Top 10 Films of 2013

 Okay, cue the grumbling: I have a love/hate relationship with movie lists. I read them, I enjoy writing them, and I've spent endless amusing hours reading up the Top 10 lists of various filmmakers, writers, actors, etc. It just so happens that when it comes to end-of-year lists, I struggle. This is the first year I've genuinely worked on making one, and I ended up inevitably frustrated. Without the power of hindsight that a larger survey (like the 2012 BFI Sight & Sound Poll) provides, any yearly round-up is bound to painfully arbitrary and subjective. Critics are called upon to think back on everything they've seen that calendar year; but that largely depends on: a) geographical location, for differences in release dates, b) whatever organisations or publications one is attached to, as some will be privy to early screenings, etc, that others will not be c) the difficulty of tracking down and viewing as many of the standouts in world cinema from that year, as to feel (in some impossible way) qualified for the task of making a list.

 In short, for an American critic living in the UK, without having seen the Palme D'Or winner (Blue is the Warmest Color) or any of the American releases unavailable on this side of the pond (Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years a Slave)  I must go forth and make whatever Top 10 I can reasonably make. Here goes:

10. Stoker, Dir. Chan-Wook Park

 South Korean director Chan-Wook Park's English language debut is rife with operatic gothicism and baroque visual patterns; it's the stuff of twisted fairy tales. It concerns the story of a grieving teenage girl (Mia Wasikowska) who has recently lost her father in a terrible accident. She lives in an austere country home, existing in a strangely otherworldly margin on the outskirts of town. When her distant mother invites a handsome interloper to come and stay, (her long-absent young uncle, played by Mathew Goode) family secrets, the distorted loyalty of blood ties, masochism, murder, and sexual blossoming await. It is decidedly overripe; with its ramped-up archetypes, it can even be predictable, at times. Somehow his never dampens the serpentine pleasure of watching the horror unfurl. Stoker embraces the languorous, dark urges within, and whatever excesses it contains, its carefully framed and patterned structure make its indulgences seem justified.

9. Gravity, Dir. Alfonso Cuaron

  Despite the traditionalism of its survival/escape narrative, the extraordinary spectacle of Gravity make it one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. Its sheer ambition and scope make it an overwhelmingly impressive film, to say nothing of its technical prowess. Experienced in IMAX and 3D, it genuinely feels like a return to the spectacle and thrill of another era, or perhaps more saliently it isn't a return at all - merely the logical offspring of the 80's high concept movie, a period we've been living in ever since. Regardless, it remains a forceful example of the early aims of American movies: to entertain, to frighten, to make the audience dodge and flinch away from flying space debris as it once famously did in 1903 at the sight of an oncoming train. It has that wonderful, purely cinematic capacity.

8. Lore, Dir. Cate Shortland

Lore follows the journey of 14-year-old Hannalore and her wayward young siblings as they attempt to cross the German countryside on their way to their Grandmother's. A folkloric reminiscence of Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps; except that the year is 1945, and Lore's parents are high-ranking SS, arrested for war crimes by the Allied Forces. Left to fend for herself and what remains of her family, Lore crosses the rural sections of the crumbling Fatherland, the pastoral serenity belying the moral rot of its inhabitants. A privileged, sheltered girl, Lore adjusts to a countryside littered with American troops, breadlines and bloodied corpses, reacting to the new savagery of her environment with surprising resourcefulness. Raised with pride in her family's Fascist ideology, she shows no signs of relinquishing her beliefs; not until she is shaken by a prolonged run-in with a young Jewish boy, Thomas. Filmed with lyrical, doting attention to the natural beauty of Germanic forests and fields, the film evokes an almost Malick-esque consideration of inherited moral decay and the silent, ancient impassivity of nature. The Nazi fixation upon Germany as bastion of Bavarian history and Aryan purity, along with its ties to Paganism, seem referenced obliquely here -- the picturesque, idealised elements of the setting giving way to Lore's ugly adolescent pangs of realisation (in extremis) that her parents are not perhaps as virtuous as she might have assumed.

7. Mud, Dir. Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols has proven to be one of the outstanding talents of a new generation of stateside auteurs. His thoroughly and allusively American aesthetic is both warmly familiar and indirect in its references, feeling like the inheritor of mythic American tropes without ever seeming derivative. The sun-dappled realism of this down-to-earth brand of Southern Gothic softens the genre's more lurid impulses in favor of a poignant emotional honesty - particularly from its young star, Tye Sheridan. Based on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the plot involves two young boys in the backwoods of Arkansas who one day stumble upon a fugitive known as Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding in the woods along the Mississippi. The boys must mature quickly to help Mud reunite with his vacillating girlfriend, endangering themselves and their families in the meantime. The kids idolise Mud for his outlaw romanticism; he offers them an adventurous escape from the grim realities and hard graft of their parents' blue-collar lives. What results is a perilous, thrilling, bittersweet coming-of-age tale; a good old-fashioned storytelling mode. It brings to mind a sweetly melancholy, boyish Americana, stories where certain summers change us irrevocably and our childhood heroes seem never to die. 

