Thursday Ten – 2013 Discoveries

I wanted to avoid brash claims on the quality of cinema in 2013, but I really can’t help myself: it has been an incredible year. Across the board, from American to world cinema, from independent features to studio blockbusters, and from auteur-driven efforts to young directors looking to etch their name into the pantheon, the year was a remarkable bounty of riches. Of course this was coupled with the fact that I saw more films than previous years, though the ratio of quality versus junk skewed to the former’s betterment.

I’ll get into my top ten films of 2013 next week (mark your calendars, y’all), with this week’s Thursday Ten focusing on some of the many discoveries I came across during my screening. Whether they be unique directorial voices, interesting actors and actresses that resonated through a pool of talented performers, or some of the impressive stylists that put together the sound and look of a film, the selected ten should be understood as some of the most exciting talents to come out from the cinema of 2013.

Michael Cera & Sebastian Silva
(Actor/Director Collaboration, Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic)

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There wasn’t a bigger surprise to me this year than the range that Michael Cera displayed in his many outings this year. Returning to Arrested Development and his cameo appearance in Seth Rogen’s This Is the End were the typical points of conversation surrounding the actor, but in the meantime he went on to star in two of his most interesting roles to date - both of which were helmed by the talented Chilean director Sebastián Silva.  Different in tone yet marked by a distinct sense of time and place within Chile, Cera and Silva’s collaboration produced two of the year’s most complex portraits of narcissism and insanity. The two are an interesting pair and clearly bring something out from one another that I didn’t know they had in them in the first place.

Jem Cohen
(Writer/Director/Cinematographer, Museum Hours)

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Jem Cohen was a name I was familiar with but because of the very limited distribution of his work I was left in the cold when it came to discussing his output. Thankfully screening for several weeks at The Music Box Theater, I approached Museum Hours with a great deal of anticipation. To describe Museum Hours as pleasant just seems too ill-fitting a word for something so vast in scope, but that’s the overarching sense I got out of Cohen’s deliberate and delicate touch. The film’s air of familiarity, and its themes that delve into that very concept, casts a spell of tranquility. As the film embraces some fairly dense topics on the nature of art and our interpretative powers, it’s this tranquil sensibility that Cohen has throughout the work that makes Museum Hours a rich and rewarding cinematic treat. Hopefully, given that the film has been a breakthrough for Cohen as far as obtaining theatrical distribution, more of his films will become available.

Bruno Delbonnel
(Cinematographer, Inside Llewyn Davis)

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Unlike most of the people listed here, I’m actually well-versed with Bruno Delbonnel’s output and have a great admiration for his work in Amelie. But what’s he’s doing in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a feat that goes beyond any of his previous work - this is a whole other level here. Earning career-best accolades is a given (though it’s unfortunate that the computer-generated images of Gravity is besting Delbonnel’s efforts among critics circles), but this is the sort of exemplary visual design that only gets better with age. The Coens have largely worked with Roger Deakins for their past films but to think that Delbonnel actually bests Deakins’ work almost seems inconceivable. But the stunning and picturesque images that he composes - Llewyn’s meeting with Bud Grossman, the snowy highway sequence, and all of the smoky images of Llewyn playing - are unforgettable.

Tallie Medel
(Actress, The Unspeakable Act)

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It’s too often the case that a microbudget film gets bogged down by unreliable acting, though 2013 went ahead and proved my experiences wrong. Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color and Najarra Townsend in Contracted bucked the trend, but it was Tallie Medel in The Unspeakable Act that truly floored me. What could’ve been merely a series of dead-pan deliveries in the vein of Aubrey Plaza is given a sense of emotional weight through Medel’s performance. The film’s principle moral quandary revolves around the taboo of incest, but with what could have been a role that saw its actress marginalized or even exploited is given some serious depth. There’s a true sense of authenticity in Medel’s performance where every gesture just feels right; it’s the best debut performance of the year.

