By Roderick Heath
We citizens of cinephilia live in a strange time. It’s perfectly possible to live completely insulated from the bustle of the weekly release schedule in theatres, video stores, and, increasingly, online, and settle in to survey the great sprawl of the medium’s history with more freedom and range than ever before. And it’s equally possible to do the opposite, and voraciously consume the new without a thought to the old, as the repositories of film history move online, where they need not stir even the moment’s interest they used to for the curious renter. Does either position constitute good citizenship in movie land? What is any art form without a sense of its past or an interest in its present and future?
2013 has been great year for film, and yet a lot of people wouldn’t ever know it—some don’t even want to know it. I can understand that to a degree. Super-sized studio movies rule our roost more than ever before, but even some of them still manage to hide in plain sight, qualities distorted and masked by their own gravitational fields. The current dominance of the blockbuster mentality, which tosses out everything from bright gems to massive turds, has not destroyed creative labour in the margins; indeed, in many ways, it seems to have created great metamorphic pressure on other zones of current film. But what’s the use of that if the audience has given up? Smaller films need the attention and support of critics and passionate viewers more than ever. Of course, when I say a great year for film, that doesn’t mean that it was all great. The one luxury of my position is that I don’t have to watch any old crap. But if 1939 is considered the greatest year for film because of the perhaps two dozen excellent works released at the time, then this year presents a perfectly legitimate rival. A different breed of rival, of course, a collage filled with oddballs, malcontents, misshapen beasts, a freaky longhair happening in contrast to the swanky old soirée.
Given how fast cultural dissemination happens now, the feeling one sometimes gets is that a film hasn’t really been seen, but rather one notes a network of received impressions and preformed judgements. 2013 has been a bonfire of the works of aging auteurs: Abbas Kiarostami, Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Sally Potter, Wong Kar-Wai, Ridley Scott, and more released new films, all of them interesting, some of them important, sparking enthusiasm in some circles, but disdain and belittling in many others (and with Martin Scorsese’s new work an exception that proves the rule, his having successfully become an institution). There’s often a point where the young imitators of notable artists gain more plaudits than the originals’ new works. For example, the dull and affected Ain’t Them Bodies Saints owed much to the shooting style of Malick’s ’70s films but had none of his originality in storytelling and structuring. Several of the year’s best-reviewed works come from directors who emerged in the 1990s—Spike Jonze (Her), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alexander Payne (Nebraska)—whom I’ve only warmed to in extremely varying degrees, if at all, but whose work undeniably works as catnip for many, as does that of Joel and Ethan Coen, spiritual godfathers of many of these filmmakers, who invoked the spirits of Americana again with Inside Llewyn Davis. Independent film in North America is definitely in a state of flux at the moment, finally seeming to have moved out of the hands of people trying to recreate the success of Reservoir Dogs or Little Miss Sunshine, and aesthetically at least that’s a good thing, as more adventurous and eccentrically ambitious work emerges like Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution, Stacie Passon’s Concussion, and many more.
2013 saw a minor upsurge for Australian film: I haven’t seen the big-ticket films of the year, the much-anticipated second film from indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, Mystery Road, or the three-hour portmanteau based on the writing of Tim Winton, The Turning. But I did catch Ben Nott and Morgan O’Neill’s Drift, which was good-looking drivel, and Goddess, a surprisingly energetic and good-hearted, if rather thin and cliché-happy attempt to construct a populist Aussie musical but far superior to Wayne Blair’s slick but phony The Sapphires (which was released at the end of last year but gained international release in 2013). There was also The Great Gatsby, the most American of subjects, but an Aussie film to a surprising degree. As incontinent with images and ideas and trashy in its aesthetics as Baz Luhrmann’s films always are, it was nonetheless something close to a real film as it refused to embalm a classic, but rather tried to find narrative purity in aesthetic excess.
In past years, I’ve sought out connecting themes and images between the many films of the year, that elusive sense of the communal mind and spirit as expressed by artists. There’s been a glut of movies looking hard at racial prejudice in the past and present, as ever an electric theme in the U.S. and particularly keen this year, expressed through works like 42, 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, whilst black directors, who made several of these, also had a banner year. Likewise, a glut of films contended with endemic decay and the threat of violence in working class and regional enclaves: Prisoners, Out of the Furnace, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, hell, even The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, whilst, at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, the bandits of jejeune privilege in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers went on the offensive.
