I'm impressed with where cinema took audiences over the past year, where familiar and pioneering themes alike, from slavery and divorce to unfounded witch hunts and the dangers of animal captivity, crafted this fascinating and fresh gradient of filmmaking. More importantly, though, there's a particular genre I fancy that took great strides in furthering its contemporary stature: science-fiction, where some of the industry's renowned productions revolved around the danger of space travel and the complications of artificial intelligence. This has also been a surprisingly strong year for sequels, as well, furthering characters we've grown to know and love in complex and evolving ways. Below are my picks for the ten most prominent films -- and a particular video game -- that I'll be taking away from the year, which I've arranged in alphabetical order since I'm not very keen on arbitrary numerical ranking.
Celene and Jesse have changed over the past twenty years. Well, sort of. Now, the star-crossed couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are parents to a pair of twins, living in Europe as one continues to write and the other considers leaving her current job for a position in the government. But, despite their years, they've largely stayed the same people we've grown to know, only with a few eccentricities that have evolved over time -- something they continue to discover right before us. We catch up with them in Before Midnight at the tail end of their vacation along the Grecian peninsula, where Jesse's son from his previous marriage has recently flown back to the states following an extended stay. Everything that plays out is in typical Richard Linklater fashion, in every possible and wonderful way, where the couple's viewpoints clash and resolve through their walks, flirtations, and arguments. It's simply a delight to see this faithful progression of these people, to see where the roads of adulthood have taken them ... for better or worse.
I've had a soft spot for marine biology since I was young, and as I've grown older, the perspective of documentary material on humanity's effect on those organisms has expanded my casual appreciation to a more environmentally-aware level. Recent pieces like The Cove and Sharkwater have brought attention to ethical concerns and the geological impacts brought on by consumerism, but none have resonated quite as strongly as Blackfish did. Chiefly, it's because of the surprising tension generated by profiling the history of Tilikum, the orca whale responsible for the death of a trainer at Orlando's SeaWorld several years ago -- and, as the documentary reveals, several others beforehand that weren't quite as publicized. The documentary's key strength, however, is how it respects the whales' prowess as dangerous beings and not simply as the victims of its surroundings, showcasing instead how captivity intensifies their innate mannerisms as emotional mammals instead of merely creating those sensations. It's a gripping thriller, which is quite a compliment for a documentary.
Rarely do you see a film as brave, honest, and comprehensive as this romantic epic from Abdellatif Kechiche. Chronicling the emergence and realizations of a young bisexual through her experiences in high school and onward, Adèle's journey is a complex and powerful exploration of sexual identity that appreciates the nuance of real-world relationships, both those that thrive and those that crumble. Through a disarming performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos that's supported by a delicate, authentic portrayal from Léa Seydoux as the woman who alters her perspective, this three-hour drama runs the gamut of emotions coursing through Adèle -- confusion, passion, jealousy, defeat, guilt, and heartbreak -- in an entirely honest depiction of how her evolving persona and preference guide her into adulthood and in love with her blue-haired artist. If I have any misgivings, they'd be over the length of the explicit sex scenes and how they often overshoot their purposes of emphasizing the raw passion, exploration, and attachment that binds Adèle and Emma together, despite the cinematography and performances being so engaging that they're stunning to behold. At the very least, they're justified in the thematic fabric woven by Blue is the Warmest Color.
Alfonso Cuaron's aims with Gravity are more sensory than thematic: it's an hour-and-a-half rollercoaster through the dangers of space from the same director who delivered the breathtaking long-shot chase sequence in Children of Men. The craftsmanship in his depiction of a shuttle mission gone terribly wrong speaks highly to the craftsmanship of aesthetics as a means of capturing pure, unsettling tension in a setting that has largely been demystified by popular culture, once again -- through a blend of admirable authenticity and dramatic inclinations -- reinforcing the dangers of the soundless, uncompromising expanses. But the film also has a lot of soul, driven by Sandra Bullock's performance as a green space-trained medical engineer forced to use her base knowledge and preparation, and the assistance of her veteran astronaut partner (George Clooney), to get her out of the ordeal. Lyrical imagery, relentless tension, and doses of interpretation fuse together into a breathtaking experience under Cuaron's direction.
