The Top 10 Films of 2013

Film is an amazing medium that combines a huge variety of artistic pursuits, and 2013 was a year that saw a great diversity of quality films. The goal of this list is to highlight the best and most socially important films, some of which were widely seen, and others that deserve a much wider audience than they received. Each in its own way, they speak to what it means to be human and they have important things to say about the world we live in and the societies we’ve created. I definitely encourage everyone to seek out these special films, and to embrace the genuine art that finds a way to succeed under conditions that often discourage creativity.

Enjoy this list, and please feel free to comment with your own favorite films and top 10 lists.

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1. 12 Years a Slave

One of the most powerful films in decades, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Steve McQueen directs this beautiful film that thrusts the audience directly into America’s ugly history. As Northup awakens to the terrible shock of having his freedom suddenly wrenched away, the audience is forced to confront the brutal horror of an institution upon which a nation was built right along with the central character. People may think they understand what slavery looked and felt like, but depicting the entire process from the beginning, showing the dehumanizing impact on a man who was once free, forces the audience to acknowledge slavery with new eyes.

12 Years a Slave is a film that comfortably explores duality. It is both subtle and direct, nuanced and bold. It’s a powerful examination of the human condition, illuminating both the best and the worst in mankind; the will to persevere against all odds, and the forces of oppression bent on achieving total domination over others. A devastating contrast, for example, is made between a “good” slave owner and a “bad” slave owner, and of course, both scenarios are equally awful experiences for Northup, damning slavery from every angle, and refusing to give apologists an inch. Its ending, just like the rest of the film, brilliantly inspires conflicting emotions; the joy of freedom paired with the bitter pain of ongoing institutionalized racism.

Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a commanding and heartbreaking performance as Northup, who struggles throughout the film to maintain his human dignity and hold onto hope in the face of incalculable hardship. Hans Zimmer provides a haunting musical score that perfectly accentuates the emotion of the film, especially the sinister tones that accompany Northup’s trafficking into the South, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is breathtaking, contrasting the beauty of the natural world with the ugliness of slavery.

Steve McQueen has crafted a near perfect film, a masterpiece that cries out to be seen, because by illuminating the past we can better understand the root causes of the ongoing horrors of the present. 12 Years a Slave is the best and most important film of the decade.

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2. Prisoners

Prisoners is a mesmerizing crime story about two families whose daughters are kidnapped in broad daylight on Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania and the desperate search to find them. The film is a slow, agonizing burn, gradually building tension as the investigation stretches on over the course of several days, testing the moral strength of both sets of parents, and the skill of the lead detective on the case.

Hugh Jackman’s intense performance as Keller, a desperate father who takes the law into his own hands, is one of the best of his career, and Jake Gyllenhaal also crackles as an edgy, arrogant detective who has to meticulously comb through the clues and evidence while also keeping an eye on the suspicious activity of the missing girls’ families.

Prisoners takes a story that could have easily been dumbed down to the level of a “Law and Order” episode and elevates it to high art. Not only is the film exquisitely made on a technical level, due in large part to Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, it also incorporates heavy moral, philosophical, and religious themes on top of the narrative’s mystery.

The title of the film refers not only to the kidnapped girls, but also to the person Keller believes holds the key to his daughter’s location, as well as those who are trapped under the spell of religious fanaticism. The film, featuring strong supporting roles by Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo, is a searing and emotional exploration of the limits and hypocrisy of religious morality.

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3. Before Midnight

The third film in Richard Linklater’s fantastic ‘Before‘ series might be the best yet, which is extremely high praise. Midnight arrived right on cue, nine years after Before Sunset (2004), which came nine years after the original, Before Sunrise (1995). The latest installment in this cinematic dissertation on love follows the star-crossed relationship of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-write the films along with Linklater. They know their roles inside out and they embody their characters so deeply that they don’t appear to be acting at all, allowing Linklater to shoot very long, naturalistic takes. This technique pulls the audience into the film as if it were an extension of real life, making the exploration of contemporary love all the more compelling.

