Tuesday, January 28, 2014

12 Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013)
Dir. Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o

12 YEARS A SLAVE is a movie about this guy Solomon Northup, who has to be a slave for 12 years, which in the movie’s opinion is way too long. But it gets even worse, because he’s not legitimately a slave! He did not come by his slavery honestly. He’s a free man in the idyllic paradise of Saratoga Springs, NY, who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, which is definitely adding insult to injury. You can tell all the other slaves who are legitimately slaves and come by it honestly (most of them for a bit more than 12 years) really feel for the poor guy.

So yes, this is a thorny issues movie that I had some pretty serious problems with, but I should start out by also saying there’s a ton of stuff in here to like and respect. It’s a really brilliantly directed film (by Steve “not Bullitt” McQueen, who did HUNGER and SHAME a few years back) which magnificently balances lyrical visual poetry with harsh, gritty reality, creating an experience which boldly refuses to shy away from the visceral horrors of slavery, but also cultivates a real sense of timeless artistry. That is not an easy thing to do, and the ease with which McQueen seems to to pull it off is pretty stunning. It’s also an uncommonly well-written movie; the dialogue is full of big showy speeches and verbal fireworks, but it also finds time for smaller moments, which it depicts with equal power and import. Just like McQueen’s direction, the dialogue seems to balance perfectly on the line between thematic stylization and honest depiction of life. It’s a rare movie which manages such honest, human moments but also dares to speak more mythically and broadly for a whole era.

And of course, McQueen and writer John Ridley are assisted enormously by a pretty amazing cast, who give great performances across the board. Fassbender is great, as he always is, as an odious slaveholding asshole and the movie’s biggest villain. And you also got a sleazy slave-dealing Paul Giamatti (“my sentimentality extends the length of a coin” he sneers), Paul Dano once again as an unstable bastard with too much power, Benedict Cumberbatch as a real noble, nice guy slaveholder, and Brad Pitt and Michael K. Williams in small but important cameos. And then of course, you’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor. Holy shit, this guy has been amazing forever, --appearing in everything from CHILDREN OF MEN to MELINDA MELINDA to KINKY BOOTS to Roland Emmerich’s 2012-- but here it is, he’s finally got his Oscar role. He’s fantastic, a particular challenge since once Northup’s bondage begins, his horror and pain have no outlet and he must simply internalize everything and try to survive.

You know the worst thing about being a slave? They make you work but they don't pay you or let you go.

And that’s kind of where my problems with this movie begin. Because in a lot of ways even more than DJANGO, the narrative elements here mean that although this is a movie about slavery, it ends up being yet another movie about white people. Look up at that cast of great actors. Other than Ejiofor, you see any black people? Just Michael K. Williams, who probably has less than a minute of screen time. Being a slave sucks, and one of the reasons it sucks is that it’s the ultimate disempowering experience. You can’t fight it, you just have to try and survive it, which is what the real Solomon Northup did (at least according to his memoirs) and what Ejiofor does here. It’s true to life, but unfortunately in a movie it makes him a pretty passive protagonist -- he doesn’t have any choice but to just kind of put his head down and survive, while the more active white antagonists get the big showy roles. You learn way more about the slave owners than you ever do the slaves: Fassbender gets a big, meaty role which, even though he’s an asshole, on screen reads as charismatic and active. Even though you hate him, you can’t take your eyes off him and he dominates every scene both narratively and with the simple power of his presence. In movies, active roles are always gonna have more impact than inactive ones, it’s the nature of cinema. And since nearly every villainous white guy is played by a famous, attention-commanding actor, written with John Ridley’s characteristic wit, and uniquely involved in pushing the narrative forward, it’s unquestionably the villains that end up defining the movie. It takes an actor as powerful of Ejiofor to even register against the numerous white antagonists, and he’s the only black actor who really gets more than a superficial look.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few other black actors who get decent-sized roles here (although they are fewer and their parts are smaller than the white actors, on average): In particular, Lupita Nyong’o (a Mexican-born Kenyan making her debut with this film, holy shit) is pretty mesmerizing as Patsey, a slave who catches the lustful eye of the plantation owner, much to her chagrin. She’s great in the role, but unfortunately we never really learn anything about Patsey, she’s just another victim who gets victimized, and that’s all her part amounts to. At best, she’s just an archetype, a stand-in for a certain category of suffering. There’s no indication of what she would be like if she wasn’t a slave, nor even any interest paid to what she’s like as a slave when she’s not being explicitly victimized. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s really sort of dehumanizing. And while Nyong’o’s performance is good enough to at least add some depth beyond the script, the only other major slave character (Adepero Odyue) is even more one-note, spending most of her performance sobbing hysterically for her lost children until even Solomon tells her to shut the fuck up.

I mean, I get it, it’s beyond sad, it’s beyond horrifying, in real life this is the only imaginable reasonable reaction. But this is a movie, and no one likes weepy, passive downers. It’s a visual and auditory medium, and actions simply speak a lot louder than internal feelings. The film doesn’t tell us anything of substance about this character, and hence it doesn’t communicate her story in a way which makes us empathize with her. We’re left to merely sympathize on basic principle, a much less affecting emotional state. The audience I saw it with “boo’ed” resoundingly at the self-serving insensitivity of the white plantation matron who tries to console her that she’ll “soon forget” about her children. But they didn’t get corresponding teary-eyed at her sobbing. Ultimately, the character who can get a reaction out of the audience ends up the winner -- and once again, it’s the white characters who control the emotional high points.

You could cut the sexual tension with a string bean.

