Superlatives of 2013

Last December I wrote about “the year in movie music,” so this year I’ve chosen to reprise that tradition and add a little extra. Below are my favorite song uses and much more:

Songs

Bastards

Bastards

The ending of Claire Denis’s Bastards is as haunting as anything I saw all year, and a huge part of that is “Put Your Love in Me” (originally by Hot Chocolate, here covered by Tindersticks) which plays over that ghastly video and the film’s credits. Throbbing and downbeat as the rest of Bastards’ score, the song makes it clear: We have passed through limbo. We are decidedly in hell.

Cate Blanchett’s beleaguered heroine spends much of Blue Jasmine wishing she could return to the past, a time of cocktail parties and plush interior design. Woody Allen symbolizes that wish with, what else, a jazz standard—namely Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” a ballad both wistful and romantic, which (as Jasmine repeatedly babbles) was playing when she met her late husband.

The year’s best musical, Inside Llewyn Davis has a half-dozen numbers I could cite. The performance that bookends the movie? Llewyn’s audition for Bud Grossman? The unforgettable “Please Mr. Kennedy”? Instead let’s say Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” which plays in the aural periphery of the film’s conclusion, an echo of Llewyn’s own “Fare Thee Well” and a mordant punchline to his shaggy dog misadventures.

Sometimes truth is catchier than fiction. Once you’ve heard “La alegría ya viene,” the real-life jingle employed in Pablo Larraín’s political comedy No, it’s near-impossible to scrub it from your head, or to stop hearing the rhythmic hand claps that accompany it. “¡Vamos a decir que NO!”

I was very pleased when Spring Breakers opened with Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” and I did enjoy its cast’s rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” but best of all? Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” the concentrated dose of pop that plays over its Lisa Frank-esque credits. The ideal way to send me out of the theater in a good mood.

The Worst Movies I Saw

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

I found the following movies not just aesthetically displeasing, but odious. They may not strictly be the “worst” released this year (I didn’t see e.g. any number of widely panned sequels) but they did piss me off.

Matthew McConaughey’s typically great in Dallas Buyers Club: charismatic, physically invested, a seemingly bottomless fount of energy. But the movie around him! It’s as clichéd a “loner vs. the system” story as ever I’ve seen, hemming each of its stars into these one-dimensional character types. The Mean FDA Guy, The Initially Skeptical Doctor Who’s Won Over, The Junkie Trans Woman Who’s Called “He” and Then Dies. It’s a less inventive Catch Me If You Can with an addiction drama stuffed into the margins. It’s an AIDS history with straightness at its center. We shouldn’t penalize movies for the stories they don’t tell, it’s true, but when you talk about the recent past in terms this blinkered, this selective, that’s dangerously irresponsible.

(And though I’m loath to conflate a movie’s “buzz” with what’s actually up on the screen, oh Christ am I nauseated by the tone-deaf interviews Jared Leto’s given, the praise his “brave” performance has received, and the awards he’s en route to collecting. Thanks for reinforcing the idea that trans women can only be onscreen as part of a daring thespian’s prestige movie stunt, folks.)

Yes, I’m impressed that Escape from Tomorrow exists. But goddammit, I’m impressed that any movie exists. Every production has to clear countless logistical hurdles before garnering even a chance of distribution. So writer-director Randy Moore shot this on location at Disney World. So what, especially when the finished product is so tawdry and bereft of imagination? Escape from Tomorrow depicts prostitutes, demons, and a flu epidemic at the Magic Kingdom, which is honestly about as subversive as a 12-year-old drawing a dick in Mickey’s mouth. The movie’s circuitous plot, about a schlubby patriarch’s desire to leave his family and bed some foreign exchange students, makes it obvious that this would be an off-putting slog no matter where it was shot.

I feel like Baz Luhrmann has some idea of what beauty is, and I know for a fact that he’s acquainted with passion. But once these things reach the screen in The Great Gatsby, they’re so embalmed by excess as to be unrecognizable. Every emotion has to be underlined a thousand times; every shot has to scream style. There’s so little modulation to the movie that its grandeur becomes meaningless. On occasion this compulsion toward hugeness is relaxed, but then the film leans back on its status as a literary adaptation, brandishing Fitzgerald’s prose as if to ward off stagnation. (The film’s visual accompaniment to the book’s last page will, I have no doubt, insult the intelligence of high school English classes for years to come.)

