Friday, December 20, 2013

The Films of the Year - The Entirely Pointless Film Ha Ha Annual Review 2013


Upstream Colour
Another year! Wow. Much fast.

I'm just going to let the long list that follows do the heavy lifting here, but just wanted to identify two exciting and promising trends this year:

A creative resurgence in American independent cinema: Several established auteurs returned this year with films that could well signal their very best work yet - Shane Carruth, Andrew Bujalski, Noah Baumbach etc... Their films are among the most startlingly ambitious and successful of the year.

A year of documentaries: To be perfectly honest, I always tend to be more appreciative of fiction than non-fiction, but this year helped show me the error of my ways. Several of the films mentioned below (and others like Sarah Polley's excellent Stories We Tell) mark inventive, illuminating pieces of documentary craftmanship, as well as being remarkably beautiful feats of cinema in their own right.

But on to the list, which is what you clicked the hyperlink for (I'm guessing)! Without futher ado, in case you're even remotely interested, these are my films of the year. They're broken up into three weighted categories, but listed alphabetically rather than applying futile rankings.

Top Three

The Act of Killing - jaw-droppingly raw, provocative filmmaking. A brilliant subversion of documentary form, using cinema itself to achieve insight and radical historical catharsis. Unforgettable.

Upstream Colour - Shane Carruth’s sophomore feature is a cinematic tour de force: a breathtaking achievement in cinematography, editing, sound design and narrative strucutre. No film this year showed as much trust in the audience’s intelligence, and no film offered as many rewards.

Wolf Children - pure joy, distilled into an immensely warm-hearted, compassionate and accessible film about the complexities of parenthood and growing up. Wolf Children confirms Mamoru Hosoda’s status as perhaps the most masterly director of animation working today, and only the stoniest heart could resist its emotional peaks and valleys.

(Rest of) Top Ten

Before Midnight
Before Midnight / Frances Ha - don’t make me choose! They’re two wonderfully energetic and involving films about fascinating people. The former was worth the wait as the latest chapter in a truly unique, long-running relationship story. The latter sees Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig finally live up their respective potentials, creating a film and character simply overflowing with energy and humour.

Computer Chess - I’ve always been a fan of Andrew Bujalski (this blog is named after one of his films, after all) and Computer Chess is a thrillingly radical departure for him. Bizarre, intelligent and - most importantly - absolutely hilarious, with the old-school cameras an inspired choice to recount this strange, strange tale of a computer chess tournament.

Leviathan - shot on low quality digital cameras, the rough visuals and sound ultimately prove the key ingredient in this memorable and experimental portrayal of fishing trawlers. As much visual poem as documentary, there’s as much beauty as terror in these wild seas, those rolling waves a key part of the film’s unique rhythm.

Like Father, Like Son
Like Father, Like Son - Hirokazu Kore-eda once again makes his storytelling and formal mastery look almost effortless, truly earning those common Ozu comparisons. The director’s lightness of touch and complete lack of pretension allow what could have been a straightforward family melodrama come to vivid life, populated with lovable and compelling characters.

Like Someone in Love - Abbas Kiarostami once again conjures up a magical cinematic dreamscape. Equally elusive and rewarding, this strange Tokyo story is captivating in its mysteriousness and hypnotic in its rich themes & characters.

The Great Beauty - one of grandest big screen treats of the year, Paolo Sorrentino course corrects for a love letter to Rome and an extraordinary character study. Toni Servillo proves more than a match for the aesthetic richness.

This is Not a Film - cheating here a bit, but a delayed home release date meant I only got around to seeing it this year. Passionate filmmaking (or is it?) from house arrested Iranian director Jafar Panahi and his accomplice Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. A fascinating rumination on the nature of cinema itself, as well as serving as a brave protest.

And the others particularly worth mentioning:

Spring Breakers

Beyond the Hills - intense and miserable, but a startlingly visceral tale set in the Romanian hills.
Blue is the Warmest Colour - a beautifully honest, striking love story. Forget the controversy, the film’s most notable aspects were its striking use of close-ups and a dominating performance from Adèle Exarchopoulos. A timeless tale of all-consuming passion and first love.
Captain Phillips / A Hijacking - two superb takes on similar subject matter. No point getting weighed down on the pointless question of which is better: they're both unique ways of representing their respective stories, and we're richer with both of them.
Drug War - Johnnie To’s wild crime drama is perhaps the most fun film here. While the thriller and action setpieces are consistently among the year’s best, the way it serves as a damning but intelligent indictment of Chinese authorities’ attempts to tackle the country’s drug problems by using brute force. Brawn and brains a plenty here.
Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo - A bit of a mess after the near perfection of 2.0, but a brave mess that makes me extremely curious where this endearingly disorientating tale is going next.
A Field in England - ‘what the ****?’, in the nicest possible way
Gravity - A most thrilling combination of effects work and traditional cinematography that marks a tentatively promising future for blockbuster form. I didn’t think it was as compelling a whole as I’d have liked, but it’s without doubt a stunning technical and artistic achievement that truly needs a big screen. Hopefully its success will signal to studios what a true auteur can do with a generous budget.
Land of Hope / Story of Yonosuke - two excellent contemporary Japanese directors present two ambitious films here: both a tad uneven, but also manage to work wonders with their grand thematic canvases and their emotionally generous world-building.
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon - the first Hong Sangsoo film I’ve seen (and the first theatrically released in the UK / Ireland, I believe) this is a poetic and strange film that is completely compelling from beginning to end, even when it’s difficult to explain exactly why. Jung Eunchae is superb in the lead role.
Pos Tenebras Lux - elusive masterpiece or maddening mess? The debate will wage, but for me Carlos Reygadas' difficult but rich film is a sensory coup de cinema.
The Selfish Giant - Initially appearing to be another drab British social drama, it slowly builds up to become truly devastating. The final act is the kind that has you leaving the cinema shellshocked.
Spring Breakers - Cribs meets Girls Gone Wild meets Gasper Noe meets Terence Malick meets all manner of things that should by rights have never met. Thank **** they did. The cinematography is possibly the year’s best, and the ridiculous narrative manages to achieve a deeply peculiar sort of transcendence.
Stoker - perhaps not as complete as his early work due to an uneven script, Stoker nonetheless sees Park Chan-wook burst on to the English language scene with a visually inventive and extraordinarily atmospheric slice of twisted gothic melodrama.
Zero Dark Thirty - A rigorous, thought-provoking act of very recent historical recreation. Unfairly demonised before release, it transpired to be a moral tale of surprising depth and shades of grey.

Films not yet released here that I'm very keen to see in 2014: Her, The Past, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, A Touch of Sin etc...

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