The Best International & Indie Films of 2013

[23 December 2013]

By PopMatters Staff

Sometimes, you have to travel a bit off the beaten path to find salvation from the onslaught that is the mainstream moviemaking machine. In the case of these excellent examples of the medium, creativity trumps the commercial, while experimentation and individual voice rule over rote regurgitation of the same old genre tropes.

 


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Escape from Tomorrow

Director: Randy Moore
Cast: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Annet Mahendru, Danielle Safady, Alison Lees-Taylor

15

Escape from Tomorrow
Mankurt Media


Using the concept of wish fulfillment against a backdrop of pre-programmed fun, Escape from Tomorrow wants to suggest that anything is possible in the Disney Universe, both good and bad. Fathers can find “release” in the sweat slicked bodies of vivacious young girls while their own kids head off to less carnal concerns like princesses and amusement park pandering. It’s wallows in the hidden wickedness of such a suggestion, manipulating the House of Mouse’s copyrighted imagery to turn tiny animatronic figures into briefly glimpsed demons and the great unwashed into hyper-entitled trolls. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (an auteur who Moore apes with limited success), we are supposed to see the ugly underneath, the corruption that is covered up by fairytale recreations and outrageously priced adventures. Again, this is typical of most people’s approach to Disney. The company is such a pervasive part of our popular culture that you can’t help but feel trapped by its menacing rhinestone media tentacles. Bill Gibron

 


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The Broken Circle Breakdown

Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg

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The Broken Circle Breakdown
Tribeca Films


Elise is addicted to tattoos; Didier is obsessed with American bluegrass music. The Belgian couple falls in love with a passion hotter than the Orange Blossom Special. After their daughter Maybelle is born—named for bluegrass matriarch Maybelle Carter—and Elise joins Didier’s band of beardy bluegrass rascals, the happy circle feels complete. Be prepared for an emotional breakdown—one that will change the shape of your face. When Maybelle gets life-threateningly sick, the couple must simultaneously experience the jubilation and heartbreak of loving her, those extremes expressed in the music they cling to throughout. Occasionally, a musical interlude turns maudlin when it’s meant to be moving, but that’s a minor quibble for a film that grips hard and doesn’t let go. Beautifully shot by director Felix Van Groeningen, the film surveys American influences both good and evil, and when Didier rails against Bush-era vetos of stem cell research, your blood will boil with his. And bring on the awards for the spitfire performance of Veerle Baetens as Elise, an acting feat that packs a wallop from start to finish. Steve Leftridge

 


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Kill Your Darlings

Director: John Krokidas
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Elizabeth Olsen

13

Kill Your Darlings
Sony Pictures Classic

John Krokidas’ fireworks-heavy take on the 1944 murder of David Kammerer by literary scenester and Kerouac pal Lucien Carr doesn’t just feature a mesmeric performance by Dane DeHaan as Carr and Daniel Radcliffe’s vulnerable take on a young Allen Ginsberg about to spread his poetic wings. It’s also a refreshingly non-precious portrait of the nascent Beat scene in all its vivaciously pretentious glory, drunk on words and the thrill of hurling dynamite at an ossified literary establishment. Like their hero Rimbaud, these are writers and would-be writers who thought themselves outlaws, and behaved accordingly. Chris Barsanti

 


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Wadjda

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdulrahman al-Guhani

12

Wadjda
Koch Media

Billed as the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature film made by a female Saudi director, Wadjda is a cultural landmark. Writer/director Haifaa al-Mansour has crafted an uplifting ode to female liberation in the face of oppression. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a free-spirited pre-teen who struggles to find her identity in a constraining male-centric culture. In order to pay for a bicycle she desires but is forbidden to ride because of her gender, she participates in her school’s Koran recitation competition. Despite the film’s charming tone, there is a powerful political message at its core that cannot be forgotten: In many cultures, women remain disenfranchised. With Wadjda, al-Mansour bravely uses the cinematic medium to speak for those who are silenced. Is anyone listening? Jon Lisi

 


