In the past twelve months I caught a respectable number of new releases. However, I didn't see too many new documentaries, and virtually no recent experimental work. This is a real shame, as these areas could more readily use exposure than a lot of the mainstream and arthouse hits I discuss below. Also I wish that I had delved a little deeper into the No Budge stuff. I'm sure I missed a few gems. So, while I saw more new titles this year than usual, what I focused on tended towards the narrative feature film a little more than usual, too. In that respect, my list and my comments about the year are themelves probably more boring and predictable than they would sometimes otherwise be.
I don't mean to wring my hands excessively. It's just that I know the soporific effect of the same 12-15 titles that crop up on list after list at year's end. And my contribution, frankly, isn't so far from upper-middlebrow/highbrow consensus.
In any event I'll try to do better on all counts in 2014.
ACCURSED SHARE / FILM MAUDIT OF THE YEAR
Although Spring Breakers is a solid runner-up in this category, I really want to highlight Only God Forgives, which has stuck with me and remained more resonant than Korine's film. Overall I'm highly ambivalent. Through its imagery, its soundscape and lush score by Cliff Martinez, its sense of pace and flow, its cohesive range of acting styles emulating dreams of old viewings of 1980s action movies seen late at night, its beautifully jagged editing principles that tweak continuity and contiguity in ways the old Noël Burch might have appreciated - through all these things, Only God Forgives is a stunning achievement. If everything here were on the same level, this would easily be one of the very best films of the year. But it also doesn't seem to direct these elements into very productive or interesting directions; it caves in on itself. I worry that rather than building into some kind of fascinating portrait it all becomes an echo chamber of movie-movie referentiality, and that this referentiality serves as an excuse for half-baked and trite representational strategies with regard to ethnicity, nation, sexuality, etc. Things are "dark" and "mysterious" for reasons unclear, except that we know these things are cool. Nicolas Winding Refn is - like Spielberg, Shayamalan, Tarantino, or Wan - a filmmaker with incredible talent and vision who also seems prone to making some bad or timid choices. Perhaps it's down to taste; perhaps he doesn't trust his audience or himself. I'm not sure I've arrived at an explanation for that yet. The fact that this has appeared prominently in so many worst-of-the-year lists (often, weirdly, right in the #2 slot) might even speak to the ways in which it is effective. I'm on board with criticisms of the film for its ideological-representational inanities. As for those who foreground instead how its acting is bad or its plot is messy ... well, they can stick to their award-winning titles for their own pleasure and we'll all be happier for it.
A few lines for films that I wanted to love, but didn't - yet hope to love in the future. Maybe. I have to admit to varying degrees of disappointment in Bullet in the Head (Walter Hill), The Canyons (Paul Schrader), The East (Zal Batmanglij), Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel), Passion (Brian De Palma), and To the Wonder (Terrence Malick).
There is also the issue of films made this year by friends, acquaintances, collaborators, etc. - many of whom I've had a beer with, at least, and a couple of these projects I even contributed some very modest funds. These are works that do not need special pleading and can stand on their own considerable merits. But for two reasons I'm cordoning them off in their own honorable mention category here. One, I tend not to want to "meet the band" and for that reason I have a hard time feeling like art by people I know, especially in real life and before they ever made these works, is indistinguishable from art by people I don't know at all or have met only in passing. Two, this gives me a chance to free up more slots in my top ten list. Since this isn't a ballot for any poll, I feel no urge then to advocate for these works in that particular way. BUT! You should not hesitate for one second to see, if you haven't, Gabe Klinger's Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (delicate nuances here about what propels people to make art); Dan Sallitt's The Unspeakable Act (which brings distinctive acting styles, not mere retreads of what we see elsewhere in independent cinema, under an assured overarching aesthetic; the climactic scene struck me with the force of the kind of revelation you see every once in a while in Ozu); Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's Ellie Lumme (its Chicago is deeply colorful and beautiful); Craig Keller's Fait Accompli: Episode 1: Caused (another very beautiful work to look at and seep into); and Gina Telaroli's Traveling Light, which has some traces of the 1970s structural film but - I'll say as an Amtrak veteran in years past, myself - has a very embodied and yet defamiliarized effect which I found warmer than the term "structural" might connote. I would feel guilty about leaving some of these off of an actual list but for the fact that I don't think anyone considers me a critic, technically, anyway. So it's not as though you could add me to the chorus of "over 50 critics top ten lists!"
