The 10 best films of 2013
So Yong Kim's story about a vulnerable rocker and his daughter is music to Andrew Pulver's ears, as we continue our list of this year's top 10 films
Thursday 12 December 2013 11.13 GMT
For Ellen arrived somewhat unheralded in cinemas, a product of the 2012 Sundance film festival; unheralded, perhaps, because of its opaque title and director So Yong Kim's track record of wispy meditations on Korean-American identity. But what a pleasure it turned out to be. It's never easy to create a plausible musician on screen – Spinal Tap has seen to that – and particularly a nail-varnish-wearing, soul patch-sporting rocker of the type that Paul Dano impersonates here.
But instead of attempting to distil a hard-partying, cooler-than-thou muso, Dano's Joby Taylor is an intensely vulnerable, childlike figure, as ineffectual as a 10-year-old. We first see him as he drives chaotically through the snow into a small American town (naturally, his car breaks down) on his way to finalise a divorce agreement with his pissed-off wife. The Ellen of the title is their daughter, a sussed but not especially cool six-year-old. And the fourth element in the story is Fred Butler (Jon Heder, barely recognisable from Napoleon Dynamite) as a square but strangely star-struck lawyer attempting to shepherd Taylor through the legal aspects of the separation.
In synopsis, the plot is unremarkable: Taylor wavers over the divorce when he realises it means his wife gains complete custody of Ellen, takes the kid to a shopping mall for a bonding afternoon out, and wavers some more. That's about it. But For Ellen is a study in tonal brilliance, in an absurdly enjoyable alchemy between camera, performance, and self-deprecation. Dano has all the choking sincerity of early Nicolas Cage, laced with the kind of grubby histrionics that Withnail might have tried if he'd been a noughties thrash-metaller. Kim, filming in calm, naturalistic long takes, brings out all the underlying tenderness of this undeniably idiotic character, so much so that every reverse and confusion Taylor experiences becomes more and more unbearable.
In an interview earlier this year, Kim told me For Ellen is informed – like her earlier films – by her father's attempt to reconnect with her after abandoning the family when she was a child. How she managed to transmute such difficult personal experiences into such cinematic delight is something of a miracle.