Friday, January 24, 2014

LeapBackBlog 2013 Film Awards – Part 3: Directors

Film in 2013 was fantastic. We saw tons of wonderful performances, powerfully emotional dramas, hysterical comedies, gripping thrillers, big and entertaining blockbusters, and grand technical achievements. This year was particularly difficult in narrowing down my choices for my favorite films, performances, directors, and technical accomplishments. For example, I loved Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing and Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis, but neither quite made the list, and the same can be said for David O. Russell’s wonderful directing in American Hustle or Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sublime cinematography in Her (both just missing out on the list, when they would have made it in most other years). And, there are a number of good films that did not make the list either (and a few I have not yet seen). As it stands, the LeapBackBlog Film Awards are made up, through difficult deliberation, of the films that entertained me and grabbed me as something special, the performances that engaged me, and the craftsmanship that delighted me. These are my favorites of 2013.

The Coen Brothers have essentially been making films for three decades, amassing a fervent cult following and a firm place among the top American (if not among all filmmakers in cinema history) auteurs. With Inside Llewyn Davis they again show off their talent for making films that center around antiheroes, as Llewyn Davis is not a nice person and probably not a good man. Yet, the audience is asked to and does feel sympathy for him. They are drawn in by his art, excusing the man. This simple exercise speaks profoundly to how art is treated by people across time and culture. Man is deeply flawed and often very ugly (not physically, but morally or spiritually or whatever you want to call it – people often seem to deviate to the darkside when left to their own devices or put in a position of power or control); and yet art is strikingly beautiful and moving. It is humanity’s light in the darkness, our legacy of achievement amidst the devastation and cruelty. The Brothers take this theme and weave it into a circular story about a man who is just trying to make a career out of his music, but is having a real tough time. Plus, as is typical of all their films, the Coen Brothers again showcase their impeccable skill and eye for genuinely stunning aesthetics.

Gravity is in many ways 2013’s most impressive film – certainly from a cinematic spectacle perspective. It is a momentously thrilling and involving experience that grabs the audience and never lets them go until its conclusion. It is riveting. However, the film turning out as fantastically brilliant as it has was completely dependent on the work of auteur Alfonso Cuaron, who worked for three-plus years to get everything right. Famously, Cuaron is not a fan of 3D (similarly to most top directors); and thus for him to make a film to be primarily seen in 3D, it had to look perfect. Cuaron creates the best 3D audiences have ever seen, in terms of both the overall cinematic experience and technical quality. And that is just the 3D! Cuaron also needed to create a realistic feeling zero-g environment, which he achieved working with master puppeteers (along with a fabulous performance from Sandra Bullock). Gravity is in some ways an even bigger technical achievement than it is a piece of great narrative cinema (though, it is that too). This was unquestionably the most difficult film to make for a director, and the result of all Cuaron’s work is so very satisfying. There was no better cinema-going experience in 2013 than Gravity.

Based on the premise of Her alone, the film could have turned out many ways, seemingly all of which end up in a film that is laughable, silly, and probably cheesy. This could have been a generic horror film in which Samantha, jilted by Theodore, becomes like Skynet and tries to destroy him, realizing humans are inferior beings. Or, this could have been a kooky romantic comedy that somehow ends with Samantha’s consciousness transported into a cyborg or even a brain-dead human woman, thereby giving Theodore the complete package. But in Spike Jonze’s hands, Her is a narrative about love and relationships in the modern world. It is a film about connection or lack of connection. It is a film about how in a way technology has created a culture of self-inflicted isolation and loneliness. But chiefly, Jonze makes a film that is almost universally relatable, as it hits on all the emotional moments of new relationships – how they are amazing and beautiful in the beginning and how they can fall apart simply through the organic growth of the people in them. The film resonates deeply because it is very honest in its approach to its handling of emotions. There is no manipulation or falling back on clichés to convey information. Jonze has simply created a beautiful, funny, and kind of sad film about modern love (and in this way, the film is a bit like the Before Sunrise series, which culminated in this year’s Before Midnight).

It is safe to call Steve McQueen an auteur filmmaker. Starting with the brilliant films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has promoted himself as one of cinema’s great new talents through his work, whose style is specific and powerful. 12 Years a Slave is his most commercially accessible film, even though it is emotional intense and draining. It is a work that gets right at the heart of slavery when so many other films and TV miniseries have merely nipped around it. It is immense and cathartic. It is deeply sad and yet uplifting. McQueen is a director who is unafraid in his approach, lingering when many others would flinch and cut away – there is a haunting shot in the film of Solomon Northrup hung from a tree by the neck, his feet barely touching the ground allowing him to just grasp to life. McQueen holds on this shot for a long time, as life carries on around Solomon as if this is nothing out of the ordinary, all the while Solomon struggles to stay alive. This one, long uncomfortable shot in a way is a summary of slavery – an entire people subjected to inhumane torture while the world goes about its business unconcerned and unhelping, and even worse accustom to this sort of treatment of a supposed ‘lessor’ people. McQueen has made a film transcends slavery to become about not just one person’s struggle or one people’s struggle, but about all peoples’ struggle in a world that is still dominated by those that would oppress. It is an important and meaningful work, and a masterfully made piece of cinema.

With The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese has made a film that works in a very interesting manner. Primarily, it is an insanely fun and wild exposé, detailing the sheer and unbridled greed and moral ambiguity of the typical high-powered Wall Street broker. Scorsese invites his viewers to both feel distain for these characters and secretly (or not so secretly) a jealous admiration. This is a film that asks the viewers to look at their own morals. Do we as viewers find these people deplorable or are we envious – probably somewhere in-between. Scorsese shows us the American Dream fully realized, only warped and corrupted from what we hold as the ideal. The Wolf of Wall Street is a wondrous achievement, and in my opinion Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas. It is also worth noting that Scorsese shows his flair for getting fantastic performances from his actors (something we all knew) and his surprising talent for comedy (something we did not know).

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