Volume 4, Number 9 - February 4, 2014

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Kai Sacco


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Year-End Report: Kai Sacco’s Favorite Films of 2013

By Kai Sacco
kai.sacco001@mymdc.net

#10: TO THE WONDER

Smaller in scale to The Tree of Life’s universal expanses, but more ambitious in intimacy, To the Wonder is Terrence Malick at his most vulnerable. With each effort he burrows deeper and deeper into his subconscious, the next story more personal than the last, the marks of a man desperate to get ahold of his memories before they disappear. His obsession with capturing the fragility of life isn’t a sad one. Malick celebrates mortality instead of fearing it and that’s what makes his filmmaking so cathartic. Empty rooms illuminated by the morning sun tell of a house once lived in, a passion once shared; herds of horses and buffalo roaming the plains advise us that harmony is obtained through our acceptance of the universe; a newly built church and the lonely priest that wanders through its aisles paint a sorrowful portrait of a man falling out of faith with his partner, his creator. In all of this, Malick asks us to watch rather than listen. His ability to adapt emotions into moving images is blindingly beautiful and unbelievably surreal.


#9: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

Just when you thought Derek Cianfrance couldn’t make a bleaker film than his 2010 take on contemporary love, Blue Valentine, he hits you with The Place Beyond the Pines, an uncomfortably dark parable where hope is but a word and despair, a reality.

As with Refn’s Only God Forgives and Korine’s Spring Breakers, Cianfrance situates his characters in a kind of purgatory that’s littered with individuals who will not be granted exit until they acknowledge their own inhumanity. It’s an interesting through-line that Cianfrance lingers on a lot more actively than Korine does in his film. Breakers is more of an abstraction, whereas Pines is almost always deafeningly brutal in its realistic sensibilities.

Many complained that the movie suffered from its lengthy runtime; I say that it (barely) suffers from not being long enough. At 140-minutes—roughly 135 without credits—each of the film’s three stories are given about 45 minutes each, when it should have been at least an hour. Imagine Pines as an epic, three-part (an hour respectively) miniseries on HBO. Whoa.

If not for the strong leads in Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper (who carry the heavy lifting in the first two acts) the three-part format of the story could have turned out to be an unmoving experiment. Alas, that’s not the case. I have an immense level of admiration for Cianfrance in even attempting to pull something like this off as a movie.


#8: SIDE EFFECTS

Side Effects found a fifth slot residency in my Midyear Report. Here’s what I said:

‘To take a line from Game of Thrones, “you know nothing” if you truly believe that Side Effects will be Steven Soderbergh’s last cinematic foray but if it is, it’s a damn good one. I had minor issues with the loopiness of the third act, but after a second viewing I began to realize that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, so I shouldn’t either.

The characters are all a different shade of wacky and the looming storm they’re involved in echoes that to an insane degree; what really makes the movie work is how subtle it manages to be amidst the utter chaos. Little details such as the way a character’s reflection in a mirror hints at their mental instability, or the use of claustrophobic framing to signify psychological captivity, adds a certain level of richness to the narrative that puts Soderbergh’s superior talents as a cinematographer and director on the highest of pedestals.’

I watched Side Effects for a third time before putting this list together and it grew on me even more. I feel about the same way I did six months ago, with the exception of the ‘minor issues’ I had with the third act. Those have subsided proving to me this is a film whose merits grow with each additional viewing. (Soderbergh’s work has a tendency to do that). I deeply regretted excluding Magic Mike from my 2012 year end list—I’m not allowing that to happen again.


#7: AT ANY PRICE

A two-trillion-dollar market lies in the golden fields of Iowa, a world unknown to most where ‘traders are betting on corn like it’s the new gold,’ says one character in writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price. With their backstabbing and under-the-table dealings, the farmers in this region are what you would call, “The Wolves of the Corn Belt.” Expand or die. Get big or get out. Unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street which hides the victims of its characters’ wrongdoings, asking the audience to perform the finger-wagging, At Any Price places them front-and-center detailing the outer consequences of victory no matter the cost.

