2013 Year in Review Part 3 – Top 10

January 3, 2014

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10. Beyond the Hills

Even I wasn’t too terribly thrilled at the prospect of watching a 150 minute Romanian film about two young women at a monastery, but Cristian Mungu’s bleak and horrific descent into the world of failed support systems and an aggressively conservative church is intoxicating.  The story of two orphans, one returning from Germany to get her lifelong friend to leave the monastery where she’s become a nun is quietly simple in the beginning and then manages to complicate everything by a series of elements outside of the two girls’ control. Mungu subtley plumbs deeper and deeper as events begin to spiral further and further out of control without the vast implications of what’s going to happen (spoiler alert, this film involves of all things an exorcism).  Crucial to its success – and something achieved through its mood and style – is the way Mungu refuses to judge anyone.  People are trapped by circumstance, whether thats poverty in the case of the orphans and the girls, or a lack of funding in the case of the hospital, or by their own ingrained religious beliefs in the case of the “Daddy” Priest and his nuns.  It’s a cruel, patriarchal and hierarchal system that blithely causes a tragedy, and there’s nothing directly malicious from anyone.  That’s not just the stuff a great character drama, but it’s the key to great political filmmaking.

 

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9. Museum Hours

An off-kilter, sort of lonely Canadian named Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) comes to Vienna to see a vague acquaintance, who is in a coma and dying in a hospital there.  Lost and not a little bit confused by the city, she befriends a kindly old security guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer), who works at Kunsthistorisches Art Musuem and decides to help her out and give her some company while in town.  It’s a quiet film, directed by Jem Cohen with an observer’s gaze.  There’s little plot to go on, and even the relationship between the two isn’t front and center most of the time.  Carrying a lot of the weight is Johann’s narration where he recounts his experiences working at the museum, and the small and subtle ways being around the artwork, especially that of Bruegel, has affected him.  Some might say it tries too hard to make the connection between art and life (they’re a little on the nose, but the shots of litter in the street that echo Bruegel’s almost documentary-like attention to the tiny details everyday medieval life worked completely for me), but for me it never overplayed its hand and still left space for the characters, especially Anne, to experience the death of her friend and consider her own life without being directly inspired by the works around her.  Maybe the lecture in the centre of the film is too much, but it’s a minor complaint.  It’s passive style makes room for viewer consideration, and with so many beautiful moments (the reactions of real museum patrons that Cohen filmed, documentary style are fantastic) and funny little narrative details, it paints a picture of life at its most beautifully small.

 

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8. Bastards

Claire Denis is, for my money, one of the top filmmakers working today, and though Bastards might be her most off-putting work since The Intruder, and her most angry and pessimistic film possibly ever, it’s brutally effective in its portrayal of despicable people and the corruptive influence of wealth.  It is indeed very noirish, not just in its mystery elements (a sailor leaves his life to return home to find out why his brother-in-law is dead and who sexually assaulted his niece) and its dark rooms and shadowy nights, but its fatalistic mood – there is no doubt from the first frame that nothing good is going to come of any of this.  It is, then, more plot-based than a number of recent features, but it’s filtered through Denis’ elliptical style, which both enhances the mystery elements and the splintered morality of its characters.  Michel Subor’s shit-eating grin is perfect for the wealthy industrialist who believes himself to be above moral norms whilst being disgusted by others involved, and his counter balance is the wordless performance by abused innocent Lola Creton, who’s defiant naked walk down a city street serves as a visual spine for the film.  An angry broadside against a certain class of people, Denis’ style is nevertheless too aggressive until, perhaps, the final blurry, digital shot that some have found extraneous, but for me, with its accompaniment by the Tindersticks’ cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” is the queasy crescendo to the sordid actions of a group of, well, bastards.

