The first half of 2013 has come and gone, and though there’s a salient argument that the best of the year still lies ahead of us, there have also been a generous bounty of cinematic treats, be them on the big screen or on television. Usually when working with a team site like Film Misery you’d risk repetition amongst favorites, but it’s a testament to this year that we had no real overlaps in each of our Top 3 lists. All that and not one of us chose Before Midnight. Not an account of taste, since only one of us has yet seen it (and loved it). But enough with all this ado! Let’s get to it!
Question: What are your 3 favorite films of 2013 so far?
I have seen embarrassingly few new theatrical releases this year, probably my lowest number in at least a decade, but luckily a few of them have been gems. The best I’ve seen this year are the more ambiguous, thought-provoking films that inspire some of the more interesting conversations. My favorite film is actually one I saw at the tail end of last year – After Lucia from writer/director Michael Franco. This was a film that was supposed to get nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar, but unfortunately was overlooked. It tells the story of a teen girl who moves to a new school and becomes fiercely bullied after her new love interest uploads and circulates a video of them having sex. The film is brutal in its depiction of abuse and Franco shoots everything at a detached distance with long, uninterrupted shots. It’s a beautiful and devastating film that reveals the endless cycle of violence that comes from the desire for revenge.
While The Tree of Life remains my favorite Malick film of the last decade, I am glad the director didn’t wait so long to bring us To the Wonder – a thoughtful examination of religion, love, and desire depicted through a love triangle. For me it is remarkably refreshing that a filmmaker exists who is willing to examine Christian themes that are entirely detached from politics. To the Wonder offers a great analysis of the biblical types of love aided by its wandering camera and meaningful voice over.
Speaking of ambiguity, it doesn’t really get more ambiguous than Shane Carruth’s fascinating Upstream Color. The film has an endless possibility of meanings (some of which we explore on the podcast) and contains themes that tie cinema and literature to the inner-workings of the universe. It’s a film I can see myself revisiting years from now for a brain-tease and it’s exactly the type of film I prefer to occupy my limited amount of free time with.
I’m sure there are cynics out there decreeing this year a disappointment already, but only 6 months in, I feel 2013 has been the most fulfilling year of cinema since I started writing about it. I could’ve formed a fully capable Top 10 out of the year’s stunning films and still had to achingly leave a few out. While I’d love to sing the praises of Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, Cate Shortland’s Lore and Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, for now there are three particular films that stand head and shoulders above the rest. I saw Frances Ha at the Independent Film Festival of Boston whilst entrenched in writing final papers about queer cinema and apocalypse cinema. Circumstrantially, I saw it as both a tragic romance between two straight women and a wittily self-destructive tale of scaling back your dreams to meet the demands of reality. As I’ve dwelled on it further, It’s struck me how Noah Baumbach’s film retains the intimate relationship it made with me personally, from dancing ambitions to impromptu trips to Paris, but still remains a universally touching, delightfully quirky ode to life’s unexpected curveballs and ridiculous missteps.
Not quite as immediate a delight was Francois Ozon’s In the House, which took its time to embed its ironic pleasures and presentational brilliance into my psyche. Following a French school teacher who becomes enticed and perhaps even aroused by the voyeuristic homework assignments of one of his students, Ozon’s film doesn’t rely on dazzling pictoral beauty, as there are craftier visual tools at his disposal. As the narrative circles gravitationally into the boy’s stories, its formal flourishes deliciously mask the lines between truth and fabrication, if “the truth” matters at all. It’s something of a literary equivalent to Rear Window, a comparison Ozon’s film not merely lives up to, but even surpasses, shedding honest light on the dangers of letting emotions run wild in storytelling, while still letting its twists and turns keep the pace witty, playful, and constantly intriguing.
As resplendent big screen pleasures as those two are, the most seismically engulfing cinematic experience I had came unexpectedly from the small screen, and some no doubt would argue Top of the Lake merits as cinema at all. Though its episodic presentation on the Sundance Channel qualifies it merely for television awards, Jane Campion’s enveloping “limited series” bolsters the year’s most compulsive narrative drive. What starts as a relatively cut-and-dry investigative procedural gradually mounts into something more searingly intimate and aloofly sinister, as the power complexes that hold together a lakeside New Zealand community come crashing down by the weight of a 12-year-old pregnant girl. As the lead detective on the case, Elisabeth Moss tracks the decline of Robin Griffin’s emotional barriers with both tremulous shock and restraint, while Campion has never been more in command of her atmospherics. She morphs seemingly serene Laketop into the wild battlegrounds of good and evil, but when the time comes to lay down the hammer, she drags us underwater with her characters. At whopping 6 hours, you might want to clear your schedule before you check it out on Netflix, but I’ve yet to start it without being taken in for the full, exhausting journey.
