My other 2013 film lists:
Top 25 Performances http://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/list-top-25-performances-from-2013/Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives):http://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/list-top-fives-of-2013-in-which-i-dole-out-a-boatload-of-superlatives/
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling:http://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/what-ill-remember-about-the-films-of-2013-a-personal-sampling/
Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#30-16): http://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/list-top-30-favorite-films-of-2013-30-16/
Some Major Blind Spots: The Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, We Are What We Are, The Square, In a World…, Post Tenebras Lux, All is Lost, Gimme the Loot, Wadjda, To the Wonder, After Tiller, Twenty Feet from Stardom
The order in these last 15, and the previous 15 for that matter, has been flip-flopping all over the place within their mini-groups of 3-4.
15. The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China) (Chinese cut)
Full of the simmering wooziness we expect from Wong Kar Wai’s imagery. The fight scenes glimmer and flow. Elements and body movement are highlighted. Kung-fu is shown as a delicate and elegant art form, akin to dance. And that’s what this film is about; the art form that is kung-fu, its ancestry and many subsets and schools of thought. How does art fade, die, rebirth, adapt and reconfigure itself as a reaction to history? This lends an incredibly mournful quality to The Grandmaster, so powerful in its cumulative effect that I became very emotional by its final minutes.
I understand that Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er is cut down quite a bit in the American cut, which is a shame because not only is she a co-lead but I actually felt like it was her story more than Ip Man’s. She is the driving force of the film as far as I’m concerned. The character and performance, and the way her character is tethered to its themes, are what I connected to most on a content level.
14. Laurence Anyways (Dolan) (Canada/France)
Equal parts period glamour and turbulent romance, Laurence Anyways has the specific brand of assured self-conscious filmmaking that I fall head over heels for (can we dub it the A Single Man brand of filmmaking?). The first Xavier Dolan film I’ve had the pleasure to see has sophisticated sweep to spare, using new-wave chic inspired surface pleasures of sight and sound to paint the characters’ inner experience and self-ownership. Both Laurence and Fred grapple with themselves and each other, coming together and apart in waves of time and baggage, never able to make it fully work.
Dolan’s compositions are direct and pronounced, with virtually every element of mise-en-scene unifying a vision that promotes active engagement through costume, art direction, and framing. The prints and patterns, the fashion and color, it informs to make up the fabric that is the film. It doesn’t detract or distract. It simply is the thing. I haven’t stopped thinking of Fred’s ballroom entrance or Laurence’s leaf-stitched sweater, or the way she only wears one dangly earring. It’s stylistically satisfying yes, but equally so from a storytelling perspective. It also has the best compilation soundtrack I’ve heard all year, possibly in years. Dolan reaches unimaginable peaks at age 23 with his third film, even if he periodically lets it get away from him. Suzanne Clément is especially excellent for making Fred’s resistance human as opposed to just cold-hearted.
#13. Museum Hours (Cohen) (Austria)
Forcing us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting, Museum Hours is about the neglected details of the everyday and the variety of ways we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Jem Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight from start to finish. The Bruegel lecture in particular took me in more than anything else this year.
#12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese) (USA)
Brazen, bloated, maniacally funny, exhausting, redundant, and revolting. An uncomfortable film for many reasons, mainly because Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter constantly toe the line between unapologetic immersion into Jordan Belfort’s scummy lifestyle, in a way that is deliberately meant to feel infectious, and pulling back for that nasty transparency. Scorsese has always had a fascination with hyper-masculine types who turn their backs on the law in various ways. And that comes through, complicating things a bit, mostly for the better.
The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t just meant to condemn, but to mirror the worst of man’s base instincts, and the mentality of American Dream as horror show. Leonardo DiCaprio is blistering on a wavelength we’ve never seen from him (hell, never even come close to), and never thought him capable of. He is all-in, unhinged in a way few performances are, keyed up for physical comedy and improvised distastefulness. It is both exhilarating and exhausting to watch him work; in many ways, it’s the performance I’ve been waiting his entire career for.
It has an amplified potency which, though I wish it had more of the kinds of stinging moments depicted in the brilliant head-shaving scene, makes for a film that pitches us right into the heartlessness of a rotted mentality that supports the notion that having money gives you carte blanche to stop being human.