For 2014 and beyond: Please keep an eye out for my friend Ramon PeBenito, who has been working on small projects as well and starting to branch out into short films, series, and who knows what else.
Some more honorable mentions, many of which I'd be happy to have round out a top ten list in a year where I didn't see or like as much as this one: At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013: the great American documentarian of institutions is himself an institution of the best kind; thanks to a kind soul who hooked me up for this one), Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012: would make a fascinating double bill with Pontypool), Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012: captivating, and on another day, might have snuck onto the top ten list; I prefer it to his recent Blind Detective), In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, 2012: "minor" but in a very pleasant way), It's All So Quiet (Nanouk Leopold, 2013), Kid-Thing (David Zellner, 2012: the spirit of Tootie Smith is kind of alive and well), Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012: in need of a revisit to be honest - I watched it in a tired and distracted state), Night Across the Street (Raul Ruiz, 2012), Nightfall (James Benning, 2012: lovely climax), Perfect Thoughts (Doron Max Hagay, 2013), Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2012: played me like an instrument), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013: gentle, minor in a good way), Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012: patience), You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais, 2012: metametametameta).
This is a top eleven list because I had composed a tentative top ten, and was just waiting to see a few more movies this week before publishing everything. The film I designated beforehand as my 'cut-off' movie ended up blowing me away, but instead of letting good ol' Jia fall off, I decided simply to expand the list. Plus that's how Olaf Möller does a lot of his end-of-year mentions, in honor of eleven players on a soccer team. So that's good enough for me. I saw the majority of these, but not all, in theatrical release this year ...
11. A Touch of Sin (Jia
Zhang Ke, China, 2013) Any one of the stories here could have sustained
an entire feature on its own; put the four incidents together and you
have an image of a society straining itself outwards to the breaking point. Growth and opportunity have
their dark flipsides, this approach is a bit schematic but nevertheless feels full of flesh and blood, desperation, and cathartic, terrifying acts of violence.
10. The Girl from Nowhere (Jean-Claude
Brisseau, France, 2012) How things have changed, and yet how much has
remained the same, in the decade since the sumptuous extravagances of Secret Things.
With Brisseau, well, 21st century Brisseau in particular, I always
start out his work with the creeping suspicion that this will be a Dirty
Old Man's apologia for himself, but the films always expand in
surprising and enriching ways. Of course, having seen some of his
earlier work from the 1980s and 1990s as well, I realize that this is
not the case - the spiritual and stylistic dimensions of the work ground
him a different lineage altogether. This austerely beautiful, gently
charming film work requires a few more repeat viewings - it feels like a
novella that goes by breezily and, upon reaching the end, the
realization hits that all the deepest and most important threads seemed
9. Sun Don't Shine (Amy Seimetz, USA, 2012) Glistening skin on slightly overcast skies suggests oppressive heat and angst. I love the way everything about the tangled emotional history the two leads have is never fully explained but instead left for one's imagination to fill in. Macabre Southern dread meets aimless white twentysomething aimlessness. It's beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time. You can infer a whole lifetime behind Kate Lyn Shiel's sad-scared-determined eyes here; for me she's captivating in the way that many people find Greta Gerwig captivating. Seimetz (also an actress; one of the leads in Upstream Color) is one to watch.
8. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2012) Local-historical palimpsest at its finest. One of the best depictions of a community as a "living" thing, in real spaces, with generations and cause and effect, in recent memory. Dread is pervasive but not necessarily oppressive here. Aaron Cutler put it in a succinct way when he noted a little while back, "A society based on class division also runs on class-based suspicion." Neighboring Sounds also reminded me a little of Scorsese, in parts, and in that sense I'd rank it favorably in comparison not only to this year's American Hustle, but also the popular Brazilian film City of God.
7. Museum Hours (Jem
Cohen, USA/Austria, 2012) A simple approach to a refreshing category of human interaction,
the incidental friendship. For years I've longed to come across more
movies that told stories like these. Cassavetes and many microbudget
filmmakers mine this terrority but there is something in the pristine
way this chance encounter is handled that I can't forget or overlook.
