Forgoing obvious satire and condescending mockery in favor of genuine feeling and emotional depth, writer/director Spike Jonze has crafted a post-millennial masterpiece of rare heft and import; a film about no less than the very nature of love itself. Though set in a vaguely futuristic society where citizens have abdicated participation in a living, breathing world through the ubiquity of smart phones and social media (to the point where having seemingly solo conversations on the street is the norm), the story is defiantly timeless, acting not as a death knell for our evaporating humanity, but rather as a compassionate, empathetic mirror for the living present. As such, a man like Theodore Twombly (the always astounding Joaquin Phoenix) is not a joke, or a jerk, or any such sad symbol of the times, but one who emerges as quietly heroic in spite of himself. If he’s to act as a stand-in, let it be for all those who seek succor through fantastical means, which, in all honesty, includes just about every one of us at one time or another. While few and far between might limit their connections to chat rooms, engage in sexual relations with inanimate objects, or, in Theodore’s case, fall madly in love with an operating system (albeit one voiced by Scarlett Johansson), rare is the bird who has never felt the impulse to craft a relationship that can, by whatever means, minimize emotional risk. For as bizarre as it might seem for a man to, say, prefer plastic to flesh, his motivation is, at bottom, shared by us all: simple, unadorned pleasure, through the reasonable avoidance of pain. As such, all love, whether by design or through happenstance, on a single breathless night or over the long haul of many decades, is an escape from, well, something. There are big laughs in Her, though never at anyone’s expense, and what remains is a rumination on amour so complete – its fragility, its essential ephemerality, its utter inevitability as the driving force of our lives – that it’s bound to serve as the final word on the subject for some time to come.
(2.) The Act of Killing
At this point in cinematic history, we’ve come to expect the documentary, especially in the historical realm, to hit its marks, name names, and parade any number of experts and witnesses before us like ducks in a shooting gallery. While some can bleed humanity from their well-meaning pores, most are dull in that drip-dry fashion that leaves us mildly educated, but unavoidably uninspired. We might understand what happened, to some degree, but after the credits roll, we’d be hard-pressed to dredge up even the most tenuous of connections. And when the subject considers mass murder, or any such spectacular crime from our recent past, we’re reduced to mere bystanders; passive, uncomprehending fools so detached from the depicted events that they become indistinguishable from dozens of like-minded guilt trips. Fortunately, The Act of Killing is not so fond of traditional emotional cues. Rather than lecture, manipulate, and bludgeon, it throws a party. Not to excuse, endorse, or trivialize, mind you, but as a means to reach a shattering, somber conclusion: some acts are so heinous, so beyond comprehension, that not even the willing participants know what the hell it was all about. To pretend we can find a smoking gun, thereby tagging evil incarnate forevermore (and hopefully prevent it in the future), is to practice the most dangerous form of delusion. Here, the guilty parties are rounded up, brought to bear, and, as if it made sense all along, asked to recreate their past massacres as a slick Hollywood production. And why not, since the world has long forgotten their actions (and, truth be told, cared little at the time). A documentary that interrogates cruelty and brutality not to expose and indict, but rather to show how easily each can be dismissed in turn. Or, in the end, how normal they can be made to seem. Context, then, is all it takes to make murder a noble act, or war itself a tool of liberation.
(3.) The Wolf of Wall Street
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story of the rise and fall (but ultimate survival) of a genuine scumbag like Jordan Belfort might traffic in little else but finger-pointing and moral sanctimony. But with Martin Scorsese aboard, we’re treated instead to a full-tilt celebration: not of criminality, gluttony, or ruinous financial practices, but rather the unavoidable conclusion that if America stands for anything, it’s the cash nexus. At all costs, without excuses. It stands to reason that not everyone at or near the top acts in exactly the same manner as Belfort and his cohorts, but that’s hardly the point. It is, as they say, simply a matter of degree. Or, citing a similar cliché, picking your poison. Despite conservative pleas to the contrary, winning always means someone else is losing, whether on the football field or in the board room. Where money is made, it must, by the rules of the game, be lost in equal measure. Just pray you’re on the side on the takers. And while the movie is unrelenting in its depiction of greed, excess, and pornographic thrill-seeking, it never bats an eyelash. Deep down, it knows you’d rather be here. Anywhere, needless to say, but amongst the shattered remnants of your own life. At the end of the day, Scorsese’s wonderland of indulgence is the most honest film of the year, and required viewing for anyone seeking to understand our collective DNA. We might not all want cocaine and hookers, or the nerve to pull out our cocks at parties, but every last one of our sorry asses wants untouchability; the “right”, as they say, to do and say whatever we please. Hell, it’s right there in our founding documents, or so the most vocal among us would have you believe. To be above reproach, or without checks, or so ahead of the curve that the rest of humanity is playing catch-up. This is what we crave, and court, and count on to make life worth living. And of course, only money can make this possible. Lots of it, as from an unquenchable supply. So while we might damn the graft, we’re no more pissed at the grifter than we are the very flag he comes wrapped in. Snug and secure; undeniably, everlastingly heroic.