I loved Drive back in 2011. It was a sleek, precise crime movie that wasn’t shy about its influences but also brought something new and eerie to the screen. Now it’s 2013, and I hate Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up Only God Forgives. Like Drive, it stars Ryan Gosling as a taciturn killer; again, he’s mixed up in a tit-for-tat revenge narrative that alternates extreme violence with arty, Cliff Martinez-scored repose. But here the nihilism is amplified, the violence more pointedly pointless and aestheticized, and Gosling’s performance somehow even less inflected. It’s as if that noxious scene in Drive where Christina Hendricks’ head explodes had been expanded into its own feature film. Worse yet, Refn sets his saga in a brutal, hyper-exoticized Bangkok, one visualized through these symmetrical, red-lit, vacuously pretty frames. I’m comfortable with amorality in my movies; sometimes I get off on it. But when it’s this hate-filled, yet devoid of any ideas or purpose, I just get bored.

At least The Great Gatsby and Only God Forgives, much as I may revile them, had strong auteur intent visible in every shot. Since, as I said, I missed out on most of the year’s worst consensus losers, Warm Bodies may be the emptiest thing from 2013 I’ve seen. Not to say that it’s exceptional or an outlier in any way. Just that it’s an absolute nothing of a movie, mashing up one formula (Romeo and Juliet) with another (zombie apocalypse) and churning out cinematic sausage on the other end. It has dozens of flat “jokes,” John Malkovich as a patriarch who sways with the whims of the plot, the millionth “romantic” case of Stockholm syndrome I’ve seen onscreen, and a half-assed message of tolerance (“zombies aren’t so bad”) that’s undercut by the need for epic action (“…except for those bad zombies”). Warm Bodies is by no means unusual, but its utter mediocrity made for one arduous viewing experience.

Lines

Computer Chess

These are the lines of dialogue that stuck with me.

“This is the team wi—that’s got a lady on it,” says Gerald Peary in Computer Chess. “There she is.” Andrew Bujalski’s retro-weirdo comedy plays as a genealogy of the digital age, and here we see nerd sexism in primordial form. It’s a deadpan joke made especially potent by Peary’s halting, baffled delivery.

“I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.” These words, rasped by Chiwetel Ejiofor at the end of 12 Years a Slave, are among the year’s most devastating. In them, you can hear how much Solomon Northup’s experiences have taken out of him, as well as how deft John Ridley’s screenplay is in its use of period language.

People sometimes claim that profanity impinges on a writer’s eloquence, but several 2013 movies countered that idea with their poetic deployments the word “fuck” and its many variations. Like Nick Frost’s “I fucking hate this town!” in The World’s End; Ethan Hawke’s “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing,” in Before Midnight; Matt Damon’s “There you are, you cocksucking tenor fuck,” in Behind the Candelabra; and most tersely of all, Robert Redford’s howled “Fuuuuck!” in All Is Lost.

I already gave a couple accolades to Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis above, but I still want to recognize my favorite lines from each movie: Cate Blanchett’s “Who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?” and F. Murray Abraham’s “I don’t see a lot of money here,” respectively.

Finally, the joys of Frances Ha are manifold, but that screenplay is just overflowing with quotable bits and pieces, “Ahoy sexy!” not least among them. I love movie quotes like these in part because they’re a way for cinema to slither inside my head. I can remember images, even build up a mental archive of them, but dialogue I can pull out in conversation, share with friends, add to our common vocabulary. I suppose the use of pop songs in movies is similar: these disparate works and attitudes get yoked together in my brain, expanding one another’s meanings. I can hum “Modern Love” as I run down the street and suddenly Frances Ha’s entire spirit is with me. These songs and quotes are such fundamentally “cinematic” pleasures, fragments of wit and art I can take away from movies. They’re not all movies have to give. But they’re basic and fun and I love them.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

One response to “Superlatives of 2013

  1. Jimmy

    Re: Gatsby you write “There’s so little modulation to the movie that its grandeur becomes meaningless.” Isn’t that exactly the point, though? That’s exactly what Fitzgerald was saying about Gatsby’s lifestyle, and Luhrman reflected the way he shot and constructed the film. It seems both intentional and evocative of a major theme of the novel.

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