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Criticwire Survey: Best Non-2013 Culture of 2013

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by Sam Adams
December 23, 2013 9:25 AM
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: What's the best piece of non-2013 culture you discovered in 2013?

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

Every year, I commit myself to working on at least a few of my film-history blind spots. In 2013, with only The Red Shoes previously under my belt, I took a leap into the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, aka The Archers. And oh the magnificent delights that awaited me in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, The Small Back Room, etc. etc. As staggering as it was to realize that I had lived so much of my life without these works, it also gave me those giddy-tinglies that come from knowing how much more amazing work by other artists there is still out there to discover.

Alyssa Rosenberg, ThinkProgress, Women and Hollywood

Call the Midwife: This British import is huge in the U.K. but has gotten scant attention in the U.S., where Downton Abbey still seems to reign supreme. But after binging on it and reading the memoir of the same name by Jennifer Worth on which it's based, I think Call the Midwife, which follows young midwives and nuns delivering babies and doing public health work in the East End, is a superior show. It's sharp about class, race, and vocation. And it's often incredibly blunt about poverty and very, very funny, all in the same episode.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont'd)

How Green Was My Valley is not only undeserving of its now unfortunate historical awards season context, it's probably John Ford's best film, if not one of the greatest ever. Other repertory discoveries: John Stahl's Only Yesterday, Arthur Penn's The Chase, Fritz Lang's Fury, Alan Clarke's Christine, Phil Karlson's The Brothers Rico, all of Delmer Daves, Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, and Yuan Zhang's Mama, among many more.

Katey Rich, Vanity Fair

It somehow took me seven years of living in New York to finally get around to Joan Didion's Goodbye to All That, which was heartbreaking both because I realized she'd said everything I could possibly say about being ambivalent about New York, and also because it's amazing and heartbreaking on its own. It's like she pried open my own head, rearranged things and put them in an order that made perfect sense. And it's better to learn sooner than later that, basically no matter what you want to do, Joan Didion has already done it better.

Kate Aurthur, BuzzFeed

I read two books this year that Everyone Was Talking About a while ago: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. It's funny, catching up on things that were -- for brief moments -- hot topics among your friends: No one wants to discuss them a few years later! Or, in the case of A Gate at the Stairs, a close friend of mine told me, "I remember it being my least favorite Lorrie Moore book. But I don't remember why." (I loved both books.)

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I finally dug into Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and boy, was I happy I did! What a remarkable novel: intimate, epic and completely involving.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The keen mind and bold life of Virginia Johnson, the 1950s sex researcher, subject of Thomas Maier's fine biography Masters of Sex and Michelle Ashford's involving drama of the same name on Showtime.

Dan Kois, Slate

The best non-2013 thing I discovered this year is Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing trilogy of novels about the colonization of Mars. I read Red Mars this fall and Green Mars this winter; saving Blue Mars for sometime when I need a scientifically intricate, character-rich, future-weary pick-me-up.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I have to thank the Coen Bros. for putting me onto The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the 2005 posthumous memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, the Greenwich Village folkie who inspired the title character of their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. I'd somehow missed prior mention of the book, co-written by Elijah Wald, and I've found it to be a hilarious no-guff look at the folk scene before and after Bob Dylan's arrival. It's essential reading for anyone who wants to go deeper into the story that Inside Llewyn Davis so brilliantly tells.

Tim Grierson, Screen International, Paste

Before this year, I had been sadly resigned to the fact I'd go my whole life without seeing Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's legendary opera, so one of my 2013 highlights was its brief run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in October. After seeing segments of it on video and through YouTube clips, I thought I'd be prepared, but experiencing it in person is pretty overwhelming both visually and sonically. (As music critic Robert Christgau described Einstein in 1979, it truly is a "maximalization of minimalism," with Wilson's spare sets and Glass' hypnotically repetitive music combining to create an austere space cut off from the imperfections of real life.) For a four-and-a-half-hour production (with no intermissions), Einstein is remarkably breezy while at the same time being moving and unfathomable. It's not without its draggy segments -- when I'm feeling ornery, I'll torture my wife by intoning, "This court of common pleas is now in session" -- but on the whole it really is a thing of wonder, even more so because I couldn't quite believe I was actually seeing it. Of course, reality still intruded: At one point, I had to tell the annoying woman in front of me to turn off her iPhone. Listen, lady, I don't care if you want to show your boyfriend adorable pictures of kids playing in a bathtub -- you're distracting me from my enjoyment of this intermezzo.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

