The 6th Antagonists, that is, but only the fifth by that name. At some point, I shall have to at least come up with a crappy MS Paint graphic of what an Antagonist actually looks like.
Apologies for the lateness of this post this year! Sometimes life is not very busy, and sometimes it is, and I’ve been in the latter of those two states for all of the young 2014. But at least I’m getting it taken care of before the new year has produced any films at all likely to make an impact on next January’s incarnation of this list.
Update: “The Academy can have their dumb rules, but you needn’t follow”, grouses a friend; and he’s quite right. I’ve updated two of the categories below – Adapted Screenplay and Hair & Makeup – with a movie that certainly deserves more attention than a lot of 2013 releases, if only it hadn’t premiered in the United States on television. But the Cannes International Film Festival ought to count for something.
We all have ideals for what we want cinema to be, and this was maybe the closest I’ve come to finding it in my years as a reviewer: a movie that seems to come from out of nowhere to invent a completely new visual and narrative sensibility. It’s the kind of work that challenges one’s sense of the possibilities of the medium, and even if it’s cryptic and obscurantist to the point of inscrutability, the emotional logic of this gorgeous fairy tale in celebration of life, youth, aging, and remembering cuts through with potency and clarity.
Thanks to Nick Davis for mentioning to me that the film was released in the United States this year, and was thus eligible.
1st Runner-Up: Gravity
Pure cinema at its experiential: feel feelings, see sights, hear sounds, in the most convincing and involving way. It uses the bleeding edge of technology to link our sensations to that of its protagonist in thrilling, immediate ways, and then plunges her and us into a vigorous fable of rebirth that, however corny, is emphatic and rich.
12 Years a Slave
-For presenting a very specific human story with depth and moral passion, exploring history in a robust, alive way
-For revisiting old friends in a new context that manages to be as true and irritating and messy as life itself
The Lords of Salem
-For demolishing the distinction between high and low art, creating a pictorial masterpiece out of horror and blood
Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing
Glorious simplicity: allow people who have committed grievous moral crimes to tell their own stories, and indict them through their own candor. The truly genius documentary director knows that he must permit his subjects a safe space and freedom, and this Oppenheimer does brilliantly, making the year’s most ethical film without ever imposing ethics from on high. And being so intimate with his players, he manages to sketch a remarkably comprehensive portrait of a series of events largely unknown outside of their native country.
1st Runner-Up: Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
The film’s achievements are impossible to separate from the director. For in a great respect, this film is its direction, with every gesture of the florid moving camera, every slow-down to visit with the characters in close-up, the precise position of every beat working in perfect concert to create the film’s potent reality.
J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost
-For taking a nearly empty location and hardly any words, and crafting a thrilling and moving psychological fable
Edward Nunes, Southwest
-For crafting and maintaining a delicate tone of magical fabulism, permitting the creation of potent, direct emotion
Rob Zombie, The Lords of Salem
-For brilliant stolen imagery, better original imagery, and the most uncanny realism of any modern horror film
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sometimes, the only reason not to be boring is to prove how much more sophisticated you are than everybody who believes the simple truth. And the simple truth is that Blanchett’s performance is one of the best that Woody Allen has ever directed, not for want of competition, with a frigid theatricality and brittleness to the character’s self-definition that is an exact fit for all of the actress’s strengths. It’s magnetic and captivating, and if saying so means I’m being as unimaginative as possible, well, at least I know I’m right.
1st Runner-Up: Margarete Tiesel, Paradise: Love
Everything about the film would tend to make Teresa inhuman: whether as a victimiser of other characters, or a victim of an angry camera content to physically humiliate her. Tiesel permits neither reading while including both in her characterisation, creating a cunning, broken portrait of willful self-delusion and sexual panic.
Amy Adams, American Hustle
-For adding just the right bittersweet romantic truth to a frothy comedy, while perfecting that comedy on top of it
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
-For finding new things in a well-worn part, and permitting herself to edge up to unlikability in search of honesty
Danai Gurira, Mother of George
-For expressing complex, conflicting impulses in a true and lived-in manner, turning a concept into a woman
Oscar Isaacs, Inside Llewyn Davis
The best collaborators with the Coen brothers find ways to make the filmmakers’ idiosyncratic, arch dialogue sing like poetry; the very best manage to do that while finding facets of the character that aren’t even alluded to in the script. Isaac justifies that very, giving the best performance in a Coen film since Fargo. Llewyn Davis is a cruel bastard; he is a wounded romantic; he is a depressed pragmatist. And the character is so much more, a vivid portrait of insulated, untouchable humanity at its most self-aware and trapped.