Some directors, including Shane Carruth, Danny Boyle, Peter Strickland, and Ben Wheatley, toyed with reinvigorating a mode of cinema based on extreme visual stylisation and recreations of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, as if on the verge of kicking off a new psychedelic era in cinema. Similar in mood though different in approach was Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-abused but potent and hypnotic dream-movie Only God Forgives. Films based on true stories were all over the place: The Bling Ring, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Lone Survivor, Eden, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lovelace, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, Behind the Candelabra, No, A Hijacking, Beyond the Hills, etc., ad nauseum. The endemic hunt for a sense of truthfulness, of ripped-from-the-headlines veracity and RELEVANCE! some of these works display began to bother me after a while, as I commenced to ponder if this borrowed finery didn’t retard the creative insight of some artists. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, for instance, had the instincts of a blisteringly funny satire somewhere inside it but was oppressed by its own sheen of detached authenticity, whilst works like Captain Phillips and Lone Survivor seem at least superficially to present experiential studies rather than interpretive narratives, an approach that makes in their context of their stories, for gripping movies that raise perturbing questions as to what truths are being left out. On the other hand, a film like No readily displayed the epiphanies an attentive attitude to recreating familiar fact can generate, whilst American Hustle improvised freely on its chosen tale but sought no insight beyond pop sentimentality.
Another stream apparent in the year’s works is the attempts by filmmakers to grasp and pull apart their material on a systemic level, tracing cause and effect through layers of narrative and time. Some were happy to do this in regards to film construction and narrative itself, apparent in movies like Resolution, Berberian Sound Studio, Computer Chess, Trance, or Museum Hours, in which the very structure of the film itself is toyed with to examine the way we’re relating to it whilst watching it. Others turned a structuralist sensibility on their material, whether it be in mechanics, like the Rube Goldberg-like narrative form of Gravity, the anatomised drug trade and show-and-tell plot of The Counselor, studies in situational dynamics like A Hijacking, the elaborate biological tag game of Upstream Colour, the genes and generational events, as in Stoker or The Place Beyond the Pines, and interpersonal relationships, like Blue Is the Warmest Colour. It’s not so surprising that in the wake of financial crisis and political turmoil, the desire to dig down and comprehend phenomena on a more complete level is apparent in such works and for artists to engage the growing canniness of the audience regarding how narrative and other systems work. British films shared this interest in cycles of behaviour in antiheroic characters, marked in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End and Danny Boyle’s Trance. Characters at the mercy of cruel fate, and cruel overlords and companions, likewise litter the screens: the most striking scene in Wheatley’s peculiar A Field in England had a man, just tortured into compliance with an evil alchemist, emerging from a tent in slow motion with a beaming rigid smile on his face, the sickly image of Orwellian slavery as freedom, and therefore one of the most politically interesting scenes of the year.
Similar notes flowed through Man of Steel, as Zod kills, tortures, and annihilates in the name of patriotism and then chucks a super-nihilistic hissy fit when someone disagrees with his method, a moment that called to mind the similar all-or-nothing stances by conservative politicians all around the world in the past year or so. There was a peculiar conceptual similarity to Man of Steel in Wong Kar-Wai’s staggering comeback The Grandmaster: both took well-known stories of beloved folk heroes and refracted them to emphasise the violence, disconnection, and lost pasts that defined them, filtered through islets of almost hallucinogenic imagery. Star Trek: Into Darkness undermined the moral presumptions of a cosy scifi franchise, with villains both official and rebellious variously war-mongering or entrapped, and heroes wrenched into new realms of unfamiliarly ferocious behaviour by the loss of friends and mentors. False and corrupt regimes recurred throughout many films, even in ones as playful as Iron Man 3 and Oz the Great and Powerful. State and criminal elements stalked each other into a bloodbath in Drug War, with a grotesque scene halfway through in which a criminal forces a cop posing as a drug dealer to take life-threatening amounts of his own product, another act of cruelty that again must be met with a smile, whilst the very conclusion offers the bleakly doubled-edged spectacle of a criminal pleading to his last breath for a way out until machinery he’s been trying to stymie since the opening inevitably ends his life.
The beleaguered people of Upstream Color were united by abuse and intestinal instinct, but finally rejoined the natural world. Similarly concerned with returning to the earth were Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, following last year’s impressive Sound of My Voice with The East, an attempt to create a thoughtful but more conventional thriller that finished up sadly overcooked. But it was fascinating in trying to dramatize a new, literal resistance to the modern world by creating a world within that world with its specific rituals and motives bordering on the cabalistic. The sad girls of Beyond the Hills had their lives repeatedly corralled and ruined by institutionalisation; the lead victim of Eden had to become conspirator and participant in slavery to survive. The essential drama of Only God Forgives accepted the familiar moral exigencies of noir melodrama and yet undermined them with a vision of sin and redemption enacted through the most gruellingly corporeal means, dragging back the ideas of justice and order a couple of thousand years to their primal roots. Two films that danced about each other like conjoined twins were Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, both of which dealt with the same essential matter but in divergent terms, one a scrupulously realistic but nightmarishly personal experience where the passion of victim and power-holder was clear, and the other a study in removed perspectives, men inflated to godlike status or reduced to insects according to their use not just of guns but words, technology, money, and time.
