Hollywood is obsessed with money, I say.
Duh, you think in response.
But hear me out.
In 2013, Hollywood was particularly obsessed with money. Not just with making money, but with telling stories about making — and losing — money. In my Top Ten list last year, I named Zero Dark Thirty my favorite film of the year; it’s a movie that serves as a symbol of America’s search for catharsis after 9/11.
And now, in 2013, we have Hollywood’s response to a very different national crisis — the recession from several years back that’s still taking its toll on our economy. It’s a subject that has woven its way into the fabric of many, many films this year — so many that explore what America stands for, strives to be, fails to be, and is.
Of course, lots of films from any era use money as a major motivator for its characters — particularly action and drama. Yet in examining my ten favorite films from the past year, as well as several others, I couldn’t help but notice a connective tissue. It’s like all the filmmakers in the world got together and decided to make on giant meta-movie that was all about the cracks and crevices marring our American dream.
Not all of them are good. Not even close. The past year gave us two very similar stories of our nation’s leaders in crisis — Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down. Neither set the world on fire — just Washington, D.C., har har — but they’re emblematic of 2013’s cinematic mood. Escape From Tomorrow is a nightmare vision of the Happiest Place On Earth. Gangster Squad depicts the senseless violence, greed, and corruption of some of Los Angeles’ darkest days. Parkland is another take on the assassination of one of our most beloved presidents. Even Lone Survivor, a mostly rah-rah tale of American bravado, perhaps accidentally sheds light on questions about the wisdom of what we’ve been doing over in the Middle East.
Oz The Great And Powerful is the story of an American man who swindles the denizens of a fairyland and convinces them he’s a worthy leader. We’re The Millers is a comedy about a bunch of misfits mimicking a perfect American nuclear family. Identity Thief is a comedy about a very sad woman taking money that doesn’t belong to her in hopes of filling the void in her soul. The East is about an extremist group that takes revenge on American corporations guilty of actions that they’ll never be punished for in a court of law.
These are not the best movies of the year. Some of them are very bad, actually. They’re just a handful of titles that had such themes on their minds, though the better films I’ll discuss below are more provocative. Ask many film fans, and they’ll claim that 2013 was a very good year, cinematically; awards season is an embarrassment of riches, with the focus actually placed on very good, very deserving films for once.
So. Here are 2013’s best films, y’all.
(Click on the film title to read my original review.)
10. THE GREAT BEAUTY (LA GRANDE BELLEZZA)
While my list this year is largely America-centric, one foreign film I saw late in the game did manage to find its way into my year-end kudos, and that’s La Grande Bellezza, released as The Great Beauty here in the U.S.
Last year’s list had the brilliantly bizarre Holy Motors in the mix, and The Great Beauty is a worthy successor — though a slightly more cohesive one. Whereas Holy Motors was essentially a series of loosely connected vignettes, The Great Beauty does tell a singular story — though it, too, is vividly heightened with only a tenuous attempt at an anchoring plot.
Though The Great Beauty is specifically about life in Rome, it also bears many similarities to 2013’s crop of American movies. It’s about life as a non-stop party, even if several of these partygoers are starting to feel like they’re too old for this shit. There’s a scene in which our protagonist Jep encounters a less-privileged man, asking him what his plans for the night are. A little dinner and TV with his spouse, the man replies. Jep thinks that sounds nice — luxurious, even. But that’s not Jep’s life. Jep wouldn’t know an ordinary existence if it slapped him across the face.
Co-writer and director Paolo Sorrentino delivers the year’s most purely cinematic effort, with breathtaking images that are simultaneously dazzling and disorienting. It’s an overabundance of arresting scenes, so that days after seeing it, you might suddenly remember a mesmerizing moment you’d forgotten merely because there were already so many others caught in your brain. The Great Beauty is best viewed as a wild ride through Roman decline with a host of tantalizing surprises along the way. It took me some time to figure out just how to respond to The Great Beauty; now I’m certain that it’s one of the year’s most striking films, one I’m eager to revisit to take it all in again.
