by Walter Chaw Searching for themes in 2013, you come upon the obvious ones first: the frustrations of the forty-five percenters; the growing income gap; and the death of the middle-class, encapsulated in brat-taculars like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers and prestige pics like Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, David O. Russell's American Hustle, and, um, Michael Bay's Pain & Gain. You see this preoccupation with the economy in Nebraska's quest for a million-dollar Clearinghouse payday, and in Frances Halladay's desire for a place to sleep and a career that can subsidize it (see also: To the Wonder and Byzantium). It's there in the identity theft of Identity Theft and the motivations of the prefab family from We're the Millers, paid off with picket fences in an ending with echoes of My Blue Heaven and Goodfellas. Consider All is Lost, an allegory for pensioners who've lost everything to the wolves of Wall Street, adrift on a limitless span, taking on water but plucky, damnit. Too plucky, in the case of Redford's Everyman hero--who, frankly, would've better served his allegory had he drowned with salvation in sight.
Alas, close only counts in horseshoes and Spielbergs. Fiscal, caste melodrama figures large in 12 Years a Slave, of course; in the positions of power occupied by the psychopaths of The Act of Killing; in the fruitless pursuit of reimbursement for a plane ticket in Berberian Sound Studio; in the crops that simply won't return in The Fifth Season. It's war between the haves and have-nots in The Lone Ranger, with a roomful of Rich Uncle Pennybagses Gatling'd to death for no reason but hell yeah. Should we mention Drug War? The privation of Beyond the Hills and Blue Caprice?
A note about 12 Years A Slave. I just want to go on record that this is slavery's Schindler's List, handsomely mounted while taking curious liberties with its source material that I had a hard time getting past. Riddle me this, all right? Say there was a text where a white guy dies of smallpox but in the film version, the white guy, after trying to save a white woman from being raped by an unspeakable caricature of an evil black guy in front of her child, is stabbed to death by the black guy. If that happened, wouldn't someone say something about that? Honestly, the abomination of slavery doesn't need dramatic embellishment. It is, in fact, diminished by it. All this to say that 12 Years a Slave is fine. And if Chiwetel Ejiofor wins the Oscar this year, it will be the third won by a black actor for playing a slave. I find that to be...the word isn't "ironic." What is it?
Or should we talk instead about the ascent of Scarlett Johansson, who, for all the meta-conversation surrounding what Miley Cyrus does or doesn't know about her image and controlling her sexuality, expressed herself with courage and elegance in a trio of performances (Her, Don Jon, Under the Skin (2014)) that establish Johansson as, if not the best American actress, at least my hands-down favourite. Apropos, the second major theme of 2013: the gender divide--the "war on women," played out in our entertainments like Her and Spring Breakers and even Computer Chess. Then there's Kimberly Peirce's exceptional adaptation of Carrie (told this time from poor Carrie's point of view), Frances Ha again, and how about The Lords of Salem and the (maybe) literal deification of Sherri Moon Zombie? The unapologetically strong heroines of Byzantium and Stoker and Sightseers?
A note on The Wolf of Wall Street. At Telluride, there was wild rumour and excitement over a super-duper extra-special sneak screening scheduled for the last day of the festival (the day I was leaving, alas); the only clue to the title leaked was the letter "S." Well, of course we thought the "S" stood for "Scorsese" and the sneak would be The Wolf of Wall Street. Instead, it stood for Salinger, which would land on worst film of the year lists if anyone actually saw it. The Wolf of Wall Street is not the worst film of the year, but it is sadly more proof that Scorsese is far from the vital, insistent voice he once was. Unfair to expect a 71-year-old legend to continue producing things like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets? I suppose. But in detailing the debauchery of stockbrokers flirting with the collapse of our financial system while folks like you and me lost our life's savings, Marty presents a softcore vision of Caligula's Rome. Even Bob Guccione knew better than to soft-core atrocity. What many awards-season audiences are calling "porn," I'm calling nothing you can't see in any three-hour chunk of prime-time television, and The Wolf of Wall Street did nothing to make me uncomfortable except to say it gave me that sick feeling once again that one of my favorite filmmakers should've retired maybe three movies ago.
