Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)

We're recapping the movies that made honorable mention for the Manifesto's top movies of 2013. If you missed Part I, you can check it out here.

Phil Spector. HBO's most celebrated quasi-theatrical feature in 2013 was Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra. I liked that movie just fine (even if I preferred another Soderbergh picture—see below), but I'm somewhat disappointed that critics lavished such praise on it, especially when television's preeminent network released another, superior film about a troubled celebrity. David Mamet's Phil Spector may lack the glitz and glamour of Soderbergh's effort, but it's nevertheless a lean, hypnotic glimpse into the psyche of an unhinged protagonist, as well as a fascinating exploration of the American legal system.

Most importantly, it is rigorously self-contained. Many portraits of historical figures—including last year's not-bad Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—feel compelled to cram so much data into their runtimes that they inevitably feel both overstuffed and undernourished, scratching the surface of their subject's various exploits without revealing anything of true substance. But while Phil Spector's personal life is laden with the sorts of sexy historical vignettes that comprise ideal grist for the cinematic mill—a legendary music producer, he worked with both the Beatles and the Ramones—Mamet has no interest in making a decades-spanning biopic, choosing instead to concentrate on Spector's much-publicized murder trial. Indeed, Mamet's focus is so narrow that he doesn't even dramatize any of the trial itself; instead, he centers on Spector's lawyers preparing for the infamous litigation. If most biopics are bloated, Phil Spector is downright skeletal.

It is not, however, insubstantial. After an opening title card (in which Mamet essentially proclaims that facts are anathema to good fiction), the movie begins with the arrival of Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren), a high-powered defense attorney who breezes into the office of Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor). She immediately professes exhaustion, but her brisk cadence suggests otherwise. (It's impossible for a character in a Mamet movie to be tired—there is too much verbal winging to be done.) The opening scenes between Baden and Cutler, in which Mirren and Tambor trade staccato barbs like well-practiced tennis players, crackle with caffeinated hyperactivity, an energy level that Mamet sustains throughout Phil Spector's brisk 92 minutes. The Pulitzer-winning playwright has been much-criticized for his inimitable, highly stylized dialogue, but while his characters' ping-ponging of words can occasionally feel artificial, it is always riveting. Yet even when Baden meets the title character (an impressively committed Al Pacino)—whom Mamet affords a long, rambling monologue entirely distinct from his usual rhythmic patter—the proceedings remain invigorating. That's partly due to the acting talent on hand; Mirren, ever the classical performer, proves a surprisingly natural fit for Mamet's rapid-fire dialogue, while Pacino portrays Spector with the perfect balance of defiance and dementia.

Mostly, though, Phil Spector is notable for its immersive examination of lawyerly strategy. The characters rarely discuss Spector's actual guilt or innocence, focusing instead on how best to present evidence in order to exonerate their client. (The phrase "reasonable doubt" is uttered countless times.) In fact, the movie's best, most electric scene doesn't involve any major characters at all. Instead, it features two unnamed underlings who collaborate to test Baden's theory of the case on an unwitting volunteer, a maneuver that involves nothing more than a serene set of instructions, a toy gun, and a perfectly timed scream. It's in these moments that Phil Spector reveals itself not as a movie about a music mogul, but as a gripping study in distortion, one in which attorneys bend facts and slant truths. That may explain why Mamet's mannered approach feels so appropriate. Sometimes, it's the artifice that makes things real.

The Place Beyond the Pines. Ever since Pulp Fiction's time-jumping chronology stormed onto the indie scene 20 years ago, linear storytelling has become somewhat passé. At this point, whenever screenwriters choose to tell stories that take place in multiple timeframes, they invariably bounce back and forth between present and past, a strategy that can be either teasingly disorienting or needlessly contrived. (For an example of the former, check out Mysteries of Lisbon; for the latter, see Saving Mr. Banks.) But the device's ubiquity makes the relative simplicity of Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines feel structurally audacious. It's a movie that's essentially three mini-movies, but it proceeds resolutely in a single direction: forward. As such, while its three distinct acts all feature the same sets of characters (grifters and bad boys, dirty cops and amoral politicians) and occupy the same geographical space (the foreboding woods and restless small towns of Upstate New York), its larger narrative never loops around or doubles back on itself. Instead, the story unfolds methodically from beginning to end, with Cianfrance relying on thematic unity and careful plotting to weave his disparate sections together into a single tragic tapestry.

It's a daring, novelistic approach that features drawbacks as well as rewards, as viewers will inevitably find themselves comparing the individual quality of the three segments rather than regarding them as parts of a cohesive whole. To wit: The first act of The Place Beyond the Pines is its best. Not coincidentally, it stars Ryan Gosling, the savior of Cianfrance's prior effort, the unsparingly brutal Blue Valentine. (That film, like so many of its contemporaries, also employed a disjointed chronology, with limited success.) Gosling plays Luke, an intrepid motorcyclist who discovers that he recently fathered a child with a woman (Eva Mendes) and decides that the most sensible way to support his infant son is to quit his job at a traveling sideshow and start robbing banks. These robberies, which Luke orchestrates along with a squirrelly confederate (Ben Mendelsohn, very good), are the most thrilling sequences in the movie, and they allow Cianfrance—who previously hemmed himself in with Blue Valentine's relentless miserabilism—to flex his genre bona fides. Gosling, meanwhile, is simply extraordinary, continually revealing glimmers of Luke's abiding humanity while also constantly reminding us of his lethality and lust for danger.

Luke is such a compelling antihero that it's difficult to leave him behind. Yet after roughly an hour, The Place Beyond the Pines pivots, with shocking suddenness, from Luke to Avery (Bradley Cooper), at which point it transitions from a seedy crime picture to a menacing potboiler of police corruption. Avery is a green cop who must navigate the perilous waters of his department (Ray Liotta is superb as an odious detective), reconciling his own ethical code with the morass of iniquity that threatens to engulf him. Like Luke, Avery isn't as one-dimensional as he first appears, and the movie's second act charts his evolution from hopeful idealist to canny conniver. For his part, Cooper may not burrow as deep into his character's skin as Gosling does, but he deftly secures both our sympathy and our suspicion, darkening his natural charisma with tinges of ambition and opportunism. Avery's arc is less explosive than Luke's, but if Cianfrance's filmmaking in this phase is less visually dynamic, his depiction of shadowy double-dealing remains suspenseful and unsettling.

