Before 2013 is too far into the review mirror, I figured I’d put together a top 5 of the films I saw in theaters in the calendar year. Keep in mind that, despite having seen a lot of films, I have not seen nearly the number professional reviewers do, so if you think something should be there that isn’t, I probably didn’t see it. I also discounted any film I saw in 2013 that actually came out in 2012. Also I live in Louisville and the opportunity to see independent films is limited. So here goes, with brief commentaries, counting down from:
5. Kill Your Darlings. Directed by John Krokedis
This film tells the story of Young Allen Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe) as he begins his life discovering himself as poet and free spirit, through his relationship to Lucien Carr (David Dehaan) who ends up murdering his obsessive lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). As an aficionado of Beat Generation literature, the film was a joy to watch as the actors ably bring to life the main characters of the Beat era in their youth, before they had discovered themselves in all of their beauty and faults. I especially enjoyed Ben Foster’s portrayal of a young William S. Burroughs. Foster Managed to capture the affectations of Burroughs without devolving into mimicry.
Mostly, however, what makes this film enjoyable is the way in which it captures the difference between Ginsberg’s burgeoning self-acceptance and Carr’s utter refusal to live the kind of life he exhorts others to lead. As a period piece telling a sexual coming of age story, it is enjoyable, but as a lesson in the difference between appearing authentic and actually being so, it is magnificent. Through Krokedis’ Ginsberg we learn that those who inspire us to greater heights are not always capable of following and how heartbreaking that can be.
4. Twelve Years a Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen.
I’ve debated about this film ever since I saw it. At times I think it is brilliant, but at other times it just falls flat in its overall purpose. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was born a free man in New York only to be kidnapped while on a trip to D.C. and sold into slavery as a runaway. The difficulty I had with this film is that the main character is so detached from his circumstance that slavery becomes a spectacle that we see through his eyes. He is, after all, not a slave, in contrast to the “real” slaves which surround him throughout the film. As such, Northup has a kind of golden ticket that, for most of the film, you’re just waiting to be used. When it does, he leaves, presumably it is twelve years later, but the film moves so quickly from scene to scene and Northup looks much the same in the end as the beginning, it might have well been the 3 hours I was sitting in the film. What’s lacking is any kind of sense that the slaves are fully human in the way that Roots captured. 12 Years comes across as a kind of slavery tourism and (laughably)reminded me of the speech C. Thomas Howell gives at the end of Soul Man after having been found out for darkening his skin in order to get a minority only scholarship. His law professor (James Earl Jones) says, “You know something most white people don’t. What it’s like to be black.” And Howell replies, “No sir, because I could always stop being black, I have no idea what it means at all.” I felt this way about Northrup. He was never really a slave even though he was in fact a slave, but that implies that others were really slaves, and that is remarkably dehumanizing for a film that sought to do the opposite.
So why is it on my list? Well, McQueen’s narrative does capture the psychosis of slavery through the myriad of relationships we witness in the film. Most importantly is Michael Fassbender as the sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps, who is consumed by his desire for his young slave, Patsey (Luptio Nyong’o) and the brutality that brings. But more than this, I left wondering if this was not a stronger critique of the kind of privilege that Northup is born into and returns to. He never really knows what it is like to be black in the United States. His status, his white friends, his education, are all advantages not afforded to his fellow African-Americans and consequently he is necessarily distant from them even when he directly confronts the brutality of racism itself. I wondered if this wasn’t an implicit critique of Obama’s failure to confront the racism his presidency has endured, or his failure to actually give voice to the grievances of oppressed people around the world. Could Obama, with all of his privileges, ever really understand what it’s like to be black, just as Northup isn’t really a slave, even though he is? He has merely served the privilege which he found when he took office. Toward the end of the film, Epps commands Northup to take up the whip and tear the flesh from Patsey’s back. Northup hesitates but Patsey says, “Please, Solomon. I’d rather it be you.” Perhaps this is all the Obama presidency amounts to, says this interpretation of the film, the choice of who gets to hold the whip. If this interpretation holds up, then the movie is powerful, but I’m not sold. In any case, what the movie does accomplish is the brutality of slavery while providing a protagonist that, for me as a white man, I could easily identify with. But if that’s all it does then, meh. Roots was better. Go watch Roots.
3. Nebraska. Directed by Alexander Payne.
Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a retired Montana mechanic who, having received a sweepstakes mailing comes to believe he has in fact won a million dollar prize. Unable to drive himself to the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, Nebraska, Woody insists on walking until his son David (Will Forte) finally caves in and agrees to drive him. June Squibb is brilliant as Woody’s opinionated wife, Kate, and Bob Odenkirk does a positive turn as their other son, Ross. Most of the events of the film take place during a weekend stopover at Woody’s childhood hometown, a miniscule farming community on the Nebraska plains.
The acting in this film is tremendous. Bruce Dern embodies the quiet detachment of an elderly Midwestern Plains man. My Grandfather was such a man. One moment he is dangerously lost within himself, another moment telling a random and intriguingly truncated story about his childhood, the next mumbling complaints about the broader world. In scene after scene I was transported back to a hundred family gatherings where men nod off while watching football and don’t talk unless it’s to tell stories about cars long past. As an outsider, I found these gatherings impossible to penetrate, and Payne manages to capture both the awkward failure and the longing for connection through Forte.
