In A 'Miraculous Year' For Movies, Edelstein Picks His Favorites

Dec 24, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 4:44 pm

"It was a miraculous year," film critic David Edelstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. At a time when Hollywood is churning out Blockbusters and superhero movies that are guaranteed to make money at home and overseas, "it's really great when so many interesting movies, somehow or other, manage to bleed through," he says. " ... You really feel as if directors are taking chances in their storytelling. They are creating a new syntax for every story."

Here are his favorite movies this year:

Her: A lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix in the year's best performance) forms a wondrous bond with his Operating System (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — which (who?) becomes more and more sentient. Spike Jonze's futuristic comedy is an exquisite meditation on love, friendship, human connection and the singularity that might enlarge (or possibly contract) our definition of what that connection means.

American Hustle: David O. Russell rewrites the late-'70s scandal known as Abscam into a rollicking comedy about people who reinvent themselves and con one another. His stock company — everyone in howlingly awful '70s clothes and hair — is marvelous: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and that mischievous comedienne Jennifer Lawrence.

Much Ado About Nothing: While in postproduction for The Avengers, Joss Whedon gathered a bunch of friends (TV actors, mostly) and shot a Shakespeare movie in 12 days in his own rambling L.A. house. The casualness works.

Short Term 12: Destin Daniel Cretton's fictionalized portrait of a Southern California short-term care facility for at-risk teenagers is a complicated weave: grim, funny, exhilarating, unspeakably moving. There's a breakthrough performance by Brie Larson as the counselor wracked by her own history of abuse.

All Is Lost: J.C. Chador's one-man disaster picture — a cunningly edited procedural about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) trying to keep his damaged yacht afloat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is pushed to the limit of his own self-containment.

Caesar Must Die: More Shakespeare, from the great Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who fictionalize the efforts of a group of maximum-security prisoners — most organized crime members — to rehearse a production of Julius Caesar. You're inside and then outside the play, immersed and then distanced. The Tavianis dissolve every artistic boundary they meet.

Blue Is the Warmest Color: Abdellatif Kechiche's intense, three-hour lesbian coming-of-age movie (with graphic sex scenes) hasn't pleased everyone. Is it true to the lesbian experience? Even if it isn't, actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux indelibly capture the intensity of sexual discovery and dependency.

The Wind Rises: Hayao Miyazaki's supposed last film (released in New York and L.A. for a week to qualify for awards and set to reopen in February), is a romantic, tragic, exquisitely strange and dreamlike portrait of a Japanese boy (then a young man) who dreams of creating wondrous flying machines — which are then used to rain death and destruction in World War II.

The World's End: The third of writer-director Edgar Wright's genre-bending black comedies starring Simon Pegg (who co-wrote) and Nick Frost is the year's most entertaining sci-fi comedy romp; the story of a middle-aged child-man on an absurd quest to relive his university days and drink his way through 10 pubs in a single night — and driven to his senses in the act of defeating conformist body-snatchers from outer space.

Fruitvale Station: Ryan Coogler's debut film dramatizes a day in the life of Oscar Grant, whose shooting by police in 2009 was caught on bystanders' cellphone cameras. The movie is principally a tour de force for actor Michael B. Jordan, who makes Grant the most recognizable kind of martyr — an unstable child-man whose motor runs tragically fast in a world as jittery as this one.

Documentaries:

The Act of Killing: Josh Oppenheimer asked admitted Indonesian mass murderers to write, direct and re-enact their atrocities from 40-plus years ago. They rise to the occasion with alacrity, and the result is one of the most lucid portraits of evil you'll ever see.

20 Feet From Stardom: Despite a thread of melancholy, Morgan Neville's hymn to so-called back-up singers (among them Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer) goes from bliss to bliss.

Let the Fire Burn: Jason Osder weaves together archival footage of the bombing of the African-American "anarcho-primitivist" group MOVE in Philadelphia in 1985, and the results are electrifyingly present tense.

Blackfish: Gabriela Cowperthwaite's haunting film begins when a whale named Tilikum kills a trainer before a horrified Orlando SeaWorld crowd and then flashes back to show the grim history of whales driven mad in captivity.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks: Alex Gibney's gripping, deeply ambivalent portrait of Julian Assange angered people on both sides of the Wikileaks debate — not necessarily a bad thing when the issues are this complicated.

The Crash Reel: Lucy Fisher chronicles the near-fatal head injury of champion half-pipe skier Kevin Pearce — and the frightening world in which would-be Olympic athletes suffer and die in the name of faster speeds and more medals.

