An overlooked indie that is one of the most enjoyable surprises I've seen all year, "13 Conversations About One Thing" offers not only some of the year's best performances, but an interesting set of stories that intelligently illustrate life's persuit of happiness or even simply contentment and how that can fall away in a moment's notice or make a sudden, unexpected return.
The film covers a series of different tales scattered about New York City. This is not a drama with grand, fierce moments - it is, instead, a mostly subdued film with events and people that seem real. Although some of the stories connect, this is a movie more focused upon building character, atmosphere and substance than twisty structure. Any connections made within the plot feel smooth and natural instead of pieces being forced together.
The stories are varied and interesting: an assistant DA named Troy (Matthew McConaughey) chats up a fellow bar customer, Gene (Alan Arkin) about being thrilled at sending a guilty man to prison that day. Gene is in no mood, continuing his fascination with another employee at his office who is somehow able to turn everything in his life into something positive - a man whose life he will eventually try and destroy when nothing seems to work to bring him down to his level of sadness.
Troy continues his hapiness out into the night, but is devastated when, while driving drunk, he hits a pedestrian. Although very aware of the kind of trouble he's gotten himself into, he drives away and the guilt of what he did continues to haunt him after Beatrice (Clea Duvall) is optimistic after surviving a near-drowning as a child, but it's not another accident that changes her look on life, but smaller events, including how her employer suspected her of theft. John Tuturro plays a professor who has an affair, but continues to find that he's no happier with another woman.
This is certainly not a happy film, but director Jill Sprecher keeps the pace moving fairly well and the tone never becomes unbearably gloomy. The film's messages, such as about how we search for meaning and how life hands us unexpected events both good and bad, are offered to the audience not through manipulative moments or heavy-handed scenes, but respectful dialogue and small gestures. There have certainly been many films that try to convince of how people are connected to one another, but I honestly don't remember one quite as convincing as this one. It doesn't have all the answers, but it presents its theories in a way that's more intelligent and respectful of its audience than many films that are released today.
Besides the fine writing, editing (the film was edited by Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione, "Traffic") and cinematography, "13 Conversations About One Thing" includes several terrific performances. Arkin is fantastic as a man haunted and soured by events that have happened in his life, not to mention saddened when the man whose life he tried to ruin still treats him with respect and kindness. Duvall and McConaughey, actors who are potentially good, but often find themselves with lackluster characters, offer some of their finest moments here. Amy Irving and Tuturro are also quite good.
Director Jill Sprecher and her sister, writer Karen, truly deserve praise for this film, which is among the best I've seen in 2002. They have made a film that is consistently quiet and doesn't have any Big Moments or Speeches, but still remains powerful and often fascinating. Again, I appreciated the respect that the director and writer have for the audience - they do not spell everything out, instead leaving it up to the audience to figure things out and add their own emotions to their personal exploration of the film's meanings and ideas.
This is a highly engaging, beautifully crafted film that offers stellar performances and interesting ideas. It's a quiet film that, with every passing moment, drew me in a bit closer. One of the year's best.
VIDEO: "13 Conversations" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is generally a very nice transfer, considering the material. The film has a basic, clean visual style that, while not flashy, occasionally offers glimpses of subtle, memorable beauty. Sharpness and detail are solid, but they also vary - there are some scenes that appear a bit soft, but most of the film looks crisp and well-defined.
There's little wrong with this enjoyable transfer. Some light edge enhancement is present, but it's hardly enough to be an issue. Minor grain is also seen, but this is likely intentional. The print seemed to be in excellent shape, only a little speck or mark away from being perfect. Pixelation or other artifacts are also not seen.
The film's color palette is generally subdued, but not too unnaturally so. Black level is generally solid, while flesh tones also looked accurate and natural. A very nice effort from the studio.
SOUND: "13 Conversations" is presented by Columbia/Tristar in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is essentially the definition of a "dialogue-driven" feature. A choir is really the only instance where the surrounds are noticably used. Aside from a bit of score on occasion, there is nothing outside of the dialogue, which sounded crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: The DVD offers a commentary from the Sprecher sisters, who are joined by editor Stephen Mirrone. Other than the very enjoyable commentary, all we're offered (some deleted scenes or interviews would have been nice) are a small group of trailers.
Final Thoughts: One of the year's finest films, "13 Conversations About One Thing" is a quiet, down-to-earth film that is full of ideas and intelligence. The film's performances are marvelous, too. It would be a real shame if this wasn't at least nominated in several catagories at the Oscars. The DVD could have used some additional supplements, but still boasts fine audio/video quality. Very Highly Recommended.
The Film ****