Monday, April 1, 2013

THE THIRTY BEST FILMS OF 2013


It’s the end of the first quarter of 2013, and I am burnt out. How exciting that we would have such a collection of masterpieces so early, from some of cinema’s greatest masters? Sure, the results haven’t been pretty from a studio perspective, but indie and foreign directors have produced a bumper crop of must-sees thus far in 2013, and compiling them all was an eye-popping experience. If this says anything about the quality of the rest of the year, then movie lovers have been spoiled beyond belief.

Some of these were festival releases. Others are already scheduled for a theatrical release in the next month or so. The hope is that 90% of these titles will be on DVD by late summer, at least. Make sure to give ‘em a looksee, particularly the titles you do not recognize.

30.  “Byzantium”

Neil Jordan adds to his menagerie of monsters and boogeymen with this gothic tale of a mother-daughter vampire duo pursued through the centuries by a male-driven vampire cabal. Fiendishly fast and loose with the rules, this glossy commercial production from Jordan also features a sexy-beyond-belief performance by Gemma Arterton, who I am learning to forgive after the inept farce that was “Tamara Drewe.”

29. “The Iceman”
Classic Millennium Films release: dark, ugly, filled with depressing violence, terrible wigs and completely inappropriate casting (David Schwimmer shows up as a character repeatedly referred to as “the kid”). At this point, I feel like if you really love movies, those have become weirdly positive attributes by now. It’s a generic true crime story about an unusually prolific hitman, but the real pleasures in “The Iceman” lie in Michael Shannon’s terrifying performance, easily the most fascinating and tightly calibrated turn of the year.

28. “Electrick Children”
When I am vexed by a film, I normally chalk it up to the possibility that perhaps there’s just something I’m not getting, and the film remains in my memory like an unfinished puzzle. Such is the case for this Mormon coming-of-age drama, which finds the fascinating Julia Garner as a fifteen year old girl who flees home with an immaculate pregnancy she blames on a haunted cassette tape owned by her mother where someone covers Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone.” It’s less strange that I’m making it seem, but it’s not a film without its surprises.  


Two murder cases separated by nearly twenty years intersect in this chilly Danish thriller that keeps unveiling new layers as it takes the form of a story you couldn’t possibly expect. Shades of “Memories Of Murder.”

26. “No”

I’m glad that this drama, about an ad executive hired to spearhead a campaign in 1980’s Chile to boot Pinochet out of office, uses the real commercials and not weak recreations. It emphasizes the amusing banality of employing pop imagery for political gains on a mainstream level, and how those very images are eventually co-opted by the establishment without context, in this case the pro-Pinochet allies. A fascinating watch.

25. “Dormant Beauty”
Italy takes a satirical sideways glance at the issue of assisted suicide in this vaguely fantastical triptych, following a cast of characters as they linger around three gorgeous comatose victims. Isabelle Huppert shows up and is luminous as always.

24. “Sightseers”
Ben Wheatley’s devious follow-up to “Kill List” is ostensibly a road trip comedy about a couple on holiday. But what he taps into is something very primal and vivid: the idea that all it takes is overwhelming emotion to turn someone into a killer, how we find ourselves in moments where ending a life is as easy is a sneeze.

23. “Stoker”

High camp, right? Arch like all get-out, “Stoker” plays like exactly what it is: an ersatz contemporary Southern Gothic directed by a man who doesn’t speak English. I have a feeling the script nodded to a mystery and a last-reel surprise, but every second of this film, amusingly over-directed by Chan Wook-Park (“Oldboy”) pretty much establishes this is the Coming-Of-Age of a Serial Killer.

22. “Motorway”
Produced by Johnny To, this ridiculous but dead serious actioner posits that in some of us, there’s a superhero waiting to come out once they’re behind the wheel. The attitude is less “Fast And Furious” and more “Two Lane Blacktop,” the chase sequences dizzying and ethereal at the same time, the characters pressing down the gas as if they were entering another dimension.

21. “In The House”
Despite its title suggesting an early UPN sitcom, this French comedy drama is a wicked mission statement from Francois Ozon, with a shade of naughty autobiography. The house in the title refers to the tortured domesticity of one family, and the local schoolkid who infiltrates them under the guise of tutoring their son, only to report the house’s happenings in the form of perverse creative writing assignments, egged on by a fascinated voyeur of an English teacher. Imagine Michael Haneke had a sense of humor, and you’re on the right track.

Overheated and frequently ridiculous, this labyrinth of a dramatic epic has a scope that throbs and shakes with the rhythm of great filmmaking, suggesting Derek Cianfrance as something of a modern dramatist in the vein of Tennessee Williams or Douglas Sirk. To discuss it in any detail is to spoil the surprises therein, between bank-robbing circus act Ryan Gosling and crooked cop wallflower Bradley Cooper.

Alex de la Iglesia’s latest came and went with a whimper earlier this year, which is something of a true shame. Away from his crime and science fiction stories, this latest effort of his is a media farce in the vein of “Ace In The Hole” where a mild-mannered ad exec struggles for his life while ensnared in an accidental death trap, leaving the media to create a narrative around his life. With a particularly funny turn by Salma Hayek.

Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical film, and he certainly went out in style. This twisty thriller starts out like a topical drama about the crushing effects of anti-depressants but soon dissolves into a fairly erotic carnival ride with Jude Law’s angsty shrink is taken for a ride by a murder case that isn’t what it seems. Rooney Mara is pretty astonishing as a woman seemingly locked in a cycle of depression and dissatisfaction but not without her secrets.

