Thu, Jan 16, 2014 04:55 PM
Sometime in December, professional critics produce their year-end
Top 10 lists of movies the rest of us haven't seen yet. In January
or February, once I've watched most of the contenders (by whatever
means necessary - of course, I don't live in Los Angeles or New
York City), I regularly undertake the same exercise... not because
anyone particularly cares about my opinion, but in order to
reassure myself that a year of moviegoing has yielded at least a
few significant rewards.
My list is usually a little less edgy than I think of myself as
being - I'd really like to have a Top Ten like, say, the critic
Glenn Kenny's, which contains four foreign-language films, three of
which have fewer than 2,000 votes on IMDb - but I think mine is
maybe just barely cool enough to alienate the average viewer. I
haven't seen everything yet, but then again, that'll always be
true, so I might as well go for it now:
1. "Blue is the Warmest Color"
This relentlessly intimate lesbian love story, whose realism is
infused with poetry, is refreshingly free of political agenda -
it's not a "pro-gay" parable but simply the heady and heartbreaking
coming-of-age of a French girl who happens, maybe, to be gay. Its
teenage star Adele Exarchopoulos appears in nearly every shot,
usually in close-up, allowing an experience so immersive that the
film's three-hour running time could easily have been longer; you
can almost live inside it.
2. "Inside Llewyn Davis"
The Coen brothers are the cruel deities of film - creating an
imaginary universe with painstaking precision and care, and then
torturing its inhabitants for pleasure. This can be fun to watch
or, sometimes, not, but "Inside Llewyn Davis" - a grim, lovely,
hilarious depiction of the mythic 1960s Greenwich Village folk
scene, with Oscar Isaac as a hapless singer - shows the validity of
their aesthetic: what matters is not whether they explicitly
sympathize with their protagonist but whether we do. The universe
doesn't care; we must decide to, or not.
3. "Spring Breakers"
The pleasure of Harmony Korine's insane coed fantasy - about a
group of amoral girls taking a wild vacation in Florida - comes not
only from its outrageousness (embodied best of all by James
Franco's gleeful performance as a jewel-bedecked rapper) but,
equally, from its ambiguity, the way it glides between exploitation
and art, condemnation and empathy, reality and imagination, comedy
and tragedy - remaining shabby and lurid all the time, like Florida
(and perhaps college) itself.
4. "Before Midnight"
Richard Linklater's Jesse-and-Celine trilogy - an extended love
story about an American man and a French woman - is, in its
progression of quality, one of the most remarkable series in all of
film. The first, a trifling, verbose Eurail fantasy for affluent
college kids, I didn't even like; the second I sort of had to
respect; the third is stunning, and stunningly painful. The couple
is older now, married, arguing; their fights are utterly real and
utterly soul-crushing. This is what it's like to fight with someone
you love. Yet Linklater refuses merely to reveal the "grim
realities" of male-female relationships; after an hour or so of
pure hell, the hope he offers here feels miraculous. Thank God for
this movie's happy ending (of sorts).
5. "Pain & Gain"
Michael Bay's semi-low-budget self-satire - which exposes the
consequences of the witless, superficial, testosterone-pumped
mindset in which his entire career has taken place - is still a
Michael Bay movie: fast-paced, amoral, over-the-top, shamelessly
entertaining. An action-comedy about consumerist decadence, it lets
you feel bad about enjoying it.
"Mud" is pure pleasure - a tender, good-humored folk-tale melodrama
about a benevolent fugitive hiding on an island on the Mississippi
and the two boys who befriend him, it evokes an almost unceasing
sense of magic and breathes new life into the timeworn tropes of
7. "Drinking Buddies"
From the beginning, the "mumblecore" movement sought to create
independent films that would reflect the (somewhat mundane) lives
of the people who actually consume independent films. These are, I
believe, the same white, college-educated urbanites who also
consume craft beer. The characters (now played by Hollywood
A-listers) no longer mumble so much, but Joe Swanberg has finally
brought the two together in this sweet, observant relationship
comedy set in a Chicago microbrewery.
8. "The Place Beyond the Pines"
It's easy to see the contrivances in the plot of Derek Cianfrance's
vivid, ambitious triptych about the killing of a motorcycle
stuntman and its long-lasting consequences; they're almost the
point. Harkening back not only to classic Hollywood melodrama but
to Greek tragedy, the film obeys the logic of its own universe; the
characters are driven not by reason but by the deeper forces of
9. "Frances Ha"
Noah Baumbach's happiest, most energetic and youthful film since
"Kicking and Screaming," it's also the funniest movie I saw in
2013. It loves its flighty, irresponsible heroine - a struggling
dancer in New York City - enough to redeem the "quirky girl"
archetype from which she emerged; Baumbach feels her (mild) pain
and laughs with her, not at her.
10. "The Kings of Summer"
Somewhere between the early work of David Gordon Green and a Disney
Channel Original Movie lies "The Kings of Summer," an alternately
sitcomish and lyrical story of three boys who run away from home to
live in the forest like the Lost Boys. That I chose this film - a
more vulgar and yet less crude version of 1994's "Camp Nowhere," a
childhood favorite of mine - to round out my list and not an
artistically superior coming-of-age story like "The Spectacular
Now" shows only, perhaps, that I prefer adolescent daydreams to
"Gravity," "Museum Hours," "Man of Steel," "American Hustle."