Friday, January 17, 2014

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Auteur-ior Motives
grandmaster
Editorial note: I wanted to put this list together sooner, so as not to compromise its already dwindling relevance -- but a few important films remained unseen and I felt that their exclusion would render my own personal recollections of the past year incomplete.

      It was for me a milestone year in cinema. Perhaps more than any previous year, I devoted significant time to the art form. Buoyed by intense curiosity and passion, I've undergone what I believe is my own loosely attentive film school. In my quest to achieve wider cinematic erudition, there was really no limit to what I could do: Studying filmmakers obsessively, seeking out any literature I could get my hands on, attempting to quantify the quintessence of filmmaking, in the hopes of reducing it to a concept that I could more sufficiently understand; I mean who does this stuff? 
      But all of this deep stimulation is secondary to the real reason you've come here—which is to find out what movies made my list of favorites. Because I lack the necessary skills to moderate my passion effectively, I've elected to categorize all the movies I've seen from this past year. What follows then is a glimpse into the soul of a movie junkie. 
      
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      2013 added credence to the notion of the primacy of the auteur, an authoritative belief (see Andrew Sarris) that the essence of a film derives from decisions the filmmaker makes; the idea that movies are imbued with their creators' own personal stamp, or what Ebert liked referring to as "maker's mark." It is a paradigm that has barely missed a step in over 60 years of taking steps. We know film is personal and the best cinema intimate. We also know—from demands the career impose upon its maker—that the person tasked with directing instinctively operates from a place of selfish ego. These are individuals who must constantly problem solve to advance the production; where their own ideologies take precedence, and in which trade offs are inevitable. 
      The decision-making process, having been infused with diminishing returns, necessitates a form of de facto creative control. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, in which studio interference or production influence is insurmountable. And yes, filmmaking is a deeply collaborative process; any nuanced investigation could yield a less insular latticework to explain a film's manifold creation. Moreover, it's not odd to assume that the cinematographer, the composer, the editor or an involved, highly influential producer may be chiefly responsible for the final look and sound of a film. But the central perception remains unchanged: the images you see on the screen primarily emanate from decisions the filmmaker makes. Knowing these rudimentary components of auteur theory gives us some insight into the larger picture. 
      Spectacles garnered the most attention and 2013 had plenty to occupy ours. Baz Luhrmann, Martin Scorsese, Paolo Sorrentino, David O. Russell, Guillermo del Toro, Shane Black, Peter Jackson were just a few of the many directors who contributed to this concept of showmanship. It was another convincing reminder that the undercurrents of a film, no matter how baroque its waters beat, remain connected to the captain steering the ship.
      But brash ambition and ornamental indulgence wasn't the only key takeaway. There were intimate stories dealing with the human condition in various stages of duress - a precept that gained prominence during the Italian neorealist movement. Films that successfully explored the fragile human condition included Short Term 12, Frances Ha, Prince Avalanche, Beyond the Hills, and a Bong Joon-ho host of others. 
      Tales of survival also weaved their way into the fabric of 2013. Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, All is Lost and Rush represented a handful of some of these heroic tales; man or woman pitted against the harsh, cruel, unforgiving environments that nature subjects us to.
      Ruminations of romance, the nature of love and coming of age stories also entered the fray. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Before Midnight, Her, The Grandmaster, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Like Someone in Love, Blues is the Warmest Color, The Spectacular Now all dovetailed from a basic conceit: That a verisimilitude in human relationships stems from the currents of change. Are we equipped to deal with deteriorating effects that a corrosive relationship imposes on us? Love thought to be impenetrable must penetrate emotional fatigue; how can we cope with this dissatisfaction or mend the fracture? How does one adapt their notions of love to unconventional forms? What about the implications of unrequited love? Surely these are all fascinating questions that fascinating filmmakers deemed essential to their stories in 2013. 
      The continued assault on hackneyed genre exercises ratcheted up, as Refn's Only God Forgives, Korine's Spring Breakers and Wingard's You're Next found inventive ways to challenge preconceptions. The nature of what a film ought to be about and what its actual intentions reveal are different. What a filmmaker cares about need not be constrained by a generic formula. 
      World cinema blossomed, producing magnificent pictures from world class directors like Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt), Alexander Sokurov (Faust), Johnnie To (Drug War), Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda), Park Chan-wook (Stoker), and Ben Wheatley (Sightseers), to name only a few. And American cinema saw releases from a crowd of esteemed filmmakers I've neglected to mention sooner such as Terrence Malick (To The Wonder), Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring), Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Behind the Candelabra), and maturing talents like Jeff Nichols (Mud) and Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines). 
      All of this contemplation leaves us in the throes of a new year. As we recollect and nourish our cinematic appetites, we also ready ourselves to embrace another exciting year. But in the meantime, I shall unveil my 10 favorite films of 2013. A smorgasbord of other lists, which apportion my gratitude for this fantastic year in film, also follows. 