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The Genius of Marian

Director: Banker White, Anna Fitch
Cast: Pam White

11

The Genius of Marian
Tribeca Films

Five years ago, Pam White started writing a book about her mother, the gifted painter Marian Williams Steele, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001. A year into the project, at age 61, Pam herself was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. At that point, Pam’s son, filmmaker Banker White, set out to document his mother’s battle with dementia. Mixing home video of Pam as a vibrant young mother (she was an actress and model) with new footage of Pam’s increasing incapacitation, the film manages to be graceful and beautiful amid the candid access to a family’s sadness and the crushing effects of the disease. The details on display are disheartening, but by making this tender film about Pam—and the stalwart courage and caregiving of her husband Ed—the director has both fulfilled his mother’s desire to preserve the memory of Marian and provided an intimate portrait of a disease that affects over five-million American families. One of the year’s best documentaries. Steve Leftridge

10 - 6


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As I Lay Dying

Director: James Franco
Cast: James Franco, Logan Marshall-Green, Danny McBride, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly, Beth Grant

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As I Lay Dying
Millenniums Films

Although he often comes across as an arthouse showoff (or worse, indie wannabe), James Franco is technically a humanist at heart. He wallows in the excesses and eccentricities of individuals while coming across as disconnected and above it all. With As I Lay Dying, he makes the wise choice to focus on the characters over the circumstances, believing (rightfully so) that this is the way Faulkner would have wanted it. Since the novel is so overwrought with technique and obtuseness, there is simply no better way to get to the heart of its message. As with all Southern Gothic bathed in this specific author’s Bourbon and bilious contempt, the plot is just a path toward internalized enlightenment. Getting Addie’s body to Jefferson becomes secondary to what the rest of her family are learning and experiencing. Bill Gibron

 


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Blue Is the Warmest Color

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Cast: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Catherine Salée, Aurélien Recoing, Sandor Funtek, Alma Jodorowsky

9

Blue Is the Warmest Color
Sundance Selects


Blue Is the Warmest Color is essentially a film about trying and failing to recognize yourselves in the eyes of someone who once meant the world to you. In this case we follow young Adele (as played by the extraordinary Adele Exarchopoulos) as she discovers love for the very first time in the shape of Emma (Lea Seydoux). Shot by Abdellatif Kechiche with a voracious camera who almost seems to become one with its protagonist, the film deals with heartbreak, maturity and desire in a way we rarely have seen onscreen. Worthy if only to discover the magic of Exarchopoulos, the film is a delicious essay on the perils of waiting too long to give your heart away, and as such will connect with anyone who has loved intensely only to find sometimes passion is not enough. Jose Solis

 


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A Touch of Sin

Director: Zhangke Jia
Cast: Wu Jiang, Lanshan Luo, Li Meng

8

A Touch of Sin
Koch Lorber Films

The only time characters in Chinese film tend to fight the power is in period wuxia flicks, where they wail mightily against Western baddies. Each of the four stories here—a miner fighting corruption, a female sauna worker assaulted one too many times, and a hired killer and factory worker both drifting around looking for meaning—have been ripped from the headlines by visionary filmmaker Jia Zhangke. His powerful epic of a modern-day China imploding from within is all bottled-up frustration that erupts in Shakespearean rage. Crackling pulp intensity married with an unnervingly staid visual style. Chris Barsanti

 


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Halima’s Path

Cast: Alma Prica, Olga Pakalović, Mijo Jurišić, Izudin Bajrović, Miraj Grbić, Mustafa Nadarević

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Hamila’s Path
Studio Arkadena

Inspired by true events in the former Yugoslavia after the Bosnian War, Halima’s Path depicts the psychological repercussions for surviving families in the aftermath of the region’s ethnic/religious warfare and mass killings. Safija and Slavomir are star-crossed lovers: She’s a Bosnian Muslim, he’s a Serbian Christian. When a desperate Safija gets pregnant, she gives the newborn boy to her childless aunt, Halima, telling Slavomir that the baby was stillborn. Fast forward 20 years as Halima searches for her husband and the boy, who were abducted and killed by Serbs during the war. The mission to find and bury her adopted son’s remains forces her to revisit both Safija and a past that contains terrible revelations. Director Arsen Anton Ostojic creates a riveting drama, at once austere in composition and richly complex in structure and content, and the film refuses to flinch from overwhelming tragedy. In playing a simple woman who has lost everything, Alma Prica goes bone deep as Halima, working wonders in portraying her both young and old and delivering a wrenching portrait of survival and quiet courage. Steve Leftridge

