from top to bottom: Bastards,
Frances Ha, Something in the Air
By the time you read this the events of 2013 will all be water under the bridge. A corny old expression, I guess, but an apt one to consider while looking back on the year in movies—so many of 2013’s most remarkable works concern both time (what it is, how it accumulates or vanishes, how its passage registers in the faces and places captured by filmmakers) and water (what it is, how it accumulates or vanishes, how its presence and movement make for breath-taking cinema). My shortlist was long, and I concede that some significant landmarks (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave) did not make my final ten—let’s take this abundance as cause to celebrate. (FYI, U.S. readers, Stories We Tell opened in Canada in 2012, so it won't be making an appearance.) I would heartily defend the greatness of any of the films below, but a certain inherent subjectivity ultimately rules the formation of any top ten list. These are the movies that struck me as most meaningful, thrilling, beautiful, diverting, moving, surprising, funny, strange, haunting.
Something in the Air
Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Sumer Hours) grew up in Paris in the 1970s, which means that his adolescence transpired in the immediate wake of May 1968 and the political upheaval that marked that watershed moment. (The film's French title is Après Mai.) This evocative, party autobiographical cinematic bildungsroman traces its protagonist’s struggle to balance the dictates of the era’s radical leftist ideologies with those of his own complicated creative ambitions. Part of Something’s specialness arises from its lack of emphasis: there is no single “a-ha” moment; rather, the film drifts through heady experiences and immerses us in the period’s sundry “scenes,” all with a heightened alertness to the air of potential transformation that circulates each passing moment when you’re young and seemingly taking the whole world in.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ latest takes us back a decade or so before the period covered in Something in the Air. It’s the winter of 1961, and the New York folk revival is well underway. Llewyn Davis is there, plying his trade as an interpreter of traditional songs in Village basket houses when not busy trying to secure a pay cheque, a couch to sleep on or a doctor who will terminate a friend’s pregnancy. This character/milieu double-study is, like nearly every Coen picture, immaculately crafted, brutish, sad, inventive and very funny. Buoyed by sublime music and Oscar Isaac’s soulful lead performance, Inside Llewyn Davis also the most tender thing the Coens have ever made.
The End of Time
Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler’s latest is a hypnogogic object of meditation and a spectacular thematic exploration. The End of Time takes us to the Hadron Collider particle accelerator; to Hawaii, where Jack Thompson knowingly lives within the annihilating lava path of an active volcano; to Detroit, where the ravages of time can be read in nature’s reclaiming of civilization; to India, where religious ritual promises escape from time’s enslavement; to some liminal space made of flickering visions generated by Mettler’s own image-mixing software. Film as journey: we’re transported, bedazzled, perplexed, enlightened, and safely returned, all in under two hours.
The woman is from Canada (in fact, she's singer Mary Margaret O'Hara), here to hold vigil over her cousin, who is in hospital, comatose, slowly dying. The man is here because he’s always here, at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where he works as a guard, a tranquil sentinel holding vigil over centuries of art. The woman visits the museum and, later, the man will accompany her to the hospital—Museum Hours is the story of a friendship. Writer/director Jem Cohen lets the chance connection between these two not-young characters blossom in it’s own good time.
The relationship at the heart of Before Midnight has been blossoming for 18 years—18 actual years, captured previously in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. An unprecedented collaboration between writer/director Richard Linklater and writer/actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the Before project grants us the opportunity to track its characters (and actors) and their messy, decidedly un-movie-like lives in nine-year intervals. This latest instalment (the last?) reveals them to have become married parents, though how much longer their now-domesticated love story—founded in chance and youthful adventure, fortified by protracted longing—can be sustained is a question left unanswered. There are moments so resonant as to be painful—this is no date movie—but there is consolation, wisdom and humour in recognition.
Blue is the Warmest Colour was 2013’s most memorable tale of young love, but Frances Ha, co-written by director Noah Baumbach and actress Greta Gerwig, pulled off something a little trickier: a tale of young folly. Gerwig is un-ingratiating and yet kind of irresistible as the bumbling, solipsistic titular heroine in this witty comic character study about all the things an educated, aimless 27-year-old in a big city with no money and no experience of actual struggle can do to tread water and, if she’s lucky, discover some sense of purpose in life.
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s highly unorthodox documentary regards the massacres that followed the 1965 overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno through the reminiscences of a handful of its key perpetrators, all of whom have not only gone unpunished for their crimes but are actually revered public figures. Oppenheimer sought out these men and offered to facilitate their writing, directing and acting in reenactments of their ostensible glory days. The Act of Killing surveys the process of casting and re-staging atrocities as appalling propaganda, and on the very gradual, psychologically destabilizing effect that this process has on one man in particular: Anwar Congo, who in one scene will seem a cuddly grandfather and in the next brags about how he was more sadistic than the Nazis.
The closest thing to a genre picture in the largely uncategorizable oeuvre of Claire Denis, Bastards tears some pages from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary to construct a nasty, eerily sensual, totally absorbing neo-noir about a naval captain who gives up his errant seaman’s life to return to Paris and plot revenge on the nefarious corporate titan he believes responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, the brutal defiling of his niece and the collapse of his family’s shoe enterprise.
A Touch of Sin
The overlap between Bastards’ sordid story and certain real-life scandals that recently rocked France makes for a supplementary layer of extra-textuality, but the scathing social commentary in A Touch of Sin is integral to the film’s very conception. Already established as contemporary China’s most artful and aggressive cinematic indictor, Jia Zhang-ke (Platform, Still Life) has made his most accessible and overtly damning film with this interweaving of four tales of violence and desperation, each based on true stories. A Touch of Sin’s bloody, tawdry, tabloid-like allure grabs your attention, but its Jia’s piercing portraits of a society turning itself inside out to gain a toe-hold in the global economy that will keep you thinking long after.
This last selection could easily have been a three-way tie. The one-man survival film All is Lost surveys the weathered visage of a silent Robert Redford struggling to stay afloat in the Indian Ocean. Jennifer Baichwal and Ed Burtynsky’s globe-treading Watermark invites us to wonder and worry over the ubiquity of water and our fraught attempts to control it. But I want to single out Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, the most flawed but also the boldest of these three watery titles. We can call it documentary—Castaing-Taylor and Paravel indeed document several Atlantic fishing boat journeys—but what really matters are Leviathan’s aesthetic, experiential aspects. Fastening tiny GoPro cameras to seemingly every object available, this was 2013’s most formally innovative, gloriously disorienting work of cinema: waves, sky, gulls, fish, men and machines fill the frames and transport us to the real world of work at sea. Visceral, arresting, gorgeous, Leviathan reminds us that the movies are far from exhausted when it comes to exploring the world as only movies can. Sail on.