 

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7. Drug War

Shamefully this is the first experience I’ve had of Johnnie To, a war horse of Hong Kong cinema making his first foray into the mainland system (and its attendant codes) damn near 50 films into his oeuvre.  Drug War is some kind of platonic ideal of a cops and criminals thriller, moving gracefully and viciously through its complex plot of betrayals and infiltration while seeming like the most simple viewing experience you’ll have all year.  To doles out information carefully, and part of the thrill is how nothing is ever over explained, but simply revealed.  The cops are sort of lionized, the villains very…villainous, but even if I’m not sure there’s a deep thematic thread (there might be, but I’d need to see it again to get past the surface pleasures that abound, and I’d probably have to learn more about China as well), it’s a breakneck wonder of action, suspense, and determination.  The entire picture doesn’t become clear until the final, brutally elegant shoot out, and by trusting the audience (when so few in this genre do) and gilding the story with audacious camera movements and a visual style that’s somehow both sleek and gorgeous and grey and gritty all at the same time, To has made what might be the most satisfying viewing experience of the year.

 

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6. The World’s End

Edgar Wright might be the finest comedy director in the English-speaking world right now, and his capper to the “Cornetto Trilogy” he has co-written with star Simon Pegg is his most sophisticated (both visually and emotionally) work yet.  The absurdly clever writing isn’t just for a series of incredible gag payoffs, but it structurally mirrors the thematic core of the piece: the endless desire to relive and the ways in which is it totally impossible.  The man-child archetype unwilling to grow-up that was the centre of Shaun of the Dead is taken to a plausible extreme in Gary King, an alcoholic who hasn’t been able to move past the glory days of over 20 years before.  He reassembles his old group of friends, most of them unwilling, all of them sad at the sight of him (and nicely composed of the cream of the British character actor crop), and they go on a quest (the film is absolutely riddled with Arthurian legend, perhaps the greatest mythos to revere a past glory that never happened) to finish the golden mile pub crawl, only to be confronted with Body Snatcher-esque “empties” who wouldn’t conform to the “better world” envisioned by a race of alien intelligence.  It’s flurry of delights are both verbal and visual, especially the show-stopping bathroom brawl that sets off the second half, but what really pushes it over the top is its sophisticated and complicated relationship with the notions of growing up versus “growing up” and the ambiguities of “progress” which is almost interchangeable with creating a more homogenised world (“Starbucking, as they say).  The climax is as apocalyptic as the title suggests, but the real surprise is the way its central character “grows” by really not growing much at all.  The implication is that societal expectations doesn’t always fit with the desires of a person to be their absolute best, so the only way forward to is destroy society.

 

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5. Leviathan

Supposedly made out of necessity when the equipment of experimental documentarians Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verona Paravel was destroyed, Leviathan explores the world of industrial deep sea fishing using small, mobile Go Pro cameras to create what is essentially the anti-Deadliest Catch.  Without narration or any conventional narrative at all, we’re given a visual and aural experience unlike any other in an attempt to capture the rusty mechanization of industry, the beauty of the deep black sea, and the brutal, bloody nature of fishing.  It is, at points, almost a horror film from the perspective of the fish as we watch their dead eyes glaring and rolling through the metal holds and we see the gallons and gallons of water and blood pouring out the sides of the ship.  Indeed, if I thought the filmmakers had any intention for advocacy, this is a far more effective piece of propaganda than the woeful Blackfish, but I don’t believe for a second that was the intention.  It’s a slice of life turned into a stunning experience of beautiful dread, and the rustling of the chains and the shots of the birds from just under the water will not leave me for a very long time. It’s a different kind of cinema than the rest of this list, but it’s pure cinema nonetheless.

