The Top Five for 2013
World War Z
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
WORLD WAR Z
What a dazzler. Brilliantly directed by Marc Foster, with a genius sense of the ebb and flow of an action movie. And unlike *Man of Steel*, which had a serious case of CG-it is (too many computer generated special effects makes one numb), in this movie the CG looked real and was used in an intelligent way. Brad Pitt again shows that he’s one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and versatile actors. I’ve always liked him (way back to *Thelma and Louise*, whoa Nelly) but between *Inglourious Basterds*, *The Tree of Life*, and *World War Z*, he’s becoming a favorite of mine.
Let's talk for a moment about what a movie is there to do. It shows you an experience that you could never have yourself. It gives you time with actors you find compelling. It excites you, makes you laugh, makes you cry, pulls you out of your own life while you're watching it. And it really acts like a MOVIE - - it's not like a TV show, or a novel, or a play, or anything else. It puts a story on the screen and tells the story in the way that only a movie can.
*Gravity* is one of those movies. Richard and I saw it in the IMAX 3D format, and what an experience. I've loved the director for a while, Alfonso Cuarón - - he also did *Y Tu Mama Tambien*, *Children of Men*, and the most beautiful of the Harry Potter movies, *Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban*. I'm now putting him on my short list of directors to watch. The most impressive thing about it was that the IMAX 3D format never drew attention to itself, it merely served the story. It did what Baz Lurhman tried to do with *The Great Gatsby*, it drew you in and made things more immediate. I think it would be nearly as effective in a normal format, but I'm not 100% sure of that.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were both amazing as (more or less) the only two characters in the movie. Bullock gives a tour de force performance, really showed us nearly everything she's capable of doing. And there's a shot where you see a breathtaking view of the earth, followed by a view of George Clooney's face - - I wondered which was more beautiful.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
This is the third film by English director Steve McQueen (what a curious name). I was blown away by his first film, *Hunger*, about the hunger strike by IRA martyr Bobby Sands. His second movie, *Shame*, left me cold - - it was about a sex addict. As Richard said, “I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy, but I just think he’s a creep.” *12 Years a Slave* had all of the markings of a great film, and it is. The director makes the biggest impact of his three films by making himself invisible. It reminded me of a William Wyler movie, in the way that he puts the story on the screen in a clear and impactful way, and doesn’t do anything tricky or showy.
It was a deeply upsetting movie, with a colossal performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve seen him in many movies (*Love Actually*, *Dirty Pretty Things*, *Kinky Boots*) but he never impressed me enough to want to learn his name. Now I know his name! Many other great performances, by Michael Fassender (who has played a leading role in all three of McQueen’s movies), Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch (who seems to be everywhere lately), newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, and a nice little cameo by Brad Pitt, who also produced the movie. You might not make it to see this in the theater, and it’ll be nearly as good at home on DVD, but let me urge you to watch it with no interruptions.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVID
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was such a masterpiece of cinematography. The washed-out look of the movie had such an impact on the story, it was dazzling. Oscar Isaac was brilliant as Llewyn, such a bold choice to have an unknown actor play the lead, but he was perfect, and you totally bought him being that character because you had no history with him as an actor. The folk songs he sang were so great, and I loved the cameos by Justin Timberlake and F. Murray Abraham. The sequence with John Goodman knocked me on my ass, it was total Harold Pinter, maybe the highlight of the movie. And the cat was so adorable.
What’s the distinction between “disturbing” and “upsetting”? This movie was both. Sweet and touching and funny and sad, but also disturbing and upsetting. It really got under my skin, I could hardly focus on reading *The New Yorker* on my subway ride home. A unique movie, I can’t think of another movie that does what it does. It feels like it takes place in the future, but maybe only six months in the future. Fantastic performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, and especially Scarlett Johansson.
*August: Osage County*. I saw the play on Broadway and was blown away by it. You know that thrilling moment in the theatre when someone says something and the whole audience gasps? There were THREE of those moments in *August: Osage County*. I was curious to see if they’d happen in the movie - - the first one did not, but the second and third were just as gaspy. I had hoped that Ellen Burstyn would get the lead role, the mother in this intensely dysfunctional family, but hey, Meryl Streep isn’t all bad, is she? Of course she gives a knockout performance. Julia Roberts is amazing as the oldest daughter, one of the best performances of her career. One of the things I loved best about her in this movie is that she looks her age: she’s my age, 46, and she looks it. She looks great! All of the other actors are fantastic, and most of the credit has to go to Tracy Letts for writing such brilliant material for them.