(4.) Behind the Candelabra
Spare me the technicality that it was released not theatrically, but on the somehow less dignified HBO. And while we’re at it, I’m in no mood to hear that the whole thing was but a skin-deep hatchet job meant to reduce the comings and goings of Liberace to a smirking, gossip-filled scandal sheet, as if we were considering the life of Lincoln. This was a man who, adorned in elaborate furs, expensive jewels, and one spirited hairpiece, played overwrought piano before roaring crowds of blue hairs, not some transformative leader spearheading radical social change. So if we see Liberace do little else but fuck, drink champagne in hot tubs, bitch about the price of fame, visit X-rated theaters, and ogle assorted hunks, what, exactly, is the complaint? That we didn’t get the deeper, more nuanced Wladziu Valentino Liberace? If such a figure existed, and it’s an if as big as the man’s voracious sexual appetite, who on earth would want to see it depicted on screen? The man was pure, unadulterated camp – his act, his attire, his home, his life from dawn to dusk – and if we’re going to be treated to a bio-pic (and treated we are), we want all the nasty, hilarious details. Michael Douglas understands this essential fact, playing him not for sympathy, but as a monstrous, tragic fool; a bitter, vamping old queen who traded men like baseball cards and ended up dying from the most predictable of ailments as a result. That he denied his homosexuality up to (and even after) his death was probably the most ridiculous acting job of his, or any other life, but so controlled and isolated was his existence that he could avoid the snickers, presumably as he counted his millions. Matt Damon, playing the latest and greatest boy toy, Scott Thorson, matches Douglas blow for blow, bitch-fit for bitch-fit, and as the years pass, they’ll pass into the pantheon of great screen couples, much like Tracy and Hepburn. And if it isn’t quite the best movie of the year, it sure as hell is the most entertaining, remaining eminently quotable, lo these many months after its premiere.
(5.) Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley is a wonder. Just 35, she’s responsible not only for the one film about Alzheimer’s that avoids sentimentality (Away From Her), she proved that as self-indulgent as documentaries about our own lives can be, they can also transcend their built-in limitations to ask deeper, more insightful questions about the nature of memory. After losing her mother, a vibrant, artistic, yet undeniably self-involved woman, Polley was forced to consider her very roots, given that her father, at least the only father she’s ever really had, was not the man responsible for her conception. Needless to say, this complicates her feelings about a woman she only thought she knew (why does anyone have an affair, after all, and how might it evolve once children are brought into it?), but were this but a simpleminded mystery to discover the source of sperm, it would hardly merit further consideration. After all, the man who raised you did so under the assumption that you were his, and to say parentage is the product of biology alone cheapens the sacrifice and concern one brings, even without shared genes. But through a series of home movie clips, and a generous slice of re-creations (necessary, and ultimately in service of the larger theme), Polley charts not only the pursuit of truth, but what that truth says about the past, and how we choose to remember it. On a basic level, are we remembering actual events, or mere discussions of said events, accumulated and shaped from the safety of a later date? If what we know of a person, even our siblings and parents, is, with the passage of time, but a series of uncertain snapshots and blurred data, can we ever really lay claim to the essence of the very relationships we’d like to believe made us what we are? And if our memories are faulty, or filled with half-truths and distortions, does that make us liars, or simply gifted storytellers who’d rather reinvent and reassure than repeatedly open old wounds? And, most importantly, can any one perspective dominate? It’s amazing, yet somehow expected, that two people, inhabiting the very same household, can genuinely, and without any real attempt at deception, provide such strikingly dissimilar narratives. And yet it persists, again and again, even in the face of continual contradiction. But we knew Polley would get us there. Unlike so many memoirs and personal accounts that rapidly descend into self-pity and victimization, Polley prefers taking the personal and making it universal. Like an artist must.
(6.) Before Midnight
The finale of Richard Linklater’s talk-heavy trilogy is, perhaps, the best of them all, marking not a couple on the rise, nor even holding its own, but one so used to burying resentments that it can’t help but explode into near-catastrophe over the course of a single evening. And while it can work as a stand-alone experience, it is best as a culmination of one of cinema’s most exhaustive emotional journeys. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are insightful, literate folk, though they choose their words less as a way to reflect their education than as a means to evade, if not outright deceive. These are two people who are so comfortable with each other, so understanding of what comes next, that they’ve come to see certain conversational turns as disastrous rabbit holes of unwanted revelation. Fortunately, and to the team’s credit, both characters can be as prickly as they are appealing, with Celine being a particular standout. Her feminism, shaped and rubbed to a righteous finish by decades of privilege and unhealthy navel-gazing, is the sort all men dread in that, expectedly, it trades logic for confusion, ultimate meaning for the settling of personal scores. But here it is, in delightful microcosm – why we love, why that same love fades, and how utterly impossible it is that love, ultimately, survives.
