Darren Aronofsky has always felt a bit like America’s Lars von Trier — a brilliant misanthropic visionary, a storyteller whose wry approach often hits closer to home than we’d like. Aronofsky is more of a romantic than von Trier, but the emotional depths to which both men often insist on traveling feel kindred. And the results tend to share a gloom that distinguishes them from their peers. While Noah begins as an immense action epic, it ends in much more familiar territory for Aronofsky: Tense, probing character drama dealing with the lengths to which an obsessive person will go to do something they believe in.
Iconic partnerships are perfectly suited to the mythology of film. Bogart and Huston. Kinski and Herzog. Mastroianni and Fellini. Scorsese and DeNiro…Scorsese and DiCaprio, for that matter. They evoke smoky sets and creative soulmates huddled close, hashing out a character’s raison d’etre. The truth is probably less romantic, but mythology doesn’t care about the truth.
Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, now officially at the end of their time together, are one of these partnerships. Their work together is seminal, representing the best of their generation, and outside of their successes they were simply great friends, two guys who understood each other implicitly. For both men, the creative process is merely a quest for simple truths, a foray into characters they respect, and often fear — a hunt for humanity in drama. Outwardly they’re the sort of artists who bring no ego to their art, other than an objectivity regarding their talent, and so earn the respect of all who work with them. They were — and are — the real thing. And as with so many historic dyads, Paul and Phil made each other better. Whether thanks to collaboration or competition (or both), their symbiosis pushed them in ways that would define their work and their career together.
A career five movies long.
Ralph Fiennes hasn’t been given many chances to act silly. Even his lighter roles end up heavy, which is why his filmography is built on Schindler’s Lists and English Patients. It begs the question of how Wes Anderson landed on Fiennes for his M. Gustave, whose kooky concierge is the comedic axis of the film? — a question answered promptly with a hundred minutes of Fiennes’ inexhaustible talent and charm. This may be Anderson’s purest comedy to date, which says any number of things about the director — he’s lightening up, he’s more interested in genre, he understands how hilarious Willem Dafoe will look with a false, canine-heavy underbite. The Grand Budapest Hotel is another minutely detailed, masterfully constructed film from Wes Anderson, and a reminder that he’s almost certainly the most meticulous director working today.
We all have stories from our youth. Their veracity is usually up for debate, but the stories are there, napping in the shadowy parts of our brains. Amarcord — a Northern Italian phrase for I remember — is Federico Fellini’s story. It has a small town, and fascists, and befitting the frenzied concupiscence of teenage boys, a coterie of beautiful women serving as little more than objects. Looking backwards in time is a finicky venture, and for Fellini bears out all manner of misremembrances in service of his dark comedy, which is often about the way those inevitable misremembrances make our stories better.
It’s often a good thing when a director settles into his own style, when he reaches a degree of comfort with his voice as a storyteller. It means he can spend less time obsessing over style choices and more time considering what lies at the center of the stories he’s chosen to tell. Not so George Clooney. In Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney revealed a proclivity towards the atmosphere of Old Hollywood–Old America even. He also showed a modicum of nuance in the way he presented it. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men finds him exploring this inclination more single-mindedly and fruitlessly than ever before.
So here they are, my best of 2013. I’ll allow my two-month demurral and the list’s incompleteness (who does a top nine?) to speak for the sort of year I had in the theaters. Still, I saw enough to have an opinion and I’m going to share it with you.
Salinger is built like an homage, speaking of the man with a spiritual reverence, maintaining an air of enigmatic romance with “never before seen” imagery and footage. The author’s elusiveness is the throughline, and Salinger wants desperately to play a part in the creation of his mythology, assembling old friends and contemporaries to talk about his work and character with great solemnity. It works, not because the film is effectively made, but because the story of Jerry “J.D.” Salinger is so salient. For those who have read Salinger, and felt a kinship with the man through that writing, Salinger is the rare film that unlocks its subject while somehow telling you what you already knew: He was a true artist, and true artists don’t owe us anything.