Astronauts, Ship Captains, Folk Singers, Con Men and Assassins
The top 10 films of 2013
The Act of Killing
Where to start with this jaw-dropping documentary? In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by a military coup. The military employed gangsters and paramilitary leaders to slaughter more than a million alleged communists. Some 45 years later, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer came to the country, hunted down the (unrepentant, still in power) killers and asked them to relive history. Instead of conducting standard talking-head interviews, however, Oppenheimer asked his subjects to create short films of any type they chose—from musicals to film noir. The result is an insane mixture of confession, art therapy and slow self-realization. Bizarre, transgressive, enlightening and terrifying, The Act of Killing is both a grim look at the still-open wounds of history and a thoroughly unexpected love letter to the power of cinema.
David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees, Silver Linings Playbook) has always been a reliable indie auteur. But he’s also a rather antisocial filmmaker, mocking his characters as much as sympathizing with them. This giddy, hilarious, inspired-by-real-life crime film seemed to provide him with characters he loved unreservedly. Russell took what was a quintessential American tragedy (the botched ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s) and turned it into an ensemble comedy about con men, crooked politicians and deluded FBI agents. For Russell ABSCAM was a perfect example of how Americans lie to themselves and one another. Eventually we learn to love the lie more than the reality. Wrapped in bad leisure suits, awful haircuts and disco music, American Hustle is 2013’s most seductive lie.
The final film in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is a sublime capper to one of the most realistic examinations of love and relationships in modern film. On its own—like the other films (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset)—Midnight is nothing more than an insular, talky character drama about two people trying to figure out if they’re attracted to one another. But viewed as the final, fully matured chapter in the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), Before Midnight is wiser than any 10 romantic comedies. No longer young singles looking to hook up, our protagonists are now a middle-aged couple with kids, jobs and other everyday burdens. Love changes under those circumstances—and it can be as challenging to figure out as it was when we were naive twentysomethings.
Historical accuracy isn’t the point here. What really happened on board that boat on the Indian Ocean in 2009 is known to only a handful of people. The point is that director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) wraps a rip-roaring dramatization of the event around Tom Hanks’ pitch-perfect title performance. First-time actor Barkhad Abdi is a revelation as the ambitious pirate leader who holds Hanks and his crew hostage. Watching the two actors in a battle of wills (and guns) is magnificent. Even though the ending is a foregone conclusion, the film is an expertly assembled white-knuckle thriller filled with almost unbearable tension.
Speaking of white-knuckle thrillers, this minimalist sci-fi film from Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) is generating some serious sweaty palms. Sure, the science isn’t exactly NASA approved, but its aim is pure, Towering Inferno-style disaster porn done extra-large. Somewhere Irwin Allen is weeping with jealousy in his grave. The gorgeous cinematography and stunningly good special effects are nothing less than groundbreaking, lending a terrifying reality to astronaut Sandra Bullock’s breathless, movie-long plunge through the heavens.
Inside Llewyn Davis
This poignant insider look at the world of the early-’60s New York City folk music scene is, in many ways, an atypical Coen brothers production. In the past, they’ve displayed a loving sympathy for all their characters, even the bad ones (like Javier Bardem’s quirky killer in No Country For Old Men). Here they create their first truly unlikable character, the self-obsessed, artistically unwavering folkie Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Even with the bitter, perpetually broke anti-hero front and center, this unexpectedly straight-faced film is still a mesmerizing evocation of time and place.
Tiny even in comparison to his other films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants), director Alexander Payne creates an indelible character sketch in this black-and-white dramedy about a frustrated man (Will Forte) taking his doddering dad (Bruce Dern) on a pointless cross-country journey to claim a clearly bogus million dollar prize. The stakes are incredibly small—they never get any bigger than one old man’s long-lost dignity. But the sensitive script, the delicate direction and the incredibly understated performance by Dern (an Oscar shoe-in) give this film unexpected power.
12 Years a Slave
All of director Steve McQueen’s films are hard to watch (Hunger, Shame), but this harsh drama about slavery has so much weight of history behind it, it’s impossible to look away. The historical truths it exposes are painful (almost unbearably so), but the emotional performances and the temporal recreations that surround them make this the most unshakable film of the year.
This charming miracle of a film came to us from Saudi Arabia. That’s rather remarkable considering movie theaters are banned in the country. But what’s even more remarkable is that it was directed by a woman—who, it should be pointed out, isn’t even allowed to drive in her home country. Directing her crew by walkie-talkie while hiding out in a van (unmarried men and women being forbidden to mix), first-time filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour crafted a perfectly self-assured, surprisingly lighthearted drama about a spunky little girl (the incredible Waad Mohammed) who hustles her way toward her humble dream—owning and riding a bicycle. The day-to-day, behind-the-scenes details al-Mansour’s camera captures are nothing short of eye-opening.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese hasn’t directed many comedies, but the ones he has (The King of Comedy, After Hours) have a sneaky dark edge. This raw biopic about early-’90s Wall Street scammer Jordan Belfort is no exception. But with Leonardo DiCaprio front and center (the fifth and best collaboration between director and actor), this is also the filmmaker’s loosest, raunchiest, flat-out funniest work to date. The script, based on Belfort’s own memoir, doesn’t dig very deep into the whys and wherefores of its greedy, thoroughly debauched main character (or the era that spawned him)—but damned if this isn’t the most irresistible roller coaster of bad behavior, financial shenanigans and well-deserved comeuppance.