1st Runner-Up: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Maybe the year’s hardest role. Ejiofor has to not merely play a anthropomorphic symbol of The Misery of Slavery as a flesh-and-blood human, he also has to portray a man whose survival instinct is to demolish his personality, without playing a blank. That he does all of these is the chief key to the film’s artistic triumph.
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
-For those glorious final ten minutes, and the two hours of careful building that made those minutes land so hard
Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
-For creating such a complicated mix of warmth and negativity that for the first time, he upstages Julie Delpy
Gael García Bernal, No
-For exploring the point where cynicism, outrage, and optimism coalesce, and being funny as hell in doing it
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Léa Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color
A day-dream who turns into a complicated, difficult lover, Seydoux smashes through the script’s apparent limitation that she is only viewed through girlfriend Adèle’s perspective, existing in such a particular and complete way that by the time the protagonist discovers that there’s a lot of complicated humanity to other humans, we’ve been ahead of her for a couple of hours already. It’s easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her, a key to making the entire film work: she is a smoldering and fascinating prickly personality.
1st Runner-Up: Emma Watson, The Bling Ring
There is no sure-fire way to impress me quicker than to do a tremendously great job of being a lousy actress, and Watson, exploding Hermione Granger in a cleansing nuclear holocaust, finds the perfect mixture of shallowness and intelligence in playing a woman whose surface fakeness is tactically precise.
Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby
-For investing into a film that’s deliberately all about theater and surfaces a spike of vibrancy, wit, and vivacity
Scarlett Johansson, Don Jon
-For using her voice and body language to create a caricature and cartoon who is also a perfectly lived-in human
Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave
-For playing Pure Evil as a human quality, not as melodrama, and being all the more unsettling for being wholly real
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
More Pure Evil, and where Sarah Paulson’s character feels, overall, like hateful human being, Fassbender’s slave owner is different from that. More than any movie villain, he reminds me of the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a force of demonic evil embodied in human form; the actor’s gift is in portraying that kind of mythic wickedness in a way that doesn’t detract from the physical, historical realism of the movie around him. He is terrifying, but he is also flesh, and that makes all the more dangerous.
1st Runner-Up: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
He’s aided considerably by a script eager to make everything grey and transform his kidnapping pirate into a normal, small person driven by the desperation and need that every person is driven by; but for Abdi to convincingly play that in a non-schematic, disarmingly casual way speaks to an intuition bordering on genius.
Dane DeHaan, The Place Beyond the Pines
-For anchoring a flighty third act in a clean, human-sized way that proves him our reigning Young Actor To Watch
Ben Foster, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
-For playing a romantic stalker with quiet, mumbling dignity, and imparting rich emotion to gorgeous absraction
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
-For the best and most complicated role in a great year, wheedling and friendly in just the right proportions
Inside Llewyn Davis
The trick with any Coen film is finding people who can say the words naturally. The trick with this particular Coen film is that title character is so central to our perception, and such a tremendously meanspirited prick, that the ensemble has to simultaneously play the one-note version of themselves that he understands them to be, while also letting the audience understand that there’s a complete human being behind that impression. This is done, making a movie both hilarious and psychologically complicated more of both those things.
1st Runner-Up: The World’s End
A story about stale friendships needs two things to be absolutely perfect if it’s going to do anything else right: we have to believe that these people know each other’s most intimate truths, and we have to believe that this now makes them awkward and uncomfortable around each other. Mission very thoroughly accomplished.
-For making stock characters relatable and fun, and finding chemistry in interesting, unexpected directions
Saving Mr. Banks
-For Emma, who I couldn’t fit, and the pitch-perfect ensemble of studio functionaries sweating to deal with her
The Wolf of Wall Street
-For portraying hideous behavior in manner entirely true to the characters, alive and pungent and kinetic
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Inside Llewyn Davis, by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
It is not the funniest, the most thematically probing, or densest of the Coens’ scripts. It is, however, as unusual as anything they’ve ever done, in the way it presents character almost sideways, identifying its title character in a certain way and then testing that definition at every step and complicating it. It also boasts a stunning structure that looks completely shapeless until at the very end it gives you the key to understanding its shape and how the form of the thing is one more element of character exploration, and the richest.
1st Runner-Up: Before Midnight, by Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke
At this point, all they have to do is not screw up, and they didn’t do it. Just the lunch table scene – a collection of thoughtful monologues about sex – and the hotel room scene – a horrifyingly accurate two-hander about domestic arguments – would make this the best-observed piece of writing of 2013.