In a film which was more interested in exploring the inner lives of its characters, things might be different; if we actually knew anything about this woman and her children we’d probably be more concerned with her drama. But that simply isn’t the case here; for whatever reason, the film seems deliberately to avoid overt characterization in favor of an eventful narrative. And that means the characters are defined by their impact on the plot, where the white people have an obvious advantage. In fact, Nyong’o and Odyue are the only other black characters who have any significant dialogue. We never see Solomon interacting with other slaves, never see what their lives are like, what they joke about, how they relate and create their own parallel society. We never see them angry, or wistful, or plotting to escape, or internalizing the system, or fighting amongst themselves, or having raunchy PORKY’S-style shenanigans, or doing anything other than being victimized and silently suffering. Jesus, Solomon unquestionably spends more time with the slaves than he does with the whites. Why the fuck don’t I even know the names of these men he’s working with day in and day out for 12 years? Why does it seem like the only important relationships in the film are between victims and victimizers?

My buddy Dan P responds to this by saying no shit, of course it seems like the most important relationships are between victims and victimizers, that’s the point of the movie. This particular movie is not about relationships between slaves, but rather the uneasy and problematic relationship between two groups of humans, slaves and slavemasters. It'd about these two groups, which interact everyday together as humans, but one group for practical reasons cannot recognize (or admit, anyway) the humanity of the other group (I’m not going to spoil the movie by telling you which group is which, you’ll just have to watch it and find out for yourself). So you get a very strange dynamic, where in order for the system to continue everyone has to lie a heck of a lot in order to avoid the obvious evil of the situation. Fassbender scoffs at the idea that blacks are equal to whites, yet he’s carrying on a sexual relationship with one of them which is clearly consuming much more time and emotional energy than he devotes to his white wife. Sorry you fucko, you can’t have both --by acknowledging that you relate to this woman enough to carry on this (admittedly one-sided) relationship, you’re implicitly acknowledging her inherent equality and humanity. Unless you’re also out there banging the cattle, your logic is bullshit, and if I may say so, I think on some level he knows it and it explains a lot about why he’s such an asshole.

Likewise, you have Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, who immediately recognizes that Northup is a man of considerable intelligence, and obviously much more on his level than his fuckup white workers. But even though he acknowledges that he’s aware of this, he still keeps him as a slave! Early on, he implores the slave dealer not to separate a mother and her children. But when the guy won’t budge, he gives up and just buys the mom anyway. Sorry, I tried, but doing the right thing is a little inconvenient for me right now. Cumberbatch’s character is way nicer to his slaves than Fassbender, but in a way that makes him even worse, because he’s obviously more sensitive to the evils being done in the slave system but keeps using it anyway.

Sorry about the whole enslaving you thing. Here, have this violin.

Boy, it really makes you wonder what movies a couple hundred years from now will think about us, don’t it? Maybe we’ll look better than Fassbender does, but how many of us will look like Cumberbatch, well-meaning people who could see the obvious evil in living in a world of starving people and bountiful food, who just wrung our hands a little and got on with our lives? You think just because you ended slavery it’s OK that you stepped over a half-dozen homeless people on the way to the theater, like I did to see this one? I knew it was wrong, I know this whole fucking system is inhuman and cruel, every day I see obvious, unmistakable and unmissable signs of it. And what do I do, I go to my job, get dinner, go see a movie, maybe give a homeless guy a dollar if I happen to have one. I wring my hands and write about it on a blog. Hell, at least Cumberbatch’s character has to live with and interact with the people he’s oppressing. My society has been rather carefully cultivated to simply ignore them, to deny their humanity de facto rather than outright, saving us the uncomfortable inconvenience of having to think about it.

All these ideas are certainly present in the movie, and they’re all very interesting. But you know, they don’t really alter my main point, which is that they’re all conflicts addressed to white people. Northup knows all that stuff, he doesn’t have to learn it, but he also can’t say it, he just has to grind his teeth, keep his mouth shut and try to look like he doesn’t want to murder these hypocrite bastards. It IS a movie about the relationship between slaves and slavemasters, but it’s only the white characters who have dramatic conflict, all the slaves can do is pretend they’re not mad and not bring this stuff up so they won’t get murdered. The slaves have the thankless girlfriend role in the romantic comedy, they have to stand around judging while the boyfriend gets into trouble, learns important lessons and eventually comes around.

You know what else stinks about being a slave? The hours.

When I say all this, I probably conjure images of well-intentioned Lefty academic filmmaker types, handwringing over the horrors of slavery but kind of unintentionally making a piece of art that speaks more directly to the people they’re more familiar with in their own day-to-day lives: wealthy white people. But I purposely haven’t mentioned yet that both McQueen and Ridley are black. Makes it a little harder to accuse them of being racist, although to be fair, McQueen is a Brit and probably doesn’t have a lot of experience with American-style racism. No, if I am going to accuse someone of skewing this towards a white audience, it’s actually going to have to be Northup himself. After all, this isn’t his diary,* this is something he wrote for the express purpose of publishing as part of his abolitionist efforts in his later, not-a-slave-anymore years (spoiler). I’m not trying to call him a liar or anything, I’m just saying that with any primary source, it’s important to look at the context in which it was written and the intended audience it was written for. Although we do see a few other wealthy black families in the movie, I’m betting he didn’t write this memoir as a harrowing adventure story for them, he wrote it as a propaganda piece against slavery (as well he should have). And as a propaganda piece, it was written for a white audience who might have the power to do something about it, the text specifically tailored to address the sticky moral issues facing the whites and the daily horrors faced by the blacks. That was the selling point, I suspect, particularly from the point of view of Northup’s white co-author, David Wright. Northup’s memoir is still regarded as one of the most nuanced, least propagandistic slave narratives from the time, and I well believe that this is true. But still, if this particular slave narrative seems oddly white-centric, it probably has a lot to do with the time and place it was written.

So ultimately, 12 YEARS A SLAVE just seems a little too much like a movie about slavery which is intended for white people. All the interesting conflicts, most of the the complex characters, all the motivating action -- it all comes from the white cast. Heck, Northup’s whole character arc is contingent upon white people: he has no flaws, so he’s an innocent victim of white kidnappers, sold by a white guy to another white guy, almost lynched by one white guy and then saved by another, moved to another plantation by a white guy, pushed around by the new white guy, betrayed by one white guy, and then finally rescued by yet another, saintly white guy. His total involvement in his own liberation is that after 12 years, he finally finds one decent white guy who’s willing to write a letter for him so that more white guys can come down from the North and set him free. Shit, the movie should be called 12 YEARS OF HONKIE BASTARDS WAITING FOR ONE HALF DECENT WHITE GUY TO COME ALONG. Whitey defines every single narrative tick here; the slaves are almost entirely passive in their own story!