 

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4. 12 Years a Slave

The prestige picture that defies all notions of what Hollywood deems worthy of prestige, Steve McQueen has bounced back from the misfire that was Shame with what might be the most significant investigation of American slavery in the history of Hollywood.  Pulling back his significant visual audacity, McQueen saves his abilities for the moments when they’re most effective, notably in a seemingly endless and unforgiving depicting of a whipping scene that’s as stomach churning as it should be.  12 Years a Slave successfully walks the tight rope between personal drama and didactic exploration – it’s cast of characters are mirrored by opposites, but naturally and convincingly enough that it never feels like we’re being taken on a walking tour of all the different types of slaves and slavers and circumstances that were present in that dark, foundational period of American history.  Of course it takes a Brit to tackle it, and a Brit to act it in Chiwitel Ejiofor, who might hopefully get the wider recognition his varied and impressive career deserves.  The “triumph” implicit in the title is not a triumph at all, but a circumstantial development caused only by the virtue of birth, and that is what essentially separated masters and slaves.  The ways in which people coped with the psychological trauma that comes with being forced into a life of hell just because of how you were born is unflichingly explored, and when Solomon Northrup is dangling from a noose as everyone goes about their business in the background, the sheer scope of the horror comes into focus.  When such brutality is commonplace, and there’s no hope for escape, there’s no choice but to accept it and move on.  That’s why Solomon’s arc doesn’t climax when he is reunited with his family, but when he sings a funeral song for a fellow slave who knows the only freedom they could hope for.

 

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3. Before Midnight

It’s about time. It’s about “time”.

 

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2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Sometimes I wonder if my odd suspicions about the Coen Brothers’ talent is that I just can’t accept that America has filmmakers that are just this good.  After a steady stream of pictures that maybe threatened to overwhelm their appreciation, they took a bit of a break and have come back with what seems fairly minor and even, to an extent, a retread of past work.  Combining the period piece musical of O Brother Where Art Thou and the Job-like bad luck of A Serious ManInside Llewyn Davis somehow manages to transcend those comparisons by being a complete work of its own that also features a weary affection for its titular character, played wonderfully by Oscar Issac.  Llewyn is kind of an asshole, to be sure, and his wanderings through New York and the Greenwich Village and even all the way to Chicago over the course of a week prove there’s something bastardly about the way he uses people while also spitting on them for not holding onto the ideals he thinks he holds himself to.  It is a portrait of a talented artist who just missed the mark, as so many did, and we can look back on it with winking irony about just how close he was to the break but we also have to wince at his own inability to make something for himself – rarely has there been so much tied to a seemingly small scene of signing away royalties for a bigger immediate paycheck.  It’s a moving depiction of frustration, both deserved and not.

 

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1. The Act of Killing

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary (co-directed with Christine Cynn and, tellingly, “Anonymous”) was years in the making, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to enter the lives of these people and do what he’s done.  The main subject of the film is Anwar Congo, a self-styled gangster that just wanted to be like the criminals in Hollywood films when he got the chance to live out his dreams of power when he participated in the state sanction massacre of communists, Chinese, and basically whomever the local gangs wanted mid-60s Indonesia.  Since history is often written by the victors, Congo is still something of a local celebrity, not just for his part in the killings but for his subsequent career as a gangster.  There’s a lot to chew on here, from how moral “wrongs” are determined by society and politics to an exploration of the dark side of a country’s history that’s a potent and threatening as ever.  Oppenheimer proposes to Congo and his cohorts that they recreate the killings in the style of films they like, and thus follows a series of interrogations in the style of classic Hollywood noir to a triumphant village burning/massacre made to feel like a war movie.  It’s queasy and sickening throughout, and it features scene after scene of new information and new representations that beggar belief.  We get a friend recounting when his father was taken and killed and put into a barrel as a suggestion for a scene, before it gets shot down by explaining “you can’t put everything in the movie”.  There’s a peculiar, chubby friend who gets put into a dress because a film need “comedy”.  We also enter the world of sanctioned paramilitary organizations that control their territory with violent threats and who extort money from the poor market workers to pay themselves.  This is classic criminality in a country where its not criminal.  The surprising thing is how Congo, who believes this film is going to be the ultimate in self-mythologizing (as films are wont to do) and turns into a terrifying mirror of his own moral shortcomings.  It is, along with being many other things, a treatise on the ways cinema can hold up and praise disgusting cultural norms, but also the ways it can reflect wrongs and provide a context for self-examination.  Congo’s wretching on the roof may seem convenient, but it’s also the most fitting reaction to everything that’s been seen and done.

-M

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