*Hannah Arendt*. I loved this movie, but Richard is always quick to point out that maybe it’s the story that I found so compelling, and maybe not the movie itself. Hannah Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist, at her peak of fame in the 60s. The movie follows the story of her being hired by the New Yorker to go to Israel to cover the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. This turned into a five-part series of articles, and later a book, *Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil*. I haven’t read the book, but read the New Yorker articles. Fascinating, brilliant, very challenging. Arendt is played by Barbara Sukowa, who somehow brings drama to Arendt lying on a couch, thinking through tough moral issues, and smoking. And a lovely supporting performance by Janet McTeer as Arendt’s friend Mary McCarthy (author of one of my favorite novels, *The Group*).
*The Bling Ring*. The newest Sofia Copolla movie. I adore her, she’s the only director whose every feature I’ve seen in the theater. This one follows her pattern - - it’s very good, but slightly less good than the movie before. Every one of her movies has done that, with the obvious exception of *The Virgin Suicides*, her first (that was a masterpiece). But don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this movie! It’s about a pack of four teenage girls and one teenage boy in Calabasas who follow celebrities online and sneak into their houses and steal their stuff when they’re out of town. Copolla is a very skilled director, she always achieves what I assume she sets out to do. At the beginning of the movie I was thinking, “Oh this is so much fun! These kids are so adorable! I wish I’d grown up in Calabasas and had hung with a gang like this.” Twenty minutes later I was nauseous and chilled to the bone. Emma Watson, aka Hermione from the Harry Potter movies, turns in a stellar performance as the most self-involved and deluded girl.
Best Cameo, Female
I’m giving it to two people this year. Alfre Woodard in *12 Years a Slave*. Her character was the most complicated and multi-layered character in the movie, and she effortlessly embodied all of that. She’s a magnificent actor and (to use a phrase that Richard hears from me too often) she should come to New York in a play! The other winner this year is Joanna Lumley in *The Wolf of Wall Street*. Her reveal in the wedding scene was the high point of the movie, and her brief one-on-one scene with Leo later in the movie was frisky and adorable. I’ve already seen her in New York in a play (she was marvelous as an Elizabeth I knock-off in *La Bête*), so I won’t make the same request of her.
Best Cameo, Male
Two winners in this category, too. Kevin Costner in *Man of Steel*. He was so Gary Cooper in this part, quiet and strong and handsome and effortless. It feels like he’s in three movies right now, so clearly his agent is working overtime, or he’s come to a point in his career where he’s hot again. The other winner is a major actor in *American Hustle*. I’d tell you who it is, but I didn’t know he was in it and the shock of him in this part was the biggest thrill of the movie. So I don’t want to deprive you of that surprise. He plays an old gangster and turns the movie on its head.
Remembrance of Movies Past
I was home a few weeks ago and put on *How to Marry a Millionaire*. Such a cute movie, I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. It’s a first class Hollywood product, and I mean that in the best possible way. Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe all put in wonderful performances as the three girls. Monroe, in particular, is just adorable.
Movie That Needs To Be Made
Picture this: a movie where Parker Posey and Sarah Silverman play sisters. Right?
*The Devil in the White City* - - based on the brilliant nonfiction book by Erik Larson about the Chicago World’s Fair, and the serial murderer killing young women on the periphery. It’s in preproduction with Leonardo di Caprio as the murderer.
*In the Garden of Beasts* - - another Erik Larson book, this one about the American ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to WWII. The movie (at this point) is with Tom Hanks as the ambassador and Natalie Portman as his slutty daughter. Directed by Michael Hazanavicius, who directed *The Artist*.
*Into the Woods* - - based on the Sondheim musical, with Meryl Streep as the witch, Johnny Depp as the wolf, James Corden and Emily Blunt as the baker and his wife, and Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Frances de la Tour, and Tracey Ullman in smaller parts. I’m a little skeptical because it’s being directed by Rob Marshall. He did a great job with *Chicago*, but *Nine* was such a piece of crap.
