Sunday, January 19, 2014

Faves of 2013

15. ElysiumGoing into Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium”, I didn't expect to discover the best film of the summer, but that’s exactly what happened. Like his previous film, “District 9”, Blomkamp has stretched and re-invigorated the dystopian sci-fi genre with ease. Yes, it is a message movie and one that inherently beats you over the head with its strictly drawn characterizations of good and evil (and oh my is off-the-grid-military-man Kruger played by Sharlto Copley downright bad), but its populist fable between the “haves” and the “have nots” also incredibly moving and aggressive. Damon is the savior figure as he tries to get to the aforementioned title place where machines cure all sickness and Blomkamp stages the action set pieces and bone-crushing fight scenes expertly…. Including one explosion on board a ship that serves as a delicious plot turner where doppelgangers are spawned and the surprise factor is cranked up to 11. One of the most entertaining, eye popping films of the year.

14. A Band Called Death- A highly compulsive documentary that also, could be, the documentation of an urban myth... this time the idea that three African American brothers in Detroit during the early 70's may be the first and most unknown influential punk band ever. Just watching this film floods one with emotions, first as it shows how something so good could get lost so easily, and then secondly as the brothers music is discovered in an attic and resurrected on adoring modern day crowds. This is the ability of a great documentary... to dust off something irrelevant and make it touchingly relevant again. 

13. Before Midnight- Richard Linklater's wrap up to his trilogy about the relationship of American writer Ethan Hawke meeting young French girl Julie Delphy reaches troubling heights as, this time, the verbose affair isn't flirtatious or youth-tinged. They are married, on vacation with their twin daughters and struggling to stay afloat from the very adult problems they're facing. It's in the graceful, lived-in performances of Hawke and Delphy that these films have such charm and humanity and "Before Midnight" may be the best of the three because we see the vagaries of life changing alongside them over the last seventeen years. 

12. The Wolf of Wall Street- It seems director Martin Scorsese needs a frenetic, live-wire film every decade or so to keep his mind young again. There was "After Hourse" and then "Bringing Out the Dead". "The Wolf of Wall Street" is his latest venture...a drugged-up, extreme examination of the excess of Wall Street through the uber rich Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio) and his merry cohorts. This is certainly Scorsese at his most breathless, and yet, it also feels like his most anonymous. Gone are some of his usual stylistic flourishes and the only thing remaining is the long spiral down the rabbit hole of American greed that leaves DiCaprio just as mundane as Henry Hill in "Goodfellas".

11. Aint Them Bodies Saints- The nostalgic 70’s western noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a derivative effort, but a tremendously well made and well-meaning one. Written and directed by David Lowery (whom I had the pleasure to exchange words with over the years through his now defunct blog), his first full length film is a throwback film of the highest order, evoking everything from “Bonnie and Clyde” to the mumble core movement which he’s been a mainstay in for several years now. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the film opens with their separation after the lovers-on-the-lam are arrested and Affleck is sent to prison. He eventually escapes, and the rest of the film charts his desperate attempts to get back to her. Also circling in her life is local cop Ben Foster, in what is certainly the best performance in the film and probably of his intense career. All low-key and humble, Foster personifies the small town sheriff in touching and accurate ways. And those descriptions could fit the entire film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a quiet but revelatory film that dispenses plot in whispers and charged glances.

10. LoreGiving some type of emotional complexity to the German point of view immediately following the Allied invasion and subsequent end to World War 2, initially, seems like a frivolous effort. Yet, that’s exactly what Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland achieves in “Lore”, a dizzying and harrowing account of five children and their trek across country when good German mother and father are dispatched of in the opening moments. As the eldest, Saskia Rosendahl as Lore is magnificent, leading her younger siblings and baby into the recesses of hell, otherwise known as occupied Germany and its scattered, scarred and confused population. The idea of Lore’s forced adulthood, complicated by national pride and sexual confusion when she meets a local boy who helps in their journey, is always at the forefront and handled magnificently. As she did in her previous film “Somersault”, Shortland is a filmmaker attracted to the tactile. While her handheld camera breathlessly darts around her characters, giving prominence to the edges of dresses, dirty feet and blowing fields of flowers rather than eyes and voices, “Lore” is an extremely ‘arty’ film that still manages to dispense narrative and feeling with authority. Like few other current filmmakers- namely female peers such as Andrea Arnold and Claire Denis- Shortland’s bouncing camera is not a detriment to the process, but a voyeur that catches kinetic atmosphere and images. Consistently challenging and terrifying in its family-in-the-war-torn-wilderness-adventure genre, “Lore” is a great sophomore effort.

9. Something In the AirThe latest film from French auteur Olivier Assayas feels like his most personal since “Cold Water” in 1994. Both films feature a young man named Gilles (this time played by Clement Metayer) acting as the surrogate for Assayas himself, tantalizingly poised on the precipice of awkward adulthood. But where “Cold Water” dealt with interior feelings of belonging and amour fou (in the relationship with beautiful but dangerous Virginie Ledoyen), the stakes are a bit higher in “Something In the Air”. Set in Paris after the May events of ‘68, this Gilles and his close sect of friends find themselves mixed up in violent student activism… so violent that they accidentally hurt a security guard during a routine vandalism attempt and are forced to split up in hiding. And while the first third or so of “Something In the Air” deals with these subversive acts of revolution, the real thrust of Assayas’ narrative kicks in after this action, setting up Gilles, Christine (the wonderful Lole Creton), Alaine (Felix Armand) and their various lovers to seek out their own paths in life. The title, while initially evoking the revolutionary scents in the air, subtly changes to denote the forks in the road each individual takes with their lives. Assayas handles all this reverie beautifully, never losing his gentle touch on relationships and staying to true to the way he continually crafts a knockout finale. It may not all be 100% accurate, but the way in which Gilles the man on screen become Assayas the filmmaker is still precise, loving and attuned to the nuances of everyday emotions.

