Friday, January 10, 2014

Top 20 Films of 2013

What a wonderful year for movies this has been. There are so many creative, original, thoroughly enjoyable works that didn't make this list it was almost painful. Works as diverse as Frances Ha, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Museum Hours, All is Lost, Pacific Rim, and Computer Chess are among the 20 or so other movies I wish I could have given some kind of slot on this list. Indeed, cutting the choices down was an act of attrition at times.

Every year, the idea of what I'm doing with a Top 10 or Top 20 changes pretty substantially. At this point, as I'm engaged in Ph.D. course work and building towards a dissertation prospectus, I'm thinking about movies in terms of -- what excites me? What do I want to write about? What do I see as engaging some kind of important cultural theme? Perhaps, more importantly, it's about what I would want to watch over and over again both for my own pleasure and, maybe, to teach in a classroom.

Many of these movies are conversation pieces; some are a bit more imperfect than others and certainly have their own problems (doesn't every fascinating work of art?), but I picked these films less because they fit into whatever critical judgment of "best" is currently en vogue and more because I loved talking about them and thinking about them. For some, I simply loved watching them, and when you watch hundreds of movies a year, it's hard to explain how great it feels to just love watching something.

If there are "themes" that unite the movies on this list, I'd say you see a lot of movies about material excess and how that ties into a corrupt version of the American Dream, mostly spearheaded by some twisted masculine figure. In other works, we explore the violence of history, both the very recent and the far away past. And in still more, we saw portraits of an America struggling to cope with its own disappearance, the radical shifts occurring with the passing of own generation and the confused emergence of another. As always, I'm particularly drawn to movies that try to show us something about our own identities and the cultures and histories that shape those identities.

20. The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold)

Perhaps the first superhero movie to really think about the hero’s imperialist implications, this handsomely made collision of Western and yakuza drama takes the genre in an important direction. Also, bullet train fight.

19. Pain & Gain (dir. Michael Bay)

It took decades, but Michael Bay finally fashioned his aggressively hyper-masculine worldview into a sickeningly satirical look at the American dream, turning his violent aesthetic into a disturbing look at a sub-culture gone haywire.

18. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

Fellini lives on in Sorrentino’s spiritual quasi-sequel to La Dolce Vita; a stunning look at the beauty and emptiness of modern-day Rome and its decadent souls.

17. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)

“Look at my shiiiiiiit” could stand as theme of the year, and few captured it better than Korine’s fever dream portrait of excess partiers, consciously objectified teenagers, posturing gangsters, and surreal Britney Spears covers.

16. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

People believe what they want to believe in Russell’s madcap 1970s crime dramedy. Chock full of great performances and camera movements, its loud meditations on the constructedness of identity make this perhaps Russell's best movie yet.

15. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

If Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can keep getting together every nine years to continue this series, we’ll always have something to look forward to. Dense conversations, complex characters, effortless filmmaking.

14. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

The best parts of this Southern fable of two boys tangling with the blurred lines between good and evil are its loving sense of place and its mythological weight. Nichols’s third feature captures the wonder, mystery, and fear of childhood, while also getting top-notch work from Man of the Moment Matthew McConaughey.

13. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Enlisting massive amounts of CGI, 3D, and every whiz-bang tool of digital cinema at his disposal, Luhrmann meshes the party cultures of millennials and flappers into an endless loop, a within-and-without literary adaptation that pushes at the continued relevancy of its source material.

12. Leviathan (dir. Lucian Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)

Who says movies can’t show us anything new? This sensory ethnography helps us reshape how our bodies might consider the sense of being in, even transcending, a particular place. The shots of birds carrying GoPro cameras high into the sky alone are among the most poetic and beautiful things you’ll see all year.

11. Prisoners (dir. Dennis Villeneuve)

My favorite procedurals are the ones that aren’t really about the procedure. Yes, there’s an urgent, devastating mystery of two lost girls at the heart of Prisoners, but it’s much better seen as a movie about American exceptionalism and posturing. It’s about the icy heart of patriarchy as a form of power. It’s about religious hypocrisy. It’s about the foolishness of torture. It’s about the loss of innocence, the fallacies of community. Don’t get caught mistaking the forest for the trees.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” says the Coens’ latest schmuck protagonist, and it’s a good description for the film: it condenses lots of the brothers’ themes—repetitions, music, journeys (Ulysses in particular), the implications of mundane choices, condescending and struggling artists, John Goodman—and their song doesn’t get old because they reinvent their work into the very form of a folk song or an album, filled with verses and choruses and sustained by top-tier technical work and a perfect, desperate mood.

9. The Counselor (dir. Ridley Scott)

Everyone hated—and I mean hated—this movie, while I loved the heck out of every hyperbolic moment. Its heart is dark, and it’s less of a plot than it is a series of stories and incidents strung together by barely comprehensible forces rapidly tightening the noose around its characters. But my oh my, what a work of apocalyptic tone, what an incisive indictment of greed, what a rich portrait of violent people. It’s a weird, almost constantly off-putting film, but one whose punch is mighty impactful.

