Oscar nomination day may seem unfathomably late to put up a Best Of List for the year prior... but if it's good enough for The Academy, why not me? As I've made a regular practice of compiling this stuff, I realized that January was better than trying to glom onto the crush of December year-enders (a fresh palette, and a good time to encourage friends to catch up on quality product they may have missed), and this year, trying to resume blogging, at this point, well, I can pretty much do what I like when I want to. Rebuilding, restarting, rebooting... I think I've used up all the good words. Now it's just... get back to it.
I don't have a lot to say about the Oscar nods - it's the usual mix of some good, some bad, some just head scratching (Jackass for Best Makeup? It's actually explicable... but that don't make it right). Some of the nominees are in my mix, some not, but this list isn't just a great films list. When I started writing this down, I knew I needed a broader approach. So this list comprises everything, and anything, visually entertaining. I just didn't get to a lot of museums this year.
Without further ado:
1) August: Osage County. A raft of mixed to bad reviews, and a lot of overhyping made me nervous about the filmed adaptation of Tracy Letts' Broadway hit play. Sure it had Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and a similarly dream team cast, but I'd missed the play and what I'd heard made me skeptical. Instead, I found myself blown away by a searing wound: Letts has peeled back layers of artifice from a classic setup - the wildly dysfunctional family in close quarters - and refuses to soften the proceedings with comedy or ease our tensions with melodramatic excess. Indeed, I think the dismal responses came, in part, because some mistook the drama oncscreen for excess, when those of us who've lived it can attest to what's displayed; and conversely, others were surely disturbed by the play's refusal to take easy shortcuts or artificially upbeat endings. Streep (with her 18th nomination!) reminds us, again, that she shines best in ensembles, and that she can play self involved monsters with the best of them, in a part worthy of Davis or Hepburn (though neither might have pulled it off this compellingly). Roberts, too, reminds us that she is capable of greatness, even in a dislikable role. But then, don't miss the amazing Margo Martindale or the sublime Juliette Lewis, either. And that's just for starters. Hard to watch, harder to turn away, brilliant in every painful detail. Yeah, that's just what it was like.
2) The Grandmaster (Ya Dai Zong Shi). The Best Film no one saw: Wong Kar Wai remains at the top of his game telling the story of the Martial Arts master who trained Bruce Lee, and thus influences nearly everything about the ethos and presentation of Asian combat on film. Ip Man's story has everything that's hip in Asian film - twenties gangsters in Shanghai, opium trade, rival warlords, fights in snow and rain and next to moving trains - but what's stunning is how Wong teases out a sensitive, moving drama with a point. Of course that looks all the easier when graced with superstar talent like Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Ziyi Zhang, but the point is, as usual, Chinese film is racing ahead of us in terms of marrying big budget action sequences to important, well told stories. That this film was ignored by The Academy is a reminder of their, and much of America's myopia to recognizing art beyond our borders. Happily, it seems pretty clear that Wong's not going aywhere anytime soon.
3) The Great Gatsby. Another long anticipated adaptation that could easily have flown off the rails (Hollywood has tried twice before, with generally disastrous results), but Baz Luhrmann proved that sometimes, a six month extension to completion is actually helpful and not a sign of impending doom. And Luhrmann found the heart of Fitzgerald much the way one would expect from his previous films: no one does the controlled madness of party sequences better, and no one has a surer feel for how to marry modern music to classic cinematic images. The result? A film that aurally and visually links the excesses of our own age to those of the roaring twenties, emphasizing the timelessness of Fitzgerald's keen insights into the worst of human foibles. Easily Leonardo DiCaprio's best performance in years, his Gatsby is both the star and dupe of his own show. And, too, Tobey Maguire embodies the contradictions of Nick, our unreliable, untrustworthy narrator. It may have taken 90 years for society to catch up to the sleaziness depicted by Fitzgerald in fiction so long ago, but arguably this film benefited simply from our willingness to put the worst of our natures onscreen as well as the best, finally. Thank God someone finally figured it out.
4) The Originals (Season One, The CW). It's hard to remember anything like the instant success achieved by spinning out major characters from one TV series into another, entirely new one. It's a testament to both the rich canvas painted on The Vampire Diaries and the strong appeal, still, of fantasy horror fiction that this series has bolted out of the gate, while the parent program soldiers on (just off this list). It helps that Joseph Morgan and Daniel Gillies, the two brothers at the heart of the story, are both gifted, sensitive performers and that the plotting and scripting are first rate. Can all of this be sustained? I'm not sure, but so far the growing pains seem limited to the parent show while this one, with its rich mix of vampires, witchcraft and New Orleans Hoodoo seems to stand alone just fine.