From there, The Place Beyond the Pines spins suddenly yet again. Unfortunately, I can't even tell you about the movie's third act without spoiling it; suffice it to say that it investigates whether the sins of the father are truly visited upon the son. I can tell you, however, that it stars the young Dane DeHaan (quickly becoming one of the most reliably shifty actors of his generation), and that it features Cianfrance abandoning his typical realism in favor of operatic grandeur. Yet even as The Place Beyond the Pines shuttles between fateful tragedy and overwrought melodrama—and even as it sprawls across years and trades one central character for another—it still feels like a unified cinematic document. Luke and Avery barely share the screen, but their journeys are universal, and Cianfrance impressively outlines their similarities—most notably their paralyzing fears about being inadequate fathers—without connecting the dots too directly.

The Place Beyond the Pines concludes with a young man riding a motorcycle off into the distance as the hushed guitars of Bon Iver start to stir on the soundtrack. It's a poetic image in its own right, but as the culmination of Cianfrance's epic tale of loss, pain, and redemption, it carries surprising power. And the persistent presence of that thematic through-line is the movie's greatest achievement. The Place Beyond the Pines proceeds in a rigorous straight line, but it nevertheless comes full circle.

Prisoners. Reduced to its bare essentials, Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners doesn't seem to have a whole lot of substance. The premise is exceedingly simple: A man's daughter gets kidnapped, and he tries to find her. That's the plot, and as a pure whodunit, the movie is bluntly effective—consistently suspenseful, frequently surprising, and occasionally quite terrifying. (If you'll permit an Indiana Jones reference: Why'd it have to be snakes?) Even if it involved nothing else, Prisoners would be worth watching solely as a breathless tale of good people battling bad ones in a desperate effort to save an innocent girl.

But Villeneuve, for all his slick craftsmanship and formidable talent, is interested in more than just buffeting his audience with antipodal blows of unsullied righteousness and vile criminality. What really motivates him is his concern that the latter could somehow infect the former—that in order to wage war against evil, one must first surrender to it. It's not an entirely novel idea—as an analogue, Villeneuve's strong prior film, Incendies, explored the hereditary nature of vengeance—but it's rarely been articulated with such persuasive and powerful force. That's partly due to the pulpy plot, in which Keller (Hugh Jackman, delivering the best performance of his career), distraught after the disappearance of his six-year-old daughter, kidnaps a mentally disabled suspect (Paul Dano, as fearful as Jackman is fearsome) and tortures him for information. That's sordid enough, but the movie's unsparing technique—most notably Roger Deakins' wintry cinematography and Dano's sickeningly realistic makeup—only heightens the vitality of Villeneuve's thesis. If we descend to such depths once cornered, were we ever all that high to begin with?

It's a troubling question, one Villeneuve tackles with uncompromising aggression. Given the graphic nature of the film's violence, you may mistake its brutality for outright sadism. But while Prisoners is decidedly unpleasant, it is not cruel. It is, rather, a serious examination of whether the social contract is an illusion that ultimately degrades in the face of true immorality. And if Keller's instinctive response provides one potential answer to that question, the movie suggests another in Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a fundamentally decent cop searching fearlessly for the truth while simultaneously attempting not to be devoured by it. Not that Keller and Loki are polar opposites; Villeneuve is too smart to turn the latter into a saint, and besides, no one can escape this swamp of human ugliness with his hands wholly clean. But Loki's dogged dignity is a necessary corrective to Keller's extremism, and Gyllenhaal, in a tricky, beautifully subtle performance, counteracts Jackman's fiery energy with a precise mixture of cool contemplation and prickly resolve.

Loki is also patient, as is the movie. Prisoners runs two-and-a-half hours, and Villeneuve makes you feel the weight of that time, just as each hour his daughter remains missing weighs exponentially heavier on Keller. The proceedings are by no means slow, as Villeneuve strategically punctuates the passages of desolation with moments of sharp, pulse-quickening action. But these plot-heavy scenes feel almost like respites from the film's mounting existential dread. Many crime movies are enjoyable in the theatre but are then quickly forgotten. Prisoners is certainly engrossing in the moment—I don't wish to undersell its considerable elemental thrills—but then it crawls under your skin and stays there, like a virus latching onto an unwitting host. And as an audience member, it's difficult to determine which aspect of the movie is more compelling: whether Keller will find his daughter or lose himself.

All of this makes Prisoners both exhilarating and disturbing. It is a thriller and a horror movie, a frantic search for human life and a pointed exploration of the limits of human compassion. It shines a light not just into areas of inherent darkness—the basement at the end of a long flight of stairs, the shadowy room at the end of the hall—but into ourselves. You will not be able to look away, but you may not like what you see.

Side Effects. Now this is the Steven Soderbergh I like. Where Behind the Candelabra was a well-appointed, mercurial biopic, Side Effects is no-frills entertainment, a finely calibrated delivery system of twists, double-crosses, and dastardly deeds. Soderbergh is a restless, protean filmmaker, and every so often his work will vacillate toward the pretentious, as in his mammoth Che (starring Benicio del Toro) or his aimless The Girlfriend Experience (featuring porn star Sasha Grey). Those films, with their muddled storylines and elliptical plots, suggested a director more interested in challenging himself than in satisfying his audience. Side Effects, thankfully, is not that Soderbergh. It is instead a work of cool authorial efficiency, a movie that shuns all artistic pretensions and focuses instead on pure, diabolical fun.