Anyway: a strong year in film, one that rode the wave of the zeitgeist expertly, elegantly, and found me riding along with it. The best movie I saw this year won't be released until April, 2014, Jonathan Glazer's masterpiece of disaffection and identity Under the Skin. Another unreleased festival discovery, Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, would challenge for top-five consideration in any year. I got ahead of the curve a little bit thanks to a restorative trip to the Telluride Film Festival, an illuminating visit to the Mile High Horror Film Festival, and a return to the Starz Denver Film Festival. This year I also got back into interviewing, sitting down with the likes of Glazer, Jim Mickle, Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado, and Harry Dean Stanton--although there's not much I can use of that particular interview. (I've been musing turning the whole experience into FFC's first podcast.) And I discovered that there's something to Oscar Wilde's thoughts on "The Critic as Artist" after all. It's a new day, and these were the films that memorialized it best.
REALLY WISHED I'D SEEN LAST YEAR: Tabu
HONORABLE MENTION: All Is Lost; The Wolverine; +1; This is Martin Bonner; Nebraska; Blue Caprice; Evil Dead; Before Midnight; The Broken Circle Breakdown; Grabbers; Escape from Tomorrow; Museum Hours
DISHONORABLE MENTION: The Wolf of Wall Street; American Hustle; Saving Mr. Banks; Lee Daniels' The Butler; Dallas Buyers Club; The Counselor
NOTABLY MISSED: The Selfish Giant; August: Osage County; White Reindeer; Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?; Leviathan
25. Drug War (d. Johnnie To)
Johnnie To only makes the best, most economical crime movies in the world. The hotel scene is like something out of the Marx Bros., and that final shootout? With the handcuffs? Bliss.
24. Berberian Sound Studio (d. Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland strands a woebegone Toby Jones in Italy--and a sound booth--as Jones's ace foley artist and sound-mixer is spirited away to create the noise for a giallo about horses. ("She's-a not riding a horse-a now!") There, his reality blurs into his work, and what emerges is something that feels like a hallucination--the bad dreams that materialize when you can't sleep.
23. Magic Magic (d. Sebastián Silva)
Juno Temple continues to earn her courage badge as an American in Chile who hasn't slept in four days and begins to see through the world into the heart of all the dark workings there, just under the surface. A chthonic flick, then, but the tentacles and elder gods are the psychosexual disturbances of adolescence and Cab Calloway. With Magic Magic and This Is the End, Michael Cera successfully destroys his image as George Michael Bluth. Director Sebastián Silva has a real way with suspense, making a dive off a medium-sized rock into what's possibly the scariest moment in film in 2013.
22. Pain & Gain (d. Michael Bay)
In which Michael Bay, maybe the worst human being on the planet making movies, stumbles across a story of bodybuilding fuckwits and empty-headed strippers in pursuit of material gain, and, accidentally or whatever, launches himself into the meta-sphere. Yes, Michael Bay has just made the best Carl Hiaasen adaptation there ever has been--and whether or not I believe he's done it on purpose is beside the point. Mark Wahlberg is perfect, The Rock even perfect-er in a performance that, in a just universe, would be on the short-list for awards recognition. I know. I'll show myself out.
21. Sightseers (d. Ben Wheatley)
A road movie about middle-aged schlubs/maybe-psychopaths set loose in the English countryside, celebrating finding each other against all odds. Between Down Terrace, Kill List, and the upcoming A Field in England, Ben Wheatley has already created a diverse and accomplished roster of brave, smart, provocative movies. And he keeps getting better.
