2013 was a pretty good year for films and a pretty good year for me not falling asleep while watching them. I only clocked off twice at the cinema, during Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock (not worth staying awake for) and Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain (I was dog tired). Memorable screenings/events include being able to see a Tsai film (Stray Dogs) for the first time on the big screen; a screening of Jonas Mekas's Walden at Shibuya Image Forum; the Magnolia's 'talk show' event hosted by Tristan Fidler at Revelation Film Festival, in which I took part with festival founder Richard Sowada and White Reindeer director Zach Clark; a cramped, entertaining Q&A session with Clark in the cinema bar after a screening of his film the next day.
Like everybody else, I was floored by Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing despite having some strong reservations about it. Having not seen the film a second time to be able to pinpoint what these reservations are, I've left it off my list. Similarly, I found Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity hugely entertaining, but after a second viewing I can only appreciate it now for what it is: a visceral Disneyland ride where 3D is vital to the experience (for me this is a weakness of the film and not proof that 3D films are on the cusp of greatness – I don't have the inclination to see the film again soon on another format). I had opportunities to see, but missed, Pedro González-Rubio's Inori, Shunya Ito's Hajimari mo Owari mo nai, Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, Sebastián Lelio's Gloria, Yoju Matsubayashi's The Horses of Fukushima, Ben Wheatley's A Field in England – all films that I suspect I would have liked a lot. For me, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers was the most overrated film of the year, alongside David O. Russell's American Hustle – the near-unanimous praise for the latter film is bewildering; I found it scrappy, irritating and meaningless.
Here's my top ten in alphabetical order:
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
About Elly was released back in 2009 but only surfaced outside Iran in 2012-13, following the Oscar-winning success of Farhadi's A Separation (one of my favourites from 2012). Unlike most of his famous Iranian peers who emerged from the Iranian New Wave, Farhadi's films are heavily scripted affairs and on the surface, his handheld filming style seems almost pedestrian. But surface is just surface; I struggle to think of a current filmmaker who is able to infuse such intense, tightly-mapped drama with a moral complexity that says and asks so much about the cultural, social and political environment in which he lives and works. His films are like Cassavetes' without the meandering, combined with a razor-sharp political outlook (though expressed obliquely – he works in Iran, after all), an acute understanding of class and gender relations, and a poetic ambiguity that may not be apparent until the closing frames. I haven't yet watched his most recent film The Past, but I can't wait.
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland)
I'd pretty much lost faith in contemporary horror films and the film that restored my faith in it does what many of the best horrors do: focus on the unseen. As a psychological horror film about filmmaking itself – one that takes sound as both its subject and the motivation for its stylistic approach – Berberian Sound Studio is kind of a one-off film; for this reason I don't expect it to spark any sort of renaissance or exert any recognisable influence on the genre. Still, I hope that filmmakers pay heed to the film's devilish humour and smart, offscreen horror – one in which it feels as we've seen, heard and felt so much carnage, but can't know for sure if any blood has been spilled at all.
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Two prominent filmmakers of the so-called Mumblecore movement released films in 2013: Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess was entertaining but struck me as gimmicky; Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies was less adventurous formally but far more likeable. I find most cinematic love stories to be lame, full of shit and illusionistic in the worst possible way, but Drinking Buddies felt simple and real. Swanberg's film is light on the surface and much of it it feels downright trivial – it's about a requited but unrealisable love between two buddy co-workers at a brewery, both of who are already partnered up. But by the film's end, you've come to accept all of the characters' virtues and flaws, and the not-so-complicated love square (is that what it's called?) at the centre of the narrative becomes potent and affecting. Drinking Buddies is a bad film to watch on a hangover, or if you're an alcoholic. A running joke of the film entails beer drinking being crowbarred into practically every scene; characters are rarely without a drink in their hand. I felt like I needed to piss during the whole thing.
Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont)
Despite the apparent naturalism of Bruno Dumont's films and in particular, that of his non-professional actors, he has stated that he cares nothing for realism. This is no more evident in Hors Satan, Dumont's most ambiguous and maybe his best film. An oblique meditation, rather than an exploration, of good and evil, here the literal and the abstract, the everyday and the spiritual, the living and dead, occupy the same space. The film's central character, simply named He, is played by David Dewaele – a man whose face is simultaneously otherworldly and profoundly, viscerally human (he sadly died from a stroke in February 2013). This being a Dumont film, you watch it knowing there's going to be (at least) one transgressive passage that punctures the narrative, rendering everything that comes before and after it in a new, abstract light. That passage in this film rivals anything to be filmed by the most visceral horror filmmakers, in its abruptness, primalness and horrifying ambiguity. Ultimately Hors Satan is a heartbreaking work, though it's impossible to say why.
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
After Certified Copy, which I found more than a little awkward, I was worried that Abbas Kiarostami's second foray into filmmaking outside Iran (not including his segment on Tickets) would also miss the mark. But Like Someone in Love felt like the work of a filmmaker completely in charge of the language, atmosphere and palette of his new Tokyo setting. The city seems perfect for him. It's still a Kiarostami film through and through – a small film set in a big place; the minimalist poetry; the use of cars and enclosed spaces; its reliance on offscreen space and open, enigmatic images – and reinforces the notion that he's one of the most universal filmmakers working today. Like Someone in Love also has the best ending out of any film I saw this year – the first and possibly last time audiences for a Kiarostami film will find themselves jumping out of their seats.
Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz)
Given that Night Across the Street was my first introduction to Raúl Ruiz's work (it's his last film – he died in 2012 at the age of 70, after directing over a hundred), I know I've barely scratched the surface on what it has to offer. But I loved the film's sense of mischief, its wildly divergent narrative and blending of the real and the artificial, memory and fantasy, past and present. It's poignant knowing that Ruiz, aware that he was dying, intended this film to be released posthumously; this is reflected by Ruiz's onscreen surrogate Don Celso's (often humorous) struggles with, and noble acceptance of his impending death. Like José Saramago's novels, Night Across the Street is a dense collection of memories, thoughts and ideas by a wise, not-so-old man who still had plenty left to say.
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
Sarah Polley's documentary expresses ideas about memory, family, truth and storytelling – via the story of her own family, in particular her mother – that have been expressed countless times before. Yet it does this in an honest, playful and engaging way that is completely serious in its intent. Stories We Tell uses a huge assortment of conventional documentary approaches – interviews, archival footage, illustrative shots and photographs, re-enactments – but the most effective was Polley's decision to use her own father to write and speak the narration for the film. His confident, authoritative British voice and beautiful prose eventually form a moving contrast to his more unrehearsed, human self, when he sits in front of his daughter's camera and faces some uncomfortable truths about his family. For a while I resisted this film because it felt needlessly complex, and wondered whether its reflexive aspects couldn't be more subtle, or whether the story about Polley's mother was even interesting to begin with. But in the end everything felt right.
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
What I'll remember most from this film, rather than the graphic depictions of gay sex (after a recent diet of HBO shows, each dick and pair of balls was a breath of fresh air) or its understated suspense/murder narrative, is its hypnotic conveyance of time passing. Set at a lake which doubles as a gay beat during summer, the repetitive nature of the narrative, its setting (it cycles between the beach, the carpark and the woods in between) and the subtle transitions between day and night means you quickly lose track of the film's timeframe and develop your own abstract sense of time. Everything blurs into a haze and, as in a dream, characters seem to appear and disappear at the drop of a dime. The film feels like summer itself. It also has the most effective use of POV shots since... Hitchcock, I guess.
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
The most powerful film I saw this year was the film that used the fewest and simplest means. Stray Dogs felt like an amalgamation of all of Tsai's previous films as well as a significant departure from them. In his first feature using digital video, Tsai pushes his precise, minimalist, long-take aesthetic to new heights (and lengths); I can't recall another recent narrative film in which the form is as moving as the content. I saw Stray Dogs at Tokyo Filmex and the city felt different for days after. The last two shots of the film – an extraordinary scene lasting some twenty-odd minutes – hushed the cinema completely, and the hush remained long after the credits rolled and the people made their way outside. I won't pay any attention to the fact that Tsai has claimed this is his last film. These claims usually end up being false, the film is no more or less powerful with this knowledge, and nobody wants to hear that shit anyway.
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield)
Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles plays like an extended reality TV episode and as such, it does what these kinds of shows do best: invite you to laugh at a bunch of freaks. In this case the freaks are the Siegel family, one of the richest families in America, who not only possess a grotesque amount of wealth but use this wealth in a grotesque manner. The family business is about to go belly-up, and the film details the family's economic demise as embodied in the gradual deterioration of their 90,000-square-foot mansion – the largest family home in America – which they eventually can't afford to upkeep. I'm not sure if this film actually has anything meaningful to say about wealth, America or the state of the world. But it does occasionally reach some truly surreal, Grey Gardens-esque heights (as when their mansion becomes dotted with dog shit and dead, neglected pets) and above all, it is satisfying in the vein of a revenge film. Regardless of how much Greenfield may attempt to humanise this family, The Queen of Versailles is essentially an invitation to witness, and take delight in watching a sinking ship that we all know, deserves to sink. It's not a guilty pleasure, just pleasure.
Honourable mentions: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer), Amour (Michael Haneke), La cinquième saison (Jessica Woodworth, Peter Brosens), Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach), Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta), Journal de France (Raymond Depardon, Claudine Nougaret), No (Pablo Larraín), Stoker (Park Chan-Wook), White Reindeer (Zach Clark)
The worst: American Hustle (David O. Russell), Argo (Ben Affleck), Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi), The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona), Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn)
Great films I caught up on: 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2008), The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002), The Apple (Samira Makhlmalbaf, 1998), Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1969), A Dog's Life (Charles Chaplin, 1918), Elephant (Alan Clarke, 1989), The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009), Jean Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975), Johnny Guitar (Nicolas Ray, 1964), Le Quattro Volte (Michaelangelo Frammartino, 2010), Ne change rien (Pedro Costa, 2009), The Rebirth (Masahiro Kobayashi, 2007), Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2001), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011), Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), Walden (Jonas Mekas, 1969), I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943), Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012), Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001), Year of the Dogs (Michael Cordell, 1996)