Jessica Kiang's Top 10 Films Of 2013: First, a few disclaimers: these are films that I saw in 2013, though some haven’t had releases outside of festivals yet, and may be 2014 U.S. releases, where they get theatrical runs at all (I hope I’ve largely avoided spoilers, though). Conversely, because I don’t live in the U.S. there are some films that I haven’t been able to catch up with because of the vagaries of international release dates, including "12 Years a Slave," “Under the Skin,” “Her” (missing “Don Jon” too means I’ve had a ScarJo-less year), “American Hustle,” “Short Term 12,” “In A World…” and others I’m no doubt forgetting—so the absences of these titles should not be considered pointed omissions. As opposed to the lack of “Spring Breakers” which I did see, and totally don’t get what all the fuss is about.
There was never any doubt for me about my number one, leaving the rest of the films I’ve picked to jostle for positions 2-10, not that any of us should place too much store by the ranking of this sort of list. If listmaking is itself a weird and always arbitrary act, ranking that list is doubly so, as the shifting sands of mood and memory are all we have to go on when deciding that, yes, Movie X is two positions worse than Movie Y but one up from Movie Z. So, pinch of salt, please. That said, this year the list was perhaps easier than last, not least because I could immediately discount every single major summer tentpole I saw—of that hugely disappointing crop, “Iron Man 3” "Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and “Furious 6” were probably my favorites, but none was ever going to trouble my end-of-year best list. As a result I’m probably a little indie-arthouse-festival-centric as 2013 closes, though I’m surprised at the non-representation of Asian cinema and a little disappointed (in myself? the industry? who knows?) that in a year in which there was quite some discussion about female directors, not one of my top ten films was directed by a woman, though several are present in the honorable mention section.
Okay, then, without further ado, because this New Year’s Eve champagne ain’t gonna drink itself, here’s my top ten of 2013.
10. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Is “filmgasm” a word? If not, it should be coined to describe Martin Scorsese’s undisciplined beast which, in its overlength, overexcitableness and over-everything-ness provided me with some of my most defiantly entertaining moments of the year at the year’s very end--“movie” just doesn’t quite cover it. I found it utterly joyous in its infectious bawdiness, and so magnificently over the top in the depiction of the sheer awfulness of these grubby little men and their horribly shopworn versions of the American Dream, that I got another huge belly laugh when I read that there are those who think the film somehow glorifies these idiots?! Wha? To be honest, it feels like the coke-snorting, ‘lude-popping, tits-and-ass excess almost conceals the fact that actually ’Wolf’ takes aim at a pretty soft target, relatively speaking (if Belfort and his cohorts scammed millions, the sleek-suited anonymous grey men of Lehmans etc scammed billions and ruined entire economies, but are nowhere seen here), but it’s just such an entertaining target that even that didn’t really dampen my enjoyment. There is also I’ll admit, a sort of relief at work here: after the stateliness of “Hugo” and with Scorsese recently suggesting he has only a couple more films in him, it was just great to witness this level of ah-who-cares-what-the-fuck exuberance from him, because at his most buoyant, he is simply the pre-eminent American director. So even the film’s flaws like overlength, repetition and lack of formal discipline (the random way DiCaprio sometimes addresses camera, the occasional hearing-people’s-thoughts thing) didn’t bother me, partly because they seemed to arise from an abundance of enthusiasm, and mostly because the whole thing was sweeping past in the kind of heady, giddy, Scorsese-trademark rush that I don’t think I’ve experienced since the cross-cut cocaine/pasta scene in “Goodfellas.” Regular collaborators DiCaprio and editor Thelma Schoonmaker also bring their A-game (DiCaprio, of whom I’ve never been hugely fond, totally won me here) not to mention a great Jonah Hill and the million terrific cameos (McConaughey’s the one everyone talks about but I’m going to wave my pompoms for Spike Jonze). It’s a hedonistic blast of folly and hubris populated by rascals, cheats, snobs and imbeciles and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Filmgasmic.
