Against all odds, MAGNET movie guy Jud Cost got his copy in before (not after) the Oscar show this year. Here are his 10 best pictures of 2013, again in no particular order. To ward off a tsunami of fist-shakers, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips and The Wolf Of Wall Street would have made the second 10 on Cost’s list. Except for Amy Adams’ performance, American Hustle just didn’t spark any interest in these people, especially the two guys with the beards. Her had Cost checking his wristwatch before he was five minutes in. A couple hours staring at Joaquin Phoenix’s idiot grin was way too much for him. As for the overrated 12 Years A Slave, sure, it’s pretty grim stuff, but Django Unchained covered most of the same ground and was much more watchable.
Are there still people out there who refuse to watch a black-and-white movie? If so, they’ll miss out on one of the year’s best pictures, directed by Alexander Payne in landscape-caressing monochrome. Despite his advanced age, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has walked all the way to the outskirts of Billings, Mont., and he fully intends to hoof it the next 849 miles, on to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his million-dollar prize from GHQ. He’s received something in the mail from an outfit similar to those notorious confusers of the elderly, Publisher’s Clearing House. It’s the third time he’s started the journey, and Woody’s patient son David (Will Forte) picks up his dad again and drives him back home. “I never knew the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire,” says Woody’s cranky wife Kate (June Squibb). “He should have worked for it.” To get the old geezer to stop these quixotic jousts, David offers to drive Woody to Lincoln to prove his $1,000,000 junk-mail notification was just a scam. That’s where it becomes a road movie, something like the rehabilitation of Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. It’s a chance for David to get to know his old man, later better than never. Especially when they linger awhile in Hawthorne, Neb,, Woody’s old stomping grounds where David speaks with his dad’s former girlfriend who reveals tidbits from their past. At a “family reunion,” he wards off the vultures circling around Woody and his rumored, new-found wealth. “If Woody really has hit it rich and I don’t see any of it, that would be wrong,” threatens one greedy relative. Just goes to prove, no matter how obvious the truth may be, people—even Woody, himself—will believe what they want to believe. Some dreams die hard.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Even though the Coen brothers called their new one Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s not the mind or heart of the goateed folk singer they’re talking about. It’s more like an MRI revealing cracked bones, bruised ribs, a broken nose—and plenty of goose bumps from warding off the winter cold for someone only one friend’s couch away from being homeless. This is no starry-eyed stroll through the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s. Depressed at having to play the Gaslight again tomorrow night for chump change, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) heckles a grandma onstage who’s singing a hillbilly ballad and accompanying herself on autoharp. The next night, her husband severely beats Llewyn in the alley in back of the club. Jean (Carey Mulligan), a singer he may have knocked up, constantly refers to Llewyn as “an asshole,” and his manager stiffs him for royalties from his only LP. Someone down at the Merchant Marine union hall even has him listed as “Lou N. Davis.” The only tender moments Llewyn experiences are with an orange cat who escapes from the Gorfeins’ apartment, where our boy’s been crashing lately. After tracking down the runaway, Llewyn lugs him around town like a purring handbag. In keeping with the gritty tone, the music here is mostly sad and downbeat. Its vibe is nothing like the exhilarating cover photo of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP, Bobby D. rambling through the NYC streets with a hip chick on his arm. And why not? Dylan was about to sell millions of records and become, willingly or not, “the spokesman of his generation.” Llewyn Davis can’t even afford a winter coat. If you’re looking for something warm and comforting about that long-gone folk era, go play your old Dylan albums.
A god-fearing Irish lady has hidden the fact she’s been an emotional basket case for more than 50 years. It all began that day the nuns who ran a convent that doubled as a home for unwed teenaged mothers arranged to have her toddler, Anthony, adopted—without her knowledge. And now Philomena (Judi Dench) has met up with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to tell her tale, at long last. A recently discredited political adviser at a career crossroads, Martin is undecided: Should he take up freelance writing for glossy periodicals or pound out that long-contemplated book of Russian history? When a magazine editor green-lights Philomena’s “human interest” story, Martin grudgingly agrees to help her find her long lost boy and chronicle the search. They begin at the convent, now run by nuns attired in modern dress with a buttoned-down attitude. The mother superior regretfully informs Philomena that a recent office fire has destroyed all information about her son’s adoption. With a reporter’s nose for this sort of thing, Martin smells a rat. He hears gossip at the local pub that the convent’s records, shockingly documenting the sale of children to desperate American families, have been torched to destroy the evidence. Searching his laptop for information about the boy, Martin hits the jackpot. Philomena’s son, re-named Michael Hess when he was taken to America, once served in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He also discovers Michael died from AIDS, nine years ago. The trail has gone cold—unless they decide to travel to the States to speak with anyone who knew Michael in his adopted homeland. Now emotionally invested in the project, Martin has learned much from this simple lady’s transparent decency. It’s an attitude that serves them both well until the end of their journey.