5) Supernatural (Season 8 on TV and DVD; Season 9, The CW). Even fewer shows still find fresh energy and insights past the 7th year, and for a while, it seemed as though, in its 7th season that Supernatural - aka the "Season go Splat" - was growing surly and cranky with age. The killings grew especially brutal, and our main characters seemed headed towards their natural ends. But then something magical happened: an 8th season that pulled the show back to its hard fighting roots, fresh blood in the producing and writing ranks, and a renewed sense of purpose put the brother hunters on a new path, one that became infinitely more complex as Heaven was invaded and the angels expelled. Now in a season of fallen angels and seemingly endless twists, Supernatural has revived itself as central to the fantasy sci fi and horror genre (this is one for the history books, now), the show that is known to every geek fanboy - and more crucially, girl - with myths and legends on an epic scale. Also, the leads are very goodlooking. Still.
6) The Company You Keep. Robert Redford's real proof this year - don't talk to me about the man vs. nature nonsense of All Is Lost - that he's still got it as an actor and director. Mining the rich tales of fading sixties radicals, Redford reopens a rough wound - those aging radicals who resorted to crime in the seventies, and then went into lives "underground". Blessed with a raft of talented old timers - can anyone resist Julie Christie? Ever? - Redford also elicited strong work from youngins like Shia LeBoeuf and Anna Kendrick as well. And Redford, as a director, still refuses to resort to pat answers or easy scenarios: what lifts "Company" ahead of other paeans to the wistful romancing of the radical past is his acknowledgements of the tensions and failures that lie within. Sure, there's a sob story here of old romance and missed parenting, but Redford's instincts for WASP classiness keep the tears to a minimum and the larger point never far away. Another Oscar overlook that's mostly a shame, even if its blink and you missed it release came and went too fast.
7) American Hustle. David O. Russell has been generally can't miss (though I skipped Silver Linings Playbook), and this time he's delivered near perfection: a brisk retelling of seventies era corruption and double dealing that plays as the long lost sequel to The Sting, with Coppola level emotional baggage in tow. Brilliantly scripted, the film is equally brilliantly performed by a near dream cast - at this point Jennifer Lawrence is unstoppable, and Amy Adams manages to bust down the doors of serial niceness, plus Bradley Cooper manages to upstage his own sexy dude asshole instincts, while Christian Bale reminds us of his sheer determination in physical transformation. No mistakes, not one missed note, and a crackling energized piece every bit as satisfying as Affleck's Argo. It's Russell's time, and he deserves the accolade.
8) Dallas Buyers Club. Here's to the freaks and weirdos, and here's to the film that doesn't try to clean them up or straighten them out. This tale of the early days of AIDS treatment and the desperate measures taken by patients to treat themselves would be compelling material in anyone's hands, but director Jean-Marc Vallee makes a particular virtue of guerrilla filmmaking and seat of your pants storytelling. Then too, this has been the year when Matthew McConnaughey made that last little leap to performing genius, when he didn't just play sexy laid back lotharios, but infused them with insight, depth, and pain. Dangerously thin, anxious and enervated, McConnaughey stalks this film in a way he rarely has ever, willing himself, those around him, and the audience to root for the right things. And then there's Jared Leto, no compromises, no fear, playing the best outrageous transwoman yet seen in a major film. Profoundly moving, thought provoking and angering... what more could you ask?
9) Teen Wolf (Season 3a, MTV). Zooming from interesting curiosity to underground hit, MTV's reboot of a middling eighties horror comedy could easily have been a misbegotten mess, but instead became an instant word of mouth addiction, not least because of a cast of eye candy nearly unequalled on cable or network (and, like the Vampire Diaries, it owes a debt to the teen television boom, and especially a whole previous generation of TV studs still on the casting open market). But eye candy alone doesn't make hit television (I know... right?), and the real surprise here, as with other fantasy TV successes, starts with the solid scripting and knack for tasty plot twists (no one does a cliffhanger nearly as well as this show is doing, week to week and season to season). All of the male leads - Tyler Posey, Tyler Hoechlin, Dylan O'Brien, Daniel Sharman - are delivering surprisingly rich, nuanced performances, as are Crystal Reed and Holland Roden, Roden perhaps most of all. Even MTV has learned its lesson, beefing up its series order and refreshing us with a "second half" third season that so far lives up to the hype.
