THE BEST FILMS OF 2013
Merry Christmas, friends: I bring you the gift of cinema. These are the ten theatrically released films of 2013 that I love the most, and I urge you to seek them out.
If I might begin with a quick generalization, 2013 seems to me a great year for women: Though female filmmakers still struggle to be regarded with the seriousness and respect afforded to their male peers, I’m happy to see, among others, the well-established Claire Denis and the relative newcomer Clio Barnard turning out extraordinary, critically-lauded work. Moreso, even in the year’s best films directed by men, complex female characters are prominent. My seven favorite performances of the year (with the exception of the outstanding child actor Connor Chapman, directed with motherly love by Barnard in The Selfish Giant) were all by women—and of course, none of them have a shot at an Oscar nomination.
I could say the same for gay characters. This year, between several of the films on this list and a handful of new films that will be released in 2014, homosexuality seems to have gone mainstream. As I talked to festival programmers while traveling with Last Summer, I found that more and more gay-themed films are not allowing LGBT festivals to program them. Is this to avoid marginalization, or are they avoiding a long-standing stigma that gay-themed films, to put it politely, focus more on nudity than quality?
It’s also interesting to note that almost all of the year’s best gay stories were told by presumably heterosexual directors who fearlessly, thoughtfully and compassionately explored the pain and pleasure of their protagonists. Homosexual undercurrents also seem to running silently under a handful of narratives; Our Children and Simon Killer, for instance, have both been read as films about homosexual repression. Even films can be in the closet. In short, if there’s a gay new wave happening, gay filmmakers are largely being beaten at their own game. Perhaps Alain Guiraudie will serve as an inspiration to his fellow LGBT filmmakers next year when the exceptional Stranger by the Lake is released.
Aside from the fact that ranking them seems somewhat silly, I love these ten films for vastly different reasons, and, thus, it it is nearly impossible to do much more than chose a favorite, which would be Sokurov’s glorious Faust. So here they are, listed alphabetically, with ten other highly recommended runners up:
BASTARDS Having already gutted and excavated the genres of war, horror, romantic comedy and family drama, Claire Denis reappropriates the film noir with BASTARDS, one of her very best films, which is an investigation of the human capacity for evil, and also our capacity to tolerate, excuse and even find solace in it. Ripping her story (about a lonely sea captain who returns to shadowy Paris to save a damaged woman who doesn’t want to be saved) from headlines involving the sex scandals of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and others, Denis spins together a series of voluptuously cold, expressive, erotic and morally attuned images with cuts as fluid and seemingly improvisational as impressionist brushstrokes. Might she offer us a Western next—starring Grégoire Colin and Nicolas Duvauchelle, s’il vous plaît?
BEYOND THE HILLS Just what I needed after being broken up with by a Christian homosexual who loves God more than his own sanity—a masterfully constructed melodrama on that very subject! In Cristian Mungiu’s terrifying parable, two closeted lesbians are subjected—and subject themselves—to shameless psychological abuse by the inhabitants of an utterly medieval monastery that recalls Plato’s allegorical cave. The film’s implications resound: BEYOND THE HILLS is ultimately a passion play about blindness in the face of a fascist dictatorship, something this Romanian master understands all too well.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR For better or worse, Abdellatif Kechiche’s portrait of fluid and voracious female sexuality will be a staple in gender studies classes from this point forward. His not-entirely-lesbian heroine is driven, unpredictable, sensuous, adventurous, and idiosyncratic, but his often invasive directorial gaze calls into question centuries of female protagonists who were the subject, and thus the fantasy, of a male author.
CAMILLE CLAUDEL 1915 Bruno Dumont’s first great film features a typically incandescent Juliette Binoche as the famed sculptor, locked away in an asylum and denied her only pleasure by her brother, a newly zealous Christian mystic who believes “there is no worse trade than art.” Dumont’s controversial choice to cast actual asylum inmates in key supporting roles recalls the kind of image-making that Susan Sontag might have scrutinized in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others. When one of these inmates spies on Camille during a violent emotional fit, she explodes: “why are you watching me? What right do you have to watch me cry?” Good question. All film is film criticism, and contemporary criticism is a criticism of ethics.
FAUST Alexander Sokurov, the world’s most aesthetically adventurous filmmaker, caps his Men of Power tetralogy with this maximalist, satirical rumination on Goethe’s classic, a film of breathtaking digital voluptuousness which inverts, quotes and reconsiders the director’s past work in thoughtful—and often hilarious—ways.
IN THE FOG In one exquisitely executed long take after another, Sergei Loznitsa—working in a palette of milky, lifeless earth tones—slowly builds his tremendous, incisive and terrifyingly bleak wartime drama, a Bergman-like morality tale about a man unable to maintain his dignity in a world devoid of honor.