The Great Beauty isn’t an American movie, but like many domestic films this year, it taps into “rich people problems” — the boredom and blase attitude that can arise out of a too-easy life. Clocking in at well over two hours, the film is as much about excess as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, with similarly exhilarating sequences of raunchy behavior. (It’s not quite as sordid as what Jordan Belfort did, though — The Great Beauty actually makes a lot of this look fun.) We’re not the only ones dealing with a troubled economy, societal decline, and the questionable priorities of religious leaders — and we’re definitely not the only ones drinking and dancing the night away to forget it all.
9. FRANCES HA
The only way you’d catch Frances Halladay occupying Wall Street is if someone else convinced her to — that would probably be her best friend Sophie. (“We’re the same person with different hair,” Frances says, unaware that Sophie has ceased to feel the same way.) But Frances is very much a product of Right Now in America. She’s yet another broke twenty-something who expected things to fall much more easily into her lap, and now has no idea how to reconcile her broken dreams with a hard reality.
Frances bounces around between a number of different apartments, paying less and less rent each time. She dreams of being a dancer, but everyone around her seems aware that she just isn’t cut out for that. (Frances, of course, is entirely unaware.) Frances thinks she’s poor, though she is reminded at one point that she’s still a lot more privileged than an actual poor person; but that doesn’t matter much when you’re barely scraping by in New York City. At one point, she decides to blow her remaining cash on a spontaneous weekend getaway to Paris, just because — and then sleeps through half the trip. Frances watches as her best friend drifts away in favor of a better life with a stable job and a doting, well-to-do fiance; meanwhile, Frances is a twenty-seven-year-old still stuck in that awkward post-college lurch, living paycheck to paycheck when she can even get a paycheck, which isn’t always.
In the same way that being broke is always in the back of a broke person’s mind, nearly every scene in this movie has something to do with money, but Frances Ha doesn’t strive to be topical — it’s only about post-recession America if you choose to view it that way. The film is shot in lovely, low-key black-and-white, and that, along with its ease and charm, evoke old school Woody Allen; it’s a delightful throwback while at the same time feeling entirely contemporary, which is an odd but enchanting mix. Inside Llewyn Davis and (to a lesser extent) Her also depict creative misfits struggling to find their place in a world that doesn’t seem to need them. Both are very good movies, but in the end, Frances Ha won me over because I found its down-on-her-luck outcast so very endearing — thanks in large part to co-writer Greta Gerwig’s alluring performance.
I’m not sure you’d really want to spend time in the company of grumpy, self-righteous Llewyn Davis (unless he agreed to sing for you), but how can you not want to hang out with Frances Halladay? Often praised for her warm and approachable indie naturalism, Gerwig makes Frances wholly relatable to millennials. By the end of her journey, I had the feeling that Frances and I were practically the same person — just with different hair.
8. THE BLING RING
The kids aren’t all right. That much is obvious in Sophia Coppola’s adaptation of a crazy-but-true tale of the Calabasas teenagers who easily robbed celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Paris Hilton for months before being caught. And in case it isn’t immediately obvious: these kids weren’t exactly criminal masterminds. It’s just that their targets were so vain and over-privileged that it never occurred to them that they could be the victims of such crimes.
This past year saw several different films about unlikely, unlucky lawbreakers, from the bodybuilders who kidnap one of their personal training clients for extortion in Pain And Gain to the foursome of bikini babe college girls who go on a crime spree in the surreal Spring Breakers. Sofia Coppola is a better storyteller than either Michael Bay or Harmony Korine, however; those films dealt more explicitly with the American dream, the obsession with staying young and hot (and hopefully rich) forever. Coppola’s focus, on the other hand, is trained on celebrity culture and social media; it may, in fact, be too savvy in how it depicts how obsessed these teens are with gossip rags and Facebook selfies. Is it too soon for a send-up of 2009 pop culture? Some audiences were underwhelmed; these are likely the same people who tweeted about how they didn’t “get” The Bling Ring before idly clicking over to Perez Hilton.