‘One moment defines your life, one decision becomes your legacy,’ the trailer for The Place Beyond the Pines muses, another excellent, previously mentioned narrative of cause and effect. Where that movie opens into change and then deals with it, At Any Price builds toward change and ends on it.

Bahrani tells his story by using the multi-generational ownership of farmland and the agricultural warfare that goes with it as backdrop. He centers on shrewd, cropping powerhouse, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), and son, Dean Whipple (Zac Efron), a stock car racing prodigy with NASCAR in his sights, not the family business. He resents his father, seeing a man whose present in body not soul. Henry’s not the man Dean needs him to be and he’s certainly not the father he wants him to be.

Quaid gives a performance of such assuredness that you can’t imagine the movie working without him. Through his character’s unremitting grin and eternal optimism is a darkly humorous insincerity that Bahrani plays with throughout the entire course of the film. ‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,’ Henry says to a client while holding an open cooler full of Butterfingers and Twix candy bars.

In my review of the film, I say, ‘At Any Price is a movie that gets better as it moves along and that’s especially true when it takes a wild turn into some fairly bleak territory during the third act. The weight of a thousand bad decisions force the characters into dramatically altering their life’s path and you can feel that gravity by the time the credits roll. There isn’t much hope for them, and Bahrani isn’t concerned with tying up the story with a pretty bow and sending everyone home happy.’


#6: ONLY GOD FORGIVES

Ugly. Unwatchable. Pointless. Stupid. Crackpot porno kitsch. Pretentious pseudo-intellectual claptrap. Pseudo-stylistic rubbish. Stomach-churning.

Pick out any word or phrase with a negative connotation attached to it and there’s a good chance it’s already been used to describe Only God Forgives. Starting at its May 2013 premiere at Cannes, and leading up to its July release that year, reactions to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up spawned such strong factions of “love it” and “hate it” commentaries that it shattered the glass ceiling of divisive filmmaking. Enjoyed Drive, did you? Well that doesn’t matter because this is a completely different animal.

Here, Refn places Ryan Gosling in the shoes of Julian, a stoic expatriate whose Bangkok kickboxing club serves as cover for a drug-smuggling operation. The offing of his psychopathic brother for brutally murdering a 16-year-old prostitute causes him to face a lifetime of anger and guilt. He begins to question his role in the world—the existential crisis where personal existence is devalued by the self. Julian’s pessimism is clearly old belief but only now does he acknowledge it.

Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in the HBO crime show, True Detective, expressed the following sentiment that Julian would likely share if more communicable:

‘I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware—nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We’re creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self—a secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each “somebody,” when, in fact, everybody’s nobody.’

Cohle goes on to explain that it’s that very programming which causes us to obsessively seek out answers to an existence that is likely meaningless.

Before even meeting him, Julian is plagued by visions of an ex-cop named Chang: a wakizashi-wielding “Angel of Vengeance”—a god dressed in devil’s clothing—who is able to command an entire room of people by his presence alone. He marches around the seedy streets of the Bangkok underground (Julian’s purgatory) with his police force of disciples, slashing away at the cancerous cells that threaten to prevent his city’s inhabitants from having a future. He is the Almighty Father around these parts and his sword is what turns the disobedient into the obedient. Driven by instinct, Julian seeks out this seemingly mythological man without really knowing why. Reclamation of body and soul is needed.

In its patient direction, refusal of structured writing, fragrant cinematography and ethereal score, the neon-soaked bloodbath that is Only God Forgives feels like a therapy session of Refn’s not meant to be seen by the public. This is punk-rock cinema and I love it.


