George East’s Top Ten Films of 2013

by George_East on March 2, 2014


As it is Oscar Sunday it is traditionally time for the final list of 2013 (even if it is March 2014): my top 10 films of 2013.  Because of the nature of distributors release schedules, most of the films that are in serious contention for Academy Awards tonight have only been released this year.  There is a trend for Oscar-contenders to be released in the months running up to the ceremony – partly so that they are fresh in the minds of the Academy members who get to vote and partly to maximise the box office bounce.   So the question of whether 12 Years A Slave, Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club etc make by top 10 films of 2014 will have to wait until next year.

2013 was a pretty good year for cinema I think.  There were a lot of very good films – I certainly found reducing this list to 10 more difficult than most years.

It started off  strongly with the release of three worthy awards contenders with Quentin Tarantino’s flawed, flabby but still entertaining western, Django Unchained, Steven Spielberg’s best film for decades, Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow’s taut telling of the hunt of killing of Osama Bin Ladin in Zero Dark Thirty.     Other than these films though, it was not a great year for bug Hollywood pictures.

The big festival prizes were not without controversy.  The favourite to win the Golden Bear at Berlin was the wonderful Chilean story of the love life of a middle aged single woman in Santiago, Gloria (which just missed out making my top 10), but ended up going to the Romanian tale of class and criminal cover up, Child’s Pose. The Palm D’Or at Cannes  went to Abdellatif Kechice’s story of an intense lesbian love affair, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and soon descended into a war of words between the director and its two stars (Adele Exachopolous and Lea Seydoux).    The Golden Lion at Venice was hotly tipped to go to Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (released in the UK later this month), but ended up going to an Italian documentary, Sacro GRA.

Terrence Malick, a man who made three films in his first 20 years as a director, released his second in as many years with the execrable To The Wonder.  For a director who so many of us for so long hoped would emerge from his long exile, this was maybe an indication that he should return to his hermit’s cave.   The film was a laughably pretentious musing of love and religion which took all of the worst bits of The Tree of Life and turned them up to 11, without any of the good bits of that film.

Other films that did not quite make my list that are worth honourable mentions are Frances Ha, Upstream Color, I Wish (which may well have made the cut if I’d seen it on the big screen), Like Father Like Son, Child’s Pose and Our Children.

My top 10 films of 2010, 2011 and 2012 can be found through the links.   For 2013 my top 10 looks like this:

1. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)

Sorrentino’s dazzling The Great Beauty was everything cinema at its best can be.  It was visually and aurally spectacular, it had an underlining seriousness in the emptiness of contemporary Roman society, had at its centre an extraordinary performance by its Tony Servillo, as one time novelist turned cynical art critic,  Jep Gambardella, yet had a lightness and humour that meant the viewer spent most of the film smiling.  If earlier Sorrentino films had felt a little mannered and over-stylised, with The Great Beauty the highly stylised aesthetic enhanced rather than diminished the film.

Jep’s entrance scene in an ear splittingly loud roof top night club party, cigarette in mouth, dancers all around is maybe one of the greatest entrances of a character in a film of all time.   A 100 year old nun treated as a living saint, a  cardinal more interested in culinary than spiritual matters and conveyer belt plastic surgery are just some of the extraordinary delights along the way.

If The Great Beauty was at its core a 50 year later update of  La Dolce Vita for the Berlusconi years, it is so good that it can sit without embarrassment in the  same company as Fellini’s masterpiece.

2. Neighbouring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Neighbouring Sounds exposed the deep class and wealth divisions in Brazil through the simple device of a story of private security guards being employed to protect a fancy residential  street, cheek by jowl with much poorer estates.     It is a world in which everything pretty much can be bought – including policing services.   If you can’t afford it, then tough – it is a privatised world.  Similarly the housing of the poor will gradually be made to give way to yuppie apartments and they will be priced out of their own world.

However, what Filho also suggests is that the one thing that cannot be bought by money, is erasure of the past.    The security guards have a rather greater reason to be in the street than the ultra-rich landlord of the district than simply earning a living.  The film is a slow burning thriller as well as a study of contemporary urban Brazil.   The sound design of parts of the film was extraordinary –  part amplified, part muffled.  All adding to a sense of claustrophobia and tension in the urban spaces in which the film is set.

I hadn’t heard of Filho before, but on the strength of Neighbouring Sounds he is definitely a director worth checking out.

3. Beyond The Hills (Cristian Mungiu)

The director of the brilliant Palm D’Or winner abortion drama from 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days returned with this immensely powerful study of a close female friendship and religion, loosely based on a true story.  As with 4 Months Mungiu showed that he is a superb and sympathetic director of young women.

Beyond The Hills tells the tale of a young nun in an orthodox monastery in a remote part of eastern Romania.  She is visited by a friend (and it is suggested former lover), whom she met in Germany and who wants them to renew their relationship.     The young nun is devout and committed to the communal life in the monastery.  Her friend joins the monastery to be close to her not because of belief.   Her rebellion against the rules and rejection of the rituals of the monastery will lead the priest and other nuns to come to believe she is possessed and seek to perform an exorcism.

It is a film which is sparely and beautifully shot.  It does not patronise or ridicule the religious community but equally shows the damage they do when confronted by a lifestyle choice they cannot understand.  It is part love story, part horror film and part social realism.

The two leads are brilliant and it has one of the most devastating endings of any film released in 2013.    With Beyond The Hills and Child’s Pose the Romanian New Wave launched with The Death of Mr Lazerescu in 2005 is alive and in good health.

4. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard)

The best British film of the year came from film academic and video artist, Clio Barnard, who for her fiction feature debut adapted from the Oscar Wilde children’s story.     Barnard tells the story of two 13 year old boys, Arbor and Swifty, growing up on the impoverished edges of Bradford who get involved in the scrapping business.

For me Barnard managed to capture a kind of poetic social realism that Andrea Arnold has attempted in the past but, with the exception maybe of the first half of her Wuthering Heights not quite achieved (though both Red Road and Fish Tank have such moments in them).   Although The Selfish Giant does not flinch from showing the extent of the poverty of the houses in which Arbor and Swifty grow up, there is also a lyricism about it that takes it out of Loachian realism.

The two boys are brilliant, as is Sean Gilder as hard as nails scrap dealer, Kitten.

5. Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

By a distance the most difficult film of 2013 and the one that I have most internal conflicts about.    Joshua Oppenheimer tells the tale of the Indonesian genoicide of 1964-65 through a documentary in which some of the actual perpetrators re-enact some of their crimes – including torture, killing, burning villages down.  The killers choose to re-enact their crimes in the style of Hollywood film genres.  The effect of the whole thing is deeply unsettling and undoubtedly problematic.

The killers are, for the most part, completely unrepentant and it is clear that the Indonesian political and military establishment treats them more as heroes than mass murderers.  The paramilitary groups that were used to unleash the violence are still in existence and lauded by the very highest levels, including the Vice President.

I am still not sure what I think of the ethics of the film – there is one scene in particular involving a make up artist whose step-father was killed, who then plays a victim in one of the re-enactments, which I found hard to justify.

I cannot though deny its exceptional power and originality.  It is not totally surprising that it was probably the critics’ film of the year.

6. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

The best of the three big films that started the year was Kathryn Bigelow’s taut and tight telling of the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Ladin.   The film was criticised for suggesting that torture had given the Americans a critical piece of information that led eventually to Bin Ladin’s whereabouts in Pakistan.

Although this is problematic, the film is far from being a justification of torture or even the killing of Bin Ladin, which by the end of the film will lead to an empty and unfulfilled future for the CIA analyst who has obsessively hunted him, Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain).    This is a complex and nuanced take on a story that could have been the worst kind of American tub-thumping.

As with 2008’s The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow shows that she brings something to what are typically seen as ‘male’ film genres that no one else is bringing.  Along with that film Zero Dark Thirty  is one of the best of the ‘post-9/11’ films out there.  And my my can she direct a heart in mouth action scene, as with the actual raid on the Osama Bin Ladin compound all shot as if through infra-red night glasses.

7. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne has become the chronicler of American male disappointment with films like About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. Nebraska is another film in this tradition.

It is a road movie about the irascible 70 something Woody Grant (played in a late career masterclass, by Bruce Dern) who is determined to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska from Billings, Montana to collect a $1million prize, he thinks he has won.  On the way, accompanied by his son, he will meet greedy family members, former business partners and a former lover.

Dern is matched in his performance by a fantastically straight talking and foul mouthed, June Squibb as his wife.  The film also has a great turn from Stacy Keach, as his former business partner.    The acting is wonderful throughout and it is very funny.

There is though also an underying sadness about the film, depicting as the trip progresses the death of small town America.  The black and white cinematography has a melancholy beauty to it that adds to this feeling.

8. Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)

Kechiche’s Cannes winning, Blue Is The Warmest Colour is one of the best films of recent years to capture the intensity, heartbreak and passion of young love.  Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) is still at school when she meets blue haired artist Emma (Lea Seydoux).  It will change her life and take her on an emotional and physical journey over the course of the next 6 or 7 years (and 3 hours of the film’s running length) by the end of which she is a primary school teacher.

Kechiche shoots in close up capturing the every expression, blotch and bodily fluid.  The visceral realities of love The two main performances are absolutely astonishing in their sense of truth. The scene in which Adele  has to hold it together the day after Emma breaks it off, in a school performance, is one of the most amazing  pieces of acting I have ever seen.

If the film had been 40 minutes shorter it might well have been my No 2.

9. Museum Hours  Jem Cohen

The Vienna-set Museum Hours is a film about looking carefully at our surroundings.  It tells the story of a relationship which develops between Anne (played by singer Mary Margaret O’Hara) and Johann, a museum guard working in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which houses the glories of the Habsburg art collection, after Anne asks Johann for directions to the hospital in which her dying cousin, Ela is being treated.

Like paintings, cities and people are best understood if you take your time to get to know them, Cohen suggests.  Johann knows the paintings in the museum intimately but it takes Anne’s visit for him really to get to see his own city, which is not prettified by Cohen.  Through doing this they will briefly get to know each other and their lives will be mutually enhanced as a result.

The film looks fantastic lingering over the paintings hanging on the walls of the galleries but also finding similarly fascinating images around the city.  This is a wonderfully original film.

10. In The Fog – Sergei Loznitsa

This is a bleak Russian film set amongst the partisans of Belarus in 1942.   Under German occupation, Susheyna is wrongly accused of being a traitor to the rebels and is being led to his execution when events will leave one of his captors seriously wounded and the other having fled.  Susheyna will be left with the injured Burov and the film will tell their back stories as the stoical Susheyna tries to help Burov (knowing all the time that in doing so, he is probably ensuring his own death warrant).

The film feels in the tradition of Tolstoy and Doestoyesky dealing with weighty  moral dilemmas and questions fate, in the literal and metaphorical fog of war.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ms A March 2, 2014 at 8:39 pm

You definitely need to see Wadjda. And not even an honourable mention for Field In England?

Reply

George_East March 2, 2014 at 9:26 pm

Yes, I do need to see Wadjda. A Field In England is definitely worth seeing but I guess it’s the seeing on a small screen thing.

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