What makes The Bling Ring so fascinating is how little separation there is between the stars and those who are obsessed with them. Lindsay Lohan got in trouble for drunk driving and stealing, just as these kids do; Audrina Partridge’s fame is a byproduct of her wealth and privilege, not something she earned with talent and hard work. It’s not like the Bling Ring targeted Meryl Streep and Al Pacino — they went after the flashy, accessible stars whose whereabouts could be traced on the internet, the celebrities who leave a wake of senseless chatter and blinding flashes wherever they go. On the BluRay, there’s a special feature with Paris Hilton chiding these kids for their vanity and materialism as she takes us through a tour of her house, showing off her excessive goods. It’s hard to feel sorry for the “victims” of these crimes when they’ve barely earned this stuff themselves.
Anyone who claims to believe Spring Breakers is one of the year’s best films totally mystifies me — Korine’s film beats you over the head with repetitive scenes and banal voice-over dialogue, then James Franco arrives as a character based on a minor celebrity, imploring us to “look at his shit.” That’s fine, I guess, but I’d rather look at Paris Hilton’s shit. (Though I do give the edge to Spring Breakers’ Britney Spears sing-alongs over The Bling Ring‘s M.I.A.)
Like several of my favorite films from 2013, this one is very much of this time. In its own way, The Bling Ring is every bit as astute as The Social Network in depicting how young people live now; it’s also a lot of fucking fun to be taken “shopping” in celebrity homes, with plenty of time spent ogling the merchandise. Coppola makes us complicit in these crimes — we get off on the vicarious thrill of ransacking celebrity cribs, wishing we were there ourselves. It’s like an extra-naughty reality show, and our schadenfreude toward a certain brand of celebrity allows us not to feel any guilt. We’re voyeurs, too — but in this day and age, it’s all but impossible not to be. The Bling Ring is one of the best modern movies about celebrity, because the real stars are in the periphery. It’s actually about the people who worship stars — about us — without whom there would be no stars at all.
7. AMERICAN HUSTLE
This film is bullshit. Normally that’d be an insult, but bullshit is all American Hustle is trying to be. The original title of the script was American Bullshit, after all, and in it, everybody’s a hustler. David O. Russell collects an all-star cast of the hottest actors working right now, most of whom have worked with him before. Between them, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper have been nominated for… well, more Oscars than I care to count. (Add Robert De Niro, who makes a cameo here, and it’s definitely too many.) And surely there will be a few more nods added to the list once this year’s nominations are announced.
In addition to movies about the financial end of the American dream, 2013 has also been a big year for scorned wives. Two other movies in contention for my Top 10 were Blue Jasmine and Side Effects — movies that, on the surface, have little in common. Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara played wives of swindlers whose lives of luxury came to a crashing halt when their hubby got busted; both women sought a particularly nasty form of revenge. And let’s not forget Naomi, the gorgeous Long Island housewife in The Wolf Of Wall Street, who could easily be American Hustle‘s Rosalyn’s BFF. Jennifer Lawrence plays the kooky spouse of Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, a seemingly dim-witted housewife who reveals more complicated layers late in the film. Love her or hate her in this movie, Lawrence is a total scene-stealer with some of the film’s funniest lines, particularly a riff about a “science oven.” But every character is given a moment to shine — an absolute must in a film stuffed with this much big-name talent.
American Hustle has met its share of critics, to which I say, To each their own. They complain that the film is overlong and more interested in splashy dialogue and showy costumes than an overarching plot, and I don’t disagree. American Hustle is like GoodFellas in drag, with David O. Russell heating up Martin Scorsese’s leftovers in his science oven. It’s kind of funny coming in the same year that Scorsese himself released GoodFellas‘ younger, fatter cousin. It’s like Scorsese and Russell went shopping and discovered a really great thrift store together, and Scorsese was like, “You be seventies and I’ll be eighties… now what can we do with all this?”
Both films have been dubbed as comedies, yet neither really is; both are quite funny in places, and both celebrate scandal and ultimately reward their characters’ bad behavior with not-so-tragic endings. But not really. They’re satires of the American way, and while The Wolf Of Wall Street has taken the brunt of the flack, American Hustle presents even less of a downside to being a swindling douche bag. Irving Rosenfeld and Jordan Belfort think their victims are stupid losers, “bad people” who deserve to be hustled away from their money; in American Hustle, the lawbreakers and law-enforcers are equally corrupt, so why take sides? Both films leave our final judgments of these characters up to us. If you think bad guys in America are always punished for lying, cheating, stealing, and so on, then I’m sorry, but you’ve been hustled.