LEVIATHAN Attaching oodles of cameras to god-knows-what and setting them free aboard a Massachusetts fishing boat, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, father of Harvard’s continuously exciting Sensory Ethnography Lab, captures an almost mythic world as the human eye never could: refracted through blurs of water, speckled with blood and light, set to dizzying motion, and alive with visual rhythms. A genuinely experimental movie with breathtaking results, LEVIATHAN is a digital counterpart to Stan Brakhage’s colorful manipulations of celluloid.
MUSEUM HOURS Part documentary travelogue, part essay film, part fictional narrative, Jem Cohen’s lovely and melancholy MUSEUM HOURS, about two lonely middle-aged strangers who meet in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, is an inquiry into the nature of the visual arts, the mysterious narrative qualities in an image that resonate with a viewer’s subjective experience, and the similarities between an artist and his audience—each observers in their own way.
OUR CHILDREN Her face drained of all happiness, the great Émilie Dequenne’s smile is replaced with bright red lipstick—one of many expertly placed details in Joachim Lafosse’s politically urgent and admirably subtle tragedy, a cautionary tale about, as stated beautifully by its director, “the dangers of excessive love.” This modern-day Medea, based on actual events, is about a woman driven mad by the corrosive effects of gender inequality, colonialism, sexual repression, and the manipulations of the upper class.
THE SELFISH GIANT Clio Barnard positions the skeleton of an Oscar Wilde fairytale into a lineage of British dramas about underprivileged ragamuffins which range from the novels of Charles Dickens to the kitchen-sink films of the 60s, and the result is the most essential childhood tragedy of the new millennium, a fable devoid of magic. Her thirteen-year-old scrapyard entrepreneur, perhaps the most memorable character of the year, is Oliver Twist for an age of cruel and unapologetic capitalism.
POST TENEBRAS LUX
THE GREAT BEAUTY
12 YEARS A SLAVE
LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE
THESE BIRDS WALK
2013 PART ONE: The Best Films of NEXT Year
Good things are worth waiting for. Before I catalog my favorite theatrical releases of 2013, here’s a shortlist of five films to look out for in 2014, all of which I look forward to writing about more extensively in the year to come.
Clockwise, in order:
1. STRANGER BY THE LAKE Luring in audiences with a promise of blowjobs and cumshots—indeed, hardly a cockless frame—Alain Guiraudie commits an act of irresistible subversiveness, an exploration of gay narcissism and the destructiveness of body worship which suggests a link between watching and penetrating, desire and death. Stranger by the Lake, a thriller worthy of Hitchcock about a loner with a hard-on for the wrong man, is at once critical, compassionate, nostalgic, and nefariously arousing. Positioned, like dozens of French sexual thrillers, on a remote beach, the film is shot in crisp, saturated color—an alluring veneer ultimately undercut by the film’s final indictment: questioned about his disregard not only for his own safety but also that of his fellow gay cruisers, our sad, horny and perversely sympathetic hero is told, “you people sure have a funny way of loving each other.”
2. HIDE YOUR SMILING FACES Daniel Carbone’s gorgeous, mesmerizing debut feature is a coming-of-age story that, like many others, traces a loss of innocence to an early experience of violence and death, but he elevates a familiar conflict to a series of poetic variations on the theme, sending his young heroes into a stormy summer wilderness where senseless violence becomes natural and they must contend with their own instincts and impulses before they are able to comprehend them.
3. EXHIBITION At first, Joanna Hogg’s exceptional third feature—and her first to be properly distributed—seems, typically British, as cold and distant as its characters. An uncommonly sober portrait of marriage in which two artists, sometimes painfully detached and sometimes deeply connected, prepare to sell their house, Exhibition is about sound, space, texture and memory, and how they affect individuals and relationships. Moving through a modernist landscape of color, architecture, glass and light with breathtaking visual and auditory precision, Hogg builds almost imperceptibly to a climax as hushed and poignant as any I’ve seen.
4. ABUSE OF WEAKNESS One of Catherine Breillat’s most directly autobiographical films is about the sometimes co-dependent and venomous relationships of artists and their muses. Overcome with fascination by the star of her next film, a director struggling through her recovery from a stroke is conned out of €800,000 and even entertains the notion of giving this rapacious narcissist credit for her writing. Isabelle Huppert is, as always, stunning in this French film of the old-school, one which—in its understanding of the complexity of romance, art, and the interplay between the two—recalls certain works of Eric Rohmer.
5. MANAKAMANA Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab continues to push documentary filmmaking in new directions with Manakamana, which expands upon a tradition of fixed-camera meditations by James Benning, Abbas Kiarostami and others. As Benning observed Ten Skies and Kiarostami pondered a seashore at five times of the day, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez train their camera on eleven images of passengers coming to and from a Hindu temple, and as these always compelling souls emerge from the darkness and return to it, they make way for other people, other worldviews, other forms of innocence and experience. Here, editing feels like an act of reincarnation.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2010 :: This list is so last year.