I don’t know how many films I saw in 2013 because I don’t keep a running tally, but my calculated guess sits at several paces north of 300. Choosing ten stand out films was difficult, especially since 2013 was, in my viewing experience, a very good year for film.
Some housekeeping: the selection criteria for this list is films I saw either on release in Australia or which premiered at an international film festival I attended this year. I have not included any repertory content though I would like to acknowledge the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s excellent programme and the wonderful arthouses in Paris, both of which played an important role in rounding out my year cinematically.
I’d also like to explain a few glaring absences from my Top 10. The first two are Thomas Vinterberg’s Jagten (The Hunt, 2012) and Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). Though both films received an Australian cinema release earlier this year, I saw both films in 2012. Conversely, La grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013) which will be released in Australia late January didn’t quite get its place because although the film is stunning (it really is), I am conflicted over its representation of gender politics. That said, it also taps into a fascinating and provocative debate about futurism, one I look forward to writing about in the New Year.
Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is also an omission. One of the most delightful films of 2013, it keeps a place in my heart, though I suspect its content might not be the stuff of great, enduring cinema. Only time and hindsight will tell. The last two are titles that will turn up on almost every list outside of this one: Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). I recognise both as significant achievements in film this year whilst still holding personal reservations over their brilliance. Finally, despite attending the Cannes film festival, I didn’t see the Palme d’Or winner, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013). Sometimes making deadlines means missing films.
Each of the films that have made this list I consider beautiful, intelligent and provocative: the three qualities, when expertly combined, that I believe can lead to genuinely profound and moving encounters.
L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the lake), Alain Guiraudie
On the surface, the film follows Franck and his daily routine at a popular cruising spot: a quiet lake surrounded by dense forest. Beneath the surface – of the film, the lake and of established, routine lives – lurks danger and excitement.
The space itself is almost estranged from the world. Whatever confines or freedoms these characters are subject to outside of their cruising activities by the lake, we know nothing of. The borders of the film world are so tightly restricted that even the audience would do well to draw breath.
The men wear little to no clothing at the lake, giving us few visual clues about who they are. But even in their nakedness, or partial undress, we can still read signifiers; through the intimacy and plainness of a performance pared back, their theatricality and visual identity stripped down. What they do wear – shorts, underwear, even shoes – tells us something about their attitudes towards modesty, if they are introverts or extroverts, how comfortable they are in themselves and around others, and whether they prefer to look or be looked at.
Hair also acts as a signifier– on their heads as well as on their faces; Franck, our protagonist, is clean-shaven, wears shorts and shoes, but he also routinely strips down. He is open, vulnerable and we take him at ‘face value’. Conversely, Michel, our antagonist, wears a handlebar moustache, a thick mane of hair and is often naked but for a pair of shoes. Coupled with his muscular physique, he represents a dangerous, potentially oppressive masculinity, and most pointedly, has something to hide.
In many ways, adhering as it does to semiotic storytelling and other visual tropes, this is a typical genre film. It’s also daring and extremely good.
The Loneliest Planet, Julia Loktev
I’m still coming to terms with just how beautiful this film is. Julia Loktev’s use of visual language is pure poetry.
Her exploration of human relationships is astonishing, comparable to the genius of Andrei Tarkovsky. Based on Tom Bissell’s short story ‘Expensive Trips Nowhere’, from his collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Loneliest Planet is a mostly silent, non-plot driven trek through the Georgian Caucasus Mountains for an adventurous couple and their local guide. Almost nothing happens. But a moment, a movement, can alter everything.
The cinematography, as it follows the couple, is intrusive, highlighting the difficulty of their journey. Loktev intermittently contrasts this style with harsh cuts to very still, extreme long shots of the awe-inspiring landscape. In this way she gives her minimalist narrative chapters through sharp, visual punctuation. It’s the most literary film I have ever seen.
Still a far cry from the limitlessness of experimenta and the deliberately jarring and abrasive aesthetic of the avant-garde, Loktev’s visual style fits with an atypical narrative mode. Still linear and causal despite its lack of interest in plot driven devices, The Loneliest Planet isn’t motivated by time or movement (the two major narrative propellants according to Deleuze). Instead, each of Loktev’s chapters eclipses the last, following a phenomenological shift in human emotion. This is cinema at its most sublime.
Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley’s funny and engaging documentary is also intelligent – academically and emotionally. Always recording and revealing her own processes of interrogating her family, questioning the memories they recall and filling in the gaps with dramatisation, Polley finds out everything and nothing about who her father is, who her mother was, where and how she does or doesn’t fit in and most significantly, why we might tell our stories in the simple, complicated, protective and hurtful ways that we do. Quite simply this is a master class in storytelling and documentary filmmaking.
Tore Tanzt (Nothing Bad Can Happen), Katrin Gebbe
The day after I saw this film I sat and cried uncontrollably for twenty minutes. It was so powerful that I couldn’t fully process it whilst in attendance at the film festival. Sometimes cinema speaks so directly to your soul that it affects your very constitution. It’s a rare, powerful thing.
The story is based on almost unbelievable true events: a family takes in an adolescent boy, housing and feeding him, making him welcome in their family home. Slowly, sparked only by possibility and power play, the family’s treatment of the boy becomes cruel, constantly pushing the boundaries of what he will withstand until finally it leads to horrific physical torture and emotional abuse.
Aside from how impressively put together this is for a debut feature film – keep an eye out for more from writer/director Katrin Gebbe – what’s so affecting in Tore Tanzt is how easy and mundane the transition from acceptable to abhorrent behaviour is. That such abuse can even occur is difficult enough to get to grips with but given a comprehensible picture of how it can occur is a flat out assault on our humanity. This moved every fibre of my being and I am certain this film will find its way into my all time most affecting films alongside the likes of Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004).
Le Passe (The Past), Asghar Farhadi
One of the things I found most striking about Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation (2011), was that it had no non-diegetic sound. Having grown up on Hollywood output, I’ve been unwittingly conditioned to respond to the mood-cue approach (see Greg Smith’s An Invitation to Feel: Film Structure and the Emoticon System). As such, most naturalistic cinema, with its roots in cinema verite, feels raw and as a result is that much more impacting. The realness of Farhadi’s characters and the minute detailing of their lives feels like cinematic truth which, when emotional stakes are raised, makes for a brilliant viewing experience.
Berenice Bejo (The Artist, 2011) and Tahar Rahim (Un prophete, 2009) give masterful performances, free from artifice, of a man and a woman whose lives are complicated, not by convoluted plots or grand ideas, but by their choices and their actions towards others. The film questions responsibility and shows how sometimes people do the wrong thing. It is begs the question: what exactly is the right thing, and how can we recognise it?
Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin), Jia Zhangke
Jia Zhangke is considered a leading voice for the Sixth Generation in Chinese cinema (a movement with its beginnings in the underground, following state censorship after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations). He is best known for his social commentary on issues facing the working classes in contemporary China. Zhangke’s films are also visually impressive, characterised by long takes and long shots of the landscape. Still Life (2006), a film about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, its destruction of the Yangtze River and surrounding small town communities won the Golden Lion at Venice. A Touch of Sin won Zhangke the Best Screenplay award when it premiered at Cannes and, despite its strong violence, has met with state approval.
Based on four separate, high profile deaths – three murders and one suicide – that took place in disparate parts of China, A Touch of Sin puts together a picture of social unrest, class injustices and violent response bubbling just beneath the surface. Each story is loosely connected but the real link is a brewing anger levelled at an unfair social system. The violence Zhangke evokes is neither glorified nor shocking, simply it is the inevitable response to an unjust cycle of oppression. At times it is accompanied by rage and at others it occurs during great calm, but it is always a response to the struggle of the individual. Zhangke presents humans as estranged from their environment and constantly at odds with their place as cogs in the ever-churning global machine.
L’enfant d’en haut (Sister), Ursula Meier
Louise and Simon only have each other, living hand to mouth at the foot of the Swiss Alps in an isolated council housing estate. Simon spends his days travelling by airlift to steal winter clothes and ski goods from the affluent, re-selling them at a healthy discount to holidaying families and local kids. Louise, the eldest by many years, comes and goes, dating the wrong guys and losing always-another job, thus failing to put food on the table. At home it is just the two of them – brother and sister – hiding something about where their parents are and why they are really alone.