Any decent screenwriter can engender rooting interest for a movie’s lead characters. When it comes to Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, mostly seen in Alphonso Cuaron’s Gravity as faces inside bulky NASA suits, it goes way beyond that. You pound your fists on the armrests of your seat, you hold your head in your hands like the guy in Edvard Munch’s The Scream. You really want Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Koslowski (Clooney) to survive a catastrophic shower of space junk that’s critically damaged their space station. Contact with mission control in Houston is also gone once the communications satellites are destroyed. You are totally engrossed in the human story portrayed here even before fully awakening to the fact that this film has the most perfectly realized visuals ever created of what it must look like to be orbiting this immense blue marble. Stone, a scientist and novice space traveler who repeatedly crashed the flight simulator in training, and Koslowski, a veteran astronaut on his last mission who jokes about breaking the record for extra vehicular activity, receive a kick in the pants from Houston. Satellites colliding have created a tsunami of orbital debris headed their way with destructive force. Once everyone else on the mission is killed by the lethal stream that will return in another 90 minutes, it becomes just Stone and Koslowski, tethered to one another, swimming in space, attempting to reach either the Russian or Chinese station to see if there’s any chance of getting a ride home. With no help—and worst of all, no chatter—from Houston, it boils down to: How badly do you really want it? Or can you dream up a plausible excuse to accept your fate and become just another satellite, yourself?
Capturing a certain time period is never as easy as it appears on the large screen. To shoot a fish in a barrel, TV clunker Happy Days missed the Eisenhower years by a country mile. When it comes to recreating the international glamour and risky auto-racing scenes of 1976’s Formula One circuit, Ron Howard’s Rush absolutely nails it. And not just by employing the vintage Grand Prix machines made by Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and McLaren. The ’76 championship is a struggle between two fierce competitors, James Hunt from Great Britain and Austria’s Niki Lauda, who’s won the title two of the previous three years. The pair couldn’t have been more different: Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), with his shaggy blond hair, matinee-idol good looks and playboy lifestyle, and Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), someone born to race who knows more about the car he’s driving than those who built it. Hunt refers to Lauda, a man with a severe overbite, as “the rat.” Lauda looks down upon Hunt’s womanizing but admires his skill on the track. An obvious difference between Formula One and NASCAR, the style preferred in America, is that Grand Prix requires you to turn right as well as left on most of its courses. With its open-wheel, Indianapolis-style machines, GP racing encourages the symbiotic, jet-set lifestyle to those beautiful people who tag along. One crucial element that hasn’t been worked out by the mid-’70s, is the unavoidable danger that accompanies every driver on the circuit. It was an indisputable fact that some of their number would die every year on the race track. 1976 would feature a horrific crash during a driving rain storm on Germany’s notoriously perilous Nurburgring circuit that changes everything between the two men struggling for that year’s championship.
Jasmine has lost it all. She arrives in San Francisco from her palatial New York home, with little more than the very expensive clothes on her back. She finds her way to the modest, Mission district home of her sister, Ginger, just for a place to stay until she can get back on her feet. Of course, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) has flown first class to California. No one would expect her to mingle with the great unwashed, being thrown small bags of peanuts as though they were monkeys in the zoo. Jasmine believes she’s entitled to the very best as an inalienable right. Her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), had built a solid financial empire through his investment counseling services, until his recent arrest. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) takes her sister in with few questions asked, not even the obvious one that might upset Jasmine in her delicate condition. Years earlier, Ginger and her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) won a large sum in the state lottery and intended to open a construction business. Hal convinced them to invest all of it with his firm, instead, and that rare windfall is now gone with the wind. Jasmine cringes when she meets Ginger’s current fiancé Chili (Bobby Cannavale), an auto mechanic. Then, suddenly, everything changes. Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a recent widower who lives in upscale Marin county and is about to run for congress. This is surely Jasmine’s ticket out of Ginger’s cluttered flat and a return to the good life she so much deserves. The smart thing to do is to keep any mention of Hal’s dealings under wraps. She tells Dwight, instead, that her husband was a surgeon who died recently of a heart attack. And really, how would he ever find out otherwise?
