As a certified foreign-film snob, I sadly accept the conclusion that 2013 was a down year for non-English-language cinema. However, the American and British communities had a rebound, bringing in the strongest class since 2010. With a fierce attempt to highlight films that were barely seen and deserved a wider audience, while championing the ones that grabbed my heart and mind and wouldn’t let go, here are my thoughts on a year that demanded a lot, but gave back even more.
At Berkeley, Closed Curtain, Cutie and the Boxer, Drinking Buddies, Fruitvale Station, Gloria, Locke, The Missing Picture, Norte, the End of History, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Past, Stranger by the Lake, A Touch of Sin, Under the Skin, We Are the Best!, The Wind Rises, The World’s End
Top 10 Films
10. Short Term 12
“Everything good in my life is because of you.”
Sundance (#7 and #3), Cannes (#8, #5, and #4), Venice (#9), Toronto (#1), and New York (#6) were typically notable in 2013, launching critical darlings and Oscar contenders alike. But one festival – SXSW – came out screaming, hailing Joe Swanberg’s star-studded booze-fest Drinking Buddies (an Honourable Mention), and then announcing a new and powerful voice in Destin Daniel Cretton. Short Term 12, a narrative feature sprung from the 2008 short, went back to the basics by placing its heart-rending story of troubled teens at the forefront. Cretton relies on the believable and impressive talents of the virtually unknown John Gallagher, Jr. and Kaitlyn Dever, but mostly, Short Term 12 has the preeminent Brie Larson in the second best female performance of 2013.
9. Stray Dogs
8. Blue Is the Warmest Color
7. Before Midnight
“They ask the Fairy to send them a king.” “I want you. All the time. No one else.” “If you want love, then this is it. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.”
My review of Stray Dogs, coming soon.
Swamped by a maelstrom of controversy, Blue Is the Warmest Color overpowered me at TIFF after making waves at Cannes in May. It’s so erotically charged that it short-circuits your higher functions. Adèle Exarchopoulos captures, in a perfectly rendered performance full of wit and grace, the sensation of falling in love with someone and knowing that, no matter how much you try and fight and wish it to be true, that you’ll never, ever, as long as you live, get over that person. Adèle and Emma have stayed with me since I was introduced to their story. Long after the recriminations have faded from memory, it will stand as a luscious journey of discovery and recognition for anyone who’s ever fallen in love, and a furiously tender piece of transcendent filmmaking.
Eighteen years ago, we met a couple named Jesse and Celine on a train heading to Vienna. We watched them fall in love with each other, then reconnect nine years later in Paris. Since 2004, we prayed that Jesse had missed his train. In Before Midnight, we got what was coming to us. Similar to Abdellatif Kechiche, Richard Linklater’s genius is the forging of characters that exist outside the bounds of the screen. With one of the best screenplays of 2013, signature long takes of as long as fourteen minutes, and performances riding on two decades of life experience, the finest creatively collaborative trio of 2013 created one of the finest films of 2013, fashioning a trilogy that stands alongside Kieślowski’s Three Colors as proof of the way to do it right.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. The Great Beauty
“You helped me discover my ability to want.” “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” “The great beauty is everywhere.”
As personal and deeply moving as Her is, Spike Jonze has more on his mind, and he sneaks in one of the most complex and engaged examinations of the singularity (set in the most rigorously and convincingly designed near-future I can remember), all under the guise of a love story. I have a sneaking suspicion that Jonze himself might be some highly advanced artificial intelligence: it’s the only way that he can pull off such a gorgeously-wrought sci-fi romance so effortlessly. With Jonze at the helm, and Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson putting in two of the toughest and most underrated performances of the year, Her will resonate more and more deeply the closer we get to Samantha. For now, it’s Jonze’s third masterwork.
It is unfortunate – nay, a grave disservice – that Inside Llewyn Davis has been critically hailed and ignored by the rest of the world. That takes nothing away from Joel and Ethan Coen’s lush and coldly brilliant foray into the Village folk scene of the 1960s. A dense visual novel in form, concept, and execution, Inside Llewyn Davis’ look, feel, and mood is something that haunts, tempts, and clamps onto your consciousness. It ranks near the top in most areas (see Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography), but T Bone Burnett’s music has no competitor. Neither does Oscar Isaac, who gives the best male performance of the year. It is to the Coens’ eternal credit that, recognition or not, they persevere, doing justice to their title as the “greatest filmmakers on the planet.”
