12 Years a Slave: A powerful, moving piece, 12 Years a Slave is a relatively faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup's memoir and one of the more searing depictions of slavery on film. British director Steve McQueen, who's shown a knack for shepherding strong, intimate performances, does a fine job here with a stellar cast. Anchoring it all is British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man and fine violinist living in upstate New York with his wife and children. One day two men approach him, offering to pay him well for his musical skills on a two-week tour by their circus. All seems to be going well, but while in Washington, D.C., Solomon grows ill, is put to bed, and wakes up in chains. He's accused of being a runaway slave and having a different name, and his protestations just get him beaten. Soon, he's transferred to a ship sailing to New Orleans, and his desperation grows as his situation looks increasingly bleak. The film is fairly episodic as Solomon is transferred from owner to owner, and while Solomon dares to hope at points, peril is ever present and can strike quickly and savagely.
One of the triumphs of the film is how it captures how precarious the slave's position is; servitude is one thing, chattel slavery quite another. Despite the injustice of his position, Solomon is hard-working and smart, but that can actually imperil him, depending on the whims of those in power above him. He might have a relatively kind owner (albeit in a terrible context), but that can only help him so far if a white foreman gets jealous of Solomon's intelligence and seeks to whip him or even kill him. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) may be minding her own business as best she can, but that won't save her from her master's lecherous hand (Michael Fassbender) or his wife's jealous retributions (Sarah Paulson). In one striking scene, Solomon is abandoned precariously mid-punishment, and work just goes on around him as if nothing is out of the ordinary – the other slaves are justifiably scared to come to his aid, and can only help him briefly and surreptitiously. In one of the film's centerpieces, a brutal whipping scene, McQueen covers it all in a single, unbroken shot, a choice that makes the spectacle all the more excruciating. For the most part, McQueen chooses to handle the harrowing subject matter with directorial understatement, letting the content and performances speak for themselves, a wise, effective approach. (One of the rare exceptions that didn't work for me is his use of a crashing score during a slave ship scene.)
Ejiofor has always been superb, but this may be his best work to date. He puts his expressive face – especially his eyes – to potent use here, conveying anger under restraint, fear, momentary relief, and the deepest pits of despair. Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey is likewise heart-breaking, not only when she's being abused but due to her hopelessness when she begs Solomon for a terrible favor and in her final scene. Paul Dano is memorable as Tibeats, a petty overseer, and Michael Fassbender (who's been in all of McQueen's films) is a standout as Edwin Epps, an alcoholic, lecherous, self-delusional, cruel and capricious owner. (The dynamics of displaced anger between him and his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, are interesting and electric – she can't necessarily take revenge directly on him, but can do so on Patsey.) The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Michael K. Williams, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kelsey Scott and Garret Dillahunt. It's a little distracting to see Brad Pitt in a small, crucial role, but it's not his fault he's a movie star; he does a good job and apparently helped secure funding for the film. (Disclosure: a cast member is a friend of mine.)
Some historical or "important" films can have an eat-your-broccoli taint to them, but 12 Years a Slave (like Lincoln last year) avoids this by keeping the focus firmly on Solomon Northup and the human stories on the screen. Viewers well-versed in slave narratives may find 12 Years a Slave less startling than those without such background, but the film doesn't depend on the shock value of a first-time viewing. Having read the autobiography, I wasn't surprised by the events depicted, but still found the film powerful and several scenes quite moving.
(Here's director Steve McQueen on The Treatment and The Business. NPR also spoke with screenwriter John Ridley, editor Joe Walker (and McQueen) and actress Alfre Woodard. The New York Times has a good piece on the accuracy of Northup's autobiography and slave narratives as a genre (it answered some questions I had reading the book). Civil War historian David Blight did a good session on Fresh Air. Meanwhile, Chauncey DeVega wrote six posts on the film: one, two, three, four, five and six [three and four deal with potential teaching materials].)
American Hustle: An opening title card states that "Some of this actually happened." It's a funny, great choice, given the core inaccuracies that have undermined (or doomed) other recent "true story" films. Meanwhile, the opening scene is probably the best introduction of 2013. We see an intent Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), body tense and eyes anxious, staring into the mirror as he painstakingly assembles an elaborate comb-over. At first glance, it's actually fairly convincing, but as we'll soon see, it won't hold up to sustained scrutiny. The scene's the perfect metaphor for all four main characters (and some minor ones as well). All of them are putting on fronts, with varying degrees of success. But they're not trying only to deceive other people – self-deception plays a heavy role as well. In fact, the ambiguity about whether a given character in a specific scene is playing a role, telling the truth, deceiving others, deceiving him or herself, or all of above – makes the film fascinating, suspenseful viewing. Multiple layers exist for all the key characters, and American Hustle is both a four-part character study and con movie. The stakes grow increasingly dangerous for all of them, and the art of the con can either be doomed by buying too much of your own hype or absolutely depend on believing what you're saying.