In Midnight, we step into Jesse and Celine’s lives while they’re on vacation in Greece after they’ve been a couple for several years. The film sets up a scenario where there are couples from several different generations gathered together, and they have the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of romantic love at various stages of life. Jesse and Celine fall somewhere in the middle, and this moment allows them to evaluate their relationship and examine what they’ve each sacrificed to be together. While Before Sunrise is about the thrill of new possibilities, and Before Sunset is about the regret of missed opportunities, Before Midnight is about the consequences of actually getting what you want. It strips away the fantasy and idealism of the first two films and dives right into the everyday reality and struggle of sustaining a long-term relationship.

Given the empty, formulaic romantic comedies that Hollywood has churned out for decades, Linklater’s Before series is a breath of fresh air. All three films are both humorous and serious, and they provide a huge number of topics and themes to ponder long after the credits role. Hopefully Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit this brilliant romantic series in 2022. Before Twilight, perhaps?

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4. Big Sur

Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film picks up the story of the legendary author’s life as he struggles with the success of his classic On the Road. After helping to define the Beat Generation, Kerouac feels a great burden on his shoulders. People expect him to be Sal Paradise, his alter ego from Road in his mid twenties, but the real Jack Kerouac is approaching middle age, and the world is changing around him. The film follows Kerouac as he seeks refuge and solitude in the Big Sur region on the central coast of California.

Michael Polish’s film is exceptionally beautiful, and not just because of the natural scenery on location. His camera captures the magnificence of the surroundings- the forest, the sky, the waves on the beach, and the dramatic rock formations jutting upward from the ocean- in a way that appears effortless, but is the result of a perfect union of subject and artist. Polish conjures a true character from the environment surrounding the cabin that Kerouac inhabits as he undergoes an existential crisis. A last gasp, of sorts, as his restless soul continues to struggle for meaning in life.

Big Sur integrates Kerouac’s words into the film through a beautiful use of voice-over, which, in combination with the breathtaking scenic elements, is almost Terrence Malick-esque. The film also has a fantastic musical score by composer Kubilay Uner and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. All the performances in the film are very high caliber. Jean-Marc Barr plays the aging Kerouac with great depth. It’s not easy to carry a film as an actor, but Barr does so with a nuanced performance that owns the screen without overshadowing the supporting actors. Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady, who even as he approaches middle age, shows shades of what made him such a charismatic and inspirational figure in Kerouac’s life. Rhada Mitchell plays Cassady’s wife, and a strikingly beautiful Kate Bosworth plays his mistress. Big Sur is a magnificent film; a genuine work of art in all aspects of the medium.

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5. Gravity

In a Hollywood that pumps out sequels and comic book films at an alarming rate, Gravity was perhaps the most refreshing big-budget film of the year. It centers around astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who after an accident in outer space must survive a series of obstacles in the harshest of environments. Alfonso Cuaron’s exciting film follows Stone on a metaphorical life cycle from fetal state to birth as she struggles to rediscover her will to live while up against seemingly impossible odds, and by the end she must either “evolve” or die.

Gravity is a technical and artistic marvel, blending life-like digital effects with human performances in perfect harmony. Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the greatest cinematographer working today, composed several long shots that develop character while moving the narrative forward, maintaining a sense of motion and a heightened state of suspense throughout much of the film. In perhaps the best use of 3D technology yet, the screen seems to melt away, enveloping the audience in the action.

Though the film suffers from some weak dialogue that feels a bit forced and at times unnecessary, Gravity is one of those rare gems that thrills through the sheer force of its unique concept while simultaneously allowing the audience to connect to the human drama.

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6. Fruitvale Station

Oscar Grant, a 22 year old black man, was murdered on New Years day in 2009 by a white police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in San Francisco. Fruitvale Station follows Oscar on the last day of his life, painting a vivid portrait of a man, flaws and all, attempting to change the direction of his life during difficult circumstances, before it was unjustly cut short.

The film cuts through stereotypes, allowing the audience to get to know Oscar both as a fully developed character, and as a human being, which amplifies the tragedy of his death. During the course of a single day we meet Oscar’s girlfriend, daughter, mother, grandmother, and several friends, as well as a couple new acquaintances. We witness the struggle of his everyday life. He just lost his job but doesn’t want to fall back into a life as a drug dealer. Unsure of how he will make ends meet in the future he decides to have a fun night out with friends to celebrate the new year. His spontaneity, his kindness and compassion, his positive outlook, and his desire to do the right thing are all illustrated through several episodes that all lead up to his murder at the hands of the police who don’t see him as a nuanced human being. To them, he’s entirely defined by his race, and all his human complexity is ignored.

