Back in March, I wondered aloud if the Academy, clearly stuck in a feel-good groove after having awarded best picture to “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” the past three years, would ever see fit to honor a film that dared to challenge an audience. Unpredictable as the outcome may be at this early stage, it’s heartening to cast an eye over the unusually rich and daring films of 2013, and to find no shortage of possible correctives.
There are, of course, myriad ways to thwart a moviegoer’s traditional expectations: Witness the dazzling, even confounding technological sophistication of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” or the morally complex appraisal of the ravages of global capitalism delivered by Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips.” And few directors this year will confront an audience more directly than Steve McQueen does in “12 Years a Slave,” a film aptly described by the New York Times’ A.O. Scott as “an impressive blend of radical and conventional movie techniques.” In that respect, it’s a fitting mascot for a welcome season of experimentation by filmmakers working inside (or just outside) the commercial mainstream.
To challenge and provoke viewers does not, happily, preclude entertaining them; nor does it necessarily mean trafficking in miserablism while denying us the satisfactions of emotion, humor, coherence and relatability. But it often does require withholding a few comforts and narrative elements that less adventurous directors might take for granted. It can also demand the use of a cinematic syntax that willingly frustrates the audience’s sense of time and space in order to do justice to the subject matter at hand.
In the case of “Gravity,” what sounds on paper like a dramatically limited premise — Sandra Bullock adrift in space for the better part of 90 minutes, with only intermittent company from George Clooney — is transformed and sustained by Cuaron’s enveloping technique, as well as by an emotional hook as old as the movies themselves. In many ways, the year’s more radical and purely existential survival story is “All Is Lost,” a character study that refuses to provide the viewer with an easy dramatic foothold; writer-director J.C. Chandor sets Robert Redford adrift on the high seas and daringly strips away dialogue, backstory and any motivation beyond the persistent human will to live.
Both “Gravity” and “All Is Lost” are studies in confinement and solitude, a subgenre not limited to stories about individuals battling the elements. In some cases the isolation is not physical but emotional, as in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a modern urban romance that asks viewers to wrap their minds around an improbable but not inconceivable futurist conceit. In its sly, modest way, the movie sets astonishing hurdles for itself: It lends a disembodied female voice the rich psychological contours of a flesh-and-blood human being, while relying almost entirely for its impact on the delicate play of feelings in Joaquin Phoenix’s face.
Speaking of the sublimely romantic: Solitude has long been a hallmark of Richard Linklater’s itinerant love stories starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Although “Before Midnight” boasts a more robust ensemble than its predecessors, it ultimately zeroes in on these two loquacious lovers, culminating in an extended argument worthy of Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.” A sequence like that can unsettle a viewer not only because its emotional content cuts awfully close to home, but also due to the way the film collapses the visual space (the couple is trapped in a hotel room) while expanding our sense of time passing.
In that respect, what Linklater is doing, allowing scenes of intimate human communication to play out at a duration far exceeding what we’re accustomed to, is not so different from what Abdellatif Kechiche accomplishes in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” That Palme d’Or winner has no shortage of challenges to mainstream acceptance — a three-hour running time, explicit and controversial lesbian sex scenes — but its emotional fluency and accessibility mark it as one of the 2013 foreign-language releases worthy of a place in the conversation. Another one is “The Grandmaster,” the most commercially successful work to date from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai, here applying his characteristic stylistic flourishes to a more straightforward biographical drama about the martial-arts master known as Ip Man.
No less than “12 Years a Slave,” “The Grandmaster” is an improbable yet effective fusion of straightforward storytelling and art-film abstraction, a historical narrative that moves intuitively back and forth through time in search of its true subject: not merely one man’s life, but the physical and spiritual reality of the institution to which he belongs. For Wong and McQueen — like Greengrass and Cuaron, foreign-born auteurs whose work has enjoyed widespread appreciation — art is not a retreat from meaning and understanding but a means of discovering it, and barriers exist primarily so that they may be struck down.