Scarlett Johansson

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jessica Forde | Daily Texan Staff

To call “Lucy” science fiction is a bit of a stretch, since the film’s basic premise — a woman is given a special drug that allows her to access 100 percent of her brain, rather than the usual 10 percent — is based on a profoundly stupid platitude. Even so, the film tackles its premise in creative, unexpected ways, and though “Lucy” is totally daft, it’s a recklessly entertaining ride with undeniable momentum.

The film doesn’t waste a second of its 89 minutes, starting off with Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) being coerced to deliver a briefcase to a hotel by a sketchy man she met in a club. She’s immediately abducted and turned into a drug mule, but the bag of drugs sewn into her stomach springs a leak. As the mystery drug pours into Lucy’s bloodstream, she unlocks more and more of her brain’s potential, while the film gets dumber and dumber.

There are plenty of interesting touches of ambition sprinkled throughout “Lucy,” which make the film worthwhile. The film’s opening conversation employs a classical editing style, juxtaposing Lucy’s trip into the hotel with shots of predators hunting their next meal with equal parts of cleverness and sledgehammer subtlety. The film’s final sequence, on the other hand, is out of control, taking Lucy to some very unexpected places and defying the wildest expectations with its audacious imagery. It’s the last ending you’d expect from this type of film, and it’s a welcome surprise to Luc Besson’s throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to science fiction.

Unfortunately, for every moment where “Lucy” manages to surprise, there’s another that fails to impress. There are only a handful of memorable action beats throughout the film, but for the most part, Besson’s staging of pivotal set pieces is unremarkable. The climax of the film is the most disappointing, a muted shootout that unfolds with minimal urgency and distracts from far more interesting things happening elsewhere. Besson’s character work is also very thin, especially for Morgan Freeman’s character, who is relegated to the role of Dr. Exposition, delivering lengthy speeches about the human brain and standing around while action scenes happen.

Johansson is having a genuine moment right now, and this year alone she has done fantastic work in “Her,” “Under the Skin,” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Though “Lucy” doesn’t ask much of Johansson, she delivers on all fronts, very effective and vulnerable in the film’s opening scenes before becoming increasingly disaffected as her brain capacity extends beyond human empathy. Though Lucy’s increasing disregard for human life as the film goes on is troubling, Johansson shoulders difficult material ably, beautifully demonstrating her range and her ability to carry a film.

It’s rare for a film as unapologetically dumb as “Lucy” to be as entertaining as it is. Though action master Besson fails at what he does best, he makes up for it with the fearlessness with which he commits to this incredibly stupid premise and the insanity of the film’s ending. “Lucy” is like listening to a sixth grader who just tried cocaine for the first time: ill-advised, badly planned, but so energetic and hilariously dim that you can’t look away.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a prime example of the growth of the Marvel film series. Just as the first “Captain America” film led into the events of “The Avengers,” “The Winter Soldier” also serves as a setup for larger events to come. Even though the movie connects with a much bigger plot, it still manages to tell an entertaining, self-contained story. “The Winter Soldier” is a fun, thrilling superhero flick that beautifully mixes serious action with funny humor and likeable characters.

After the events of “The Avengers,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggles with adapting to life in a modern age while embodying the role of Captain America. He stays loyal to the country by continuing to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. and its head, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Finding a plot in the works to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. down from the inside, Captain America works with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and former soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to stop forces that plan to simultaneously assassinate millions of citizens. Meanwhile, the three are stalked by a mysterious enemy, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who poses a deadly threat to the team.

Marvel films tend to include an appropriate amount of humor in their plots and often use it more naturally than the gritty DC Universe films. “The Winter Soldier” follows this trend, as most of the jokes stick while every subtle, humorous gesture possesses great timing. These action scenes are phenomenal and well-paced while maintaining a constant, pulsing thrill. The action-loaded climax, which takes place on a monstrous Helicarrier, demonstrates the excellent pacing and brutality of each punch. 