Not that Side Effects is inartful. Soderbergh's last film before his professed "retirement" (current viewers of Cinemax's The Knick are surely grateful for the quotation marks), it moves with the same quicksilver pace as his other genre efforts (Haywire, the Ocean's Eleven films), and it sports his customarily crisp editing and elegant cinematography. (Despite using pseudonyms, Soderbergh shoots and edits his work himself.) But the movie's finest quality is its deception. Written by Scott Z. Burns (who also scripted Soderbergh's excellent Contagion), Side Effects initially positions itself as a fleet-footed attack on American pharmaceutical companies, but it's really a squalid murder mystery masquerading as social commentary. Sure, it lands some jabs in the drug industry's belly, but this is not some incisive investigation into the macro topic of corporate vice. It's more about micro-scheming, and it narrows its focus to smart and ruthless characters who attempt to bend others to their will. As such, if it lacks the inclination to advocate a particular point of view regarding the politics skirting its story, you can hardly blame it—it's too fascinated peering into the rotted souls at that story's center.

One of those suspicious souls is Emily (Rooney Mara, defying expectations yet again), a seemingly well-adjusted woman poised to reunite with her husband (Channing Tatum), who's just been released from prison. Yet despite her ostensibly happy circumstances, Emily finds herself in a depressed daze, leading her to seek the help of a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes a specialized antidepressant. It seems to work, but it also produces—you guessed it—side effects.

Something happens, at which point Side Effects shifts gears from a study of drug-induced paranoia to a dizzying caper. I won't reveal any of the specifics, but unraveling the mechanics of the movie's intricate plot is both exciting and strangely unimportant. You know the twists are coming, and anticipating them is part of the fun, but equally compelling is the miasma of greed that hovers over the film like a poison cloud. Everyone in this movie is working an angle of some kind, and it's bracing to watch likable actors like Law and (especially) Mara try to twist their circumstances for personal gain. Yet for all its characters' inherent wickedness, Side Effects feels seductive, not sleazy. That's largely due to Soderbergh's inveterate flair, yielding moments like a riveting scene in a darkened parking garage, in which the sight of Mara's purposefully vacant eyes and the sound of screeching tires combine to generate agonizing suspense.

Side Effects' narrative may be loopy and convoluted, but even if its characters are skilled manipulators, the movie itself doesn't cheat. This isn't one of those gimmicky pictures in which the final gotcha! scene invalidates everything that came before. And even if you do struggle to assemble the film's many puzzle pieces, that's likely because you've been ensnared by its effortless craft, and you've become too embroiled in its devilish nastiness to parse its internal logic. This side effect consequence of confusion is a meager price to pay for experiencing the movie's many pleasures, both at and beneath the surface. Above all, you can feel confident that when you watch a movie by this particular Soderbergh, you're being steered by a master. Side Effects' characters are so selfish, you can't trust any of them. But in its director, you can place the utmost faith.

What Maisie Knew. Children don't get divorced, they just suffer from it. Perhaps for that reason, most movies about the dissolution of marriage focus on the parting couple rather than their offspring. They may acknowledge divorce's crippling effect on children's psychology, but kids in such movies tend to exist as symbolic evidence of the act's collateral damage, not as the primary subject matter. (On television, the luxury of hours upon hours of time affords a show like Mad Men the possibility of charting the evolution of Sally Draper after her parents split up.) Which is why What Maisie Knew—a quiet, aching depiction of a child's confusion regarding her parents' animosity—somehow feels revolutionary. Based on a Henry James novel, it focuses not on a feuding husband and wife but on their six-year-old child. As seismic currents batter her back and forth from one unworthy parent to the other, you sense that she's being ripped in two; watching her, your own heart is liable to crack.

The nominal stars of What Maisie Knew are Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as Susanna and Beale, a power couple in the midst of a bitter custody battle. She's a former rock star, he's a posh art dealer, though their specific occupations are hardly important. What matters is that they love their daughter but don't seem all that willing to make time for her, except when it comes to one-upping each other in displays of overt paternal affection. Romantically, Beale has become involved with the much younger Margo (Joanna Vanderham), while Susanna starts shacking up with Lincoln, possibly the best-looking bartender in Manhattan (Alexander Skarsgård). Both parents are so preoccupied with their jobs that they begin pushing childcare duties onto their respective lovers, each of whom develops compassion for the young girl. Eventually, it appears that Maisie is spending more time with Margo or Lincoln than with her mother or father.

You may think, from this description, that Susanna and Beale are downright contemptible, but there are no bad people in this painful, tender movie. The parents' affection for their daughter is genuine; the problem is that they're never around. And it's their absence that proves to be the film's fulcrum, because the real center of What Maisie Knew—and the reason it resonates with such poignancy—is Maisie herself. Played with stunning poise and authenticity by Onata Aprile, Maisie is bighearted and eager to please, but she is also wary and melancholy, struggling to comprehend why her once-happy home is disintegrating. In other words, she's like any other six-year-old girl caught in the flotsam of her parents' wrecked marriage.

In that sense, the movie is hardly revelatory, but the marvel of What Maisie Knew is how it observes the emotional havoc raging within Maisie with quiet, unforced veracity. There may be nothing radical about the concept of a child gradually warming to a surrogate parent, but it is nonetheless heart-stopping when Maisie asks Lincoln to take her hand before crossing the street or invites him to complete one of her drawings. (Lincoln's limitless patience and sensitivity may strain credulity, but Skarsgård, playing against type, makes it work.) Similarly, Maisie's interactions with her mother and father are nauseating not because they mistreat her (there isn't even a suggestion of child abuse), but because Aprile makes Maisie's plight so sympathetic that her parents' failure to prioritize her seems unconscionable. This is especially true of Susanna, whom Moore (also playing against type) imbues with a genuine maternal love that's obfuscated by a sickening combination of selfishness and misplaced pride.

For a film of such resounding realism, the resolution of What Maisie Knew is arguably too pat, the symmetry between its adult characters too tidy. But any sense of artifice that attends the movie's ending is dwarfed by its painstaking understanding of how the misbehavior of parents can subtly corrode the lives of their children. Amid the custody battles, the petty fights, and the self-righteous anger, there's an innocent child whose life is quietly being destroyed. And so, perhaps the ending is curative optimism on the part of the filmmakers (the movie is directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel), who have determined that even if Maisie's parents don't deserve her, Maisie deserves a family. Yet not every child will be so lucky, and the lingering tragedy of What Maisie Knew is that although her parents love her, they fail to see her for what she really is: a gift.