I think this pretty much says it all.

And here’s where things get a little sticky, because of course Solomon Northup was a real person, this screenplay appears to stick quite close to his real memoirs, so this stuff really happened. Do these filmmakers have to apologize for telling the truth? I mean, of course the truth looks like this, slaves had pretty much no agency, their lives really did move at the whim of whites, exactly the way the movie depicts. And Mr. Northup was no fool, he realized that his only chance for freedom was gonna be in simply biding his time until he finally found a means to send for help. It makes sense. Come on, Mr. Subtlety, if they made up a bunch of fictional bullshit about Northup organizing a slave revolt and beheading Alexander Stevens, you’d complain that it’s all a bunch of hogwash which unfairly makes it seem like slaves had the means to free themselves, which of course is a pretty blatant lie (well, until I make my Nat Turner biopic, anyway).

You’re right, imaginary person who is still trying to argue with me after 2500 words, I might. But I also might not. Because here’s the thing: movies are not real life. They’re not supposed to be; they’re meant to artistically represent real life, not present the actual experience. They're a specific artistic medium with their own particular internal biases in depiction. That’s not a bad thing, it just is part and parcel to this particular art form, as indeed it is to every medium. The way these characters and events read in a movie are different from the way they read in a book -nevermind real life- and treating them as the same just isn’t quite the easy moral choice that I think the filmmakers thought it was. By hewing too close to the historical record written in the book, you may inadvertently end up with something which is less honest about the experiential truth of the work. Even if all your facts are right, by choosing which ones to include and the dramatic tone of the ones you do, you still distort the experience, as all movies do. Recognizing this, intentionally manipulating things a little bit in the interest of a more full experience as a film actually seems like the most honest approach to me. Basically, you’re doing it anyway, so why not at least do it with some intent?

Ejiofor and Michael K. Williams react to learning that this slavery movie is all about white people.

Part of my issues with the movie derive from the specifics of the original story, but part of it is simply what happens when you take this kind of true story and put it on screen. Real life doesn’t usually have neat and tidy narrative lines, which is always one of the big problems with biopics. You’re stuck, right? You respect the subject, that’s why you made the film. But you’re telling the story of an actual life, with all the messy detail and contradictions and frustrations and digressions. Here’s a snippet from the wikipedia description of Northup’s liberation:  

Several letters were written, and one that was sent to Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga, was referred to Henry B. Northup. He contacted New York Governor Washington Hunt, who took up the case, appointing Henry Northup, who was an attorney general, as his legal agent. In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soule and local authorities of Louisiana, Henry Northup located Solomon Northup.

The movie makes it a little simpler: Parker, who they establish as a friend of Northup at the beginning of the movie, comes down and frees him himself. So they basically kept the same events, they just cut out a lot of extraneous explanation, right? We could spend a whole movie talking about U.S. Senator Pierre Soule’s efforts with the legals system and local attorney Henry Northrup (no familial relation, although he was a family friend of the Solomon Northup family and it appears that his family once owned Solomon’s family as slaves and is probably the genesis of their last name, fuck, see how complicated real life is?). We won’t, though, because we’re trying to streamline this one narrative about this one guy. But once you start doing that, aren’t you already kind of acknowledging the limits of this form for that kind of attempted reporting? You’ve already admitted this is nothing like reality, why not just go the next step and reshape the whole thing to tell an emotional truth in a form better suited for this particular artistic medium. After all, even if you make absolutely certain that every single scene is a fastidious recreation of every single detail in the original narrative, you’re still manipulating the facts by choosing which scenes you depict and which you leave out. Life is mostly uneventful. But this movie is almost nonstop events. No matter how honestly you present a single scene, the whole is still a betrayal of objective reality. So why bother pretending?

This movie is clearly an honest effort to honor Northup’s life and story by faithfully depicting it in a movie. But I guess I just don’t really see the value in doing that, compared with the value of making a more introspective study of this period in history. If the movie lacks anything, it’s a motivating point of view. Northup knew what his point was in writing the book: slavery is fucking awful, and a system with legal slavery is patently insane, a horrifying farce that he lost a huge part of his life to. But what is McQueen and Ridely’s point? Just to tell his story? It’s certainly an immersive story, even a frequently gripping one thanks to their skill as craftsmen. At it’s best, it has the distinct feel of The Odyssey, a man gripped by the fickle hand of fate and battered with a long parade of colorful horrors. But Odysseus’ journey is a mythic one; Northup’s is cruel in its banality more than it’s exotic elements. I don’t care if I know who Odysseus is by the end, because he’s not a man, he’s an archetype. But I’d like Northup --particularly given Ejiofor’s sensitive, powerfully introverted performance-- to be a real human. And as such, I care less about what specifically happened to him and more how what happened affects him as a person. And alas, this movie version of his memoirs doesn’t occupy itself with that, either through disinterest or through a crippling reverence for the source and a fear of contaminating it through overinterpretation.