The effects, despite relying on an overload of CGI, seem real enough to enhance the setting. The story features a few gimmicky, predicable plot elements, but it unfolds with a smart instinct for audience expectations and is richly entertaining. References to other Marvel heroes and villains are dropped constantly, yet they feel like natural universe-building, not forced synergy. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a clear knack for balance as they paint a fun comic book story with heavy action and complex character relationships.

Evans steps up his acting game as Cap, who finds his loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. and his country tested. But it is clear that Johansson and Mackie are the real acting powerhouses. Johansson has Widow pegged as a sardonic, but dangerous, heroine who is enchanting in almost every scene. Mackie, who plays Falcon, is also a humorous and effective character who commands the camera. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury, who actually has a larger role in the film than he has had in any other Marvel film, and it seems that he has perfected a formula that keeps his performance of the character from growing stale. Robert Redford plays a big role in the film, dominating as a powerful S.H.I.E.L.D. official. Oddly enough, the titular antagonist is surprisingly underplayed. The Winter Soldier is offered as a small tool of a larger threat. Stan, who played a role in the previous film, portrays him as overly mysterious, and while he looks extremely cool with his robotic armor and lethal persona, he lacks much of a character. The Winter Soldier is more of a force of mayhem than a fully realized villain.

Overall, “The Winter Soldier” is perhaps the best Marvel offering since “The Avengers.” Its great action and fantastic story present pure blockbuster entertainment. Mixed with stellar performances and well placed humor, the film proves that Marvel has succeeded in finding the balance that keeps superhero movies fun without being too gritty or campy. Despite being considered a prequel for next year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “The Winter Soldier” is a great blend of elements that make an incredibly powerful superhero movie.

2013 was a year brimming with fantastic films that both entertained and resonated with audiences — so much so that the films of this year couldn’t be limited to a traditional top 10 list; a list of 10 simply won’t even scratch the surface. Even with 15, and another 10 honorable mentions, there are still another two dozen or so films worth mentioning, and that alone qualifies 2013 as one of the most impressive film years of our lifetimes as of yet. 

The Daily Texan created a list of the top 15 films of 2013, starting with Spike Jonze’s unconventional, futuristic love story, “Her.”

1. “Her”

2013 was a year of great love stories in film, with the authenticity of “The Spectacular Now,” the audacity of “Blue is the Warmest Color” and the bracing realism of “Before Midnight” all shining for their intimate portrayals of relationships. Spike Jonze’s “Her,” though, stands at the top. “Her” is an unconventional romance between a man and his computer executed with wit, heart and intelligence. Bolstered by a stunning duet of performances from Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix, “Her” isn’t just a great movie; it’s the best film of 2013.

Jonze crafts a wholly plausible future in which operating systems have evolved far past Siri, programmed so effectively that they become sentient. The lonely, recently divorced Theodore (Phoenix) purchases one on a whim but is surprised when Samantha (Johansson) proves to be a vibrant, inquisitive presence, rather than a product. Despite the massive logical problems, the two fall in love, and, as Theodore wrestles with the concept of dating an invisible presence, Samantha’s thirst for life and knowledge threatens to overwhelm them both.

Samantha starts off as half computer and half therapist, but as she grows, so does the scope of Jonze’s thematic intentions. He gives insightful life to concepts easily taken for granted, such as memory or desire, and every one of Samantha’s discoveries feels like a layer of the human mind, peeled back and examined. Johansson’s purely vocal performance is astounding, and, removed from any physical screen time, Johansson gives her best performance yet. She conveys tenderness, joy and regret with previously untapped depth, and she plays off of Phoenix beautifully.

Phoenix, meanwhile, is quickly emerging as one of cinema’s great chameleons, able to completely immerse himself in any role given to him. His sensitive performance here is incredible, complementing a disembodied voice with wit and creating scenes that are not just believable but human and vital. 

The rest of the women in Theodore’s life are equally well-cast. Amy Adams finishes off a great year of performances with a warm, uncharacteristically funny turn as a friend of Theodore. Rooney Mara, playing his ex-wife, gives a performance defined by its stark juxtapositions — loving and gentle when viewed through the rosy filter of memory yet complex and frustrated in reality and equally authentic in both modes. Olivia Wilde also shines in a short sequence as a wounded young woman set up on a blind date with Theodore. 