What happens when circumstances prompt two people who don't really know
each other to share intimacies for an indeterminate amount of time? Here
painting and sculpture become reflective media, conversational media,
as much as artworks in themselves. A really lovely movie.
6. Student (Darezhan Omirbayev, Kazakhstan, 2012) Omirbayev is always interesting; Student may even be his strongest film.
I'd say there were a few minor missteps in the timing and editing that moved too eagerly for wry
laughs and rhetorical jabs, but in the bigger scheme these
were negligible. Student is an absorbing, clear, slow-burn kind of movie, wearing its status as Crime and Punishment adaptation lightly yet in no way shortchanging
the gravitas of the material. That's part of its power: it achieves
qualities that rarely go together. It's leisurely paced but taut; narratively
oblique and elliptical yet expansive in its novelistic sense of world; even its highly overt
thematization of capitalism-as-social-battleground is leavened by the
contexts in which it's always brought up (e.g., a classroom lecture, or a
nature program on TV). Finally, for some understated cinephilia points,
the movie includes some wind in the trees, hands on prison bars in close-up, and a mistreated donkey. What
more can one ask for?
5. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2013) Some of my affection for this film comes directly from its enthusiastic remarkable pastiche job in recreating a particular (if hazy) era, not simply in its production design but even many of its acting rhythms and of course its video aeshetic. But I also appreciated its contentment to simply let the gradual weirdness of its world, and its dive into surreality, be. This doesn't mean that the "weird for the sake of weird" card always works. It's all about what effects & affects can be achieved by the interplay of formal, stylistic, and performative elements: does it produce intriguing thoughts or feelings, for instance, and can we spot interesting patterns or structures in the way these reactions mount up? If so, then perhaps the messy work is doing something that is not messy. Like many films on this list, and especially the films that are listed after this slot, Computer Chess provided me with these hit-the-nail-on-the-head vivid moments for emotions that I can't quite name with single words - like the coy flirtatiousness of prolonged adolescence, or the knife's edge between wanting to believe and enjoying one's skepticism when making (or imagining) some strange discovery alone before one's computer screen.
4. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA, 2013) One of the year's big surprises. (I liked Primer quite a bit, but the pessimist in me expected Carruth to go in a very different direction - that of Aronofsky or Nolan.) Instead we have this impressionistic Malickian vibe applied to causally motivated narrative-logistical construction. And it's all shot very prettily. But I really responded to the way Carruth and his fellow actors convey these affective registers that seemed to arrive in a very immediate and practical way. In other words I kept feeling delighted and curious about such things as, What would it feel like to rebuild one's life financially after such a fugue state? If suggestible hypnosis became a larger social crisis, would bank tellers (for example) have to undergo training to spot warning signs? What are the relations between different parts of the food chain and the symbolic role we might ascribe to one in exchange for the other? And so on. That's one of the great things about Carruth's engineer's approach to narrative and logistics - there's all this left-brain stuff about airtight explanations and structure, but he's also a terrific filmmaker of possibilities.
3. Bastards (Claire
Denis, France, 2013) In many ways it feels very much like an utterly
typical Denis film, including some familiar faces, and in that
sense there's always the threat of hermeticism and calcification. The more we learn about the facts of what has transpired,
story-wise, the deeper, darker, weirder, and more dangerous and alluring
this world (our world) seems. We've already been trapped long before we realize it; that's part of what maturation entails. Rather than a loss of virginal innocence, which is how a couple characters in the film may see certain other characters, this is a patient and world-weary reminder that innocence never existed in the first place - though violence does exist in many forms. I'm inclined to think of it as Denis' most hopeless work, which is not to say it is without any levity or beauty.
2. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France, 2013) The last film I saw before putting this list into the atmosphere. I had hoped I'd like it, but I hadn't expected to be moved quite like this. The top two films here were, for me, the masterpieces of 2013 (that I've seen). Given that stature, it's a little hard for me to digest it all and fashion any kind of insightful commentary mere hours after walking out of the theater. I only know that it struck me very deeply. I am reminded of what Bellour said in his contributions to the "Movie Mutations" letters, about civilization as something greater than cinema, something that (as in Oliveira) could produce culture. Speaking only for myself (but optimistic that others might have similar sentiments), a lot of my youthful cinephilia, and approach to art in general, involved various kinds of revolt against the Idea and all its schematic, oppressive inorganicism, and different ways of appreciating the sensual, the particular, the termitish. Of course art can never and should never escape from these concrete elements. That is part of what makes it art. But it's not always enough; I no longer believe in something like "pure" cinema, or a "purely" graphic or formal or sensuous perspective (it may exist but only as a feature on the reception end, not as an ontological basis for the medium). Only in the last few years am I slowly orbiting back into the realm of ideas, synthesizing them and allowing that synthesis to be a stronger part of my reaction to artworks and my theories about art. Thank the gods for the Italians, who seemed to have never abandoned this commitment to aesthetic and cultural tradition and the Idea, even as they've produced so much great and experimental work. This is a roundabout way of saying that The Great Beauty, during its two and a half hours, not only delighted and entertained me, and presented a very intriguing aesthetic, but forced me to grapple with it, and in the process interfaced with the way I think about the world and cinema's relation to it.
1. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA, 2013) And so draws to a close, perhaps, a really remarkable triptych. These films are noteworthy not only for how they present an image-in-motion of Jesse and Celine, but how they also, relatedly, reflect upon concerns of filmmaking and current affairs. What is life in the society of the spectacle? That's a counterintuitive question to ask about the Before trilogy, maybe, but a crucial one. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight all act as snapshots from particular places within that society, not just thematically but as modes of expression: the romanticism of an indie culture just budding into the mainstream in 1995, the restless post-9/11 digital-digitized malaise of 2004, and now in 2013 the classicist sketch imbuing this new installment with a profound and loving conceptual violence toward its precursors. This is not a film enamored of romance. It does not implicitly and nostalgically attempt to recreate the magic, as most films about romantic love (even most of the great ones) might. It is one of the great anti- or non-romantic films, in fact. It is, however, very much about love. There is something clear, cold, bracing, and strong here; I think it may take most of us quite some time to catch up to it. Emerson's famous quote about genius ("we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty") pertains to my own experience. I see my own non-genius reimagined in stunning form. I can't pretend there is anything impersonal about my love for this movie or its predecessors. The Befores have a special and a-critical relationship to my own life, showing some of the ways my path might direct, and expressing with clarity thoughts and feelings I've only begun to feel. In a strong year full of terrific cinema and quasi-cinema, for me, still nothing else really can touch it. (Late addendum: The Great Beauty is wonderful too, of course.)
Some people hated this movie (e.g. Richard Brody). Others seemed to rejoice in pronouncing it something less than a masterpiece. I'm unfazed. Many (though not all) of the criticisms of this film or its predecessors seem to reroute themselves into expressions of distaste for the two main characters. On one level I can understand this. Younger Jesse and Celine are painfully earnest; they're on the nose because they look like kids who like to read and talk about ideas but are merely smart, rather than brilliant. They conform to a very particular image of moderate noncomformity. And (god forbid) it is thus possible for audiences to walk into a Before movie and identify completely and unproblematically with the characters on-screen. As for older Jesse and Celine; are they not simply following - and therefore (god forbid again) endorsing a particular hackneyed and privileged path as a romantic couple who approach middle age as just a bickering married couple? For people smarter than all this portraiture, who aren't duped because they recognize what Jesse and Celine are (i.e. slightly superficial bourgeois bon vivants), well, this is simply unacceptable, isn't it? But I have a theory about this. When your criticism of a work of fiction hews toward personal criticism of characters as though they were real people who need to be corrected, you're no longer working on the movie. It's still working on you. A similar comment could be applied to Frances Ha, which I personally neither loved nor hated, but which certainly divided opinion on comparable grounds. On that film, Vadim Rizov has written very cogently about what I think is the same basic issue.
