Lena Houst’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Blue Is the Warmest ColorWell that was a year. Perhaps it’s because I’m just getting ready to start a new one that it feels like the year rushed by too quickly to notice. It may have been the frequent workload I maintained, though I have no complaints with a year that’s seen me returning to college, programming a student-run theater, and promoted to senior editor amongst the talented and diverse group of writers here at Film Misery. A lot’s happened in 2013, though not all of it explosive in obvious eventfulness. The year’s biggest most significant developments weren’t mainstream phenomenons, but intimate experiences, which is an exciting prospect in respects to the cinema.

Some have been so enthused as to call 2013 “the best year in film ever”, a hastily hyperbolic claim that often doesn’t account for the vast and notable breakthroughs of the 20th century. As rushed a statement as it is, it highlights a certain level of surprise that a year can be so rich and dense in cinematic offerings. Though I’ve often sustained that there’s no such thing as a weak film year, with each offering its fair share of great films. This year more than, however, I must admit feeling often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of great films, and condensing them down to 25 titles has been a more stressful task than in any of my past four years of list-making.

HerDoes that make 2013 the best year in film I’ve experienced? Quite possibly, but that’s not to be mistaken with the best year of my own life. I’d often felt that 2012 was my year of transitions – between sites, cities, majors – but this year was tinged with the realization that I wasn’t as confidently finished changing as I thought. The number of films I’ve changed my opinion on certainly highlights that, with negative reviews for The Heat and Beautiful Creatures, two films I’ve grown fond of since, emphasizing how sour my spirits were at times this year. Moving forward is never easy, and it feels a lot safer to solidify one’s identity in one thing.

At the still accessible age of 21, I often caught myself wishing for adulthood to come quicker so I could have things figured out, but if the films I eventually selected for my top ten – eleven if you count Her, which I personally would – have taught me anything, it’s that no matter what age you’re at, be it 11, 18, 27 or 40, nobody ever has everything figured out. So why obsess over what can never be perfect? Accept and enjoy what you feel now, or, to quote that aforementioned #11 film, “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”

12 Years a SlaveOne last thing to note before making the final plunge in is that this is not a “best of 2013” list. I feel neither qualified nor eager to judge what the most objectively flawless films of any year are. It’s much more fun and fulfilling to say which films I personally have the most love for, and as such a number of perhaps “better” films missed the cut. Worth singling out are such significant and profoundly important films as The Act of Killing and 12 Years a Slave, two films that have made the world is a better, more conscious place, at least for those who saw them

A vast number of other films made the lower tiers of prior versions of this list – amongst the also-rans are Behind the Candelabra, The Bling Ring, The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Gatsby, A Hijacking, Leviathan, No, Redemption (Miguel Gomes’ marvelous short), To the Wonder, The Wind Rises and White House Down – and I’m sure a day will come when I may rank them fondly amongst their respective directors’ filmography.

But it had to come down to 10 (or 25, if you check out yesterday’s part 1 of this list), and I wouldn’t trade these for the world.

Lena Houst’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Stoker10. Stoker
Directed by Park Chan-wook

Hitchcock was on the devilish tip of the tongue for more than one film this year, none more overtly than in South Korean punk auteur Park Chan-wook’s kinky American horror story. Lensed through gothic shades, Stoker ostensibly focuses on the coming-of-age of desert dry in humor and sexuality India, whose father’s death triggers the arrival of obviously evil uncle Charlie, a sensually undeniable but tonally childish Matthew Goode. From there Mia Wasikowska’s India and Nicole Kidman’s hopelessly lasciviously widow Eve form less a conventional mother-daughter bond than the two opposing ends of an incestuously fulfilling and manically desperate (respectively) love triangle. All sink their teeth deliciously into Wentworth Miller’s juicy, perceptive dialogue, but it’s given sumptuous and seething life by Chan-wook’s impishly playful direction and cunning manipulation of space and oozing creamy color to seductive and unsettling ends, often both at once. No film this year turned me on more successfully, or had me more obsessively analyzing that arousal.

Our Children9. Our Children
Directed by Joachim Lafosse

It’s been over a year since I first saw Joachim Lafosse devastating slow-burn family drama at NYFF, and now as then, I need a hug. It’s understandable why it took so long for Our Children to find distribution, the shocking story of a Belgian mother who kills her four children not being easily marketed, especially the way Lafosse approaches it, gradually trapping Emilie Dequenne’s Murielle in a domestic pressure cooker, dominated by two male figures more interested in their Belgian class status than in the children they’re raising. Spiraling depression is as entertaining onscreen as it is in real life, which is to say not at all, and we inevitably find ourselves sympathizing with Murielle to uncomfortable degrees. It’s easy to condemn her actions, but Our Children works hard to investigate the social conditions that cause them in the first place.