The Square: Jehane Noujaim's penetrating, revelatory documentary begins in Tahrir near the end of Hosni Mubarak's rule — and shows how tragically ununified the Egyptian opposition truly is.


Interview Highlights

On the year's biggest surprise

I think Much Ado About Nothing was extremely surprising. Here you've got [Joss Whedon], a director of superhero films and also Buffy the Vampire Slayer ... and a bunch of TV actors who have eight or nine days on their hands, and they decide they're going to shoot it in black and white and essentially in his backyard. ... It turns out to be so much fun because it's fast and it's casual and these people really know how to speak the verse. They really don't linger in this method-y way on certain words, so it ends up being comprehensible.

On why 12 Years a Slave didn't make it into his top 10

People will notice 12 Years a Slave is not one of my best films of the year. It's a very powerful film, and it will get a lot of awards. It's also a very bludgeoning film and there are lot of people saying, "Well, of course it's bludgeoning. That's what slavers did — they bludgeoned their African-American slaves! Are you a slavery apologist?"

From a political standpoint, it's easy to see why the film is so vital, but for me, I got the feeling that ... [director] Steve McQueen likes to fix his camera on people whose bodies are being defiled. They were starving to death in Hunger. They were shaming themselves sexually in Shame, and now they're being tortured on camera. I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he [was] searching for more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation.

But, it's important to say ... there are so many movies that are competing for people's time and entertainment dollars, and I often find that if I have reservations about a film like 12 Years a Slave or the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, people say, "Oh, you're saying I shouldn't see it."

That's not it at all. I want people to see 12 Years a Slave, I want people to see Inside Llewyn Davis. See it. Wrestle with it. Be a part of the conversation, and don't be afraid of ambivalence. Don't be afraid if your thumb doesn't go up or down. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies — that you can sort out your own responses.

On documentaries

Some people show up for [documentaries]. There are still very few that cross over, and none of these documentary directors [are] getting rich. At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films hold up against the best fictional films.

On Oscar campaigns

You do not know what is happening behind the scenes. You do not know what the Academy voters — how they're being bombarded ... every second: phone calls, parties, leaflets, swag of all kinds. ... A lot of films screen for one week in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, and then they open again in February just to get on these Oscar short lists. Everything opens around Christmas and December so it's fresh in people's minds.

On not seeing trailers in advance

I never watch coming attractions. Because it's my job. I'm lucky enough to be able to go into a film not even knowing the genre. I know title, maybe I know who is in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions. I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away. ...

I would encourage people to sometime walk into a movie that you don't even know what it's about. Be transported. You may be crushed. You may be pissed off. You may be disappointed. You may be enthralled and surprised in a way that you can't be when you've kind of steeped yourself in all of the material that surrounds these films before they come out.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As Santa finishes checking his list, we have a couple of lists to go over, 10-best lists. A little later our TV critic David Bianculli will be here to talk about the year in television. First we're going to talk with our film critic David Edelstein about his picks for the best of the year.

David, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love doing these 10 best with you.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Oh me, too, especially this year.

GROSS: Why, is it a good year?

EDELSTEIN: Oh, it's a miraculous year. I mean, given...

GROSS: Miraculous?

EDELSTEIN: Well, given Hollywood's cataclysmic turn away from middle-range so-called grownup movies, the Peter Pan in me hates me lauding anything grownup, but still when you just see a steady diet of blockbusters, comic book Marvel hero movies they can clean up with overseas, particularly in Asia, it's really great when so many interesting movies somehow or other manage to bleed through.

GROSS: Well, OK, prove it to me. Tell me what's on your 10 best list.

EDELSTEIN: OK. Well, you know that it's a 10 best list of fictional movies, and then I have five documentary, nonfictional movies. Why, you ask, do I do this? Because I can. So here is - here are the fictional 10 best films.

GROSS: I let you get away with this every year.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you so much. The first is "Her," Spike Jones' story of a man who falls in love with his operating system, and it is a soaring romantic film. "American Hustle" is number two, that's David O. Russell's delightful ABSCAM comedy. The third is Shakespeare, "Much Ado About Nothing," Joss Whedon's - essentially his home movie he shot on a break from "The Avengers" in his backyard, best Shakespeare comedy on film, comedy not tragedy.

"Short Term 12," terrible title, the portrait of a Southern California short-term care facility for at-risk teenagers. Number five, "All Is Lost," J.C. Chandor's one-man disaster picture with Robert Redford. Number six is a very small movie, "Caesar Must Die," more Shakespeare, the great Taviani brothers, the great Italian directors. It's about Julius Caesar done by prisoners, many lifers.