My review of The Great Beauty, here.
3. Upstream Color
2. Hard to Be a God
“Each drink is better than the last, leaving you with the desire to have one more.” “But there was no Renaissance here.” “You have no idea of the effect you have, do you?”
While Primer was intellectually dazzling, but chilly and technically makeshift, Shane Carruth’s after something more primal here: the lurch you get in your stomach when you’re attracted to someone, the desperate panic when loved ones are in harm’s way, the breathless nausea when you think your personal space has been invaded. A morning screening meant walking around in a haze for hours after, wanting to shake it, but also not willing to trade the experience for anything. Shimmeringly bizarre and achingly lovely, Upstream Color is a hugely accomplished piece of filmmaking that puts emotion above narrative coherence, changing the way you’ll look at a buzzing fluorescent light, or hear your desktop printer’s inner gears work, for days afterward.
If The Assassin is the most beautiful film of the year (and perhaps of the decade), Hard to Be a God is the ugliest film of the year (and perhaps of the decade). Dripping in mud, doused in sweat, and spattered with slime, Aleksei German’s six-years-in-the-making, posthumously-completed final film is destined to be a cinematic landmark. Adapted from a science fiction novel by Stalker writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film is akin to superimposing the stark, weather-whipped bleakness of Béla Tarr with Tarkovsky’s infamous philosophical musings. Opaque and ambitious, and almost impossible to describe in a way that sounds like a recommendation, Hard to Be a God is nevertheless a major curtain call from a major talent.
My review of Ida, here.
A & S Year-End Awards
Picture: Eric Abraham, Piotr Dzięcioł, and Ewa Puszczyńska, “Ida” (runner-up: Shane Carruth, Casey Gooden, Ben LeClair, and Scott Douglass, “Upstream Color”)
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski, “Ida” (runners-up: Aleksei German, “Hard to Be a God”; Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color”)
Actor: Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (runner-up: Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”)
Actress: Adèle Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (runner-up: Brie Larson, “Short Term 12”)
Supporting Actor: Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color” (runner-up: John Gallagher, Jr., “Short Term 12”)
Supporting Actress: Léa Seydoux, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (runner-up: Agata Kulesza, “Ida”)
Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, “Her” (runner-up: Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis”)
Adapted Screenplay: Aleksei German & Svetlana Karmalita, “Hard to Be a God” (runner-up: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”)
Editing: Shane Carruth and David Lowery, “Upstream Color” (runner-up: Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan, “Her”)
Cinematography: Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, “Ida” (runners-up: Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis”; Hoyte Van Hoytema, “Her”)
Score or Soundtrack: T Bone Burnett, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (runners-up: Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color”; Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett, “Her”)
Foreign Language Film: Aleksei German, “Hard to Be a God” (runners-up: Paolo Sorrentino, “The Great Beauty”; Abdellatif Kechiche, “Blue Is the Warmest Color”)
Documentary: Frederick Wiseman, “At Berkeley” (runner-up: Zachary Heinzerling, “Cutie and the Boxer”)
Most Promising Filmmaker: Destin Cretton, “Short Term 12” (runner-up: Ryan Coogler, “Fruitvale Station”)
Breakout Performance: Brie Larson, “Short Term 12” (runner-up: Agata Trzebuchowska, “Ida”)
Spotlight Award: Scarlett Johansson, “Her” (runner-up: Brie Larson, “Short Term 12,” “The Spectacular Now”)
2014 Most Anticipated
2014 is boasting the return of Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood,” a 5.5-hour “soft-core magnus opus” from Lars von Trier, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.”
An out-of-left-field possibility is “The Lobster,” from Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”). Set in a dystopian near future, the film focuses on a group of single men and women who are brought to a creepy hotel and instructed to find a life partner within 45 days. If they don’t, they are transformed into animals and released into the woods. Intriguing, yes.