2013 Best Picture: Which Films Will Stand the Test of Time?
By Mark Pinkert
In less than a week, the Academy will crown its 2013 Best Picture and, soon after, we’ll all move on to 2014. But which of the current films will stand the test of time? Which ones will we re-watch, now and later, despite massive influxes of new movies? Some of this year’s films, we’ll find, are “re-watchable,” while others fill us up after one viewing. Here’s my look at the nine Best Picture contenders and how I think they’ll fare down the road.
12 Years a Slave
This is a film that needs to–and will–stand the test of time. The source of its longevity, years later, will be the poignant performances and powerful scenes that burn into our memories, as when Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) clings barely to life from a noose on the plantation. But the film is difficult to watch, which means that we won’t want to return to it frequently or just for fun. This isn’t a film you land on and watch while flipping through the channels, nor is it a DVD you buy a friend for Christmas. Where this film will survive is in future film classes and, further, in future history and humanities classes. I think this film will usurp, or at the very least stand with, Amistad (1997) as the most important film about slavery. Thus, it has re-watching value not because we want to re-watch it, but because we have to.
Future film lovers and students will look back at David O. Russell as one of the great American directors, especially if he can keep up his current hot streak. It’s been two years in a row that Russell has produced four Best Actor/Supporting Actor nominees–a rare and special feat for a director. From his film Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he directed Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver into Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress nominations, respectively, and directed Jennifer Lawrence into a win for Best Actress. This year he led another four members of his cast into all four major acting categories: Christian Bale for Best Actor, Amy Adams for Best Actress, Bradley Cooper for Best Supporting Actor, and Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress. If nothing else, it will be these four amazing performances (and two other minor roles played by Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K.) that will make this film last. In fact, I think that the collective dynamism and theatricality of these actors is unparalleled in recent history. Not to mention the film is hilarious. I think that disappointed critics, who were initially hoping for a classic conspiracy/political thriller, will come around on a second watch. Finally, it’s hard to ignore the hairdos and clothes that subtly–or not so subtly–make it a ridiculously fun “period piece” and one to watch several times.
Paul Greengrass made two great films–United 93 (2006) and Green Zone (2010)–which haven’t held up over time. This is in part because Greengrass hadn’t quite mastered his unique, documentary-like film style, but it was clear he was on his way. Now he has Captain Phillips, which is masterful in both its intimacy and expanse. At once, Greengrass gives us closeups of great performances by Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, who execute with great candor, and wide action shots of ships, oceanic expanses, and Navy SEALs. Thus the film works extremely well on the big screen, but it will also translate well into home-viewing. One of the interesting anecdotes from production is that Hanks and Abdi’s hadn’t met until cameras were rolling on the first takeover scene. This on-screen introduction allowed Greengrass to capture something real, and something that we don’t often get in action films. We need more filmmakers with that level of industriousness and more films like Captain Phillips, which are not over-dramatized, but extremely dramatic. This is a film to watch over and over again.
Dallas Buyers Club
It’s very likely that Jean–Marc Vallée‘s Dallas Buyers Club will provide this year’s Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, so for these amazing, transforming performances–and also for its social message–we should return to the film again. If nothing else it’s a pleasant reminder of the true depth of Matthew McConaughey‘s talent, as well as of the daring return of Jared Leto. Indeed, the film is a must-see, but does it have “re-sale” value? After the first watch, you get your fill of the story, which not-so-brazenly meets our expectations. As in many films, the once-ignorant main character, Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), comes of age and transcends ignorance by way of his own suffering. Woodroof’s friendship with Rayon (Leto) is touching, sure, but not much more than we expect coming into the film. Further, the film–as a social message–doesn’t have the force or the rallying cry of others in this “genre,” like Philadelphia (1993), Schindler’s List (1993), or To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Perhaps if there is a major turn in the fight against AIDs or another epidemic that spawns similar buyers clubs and anti-FDA anger, then this film could rise again. In the meantime, one viewing might be enough.