Number seven, "Blue is the Warmest Color," the wonderful sexual coming-of-age film. Number eight, "The Wind Rises." This is Hayao Miyazaki's supposedly last film, animated by not for kids. Number nine, "The World's End," the rollicking Edgar Wright genre-bending black comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Number 10, "Fruitvale Station," which is Ryan Coogler's debut film about the shooting of a young man in - north of San Francisco with a deep and searching performance by an actor named Michael B. Jordan.

GROSS: Well, of those films, which surprised you the most that maybe you didn't expect to like, and it ended up on your 10 best?

EDELSTEIN: Well, I think "Much Ado About Nothing" was extremely surprising. Here you've got a director of superhero films and also "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," let's give him credit, and a bunch of TV actors who have, what, eight or nine days on their hands, and they decide that he's going to shoot it in black and white, essentially in his backyard, one of Shakespeare's, you know, great comedies.

And it turns out to be so much fun because it's fast, and it's casual, and these people really know how to speak the verse. You know, they don't linger in this Methody way on certain words so it ends up being incomprehensible. So I was very, very surprised.

"All Is Lost," J.C. Chandor's film, who wants to spend two hours just staring at Robert Redford? He's been such a dull actor over the last 20 years, and yet this movie kind of pushes him to the limit of his own self-containment, and I thought it was enthralling.

GROSS: So you have a separate list of the best documentaries of the year, and it seems like it's been, for the past few years, that documentaries have really become popular, that there's a place for them in theaters. People show up to see them. People talk about them. So do you think that that's like a growing trend?

EDELSTEIN: Well, some people show up for them. It's still - there are still very few documentaries that cross over, and none of these documentary directors is getting rich. At the same time, because the means of production are so much less expensive, there are more people making them, and these films, you know, hold up against the best fictional films.

The five I want to choose are "The Act of Killing," which is Josh Oppenheimer's documentary in which he has Indonesian mass murderers reenact their atrocities from 40 years ago. The second is...

GROSS: These are war atrocities, not just serial murder atrocities.

EDELSTEIN: These are war atrocities, yes, yes. I mean, a million Indonesians were killed in the late '60s, and these guys are still around. They're beloved by the government. And it - who would've thought that they love reenacting their crimes? They want to be movie stars. They think it's just great to play gangster on camera.

The next film is "Twenty Feet from Stardom," Morgan Neville's film about backup singers, which actually has broken through. I guess it's made $4 or $5 million. And these singers have had - their careers have had a new life, people like Darlene Love and Mary Clayton and Lisa Fischer.

"Let the Fire Burn," Jason Osder's amazing documentary about the explosion, the conflagration of the MOVE headquarters in the 1980s. And let me just say why this is such an important film. It is all archival footage. There are no modern talking heads. And yet stitching together all this footage from the time, he's able to create the kind of present-tense excitement that you rarely get in a documentary.

"Blackfish" is Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film about the psychotic whale Tilikum and makes a great case for why we should not keep such mammals in captivity. And finally Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which is much more traditional documentary, but I think everybody should see it if they want to know the story of Julian Assange.

GROSS: So David, one of the things that makes end-of-the-year lists and award nominations at the end of the year fun is that you can compare your own taste with the tastes of, you know, the critics you're hearing or the nominations you're reading about. So when you compare your list to the films that have been nominated for awards or have already received awards, where do you feel most in synch and most out of synch?

EDELSTEIN: Well, people will notice that "12 Years a Slave" is not one of my best films of the year. It's a very powerful film, and it will get a lot of awards. It's also a very bludgeoning film. And I know that there are people out there saying well of course it's bludgeoning, that's what slavers did, they bludgeoned their African-American slaves. Are you a slavery apologist?

And from a political standpoint, it's easy to see why the film is so vital. But for me, I got the feeling that the director, whose name is Steve McQueen, likes to fix his camera on people whose bodies are being defiled. They were starving to death in hunger. They were shaming themselves sexually in shame. And now they're being tortured on camera.

And I think I'd watch his films less guardedly if I thought he was searching for something more than his characters' reactions to extreme degradation. But, Terry, it's important to say something. Nowadays, there are so many movies that are competing for people's time and their entertainment dollars, and I often find that if I have reservations about a film like "12 Years a Slave" or the Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis," people say oh, you're saying I shouldn't see it.