In chronological order, Parsifal and the films of Allan Dwan. Early in the year, a friend scored a pair of terrific seats for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's last opera. I had heard recordings but none of them prepared me for the ecstatic experience of seeing it performed live, with a staging that clarified the action and extraordinary singing (notably, by Jonas Kaufmann, Rene Pape, and Katerina Dalayman) that combined musical splendor with dramatic precision. Not even a terrific Tristan und Isolde, conducted by James Levine, that I saw in the '80s did for me what this Parsifal did -- it implanted within me, as if in the marrow of the mind, not just the opera but Wagnerism as such; it brought an entire world of artistic philosophy, and the century-and-a-half of aesthetic commentary around it, to life for me in the span of an evening. Then there's Dwan, a few of whose movies I had enjoyed, apart, over the span of many years -- notably Slightly Scarlet, which came with the Cahiers imprimatur, and Tennessee's Partner, which I saw at Anthology Film Archives thanks to a program curated by Serge Bozon. The chance discoveries on my shelf of DVDs of Cattle Queen of Montana and The River's Edge got things started, and the superb retrospective of his films at MOMA that followed later in the year had an effect similar to the Parsifal performance: from the delight in and the appreciation of individual films, and of particular moments in them, arose a sense of (it's apt to say so) Dwanism. There is a world of Dwan's own that comes through in his films (or, that finally came through to me) and the recognition of it is yet another reminder that auteurism is no critical crutch but, rather, a representation of an authentic experience -- that of perceiving, by way of an immersion in an artist's various works, a coherent and original sense of life that bursts into view as if seen through the artist's own eyes and that, in turn, vastly enriches the experience or re-experience of those individual works. This year, I learned that Dwan's films are no mere marginal pleasures but crucial illuminations, that Dwan is no mere stylist but an indispensable creator.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Cinephiled

Got into Jimmie Lunceford (big band leader who helped me understand the concept of "Memphis jazz," which moves in an almost straight line to Stax records in a way I can't get into in a survey answer), Chu Berry (as great as everybody says) and the Boswell Sisters (thanks Donald Fagen). Run, do not walk, and scarf up everything you can by the John Carter/Bobby Bradford Quartet. 

In film: Saw Touki Bouki, FINALLY. Also Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

Sean Axmaker, Parallax View, Cinephiled

The films of Pierre Etaix. I knew of the name, of course, but little else. His films (he directed a mere five features and a handful of shorts) had been out of circulation for four decades and I hadn't seen a frame of his work until the revival of his entire oeuvre, which made its way to Seattle in early 2013. After seeing just one feature -- Yoyo, an underplayed epic that spans the 1920s (complete with silent movie filmmaking) to the 1960s (with a simultaneously jagged and affectionate jab at television) -- and his brilliant debut short Rupture, the question "Who is Pierre Etaix?" was replaced by the much more relevant "How could the legacy of Pierre Etaix have been absent all these years?" His films are simple, sweet, and built on some of the funniest and most deftly-executed gags you'll have the pleasure to see on screen. It's not that Etaix is a brilliant gag man -- and he is, mind you; I haven't belly laughed at a movie so hard in years -- as much as the way he turns his gags into a comic choreography with the grace of a dancing master and the imagination of a cartoonist. Scenes constantly wander off into their own mini-movie, a world of cause and effect that follows the fallout through every possible permeation of the original idea, and yet the effect is so seamless that even the craziest inventions can become perfectly logical in the context of the situation. There's not a wasted gesture in his repertoire and his hangdog face, poised between curiosity and measured focus, barely changes expression as he takes every setback and failure with a resigned acceptance. Criterion has preserved the legacy in a great set that collects every film he directed.

R. Emmet Sweeney, Movie Morlocks

For movies it would have to be Edward L. Cahn's Laughter in Hell. Cahn is best known today for his ingenious Alien forerunner It, the Terror From Beyond Space!, but in the 1930s he was a reputable director for Universal. Screened at Film Forum's invaluable 1933 series, Laughter in Hell is a formally adventurous trip into the muck of the American penal system. Cahn sets up the unity of a small town in long panning shots, but when train engineer Pat O'Brien is ravaged with jealousy, this unity is destroyed by disorienting quick zooms -- a shocking technique for the era. What occurs afterward is an infernal descent into animality, in which Cahn uses increasingly expressionistic flourishes to convey O'Brien's mental break. It was a flop, and soon Cahn was busted down to the shorts department, from which he wouldn't recover until his down 'n' dirty genre work in the 1950s. As for books, I still haven't recovered from Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which renders his life in obsessive microscopic detail. He renders the banal sublime. I'd also like to put a word in for Kevin Kerrane's Dollar Sign on the Muscle, an oral history of hardball scouting that Baseball Prospectus re-issued this year. It's a treasure trove of linguistic invention, as these American originals, who criss-crossed the country for little reward, re-made the sport in their own image.

Michael Pattison, idFilm

Three Bennings, thanks to Edition Filmmuseum's sumptuous DVD releases: RR, casting a glance and, perhaps the best film I've seen this year, Deseret, an enthrallingly dense survey of a particular American landscape from 1852 to 1992. The two best non-2013 films I saw at the cinema this year were Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men (1952), which I saw at London Film Festival, and Alexey Balabanov's Cargo 200, which I saw at Bradford International Film Festival not long before its director's unexpected death.

