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

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