Which brings us back to my preference for a fictionalized (or less complete) version of the book which focused a little more on the slaves and less on the white people.** It doesn’t have to end with a slave revolt or anything (although how cool would that be?) but at least we could focus the story and give poor Northup some kind of character arc, where he’s active --if not in his own liberation, then at least in learning something about himself. One way they might have even been able to do it without changing much of the story is by simply depicting Northup’s later years as an abolitionist advocate and speaker; that’s historically true (the movie even mentions it in the end credits) and seeing it might have helped restore his agency and dramatically demonstrated how his experience actually changed him. Or better yet, dump the idea of narrative and story arcs completely, and just focus on making it a character study about the slaves, their day to day lives, their interactions with each other. Forget trying to shape some kind of phony character arc, and just let us spend some time with these people and get a sense of their real experience. Let us learn who they are, not just the stuff that happens to them. Otherwise, you risk relegating the slaves to the exact same fate they originally had: fading into the background, where you don’t have to relate to them on a human level.***

I have a strong feeling this one is gonna win all the awards in the World, and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned [update: it won "best picture" and "best screenplay" at the Academy Awards, and Nyong'o won best actress, though somehow fucking Matthew McConaughey beat out Ejiofor for best actor]. It’s a fiercely powerful artistic effort, and it examines a time and place which all too frequently goes undepicted in mainstream American media. As a movie experience, it’s an utterly engrossing and harrowing tale which finds rich detail and memorable sequences in its nearly unique scenario. But I can’t help but also feel that it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s also unambiguously an issues movie, and in that one role, it falls a little short of what I’d really like to see, given how rarely this period of history explored in film. Which is more important? Must it be both? It seems completely unfair to demand that 12 YEARS A SLAVE be the final word on slavery. But boy, the opportunity comes around so infrequently that it’s hard not to see what else it could have been. All is not lost, though: 12 YEARS is an unambiguously fantastic movie, and maybe that in itself is enough to inspire a new generation of filmmakers to take the idea and run with it in their own direction. There’s probably enough complexity and pain here to fuel artists for another hundred years, and if that were to be Solomon Northup’s legacy, I have to imagine he’d find that something to be genuinely proud of.

Still, I prefer the deleted original ending, as seen here.

*Although McQueen compares it to one: “I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.” But it’s not quite the same, is it? This was written specifically for publication, after the fact, essentially as a propaganda piece.

**And it’s possible that such a work exists: Northup’s book was already adapted into a PBS movie in 1984. Called SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY (interesting that they also picked up the whiff of Odysseus that I alluded to earlier), it was directed by SHAFT and LEADBELLY’s Gordon Parks and stars, as Northup, holy cow, none other than Avery “Baddest muthafuckin Starfleet Commander ever” Brooks. And John Saxon is in the Fassbender role. I gotta take a look at that.

***Controversial opinions time: I’m about to alienate all my Lefty friends, but you know who made a good film about an oppressed minority? Mel Gibson. No, not PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which actually as you can see from my review has a lot of problems in common with this movie. I’m talking about APOCALYPTO, that movie that everyone denounced as racist and insulting to all native American people, everywhere. They didn’t like it, I think, because it takes some liberties with the facts and in some cases presents the Mayans as the bad guys (although they’re also the good guys). Fair points, but you know what it also does? It presents the Mayans as humans. They’re humans first and foremost, normal characters you’d see in any movie. Some of them are smart, some dumb, some evil, some kind, some victims and some heroes. What they never are is symbols. APOCALYPTO is not a movie about the Mayan People, it’s a movie about a few particular Mayans who have a specific silly movie story about them. There’s no message there, there’s no political point being made about oppression, they’re just regular human beings having the normal drama humans have in movies. There are no white people in the picture at all, nor does it need them or want them. Maybe you say that doing this movie this way diminishes the suffering of the Mayan people at the hands of Europeans, that it fails to address the genocide of an entire continent, that it shamelessly refuses to take a stand on the issues. I say, I think the most sensitive way to portray anyone is to make them more than their issues, and more than their heritage. Every human is infinitely complex, and you reduce them when you try to make them represent some big abstract ideological or historical point. Humans are humans, archetypes are just shorthand. Stereotypes for people with good intentions.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2013!

Let’s cut right to the chase. 2013 was a god-damned rootin-tootin’ high-falutin’ unbelievable year for movies. I mean, man, I don’t know exactly what happened, but somebody must have sacrificed the right thing to the right movie gods, or maybe it’s just ol’ Roger Ebert puttin’ in a good word for us from the other side. Whatever it was, this year was such an embarrassment of riches that I barely know where to begin. But before I give it a try, first I wanna say that there were so many fantastic-looking movies this year that between an active social life and watching 55 horror movies in October alone, I didn’t even get to see them all. So none of the following were considered in the final tally; hopefully I’ll see them and update this post throughout the year as I did in 2011 and 2012:

Nabraska, Drug War, Simon Killer, Post Tenebras Lux, Computer Chess, To the Wonder, Passion, Side Effects, The Wind Rises (Shame on me), Leviathan, Fast and Furious 6, Pain & Gain, Zero Charisma, Escape from Tomorrow, The Fifth Estate, We Steal Secrets, Mandela, Oldboy (remake), 47 Ronin, Frozen, Escape Plan, Bullet to the Head, The Counselor, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Butler, Metallica: Through the Never, The Family, The Grandmaster, Fruitvale Station, The Canyons, Monsters University, 42, Byzantium, Wrong, Kiss of the Damned, What Maise Knew, A Good Day to Die Hard, Oz the Great and Powerful, Philomena, Captain Phillips, Before Midnight, The Conjuring (saw INSIDIOUS 2 instead, whoops), Blue is the Warmest Color, Blackfish, Anchorman 2, Prisoners, A Hijacking, All is Lost, The Impossible (which it turns out is not the sequel to THE INCREDIBLES like I had assumed) Thor 2: the Dark World, Rush, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Way Way Back, Much Ado About Nothing, A Field in England, Kill Your Darlings, Behind the Candelabra, Frances Ha, Stories We Tell, Don Jon, Filth, Mud, Bling Ring, Warm Bodies, Saving Mr. Banks, About Time,  and especially Short Term 12 which I hear is super amazing.