#5: SPRING BREAKERS

James Franco’s ardent rapper, Alien, is the Oz of Pinellas County; the Wizard of West Florida’s pristine beaches; a magician whose illusions have become him. His tricks and promise of a great show attract all from far and wide. He is the ruler of the land, the king of the weeklong fiasco known as “spring break” where white sunglasses, cargo shorts, frat boys, promiscuous girls, pick-up trucks and sexual objectification litter the sand and pollute the sea. But as Meredith Vickers tells her dying father who seeks immortality in Prometheus, ‘A king has his reign and then he dies. It’s inevitable.’ But finality is a mistruth. There’s always another watching the throne. The show must go on and the filth must continue permeating our society.

If you want to talk about a great piece of modern-day expressionism, look no further than Harmony Korine’s neon-bacchanalian nightmare, Spring Breakers, where an entire culture is swallowed up and spat out. T & A, booze and drugs, cash and guns: Korine takes familiar tangibles and creates a terrifying and surreal focus on that sans-souci period of adventurous filth, where high school and college kids gather for a week of unfiltered debauchery.

Spring Breakers is gorgeous, brutal, funny, masterfully directed, and impossible to forget, and features an insanely committed Franco whose character possesses him completely. ‘My real name’s Al, but truth be told, I ain’t from this planet, y’all.’


#4: BEFORE MIDNIGHT

It’s interesting and rather brilliant how Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy found ways to progress a story over the course of three films that largely consist of long passages of dialogue where the various fragments of the human construct are dissected in an attempt to find meaning behind existence itself.

Before Sunrise (1995) examined the fleeting moments of everyday life and how a thousand connections can strengthen one; Before Sunset (2004) asked if love could truly prevail over the realities of life; and Before Midnight (2013) explores the notion that an unyielding relationship isn’t founded on the love of one but the love of life.

Midnight is inarguably the coldest and most detached of the three: raw in its honesty and brutal in its affections—a filmic ice bath. The seemingly unreserved prospects of the future that Jesse and Celine held onto so passionately in Sunrise are all but gone and have been replaced with percolating disdain, unattractive accusations and the acknowledgment of monogamy as a hopeless practice. The film is a perfect portrayal of mid-life tedium, the moment where the constant motion of the world around you comes to a deafening halt and the answer on how to move forward is a blueprint of layered perplexities.

There’s deep conversation amongst fans of the trilogy as to what order a newcomer to the series should see them in. The idea is that the first one you watch should be in accordance to your age since all three films cover different stages of adulthood. I say forget that and watch them in sequential order. Not because I have ataxophobia, but because I believe these films should be viewed as a complete study, rather than individual studies, of how life is able to gradually lose its color.


#3: RUSH

‘When a man stops wanting a man stops living,’ says the quote that defines a large portion of 2013’s filmography. Like Julian in Only God Forgives who seeks humanity in the unknown, racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s return to glory, Rush, use their Formula One cars to greet death and chase life; their destination is the same but the journey different.

Englishman Hunt (played by an awesome Chris Hemsworth) drives without fear, constantly challenging the wisdom of victory at any price. Austrian Lauda (played by an incredible Daniel Brühl) is the opposite, a cautious and calculated individual who respects death and all of its might. Enemies they were not. Two individuals that needed one another to live, they were.

Peter Morgan’s screenplay is lean and efficient, giving adequate time to both Hemsworth and Brühl’s characters between the action, while not allowing the film to overstay its welcome; Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is so rich in color and vibrant in energy that you can practically smell the paint on the cars and feel the heat on the asphalt; Hans Zimmer’s score is Zimmer all the way through but there’s a certain aggressiveness present that’s new to his notes; and Ron Howard’s direction is the most lively it’s been since 2001’s A Beautiful Mind. You can feel his eagerness to tell this story in each and every shot constructed with all the perfectionism of Niki Lauda. This is a Hollywood film done absolutely right—a film that may in fact be perfect.


#2: THE HUNT

When I first saw The Hunt last March at the Miami International Film Festival, I wasn’t prepared for the complete and utter evisceration of emotions I’d been handed. I’d forgotten that it competed at Cannes 2012 and wasn’t even aware of its central premise (purposely, though, as a close friend told me it was best to walk into the movie knowing as little as possible). When those end credits rolled I was affected in a way I hadn’t been in years.

