A few weeks ago, I took a look at some of the events and ideas that shaped the year in cinema; now for a few notes on some of my own favorite films of 2013. I still have some catching up to do. At the top of my list of those to catch when I can, i.e., films that might well have ended up on this list had I seen them before this day is out, is Her (and among the many, many others are Bastards, Blue Is the Warmest Color, and The Immigrant, all of which I plan on seeing within the next week or so—but December 31 is December 31). I wonder how well Spike Jonze’s new film would sit next to Richard Linklater‘s Before Sunrise (1995) on a sort of talking courtship double bill.
I’ve positively reveled in the varieties of talk in the films of 2013. Dan Sallitt has dedicated The Unspeakable Act to Eric Rohmer, and while his film isn’t strictly Rohmerian (the Before films come closer), I was immediately struck by the way his characters speak. Jackie (Tallie Medel), her siblings, and her mother (a writer), are all clearly intelligent and yet nothing they say is tainted with the preciousness of, oh, Salinger’s Glass family. There may be pain or yearning or anger or love in what’s spoken, but never, thank heavens, zingers.
Then there’s the pedal-to-the-metal voice-over narration driving The Wolf of Wall Street, the remarkable balancing act John Ridley pulls off in the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, and even Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), miles away from the nearest living human throughout most of Gravity, is constantly muttering to herself. And call me soft, but when she finally does make contact, only to discover that she and the fellow on the other end of the invisible line don’t speak the same language (and yet somehow do sort of engage), I was moved.
Gravity and The Strange Little Cat. There’s a double bill. The inertia of all those objects moving along unpredictable tangents and the perpetually inventive framing in two radically different environments, far, far away in Gravity, and right here at home in Cat. Meantime, as I’ve mentioned, Niles Schwartz has beaten me to the pairing of Wolf and A Touch of Sin, so enough of the double bills for now.
Quite a lot’s been said about these films already (click the titles to see the roundups), so for everyone’s sake, I’ll try to keep it short.
1. Before Midnight. For at least another eight or nine years, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s Before films will reign as one of cinema’s best trilogies. I seem to recall more praise for Linklater’s direction the last time around, i.e., in 2004, but then cinephiles may simply have an ingrained affection for Before Sunset‘s Parisian setting. But I admire the gutsiness of taking Jesse and Celine to the Grecian coastline and then sticking them in a bland, could-be-anywhere hotel room for the climactic showdown. What’s more, the prevailing, almost thrilling tension of the first two Before films hums along over the question, “Will they or won’t they?”, and it might have been possible to construct a set-up that could ride the same formula. Instead, Midnight opens with a sense of unease that gradually builds to all-out alarm.
Also, not to go all Claire Messud on the Before films’ detractors, but liking Jesse and Celine is not the point. As Darcy Paquet tweeted back in May, he loves this trilogy, “But I have a feeling that the books Jesse writes are probably bloody awful.” Whether or not we’d care to hang out with Jesse and Celine ourselves, we’re pulling for them, because through them, we recognize that love is risky, often painful, and nearly always damn hard work. And, as Linklater’s recently said of Midnight, “It’s still romantic, because they care enough to engage. With a lot of couples, one person’s fighting and the other person is reading the paper, not even listening, whereas Jesse and Celine still care. They’re both in the game.”
2. The Act of Killing. In Gerhard Richter Painting, the artist says something along the lines of: Once I completely understand a painting, it’s dead to me. Joshua Oppenheimer‘s documentary about Indonesian death squad leaders reenacting the torture and massacres they carried out against all they deemed “communist” in the 60s in a genre-twisting, cross-dressing saga laced with musical numbers is, for me at least, immortal. I will never fully wrap my head around it. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, unfathomable. When, in one of the surreal dreamscapes of the film-within-the-film, a victim awards a medal to Anwar Congo for sending him on to heaven… well. It still leaves me speechless. For starters, I suppose: Give ’em enough rope.
