Well, I was lazy and just now finished putting together some of my favorite movies from last year. Hopefully you haven’t seen them all already. 2013 was a great year for movies, and this list has films from all over, including Japan, America, Britain, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain. Hope you enjoy them!
1. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? – Sion Sono
From last years excellent Holy Motors to the Keanu Reeves fronted documentary Side by Side, it seems like the death of 35mm film stock is on every filmmaker’s mind. Most of the films that have come out of this transitional period are somewhat somber affairs, reluctant, yet celebratory concessions to the digital age. Sion Sono takes the opposite approach, choosing to rework an old script about a group of amateur filmmakers called the Fuck Bombers and in the process transform it from a wacky pastiche of B-cinema into a joyful ode to the seemingly impossible dream of making films in the world before digital cameras.
The Fuck Bombers are misguided guerilla film anarchists, scouring the streets of Tokyo with 8mm cameras, ready to jump into any action that they can capture, even if it means putting their own lives in danger. Luckily, their devotion doesn’t go unnoticed by the god of film, who, through a series of outrageous events (involving a catchy toothpaste commercial and warring yakuza clans), puts them at the helm of a real life action movie. It’s a tongue-in-cheek tale with a lot of humor and plenty of giddily spilled blood.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (“play” is the key word here) doesn’t aim for great heights or even the (fucked up) psychological depths of Sono’s more recent films, but it captures something that most other films that attempt to address the death of film seem to forget: before we all became “connoisseurs” and “critics”, we loved movies – the heroes, the sword fights, the magic of the images, the idea of being in one or even making one – high or low brow, it didn’t matter.
2. A Touch of Sin – Jia Zhang-ke
It’s amazing that A Touch of Sin exists. In all practicality, it should have never gotten past the Chinese censors. The film focuses on four pulled-from-the-headline events of violence in modern day China, and it touches on a wide-range of issues affecting Chinese life. It’s a deeply political film, but not by any means dry. By focusing on individual moments where China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse causes friction within working class communities, the explosions of violence resonate much further than the individual acts.
For a filmmaker who’s back catalogue mostly consists of slow-paced realist dramas, this movie surprisingly lurches into Tarantino territory without losing its sense of purpose. The energy that this newfound aesthetic puts into the movie pays off, and makes A Touch of Sin one of the most engaging and important films of the year.
3. Her – Spike Jonze
The best sci-fi film of the year almost felt too inevitable to truly be considered sci-fi. It’s a horror story masked in a tragi-comic love story, and for once Scarlett Johansson’s go-to Lost in Translation acting mode was a perfect fit, even in her absence from the screen. Her casual and inquisitive naïveté softens the fundamental danger her A.I. character represents so that when the turn finally comes it’s registered as the very human feeling, not of existential dread, but of betrayal. It’s the pettiness of our desire (libidinal and otherwise) that is the clear and present danger here, the driving force of our technological advancement and the blinders that keep us from fully processing the potential repercussions. Oh, and it’s really funny. If you didn’t see it, do it now.
4. A Field in England – Ben Wheatley
Part Withnail & I part Bergman fever dream, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a dazzlingly bizarre film, one that harkens back to the high-art era of filmmaking as much as it does 70’s psych-horror flicks and scummy punk comedies. Hell, it’s a period piece set during the English civil war that follows a group of deserters who’ve wandered off in search of a pub but instead wind up wallowing around in a field high on shrooms.
It’s also a movie that begs to be “read” – shot through with images and situations that could only exist as allegory – though in interviews Wheatley isn’t exactly forthcoming with answers as to what all of it is intended to mean. For instance, I could offer a compelling argument that it’s a critique of post-Thatcher neo-liberalism – set in a transitional period that marks the first steps down that particular road – and I’d have plenty to draw on for that conclusion. Yet, that is by no means the only reading one could give.
Luckily, the narrative and characters (as well as the aggressively avant-garde editing) are so compelling that trying to decipher the film isn’t necessary, just one of its many joys. This morality play with its head full of chemicals was the biggest adrenaline-rush of images put to film in 2013, and a reminder that the cinema can still be a demented and unexpectedly transcendent experience.
5. Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-ho
The premise is this: Humans have unwittingly brought about an ice age after releasing a chemical into the ozone to stop global warming. The only survivors now inhabit a train built by an eccentric billionaire that has been designed to run infinitely along a globe-circumnavigating track. The premise, lifted from a French comic, sounds pretty ridiculous on paper but sets the stage for an epic deconstruction of economic inequality. See, the train has been organized by a class system, and the have-nots, at the back of the train, are tired of living in a fascistic police state.
With very limited exposition and surprisingly economic editing, the first fifteen minutes of the film bring us to the brink of the revolution. What unfolds is equal parts Korean action film and Terry Gilliam surrealism that, in its strangeness and elegant bursts of violence, manages to never lose sight of the underlying issue that gives the film its intellectual foundation. That’s a feat that’s hard to manage in an action film (exceptions in recent memory being Children of Men and District 9), and it’s a feat made all the more incredible considering this is Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film.