10). Only God Forgives
     The cinematic landscape of 2013 boasted one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, Nicolas Winding Refn. I went into his film expecting to love it unconditionally. Something strange happened, though. Elation, which was the sensation I felt after watching Drive, eluded me. What I did feel was bemusement. 
      There was plenty to admire about Refn's devious undressing of the revenge thriller. But some aspects left me underwhelmed. I knew I had to revisit the movie to justify such a middling impression. Refn's a provocative filmmaker. I had to examine it more vigorously without succumbing to those initial jolts of shock or awe that generally populate his films; I had to cultivate a purely unadulterated experience. That decision was the reason Only God Forgives, which has been a polarizing force in much of the film community, made my list. 
      Refn furnished an aesthetic so brazen, obsessive and intricately fine-tuned that it felt like remnants from an abandoned Werner Herzog project. What levels of abuse can the human psyche endure before surrendering to defeat? What pushes us, how far can we be pushed and where does that leave us? Are we tattered, fragmented, ashamed composites of our former selves? 
      These are primordial questions about the human experience, exquisitely extracted from Refn's sleek, minimalist approach. The direction he took was deranged and twisted (something you'd expect in a South Korean crime film), but supremely beautiful (also applies to South Korean crime films). My final reading tilts to an impression that posits there's no revenge for this kind of visceral attack on masculinity.
9). Spring Breakers
      Sleazy, exploitative, ironic, but also artistically and culturally resonant—like Refn's Only God Forgives, Spring Breakers pulled no punches as it waged war on the artificiality of the youth experience that has been so often misrepresented by mainstream cinema. For those who have never seen a Harmony Korine film (Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy are must-watches; also scripted Larry Clarke's Kids), this kind of abrasive and perverse takedown can be jarring and problematic. Well, I didn't give a fuck. 
8). Gravity
      Gravity is a towering technological breakthrough that speaks to the ebullience of spectacle. A gifted technical filmmaker, Cuaron understands visceral engagement. His film functions as an immersive and propulsive visual extravaganza. Demanding the attention of all your sensory inputs, Gravity rewards you for making the effort. 
      It was also an incredible story of survival from an incredible storyteller. Scripted by his son, Jonas, Gravity achieved pathos without having to resort to emotional gimmicks. It's as though the creative brilliance of the Cuaron brothers converged; the resulting synergy produced an unforgettable ride in an environment quite literally out of this world.
7). Before Midnight
      One of the quintessential love stories of our time, capping a trilogy so entrenched in our conceptions of love, which have become so malleable, Before Midnight gracefully pushes forth a devastatingly accurate reality of honest companionship. Richard Linklater unveils a mural of tenderness, passion, whimsy, despair and disillusionment. 
      Although it seemed to have originated out of a fairy tale, Jessie and Celine's relationship is a harsh reminder that unions must confront hardship —even the most pollyannic couples are burdened by domestic pressures. Existential yearnings or personal inadequacies are a function of any real world relationship. But difficulties do not foretell doom; though weariness and uncertainty may ignite some discontent or lead to resentment, concrete connections can be broached. 
      Linklater, Hawke and Delpy were like forensic scientists of romance. They trusted their words as much as they understood the feelings of their characters. Before Midnight felt like a documentary, a snapshot of a living, breathing couple.
6). Her
      Copious literature has already been devoted to exploring the romantic and philosophical prisms that one evaluates Her through. There's a simplicity in Jonze's strange enactment of ephemeral love: romance, metaphysical engagement and a palpable sense of loneliness all cohere wonderfully. 
      A vital force in modern cinema, Jonze recognized abiding love where others found only practical utility. His unusual well of life experience burnished an oft-kilter love story that touched upon the connections fostered between man and machine. It's probably the clearest evidence we have to explain how the exceptionally talented, equally strange Charlie Kaufman found professional commune with Jonze in earlier projects (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York; Jonze produced). An uneasy synchronicity unites their neurotic abstractions of life, in which the various characters procure acceptance and understanding through their unorthodox perceptions of the world.
5). The Wolf of Wall Street
      Scorsese has invested his livelihood attempting to understand everything there is to know about making movies. And even in the later stages of his remarkably fruitful career, he's still managing to infiltrate our cultural obsessions. His subject is the unfettered male experience and his kinetic camera probes deeply. 
