Another year of cinema had passed us by. And that means Top 10 lists! …In late January. Because that’s when it’s timely for a Top 10 list to come out, right?
A ‘cinematic year’ could be argued to begin in early February and end in late January, ending around the time the Oscar nominations are announced but before the ceremony itself. And when I think of a ‘year in cinema,’ that’s generally the guide I use. But for the purposes of this list, I’m gonna fudge it a little, since that January/February beginning/end time bleeds into each other, and certain movies may also be four or five months old before they make it to my neck of the woods. And while I would normally restrict the list to movies I saw in theaters, I’m gonna include a couple I saw on video as well. These ‘fudgings’ are all in the service of smaller movies that you not have seen or heard about otherwise.
I’d like to do a series of lists, starting with my out-and-out favorites: the ones that I felt excelled in their construction, from the acting to the directing to the cinematography to the animation, whether they moved me or shocked me or just made me laugh. These are the movies that impressed me the most, that did the job of being movies the best. Then, I’d like to do the ‘Honorable Mentions’: films that usually have one or two major problems or a little on the ‘light’ side, but that do enough right to be worth seeing and are usually a lot of fun. Then I’d like to finish with my… ‘Dishonorable Mentions’: films that usually have one or two good elements but usually have something in their execution that drives me up a goddamn wall. These are all loose descriptions of what the lists are supposed to do, but hey, you get the idea.
So, in no particular order, my favorites are…
Written for the Screen and Directed by Ben Lewin
Based on the Article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien
First entry and I’m already fudging my own rules, since Helen Hunt earned a Best Supporting Actress nod at last year’s Academy Awards for her ‘brave’ (read: ‘largely nude’) portrayal as a sex surrogate who works with the disabled. Based the life of quadriplegic poet Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio at the age of six and wrote most of his poetry from an iron lung, using a stick in his mouth with which to prod his typewriter, The Sessions chronicles O’Brien’s attempts to lose his virginity before he sheds his mortal coil, and the relationship he develops with Hunt’s surrogate, Cheryl.
Hunt’s Oscar nod suggests a certain quality of performance, and there is nothing but top shelf acting throughout. John Hawkes, the exceptionally veiny character actor (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lincoln, HBO’s Eastbound & Down), handles his rare leading role with delicacy, performing the demanding task of affecting O’Brien’s body and voice without the disability a crutch. He makes us care for O’Brien not through his broken body but for the gentle, perceptive, affectionate soul that it housed, despite his many (understandable) personal hang-ups. Equal praise must be given to William H. Macy’s Father Brendan, the pastor who listens to O’Brien’s stories and supports him with faith and good humor. (When O’Brien consults him about any loopholes regarding sex out of wedlock, Brendan gently replies, “I have a feeling God is going to give you a free pass on this one.”) Even Moon Bloodgood, an actress with an awesome name, not-so-awesome track record (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Terminator: Salvation, TNT’s Falling Skies) provides worthy support by toning down her supermodel looks and assuming the role of O’Brien’s supportive but assertive caretaker.
But what really makes The Sessions stand out is its portrayal of sex and the genuine emotions it elicits. This is a film made by adults, for adults, a sex comedy that addresses sex humorously but without immaturity, and that understands the power for trust, understanding, and yes, love, that exists in the act. While the fact that the lines between personal and professional blur in Mark and Cheryl’s relationship will probably come as no surprise to you, the power with which they are acted, and the way that they help O’Brien confront his childhood traumas, will. And though I am usually loathe to resort to such hyperbole, if you don’t at least sniffle a bit during Hawke’s recitation of O’Brien’s “Love Poem to No One in Particular,” chances are you really don’t have a soul.
Written and Directed by Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco
Story by John Cleese & Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco
Every year, there is at least one movie – usually animated – that makes me feel like a little kid again. They typically share a unique aesthetic, are technological marvels of their medium, and have an off-kilter sense of humor and quirky characters. But more than anything, they have an unstoppable sense of energy and invention, a wild succession of sights and sound I’ve never seen before. In 2012 that film was ParaNorman, easily one of the bravest family entertainments of recent memory. The year before that, it was Rango, which was maybe the most fun I’d had in a movie theater in a decade. And before that, Pixar pulled off the one-two punch of Up and Toy Story 3 two years in a row. There wasn’t a movie in 2013 that executed the nearly-flawless sense of constant surprise that those movies had. But the one that came closest was The Croods.