But despite missing out on all those pictures which at least have some chance of joining this list at some point (I’m particularly optimistic about KILL YOUR DARLINGS), I saw a whole bunch of great ones this year. From Ryan Gosling looking attractive in a Metallica t-shirt to Ryan Gosling looking attractive in a well-tailored suit, from Ryan Gosling being a terrible father to Ryan Gosling having a terrible mother, 2013 had it all. Giant Robots. Giant Monsters. Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters. A 200 million dollar zombie movie starring Brad Pitt. Like a hundred weirdo roles for Matthew McConaughy. New action movies for Stallone and Arnie, and Stallone AND Arnie. Korean geniuses Park Chan-Wook and Kim Jee-Woon making their American debut (we would have got Bong Joon-Ho too, except the Weinsteins have the distribution on that one so they can’t release it until they cut out half of it and have the guy from Linkin Park re-score it). Also: Christian Bale with a pot belly and a truly luxurious comb-over. A scene where we find out what phone sex with Scarlett Johansson would be like. Shane Carruth finding his soul pig. George Clooney being handsome in zero-g. Discussions of the Science Oven. Ti West getting killed by an arrow. Dave Grohl interviewing Neil Young. Slavery, genocide, crimes against humanity, cannibalism, and Lindsey Lohan sex movies. OK so it wasn’t all fun and games. But so much for the prelude, on to the show! Without further ado, here are my 12 most loved movies of 2013, in NO PARTICULAR ORDER.

The Top Twelve:

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES: Derek Cianfrance (BLUE VALENTINE) crafts an intriguing film here, telling three stories about different protagonists who at first seem only tangentially related. As the movie progresses, however, the powerful and invisible threads which bind people together across the time begin to become more clear. A dreamy sense of heightened reality adds an unexpected element of poetic lyricism to the proceedings and helps to make some of the script’’s less plausible deus ex machina feel mythic rather than contrived. More than almost any other movie I can think of, PLACE BEYOND THE PINES highlights the ethereal web that binds the past to the present, and examines what that means to the people struggling between the two. This sense of connectedness quietly strengthens each segment of the film (some even retrospectively), and bolsters each performance with piercing but subtle meaning, made all the more powerful by the fact that its implied rather than overt. And of course, fabulously complex performances from Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and Dane HeHaan make certain that the experience is never anything less than absolutely riveting. Epic, multi-generational crime dramas are difficult enough to get right on their own, and Cianfrance is clearly aiming for something even a little more ambitious than that. That this movie has lingered in my mind all these months later is a strong testament to his success.

STOKER: Korean genius Park Chan-Wook (the VENGEANCE trilogy) makes his American debut with something a little more restrained than the imaginatively depraved shockers that made his name. But his restraint is only a cover for something equally devious: a sly, subversive thriller in the Hitchcockian vien. But imagine if Hitch was as sumptuous a visualist as he was a relentless one. And that he was freed to more explicitly vent the depraved psycho-sexual violence that lurks in the quiet implications of his best work. I’m not sure this loose remake of SHADOW OF A DOUBT has a ton of psychological depth, but its prickly, sometimes perverse insinuations are just as irresistible now as they ever were, and the film’s dreamy, symbolism-laced production is so effective you can hardly help but be swallowed up into Park’s dark world.

UPSTREAM COLOR: When a thief uses a bizarre parasite harvested from orchids to hypnotize a woman and steal all her belongings, a chain of events is set in motion which seems to link the minds of various humans to each other, and to pigs living in a farm under the care of a mystery man who looks like Albert Brooks. And that’s about as much as I could explain from the plot. But the narrative here isn’t the point: the important thing is the hazy, muted spell the movie weaves and the powerful and complex emotions swirling just below the distorted surface. There’s an undeniable sense of undefined yearning here, which pulls you in more surely and more simply than any literal story ever could. While I imagine this film, like Shane Carruth’s previous effort PRIMER, has an underlying logic which could be unravelled with many closer viewings, I personally prefer the pleasure of experiencing the film’s potent symbolic and emotional immediacy without any cumbersome explanation to get in the way. Whatever it all means, UPSTREAM COLOR is powerful, mysterious, and compelling.
WEST OF MEMPHIS: This infuriating, riveting, moving story --about three high school kids railroaded by an uncaring justice system and a self-serving media into a false conviction for murder-- would be the most howlingly outrageous movie of 2013 if it were a work of fiction. As a retrospective documentary, it’s close to mind-blowing; packed full of jaw-dropping human drama, pathos and absurdity, and directed with a precise balance between hard-nosed journalism and lyrical expressionism. (See the full review HERE).

TRANCE: Perhaps the single strangest film in a year full of enormously strange films, TRANCE takes the cake for never once appearing aware of how startlingly depraved it is. It’s a caper film wrapped up in a surreal headtrip and lightly dusted with horror movie, bathed in gaudy candy colors and spiked with short bursts of explicit sex and shocking violence. While the film’s plot is straightforward enough (for a mindfuck film, anyway), it’s full of sudden and violent shifts in our perception of the characters and their world, hallucinogenic fever dreams, and odd but unmistakable symbolism. In some ways it reminds me of Gilliam’s deeply underrated IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSES in its extreme blend of cheerful fun and startling viciousness. Mental, emotional, and sensory overload are par for the course here, but the potency of director Danny Boyle’s filmmaking is undeniable, making this an essential --if decidedly queasy-- bad drug trip worth the taking for any serious cinephile.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES: One of the most hated films of the year, and it’s easy to see why. With its glacial pace, aggressively unlikeable characters, brutal violence and deliberately frustrating anti-narrative, the thing practically dares you to like it. This is definitely from the mind of the same director who considered shooting VALHALLA RISING 100% in slow motion just to annoy you. I was going to write “if you can get past all that…” but actually that would be dishonest. There’s no getting past the fact that ONLY GOD FORGIVES is actively working to be infuriatingly unrewarding to the casual viewer. But it’s not for them, it’s for those with a different kind of cinematic desire. This is a film that delivers a very specific, meticulously crafted experience. The droning, aggressive soundtrack, the intense colors, the slow pace, the coldly symmetrical Kubrickian framings, the long stretches of silence punctuated with brutal bodily harm. They all lull you down the rabbit hole into an eerie, nauseous nightmare world where all your comfortable assumptions about what a film should be will be bluntly and obscenely dashed. Don’t get me wrong, there is both story and meaning to be found here, complete with its own complement of unique and unsettling imagery. But much more important is the immersive experience of the film, seductive and repulsive in equal measures but too compellingly crafted to look away from.