And that's not it at all. I want people to see "12 Years a Slave." I want them to see "Inside Llewyn Davis." See it, wrestle with it, be part of the conversation and don't be afraid of ambivalence. Don't be afraid if your thumb doesn't go up or down. That's part of what's wonderful and miraculous about movies, that you can try to sort out your own responses.

GROSS: You know how some years there's like prestige movies, and you know that these movies are designed to get Oscars?

(LAUGHTER)

EDELSTEIN: Oh yeah.

GROSS: What was on your list of that kind of prestige film this year?

EDELSTEIN: Well, a lot of these films, you know, it's such a - man, these Oscar campaigns, you do not know what is happening behind the scenes. You do not know what the Academy voters, how they are being bombarded. Talk about bombardment. Every second, phone calls, parties, leaflets, you know, swag of all kinds by people who are pushing their nominees.

A lot of films screen for one week in New York and L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, and then they open again in February. And, you know, just to get on these Oscar short lists. Everything opens around Christmastime and December so it's fresh in people's minds.

Let me give you an example. "Lee Daniels' The Butler" this summer was - everybody was talking about this movie as a shoo-in for every Oscar category and every critic award. Well, it's largely forgotten now except for Oprah Winfrey, who has the money to mount, you know, a colossal Oscar campaign for herself.

There's no reason from that apart from the fact that it opened in August, and all these other movies are fresh in people's minds. But I do think "Her" and "American Hustle" are opening in time for big awards and are extraordinary films, and they're opening within three days of each other, and they're two of the best American films I've seen in years.

And you know what else is really interesting about them? They are produced by the same person. They are - one of the producers is Megan Ellison. She is 27 years old. She is the daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, obviously comes from billions, and you know, and she's produced - last year she produced "The Master" and "Zero Dark Thirty." This year she produced "American Hustle" and Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" and Spike Jones's "Her."

And, you know, on one hand while it's a reflection of the tremendous inequality in this society, but on the other hand it gives you hope that, as in the days of Mozart and Beethoven, maybe these rich kids will come out and they'll take their daddies' money, and they'll put it into really difficult, interesting films that, you know, no studio these days would finance.

GROSS: You know, getting back to the Oscar campaigns, are they effective? Can the people who actually vote for the Oscars really be effectively lobbied or bought?

EDELSTEIN: Oh, sure. Let me give you an example of that. A few years ago, Julie Christie won all the critics' awards for her extraordinary performance in "Away From Her." And everybody thought she was going to be a shoo-in for the Oscar. But Julie Christie didn't want to campaign. She was somewhat reticent, whereas Marillon Cotillard, who was in the Edith Piaf documentary, they brought her to Hollywood.

Nobody knew her. They introduced her at parties. People saw how breathtakingly beautiful she was. I actually think now that Marion Cotillard is one of the world's greatest film actresses. So I'm very happy that she was recognized. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that her charming all those Oscar voters led directly to her Academy Award.

GROSS: My guest is our film critic David Edelstein. We'll talk more about the year in film after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Edelstein, FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York magazine. And we're talking about the year in movies. Well, David, it's holiday season and, you know, there's a bunch of films that are opening for the holidays or have just opened. Of those films, which would you recommend? And I'll ask you to stick to films that are opening beyond New York and L.A., that are opening beyond just, like, Oscar consideration.

EDELSTEIN: Well, "American Hustle" is of course on my 10 best list, and I could not recommend it more highly. Will Ferrell does - and Adam McKay do not disgrace themselves in "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues." They finally took the big sequel money. But they feel like they have to earn their salaries. So the movie is this stuffed, overstuffed bounty of cameo roles and the weirdest, most absurdist slapstick imaginable.

It does not all work, but you really are seeing people trying so desperately to be weird, to be - and to do something different and to kind of bombard you with surrealism in a way that you don't see in many comedies.

People will go to see "The Wolf of Wall Street," the new Martin Scorsese film with Leonardo DiCaprio. I think it's absolutely nightmarishly awful, but there are colleagues of mine who disagree. It's three hours, essentially, of watching this jerk steal money and be an insider trader, scam people and celebrate by snorting cocaine off the buttocks of hookers and cavort and sleep with everybody and consume conspicuously.

And there are scenes that run on and on and on of Leonardo Di Caprio making these insane speeches about the beauty of capitalism. And the only person who does well in the movie, I think, is Kyle Chandler from "Friday Night Lights," who underplays everything and is surrounded by these desperate over-actors. He's this beacon of sanity. He plays this agent on the trail of Leonardo Di Caprio.

OK, so do I recommend the film? Sure, I recommend it. You should see it, even though...