Fruitvale Station is the first feature film by director Ryan Coogler, a Bay Area native who felt compelled to make a film about an event that rocked his community in the hope of showing people the humanity of a person who became a symbol to rally around. And in his first leading role, Michael B. Jordan brings Oscar’s story to life in haunting fashion. Octavia Spencer, fresh from her Academy Award winning role in The Help provides a powerful cornerstone for the film. Fruitvale Station is an important film. By telling this story, hopefully people will understand that it’s important to see each other as human beings, to not be so quick to leap to conclusions, and also to understand the real role that police play in this oppressive society.

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7. The Great Gatsby

Others have tried to adapt Fitzgerald’s classic novel to the big screen and achieved nothing but lifeless tedium, which makes Baz Luhrmann’s successful attempt at The Great Gatsby all the more impressive. Luhrmann is definitely a true artist, and his film is alive, colorful, and exciting. While other film makers have struggled with a way to translate the internal monologue of the novel to the screen, Luhrmann solves that problem in the boldest ways possible. He puts Fitzgerald’s words directly on the screen and places the narration front and center, which allows the prose to drive the narrative, just as it does in the novel, while utilizing a visceral and inventive visual style to establish the setting.

The Great Gatsby is a film that simply must be surrendered to. It has flaws, some of which are inherited from the source material, but the film is a force of nature. While perhaps not exactly the anti-Wolf of Wall Street, Gatsby is a loud, bold look into American style capitalism that succeeds while Leonardo DiCaprio’s other major film on the same subject fails. Though Gatsby does maintain a certain level of admiration for the pursuit of wealth, it does so with great disdain for the outlook of the elite, personified by Tom Buchanan’s paranoid racism, greed, and misogyny, as well as Jay Gatsby’s own corruption, and the story clearly articulates the consequences of giving material wealth greater value than human life.

Luhrmann’s style has always been divisive because of his willingness to take artistic risks, but here it pays off in extremely entertaining fashion, as long as you give yourself over to the unconventional experience and enjoy the ride.

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8. Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, in which he also stars, is a surprisingly layered and intelligent film about relationships in the age of internet pornography. The title character, Jon, is obsessed with porn and masturbates compulsively and almost ritualistically. He lives a highly structured and routine oriented lifestyle, keeping to his weekly schedule of working, cleaning his apartment, going to church with his family, working out at the gym, and going to the club with his friends to pick up women. There’s nothing out of place and nothing to disrupt his pattern until he encounters Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at the club.

Jon and his friends always stand in the center of the club to look for women to potentially take home, sizing them up from a distance, instantly rating them on a scale of 1 to 10. Barbara is “the most beautiful thing” Jon has ever seen, and he becomes determined to make her his ultimate sexual conquest. This is the point where Don Jon could have easily descended into formulaic drivel typical of romantic comedies, but it masterfully avoids going down that road and instead takes on a wonderful complexity.

Don Jon becomes a major statement against a culture that celebrates pornography as a form of women’s liberation. Having developed totally unrealistic expectations from his pornography obsession, Jon is unsatisfied by the real women he objectifies, and he must be jolted out of his old habits. Barbara starts him on the right path, but the brilliance of the film is that it isn’t black and white and it criticizes her controlling perspective, too, ultimately arriving at a highly enlightened view of romantic relationships.

Gordon-Levitt’s film is what great art is all about. It’s entertaining in a way that’s very accessible, but it packs an extremely relevant and important message. It suggests that we might all be better off by breaking with some debilitating habits that we’re convinced are normal, altering our rigid routines that isolate us from the world, and learning to truly connect with other people as equals.