It never ceases to surprise me when a movie comes along that speaks, with almost impeccable timing, to whatever it is that is going on in my life. This happened to me at the end of my first semester in grad school, having just completed a rather intense course focusing on the great literature of writers from the American South. I will have to revisit Mud at some point before year’s end to see how well it holds up, as I worry how rash my desire is to compare Jeff Nichols’ loving portrayal of the South to the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and even Lewis Nordan. Until then, however, I will praise the movie unequivocally as a sensitive, deeply felt portrait of the evolution from boyhood to manhood. Nichols, who also directed 2011’s equally powerful, equally sensitive Take Shelter, is a fascinating new visionary. His languid, almost lethargic use of film language here is hypnotic, and his ability to direct young actors without making them insufferably precocious is a seldom-achieved triumph. For my money, this is also the best contribution yet to the Matthew McConaugh-naissance of the past year or so. I never thought I could love the star of Failure to Launch and Sahara so much. I am thrilled to have been so wrong.
I will not be surprised if, in 2019, I’ll find myself lauding Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy as the best film of its decade (of course I hope that’s not the case, as I’d hate to think cinema of the 2010’s would peak so early). So I don’t think it’s entirely fair to hold it against the Iranian director, as some have, if his follow-up film Like Someone in Love does not quite match the intellectual audacity or emotional resonance of its predecessor. On its own own terms, Like Someone is a gently fascinating study of three lonely humans – an aging widower, a young prostitute and her emotionally turbulent boyfriend – finding meaning (or lack thereof) in the friendships they are forming. Kiarostami’s filmmaking is as stunning as ever; his static, lengthy opening shot feels effortless, yet wields a staggeringly complex mastery of depth-of-field, sound design, visual discipline, characterization and viewer disorientation. If I see a better opening to a movie this year, it will be a genuine treat.
So rarely does a movie have the power to deliver a genuine bombshell of a surprise that, when it actually happens, I must recognize that I’ve seen something truly special. I genuinely admired the narrative skill Sarah Polley shows in her first two features, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, but it is with her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell that I finally realize just how shrewd a filmmaker she happens to be. Not since 2010’s Exit Through the Gift Shop has a nonfiction work been able to congeal form and content in such an invigorating and satisfying way. Polley’s film engaged me first with her absorbing, if seemingly conventional, talking-head feature exploring the history behind a major family secret. But it wasn’t until near the end, when she uncloaks the very artifice of her own filmmaking approach, that the true meaning behind her film becomes entirely apparent. Some might accuse Polley of playing a narrative bait-and-switch, but I applaud the playfulness and the thoughtfulness of practically every choice she makes. Stories We Tell is arguably the most formally adventurous movie of the year so far, and it is a movie that deserves our attention.
G Clark Finfrock
Derek Cianfrance’s 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. Ryan Gosling achieves new depths exploring the blue-collar psyche, and Bradley Cooper fulfills the promise he showed in last year’s otherwise forgettable Silver Linings Playbook. 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.
Caesar Must Die won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and with good reason. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s quasi-documentary follows a group of prisoners putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As I say in my full review of this film (which can be found here), “…This material would be fascinating enough on its own, but the brothers Taviani one-up themselves. As we see scenes from the play acted out by the prison’s amateur troupe, the director 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…”
I know we’re supposed to write about three of the best movies so far in 2013, but I honestly couldn’t choose between Like Someone in Love, To the Wonder, No, In Another Country, War Witch, Upstream Color, Fill the Void, Berberian Sound Studio, Post Tenebras Lux, After Lucia, or The Hunt—so instead of choosing one at random, I decided to use this block of text to recommend all of them. You have until December before all of us at Film Misery start fighting about the complete best of 2013, so that’s plenty of time to get to all these. Start now!