In the end, American Hustle is less interested in storytelling than movie-making. It’s a bunch of talented, attractive people who got together to play — and when it’s this much fun to watch, I’m totally on board with that.
Everyone in America dreams of being a millionaire — that goal is ingrained in our culture, even (or especially) in the most rundown town in the Midwest. And if you don’t even have to work to earn your massive fortune, all the better!
Movies like American Hustle, The Bling Ring, Pain And Gain, Spring Breakers, and so on depict amoral people stealing to advance to the good life. Nebraska‘s Woody Grant isn’t so unscrupulous, but when he gets a piece of mail informing him that he’s got a million dollars waiting for him in the Cornhusker State, he jumps at the opportunity to finally upgrade from nobody to somebody.
Woody’s an old codger who probably spent more of his life drinking than working; he’s showing signs of dementia, though he’s not yet lost every one of his marbles. He’s got a squawking spouse (June Squibb, yet another scene-stealing wife of 2013) who’s probably right to constantly complain about him, and he definitely hasn’t been the ideal father to his two grown sons. Winning a million dollars is Woody’s last chance to prove himself to all the people who’ve long since stopped paying attention — he’s got a small handful of years left, at best, and he wants to go out on a high note. Woody really only needs a fraction of a million dollars to fulfill his modest ambition to own a brand new truck, but of course, his journey to Nebraska is not actually about that — something his son David knows, too. Woody and David are embroiled in a fight for Woody’s dignity, which isn’t easy when the looney old man is only half-there most of the time.
Woody’s dreams are decidedly smaller than the lavish longings of The Bling Ring or Spring Breakers, but at the core is the same desire to “better than.” It’s just that the folks he’s trying to be better than aren’t that well-off to begin with. Nebraska is filmed in black-and-white to reflect a lack of variety and options where Woody hails from, and where he is now — a shiny new truck is the only way to introduce a little pizzazz to his existence, and when news of Woody’s supposed good fortune spread, greed roils within many of his old friends and family members, proving that no American life is too squalid to resist the siren’s call of a dollar sign. (And who would have guessed that in the year 2013, two of my year-end picks would be in black-and-white?)
Like the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne has been accused of taking a condescending attitude toward his characters, and there are a few members of Woody’s family that come off as more cartoonish than complicated. (I wouldn’t argue that they’re unrealistic, though.) This could be a problem, except Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson imbue Woody with such depth and humanity, never once allowing us to pity him even when he’s the subject of ridicule. This is thanks in large part to Bruce Dern’s career-capping performance, a truly remarkable achievement that easily could have been overplayed. Even if early scenes play Woody’s pain more for laughs than tears, ultimately it leads to one of the most emotionally rich and satisfying payoffs of the year. It’s Payne’s best film in ages.
5. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
From Nebraska we move on to another story about fathers and sons that received far less attention. This one isn’t about one particular father or one particular son — there are several sets of fathers, biological or otherwise, focused upon in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, and the scope is even wider. You could say that this is a film about all fathers and all sons.
Though there are a few plum roles for women, including Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne as mothers in duress, The Place Beyond The Pines is clearly focused on multiple generations of males in a story that spans nearly two decades. In the opening segment, we meet a stunt motorcyclist aptly named Handsome Luke (played by Handsome Ryan Gosling) who learns that a casual relationship he’s all but forgotten spawned a young son, who is now being provided for by the mother’s new beau; Luke himself doesn’t have the means to take care of mother and child, but feels compelled to try anyway.