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9. Dallas Buyers Club

Set in the mid-1980s, Dallas Buyers Club is about Ron Woodroof, a hard living racist and homophobic man who is diagnosed with AIDS and told he only has one month to live. After overcoming the denial that he has a “faggot” disease, he seeks help through a drug trial for the experimental treatment AZT. However, he soon realizes that the drugs he’s been given are doing more harm than good, and, unwilling to give up, he searches for ways to circumvent the medical establishment. Along the way he has to become allies with people he previously despised in order to combat the powerful forces of the for-profit medical establishment and the government.

Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey who lost a significant percentage of his body weight for this incredible, career defining role. He’s supported by by Jared Leto, who turns in an iconic performances as Rayon, a transsexual Woodroof meets in the hospital who forces him to put his bigotry aside for mutual benefit.

Dallas Buyers Club is no technical marvel. It’s a sparse film that used almost no artificial lighting and put little effort into visual style. It also suffers from several noticeable background props out of place in the 80s. But these problems become virtually insignificant next to the overpowering substance of the narrative. What makes this film great is the way it exposes the collusion between the government, pharmaceutical companies, and health care practitioners to make a profit at the expense of patient’s health, and the lengths ordinary people must go in order to get the care they need.

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10. Lore

Germany is losing World War II, and as the Allied forces push into the country, the rank and file Nazis scramble to avoid justice. Hannelore (Lore for short) is the eldest daughter of a Nazi officer. After being abandoned by her parents she is forced to care for her siblings as they flee to the countryside.

Having been poisoned by Nazi ideology throughout her life, Lore harbors a deep hatred of Jewish people while blind to the true horror of Hitler’s genocide. So, when she and her young family encounter a Jewish refugee on their journey she has to confront the beliefs her parents and Nazi society instilled in her head on.

Lore is a fresh look at an era that has been documented extensively in film, showing the collapse of Nazi Germany from the perspective of children and adolescents. It’s a coming of age story set in the upheaval of a crumbling society; a loss of innocence as the central character comes to understand the true horror of the Holocaust, and that everything she thought she knew is a lie.

Lore is a beautiful film that flows through its narrative arc with a dream-like quality, as if being recalled from a deeply repressed memory. Indeed, the film drew inspiration from director Cate Shortland’s husband’s family history. Saskia Rosendah leaps off the screen as Lore in her first major role, and Kai Malina turned in a haunting performance as Thomas in which he refused to say most of his scripted dialogue, allowing the pain behind his eyes to speak louder than words. And the film’s ending is a powerful break from the poisonous ideology of Fascism as Lore rejects the temptation to turn a blind eye to genocide.

 

10 More 2013 Films I Highly Recommend

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Her
Frances Ha
As I Lay Dying
Blue Jasmine
August: Osage County
The Place Beyond the Pines
Something in the Air
Upstream Color
Spring Breakers

The Worst Films I Saw in 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street
42
Man of Steel
Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis: Think Twice (It’s Not All Right)

by Miller Francis

I sat in the theater as Inside Llewyn Davis began, feeling that familiar ecstasy of great film anticipation, assuming I would soon take my place among those singing the praises for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “love letter to the Greenwich Village folksong music scene”. As a contemporary of that era, I lived through those times, and like so many was inspired by those who began to break with 1950s Eisenhower-era conformity, its Mad Men values based on cut-throat competition, by the musicians and audiences who searched for authenticity, integrity and community in immortal songs drawn from the lives of the dispossessed.

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I had been transformed by the music, buying most of the major albums of the period, and seeking out documentaries that have kept that music alive right up to the present day. I had read many of the memoirs and autobiographies of key artists of that time, most especially Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Suzie Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time and David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street. I made an effort to go back and pick up on artists and events I missed at the time, going far beyond nostalgia to discover another, darker dimension to the folk scene in Bob Coltman’s amazing bio, Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival. To my shock, I also found that the best, most compelling singer of all, next to Bob Dylan himself, had been completely unknown to me–the awesome and tragic Karen Dalton.

As for the Coen brothers’ body of work, I consider several of their films among my favorites (The Big Lebowski to name just one). I’ll never forget how my jaw dropped when those goofy fugitives in O Brother Where Art Thou entered a radio station and began to perform “Man of Constant Sorrow”, setting a new standard for a film’s use of, and respect for, what is often referred to as roots music or Americana. T-Bone Burnett had been unleashed to work all his magic, and O Brother –film, soundtrack and concerts–deserved all its accolades and popular success.

