Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t find 2013 to be an embarrassment of riches cinema-wise. Of course there were several dozen perfectly good films around—there always are. But saying that there was a notable abundance of great films involves a redefinition of the word “great”. Even more so than last year, I was worried I wouldn’t find ten films that were worthy enough to be called ‘Best,’ even though I know that, in this context, it is a term revised annually. (For my 2011 list, I actually listed a top five, and did the rest alphabetically. I’ve been hoping I won’t have to resurrect that method.) Maybe in 2014, I’ll just take it as read that only a small handful of films are ‘great’ and leave it at that. At any rate, that’s how it should be, right? That’s why we have bell curves.
However, one of the charming effects of this ‘problem’ is that is isn’t in the least difficult to compile a list of best films of the year; when the standouts are clear, there’s little hand-wringing about recognizing them. So let’s get to it, shall we?
G Clark’s Top Ten Films of 2013:
A rich tale of childhood discovery. Matthew McConaughey delivers another solid performance as a vagabond with a shady past, Reese Witherspoon is terrific as a disturbed, unsavory woman with secrets, and Tye Sheridan—whom I hope you remember from The Tree of Life—is perfectly cast as a fourteen year old finding first love just as his parents’ relationship is crumbling around him. Director Jeff Nichols is a true talent and has yet to disappoint in his examinations of small-town southern life.
Gravity should have been the best film of the year. It very nearly is, in fact. It’s a glorious depiction of the lonely vastness of outer space. I understand concessions needed to be made in pre-production by Alfonso Cuarón to get the budget for the film. For starters, there is a musical score to fill the silences that a movie in space should create. This is perfectly fine, partly because Steven Price’s score is discordant, unnerving, and one of the best of the year. The film is mostly cgi, which isn’t bad in and of itself, although there are more than a few shots which look expressly like C. G. I., and therefore break the surreal spell Cuarón seeks to create. (I hate to say it, but 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the most tactilely realistic depiction of outer space the cinema has yet offered.)
No, Gravity’s fatal flaw lies in its screenplay, which seeks to give Sandra Bullock’s character an unnecessary and obviously tacked-on backstory. It’s so unneccesary, in fact, that its appearance completely ripped me out of the film. Sandra Bullock is a fine actress, and is perfectly capable of eliciting the audience’s empathy without a tired and eyeroll-inducing subplot about her daughter. (I can’t say more without spoilers.)
So Gravity is not the best film of the year. But I don’t want to be a total wet blanket: it’s certainly one of the best, and most entertaining. It’s on this list, isn’t it?
8. The Great Beauty
The best film that Federico Fellini never directed. This is the film that Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby should have been: a sumptuous visual party banquet, a showcase for la dolce vita, a perfect illumination of the Roman upper classes and the existential melancholy that arises from such an extravagantly superficial lifestyle. Huh, that was a lot of adjectives. Anyway, if you liked or hated 2013’s film version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, get Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty to see how it’s really done.
7. Caesar Must Die
I actually reviewed this film for Film Misery last year, ahead of its stateside release. In part, I wrote “it seems to begin as a documentary examining a troupe of prisoners rehearsing a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. This material would be fascinating enough on its own, but filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani one-up themselves. As we see scenes from the play acted out by the prison’s amateur troupe, the directors slowly seems to disappear. The actors appear to be rehearsing scenes in their own time, away from supervision, until eventually, it seems the play itself has seeped into the prison, and possessed its occupants. We have stopped watching a documentary about prisoners rehearsing a production of Julius Caesar, and have begun watching a film of Julius Caesar set in a prison. Watching these levels of reality bleed into and dance around one another is nothing short of spellbinding. (It is worth noting that this movie is not a documentary—the actors on the screen however are actual prisoners who did perform the play at the prison depicted in the film.)
“The most effective sequence is that of Caesar’s death and the aftermath. It is presented in the courtyard enclosed by the walls of the prison, and Brutus and Anthony deliver their dueling monologues to those still enclosed within their cells, looking at the spectacle from their barred windows, whom we hear but largely do not see. Prison guards watch on, seeming to understand that they are watching a rehearsal of some sort, but not wondering who is supervising the whole endeavor. It is one of the very best interpretations of the Bard I have ever seen; my description has not done it justice.”
