2013 didn't offer much to the weird movie buff. The wildly overrated and ridiculous The Conjuring was a cheesy ripoff of The Amityville Horror (itself a cheesy movie) and Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End was an incomprensible bore. Fede Alvarez' remake of Evil Dead was better but didn't really bring anything new to the table. You're Next, with its intentionally outré plot and extreme violence, was the only breath of fresh air in the genre.
That said, it was a pretty solid year for the arthouse category. Newer directors continued to impress with their unique visions, and established filmmakers proved that they're still in the game with some outstanding entries. Here's a look at some of my favorites, presented in no particular order:
Pines boasts some of the most electrifyingly-shot chase scenes I've ever seen and a well-timed first-act shock (those who've seen it know what I mean). Gosling plays another of his social misfits, here trying to provide for a family that doesn't want him to, and Bradley Cooper steps away from his Hangover persona to play an ambitious cop whose morals are tested in a corrupt precinct. Dane De Haan, also memorable in Kill Your Darlings, impresses as Gosling's teenage son, searching for the father he never knew.
Philomena. Director Stephen Frears has had a notable career, delivering such memorable films as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), The Grifters (1990) and The Queen (2006). I saw his latest at a DGA screening this week and was treated to a Q&A with the man himself afterwards.
He said that Helen Mirren and Judi Dench are the two greatest actresses we have today, and it's hard to argue with the assertion. Mirren's work in The Queen won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2007, and Dench almost certainly will be nominated as the title character of Frears' latest project. Based on true events, it's the story of a small-town Irishwoman who teams up with an English journalist to find the son she'd borne as an unwed teenager and who was taken away from her when he was still a toddler.
This is one of those films that you just know is going to provide a vigorous emotional workout, but I was delighted to find it even better than I'd anticipated. Dench is wonderful as always, and co-writer Steve Coogan, who's noted mostly for comedy, provides solid support as the journalist Martin Sixsmith, upon whose book the story is based. Alexandre Desplat's lush score and the gorgeous Irish locations also enhance the experience. Hell, even Washington, D.C. looks good, although Frears confessed that London had to stand in for some of the American footage.
Inside Llewyn Davis. I just reviewed this last week, so I'll be brief. This bleak comedy/drama about a struggling folkie in 1960s Greenwich Village is beautifully realized by the Coen Brothers, with knockout work from star Oscar Isaac and supporting players who look like they just stepped out of the pages of Life Magazine circa 1961. And the cat...
Gravity. Like last year's Life of Pi, this is an event movie, meant to be seen under specific circumstances — in 3D, in a real theater, on a big screen (the bigger the better). A triumph of digital artistry, it's a two-character story driven by heart-stopping special effects. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission into space, suffering all the panic attacks one surely would feel when stepping out into that infinite, freezing blackness for the first time.
George Clooney is Kowalski, the commander of the team on his final mission, and his nonchalant attitude helps put Stone at ease. But the Soviets have just exploded one of their defunct satellites, releasing a dangerous cloud of debris that is now hurtling toward them — and all hell breaks loose.
Their home base is destroyed, and as they make a tandem attempt to reach the nearby International Space Station, their parachute cords get tangled. Kowalski realizes that a choice must be made or they'll both die, so he cuts himself loose from the tether, offering her words of encouragement as he floats off into the darkness.
Thereafter, Gravity becomes Stone’s story of survival. Bullock, who is in virtually every frame of the film, rises to the occasion. I predict a nomination for sure — the Academy loves this type of heroine. But this is a passion project of director Alfonso Cuaron, who made both the terrific Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men. Cuaron's son, Jonas, co-wrote the screenplay. Along with Bullock’s nod, I predict a lot of tech nominations.
Her. Director/producer Spike Jonze has provided us with the best of lowbrow (Jackass) and highbrow (Being John Malkovich), but here's a project that's true to his style yet completely unique. Set in slightly-in-the-future Los Angeles, it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a sad, lonely man mourning the dissolution of his marriage. When he installs a new, intuitive operating system on his computer, he develops a relationship with its voice (Scarlett Johannson).
This sounds like material better suited for a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but Jonze, making his sole writing debut here, fills the story with bleak humor and good characters. As Theodore walks the streets in a depressed haze, he's surrounded by people who are likewise disengaged from real human contact, so involved are they with their devices.
Phoenix has never been more sympathetic — here's another Oscar nod. Johansson does lovely work as the voice of Samantha (as the OS names herself). Amy Adams is appealing as Theo's friend and neighbor, a game designer who also befriends her OS.
And visually it's a knockout. K.K. Barrett's production design, Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography, along with digitally-added Shanghai locations, give us a Los Angeles that's simultaneously familiar and strangely surreal. You can see my full review here.
Dallas Buyers Club. Matthew McConaughey's transformation from good ol' boy to serious actor is now complete. His strong and startling performance as the real-life Ron Woodruff, an electrician, rodeo cowboy and sex addict whose overindulgent lifestyle resulted in an AIDS diagnosis. It's the Reagan 80s, though, and medication is hard to come by, so he becomes an early activist, smuggling untested drugs in from other countries and setting up an ad hoc clinic.
It's not just McConaughey's physical transformation that's striking (he reportedly dropped nearly 40 pounds for the role) — it's also his performance. Vulgar, cruel and deeply homophobic, he's the antithesis of the likable, "aw shucks" characters that were the actor's prior stock in trade. But when his friends find out about his diagnosis, he finds himself on the receiving end of all that hate and begins to evolve. He takes as a business partner a transvestite, Rayon (a likewise slimmed-down Jared Leto) and even becomes a hero in the local gay community.
Director Jean-Marc Valeé sets the story in realitically gritty, run-down locations; you can practically feel the sleaze. Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack's screenplay is refreshingly unsentimental; although Woodruff begins to accept and understand the differences of others, he doesn't grow a heart of gold.
Among the rest, Disney's Saving Mr. Banks was a rather unusual entry for that studio, with good work from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. The earnest 12 Years a Slave will certainly garner a nod for Chiwetel Ejiofor. Gosling's other art film of the year, Only God Forgives, was another insane roller coaster ride from Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. And Daniel Radcliffe put on a different pair of glasses to play Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings.
Next week: The Best in Television 2013