Shot in black and white with dialogue that always leaves more unsaid than said, Payne’s aesthetic is beautifully suited to the windswept plains that serve to give the film its title. There is a vast emptiness in the film that displays what it means to be alive. Like life, the film is spotted with dialogue and events that are never quite enough to fill the void. And inevitably, we are going to die and be nothing but void. Bruce Dern captures this sinking realization, that most moments are behind him and he is slipping ever more into the void, as we all will. Thus, when Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) arrives for the reunion she insists first on travelling to the cemetery in order to “pay respects” to those dead. That she then goes on to ridicule most of those buried is precisely the point. We are all fools, in the end, chasing an absurd legacy that seeks to fill the emptiness, but in the end, all we have are too few moments followed by death.
2. The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
So, a lot of people hated this movie, but I loved it. Visually it was stunning with terrific acting. Cinemagraphically, the images kept me off balance with the effect of making me feel as drunk and giddy as the characters. True, the setup which has Nick Carraway writing the book as a means of recovering from a nervous breakdown was a bit forced, but it did provide an opportunity to make use of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s prose, which needed to be incorporated beyond mere dialogue. Much was made of this film’s box office success in a film season dominated by blockbuster action/adventure films. I’ll leave others to speculate more deeply, but Luhrmann’s vision made The Great Gatsby into more than a period piece and more than romantic tragedy. He accomplished what Fitzgerald set out to accomplish in writing it. Luhrmann makes an undeniable statement about the privilege of wealth and how the rest of us misunderstand it.
To this end, Leonardo Dicaprio is fantastic in the role of Jay Gatsby. Of course he looks the part, but he brings to the role that uncomfortable falseness that always keeps Gatsby from blending in with the society of wealth he so desperately pursues. Gatsby is not one of them, and he never will be. We know this every time he utters the phrase “Old Sport.” What should be a term of endearment becomes clunky in its overuse and one wonders if he knows any other such endearments. He looks the part, he sounds the part, but there is always something that gives him away in his desperation. A shift in the eyes, or too perfect a smile always tell us that Gatsby is both better and worse than he lets on.
Likewise, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton are perfect embodiments of their roles as Daisy and Tom Buchanon. The film is not especially kind to Daisy, she is as shallow and narcissistic as is Tom, but this is what separates Luhrmann’s Gatsby from other incarnations. It is only a love triangle in Gatsby’s head. We expect women in romantic films to be guided blindly by love, to be more in touch with some sense of emotional wholeness than the men in their lives. Think about Meg Ryan abandoning her fiancé for a chance at Tom Hanks at the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle. Whatever it is that Daisy wants, it’s not Gatsby and it’s not anything like a healthy love. Fitzgerald makes this clear in the book, and Luhrmann manages to bring that sensibility to the screen. Tom and Daisy are bound together by something Gatsby will never have: Wealth. Not money, mind you, Gatsby can acquire all of the money Tom has, but he will never be wealthy. Luhrmann’s choices make this less of a romantic tragedy, and more a critique of the American dream. We can acquire money, but we cannot overcome our class sensibilities. We are always born back into them.
1. Frances Ha. Directed by Noah Baumbach.
It’s true, there are a lot of movies out that I didn’t see in the past year, but of the ones I did see none was a better example of what film can and should be doing than Frances Ha. Shot in black and white, Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a struggling dancer whose life has stalled and finds herself in that awkward position where her friends are moving forward when she is doing her level best to tread water. Now, in all honesty, this story has a deep personal resonance with my own career shortcomings, and I found myself attracted to this film in ways that might be lost on a great many people who never struggled with self-doubt and professional failure. For example, the best line in the entire film (and it is a dialogue driven film) is when Frances, having recently been laid off from her role in a dance company, is at a dinner party and someone asks her, “What do you do?” She initially answers, “It’s complicated.” When pressed on why it’s complicated, Frances says, “It’s complicated because I don’t actually do it.”
Baumbach and Gerwig, who co-wrote the film, speak in interviews about how they wanted to capture that point in mid-to-late 20s when your circle of friends breaks apart to pursue separate relationships and careers. Certainly the film begins this way with Frances’ best friend and roommate ending their lease to pursue a better apartment, but this film is so much more than that. It is a treatise on learning how to embrace being awkward even if being awkward makes others uncomfortable. Frances is not really surrounded by successful people, she’s surrounded by people trying not to let on how disappointing and depressing their lives are. Throughout the film, for example, she and her second roommate, Benji (played by Michael Zegen) play a game where they spot each other’s eccentricities that identify the other as “undateable.” However, at the end of the film, when Benji brings the subject up again, Frances has moved beyond caring, while Benji is the one now left behind in his own insecurities.
The film is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s best work, and Gerwig’s performance was more than worthy of her best actress nod at the Golden Globes. It does suffer all of the faults of portraying the struggles of upper middle class white kids who set their sights on being artists, and in that way is open to a rather stinging class critique of the very enterprise. I’ll leave that work for someone else. Partly because I am a middle class kid who set his eyes on being an artist, I ccan see in Frances’ life a broader meaning for everyone I know. This is what good films do, they lay bare some aspect of life that is both familiar and unclear. More than any other film I saw this year, Frances Ha does that.
All in all, the best word for this film is charming, but it is charming in a non-superficial way. Frances is awkward, we all are. Her life doesn’t turn out like she had hoped, as is the case for most of us. The film’s genius is that it shows someone learning to deal with life’s awkward disappointment without hiding it for the sake of appearances. In that way it is a rarity in that it is both honest and positive. Rarely does a film portray both of these qualities.