2013 was not the year you thought it was.
The prevailing storyline of the first eight months of the year was that Hollywood was broken, as evidence by a high number of big-budget flops: Jack the Giant Slayer, The Lone Ranger, White House Down, After Earth, R.I.P.D., etc. But underneath the studio failures burned the output of an independent system that churned out more lower-budget, high-quality films than I can remember from any previous year. These titles were ignored by the Hollywood press because they were small films with modest financial goals. They did not impact commerce or the industry of moviemaking, but their artistry impacted me deeply. I hope they do the same for you.
NOTE: Film links go to Netflix Streaming, where possible, and Amazon Instant Video.
What Maisie Knew
Not since 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer has a film so effectively captured the emotional trauma of a divorce and custody battle. What Maisie Knew goes further than that classic film by telling the story through the eyes of the six-year-old child in question. Onata Aprile is perfectly cast as the wise-just-beyond-her-years titular character, and Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan give brave performances as her destructively narcissistic parents. Had this film been released this fall, it surely would be in the running for some Oscar attention.
Ginger & Rosa
Another divorce story. Ginger (Elle Fanning) is a teenager in 1950s London who, after her parents separate, follows her radical father deep into the anti-nuclear movement. When her best friend Rosa becomes romantically involved with him, however, the fragile walls she has erected to protect herself from dealing with her feelings comes crashing down. Fanning gives a miraculous and subtle performance – subtly conveying how her character’s fear of nuclear holocaust is really just sublimated domestic trauma – that explodes in the film’s climactic scene. But the most accolades should go to writer/director Sally Potter, who has crafted an original story of a very different era that speaks deeply to our current collective psychosis.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
This Belgian drama – the country’s submission to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film – ties many disparate strands together to form a mostly satisfying but always engaging whole. Breakdown tells the complete story of the relationship between two musicians who meet, make music together, fall in love, have a child, and watch that child suffer and die from cancer – but it is also a love letter to bluegrass and an anti-Christianist polemic. Director Felix Van Groeningen jumbles the timeline to keep things from getting too bleak, and Veerle Baetens gives a star-making performance as the tragic, tattooed wife and mother. And just as the story almost gets too dark to handle, the toe-tapping soundtrack lifts you up.
While The Attack got a small release in the U.S., it did not screen at all in Lebanon, the country in which it was produced. Writer/director Ziad Douieri’s story of a Palestinian surgeon living peacefully in Israel whose wife commits a suicide bombing was banned in his home country because he shot it on Israeli soil. It’s a shame because his remarkably even-handed take on love and war is not really a political film at all; it is the story of a man who has learned the hard way how little he knew his wife and the great lengths he will go to understand her, even after she is gone.
Gimme the Loot
A minor hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival before receiving a miniscule theatrical release, Gimme the Loot has an independent sheen over its easy-to-digest, conventional romantic story. Newcomers Ty Hickson and Tashina Washington have great chemistry as Malcolm and Sophie, two black urban teenagers who hatch a plan to impress their friends by spray-painting graffiti on the Shea Stadium apple ( a grotesque device that pops out of a giant top hat every time a Mets player hits a home run, which isn’t often). Loot is a pleasingly simple urban romance, bolstered by the undeniable chemistry of its leads and a warm, familiar tone.
It’s not quite like anything you’ve seen before. Writer/director/star Shane Carruth’s film has all the elements of a traditional film – you know, plot, characters, setting – but they don’t add up in quite the same way. Much of it has to do with the editing by David Lowery, who seems to intentionally cut out the exposition and traditional character in beats in favor of a more poetic narrative and less tangible themes.
The Kings of Summer
Thematically, you could put The Kings of Summer alongside more high-profile films like Gravity and All is Lost because they all center around characters who are trying to leave the trappings of civilization behind. The three teen boys in Summer don’t go quite so far – they build a house in the public woods of their small, suburban town – but the freedom they find is just as thrilling. The three young actors are terrific (Moises Arias gets credit for the most oddly funny performance of the year), and Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly offer fine comedic support as their respective parents.
When I asked in The Atlantic if Michael Cera was the most interesting actor of his generation, I had just watched this film. Written and directed on-the-fly by Sebastian Silva when his other Cera movie (the far less effective Magic Magic) had run out of money, Crystal Fairy creates a new archetype for our times: the entitled, pseudo-intellectual millennial. As Jamie, Cera is brilliant, conveying shades of arrogance and charisma equally, and former child star Gaby Hoffman (Uncle Buck!) bares it all – emotionally and physically – as the hippie that joins Jamie and his Chilean friends on a journey to find a mystical psychedelic cactus.
Check back in the next two weeks for more year-end pieces, including my annual Love/Hate list, the Most Liberal/Conservative Films of the Year, and a year-end wrap-up.