Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2013

The watch-a-lot-of-films-and-try-to-place-myself-in-vaguely-professional-scenarios-doing-so track referenced in the introduction to my end-of-year list last year has continued on a sturdy pace over the past twelve months, a welcome difference being that 2013's crop of films – both on the national release slate and the festival scene – far outclassed those of last year and thus offered me an especially challenging opportunity to expand my sensibility as a viewer and a writer. It may have merely been my increased resources and determination with regards to digesting the great diversity of worthwhile cinema that sees some form of exposure on a weekly basis in the United States (something for which I owe a lot to Kenji Fujishima, editor of In Review Online and savage hunter of pre-release links/DVDs), but I saw far more new films this year than ever in my life. It's been a good year for cinema, as well as for many of the reasons I mentioned in this post a few months ago.

One thing that is going to be different from last year in the forthcoming round-up of films is the criteria I used to select them. I've never cared much for the whole journalistic standard that governs year-end lists and requires that a film be treated to at least a one-week run in NYC during the calendar year for eligibility (a system that neglects regional releases in, well, the 49 other states). That said, I've never been particularly inclined to try to rationalize my own obscure eligibility system either, which has mucked up my year-end lists for a while now and doesn't really do anyone any favors. So, in the name of organization and standardization, or whatever, I'm throwing in the towel and abiding by the "rules." But (another but), there's a catch: the films that would have formally qualified for 2013 list-making that I included in my 2012 list won't be included here for the sake of not repeating myself, with the exception of those which I re-watched during their 2013 public run and radically reevaluated my opinion on; such is the case with my #1, which I simply couldn't let sleep in the comparatively unfavorable #12 slot I smacked upon it last year. To add one last nugget of confusion and hypocrisy to the mix, I have included two films on this list that don't belong here according to any yardstick. However, they are films (noted with a *) for which, tragically, there is in all likelihood no one-week Big Apple run on the horizon (I will hold out hope for other neglected 2013 gems like Leones and See You Next Tuesday). Perhaps their inclusion is part of a measly hope that my words will correct this appalling reality.

Enough banter. Here are my favorite films of 2013. When applicable, bolded titles link to my reviews, and for the most part, unhelpfully specific blurbs are pulled from said reviews and are marked as such with quotations. Do not feel obliged to click these links, but if you do I will not object.

25. You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

"For those entirely unaware or with only a sketchy familiarity with Eurydice, it’s nearly impossible to discern the extent to which the script’s barrage of double-crosses and suggestions of infidelity are germane to the ancient story’s characters or if the several different generations of actors in d’Anthac’s renditions are filling in their own dramas from both memories of the material and their of-the-moment hopes and anxieties. This fuzziness between the textual and extra-textual elements is, I imagine, not only intentional in Resnais’s knotty design, but encouraged to allow us to better drift into the film’s porous representations of time, reality and performance."

24. To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

"The film's finest accomplishment is its melancholy evocation of past selves through its focus on unfurnished houses, unoccupied laundromats, quiet neighborhoods, and empty landscapes, all locations the characters pass through at one point or another. Returned to over and over in the film's loose, flowing montage, these impressions of emptiness, accumulating into one giant void, make To the Wonder the saddest movie Malick has made."

23. Mondomanila (Khavn De Le Cruz, Philippines)*

"A rare thing in cinema, or at least a rare thing to see the light of day in American cinemas: a film about grinding slum life that refuses to condescend, simplify, pity, or hastily polemicize its subjects. Set in the titular district of the Philippines, Mondomanila is a low on budget but high on ingenuity ensemble cartoon that leavens its dire, disturbing subject matter every step of the way with punkish irreverence and a truly perverse sense of humor. The film stands in a tradition of grotesque surrealism that runs from Buñuel to Waters to Makavejev to Jodorowsky, yet I've still never seen anything like director Khavn De La Cruz's anarchic hybridization of genres and styles."

22. Outside Satan (Dumont, France)

"Alternating between statuesque close-ups of faces against skies and rapturous deep-focus views of the rural dunes of Nowhere, France, the film essentially presents a series of richly detailed landscapes to meditate upon, but this desire for contemplation is complicated throughout by a vaguely sinister energy...Dumont's formidable command of screen space, editing tempo, and atmospheric soundscapes is such that every shot feels as if it's on the precipice of a dangerous outburst that never arrives."

21. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

"Blue is the Warmest Color is a movie of constant, sometimes rocky evolution, a form it shares with that of a turbulent romantic relationship. It channels inward on a plot level but expands consistently outward in terms of resonance, starting out as a film tuned in to the coming out process and its interpersonal repercussions and concluding as a remarkably sensitive, all-inclusive portrait of the challenges and rewards of having a significant other."

20. Side Effects (Soderbergh, USA)
Never got around to writing about this, so until I do, I'd like to just defer to Ryland Walker Knight's beautiful piece on, among other things, the film, which echoes many of my own thoughts (Vadim Rizov's review is also handy, though slightly less compatible with my own verdict. Then again, I already included that in my 2013 film writing round-up here.) Until I see Side Effects again, I'll also reference my TweetReview back in February: "Shifts of control, shifts of fortune, shifts of knowledge, shifts of genre, all w/ dreamy hyper-clarity. Sody in a nutshell." Oh, and Rooney Mara proves herself as one of our most gifted – and, even through onscreen depression, most unbearably gorgeous – actresses, capable of making an icy stare like the one above terribly seductive.

19. This is Martin Bonner (Hartigan, USA)

"Despite the looming presence of Catholic churches and potentially therapeutic religiosity (Travis’ married volunteers found themselves in Nevada because it’s “where God wanted [them]”), the film is not about guilt, redemption or any other Catholicized notions, but rather about something much simpler and more primal: the transformative power of encountering another person at a similar juncture in life in a brand-new milieu. Shot largely in bright, crisp West Coast sunlight, This Is Martin Bonner reconfigures the metropolitan weirdness of Reno as something sobering, luminous and rife with possibility."

18. The Last Time I Saw Macao (Rodrigues & Guerra da Mata, Portugal)

"Unclassifiable and unpredictable, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's utterly unique documentary-fiction hybrid (I realize that in today's festival landscape such a characterization might sound contradictory) begins as a fairly straightforward visual travelogue of Macao (a "Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China" that was once a longtime Portuguese colony), then lays over the top of it an entirely invisible narrative with campy shadings of noir and sci-fi before ultimately surrendering the film to some uncanny conspiratorial force that enshrouds the movie's final passage in a cryptic, wordless, vaguely apocalyptic fog."

17. Frances Ha (Baumbach, USA)

"Shot in placid monochrome on location in New York City, San Francisco, and Paris and doused in Delerue, Baumbach obviously has the French New Wave on his mind. At one point, we even glimpse a poster of Francois Truffaut's Small Change (1976) on the walls of one of Frances' temporary dwellings. The debt is both obvious and substantive: Frances Ha echoes the spirit (restless, witty, self-conscious), the narrative (drifting young people in urban environments), and the technical crudeness (the Canon 5D Mark II being a contemporary equivalent of the Bolex or the Cameflex in terms of size and efficiency) of Godard and Truffaut's early films, even sharing deeper thematic resonances with a less fashionable New Waver like Eric Rohmer."

16. At Berkeley (Wiseman, USA)

As captured by Frederick Wiseman's camera and arranged by his editing platform, the University of California, Berkeley is a habitat rife with pointed tensions: radicalism vs. tradition, liberated thinking vs. pragmatism, egalitarianism vs. elitism, genuine passion vs. conditioned behavior, individualism vs. collectivism, and that which is knowable/definable vs. that which is unknown/unknowable. What gradually becomes clear is that the college is a confluence of large-scale forces, rigidly mobilized but not always homogeneously ideological, butting heads and searching messily for some compromise. The film's closing shot of a school theatrical performance lit so as to silhouette the performers bobbing horizontally across the frame evokes the large-scale printmaking of Kara Walker, an artist who similarly charts power structures, often targeting the nature of civil rights in the Antebellum South but also hinting at the defining apparatus of her contemporary nation. A gargantuan, multi-layered and richly associative work, At Berkeley too seems about as comprehensive with regards to the complexities of our country during its lead-up to the scattered Occupy movement as it does to its portrait of higher education.

15. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers, USA)

"Initial impulse is that the Coens' latest nails a series of frustrations particular to independent musicians: 1) the feeling that for whatever reason the zeitgeist has passed you by, that the general consensus is slightly out of step with your creations; 2) the resulting sense of diffused irritation, simultaneously pointed at everyone and no one in particular; 3) a tendency to then retreat inward, convinced of your authenticity within a landscape of phoniness. In a sort of masochistic way (I'm a musician myself that has felt like Llewyn more times than I'd like to admit), I enjoyed the hell out of the film for these reasons."

14. Differently, Molussia (Rey, France)*

"In one of the most gorgeous moments of Differently, Molussia, the camera surveys an overcast valley in a continuous tilt-and-pan movement; throughout, the thick dancing grain of Rey's outdated stock nearly overpowers the image's representative components, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from the precipitation coming from the sky. It's a mysterious, enthralling abstraction brought about by the medium's particularities, and its effect is miles from the machine-like (totalitarian?) rigidity of the digital image. In such cases, the values of Rey's work are not directed or expounded upon, but rather felt."

13. Nebraska (Payne, USA)

"Nebraska's resonant monochrome widescreen images are in the vein of the predominantly gray, sparsely populated Midwestern landscape photography of Stranger than Paradise (1984), another film which regards the stubborn commitment to a fading lifestyle with a tarnished romanticism. But Payne's film offers another level specific to today's America; in the deceptively schmaltzy denouement, we're not quite watching a man's triumphant re-discovery of himself, but rather the full emergence of a new, more dispiriting form of father-son bonding predicated on the temporary relegation of real problems to shiny distractions."

12. Viola (Piñeiro, Argentina)

"Structurally, Piñeiro’s third feature as a writer/director shares a loose resemblance to Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales: a set of characters devising a playful game to test a philosophical stance on romance only to have their initial expectations complicated and broadened. Unlike in Rohmer though, the final revelation is not one that leads a character back to normalcy and stability but rather towards a sudden, heightened clarity, a hyper-awareness to the pleasures of life. Viola’s sleek, sinuous beauty, then, is part of Piñeiro’s effort to awaken this same sense of hyper-awareness in the viewer."

11. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

"Confusion regarding the shifting tides of a modernizing Chinese society—a Jia trademark—has hardened here into outright fury towards the corruption built into a country so damaged by the evil sides of capitalism. That anger spills out across the film, which portrays five different circumstances of initially well-intentioned local Chinese citizens brushing up against some form of economic exploitation and, in their disillusionment, subsequently turning to violence. More abstract in its narrative linkages than what one would expect from, say, the Alejandro González Iñárritu model of outlandish connectedness, A Touch of Sin is defined by the idea that dishonesty is pervasive and inescapable, and correspondingly mounts a conspiratorial atmosphere in which everyone seems tied in some way to a mob."

10. I Used to be Darker (Porterfield, USA)

"Even as Porterfield has moved away from outright improvisation, his latest exhibits the same casual rhythms and miniaturized focus that have defined his cinema so far. The lessons learned from Putty Hill's inspired if decidedly messy blurring of documentary and fiction tendencies – namely, that "realness" is futile if emotional content is pure – have been carefully put into practice in I Used to be Darker, which approximates the texture of daily life in Baltimore while also taking dramatic liberties to pursue with greater precision a specific emotional upheaval."

9. Passion (De Palma, USA)

"To take the lurid twists and turns of Passion’s inconsequential plot at face value is to miss the densely metatextual level on which De Palma is primarily working, both in relation to his own pulp-inflected previous work and a larger cinematic genre lineage. The film is structured as a series of bold reversals of fortune whereby audience empathy is repeatedly jostled around, and at a certain point we are made to realize it is not a question of what is happening but how: how we are complicit in a chain of narrative projection and how the screen looks back at us as passive objects made active."