 


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The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Cast: Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, Herman Koto, Syamsul Arifin

6

The Act of Killing
Drafthouse Films


Joshua Oppenheimer’s brutal depiction of evil has Indonesian mass murderers recreating the crimes they became infamous for and might very well be one of those films so horrifying that few people will ever dare to sit through it twice. Oppenheimer chronicles the rise to power of Suharto’s army composed of gangsters and conservative revolutionaries who imposed a reign of terror and murder based on movies they had loved watching. Watching criminals like Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry joyously reminisce about their preferred methods of torture is infuriating and strangely illuminating as we begin to perceive the origins of true wickedness. A film that will undoubtedly be studied by sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and of course filmmakers, for decades to come, The Act of Killing was the year’s most revelatory masterpiece. Jose Solis

5 - 1


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The Great Beauty

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte

5

The Great Beauty
Pathe

The Great Beauty is the most ambitious film of 2013, and the fact that filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino allows us to make some sense of his strange world is a major accomplishment. Although there isn’t much of a plot, the film revolves around Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a man who is self-described as the king of Rome’s nightlife, as he reminiscences on his youth and the major changes Rome has undergone over the years. Sorrentino’s film is rooted in deep nostalgia for a time and a place gone by, and it pays homage to Italian filmmakers like Fellini and the themes of ennui and decadence Italian cinema explored in the 1960s and 1970s. Littered with breathtaking visuals and wildly inventive set pieces, The Great Beauty is a momentous achievement. Jon Lisi

 


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The Past

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

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The Past
Memento Films


Acting like an unofficial sequel to A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past picks up where his Oscar winner ended. This time around we follow Marie (Bérénice Béjo) and Ahmad (Ali Mossafa), a couple who are about to finalize their divorce but get tangled in a dramatic postmortem of their relationship which includes secrets being kept by all the parties involved. A tense work from one of cinema’s greatest humanists, Farhadi’s film is an exploration of forgiveness and atonement through both pragmatism and implied spiritualism. Infused with brilliantly subversive touched of melodrama, it might be the finest moment in Farhadi’s already illustrious career. Jose Solis

 


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Upstream Color

Director: Shane Caruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

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Upstream Color
ERBP


Imagine Eraserhead, in color, without said film’s anti-procreation attitude or mechanical post-apocalyptic feel, or better yet, a twist on the typical drama where everything is spelled out in allegory, not monologuing black and white. This is Upstream Color, the latest from writer/director/actor/producer/editor and composer Shane Carruth. Known best for his time travel cult classic Primer, as well as the frequency of his role as filmmaker (twice only in the last decade), he is the heir apparent to Terrence Malick, a man who makes movies bursting with sound and image as well as ideas and insights. Bill Gibron

 


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Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Rebecca Jenkins, Michael Polley, Diane Polley John Buchan, Mark Polley

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Stories We Tell
Roadside Attractions


Sarah Polley’s borderline-perfect documentary about her family history could have played as another solipsistic look into mundane domestic dramas. But the focus on her mother, who died when Polley was young, turns into a memory game, as she interviews siblings and friends, who offer up different and sometimes conflicting pieces of the puzzle. Using real and invented footage, Polley starts in playful wistfulness and ends up with a perspective about the past being a constantly moving target that’s unnervingly wise for such a young artist. Chris Barsanti

 


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Short Term 12

Director: Destin Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield

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Short Term 12
Cinedign


Short Term 12 is filled to the brim with the highs and lows that define misfit youth culture. Set in a foster care facility, writer/director Destin Cretton depicts the lives of different teenagers who have been bruised and battered in their childhoods, and he provides a perceptive glimpse into the selfless adults who work tirelessly to brighten up their days. One of the leaders of the facility is Grace (Brie Larson), a hardworking young woman who still suffers from old wounds well into her 20s. Short Term 12 is moving without being sentimental and funny without straying from the sad reality that some children in this world are in desperate need of love. Take note, future independent filmmakers: This is how it’s done. Jon Lisi

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/177713-the-best-foreign-independent-films-of-2013/