The supporting cast is also excellent. Jeremy Renner is memorable as Carmine Polito, an extremely sociable and slightly corrupt mayor with a heart of gold when it comes to his community (apparently, the real mayor wasn't as blameless). Louis C.K. is funny as earnest, occasionally flustered FBI manager Stoddard Thorsen, struggling to handle the freelancing Richie. (Louis C.K. also tells most of a long story in pieces throughout the film; you can search online to hear the whole thing.) Michael Peña makes an impression in his few scenes as Paco Hernandez, the FBI agent deemed swarthy enough to play Sheikh Abdullah in the sting (the lack of diversity in the FBI is much discussed in the scene). There's also a great uncredited role I won't give away.
Of the best films of 2013, American Hustle is probably the lightest, but it's also extremely well-crafted and immensely entertaining. Its episodic form may seem a bit disjointed at first glance, but it's more that screenwriter Eric Warren Singer and cowriter-director David O. Russell want to create a sense of delirium (consider the various dance and bathroom scenes), and to keep things moving at a brisk pace. As noted in the Oscar post, Russell has been a roll lately and routinely elicits great performances from his actors. Here's hoping that streak continues.
Her: This sci-fi love story is far above average because it addresses the obvious questions with thoughtful (and occasionally unconventional) choices. It's the near future, and Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shy man still in recovery about the end of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara), who in his memories of her is alternately sweet and biting. He can be emotionally expressive in his job, ghost-writing personal letters, but struggles more when it comes to dealing directly with human beings. He buys a new operating system (OS) that's an artificial intelligence (AI) able to learn and adapt. He can assign it a gender and picks female; the AI names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore justifiably accuses Samantha of being a bit nosey (she goes through his e-mails, organizing them and deleting some), but gradually warms up to her. She's deeply interested in him, not judgmental, and supportive (he remarks that he feels he can tell her anything). She even prods him to go on a blind date long suggested by his friends. He and the woman, Amelia (Olivia Wilde), hit it off well throughout the night, but near the end, there's a mutual fumble of insecurities (with an edge). Then one night, the topic of bodies and physical touch comes up, and Samantha and Theodore's relationship takes a… sexual turn.
None of the plot to this point is unpredictable, but Phoenix' sincerity helps sell it all, and the script thankfully moves beyond obvious clichés. One of Theodore's closest friends is Amy (Amy Adams), who's experiencing marital problems and has become close with a female OS her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) left behind. When Theodore confesses he's dating his OS, she's a bit taken aback, but rather than being wholly critical, she's empathetic. The same goes for a couple at work who invite Theodore to "double date" with them; when he blurts out that he's dating an OS, they're only momentarily fazed, and wind up genuinely enjoying Samantha's company, just as Theodore does. (His soon to be ex-wife, Catherine, shows some kindness when they meet, but becomes scathing about his relationship with Samantha, accusing him of being unable to connect with a real human being.) The core of the film is Theodore and Samantha's relationship, though, and its essential sweetness carries the story. It's deeply refreshing that Samantha isn't merely some subservient entity; she actually gets upset and rebels, not without cause. It's nice to see that even a virtual lover can be a pain occasionally, and Theodore isn't spared relationship woes. (The biggest obstacle in their relationship is Samantha's lack of a physical body, and she attempts a solution that doesn't turn out so well.) Later on, the film pushes into some of the sci-fi territory on AIs explored by the late, great Iain Banks and other writers. True, Samantha has no body. But she's also potentially immortal, and can think thousands of times faster than Theodore. How will this affect their relationship? Will she get bored? What are the ethical considerations about true artificial intelligences, a new form of life with physical limitations but vast powers in other areas? Her never gets overly bogged down in open speculation about such issues, but I'd consider it true science fiction in that it does actually consider, at least in passing, the potential consequences of its premises. It also winds up being a good character study of Theodore (and to lesser degree, Samantha).
(Here's writer-director Spike Jonze on All Things Considered.)