Snowpiercer is a flat out success and was one of the best theater experiences I’ve had in quite a few years. The U.S. release, delayed for over a year now by a greedy (and shamefully misguided) distributor who wanted to shave the film down to just the action sequences is finally set to come out in its uncut glory in the U.S. this summer. Do yourself the favor and see this one on the big screen.
5. Spring Breakers – Harmony Korinne
Don’t listen to your friends. Spring Breakers was one of the best films of 2013. I’m not joking. The movie does everything right. Let’s be clear, I’m not always a Harmony Korinne apologist (though I must admit I thought Trash Humpers was pretty much the creepiest and most transfixing total piece of shit ever put on video). Let’s be real. Some of his films just aren’t that great, but Spring Breakers is as close to a revelation as he’s likely to get. James Franco is charming yet totally terrifying with his cornrows and grill and southern drawl. He’s the devil not-so-in-disguise that pulls the movie into to the darker and more dangerous territory of the film’s second half, and surprisingly he plays the part with style to spare. It’s a terrific performance. We understand his strange attraction as much as we cringe to think where it is he’s taking us, and as the protagonists head down the rabbit hole of the other side of Florida not-too-far-from-the-resorts, there is a real sense of something being at stake. It’s poetic and ugly, stylized and yet more real than most movies have the guts to be. Fuck the haters – look at all the shit this movie’s got.
6. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon / Our Sunhi – Hong Sang-soo
If you haven’t seen any of Hong Sang-soo’s output over the past few years, you have plenty catching up to do. His slight, simple charm is hard to explain, but over the course of the past four years he’s released 7 films, any one of which could serve as a perfectly fine jumping off point. These two newest films, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, are deceptively simple dramas of the surfaces and repetition of everyday life, themes that are something of a staple in Hong’s output. His oblique sense of humor and looping sense of structure manage to elevate all of his films out of their very Korean surroundings to places of shared experience. In fact, the notion that all experiences necessarily fall short of being anything close to unique is what gives his films their buoyancy as well as their emotional weight.
7. Wrong – Quentin Dupieux
Quentin Dupieux has in the past few years fashioned himself as the master of non-sequitur surrealist anti-comedy. While many may give up after the first five minutes of Wrong (see the unfairly low 6.1 rating on IMDB) it is an impressively unstructured and confidently wrong film in all the right ways. As nonsensical as this tale is, it maintains an internal logic that holds the pieces into something like a narrative arc while finding within its world’s impenetrability something about the strangeness and apathy of our own lives. Or not. Who fucking cares? I mean, this guy made another film about a tire that kills people. Get it? It’s not quite Beckett raised on Tim and Eric, but something like it. ***(If you like Wrong, there’s a companion film of sorts called Wrong Cops released in 2013 featuring a number of the same cast members.)
8. The Grandmaster – Wong Kar Wai
Oh my god this movie is gorgeous. For the initiated, this film will be that orgy of elegantly seductive imagery you expected, a film you can roll around in, feel out. For those not as familiar with Wong Kar Wai’s films, it may, unfortunately, feel a bit loose and hard to follow. Luckily though, the mythos surrounding Yip Man has been with us for long enough that no one will be entirely lost. I mean, at its core this is a kung-fu movie, albeit in a totally different mode than your standard beat-em-up.
Here, the set pieces are masterfully executed, quiet, ballet type affairs. They linger, burn slowly, and pass almost imperceptibly, yet are no less gripping and tension packed than the fight scenes in more basely violent films. If the love story and historical background don’t do much for you, the fight scenes undoubtedly will. As with 2046, the CGI flourishes are done only for the beauty of the image and not for the spectacle, and it’s refreshing. It’s not a perfect film, but it is one to savor while it’s there in front of you.
9. No – Pablo Lorrain
How do you sell voting out a dictator who has disappeared his political opposition for many years? Well, the same way you sell Coca Cola according to Pablo Lorrain’s brilliantly funny film about the ousting of Chile’s Pinochet. Granted this is not an entirely accurate story, but it’s filled with enough historical detail to string you along for a, by turns, frustrating and joyful ride. This is marketing with freedom at stake, and it may just contain some helpful lessons for the current state of stagnating political discourse.
10. Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen
Well, everyone always says he’s back on form, but Blue Jasmine is an undeniable gut-punch of a movie, partially because Allen finally takes a step away from focusing his camera solely on the problems of the richest 1%. The protagonist’s fall from the illusory grace of the uber-rich is arguably the strongest character study in Allen’s entire career, certainly the most focused, and the performances couldn’t be better.
11. Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas
A pure cinematic experience that refuses to really bow to narrative forms in any recognizable way, but will keep you watching in silence from beginning to end. I don’t really know what to say about this film except that I highly recommend you watch it.
12. Like Someone in Love – Abbas Kiarostami
Another perfectly executed drama, Like Someone in Love is directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and, though it takes place entirely in Japan, with a Japanese cast, he feels quite at home with the setting and the material. It’s a story about a young Tokyo prostitute and the development of her relationship with a concerned, grandfatherly client.