They spend every waking moment, no matter how depressing, misguided or bleak their attempts, trying and failing to improve upon their situation. The danger and stupidity of their actions is often frustrating and devastating to watch. The disparity between rich and poor, abundance and lack is stark, illustrated by the literal distance between the summit and the foot of the mountain. Deprived of a fun, carefree childhood, both Simon and Louise blame each other for their inescapable poverty and unwanted reliance on one another, frustrated by the dictatorship of their social circumstance. Another emotionally heart-wrenching film from director Ursula Meier (Home, 2008), Sister is a simple story but a superb film, owing largely to the remarkable acting from its two young leads, Kacey Mottet Klein and Lea Seydoux.
The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard
This is a narrative feature film debut for writer/director Clio Barnard, another talent of which I’m certain we’ll be seeing a lot more. A social-realist contemporary re-working of Oscar Wilde’s children’s tale of the same name, this film is unapologetically miserable, gritty, British cinema. And it’s brilliant.
Two adolescent boys, Arbor and Swifty, growing up in Bradford with the constant threat of their home furniture being repossessed and with barely enough beans to go round, spend their days getting into trouble with whichever authority figure whose path they cross. Excluded from school, Swifty decides he’ll make enough money to support his family by ‘finding’, or stealing, scrap metal. Arbor, slower, less thrifty and keen to befriend the horse at Kitten’s scrap yard, is a willing but unwitting tagalong. Kitten, the menacing junkyard boss, played superbly by Sean Gilder, best known for his chilling incarnation of Shameless’ estate patriarch Paddy Maguire, lets the boys in and guides them with a firm hand. Desperate to escape the clutches of poverty the boys get into increasingly more dangerous situations, until finally they risk everything for a life-bettering buck. Following the same structure as any social-realist story about the perils of gangs, drugs or crime, The Selfish Giant shows a different but ultimately unchanged narrative about the unbreakable cycle of poverty and depravity.
Apres Mai (After May / There’s Something in the Air), Olivier Assayas
Often when I write about a film I’ll express my concerns for its ideological undercurrents. In my review of Apres Mai I called the film ‘an advertisement for nostalgia’. I also called my viewing experience ‘blissful’. Great works of art are ripe for critiquing, and for me, the truest beauty is imperfect. I stand by my qualification of Assayas’ film as a narrative billboard for nostalgia but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it beautiful, thoughtful and convincing. Everything about this film is what makes me tick as a critic. I love that Assayas keeps me on my toes and I look forward to his next hot potato.
Beyond the Hills, Christian Mungiu
There’s always at least one fantastic film that almost passes me by. This year’s entry is Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. Having missed it on the festival circuit in 2012, I missed it again when it received a limited local release during MIFF, as I was busily trying to see everything I missed at Cannes. Finally catching up with it when it was released on DVD, I was immediately struck by both the look and the pace of the film.
Set in Moldavia in an Orthodox nunnery, the colour palette is drained and time all but stands still in this strange, devout, small community where life must either be an endurance test or a dutiful routine and devotion to God is alive by the simple acts of love, devotion, prayer and daily chores. Voichita, a novice whose main chore is to fetch water from the well, leaves the confines of the nunnery to collect her childhood friend Alina from the train station. Alina has come to save Voichita from what she believes is a cult.
Having grown up in an orphanage together, the girls were a source of strength and hope for each other. Desperate to rekindle their relationship, Alina is surprised to find that Voichita has only room for God in her heart.
The film’s greatest strength is its constant insistence on ambiguity. Almost nothing is explicit and as a result, everything the viewer thinks, feels and judges is based on inference, allusion and their own prejudices and convictions.
The girls may have been sexually intimate as children; they may both have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused; Voichita may have joined a cult; and Alina might be mentally ill or she might be possessed. Turning everything the viewer thinks they know into a belief and systematically questioning those beliefs by positing problems of interpretation at every corner, Christian Mungiu re-imagines the events leading up to a real life exorcism gone wrong. The final word by our filmmaker is that not everything is what it seems and, no matter how much dirt the world throws at us, it keeps going whether or not we can successfully wipe it clear.
Casting an eye back over my list I know some will find my selection depressing. But cinema isn’t simply a medium for escapism. It can be a mirror, offering a reflection of our societies and what constitutes our humanity, and so much more than just popcorn entertainment.