Oppenheimer was initially met with a storm of criticism for having given these perpetrators a voice, a platform. Martin Scorsese might take comfort in what seems to have been an eventual dissipation of such talk.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street. Richard Brody‘s nailed it, right here: “Anyone who needs The Wolf of Wall Street to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.” And I’ll join the chorus of those recommending Nick Pinkerton‘s piece as well. Stepping out of the screening, I murmured, “His best since…” and Lukas Foerster completed the sentence with “Casino.” Could well be. I’d even take it back a couple of notches to Goodfellas (1990). I haven’t seen American Hustle yet, but it’ll take one helluva movie to convince me that anyone does Martin Scorsese quite like Martin Scorsese.
4. Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (The Strange Little Cat). Ramon Zürcher is one of the most delightful discoveries of 2013. Delightful in the sense that—yes, I’ll have to say it—Jacques Tati is delightful, relishing the musical kinetics of people and objects in modern spaces with, underneath, a faintly audible tone of melancholy. Let me recommend Darren Hughes and Blake Williams‘s discussion and Michael Sicinski‘s review for Cinema Scope.
5. The Unspeakable Act. I’ve already mentioned what struck me first. But then there’s the house, a character all its own, and Dan Sallitt’s assured framing within it; the performances, most especially those of Tallie Medel and Sky Hirschkron; and of course, the tackling of the unspeakable act itself, a win eventually scored by our having been pulled inside the bond between this sister and her brother and neutralizing the taboo from within. Further reading? Amy Taubin for Artforum and, right here in Keyframe, Calum Marsh.
6. Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón propels the gyroscopic long take he perfected in Children of Men (2006) to—here’s where Adam Driver’s baritone kicks in—outer… space! I’ve heard out those who see the influence of avant-garde cinema (where don’t we?), but as often as I disagree with him, I do think that Mark Kermode‘s on the right track in his emphasizing over and again that this is essentially a B-movie—in the best sense—outfitted in technological innovations that reset the terms of the state of the art. She’s stranded in space and has to get home, tear-jerking back story and scientific inaccuracies and all. Bravo. Also, a shout-out to Steven Price whose score does more heavy-lifting than, as far as I can tell, he’s been given credit for.
7. A Touch of Sin. “What if China’s authoritarian capitalism is not a stop on the road to further democratization, but the end state toward which the rest of the world is headed?” asked Slavoj Žižek last year. Throughout Jia Zhangke‘s furious indictment, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s directed at a far wider target than China. Where are the victims in The Wolf of Wall Street? To a certain degree, right here. Figuratively, the corrupt official in Dahai’s (Jiang Wu) crosshairs has taken a page straight out of Jordan Belfort’s book. And you could splice a deeply disturbing, infuriating, and ultimately defining scene from A Touch of Sin right into Wolf: An ugly little clod of a man, rich enough to allow his id naked free rein, slapping a woman across the face with a wad of cash. Over and over again.
8. Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw a Bear). I don’t have much to add to what I wrote back in February about the second film by Denis Côté to make one of my year-end best-of lists other than that its unique rhythm, compositions, and performances have stuck with me all year.
9. 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen eventually won me over, but I do have to admit that it was tough-going there for a while. The first umpteen minutes roll out like a parade of stars in period costume, each hosting a chapter addressing the next atrocity. But there’s no resisting 12 Years as the realization begins to dawn that the reality of America’s original sin is being depicted here as it never has been before. Alongside John Ridley’s screenplay, the dedication of the cast is, in the end, astonishing.
10. Pardé (Closed Curtain). As I wrote in February: “Some see Closed Curtain as a lesser footnote to This Is Not a Film or as some sort of disjointed coda. The new film does pick up where the previous one left off, but it is by no means a lesser work. It is a moving, perplexing record of a period of true crisis as experienced by two close collaborators [Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi] as well as a tribute to friends and neighbors who defy risk to lend a helping hand to an artist in need.”
It hurts to leave these off the list, so let them be mentioned honorably (in alphabetical order): Captain Phillips, Computer Chess, Frances Ha, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, I Used to Be Darker, Inside Llewyn Davis, Museum Hours, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Only Lovers Left Alive, Sun Don’t Shine, These Birds Walk, Upstream Color, and Viola.