GROSS: After all that?

EDELSTEIN: After all that, yes, see it, see it. Make up your own mind. "August: Osage County" was from a wonderful play, and you know, the movie is really misdirected, but there are extraordinary performances by Julia Roberts of all people, who gives a very finely tuned cinematic performance versus Meryl Streep, who is chewing up the scenery. And there's Margot Martindale and Chris Cooper. It's an extraordinary ensemble cast.

The one that I recommend for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality is a film called "Labor Day." It's directed by Jason Reitman from a kind of hopelessly bad book by Joyce Maynard. And it is - it's one of the worst films I've ever seen, but it's so hilariously terrible that I think it could turn into a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or a "Mommy Dearest," where people just sit there and they yell at the screen and they have these rituals.

It's about an escaped convict who hides out with this mother and son and becomes a surrogate father. And he's a gourmet cook. So a lot of the movie is him showing them how to make like peach pie. And they're sitting there, he's fixing up the place, and he's becoming a dad, and then there's a little bit of sort of PG-13-rated bondage in there to add to the sort of romantic literature, you know, kinkiness of it, just a great time hooting at this movie.

GROSS: What are you looking forward to in 2014?

EDELSTEIN: I have no idea.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Because you don't know what's coming out, or you don't really know what's going to be good?

EDELSTEIN: You know, Terry, and this is really worth saying: Because it's my job, I'm lucky enough to be able to go into a film not even knowing the genre. I know the title, maybe I know who's in it, and I sit down and I allow the filmmaker to take me someplace without any preconceptions. I love being that way, and I'm sorry that more people, more and more people go into films having watched the coming attractions, which give everything away, on the Internet or in theaters, having read reviews or heard reviews like mine.

I would encourage people just sometime walk into a movie that you don't even know what it's about. Be transported. Sure, you may be crushed, you may be pissed off, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, you may be enthralled and surprised in a way that you can't be when you've kind of steeped yourself in all the material that surrounds these films before they come out.

GROSS: Do you not watch trailers because mostly you're going to screenings where they are not showing trailers, or do you actually making a point of leaving when the trailers are on?

EDELSTEIN: When I see movies in theaters, which I do all the time, I either plug my ears or I leave the seat. I don't want to - I don't want to see it. I don't want to know what the best slapstick moment in a film is. I don't want to know the arc of the story. That's what they give away.

That's what they give away. They show you oftentimes every beat of the story, or a film like "Nebraska," one of the worst trailers I've ever seen, and I don't necessarily blame the people who made it, I think they're trying to sell this very quiet movie, it gets a lot of its power from scenes that kind of carry on in real time in a very low-key way.

When you cut it up in order to make it look like some outrageously quirky movie about this crusty old oldster and people cheering him for - you know, that he's going to be this rich man, when you see a movie like that, that gives such a strong misperception of the film, you oftentimes don't even want to see the movie, or you come to it with, you know, the worst kind of prejudices.

GROSS: Well, I guess you'll be nice and surprised in 2014.

(LAUGHTER)

EDELSTEIN: I know, you know, you know which directors you love. You know which actors you love. There are certain directors, David O. Russell, I'll see any film he makes. Nicole Holofcener, who made "Enough Said" this year, I'll go to any film Nicole Holofcener makes in a state of great excitement.

So many films this year, what's remarkable about them, the bad and the good, you really feel as if directors are taking chances in their storytelling. They are creating a new syntax for every story. They are finding new and extraordinary ways of - maybe it's even familiar material, but they're going at it through the back door or the side door, or they're mixing up the syntax.

And that - and they're reminding you of what is so marvelously elastic about cinema. A lot of us have been raving over the past few years about great television shows like "Breaking Bad" that have done narratively what film cannot, by immersing you in a story for 60-some-odd episodes and allowing you to track a character over time.

Maybe movies can't compete narratively with television in that way, but they have extraordinary elasticity in terms of the language of what they can do, of the order in which they can present things, of the technical magic that they can use. They're creating new forms of narrative that I find so exciting.

You know, even if a story, even if it's a formula story, to be able to see it with new eyes, from a new perspective, that's what movies can do that no other medium can.

GROSS: Well, David, it's been a lot of fun to talk about the year in film with you. Thank you so much.

EDELSTEIN: Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for allowing me to do reviews for this wonderful show.

GROSS: Our absolute pleasure to have you. Thank you for being our film critic. I wish you happy holidays. Have a wonderful new year.

EDELSTEIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for New York Magazine. You'll find his best-of list with his capsule reviews of each film on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.