Oh, and I’m a lifelong cat person.

Little did I know that all my background, experience and love for cats would merely set me up for one colossal bummer when I finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis. Rather than a fond love letter, what I saw unfold on the screen was more like a cruel letter of foreclosure, written with a pen dipped in poison.

Generally, the film did look something like films and photographs I’d seen of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Bruno Delmonel’s cinematography was impressive, and the production design paid a lot of attention to key details. At first, it looked right, but something was off. All the color was drained out, leaving mainly somber grays and browns. I was familiar with the Coen brothers’ claim that the look of their film came from the iconic photograph of Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a photo that had been deeply embedded in my mind since the day a friend put Dylan’s newly released record on the turntable, eager to see my reaction. But what that photo expressed at the time was the spirit of hope, joy and human resilience, blooming out of the deepest winter.

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My friend Dave Zeiger, who was known to pick up a guitar and sing before he became a filmmaker, wrote me, “I personally have spent hours in my life gazing at that photo, drinking in the sense of youth, abandon, and the promise of adventure embodied in Dylan and Rotolo. Let New York be as cold and dank as it wants, WE’RE here, and the world had better watch out.” The only thing the Coen Brothers used was the frozen snow and bitter temperature. In a L.A. Times interview, Ethan was challenged about his use of the word “oppressive” re this photo. “There is something romantic about it,” he replied, “but it’s also hard New York. They’re not walking down the beach in Maui. They look cold.”

Same with the characters. Even those who demonstrated acts of kindness were mocked and ridiculed, particularly for their kindness. Most of the people who inhabited Llewyn Davis’ world seemed cold and mean-spirited, crude caricatures and composites of real people. As for Llewyn Davis, he was, to put it mildly, a total asshole, expressing contempt for every aspect of the very folk scene in which he aspired to achieve success.

First and most important, while Llewyn Davis was, you could say, having a bad week, I never felt that he was particularly “unlucky” or that his bad run of events were exclusive to him. I learned that his singing partner, with whom he had recorded an album, had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, but Davis’ reaction  to that event seemed curiously flat. I reacted strongly to the film’s misrepresentation that Davis was the only down-and-out musician in the scene who had to struggle to survive. I knew enough to know that life wasn’t a bed of roses even for those who managed to achieve some measure of success. Even musicians like Paul Clayton whose albums did sell fairly well, was pretty much on a level not that far above poverty, but they were part of a supportive community united by their love of their music. But in the film, it’s only Davis, the only non-phony, who is kicked out of this Garden of Eden of aspiring, comfortably well off “whitebread” folksingers. Despite how Davis treats those in his circle, they are amazingly tolerant and forgiving. They provide him with places to stay, food to eat, and gigs to play. He, on the other hand, treats each of them with contempt, and so does the film.

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Women in particular come in for major abuse. Jean (Carey Mulligan) is portrayed as adorable on stage but a foul-mouthed “bitch” to Davis, demanding that he pay for an abortion. She can’t stand the possibility that he may be the father of her child, rather than her official lover Jim (Justin Timberlake). Late in the film, when a club owner claims to have “fucked” Jean, we learn along with Llewyn Davis, that the odds of his paternity have just shrunk by a third. He has been used once again. I didn’t believe for one minute the epithet-laced diatribe that Jean throws at Davis. Like so much in this film, it came across as part of a manipulative set-up to demonize her and contribute to a false picture of Llewyn Davis’ victimization by others. Similar criticisms apply to Davis’ hypocritical interaction with his sister, and his reaction when the Gorfeins, folk music enthusiasts who have allowed him to crash in their apartment, ask him to sing for their friends. “I’m not a trained poodle,” he snarls. Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) replies, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.” The film wants us to see her and her sentiment as ridiculous. Later, he cruelly berates her for singing his dead partner’s harmony part.

Two scenes almost caused me to walk out of the theater. In the first, Davis sings a song for his senile father in a nursing home. Some have described this scene as “moving” and “emotional”. Did they ignore how it concludes? With a cruel joke at the father’s expense, reducing his invalid condition to yet another “unlucky” inconvenience for his son. It is only in the world of Inside Llewyn Davis that a jerk like Davis could be considered the “victim” in such a situation.

