There’s no rule that we have to like the characters movies are about. Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull are the central figures in some of the best American films ever made, and though all hold their fascinations for us, none is particularly sympathetic, let alone likable. Movies in 2013 teemed with the frauds, cranks, narcissists, nincompoops, and sociopaths who populated American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street, August: Osage County, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, and Spring Breakers. Even in All Is Lost and Gravity—mirror movies sharing identical premises that reflect back at each other from sea and space—we have little sense of Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock; they’re defined for us by situations from which they must extricate themselves in an isolation devoid of revelatory interaction with other human beings. We’re vested, that is, not in them but in their struggles.
We probably shouldn’t draw sweeping conclusions, given the vagaries of production schedules. Dallas Buyers Club was in the works for decades, while August: Osage County is based on a play that’s seven years old. More interesting is why sometimes less approachable protagonists catch us up in their fates and sometimes they don’t, why—unlike The Godfather, a rather unfair comparison, to be sure—so few current movies overcome our estrangement from their subjects, and whether such failures constitute a flaw in the films’ conception or execution. To an extent, our relationship with the movies is always subjective. Our capacity to be involved says as much about each of us; I’ve never fathomed why anyone would want to spend four hours in the company of the exceedingly tiresome Scarlett O’Hara. But whereas the misanthropic likes of television’s Walter White in Breaking Bad and Don Draper in Mad Men engaged me (as others have been engaged by Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire and the whacked Dexter), folksinging crybaby Llewyn Davis makes me want to smash his guitar like John Belushi in Animal House.
It’s not always clear whether the filmmaker intends our alienation or is even aware of it. Except for 12 Years a Slave’s most brutal moments, a vague remoteness exists in Steve McQueen’s direction that’s transcended by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose pathos as the free black American kidnapped into bondage before the Civil War exceeds a reluctance to make Solomon Northup a man rather than a metaphor. Ejiofor’s performance raises a more fundamental question of what it means to “like” a character in the first place and how much it has to do with the mysterious alchemy of an actor’s persona. Audiences probably weren’t sure how they felt about Rick the first time they saw Casablanca, but conspiring with a smart script that kept communicating clues about the casino owner’s empathy (when he rigs a roulette wheel, for instance, to help a young Jewish couple acquire visas to America), Humphrey Bogart conveyed enough of a spiritual wound to make us hope for his eventual redemption. As a genre, the noir of post-World War II was based on characters who were weak or repellent, bound to let down us and themselves. But playing the murderous Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray had enough credibility as an everyman for us to care where his betrayals led, and as the obsessed Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, James Stewart was able to cash in on two decades of widely perceived decency even while he seriously weirded us out.
Despite the fine cast—especially Amy Adams and scary-good-beyond-her-years Jennifer Lawrence with her showstopping rendition of “Live and Let Die”—nothing in American Hustle suggests a similarly immortal meeting of actor and role. Hustle’s resolution offers no satisfaction: The only figure who gets what he deserves is Bradley Cooper, whom we care about least; the one who gets worse than he deserves, Jeremy Renner, we care about most. The denizens of David O. Russell’s movie are Nobel Peace Prize contenders compared with those of The Wolf of Wall Street, a dazzling display of Martin Scorsese’s sheer filmmaking know-how anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio’s embodiment of our worst national impulses. Neither American Hustle nor The Wolf of Wall Street is boring, and I can’t swear I’ll never watch either of them again. What I can promise is that I won’t waste a second hoping either turns out differently.
I’ll probably always hope Spike Jonze’s Her turns out differently, though I know it can’t and probably shouldn’t. The futurist fable of a correspondent-for-hire who falls in love with his software commands our emotional comprehension and makes us feel we have something at stake, despite a story line that’s absurd, a star who ordinarily specializes in the unhinged (onscreen and off), and a leading lady who isn’t onscreen at all. Of course the movie cheats. It offsets its preposterous basis by relying on what we know before the picture begins—that the disembodied voice of the software belongs to the body of Scarlett Johansson, of which most of us have a passing impression. For some guys, having sex with their computer may be marginally less peculiar if they know Scarlett Johansson is somewhere inside. Cheat or no, body or no, Johansson gives her best performance since Lost in Translation, and there are so many ways Jonze could have gone wrong that he earns the slack we cut him. Her stands as the movie year’s great rebuttal, and for that we’ll take it on almost any terms we can get it.
The Trophy Case
Who—and what—should really win an Oscar this year? Steve Erickson lays it down
12 Years a Slave
While the Academy’s self-importance leads it astray now and then (1982’s Gandhi over E.T. and Tootsie), sometimes the weight of moral authority won’t be denied. People admire this movie (directed by Steve McQueen, above) more than they like it, so critics scramble for a picture they can love, however meager American Hustle will seem in comparison about, oh, 18 months from now. This devastating portrait of the Declaration of Independence betraying itself is an instant landmark.
The Great Beauty
Lyrical and enigmatic, unapologetically channeling Federico Fellini
and updating 1960’s La Dolce Vita, this breakthrough by Italian director Sorrentino recognizes, as American movies and directors often fail to, how a single squandered life can be epic at the end.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Cate Blanchett has done enough good work over the last two decades that maybe we shouldn’t begrudge her inevitable award for the year’s most overrated performance in Blue Jasmine, the year’s most overrated film. But in a more reasonable world this category comes down to la guerre des femmes françaises, with Exarchopoulos—18 when she was cast—edging out her Ghost of Acting Future, Julie Delpy in Before Midnight.
12 Years a Slave
With due respect to The Wolf of Wall Street’s bravura Leonardo DiCaprio and the finest work of Robert Redford’s life in All Is Lost, this is the year’s slam dunk, a case not unlike last year’s Lincoln, where a performance imbues an already formidable film with uncommon passion and insight and lifts it to another level.
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Not a fair fight, really, when a supporting performance by Seydoux as
Exarchopoulos’s lover is so in tandem with the lead and so crucial to the final result. The closest of calls over Lupita Nyong’o’s shattering Patsy in 12 Years a Slave.
As the other captain on the other side of the gun pointed at Tom Hanks, Somali-born Abdi is desperation walking like a man—to paraphrase a line by blues singer Robert Johnson—and the soul of this true story about piracy in African waters.
Love is blind: Boy meets laptop in the world’s oldest story that Jonze makes new.
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke
Love will tear us apart: Boy loses girl maybe only for the evening—or maybe he’s been losing her for 20 years. The world’s oldest story is made all too real again by actors who know their characters all too well.
Christopher Blauvelt and Harris Savides
The Bling Ring
In Sofia Coppola’s movie about the pathological allure of
glam surfaces, imagery is subtext, particularly a distant shot that turns a burgled house into a lightbox as Joseph Cornell might have constructed, the young thieves within scrambling like rats in a maze.
The Great Gatsby
Baz Luhrmann (to whom Martin is married and on whose major
films she’s worked) has transformed the classic novel into a fantasia of the Roaring Twenties—and did any of us want anything else? From whatever perch in the ether of literary immortality he watched
this, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved it.
All Is Lost
In the Ginger Rogers tradition of doing everything Fred Astaire did but backwards, this movie sees the challenges of its nearest competition, Gravity, and raises them, with half the cast (which is to say, one) and about a 50th of the dialogue (if that) shot on real water rather than in green-screen outer space. With Beaudreau’s cutting and under J.C. Chandor’s direction, what’s left is montage at its most pure.
OK, so it would have been nice if more than $29.95 of the $100 million budget had been spent on a script. But this is nothing less than the most technically impressive movie of all time (and seeing it any other way than in 3-D on an IMAX screen is unthinkable).