Unfortunately, that means turning to a life of crime, a choice that has long-reaching repercussions for multiple characters in this story — some of whom he’ll never even meet. There’s a police officer named Avery (played by Bradley Cooper) who happens to be the officer on duty when one of Luke’s bank robberies goes awry. What happens that day will change each man’s life in drastic ways and continue to impact their families for years to come. The Place Beyond The Pines has a novelistic structure that may, upon first viewing, be jarring to some, focusing on different characters at different times. But as both Avery and Luke’s sons approach adulthood late in the film, we see the cyclical nature of fatherhood — and how one man’s actions can shape the destiny of his loved ones long after he’s gone. Thus a shot of Luke’s son at age 17, riding his bike down a winding road, unaware that his father once rode his motorcycle down this very same road, is one of the most poignant cinematic moments of the year, in my humble opinion.
Handsome Luke is another American in the movies this year trying to make a living he didn’t earn; his intentions are noble, but his methods are flawed. Unlike many of this year’s cinematic swindlers, he and his loved ones are punished when he tries to take a shortcut to that financially secure happy ending we all dream about. Luke never had a father; then he strikes up a vaguely paternal relationship with an auto mechanic who introduces the idea of robbing banks. Luke is trying to provide for his son, not realizing that this very decision will lead that child to grow up without him. And thus the cycle continues. Sometimes what we think is the answer to all our troubles is really where the trouble begins…
4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Alongside Nebraska and The Place Beyond The Pines, the third entry in the most unlikely trilogy of all time also has a father-son conflict driving the movie, though it takes a while for that to surface. Before Midnight opens with Jesse, now in his forties, dropping son Hank off at a Greek airport. It’s hard for Jesse to see Hank go, because while Jesse lives it up in France with his longtime partner Celine (they’re not married), his son must return to Jesse’s ex-wife in Chicago and grow up largely fatherless. That’s the price of true love.
Before Sunrise was a romantic fantasy about strangers meeting cute in Vienna and giving in to red-hot passion. Before Sunset was about their somewhat unlikely reunion almost a decade later, how old flames can be rekindled quickly because, perhaps, they never really burnt out in the first place. Before Midnight takes kismet out of the equation — there’s no chance meeting here. Jesse and Celine have been together for nine years now, raising adorable twin girls. They’re summering in Greece with their daughters, Jesse’s son, and friends representing several generations. But now this summer is nearly over.
As the title suggests, Before Midnight grows darker than its predecessors. Jesse has realized his dream of falling in love with a European beauty and writing novels for a living. He may not live in America anymore, but it’s a pretty perfect approximation of the American dream (minus the bitter ex-wife, of course). For Celine, though, life is not quite so dreamy — she loves her daughters and Jesse’s son, and she still loves Jesse, but she’s nowhere near the place she thought she’d be in life, and Jesse’s domestic paradise means a sacrifice of her individuality and career aspirations, which Celine is slowly growing to resent. As in the prior two films, Jesse and Celine walk-and-talk about a wide variety of topics relating to gender politics, their feelings for one another, and life itself; but then they argue and get truly nasty with one another, baring ugly truths (unlike the first two movies).
There’s one long dinner scene with multiple generations of lovers — Jesse and Celine are no longer the cute young romantics, but fall somewhere in the middle, and we catch a glimpse at how love works for varying age groups. The film’s final act is a show-stopping fight scene that perfectly encapsulates a real lovers’ spat; they bicker and make up and then bicker again. They say things they don’t mean, or maybe they really do mean them. They question whether or not their love is worth the struggle and sacrifice. In short, the honeymoon is over.
Before Midnight is the perfect movie for anyone who ever questioned two characters riding off into the sunset toward a supposed happily-ever-after — and asked, “Yeah, but then what?” Jesse and Celine were once perfect romantic foils, but no two people can sustain such harmony and bliss forever. Richard Linklater, along with his co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who put much of themselves into these scripts), explore and challenge the idea that two people would, could, and should spend their lives together. They have just about everything they could want, yet it isn’t quite enough. They yearn for more.
When Jesse first hints that he’d be happier if Celine picked up her life and moved to America so they could be closer to Hank, she posits that this is the day that will break them apart, the beginning of the end for them. Is it? Before Midnight may or may not be the final chapter for one of our favorite on-screen couples. We watch in suspense to see whether or not these two will kiss and make up before midnight strikes and finds them separated. Linklater forces us to confront a number of tough questions, starting with: If not even these two can make it work, how is there any hope for the rest of us?