Forays beyond film are frustratingly infrequent these days. I binged through the first three seasons of Boardwalk Empire and thought the last four episodes of the third were intensely top-rate. So far, I've only managed the pilot of Breaking Bad, which I thought was daft. Best non-2013 musical discovery might be Strange Journeys by CunninLynguists, recommended by a pal to whom these lines are dedicated: her kindness and beauty have sharpened my critical attentiveness and artistic sensitivity this year immeasurably.

Kenji Fujishima, InReview Online

Since I've already responded to a previous Criticwire survey question with Albert Camus's The Plague, I'll just go with the most recent piece of culture that blew my mind: Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. In Tarkovsky's allegorical 1979 sci-fi feature, I discovered not only a wondrous piece of filmmaking, with the Russian master's control of mood and mise-en-sceƒne at its most purely awe-inspiring, but also a film that, in its own elliptical and meditative way, has a lot to say about the ways we all dream to live and live to dream, the ways we either confront or distract ourselves from our deepest fears, the ways we make sense of the world around us -- in short, the ways all of us human beings live our lives, through thick and thin, through the ecstatic highs, the despairing lows and the purgatorial moments of doubt in between. Stalker isn't just a mind-altering experience, but a profoundly spiritual one.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

I've mostly been living in the now this year (with less leisure time than usual due to severe turbulence on the work front), but one delightful non-2013 discovery was the 2007 Shahrukh Khan vehicle Chak De! India. SRK plays a disgraced field hockey star who coaches a rag-tag girls' team to a win in The Big Game. It's an engaging sports movie that hits all the familiar notes (with different instruments than we're used to in American film, but still) and hits them cleanly and true. Also, SRK gives the big coach speech in full SRK sincerity mode, which is one of world cinema's great joys.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

One of my favorite discoveries of 2013 was getting a chance to see some of Nathaniel Dorsky's elegant and transfixing avant-garde films. Dorsky personally introduces his work, which always screen on film, in silence and at an altered projection speed. This makes seeing Dorsky's films an event, a chance to realign your biorhythms and attune yourself to a different way of experiencing the world, and experiencing the world of cinema. Amazing stuff. 

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

In January of 2013, I was able to see three Andy Warhol films for the first time -- and in theaters -- including: My Hustler, Women in Revolt, San Diego Surf. I marveled at these films -- each one was hypnotic in their own way. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have seen them on their initial release. 

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

I wouldn't call this a discovery, since it's a 90-year old film that's been available in one form or another for a very long time, but my answer is Safety Last! I finally caught up with this Harold Lloyd gem over the summer when it aired on TCM, right around the same time that it was released on Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection. Before watching it, all I knew of the movie was what I imagine most people think of first when they ever think of Harold Lloyd: the image of him gripping onto the hand of a large clock near the top of a skyscraper. While I laughed quite a bit throughout the short, tight, and fast-paced film, what I found pleasantly surprising was how suspenseful Safety Last! is. The setpiece in which Lloyd climbs up the building where he works, in part to help a friend avoid the cops, is as funny as it is scary, because Lloyd doesn't shy away from doing his own stunts; knowing that he's really climbing this building is conversely delightful and terrifying. I may be the last respondent among us this week to catch up to Safety Last!, but as it goes with many new-to-me films from the silent era, I'm glad I did.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

Three works by one of my favorite directors, Luchino Visconti: Sandra, White Nights and the sublime Rocco and his Brothers. The last one especially, an early showcase for two of the screen's most beautiful actors ever, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, was also a sublime family melodrama cum neo-realist noir that remains the best film I saw in what was a fantastic year for movies both new and old.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, The New York Movie Klub

This may be a hackneyed turn of phrase, but you truly have not seen the Zatoichi films until you've seen them on Blu-Ray via the new Criterion Collection box set. I had seen the first four films in the series via their previous DVD release, but the new release looks gorgeous thanks to Criterion's transfer, and the series doesn't really get cooking until the fourth film! I had assumed that, like most Hollywood sequels, the later blind-swordsman pictures would play to diminishing returns. But this series of films is almost like an American television show, in which the formula had to be well-established before star Shintaro Katsu could play with it a bit and try to show off with his performance. There is no better introduction to the populist samurai action film.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

The best non-2013 thing I discovered during an overall trying 2013 was the self titled album from The Lumineers. I often am pretty behind when it comes to music (I'd be content only listening to Bruce Springsteen for the rest of my life), but this collection of songs hit me hard. I didn't start listening to them until March of this year, but their 2012 album was definitely my favorite non-2013 discovery during 2013.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

My favorite discovery of 2013 might not actually even be a true discovery of 2013. Such is the nature of Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord that I left what I had presumed to be a first screening of the director's 1981 film earlier this year with a distinct feeling of deja vu. While ground in a very specific phase of Paris' architectural history the film still somehow manages to feel timeless. Shot on 16mm at the end of Rivette's most celebrated period, no film, contemporaneous to now or otherwise, has quite had the effect that Le Pont du Nord has had on me this year. 