The movie is based around the baffling notion that children never lie. In the film, a kindergarten teacher (played by a powerhouse Mads Mikkelsen) is accused of showing his genitals and making sexual advances toward a young five or six-year-old girl. It’s not about whether or not he’s guilty (it’s made known to the audience from the start that the accusations are false) but rather, how the town handles the situation. What the people do to Lucas in their neighborly Danish community is nothing short of a modern-day witch-hunt: hysteria replaces logic and friends become enemies.

In my review, I say, ‘Mikkelsen usually plays characters that contain various shades of ugly (Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and One Eye in Valhalla Rising), so it’s nice to see him play a genuinely honest individual for once. The varied emotional level of vocal inflections and subtle facial expressions he brings to Lucas is what really makes the film work so well. You feel his confusion, angst, pain and the uncertainty of his vindication. (The jury at Cannes 2012 certainly thought so too as Mikkelsen went on to win Best Actor at the festival.)

Out of European hands, The Hunt could have easily fell victim to the over-melodramatics and heavy-handedness that are commonly stock with these types of films; none of that is present here. What Vinterberg does is much more calculated: he compliments the gravity of the situation with escalating madness, sure-footing and a need to treat the characters as his own Gustave Le Bon-pawns of social psychology. It’s likely one of the most maddening films you’ll see all year but also one of the most engrossing.’


#1: OBLIVION

‘There’s nothing more powerful in a director’s arsenal than a strategically placed song,’ Will Ferrell once said. That couldn’t be truer with Joseph Kosinki’s Oblivion, where Anthony Gonzalez of M83 and Joseph Trapanese fashion a score of blinding grandness and intoxicating romanticism. My imagination was captured as soon as the film started with the piece Jack’s Dream lulling into a world of nostalgic drama as the animated Universal logo gracefully entered the screen. The music works so well because Kosinski already had the euphoric sounds of M83 in mind before penning the screenplay. ‘I went back and I found my first treatment for Oblivion from 2005 and it had listed in the treatment a soundtrack of M83,’ he said in an interview.

Oblivion is in complete surrender to its score but in the best possible way. This is a film that’s narratively and sonically driven. Swooping aerial shots of Tom Cruise riding a motorcycle between hulking, marooned tankers, gorgeously eerie sequences of the aptly named Bubble Ship navigating between the caverns of a desolate New York City, and the majesty of a home nestled in the clouds, are but a few of the moments that inspire a frenzied level of unbound wonderment thanks to Gonzalez and Trapanese’s soaring and hopeful sounds.

Kosinki’s film entranced me in a way that helped remind me why I fell in love with these particular types of epics in the first place.

In the opening of Alexander Huls incredible piece on RogerEbert.com about the ‘degeneration of blockbusters,’ he says, ‘Blockbusters have never a particular source of maturity or sophistication. That’s been mostly by design, given that they’ve always traded in trying to capture something of our inner child’s fantasy and awe. It’s why we’re often prone to framing the success and failure of big-budget spectacles in those terms: ‘Pacific Rim was great and made me feel like a kid again’ vs. ‘Transformers was awful and only a kid would like it.’ But thanks to a growing emphasis on mass-destruction in recent years, blockbusters have started to feel like they’re not so much facilitating child-like states as they are regressing into them.’

Oblivion is excluded from this group. It never feels forced; it never feels like it’s in a rush; and it never feels like its director is only interested in satiating his own wants and needs.

Towering robots versus giant monsters, and superheroes saving the day didn’t make me feel like a kid again this year: a flawed, but elegantly crafted, piece of science fiction with heart, a youthful exuberance and desire to amaze did. Sometimes, it takes a story like Oblivion that looks toward the past to remind us why we were so excited about the future as a child.


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