Follow-up on previous Eagerly Anticipated
*Gambit* - - This movie opened in London in November 2012, to be precise it opened at the movie theater where I saw *Argo*, on my honeymoon! They were setting up for the premiere party when I saw *Argo*. No word on a release date in the US, it has a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Check out the production history on wikipedia, they should give it a direct link when someone searches for “development hell”.
*The Great Gatsby* - - see Drek, below.
*Oz, the Great and Powerful* - - it got such bad word of mouth when it opened, I skipped it. I saw it on DVD and it was a yawn.
*A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan* - - the new movie by Roman Copolla, brother of Sofia and son of you know who. I loved his previous movie, *CQ*. This movie had a very limited theatrical release (I’m getting my facts from our friends at wikipedia): it was released in two theaters on 2/8/13, and expanded to eighteen theaters on 2/15/13. Its US box office gross was $45,350. ANYWAY. I got the DVD from the public library and couldn’t make it past the first twenty minutes. Here’s a quote from The AV Club (our friends at The Onion): “It isn't a movie so much as a feature-length perfume commercial for a Charlie Sheen signature cologne with gorgeous packaging and absolutely nothing inside."
*Behind the Candelabra* - - FINALLY this movie was on HBO! So beautifully done, so sad and touching. Without a doubt the greatest performance of Michael Douglas’s career, he was astonishing as Liberace. Effortless.
Most Deserving of a Comeback
Whatever happened to Josh Hartnett? He was the hot new thing for a while, in *Black Hawk Down* and *Pearl Harbor*, was so great in *The Virgin Suicides* and especially *The Black Dahlia*. Hasn’t done much of anything lately, at least nothing I’ve seen. He got a shout-out in my 2006 Top Five, in the Movie That Needs To Be Made category - - he would be so brilliant in a movie about man on the run Richard McNair. Maybe I should write him a letter.
Viva La Diva
Oprah Winfrey in *The Butler* (I refuse to call it *Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler’*). A very strong movie, and she was the best thing in it. Such a powerful presence onscreen, she really delivered the goods in this role. After fifteen minutes I forgot she was Oprah, which is an achievement in itself. It’s a shanda that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, especially with Sally Hawkins up for *Blue Jasmine*, when she had more or less nothing to do. I hope this movie leads to more movie work for Oprah, and an Oscar WIN!
*I’m So Excited!* is the new movie by Pedro Almodóvar, another of my Top Four (him, S Copolla, Q Tarantino, and M Harron). It wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be - - it didn’t have the madcap quality of his early comedies, and didn’t have the heart or the intelligence of his more recent dramadies or dramas. It was still a lot of fun. The biggest treat of the movie was hearing the laughter of the people in the theater, Richard in particular.
*The Wolf of Wall Street*. This movie was snorting its own coke. My friend Jim raved about it, said it was classic Scorcese in the *Casino* vein. It has a lot in common with *Casino*: it’s three-hour running time, its portrait of high-flying lives on the edge, its shifting of narrative voice, its groovy soundtrack. But the characters in *Casino* were so much more interesting. I’m not saying I liked them more, but I wanted to watch them. I found the characters in *The Wolf of Wall Street* to be tiresome and dull. When a movie has a scene where a yacht is about to be torn in half by a tidal wave, and I’m letting out a heavy sigh and leaning my head against my hand, there is something seriously wrong.
*Carrie*. I had high hopes for this remake, because I like the director (Kimberly Peirce, who did *Boys Don’t Cry*) and love the two stars (Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore). Seeing the movie encouraged me to articulate my thoughts on remakes, which I will share with you now. A remake doesn’t need to be better than the original, but it has to be either as good and/or bring something new and fresh to the table. For example, the remake of *The Manchurian Candidate* definitely wasn’t anywhere near as good as the original, but it was worth seeing because of the performances by Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, and Denzel Washington. Let’s say it was worth seeing, but possibly not worth having been made (if you see my distinction). *Carrie* was a pleasurable way to spend 90 minutes, and worth the $8.50 I paid for it, but really not worthy of the book or the original film. Brian De Palma (who directed the original) seemed to get off on the schlocky horror aspects of the story, whereas Peirce saw it as more of a coming-of-age drama with horror aspects. Both, I suppose, are valid, but of course it’s the horror that’s going to win for me. It’s telling that the high point of the movie was the full tilt horror demise of the lead bad girl.