The second scene was even harder to take. After yet another misogynist joke about the club owner’s requirement of sexual favors by women who perform on his stage, Davis launches into a truly vicious, mid-performance tirade at Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake) modeled apparently on Appalachian mountain singer Jean Ritchie, complete with autoharp. Davis disrupts her performance, loudly curses, calls Hobby “Betty”, declares “I hate fucking folk music!” and continues to verbally abuse Hobby (as well as an Irish singing group modeled on the Clancy Brothers) to a line of fans waiting to get inside the club. How do those who see Davis as an apostle of folk music authenticity, punished for his musical integrity and refusal to “compromise” tradition in the face of rampant commercialism, view this scene? The Elizabeth Hobby/Jean Ritchie character is the antithesis of other film targets like Peter, Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, etc. She is about as authentic and genuinely traditional as a folksinger can get. So why is her performance the event that finally unleashes the full venom of Llewyn Davis?

Throughout the film I looked in vain for some clue, some backstory to the Llewyn Davis character. What are his motivations? If, as the Coen brothers argue, Davis is incurably “self-destructive”, why is that? To put it simply, why is he such an asshole? He does what he does simply because that’s what’s written in the script. He’s not so much a complex, multi-dimensional character, just someone who appears in each of the film’s episodes. This is no Odyssey.

After I saw the film, I trolled through countless reviews, all of them expressing almost unlimited praise for Inside Llewyn Davis. Most saw it through the stereotypical filter of Authenticity/Integrity vs Commercialism, painting Llewyn Davis as a suffering, “uncompromising” proponent of genuine folk music crushed by a wave of commercialized whitebread Folk Lite represented by the other musicians depicted–Jim and Jean), along with a silly cartoon of Tom Paxton called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), and an absurd parody of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Al Cody (Adam Driver). Most reviewers saw the somewhat bland, if technically well performed songs sung by Oscar Isaac as amazingly different from the equally well performed songs by other characters. They seemed to share the befuddled look on Llewyn Davis’ face as he checks out the audience in a folk club, astonished by the wave of affection unleashed by a frankly beautiful performance of “500  Miles” by his friends.

I soon had to conclude that the writers of these reviews had seen a completely different film, and began to wonder if they had possibly projected a film they wanted (needed?) to see onto actual images that in fact depicted the exact opposite. I read descriptions of scenes that were nowhere in the film, or interpretations of scenes and characters that had no basis whatsoever in the assembled images. One of the most desperate attempts to read some motivation into that script came from a few critics who swear up and down that Davis is suffering from prolonged mourning for his suicidal singing partner. I defy anyone to find one scene, or frame, in this film that supports that view. What’s actually on the screen rather suggests his partner’s suicide derived from being treated like shit by Llewyn Davis.

As Inside Llewyn Davis opened in more theaters, a slight awareness of the film’s problems began to surface. A Time magazine review used the provocative title “Folk You”. The New Yorker pointed out some obvious fault lines. Here and there questions were raised about the sour tone of the film, embodied mainly in its protagonist but also permeating the entire film. As more audiences began to take a closer look at the character of Llewyn Davis, the word “asshole” started popping up as the word of choice. Interestingly enough, new articles and promotion stressed how sympathetic the Davis character remains, despite his repellent behavior. This first wave of partially critical reviews focused mainly on the realization that Llewyn Davis was decidedly NOT Dave Van Ronk, noting the discrepancy between details from the world brought to life in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and the world depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis. Interestingly enough, the Coen Brothers were quoted as being amused, almost contemptuous at anyone who could possibly get the idea that their film was about Dave Van Ronk.

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Let’s get this straight. The filmmakers declare from the git that their inspiration was The Mayor of MacDougal Street. All the events in their main character’s life are drawn from Van Ronk’s life. Llewyn Davis’ album cover is a direct copy of Inside Dave Van Ronk, from which comes the very title of the film. They have Davis sing songs made famous by Van Ronk. Then, they ask smugly, how could anyone possibly think our film is about Dave Van Ronk?