"It's a film about the nature of love and existence." Sounds like an stubbornly vague description, sure, but that's exactly what Her does so poignantly: Spike Jonze's quietly poignant and provocative love story about a man's romance with his sultry-voiced computer explores what it means to relish the companionship of another being based purely on the expression of affection, without jumping the hurdles of physical attraction. Jonze's script finds exceptionally clever ways of illustrating the similarities and differences -- the strengths and weakness, the benefits and hindrances, the endearments and the squirms -- of such a link between the two in a not-so-distant future filled with marginally advanced technology and human interaction. While casually inviting the audience to think about what precisely makes the chemical responses and feelings of a human that different from a set of artificial synopses designed to act human, Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson deliver exceptionally tender, melancholy performances that buck stereotypes and allow the film's quandaries to affectionately hang in the air. After all, we're basically biological computers acting like humans and connecting with others, right?
Honestly, when news circulated that I Am Legend and Water for Elephants director Francis Lawrence would take over directing duty for the Hunger Games franchise, I was more than a little skeptical of how Catching Fire would follow up on Gary Ross' raw, graceful adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel. Turns out, Lawrence and his screenwriters were up to the task: while staying faithful to the source material almost to a fault, they learned from the few stumbles made by the original Hunger Games film and delivered something that outclasses its energy, style, and meaning. The most resonant element of the film, of course, is Jennifer Lawrence, whose immense talent becomes crucial in the story's focus on Katniss Everdeen's haunted reflections following her first round in the to-the-death arena. It'd be easy to cry foul at the repetition in Catching Fire's plot, yet another return to bloodshed for Panem's tributes, but Lawrence's quasi-blockbuster evokes a surprising amount of significance in Katniss' trek through media exploitation, allegiance, and post-traumatic stress, more so than Collins' novel.
Thomas Vinterberg has found a way to turn a pre-school girl into something of a villain in The Hunt (Jagten), a morally and psychologically complex dramatic-thriller -- perhaps even a bit of a horror film -- centered on the crowd mentality of inquisitions based on unfalsifiable accusations. By design, the material here is tough to digest: it focuses on how a community reacts to damning charges of indecency towards children, centered on how the composure and sanity of a teacher in a small town crumbles as his new reputation takes shape around the exacerbating situation. Working off a straight-shooting script with a surprisingly balanced point of view, Vinterberg artfully communicates the film's sensitive messages in an uncompromising depiction of witch hunts and irreparable damage done to the accused, allowing appropriate responses to form around children's innocence and the quickly-dismantled trust in others. Probably not a movie I'd want to see again anytime soon, but it's a ferocious cinematic experience while it lasts.
I wasn't sure how Jeff Nichols could possible match the quality of Take Shelter, but Mud comes awfully, awfully close to doing so. Instead of the complexity of a schizophrenic's crippling fear of an oncoming disaster, the challenge at this film's core revolves around the moral grayness behind a pair of teenage boys helping a man, Mud, who's stuck on an island while on the run from the law. As expected of Nichols, it's a character study above everything else, exploring how a young boy -- whose parents are in the middle of a divorce -- perceives the calm demeanor and rational explanations of a man who's done what he did in the name of love. Does he believe him, trust him, or should he heed the advice of others and keep his distance? Directed with raw, hefty, yet authentic emotion by Nichols through deep-southern locales and commanded by slate of tremendous performances, namely from a rugged and thin Matthew McConaughey, this is a powerhouse of a film that gracefully touches on the confusing power of love, the allure of mythology, and the distance that placing faith in a stranger can take you. It's my front-runner for the year's best, even this early on.