      The Wolf of Wall Street is an autobiographical tour de force; an effective, concentrated study of an opportunistic sociopath whose sordid ambitions just so happened to comply with the aggrandizing excesses and cultural decadence of Wall Street unchained. This is a world governed by an ethos boasting "greed is good." Jordan Belfort and Gordon Gecko carved their own Mount Rushmore, trading Washington and Jefferson for personal excess and illicit theft. Like a pirate's treasure, capitalism was pilfered, plundered and excavated for the sole purpose of enriching the personal lives of corporate criminals. 
      As much a character study as an examination of an avaricious culture, Scorsese made a calculated decision not to hold our hands; instead imploring the viewer to evaluate the moral ramifications of this debased world. The last shot in the film involves Scorsese's omniscient camera staring directly at an audience, which is all-too eager to have the answers supplied for them; quite blatantly implicating us. 
4). The Grandmaster
      This is not first-rate Wong Kar-wai, but even second-rate Wong is better than pretty much first-rate everybody else. Like Marty, he's one of my favorite filmmakers. He's been a bastion of world cinema; in fact, a movie like The Grandmaster can only exist in the assured hands of a true visionary. It's composition is beautifully conceived; it breathes like a serene meditation. But it seeks not spiritual enlightenment. Encompassing the kinetic spirit of martial-arts and kung fu, The Grandmaster desires cultural authenticity. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd brandishes an elegant sheen as he balances sumptuous art and feverish action. 
      The two central performances from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi anchor the film splendidly, allowing these balletic action sequences to spring to life. Their work engenders a dignified tone, capturing the somber lulls of unrequited love. Very few directors achieve resonance while fixating on loneliness and despair. Wong Kar-wai fashions it into thrilling iconography. 
3). The Act of Killing
      The charm of some movies is dangerous. Most liberate our minds from the burdens of real life. But sometimes a movie comes along and it holds you captive to a way of life your nightmares can't reproduce. These movies expose you to a world of unconscionable carnage, in which an inhumanity is breached. I can't remember the last time I went to the theater and had my expectations shattered. By the time the end credits rolled for The Act of Killing, I was an emotional wreck. Moved to such contemplation, I attempted to process what I'd just watched. The Act of Killing ignites that kind of visceral charge. 
      It is an invigorating, illuminating, mesmerizing portrait of an indefatigable creed of men who unleashed unspeakable acts of terror against their fellow countrymen. Joshua Oppenheimer employed a unique framework to understand the humanity of this inhumanity. Through various Hollywood style reenactments, Oppenheimer coaxed some fascinating nuggets about the human condition; about memory, how we contextualize it, recolor our past to align with present desires and our needs for rationale. Without question, The Act of Killing is the most compelling film you will see from last year. 
2). 12 Years A Slave
      The real contender for Best Picture is anchored by a trio of riveting performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o. 12 Years a Slave provided substantial dramatic heft to a bloody history seeped in sorrow and sin. Painstaking attention to detail is supplied by McQueen's keen visual eye, which has a knack for unearthing small details that speak vigorously about the environment his frame occupies. 
      With painterly care, scholarly interest and supreme confidence in his abilities, McQueen curates a world of heartbreak. The realities these characters have to face are harrowing even for the most hardened, well-equipped comers. Their journeys precipitate the brutal tour of a reprehensible history; the cruelest manifesto of mankind is slavery. It was an injustice that persisted because a country failed to understand fundamental humanity. McQueen's unique direction, his singular voice, made him the perfect candidate to conduct this critical interrogation. 
1). The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
      Reminiscent of a time when the very foundation of film was rocked to its core, The Great Beauty gives us a modern and contextualized glimpse into the epicenter of that quake. The grammar and language of Paolo Sorrentino's filmmaking owes its elasticity to Fellini and the movement he contributed to. Fellini's vast talents propelled that movement—ignited by Italian Neorealists like Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti—to magnificent heights. An artistic buffet of surreal, ethereal, moral and philosophical constructs had formed. Sorrentino's The Great Beauty expands these stylistic indulgences to accommodate modern times. Though the surrounding milieu has undergone dramatic change, the mechanisms for examining that change have remained largely intact. 
      Sensational lead acting from Toni Servillo allowed Sorrentino to investigate the human condition through the lens of cultural malaise. For some of its native inhabitants, particularly the very artistically inclined, Rome is not the perpetual haven of creative inspiration we always like to believe. This realization emboldens The Great Beauty in dynamic ways; the viewer is able to reflect on the regional zeitgeist as much as the uncertain aspirations of Toni's character. 
      Precisely and with bold resolve owing to his local influences, Sorrentino burrowed into the mind of an artist. An awareness linking past, present and future was discovered. 