8. The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)

This is one of those right-place-right-time movies. It stuck with me long after watching, and indeed became the impetus for a writing project through its emphasis on materialism, representations of economics, and domestic-cum-shopping centers. Its heady simulacra of interplay between "real" and signifier is, to borrow from another writer, Moebius-like. Coppola’s work here is more pointed and insightfully constructed than many gave her credit for. Its alienation is haunting.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

It’s supposed to be a comedy, but no movie depressed me more in 2013 than Scorsese’s sporadic, nightmarish, and colossal portrait of bad behavior. At times, this satirization of Wall Street culture and 1% excessiveness borders on Strangelove-ian darkness—you can’t believe the things coming out of these characters’ mouths and the ways they justify their behavior. Its excessiveness in form, content, and runtime wore me down, to the point where I just wanted to run from this movie, until I realized that might be both its flaw and its greatness. It’s an outrageous film that should make you feel outraged. In The Wolf of Wall Street, we’re all victims.

6. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

There’s been a lot of talk about Bruce Dern—who is fantastic—and too much talk of this movie as a character study. What makes Nebraska a great movie is how it uses its widescreen, black and white photography to paint a picture of the erosion of the Midwest—the land it explores has been marked by recession and immense economic uncertainty. The people and places in this movie feel so true to me: I’ve had these conversations, sat in these rooms, walked through these towns. It’s an at times painful portrait of both the recession and the end of a generation, but one that I find surprisingly humanistic and hopeful.

5. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

For most of its runtime, Upstream Color is a labyrinthine, almost impossible to deduce mystery that, in its final sequence, becomes all too clear: this is a movie about cycles and repetitions, about our own confusion at how the world works and how we are unknowing victims of other’s schemes. One might say it’s about the strange relationship between man and nature. Or maybe it’s about our own struggles with memory and forgetting. It’s a film that, once you figure out, holds a potentially infinite number of meanings. One thing is clear all the way through though: Carruth’s filmmaking is virtuoso, and this is a totally different kind of “mind game” narrative.

4. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

12 Years a Slave is that pretty rare moment when serious historiographic concerns meet rigorous filmmaking without pandering down the middle. Through his intense formalism, Steve McQueen’s focus on bodies and spaces thinks about the personal and systemic ramifications of slavery in a way I’ve never seen before. The approach is almost pure horror-show at times, an aesthetic both beautiful and brutal, but it asks us to think about the weight of slavery as an industry and how racism—hell, discrimination of any kind—is continually justified by the society performing it. It's been said that foreign filmmakers deliver the best portraits of America, and maybe it took a British director to finally make a grueling and intelligent portrait of slavery.

3. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

What else can I say about Gravity that everyone hasn’t already said? It’s such a pure work of imagination and skill, something that pushes technology to the next level while also giving us new ways to think about how we interact with and embody ourselves in films. While it lacks the rigorous political/social underpinnings of Cuaron’s other work—and for this reason it may not age particularly well—it’s certainly a film that’s looking forward in what sci-fi can do. It explores space (pun intended) in fantastic ways, and it's about as phenomenological as an effects-driven film can ever hope to be. I only saw Gravity once despite wanting to watch it over and over in the theaters, in part because movies are really expensive but also because I didn’t want to sully the amazing high that can only come from pure cinema.

2. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

Lyrical and melancholic, Spike Jonze’s visionary portrait of the relationship between man and technology expands into being about so much more; it’s about the very foundations of who we are and how we experience the world amidst a world that is rapidly changing. Its emotions are incredibly complex, alternately slyly funny and painfully sad, and most shockingly its core relationship is wholly empathetic (at least, to me). it’s a work that is so relentlessly of this moment (not to mention so completely of its futuristic space, from the clothes to the videogames) yet also seems to transcend time. Jonze nearly bottles the whole of our contemporary life into a movie and give us a new way to look at ourselves. It's a beautiful love letter.

1. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

 I saw The Act of Killing twice this year: once on my own, and once in the context of a documentary studies seminar. On first viewing, I was devastated beyond belief and amazed that Oppenheimer had managed to pull this off. It gave me new ways to think about how documentaries write and represent history, about ethnography, about film itself and how people use film. That, and it’s a jaw-dropping portrait of the mundanity of evil. On second viewing, my seminar engaged in a very important discussion of ethnographic Othering, of filmmaker accountability, of the political goals of this kind of representation, and other ramifications of this work I had been too overwhelmed to consider the first time around. We reached what I thought were some pretty astute criticisms of the film, but those criticisms didn't dampen its impact on me. The conversation this film provokes about the interplay between documentary, history, representation, and responsibility is an important one to have, and even if Oppenheimer is ultimately at fault for “exposing” without “interrogating,” I still think The Act of Killing is the most important work of 2013—both in terms of my own politics as a scholar and human being, but also for its serious contribution to cinema. Hell, for its contribution to historical record.

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