Top Ten Movies of 2013 — Number One


When I’m partial to a film, I will often devotedly adhere to whatever preferred version of it the filmmaker puts out there, including an alternative styling of the title. For example, I strongly advocate for the exclusive use of lowercase letters to render the title of Steven Soderbergh’s debut film, sex, lies, and videotape, believing the ironic understatement of the provocative words is in keeping with the filmmaker’s sly, quiet insight. Though the title card and movie poster of Spike Jonze’s latest demand a similar anti-capitalization approach, I can’t quite bring myself to do it. Yes, there is something of a deadpan downplaying of the bold and offbeat in the story of a lonely, dejected, hurting man who falls in love with the artificially sentient operating system that links his phone and other computer devices–every film Jonze has made relies on an unperturbed acceptance of the vividly strange as the primary tone-setter–but that incongruence is one of the less notable aspects of the film. Instead, what sticks with me the most, what makes the film into a modern masterwork, is the disciplined thoroughness Jonze brings to every aspect of the storytelling. Like an especially observant futurist, he’s conjured up an entire society shaped by the steady, soothing replacement of genuine human experience with expert simulations. Jonze doesn’t just make the bizarre understandable; in his hands it becomes inevitable.

Set in an unspecified near future, Jonze’s film casts Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of Theodore Twombly, a man who makes his living by writing letters that allow others to exchange supposedly personal, heartfelt correspondences. When he upgrades his operating system to a bleeding edge version designed to interact with him, providing a chatty version of what he does for others every day, he finds himself quickly allowing the software (self-named Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson) to straighten out his life, including a charming, sweetly seductive ingratiation into his affections. Samantha fills the void that’s been within his spirit since at least the point his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), decided to leave him. That Samantha has essentially been technically engineered to create this connection, fueled by a rudimentary understanding of Theodore’s prior relationships and the digitized library of self-help books she can read in a flash, doesn’t matter to Theodore. The only thing that’s important is that some part of his being that he was sure was permanently damaged is starting to heal. Who cares if it’s artificial? The emotional turnaround feels the same.

Phoenix works wonders as Theodore, maintaining the character’s dignity in part by playing his enduring anguish without wallowing in maudlin tragedy. The hurt Theodore feels is clear, but so is his ability to muddle through it, to keep on with his day to day, including forging connections with coworkers and cohorts, such as those played by Chris Pratt and the absolutely invaluable Amy Adams. The actress, who had a smashing finish to 2014, brings an ease and naturalism to her role that further grounds the film in the recognizably real. She hasn’t really received proper credit for the strength of the performance, I assume because it’s not all that showy, though that’s clearly by design. The deceptive ease of her acting keeps the film tethered when it could easy twirl off into the overly theoretical. The plainspoken way she explains that a video game adventure has gone off the rails because the virtual mother on the screen has given her children too much processed sugar parallels Jonze’s creative reassurances that the elements of the film that expand reality are actually as simple as can be.

No, I can’t type out the title with that humble, small letter at the front. If anything, it takes restraint to avoid smashing caps lock into place. The title should be big, forceful, vivid, and elegant. It needs to be a size that matches the film, and Her looms very, very large.

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