THE WORLD’S END:  In a year this full of complex and challenging movies, WORLD’S END stands out as a rare example of a classically structured, hugely entertaining movie which is fastidiously constructed enough to be every bit the equal of its peers of loftier artistic ambition. As with SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, Edgar Wright again demonstrates his stunning abilities as a craftsman, fine-tuning every detail until the thing just sings. There is not a wasted line, an uncalculated movement, a single plot point which is not expertly placed to pay off later. The proof of his mastery is that it all looks so easy: nothing feels labored or designed to impress. Instead, Wright has done all the work ahead of you so all you need do is sit back and enjoy the breathlessly energetic comedy, the ever-escalating tension, and the subtle but genuine emotional notes. A cast packed with great actors all find near-perfection here, and as a bonus, it may well also have the most elaborate and invigorating action sequences of the year. Hilarious, heartfelt, relentlessly inventive, and with all parts executed with a laser-like precision, this may well be Wright’s best work yet.

THE PAST: A welcome antidote to some of the more esoteric films on this list, THE PAST is a film --from Asghar Farhadi, director of last year’s A SEPARATION-- deeply rooted in the real world, and in real people. It concerns an Iranian native, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returning to his wife in France after a period apart. What he finds upon his return, though, is a complicated domestic situation, fraught with raw emotions that have their origins in recent history and the more distant past. The movie is filled with astoundingly vivid performances and deeply realized characterizations, but its most interesting tool is a structural one: it’s a rare drama which plays almost like a mystery. As Ahmad navigates the familiar-yet-subtly-altered avenues of his life in France, layers of meaning are gradually added in ways which sometimes radically change the nature of what we assume we’re seeing. Sensitive, heartfelt, and surprisingly gripping, THE PAST is one of the most affecting and intriguing dramas in a very long time.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: This small-scale, unassuming tale of a NYC folk musician in the early 60s is, for my money, one of the Coen Brothers’ very best films ever. The Coens have done a lot of different kinds of films over the years, from tense thrillers to broad comedies, but they’re at their best when they do something a little harder to define, something like this delicate blend of gorgeous music, mundane heartbreak, painful comedy, and enigmatic lyricism. From its muted palette of steel blues and murky grays to its cryptic, seemingly circular chronology, this isn’t a film designed for bombast, but rather a film of rich, human details which are at the same time elusive and evocative. Llewyn himself --as brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac-- is a genuinely unique movie character, someone we’ve never quite met before. He’s full of human complexity and contradictions, deeply flawed but still somehow relatable enough to not lose our hope that he’ll someday get things right. There’s a mythic quality here quietly informing the wisely-observed minutiae of the real world, and the result is a film which feels at once universal and deeply specific, sad and funny and surprising. Bolstered by a stellar cast and a beautiful soundtrack of folk tunes curated by T-Bone Burnett, this one pushes masterpiece status.

GRAVITY: 2013 was a year of films which strenuously sought to cultivate an immersive cinematic experience. Several of them made this list. But all pale in comparison to the almost frightening power of GRAVITY, one of the most inescapably immersive cinematic experiences since Cuaron’s own CHILDREN OF MEN, and as such almost certainly in the running for that honor in all of film history. There’s a philosophical, human heart here to buoy the visuals, but all that takes a decidedly back seat to the main event: a breathless (sometimes literally!) nonstop roller coaster ride which forcefully and commandingly hurls you into the film’s world and makes certain you don’t emerge until the credits role. It does what so very few films do: takes you somewhere, somewhere you’ll probably never be able to go in your human body, and lets you --forces you to, really-- experience it as if you were there. No film in a long time has done so with such intense discipline and ambition. I’m not certain this one will have the staying power of some of the films on this list, but it absolutely demands your attention at least once.

HER: Lovely, riotously funny and thoughtful, Spike Lee’s Sci-Fi “Love story” is one of the best and most focused things the director has ever done. What could have been a treacly and shallow postmodern throwaway instead becomes lush and constantly surprising, a movie which dares to push into some serious philosophical ideas without needing to be flashy and overbearing about it. Pitch-perfect performances and subtly gorgeous cinematography make this a truly special and distinct take on the genre of near-future speculative fiction. (See the full review HERE.)

THE ACT OF KILLING: This was an amazing year for movies in general, and there are several from this year which may well become all-time favorites of mine. I mean, I wanted to keep my “top” list to 12, but there are probably 6 or so more movies I saw this year that would have made the list almost any other year. It’s been an embarrassment of riches. But ACT OF KILLING is better than them all.
Simply put: one of the most stunning, horrifying, and powerful films I have ever seen, ever. A rare perfect constellation of unbelievable subject, powerful artistry, ingenious conception and pure, random luck. At my age, it’s a very rare thing for a film to truly allow you to look on the world with new eyes, but it is not exaggeration to say that Joshua Oppenheimer (and his anonymous Indonesian collaborators) have done exactly that with their brilliant, deeply human portrait of the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, decades later. The genius of the film is not in its condemnation of these people --which would be a simple matter-- but rather its frightening portrayal of the human souls trapped within a seemingly inescapable system of denial, which gradually implicates everyone, including the troubled murderer at its center. Be warned: watching this is not easy. It will take you places almost too painful to be believed. But a work of art this profound, piercing and utterly unique is too rare a thing to miss. You owe it to yourself as a human being to watch this; just don’t expect to walk away from it lightly. This is true art: bruising, mesmerizing, and transformative.

Honorable Mention:

AMERICAN HUSTLE: I know we’re all totally sick of movies calling themselves “American [noun]” in an effort to seem deeper than they really are. But this one avoids that by pretty much ignoring the political and social elements on the surface and instead having fun with a bunch of great actors playing entertaining, over-the-top characters. It flirts with parody, but the cast and director manage to keep just the faintest wisp of genuine humanity in there to keep it from being a completely hollow experience. Fun, outlandish and brimming with color, makes it easy to forget the flaws. One of the best ever lessons about why you should never put metal in the science oven.