10) Justified (Seasons 3 and 4, DVD and FX). Timothy Olyphant has found his true calling as Raylan Givens, the Kentucky-born and bred US Marshal who has to bring justice and beat back his worst instincts as he deals with both a complicated present and a disastrous past. Writing again is the real key here - can you mess up Elmore Leonard for source material? - but Justified continues to amaze in 13 week bites just by putting Appalachian culture up for examination, one of the last under examined subcultures left in this vast land (with Longmire's open west fast approaching behind it). Olyphant remains a captivating tall drink of water, the visual embodiment of "lanky", bringing with him virtually a whole sense memory of the classic western - even in an open field, you can almost see the tavern's swinging doors flutter behind him before he draws his gun to shoot. And yeah, if you get that whole double entendre in all its glory, then this show's success is fairly easy to see.
11) Kill Your Darlings. One of a small string of Beat Generation stories weaving their way to the screen, this one offers the real life story of Allen Ginsberg and his involvement in a high profile murder investigation during his years at Columbia, the murder committed by Lucien Carr justified as gay panic. Sure, there are other, more recent youthful examples of rebels blowing up the counterculture, but the real postwar engagement with artistically blowing up the status quo starts with this small band of risk takers, who probably nearly killed themselves in the process. This fim's loving depiction of Ginsberg and how he grew into the poet he became is well observed, and helped immensely by Daniel Radcliffe's already high wire approach to unexpected roles - he doesn't condescend or shy away for even a minute. The film may take a few liberties - and Carr's descendants weren't thrilled with reopening old wounds - but generally, this film captures a rebellious spirit and the possibilities afforded by that certain sort of liberal arts college experience. At least, that's kind of how I remember it, Ferlinghetti and all.
12) Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen continues to solidify his position in this late period of filmmaking as the Years Where He Puts It All Together. Comedy, drama, insights, madness... it's all there in the story of two sisters whose lives are deeply intertwined and whose fates are fairly far apart. Cate Blanchett's turn as a middle aged woman descending into madness, like other bravura performances this year, initially resembles the star turns of great actresses of yore, but Blanchett has the modernity and guts to go all the way, creating a genuinely jittery and unnerving mood where you're never quite sure where all this is headed. Allen's flirted with all of this material before - sisters, neuroses, failed romantics - but never before with this kind of assuredness and authority. The fact that Blanchett will likely finally get her Best Actress due is a detail. And that's the real hallmark of great film work.
13) Archer (Season 4, FX). Animated television's edgiest edge - and that's saying something - continued to find the envelope, push it, rip it up, and set it on fire. No one else so consistently "goes there" or let's us know that "there" is yet farther than we knew it was before, all in the guise of a simple spy comedy about the world's worst spy agency and it's cast of lovable, if kinky and depraved, misfits. If this wasn't their absolute best work (how long and how far can you go over the top, after all?), this was the year that Archer proved, sensibly, that they could reliably deliver outrageousness, badass adventure, and tremendously witty wordplay in satisfying doses. Which may explain why they've taken their wildest leap yet in last week's launch of Season 5. But that's for next year's list.
14) The Good Wife (Seasons 4 and 5, CBS). I'm probably listing it too low for the good work its doing, but then, that's what lifts this show above nearly everything else on network television. Take your Scandal, forget your Downton, don't bring me that cable bullshit... show me one other series that plays within the familiar rules of traditional scripted television - 24 episodes a season from October to May - and consistently delivers writing, acting... hell, existence, on a level as solid as this. Nobody, not Kerry Washington, not Mariska Hargitay, not any of those blondes on those shows you think you like so much, plays a cipher as glamorous or captivating, at this moment, as Juliana Marguies is playing, week to week. And hell, does she make it look easy, never breaking a sweat, rarely looking flustered, just taking it in, and dishing it out. No wonder Chris Noth and Josh Charles, never mind Matt Czuchry, continue to their best work dancing attendance around her. On any other show, Archie Punjabi would be upstaging them all; here, she's just another great addition to the ensemble. And Christine Baranski! Alan Cumming! Lord! Does it end? Will it have to?
15) 42. The best for last, or at least, the most decent. Just a simple, straightforward telling of the Jackie Robinson story, placing it in the context of that American moment when we had to stop looking at our pastimes and entertainments as separate but equal and do the hard work of integration. And Robinson... well, there's a hero for you, for everyone - damned decent, hardworking, mindful of the moment, but determined to do it right and do it well, so that, afterwards, we'd be better people and a better country. I mean, it's just a baseball movie... right?
By the way - sights unseen: I have to admit that this list looks like this, perhaps, because I have not watched the following: Gravity, Her, Lone Survivor, Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter MItty, Nebraska, Inside Llwewyn Davis, Mandela, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad. And if I didn't mention it... then yes, I probably saw it. And that's another list.