American Hustle, David O. Russell and Eric Singer
-For being the year’s best collection of dialogue, and having one of its most effectively disordered character studies
A Hijacking, by Tobias Lindholm
-For treating sensational content with cool detachment and exploring bureaucracies of all sorts with great insight
The World’s End, by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright
-For burying clear-headed, uncomfortable observations about aging just underneath a loopy, funny genre riff
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
12 Years a Slave, by John Ridley
Reducing the twelve years of the title to a swift flow of historical miseries, the script has a cunning way of making all of its apparent missteps (a needless flashforward opening, episode scenes) into strengths by folding them into the perception of its protagonist. And everything that’s not an apparent misstep is historical storytelling of the highest order, using the briefest amount of time necessary to contextualise moments and sweep us into its world, while sketching characters quickly but vividly in just a few lines.
1st Runner-Up: No, by Pedro Peirano
Political process stories are very difficult to make remotely interesting, which is why the ones that do it well are as valuable as gold. And No doesn’t do it very well – it does it damn near perfectly, laying out a dense historical scenario in comprehensible pieces and making its backstage story hilarious and fleet-footed, too.
The Bling Ring, by Sofia Coppola
-For mercilessly autopsying celebrity culture with laugh-out-loud wit and fearless irony
Captain Phillips, by Billy Ray
-For investigating a sociologically complex situation without dumbing it down or making it antiseptically intellectual
Ernest & Célestine, by Daniel Pennac
-For telling a simple fable with a level of decency and affection that’s anything but simplistic
Behind the Candelabra, by Richard LaGravenese
-For cutting to the heart of a celebrity drama to find the sensible human center of it, depicting a rancorous domestic drama with insight, wit, and a brilliant control of time
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
Talky political situations spiked with pawky humor and relentlessly likable characters. A story of media representations filmed in an in-your-face style that’s itself an example of media representations. And a presumably Inspiration Tale of Good Triumphing so full of pleasant-natured cynicism that it never for a second feels like a heartwarming story about heroes, but a tale in which the bastards we like beat the bastards we didn’t. Energetic and smart and cinematic, it’s the best combination of art and entertainment.
1st Runner-Up: Ernest & Célestine
A distinctly Gallic sensibility to the surface-level misanthropy and antisocial tendencies of its two titular characters doesn’t keep it from being any less universal of a kid’s bedtime story. There’s a gentleness and generosity to it that transcends language, resting in its friendly characters and likably silly plot.
-For reworking an intensely familiar story into something fresh and even dangerous, with visual flair and elegance
-For taking a hugely uncommercial tack to telling its thriller story as a character drama and intellectual procedural
A Touch of Sin
-For depicting a variety of desperate humans with sensitivity and a tricky lack of precision that adds to its empathy
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Ernest & Célestine
The only animation of the year that genuinely felt like something new and unique and personal; and in a happy accident, it’s accompanying the animated film with the most playful story and richest sense of character. A lush children’s story to be certain, but soft and warm enough to captivate anybody.
-For complicating the Disney formula without trashing it, and for the glistening dance of light on snow
The Wind Rises
-For simply and beautifully playing tribute to imagination, without denying its damaging real-world ramifications
The Act of Killing
I feel like I have written about this film so many times in so many contexts, and have barely scratched it. And now this is probably it, for a while. What is there to say at last, about the most mind-expanding film I saw in 2013, one who whose cutting but subdued moral code and outlandish collection of once-in-a-lifetime visuals combined to make a most exquisite, complicated study of intensely warped humans? Only that I am profoundly grateful that the film exists, as I am profoundly troubled by the fact that it has to.
1st Runner-Up: At Berkeley
The documentary as pure act of observation, though Frederick Wiseman’s personality is unmistakable in the way images are combined and considered. It is a grand snapshot of life in America in an era of economic discomfort, and a definitive statement of 21st Century academe as a working, living, breathing entity.
-For creating beautiful abstraction out of a rugged, wild form of economic life, and for its complex visions
Stories We Tell
-For the bravery and candor of using a deeply personal story as a window into how people construct history
These Birds Walk
-For getting down and dirty with a slice of life completely ignored by virtually every other part of humanity
Southwest (Mauro Pinheiro, Jr.)
Two words: aspect ratio. Namely, 3.66:1, an aspect ratio so comically wide that I don’t think it even counts; it is an illusion and a dream, as surely as the impressionistic dreamlike events it depicts. But it’s not just because of the laser-focused exactitude with which Pinheiro wields this ridiculous frame, but the gorgeous, cryptic images created in creamy black-and-white, that make it such a triumph of the cinematographer’s art. It is a film largely told through images, and they are gloriously up to the task.