On the other hand, films motivated by a sheer, unironic (but not necessarily oblivious) love of medium and story still crop up now and then, evinced by the expansive, if rather differing pleasures of films like Pacific Rim or Blancanieves. It was a pretty good year for unalloyed fun at the movies. Two major critical flops there were also big-budget fantasy films were, I found, rather cheery. Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer, which was also a big fiscal flop, was surprisingly old-fashioned, and starred Nicholas Hoult, who was also agreeable in the lightweight zombie romance Warm Bodies. Sam Raimi ran the risk of despoiling an eternal critics’ favourite with a defiantly Sam Raimi-ish take on L. Frank Baum in Oz the Great and Powerful, enjoying the showbiz bluster and protean sexuality he finds behind the curtain of the classic family yarn. Neil Jordan’s vampire film Byzantium was deeply problematic, and yet I’ve wrestled very hard with whether to include it on my favourites list, with its moments of original brilliance and intensity of imagery arguing in its favor.
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion was eye candy of the first order and stirred me for at least trying to be real scifi, but it could not overcome its wearyingly derivative script. The cumulative effect of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World was to finally sour me on the Marvel franchise, with two loosely cobbled-together pseudo-stories laced with entertaining but unconnected moments, proving this realm has no serious place to go after The Avengers. The death of Paul Walker was a tragic coda to his singular success as an actor in the Fast and the Furious series, which racked up its sixth instalment earlier in the year and lodged it firmly in place in the pantheon of gleefully absurd entertainment. Certainly Furious 6 was more successful in recreating the yahoo fun factor of ’80s action drama in its own meathead way than the year’s several studied attempts at same, like Iron Man 3, The Expendables 2, and The Last Stand. J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness failed interestingly to dislodge its early ’80s precursor, though the new film was quite perversely and excessively abused for being a zippy, probing, if modishly conventional adventure movie that chiefly lacked the mythic aspect of its model. The actual, absolute bottom of the barrel for easy comparison was John Moore’s degradation of a once-great series with the turgid A Good Day to Die Hard. You can’t go back to Nakatomi Plaza again. Or to 1953 again. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger sparked some defences from some critical quarters after its box office failure, but this was one time I had to stand with the consensus: the film’s general mix of by-rote Bruckheimer pizzazz, Verbinski’s dull and clumsy idea of slapstick action, general story incoherence, and the film’s aberrantly evasive and stupid approach to its revisionism, made for a singularly trying film. It was an action-comedy that wasn’t exciting or funny.
Of course, I have my list of the overhyped and the underwhelming. Some of those films have me more intrigued than others at this point, particularly the ones that came close to being very good. The World’s End, for instance, was a movie with many fine qualities, and it staked new adult ground as the cap for the “Cornetto trilogy,” and yet it finished up as a confused work that failed to develop any of its ideas or characters anywhere near as well as they should have been; it stands for me as perhaps the year’s subtlest but most definite letdown. Upstream Color was dazzling at first, but it came down to some tinny, rather painful New Agey ideas explicated via a cinematic method that became tedious after 20 minutes. I loved the basic idea of Stoker, a rewrite of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt as black antithesis, but the style, apart from two great scenes, kept the charge of genuinely transgressive transformation too ponderously aestheticized.
American Hustle unleashed an array of revved-up stars and some delicious cinematography on an oddball caper tale, but the film’s lack of a genuine focal point or clarity of emotion, not to mention plot, essentially turned it into a collection of flashily shot, unevenly acted scenes without rhyme or reason. Also, as a sustained piece of fake Scorsese, it neatly joins the aforementioned phenomenon of the superseded auteur, as did the macho wankfest The Place Beyond the Pines, which mistook ripping off good ’70s fims for actual moviemaking. For all its luminous acting and formidably artful craft, Blue Is the Warmest Colour needed to get deeper into its characters’ heads and spend less time writing its own textual analysis. Francis Coppola’s long-delayed Twixt was quite interesting and a total mess. But I’d certainly encourage anyone to see it, because it offers a privileged glimpse of a real artist wrestling deeply with his very creative nature in the face of mortality and life experience, and that’s a rare thing. I have no problem confessing that one of the major reasons the orgiastic praise turned on Gravity pissed me off was the interesting subtext of a lot its praise; that although it was a “special-effects movie,” it was a “realistic” and “thoughtful,” even “artistic” one, as opposed to those other special-effects movies that are the bane of modern moviegoing. Gravity was actually none of those things, but rather was a corny and reductive adventure flick that allowed critics and audiences to get off on CGI without the guilt of liking a genre film.
Images, as ever, images, in films good and bad and middling, still bespoke the power of the medium. In Man of Steel, Superman, floating in the ocean, bemusedly watching a pair of whales swim above him. In Blue Is the Warmest Colour, a pair of young lesbian lovers melding into a symmetrical new creature, and, later, one of them, cast out of Eden, walking away into the rest of her life clad in an emblematic colour that is now a surrendered standard. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, a genetically-engineered villain, on the run from his enemies, materialising over a smoky, desolately alien landscape, replete with Wagnerian gravitas of menace and danger. In Oz the Great and Powerful, a witch about to go wicked with tears burning rivulets in her cheeks from the acidic bitterness of disillusionment. The hapless hero of 12 Years a Slave dangling from the end of the rope, trapped with painful exactitude between life and death, only kept alive by constant effort. Or, later, when he desolately burns a hopeful letter, the last tremors of light and heat becoming a small constellation, a total reversal of the earlier moment in style and yet still communicating the same sense of essence. The tear leaking from the eye of the sleeping beauty at the very end of Blancanieves touches the essence of cinema itself. So does the play of watching in Passion, with the watcher watched by the watcher’s watcher, sex object staring back at viewer, potentate willingly blinded, the screen cleft as artist and killer, victim and patsy are all entwined, marching towards the final cut.