While that may seem like a clichéd trope, in Kiarostami’s hands it becomes nothing short of transfixing. It’s a short film, and it doesn’t pull any tricks, but this is storytelling done well: it’s sparse but feels quite large, it’s intimate without needless exposition, and it’s emotionally gripping without spelling it out for you. I wish there were more dramas that could do the same.
13. Sightseers – Ben Wheatley
Needless to say, Ben Wheatley is one of my favorite new directors. Kill List from 2012 topped my best of list, and here we have two more making the cut for 2013. And what a diverse trilogy those films make. Bickering contract killers dragged into an Eyes Wide Shut cult ritual in Kill List, a period piece set in the 1600’s featuring a seizure inducing mushroom-trip freak-out in A Field in England, and now Sightseers, the murderous travelogue of a caravanning English couple who seem more than a little frustrated with what their country is becoming. It’s a pitch-dark comedy that constantly surprises, and the acting is nuanced and scarily well conceived.
14. Escape From Tomorrow – Randy Moore
Escape From Tomorrow is a brilliant bit of guerilla filmmaking. Filmed entirely on Disney property, this humorous teacup-ride-into-madness film has plenty of laughs while also managing to be a solid (especially given the budget) psychological thriller. It’s sort of like Knife in the Water for the bored dad set, and it’s nice to see a conceptual stunt done with skill.
15. Blue Ruin / The Battery / You’re Next
If you’re looking for suspenseful well-executed indie films, these are the cream of the crop. Blue Ruin is a tragedy proper with revenge, infidelity, feuding families, and blood spilled. It’s also perhaps the tightest thriller of 2013, one that keeps you firmly on the edge of your seat from the first to last frame.
The Battery is a slow-paced and well-written zombie movie that finds a unique take on The Walking Dead’s format, but never feels as forced as its inspiration. It’s worth mentioning that it also contains one of the best masturbation sequences in film history.
You’re Next is a textbook slasher flick, but it’s an exemplary one. The tension stays high, the twists are well executed, it’s smart but not too self-aware, and it’s hard to imagine trimming a single shot. If you like horror movies, or if you feel like a good scare, You’re Next won’t disappoint.
16. Journey to the West / Grabbers / The World’s End
These are three genre-driven comedies that delivered on the laughs as well as the strengths of their genres. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is the new slapstick kung-fu epic from Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle), and it is a hilarious ride with great set pieces and lots of imagination.
Grabbers is a fun b-movie about blood sucking tentacled aliens invading an Irish town; it’s not a great film but it’s got laughs, even if it’s not packing a super inventive plot.
The last of this trio and possibly the most widely seen, The World’s End, was less funny than Hot Fuzz and Sean of the Dead, but as the action ramps up so do the laughs and its cleverly executed plot implodes in the film’s hysterically self-deprecating ending.
17. The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino
Like any good postmodern Fellini-obsessed Italian film, The Great Beauty winds up feeling incongruous and a bit insincere, like it’s aiming for an intellectual depth that just isn’t there. However, there are some really beautiful moments along the way. The vignettes, surrealist flourishes, and tableaus are, if nothing else, lovely eye candy, even if it is a bit self congratulatory as a whole. Our stand-in for Marcello here is an aging writer and consummate socialite who wanders from techno fueled parties at chateaus to seedy strip clubs. He’s led through museums by candlelight (La Dolce Vita anyone?), and of course he makes time to stand in front of ruins. There are magic shows and knife throwing, overweight former actresses, and an extremely well placed giraffe. Honestly, if you have love for Fellini, there will be plenty of pleasure for you here.
18. Blancanieves – Pablo Berger
A silent Spanish film retelling of Snow White. A consistently charming and surprisingly dark fairy tale about a girl forced to live in a barn after her bullfighting father is paralyzed. Evil stepmothers and dwarves and the whole lot. It’s amazing all the notes a silent film can hit that other films can’t quite pull off, and the black and white is beautiful.
19. Only God Forgives – Nicolas Refn
This one isn’t for everybody and I understand. It’s dark. It’s often painstakingly slow. But it’s beautifully shot and utterly gripping on a formal level. Wandering the underbelly of Bangkok, it offers no more answers about violence than any other movie out there, but it will make you question it. It’s a haunting film that truly deserves to be seen. Just don’t go in expecting a remake of Drive.
20. Computer Chess – Andrew Bujalski
Computer Chess is a mocumentary of sorts, played out at an 80’s computer chess competition where programmers from across the country have assembled to let their prototypes battle it out. While on the surface it’s mostly a Waiting for Guffman type affair, laughing at the self importance, social ineptness, and outdated equipment of these early programmers, the script takes some pretty interesting turns, especially in the films second half. The terrible video quality definitely helps add a veneer of authenticity to the proceedings, though it feels a little more intrusive than it did in Pablo Lorrain’s No. All in all, it’s an enjoyable, smugly funny film, and definitely outdoes its budgetary limits by a long shot. Along with The Battery and Escape from Tomorrow from this list, this is one of those films it seems like anyone with the drive easily could have made, but we’re all too lazy to get out there and make something so simple and subtly wonderful.