20. Byzantium (d. Neil Jordan)
A road movie about an immortal MILF and her immortal daughter, burning corsets à la Thelma & Louise, albeit with slightly more bloodletting and beheadings. This is Neil Jordan at his Grimm best.
19. Beyond the Hills (După dealuri) (d. Cristian Mungiu)
The better version of Blue is the Warmest Color.
18. Only God Forgives (d. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Proving himself no one-trick pony, even as the bones of his auteurism come nearer to the skin, Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive marries that film's deep Romanticism to Valhalla Rising's spiritual nihilism. It's another mythopoeia, although this time the god is Asian and not one-eyed Odin; both are lost on Earth, immortals in the midst of impermanence. Unapologetically vile in its wallow in masculinity, it is, again, the corrective to the politesse of Scorsese's late-career doddering.
17. At Berkeley (d. Frederick Wiseman)
Frederick Wiseman allows the camera to run and, in so doing, captures the rhythms--the very air--of life at a prestigious university. We're allowed access to the teachers, to the students, to the atmosphere at Berkeley, and damned if I wasn't transported in a visceral way back to the halls of privilege, suspended in time and tradition and the feeling of belonging to something larger. Sneakily, it's a film about religion and faith, and how deeply belief systems shoot their roots into underdeveloped psyches young and old.
16. The Fifth Season (La cinquième saison) (ds. Jessica Hope Woodworth, Peter Brosens)
Possibly the most beautiful film of the year, it's also the logical inheritor of The Wicker Man's crown.
15. The Lone Ranger (d. Gore Verbinski)
It gets better, and better, and better...
14. The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
I won't add much to the ink spilled on this one but to say I genuinely wish I'd never seen it and, having seen it, I doubt I'll ever watch movies the same way again. It doesn't rank higher because I'm struggling with its occasional longueurs and deviations into non-metatextual self-indulgence. It also feels like a snuff flick... Yeah, I'm struggling. It would make a fascinating double-feature with Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet.
13. The World's End (d. Edgar Wright)
The conclusion to Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy, this one finds our boys trying to Thomas Wolfe their way home again in a twelve-pub crawl begun in high school and destined to finish in the early days of middle-age. At which point a genre movie erupts. Simon Pegg is unexpectedly poignant as an eternally-arrested adolescent looking for surcease to his sorrow in the unrecoverable past.
12. Stoker (d. Park Chan-wook)
Park Chan-wook's American debut is elegant, sinister, beautifully-framed, and meticulously-plotted. An update and perversion of the already-perverse Shadow of a Doubt (my favourite Hitchcock), it honours the Master with its familial dynamics and rapturous camera movements. It has a brilliant, subversive shower sequence, as well as a smart nod to The Birds' phone booth. It's among the best times I had at the movies in 2013.
11. The Wind Rises (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
Hayao Miyazaki's self-declared swan song is a beautiful, dangerous, winsome, highly-fictionalized paean to the inventor of the Zero that works much like a biography of Albert Einstein should work. It deals with the passion of creation, and then with the unintended toll once that creation is loosed upon the world. As farewells from an artist go, it's humble, apt, and devastating in its wisdom.
10. Carrie (d. Kimberly Peirce)
Detractors who say this is a shot-by-shot redux of the Brian DePalma adaptation aren't paying attention. Detractors who say it's not enough like the Brian DePalma soft-porn sleaze-athon--often the same ones saying it's just like the Brian DePalma Carrie--also weren't paying attention. Kimberly Peirce's flick is the first telling of this story of a bullied girl exacting revenge at the prom--the prototypical romcom teensploitation conceit played for gore--by a woman, and it's telling how significant a change that represents. It's fantastic.
9. Frances Ha (d. Noah Baumbach)
Greta Gerwig is wonderful as a failed dancer looking for herself in Manhattan in another film that suggests Noah Baumbach is still in ascension as frequent collaborator Wes Anderson's shtick is in decline. Deceptively light, it parses the signature scene from Leos Carax's Mauvais sang in one of the most exhilarating sequences of the year, and demonstrates the too-rare example of how a compelling female character can drive a picture while herself remaining "un-dateable." It's all about a young woman struggling towards individualism. Intimate, human.
