Taking a look back at 2013:
Some of the year’s best movies took us to places we probably never thought we’d go, and our guides often were figures from real life. In each case, they offered new ways to bring us into stories that, initially, seemed all too familiar.
Ron Woodroof, “Dallas Buyers Club”: In this movie, set against the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s, our hero is — surprisingly — not a gay man but a virulent homophobe. His diagnosis with the “gay disease” is a bitter irony, but Woodroof (a ferociously good Matthew McConaughey, 40 pounds lighter and twice the actor he’s ever been) eventually becomes a champion of the local AIDS community, even going so far as to befriend a transgender woman, Rayon (an excellent Jared Leto). Woodroof’s journey toward tolerance is much like America’s: slow and reluctant. That’s what makes it so convincing.
Richard Phillips and Muse, “Captain Phillips”: Paul Greengrass’ movie about a cargo vessel attacked by Somali pirates in 2009 upended a few stereotypes as well. Richard Phillips isn’t a square-jawed action figure but a working-class merchant marine played by a vulnerable and deeply empathetic Tom Hanks. Likewise, his captors aren’t fanatical anti-Americans — they’re desperately poor fishermen (led by Barkhad Abdi as Muse) ruled by corrupt warlords. There is no ideology here, no us versus them. This is a battle between two lower classes, the have-somes and the have-nothings, and its backdrop is a troublingly skewed global economy. Both Phillips and Muse seem at the mercy of larger forces. We root for Phillips, and rightly so. But by the movie’s end, it’s clear there’s something wrong with the larger picture.
Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave”: We see the insanity of the pre-Civil War South through the eyes of Northup, who was not born into slavery but kidnapped into it. That’s an important distinction. This movie doesn’t just ask us to empathize with its enslaved hero; it allows us to truly identify with him. Northup (a solemn, stately Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-respected, middle-class family man living peaceably in a mixed-race city. In other words, he’s much like any of us. The white Southerners in “12 Years a Slave” can’t let Northup forget he’s black — it’s the reason he loses his freedom and his dignity. But viewers of any color will find themselves walking in his shoes.
Miley Cyrus: She used the oldest tricks in the pop star playbook to grab attention for her new album, “Bangerz” — shock and awe — and America fell for it all hook, line and twerker. Sex sells records! Who knew?
The overblown reaction to her sexed-up performance at the MTV Video Music Awards surprised even Cyrus, who thought the whole thing was hilarious. “How many times have we seen this play out in pop music?” she told MTV later. “It’s a strategic hot mess. … If I wanted to do an actual sex show, I wouldn’t have been dressed as a damn bear.”
Throughout the year, she continued the tweaking and twerking to maintain her extraordinarily high profile — from her strategically naked video for “Wrecking Ball” to her pronouncements on the sex life (or lack thereof) of the over-40 set, to twerking with Santa. If only she put this much attention to detail to her music.
Kanye West: Praise Yeezus. Though nearly everything with West (and fiancée Kim Kardashian) makes news now, he really does remain focused on creating things — music, fashion, performance art, controversy.
West’s take-no-prisoners approach to life works well in music. His boasting, his complaining, his personal revelations — it’s all captivating when done in his rhymes, especially when accompanied by the first-rate sound collages of his album “Yeezus” and in his first-rate live show. It even worked well in the performance art that accompanied the album’s release, where he projected his music videos on buildings around the world so people could experience his new music together.
All of his pronouncements are not quite as effective, or entertaining, when they come in real life. But maybe he’ll get to a point where that won’t need to happen anymore.
Justin Timberlake: For his first album in seven years, “The 20/20 Experience,” Timberlake didn’t leave anything to chance. Everything about it was meticulously planned, from the collaborations with Jay Z that resulted in a pair of hits and a sold-out stadium tour to strategic partnerships with Target and Bud Light that helped maximize his exposure, along with a much-ballyhooed, though short, reunion with ‘N Sync. He augmented his plans with movie roles in “Runner, Runner” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
It was, with apologies to Jay Z, the blueprint for how future superstars are going to roll out their projects.
And he was rewarded with the biggest opening week of the year, with 968,000 copies sold and nearly 3 million in sales of both parts of “Experience.”