Where to start with 2013? Having seen few bad films and many great ones it makes the process of narrowing down a definitive top ten near impossible. Thematically, the year played heavily to the sound of excess. Like an echo chamber playing Lorde’s Royals on end, films like the underrated At Any Price, The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, and The Wolf of Wall Street all constructed new and complicated images on the concept of the American Dream. But this coincidental lap in concerns was really only one in many. So as an addendum to my annual top ten, I’ve included five groupings of some of the more interesting films of 2013 that share some unified thoughts and concerns - both as a means of discussing some great pictures while submitting to the fact that selecting only ten best films of the years was entirely inadequate.
The Fluidity of Identity. Identity, in both its literal and figurative forms, is a central component to Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, and Hirokazu Kore-eda Like Father Like Son. Kiarostami’s film probes the workaday activities of a Japanese prostitute as her life is complicated by an elderly professor and her boyfriend. As the film unfolds, much like Kiarostami’s previous feature Certified Copy, all the characters must balance their “true” identity with what their extenuating circumstance demand. Dolan’s Laurence Anyways takes a much more literal shift in the shaping of identity, where a man named Laurence looks to transition to being a woman, therein jeopardizing a relationship with his best friend. Epic in scale and scope, Dolan often subverts expectations. At one point, Laurence dresses in woman’s garb for the first time while going off to teach. The reaction is one of indifference - Laurence’s identity is conceived first as an educator by her students, not a male. Identity as defined by language and biology comes into play within Kore-eda’s emotionally exhausting Like Father Like Son, where two families discover that their sons were switched at birth. At five years old, the two boys have an engrained devotion to the parents who raised them, yet one parent sees the fault in his son’s ability as a result of his biology. Is identity a summation of biology, of cell structures and genetics, or is it complicated by external and ascribed social forces? All three films, helmed by world-renowned filmmakers from all around the globe, dissect the difficulties of defining one’s sense of self in a world of shifting ideologies - how can we truly remain the same person when everything about the world is changing?
Race to the Bottom Politics and Globalization. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds and Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin would make for quite the politically charge double bill. Zhang-ke’s four-prong narrative on the state of anomie afflicting working-class China has burrowed itself deeply into my mind since its release in late November. An image of contemporary China, it’s a grim display that shows a country beaten to the ground in order to remain the competitive super power that it has become. The rosier and quiet aspects of Filho’s Neighboring Sounds do not necessarily imply a relationship with Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin, but it’s more about anticipating the storm. Set in a Brazilian suburb, the film shows the glimmering image of the middle class benefitting from the largely absent exploitation of its lower class, with the ensuing expansion of the city threatening the idyllic neighborhood. A vanguard of largely incompetent security is brought in to oversee the safety for its over-sexed and bored constituents, only to see that it’s too late - expansion is necessary in order to remain competitive. Both films show the increasingly dreary ramifications of globalization, where a competitive marketplace can only be achieved through the exploitation of the underprivileged.
Crystal Blue Persuasion. It’s a post-Breaking Bad world and you’re just living in it. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough and entertaining piece of media dealing with drug trade quite like Vincent Gilligan’s show, but two filmmakers went ahead and gave it their all to produce some of the most audacious and gripping genre films of the year. Johnnie To’s Drug War is the sort of formally-proficient effort that is often mistaken for simplicity, yet its zippy quality conveys a perpetual sense of movement, where actions are measured and precise yet require immediate attention. It is by far the best action film of the year, and quite frankly one of the straight-up action films in some time.
The heavily emphasized bureaucracy at the heart of Drug War is met with a complete absence of authority in Amat Escalante’s Heli. It perhaps most closely resembles Gilligan’s show and one has to wonder what Escalante would have been able to do had he directed some of the more violent episodes of Breaking Bad. Heli emerges as a film about the consequence of inadvertently coming into contact with the drug trade. I’ve championed the many incredible films coming out of Mexico this year and Heli serves as the most fluid and impressive of those efforts - visceral, socially conscious, and unabashedly blunt about the dark recesses of the drug trade.
The American Indie. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, and Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act showcased just how extensive and probing the American-independent feature can be. Featuring wayward dancers, foster-home case workers, functioning teenage alcoholics, or incestuous teens, these four films represent distinct voices in independent cinema. And surprisingly, all of these films submit performances of the highest caliber - from solidifying Greta Gerwig and Brie Larson as lead actresses to introducing Miles Teller and Tallie Medel, it was a year where talent could be seen both on-screen and behind the lens. I’ve often harbored reservations about what comes out of the Sundance methodology of filmmaking (The Spectacular Now screened at the festival; Cretton’s other films have done the same) but it’s the first time since my teens that I’ve been legitimately excited to see what’s in store next for this talented pool of talent coming from the Sundance school.