The grim reality for Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity is that once it leaves theaters, it will become obsolete. This is a groundbreaking, visual effects film that captivated audiences all year, to be sure, but other groundbreaking, visual effects films inevitably come along and usurp their predecessors. Such has been the case for films like The Abyss (1989) and Avatar (2009), which aren’t as much fun anymore, and especially not on modest living room televisions. The exhilaration of Gravity comes from seeing it in theaters, on a seventy-five foot iMAX screen with booming surround sound, and thus it won’t translate well to DVD or television (where would you even stop for commercials?) Some visual effects films do survive the test of time, but those also have powerful stories, something Gravity unfortunately lacks. Star Wars became iconic not just because it looked amazing in late 1970s, but because it brought us an entire universe and an epic journey within that universe. In twenty years, with advanced technology, it might be interesting to see a re-release of Gravity in theaters; although, there will be other exciting films, made specifically for that future technology, that we’ll want to see instead.
As tech companies enhance artificial intelligence and increase the computing power of our cell phones, Spike Jonze’s Her will continue to be relevant. In fact, Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has been in the news lately and has said, in so many words, that Her might just be accurate in twenty or thirty years. Maybe he’s just bringing attention to his own work or maybe he’s right–maybe Her will prove to be a prescient look into the future from our liminal moment in tech history. Only time will tell, and indeed future film-goers will want to return to this movie (if not to check in on iPhone romances, then to see if people will actually start wearing those funky-looking, belt-less pants). In the meantime, I think it is re-watchable, but maybe only once or twice. The film isn’t notably exciting and is at times awkwardly intimate. Whereas American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are both fun and thus easy to return to, Her is a little bit slower. Once or twice is enough for now–at least until 2050 when we need to see if Spike Jonze was right.
I don’t see Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska winning the Best Picture, nor do I think it’s the biggest hit of the year, but I do think it’s going to be relevant in the near-future. For one, it acts as a counterpoint to the other Best Picture contenders, especially Gravity, Her, and The Wolf of Wall Street. We easily to get lost in the visual magnitude of Gravity, the futuristic impressions of Her, and the representation of Wall Street excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, and then make these films our icons of current and future society. Yet all the while, there is the Other, the other America: drab country life, nostalgia, small-town humility, and moderate hope. Nebraska isn’t about income disparity or country versus city life, and it’s not meant to counteract the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street. But it does remind us that there’s a lot of land between New York and Los Angeles, and some good stories there. Further, there’s a wealth of cinema that doesn’t rely on bombastic visual effects and booming surround sound, but that lives and breathes in modest black and white. For Payne, and for all of us, this film is a humble homage to that tradition. Like its subject, it’s a small and reticent film, so it’s not easy to watch over and over again. But hopefully we don’t forget it in twenty years when we re-watch The Wolf of Wall Street and think “that’s what filmmakers thought of our society.”
Stephen Frears’ Philomena appears to cover a small scope: the story of an old Irish lady named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) who is searching for her long-lost child. As the journalist, and her future partner in this endeavor, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), would say: it’s a just a simple “human interest piece.” But like great human interest pieces, this is not about just one human, but about humanity. As Sixsmith and Lee embark on their quest to locate her son, broader themes expand for Sixsmith and for us, the viewers. From this journey, we discover moments of interconnectedness, forgiveness, faith vs. reason, and even, briefly, issues of sex and homosexuality. These themes are not overplayed nor didactic, and they give the film great depth. Further, Judi Dench’s performance is fantastic–both delicately emotional and acerbically witty. She makes the film funnier than expected and gives it, perhaps, unexpected longevity.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street has more re-sale value than any other film on the docket this year. On the surface it is wildly funny, entertaining, and–most important for its re-sale value–has several repeatable one-liners. Many of the scenes will ossify into comedic icons: when they discuss a lavish dinner bill with Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) father; when they discuss, in earnest, the conditions of a midget-tossing event; and when Belfort and Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) incapacitate themselves on Quaaludes. But on a deeper level, this film can be a societal marker, an important foray into the Wall Street mentality and universe of excess and greed. Though the stories are quite different, the sentiments of this film and of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are similar, and the former could represent our current era as does the latter for the 1920s. That this film bares the name Martin Scorsese will also help its longevity. But at the end of the day, it’s just too entertaining to resist a second, third, and fourth watch.