Directing from his own script, Jonze brings a graceful, effortless intelligence to “Her,” and every sci-fi concept he introduces is creatively and thoughtfully explored. The future he creates is one that feels realistic but hopeful — every aspect of life a bit sleeker and warmer. The film’s central relationship, the tricky dynamic around which “Her” hinges, is a beautifully observed romance that uses the absurdity of its concept to get at some profound truths about the beginnings and endings of love. Also worth commending are the gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema, blending the skylines of Los Angeles and Shanghai to create a beautiful metropolis, accompanied with a lovely score from Arcade Fire.

“Her” is a gamble: a film with a laughable concept that works thanks to a wholly honest execution, a script brimming with smart ideas and uniformly excellent, low-key performances. It’s a work of surprising creativity and shattering empathy, and it uses its high concept to tell a nakedly personal story packed with so much wisdom and feeling that it becomes universal. It’s hard to judge what a film’s legacy will be so close to its release, but, if there’s any justice in the world, “Her” will be regarded as a classic, a science-fiction film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and a relevant, heartfelt masterpiece.

2. “The Spectacular Now” 

The year’s most authentic romance perfectly captures the soaring highs and shattering lows of first love and growing up, anchored by two incredible performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. Teller, in particular, is fascinating, harnessing his character’s self-destructive impulses into a hurricane of boozy charisma, while Woodley’s unguarded vulnerability and warmth allow the two to build a tender, fragile intimacy. Supporting work from Bob Odenkirk, Brie Larson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead bring melancholy touches, but the movie’s most profoundly emotional moments come from these wounded, delicate kids finding something to love in each other.

3. “Short Term 12”

Brie Larson’s natural, warm, perfectly calibrated performance as Grace, a supervisor in a halfway home for at-risk kids, is only the beginning of what’s great about “Short Term 12.” The film brings viewers into the lives of these kids and plays out with genuine emotion, effortlessly breaking our hearts with something as simple as a character detail clicking into place. Keith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever and John Gallagher Jr. all stand out in a stacked supporting cast, their arcs playing out with an eye for powerful moments that truly bring us into the characters’ psyches, each big scene hammering home what a fantastic, big-hearted film this is.

4. “Gravity”

This is movie magic in its truest sense, taking Hollywood actors to space without ever leaving Earth. After Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is set adrift in space, her struggle to survive makes for the year’s most essential cinematic experience, a dazzling advancement of technology that redefines what film can and can’t do. Director Alfonso Cuaron cultivates a consistent sense of panic, drawing both wonder and terror out of the depths of space. Bullock shines as a rookie astronaut in a horrible situation, while George Clooney is tailor-suited for the role of the unflappable veteran astronaut that helps her along. 

5. “Stories We Tell”

It takes true fortitude for a filmmaker to turn the camera on themselves, but Sarah Polley did just that in “Stories We Tell,” a fascinating documentary that’s equal parts memoir and mystery. As Polley tries to find out who her true father is, she also unearths interesting, candid truths about her family and about storytelling in general. It’s a meticulously structured, nuanced and effortlessly wise work that not only tells the story of a family but even examines some of the underlying themes in Polley’s own work. “Stories We Tell” is a reflective documentary that never becomes self-impressed, but it does establish Polley as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.

6. Before Midnight

Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater’s third installment in the “Before” trilogy finds Jesse and Celine’s relationship straining under the weight of a few years, and the collaboration between the three has never been stronger. Both characters are so completely realized by Hawke and Delpy that their performances barely register. These are real people who only happen to exist in celluloid. A lengthy argument between the two late in the film is one of the year’s most harrowing sequences, with Delpy turning in a bold, passionate performance and Hawke perfectly blending frustration and flippancy, before ending on a heart-warming, surprisingly optimistic note.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

A perfect example of everyone involved in a film firing on all cylinders to make a spectacular, pointed critique of one of America’s self-assigned blind spots. This kinetic, wildly entertaining work from cinematic master Martin Scorsese condemns through staging moments of hilarious debauchery with stunning precision. Leonardo DiCaprio does the best work of his career as Belfort, including a spurt of physical comedy that will go down in the history books, but Jonah Hill comes stunningly close to stealing the show with his hilarious brand of improv.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are at their most melancholy with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a quiet look at the folk scene of the 1960s. Oscar Isaac wholly embodies the lead character, effortlessly and perfectly bringing every frustration, regret and rare moment of self-awareness to life. John Goodman and Carey Mulligan are both suitably acidic as comedic foils the universe throws at Llewyn, and frequent musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett lends his talents to the year’s best soundtrack, a soulful collection of authentic folk songs as catchy as they are memorable. 