1st Runner-Up: Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki)
I’ll admit to discomfort over the CGI thing, but there is a precise neatness to every shot and every light that sets this a million miles over something like Avatar: it is rigorously controlled, and married to the live-action flawless, and the way that the camera tells the story and defines the characters is visual art at its purest.
The Bling Ring (Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt)
-For the sun-blanched California, and that awe-inspiring slow zoom of the house’s exterior as it’s being robbed
Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel)
-For a mordant collection of muted winter tones that inject a layer of forgiving nostalgia into a brittle scenario
Mother of George (Bradford Young)
-For dumbfounding use of color, and for brilliantly lighting dark skin better than any of a thousand bigger films
All Is Lost (Peter Beaudreau)
One man, one boat (and one raft), one big ocean. It takes a masterpiece of cutting to make that kinetic, and Beaudreau’s work is at least that. The simplest gestures are intensified thanks to some very pointed cuts, implying huge swaths of activity in the space of a single ellipsis, and the momentum of the film owes a great deal to what is covered extensively versus what is glossed over, and exactly what beats take us out of the tiny scope of the film for our rare glimpses of something wider. Great survival thrillers are made of this.
1st Runner-Up: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón & Mark Sanger)
The collision of insanely long takes with punchy dialogue scenes might seem random or simply convenient, but the ebb and flow of the pacing in the film produced by its very specific ordering of long and short shots is every bit as critical as the choreography of the camera movement. It is specific and masterfully pacey.
The Bling Ring (Sarah Flack)
-For its detached, analytical way of separating and combining its dehumanised subjects with scientific curiosity
Her (Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen)
-For doing more than anything else to convince that a disembodied voice has a real presence in the mise en scène
The Lords of Salem (Glenn Garland)
-For ruthlessly dictating how and when we should react to events, playing us like a spooky fiddle
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Her (K.K. Barrett)
A vision of the future that does something so simple, I can’t stand that it isn’t done more often: it looks at what we do right this minute, and asssumes we’ll keep doing exactly the same. And so we end at a world mostly like our own, but with just a little more space to emphasise the direction we’re headed with all our doodads and gewgaws, creating something that looks less like high-tech futurism and more like the setting for an Apple-themed MMORPG. Sleek, a little bland, a little soulless, and completely lived-in.
1st Runner-Up: The Lords of Salem (Jennifer Spence)
A film that runs the gamut from the psychotic Italianate indulgences of the final nightmare-concert-fantasy, to the scraped-up realism of the low-rent apartments crammed with personalising bric-a-brac. It’s not just rare for horror to create such a thorough world for its protagonist to live in; it’s rare for any movie to do it.
The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)
–For creating a fantasy version of The Twenties that is lush enough to embrace and gaudy enough to condemn
Inside Llewyn Davis (Jess Gonchor)
-For a Greenwich Village based in iconography over reality, bent just enough to suit the film’s mordant comedy
Pacific Rim (Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier)
-For comic book fantasies of the first order made physical tangible and plausible and vibrant with color
The Bling Ring (Stacey Battat)
In a film where character, theme, and even narrative are all ultimately functions of the desire to procure overpriced, sub-attractive clothing precisely because it isn’t desirable for any real reason other than as a signifier of class, influence, and power, the clothes had better be goddamned perfect. Low and behold, they are: even the costumes that are only ever seen adorning hangers so vividly evoke the characters and their world that it’s literally impossible to imagine what the movie might be without them.
1st Runner-Up: Mother of George (Mobolaji Dawodu)
Color and texture as psychological marker, as emotional cue, and as signifier of one’s fidelity to traditional old-fashioned lifestyle; in a beautiful film that uses imagery for just about every important narrative purpose, the bright, showy costumes are a key insight into who these people are and how they function.
Blancanieves (Paco Delgado)
-For contributing to the sense that this is a real-world fairytale by rendering haute couture as Expressionism
Her (Casey Storm)
-For being just abnormal enough from us that you can’t help but notice, and reflect on how it affects the wearer
The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)
-For understanding exactly why Gatsby’s shirts matter, and building an entire world of clothing on that principle
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
12 Years a Slave
The literally blistering reality of slavery is not merely made to be real in a documentary sense, but in a vivid, empathetic sense where the viewer is directly confronted with each wound and drained, sweaty expression. The whipping scene alone would earn this slot; it is fragile flesh made real in the most nauseating way.