In The Counselor, the malicious art of beheading carefully prepared for under a Cretaceous dawn, the tragic indictment of the title character as he wanders dazed and gutted through people at a rally for the needlessly killed, and the hilarious sight of Cameron Diaz having sex with a car windscreen. The slow zoom in on a celebrity doll house suspended in panes of light against dark with the L.A. skyline beyond through which The Bling Ring gang scuttles, at once like invasive rodents and blessedly foolish children in some Chuck Jones cartoon. The child prodigy in The Great Beauty, bullied into creating art in front of a gaggle of society swanks, hurling paint at a huge canvas in her rage, but then succumbing to her greatest instincts and creating a delirious work of colour, humiliating every phony around her. Or, in the same movie, the midnight exploration of the palaces of Rome crammed with the art of centuries. The paintings in Museum Hours, endlessly scrutinised, endlessly rich, and the human visions, like the lone woman singing mournfully in a hotel room, ephemeral and echoing. The villain of Drug War, having tried every trick in the book to give the slip to his fate, reduced to dragging along the corpse of the hero to which he’s handcuffed, in his last desperate effort to escape. Amongst an endless sprawl of great visions in The Grandmaster, my two favourites were the hazy moment of make-believe for a very real purpose that sees two lost souls momentarily united in an approximation of their fantasies, on a train, and the climactic appearance of the heroine wreathed in steam and smoke, ready for battle.
The manic hallucinogenic freak-out that is the set-piece of A Field in England, when time and space and person all fold in on each other. The hot rod loaded with celebrating black folk liberated by wealth and Jazz Age mores crossing the bridge in The Great Gatsby. The masked girls dancing with automatic weapons and their piano-tinkling gangster guru on the dock in Spring Breakers. The mountain of squirming zombies assaulting the bastions of civilisation in World War Z. The nuns carrying their personally crucified martyr across the snowy church compound in Beyond the Hills. The crazy cliff-face battle in GI Joe: Retaliation. The incestuously tinged piano duet in Stoker, and the perverted beauty of the psychopath coming of age whilst masturbating to sweet memories of snapping necks. Another psychopath, this time ensnared by her own games and stirred revenge, gazing out from the hospital window at the end of Side Effects. The heartbreak and rage on Andrea Riseborough’s face, cracking the studied sheen and ultra-modern artifice of Oblivion, as she’s confronted by the sudden, forced change in her reality by her lover. Another great scene featuring Riseborough, the Fritz Lang-esque escape through the urban underworld at the start of Shadow Dancer.
The look (and sound) of unimaginable terror of a screaming starlet unleashing the genuine dread of the pit, even in cynically creating schlock, in Berberian Sound System. The erotic encounters of Concussion, bodies meeting in multifarious brands of intimacy and tactile appeal with the specific poetry of flesh. The dead pop star transcending unpleasant reality and taking off for a properly kitschy afterlife at the very end of Behind the Candelabra. The trio of dazzlingly gay airline stewards staging an impromptu dance number to the eponymous song in I’m So Excited as they try to keep their audience of passengers narcotised to the reality of an epoch that may end in crash landing. The body of a fallen ecoterrorist interred in the ground as naked as she came into the world, in The East.
The computer beadily watching its creators in frustration, trying to will the future into being, in Computer Chess, and the prostitute casually removing her head to allow access for the young, bemused nerd to begin exploring far more complex systems. The lovers swimming in the moonlight, beatific prelude to the gruelling assaults on flesh and spirit to come, in Rush. The tiny girl chased by a gigantic monster like some prepubescent nightmare brought to life and radiating from a totemic red shoe in Pacific Rim, and its answering moment later, as the same girl, grown and in a monstrous robot, drags a ship to use as a club on her lysergic-coloured quarry in a moment of sublime revenge. The flurry of light, motion, wet, and pain, staged like a spirit journey, distorting the would-be hero’s vision as he tries to get a dying girl to a hospital, which forms the climax of Prisoners. Amy Adams’ whoop of incoherent life-lust after a disco toilet declaration intercut with bawling Tom Jones sing-alongs of the regular guys in American Hustle.