Prestige Pictures and the Ensemble. Beyond calling Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska “the rest”, I can safely say it was a great year for those following the Oscar® race. All three films are winning awards left and right and for good reason - they are in large part flawless films. Of course, most would highlight individual aspects of these films such as the visceral treatment of slavery in McQueen’s film, Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine, or Bruce Dern and June Squibb in Nebraska. But these are films that are very much elevated by the summation of everyone’s hard work. Would 12 Years a Slave be as emotionally vigorous or successful were it not for Hans Zimmer’s score or the dense ensemble led by Chiwetel Ejiofor? Or what of the ensemble of riches in Blue Jasmine with the likes of Sally Hawkins, Louie C.K, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bobby Cannavale? Not to mention the fact that it’s one of Allen’s most cynical and biting screenplay to date. And Nebraska - from Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography to Wendy Chuck’s defined costume design to the incredible array of faces found throughout the picture, I can’t imagine a film more indebted to the work of every facet of its production to create a top-to-bottom work of wonder.
With that all said: my top ten of 2013.
Concerns on how one interprets Her seem to be levied into two groups: those who see it as a prophecy on our dependence of technology and those who see it as a straight-up love story. Could it not be a bit of both? The exponential growth of technology may eventually shape the way we are as human beings and how we perceive love. My favorite moments in Her are those when Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) confesses that he’s dating an Operating System: sometimes he’s met with resistance, other times people are open to the idea. Her broadens a singular question as to whether or not technology can change who we are fundamentally. As far as I can tell, you can see it in the city streets of Chicago as people pass with their earpieces in - and sometimes, it’s the voice speaking directly to our head that we want to listen to the most. (Full Review Here)
In the House
One of the more unique experiences in the cinema was attempting to decipher François Ozon’s cinematic brainteaser In the House. It’s in large part a narrative about the nature of storytelling and the writing process, but it elevates from its oft-charted terrain into a realm of delights through its perpetual need to revise and reedit itself. Focusing on the life of a tired professor and his wunderkind student, it shows two worldviews working in conjunction and then opposition, showing a clear understanding that while one can have an influence on another person’s work, the truly great writers forge ahead to carve their own path. (Full Review Here)
I’m approaching four years since I graduated as an undergrad, equivalent to the time I spent at Loyola University. Loyola is certainly no Berkeley and yet seeing Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley I couldn’t help but feel transported back - with all the good and bad about that experience rushing in. My first experience with Wiseman, At Berkeley functions as a series of lectures, where students and professors discuss everything from possessive individualism to differential cost tuition. But intercut into the film’s structure is the university’s mounting debts, with measured focus placed on administration and upkeep. A two-prong narrative organically develops, unbeknownst to either administration or students, as the two forces work in opposition. At Berkeley is a startling critique on the autocracy of university administration and the contradictions found in some of the featured students’ philosophy. As the two combat in the film’s tumultuous protest, neither student nor administration are in the right - and no one gets what they want. Kind of reminds me of my experience at Loyola. (Full Review Here)
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Noam Chomsky, a man of words, meets Michel Gondry, a man of images, in this inspiring documentary/animated conversation on the nature of… everything. Chomsky is a worthy subject and Gondry proves to be a capable student as the two discuss theoretics that more often than not takes Gondry for a loop. But what Gondry lacks in linguistic facilities he compensates with a vivid visual sensibility, providing a welcome visualization of such dense material. When Gondry makes inquires on Chomsky’s private life, the answers are often cryptic and hidden - but what he does get out of this man of words is a story of painful regrets and shared experiences of suffering. No matter what the social circumstance, there are certain universalities that make us all intrinsically human and Noah Chomsky would be the first to admit that. (Full Review Here)
The Wolf of Wall Street
Hugo was an impressive formal exercise that I admired, but it’s hard to say that it was a definitive Scorsese work. From the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas, it stood out as a sore thumb in an oeuvre populated by gangsters and deviants. Enter The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s his most vile film, a picture that relishes in the opportunity to speak down at its audience and toss in a wink and smirk for good measure. Yet the enthusiasm Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio manage to evoke throughout the picture is of unrelenting force. Movement, movement, movement has been the mantra of most of Scorsese’s best outings and The Wolf of Wall Street moves in hyperspeed to convey the sort of drug-addled high of its main characters. The case he makes? You’re better off being a deviant with money than “live” with no money. In a year in cinema where the American Dream emphasizes the acquisition of money at any means necessary, it’s Scorsese’s film that makes the most complex case in favor of amorality. (Full Review Here)
