Honorable mention of 2013: Ten movies that are no mere also-rans

Copyright Sony Pictures.

The secret side of life at Wayne Manor. © Copyright Sony Pictures.

The notion that 2013 was a strong year for movies has become such conventional wisdom that there′s even a backlash to the idea, as in last week′s L.A. Times column by theater critic Charles McNulty, in which McNulty argues that grade inflation is at work, and that film critics have succumbed to a social-media echo chamber.

That idea is worth considering; no one should kid themselves that reviewers aren′t susceptible to hype and P.R., especially more refined, insider-y forms of hype and buzz. And any critic who seriously proposes that 2013 measures up to, say, the hallowed year of 1939 is trying too hard — only posterity will decide how the movies of 2013 will look 20 or 50 years from now.

I would counter, though, that my own impression of 2013 as a good year for film is based on a much wider array of releases than the end-of-year Oscar contenders; that particular slate of movies, whether good or mediocre, is a lazy and comically inadequate way to take stock of what′s going on in the world of movies. The best evidence for the merits of 2013 is that there were far more than 10 worthy contenders for both my Top 10 list and this Honorable Mention list, and I didn′t even include documentaries.

American Hustle

U.S., 2013
Director: David O. Russell

I had never been crazy about David Russell′s movies during his ″indie″ phase (everything up to and including I Heart Huckabees). The films often struck me as rooted in strained conceits; I remember toughing it out with Flirting with Disaster (1996), thinking that I was watching the idea of a hilarious farce rather than something that was actually funny.

His more recent populist phase, for lack of a better term, may have some crying sellout, but The Fighter and American Hustle are not just far more entertaining, they feel more expansive and honest than the ‘90s movies. And then there′s Russell’s touch with actors: Christian Bale was more interesting than he had even been before in The Fighter (2009), and what do you know, he′s even better, funny and touching in equal measure, in American Hustle.

What would a Martin Scorsese screwball comedy look like? American Hustle is probably as close as we’ll ever come to knowing. The mise-en-scene here, which mines third-tier ‘70s rock to set the atmosphere, may feel overly familiar, but the performances are so much fun to watch that it doesn′t matter.

What really elevates the movie is that Russell is just as invested in his female characters as his strutting dudes (a rarity in contemporary Hollywood, needless to say). Amy Adams gives the great dramatic performance, and Jennifer Lawrence the great comedic one; the narrative probably didn’t need the moment where Lawrence′s on-the-warpath housewife belts out ″Live and Let Die,″ but it′s easy to see why Russell would have hated to cut it.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

U.S., 2013
Director: Adam McKay

Giddy, transcendent idiocy. The ratio of hits to misses in the gags is remarkably high — even the absurd digression about Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell, of course) losing his sight provides some inspired silliness. The nods toward political satire aren′t exactly subtle, but who would ever expect subtlety here?

In this anything-for-a-laugh context, it′s impressive how Ferrell, Adam McKay & Co. were able to sustain the pace for most of two hours. The only moments I would have left in the editing room are the shout-outs to the original Anchorman from 2004, and the slew of celeb cameos near the end — the movie doesn′t need them.

blue_jasmineBlue Jasmine

U.S., 2013
Director: Woody Allen

A Woody Allen movie that I actually thought about after it was over — when’s the last time that happened?

The criticism that the Jasmine character is just a vehicle for Allen′s purported misogyny leaves me nonplussed. Cate Blanchett′s performance as the tragicomic Jasmine inspires just as much pity as exasperation — I never felt like the character was meant simply as an object of contempt. (Were that the case, she would hardly hold our attention for 100 minutes.) Click here for the review.

faust.usa_posterFaust

Russia, 2011 (U.S. release, 2013)
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Aleksandr Sokurov’s adaptation of the legend of Faust and Mephistopheles is both earthy (you can practically feel the mud squelching between your toes in the streets of the town here) and hallucinatory (thanks in part to the director’s use of distorting lenses — his set pieces don’t look like anyone else′s). A memorably bizarre evocation of “the Teutonic,” and such a singular vision that it felt like the outer limits of what you could expect to see in a commercial theater, even an art-house. Financed after the director took a meeting with noted cineaste Vladimir Putin, too.

like_someone_in_love_xlgLike Someone in Love

France/Japan, 2012 (U.S. release, 2013)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Deceptively simple in outline, like an elegant short story, Kiarostami′s tale of an elderly professor who allows himself to be mistaken for a prostitute′s grandfather gets more surprising as it goes along. And nothing is more surprising than the jarring ending, which subverts every expectation of how a movie should end. Click here for the review.

 

much_ado.us_posterMuch Ado about Nothing

U.S., 2013
Director: Joss Whedon

Breezy, accessible, casually stylish; this is a distinctly Californian take on Shakespeare. As thoroughly amusing as the movie is (and Nathan Fillion as a blockhead Dogberry is a riot), what might be the most intriguing thing about it is the way Joss Whedon′s sensibility shines through. Click here for the review.

 

his name might be mud, but not his reputationMud

U.S., 2013
Director: Jeff Nichols

A good old-fashioned yarn. Like Nebraska (see below), Mud evokes the best traits of 1970s American movies without feeling like mere homage. Fable like, with a regional flavor, yet thankfully straightforward (i.e., free of Terence Malick mannerisms).

 

Nebraska

U.S., 2013
Director: Alexander Payne

A little funny, a little sad; but of course. As with Alexander Payne′s last movie The Descendants, it can take a while to get caught up in Nebraska, but the accumulation of character detail and milieu rewards the viewer′s patience. Payne certainly isn′t going to force laughs or a sense of melodrama on you.

NebraskaSeventy-seven-year-old Bruce Dern won the acting prize at Cannes, but let′s not overlook the character work by Bill Hader and Bob Oedenkirk. (The latter had a fine 2013 between this, a small but memorable part in The Spectacular Now, and some show about meth dealers on AMC.)

Interesting to note that some critics assumed Payne was just making fun of middle America here; to me the vibe felt more like an insider′s take on these dusty Midwestern towns — knowing, but not without affection. The criticism raised the possibility that even film reviewers are now so accustomed to a Melrose or Madison Avenue gloss on reality that when a filmmaker shows what ordinary people in the middle of the country actually look like, people assume the director must be satirizing heartland yokels.

The Past

France, 2013
Director: Asghar Farhadi

An Iranian man returns to Paris to finalize his divorce, and finds himself enmeshed in a domestic drama that unfolds like a mystery. The first hour is admittedly a bit leisurely, and it′s possible that the revelations that come tumbling out might include one plot twist too many. But the payoff is a silent, quietly heartbreaking coda.

 

Upstream-ColourUpstream Color

U.S., 2013
Director: Shane Carruth

The chilliest head trip of 2013, and of any year in recent memory. What starts out as a disturbing depiction of identity theft proceeds to get much stranger after that — when the amnesiac victim tries to rebuild her life, the movie veers in a very different direction, and there′s the possibility that writer-director (and co-star) Shane Carruth is going to pull a Chungking Express and not have the pieces connect at all.

Much of the editing plays like a step forward in cinematic storytelling — showing how to banish exposition entirely. For about an hour, it′s mesmerizingly elliptical and creepy. But as the novelty starts to wear off, you might find yourself harboring suspicions, as I did, about the emperor′s 21st-century clothes. I have to reserve judgment until I can see this again (and I definitely feel compelled to see it again), but even with my reservations, there′s no denying that initial WTF?! sensation of, Where did this come from?

Two wishes, and I hope they don’t contradict each other: I hope it won′t be another nine years until Carruth′s next movie, and I hope he has no interest in going Hollywood.

Feel free to weigh in