The waterfalls of gushing blood and swirling bats that give Byzantium its cred as gothic horror, offset by hazily alienated visions of its ageless heroines spying on their own remembered selves. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III recalls a furious lovers’ quarrel as a dumb show within a Volkswagen as it travels through a car wash. The damaged young hoodlum watching his girlfriend strip through dazzling veils of drenched colour and false glamour, in Only God Forgives, somehow watching her and watching himself at the same time, inside and outside of the dream. The pensive young prostitute looking in vain for her grandmother in the teeming heart of an alienating metropolis in Like Someone in Love, and its climactic reversal, as the camera calmly watches curtains that bat lazily in the breeze after a brick crashes through the glass and knocks out the hapless old intellectual. The waters slowly rising over the causeway like cyclical fate even as the young lovers dance in their ignorant bliss amongst the plethora of similarly great crystalline visions in To The Wonder. And on and on, on and on, images.
12 Years a Slave would’ve been a good film without Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Steve McQueen has a knack for carefully choosing actors who can burrow deep within the substance of his work, and the actor’s endlessly expressive countenance provided a symphonic display of emotion and intelligence, moving from horror to shame to rage to soul-cracking despair. Even for such a well-proven actor, it was a hell of a job. He was well-supported, with Michael Fassbender at a rare pitch of ferocity, Benedict Cumberbatch revealing in the subtleties of cravenness, and Brad Pitt saving the day, albeit in the most soft-spoken of ways. Fassbender and Cumberbatch continued to be the men of the hour, as the latter did a good job in a thankless role, taking up the reins of Khan in the enormous shadow of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: Into Darkness, his characterisation potent, insolent, self-confident, but supremely ruthless and ultimately lunatic. As hyped as the role was, and as dismissed as it’s been subsequently, it was still a supremely cool piece of villainy. Fassbender meanwhile was the smug, glib soul of The Counselor, ripe for the fall into stygian darkness, contending with Pitt again and Javier Bardem as artful chewers of Cormac McCarthy’s deliciously arch noir dialogue. By contrast, in To the Wonder, Ben Affleck’s mug was the stony Easter Island visage around which Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams danced in intimations of variable personality, particularly Kurylenko, whose dazzlingly sustained impersonation of a mercurial but deeply flawed nymph was the only one this year that struck me as powerfully as Ejiofor’s for sheer commitment. McQueen tends to use his actors’ physiognomies like canvases on which his films are projected, and Malick is similar, as is Wong Kar-Wai, the only man alive who can start with an Ip Man biopic and come out with a poetic paean to the marvel that is Zhang Ziyi.
Adele Exarchopolous exerted a similar, if more controversial spell on her director and audience thanks to the protean power of her lead role in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, holding the film’s final scenes on course as a study in the physical pain of losing love written entirely on her young but sturdy frame. Amidst the occasionally overripe histrionics of Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance held up in trying circumstances, whilst Viola Davis and Terrence Howard were so good I wished they’d been the proper stars of the film. In a similar vein, Keith Carradine’s grizzled eloquence almost shocked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints out of its stance of po-faced revivalism with his performance as an aging but still-formidable Fagin figure watching over the fates of his wayward former charges. Tom Hanks hardly needs plaudits, but Captain Phillips nonetheless supplied him with a chance to prove himself on a new level, particularly in the concluding scenes that wowed everyone as the heretofore stoic and intensely controlled sailor crumbles after he gets his happy ending. It looked like this was going to be another year of Matthew McConaughey, and his excellence in playing variations on southern-fried peckerwoods with nascent humanity in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club cannot be denied, though the former movie proved a slightly unsatisfying blend of indie-flick modesty and crowd-pleasing escapade, and the latter gave way to too many obnoxious conventions in both the heroic-biopic and gay-films-for-straight-people fields. Nonetheless, there was a sense of physical intensity to McConaughey in the latter, evoking both the corporeal devastation and psycho-spiritual ignition derived from his existential battle.
Tony Servillo effortlessly held together the carnivale that was The Great Beauty, making a potentially unlikeable main character into the man everyone wants, just a little bit, to be. Toby Jones, always an excellent performer, loaned his presence mysteriously to the latest Hunger Games film for a part that’s all the more insulting after watching his note-perfect subtlety in Berberian Sound System, communicating both his character’s deference, ferocity, disquiet, and genius. Amidst some unnecessary stunt casting and wobbly accents, Alessandro Nivola was superb in Ginger and Rosa as the phlegmatic, self-involved, radical father who is a prophet of modernity but doesn’t see past the end of his own nose (or penis). Russell Crowe is aging into an elder statesman with surprising dignity and new good humour (as long as he doesn’t sing), and he propped up two pretty bad films I saw this year, The Man with the Iron Fists and Broken City, with an old trouper’s sense of charm, and just about stole Man of Steel with his mix of gravitas and punch. Henry Cavill did well playing the hero, because he didn’t make me miss Christopher Reeve, and better, he didn’t remind me I’d first seen him in Immortals. Michael Shannon was also in that film and he was commanding, though overshadowed in evil by the icily charismatic Antje Traue. Shannon was star of The Iceman, a third-rate Scorsese knock-off that came out on DVD this year; it still used Shannon’s trademark mix of awkwardness and brutality well, and gave some supporting roles to some oddly but effectively cast actors like David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, and a particularly good Winona Ryder. Robin Weigert was gutsy and interesting in Concussion, and had some strong support from Laila Robins, whilst A Hijacking was blessed with the triangulated presences of Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk, and Abdihakin Asgar as the men whose tempers are tested by tensions between their shared desires and their ulterior goals.
