Two interesting and quirky films add spice to the 2013 lineup of year’s best movies: the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis and Spike Jonzes’ Her. Both tell the stories of lonely outsiders navigating their ways through perplexing personal landscapes.
Of the two, in this critic’s opinion – though the film garnered little Oscar nomination recognition – Inside Llewyn Davis is the more masterfully crafted film, perhaps one of the Coens’ best to date. It is dark, ironic, melancholy, beautifully filmed, and haunting. Its anti-hero folk singer is on a quest for artistic recognition which takes him to the smoke-filled, dimly lit cafés like New York’s famed Gaslight of the early 1960s, atmospherically recreated by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. This surreal journey is a circular one beginning at the Gaslight and ending with a replay of the same incident, traversing New York City’s Greenwich Village, Morningside Heights, Queens, and the proverbial road trip to Chicago and back. It is, in fact, an odyssey, metaphorically represented by LLlewn’s friends’ cat, appropriately named Ulysses, who, through a serious of mishaps makes the journey with Davis, ultimately finding his own way home – or back to the beginning. The Greek myth and James Joyce Bloomsday imagery is prevalent in the film; Davis encounters a series of obstacles that thwart his progress, though he finally does arrive at his point of origin. The sad part is, however, that Llewyn Davis’ voyage does not appear to have been artistically successful. For all his travails, he represents a fading style of music, and he is an artist and a man without an anchor.
Oscar Isaac gives a powerfully poignant performance as Llewyn Davis; Cary Mulligan is a feisty Jean; Justin Timberlake an excellent foil as Jim, the singer who knows how to be commercial. Lovely cameos are supplied by Adam Driver as backup singer Al Cody, F. Murray Abraham as Chicago impresario Bud Grossman, John Goodman as a drug-addicted jazz musician, and Garrett Hedlund as Johnny Five, his wannabe poet-driver.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that merits –almost demands – seeing more than once in order to appreciate fully its depth and subtlety. It is not a happy experience, but it is a profound one.
Spike Jonzes’ Her is nominated for Best Picture, and Jonzes’ screenplay picked up a Golden Globe. It is a quiet, sweet, sad film whose protagonist struggles with the meanings of love and human connection, while the script, itself, takes satiric aim at a culture overly immersed in technology. Theodore, a professional writer of romantic and sentimental letters, is grappling with a failed marriage and a desperate ambivalence toward intimacy. He yearns for a sympathetic companion and yet, he is too reticent to pursue one in the real world. His bizarre, but ultimately beautiful romance with an intelligent operating system named Samantha proves to be the catalyst he needs to shed his shell.
Set in the not-too-distant future in a gossamer pastel, hi-tech world, the movie has the look of a carefully engineered valentine. The premise of the film, which is to explore the inner life of Theodore’s mind and emotions, gives the remarkable Joaquin Phoenix what amounts to a virtual two-hour series of solo on-camera scenes as he engages in dialogue with the unseen Samantha. Phoenix captures the sweetness, the pensive sadness, the yearning of his character brilliantly, and he manages to sustain the viewer’s interest despite the unusual role requirements. It is to the great credit of Scarlett Johnassen, who voices Samantha, that as the film progresses, the actress manages to create a multi-dimensional character with her expressive voice alone, so that when she says she feels as if she has a body, we do believe her. Amy Adams makes a goofy, loveable neighbor and friend, whose own emotional history closely mirrors Theodore’s.
Both Inside Llewyn Davis and Her are encouraging examples of what innovative and independent-minded filmmakers can produce. The Coen brothers and Spike Jonze are to be congratulated for daring to venture off the beaten path in subject matter and character.