-For evoking a fantasy of The ’70s and defining and shaping character, rather than embalming them in style
-For evoking a specific kind of lifestyle; and for confrontationally exploring the effects of violence
Behind the Candelabra
-Make-up as character, as comedy – the work down on Rob Lowe is one of the most amazing things I saw all year – and and the stuff of a low-key body horror exercise. The film relied to a great extent on the perfection of its latex effects, and they certainly delivered, rendering an eerie Michael Douglas and a distorted Matt Damon in exactly the way the film required.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (Daniel Hart)
There is something a little cloying, perhaps, about the way that folk orchestrations are used in this winsome slice of Americana. But that’s not really the same as saying that it doesn’t work, because by golly, it surely does that: creating a weary, evocative wall of musical sounds rather than actual pieces of music, that simultaneously express the characters’ feelings while also placing them at a level of abstraction. I wouldn’t want to go jogging to it, but as an audible depiction of yearning, lost love, and uncertain hope, it’s flawless.
1st Runner-Up: Maniac (Rob)
Electronic cues as distorted and out-of-place as the titular psychopath, the score suggests what would happen if the 1980s hadn’t stopped but gotten stuck on repeating loop that grew ever more corrupted and mutated and nightmarish as it went along. Its jagged edges make it a virtually perfect horror soundtrack.
Her (Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett)
-For delicate romanticism in an idiom as subtly futurist as the rest of the world building, and more touching
The Lords of Salem (John 5 and Griffin Boice)
-For atonal rumbles that drive the mood, and screaming cacophonous “rock” that drives the plot
Man of Steel (Hans Zimmer)
-For being everything you could ever want a mainstream popcorn movie to sound like: grandiose and grave
BEST SOUND MIXING
This was sewn up less than 120 seconds into my first viewing of the film, when the sounds of being stuck instead a space-suit helmet begin to wrap themselves around you from behind, almost as though you’re leaning back into the film’s world. It’s my single-favorite moment of sound of the year, and the whole film doesn’t really drop down from that level; in a film where CGI and 3-D spent all of their time creating a fully three-dimensional space, the audio does a fantastic job of convincing us that we’re within that space.
1st Runner-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis
Music = sound mixing; that’s lazy, academy voter thinking. Except that in a film where musical performance is so much a part of character psychology, floating the songs atop and into the visuals is absolutely essential to making the thing feel unified, and this has some of the best marriage of song and dialogue I’ve ever heard.
All Is Lost
-For so perfectly depicting Our Man’s relative awareness of his situation through solely audible means
-For lots of reasons, but “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” would probably be enough all by itself
The Lords of Salem
-For building up the bangs and shocks of horror into something far more intense than the genre usually dreams of
BEST SOUND EDITING
The Lords of Salem
Horror relies on good sound; that was old news generations ago. Still, few horror films exploit that truth to any kind of success. It is not the least, and may indeed be the best, of the reasons that The Lords of Salem is such a singular genre experience, that it includes such perfect expressions of all the usual horror audio tropes – flat interior echoes, shrieking door creaks, bowel-rattling hums in the bass – while also introducing an entire population of sounds that could only happen in a movie about evil coming in the form of music.
1st Runner-Up: All Is Lost
The moment that it occurs to you that they didn’t actually have Robert Redford on a boat in the ocean, in queasy-making calms or nightmarish storms, is the moment you start to wonder why it’s so easy to believe that he was. The easiest answer: the excellent cacophony of waves, echoes, and rumbles of a living ocean.
Berberian Sound Studio
-For being the backbone of a story explicitly about sound editing, and helping to create a state of pure paranoia
-For making a house sound like the most suffocating, unearthly place to be, even before the ghostly clapping
-For evoking a snowscape with all the noises of winter turned up just enough to give everything a dose of magic
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
How could it not be? There are so many individual elements that would make the argument that it’s the year’s best on their own: the photorealistic everything, the perfect execution of Emmanuel Lubezki’s complex lighting scheme, the sheer variety and scope of moving pieces, the best post-production 3-D in history. That all of these things exist in one package is all the argument needed to anoint a new champion of the digital toybox school of effects, hugely realistic and entirely spectacular, hand-in-hand.
1st Runner-Up: Man of Steel
The morality of a “superhero” being complicit in so many deaths is one thing; the unbelievably convincing depiction of the cities crumbling and tornadoes devastating Kansas, however, is quite another thing. This world is never less than convincing, and its panorama of sci-fi marvels never less than enthralling.
-For sprawling space vistas and battles that do not call attention to themselves, but simply exude authenticity
-For the successful marriage of realistic textures and physics with the broadest designs from a boys’ daydreams
Star Trek Into Darkness
-For improving on an already-great original, creating a bright and bold but wholly plausible idea of the future