8. We Are What We Are (d. Jim Mickle)
A remake so superior to the original that they almost don't belong in the same conversation, Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are deals with the abomination of nature and the religion that arises from it. It's beautifully-shot, tightly-written, and performed with heat, and it resolves in the only way it could possibly resolve. In a year rich with strong female characters, it contains possibly the strongest trio of them all.
7. Computer Chess (d. Andrew Bujalski)
Sex and artificial intelligence at play in a hotel hosting a tech seminar assembled to test the idea that it's possible to create a computer smart enough to beat a person at chess. Shot with vintage consumer-grade electronics and presenting more ideas per minute than films many magnitudes its budget and scope, it identifies, along with Her, a third possible throughline in 2013. Something about Ludditism, something about Frankenstein--but we're not erecting SkyNet; we're all Pygmalions creating Galateas to satisfy our desires.
6. To the Wonder (d. Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick continues to marry the ebb and flow of the Natural with the pulse of human interaction. If it's only a coda to The Tree of Life, it's a transformative experience in and of itself.
5. Upstream Color (d. Shane Carruth)
No secret I hated Shane Carruth's Primer for being too brittle, too mathematical, too much nothing masquerading as something in its cloud of words and theories. More a primer for how to try to get along with socially-adolescent engineers than the sci-fi masterpiece it touted itself to be, it's the poster-child for Sundance success. So I approached Upstream Color, Carruth's long-gestating follow-up, with reluctance, even hostility, only to discover that he made a film about Romanticism, regret, memory, love. It's the second movie this year to take a cue from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Kaufman's, not Siegel's), one of many dealing with identity, with strong female characters, with science-fiction conceits, with doom. Upstream Color is what Primer was touted to be: obscure, but possessed of real meaning--instinctual, intellectual, complete.
4. The Lords of Salem (d. Rob Zombie)
Rob Zombie's essential humanity has flavoured each of his genre exercises (arguably excepting House of 1000 Corpses, but I'd need to revisit it) to date. I began to look at him differently after The Devil's Rejects, but wasn't completely sold until Halloween II--which, let's face it, is an incisive portrait of grief and the father-daughter relationship. Zombie's films are about family, really, no less so The Lords of Salem, in which wife/muse Sherri Moon plays one third of a trio of late-night radio wanks who receive a mysterious record and make the awful mistake of playing it. It's a fever dream punctuated by moments of pathos as one of Moon's lovesick co-workers (Jeff Daniel Phillips) calls her from an icy pier and a kind, crinkly-eyed teacher (Bruce Davison) has his worst suspicions confirmed by an affable coven of witches. A companion piece of sorts to Ti West's The House of the Devil (with Greta Gerwig!), it's all mood and dirges, infernal suggestions, and more strong female characters speaking all of mystery and things unknowable. At the late-night screening I attended after The Lords of Salem opened sans critic's screening, it was me and a buddy and a trio of teenagers somewhere in the dark above us. When the film ended, a beat passed, and then a teenage girl's voice piped out: "What? Fuck YOU Rob Zombie." Proof of a certain kind of success, you'll agree. I love this movie. It's only grown in the distance I've had from it.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (ds. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
A completion of the Coens' Odyssey, it's heartbreaking in so many ways and a lovely complement to the hell-of-creation piece Barton Fink.
2. Spring Breakers (d. Harmony Korine)
Harmony Korine does his Terrence Malick film with this trance-like riff on what happens when four bubble-headed bimbos decide they want to go on spring break and so take up a life of crime first to pay for it, then again when reptilian burner Alien (James Franco, in the first performance I've liked from him in years) bails them out of lockup. Each frame a work of sleazy/sad art, each moment a devastating mirror held to our current state, it's about the end point of our culture, the end-product of what we teach our young people to value and desire. Hopeless, deadening, and decidedly unsexy, whatever its unblinking hedonism (again, Marty, take note); never have acres of nubile flesh seemed less attractive. It would be the best film of any year that didn't also feature...