GATEKEEPERS: A trenchant, provocative documentary that examines the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by interviewing the six living former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service. Even though the perspective is completely one-sided (all Israeli security guys) the film emerges as a surprisingly thorough and nuanced examination of the issue, and the reasons that it never manages to get resolved. By turns shocking and depressing, the film’s focus on only six men proves its saving grace: it puts a human face on the decades of follies which have led to today’s sorry state without resorting to painting anyone as a clear hero or villain.

THE EAST: Yet another remarkable film from Brit Marling and Zack Batmanglij (ANOTHER EARTH, SOUND OF MY VOICE), and another testament to their unmistakable discipline, focus, and imagination. This one is something along the lines of an environmental thriller, a tense adventure film which leaves plenty of room for gray area (and gray matter) while still not chickening out on a strong message. Ballsy and engrossing.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: This absolutely outrageous, manic slapstick comedy from Martin Scorsese doesn’t have a whole lot to say about Wall Street skullduggery, but it is an indisputably wild ride, until the end when it isn’t anymore. Undeniably a bit empty, but irresistibly kinetic and involving for the majority. (See the full review HERE.)  

DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY: A fine documentary about the renowned illusionist and sometimes-actor, which mostly talks around the outskirts of his personal life in favor of examining his mentors and the history of their profession. Like any good magic trick, it has bountiful style and wonder enough to easily overcome that slight lingering feeling that you’ve been hornswaggled.   

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST: Though it ever-so-slightly shies away from the provocative suggestion in its title, this is nonetheless a deeply felt, seriously prescient look at the “global war on terror” and its effects on people from across different cultures. If it is reluctant to push quite as far as the premise might allow, it compensates with sharply drawn characterization and a clear-eyed portrayal of the world’s complexity. Mira Nair (THE NAMESAKE) manages a tale which is both deeply relevant on a socio-cultural and personal level, and her lush, sharp cinematography makes certain it looks good, too (and markedly different from all those other bozos who would shoot this with shaky-cam to make it feel “authentic”)

DIRTY WARS: The documentary synthesis of journalist Jeremy Scahill’s book of the same name delivers stunning revelations galore, but gets caught up too much in Scahill’s own journey, when it ought to focus on the amazing things he’s revealing. Too many cheesy reenactments and a compulsion to ape a Hollywood thriller lessen the impact of the enormously important reporting at the film’s center. Knowing this stuff should be mandatory, but if you get the book you can probably skip the movie. Still, credit is due for putting this in theaters, and there’s footage here which will absolutely devastate you.

THE LAST STAND: Arnie’s return to the big screen didn’t do much at the box office, but thanks to his larger-than-life charm and the masterfully deft direction of Kim Jee-woon, this one remains a personal winner. Outrageous, funny, utterly charming. (See the full review HERE.)

JOHN DIES AT THE END: Don Coscarelli’s first new film since BUBBA HO-TEP back in 2002 is messy, a bit unstructured, and its snarky tone can get a little grating. But if you can look past that, there’s enough crazy ideas, surreal images, and uproarious madness to fill a few dozen hours, all packed into a 99 minute runtime. Sublimely silly, but with some genuinely fun sci-fi concepts that linger just long enough for you to appreciate them before the movie zips on to the next monster.

SOUND CITY: As a piece of cinema, this thing’s a mess, an unwieldy mish-mash of tones, ideas, anecdotes and tangents that never really coalesce into a focused whole. But if there is even a single ounce of childlike fun in your worthless cynical body, I fucking dare you to try and resist the hyperactive, rock n’ roll giddiness that is Dave Grohl’s* cinematic love letter to a classic studio, and a mixing board, and being in a band, and Paul McCartney, and pretty much any little thing that pops into his head that he thinks is great. What, you’re gonna tell Dave Grohl he needs to focus? Hell no. You’re going to sit back and enjoy the ride wherever the fuck it is that Dave wants to take you. Plenty of great rock n’ roll tunes and stories abound, but the film’s secret weapon is Grohl himself. His enthusiasm is more infectious than herpes, and as such for anyone with even a little love of rock music, walking away from the experience with anything less than a gigantic stupid grin plastered on your face is absolutely inconceivable. Expect to buy the soundtrack within minutes of the film ending.

12 YEARS A SLAVE: I have some problems with the narrative structure of this film, which I still feel short-changes the main character in favor of the (white) antagonists. But only a fool would deny the extraordinary power of director Steve McQueen’s work here, which delivers scenes of nearly unbearable intensity and lavish detail. Chiwetel Ejiofor --who has been quietly amazing for years-- ought to be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar this year, and he has heartily earned it. Beyond its technical accomplishments, though, this one is worth it not simply for its boldness in subject matter, but its boldness in approaching that subject matter with nuance and complexity and still not shying away from a wider, more sweeping perspective. Flawed, but fearless and unforgettable. (See the full review HERE)

BLUE JASMINE: Another supremely assured, sophisticated, and rich film from Woody Allen (BANANAS) this time featuring an extraordinary high-wire performance from Cate Blanchett (ELIZABETH II: THE GOLDEN ARMY AGE) portraying the title character, a middle-aged woman suffering a breakdown as her identity slips away with her wealth. There are subtle notes of comedy here, but mostly this is a tragic tale of the dangers of self-delusion and constructed identity. Emotionally rough, but also warm, sensitive and surprising, with a great cast (including the dream team of Louis C.K. and… Andrew Dice Clay?).