The Wolf of Wall Street. At numerous times in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, the movie's power-crazed, drug-addled protagonist, breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. He does so as an educator, patiently explaining the mechanics of the corrupt schemes that he perpetrates with the help of his army of amoral, sycophantic stockbrokers. At one point, he gets carried away, gushing breathlessly about tax codes and loopholes and initial public offerings, but then he abruptly stops himself, and a twinkle enters his eye as he breaks into a knowing smile. "Look, I know you're not following what I'm saying," he tells us with a mixture of contrition and condescension. "That's OK. That doesn't matter."

It really doesn't. The ostensible plot of The Wolf of Wall Street—how an enterprising financier built an empire through a combination of indomitable gusto and flagrant disregard for corporate ethics—doesn't matter. Sure, the movie is technically about morally bankrupt bankers, but you could replace its stockbrokers with gangsters or politicians or lawyers, and its ethos would hardly change. It's really about what most Scorsese movies are about: man's lust for power, and his enthusiastic embrace of excess. It's a hyperactive study of the American id, of the insatiable appetite for more—more money, more power, more sex, more everything. That these guys are pushing stocks rather than breaking bones is immaterial. What matters is their desire.

This is why the narrative that sprung up in the aftermath of the film's release—that it glorifies the excesses it depicts so uproariously—is nonsense. For one, anybody who suggests that The Wolf of Wall Street fails to deliver comeuppance to its churlish characters apparently walked out before the film's final hour, in which—spoiler alert!—Belfort loses his wife, his child, his friends, and (to an extent) his livelihood. But more importantly, to posit that Scorsese admires these hedonistic criminals is to ignore a simple reality: Most of the people in this movie are utter buffoons. Like the gullible marks they pitch feverishly on the phone, they are seduced by promises of instant success, and so they flock to Belfort like sheep to a depraved shepherd. They are misogynistic, moronic monsters, and Scorsese looks upon them less with envy than with pity.

Except for Belfort. He is a true genius, a masterful manipulator who blends vast charisma with an obscene lack of conscience to acquire wealth and power beyond belief. And if the aforementioned narrative regarding The Wolf of Wall Street's veneration of venality is erroneous, its genesis is perhaps understandable, given the unparalleled flair of its lead performer. Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the best actors alive, and his brilliance lies in his ability to combine rigorous technique with good-old-fashioned star power. As the film's titular antihero, he's so effortlessly magnetic that it's virtually impossible not to root for Belfort, even as he's defrauding investors and evading law enforcement. Yet Belfort, too, is a fool, and as electric as DiCaprio is at conveying his swagger, he's equally mesmeric in highlighting his foibles. This is most obvious in his hysterical physical performance, as in the already-famous Lemmon 714 scene, in which he contorts his body language to suggest that for the high-as-a-kite Belfort, climbing down a flight of stairs is tantamount to descending Mount Everest. But it's also evident in the sweaty desperation that flecks his brow as he senses his empire beginning to crumble, or the internal grief as he contemplates betraying a loyal confidant. He spends most of the movie on top, but even when he sinks to the bottom, you can't take your eyes off him.

Not that Scorsese doesn't try to distract you with needless bells and whistles. The legendary director is almost defiantly undisciplined at this point in his career, and The Wolf of Wall Street—with its three-hour runtime; meandering, episodic plot; and senseless digressions—is a complete mess. But even at 70 years old, Scorsese is still a furiously active filmmaker, and he brings a vigorous energy to the proceedings, with constant camera moves, snappy editing, and that incessant voiceover that's so distinctive of his work. He may have been better served exercising occasional restraint and turning things over to his star, who knows how to ration (and thus heighten) his exuberance. But even if The Wolf of Wall Street is hopelessly cluttered, it's always arresting.

It is also very, very funny. It's rarely more hilarious than when its characters attempt to be serious, such as the scene where Belfort and his cronies earnestly debate how to properly interact with the dwarves they've hired for twisted team-building. And there is, of course, Matthew McConaughey's fantastic five-minute cameo, one that lays waste to the trope of the high-powered executive lending wisdom to an eager associate. Even Belfort's frequent fights with his wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie, opening eyes and quickening pulses)—including one involving a well-thrown glass of water and another revealing a secretly placed nanny-cam—are more amusing than upsetting, at least until they become truly sad and scary.

Yet while I'll defend The Wolf of Wall Street from those who accuse it of trumpeting chauvinism and profligacy, I'm not entirely sure what it is trumpeting. It is too smart to be an upper but too enjoyable to be a downer, and it is too chaotic to serve as a coherent statement on the American dream. I suppose it simply affords us the luxury of spending three mostly fun hours with one of cinema's greatest actors. It turns out that, just like Belfort, we can't quite have everything. Unlike Belfort, what we do receive is enough.

The World's End. Edgar Wright makes comedies. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the first two films in his so-called Cornetto trilogy, poked fun at the clichés of the zombie thriller and the police procedural, respectively, even while also partaking in those genres' durable pleasures. They were jovial, lighthearted movies that generated big laughs, thanks largely to the strong chemistry between stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as the nimble scripts (by Wright and Pegg), which adroitly tap-danced from winking parody to heedless indulgence. The World's End, the third and best movie in the trilogy, is of a piece with its predecessors, this time sending up apocalyptic thrillers. It is, without doubt, a spry, playful comedy. But it is also, by turns, a robust action movie, a discerning study of arrested adolescence, and a soulful lament for the idiosyncratic works of art that have been replaced in favor of mass-scale programmatic entertainment. In other words, this is not just a movie in which a bunch of idiotic friends reunite and do battle against a village full of soulless robots, even if it is also exactly that.