#11. Her (Jonze) (USA)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.
As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum.
Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.
#10. Blue Jasmine (Allen) (USA)
My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and there’s some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, one of his bleakest films but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes the film so memorable. Allen and Cate Blanchett, who is astonishing even for her, do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.
#9. The World’s End (Wright) (UK)
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up.
I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.
Wright’s reliable ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style results some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay nearly as strong in its final minutes, but this was still one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious, heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen. Plus, I’ve been waiting my whole life to see “Alabama Song” used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.
#8. In the House (Ozon) (France)
Right up there with Francois Ozon’s best work. His films lean toward an acerbic wit, adaptations of plays (In the House is an adaptation of Juan Moyarga’s “The Boy in the Last Row”) and playing with story deconstruction and manipulation whether carried out through his form or his characters. I went on an Ozon binge as a teenager and he remains one of my favorites. With In the House he reaches new heights, in a film that meta-intellectualizes the writing process, exploring our attachment to characters, the critical nature of tone and what happens when you get caught up in real life through fiction. This all sounds stodgy and overtly pleased with itself, and at times it is, but it’s an unabashedly entertaining class-conscious ride of melodrama and irony. I went into this not knowing anything, only knowing that it was the new Ozon film. And I was gripped from minute one all the way through to the perfect unpredictable, but ‘of course it needed to end this way’ final scene. In the midst of it all, there’s Ernst Umhauer, an alarmingly impactful new find. And he’s absolutely dreamy to boot.
#7. Beyond the Hills (Mungiu) (Romania)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by any director working today? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but admirably level-headed critique.
There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.
Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism.
#6. Stoker (Park) (UK/USA)
Stoker is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park Chan-wook puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.
From a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies. And who are we kidding; the man has nothing to apologize for.
#5. Like Someone in Love (Japan/France) (Kiarostami)
A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. What brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made? Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using each camera choice to maximum effect, dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. That first scene, for example, and the way he gains attention through his attentiveness, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.
#4. Top of the Lake (Campion/Lee) (Australia/New Zealand)
Yes, I count miniseries for year-end lists. No, I don’t care if you wouldn’t.
Prolific Jane Campion’s feminist noir deals with the festering effects of resurfaced trauma set ablaze in a haunting New Zealand landscape of scumbag misogyny. Its blunt weapons come alive through its exploration of the unquestioned normalcy of such imbalances, and it’s all disguised as a whodunnit procedural. The passed down rituals of the alpha male surround a patriarchal world where staking territorial claim and asserting control gives way to power and status no matter the barbaric context.
But it’s not even just about the overt horrific ways in which men post a threat to women. It also looks at the other end of the threat spectrum. Top of the Lake captures, in ways I haven’t seen, the inherent daily threats women can feel amongst men; the instinctual act of tensing up, keeping your guard up whether intentionally provoked or not. It’s rare to see that evoked and examined in any storytelling so bravo to Campion and co-creator Gareth Lee for that.
Special mentions to Elisabeth Moss and one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan for some of the most rigorous and spectacular acting you’ll see. Matt Mitcham will stay with me for some time.
#3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers) (USA)
Using the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), Inside Llewyn Davis zeroes in on one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart of some kind, but there’s a softness, an emotional center here that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.
There’s so much of come to expect from the Coens’, not least that trademark precision and a can’t-win credo. It has either a spiritual, character-driven or structural connection to both Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man. There are cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute kind of depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer (who is also his own worst enemy) whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear Llewyn has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. Oscar Isaac suggests a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often.
#2. At Berkeley (Wiseman) (USA)
The only time in the 4 years I’ve been doing these top 30 lists where only one documentary found its way on. A sad sad thing. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal form of doc, continuing to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.
As always, Wiseman acts as a guide, without overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, its order, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing the film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. A fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system, we are given unprecedented access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.
It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students. A lot about this film struck close to home for me. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad, but the reality, which includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
#1. Before Midnight (Linklater) (USA)
There’s simply no way I could favor anything over Jesse and Celine. Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors; it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.
The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.
We see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where each is coming from, why one is fed up with the other, but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.