Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is an instant classic scuzzball character. He echoes the memorable sociopaths played by Robert DeNiro in his prime (Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver), but he’s less sympathetic than either of those. A parasite on the prowl, Bloom soon fixates on a career ideally suited to his amoral loner/ go-getter character—as a crime journalist during L.A.’s night hours. He listens for crimes in progress on his police scanner, speeds to the scene, and then angles for the most shocking, risque footage he can possibly get away with.
New colleagues Nina (Rene Russo), the struggling news producer he goes to first, and Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate “intern” railroaded into the nightmare, are exploitable because they want what Bloom can give them—money, work, success. The risks he takes and the lines he crosses are mainly ethical ones at first, but he quickly realises the quickest way to make a name for himself is to get truly sensational footage. The kind that requires taking bigger risks, eventually endangering lives.
Bloom is the most detestable character I’ve seen in ages. He’s a soulless cockroach rummaging through the misfortunes of others, ravenously feeding off violent crimes, sometimes while they’re still happening. But the news station keeps on buying what he’s selling. Viewer ratings spike with each successive horror scene that hits the air.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes us squirm from start to finish here because Bloom is so queasily familiar. We all know people who share his traits, even if they don’t take them to such extremes. He’s society’s Frankenstein’s monster, made from all the worst parts of capitalism. He’ll achieve success by any means, and he’s proud of that.
With End of Watch and Prisoners, and now Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal is finding the sort of edgy, dangerous roles relished by great actors of the 1970s, and he’s attacking them with gusto. This might be his best performance yet. The film itself is a darkly comic treat. It’s tense and unsettling as a thriller, but the most fascinating part is seeing how far this scumbag will take his obsession, and how much we’ll allow him to get away with.
For some reason, I read most of my favourite books at the start of the year and watched nearly all the best films at the end. Overall, it was an excellent year on both counts. Reading-wise, I delved into historical non-fiction and couldn't get enough of it. A host of novels (mostly Victorian/ Edwardian adventures) made my keeper shelf, while Patrick O'Brian and Stephen King continued to impress.
Of the summer films, Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z and The Conjuring all worked for me, but they were all eclipsed by the incredible end-of-year releases. While there are still several of the latter I've yet to see, including 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club, the following blew me away in 2013.
Top 5 Movies
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (dir. Peter Jackson)
Recommended for: The breathless barrel ride sequence. The wicked, preening dragon. Tauriel, the hottest she-elf warrior in Middle Earth. Gandalf’s detour into darkness. The Wagnerian scale of pretty much every scene.
Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
Recommended for: Long, dazzling, seemingly impossible visual effects shots. Inventive use of 3D. Sandra Bullock’s completely believable performance. A terrifying 90-minute simulation of life hanging (sometimes literally) by a thread.
Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Recommended for: An unusually intelligent and elegant screenplay. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Tommy Lee Jones. Sally Field. The many touches of filmmaking poetry throughout.
Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
Recommended for: Tom Hanks’s heartbreaking acting. Some of the most tense, brilliant filmmaking of the year. A powerful, no-nonsense approach to the true events. The capacity to incite debate afterwards.
Rush (dir. Ron Howard)
Recommended for: Its sheer energy and virtuosity. Great work by Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt and (especially) Daniel Bruhl as Niki Lauda. The superb racing scenes. A sharp, insightful script by Peter Morgan.
Top 5 Books
Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
Recommended for: Its fascinating four-pronged narrative leading to the Lincoln presidency. The wealth of historical detail. A fully rounded examination of the man himself and what made him great. A brilliant account of the Civil War and politics of the era.
Exploration Fawcett (Percy Harrison Fawcett)
Recommended for: Great old-fashioned storytelling. A wicked sense of humour. Endlessly entertaining anecdotes. Chilling observations on the nature of “civilization” among the Amazonian people. A real spirit of adventure.
11.22.63 (Stephen King)
Recommended for: King’s peerless storytelling. The way he brings 1950s and 1960s America to life, with a mix of eager nostalgia and hardbitten modernist. Well thought-out time travel elements. A touching love story. A very human protagonist.
Untold History of the United States (Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone)
Recommended for: A blistering account of twentieth century politics, both American and foreign. Inspired muck-raking across multiple administrations. A look at the unsavoury, Imperialist tendencies of a nation mostly unaware of its true legacy. Impressive wealth of evidence to support assertions.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Recommended for: Its broadening of the story’s scope, upping the ante. A gallery of interesting new characters. An ingenious new Games—The Quarter Quell. Good, solid writing throughout. Collins’ patient building of tension, leading to an explosive main event.
Robert Appleton is an award-winning author of science fiction, steampunk, and historical fiction. Based in Lancashire, England, he writes for various publishers. In his spare time he hikes, kayaks, and reads as many Victorian adventure novels as he can get his hands on. His mind is somewhat mercurial. His inspiration is the night sky.