Pegg stars as Gary King, a 40-ish loser who spends his days reveling in halcyon memories of his high-school past, particularly the night when he and his four friends attempted to traverse the "Golden Mile". The objective of the Golden Mile is to down a pint at each of the 12 local pubs in Gary's hometown of Newton Haven, but Gary failed to complete the journey as a teenager, a failure he now, in a fit of ill-advised nostalgia, vows to remedy. And so, he swiftly reconnects with his old buds, including former best mate Andy (Frost), as well as three others played by a trio of high-class British actors (Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan). None of them seems particularly enthused to see Gary again—especially not Andy, a reformed businessman who still harbors a grudge against Gary for unspecified unpleasantness—but they nevertheless acquiesce to his wishes, primarily out of sympathy but also out of genuine desire to rekindle their glory days.

Yet when the quintet arrives at Newton Haven, their old stomping grounds are somewhat different than they remember. To begin with, everything is nice, clean, and orderly. Even the bars, formerly messy and colorful, are now regimented and uniform, sporting mirror-image architecture and offering just one brand of beer. Newton Haven, it appears, has fallen victim to what one character dubs "Starbucking": the gradual homogenization of culture accomplished by scrubbing all vestiges of individualism and replacing them with inoffensive, carefully modulated blankness. It is at this point that Wright tips his hand that The World's End may be about more than just five middle-aged white men getting hammered and reminiscing fondly about their past transgressions.

Then Gary rips the head off a teenage robot.

And with that, The World's End makes its metaphor of cultural erosion boldly, thrillingly literal. Newton Haven, it turns out, has not just succumbed to corporate pressure; it's been invaded by an alien race, one whose mission is to pacify humanity and turn it into a hive of obedient worker bees. This is nuts, but it's also a profound philosophical statement. Arguably, Wright is suggesting that the logical terminus of mankind's current trajectory is to devolve into docile drones. Alternatively, you could apply the allegory to cinema, with Wright decrying the current climate of studio interference and its deleterious effect on artistic risk-taking and innovation. (In related news, Wright recently dropped out of directing Marvel's Ant-Man, citing "creative differences". Hmm.) But regardless of how you interpret the movie's metaphoric message, what makes The World's End so much fun—and what makes its allegory really stick—is that even as it's expressing dismay toward the concept of Starbucking, it's still operating as a kickass action movie.

And a good one, too. It's rather bizarre that a comedy filmmaker should be so skilled at action compared to his dour contemporaries, but as he showed in the magnificent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wright is a consummate choreographer of artful mayhem. The fight scenes in The World's End are, to adopt the local dialect, fucking brill, with the camera fluidly charting the characters' movements and the editing coherently establishing everyone's place in the frame. It helps that the movie is also hilarious, both in its zippy dialogue and its more blunt physical comedy. (To wit, the film's funniest scene involves nothing more than Frost casually strolling through a plate-glass door.)

Yet through all of its many facets—the lively action, the ribald humor, the meta-commentary on art and culture—The World's End remains character-driven, particularly in Gary's sickly yearning to find his place in the world. "That was supposed to be the beginning of my life!" he howls at one point, referring to his doomed Golden Mile trek, and Pegg's deceptive, layered performance conveys decades of loneliness buried beneath false bravado. It's a portrait of a broken man trying to rebuild himself the only way he knows how: via destruction.

As with Scott Pilgrim, the seemingly ceaseless energy of The World's End eventually flags a bit, and you may begin to grow restless with its litany of frenetic chases and apocalyptic imagery. But it is ultimately redeemed by a delightfully absurd climax in which Gary and his crew face off against a disembodied, erudite ball of light called The Network (voiced, of course, by Bill Nighy). The Network wants to enslave humanity (but in a peaceful way!), but these man-children won't have it, and they mount a passionate defense of the most human of virtues: originality. It's offered on behalf of our entire species, but it also doubles as Wright's own rejoinder to the pestilence of sameness that pervades the modern multiplex. It's The World's End in miniature—chaotic and outrageous, but also smart, sly, and stimulating. The Network never stood a chance.

Next time out: the top 10.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)

And finally, we arrive at the best of the best. Well, almost. Over the past several years, the Manifesto has taken a rather flexible approach when setting the upper bound of its annual "best of" list. Back in 2010, 20 films made the cut. In 2011, a particularly fertile year at the movies, we expanded the field to 25. And for 2012, we narrowed things to a sweet 16. Essentially, the vintage of the particular cinematic year has influenced the length of the list. But this elastic methodology has also saved me from making agonizing choices, sparing me the sheer pain—the metaphysical agony one incurs from settling on a group of 10 titles to officially represent the year's best—of such a hopeless, arbitrary task.

But that pain is really what list-making is all about. It's supposed to be difficult, even if it's also, as a ruthlessly quantitative exercise, rather stupid. Top 10 lists function as de-facto time capsules, a window into the author's opinions of that particular moment, even if those opinions inevitably mutate with age. They also, if compiled properly, can inspire debate, which is always a healthy consequence of web-based discourse (even if such debates occasionally decay from robust argument to hateful mud-slinging). Perhaps my favorite part of publishing my own top 10 list—an undeniably personal exercise—is having people tell me precisely where I went wrong. And so, going forward, the Manifesto will only be featuring 10 titles on its official best-of list at year's end.

But seeing as I've undertaken the gargantuan process of reviewing every damn movie I saw in 2013, it seems foolish to skip over the baker's dozen of very good films that just missed the cut. Thankfully, we can turn to the trusty concept of "honorable mention". Unlike some of my prior buckets (like, say, The Executors), this one's self-explanatory: The following two posts feature movies that I very much liked but that couldn't quite slide into the top 10. Were I to compile my list on a different day, it's entirely possible that several of these titles would worm their way into the final grouping. As it is, here are the honorable mentions for the Manifesto's best movies of 2013:

Disconnect. The everything-is-connected subgenre has not aged well. At its origin, fearless filmmakers treated screenplays like tapestries, weaving complex narratives in which myriad characters appeared to live on entirely separate planes, only to invariably intersect with one another. This resulted in some very good movies—three particularly strong examples from the 1990s, from three different countries, are Atom Egoyan's Exotica, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia—that contemplated humanity as a species traveling along a dangerous collision course. But with the Oscar-winning Crash, those collisions became idiotically literal rather than metaphorical, and since then viewers have grown wary of films featuring haphazardly connected characters, scoffing at such constructs as contrivance rather than cleverness.