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The next 25 (in alphabetical order): Ain't Them Bodies Saints, American Hustle, Beyond the Hills, Blackfish, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Drug War, Faust, Frances Ha, The Hunt, Inequality for All, Museum Hours, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, The Place Beyond the Pines, Rush, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Stoker, This is the End, To The Wonder, Upstream Color, Wadjda, The World's End

Next tier (honorable mention): 42, All is Lost, Bad Grandpa, The Bling Ring, Blue Caprice, Bullet to the Head, The Butler, Computer Chess, The Conjuring, The Dirties, Dirty Wars, Don Jon, Enough Said, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, In a World, La Sirga, The Last Stand, Leviathan, Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, On the Job, Our Nixon, Out of the Furnace, Pacific Rim, Pain and Gain, Prince Avalanche, Prisoners, Room 237, The Selfish Giant, Side Effects, Sightseers, Stories We Tell, Tommy and Frank, The Way Way Back, You're Next, Zero Charisma

Final tier (adequate): 2 Guns, A.C.O.D, August: Osage County, Oblivion, Behind the Candelabra, The Best Offer, The Canyons, Clear History, The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Drinking Buddies, Escape Plan, Europa Report, Evil Dead, Fast and Furious 6, The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Kings of Summer, Linsanity, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Rewind This, Saving Mr. Banks, We're the Millers, The Wolverine, World War Z


The Duds: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Elysium, Epic, Gangster Squad, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Hangover: Part 3, The Heat, Kick-Ass 2, Now You See Me, Olympus Has Fallen, Planes, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Star Trek Into Darkness, Trance, Turbo, Warm Bodies, White House Down 

Failed to see but desperately wanted to: At Berkeley, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, The Past, A Touch of Sin, The Wind Rises

5 comments:

  1. As a life-long Trekker, I'd place Into Darkness in last year's top ten.
    Haven't seen a couple of your top ten. Most recent one was American Hustle, and would place that in the top ten as well. It and Gravity will clean up at the Oscars this year.

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  2. Based on this tally, you watched approximately 106 more movies than I did last year. And the only two that make your lists fall among the Duds. (The rest were all from 2012 or earlier... plus your #7 which has been sitting by my DVD player for a month.) I want to see so many of these. Man, I have a lot of catching up to do.

    Thanks, as always, for your detailed commentary on the year in films as well as your top 10. It will help guide my selections over the coming months.

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  3. Welcome back Mr. V. A great list - as was to be expected. I liked some of the movies on your duds list - but we'll hash that out another time!

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  4. A great list for sure, but while I agree with Gravity's story, the fx were meh for me. I think because sci fi is huge genre for me, I know I've personally seen better.

    Most of my faves were probably in your honorable mention and lower lists LOL. My best this year included World War Z, The Great Gatsby, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, The Hobbit 2, The Conjuring, Bad Grandpa, Man of Steel and Pacific Rim.

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