9. “Death of a Man in the Balkans”
It feels kind of anachronistic to be including this film on my 2013 list, as it first made the festival rounds in 2012, and I caught it all the way back in January at the Goteborg Film Festival, so that I’d almost classified it with last year’s films too. But it’s a tiny gem that deserves more props than it got, though I can see how a combination of its title, rivalled only by “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” for sheer heart-sinking “do I have to?”-ness, and the logline which has to include mention that it’s all shot from one-locked off webcam position might have been enough to throw water on any potential distribution bidding war. It’s a real shame, because Miroslav Momcilovic’s small, oddball film is actually an immensely enjoyable, frequently laugh-out-loud funny story, and the conceit of the webcam is actually not so much a handicap as one its most inspired choices. Perhaps initially slightly awkward in its marriage of darkness and light, the film starts off with the titular death, as a man turns on a camera and solemnly proceeds to kill himself, leaving the camera running--unbeknownst to the succession of neighbours, policemen, undertakers, and pizza delivery guys who then one by one come to investigate the gunshot. Really it’s an absurd comedy of manners that observes the very different way people behave when they know they’re being watched as opposed to when they think they’re alone--all magnified in the presence of death. And it’s played with pitch-perfect anti-glamor by the cast as they trundle in and out of frame and the hilarious pettinesses of their reactions to the corpse in the corner are laid bare by the camera’s unblinking eye. It’s a tiny film, but the formal rigor of its approach and the truly terrific scripting and performances make it feel liberated, rather than constrained by its threadbare budget and lo-fi approach. And it’s very, very funny, did I mention?
8. “Blue Caprice”
I’ll admit I came late to this fictionalized account of the story of the Beltway snipers by first-time feature director Alexandre Moors, but I was hugely impressed when I finally did get to it--not quite sure what I was expecting, but certainly I couldn’t have anticipated just what a brilliantly unsettling, intelligent film it would be, with no hint of the kind of sensationalism its subject matter might suggest (largely due to the smart decision not to recreate the actual sniper attacks themselves, but to let news footage and 911 audio set the scene early on before skipping back in time). In fact, one of its great strengths to me was that “Blue Caprice” almost entirely eschews the drive to “put us in the mind of the killer” or to “explain what made him tick” or other cliches. Instead, it shows that the sniper attacks that claimed so many random victims and terrorized an entire region for weeks, were all the more terrifying for being the logical extension of a profoundly alien world view that sprang, not from the various societal and economic pressures faced by the killers, but actually from the deep-set, differently striped but mutually reinforcing fucked-up-ness that both men harbored. It’s a brave and rather unfashionable stance to take in these days when the drive exists to humanize even the most monstrous of behaviours--to render them understandable, explainable, and therefore somehow avoidable in future. But “Blue Caprice” is terrifying because it at least partially rejects that notion, and in its impressionistic recreation of the lives of these killers (brilliantly played by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond) posits the existence of a chilling, abject otherness that exists on the other side of the unbridgeable gulf between people who have a moral conscience and those who do not. And this low-key, dialed-down insightfulness is all the more startling for coming from a first-timer: Moors has clearly arrived onto the film scene fully formed from the off.