Spring Breakers is not quite like anything I have seen. My first theater experience with the film was an odd one, where the crowd was populated with teenage girls. Having seen Gummo, a film I did not care for (to put it lightly), I’m aware of how eccentric Harmony Korine can be, and it’s certainly not the kind of eccentricity that I associate with the teenage girls. What came out of this screening was a pulsing picture on millennial contradictions and the forceful start of a group of pictures that will summate what the year in film stood for the most: how fucked up America’s youths have become in the wake of our massive technological leap. The ADD-editing that composes the picture may strike some as excessive, but Spring Breakers is a film that yearns to be excessive, never compromising its images for political correctness or even logical coherence. In the end, Spring Breakers is a film best left to feel - perhaps exemplifying what today’s youth culture is looking for most today. (Full Review Here)
To the Wonder
In my first review for To the Wonder, I mistakenly noted that To the Wonder felt small compared to the grandiosity of Malick’s previous film The Tree of Life. But having returned the film and allowing it to simmer in my consciousness, this claim is a bit arbitrary given the subject matters of both films. The Tree of Life embarks on some fairly heady and spiritually-minded matters and stages images on the very conception of life itself. But To the Wonder embarks on an equally poignant, less tangible, yet perhaps more elusive expression on the blossoming of love. The chiseled features of Ben Affleck has never been put to better use as a vessel of masculine brooding nor has any woman looked more strong yet delicate as Olga Kurylenko. To The Tree of Life’s tender prose on life equals the sensuous and bittersweet love of To the Wonder. No one better than the other, but rather a functioning double bill that proves why Terrence Malick may just be the best director alive. (Full Review Here)
America’s looked like toxic cotton candy this year, but James Gray’s The Immigrant strips away the sugar-coated sheen for something much more formally rigorous and dreary. Gray’s America, or rather the one shown in The Immigrant, is a punishing visage of foreign exploitation that shows no sympathy. Marion Cotillard has never looked so fraught and emotionally ravaged as she does in this picture, where her efforts as a Polish immigrant sees her try to achieve the American Dream by selling her body. Yet with the steady realization that her servitude is a life sentence, her command yields greater profitability. In this Gray finds his most cynical observation to date: when hope is lost there’s no limit to a person’s exploitation. (Full Review Here)
We take for granted the familiar, so when Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reprise their roles in Before Midnight there’s certainly an air of “been there, done that”. The opening sequence of the two driving through the Peloponnese also has a striking resemblance to Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy as well. The wrinkles are never quite ironed out and the cobwebs remain a fixture. Are the flighty adventures and romancing completely sapped from these two? They transverse their way to a hotel with the intent of booze and sex on their mind. It’s been a while since they’ve had a night to themselves and they’ll take advantage - until they can’t. You can make all the plans in the world but the mounting anxieties of day to day living eventually overwhelm you. We may want to remember the characters as youthful and bouncy lovers with only romantic ambitions on their mind. But kids happen. Life happens. And romance simply can’t sustain a relationship. That’s when the real work begins. Before Midnight captures that feeling like no other film. (Full Review Here and Additional Commentary Here)
Inside Llewyn Davis
(Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
“Play me something from “Inside Llewyn Davis”” says Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) to Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). The double meaning here refers to the obvious mention of the title of the record that Grossman places his hands on. But it resonates more as something of spiritual reference. Llewyn Davis is a man defined by many hardships. He’s a struggling artist of great talent but held back by… something that may be beyond his control. Is it his hubris? Perhaps. Is he not talented enough? That’s difficult to say. There’s certainly something majestic about Davis’ voice, but in one of the film’s penetrating images where a young Bob Dylan plays a set, it makes you wonder how small Davis appears next to the giant. So that request: “Play me something from “Inside Llewyn Davis””. Davis could very well turn himself inside out to uncover whatever talent he may have, but sometimes it’s just not enough. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a pleasant film but it is a beautiful one. Where the talented suffer for their craft and where that suffering is tested. The Coens films have always tended to be bitter pills to swallow, but never before in a Coen film have you wanted to see one of their characters survive - survive and succeed. Talk about the American Dream. (Full Review Here)