Until the internet took over, prospective immigrant’s expectations of the USA were shaped, of course, by the movies. Growing up in northern Ireland I found my perceptions of America nurtured by ‘Superman’ and ‘Back to the Future’ and Woody Allen before I heard about Mark Twain and Martin Luther King (though Ronald Reagan was conspicuous, and confusing to me as a child – I wasn’t sure if he was an actor, a comedian, or a leader. I’m still not.) I’ve recently spent time writing about the vision of the US through the lens of one film for every state – if cinema is the closest art form to dreaming, and if dreams tell us something about who we really are, then any attempt at understanding the nation that first fully embraced the movies has got to look to them for an explanation.
We have to examine ‘Fight Club’ and ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Nashville’, no less than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ to begin to capture the American dreamlife – most movies are set in Southern California or New York, and there’s a lot more America where those didn’t come from. Montana and Michigan and New Hampshire and Arizona, and Delaware too – that’s just five states and there’s already enough diversity of thought and experience and identity to make you wonder if the Empire State Building and the Santa Monica Pier are even in the same country. Outsiders to the US, and transplants like myself, aren’t much aware that America is really at least 50 nations – contrasts between the states are mighty and rich: a Wyoming plain and a Sonoma vineyard, Hoboken and Hot Springs, the Florida Keys and the Swannanoa Valley are magnificent intersections of dreams and mistakes, with a confidence about the future that still sometimes allows for a past to face. The cinematic-industrial-complex is making it easier to see films that didn’t start in Hollywood or New York City – through the same internet that sometimes mis-shapes global perceptions of the US, we have access to independent cinema like never before. If we want to understand America through the movies, the best time yet is now.
And on that note, and with the Oscars this weekend, here’s my list of the best US American films released in 2013 (including those re-released for home viewing).
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Criterion box set) – John Cassavetes was the godfather of US independent cinema, and this is the best entry to his work: a grimy thriller about one man trying to make art against the odds.
12 Years a Slave – the superlatives are deserved, but this is more than a work of art. It’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about the past.
Fearless (Warner Blu-ray) – A film about a man who needs to die before he can live (and love), in which Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez show us something more of how to be human.
Captain Phillips – Because it tries to take seriously both the reasons why poor Somali men might hijack a container ship, and the trauma that resulted
Gravity – an invitation to wonder, and re-imagine how we got started
Fruitvale Station – a film which shouldn’t be necessary, but asks us to consider the humanity behind headlines
The Lone Ranger – the most underrated film of the year, and a more important piece of historical revisionism than ‘Dances with Wolves’
Before Midnight – the continued unfolding of a relationship between our vicarious selves.
Leviathan – a dizzying dive into the weather and the water and the life of fish and the folk who catch them
Mud – the spirit of Mark Twain (and ‘Stand By Me’) resurrected in a slightly gothic, slightly magical, all-story about love and growing up
Inside Llewyn Davis – a plunging into the tortured soul of an artist, perhaps the most depressing life-affirming film the Coen Brothers have yet made
The Place Beyond the Pines – the best epic crime saga since Robert de Niro took Al Pacino for a cup of coffee