If movies had a common thread in 2013 besides money and the American dream, they were all about survival.
Yes, okay, lots of movies from lots of years also hit on this basic theme, but this year especially. From the biggest domestic moneymaker of the year, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, to Best Actor hopefuls like Captain Phillips and All Is Lost and Dallas Buyers Club, there were so many films about people trying to get by on their own, facing obstacles large and small (mostly large, though). There’s even one called Lone Survivor.
Spoiler alert: Gravity could also be called Lone Survivor, since Sandra Bullock’s only real co-star abandons her early in the movie. Gravity wasn’t the highest-grossing film of the year, or even in the Top 5, but it’s the movie 2013 will be remembered by. It’s the buzziest event movie since James Cameron’s Avatar, with a similar emphasis on spectacle; the Best Picture race this year will echo 2009’s, when the 3D behemoth from outer space squared off against a lesser-seen but more grounded story of earthly duress, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. (Steve McQueen was never married to Alfonso Cuaron, though.) Following that formula, 12 Years A Slave is a (slightly) more likely victor, but Gravity will hold up far better than Avatar did, because for all the razzle and dazzle, it’s a poignant story about death and rebirth and survival. And, you know, trying not to float off into space.
Instead of another story about fathers and sons, Alfonso Cuaron delivers a tale about mother and daughter, though we never meet that daughter (she dies before the movie begins). Perhaps his unconventional approach to filmmaking gave Cuaron the freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted with this story — how else to explain a big studio action film carried almost solely by one actress? (She is, at least, a very bankable actress.) Cuaron has again proven himself one of Hollywood’s most innovative visionaries, delivering that rare, perfect blend of art and commerce. (Inception was the most recent such film.) Gravity is a one-of-a-kind immersive experience, a rare beacon of hope in a year that delivered dud after dud in the blockbuster department otherwise. Hollywood is certainly paying attention, though it remains to be seen whether it will learn a lesson.
Unlike most of my favorites from 2013, Gravity is not really about money or the American dream, except on a meta level — it sure made a lot of money, so we can only hope that, like Ryan Stone, movies like this one will fight and beat the odds and survive the dark wasteland that normally sucks up well-intentioned gems like this. Because I’d rather float off into space and die than sit through most of the films that were released last summer. Studios should stop wasting money on big, expensive junk no one wants and spend a little less on stories people actually want to tell, the stories we want to be told.
But that’s not a free pass to go and make Gravity 2, you guys. Just… don’t go there.
2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Thanks in large part to Gravity, it’s been a decent year for women on the big screen — though the Best Actress race is still pretty lackluster compared to the boys’ club. It’s also a strong year for black filmmakers, with the release of buzzy dramas like Fruitvale Station (directed by Ryan Coogler) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (directed by Lee Daniels, if you couldn’t tell). What’s going on? Movies about women and minorities? Diversity in Hollywood? Somebody pinch me!
The Butler is a massive hit, raking in over $167 million worldwide. Fruitvale Station is a more modest success (but a better film). The year’s ultimate triumph, however, could likely be Best Picture hopeful 12 Years A Slave, which has received about as unanimously positive critical response as you can get. (There will always be a handful of naysayers.) It hasn’t earned nearly as much as The Butler (around $50 million worldwide to date), but it’s already been heralded as the definitive movie on American slavery, Oscar or no. Already it has made its mark.
So here’s where it all began, more or less. We are a capitalist nation. The American dream has always piggybacked on someone else’s nightmare — in this case, Africans and their descendants who were shipped over to do the bidding of white men. More than 150 years ago, a real man named Solomon Northup was drugged, waking up to an unimaginable horror — he was now the property of a slave trader, and as property, he could be beaten, tormented, even killed without consequence. We all know all about slavery, of course, and have since we were very young — but at a distance. 12 Years A Slave puts those injustices front and center, in our faces, and leaves them there for uncomfortably long moments. We are not allowed to look away, because director Steve McQueen knows: if we could, we would.