How Could I Have Missed It?
*Cloud Atlas*. I'm thinking maybe Glorious Mess might be a future category for this email. The interesting thing about this movie in this category is I know exactly how I missed it. Karen Miller and I had a date to see it the week that Hurricane Sandy hit, and there weren't any movies being shown in New York that week, and then I was on my honeymoon! Karen read the novel and loved it, and was curious to see how the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (the three writers/directors) could make it into a movie, it seemed like an unfilmable book. I haven't read the book, but enjoyed the movie very much. It was ambitious and very long (nearly three hours) but I was drawn into it, never bored, often amazed, and always curious to see what would happen and how. Not for everyone, but a most interesting film.
Break-Out Performance, Female
Margo Martindale, *August: Osage County*. This movie was dominated by Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, but everyone in the cast did a fantastic job. Much of the credit goes to the writer, he put them in an exciting story and gave them crackling dialogue and lots of opportunities for emoting. I was surprised when I saw Margo Martindale in the cast list - - her role as the matriarch’s sister was one of the key roles, and I thought they’d have a star in that part. Kathy Bates came to mind. But Martindale was perfect, she just nailed the character. And maybe because I don’t have a lot of baggage tied to her as an actor, she had the strongest reading on the Oklahomometer.
Break-Out Performance, Male
Benedict Cumberbatch in *Star Trek: Into Darkness*, *12 Years a Slave*, and *August: Osage County*. I hear he’s great on that new British Sherlock Holmes show, but I haven’t seen it. He’s a blazing talent and keeps showing up in everything. He has a peculiar face, yet I find him appealing. He’s an actor to watch, I hope he delivers on this promising start.
This was a dull year for credits. *August: Osage County* gets the award because they did something interesting with them, structurally: they started the movie with a prologue and then had the credits. I liked that.
Top Five Greatest Women’s Costumes
Grace Kelly’s sleeveless sweater and scarf in *To Catch a Thief*
Audrey Hepburn’s evening gown in *Sabrina*.
Elizabeth Taylor’s slip and dress in *Cat on a Hot Tin Roof*
Diane Keaton’s goofy tie and vest get-up in *Annie Hall*
Cyd Charisse’s green sequined dress in *Singin’ in the Rain*
*The Great Gatsby*. Too much light makes the baby go blind. Too much glitter, too much movement, and enough with the white chiffon drapes blowing in the breeze already! It was all flash and no depth, which worked OK for *Moulin Rouge!* (which I disliked intensely) because it was a stupid story to start with - - this is a story that’s glamorous on the surface, but has lots of dark and deep issues brooding underneath. None of that made it into the movie, though Leo did his best to make a three-dimensional character out of Gatsby. He was the most successful in that regard, though everyone did a good job within in the context of what they were asked to do. Speaking of 3-D, what was the point? It was gorgeous to look at, but it seemed like Luhrmann was simply playing with a pretty toy. There was an article in the NY Times when the movie was being shot, where he defended his decision to make it in 3-D. A quote from the article: “He [director Baz Luhrmann] spoke of using 3-D not to create thrilling vistas or coming-at-you threats, but rather to find a new intimacy in film.” There is no intimacy in this movie! The artifice pushed me away rather than drew me in.
New Category: Briefly Noted
This is a spot where I’ll summarize, in a few sentences, other notable movies I saw.
*Captain Phillips*. One of the most exciting movies of the year, with a stunning performance by Tom Hanks, one of the best of his career.
*Fruitvale Station*. A very strong movie. It did something I hadn’t seen before: it showed the ending at the beginning, so you knew the main character was going to die (if you didn’t know that already) and then whenever something happy or sweet happened in the movie, it was accompanied by a feeling of sadness and remorse, since you, as an audience member, know how the story ends.
*Nebraska*. A sweet movie, a little on the mild side, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bruce Dern knocks the ball out of the park, and three cheers for Alexander Payne for shooting the movie in black and white. It added so much.
*American Hustle*. Do you ever get the feeling that you’re supposed to like a movie more than you do? Amy Adams was fantastic, and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner were also very strong, but Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence were both a little too gimmicky for me. The movie felt like an informercial for the soundtrack.