In the House8. In the House
Directed by Francois Ozon

This film jumped on and off my list like a jackrabbit, an attitude that fits well a film so spastically alive with creative potential and desire. Something of a literary Rear Window, it constructs its narrative from the outside cloying in, as a school teacher finds himself obsessed with the mischievous homework essays of a student invading and exploiting his classmate’s family. It’s a premise ripe with black comic potential, like much of Ozon’s past work, and there’s glee to the way he mocks the trivial obsessions of middle class families, but it’s the obsessions of the teacher and student that become his main priority, both enacting their own fantasies and regrets through constructing this fiction, though exactly how much of it is truth remains as much to our imagination as theirs. It may have the craft value of a soap opera, but it feels more like the acute deconstruction of the intense social and class neuroses that create such romantically swooning soap operas, and the film’s gleefully Hitchcockian final shot confirms the fiendish curiosity at In the House‘s heart.

Berberian Sound Studio7. Berberian Sound Studio
Directed by Peter Strickland

True story: The first time I saw Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s self-extrapolating meta-horror film, I did not realize it was supposed to have subtitles. It frankly didn’t surprise me that a film about a guileless British sound designer finding himself psychologically consumed, quite literally, by the Z-grade Italian horror film he’s working on would omit subtitles as a way of conveying how totally lost Toby Jones’ Gilderoy was. Frankly, I was all the more entranced by the film’s alternating shrill and hypnotic sonic and visual synchronicity, so much that watching it with the intended subtitles felt just slightly disappointing. Would I still be so mesmerized by it knowing there was still a plot going on? As the film progressed, my fears were proved unfounded, as Strickland brings narrative back in only to further discredit its impact. The distinct impressions the film leaves us with are the jarring, virtuoso cinematic flourishes Berberian Sound Studio is deliberately about.

The Immigrant6. The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray

Whenever approaching a contemporary film which pays clear homage to films of generations past, I must ask whether that film has its own voice distinct from those historical influences, but also what modern statement it’s making about the period of time depicted. James Gray’s decidedly classical The Immigrant may indeed emulate both silent-era melodramas and golden-age depictions of New York from Sergio Leone to Francis Ford Coppola, and cinematographer Dariusz Khondji composes rather beautiful and lasting images on that basis, but there’s a fresh perspective to this 1920’s portrait of immigration. Balancing its illustrative loveliness with more emotionally damaging moral ugliness, none of its characters are devoid of judgment or sympathy, each with their virtues tied up inextricably in their flaws. It’s a film that looks back at a sometimes tragic American history, but moves forward with a newly earned empathy which grows more persuasive the more I dwell on it. The Weinstein Company doesn’t release it until 2014, but keep your eyes peeled for it on the horizon.

Mother of George5. Mother of George
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu

I kept Mother of George earmarked especially out of this year’s Sundance premieres as one to keep an intense eye on, the story of Nigerian newlyweds in Brooklyn struggling to conceive a child already sounding rich on paper, but it was an even richer visual experience onscreen. While many films depict New York as a promised land, both from foreign and domestic perspectives, Mother of Goerge best captures the cultural menagerie the city truly is, with the Nigerian community glowing luminously as a place distinct from the commercial breeding ground the city is commonly greeted as. That barely even touches on the powerful, confusing and claustrophobic problem at the film’s center, with tentative mother Adenike being pushed to desperate measures to conceive a child for her refreshingly devoted husband Ayodele. Their relationship may be rocked from its foundation in the process, but it’s still astonishingly hopeful in its commitment to marriage as an extension of love, not as a gateway to family, and may make a brightly revitalizing double-bill with Our Children.

Frances Ha4. Frances Ha
Directed by Noah Baumbach

After months of assuming Frances Ha had obvious roots in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, I walked out of it with a vastly dissimilar auteur on my mind: Chantal Akerman. Certainly Noah Baumbach’s black-and-white ode to post-college lostness has a more humor than Akerman’s total work combined, but Frances Ha emulates her work in more than just in its bright emulation of the French New Wave. That’s certainly an effective way of conveying the similarly nonchalant coolness of those films’ protagonists to the over-compensating uncoolness of many modern 20somethings, but the aimless apartment jumping of Greta Gerwig’s self-correcting titular Frances feel like a quicker-witted version of Akerman’s spur-of-the-moment road trip in Je tu il elle, with an unconscious lack of self-confidence. Her gleeful meal preparation for her apartment mates also feels vaguely like poking fun at the toil of Jeanne Dielman.

