The Best Films of 2013

A still from Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet1. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (dir. Alain Resnais)

I suppose it should be no surprise that the wisest, most mature film of the year should come from perhaps the wisest, most mature living filmmaker.  Now at 91, Alain Resnais has long ago earned the right to settle down and make whatever senile, esoteric film he wants, but instead he makes this remarkably perceptive film on the delicate interaction between life and art; individual dreams vs. a shared cultural heritage; and the fragility of time and memory  (an oft repeated theme in Resnais’ work).  Not only is this perhaps his best film in thirty years, it strikes this viewer as the work of an old magician showing his audience that he still has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and the hurried, impassioned work of a man trying to make a poignant final statement about life, death, love, and his art before time, that great equalizer, finally and inevitably catches up to him.

nebraska2. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

Following in the spirit of the great American road movies of the 1970’s (Five Easy PiecesHarry & Tonto, even Paper Moon), Alexander Payne’s best film to date journey’s into the heritage, and consequently, legacy of a Midwestern family.  Bruce Dern has been working his entire career towards this role which he inhabits with aplomb.  Mistaken by some for condescension and use of Midwestern stereotypes (a sin for which Payne was regrettably guilty of in his previous, Hawaii set, The Descendants), Payne actually exhibits an almost Todd Solondz-like mastery of tone which reveals the essential compassion at the film’s core, as well as Payne’s deeply felt, personal understanding of the milieu.  Note the subtle eye for detail in the characterization of June Squibb’s very Catholic, bawdy vulgarity vs. Bruce Dern’s pained, stoical Lutheranism.

to the wonder3. To The Wonder (dir. Terrence Malick)

Seen by many as the forgettable stepchild, or B-side to Malick’s operatic and highly praised The Tree of Life, if anything this may be the superior of the two.  Both less cosmic and more disciplined than it’s predecessor, To The Wonder is nonetheless a triumph of poetic and personal filmmaking.  Rather than contrasting (or connecting) the triumphs and tribulations of a single family to the unimagined vastness of the cosmos, instead Malick equates love, the virility of nature, and the quest for spiritual identity with the search for God.  At its best, his exalted visual style bestows a sense of holiness and reverence on even the most mundane of subjects.  And, at it’s best, is the closest modern film has come to producing a cinematic act of prayer.

prisoners4. Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

If there was one film this year that caught me off guard and proved to be unexpectedly compelling, it would be Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners.  This intense, slow building, morally complex thriller turns the “revenge drama” sub-genre on its head by exploring its characters in philosophical and spiritual terms rather than using them as cynical and facile political allegories.  Like Mystic River, this film suggests the seemingly conflicting natures of justice and faith, yet Hugh Jackman’s everyman rage proves far more salient and pitiable than Sean Penn’s actory histrionics.

like someone in love5. Like Someone In Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

In his two most recent outings, Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has turned his lens from his native land to two very different, almost disparate cultures: Italy (Certified Copy) and now Japan.  Like To the Wonder, Kiarostami’s latest seems to have suffered critically by being the follow up to a highly praised predecessor.  Rather than a step back in filmmaking, if anything the critical confusion seems to rest in a sense of cultural dislocation: the warm, inviting Italian countryside of Certified Copy vs. the cold, impersonal Tokyo metropolis.  The difference between the two films is almost an East vs. West dichotomy.  And that’s the point.  It’s the sense of cultural disconnectedness (a theme often employed by Ozu) of the two principal characters, and that need for understanding, connection, and human warmth that they both seem to have lost (or possibly abandoned).  Kiarostami’s technique may be intentionally distancing at times, yet his effect is poignant, and in the film’s final moments, quite surprising.

 

the world's end6. The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Film by film, Edgar Wright is proving himself to be the master comic filmmaker of our era.  With The World’s End, Wright achieves what Tarantino seldom (or never) has: the ability to digest familiar genre tropes and regurgitate them as intensely personal reflection and even film art.  The film’s dramatic thrust–reconciling nostalgia and illusions of past triumph with the reality of a world that you need more than it needs you–is so well and movingly captured that it takes a mid-film twist into 1950’s sci-fi territory in order to contain it.  Despite the emotional immaturity of some of the characters, as a filmmaker, Wright proves to be both insightful and compassionate, while the film succeeds simultaneously as a buddy comedy, reunion drama, political satire, sci-fi/horror film, and parody.  No easy task, but he does it.

