Friday, January 3, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013: #1


In 1995's "Before Sunrise," Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American on a Eurail pass, met Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student, on a train. They got off at Vienna and walked around the city, talking and falling in love. Director Richard Linklater made an entire movie - now an entire series - out of walking and talking, offering audiences awash in action blockbusters a two-hour respite, the chance to eavesdrop on two smart and appealing people in intelligent conversation. He built exquisite tension of Jesse's impending flight back to the States, and whether this enchanted evening would lead to anything lasting. After his chosen conclusion, Linklater retraced Celine's and Jesse's steps, showing us the now-empty streets they'd walked and the landmarks they'd passed. The sequence was unbearably effective - one of the seminal scenes of film in the '90s - not because of some pretty Austrian sights but for the feeling of instant nostalgia it evoked and the emotional wallop it packed.

Nine years later, Delpy, Hawke and Linklater reunited for "Before Sunset." Jesse wrote a book based on the evening he and Celine shared, and came to France as part of a European book tour. Celine read about the stop and came to the bookstore to see him again. This time, they walked around Paris talking, reminding us how sorely we'd missed the breadth and depth and insight of their conversation. Again, Linklater closed with a passage of great visual beauty and emotional force. "Before Sunset" made my top-ten list in 2004, and made me wonder how the absurdly fetching Delpy hadn't become a big star in the interim.

Thankfully, after some doubt, the three agreed to reconvene for "Before Midnight," and we're so lucky they did. The searing honesty of its script - crafted by both lead actors in collaboration with Linklater - makes for both the hardest hits and the richest and truest laughter of the year. Nine more years have passed, and Jesse has left his wife for Celine. He enjoys partial visitation of his thirteen-year-old son Hank, and joins Celine in raising their two twin daughters. This film is set in Greece, where Jesse and Celine are enjoying their last few days of a summer sabbatical at the home of a famous author who has mentored Jesse. Some new Greek friends have volunteered to watch the girls for the night and have put Celine and Jesse up at a luxury hotel (it even has air conditioning). The stage is set for what should be an evening of great romance.

Here, though, the moony dreams and fantastic reveries of "Sunrise" give way to the earthbound realities - rewarding yet trying - of parenthood and relationships. What ends up taking place in their hotel room is not - at least not until perhaps later - a steamy sexual encounter but rather the smartest, funniest, saddest, most lacerating argument in the history of movie arguments. It unfolds in an unbroken sequence that lasts about half an hour and is the best in any film all year. You find yourself rooting first for her, then for him, then for her again, then him again - until you remember how silly it is to be taking sides when their very happiness hangs in the balance. Having invested so many years in Jesse and Celine, the still-beauteous Delpy and still-sexy Hawke know just what buttons to push for maximum effectiveness, and hold nothing back. The scene is raw and draining and exhilarating. 

The best film of 2013, then, is the culmination of the best series in recent film, each of which can stand perfectly on its own. The picturesque, sun-drenched and olive oil-infused "Before Midnight" is indeed lovely to look at, but it's infinitely more: funny, sexy, brutal, fearless. In short, a treasure.

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