1. Her (d. Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze's first film as both writer and director is existentially fraught, packed to the rafters with ideas and philosophies undreamt-of, and as with any best film of any year, a summary of 2013's currents and themes. I could go on, but I already have.
10. The Grandmaster (d. Wong Kar-wai)
Harvey Scissorhands be damned, this pointillist look at two occasionally intersecting lives lived in service to martial arts and family honour feels like a watershed for the biopic, a stodgy genre normally defined by its clear timeline, historical signposting, and pre-packaged character beats. Here it's the moments rather than the arc that register, thanks to Wong's usual impressionistic mode of characterization and a wrenching supporting performance by Zhang Ziyi that somehow survives the American cut's dumb, sweeping revisions with dignity intact.
9. The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Like The Wolf of Wall Street but more consistently on-point, this is a gesture to the cinema as purgative agent, so faithful as a recorder of misdeeds that it can induce nausea in their perpetrators. More interesting, though, is Oppenheimer's suggestion in the closing minutes that the purge might have failed--a canny acknowledgement that the danger of giving a mass murderer a starring role in your ironic morality play is that he might turn out to be an excellent actor, capable of vomiting on command and begging for his dignity like a more convincing HAL 9000.
8. Like Someone in Love (d. Abbas Kiarostami)
From the opening game of musical chairs to the abrupt finale, this is an immaculately-structured game, an unofficial Lolita adaptation with a brilliant Tadashi Okuno as an especially doddering Humbert. While American Hustle yammered endlessly about playacting as a means of reinvention, Okuno and an equally game Rin Takanashi--as simultaneously a savvy sex worker, submissive fiancé, and doting granddaughter--embody that spirit of multiplicity in every scene without having to announce it.
7. Drug War (d. Johnnie To)
As compact a piece of storytelling as anything this year, all the more impressive given its seeming offhandedness. This is the fleet, punchy film about covert rats and triple-crosses Martin Scorsese tried to pull out of the wreckage of William Monaghan's baggy screenplay for The Departed, capped with an ingeniously-rigged action set-piece.
6. Computer Chess (d. Andrew Bujalski)
A comedy of manners conceived and executed on a closed-circuit camera loop, you could see this as an affectionate variation on Leviathan's eerily autonomous ethnography. In this case, the system is a programming convention, the observer a higher intelligence attuned to the foibles of awkward men with floppy haircuts. Somehow the result feels tender, as in one of the loveliest shots of the year: a glimpse of two shy twentysomethings wheeling an enormous computer down a hotel hall to do some late-night tinkering.
5. Leviathan (ds. Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)
Some respond to this as an illumination of a complex, churning system through its constituent parts. Yet any narrative or sociological justifications are surely secondary to the visceral experience of seeing this thing--and surely it's more thing than movie--in a theatre, where its perspective shots of fish being dive-bombed by seagulls make for some of the most disorienting images of the year.
4. Spring Breakers (d. Harmony Korine)
The clear frontrunner in this year's crop of Great Gatsby adaptations and Terrence Malick imitators, not for lack of pretenders. For all of James Franco's alternating sincere and hollow bluster as Alien, the most indelible image may be of a tearful Selena Gomez resting her face on the bus window for the long ride back from her trip to the sublime, like a kid who's just run out of coins at the arcade.