6. Django Unchained, Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Self-indulgence, controversial portrayals, and embarrassing cameos aside, Tarantino made one of the most entertaining, grotesque, and utterly debate-worthy films of the year. With his typical panache, from the Corbucci-style snap zooms to the exceptionally catchy original soundtrack, he depicts the horrors of slavery with hyperbole and a penchant for B-movie revenge. DiCaprio's brief turn as a bone-chillingly vicious slave owner is memorable, as is the hilarious skit where some hillbilly precursors to the Ku Klux Klan bicker about the practicalities of seeing through their white hoods.  Django has inspired endless debate about the potential for exploitation around such a sensitive subject, and while certainly flawed, it is a hugely satisfying revenge fantasy, cathartic in its wrath against a shameful past we are helpless to change.

  5. Blue Jasmine, Dir. Woody Allen

 Woody Allen conjures up something less frothy than his last effort (Midnight in Paris) but still lithe and tragic; it is an aching, slight sort of film, like a slender 20th century novel that nonetheless lingers. Jasmine, in a perfectly brittle, fractured performance from Cate Blanchett, is the wife of a disgraced, jailed banker. An ex-Park Avenue princess still swathed in Chanel pearls and tones of taupe and cream, she takes her bankrupt and fragile self to bunk with what is clearly a poor relation, her adopted sister (Sally Hawkins). There, she chafes against her sister's modest lifestyle, apartment, and choices in men. The adept role and Allen's faultless writing manage to make this utterly phony, thoroughly unlikable woman as intensely watchable as her now oft-mentioned predecessor, Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois. Many critics have called Blue Jasmine something of a modern re-telling of the Tennessee Williams play, which isn't far wrong. Despite its moments of humour, and its bright, airy, bohemian setting of San Francisco, it is a sleekly miserable film that captures the terrible haute-bourgeois milieu that Jasmine clings to, in all her glorious, wincing self-delusion.

4. The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, Dir. Bruno Forzani + Helene Cattet

Certainly the most avant-garde of the choices on this list, it is also the only choice of mine which has not had a UK release as of yet; it has been doing the rounds at the London Film Festival and my local cinema's Mayhem Horror Festival, where I had the good fortune to see it. A remarkably strange, violent, and beautiful experience, the giallo-influenced French horror is a freak show, a visual and aural feast, and something that you may not even realise you've enjoyed until it's had some time to sink in. I reviewed it in full a few months ago, here.

3. Spring Breakers, Dir. Harmony Korine

This brash, expressionistic, candy-coloured satire is beautifully rendered and utterly original; I wrote an in-depth review of it when I first saw it, which you can read here. 

2. The Act of Killing, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

A remarkable documentary made over the course of a decade, Oppenheimer's film follows several Indonesian war criminals, men who openly admit to having committed a litany of hideous crimes in the 1960's. The filmmaker aides them in creating their own film adaptations of their experiences, producing works of disturbing and magical realism. The film is striking in its seeming complicity with these men, privy to their most private ruminations and discussions; the act of turning reality into lurid fiction gets straight to the dark heart of the matter. It is a breathtaking, bizarre, and contemplative exploration of mass murder, collective memory, and the ways in which evil is perpetrated, excused, and most importantly, lived with.You can find my full review here, published with Periodical.

1. The Great Beauty, Dir. Paolo Sorrentino

Paolo Sorrentino's ambitious, grandoise La Grande Bellezza explores, disdains, and relishes in the dazzling decay of Roman high life. It combines the referential cinematic history of the Eternal City with the modern, Botoxed Eurotrash nightclubbers of the wealthy artistic elite. Fellini comparisons are no stretch when Sorrentino evokes the same carnival-esque sublimity; the same biting corruption and emptiness lies at the soul of Sorrentino's mecca as it did Fellini's. Toni Servillo is beguiling as aged novelist (and 'king of the socialites') Jep Gambardella, a man who has reached 65 years of age and is staggered by the shallowness of his life. He initially seems cynical and sharp-tongued, a grouchy intellectual with an impeccable sartorial eye. Jep begins to search for some kind of earnest humanity, some reprieve from the stylish nothingness of his existence.  By turns, melancholy, cutting, funny, moving, and sublime, the camera pans and tracks through some of Rome's most beautiful vistas and architecture. It caresses the faces and figures of the people in Jep's life, be they enchantresses, strippers, intelligentsia, or grotesques. The Great Beauty is an enigmatic, multi-layered piece of work that expounds on Italy's continuing presence as a giant of world cinema.


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