Apart from that specific auteur, however, Frances Ha remains a powerfully personal piece of its creators, with Baumbach’s sharp, bitter comedic edge being gifted the softer, self-effacing human touch of co-writer Gerwig, as much a co-author of it as Baumbach. This could’ve ended up as yet another saccharine hipster confection of the Sundance variety, but it ends up as something of a universal generational portrait, something we can all relate to at one point or another.

Blue Is the Warmest Color3. Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’adele)
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche

To lift a quote from Her for my own purposes, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s sort of a form of socially acceptable insanity.” That’s less a way of conveying what Blue Is the Warmest Color means to me as what my natural reaction of loving it has felt like. Ever since its Cannes debut, the internet has been ablaze with controversy of multiple shades, not all of it unfounded. Manohla Dargis wrote one of the year’s most fascinating pieces of film journalism about Abdellatif Kechiche’s inability to properly define a female relationship or experience. Many others have also lashed out against the film’s sex scenes, including the graphic novel’s author Julie Maroh, saying similarly that it didn’t feel like a genuine lesbian relationship. I suppose I’ll know more clearly once I’ve been in one, but perhaps the exact point where my opinion differs is that I did not receive it as a romance, and certainly not a “Lesbian Romance”.

In a year where films like Behind the Candelabra and Stranger By the Lake made such strong headway for how homosexual relationships are shown onscreen, many expected Blue Is the Warmest Color to be “an honest depiction of the lesbian experience”, but I feel that undercuts its greater resonance as a character study of somebody unwilling to classify themselves one way or the other. The audience lives in Adele’s experiences, fiercely wrought as they are on Adele Exarchopolous face, blown-up on the screen to such a degree that it almost acts as landscape. We feel the inconsistency of her wants and needs, only to have her immediately accused of being a slut from both ends of the sexual spectrum. It’s a ripe and ravaging lived-in experience, and one that testifies most strongly that nobody falls into a clean subset. It’s the messy, blistering emotions in between that we both dread and savor in any relationship, romantic or otherwise.

The Selfish Giant2. The Selfish Giant
Directed by Clio Barnard

A slim three days between screening and listing is a short time for a film to grow as inexorably in my heart as The Selfish Giant did, and if my skepticism held Her on the milky fringes, the sharp devastation of Clio Barnard’s British coming-of-age drama was impossible to ignore, even from first glances. Setting itself amongst the economically and socially impoverished kids of a cold, dank English neighborhood, it follows scrappy, unmedicated young dropout Arbor and sweeter-natured friend Swifty as they too eagerly forgo potentially brighter futures in exchange for quick cash in the illegally-connected scrapyard business, a path which leads to shocking and world-destroying ends for more than just their friendship. Its story may be a small and archetypal one, but it is ripped to searing life by Barnard’s unsparing direction, Mike Eley’s stark, melancholy hued cinematography, and a truly ferocious lead performance from Conner Chapman, rivaling Adele Exarchopolous for most astonishing breakthrough performance of the year. Even beyond those separate commendations, I feel The Selfish Giant is a film I’ll addictively show my students should I ever become a film professor.

Gravity1. Gravity
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

If Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Selfish Giant were epics wrapped in intimate, independent skins, Alfonso Cuaron’s intensely physical and emotional ride Gravity was quite the inverse, a close-bodied thriller blown out across a grandiose canvas. This will seem an overly obvious choice for some, particularly those put off by the blunt-force ways it approaches its characters’ past and present traumas. It’s certainly unapologetically direct in its symbolism, but space hardly feels like a suitable environment for subtlety. I felt as rapturously moved by its smaller moments of human frailty as its avant-garde feats of high-wire destruction. It’s further evidence that sentimentality is not an inherent flaw in film, but another tool of conveying the severity of emotion and experience, something Gravity did in every jaw-dropping second of brisk runtime. It’s not just about the thrill and terror of being there, but the self-actualizing catharsis that brings us back from the void, and on more than one occasion did the triumphant feeling of its climax lead me out of my own personal feelings of depression. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Gravity saved my life when I needed it to, validating the sharpest pains and darkest fears as affirming life just as much as its moments of soaring joy.

And so it was. I always end my year hoping my friends and family might take my recommendations for once and given some of these films a chance, and after all, what kind of cinema is cinema you can’t share? So to wrap up:

1. Gravity
2. The Selfish Giant
3. Blue Is the Warmest Color
4. Frances Ha
5. Mother of George
The Immigrant
6. Berberian Sound Studio
7
. In the House
8. Our Children
9. Stoker
10. Her
Top of the Lake

Those are my picks, surely not solidified beyond changes in the distant or very near future, but I’m happy with them now. A week more and it may have been a touch more comfortable a lineup, but I had to put 2013 to bed so I could maybe give overdue college work my undivided attention. Worry not, though, as Alex, Justin, G Clark and Hilary each have their own Top 10 lists confidently in the works, along with our special awards, 2013’s unsung heroes and villains, and the always exciting Film Misery Awards! 2013’s come and gone, there’s still much to discuss and it’s never too late to provoke the conversation.