LATE TO THE PARTY
Here's a decidedly non-exhaustive list of some great recent stuff I've caught up with in 2013: Target (Aleksandr Zeldovich, 2011), The Wise Kids (Stephen Cone, 2011), Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012), Accident (Cheang Pou-soi, 2009), Seven Blind Women Filmmakers (Mohammad Shirvani, 2008), Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2008), Love Crime (Alain Corneau, 2010), Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins, 2008), Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2011), The Turin Horse (Tarr/Hranitzsky, 2011), and Whore's Glory (Michael Glawogger, 2011). Actually, come to think of it, a lot of these were courtesy of Netflix streaming. Maybe that says something about my priorities or my laziness. I saw Corneau's film mainly in anticipation of De Palma's Passion, but it was the French original and its clean, cold vision of libidinized corporate marauding that actually moved and surprised me. Plus, McAdams and Rapace are both fine, but the duo of Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier trumps them hands down, all day, every day.
There were still plenty of films I didn't see, or haven't yet had the chance to see. I thought about listing in more detail what else I did and did not catch, but why waste the space? If you're curious about whether I saw something or why your favorite isn't on the list (or why your least favorite is), all you've gotta do is ask. I'm also greatly looking forward to films from the festival circuit of the past year or two that will be released in some adequate fashion this year.
First I'd like to mention a trio of great films seen by me on the big screen for the first time in 2013: Raoul Walsh's delirious melange Wild Girl (1932, on 35mm at the Block), which is about as good and as free as cinema gets, and is matched only by similarly beautiful Pre-Code works by Walsh; History Is Made at Night (Borzage, 1937, again 35mm at the Block), which I'd never gotten around to seeing despite its great reputation, and which instantly shot up to a special pantheon of romantic classics (and that climactic horn...); and finally Antoine et Antoinette (Jacques Becker, 1947, DCP at the Siskel Center): a movie that is really lively.
Next up, three more films I saw at home. All of these were titles that fell through the cracks and which I very well could have (and should have) seen before: Christopher Strong (Dorothy Arzner, 1933), Far from Vietnam (Chris Marker, et al., 1967), and Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955). For that last one, no, I don't care very much that Brando can't sing and you'll never in a million years convince me the film isn't great just because of that fact. Vocal talent is obviously an important consideration in a musical but sometimes you just have to open yourself up to what else is also happening.
Third, a trio of great revisitation experiences. Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958) on DVD was a better image than the television broadcast I taped for myself back circa 2000, which was roughly the last time I saw the film. (Though I've seen a number of Rays on the big screen, this is still not one of them.) The reunion was overpowering; this might even be the Nick Ray film I love most right now. I could watch it again right now. I also caught at the Siskel Center two loopy, evocative, dry-humored, and powerful French films that seemed even stronger the second time around: Le Pont du Nord (Rivette, 1981) and Trouble Every Day (Denis, 2001).
Moving on, I feel compelled to highlight my favorite new-to-me cinematic person this year - Spanish experimental filmmaker José Val del Omar (1904-1982), whose works absolutely floored me. This fellow's imagination, the energy and his eye for beauty, supply an alternative thread of modernism that looks something like other threads of avant-garde work, but also a bit askew. What a great, great, great filmmaker. I'm glad that the recent recovery of his works has enabled a new generation of amazed onlookers like myself to experience this stuff. (Runner-up personage discovery - the husband and wife team of Andrew L. and Virginia Stone. I may have seen a film or two before this past year, but 2013 was when I became aware of them as a very interesting-seeming duo. Andrew Sarris lists them [well, him] as "lightly likable" but I think there's enough personality in the few little things I saw to designate them "subjects for further research" in my own book.) In 2014 I'll have to attend, finally, to Jonathan Rosenbaum-favorite Peter Thompson ...
I would be remiss if I didn't also tip the hat to such great new-to-me films as Die Parallelstrasse (Ferdinand Khittl, 1961), Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929), Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 968), California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), Der Reise (Michael Klier, 1983 - thanks to Patrick Friel for programming this, twice), Un flic (J-P Melville, 1972, though I think I might have seen this one before), Happiness (Aleksandr Medvedkin, 1934, ditto), Torre Bela (Thomas Harlan, 1975), My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1989), La Primera Carga al Machete (Manuel Octavio Gomez, 1969), The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford, 1936), and Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963).