I chalk that up to the imagination of director Chris Sanders. Sanders, along with Dean DeBlois, also originated Lilo & Stitch, easily one of my favorite films of all time, and seemed to be on track to repeat the trick with American Dog until a falling out with John Lasseter, then newly-appointed chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation, led to Sanders leaving Disney for DreamWorks, where he and DeBlois directed How to Train Your Dragon (American Dog would later be reformatted as Bolt.) Meanwhile, The Croods began life as Crood Awakening, a collaboration between stop-motion powerhouse Aardman Animation (Wallace & Gromit) and scriptwriter John Cleese. After many false starts and delays (including a terminated distribution deal between Aardman and DreamWorks), The Croods eventually found its way into Sanders’ hands.
This is Sanders’ first film as director without DeBlois’ influence (DeBlois is directing How to Train Your Dragon’s sequel, out this summer), and it shows. Shorn of any narrative restraint, Sanders has free reign to let any nutty, screwball, flat-out weird ideas of his bounce around the screen with all the pretty that a $135 million budget brings. From the hybrid animal designs that are fusions of felines and birds and fish to the saturated hues of the landscape, the film is awash in visual invention and cartoon insanity. Tt’s a feat of design and worldbuilding that rivals anything seen in James Cameron’s Avatar, as if a kaleidoscope ejaculated watercolors onto the screen.
Of course, Sanders’ unmitigated imagination is also plays into the film’s one great flaw: a pretty rote story. You’ve heard it before: overbearing father and rebellious teenage daughter must overcome their differences in order to face a great obstacle and in the process come to understand What It Means to Be Family™. That’s not to say that this story can’t work; it often does, that’s why we see it so regularly. Plus, I’m a sucker for father-daughter relationships. And there are moments in the story that genuinely moved me. But there are also moments that feel completely perfunctory, funneling the characters through well-worn arguments and reunions while we wait anxiously for the next thrill because apparently a ‘family movie’ needs such moments. Still, nothing quite compares to this film’s first 30 minutes, especially a sequence in which the father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), takes his family hunting for food, a scene that plays out as a joyous, hyperkinetic ballet of slapstick comedy (how’s THAT for film criticism!) Not to mention this is easily the best project that Nic Cage has been involved with for several years, and goddammit, this movie made me laugh! And that’s got be worth something. For that, if nothing else, The Croods easily makes it onto my Top 10 of the year.
You may also have noticed that I haven’t mentioned The Croods’ co-director, Kirk DeMicco, at all. That’s because he directed Space Chimps. So there.
Directed Rick Alverson
Written by Rick Alverson & Robert Donne & Colm O’Leary
Here’s a weird one. The Comedy saw a very minor theatrical release in late 2012 but was primarily distributed through a variety of streaming services in 2013. I saw it on Netflix. It stars Tim Heidecker, best known for his work with Eric Wareheim as the comedy duo Tim & Eric, namely [adult swim]’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a sketch show that peddles in a veeerrryyy particular kind of comedy (a kind that’s wonderful when it works and infuriating when it doesn’t.) Wareheim also appears in the film, but this is Heidecker’s show. And this is not a comedy. This is a character study of the bleakest kind.
Heidecker plays Swanson, a mid-thirties resident of the Williamsburg hipster community who has been living off of his father’s money his entire life. His father now in a coma, Swanson seems none too broken up about it, since it hasn’t interrupted his daily routine of drinking, partying, and taking girls to his houseboat. Most of Swanson’s conversations with his friends consist of ironic diatribes of how the neighbors should get AIDS or how Hitler was misunderstood or, indeed, how stupid his friends are. Despite – or perhaps in spite of – his wealth, Swanson repeatedly tries to assume the roles of ‘common folk’: joining a gardening crew and asking the homeowners if they can use their pool, bribing a taxi driver to let him drive his cab, going to a Black bar and insisting he understands their struggles, like a social provocateur with a mean streak. Several times, Swanson finds people in various states of unconsciousness, and he pokes and prods at them as an alien might probe abducted cattle. With Swanson’s utter lack of empathy or understanding of human relationships, The Comedy plays essentially like a modern day American Psycho, minus all the gory bits.
There are many who will understandably – even appropriately – find this film intolerable. There is no denying that Swanson and the film’s utter lack of condemnation for him is arduous to sit through. But those who can stomach it will find a mesmerizing performance from Heidecker, who displays a depth, presences, and most importantly restraint as an actor that was heretofore unseen. And they’ll also find a quietly furious critique of a society that allows – nay, encourages – apathy and condescension as a way of life, summed up in a final shot that perfectly describes exactly what Swanson is.