9. Spring Breakers

A film about lifestyle more than characters, Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is the year’s most entertaining indictment. The woozy spring break plays like a half-formed memory at times, its disorienting dialogue and neon-drenched aesthetic coyly disguising its sharp critique of modern youth. James Franco has received lots of attention for his absolutely demented performance as Alien, a sleazy drug dealer who doubles as Korine’s thesis statement. He truly energizes the film, even lending his dulcet tones to a hilariously bizarre rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” that gives the film its most memorable sequence.

10. 12 Years a Slave

This quietly horrifying account of America’s most despicable history is an undeniably vital film. Chiwetal Ejiofor gives the sort of soulful performance that defines careers, and Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and newcomer Lupita Nyongo all do essential, often painful but effective work. John Ridley’s script is equally strong, appropriate to its period setting but never antiquated, and Steve McQueen’s direction is perfectly measured, capturing the horrors of slavery without reveling in them and balancing its most painful moments with the smallest of triumphs.

11. The Conjuring

A modern horror classic, “The Conjuring” is a masterpiece of craft, with each bone-chilling horror piece immaculately constructed and populated with likable characters. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga nail the procedural elements of their ghost hunter characters, but it’s Lili Taylor’s battered performance as a haunted mother that gives the film heart and stakes.

12. The World’s End

For a melancholy rumination on adulthood and alcoholism, “The World’s End” is also a ton of fun. Simon Pegg’s manic performance grounds an impressive ensemble, but Nick Frost emerges the year’s most unlikely action hero once the film’s creative, challenging science fiction concerns come to the surface.

13. Mud

Jeff Nichols’ deliberate script and lush visuals made the familiar riveting again in his Southern-twanged coming-of-age story. Matthew McConaughey continues his rise to one of Hollywood’s best actors as a snaggletoothed fugitive, while Tye Sheridan perfectly embodies reluctantly fleeting innocence as the boy who agrees to help him. 

14. Stoker

Chan-wook Park’s American debut was a gleeful perversion of Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” an exhilarating visual puzzle with atmosphere to spare and some of the year’s most memorable images. Mia Wasikowska fearlessly comes into her own as a young girl struggling with her father’s death, while Matthew Goode chills as her predatory uncle.

15. American Hustle

It’s all about the performances in David O. Russell’s endlessly entertaining caper. Amy Adams leads an excellent cast with a performance of pure confidence, while Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper both do electric work and heat-seeking missile Jennifer Lawrence takes her handful of scenes by storm. 

Honorable Mentions

The Act of Killing - A tough but essential documentary

Blue is the Warmest Color - An admirably epic love story

The Broken Circle Breakdown - A rollicking heartbreaker

Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks’ finest hour

Frances Ha - Greta Gerwig beats Lena Dunham at her own game

Fruitvale Station - Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler single-handedly drive up tissue sales

Furious 6 - Top-notch action film with extra cheese

The Hunt - Sobering, fascinating study of a community in chaos

Prisoners - Tough, moody, and gorgeously filmed procedural 

You’re Next” - Pulpy, surprisingly witty horror fun 

“Don Jon” is a surprisingly frank directorial debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who wrote, directed, and stars in the sex comedy, released this weekend. Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a “Jersey Shore”-esque meathead with a penchant for porn, despite the revolving door of women in his life. That all changes when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a romantic comedy junkie with equally warped perceptions of love and romance, a topic that Gordon-Levitt tackles with sharp insight and wit. 

The Daily Texan participated in a roundtable interview with Gordon-Levitt during this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival.

The Daily Texan: How long has this idea to write and direct your own movie been on your mind?