Short Term 12
Short Term 12 is one of those brilliant little indie films that makes you wonder how some more costly ventures justify their bloated budgets. Short Term 12 is so uncluttered with the overrated trappings of movie-making, the mind’s eye recalls it as being shot in black and white—which it definitely is not. The title of the work, written and directed by Destin Cretton, refers to a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers who are forced to leave the system by the end of the 12th grade, or once they turn 18. Its run by a live-in staff whose average age—mostly in their early 20s—isn’t much more than its residents. Grace (Brie Larson) is a no-nonsense counselor, perfectly suited for the stress of the job, whose own past appears to mirror some of the problems of the place’s residents. She loves her work and knows exactly what to do when things come unraveled, which occurs on an hourly basis. The melt-downs and emergencies pop up so frequently it seems like a fire house with brushfires occurring round-the-clock. At first glance, one of the facility’s biggest problems is a tall black kid named Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who’s about to leave the system due to his rapidly approaching 18th birthday. Grace and fellow counselor (and boyfriend) Mason (John Gallagher) pow wow to better tailor some of the social activities to Marcus’ advanced age group. Even more unsettling is the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose chaotic relationship with her father forces her to go AWOL one night. Rather than sound a general alarm, Grace tracks the girl down, off campus, to her family home and begins a most revealing, two-way confessional that does both girls some good.
Here’s something from the people who brought you Four Weddings And A Funeral that might make serious film students turn up their noses. Much like Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, the instant on-screen chemistry of About Time‘s two leads—Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams—trumps any hiccups in the story line. Right off the top, like the insecure and slightly nerdy Tim Lake (Gleeson), you have to accept that time travel is possible. Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy, the old man you wish you’d had) explains to his son at their lavish country home on his 21st birthday that all males in the family have had the ability to travel in time. You only have to step into a dark place (a closet works nicely) and think of where and what time period you want to visit. Once you open the door, you’re there. Just like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, it gives you the chance to re-do certain tricky situations in your life until you get things just right. Spill the coffee in the girl’s lap on your first date and you should do better on the second (or third or fourth) “mulligan.” And that’s about it. It may not sound like much, but when Mary (McAdams), a fish-out-of-water American girl living in London, meets Tim at a wacky London restaurant called Dans le Noir there’s something going on, even in the pitch black of an eatery that sells this as a vibrant, new dining experience. When the two actually see one another for the first time out on the sidewalk afterwards, the heat, as Little Richard once put it, “makes the bread slice turn to toast.”
Frances is a young woman living in New York, that much is perfectly clear. The rest of the movie goes by in a blur, kind of like keeping the camera trained on a moth flapping around your garden at the speed of a humming bird. Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid And The Whale) along with cinematographer Sam Levy are the ones entrusted with trying to keep Frances inside the camera frame. And they’ve shot it in the same colors you’ll find on a zebra, too. Played by Greta Gerwig (a lead in early Duplass brothers film Baghead), Frances is a professional dancer who doesn’t actually dance, although she has been seen to pirouette like a dervish across an NYC crosswalk, then stumble and fall to her knees when she reaches the sidewalk. She buzzes around town in search of a boyfriend or a roommate or a meal. Or she’ll fly off to Paris for a few days, putting the tab on a credit card she’ll probably never be able to pay off. She plays some kind of hip new game with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) where you push each other off the sidewalk into the gutter. “It’s called play-fighting, and it’s super-fun,” says Frances, shoving her pal into the Central Park shrubbery. “Stop it!” shouts Sophie. “Oh, you’ve gotta fight back,” replies Frances. In a dreamier moment, Frances tells Sophie, “You’ll be this awesome publishing mogul.” “And you’ll be this famous modern dancer,” Sophie lobs back. When Frances flies out to California for a family reunion in her hometown of Sacramento, she’s asked what she does for a living. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” she replies. “Why, because it’s complicated?” asks a relative. “No, it’s because I don’t really do it,” says Frances.
Breaking Bad, Episodes 56-63
Hoping the Oscar Police won’t break down my door, I’m taking one (admittedly very small) step into the future of best-movies lists with my final choice. It’s pretty obvious the waters separating great films from great television have been muddied this year with the conclusion of Vince Gilligan’s epic TV series, Breaking Bad. There’s nothing on this year’s movie schedule that ranked above the eight-episode final season of the adventures of former high school chemistry teacher Walter White. “But it’s too long,” some might say. With more and more traditional films cracking the three hour-plus mark (hello, Blue Is The Warmest Color), that’s not such a big deal. Some day, this argument may become irrelevant if big-screen cinemas disappear in favor of some portable mode of movie delivery (an implant inside your head). All a great film needs is fine acting, a tight script, deft direction and editing and characters you really care about. Breaking Bad has all that, in spades. What it lacked was the big screen. No film scene this year was more moving than a desperate Walter White (Bryan Cranston), back in his Albuquerque home after his escape from a blood bath in the desert. He demands that his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) pack anything essential to pull up stakes for a new life—right now! Beyond desperate, Skyler has finally had enough of Walter’s erratic behavior and picks up a chef’s knife from the kitchen table. As his parents grapple on the living-room floor, Walt Jr dials the police to report, through his tears, his dad’s terrifying behavior. Clutching a bloodied hand, Walter finally backs off and roars, way too late, “What’s the matter with you people?! We’re a family!!”