 

in the hosue7. In The House (dir. François Ozon)

François Ozon has developed as a filmmaker in recent years.  From the unsettling, erotic thrillers of his early career to the more humane domestic satirist he has become, Ozon has never lost his skill for balancing the beautiful with the sinister.  Ozon slyly attacks bourgeois institutions such as contemporary art, literature, smug intellectualism, and middle class home life with a film that essentially exposes how contemporary culture has come to define itself by these things rather than the other way around.  In fact, the approach of In The House is essentially surrealist and would feel at home in Luis Buñuel’s oeuvre right in between The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  Though, in reality, it’s most closely related to Pasolini’s bizzare-o satire, Teorema.  Thankfully, however, Ozon is less alienating and more compassionate than his Italian counterpart.

 

the we and the i8. The We and the I (dir. Michel Gondry)

If nothing else, music video wunderkind Michel Gondry’s latest experiment triumphs for use of the most philosophically and politically prescient title in years.  Here Gondry utilizes the device misused by Richard Linklater in Dazed and Confused, by charting the longings and insecurities of a diverse group of inner city Bronx high school students on a bus ride home after the last day of school.  Where Linklater attempted a more cerebral, and ultimately condescending tone, Gondry’s inclusiveness and emotional honesty charts the profundity of adolescent moral development.  The resulting observation, which discovers the process of forming one’s individuality in the context of social interaction and the greater culture at large, is as vibrant and natural as any film you will see.

 

bullet to the head9. Bullet To The Head (dir. Walter Hill)

Sylvester Stallone cements his return to action film stardom in this, the best of his now several “comeback” films.  Best because at last he hitches himself to Walter Hill, a director who understands the fundamental dynamics of action films better than virtually any other living director.  Hill, in comeback mode himself, a director who studied at the schools of masters such as Howard Hawks, John Huston, and even Jean-Pierre Melville shows an emphasis on moral reckoning and codes of ethics over mindless violence and CGI bombast.  For Hill, action is character (when properly contextualized) and the line, “Sometimes you have to abandon your principals and do the right thing,” perfectly captures that professional ethos.  For Stallone and Hill, two dogged veterans of the action genre, violence proves not to be merely a contrivance to advance plot, but an illustration of human weakness.

 

the grandmaster10. The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)

If Walter Hill is one of the masters of the action film as it has developed in the West, then Wong Kar-Wai (along with Zhang Yimou) is the master of the action film as it has developed in the East, even though neither Wong nor Zhang is exclusively tied to the action genre.  In The Grandmaster, action and choreography become the primary tools of emotional expression in a film that seamlessly combines national history with cultural myth.  The visage of the two leads (Wong regular, Tony Leung, and the always gorgeous, Ziyi Zhang) promotes inscrutable mystery and emotional distance, yet when in combat there is an explosion of passion, as if they can only truly express themselves in the terms of their art, even if it is a martial one.  Though this may not be Wong’s best film (that distinction belongs to the underrated 2046), it exhibits many of his most potent themes, including the tragic tenuousness of time and cultural memory (a theme which, to bring this list full circle, he learned from Alain Resnais).

 

Honorable Mention:

Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani), Passion (Brian De Palma), Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel), Pain & Gain (Michael Bay), 42 (Brian Helgeland), American Hustle (David O. Russell), Mud (Jeff Nichols), Byzantium (Neil Jordan), Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland), The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie)

 

The Forgettable and the Overrated:

Before Midnight, The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prince Avalanche, Spring Breakers, The Wolf of Wall Street

 

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Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI

Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” on Notebook | MUBI.

I don’t generally repost articles, but I found this to be especially compelling.

The New World

The-New-World-001That Terrence Malick is an enigma need not be overstated.  Much has been made and speculated over regarding the director’s almost J.D. Saliger-like reclusiveness and the notoriously mysterious twenty year gap between his second and third films–a gap which, thankfully, appears to be quickly dropping between successive films.  Currently, with only six completed films to his credit in a forty year career, he has consistently been pointed to as the kind of filmmaker who seems to embody the adage of quality over quantity.  For the critic, however, if nothing else, the gaps between films allows for them to be categorized neatly into groups of two: there is the photographic brilliance, and the innocent, blue collar poetry of his first two films (Badlands and Days of Heaven); there is the mature, transcendent revisionism of his middle two historic epics (The Thin Red Line and The New World); and finally the cosmic-as-personal Christianity of his most recent films (Tree of Life and To the Wonder).  Above all, however, Terrence Malick is a poet working in a medium whose audience often tends to shun unfamiliar forms of expression.  And it is his poetic instincts which are simultaneously his greatest strength (and legacy to the artform) as well as potentially the very characteristics which can get him into trouble.

