The internet is rotten with top ten lists of all sorts, so I’m a bit embarrassed to be adding to the problem here, but I do find this a useful exercise and one that has led, in previous years, to interesting conversations with people who have stumbled across the site in one way or another and were gratified or horrified by the films I seem to enjoy.
This year’s list once again comes with the recognition that there are several films which could, or even maybe should, be on here but which, either due to my own laziness or to the idiot narrowness of film distribution patterns, I have not yet seen. The 2013 films I’m most keen to see, and which I have the sense might alter the list below are A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013, China), Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012, Brazil), The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013, UK), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013, Poland/UK), The Stuart Hall Project (John Akomfrah, 2013, UK), Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013, Japan), At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, 2013, USA), The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy), Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013, France) and La Maison de la Radio (Nicolas Philibert, 2013, France).
That said and these failures aside, here’s a list of ten films that I saw in 2013, mostly from 2013, that I particularly enjoyed or have stuck with me for one reason or another.
10. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012, Denmark/Norway/UK/Finland)
This has topped all kinds of other lists, and I have to confess that my first reaction to the film was a kind of baffled bewilderment. But the film, its images, and its experimental methodology have all stuck with me. A documentary about a genocide that has those who perpetrated it walk you through their methods and restage them cinematically, The Act of Killing is less about the history of Indonesia than, as Oppenheimer himself says in an interview with the Village Voice, the consequences of impunity.
9. Vic + Flo Saw A Bear (Denis Côté, 2013, Canada)
Any straightforward plot outline of Côté’s film, the story of two lesbian ex-cons who retreat to a sugar shack to avoid trouble only to have the past, as it inevitably does, catch up with them, does not do justice to the altogether alluring sheer tonal oddness of it. The film is suspenseful and unnerving, but this has much more to do with atmosphere than it does with plot. I have my reservations about the film’s harrowing conclusion (that’s no giveaway, as Côté telegraphs from the get go that something bad is going to happen), but I was seduced by its languid pace, its unexpected narrative swerves, its bold imagery, and its various idiosyncratic elements.
8. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012, Canada)
Polley’s investigation into her own family history is a sophisticated experiment in auto/biographical filmmaking as well as being a powerful and moving story. As Polley investigates whether she is actually who she thinks she is, she gets her siblings to open up about a mother the full story of whom she does not know and which has been, out of kindness, hidden from her.
7. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013, USA)
I saw Pablo Larrain’s No (2012, Chile) a little too late to include it on my best of 2012 list, but it shares with Bujalski’s film an interest in how to film the recent past and constitutes a kind of formal speculation on the possibilities of there being a intrinsic connection between media format and a specific era’s structure of feeling. Just as Larrain films his history of late 80s Chile on 3/4 U-Matic magnetic tape in an effort to reproduce and reflect on how television coverage constitutes or obscures reality, Bujalski films his history of an early 1980s tournament for computer chess software programmers using era-specific Sony videocameras to convey something of the moment’s sense of possibility. In the tensions between competing programmers, the self-identified nerds from MIT or Chicago holed up in a Houston hotel for the weekend watching computers play chess, there is the glimpse of the modern era being born.
6. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013, France)
Further proof that tone and atmosphere are as important as narrative and plot to me, I can’t even really remember the intricacies of the serial-killer-at-a-lakeside-gay-cruising-beach story that motors this film. What I do remember is the sense of unease generated by the still moments where the sun glistens off the lake or the wind rustles through the trees. A film made up of repetitions and variations – the daily arrivals and departures from the beach provide the film with its structure – Stranger by the Lake is a film bold in its representation of sexuality and beguiling as a unorthodox kind of thriller.
5. A Field In England (Ben Wheatley, 2013, UK)
Wheatley’s film is a historical drama about the English Civil War that follows a group of soldiers who have abandoned the fight and gone in pursuit of a mysterious buried treasure somewhere in a field in England. To be honest, for most of the film I really had no idea what was going on, but yet this made it no less pleasurable or exciting. Shot in black and white, and with a real interest in the herbal hallucinogens that could be prepared from ordinary English flora, A Field in England is an experiment in rural, historical psychedelia. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you are keen on folk horror or are convinced there’s an occult side to English history, this one is for you.
4. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013, USA)
Sure, there are problems with Gravity, not least the Hollywood logic that demands that the South Asian astronaut have his face obliterated by spacejunk inside the first 15 minutes while Sandy and George survive. Yet despite this, and despite the scientific inaccuracies and despite the silly metaphorical ending, I found Gravity exhilarating and engaging. Having sworn off 3D, and being one of a minority who thought even Hugo was clear evidence of the format’s total aesthetic impoverishment, Gravity proves that there is always the exception that proves the rule.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA)
Pressed to name my favorite genre, I’d probably have to say “quiet films about failure.” That’s what I think the Coen Brothers deliver here. It’s not one of their funny films, although it does come with a few moments of wry humor. It is a film that zeroes in on someone who is in the right place at the right time but is nevertheless the wrong man.
2. Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013, USA)
Bruce Dern is magnificent as Woody Grant, a slightly cantankerous old man who suffers from senile dementia. Unable to drive his beloved truck any longer, he sets off on foot from his home in Billings, Montana to Omaha, Nebraska to retrieve the million dollars he steadfastly believes he has won in a Publisher’s Sweepstakes-type lottery. His wife and sons tell him repeatedly that it is a fraud, but faced with Woody’s persistence, his youngest son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Omaha. Shot in black and white, Payne’s film is elegiac but never lapses into sheer sentimentality. Most importantly, as Nick Pinkerton notes in an article on Dern in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, the film does not give Woody the big speech, that phony moment of lucidity where he demands respect or shows himself to be nobly cognizant of his own situation. The film is all the more powerful for leaving out this moment, refusing to include that staple feature of the dementia melodrama. The film has its moments of humor and also manages to have scenes that are incredibly moving (such as the visit of the entire family to Woody’s childhood home, now abandoned) without succumbing to the saccharine. June Squibb is terrific as Woody’s wife, who could be described as long-suffering if she did not give as good as she gets.
1. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012, USA)
I’m tempted to opt lazily for the weak description of Leviathan I’ve read elsewhere: it’s a documentary about fishing shot from the point of view of the fish. But this does not even begin to isolate what is fantastic and formidable about the film itself. Working out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel filmed onboard a trawler fishing off the New England coast and have produced a film that reaches toward the symbolism of its title even as it immerses the viewer in the abject materiality of the world. It is the experience of being thrown overboard, not literally of course, but in terms of being deprived of all those things (narrative, characters, plot) that usually keep us afloat when we watch cinema. To some this is akin to drowning, but I found it strangely liberating. That’s why I think that this experimental documentary, without plot or character, was the best film of 2013.
Using lightweight cameras that could be attached to the crew, tangled in the nets, tethered to lines dipping in and out of the water, and tossed about on the deck of the boat, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film conveys something of the sensory experience of the fishing and the open, turbulent sea. From the noise of the machinery to the drone of the engines to the shouted communication of the crew to the screech of the gulls overhead, Leviathan was, for me, visually and sonically the most exhilarating cinematic experience of the year. This is not a matter of veracity. I don’t think a film can reproduce the whole sensory experience of the work being done under those very difficult conditions. It’s more a matter of enabling a different view of the world and work being done. I would be totally onboard (pun intended) for a conventional documentary about fishing as well, but the pleasures of Leviathan comes at least in part from how its formal experiments open up a different way of seeing and understanding.
And, as always, a few regrets…
I was not one of those who had an extreme allergic reaction to Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013, Denmark/Thailand). I have a feeling that my appreciation of Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013, USA) is only going to intensify on second viewing. And finally, Rewind This! (Josh Johnson, 2013, USA) is a celebration of the VHS tape whose enthusiasm for the outmoded format was oddly moving and completely infectious.