PACIFIC RIM: Giant Robots fight Giant Monsters. A bit sloppy considering Guillermo del Toro’s formidable talent, but delivers the goods with an enthusiasm that will inevitably win you over. The multiracial/multinational/multilingual cast adds a pleasing bit of contemporary texture, even if we still have to follow a white guy. And did I mention Giant Robots fight Giant Monsters? For, like, 70% of the film? Stop pretending, you can’t resist that kind of pandering any more than I can.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE: Classy, patient tale of a family of rural folks with some fairly unsavory dinner habits. Sumptuous country cinematography and splendid performances (including an excellent turn by the great Michael Parks (FROM DUSK TIL DAWN 3: THE HANGMAN’s DAUGHTER, RED STATE) help ensure that the low-key horror vibe gets under your skin and stays there. Perhaps a little too staid for its own good, though. (See the full review HERE)

LORDS OF SALEM: I cannot in good conscience recommend this laughable mess of anti-narrative and goofy shocking imagery to anyone, but I also cannot deny my love. (See the full review HERE)

THE LONE RANGER: This year’s JOHN CARTER. Audiences avoided this one in droves for reasons no one seems entirely able to pin down, though everyone seems to have their own pet theory. But it was their loss, because Depp (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and director Gore Verbinksi (Bad Religion’s American Jesus video) bring a hyperactive, exciting and funny madness to this superficially old-fashion tale. Absolutely over-stuffed with cheerfully absurd craziness, the final sequence featuring a battle which wanders back and forth between two parallel trains (set to the William Tell Overture, natch!) is maybe the most exciting and best choreographed action sequence of the year. If you are the type of person who enjoys movies which are fun, this should be at the top of your list.

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO: Having misread the title, I assumed this was a documentary chronicling the making of teen pop star Justin Bieber’s new studio album, but it turns out to be slightly less horrifying than that. Instead, it’s the story of a tightly-wound British sound engineer (Toby Jones, Karl Rove in W) suckered into working on a violent Italian Giallo. Existential dread is the order of the day here, as the sensitive engineer gets a taste of the darker side of Italian film culture and begins to lose his grip on reality. Tense, phantasmagoric, and troubling, but with just a touch of postmodern fun, too.

KINGS OF SUMMER: Touching, funny coming-of-age tale with a bevy of memorable characters (particularly the inimitable Biaggio played by Moises Arias) may be a little scattershot, but has a shaggy charm which forgives a lot. May not quite reach the level of emotional honesty it seems to be yearning for as a whole, but many individual parts ring profoundly true, and the film is shot with a startlingly beautiful eye for nature.

MAN OF TAI CHI: Earnest, focused martial arts film from director Keanu Reeves (PARENTHOOD) isn’t quite unique enough to distinguish it from others of its ilk, but it’s tight, streamlined, and features plenty of splendidly choreographed, crisply shot action.  “A Fight you shall have,” Reeve’s character promises. The movie delivers exactly that.

ADDENDUM 4/2: See the full Review of BLACKFISH here. Depressing, manipulative, but effective and elegantly constructed.

ADDENDUM 4/2: THOR 2: THE DARK WORLD: Our second dish of Thor as a main course is about on par with the first, a good-hearted trifle. Too unimaginative to reach greatness but too far amiable to grump about, this one delivers plenty of monsters, spaceships, and one-liners to keep you in good spirits. As before, Hiddleson's Loki is their secret weapon, and here they finally strike the perfect balance between the character's tragic history, cheerful villainy, and gleeful puckish charm. Eccleston is kind of a cold fish as the main villain here, but the plot builds a good momentum and strikes that perfect tone of cheerful ridiculousness that Marvel has been so successful at capturing lately. This universe feels cohesive and familiar now, and it's always fun to get a chance to play in it, even if this entry is on the minor side.

ADDENDUM 4/2: SHORT TERM 12: A sensitive and painfully realistic depiction of the workaday young adults charged with maintaining order in a short-term home for displaced kids. Its strength is in the powerful and deeply human portrait it draws of these young people stuck in a kafkaesque surreal limbo as wards of the state, bringing warmth and humor to a story which is rife with stark tragedy. And little do the kids know it, but the young adults (barely older than their wards) trying to keep it all together may be even more fucked up than the kids they're trying to help. Towards the end, the film unexpectedly lurches from intimate slice-of-life to something a bit more dramatic in a way that may strain credulity for some viewers, but to me it fits perfectly with the gradually ratcheting tension and pain which slowly takes shape as we learn more about the characters and their lives. This is a small film, but its insight and sharply drawn, naturalistic characters give it an absolutely riveting power. One of the year's best.

ADDENDUM 5/21: THE WIND RISES: Master animator Hayao Miyazaki's (supposedly) final film is unambiguously one of the year's best, a rich and meditative concoction of elegiac despair and wild imagination married by the quiet melodrama of a single human trying to find joy and love in a strange and sometimes horrible world. People claiming the film downplays Japanese wartime atrocities miss the point: Miyazaki is not celebrating wartime might, but lamenting the cruel waste of passion and creativity that was squandered on it, while still reminding us that even amid the big issues of our day, ordinary life is what truly defines us. Powerful, achingly human, and simply stunning to look at, my one regret with THE WIND RISES is that I saw the subtitled version without realizing Werner Herzog is in the dubbed on. Oh well, just more incentive to watch this masterpiece again.

Also Worth Seeing
“The” Wolverine
Hobbit 2: This Time We Definitely Almost Get to Some Actual Plot Points.
Iron Man 3
You’re Next
This is the End
Europa Report
A Band Called Death
The Purge

Dedication and coda:

If I may end this novel on a sadder note, I’d just like to say that this is the first year I’ve had to go though as a serious movie watcher without the wise imput of a great hero of mine, Roger Ebert. Roger, your great love of life, of film, of people, and of humanity has taught me so much over the years. Your writings --always lucid, thoughtful and (crucially) humane and warm-- will be sorely missed; no matter how much I like a movie in the future I’ll always feel a little cheated not to have the chance to read your take on it. I’d like to dedicate this to you, even if you were wrong about THE RAID.

I miss ya, Roge.

*Nirvana Drummer, Foo Fighters front man, and runner-up World’s Greatest Man for over two decades running (as long as Slash lives the number one slot will belong to him and only him).