Without doubt the straight-up happiest film on this list, Sebastian Lelio’s “Gloria” is outwardly extremely simple: a portrait of an ageing divorcee and mother of two grown children as she experiences ups and downs in her romantic life and a love/hate relationship with her neighbor’s hairless cat. But the warmth and depth of the characterization of Gloria, as unforgettably embodied by Berlin Best Actress Paulina Garcia makes the film completely extraordinary--in fact it’s so unusual to watch a movie that finds this many tenors and layers in a character who’s not somehow essentially fucked up, that it took me a while to put my finger on what it was I found so compelling about it. But it’s just that: Gloria is a fundamentally decent, happy woman, with no tragic streak of misery or shady skeletons in her closet, getting by as best she knows how with a strong sense of humor about herself and about the indignities of being single this late in life. I can’t stress how much of an outlier this makes “Gloria” and how refreshing -- she’s simply a completely wonderful human being with whom I fell so in love throughout the course of the film that I was really sorry to have to leave her as the credits rolled. Except that the final scene is of her dancing to the eponymous track by Umberto Tozzi and, in itself, provided me with one of my very favorite film moments from 2013--a perfectly uplifting, joyous ending to a movie that manages to be optimistic without being pat, funny without being scornful and happy without being slight.
Alex van Warmerdam’s Cannes competition entry hasn’t seen a US release outside of the festival circuit yet, but I really hope a wider audience gets to see it and be alternately as tickled and as chilled by its clever, weird, off-kilter vibe as I was. It’s a spritely, dark and mischievous film, part home invasion thriller, part fairy tale as a chimeric and mysterious outsider inveigles his way into an affluent suburban home and things gradually turn murderous as he Pied-Pipers himself into the family structure. Twisted and pitch-black funny, it’s precisely and brilliantly played by the whole cast particularly Jan Bijvoet who perfectly preserves Borgman’s dangerous ambivalence and mordant sense of “play,” even as events get progressively more deranged. And it’s also very beautiful, with some of its imagery, like that of weighted dead bodies floating in a lake like fronds in an aquarium, lingering with me even now. Mostly though, it’s a triumph of control over its deliciously black, deadpan-ironic tone, the kind of unholy, pristine surreality that might result if Michael Haneke and Ben Wheatley got locked in the “Dogtooth” house. We’re not quite sure why there was as little buzz as there was for this one after its Cannes bow, and perhaps it is hard to see its chilled cerebrality finding a huge audience without the benefit of a better-known arthouse marquee name than Van Warmerdam’s, but if it does get even a limited release next year, beat a path to its door and let it trick and tease and toy with you.
It’s thin on story, the dialogue occasionally clunks, some of the twists strain logic and I don’t give a damn, because “Gravity” SENT ME INTO SPACE. Three times over, to be precise, I happily, giddily coughed up the 3D IMAX surcharge to watch Alfonso Cuaron’s thrilling, visceral, utterly beautiful film, and each of those three times it worked its astounding magic on me and gave me my most breathtaking cinema experience of this, and probably any other year. It was a film I wanted to eat with my eyes, and that lived as much in my nerve endings as in my brain, and while I can understand that as a negative for some viewers, I can’t be anything but grateful for and amazed by it--I say again, it sent me into space. And even if that had not been enough, I did find thematic and emotional resonance within the story where it left others cold. Perhaps my age-old obsession with space meant I came ready-equipped with a huge amount of my own enthusiasm I could map onto the slender bones of what is there, but the terror and stark beauty of space, the motifs of rebirth and renewal, the utter ridiculous implausibility of life and hope existing in this merciless universe at all, the miraculous nature of humanity’s presence as a whole, and one human’s survival instinct in specific--all of this the film brought home to me, providing me with more than enough philosophical and emotional material to render it a far deeper and more nourishing experience than the cut-and-dried fun park diversion that some of its detractors have reduced it to. I don’t just appreciate “Gravity” (and a shout out too to Jonas Cuaron’s lovely little companion short “Aningaaq”) I’m weirdly grateful for it, as I’m unlikely to ever actually voyage into space, but thanks to the movie, there is, right now, a tiny little mental version of myself, lit bright white against the velvety inky blackness hovering high above the blue sky, looking down, and I know how she feels.
4. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
I can’t remember exactly when it was during my screening of the Coen brothers’ folk music bildungsroman that I started to look forward to my second viewing, but it was either in the third or fourth minute. It was unexpected, because to be perfectly honest, a portrait of the pre-Dylan era Greenwich Village folk scene had never rated particularly high on my radar, and were it not for the filmmakers behind it I probably wouldn’t have bothered queuing two and a half hours in the rain (by far the longest Cannes line) to get in. But somewhere in that opening scene, as Oscar Isaac sang “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” in a voice so surprisingly lovely it could break your heart, and the smoky browns, ochres and greys of the autumnal palette worked their minor-key magic, I felt myself palpably relax, feeling impossibly warm and safe in the hands of those peerless storytellers. From then on the film unfolded in a bittersweet blur of gently disappointed dreams and self-defeating ambition, and now in retrospect it strikes me, in a year dotted with paeans to/takedowns of American excess (“The Bling Ring,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Spring Breakers,” “American Hustle” even “Pain & Gain”), it may actually provide the antidote, a soothing balm to smooth over the jagged garishness of those films’ depiction of ostentatious wealth. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” contrary to the modern ideals of striving and success and achievement, sings a sweet, sad song about the occasional nobility of failure, that builds into an appropriately melancholic anthem for the also-rans. It would be a confession too far to say just how much I identified with it.
3. “Blue is the Warmest Color”
What to possibly say about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Cannes winner that hasn’t already been said, (and subsequently undercut by some tantrum thrown by one of the principals--man, I’ve never wished so hard that people whose work I admire would just shut up about that work)? Clear away all the hullabaloo that surrounded the film, from its graphic and, yes, (over)long lesbian sex scene, to the alleged heteronormativity of its positioning, to the acrimonious war of words that erupted between its three Palme d’Or winners (Kechiche, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos), and we’re left with simply one of the most wonderful, transportative film experiences of the year, and one that, like “Inside Llewyn Davis” does with Oscar Isaac, makes its hitherto largely unknown lead (Exarchopoulos) into a bona fide star in one fell swoop. That it can withstand all the issue-clouding babble that went on around its release is testament to just how much bigger a final film is than any one of its participants, even such an obviously talented director, and such stellar performers: ‘Blue’ is a hundred times the sum of its parts and, aside from the spell-breaking sex scene, perhaps, to break it down into its constituent elements is to deny yourself the glorious, immersive pleasure of living Adele’s life through these tumultuous and passionate years. Long after the recriminations have faded from memory, the movie will stand as a beautiful journey of discovery and recognition for anyone who’s ever fallen in love, and a furiously tender piece of transcendent filmmaking.
2. “Upstream Color”
There was a man in an orange high-vis jacket operating a cleaning machine on the deserted train platform where I waited after my late-night screening of “Upstream Color.” With no one else around, he pushed the droning machine up and down the platform in rigorously straight lines, passing me by occasionally in the flat, clinical light. And such was the lingering mood of the film that I found myself humming along to the machine, to try and achieve a moment of perfect resonance as it neared me--for this uncharacteristic whimsicality I entirely blame Shane Carruth and the unearthly techno-spell his sophomore film cast over me, a film that’s at the same time brilliantly precise in its intent, and silvery-opaque in its effect. More than anything else a very peculiar love story, the film bears astonishing testament to Carruth’s polymath tendencies, from the stunning photography--gauzy but cool, like a new dream rooted in an old memory that’s a little bleached from overwashing--to the soundscape in which effects blend with his self-composed score so that, in a theme that recurs, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, to the enigmatic, minimalist dialogue in which the words are only ever the tip of a gargantuan iceberg of unseen connections. Carruth has carved out unique territory for himself at the point at which science strays so far into the arcane that its mathematics become as intuitive and beautiful as any work of pure imagination, so while there is logic and causality at work here, it’s less the science fiction of laser cannons and spaceships than it is a voyage inward, into the psyche, into the emotions--into places where science might often fear to tread. Totally unique, shimmeringly bizarre and achingly lovely, I can’t recommend “Upstream Color” enough, if only for the new way you’ll look at a buzzing fluorescent light, or hear your desktop printer’s inner gears work, for days afterward.