Pauline Kael once described Days of Heaven as an “epic pastiche” with too many ideas that don’t grow out of anything organic, and described it as “an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphor’s on it.”  While I’m not convinced she was right about the film (Days of Heaven remains a personal favorite of mine), Kael was always a challenger of prevailing notions.  I do, however, understand her inclination, which has been periodically leveled against several of his films.  Poetry, and in particular visual poetry, without discipline can far too easily become mindless ambiguity: form without substance.

Though not necessarily my very favorite of his films, in some ways, The New World represents the apotheosis of Malick’s art–both grounded to narrative just enough so as not to distance a more casual audience, while still maintaining the lyrical grandeur one has come to expect from his films, achieving the kind of organic representation that Kael felt was lacking in his earlier work.  I write here about the primary, theatrical version of film rather than 2 1/2 hour Academy cut which was released briefly in late 2005 (sadly, I didn’t get to see this version), or the nearly 3 hour director’s cut released on DVD and BluRay (which I also own, but find to be unnecessarily indulgent).  The New World might best be viewed as a creation myth.  But unlike the creation story at the center of his Tree of Lifethis creation story is less concerned with the origins of the universe than the origins of man–or, if you prefer, the origins of a nation.  Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell in perhaps his best role to date) and Pocahontas (first-timer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory, under-recognized performance) are the new Adam and the new Eve of the Edenic American continent circa 1607.  And like the biblical Eden, it is sin which brings about the fall of this new Paradise.

The opening scenes of English ships arriving at the shores of Virginia set to the introduction of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold opera, are are among the most captivating scenes from any film in the last decade and immediately set the tone for things to come.  In a film filled with contrasts and juxtapositions, perhaps the most startling early on is that of the English in their bulky, metal armor and the Natives in their buckskin.  The cautious, early interactions between the two cultures breeds suspicion and unease on both sides.

At times, the film somewhat over-idealizes the way of life of the Natives–Smith’s narration suggests that they have no concept of greed, deceit, or even forgiveness, a notion contradicted by Pocahontas’ pleading with her kingly father for forgiveness, as well as the tribe’s proficiency with weapons and military strength–but thankfully, it never quite reaches the simplistic level of Indians=good, Europeans=bad.  Instead, Malick’s humanism reaches far deeper than that, uncovering the complexities of colonial contact.  As one critic pointed out, “He (Malick) creates uncanny, expressive imagery, such as a pair of hands, turned outward from a praying position so that they are cupped, to scoop a clam out of the fecund sea. It is an image of promise, yet both the pearl and the plundering are implicit.”  Indeed, for that is the double-sided story of The New World and of America herself–a land in many ways destroyed in order to make way for the promise of hope, opportunity, and new beginnings.

Nevertheless, like a story by Emerson or Thoreau, the film finds tragedy in man’s estrangement from his environment, and peculiarity in his desire to reshape nature as represented in a scene where an Indian stares perplexed at a meticulously manicured English garden late in the film.  The beauty of nature vs. the encroachment of civilization is a common theme throughout Malick’s work.  As with the clam in the sea, the sets of hands, so often seen outstretched to heaven throughout the film, suggest it might be a kind of prayer: a prayer of thanks for the beauty that surrounds us, and a prayer of repentance for the destruction we have wrought.

Simultaneously more optimistic than The Thin Red Line and more focused and disciplined than Tree of Life (the films which immediately preceded and followed this one), The New World ultimately succeeds through the character of Pocahontas whose strong will and open heart finds peace through sacrifice.  And fittingly, it is images of resurrection which dominate the film’s rapturous finalé, confirming that only through destruction can there be rejuvenation, and only through death can one find life everlasting. It is here that the ambiguous mysticism of her elliptical narration becomes solid and takes form, how the word is made flesh.  Though her chiefly father may have been just in distrusting the Europeans, it is her compassion which transcends justice and finds grace.