9. Fruitvale Station
Ryan Coogler is one of the breakout talents of the year, with his tragic, but ultimately uplifting Fruitvale Station, the story of the too-short life of Oscar Grant. Coogler follows Grant with a handheld camera so as to give the immediacy of that particular day in the life of an ordinary young man in America. He’s trying to become a man, with all of the usual obstacles in his way. But in the end, like Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave he is ultimately doomed in White America by the color of his skin. Just being black in America means that you are judged in a way white kids just aren’t. Being black on that subway car meant Oscar Grant was already a threat. That put the officer on edge — whether he deliberately pulled out his gun instead of his taser is really beside the point. Grant should never have been cuffed on the ground like he was. The notion that he was dangerous had everything to do with the color of his skin. Coogler, though, did not want to make the testament of an “angry black man.” He isn’t that kind of storyteller. He wanted it to be less political and more artful. He succeeded in that. He succeeded in telling a story that needed to be told. Maybe Grant wasn’t a hero but he was a father and a young man with his whole life waiting for him. Fruitvale Station stands out as one of the year’s best and most important stories. Coogler has a bright future ahead of him.
10. Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell – into the past and through the structure of storytelling Sarah Polley takes us through the history of her family, specifically, how it came to pass that a little red headed sprite, who didn’t really look much like anyone else in the family, was born. It helps that she hails from an engaging family, her sisters, brother, father and biological father are all great in front of the camera. Polley explores her mother’s identity through home movies, or what appear to be home movies. Her wild mother taking a bite out of life, living on the edge until cancer took her life at too young of an age. Through this distraction the real story emerges: this is a love story, one of the best of the year. But it isn’t the conventional kind. This is a love letter to Polley’s father. If you haven’t seen the film the next sentence is a spoiler. Polley finds out that her biological father is someone entirely different from the man she’s called Dad all of her life. The beauty of this film, though, is that it doesn’t matter with whom she shares her genes. The man who was there, the one who is still here acting in her latest film, is her father. She spends the entire film setting us up for the masterful ending where truth isn’t really about the facts at all.
11. Blackfish/Act of Killing
There were so many great documentaries this year. The Act of Killing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was shattering, unforgettable work and will likely win Best Documentary. But I think Blackfish is the kind of film that really can change the world for the better. Maybe that takes it out of documentary territory and into activism. Maybe not enough people care en mass about the fate of those smart orcas at SeaWorld. One film, though, has opened the eyes of many. With CNN standing behind it, this film has exposed to the world why keeping whales in captivity is so wrong, especially these whales who bond mother and baby for a lifetime. SeaWorld simply breeds them and sells them, hoping everything will work out. Of course it doesn’t. It is our human arrogance that makes us think they are just fish and we can do what we want with them. They are incredibly intelligent, sensitive creatures who do not deserve to be made our playthings — all so little Johnny can get a burst of happiness on an afternoon he’ll likely forget moments after they wipe the dried sugar off of his mouth from all of that cotton candy. We’re better than this.
Probably there has never been a movie as powerful as The Act of Killing, not one that I’ve seen. Hyperbole aside, there really is no describing this one. The mass killing of millions of “communists” re-enacted by the killers themselves – all the bluster of our American gangsters covering the facade that clearly, all of that killing not only got to them but very likely ruined their lives. But for one of them, the film slowly uncoils the madness of living with something like that – visually stunning, horrifyingly beautiful – it is a film worthy of being named one of the Best Pictures of 2013, not just in the documentary category. The same could be said for Stories we Tell and Blackfish.
And the rest:
11. Before Midnight
12. Dallas Buyers Club
13. Short Term 12
14. Blue is the Warmest Color
16. Enough Said
17. American Hustle
18. Labor Day
19. The Bling Ring
20. August: Osage County
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Robert Redford in All is Lost
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County
Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis
John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis
Brie Larson in Short Term 12
Woody Harrelson in Out of the Furnace
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, Mud and Wolf of Wall Street
Michael B Jordan in Fruitvale Station
Octavia Spencer in Fruitvale Station
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks
Berenice Bejo in The Past
Forest Whitaker in The Butler
David Oyelowo in The Butler
Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis
Josh Brolin in Labor Day
Kate Winslet in Labor Day