1. “The Act of Killing”
It will surprise precisely no one who who knows me, or had the misfortune to be seated beside met me at a party or on a medium-to-long distance train trip, to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s shattering documentary, “The Act of Killing” nestle comfortably at my number one spot for the year. It is without doubt the film I’ve talked about, thought about and agitated for more than any other throughout the year, to the point that I’m less now an advocate than an evangelist. The reason is simple: when I think back to myself, stumbling water-kneed out of the Berlinale screening back in February, and missing my subsequent films (sorry, “Don Jon”!) due to the insistent buzzing of my brain and pounding of my heart, I just can’t think of any film that has had a more physiological effect on me. “The Act of Killing,” in its evocation of a genocide of which I had, prior to watching it, not one single goddamned clue, its masterful portrayal of the smiling, hearty faces of utter moral abnegation, and the way it convinces that cinema itself can be the chief purveyor of the most insidious mythologies (lies) while also providing an avenue for the reclamation of memory and the possibility of catharsis, if not redemption (truth), is probably the most intelligent and layered film ever to have frightened the living shit out of me. Because that was its real effect: it was simply terrifying. To witness the complete annihilation of humanity that Anwar Congo and his cohorts embody and then to discover that this moral collapse is not just unpunished in Indonesian society, but sanctioned, even encouraged? It was psychologically, emotionally and philosophically challenging, occasionally to the point of me wanting to shut my eyes, without ever being able to un-rivet my attention. In fact it feels like Oppenheimer’s storytelling unlocked bonus levels in my capacity for surprise--how is it possible that he can layer revelation on revelation, shock upon shock, and yet have each subsequent instance stab just as deeply as the last? It’s a merciless film in that regard, a difficult, queasy watch, a tumble down a fathomless rabbit hole of depravity, and, by maybe a mile, the very best movie I saw in a very good year.
I was tempted to go to 12 entries but made myself stick to the ten for some masochistic reason, however the two films that would have been at the eleventh and twelfth spots, respectively, were Soderbergh’s deceptively touching “Behind the Candelabra” and Lisa Langseth’s “Hotell” starring Alicia Vikander which I saw in Marrakech (review here). And then there are a whole host of other strong films that I considered for inclusion but didn’t make my final cut--I’ll link to their reviews where I can: “The Selfish Giant” is genuinely heartrending and boasts the most astounding child performance of the year from Conner Chapman; “A Field In England” drove me slightly insane, in a good/terrifying sort of way; “The Broken Circle Breakdown” might have taken the ‘lovely sad film about musicians with a killer soundtrack’ ribbon any year that ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ wasn’t released; Alain Guiraudie’s Cannes winner “Stranger by the Lake” is a very strong, very creepy story of summer murder; more in genre territory I really dug horror remake “We Are What We Are” by Jim Mickle; I loved Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” until the final overwrought third that for me undid a lot of the film’s terrific work till then; JC Chandor’s “All is Lost” is my cream of the crop of this year’s many survival movies (“Gravity” aside); “Frances Ha” I liked a lot, though maybe I wasn’t quite as enraptured as some of my colleagues; Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Grand Central” is the other Lea Seydoux movie I saw and really enjoyed this year, also starring “The Past”’s Tahar Rahim; while James Gray’s “The Immigrant” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” were two Cannes films I caught that were also both top of mind when I thought about compiling this list. Less well-covered, perhaps, Andrea Pallaoro’s “Medeas,” an extraordinarily quiet, and astoundingly well photographed film, and Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are The Best!” (which we’ll be reviewing soon) were two films I caught in Marrakech that I liked equally but for totally different reasons, and another year (or another day, another mood) could have nudged their way higher.
And that was my year, written down in the closing moments of 2013 while I’m still sober enough to remember it. Happy New Year everybody, and thank you for reading.