by Gabriel Valdez
Oscar season is upon us, and that means one thing – everyone’s opinion is about to change. When many of the best films of the year are held until the holiday season, top 10 lists will completely transform by January. Earlier movies will be seen a second or third time and will climb or fall down lists accordingly. As was the case with my top two films of 2013, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Grandmaster, I’ll even catch up with smaller or foreign films on DVD.
On the cusp of Oscar season, let’s do an experiment. I’ll list my top 10 films today and we’ll check back in with the list come January:
10. How to Train Your Dragon 2
The list is rounded out with big-budget fare that’s more ambitious than the average summer blockbuster. How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be the best American animated film since Pixar’s sadly passed golden age, but it’s not just about kids and their dragons. It possesses an epic visual streak rare in animation and speaks to the dispossessed of our society – children of broken families, the disabled, and war veterans alike.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is our best (non-Batman) superhero film in a cinematic era overrun with them. Like many blockbusters of the last two years, it’s incredibly socially-minded, using comic book tropes to deliver a sharp critique on the oxymoron of a marriage between the Pentagon’s mandate for freedom and the rise of private military contractors.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
For all its visual effects wizardry, this boasts one of the best-told stories of the year. It also challenges Noah for number of Bible references, posing original sin, Cain-and-Abel, and Jesus conceits against the backdrop of civil war in what’s effectively a third-world country. It’s rare that you could take away an action movie’s bigger setpieces and still be left with one of the best films of the year.
Noah is just on the outside of the top tier looking in. I’m big on its style and message, which were enough to make me forgive its unwieldy stretches on first viewing. I’m still a huge fan of its screenplay, which conflates various cultures’ flood myths, the entirety of the Old Testament, and a very meta approach to film narrative into a single story. That’s no easy feat. Darren Aronofsky’s “story of creation” is the best three-and-a-half minutes on film this year, and reveals that the film is better viewed as a postapocalypse fever dream than a direct religious adaptation. It tackles so much that I’m still putting it above much tighter films, but its unevenness can’t help but detract when we’ve had so many off-kilter masterpieces this year.
I just recently wrote on this film and, if you read on Monday how personally it struck me, you’ll accept my apology if I’d rather not write more on it for the time being.
5. Gone Girl
I don’t know if this is Gone Girl the movie so much as it’s David Fincher the movie. Rarely has a film been so precisely directed. You get the feeling that if there were a fleck of dust out of place on set, it would be moved into position before the camera rolled. It’s an accomplishment to be sure, and Gone Girl says a lot with a wry smile.
It’s a perfect film, essentially, but it knows it a little too much. It’s still pretty secure in the top 10, and I suspect it may move up once I see it again, but is it as important as some of the other films here? No. ‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good,’ but it can add a certain weight to a film. Gone Girl is an artistic triumph, but it’s also like looking at a date who’s a little too perfect. Like its protagonists when they meet, there’s no messiness there, and you get the sense their personality is a put-on. It’s intriguing and you might see where it goes, but really you’re looking for someone who’s more willing to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.
4. The Raid 2
What the hell’s a martial arts movie doing this high? Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had ever designed the sets for a martial arts film with a gangland story told by Martin Scorsese and choreography that harkens back to the riskiest stunts of Jackie Chan’s youth. That might be a mess for a film without a motive, but The Raid 2 is a tight gangster story that reflects Indonesia’s frustration with powerful organized crime.
What’s most impressive is its cinematography. Quiet, emotional moments barely move, as if trapped in a snow globe. Yet you never see the most impressively choreographed stuntpeople – the ones holding the cameras, who weave in and out of the action with as much exacting complexity and artful nuance as the actors themselves. For martial arts films, this doesn’t just create a new way of filming fight scenes, it creates new opportunities for telling more story through them.
3. The Rover
Capturing the sensibility of a short story in a feature length film is incredibly difficult. In The Rover, it requires a narrow focus on character and something shrouded and immaculately protected in their souls. You feel compelled to learn more, to stick with disgusting characters because you need to know what it is that drives them toward a task so meaningless and without consequence. What makes it personal?
In a postapocalyptic world, following a character who couldn’t care whether you live or die, what makes his journey important at all? Something does, you get the sense of it haunting every moment Guy Pearce holds the screen like some cornered, wounded animal, vicious and feral about protecting himself yet already given up to the idea there’s no point left in living. Then there’s Robert Pattinson, playing the dull-witted boy who makes up his mind to be like Pearce’s nameless drifter, play-acting the part of wounded animal. Both are performances for the ages in as sparse and unforgiving a film as I know. It’s a film that – once it finishes – makes you thankful for stepping into the sunlight and hearing the noise of cars and seeing planes in the sky. The Rover is a masterpiece of what it’s like to be desolate not just in the world around you, but inside yourself.
And then there’s Fury. Like The Rover, it presents us with a young man (Logan Lerman) being trained to survive through developing a skill for hatred. In fact, many films this year – Nightcrawler, the villain in Maleficent, and even Lerman’s role in Noah – give us characters who demonstrate the hatred created through uniquely male pressures. These characters are taught to find strength through layers of domination, learning to abuse the “lesser” violently and sexually in order to secure a role in society. None of them communicate it like Fury, however, its metaphors stripped to the bone in as stark a depiction of war as has ever been put to the screen.
1. Under the Skin
A Scottish art film in which each artist – sound designers, composer, cinematographer – was allowed to go wild when creating their own, unique perspective of a central vision, edited into a horror film about identity and sexual consumption. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form whose job is to capture and digest human beings. She does so by luring drifters and other lonely men away from the public, tempting them with sex, and consuming them in some of the creepiest visual metaphors you’ve ever seen.
What Under the Skin does best is tricking us into viewing the narrative through the perspective of a sexual predator, and later using nontraditional means – inverted lighting schemes and Pavlovian musical cues – to coldly bring us out of it and make us consider what we’ve seen. It’s a mad, pulsating, unnerving film you don’t always know what to do with, sometimes frustrating but always captivating. What’s most impressive is that it doesn’t organize every artist’s contribution beneath a single directorial vision, which is usually better for a film – each perspective and artistic layer can still be seen in the final product. In truth, it’s the only way a film like this could have worked so well, as a rarity that can be viewed from so many different angles.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to interview Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which Under the Skin is based.
What will change by January? Probably a lot, even though I have a very hard time seeing those very top films unseated. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to go check out one of them. Is there anything I’ve missed that you feel strongly about?