I ended my review by predicting that Caesar Must Die would prove to be one of the very best films of 2013. Well, I do hate being right all the time.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
The single funniest movie of the year. In fact, the last time a laugh-out-loud can’t-catch-your-breath comedy was so harrowing was probably Scorsese’s own After Hours. The Wolf of Wall Street is an endless parade of sex, drugs, sex, nudity, theft, sex, embezzlement, nudity, fraud, drugs, sex, abuse, infidelity, sex, and sex. Also, there is dwarf tossing. And Leonardo DiCaprio snorting blow out of a
whore’s hooker’s asshole. Yes, the plot is repetitive—to showcase the dizzying spiral of corruption, immunity, and power that money injects into the veins of the ambitious—but never boring, and by now we know better than to read a movie only at the level of plot, don’t we?
When A Clockwork Orange was released in 1972, many critics derided the film for asking the audience to identify too closely with its main character, and see all his raping, thieving, abusing, and assaulting as fun and games. Time has shown those critics to have missed the mark, however, and we’re seeing a similar reaction to Scorsese’s latest work. Does DiCaprio’s lifestyle seems enviable? Are all those drugs fun? What about all that copulation? Should women’s genitals just be pervasive decoration—unless they’re making assloads of money for their employers? How many of DiCaprio’s actions in the film are wrong? illegal? immoral? What’s the difference?
And this might be DiCaprio’s finest performance. I haven’t decided yet, but it’s in the running.
5. 12 Years a Slave
Of course this is a ‘prestige’ picture dealing with a horrendous and painful aspect of American history. I mean, listen to the premise: A free black man in 1841 is kidnapped by two unscrupulous circus performers and sold into slavery; we follow his trials and abuses leading up to his return to freedom. You can already hear the orchestral music signaling to awards winners that it’s time to leave the stage. But Steve McQueen directs with such anger, force, and passion, that the film transcends its Oscar-bait pedigree. If you’re familiar with McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, you know that his austere style creates films of overwhelming emotional impact. So prepare yourself.
What a wonderful, wonderful film. If you were a fan of Asghar Farhadi’s previous work, A Separation, you’ll notice that The Past isn’t quite the surprising gut-punch of that movie. But as a screenwriter, Farhadi has a novelist’s sensibility for characterization, understanding that people are multi-layered with a plethora of motivations and limitations. The suspense in a Farhadi screenplay comes from the slow reveals of characters’ inner workings, and how they influence and disturb those around them. Berenice Bejo—whom you may remember as the ingénue in 2011’s The Artist—won the Best Actress award at Cannes, but the entire cast excels, comprising the best acting ensemble of the year.
If you saw the trailer for August: Osage County and thought it looked good, go see this movie instead. Trust me.
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
As Derek Cianfrance’s sophomore effort came out in the first quarter of the year, I’ve already had a chance to write a bit about it; please indulge me in plagiarizing myself: “The Place Beyond the Pines has a naked auteurist ambition that recalls the 1970s: when Coppola, Cimino, and Bogdanovich were making very epic, yet intensely personal statements. It’s refreshing anymore to see a movie that strives for greatness, let alone achieves it, and Cianfrance’s sophomore effort seems like such an artifact discovered from the New Hollywood era. …What is stunning about Cianfrance’s work, both here and in his debut Blue Valentine, is how sure-footed he is thematically; he truly dramatizes his ideas, rather than clobbering his audience with his themes or using his characters as his personal mouthpieces…
“Cianfrance’s characters are faced with [many] moral choices, and he examines how those choices pass to subsequent generations, parents to children, and then branch out. Some critics make the faulty claims that the plot is filled with coincidence, or that the left-turns and narrative shifts unwarranted, but these critics betray a shallow reading of the film. And I am still perplexed by these criticisms, as even a shallow, plot-deep reading of the film still gives the viewer a cracking good yarn—one that had me guessing, fascinated, in its thrall until the final, haunting image.”