As it begins, Henry-Alex Rubin's Disconnect threatens to take the shape of an everything-is-connected movie, jumping with apparent randomness between characters who occupy the same suburban neighborhood. But while these individuals do occasionally bump into one another, their meetings function more as oblique glances than head-on collisions, which makes them feel more like natural occurrences than revelatory, plot-defining moments. That's because, as its title suggests, Disconnect isn't particularly interested in drawing metaphysical parallels between its characters. It's really about the absence of connection, especially when filtered through the omnipresent specter of technology that dominates our everyday lives. Andrew Stern's script concocts three seemingly disjointed subplots that are nevertheless unified by a firm existence in the Internet age. In one, two boys wield a fake Facebook account to wage a vicious campaign of social bullying. In another, an ambitious reporter investigates the motives of a sex worker who indulges his clients' desires via webcam. And in the third and flimsiest thread, a woman discovers that her seemingly innocent relationship with an online pen pal has resulted in the theft of her identity. Everyone is constantly typing, texting, and Facebooking, but are they communicating?

This is not exactly a novel question, and Rubin's arch condemnation of modernity may rub some tech-savvy viewers as heavy-handed scolding. But the question has rarely been addressed with this level of nuance and sensitivity, and Disconnect knits its disparate stories together with impressive intelligence and curiosity. It also moves like a movie; Rubin's steadying hand is firm but unobtrusive (with the exception of a slow-motion montage that is somehow both painfully overwrought and utterly sublime), while the fluid editing creates a cohesive experience that prevents the proceedings from becoming too fractured. Most critically, the characters here seem like real people as opposed to thematic ciphers, a trait that makes Disconnect feel personal rather than glumly ideological.

That impression is only reinforced by the quality of the acting. As an ensemble piece, the film doesn't lend itself to tremendous depth, but the performances still feel lived-in, heightening the verisimilitude. The standouts are Jason Bateman as the father of the bullied boy, lashing out with blind, impotent anger; Colin Ford as one of the confused, repentant bullies; and Andrea Riseborough as the aforementioned reporter, reconciling her ambition with her conscience (keep your eyes open for mention of her later in this post).

There's a lot to chew on in Disconnect, and not all of it goes down smoothly. The identity-theft subplot, featuring a miscast Alexander Skarsgård, feels forced, and again, Rubin is perhaps overly jaded in his contempt for technology, a disdain that chafes with his sure command over a highly technical medium. But there is also quite a lot to like, from its piercing perception of teenage cruelty to its tender depiction of sibling affection to its thoughtful illustration of distant-but-devoted parents. Most of all, Disconnect has a point: It makes poignantly clear how the modernized world has paradoxically paralyzed us. That may sound trite, but in an era where people rarely speak candidly, it's refreshing to find a movie with something to say.

Drug War. Good crime movies are usually sexy. Take the pinnacle of the form: The Godfather may nominally examine the exploits of a murderous sociopath, but it does so with such elegant craft and lyrical romanticism that you can't help but fall in love with the ruthless Corleones. Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, meanwhile, makes gangster life seem awfully fun, even as it also charts its hero's descent into a moral abyss. Johnnie To's Drug War, however, only conforms with half of the typical script. It mimics the aesthetic bravado of classic crime movies, but it also exposes the drug trade as an ugly, nasty business that bears little regard for human life. The denizens of this crime-infested universe—both the cops and the criminals—are cruel and unsparing. There is no room for love, humor, or enjoyment. There is only single-minded devotion; the cartel wants its commerce, the cops want their collar. Drug War is essentially a feature-length depiction of Robert De Niro's blunt summary of cops and robbers in Heat: "I do what I do, I take scores. You do what you do, try to stop guys like me."

This may make the movie sound like a desolate experience, but the marvel of To's filmmaking is how he makes undercover police work so damn exciting. He refuses to romanticize his characters, but he does revere their steadfast dedication to their work (possibly because it mirrors his own). The film follows a police captain, Zhang (Honglei Sun), who flips a high-ranking cartel operative, Timmy (Louis Koo), and then proceeds to infiltrate his organization. The process proves challenging, dangerous, and—for the viewer—riveting. In one electrifying passage in a hotel, Zhang first masquerades as a surly buyer considering whether to purchase drugs from an unusually gregarious supplier; in the very next scene, he's impersonating that same supplier, exaggeratedly pitching a distrustful customer. It's a suspenseful double-switch, but the mechanics themselves—the way in which the police deftly steer unsuspecting marks within inches of each other, calibrating their actions with clockwork precision—are exhilarating.

They are also readily comprehensible, which is not always the case in this busy, plot-laden film. A great many unsavory types slink through Drug War's seedy underbelly, and To is not particularly interested in helping you keep track of who's who. But if the movie is somewhat light on clarity, it more than compensates with robust energy and lively color, such as in a scene where a pair of deaf underlings react to a sudden police raid. Are they good guys, or bad? You may not be entirely sure, but it hardly matters, not when you're enraptured by the instinctive nature of their movements and the silent coordination of their gunfire, like athletes executing a well-practiced play. The movie is replete with similar scenes of cold, magnetic violence. In chronicling China's heroin trade with stoic detachment, Drug War traffics in unvarnished ugliness. But its filmmaking is no less beautiful.

Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare and Joss Whedon make an unlikely match on paper. Setting aside the world-conquering Avengers, the television virtuoso's most distinctive attribute is his creativity. Whether it's his inimitably quirky-but-natural dialogue or his gift for sculpting vibrant, idiosyncratic universes, Whedon's productions invariably feel fresh and new. But Shakespeare is old. He's practically art's progenitor, and despite the incessant renovations of his plays, his work is essentially invariant. The words are already written, the story already told. What could a filmmaker of Whedon's talents possibly add?