Park Chan-wook has established himself as a skilled travel guide through the deep, brooding pathos of individuals with warped moral compasses (and warped mental states), and his more recent piece of work -- also his first English-language film -- is no exception. Stoker tells the story of a gifted yet reclusive eighteen-year-old, India (Mia Wasikowska), whose father abruptly dies, nudging her already shaky mental state over the edge as she struggles to identify with her mother and get through the rest of her school year. The arrival of her previously-unmentioned uncle (Matthew Goode), a sly and aggressive sort with an aura not unlike India's, transforms the film into a brew of mystery, suspicion, and sensory provocation built around the coming-of-age of this peculiar girl; Park Chan-wook's flair for teasing the senses with eroticism and violent tendencies is in full force here, both on visual and sonic fronts. Once it arrived at a particular scene involving a misty shower and a realization point in India's shifting personality, nimbly portrayed by Wasikowska in yet another slow-simmering role, it becomes quite a cinematic beast.
Visual stories about slavery in the 1850s can be tricky, easily moving into heavy-handed and hard-to-watch territory without the right director to guide the film's perspective. Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger and Shame, two graceful depictions of difficult-to-watch stories, understood exactly how to walk the line between purpose-driven filmmaking and accessible drama with Twelve Years a Slave. He pushes all the right thematic buttons while depicting the harrowing story of Solomon Northup, a freeman and family man who's captured and thrown into slavery, falling under the possession of several owners across a decade's time. What he's crafted here centers more on an artful character examination and historical suspense film instead of something that wants to hammer home a message, allowing the grim developments in Solomon's life to say enough about the nature of slavery without belaboring the point. Coupled with a career-best nuanced performance from the always-magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor, it's a remarkable achievement.
The vocal minority powering criticisms towards District 9 claimed that Neil Blomkamp's film exhibited heavy-handed symbolism about class structure and too much reliance on boisterous action, elements that I didn't entirely agree with. Unfortunately, all those critiques do, in fact, apply to Elysium, a bulky, leaden sci-fi allegory about healthcare, skewed wealth, and superior firepower. Sure, the action elements of the film can be intriguing to absorb on a very base level, from the effects that bring life into Max's necessary mecha-suit and the raw digital effects of space-vessel flight and domineering humanoid police-robots, which makes it worth the time for a viewing. In comparison to the poeticism and deftness of communicating points that Blomkamp achieved in District 9, however, it's a significant letdown that fumbled an opportunity at tapping into a very pertinent message permeating society right now about the (in)ability to afford a longer life. Instead, it lumbers and clunks along towards a hollow melancholy climax.
Last year, my favorite gaming experience was Telltale's The Walking Dead, which focused on a protective, somewhat paternal relationship that forms between two survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The fact that this very description could almost beat-or-beat describe my choice this year, The Last of Us, should say something of the quality of this production that transcends the similarities. Naughty Dog takes the audience on a journey through an overgrown, low-tech post-event world plagued by a spore-driven disease which sends people into a carnivorous fervor, centered on the experiences of Joel, a grizzled everyman who's taken to smuggling goods and resisting the overbearing authorities after a traumatic event in the disease's initial spread twenty years back. It's when he encounters his latest item to smuggle, Ellie, the girl who might hold the cure to the disease, that his hardened exterior is challenged. Shrewd, soulful writing navigates their evolving relationship over several months and many miles, using the medium's longevity to enhance the intensity of their situations -- sneaking and fighting alike -- and to strengthen their bond. In the end, The Last of Us becomes a marvel by defying expectations of what the relationship means for Joel and Ellie, causing one to ponder what they'd do in this melancholy man's shoes.
What a fantastic year at the movies; here's hoping for another just as robust as the last. Greatly appreciate you tuning in, dear readers, and I look forward to interacting with you in the upcoming months.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 1/20/2014