The key discrepancy, which became clear when I finally sat down to read The Mayor of MacDougal Street for myself, was the fact that Llewyn Davis is in fact the anti-Dave Van Ronk, a bitter opponent of everything Van Ronk stood for throughout his artistic life–his values, the example he set for young musicians, his art as a singer/guitarist, his role in the real-life folk song revival in the 1960s. And it wasn’t just a contrast with the memoir edited and assembled by Elijah Wald. It was the other books and memoirs, most important, Bob Dylan’s own Chronicles, absolutely free of revenge, vitriol and gossip, and this from the man who wrote “Positively Fourth Street” (probably with good reason!). I should have smelled a rat from a frequent comment by the Coen brothers, different versions of which popped up in interviews: (Ethan) “Joel just suggested in the office one day. It was a long time ago, before the Van Ronk book came out. We were sitting around the office, and he just suggested, ‘OK, a movie starts with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City in 1961.’” (Dec. 6 interview with Steve Pond)

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Still, the critical pedestal on which Inside Llewyn Davis had initially been placed remained solid. To put it mildly, critics seemed mesmerized by what the Cohen brothers had accomplished. A. O. Scott, who went on to declare Inside Llewyn Davis the best film of 2013, declined to speculate fully on what the film might mean, warning against “easy distinctions between sincerity and cynicism, the authentic and the artificial”. Then he shared with his readers this extraordinary conclusion: “But at least one of its lessons seems to me, after several viewings, as clear and bright as a G major chord. We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.” With this sleight of hand, the central contradiction of Inside Llewyn Davis–its misanthropic “cosmic joke” point of view vs. the life-affirming music and culture of its setting–was transformed from the film’s major flaw into its greatest achievement. And more than that, a “lesson” to be taught.

While up to this point Inside Llewyn Davis seemed like a sure thing, its brilliance unquestioned, with numerous awards to follow, a stubborn vein of discomfort with the film throbbed uncomfortably below the surface. One New York Times reader commenting on A. O. Scott’s review, expressed the dilemma faced by dissenters from the film’s acclaim: “Was I missing something? So, after taking a brief, unscientific poll of top critics, I noticed that, according to them, the brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis is rooted in all the subtext, hidden meanings, metaphor and allegory that are sprinkled throughout the film—all you have to do is properly seek them out and intelligently interpret them. Well, there you go. I made the mistake of just watching the movie.”

Then something happened that changed everything. Terri Thal, Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife, put her reactions to the film into an article printed in The Village Voice. She was remarkably candid, while at the same time quite diplomatic and generous.

After making it clear that she was not involved in the film’s production and had had no contact with the filmmakers, she said what I and so many others were thinking: “I knew it wasn’t supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn’t expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s. . . the movie doesn’t show those days, those people, that world.” She finds a few things to praise, but is not shy in detailing numerous examples of the film’s misfires and outright fabrications, including the film’s cavalier treatment of abortion, which at the time of the film was illegal.

But it’s her criticism of the way the film depicts the folk scene of that era that hits the mark: “In the 1950s and ’60s, there were other folk-music scenes. The old-timey musicians; the bluegrass people; the people around Alan Block’s sandal shop; the people the real Jim and Jean hung out with. There was some interaction, but even if the people in those groups didn’t see each other daily or weekly, there was goodwill. No one would know that from Inside Llewyn Davis. . . In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work (which didn’t exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There’s no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period. . . Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and arrangements and often jammed. We had fun.”

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Perhaps Thal’s sharpest criticism concerns the character of Llewyn Davis and his talent as a singer/guitarist: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don’t believe it. That schmuck couldn’t make that music.” Reading this, I wondered if my own critique of the film had not gone far enough.

In words that now sound prophetic, Dave Van Ronk himself criticized recent depictions of the folksong revival that had begun to appear:

“Most of the books that have been written about this period do not really capture the feel of it, at least in part because many of the people who were involved are not able to talk about it honestly.  A lot of them are bitter because they have not done as well as they hoped to do, for one reason or another, and they they look back at the people who did better and think, ‘That should have been my success. I was robbed, I was cheated.’ So they talk about how much was stolen from them, how they were screwed, how all their friends fucked them and turned their backs on them. But all of that is after the fact. Nobody except a handful of real paranoids felt that way at the time.