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
Blah blah blah LESBIANS, yada yada yada SEX BOOBIES BUTTS. I’m so sick of everyone in the world focusing on the sexuality in Blue is the Warmest Color; even Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel upon which the film is based, seems unable to discuss the film in any terms other than sexually-loaded ones. (And her complaints seem limited to complaining that the limited, brief sex scenes aren’t lesbianic enough, as if that’s all there were to the film’s value. How forward-thinking.)
The French title for the movie is La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2, and that is a much better fit for it than the English one. For what director Abdellatif Kechiche has given us is the story of a young woman from high school to adulthood, as she ventures out into the real world to establish her identity, sense of self, and relation to her environment. If you’re looking for a strong, richly-textured, three-dimensional female character in mainstream cinema, look no further.
Let me take a second to mention Kechiche’s leading lady, Adèle Exarchopoulos. This is the single greatest performance of the year. That she is filmed so frequently in close-up would be daunting for any actor, but Exarchopoulos’s performance is so grounded in reality that no seams show. The performance is not overly demonstrative; she conveys encyclopaedias with her eyes. Yet, as naturalistic as her performance is, she has a definite, radiant star power. Memorize her name, and wherever it appears, follow.
At any rate, I’ll leave you with this about Blue is the Warmest Color: there simply is no better film in existence about how difficult, frightening, burdensome, exhilarating, and terrible it is to become an adult.
1. The Act Of Killing
How do people responsible for mass atrocities justify their actions to themselves? How do they think about the acts they have committed? How do they live with what they have done? Do they know it is wrong, or is there some kind of mental defense mechanism that distances them from the acts? Are they insane? Are they, quite simply, evil? Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing doesn’t only raise these questions, as a good amount of art has done over the centuries, but actively seeks to answer them.
Anwar Congo was a low-level gangster type, selling black market cinema tickets in Indonesia. From these inauspicious beginnings, he was elevated to leading an infamous death squad as part of the Indonesian anti-communist purge of 1965-66. In this capacity, Anwar personally killed over one thousand people, usually via strangulation with wire. This was his job. He was very good at it.
How does director Oppenheimer deal with this man? It seems pointless simply to interview him. Attacking and berating him won’t produce especially enlightening results. (Calling a man ‘evil’ is very dangerous; it strips him of humanity and turns him into an object. While that may make it easier for ‘good’ people to denounce and react to him, it does very little to correct the behavior that is so destructive.) So Oppenheimer offers Anwar and his former cronies the chance to recreate these killings, in whatever cinematic manner they wish: Hollywood gangster picture, musical, western. The results make up the bulk of his film.
And the results are fascinating. Some of Anwar’s friends know what they did was wrong but are afraid to say anything. Some never think about it at all. Anwar doesn’t seem very conflicted about it, until he is cast in the role of victim for one of the scenes. How does this evil man react when having his own past thrust upon him?
Oops, I used that word, ‘evil.’ But there is no such thing as good or evil, of course: only actions people perform, and their consequences.
(Note: I didn’t know until starting this article that there are actually two different versions of The Act of Killing: a 159 minute director’s cut released in Indonesia and film festivals worldwide, and a 115 minute version released in several countries theatrically. I have only seen the 159 minute version, and therefore only vouch for this version as the best film of the year. It is available on Blu-Ray.)
And here are the ‘Runners Up,’ those almost, but obviously not quite, good enough to go on the Master List:
A horrifying account of the way that hysterical and misplaced ‘good’ intentions can destroy reputations and lives. By now you know that The Hunt deals with a teacher wrongly accused of molestation by the well-meaning but histrionic nursery staff at his school, and how their leading questions to his alleged victim result in his shunning from the community as a sexual predator. But paedophilia is neither the theme nor thrust of this movie. (Here is another film where a regrettable number of critics shallowly discuss the plot and leave it at that.) Scenarist and director Thomas Vinterberg brilliantly uses the mechanics of this story to illustrate that, in far too many cases, accused individuals are firmly guilty until proven innocent—and regrettably, often thereafter. A chilling and prescient theme.