But 12 Years A Slave is no parlor trick. It’s not supposed to be punishment. And it certainly doesn’t provide any catharsis. It’s a potent reminder. If The Place Beyond The Pines depicts how a father’s actions can have devastating effects on his son, then 12 Years A Slave is about how our founding fathers’ actions can carry over multiple centuries, creating problems we’re still dealing with as a nation. (The Butler and Fruitvale Station address such problems in different eras.) America’s first black president is in office, something that would have been unthinkable in Solomon Northup’s time, and that’s progress. Maybe someday we’ll be free of the shackles of the past, but we’re not there yet. 12 Years A Slave is only partially about how far we’ve come; it’s also about how far we have yet to go.
But I didn’t enjoy 12 Years A Slave because it was a didactic history lesson, or because it made me think about slavery in a new light. (It won’t make you think about slavery in a new way; the point is to think about it at all.) I love this movie because it’s a great story well-told. Every aspect of the filmmaking is vital and beautiful, from the propulsive score by Hans Zimmer to the astounding cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and, of course, McQueen’s distinctive directorial flourishes, decried as “too artsy” by some. For me, they’re just artsy enough. 12 Years A Slave has some of the year’s boldest scenes, some of which can be hard to watch — an extended whipping scene, and one with Solomon hanging from a noose while daily life at the plantation goes on around him indifferently. But McQueen is no sadist. 12 Years A Slave does not take the Michael Haneke approach to entertainment. There are many quietly beautiful moments; and though much of the discourse 12 Years A Slave inspires is made very obvious, there’s also a lot to think about that isn’t so blatant.
No other film this year is filled with so many magnificent performances. Lupita Nyong’o is a revelation as the unforgettable Patsey, who almost threatens to steal the movie from Solomon. (Another suffering slave woman, played by Adepero Oduye, also makes an impact.) Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch play slave owners with varying degrees of evil in their hearts; none are mere monsters, though Fassbender gets damn close. Of course, it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who carries the movie with a largely understated performance; Solomon is an intelligent, thoughtful, and educated man who must hide all of these qualities in order to survive, but we can always read his thought process on Ejiofor’s expressive face. When first realizing his terrifying reversal of fortune, we experience his personal horror vicariously as he thinks, I’m not supposed to be here. It’s only later that he thinks: But nobody is.
We, the audience, identify with Solomon the everyman, and thus undergo the same experience. It’s not necessarily a pleasant journey, but it is a beautiful one. Should a movie about slavery be so pretty? I don’t mind, because McQueen is so brutally honest about ugliness, too. Solomon Northup probably never imagined his story would resonate 160 years after it was first published, just as his enslavers never considered the impact their actions might have after a century or more. Slavery may be a thing of the past in America, but exploiting the weak so the wealthy can prosper? Yeah, about that…
1. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
In a year during which so many movies were about America’s relationship to wealth and power, here is the movie that is most about that — if only because it is the longest.
Martin Scorsese is not fucking around with The Wolf Of Wall Street. The man is in his seventies and chose this movie to deliver some of the most explicit scenes of his career. Here we have a candlestick poking out of a major movie star’s anus; here we have that same major movie star blowing drugs into an attractive naked woman’s rectum. So, it’s settled then: this is, in every way, a movie about assholes.
America is still hurting from the recession, even if we’re pretending it’s fine. It’s not fine. Frances Halladay can’t pay her rent, handsome motorcyclists have turned to robbing banks to provide for their families, elderly men are attempting to walk from Montana to Nebraska to claim bogus prizes — even Paris Hilton isn’t safe from criminals who want a taste of the 1%. And then here’s this jerk Jordan Belfort, wastefully wrecking his yacht, his Lamborghini, and his helicopter. What a fucking asshole.
It’s a wonder, then, that as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jordan Belfort still comes across as so winning. Even after all that, you almost, almost, almost want to party with him. (But you’d be sure and have a DD.) The self-proclaimed “Wolf Of Wall Street” lives up to his name, with modest beginnings in penny stocks that eventually have him making nearly a million dollars a week. (Fucker.)
