Every year the week between Christmas and New Year becomes a scramble to catch up with as many of the year’s films as possible as I never get to the cinema as much as I’d like. Obviously I’ve not seen them all, and there are a lot that I’m still very much looking forward to seeing – Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Nebraska, The Selfish Giant, and The Great Beauty to name a few of the big hitters. Of what I’ve seen, here are the best:
1. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s jaw-dropping documentary is without a doubt the most powerful film I’ve seen this year and a triumph of documentary filmmaking.
In 1965 the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military. Anwar Congo was promoted from movie-theatre gangster to head of one of Indonesia’s most notorious death squads. These death squads helped the military to murder more than a million people in Indonesia as they targeted Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, eradicating all opposition to the new regime. The killings are described as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century and yet the murderers have gone unpunished and Anwar is celebrated as a national hero.
The Act of Killing invites Anwar to share his memories of the killings and to recreate them as film scenes inspired by some of his favourite genres. It is an innovative approach to the documentary form and one that creates a safe space for the killers to open up in unexpected ways. Watching Anwar and his friends joke and boast about murders as they joyfully re-enact them is shocking and surreal. Their detachment from reality and their desensitization to the violence they perpetrated is cold and unrepentant but it also betrays an underlying inability to deal with the guilt and trauma of their experiences directly. Through the process of recreating and celebrating his acts, Anwar appears to have flashes of remorse, brief moments when the reality of his actions seems to become clear to him. Watching this conflict play out within him is enthralling.
One of the most talked about films of the year and rightly so. Say what you like about the dialogue and the plot, from a technical standpoint this film is the bomb. This is the first film that I have seen in 3D that is truly enhanced by the medium. Gravity is a fully immersive experience that had me holding my breath throughout. I can’t think of another recent film that has managed to align the audience so thoroughly with its protagonist, putting you in their shoes to the point where you feel everything alongside them. The camerawork (if you can call it that in a film so full of digital effects) spins and floats to recreate the dizzying experience of weightlessness to terrifying effect and beautifully depicts the isolation of being lost in space. Ryan Stone’s helplessness shows the insignificance of human life adrift in the cosmos and her resilience in spite of this demonstrates the primal survival instinct within us all.
3. Upstream Colour
Upstream Colour plays out like a dream – enigmatic, sensuous, tactile and haunting. The narrative is there if you care to tease it out, but it is best to let the stream of images and emotions wash over you. Amy Seimetz gives a beautiful performance as Kris, a woman trying to rebuild her life after a stranger drugs and exploits her using a parasitic organism. Kris later meets Jeff, played by the film’s writer and director Shane Carruth and the pair find themselves inexplicably drawn together, their lives somehow linked intuitively to the parasite and its life cycle. Shane Carruth’s poetic non-linear style is heady and evocative, sweeping along as if floating, layering romance, science fiction, body horror and existentialism to a hypnotic effect. The film’s ethereal score (also by Shane Carruth) is also delightful.
4. Frances Ha
I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach’s work (The Squid and the Whale is fantastic) and I first saw Greta Gerwig last year in Whit Stilman’s hilarious Damsels in Distress. Frances Ha is lovely. For me it captures that moment in your life when you realise you’re still waiting to grow up but you’re actually an adult already (I’m still living it in fact.) I especially related to Frances’ struggle to be the professional creative that she wants to be and the awkwardness of trying to make that transition happen after graduation when it seems like everyone around you knows what they’re doing. Greta Gerwig’s performance is charming, awkward and relatable making Frances a fully realised character with quirks that are both loveable and irritating.
5. Behind the Candelabra
Behind the Candelabra follows the generic rise and fall structure of the biopic a little too neatly, (the consequences of a life of excess are a bit old hat at this stage) but the film’s strength comes from an astounding performance by Michael Douglas who transforms in the role, managing to be all at once charming, sweet, commanding, camp, predatory and pathetic. Douglas’s performance brings out the humanity in what could have been an easily stereotyped and broad role. The film captures the ridiculous opulence and glamour that Liberace is known for before slowly revealing the insecurity and fragility that lies beneath his facade. While the film deals with the obvious damage of a life in the closet, its examination of the power struggles within relationships is relevant to all persuasions. Also, no discussion of the film can be had without a mention of Rob Lowe’s hilarious turn as Lee’s Plastic Surgeon.
Worth Mentioning –
I don’t have a top ten and these next three films aren’t perfect. They’re not my best of the year, but they’re worth a look.
Blackfish is a powerful film about keeping killer whales in captivity and SeaWorld’s denial of the dangers trainers face in interacting with them. It’s a gripping watch, although I wondered if the argument could, at least in conclusion, have been extended to keeping any animals in activity and I feel that the filmmakers could have focused a little more imaginatively on the form of the documentary to make it more cinematic.
Stranger by the Lake
Stranger by the Lake is a beautiful sun drenched thriller about desire and human interaction. This film really impressed me with its frank and unsensational depiction of gay sex and cruising. It struck me as being rare as a gay film that wasn’t made for a straight audience – nothing is watered down, hidden, explained or translated for the uninitiated. The suspense is wonderfully built but for me the film falls flat in its final moments with an ending that didn’t do justice to the story or the rising tension.
Park Chan-wook’s first English language film was inspired by Shadow of a Doubt, one of my favourite Hitchcock films. I was so excited to see what this would be like but I just felt that it lacked the bite of Chan-wook’s previous films. It is stylish and put together well but it all seems very familiar and failed to shock or thrill. Good but not great as the plot doesn’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before. Worth watching for the brilliant sound design and cinematography that combine to create some breathtaking moments.
So there you have it. The best of 2013 – of what I saw at least. What were your favourite films this year? Are there any shocking omissions that I need to watch immediately?