As it turns out, plenty. Unlike many Shakespeare adaptations, this incarnation of Much Ado About Nothing does not come off as a stale and musty echo of a great past work. It instead feels vitally alive, bouncing eagerly from one ingeniously orchestrated mishap to the next. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the chic production design, which makes brilliant use of a single location. (That would be Whedon's own estate in Santa Monica, where he shot the movie over 12 days shortly after production wrapped on The Avengers.) And part is due to the sly modern touches, which somehow have a naturalistic feel. The characters here may intone Shakespeare's ornate verbiage fluently, but they also receive news alerts on their iPhones, and it's testament to both Whedon's talents and those of his cast that this comes off as organic rather than incongruous.

But mainly, Much Ado About Nothing is a dazzling exemplar of pure, delightful farce. Yes, the fizzy story has been faithfully reproduced, and the dialogue rings with Shakespeare's trademark wit and rhythm. But most of the humor here derives not from the conversations but from the pratfalls of those eavesdropping on them. Time and again, the film's two leads, Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), attempt to overhear their companions, only to suddenly fear detection and dive headlong into bushes or behind couches, or lose their bearings and stumble down a flight of stairs. It's all gleefully absurd, and Whedon stages these moments with a winningly low-key style that only heightens their hilarity. He must share the credit, however, with Acker and Denisof, both of whom prove agile physical comedians and acquit themselves with brilliant, bumbling grace. (Both actors, of course, starred on Whedon's Angel, and fans of the director's oeuvre will take pleasure in seeing other members of the Whedonverse pop up, including Dollhouse's Fran Kranz, Firefly's Sean Maher, and, most predictably and charmingly, longtime Whedon muse Nathan Fillion.)

Admittedly, part of my immense enjoyment of this production of Much Ado About Nothing may have stemmed from my preexisting ignorance of the play itself. But this being a Shakespeare comedy, little of what transpires is especially surprising—antagonistic soul mates quarrel, love blossoms, villains scheme, misunderstandings abound, and in the end, happiness settles upon players and audience alike. What happens is hardly the point. The question is how it happens, and under Whedon's expert direction, the answer is "wonderfully".

At one point in Much Ado About Nothing, two supporting characters, having just expertly manipulated Beatrice and Benedick into an amorous situation, congratulate themselves by indulging in a minor fist-bump. Something tells me that wasn't in Shakespeare's stage directions, but I imagine that if the Bard were watching, he wouldn't just approve—he'd give Whedon a high-five.

No. The most common problem with historical films is an excess of sobriety. Major world events serve as a fertile breeding ground for cinematic dramatization, but many filmmakers are so intent on capturing the importance of history that they drain it of its color. This staid approach typically results in either glum miserabilism (in reenactments of tragedy) or reverent hagiography (in biopics of legendary figures), but it rarely resembles legitimately compelling art.

By that reckoning, one might anticipate Pablo Larraín's No to be a solemn, contemplative picture, one that is respectful of its subject matter to the point of suffocation. That expectation derives from the sheer gravity of the movie's plot: No chronicles the events in 1988 Chile, when the dictator Augusto Pinochet authorized a nationwide referendum to determine whether he should abdicate his post. This was a time when the population of an entire country flocked to the ballot box with their own lives in their hands, choosing whether to defeat evil or succumb to its propaganda. Surely Larraín would depict such a monumental episode of world history with the proper seriousness.

Not so much. As it turns out, No is riotously funny, a black comedy of acrobatic manipulation and compromised values. It is also a testament to the terrifying power of the ad man, as it focuses on the advertising campaign that Pinochet's opponents mounted to encourage citizens to answer his all-important question in the negative. In this, No is less a somber based-in-truth picture than a particularly high-stakes episode of Mad Men. Playing the part of Don Draper is René (Gael García Bernal), a brilliant executive who treats his assignment not as a historically crucial juncture in global politics but as the simple matter of selling a product to a vast network of potential buyers. When René first joins the campaign, he's baffled by its focus on Pinochet's savagery and its images of brutality and destruction. His solution: Revamp the campaign and replace the ugliness with bright colors, cheerful characters, and an utterly inane jingle. And so, as No tracks the campaign's absurd progress, it defies any accusation of unctuous self-seriousness, perhaps because it's difficult for a movie to come off as self-important when it presents itself as little more than a gigantic Chilean analogue of Rock the Vote.

Not that Larraín's take on the material is trivial. Like René, he takes a rather disdainful view of humanity, equating televiewers to rubes who will support any ballot measure as long as it's accompanied by a pop song and a rainbow logo. And to be sure, the notion that Chile's populace essentially needed to be duped into saving itself is troubling and fraught with allegorical implications. But No is too much fun to wallow in the misery that edges its narrative.

It is also quite something to look at, if not always in a good way. In an attempt to elevate the movie's authenticity, Larraín shot everything on handheld video equipment that existed in 1988, resulting in a muddy aesthetic and boxy aspect ratio. It's a nervy approach that allows him to seamlessly intercut the proceedings with actual footage from the campaign, but the film still looks downright ugly. Enhanced realism aside, some viewers may yearn for the formal rigor of Larraín's prior feature, Post Mortem, which examined Salvador Allende's fall with a muted palette and meticulous camerawork. (Despite their dramatic stylistic differences, the two films bear obvious thematic similarities.)

But here I am, complaining about No's off-kilter visuals, when its very point is that the viewing public will buy any product regardless of substance, so long as it looks appropriately shiny. In concocting his unabashedly ebullient advertising campaign, René and his team made the bold decision to give the people what they wanted. In watering down No's look, Larraín may not have done the same for us, but in crafting an arresting, fascinating, richly rewarding movie about a pivotal point in human history, he's given us what we needed.

Oblivion. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the most underrated movie of the year! Sure, Oblivion rang up $37 million on its opening weekend, but it quickly limped out of theatres, failing to gross even $90 million, and most critics dismissed it as—per its Rotten Tomatoes summary—"visually striking but thinly scripted." That's unfortunate, because while Joseph Kosinski's second feature is indeed breathtakingly gorgeous, it's also a heady, well-plotted sci-fi yarn. True, Oblivion grounds itself in familiar science-fiction tropes first established in genre classics like 2001 and The Matrix, but it builds on those tropes in new and sinister ways. Likewise, while it's becoming commonplace for aspirational blockbusters to toss off references to drone warfare (see: Man of Steel)—as though sidelong mention of real-life weaponry equates to actual topical relevance—Oblivion's focus on drones feels meaningful because it's rooted in the predicament of its characters, not in some abstract stab at metaphorical significance.