8. The Place Beyond the Pines- Director Derek Cianfrance is on his way to auteur status. Exhibit A is “The Place Beyond the Pines”. What begins as a solid cops and robbers tale soon morphs into an elegant, exhilarating treatise on violence and its repercussions on the future. Ryan Gosling is the down-on-his-luck stunt bike rider and Bradley Cooper is the cop whose path unfortunately crosses with him. On the sideline are women Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne with their respective children. From that compact snapshot, Cianfrance spins a devastating portrait. Like he did with “Blue Valentine”, he captures a grungy, faded-out atmosphere through introspective close-up and a haunting soundtrack. While the story is familiar, “The Place Beyond the Times” is searching for more than that in its morally compromised men and women.

7. Laurence Anyways- Xavier Dolan’s epic drama about the tumultuous partnership between Laurence (Melvil Poupard) and girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) is the better of France’s two messy, sexually hay-wired relationship dramas (the other being “Blue Is the Warmest Color”). To make matters worse, Laurence eventually transforms into a woman, unable to suppress his sexual identity any longer, and he and Fred shuttle back and forth into each other’s lives over a ten year period. Emotionally complex and honestly unwavering in its depiction of all the confused feelings that bubble beneath the surface of us weird human beings, “Laurence Anyways” attempts to give meaning and sincerity to it all. 

6. The Great BeautyPaolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” is a swirling, ebullient ode to a certain city (Rome) and the array of friends, hangers-ons and social dwellers to writer Jep (Toni Servillo) as he waltzes in and out of memories during his 65th birthday. This is a mysterious and moving exploration of the way we meld the past and present, brimming with imagination and life. Scenes like the midnight entrance to an ancient museum, Jep’s interaction with a magician and his giraffe, and his various walks around the city, where innocuous gazes into the eyes of couples in restaurants and meandering streets feel like dreamy excerpts from a novel… and they very may well be. It all adds up to a film that’s burned into my head and won’t get out. With this film, Sorrentino has vaulted himself to the forefront of talented European filmmakers.

5. Dallas Buyer's Club- With Best Actor (McConaughey) and Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto) Oscars locked in their pockets, there are many other reasons to experience Jean Marc Valee’s “Dallas Buyers Club”. Not only is its story (about a heterosexual man becoming afflicted with AIDS) told without a shred of overt sentimentality, but it’s also a pervasive tale about the relationships we form as our lives evolve.

4. Gravity- From its long, opening tracking shot to it’s thunderous ending, Alfonse Cuaron’s dazzling sci-fi film dares to exemplify the ultimate example of human resilience in the darkness of space. Not being a huge Sandra Bullock fan, I went into the film with skepticism but came out alarmed by the range of emotion she exhibits. Cuaron just has a way of making the seemingly obvious feel groundbreaking.

3. Upstream Color- Shane Carruth is quickly rising on the list of young innovators after seeing his sophomore effort, "Upstream Color". Although this film doesn't require the grids and down-the-rabbit-hole logic of his previous film, "Primer", "Upstream Color" is no less a challenging work. Cross-cutting between the tenuous relationship between a man (Carruth himself) and woman (Amy Siemetz) who meet on a Dallas DART rail and, of all things, a mysterious pig farm, "Upstream Color" weaves a completely engrossing and heady narrative. It could be called pretentious and a host of other things usually attached to the more obtuse art house fare, but there's real depth, sincerity and a downright stunning opening and closing sequence (virtually wordless) that propels Carruth's lofty ambitions into something close to a masterpiece. Carruth, who also wrote the film and scored its trancey synth-pop soundtrack, is a jack of all trades and deserves the license to pursue whatever projects he desires in the future. Just a marvelous, consistently dazzling film.

2. Stories We Tell- Actress/Director Sarah Polley's latest film, "Stories We Tell" is a documentary, turning the lens on herself and her own family as she scalpels away at the truth of the infectious personality of mom Diane and exactly what happened in the late 70's. Using direct interviews, grainy home video footage and even actor-portrayed recreations, "Stories We Tell" charts the timeline of her family with judicious investigation. Why doesn't she look like the rest of her family? What causes a marriage to fade into boredom and familiarity? And what's the responsibility of future generations to trace the truth of past ones? All of these questions are answered in Polley's capable hands, at great personal cost to all. As a documentary, its exhilarating. As a personal diary, it’s downright heartbreaking. 

1. The Grandmaster- Vaguely about the life of legendary martial arts teacher Ip Man (Tony Leung), "The Grandmaster" is a sensual and aural feast, timed to Kar Wai's penchant for several things including the slow motion pan, unrequited love, and life observed through the window pane. This is probably the most mainstream art film ever released, as judged by the groaning at my screening when subtitles went unrelenting after the first scene. Audiences are expecting a Jet Li-like actioner, and they're getting something altogether different (and better).Yet beyond the action (which is supreme... one wondrous set piece after another), "The Grandmaster" hones in on the relationship of Ip Man and Gong Er, played by Zhang Yiyi and their relationship through the years of civil war and Japanese invasion. In fact, "The Grandmaster" basically deserts Ip Man himself during the final third of the film, revealing the turmoil of Gong Er and her battle to retain her family's good name. At one point, I begin to imagine the film's title didn't belong to Ip Man but Gong Er herself. Like all of Wong Kar Wai's films, the central idea eventually boils down to a man and a woman navigating their hearts through the travails of time and life. This is a film I've thought about almost every day since first seeing it.

1 comment:

msmariah said...

This is a great list and there are quite a few films I have not heard of, but I'm looking forward to seeing. I have enjoyed going through your blog. Following you now.