10. The Counselor
The most unjustly maligned and misunderstood film of the year had some of the world’s finest working thespians delivering the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s very first screenplay with such deranged conviction and determination, that it was practically impossible to resist its depraved charms. OK, maybe not “practically impossible”, since nobody seemed to like it but watching The Counselor was one of the most exhilarating movie watching experiences of the year because unlike any other film it demanded your constant attention and involvement, only to deliver a take on nihilism so vicious that you couldn’t help but gasp at how director Ridley Scott pulled it off. It also featured one of the year’s greatest performances with Cameron Diaz’s Malkina reminding us what made femmes fatales of classic noir so iconic.
It’s rare for filmmakers to allow viewers to decide what kind of movie they’re watching (heck, even a legend like Martin Scorsese is suddenly trying to steer audiences into the “right” way to read his newest film) but Shane Carruth knows better than to do that and lets his sophomore film speak for itself. An hypnotic mindfuck of a film, Upstream Color was in parts: an inventive redesign of what cinematic soundscapes can do, a stunning example of showing restraint through aesthetic excess and one of the most surprisingly romantic films in modern cinema.
Recently, David O. Russell seems to have taken on the task of recreating some of Hollywood’s most beloved genre films through zany reinterpretations in which he has cemented his status as one of the industry’s finest, while assembling an acting troupe the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Woody Allen’s glorious films in the mid-80s. If The Fighter was his Rocky and Silver Linings Playbook his Bringing Up Baby, then American Hustle is The Sting, a delicious take on the caper movie that shimmers with hairspray and sequins from its 1970s setting, but feels urgent because of its underlying message about the dangerous temptation of giving oneself to emptiness. Perhaps featuring the best ensemble in any movie in 2013, particularly a certain Miss Lawrence, who, skeptics be damned, just keeps hitting it out of the park with each performance.
This film gets my award for “greatest movie I don’t want to see ever again”, a documentary so brutal in its depiction of evil that you find yourself shaking your head in disbelief, thinking that Joshua Oppenheimer must be pulling a joke on us. The realization that everything shown in the movie is true, makes the world feel almost too cruel for one to continue living in it, but the ironic beauty is that the film itself is a reminder that, while still not perfect, the human race has evolved and there are things about us that make life worth fighting for.
6. Blue Jasmine
When Woody gets it right, he gets it right. His love song to Tennesee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire is at times hilarious and others, just absolutely devastating. There is something magical in Cate Blanchett’s monstrously majestic performance that brings out something we tend to forget about Allen: when all is said and done, he does the work of a scientist (perhaps modeled after his hero Ingmar Bergman) who never ceases to study the layers and phases of what it means to be human. Perhaps not since Alice had he been so perplexed by the mystery of a woman, who she is and what she’s made of, more than putting his genius to the service of delicious dialogues and memorable storytelling.
If you watch this film and don’t want to move to Rome immediately afterwards, you’re either blind or already living there. Not since William Wyler gave us a young Audrey Hepburn frollicking along the Spanish Steps has a film been so dedicated to showing us the beauty in the Roman capital (or any city for that matter). The twist here is that we see the city, not through the eyes of a nubile princess, but of an aging bon vivant (Toni Servillo) who has, literally, seen it all. Exhausted and even worse, bored, by the goings on of his life, he takes us in a descent into hell from which no one can come unscathed. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino as La Dolce Vita on speed, The Great Beauty shows us hedonism the likes of which either scare us or make us want to join the fun. But the film is not without melancholy and for all its debauchery, it does pierce the heart in unexpected ways.
4. The Past
Having been one of the only few people on Earth who wasn’t bowled over by A Separation (and oh, how I tried) I approached Asghar Farhadi’s newest film with a pinch of doubt. I didn’t expect him to give himself even more into melodrama and make a film that I could’ve imagined Douglas Sirk directing five decades before. The Past is a stunning work in which not only is the human condition dissected and exposed, but also shows a man whose formal capacities are at its peak. See how the film constantly changes our perspective, something achieved without any bells and whistles but subtle touches in the screenplay. Films in 2013 seem to have been obsessed with “the truth”, and this one leads us to a version of it that feels like Kant by the way of Philip Marlowe.
3. Frances Ha
Imagine if Francois Truffaut had decided Antoine Doinel would be a twenty-something blonde girl from New York when he was writing The 400 Blows and you’ve started imagining what Frances Ha is all about. A scrumptious romp inspired by the New Wave, this black and white oddity had the year’s most adorable character in the shape of its title character, played by Greta Gerwig (who finally gave us her star-is-born performance). Frances’ quest for her own identity makes for a story that’s one part Woody Allen, two parts fairy tale and too much of “Jesus, that was me in my twenties”, which makes Noah Baumbach yet another director who knows more about the world than he’s shown before. That his Frances Ha rarely takes a severely dark turn is testament to its becoming one with its central character, like the young klutzy optimistic young woman, the movie too seems to be telling us that things do get better and while they don’t, there’s always lots of fun to be had along the way. It might not sound like the most profound of ideas, but after you watch the film you’ll realize you really needed to hear this from someone.
Watching this film at the New York Film Festival in October, I couldn’t help but admire Abdellatif Kechiche’s mastery of form and time. How he fits a decade worth of storytelling in three hours was mesmerizing because the movie felt both short and extremely lived in. But on that occasion it failed to have any sort of emotional impact on me (other than making me crave bolognese). Fast forward a few months and I’m a wreck, sobbing and whimpering as Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) realizes that she has lost the great first love of her life. Anyone who says they haven’t been there is lying and the beauty of the film is that it transcends issues of sexual orientation, language and gender to find a universality that’s almost too honest. Kechiche created the ultimate film about love lost and found.
The first time I watched Stories We Tell was at a press screening back in April last year and I distinctly remember the way I sat throughout the film. I began in my usual leg-crossed-above-the-other-to-take-notes position but twenty minutes later I had shoved my notebook aside and had both my legs up in the seat, my head resting above my knees as I gasped, ooh-ed and aah-ed at every single thing happening onscreen. I even let out an “oh my god!” or two (which shocked me cause I’m nothing if not as quiet as a rock in movies). Every time I’ve seen the movie after that first time, I’ve found myself noticing that I become so comfortable in the company of Sarah Polley’s interviewees, that I even took my shoes off at MoMA while I watched it for the umpteenth time. The beauty of this film is that despite allowing viewers the luxury of familiarity, it never ceases to surprise and mesmerize. Viewing after viewing, no other film in 2013 made me think of those classic movie posters that boasted “this movie has it all!”; from laughter, to heartbreak, to profound questions about the nature of truth, to intellectual meditations on aesthetics, to ultimately cathartic realizations about the nature of love between parents and children.