So far, 2013 has been an ... uninspiring year at the movies. It’s not that there haven’t been some good films released since the last round of Oscar anointing, which is the traditional benchmark of the movie season’s start, for better or for worse; there are always good movies around, because there are always movie professionals who need to be working on something, because it’s their job, and because the film industry is a massive, confusing behemoth that must create or else will die. Fun! But good movies have the same shelf life and impact as a good meal. As far as great movies, or movies that manage to catch the attention of enough people that they become self-proliferating, the year has been remarkably devoid of candidates. There really hasn’t been a cool movie yet in 2013.
In a way, film might be the most conflicted of the arts when it comes to producing cool things. Considering the legacy of the movie star and the flush, grandiose excess of the movie screen, it should be the primary vehicle for cool, a finely sharpened and highly effective delivery mechanism for sex and charisma and aesthetic excellence. Increasingly, though, this natural strength runs up against the girth and gluttony of the industry itself, which, in its inclination toward great expense and greater gain, requires projects of such scale and ubiquity that there’s no opportunity left for surprise. The modern blockbuster experience is built on the precise satisfying of anticipation, with a tiny bit of wiggle room left for plot twists, but plot is not cool; plot is mechanics. How something happens will always leave a deeper impression than what exactly happens, and because of the need to fulfill expectations, everything happens precisely the same way in every Hollywood film nowadays.
HOWEVER: The year isn’t over yet. We’re sliding fast into what’s thought of as the best season for movies, the time when studios present their Awards Bait like debutantes to be admired and the challenging, surprising films that we actually want to see sneak into theaters on their coattails. Sometimes, the two overlap, though, as last year’s Best Picture nominees can attest, that’s surprisingly rare. Looking ahead through the end of 2013, there are a few candidates for a movie that could manage to be both an impactful, irresistible product and create an organic excitement among people who care about film.
A truly cool film conveys three things: 1) a world in some ways more striking than our own; 2) a charisma both human and cinematic; and 3) the compulsion to share and understand with others.
Here are five leading candidates, ranked from least to most likely to be cool as hell. (Honorary mentions go to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a little too overexposed to be truly cool as a cultural item—though it’ll be plenty cool as a movie, if it isn’t an unbearable mess; Spike Lee’s Oldboy, because it’ll be too dogged by comparisons to Chan-wook Park’s original; and David O. Russell’s American Hustle, because David O. Russell is many things—occasionally brilliant, hilariously sentimental, a filmmaker of vision and gravity—but he is not cool.)
5. SIDE EFFECTS
Side Effects has the ignominious distinction of having been released at the weirdest possible time—February, or, the month that everyone ignores when releasing movies because it also happens to be the month of the Oscars. But since respectfully strolling through theaters to the tune of just over $30 million, Side Effects has shown color in that most crucial of criteria: word of mouth. Considering that it has everything else going for it—distressingly sensual, inspired performances from its leads; a serpentine, doubled plot; Steven Soderbergh’s hallucinatory direction and cinematography; Rooney Mara—this makes sense; as an intellectually creative sociological commentary in the guise of a genre film, it fits the typical bill of movie that gets initially written off through confusion and/or laziness. (Also to blame: that awful title. They should’ve just called it Mild Nausea.) “Wait,” you say. “If Side Effects isn’t cool already, how does it become cool seven or eight months after its release?” Well, Jeffrey, I might respond, sometimes, a movie becomes cool later in its life, after a little gestation period. Side Effects is that kind of movie.
4. THE COUNSELOR
Since Ridley Scott’s last truly strong movie, 2003’s Matchstick Men, he’s made Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, Robin Hood, and Prometheus, movies that range from “mediocre” to “this exists?” But The Counselor isn’t about Ridley Scott. With a screenplay written by the great American apocalypse-artist Cormac McCarthy and a cast that features Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz, there is no way The Counselor can be anything but fascinating. The last film made from a McCarthy source text was the great No Country for Old Men, and while the Coen Brothers are at this point astronomically more consistent filmmakers than Ridley Scott, the old writer’s involvement gives this movie a hum of irresistibility. Even the name sounds cool: The Counselor. Subtitle: A Film Too Dangerous for the Word “Lawyer.”
3. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Speaking of the Coen Brothers! You could argue that, in the discussion of whether a movie may or may not be cool, the deck is stacked when the world’s most allegorical and literary directors venture back into ’60s folk and cast Carey Mulligan with bangs. But nobody said this was a fair fight. Inside Llewyn Davis threatens at O Brother Where Art Thou? levels of musical flawlessness and mythological sheen, and unlike in No Country for Old Men, itseems like it will make you laugh rather than make you scared for your life. Of all the movies coming out in the next few months, this will be the one you can’t go to a certain kind of party without being asked about. (The same will be true of The Wolf of Wall Street, but you won’t want to go to those parties.) (Again, I want to see The Wolf of Wall Street.)
I realize this could be controversial; when the first trailer for Spike Jonze’s Joaquin-Phoenix-Falls-in-Love-With-Scarlett-Johansson’s-Voice vehicle debuted, thousands of Twee Meters around the country hit the red and then started playing She & Him songs. Here’s a dirty little secret, though: Spike Jonze is not Wes Anderson. Spike Jonze came up in punk, making skateboard videos and magazines; Spike Jonze still has dirt under his fingernails. Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich are not twee films, and even Where the Wild Things Are has a rawness and intensity to it that befits the subject material perfectly and belies the strange reception the movie got. Spike Jonze, unlike Anderson, has a sense of man’s insanity and incomprehension, and I expect the same from Her. What is almost certain to be gorgeous could also be a challenging, fun, charismatic movie—and that will surprise people. Plus, Rooney Mara.
Here is our runaway early favorite for Coolest Movie of 2013. Alfonso Cuaron is a god, and his fans are not shy about pronouncing this; Cuaron’s last two movies, Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, take worlds and concepts we think we understand, then subvert and destroy them to the point of perfect unfamiliarity. Cuaron makes you see things that you have never seen before. And Gravity has the kind of plot that begs to be seen: Two astronauts are lost in space. Like, completely and totally lost. Not in ships. Just floating out there, human and benign. One of them is Sandra Bullock; the other is George Clooney. And Bullock makes this one of those situations where, if the movie didn’t seem so surefooted and exotic, her presence would be a drag. Instead, it’s an enhancement—how does Sandra Bullock fit into all this? That’s all I know about the film, and I’m trying not to know any more, because I want to be able to surrender completely to the opportunity being given me. A truly cool film, as I’ve been getting at throughout, conveys three things: 1) a world in some ways more striking than our own; 2) a charisma both human and cinematic; and 3) the compulsion to share and understand with others. Gravity is doing all three of these things, and it isn’t even out yet.