What do you think of my top 10? Agree? Disagree? Let us know!

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  • Caleb McCandless

    I had assumed Frances Ha was your #1 for a while, but I’m not surprised about Gravity taking that spot. Great list! I’ll be checking out In the House soon, as it’s on Netflix. I didn’t get to watch nearly as many movies from this past year as I would have liked to, but then again I had other stuff going on.

    Really pissed I missed Blue is the Warmest Color when it played near me though.

  • Unsurprisingly, about the only thing I agree with here (among those films I’ve seen) is the placement of Frances Ha (currently my #2) in the top five. Gravity is a film that has fallen in my estimation the more I’ve thought about it. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it, but the whole tragic backstory didn’t really resonate with me as much as it did with many others. MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD* And I would hope we can at least all agree that the hallucination bit was seriously groan-worthy. *END SPOILERS

    These are not huge deals, particularly in the face of all the film accomplishes in terms of visual grandeur and sustained tension. It’s almost certainly a lock for my top 20 (and indeed, is in my top ten for now), but in a year with so many other great releases, I can’t quite understand why it’s placing so high on all these lists.

    I liked In the House and Berberian Sound Studio a lot, but each had their issues to me: the latter’s descent into a certain degree of incoherence in the last 30 minutes (though even here, much of it worked as pure sensory experience) couldn’t quite live up to the masterful first hour, while the former has a few too many narrative moments that I was rolling my eyes at due to their sheer preposterousness. That final shot, though… good lord, that was incredible.

    Anyway, all this is my long winded way of saying, “Before Midnight at #23? Are you INSANE?”

    My own top ten at the moment (this will change significantly, I’m sure, as there’s still so much stuff I need to see):

    1. Before Midnight
    2. Frances Ha
    3. Stories We Tell
    4. Upstream Color
    5. Frozen
    6. The World’s End
    7. Inside Llewyn Davis
    8. Museum Hours
    9. Gravity
    10. Side Effects

    • Duncan Houst

      “I can’t quite understand why it’s placing so high on all these lists.”

      Not to demean anyone, but I’ve always found such statements annoyingly one-sided. I’m not as fond of films like ‘Spring Breakers’ or ‘Short Term 12’, but I understand why certain people respond so strongly to them. They find them powerful beyond denial, and that says a lot about their distinct perspectives. I’m not pointing this criticism at you specifically, but I’ve heard a lot of people use it with too much ease.

      Other than that, I quite like every film on your current Top 10. “Before Midnight” was actually at risk of descending even lower. Cinematically I feel it’s not as enveloping as ‘Before Sunset’ was, but it’s a more grounded affair. They’re going to a set destination and there isn’t the sense of freedom that the first two films had, but that’s very much by necessity. They don’t have that romantic freedom anymore, but in its place is, in some ways more searing verbal sparring. The hotel room scene remains the year’s strongest movie moment, and I wish the entire film had more of that fiercer cataclysmic energy.

      And I suppose I am more accepting than some viewers to being utterly confounded by a film as I was in ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ and ‘In the House’, in completely different, but influentially obsessive manners.

      • I think it’s perfectly fair in some instances to admit that sometimes you don’t “get” why other people don’t feel the same way you do. “Spring Breakers” is an excellent example: a very well-crafted film in a lot of ways, but one that prized thematic commentary and visual style over compelling storytelling. I’ve seen it on quite a few top ten lists this year, so clearly a lot of people see something in it that I don’t. And it’s not that I don’t read what they have to say; it’s that what they write about doesn’t match up with what I see when I look at and think about the movie. I’m not questioning their sincerity in loving it, just acknowledging that their love utterly confounds me.

        I’ll admit that I may have overstated my feelings of bafflement in regards to “Gravity” a bit, though. One should perhaps be more cautious about making such sweeping claims. Save them for instances like “Computer Chess”: a film which everyone I know seems to love, but which I find absolutely insufferable.

        In regards to “In the House”, I didn’t find it confounding at all, honestly. My issue lies more with the level of suspension of disbelief required by the premise. But since it’s basically a narrative about narrative, I was generally willing to go with it, since I otherwise found the story tremendously compelling on an intellectual level. Still, parts of it wound up feeling just a bit stilted to me.

  • Houmid

    I think your column would have been a bit more effective if you had specified your attribution of the quote, “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”
    When you state the character and the movie they were in, it’s less likely for people to mistake the quote as possibly being your own.
    Just a suggestion. Otherwise, a very good column.

    • Duncan Houst

      I thought “to quote that aforementioned #11 film” covered it pretty clearly.

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