8. Bastards (Denis, France)

Shaking Claire Denis' latest movie from my system has been no small task. Since seeing it two weeks ago, it has existed in my brain as a daunting, sinister weight, still not quite congealing into any identifiable shape and thus very hard to write about—that is of course to say, one of my favorite kinds of films. I feel a strange tension around the prospect of watching it again: a pull because of the obvious impact of Denis' nightmarish vision as well as my own desire to grapple with the specifics of what happens in it, and a reluctance for fear that two viewings in a short period of time may be mentally unhealthy. It's a film of cavernous corruption and darkness (fleeting bits of lightness are all but smothered) revealed in somber gradations of brown and synth-scored reveries. To watch it is to witness the ugliness of our world condensed into 83 minutes. What a leap from the cozy family fun of 35 Shots of Rum.

7. The World’s End (Wright, USA)

I found Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the first two installments of Edgar Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy," enjoyable if frequently dumb and fairly hollow genre exercises. The World's End represents a vast improvement by darkening the comedy and injecting a beating core of sadness and despair into what is otherwise an equally loopy entertainment. A brilliantly simple premise – a group of old friends reluctantly band around their ne'er-do-well alcoholic leader in middle age to return to their youthful English hamlet and finally seal the deal on a circuitous bar hop trail – becomes a fogged, increasingly distorted lens through which to observe and empathize with the terrible, universal feeling of irrevocable loss that attends growing up. The 100-mph intensity of Simon Pegg's lead performance and the corresponding rush of Wright's filmmaking (gloriously musical in its rhythms) thus constitutes an accelerated form of denial against life's pint-sized tragedies.

6. The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, USA)

"In the vigorous pursuit of a seeming greater good, logic can lead inexorably to delusion – this is one of the uncomfortably simple truths at the center of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, a startling documentary that dares to dig out the roots of humanity behind heinous genocide. In doing so, the film is packed end to end with, and thrives on, contradictions; both within the casual commentary by the carnivalesque ensemble of amoral gangsters and within the dense compositions, writhing with intimations of justice, heroism, and community on the one hand and overt acts of evil and carelessness on the other."

5. Before Midnight (Linklater, USA)

"Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s attempts to tackle their key existential concerns have always been defined by a sense of patient searching and a humbling inability to provide any kind of stable judgment; their latest is no different, though it does take a few heroic steps forward. In finding the two crossed souls in the thick of a committed union, Before Midnight is the closest the series has come to providing some kind of shaky definition of love."

4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese, USA)

"The Wolf of Wall Street has a firecracker pulse, moving from set piece to sight gag to careening montage with the dexterity Scorsese showed off in Goodfellas (1990); only its opening stages, focusing on Belfort clawing his way around unemployment, suffer from a slackness of pacing. The film moves so quickly and raucously that it never has a chance for any suspended critical judgment, instead letting the nose-diving course of the narrative, in which Belfort and his colleagues strand themselves further and further from any sense of human sympathy or logic, speak for itself."

3. Computer Chess (Bujalski, USA)

"The film’s murky, flattened visuals – which leave ghostly trails whenever a bright face moves in a dark frame and confuses the camera’s light-sensitive tubes – suggest that technology can’t keep up with us, but plenty of other moments imply the opposite. Bujalski centers his story on people whose passion is to obsessively control the behavior of computers, and yet the film also playfully ponders the thought of computers exercising a consciousness of their own."

2. Museum Hours (Cohen, USA)

Allow me a moment of relative corniness. No other film this year left for me in its immediate wake such an acute feeling of serenity and appreciation for life. No other film expressed such respect and humility in the face of its filmed world (a tranquilly trash-less Vienna) and the people contained within it (the year's most chemically bound pair, Bobby Sommer and Mary Margaret O'Hara). Museum Hours is not sentimental. It's a calm, dignified film about how we make the hours in our lives go by, how we communicate with one another, how we make sense of our surroundings, and how our attempts to reduce the world to language are healthy if ultimately futile efforts.

1. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Iran/Japan)

Blurb included in In Review Online's Year in Review.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 12 Years a Slave, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Blue Jasmine, Drug War, Golden Slumbers, The Great Beauty, Night Across the Street, Spring Breakers, The Wind Rises

Blind Spots: All is Lost, Beyond the Hills, The Counselor, Drinking Buddies, The Grandmaster, Gravity, The Past, The Selfish Giant, These Birds Walk, The Unspeakable Act, White Reindeer

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