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.
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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.
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.
The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.
Let me get this out of the way: Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony is not a well-made documentary. The assembly is a mess, the storytelling is irritatingly self-indulgent, and the film is cut with a series of animated, expository songs that look and sound a bit too much like commercials for the overpriced merch available on the documentary’s website. This is almost surely thanks to actor and Bronies chief architect John de Lancie, previously known best for his turn as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s villainous Q, and now a Brony A-lister thanks to his voicing of Discord, a My Little Pony baddie. De Lancie is omnipresent in the film as a kind of Brony guide and grand seigneur, and, despite his priggishness, is adored by the Bronies — a testament to how eager these fans are to share their joy with pretty much anybody. Still, get past the washed-up egomaniac and the lousy filmmaking, and it turns out there’s something to the Bronies.
There are a lot of compelling ideas in Only God Forgives — not enough to make it a good film, but certainly enough to make it interesting. When you put it next to Drive, Only God Forgives becomes an opiated chapter in Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Machismo Fables, with Ryan Gosling’s maddeningly stoic anti-hero (known here as Julian; in Drive as simply Driver) at the center. As with his other films, Refn considers the power of violence, and like Drive he explores the lengths to which a man will go for a woman — even a hellish virago of a mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. In general, these subtexts seem relevant more for their cultural antiquity than their place in modern culture, and I suppose there’s something to be said for the tenacity of Refn’s thematic exploration, but the utter torpor found in so much of Only God Forgives makes its 89 minutes feel interminable. There’s a viciously sharp performance by Vithaya Pansringarm as the film’s chilling Chang, and certainly Refn’s films always deliver stylistically — this is the most beautifully shot film I’ve watched in months — but his lack of balance is quickly relegating him to a style-over-substance storyteller.
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This is what success looks like now: 24-hour cocaine use, stripper parades, helicopters on yachts, quaaludes quaaludes quaaludes, tiers of high-priced prostitutes, European families flying your millions in their carry-ons to stash in Swiss banks, and other general excesses. Or more accurately, these are the accoutrement of a successful person. And the mantra of success is simple: “I deserve everything and I go first.” Jordan Belfort (played with contagious glee by Leonardo DiCaprio) articulated this in his autobiographical The Wolf of Wall Street, and Martin Scorsese has verified it in his three-hour epic of the same name.
Is there anything more fundamental than the quest for companionship? How many choices in life have you made because they kept you closer to a person you loved? Having a partner is a beautiful thing, ultimately, but it can also be a hard, confusing, terrible thing, and that’s what Frances Ha is about most of the time; the hard stuff often borne in a partnership (or lack thereof) that, if you can bear it long enough, will raise you up and make you better.
If you were to name the five chief motivations for making a film, it seems inevitable that “showing people the formerly unseen” would be in the mix. And with the profusion of new technology in film, this desire to create from imagination tends to result in pure fantasy; characters and places that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Not that I’m complaining. This trend has led to a golden era of fantasy film, and a collection of worlds most of us would give a kidney to visit. What have been neglected are the films intent on revealing not just the astonishing, but the astonishingly real. Gravity is one. It endeavors to show us a world that exists a hundred miles straight up, where you and I will never go. A world where our textbook understanding means little, and death and beauty are braided together, indistinguishably linked.