(7.) Blue Jasmine
Giving the performance of her life, Cate Blanchett is Jasmine; a pampered, pathetic, ultimately doomed heroine so bedeviled by circumstance that when she falls – and hard – she’s inclined to believe that resurrection is always just around the corner. As simple, even, as an online course away. Her greatest failing, then, is not her willing participation in her husband’s criminal rise, nor her snooty demeanor that sets everyone on edge, but her insistence on reinvention. Given that this is a Woody Allen production – and one of his best of recent years – we know the eventual arc of this tragedy, for if he has a mantra (and I’m not sure he does, save the avoidance of death at all costs), it is that no greater fool exists than the man who believes all lives warrant a second act. From birth to death, we remain fixed in routine and chronic dissatisfaction, and while we might try on different hats, changing the drapes from time to time, we are but static beasts always and forever, bringing expensive baggage to whatever hovel might greet us, believing it will ultimately conform to our desires. If Woody is twisting his dagger into a particularly vile form of privilege (as he always does to some degree), and thereby elevating the more earthy, less moneyed as a result, don’t be fooled. He’s after more than Jasmine in the end, with that final, lonely park bench having room for us all.
(8.) Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ latest film is, thankfully, their least whimsical; a story of ellipses and evasions, chronicling not the expected rise and fall of a folk musician, but simply a moment in time now lost to history. More a character adrift than one with an ultimate destination. Unlike the overrated American Hustle, which felt cheap and artificial at every turn, Inside Llewyn Davis is the more lived in work, an authentic account of bland browns and somber grays so of its time, it never betrays its contemporary production. For the few days we spend with Llewyn, we don’t much like the guy, but rather than define him as a simple anti-hero, his unpleasantness serves to illuminate his ultimate failure as an artist. While he has talent to burn (a particularly savvy sequence contrasts him, albeit briefly, with Bob Dylan, and against the odds, we prefer Davis), he hasn’t the “soul” for success. It’s more than ability, charm, or appearance; it’s the belief that one has a gift to bestow, not merely the unfurling of a deep, dark burden. As such, he lacks the unconscious drive that cannot succumb to distraction. And while Davis possesses the requisite selfishness in spades, it’s more self-destructive than motivational, channeling his needs away from the eventual goal. He’s the ramblin’ man of old, though one particularly long on rootless despair. In the end, it’s a journey of waste and unfulfilled longing; the man with something to say, but without the nerve to make a true lasting impression beyond asking for money, or a mere couch for the night. He comes and he goes, one of many ghosts in an America that all but produces them wholesale.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is the story of an America not so much in decline as it is, well, “at rest.” God’s country in the prone position. Where the pursuit of happiness yields to a much more illustrative and natural state of perpetual self-loathing, with unexamined anger as instinctive as breathing. A nation where the expectation of sudden and unearned riches has reached such fevered insanity that we can no longer even be bothered to buy a ticket. Instead, and quite naturally, the tickets come to us. It’s gotten so bad that even our layabouts are making demands. Enter Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). While he long ago stuffed his rage into the empty liquor bottle of your choosing, he’s nonetheless arrived, stumbling and unkempt, at the only real destination such men are afforded – wholesale inaction. He is a man with no real future; a past now clouded by distortion and evasion, and a present so without conventional cues of continuation that he’s resorted to the expected single-mindedness to justify tomorrow. Or even the next few hours. Like so many, he clings to a dream. More delusion, really, but a place to go, with a purpose well-served. He has a promise – odd, really, when his life has been defined by exactly that, only one routinely unkept – and the world will fall away into silence until it’s been fulfilled. Stark and wry, with a keen eye for the stripped and barren landscapes we’ve left behind.
(10.) Dallas Buyers Club
While the movie itself is a garden variety tale of rebirth – villain as man of consequence – it becomes much more than the sum of its parts through the sheer force of Matthew McConaughey. It’s not only the performance of the year, it’s a career zenith; a tribute to physical sacrifice and degradation from an old school with a rapidly declining roster of classmates. And while his Ron Woodroof ultimately has a candy center, his transformation from bullying hedonist to medical renegade is so alarmingly rich – and genuine – that we don’t much care if we’ve seen it all before. Because we haven’t, at least not like this. And fine, I’ll admit to a man-crush – one that’s been simmering well before it boiled over with Killer Joe – but here’s a man so dedicated to craft and character that he’s left nothing to chance. Every sneer, every swagger, is so delightfully organic that we never see the strings. And sure, the push-pull friendship with Jared Leto’s Rayon, as expected as that might be (the homophobe melts as ice before the flame), transcends its scripted predictability to achieve a luminosity unseen in years. Call it a fan’s appreciation of craft. The ultimate case for character. The privilege of seeing it all done well. In the end, it’s the undeniable appeal of this little band of merry men – this selfish, caustic, ultimately cooperative lot – that warms our lowered defenses.