3. Bastards (Les salauds) (d. Claire Denis)
Not since Trouble Every Day--not surprisingly, another genre film--has Denis worked with such gut-punching material. The watchword is, as always, elliptical, but Bastards isn't playing around: its structure is determined from the first beat, and the rest is a metronome-steady loop back to the source of our initial confusion. Although sin-eater hero Vincent Lindon's doomed march to the finish bored me on first viewing, the fatalism of his trajectory has haunted me since, not the least thanks to Tindersticks' pulsing score, more an act of radiation poisoning than a soundtrack.
2. Museum Hours (d. Jem Cohen)
A subversive cultural-vegetables movie for people who hate vegetables and view culture a bit warily, as something you might catch if you don't wash your hands. The closing credits thank Peter Berger and Patti Smith alike, and why not? It's a film about seeing shot through with a punk sensibility, as charitable towards detritus (and digital photography) as it to Bruegel.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (ds. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
Playful, empathetic, and achingly sad, this ought to give the lie to those who continue to insist upon the Coen brothers' apparently-unchecked misanthropy towards their leads. Those who look on the suffering of Llewyn--animated by the wonderful Oscar Isaac, playing the Coens' most full-blooded, exhausted wanderer yet--as nothing but farce can have their flat movie, while the rest of us can bask in the brothers' richest and most evocative film.
10. Side Effects (d. Steven Soderbergh)
A use, finally, for the antiseptic glaze/gaze of Soderbergh's digital period: Big Pharma. A film in which the (sort of) good guy wins (more or less), but it doesn't feel right, because he's mostly avenging his emasculation. Everyone here is "sick" in some way, and while Soderbergh observes them all like the ant farmer he is, Thomas Newman's gloomstruck waltz of a score allows an affecting melancholy to seep into the sterile images.
9. The Lone Ranger (d. Gore Verbinski)
Caravaggio goes western. I love looking at this movie, a Leone pastiche with the best action set-pieces of the year (maybe since the heyday of Spielberg and Indiana Jones) and just the right amount of pathos, courtesy a Tonto in tragicomic facepaint.
8. Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) (d. Cristian Mungiu)
Sometimes, it does not get better.
7. Her (d. Spike Jonze)
Truth be told, I'll read a glowing review of Her and agree with it, then I'll read objections to the film--that the future it depicts is too white, that its deus ex machina's a little cheap--and agree with those as well. Her's presence on this list is to honour how much I've enjoyed grappling with it, even if I can't commit to embracing it unreservedly.
6. The Wind Rises (d. Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki doesn't seem to interpret the life story of Mitsubishi engineer Jiro Horikoshi so much as remember it. This is not to dispute that the film's Jiro is highly fictionalized, but rather to say that he exists in a fully-realized universe rife with details nostalgic in their specificity. Although animated (breathtakingly, at that), The Wind Rises almost feels like one of Terence Davies's wartime reveries.
5. Room 237 (d. Rodney Ascher)
More "holy shit!" moments per minute than any of the year's blockbusters, regardless of whether they stand up to scrutiny or reason. A monument less to Stanley Kubrick or The Shining, ultimately, than to the mental shrines we erect to our favourite media.
4. The Act of Killing (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
In many ways the sitcom from Hell, The Act of Killing is, for all the Martian behaviour on display, a vital bit of anthropology.
3. The Lords of Salem (d. Rob Zombie)
A triumph of production design, performance, and mood, The Lords of Salem plays like a mashup of Dario Argento's oneiric "Three Mothers" trilogy--and, true to form, one would be hard-pressed to articulate exactly what happens in it. But the feelings it generates are unmistakably cathartic.
2. Spring Breakers (d. Harmony Korine)
So stupid, so beautiful.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (ds. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
Like most Coen Brothers movies, but in a way unique to their most recent work, this portrait of an artist whose talent has taken him as far as it can without the intervention of luck (or with the intervention of bad luck) got under my skin and stayed there. It'd be a more indulgent pick--for a lot of critics, this one included, it's a veritable Rorschach blot--if it weren't so damn good.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Spring Breakers
3. The Lords of Salem
5. The Act of Killing|Computer Chess