Jordan has a hot wife — no, yeah, duh, but I mean, extremely hot — and a ginormous house. He has a horde of followers who would all fall on their swords for him. He bangs hot ladies all over town, drops thousands of dollars on every meal, and throws the wildest parties since Jay Gatsby. (Who, coincidentally, was also portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio this year.) So, do you want to help me strangle this motherfucker or what?
If you’re one of The Wolf Of Wall Street‘s many critics, the answer is probably yes. The film has proven controversial, mostly because some people need a tidy moral literally spelled out for them at the end of the movie. (How about an end title card that reads: “The makers of this movie do not endorse drug use, prostitution, or screwing innocent people out of their hard-earned income, mmkay?”)
That is, in large part, why The Wolf Of Wall Street is my favorite movie of 2013. I tend to root for the underdog, which often means taking a hard stance in favor of divisive films. (See also my previous #1s, which include Crash, United 93, and Zero Dark Thirty.) Last year, Zero Dark Thirty was trumped by Argo — fucking Argo! — because of a stupid debate about whether or not the film endorsed torture. It didn’t. The film depicted torture, without anyone wagging their finger directly to camera and explaining, “This is bad!” Much in the same way, some are up in arms about how The Wolf Of Wall Street glorifies the illegal doings of stock brokers, because the film itself doesn’t declare a judgment. The Wolf Of Wall Street endorses such behavior the same way Taxi Driver endorses assassinations, Cape Fear endorses biting people’s faces off during sex, and The Aviator endorses dating Katherine Hepburn. Which is to say: not at all.
Don’t like The Wolf Of Wall Street because it’s an overlong, excessive mess of a movie? Fine by me. It’s not for everyone. But to condemn the film because it doesn’t condemn its characters is just madness. The story may take place in the eighties and nineties, but the film is very much about the here and now — the enormous greed of a small number of people that eventually proved toxic to every single American. How dare anyone expect Martin Scorsese to punish the people in his movie, when in real life, these people have not been punished? It would be dishonest — and though this movie is by and large about dishonesty, it is not dishonest.
The Wolf Of Wall Street gives us barely a glimpse at anyone who isn’t living the high life. We don’t meet any of Jordan Belfort’s victims — but presumably, neither does he. And we don’t need to see any of that, because look around — we see it every day, everywhere we go. The American dream has gotten out of hand, and caused a lot of damage in its wake. That’s how we live in now, and it’s silly to expect that a movie will provide catharsis when the real world has not.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is one big, crazy movie — the kind of movie many doubted Scorsese still had in him. It replaces his trademark violence with raunchy sex and quaaludes galore, but it’s the same ol’ Scorsese. God bless him. The movie is so much fun it’s almost too much fun, by design — certain scenes go on and on, but they’re magnetic. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the performance of his career (and let me remind you, it’s a hell of a career); he’s supported by solid work from Kyle Chandler, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and plenty more, but this is DiCaprio’s show, and he owns it.
This is the movie that put the theme of the year into focus for me — and once I saw it, it was impossible to unsee how many other films dealt with these ideas. And get this: the best movie of the year is the perfect companion piece to the year’s best TV show, Breaking Bad, which also bowed out in 2013. That’s a series about a man whose greed got the better of him, costing so many people so much; both The Wolf Of Wall Street and Breaking Bad‘s best episode, “Ozymandias,” use the big bad dad grabbing his tiny tot and rushing off to the car while mom screams in agony as their climactic moment.
In its own way, The Wolf Of Wall Street is as much about the post-millennial strife we’ve faced as a nation as United 93 or Zero Dark Thirty; neither of those films sugar-coated the hard truth, and this doesn’t either. Good for you, Scorsese. Bad for us. It’s not a filmmaker’s job to punish Wall Street for its sins; it was ours. If we wanted it done, we should’ve done it ourselves. Some tried, but most of us did nothing.
Don’t ask a movie to do what you cannot. If you don’t like the world The Wolf Of Wall Street depicts, that’s too bad, because it’s the world you’re living in. This is America in 2013, exaggerated ever-so-slightly to fit the big screen. It is, unfortunately, not just a movie.