Tag Archives: Before Midnight

Best Film Moments of 2013

I’ve found that in most great movies, even the greatest masterpieces, it’s not the film in its entirety that makes it great as much as a handful (or even just one or two) of brilliant moments. These are what we remember: sequences, shots, “holy moments” when a film manages to express the inexpressible. They are the moments where we feel lost in the film, contemplative, arrested. They are cathartic glimpses of transcendence.

Yesterday I posted my list of the best overall films of 2013; today I’m focusing on my picks for the best moments. The following are 15 of the most memorable and compelling moments from the year in cinema, in no particular order:

  • Before Midnight: “Still there, still there, still there … gone.” (watch here)
  • The Spectacular Now: Sutter and Aimee walk in the woods, share their first kiss (watch part of the scene here)
  • Short Term 12: Marcus shares the cathartic rap he’s been working on (Watch bits and pieces of it in this teaser for the film. Warning: graphic language.)
  • Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks gets evaluated by a nurse after the harrowing climax
  • 12 Years a Slave: Singing the spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll”
  • Gravity: The opening (17 minutes long) uninterrupted shot
  • Post Tenebras Lux: Opening scene (watch here)
  • Hannah Arendt: Barbara Sukowa’s final speech in the lecture hall
  • To the Wonder: From Paris to the plains (watch here)
  • Her: The final scene on the roof with Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Llewyn plays “Shoals of Herring” for his estranged, dementia-plagued father (listen to the song here).
  • To the Wonder: Javier Bardem recites St. Patrick’s Lorica (watch here)
  • Museum Hours: Mary Margaret O’Hara sings “Dear, Dark Heart” to her cousin who is in a coma
  • The Bling Ring: Long take of Audrina Partridge’s house being robbed (watch here)
  • Frances Ha: “What I want out of a relationship” monologue (watch here)

What moments from 2013 films have been your favorite?

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Best Films of 2013

Dislocation. When I consider the films that I loved the most in 2013, this is the word I think of. The theme of dislocation–uprootedness, geographical and emotional lostness, unstable notions of “home”‘–was present in various forms in many films this year. Characters were lost in space (Gravity) and at sea (All is Lost); they slept on couches to get by (Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis) and dwelled in all manor of temporary residences: group homes (Short Term 12), slave quarters (Short Term 12), tents in a burned-out forests (Prince Avalanche),   and so on. Several films were about characters in foreign lands, whether Greece (Before Midnight), Vienna (Museum Hours), or Europeans in America (Philomena, To the Wonder). Other films were set in part or in whole on transportation vessels at sea: Captain Phillips, Kon-tiki, even the Huck Finn river drama Mud. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, meanwhilewas a classic road movie about how a place we’ve lived can feel both alien and familiar when we return.

I don’t know why this theme kept showing up–perhaps we’re all just nostalgic for a sense of rootedness and home in the midst of so much cultural and technological change. But I’m glad it did because it’s a theme that lends itself well to powerful cinematic storytelling.

Below are my picks for the best ten films of the year, plus ten honorable mentions. What were your favorites this year?

10) Short Term 12: Destin Cretton’s film about life inside a short-term foster care facility is a beautifully made, tender film about weary, broken, love-hungry kids trying to beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30 (including Brie Larson in a career-making role) and each has their own sort of baggage. The film suggests that what these kids need is a deep, unconditional, relentless love–which is to say a love that models Christ.

9) All is Lost: Who knew a film with only one actor (Robert Redford) and no dialogue could be so compelling? Yet J.C. Chandor’s lost-at-sea adventure story is breathtaking from start to finish. We don’t know much about Redford’s character, but we sympathize with him. In its tableaus and archetypes the film becomes a symbol for all human struggle: between being and nothingness, man and nature and, yes, man and God.

8) 12 Years a Slave: One of the most indelible images of Steve McQueen’s unflinching slavery epic is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch, contemplating the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body in the midst of the beauty of a genteel plantation and cathedrals of Spanish moss. It’s a powerful film, radical in its straightforwardness and almost documentary gaze.

7) Frances Ha: Shot in black and white with an airy, guerilla feel, Noah Baumbach’s NYC-set film is a clear homage to the French New Wave. Yet as throwback as it may feel, Frances Ha is also thoroughly modern, exploring (among other things) contemporary hipsterdom, the economic crisis and the relational disconnection of our hyper-connected age. Greta Gerwig delivers one of the year’s best performances in a film that is funny, whipsmart and yet refreshingly uncynical. (my review)

6) Museum Hours: Ten years ago I meandered around Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, taking in the vast array of masterpieces from Rembrandt, Rubens, Caravaggio, Bruegel and the like. This is more or less what Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (set in the Kunsthistorisches) is about: looking at life’s aesthetic wonders, taking it all in, learning about ourselves and each other in the process. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that has made art come alive as much as this film, save perhaps The Mill and the Cross (another Bruegel-centric film). Yet Museum Hours is about more than just fine art; it’s about taking the “museum” posture of respectful, attentive observance outside and applying it to everything else.  

5) Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers have already established themselves as among the most important American auteurs, and their latest is perhaps their most mature, subtle and somber film yet. Set in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside is both a period piece and a universal reflection on the seemingly arbitrary disbursement of luck, a common Coen theme. What kind of God divvies out favor, and blesses his “elect,” so inconsistently? Why do good guys so often get beat up and left in the cold, dark alleys of this world? Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the latest Coen character to be the unfortunate object of this existential lesson.

4) Gravity: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an awe-inspiring experience. With its never-seen-anything-like-this-before cinematography, its heart-pumping tension and its uncanny ability to convey the feeling of actually being in space, Gravity achieves something all too rare in cinema today: it utterly transports the audience. It draws us in so thoroughly (especially with the aid of 3D and IMAX screens) that for 90 minutes one truly does feel like they are floating and tumbling around in space. It’s dizzying, intense, wonderful, and new. But it’s not all flash and dazzle. Gravity is a film with much on its mind. From where it sits above the world, humbled by the fragility of life and the grandeur of creation, how could it not? (my review)

3) To the Wonder: Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life“), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. As such, it’s seen as elusive and difficult for many viewers. As Roger Ebert noted in his review (the last review he ever wrote),  Wonder is a film that “would rather evoke than supply.” Like Museum HoursWonder is a film about seeing: perceiving the beauty in the pretty and the ugly, the thrilling and the mundane, the personal and universal. It’s a film about seeing ourselves rightly within the cosmos and loving others, and God, more than we love ourselves. “Show us how to seek you,” prays the melancholic priest (Javier Bardem) at the film’s conclusion. “We were made to see you.” (my review)

2) Her: Like To the Wonder, Spike Jonze’s masterful film is about the pain of relationships and yet the lessons they teach us about loving and seeing well, waking up to the incarnational glory all around us. The whole “man falls in love with an OS” plot is fascinating, and the not-so-unlikely future depicted in the film is provocative and instructive in all sorts of ways. But at its heart this is a film about being present in one’s own life; being aware and compelled by the miracle of daily living. (my review)

1) Before Midnight: To me the best overall film of a year is not only a film of near-perfect quality but also one I know I’ll return to decades from now. Before Midnight, small and largely overlooked as it has been, is for me that film. The third in Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s exquisite “Before” series (see also 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset), Midnight is an existential pleasure. Set in a sumptuous, sun-bathed Greece, the film is deceptively simple–mostly a man and a woman talking and arguing, working through the complexities of their relationship. Yet it’s more profound, more punch-you-in-the-gut tragic, than any film I’ve seen in years. Why? Partially it’s because the writing and acting are so real. But it’s also because the film captures better than most the beauty and pain of time going by, of our own temporary presence in this world. Like the late summer sun that drops ever so gradually below the horizon, “We appear, and we disappear. We are just passing through.” (my review)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Mud, Nebraska, This is Martin Bonner, Prince Avalanche, Room 237, The Spectacular Now, Stories We Tell.

Best Films of the First Half

Because movie awards season falls where it does (December-February), the films crowned as the “best of the year” are more often than not the ones that were released in the final months of any given year. Anything released prior to September often gets forgotten or (at best) a token surprise nomination or two. Which is a shame, because every year there are masterful films released in the “less prestigious” first six months of the year. And this year is no different. The following are the five films that I enjoyed most during the first half of 2013:

1) Before Midnight: The third entry into Richard Linklater’s exquisite “Before” series, which began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight drops in on a few hours of the lives of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as they negotiate the challenges of commitment, family, and the pangs of time lost, regretted, wished for and not-yet-had. Beautifully written and acted, deeply emotional and constantly thought-provoking, Midnight is as smart and soul-enriching a film as you’re likely to see this summer. (more)

2) To the Wonder: Ben Affleck–hardly masking his less-than-pleased assessment of the final product of Terrence Malick’s latest film–said that To the Wonder “makes The Tree of Life look like Transformers.” There is some truth to this. Wonder, smaller-scale and relatively mundane in comparison to the universe-spanning scope of Life, is nevertheless a more challenging film–arguably Malick pushing his maverick sensibilities to the audience’s outer thresholds of tolerance. And yet given the time (and the requisite multiple viewings) and a willingness to give oneself to Malick’s way of seeing, this is a film with immense power to move, provoke, and stir up thankfulness for the “Love that loves us”. (more)

3) Frances Ha: Noah Baumbach’s black & white, Brooklyn-set film is much more than the depressive hipster navel gazing we’ve come to expect from him. It’s actually a vibrant, often hilarious and deeply perceptive portrait of a twentysomething liberal arts grad (the excellent Greta Gerwig) going through  a quarterlife crisis. Something of an ode to the French New Wave, the stylish film possesses a lightness of being and existential astuteness that is regrettably  rare in contemporary indie filmmaking. (more)

4) Stories We Tell: One of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, Stories We Tell is a very personal exploration of director Sarah Polley’s family. It’s a film about family, legacy, generational ghosts, the passage of time, and ultimately truth and narrative itself: how the stories we tell do and do not illuminate the “reality” of what actually happened in a certain place or time. It’s a fascinating re-invention of the documentary genre that is as gut-wrenching as it is thought-provoking.

5) The Bling Ring: Sofia Coppola’s latest continues in the vein of her previous films, examining things like celebrity, materialism, partying, and “the ineffable sublime,” mostly through the lens of the female adolescent experience. The film’s ripped-from-the-headlines true story of celeb-obsessed teens turned Hollywood Hills burglars is the jumping off point for a meditation on consumerism, social media and what Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock”–the woozy vertigo that accompanies our cultural collapse of narrativity and obsession with (and ironic distance from) the moment. For more on that, and tying it back nicely to Before Midnight, see this article.

Honorable Mention: Mud, The Place Beyond the Pines, Much Ado About Nothing, 56 Up, Kon-tiki

Catching Up With Time in the “Before” and “Up” Films

A professor I admire once said — while discussing the films of Yasujiro Ozu, or maybe it was semiotics (can’t remember) — that watching the sun set can be both a thing of incredible beauty and deep sadness, often simultaneously. I thought of this as I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which includes a scene of a couple sitting by the sea in Greece, watching the sun slowly dip below the horizon. It’s there, there, there — and then it’s not there. A fleeting flare of arresting orange. Present and then absent. Perhaps the beauty and sadness of a sunset has to do with the fact that it’s the process in nature we humans most identify with. Ours is a context of ephemerality.

Midnight just released in theaters, and it is certainly one of the best films of 2013 so far. But before you see it, be sure to watch the two preceding films in Linklater’s Before series: Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Together they comprise a trilogy that is one of the most understated and elegant in the history of cinema.

Before MidnightLinklater’s films follow the love story between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as it plays out in more or less real time in one Vienna night in 1994 (Before Sunrise), a sunset stroll in 2003 Paris (Before Sunset), and an evening jaunt in Greece in 2012 (Midnight). The films let us peek in on these two lives every nine years, witnessing only as much of their “present” as the 90-100 minutes of movie watching allows us to see. The glimpses we get into this couple’s journey together are snapshots not just of their particular world — compellingly characterized by highbrow garrulity, philosophizing and Gen X angst — but of humanity in general: how we age, how we love, how we fight and how we dream.

Similar in many ways to what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are exploring in the Before series is what Michael Apted has done and is doing with the astonishing Up series. Beginning in 1964 as a British television documentary examining the lives of fourteen 7-year-old children representing a diverse array of socioeconomic positions in 1960s Britain, the Up series has followed its real-life characters every seven years since. 14 Up (1970) checked in on the children at age 14; 21 Up (1977) updated audiences on their lives as they each turned 21; and so on.56 Up just came out a few months ago and is now available to watch on Netflix, as are all of the other Up films.

In his review of 56 Up, the late Roger Ebert — who once called the Up series “the noblest project in cinema history” — wrote this: “It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any other cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.”

Indeed, I think that one of the great potentials of cinema — particularly when it is used in the way Linklater and Apted are using it in their respective series — is that it can capture some of the idiosyncrasies and mysteries of the “business of life” that we might otherwise fail to see (presumably because we are too busy wading through our own “business of life”). Things like the peculiar experience of the passage of time: simultaneously the most obvious and yet ungraspable mystery of existence.

The Before series is about love and relationships on one level, to be sure. But the real subject of these films is time, and the frequency with which it is discussed by the characters in the films hammers home that point.

“O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time,” says Jesse (Hawke) in Before Sunrise, quoting Dylan Thomas quoting W.H. Auden. At other times Jesse waxes philosophical about how surreal it is to self-consciously observe himself living in real time, or Celine shares about how she always feels like her life is either a dream of the future or a memory of the past. Meanwhile, the couple walks and talks in (more or less) real time, as the sun — that most vivid of all reminders of temporality — either rises, sets, or cedes its position to the moon. As Hawke said earlier this year when Midnight premiered at Sundance, the star of the Before series “is not Julie or [Hawke] but Father Time himself.”

Up SeriesThe Up series is far less meta in its treatment of time; yet like the Beforefilms, Father Time is a palpable presence in every frame. There’s something compelling about observing the passage of time — 56 years, in this case — as it molds, batters, refines and weathers these people on each of their wildly divergent paths. Some of the original fourteen children grew up to be very successful; others not so much. Most started families and now have kids, grandkids, stepkids, and exes. Some (but not all) exceeded the expectations of the social class into which they were born. Some are happier than others (from what we can tell in our peeks inside, at least), and the only thing they all have in common is that none, not a one, has conquered time. They are all aging, and with every passing Up film we feel the weight of this ever more.

Cinema is unique among mediums in its ability to “sculpt in time,” as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote. It’s all about compressing, elongating, speeding up, and editing time to tell a story (that may span millennia or minutes) in the span of just a few hours. But Before and Up are especially compelling because rather than focusing on the filmmaker’s power over time, they focus on time’s power over us. Linklater tries his best to tell each Before film in real time, avoiding cinema’s manipulative power and instead foregrounding the somewhat eerie feeling of just sitting with time as it unfolds.

The Up films leverage cinema’s ability to compress time by including footage from the previous entries in each present portrait. What we get is essentially a moving-image scrapbook of each of these peoples’ 56-years, summarized in about ten minutes each. Watching it evokes the emotions of looking through an old box of photos and reliving an entire past in one quick burst of nostalgia. It confronts us with the expansiveness of what has come before; which seems large to us because our memories are painfully small and cannot hold every special moment we’ve had or beautiful thing we’ve seen, let alone the histories of other lives and lands.

Unless we have cameras there to capture every moment, our pasts are just as inaccessible to us as our futures. Memories, photos, tales of old can only reconstruct former glories up to a point (for a smart take on all this as it relates to “documenting” one’s past, see Sarah Polley’s amazing new film, Stories We Tell). And yet it could be argued that the “present” is the most elusive of all. For in reality, what we think of as the present is really just our brain processing things in the past — even if just a millisecond ago. Time is most relentless in the present because try as we might to slow it down or speed it up, it only goes by its own pace. The past and future are more malleable categories because they exist entirely in our minds, where we can elongate, embellish, or edit our recollection or vision of an experience, to our liking.

Tarkovsky puts it well in this excerpt from Sculpting In Time:

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

The Before and Up films are powerful because they embody the “sand between the fingers” brevity of the present: reminding us that even the most magical moments in life are fleeting, that our “when I grow up” dreams will be here and gone before we know it, and that as a result it makes little sense to live in search of a permanent state of pleasure or satisfaction. Such a thing would be, as Solomon might say, like “chasing after the wind.” Our hearts will be restless, said Augustine, until they rest in Thee. And perhaps that is “Father” Time’s greatest gift to us: stirring up a restlessness in our souls that directs our longing to something Other, unfathomably infinite and unbound by time.