All Is Lost: A man alone on a small sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean experiences an accident and struggles to survive. It's a simple setup, and the only dialogue consists of an opening farewell letter by Our Man (as he's called in the credits, and played by Robert Redford) and some muttering and cursing by him in later sequences. (Most of the film occurs in flashback from the opening.) It's a radical change of style for writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose previous, first feature was almost nothing but talk, Margin Call (it's excellent, and the the first film reviewed here). Our Man wakes up one morning to discover a breach in his hull from a floating shipping container. The breach is high enough that water only splashes in with the higher waves (although bad weather would be a problem), but his electronics have been destroyed, including his radio. Our Man calmly assesses the situation and gets to work trying to unmoor his boat from the container, patch up the damage and head for a safe port. But stormy weather threatens, as well as other complications.
Several elements are refreshing about the storytelling here. One, Redford's character is smart and proactive. He rarely if ever makes a stupid move, and his misfortunes are primarily due to bad luck and forces of nature versus glaring personal failings (besides perhaps sailing alone in the first place). Two, Chandor is comfortable with the audience not getting everything instantly, and doesn't invent a running monologue or voiceover to explain things. We just watch Our Man doing something, and there are times it's not clear what it is, but eventually we figure it out in almost every case. This requires some patience on the part of the audience – suspended curiosity – but makes for a more interesting and satisfying viewing experience. Frequently, we have an "aha" moment when we deduce what Our Man is doing, often accompanied by appreciation for his cleverness.
Redford has to carry the whole film by himself, and he's more than up for the task. It's an admirably honest, understated, natural performance, and a reminder that, although the 77-year-old Redford is an iconic star, he's also an awfully fine actor. At times, it can feel as if we're watching a documentary (to the credit of all involved). The basic plot – survival in the face of the face of adversity – is similar to the much more visually flashy and bigger budget film Gravity. Nothing against that film, which I enjoyed thoroughly (it's reviewed in another section), but I found myself more emotionally invested in All Is Lost in part because I was more uncertain of the outcome. The final sequence is visually and emotionally powerful. I'm not sure how much rewatch value it will have, but it makes for a compelling first viewing.
(Here's Robert Redford on Fresh Air.)
The Place Beyond the Pines: This film from director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance proves intriguing because it's adult fare with good performances in an unconventional structure. It's set up in three distinct acts, and the key character(s) shift between them. Meanwhile, it's not a straightforward good guy-bad guy tale; this is a world of corruption and grey morality where we can doubt the outcome. Pulling off this kind of act shift can be tricky, but the transition from Act I to Act II works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, the second shift isn't as successful, and Act III is the weakest; while it by no means sinks the movie, it's a noticeable drop. The Place Beyond the Pines is also a very "male" movie, which isn't a drawback per se but might make it less interesting for some viewers. Female characters do exist and occasionally play important roles, but they're usually secondary parts. The film is in part an exploration (or interrogation) of notions of masculinity, of being tough, skilled, and a provider and protector of one's family, of what should be (and what actually is) passed down from fathers to sons.
The film opens on Luke (Ryan Gosling), an accomplished stunt driver for a traveling carnival. He discovers that Romina (Eva Mendes), a woman he was briefly involved with, got pregnant and gave birth to his son. She's got a new man in her life and doesn't want Luke involved, but because he had a fractured life growing up, Luke rashly quits his job and is determined to support Romina and the boy. This leads him into conflicts with Romina and her boyfriend Kofi... and also into considering robberies for bigger paydays. It's hard to discuss much more without giving away crucial plot points. However, the unconventional narrative structure and not knowing what's going to happen next is a chief reason The Place Beyond the Pines is never boring. More below in the...
(Here's Derek Cianfrance on Weekend Edition.)
The Act of Killing: Imagine if the Nazis had won. Imagine if, years later, SS General Heydrich met up with his old pals and they reminisced and laughed about the good ol' days when they were killing thousands of Jews. Imagine them being publically praised for this – not just for being war heroes, but specifically and explicitly for killing Jews, who obviously were (and are) enemies of the people. Imagine further that Heydrich and his pals decided to make a film recreating the torture and murder they committed, inspired by American gangster films and musicals (and that they recruited their fattest friend to dress up in drag and play many of the female roles).
The Act of Killing, a documentary eight years in the making about mass killings (more than 500,000 people) of supposed communists in Indonesia in the mid-60s, is something like that. (Washington Post Ann Hornaday brilliantly called it "Brechtian nonfiction.") The results are surreal, thought-provoking, and truly stunning. (Some colleagues of director Joshua Oppenheimer and co-director Christine Cynn remain undisclosed for their safety; "anonymous" appears frequently in the credits.)
The Act of Killing lags a bit at points and may be hard to follow at times for viewers unfamiliar with the culture and history. It's not the most sleek or polished work, but that's a reflection of its tremendous ambition not only to reexamine mass killings largely ignored and forgotten in the West, but to ask the killers themselves to perform this reexamination. It's well worth the effort.