Josh Larsen, Filmspotting/Larsen on Film

One of our Filmspotting Marathon subjects this year was Max Ophuls, which gave me my first chance to see The Earrings of Madame de.... The only word for it is one that seems appropriate for much of Ophuls: exquisite.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

Unequivocally is how I must answer and answer I must with a resounding errraaayaaaaauuuh which, if you were able to precisely interpret onomatopoeia, would be the unmistakable roar of Godzilla, King of Monsters. A few years ago I saw the original film and loved it quite a bit for its melancholic tone and gorgeous deep charcoal black and white scenes of kaiju destruction. But this year, quite randomly, I decided to watch Godzilla's Revenge aka All Monsters Attack, due to it's availability on Netflix Instant and me and my friend's inability to decide what to watch. The intensity of nostalgic feeling it inspired in me was almost too much to handle, no doubt partly due to the fact that I did not grow up watching Godzilla films and was confused as to how I could have nostalgic feelings for something not apart of my past. This sparked in me a desire to watch all 28 Toho produced Godzilla films as well as study up on the subject. Tonight I will have made it to 12 films once I've finished watching King Kong vs. Godzilla. If you think this is a task taken with the highest sense of irony I would strongly argue for you to divest yourself of such ideas as, so far, I'm hard-tasked to think of another long-running film series that is as humanistic, anti-greed, pro-environment and anti-Aliens from the Planet X as that of the Big G's. Other revelations I'm thankful for and am unsure how I had previously lived without include Sunrise, Yeelen, The Conformist, Come and See, late period Ozu, Jeanne Dielman, Pauline at the Beach, and The Last Picture Show. And if you have read the above with a bordering on xenophobic caricature of a British accent then you have read this entry correctly.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

The Loved One was completely off my radar, but it shouldn't have been. I'd seen other films by Tony Richardson and was of course familiar with Terry Southern's writing. Then there's the who's-who cast, whose IMDb pages I've certainly leafed through, not taking notice of this particular entry. When the Asheville Film Society screened it on Sept. 17, I couldn't believe I'd let something this funny and smart go unnoticed. I laughed hard, the way only the best satire can hit me, and now have a new addition to my personal comedy pantheon.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

This year, I finally got around to watching Arrested Development, which people always told me I'd love. Turns out they were right! Movie-wise, I discovered Peter Bogdanovich's terrifically creepy Targets, which manages to simultaneously be a frightening sniper thriller and a still-relevant Hollywood satire. I also had my first-ever viewing of George Romero's gruesome, revelatory Day of the Dead. It was every bit as disgusting (read: wonderful) as I'd hoped. All in all, 2013 was a pretty good year for discovering the past.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

I discovered Arthur Ripley's The Chase in the revival section of the 51st New York Film Festival and the pleasure of its restored version which makes you feel as though you were in the audience in 1946 when the film first came out. It gives a sense of newness that is particularly effective when expressionistic atmosphere and stylish nuances convince you of the structure of dreams. There's Peter Lorre, in a well-fitting suit and black shirt as Gino, Eddie Roman's (Steve Cochran) glib gangster aide. Tough to be a woman in this world, or a "silly law abiding jerk", as Lorre calls someone not in their circle. Robert Cummings as an ex-GI becomes a chauffeur and meets the lady of the house played by the luminous Michèle Morgan. There haven't been many memory losses as chillingly credible since Ripley's The Chase -- that I can recall. In 2013, Martin Scorsese's spectacular morality play The Wolf of Wall Street takes up the challenge.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

I didn't have a lot of time to watch old movies this year, but I made the exception to familiarize myself with a number of Les Blank documentaries following news of his death. Actually I meant to just watch one or two and then I couldn't stop. I'd seen Burden of Dreams before this year, but I added a handful and now consider him one of my favorite filmmakers. In Heaven There Is No Beer is my current favorite.

Pat Padua, DCist, Spectrum Culture

a) I thank Letterboxd for my discovery of Eega/Makkhi, the best rom-com/action movie/melodrama/metaphor for man's losing battle with nature/musical I've seen this or any year.
b) The 1976 Sansui speakers and receiver I've been using. They belonged to my wife's father, and have brought my record player to life in a way that has ruined me for all other receivers. I think I saw the receiver in a scene set at the Chelsea Hotel in American Hustle. It was my favorite part of the movie.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: Her

Other films receiving multiple votes: Inside Llewyn DavisThe Wolf of Wall Street

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