17. “Stories We Tell”

By the end of 2013, how are we ever going to trust a film when it claims to be a documentary? Sarah Polley’s latest is a firsthand account of the actress-director’s attempts to find her true father, with her mother having taken that secret to the grave. At times, the old home video footage we see just doesn’t gibe with what we’re being told, and after a while, it certainly seems intentional. Polley’s genre experimentation seems to call into question the roots of the film as much as Polley questions her own, revealing the answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking.

16. “You Will Be My Son”
In this darkly funny family drama, an aging wine expert remains bitterly determined in his later years to avoid handing off his lucrative winery to his son, instead leaning towards the more charismatic offspring of a dying friend. Niels Arstrup is such a nasty bastard of a father in this film that I don’t know if I can ever look at him again.

Quentin Dupiex’s gonzo morality play about a man and his lost dog feels oddly life-affirming compared to the comic nihilism of his previous effort, “Rubber.” Each character seems like they’re pursuing their own philosophy, and within these philosophies Dupiex seems to be making a case for the search for enlightenment, advocating whatever works to get you to that place of serenity.

Two teenagers attempt to come up with $500 in one day in order to bribe the Shea Stadium guards to look the other way while they spray graffiti on the Mets’ apple? Yeah, this is a New York movie. With charm and humor, director Adam Leon creates shows a light-on-his-feet dedication to the pre-Giuliani era where it seemed as if kids could genuinely get themselves in real trouble, where mischief wasn’t greeted with militant law enforcement.

13. “Room 237”
Rodney Ascher’s comic documentary about the obsessions of people who have seen “The Shining” is a celebration of how great movies are a Rorschach test,  carrying multiple meanings for different audiences. Read Milton’s appraisal here.

12. “War Witch”
Kim Nguyen’s startling debut picture places us in the brush with third world children soldiers, one of whom becomes the titular talisman for a series of corrupt despots, clutching her gun as chaos reigns around her. I wrote about this a bit here.

Michel Gondry’s ebullient story of youth gone wild during one Bronx bus ride feels real and honest, it’s as if he sat his camera down on one busy bus and allowed the community to form around it. Capturing the anarchic spirit that would have fueled “Be Kind Rewind” had he not settled on major movie stars, Gondry makes no apologies for the selfishness, casual cruelty and vulgarity shown by the cast, but these attributes only seem to make them more familiar and shows that Gondry’s affection for them is contagious. Also, Young MC’s “Bust A Move” has never sounded better.

10. “Bullet To The Head”
I wrote a little about this beautifully-told action story here.

9. “Caesar Must Die”
Again, a documentary of sorts, but this film also plays pretty fast and loose with the rules of the genre. Taking us behind bars of an Italian prison, “Caesar Must Die” finds the inmates exploring their identities with a performance of “Julius Caesar,” so swallowed up by their roles that we soon learn we can’t tell the difference between the text of the play and the stories of the inmates themselves.

8. “Frances Ha”
Noah Baumbach’s finest film, this sassy comedy finally establishes Greta Gerwig as one of the great cinematic comediennes of her time. I wrote a little about it here.

7. “The Act Of Killing”

A mesmerizing and terrifying film that, again, stretches the definition of documentary, this Errol Morris and Werner Herzog-produced film takes us to Indonesia, where history has been written by the victors, specifically the hit squad in charge of executing communists decades ago. As the group reminisces about past glories (which involved the murders of hundreds), they are prompted into making a film about their past exploits, celebrating their bloody victory as if they were heroic gangsters like the heroes in films from the west. Sure to twist your perceptions and challenge your prejudices.  

6. “Simon Killer”
The dark side of Bret Easton Ellis-sponsored debauchery, this drama takes you into the headspace of a backpacker who finds himself broke in Paris, desperate to get a foothold as he uses and abuses those around him to keep his head above water. Antonio Campos’ long-anticipated follow-up to “Afterschool” basically images how the central character in that chilly thriller grows up, spending his post-collegiate days looking for ways to drain friends and family of their innocent lives like a social vampire.

5. “Something In The Air”
Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical story of backpacking across Europe during the 1960’s as a political firebrand eager to make art is a touching tribute to a lost era, with confused ideals. But it’s also, typical for Assayas, a punk rock celebration of craft, often staggering in its vision for a world where Captain Beefheart plays over every house party before we burn this motherfucker to the ground. I wrote a little about this here.

4. “To The Wonder”
Terrence Malick’s newest may be his most stylistically adventurous, if you can believe it. Whereas sometimes he would give way to montage and voiceover as a salve following more intense dramatic sequences in his films, this picture is almost entirely voiceover and montage, creating a feature-length collage collecting the emotions of broken relationships, and the search for grace in a broken, cruel world. Malick’s sexiest, and also in some ways Malick’s most cruel picture, a deeply fascinating piece of work.

3. “Like Someone In Love”
Abbas Kiarostami goes east with this Japanese-language love story of sorts about evolving identities and desires. I wrote a little about it here.

Like the last ten years of MTV, weaponized. Harmony Korine is working on an entirely new level with this, a film that absolutely thrilled me, shocked me, floored me, and gave me the giggles. Yes, there’s some sly condemnation of today’s youth culture. And yes, they should hand out glowsticks at the doors.

1. “Upstream Color”
I saw Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” a day after catching Shane Carruth’s latest, and felt bad comparing them. Malick’s latest masterpiece is a step forward in cinematic storytelling. But Carruth’s twisty science fiction tale about a kidnapping spurred by shared DNA and a complex love story is a quantum leap of sorts. Watching “Upstream Color” today would be like taking a time machine to the 1930’s and showing them “Fight Club.” You’ve never seen storytelling quite like this.

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