Inside Llewyn Davis
If Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coen Brothers’ The Odyssey, Inside Llewyn Davis appears to be their Finnegan’s Wake. That’s a compliment, I think. Circular plot, surreal characters, great music. I don’t really need to make a case for this film, do I? It’s the Coen brothers for Christ’s sake—go see it.
Alexander Payne’s movies always ride a careful line between broad comedy and touching poignancy, and Nebraska is no different. A fine amalgam of complicated, flawed, beautiful roles brought to life by talented character actors, with a touching Bruce Dern at the center.
Only complaint: the film was shot digitally with too-obvious fake film grain added after the fact. What is this bullshit? If you’re not going to shoot on film, Payne, don’t bother with the post-production fraudulence. Have the strength of your convictions, man.
A middle-aged Austrian woman goes on vacation to Kenya. She is flattered by the attention she gets from the local men, and believes them to be in love with her. They aren’t of course; she is white and therefore rich, and they want her money. Once she accepts this, she happily parts with her money in exchange for a little humiliating bodily exploitation from the Kenyans. The first and best of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy says more about race relations than a dozen Crashes, and more about the lasting effects of colonialism than last year’s unfortunate Tabu glossed over.
Post Tenebras Lux
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so close to dreaming as this one. Certainly, there are dream-like pictures out there—David Lynch’s entire career is built upon those. But think of the actual act of dreaming: seemingly random but often tangentially related characters, images, and situations orbit around your slumbering consciousness all trying to make sense of each other. What does Satan have to do with a British boys’ football team; what does a pack of dogs in a storm to do with lascivious locker room sexcapades; what do AA meetings have to do with a man pulling his own head off? Often the only thing linking the images in a dream is the fact that the dreamer has dreamt them. Well, Carlos Reygadas is the dreamer, Post Tenebras Lux is the dream, and you, Reader, are the conscious mind that gets to make sense of it all.
A very—very—dark story about the sudden disappearance of two little girls and how their families and community react to the tragedy. Hugh Jackman is a survivalist who decides to take the search for the girls into his own hands, much to the annoyance of police detective Jake Gyllenhaal. Usually, mainstream cinema doesn’t get this fatalistic without David Fincher at the helm. What an ending!
If you think you have any idea what happened during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, take a look at Jehane Noujaim’s haunting, first-hand account of protesters seeking true, lasting change for their country. The Twitter feeds and YouTube videos springing up during those tumultuous months were only part of the complete picture.
Considering that this is the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a woman, its existence is a minor miracle. Saudi Arabia does not have a film industry, and the country’s attitude towards women is not, by Western standards, particularly modern. But none of these facts matter if the director doesn’t have any cinematic talent. Well, I’m happy to report that director Haifaa al-Mansour is a natural, and her touching story of a precocious Saudi girl longing to buy a bike is deep and simple, in the grand tradition of the Italian neo-realists. A quiet gem.
The Wind Rises
This can’t be Miyazaki’s swan song. That thought is just too painful to bear. While this film shows the old master toning down the fantasy elements for pockets of wist and period detail, it is every bit as engrossing as his previous Ghibli output. Here’s hoping his retirement resembles Steven Soderbergh’s more than Sean Connery’s.
And, of course:
To the Wonder
If Post Tenebras Lux is the closest cinema has come to depicting actual dreams, perhaps To the Wonder comes closest to depicting actual memory. Unlike what most movies with flashbacks tell us, we do not remember in perfect chronology, with flawless recall, past dialogue and events. Our memories are fractured—fragments of sound, of color, of music, of smells, of sensations. If you think of a past friend, I seriously doubt you remember thoroughly from the moment you met them straight through to the dissolution of the friendship. You might first remember the way they smelled, then a lyric they wouldn’t stop singing, then their favorite shirt, they way they smiled when pretending to be happy, their stifled sneezes, their drunken ramblings about Proust, the unexpected present they got you for your birthday…
Well, Terrence Malick is the rememberer, To the Wonder collects his remembrances, and you, Reader, are the conscious mind that gets to process it all. What a gift.
Other good films worth your time, after you’ve seen the rest:
- All is Lost
Berberian Sound Studio
Beyond the Hills
In Another Country
Like Someone in Love
The Spectacular Now
A Touch of Sin
The Way, Way Back