The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2013, Ellen Jacob has chosen Her as the definitive film of the year, and Prisoners as her personal favourite.
Best of 2013: Her
Written by Ellen Jacob
In thinking about the films of 2013, Spike Jonze’s Her may not immediately spring to mind as the stand-out film of the year. A quiet and poetic story about love and loss, it’s far from the grand adventures of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). In spite of its understated nature, this deeply emotional film will linger in your mind long after watching.
Her is a refreshingly warm, romantic look at the potential future of technology and our relationship with it. The film follows Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) in the emotional aftermath of his divorce. In an attempt to organise his life, he installs an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that he then begins a romantic relationship with. While the premise sounds somewhat disturbing and Black Mirror-esque, Her sets itself apart from other science fiction with its personal and intimate story.
Though Joaquin Phoenix is currently getting a lot of praise for his performance in Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019), and deservedly so, his acting in Her is equally skillful. It would be easy to dismiss a character that falls in love with a computer as creepy, but Phoenix plays Theodore with just the right amount of loneliness and vulnerability to create a sympathetic protagonist. Theodore begins the film as a loner longing for emotional connection and we gradually see him come out of his shell with Samatha. Scarlett Johansson’s voice acting is impressively on-par with Phoenix’s acting. She somehow manages to make an operating system feel like a person. Other cast members include Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, but Johannson and Phoenix steal the show as the emotional core of the film.
It would be easy to dismiss a character that falls in love with a computer as creepy, but Phoenix plays Theodore with just the right amount of loneliness and vulnerability to create a sympathetic protagonist.
The film is worth seeing for its production and set design alone, as it helps distinguish the film from others of the genre. Her differs from other sci-fis in that many others emphasise the cold, impersonal side of technology. This is often visualised through an emphasis on blues, greys, and the harsh light of computer screens. Her does the opposite, exploring the potential human and emotional side of technology. The colour palette is overwhelmingly warm. Rich reds and oranges fill the world, desktops emit a cozy yellow glow, and unfiltered sunlight wins over artificial fluorescent lights. The technology of the world is understated and natural: blocky desktops have wooden borders and handheld devices resemble metal cigarette cases. Jonze manages to set the film in the future without it feeling too distant.
Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography adds to the romance of the world and the story. Everyday actions are romanticised; Theodore’s face is dreamily captured as he drinks coffee while looking out the window, bathed in sunlight. Memories of his ex-wife are captured in soft focus and slow-motion, creating a series of hazy vignettes. Van Hoytema even manages to make the smog-covered city, a digital hybrid of Shanghai and Los Angeles, endearing and romantic.
Over the past decade there have been a lot of films that examine our relationship with and the potential future of technology. From Black Mirror to Blade Runner: 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), writers and filmmakers have used sci-fi to ask what it means to be human. Her manages to set itself apart in its treatment of the same themes. Though the film is a sci-fi to some degree, it is the importance of intimate human connections that drives the story. The film succeeds in making you care about the relationship between a man and his computer through stellar performances, lush production design, and dreamy cinematography.
Her is available to stream on Netflix.
Critic’s Choice: Prisoners
Written by Ellen Jacob
Denis Villeneuve has become associated with sweeping science fiction dramas over the past few years: Arrival (2016), Blade Runner: 2049 (2017), and the upcoming Dune (2020). His 2013 film Prisoners may seem small-scale in comparison, but it packs no less of a punch. It may be surprising to classify Prisoners as a “favourite film” because, though it takes place at Christmastime, it is as far from a feel-good festive film as one can get. Prisoners is a dark, depressing thriller that is challenging to watch.
It follows the emotional deterioration of two families after the disappearance of their two daughters and a detective’s increasing desperation to track them down. Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski test the flexibility of personal morals, pushing the viewer to ask how far one can go in the hunt for justice. The stellar cast brings humanity to even the most questionable characters, with performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano. Despite the difficult subject matter and morally grey characters, Villeneuve manages to hold the audience’s attention throughout the entire two and a half hours of his film. Prisoners is an incredibly rich and layered film that deepens with every viewing.
Prisoners is available to stream on Netflix.