Of course, let's not distract ourselves from Oblivion's primary selling point: It's one of the most visually astonishing movies I've ever seen. (I would call it the most eye-catching film of the year, were it not for another small space-set picture that arrived in 2013.) In the digital age of infinite possibility, many sci-fi filmmakers overload the screen with spectacle, but Kosinski makes brilliant use of negative space, creating images of stripped-down, shimmering beauty. His entire F/X crew does terrific work, but Darren Gilford's production design is particularly noteworthy, with the sleek, futuristic look of its space station—featuring that pool, seemingly suspended in midair—contrasting sharply against the craggy earthbound sets. Nor are the pleasures just for the eye, as M83's stunning, CinemaScope-wide score captures the movie's expansive grandeur while also amplifying its inherent eeriness. The opportunity to simply savor the look and sound of Oblivion is nearly worth the price of admission.

Nearly, but not actually, which is why that aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes summary is a frustrating half-truth. Yes, Oblivion's visual and aural accomplishments are astounding, but they would still feel gaudily hollow if they didn't stand in service of a compelling story. Thankfully, they do. Taking place in a moderately distant future on a largely abandoned Earth, the movie follows Jack Harper (Tom Cruise, steady as ever), a blandly named worker bee charged with maintaining and streamlining a small arsenal of drones that are programmed to do... something. Operating in conjunction with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, excellent yet again), who reports to a seemingly benign superior (Melissa Leo, making every carefully chosen word count), Jack is efficient at his job and lives a life of structured luxury, but he can't shake the nagging suspicion that something isn't quite right.

His suspicions bear fruit, of course, and it's hardly a spoiler to note that Karl Gajdusek's and Michael Arndt's screenplay (adapting Kosinski's own graphic novel) features its share of twists and turns. But just as Oblivion's jaw-dropping imagery is thoughtful rather than overwhelming, its script parcels out its reveals strategically, keeping you in Jack's blurred headspace and letting you unravel its mysteries for yourself. It also rewards patience and attentiveness; Leo's repeated inquiry, "You're still an effective team?" is at first innocuous but gradually develops malevolent undertones, while an ostensibly romantic photograph of Jack and Victoria proves to conceal a complicated backstory. The result is that the movie meticulously constructs a richly detailed universe that isn't dependent on mere shocks, meaning that even if you anticipate its surprises—including a doozy in which Jack engages in sudden hand-to-hand combat with a shadowy foe—you feel rewarded, not cheated.

As with most science-fiction stories, Oblivion's pretzel-twisting narrative is vulnerable to second-guessing, and detractors may attempt to punch holes in its internal logic. Why bother? Whether the dense machinations of the film's plot stand up to rigorous scrutiny hardly matters, not when the movie engages with your mind and body so insistently. Then again, perhaps Oblivion's exceptional aesthetic achievements blinded its viewers to its spry and shifty storytelling. Its surface pleasures are so rapturous that one can almost forgive those who misperceived it as "thinly scripted". In a way, it reminds me of Ione Skye's character in Say Anything..., who's described as "a brain trapped in the body of a game-show hostess". Oblivion so overwhelms you with sensory magnificence that you're liable to overlook the fact that it, too, has a brain.

The Past. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation was a thunderbolt of emotional authenticity, a wrenching, heartfelt exploration of two good people incapable of overcoming their own human failings. The movie was so thoughtfully observed—so hypnotically real—that the expectation of excellence surrounding Farhadi's follow-up was both inevitable and somewhat unfair. A Separation felt like Farhadi's magnum opus, so what could he possibly do for an encore? It's something of a small miracle, then, that The Past works as well as it does. It may lack the polished perfection of A Separation, but it nevertheless enthralls as a tender, searing story of love and loss.

It is also its own creature. Admittedly, Farhadi again finds himself delving into the tentative stability of marriage and the omnipresent threat of its toxic cousin, divorce. But where A Separation felt incredibly intimate, the tone of The Past is more sprawling, expanding its scope in terms of both time and space. There are no flashbacks here, but as the film's title suggests, the events of yesteryear cast a long shadow over the lives of its principal characters, especially Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa, terrific). As the movie begins, he returns to France to finalize his divorce from his long-estranged wife, Marie (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo), who has two daughters from a prior marriage. History has rendered their marriage obsolete in all but name, but they nevertheless exhibit an easy familiarity evocative of an enduring parental partnership. Yet this is not a happy tale of love reunited, and besides, Marie has taken up with Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), whose own wife has lapsed into a coma for reasons that are initially unclear.

Very little is clear, at least at the outset. Why did Ahmad leave his wife? Why is Marie's teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet, very good), sullen and emotional? How did Samir's wife fall into that coma? The Past spends a great deal of time raising questions that Farhadi is in no hurry to answer. He's a singularly patient filmmaker—he utilizes a detached, observational style that somehow feels both removed and immediate—and his gradual approach allows each strand of plot to accumulate quiet, unexpected force. But what interests him most, even more so than shepherding viewers along the intricate pathways of his carefully structured story, is family. He has a keen eye for how parents and children interact, and how seemingly trivial incidents can fester and produce drastic consequences. This is most evident in the case of Ahmad, a warm father-figure and considerate husband who nevertheless seems irretrievably stricken by prior mistakes and misfortunes.

If Ahmad seems like a good person, he's not alone. The Past is populated almost exclusively by decent souls, and their goodness makes the severity of their pain all the more devastating. Yet if the film has a fault, it is a surfeit of sensitivity. It is, arguably, too compassionate toward its characters, too sympathetic of their impulses and desires, and too nuanced in excavating their deep swells of feeling. But this excessive solicitude is also what makes The Past so commendable. It seeks to do nothing more than understand its characters, and to communicate their struggles with clarity and conviction. Small price for us to pay that it succeeds.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013