The definition of a great ensemble performance is one where you can’t imagine any one actor removed from the whole with others. The small ensemble of Like Someone in Love would certainly count there, and certainly the team in The Past were superlative in and of themselves. Two comedy films this year that had oddly similar premises were tied together equally by ensemble comic performances in which the shambolic was brought to life with sharpness: The World’s End and This Is the End. Emma Watson’s hilarious but sadly small part as “herself,” the innocent but plucky English girl at the mercy of the wilds of L.A. celebrity, in This Is the End, was a fitting counterpoint to her witty and convincing turn as the shallowest of Californian princesses oblivious to all concerns but her own self-written life script in The Bling Ring. Drug War, although exceedingly cinematic, had a theatrical aspect to it as the heroes shifted guises and personalities. It was a tour de force for Sun Hong-lei in particular as the stone-faced cop who adopts the most divergent personality possible in the course of his investigation, and it became an existential portrait not just of subterfuge or police work but of the roles circumstances force us to play. Amongst the battery of heavyweight actors in American Hustle, Christian Bale’s grotesque was technically impressive acting but never felt particularly urgent as characterisation, and Bradley Cooper was just plain annoying, whilst Jennifer Lawrence managed to stay just on this side of broad in playing a ferociously fascinating but precociously disturbing harridan, leaving it to Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to keep things grounded, the former as a peculiarly honest con artist and the latter as a doomed man of the people. Charlie Sheen’s part in A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III was dismissed generally as smug, but there was a cheeky sense of play and self-mockery mixed with unexpected dignity in his acting that reminded me at least why once he was an actor and a star with a rep.
The women of 12 Years a Slave were interesting, too. Lupita Nyong’o was class because she knew she captured the peculiar, nihilistic power of her victim role as well as the pathos and terror, Alfre Woodard offered a weirdly persuasive portrait of sex slave as female entrepreneur, whilst Sarah Paulson stopped just this side of caricature in portraying her spurned, vengeful, contemptuous homestead queen as her equally hateful husband’s enabler. There were definite weak links in the ensemble Joss Whedon gathered together for his gonzo edition of Much Ado about Nothing, but there were some marvellous ones, too, particularly Amy Acker as Beatrice, who did the most impressive moment of slapstick comedy I’ve seen in years at one point, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. Soairse Ronan was as palpably intelligent as usual alongside a slippery, sensually vicious Gemma Arterton in Byzantium, and also in the even less-seen Violet & Daisy, an intriguing if unsuccessful piece of light surrealism, where Ronan actually got a run from her money not just from the late, great James Gandolfini, but from costar Alexis Bledel’s surprisingly droll, emotive turn as Ronan’s prematurely world-weary partner in assassination, as if someone had packed Lee Marvin into her diminutive frame. Ellen Page was quintessentially impressive in her limited but vital supporting role in Zal Batmanglij’s The East as the incarnation of radicalism formed by bitter personal experience.
Andrea Riseborough kept on rising with a triptych of expert performances in very different films, as the doomed gal Friday of Welcome to the Punch, the spurned lover and inadvertent species traitor in Oblivion, and as the quietly steely, enigmatic antiheroine of Shadow Dancer. Olivia Wilde, after lurking on the edge of stardom for nearly a decade now, suddenly came into focus for many in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, beautifully skewering her character’s mix of ladette winsomeness and flake. Jamie Alexander, striking in her parts in The Last Stand and Thor: The Dark World, might well take over from Wilde as the most appealing actress to be found in the most frustratingly nonpriority roles. Rachel McAdams’ performance in Passion provided high contrast with her portrait of febrile feeling in To the Wonder, and gave Brian De Palma’s film the jolt of high-camp verve it required. Laura Michelle Kelly was a firecracker of unleashed, incandescent energy in Goddess, a musical-comedy performance comprising surprisingly old-school chops. Cristina Flutur’s performance in Beyond the Hills was vital, as she captured both the desperate, heart-rending neediness of her character, and also her tunnel-visioned, infuriating, self-destructive side. One of the most mesmerising, amusing, intelligent performances of the year was that of Ela Piplits in Museum Hours (not to denigrate the easy improvisatory turns of leads Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, by any means), playing a mere gallery guide expounding intelligently about art, but doing it with such calm panache, such dextrous engagement in easily batting way the representative of modern Puritanism, that it reminded us of how blunt and patronising many films are when they come close to such ideas. For me, however, some of the year’s most memorable on-screen performances didn’t even come from actors. The cast of Computer Chess, mostly nonprofessional, seemed born in their roles mostly because they were. I can’t think of Gerald Peary’s magnificently stilted emcee work without a wide grin.