New-New Wave Mexican Auteurs
(Film Movement)

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I talked about this topic at length in yesterday’s column on these directors, so it’s no real surprise to see these names pop up again. I can’t help but reiterate just how exciting the output from Mexico has been this year. The three films outlined above are simply the best starting points for each filmmaker. Whether it be Michel Franco’s brutal depiction of teenage bullying, Amat Escalante’s look into the punishing retaliation of Mexican cartels, or Carlos Reygadas’ oblique meditation on domesticity of the lower and middle class of Mexico, they all echo resounding concern on the state of Mexico headed into the future - a future that lays waste to its people.

Julianne Nicholson
(Actress, August: Osage County)

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In a film featuring scenery-chewing performances from Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, and about a dozen other A-List actors, how is it that Julianne Nicholson, in one of the August: Osage County’s smaller roles, actually steals the whole film? It’s all a matter of understanding the wavelength of your colleagues and to play to their excessiveness. By submitting a work of subtlety, Julianne Nicholson sticks out as an actress of incredible depth, showing a clear understanding of her material and other performers. Of all of Tracey Letts’ screenplays, Nicholson ranks up with Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe and Michael Shannon in Bug as being perfectly attuned to their character.

Cristián Petit-Laurent
(Cinematographer, Crystal Fairy)

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The usual suspects composed stellar visuals this year: Emmanuel Lubezki for To the Wonder, Roger Deakins for Prisoners, Sean Bobbit for 12 Years a Slave, Harris Savides for The Bling Ring etc. But I was not prepared for the beautiful contrasts in images found in Sebastian Silva’s Crystal Fairy. Often times soaked in sun yet capturing a sense of bitter angst at night, the images provide a nervy energy that complements the tone of the picture. The film, shot while waiting on funds for Cera and Sebastian’s project Magic Magic, captures a sense of spontaneity: it’s as if the visuals spill the details that this film is a product of happenstance. Most cinematographers aim for this feeling, even the most illustrious ones, but fail to get close to capturing something as genuine as Crystal Fairy.  And to think that this is Cristián Petit-Laurent’s debut!

Miles Teller
(Actor, The Spectacular Now)

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I’d have to strain my memory on recounting much of anything from John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole, where Miles Teller made his acting debut. In what I surmise as his first lead performance (Teller would also be featured in the 2011 remake of Footloose and 2012’s Project X) Teller delivers an incredibly nuanced performance as a teenage alcoholic forced to contend with what seems to be a predestined track for failure and loneliness. It’s an incredible performance from such a young actor, as he delicately balances teenage charm with interludes of a drunken stupor. The effort may be indebted to John Cusack’s performance in Say Anything… but what Teller does here is add a complex layer of a sorrow and atypical glamour that gives The Spectacular Now a quality of universality. It’s the kind of singular performance that broadens the scope of the entire film and makes it so much more than the usual teenage fare.

Johnnie To
(Director, Drug War)

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I hadn’t so much as heard of Johnnie To prior to Drug War and that might as well be enough proof for me to submit any credibility I have up to this point. As one of China’s most celebrated directors, the man has made well over 30 films spanning from the early 80s. Watching Drug War, I was caught off guard by the sheer proficiency of his style. Here’s a guy with the guttural instincts of someone like Sam Peckinpah yet the visual acuity of David Fincher. It all tied together for the best action film of the year The big lingering question now is: do I start from the beginning or the end of To’s filmography? This might take a while.

Frederick Wiseman
(Director, At Berkeley)

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Like the aforementioned Jem Cohen, Frederick Wiseman’s output rarely receives theatrical distribution. Thankfully screening at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (and scheduled to screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the start of the new year), At Berkeley is the type of documentary that most would come to out of obligation as opposed to desire. Despite its four-hour runtime, the documentary moves at a swift pace as it peers into the lives of students and administration at Berkeley. It’s a perpetually fascinating and voyeuristic capsule of millennial student living. Wiseman is a towering figure in the world of documentary filmmaking though he’s more of a critical presence than a commercial one. The small roll-out release of At Berkeley likely would subvert the trend, but there isn’t a film from 2013 that I’m more eager to revisit.

Editor's Note: The original post included a misspelling of Tallie Medel's name. This has been corrected.