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: I’ve worked with a ton of directors. I always loved being on sets, I loved watching movies as well as making them. When you’re an actor, there are certain parts of the process that you have nothing to do with, like where the camera goes or how it’s cut or music. So I was always really interested in being a part of that.

I think a real turning point though, was for my 21st birthday. I bought myself my first copy of Final Cut Pro, which is a video-editing software, and I started teaching myself how to edit. I loved it. I loved it so much I dropped out of college. I’d stay up all night making little videos, pointing the camera at myself, pointing it at a computer, cutting it into little short videos. It’s so much fun to me, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Ever since then especially I’ve been pretty intent on one day making a movie.

DT: And where did the idea for the film come from?

JGL: It started with me wanting to tell a story about what is always getting in the way of love, which is how we objectify each other and media contributes to that. So I thought of a story about a guy who watches too much pornography and a girl who watches too many Hollywood movies would be a really funny way at getting at those questions.

I was thinking about the guy. Who is he, and why is watching too much pornography? If he’s just watching it because he can’t find a partner, that wouldn’t really get at the theme. But if he was a ladies’ man, if he were getting with all kinds of girls all the time, but still had this habit, this always going back to the one-way perfect objectification of pornography, that would really bring it out. I thought, “who’s the classic ladies’ man?” and that’s when I thought of the literary character of Don Juan.

Then I was thinking, “How would I play Don Juan, what would be a contemporary Don Juan? What if I made it funny? And what’s that version of Don Juan?” My first thought was machismo, east coast guy with a gym body and shiny hair. It made me laugh instantly and that was it. I loved the idea.

DT: How challenging was it to write your character as likeable?

JGL: That was always a fine line I wanted to walk. My favorite protagonists are the ones aren’t just your perfect hero, who have their flaws. You like them, they’re rooting for them, but they do some shit that’s just … Why are you doing that, dude? But that’s how people are! There isn’t a human being in the world that’s perfect all the time, just like there’s not a human being in the world that’s evil all the time. Everyone’s a mixture of both, and so to me, those are the most interesting characters.

DT: I’d like to talk about Brie Larson’s character. She’s totally absorbed in technology, and she ends up being the wisest character in the movie, despite doing almost nothing the whole time. Do you think her isolation from her family is why she’s so wise?

JGL: I thought of it the other way around. Because she’s sort of over her family, I see her as someone who’s sort of grown up a bit. She’s a few steps ahead of Jon. By the end of the movie, Jon has started to break out of his shell and engage with things and try to actually talk to his parents. His parents are close-minded people, and Monica, [Larson’s] character, has already come to that conclusion. By the time our story starts, she’s like, “These people don’t listen anyway, so why should I speak?” In that final scene, for those who’ve seen it, when she finally speaks, it’s because she sees that her brother is sort of saying something, and so she engages.

Just because she doesn’t have many lines doesn’t mean she’s doing nothing, and that’s kind of one of my favorite things about that performance. Oftentimes, my favorite moments of any given performance are those moments where the actor isn’t speaking. Yeah, she gave us a really nuanced and funny and genuine performance, saying very very very little in the movie. It’s a testament to her skills. The size of your part isn’t a linear scale with the number of your lines, and she really proved that.

DT: I love the moment where you and [Johansson’s] character discuss how she doesn’t want you cleaning your own house. I want to know about the genesis of that moment because most people would say that’s a good thing.

JGL: That’s what the movie is about, is these expectations and molds that we’re pressured into filling about what a man is supposed to be and what a woman is supposed to be. Both Jon and Barbara are trapped in these molds, and she doesn’t like the fact that he’s a man and he’s not supposed to be doing housework. It’s a ridiculous notion, but that’s the old-fashioned way of thinking, and Barbara clearly feels that way.

It’s a scene that we wrote late, while we were in the middle of production. I did it because [Johansson’s] performance was so charming, I wanted to make sure that the audience wasn’t rooting for that relationship and understood how problematic the Barbara Sugarman character is. It’s an idea that [Johansson] and I came up with together, and I wrote a version of it. We sat down and rehearsed it, and rewrote it together. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.