Favourite Films of 2013
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
A lot of the praise for Steve McQueen’s third film smacked of sophomore political and cultural studies, but this adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir did far more than check off a list of desirable talking points: McQueen’s incisive eye, as exacting as in his debut Hunger (2009) but less mannered, succeeded in both indicting a grotesque system and illuminating its horrors. McQueen’s evocation of the peculiar institution is often gut-wrenching, and yet often purposefully banal in portraying what was merely the reductio ad absurdum of free enterprise. But the film’s strongest achievement lay in how carefully it ransacked every character’s psychologically enmeshed responses and blind spots, from hero Northup whose exceptionalism proves largely only a taunting absurdity, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s genteel, amicable, but moral coward plantation oligarch (the man Ashley Wilkes realised he was), and on down to Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the Edward Albee-ish poisonous pair who treat slaves quite literally as objects to enact their passions and cruelties upon, all portrayed with unforgiving clarity.
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland’s study in private psychological anguish in the context of trashy ephemera and nostalgic pop culture fetishism was not a film for everybody, but definitely a film for me. Misread by too many as a missed opportunity for a thriller, it’s really a queasy comedy of manners that slides into a surreal dreamscape for a journey through the underworld before rebirth.
Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
When everything old is new again (see also Computer Chess, No), Spanish director Pablo Berger made a silent film, but amazingly, not just one for critics and retro film fans, but for actual audiences. He gave them the humour, thrills, and delicate beauty of both a real silent film and a fairy tale, in a version of the past that recalls the great works of Expressionism and yet filtered through a modern sensibility. Even Pedro Almodovar couldn’t hold a candle to it this year as far as Spanish cinema went.
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
So feather-light it seems like it might crumble at a touch, Andrew Bujalski’s oddball-screwball comedy actually reveals ingenious gall holding it together, basic jokes and ideas and even more basic technology layered upon layer to create something deeply strange, very funny, and, finally, beguiling.
The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
A post-apocalyptic nightmare set in the present, Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy reduce the Hollywood crime film to its constituent parts and watch them twitch in the midday sun. The result is nasty, funny, and hopeless, at once lucidly beautiful and bitterly ugly. The filmmakers, much like their hero, pushed far out into deep waters and paid the price with some ugly critical assassinations.
Drug War (Johnny To)
Completely different in tone and approach to The Counselor and yet built around many of the same ideas, Johnny To’s latest film works as both self-commentary, as both hero and villain circle each other in sustained acts of bluff and gamesmanship, and as whip-crack thriller. In a modern China that seems to be a wilderness of newness, justice is upright but also constitutes just another competing system in the market, and the gangster and cop protagonists both scuttle across its surface, trying to survive.
Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter)
Sally Potter’s reminiscence about bohemian youth in early ’60s Britain was compelling, not least in its peculiar female perspective, but also for its fascinating lack of nostalgia and sense of sociological precision, exposing heartbreak, betrayal, familial tragedy and disappointment, and the omnipresent pall of fear of the nuclear age. Potter explored with a rare seriousness the problems that result when people decide to live without old values but find nothing with which to replace them, and yet she managed to make the film feel the opposite of heavy. In spite of some casting problems, it was sustained by Elle Fanning’s luminous lead performance.
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
A divisive work, but to me a serious candidate for the greatest film of the decade so far, Wong Kar-Wai’s resurgence is a lode of ironic disparities, tackling seemingly very stolid subjects—the martial-arts action epic and the biopic—and constructing a supercharged rhapsody of vision, time, and poetic humanity as revealed in rest and motion.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
This extraordinary remix of La Dolce Vita as a cultural anatomy of modern Rome through the eyes of a social gadfly is also extraordinarily uneven: the nominal heart of the film, that gadfly wrestling with his reawakening desire to be a true artist, never feels more than a McGuffin, and the finale’s attempt to encompass an aspect of spiritual longing and wonder fails badly to mesh with overlarge satire, especially frustrating as elsewhere in the film director Paolo Sorrentino generates the desired duplicity of effect so beautifully. And yet Sorrentino offers some of the most stunning set-pieces and artistic epiphanies of recent cinema, confirming the impression of Il Divo (2009) that he knows how to throw parties on screen better than anyone alive, far outstripping Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for capturing both the powerful splendor and obscenity of decadent high life, dancing with dreamy artistry through the Eternal City to pick up an insane collage of compelling vignettes. Tony Servillo’s wry, yet emotive performance kept the boat steady, presenting a fascinating continuity with Il Divo as studies of men at the centre of things who are, nonetheless, enigmatic in their seeming obviousness.
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Like several films this year, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest was perceived by some as a comparative letdown by a major director, but the perception perhaps said more about the onlooker than the object. Kiarostami’s new world-wandering project landed in Japan and created this superficially delicate, surprisingly concentrated tragicomedy about roles played in youth and old age. It recalled Paul Desmond’s album titled after the same song standard, as both are lounge jazz opuses stripped down to the most elemental, expressive, romantic, and mournful notes.
Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)
It took a second viewing for me to properly appreciate what Zack Snyder had managed with his revisionist Superman epic. With the Marvel franchise this year offering films barely holding together on any level and revealing that the Marvel world has nowhere to go, Snyder’s film looked and felt brave and grand; even with the excess of its battle scenes and weaker aspects, it still seems like the closest thing the superhero craze has thrown up to a classic since Hellboy II, a big, bristling, good-looking, surprisingly serious brand of fantastic film that went far beyond spotty fan service to provoke as well as please its audience.
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
About as far from Man of Steel as it’s possible to get in the same medium, Museum Hours is an almost indescribably original oddity, combining essayistic filmmaking, documentary, and gentle drama. Its portrait of a Canadian in Vienna making friends with a gay, middle-aged ex-rocker turned museum security guard almost completely rewrote the rules of how a narrative film can work, and did so with the simplest and most modest of methods. It’s an odd film that counts an art history lecture as an action climax.
Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
The other top-of-the-line blockbuster of the year. Although it was a heavy flop in the U.S., there’s something salutary in the fact that this film was an enormous international success, especially in China, with its globalised heroics and roots in an alternative stem of modern pop culture based in Asian fantasies. In any event, it was cool, it was colourful, it had the year’s best heroine (sorry Katniss), and in the year of Ray Harryhausen’s death, it provided ample evidence that his legacy lives on in popular cinema.
Passion (Brian De Palma)
Brian De Palma’s latest comeback special was uneven in tethering his narrative and camera gymnastics to a remake, but damn if it wasn’t still De Palma, still making films that glow like neon and cut like surgical steel.
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Asghar Farhadi’s latest wasn’t entirely up to the standard of its predecessor, but it’s still good enough to make most films in the same vein of domestic realism look shrink-wrapped, offering an emotional range in regarding the modern family that spanned from wry amusement to desolation.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Malick’s follow-up to an enormously critically acclaimed film failed to ignite the same blazing admiration and indeed perhaps suffered from a backlash against his style, usually given a lot of time to dispel between the director’s releases. But for me, this was a dynamic, deeply pleasurable and stirring attempt by Malick to wrestle with something he’d avoided until now—a detailed, fleshy, true-feeling adult romance—in the context of his most modern and most overtly religious narrative. Although always a shooter of great pictures, few of Malick’s images have felt so genuinely immediate and human as several found in this one, like Rachel McAdams holding out her rope-bound hands to her lover, counterpointed in Malick’s editing with her forlorn and floundering emotional squall in facing rejection and her stoic resignation in getting on with life, giving three points of behaviour within seconds in a coherent, economic, and powerful manner. Many directors can cut quickly; few can create a little world with such brevity.
Would Have Been on This List If I’d Seen It In Time (progressively updated):
Bastards (Claire Denis)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Significant Blind Spots
A Touch of Sin / Anchorman: The Legend Continues / As I Lay Dying / The Book Thief / Carrie / Don Jon / Elysium / Europa Report / The Fifth Estate / Frances Ha / Fruitvale Station / Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom / Out of the Furnace / Saving Mr. Banks / The Spectacular Now / The Unspeakable Act / The Way, Way Back
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm)
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Byzantium (Neil Jordan)
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
No (Pablo Larrain)
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)
Oz the Great and Powerful (Sam Raimi)
Flawed but Appreciated
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Concussion (Stacie Passon)
The East (Zal Batmanglij)
A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
Furious 6 (Justin Lin)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)
Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer)
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)
Resolution (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
Rush (Ron Howard)
Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
Disappointing and/or Overrated
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow)
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)
Trance (Danny Boyle)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
42 (Brian Helgeland)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
Lone Survivor (Peter Berg)
Lovelace (Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman)
Runner Runner (Brad Furman)
Welcome to the Punch (Eran Creevy)
World War Z (Marc Forster)
My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2013
And Soon the Darkness/Wuthering Heights (Robert Fuest)
Apache Drums (Hugo Fregonese)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)
Caged (John Cromwell)
Cuba (Richard Lester)
Decoy (Jack Bernhard)
Django/The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)
Electra (Michael Cacoyannis)
The Face Behind the Mask (Robert Florey)
Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (Shunya Itō)
Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog)
Fixed Bayonets (Sam Fuller)
Five Miles to Midnight (Anatole Litvak)
Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland)
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper)
The Magician (Ingmar Bergman)
One Wonderful Sunday/Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark)
Pink Flamingos (John Waters)
Raw Deal (Anthony Mann)
Rock All Night (Roger Corman)
The Tall T (Budd Boetticher)
That Cold Day in the Park/Brewster McCloud/California Split/Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson/Fool for Love (Robert Altman)
The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang)
Town without Pity (Gottfried Reinhardt)
Two Rode Together/Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford)
Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava)
White Sun of the Desert (Vladimir Motyl)
Wings (William A. Wellman)
Witchcraft (Don Sharp)