By Leonard Klady

2013 Year End: Leonard Klady

Most year-end reviews tend to lead with: “(fill in year)  was betlter/worse than ….” Personally the annual challenge has invariably been finding a minion of cinematic efforts I’ve wanted to revisit. Ultimately time is the great leveler of this sort of exercise but it’s nonetheless somewhat helpful to this writer to have a record of what turned his crank in the heat of the moment.

These 10 or so movies on the plus side (and a couple of notable misfires) don’t offer me any glib observations of trends or movements. If they have some collective thread it’s likely that each required enormous strength to secure financing and equal stamina from the filmmakers not to unduly succumb to compromise his/her vision.

In no particular order:

Stories We Tell:  Sarah Polley’s document is a chase film in pursuit of her late mother. At least that’s the starting point. Along the way it picks up stream as the issue becomes more personal and ultimately becomes a rumination on the nature of the truth. It’s a rigorous and thoughtful exercise with a persuasive if variegated conclusion.

Captain Phillips: Based on the real life incident in which Somali pirates took control of an American cargo ship in 2009, director Paul Greengrass shows the sort of adroit storytelling that fueled his earlier efforts Bloody Sunday and United 93. It’s more manipulative than last year’s similarly themed A Hijacking and ultimately more dramatic, comprehensible and satisfying. Tom Hanks gives a first-rate performance as the ship’s captain, a character in isolation that towers above the work of Robert Radford in All is Lost that it curiously parallels. One suspects the filmmakers would have liked to have made more of the dichotomy between U.S. might and the desperation and nerve of the Somalis hoping for a tiny victory.

A Touch of Sin: It’s refreshing to see a contemporary Chinese film that hasn’t been subsumed by that nation’s drive to create a commercially driven cinema of spectacles and comedies. Rather it’s a series of incidents that connect in their frustration with the system that ultimately lead to violent and tragic ends. Its potency comes from simple, underplayed observation and characterization and that’s been sufficient to keep it off the screen on its native turf.

Gravity: The saga of astronauts on a scientific research probe trying to get home following a catastrophic accident is a gripping tale of survival and wits. It’s also the most visually authentic depiction of space exploration since 2001 … and the most technically innovative film of the digital era. But it’s not simply the fact that it employs 3D and other state-of-the art effects for purpose, Gravity has a first-rate script and a stellar central performance by Sondra Bullock that keeps everything grounded.

Spring Breakers/The Bling Ring: Two films that explore a generation of disaffected youth; one that pushes to extremes, the other culled from the headlines. Harmony Korine takes the annual ritual of college students descending on the Florida Beaches and focuses on a quartet of young women confronted with temptation and apt to make bad decisions when they fall in with a dazzling gangsta portrayed in all his glory by James Franco. Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring looks at a more pampered Beverly Hills pack that gets their kicks from stealing from the rich and giving to themselves. Neither portrait is particularly encouraging about the next generation but each has an underlying verisimilitude that’s impossible to ignore.

20 Feet from Stardom: It’s nice to be overcome by a musical document in a time when the majority of non-fiction movies ought not to be accorded a theatrical release. The trials and frustrations and artistry of session singers who lead lives of service are compelling by dint of those put in the spotlight. I’ve long been a champion of Merry Clayton and Darlene Love and now have a few other names to add to my list thanks to this ultimately joyous paean to the creative spirit.

Upstream Color: Filmmaker Shane Caruth presents a tone poem about the travails of a young couple that’s poetic and effortlessly emotional. It’s also a visual stunner in its quiet, incisive observational style. And no film in the past 12 months has presented such a challenge to penetrate its daunting narrative; keep with it and be overcome by the force of its convictions.

The Hunt: This tale from Denmark zooms in on a teacher accused of sexual misconduct. Relentless and absorbing in the telling it mercilessly diagrams a community willing to mark him guilty until proven guilty. Filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg is unsparing in his portrait and Mads Mikkelsen provides another searing performance of a tortured soul.

The film also made the cut in a highly competitive foreign-language race for this year’s Oscar. Among the superb submissions that failed to make the cut (and pre-figure in next year’s list) were The Disciple from Finland, the Khazak The Old Man based on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Romania’s Child’s Pose and The Rocket, an Australian film set in Laos with a quality of magic realism. Oscar should seriously consider allowing up to 10 foreign-language finalists as it does in the best picture category.

Nebraska: Alexander Payne’s glorious road picture about an old coot convinced he’s won $1 million in a sweepstake and his son who drives him to his point of destiny in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s meticulously balanced to convey humor, betrayal, avarice and compassion and also benefits visually and metaphorically from the decision to go monochrome. Bruce Dern’s Woody is also hands down the performance of the year in a film rife with surprise, emotion and truth.

Her: There’s an unexpected sweetness to Spike Jonze’s yarn about an introvert brought out of his funk when he becomes involved with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. This 21st century amour fou benefits from the absence to judge or condone and the vulnerability Joaquin Phoenix invests in the character. It’s a heartbreaker without a tell and that may be the recurring theme of the pictures that moved me in 2013.

Also worthy of mention is Philomena, another based on a true story about a journalist who abets a woman in finding the son she was forced to give up that evolves into a potent drama about faith and Act of Killing, a documentary about the former assassins of an Indonesian regime that are not simply unrepentant about their work but wholly willing to relive it for the camera.

On the flip side I’ll spare all a long list of dislikes but zero in on two misguided efforts. The Family somehow managed to attract a prestige cast (could it have been a big paycheck?) to a slim piece about a former gangster clan relocated by the witness protection program to France. Intended to be black comic, it proved mirthless and, frankly, two hours devoted to nothing.

And finally a last chance to kick The Lone Ranger.  Though set in Texas it opted not simply to film in Utah but to utilize some of the area’s most iconographic landscapes including Monument Valley. The story also focused on the “silver rush,” an occurrence that took place in Colorado and Nevada and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad whose route bypasses Texas. Is it any wonder that a film with so little regard to facts should go seriously off the tracks.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon