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Criticisms from the Couch: Dan’s Top 8 Movies of 2013

By Dan Leyendecker

        Already two months into 2014 with Sochi, True Detective, and a big shake-up on late night network television, Kyle graciously let me dive into my favorite films of the last year. Oscar Day is still a few days away, so let’s just assume this list is still somehow relevant. I’ve enjoyed talking about this year in movies with friends and family, but Kyle convinced me to throw some of my unreliable opinions out into the world.
I can’t tell if I’ve been looking for meaning in movies, whether I’m in a particularly well-targeted demographic, or if 2013 was just a quality year. Maybe in scribbling my thoughts down, I can finally get some of the films off my mind.
Disclaimer: I have not seen TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, BLUE JASMINE or some of the other top movies that will be heavy hitters on Oscar Day. My Netflix queue is backed up. Second disclaimer: I haven’t written in a while, so bear with me as I shake the dust off. Spoilers ahead.

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8. AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS
This trailer grabbed my attention in the middle of last year; I remember posting it on Facebook and Kyle immediately texting me. He knows the kind of stuff I’m drawn to–the description attached to the SAINTS trailer promised a 1970s crime drama in the Texas Hill Country and a love triangle with three charismatic leads. Also, that title sounded like something ripped straight out of an old blues song or hymnal. Yup, this felt like my jam.
The director, David Lowery, caught some flak from the critics for emulating his apparent hero, Terrence Malick. The movie features lots of magic-hour vistas and long shots of sprightly women walking dreamily through amber waves of grain, but Lowery grounds these tropes with a strong human story and crackling action. So while the movie takes a leisurely pace, the atmospherics do not overwhelm a good yarn. Casey Affleck plays an obsessive outlaw who veers between heartfelt and unhinged. Rooney Mara, who possesses such an expressive face that she looks like a moving Byzantine icon, succeeds in depicting real strength in what could have been a simple damsel-in-distress role.
But Ben Foster, I think, turns in the most powerful performance. Like Mara, he takes an otherwise stock role, a tortured lawman caught between his passion and sense of ethics. He infuses the role with such humanity that makes him fascinating to watch.
The trio benefits from a great collection of surrounding characters, classic rural characters who love, protect, or want to help our three leads. Go get it.

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7. THE SPECTACULAR NOW
It’s always exciting to feel as if you’ve “found” some new talent, which is what happened when I stumbled upon THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give the kind of work that makes you want to see what’s next. Teller owns an effortless charisma that is both weighted down by a deep sadness. His character’s burgeoning alcoholism is played subtly, and never to his or the story’s detriment.
Woodley’s character drew fire by some critics for being an underrepresented, lightly drawn female character, who is simply there to assist Teller’s character on his narrative arc. I think that’s a little lazy — she’s no manic pixie dream girl, and her innocence is an important counterbalance to Teller’s puffery. The ending, in particular, treats her with an appropriate measure of respect.
The SPECTACULAR NOW is also a Southern movie that captures the flavor of its location the right way — unassumingly. No gleaming Mason jars of sweet tea here. I need to look up the writer, because his or her dialogue is perfect in the easy way the characters talk, fight, negotiate, and fall in love with each other. And I realize now, remembering the movie, that I was excited by discovering these gifted actors because they made me feel so deeply for their characters in such a short amount of time. Can’t wait to see what the duo, and their director, James Ponsoldt, get up to next.

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6. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Last November, I’d mentioned to my grandparents that a new Martin Scorsese was coming out that I’d looking forward to. My grandma particularly likes Leo, so it’s understandable that she and my granddad would invite their friends, another elderly, church-going couple, to see the blockbuster that their grandson recommended. Halfway through, probably during the massive debauchery in the airline, the other lady leaned over to my granddad and said, “I think your grandson needs to come to church some more.”
I’ve seen WOLF twice and enjoyed it in two different ways. I watched it the first time on a droll holiday weekend and found the colors (lots of searing yellows, big blues?) and tone unsettling. I guess I had anticipated a little bit more of a cat-and-mouse situation between DiCaprio and Kyle Chandler, who plays the FBI agent that eventually takes Jordan Belfort down. Their showdown on the yacht, in which the two engage in a classic battle of posturing, is probably my favorite scene of 2013. Still, I just couldn’t properly explain the movie afterward, except its over-the-top decadence.
I enjoyed my second watch much more, and I’ve heard others describe the same shift. Instead of trying to figure out what it was all about or the moral implications of the real-life story or its cinematic delivery (all good questions), I let Scorsese take me through something decadent, manic and undeniably weird. WOLF sports a distended structure, manic energy that also feels at once tired, and glossy colors of the mid-90s — actually, is this what the mid-90s was like outside of my backyard? The final scene, in which the camera pans over a completely rapt audience to Belfort, was not only a funny visual joke on the audience but also reflected my state of mind afterwards. Sure, I guess I was being sold to — but wouldn’t it briefly be fun to be the seller?

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5. AMERICAN HUSTLE
Easily my most anticipated movie of 2013. A heist/ensemble/period piece with a director who had just started coming into his own?! I fell in love with the trailer when it came out in the middle of the year and grew so obsessed that I memorized its quotes, beats and cuts. The last time I did that was with the RETURN OF THE KING trailer back in ’03, so you do the math.
Like WOLF, I’ve seen the movie twice and enjoyed it even more so the second time. I first saw the movie over Christmas break with a couple of friends from my hometown — both of them ended up bringing their large families and we essentially took over the small theater. The second time was with a friend at the much-larger Slaughter Lane Drafthouse. Despite the runtime, both camps left in a heady mood.
I wish I knew more about cinematography so that I could pinpoint why I enjoyed the look of this movie so much. I don’t mean the period-specific clothing, hairstyles, etc — in fact, I was relieved that those things didn’t sour into gimmickry — but the actual look and color of the film. It seemed vivid, alive, and crisper than the usual movie. Even the indoor scenes had the quality of a brisk and clear fall day.
The frenetic energy of HUSTLE never detracts from its humanity. It’s clear that David O. Russell has real affection for his characters. Back to my initial obsession with the trailer, real quick — I became fixated on a shot in which Christian Bale’s character, Irving, sits in a sleazy ’70s pool house. There’s a shelf of cheap booze just above him. His eyes are closed and he’s really feeling whatever he’s listening to — in the trailer, the shot is paired with “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin, while the movie it’s Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” — he’s fist pumping, his gut is out, and he looks hilariously gross. To me, he looks briefly content, and in a way, noble. Though he uses each character’s foibles for humor, Russell is not nasty or harsh in the way he treats these people. While this is definitely not a “feel-good” movie, I think Russell is much brave for sidestepping the easy cynicism of the subject matter.
A quick rundown of those characters: Bale underplays Irving with moody cool, Amy Adams is electric and, I think, outguns Jennifer Lawrence’s showier performance, while Bradley Cooper never played a better shithead. The supporting cast excels.
Favorite scene: Bale and Adams sit nervously in the Plaza Hotel. It’s a brief moment of quiet after weeks of exhausting double- and triple- crossing. They have one last gamble. Adams says something like, “We’ve got to get over on all these guys. That’s what we need to be thinking about right now.” Bale pauses, collects himself, and then agrees. “It’s gotta be the best we’ve ever done.” Dig it!

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4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
I’d never seen any of the BEFORE trilogy until 2014, and there is a chance that my love of the first two in the trilogy bumped MIDNIGHT as high it is. While I love Linklater, I had stayed away from the series because I thought the premise sounded a little cheesy and SUNSET was simply off my radar at age 15. More of a DAZED AND CONFUSED era. But MIDNIGHT was getting big reviews, all of my friends whose opinions I respect swear by all three movies, and I decided to tear through each installment over three nights.
Watching Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke age nearly two decades in 72 hours was one of the stranger but enjoyable movie experiences I’ve had. The method added another weird layer to the series’ questions of time. In those three days, I saw two people express their hopes, grapple with circumstances and, finally, fear that they’d become what they hated. Do they even perceive the situation they’re in, and would they even be better off seeing their own arc in 72 hours? At one point Jesse says something like, “I’m still that guy on that train. You’re still the girl who got off of that train with me.” Surely, these intelligent, passionate, alive people could avoid such a fate, but the ending is not clear.
I’m closer to their ages in SUNRISE, and felt a real familiarity with the first two movies. I still “know” Jesse and Celine in MIDNIGHT, but their problems are further off and less immediate. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m not sure if I could handle another chapter in 2022.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT is my number four because Jesse and Celine feel nearer to my close friends instead of characters on screen. They remind me of myself and, if you’re reading this, they probably remind me a lot of you. And that is a magical thing.

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3. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Odd comparison, but I often think of WINTER’S BONE when I try to recall INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The two couldn’t differ more in terms of content, but echoes of Greek tragedy, the washed out blues and grays, and the fact that both are two of my favorites from the ’00s align them in my mind.
For the first 45 minutes or so of LLEWYN DAVIS, I never quite knew where it was going. I enjoyed the beautiful music and crisp depiction of an early ’60s New York winter, but I found myself asking something like, “When’s it going to get weird and more…Coens-y?” Semi-spoilers ahead.
But the road trip to Chicago (at turns spooky, hilarious, and heartbreaking) is one of my favorite things the Coen brothers have ever done. John Goodman shows up just for a bit, but to powerful effect. Llewyn’s meeting with a big recording executive is harrowing in its truthfulness. It was there that I learned what the movie was getting at. Llewyn’s loss of his friend hangs over the whole movie. And on the return trip, in a snowy scene which could have been lifted out of Fargo, cars whoosh past Llewyn like otherworldly creatures. Death is all around. Llewyn feels the loss of his friend more acutely than ever.
Kyle felt that the Coens went too dark by subjecting Llewyn to crueler treatment than necessary. A host of one of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting, mentioned that this was a story about the loss of not only a creative partner but someone’s other half. He went on to say that surely this must have affected the Coens somehow, as creative a pair of brothers as there has ever been. While the brothers are not gentle to Llewyn, I got the sense that they explored what it would be like to lose a brother. It’s bold in its melancholy.

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2. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
I ordered my movies by how much they resonated in 2013. PINES missteps a few times (the same friend who I watched INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS with said that the guy who plays Bradley Cooper’s son should seriously think about never acting again). The RottenTomatoes summary describes the movie perfectly as “ambitious to a fault.”
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is the stuff of dreams. Robbing banks. Following a monster down a dark forest road. Exacting revenge on someone who’s wronged you and your family. And best of all, that electric thrill of flying, weightless and solitary. I’m thinking of two scenes here: one from the first act, when Ryan Gosling’s character is shot from above on his motor bike, the road yawning out ahead of him and the trees enveloping all around. His son (played by Dane DeHaan, who more than carries the third act) unknowingly recreates this, as he finally gets closer to the mystery of his dead criminal father and hurtles down the same road on his beloved bike. Both scenes are shot through with a sense of heightened reality, excellent Technicolor thrills that envelop you deeper into this little pocket of America.
While Gosling kind of plays a punker version of himself from DRIVE, he still possesses the charisma and intensity to make the first act the best. It’s a strong enough presence that lasts throughout the whole movie. Ben Mendelsohn is an excellent ne’er do well hermit in the woods. Bradley Cooper plays a straight arrow (still with his own streak of shithead) who struggles with the expectations of his own father. Rose Byrne and Mahershala Ali turn in quality small roles.
Like BEFORE MIDNIGHT, PINES addresses the complexities of time and consequences. When Eva Mendes opens an envelope from her son, to a bent photograph of what was, for an instant, a happy family, you acutely feel each character’s loss. PINES also uses Hall & Oates in an impromptu dance sequence, to great comedic effect, so it’s already an automatic #2. Can’t wait to watch again.

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MUD
I’m sure my friends and family tired of me proselytizing about this movie way, way before 2013 ended. MUD is a modern-day myth set in the swamps and small towns surrounding the Mississippi. By now, everyone is familiar with the “McConaughaissance,” a term that will surely be played out by the time I send this to Kyle, but it’s been thrilling to see Matthew McConaughey go after such bold choices after a while in the rom-com wilderness.
He doesn’t disappoint here. And neither do the two boys who play Ellis and Neckbone (“That’s a hell of a name, son”), characters drawn with influences from Mark Twain, STAND BY ME and other adventure stories. Ellis is struggling to make sense of his world, which is falling apart due to the tension between his parents (the excellent Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson). In this fractured sense of growing up, he befriends Mud, a drifter who is a little bit childlike, charming, and in very real danger.
I’ve found myself talking a lot about “shots” and the “feel” of a movie, and MUD is at the top of my list because it contains the best of both. A weathered boat in a tree, writhing snakes in a pit, hired killers kneeling down to pray, shirts that supposedly contain magical powers and wide, beautiful vistas of the biggest river in the country. A friend of mine mentioned that he felt as if he were right there in the deltas, along for the adventure. You feel as if you’re in on the adventure.
MUD strikes upon all the good stuff: friendship, love, and growing up, all cast against Southern and Biblical motifs. Jeff Nichols shows an even stronger affection for his characters, and that translated so well to me. I wanted Ellis’s parents to figure out some happiness, I wanted Sam Shepard’s character to re-enter the complicated world. I wanted Ellis to find his way in a suddenly bigger world. I wanted Mud to find some peace.