“Back then, we weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top. Mostly we were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends, playing music, and sitting around at all-night poker sessions upstairs from the Gaslight. Win, lose or draw, there was something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time–when we weren’t fighting or brooding drunkenly. It was very mercurial.”

With Thal’s reactions to the film out there in the mix, I felt certain that the genie was out of the bottle. Since Thal’s clear-minded dissent appeared, more viewers, including musicians who are concerned to one degree or another by Inside Llewyn Davis‘ dark vision, began to speak up. A New York Times article by Melena Ryzik quoted Suzanne Vega: “If the scene had been as brown and sad as all that, why would anybody be drawn to it? Dylan would have gone somewhere else. We all would have. Someplace with some energy.” Singer-songwriter Christine Lavin spoke for a growing minority when she eloquently declared “I HATE THIS FILM” (her caps).

Inside Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan as a mostly unseen presence who only appears at the very end of the film, singing inside the club while Davis gets his comeuppance from Elizabeth Hobby’s husband in the alley out back. This, we are to believe, is the ultimate “unlucky” coincidence for Llewyn Davis.

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But this reduces Dylan’s transformative impact on the music scene to the narrow aspect of “success”. In fact, Dylan would not only soak up everything he could from the musical traditions of the past but go on to transform all he had absorbed into the creation of new music for a new era. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of the scene he walked into and eventually bid farewell, most notably its purist insistence on acoustic instruments and topical songs. At some point, preservation must give way to creation and transformation. But just as the Coen brothers’ film doesn’t deal with the political context of the folksong scene, it doesn’t (can’t) deal with even part of its at times sharp musical contradictions.

I suspect that the original conception for the film was based on a character who sang in an unorthodox, less popular style, just as Dave Van Ronk did, with a voice more rough and challenging than some of the smoother instruments of the other young traditionalists. The music that T-Bone Burnett gave Oscar Isaac to listen to in preparation for his role was that of Tom Waits. But Isaac doesn’t have a Tom Waits/Dave Van Ronk-type voice. The Coen brothers apparently decided to go with what they had, without altering their script, a possible fatal undercutting of what they originally set out to do. It’s interesting that when you listen to the soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett and Mark Mumford, which has been central to the robust promotion of the film, most of what you hear, while beautifully performed, is still somewhat bland, especially to those expecting another O Brother Where Art Thou. What really jumps out at you, apart from Dylan’s rough hewn “Farewell”, is the single song included by the real Dave Van Ronk, “Green Green Rocky Road.” It positively leaps out of the speakers with its power.

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Some might argue that whatever the merits of the film, at least Inside Llewyn Davis will draw more people to the scene it depicts, spreading the music to a wider audience. That’s certainly true, especially where Dave Van Ronk is concerned. But it’s a mixed blessing. There are some pretty unfortunate strings attached. Terri Thal writes, “The Coens say they hope to create a revival of the music through the movie. A revival of traditional music is already under way. But I can’t see the depressing world shown in this movie attracting people to it.”

After a major publicity campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis centered on its music and beating a very loud drum for its widespread critical acclaim, judging from its surprising, almost complete shutout from awards by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, it appears that the wheels might have come off this misbegotten project. When all is said and done, Joel and Ethan Cohen made the film they wanted to make, a nasty “cosmic joke” set in Greenwich Village in 1961. Clearly there is an audience that finds some kind of pleasure in their reverse Disneyland of misanthropy and random misfortune. But to many of its viewers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale told by “King Midas’ idiot brothers” (to borrow their own words), full of music, yes, but also cruelty and falsehood, signifying nothing.

 

Guest writer Miller Francis wrote music and film articles in the 1960s/70s for the Atlanta underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird. From 1982-1996 he hosted a radio show, “Revolution Rock: By All Music Necessary” on WRFG Atlanta. His novel, If Heaven’s Not My Home, is now under consideration by a publisher. He can be reached via e-mail: millerfrancis44@gmail.com