Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THE YEAR IN REVIEW: My Favorite Films of 2013



This year, once again, I begin by lamenting my inability to somehow construct an all-encompassing, coherent narrative out of my thoughts on all the films I watched. But these are all decidedly heterogeneous works, so I instead chose a few among both my personal favorites and the rest of what I saw and tossed them in groups based on a couple of keywords that I believe held thematic influence over this year's cinema and are thus worth reflecting on.



To start with the most obvious of those keywords, a handful of disparate filmmakers seemed driven by an urge to tell stories about the dark side of the American dream, creating a sort of trend in the first half of the year that picked up again near year-end. Usually manifested in the form of a tarnished ideal, it is an oft-recurring theme with specific yet potentially broad appeal. While differing greatly in subject-matter, style, even historical period, each of these stories is invariably an attempt by the filmmaker to capture the American zeitgeist or cultural essence. Early in the spring, Harmony Korine made a solid comeback with SPRING BREAKERS, a twisted, deceptively nostalgic ode to the MTV generation's youth culture and hedonism. Months later, Sofia Coppola returned after her Golden Lion triumph at Venice with THE BLING RING, a snapshot montage of fame-whoring upper-middle-class teens. Then sometime in between, Baz Luhrmann presented -- much to the chagrin of many regular readers as well as literary purists -- a rambunctious, sacrilegious retelling of THE GREAT GATSBY.

In these, images of vulgarity, excess and ill-gotten wealth flash onscreen: wads of cash, rooms replete with luxuries, fancy cars, silk shirts flung into the air, and so on. If there is one conspicuous point where Korine's kaleidoscopic crime drama diverges from the others, it is the absence of a gaze like Eckleburg's grotesquely painted eyes or the mechanical eyes of security cameras. Instead of offering up straightforward moralizing commentary, Korine fuses the girls' Florida escapades with school-day flashbacks and the present-time shots of their calling their families and whispering reassuring words about the value of short-lived enjoyment. The melting structure blurs the time frames and spatial settings, but simultaneously hammers home the contrast between the kind of stability institutions are meant to furnish and total anarchy in which the girls immerse themselves. Nowhere to be seen is, though, a watchful eye for our spring breakers, or the feeling of being watched, much less judged.




Once the summer blockbuster and autumn film fest seasons passed, the American ethos became relevant again. In boldly entitled AMERICAN HUSTLE, the characters are a self-conscious and delusional bunch, as hungry for legitimacy and authenticity as the director David O. Russell seems to be. With its Goodfellas-esque style and rich period detail, the pic strives to revive the subtly melancholy air of a decadent 1970s New York while grifters and an upstart fed try to one-up each other. But this fuzzy, bloated drama flimsily concludes that those hustlers deserve a crowd-pleasingly happy ending, exhibiting no sense of irony. Uninterested in tight plotting typical of caper flicks, Russell assembles disjointed scenes into an intentionally shapeless narrative. Despite having the cast spout off about what it's about, however, this is ultimately an inefficient tale of the collective mentality of upward movers living on shady business and scheming. In fact, in terms of ambition and inner logic, it made me realize how effectively the repetition of certain lines of dialog and gun-cocking sounds, deliberate aimlessness, and the fusing of plot points contribute to the overall liquid form of SPRING BREAKERS.



Money, however understated its presence, also figures in a couple of the finest coming-of-age stories of the year. In THE SELFISH GIANT, a glorious sophomore work by British auteur Clio Barnard, boys are expelled from school and scavenge for scrap metal to earn some quick cash. Inspired by Oscar Wilde's short story of the same name and set in a post-industrial neighborhood of Bradford, Barnard seamlessly integrates the dramatic arc of those little pikeys' friendship and that of the ill-tempered one's redemption into her realistic yet poetic vision of this particular community. Meanwhile, in MUD, Jeff Nichols, as with Take Shelter back in 2011, once again spins a yarn about a working-class family in the American South with a keen observation of rural landscape and ambiance. His consistent portrayal of the day-to-day lives of our teenage hero Ellis, his best pal, and their respective families feels downright unassuming and mirrors their socioeconomic status in a fashion at once naturalistic and romantic. Its general modesty also helps play up the mystic nature of the titular fugitive Mud. In both pics, the boys experience heartbreak, learn a lesson or two, and move on. Transitioning, whether to adulthood or another phase in between, is the inevitable culmination of the predetermined course of events easily found in such bildungsroman.



Speaking of moving on and adulthood, the 27-year-old eponymous protagonist of Noah Baumbach's FRANCES HA is on the move all the time and says she does not even feel like a real person, let alone a proper grownup. Just like Frances's personality, the movie radiates vivacity throughout and blatantly draws inspiration from the visuals and music of French New Wave cinema -- the scene wherein Frances dances and breezes through New York's Chinatown recalling Leos Carax's Bad Blood is an obvious example. Besides the immense visual and auditory pleasure it supplies, it seems fitting to touch upon a few technical choices made here, especially in relation to the two coming-of-age films I discussed above

Frances is very often framed in long (panning) shots, which emphasizes the thespian's physicality and the character's presence in her surroundings; then when she's with her BFF Sophie, two-shots and alternating (somewhat lengthy) close-ups prevail. Those aesthetic decisions neatly convey Frances's relationships with her immediate milieu and with her friends and acquaintances. Barnard and Nichols, in THE SELFISH GIANT and MUD, respectively, design shots in similar ways that illustrate the relations the main characters develop with people around them and the reality they are in. In the former, aside from some striking landscapes, frequent long shots set the Bradford boys against their not-so-hospitable background, while two- or three-shots with rack focus, gestures, and unspoken exchanges by turns imply the boys' changing dynamic and reaffirm their bond. In Nichols's, by the midpoint a transition from close-ups (e.g., an extreme close-up of Mud's imposing face when he makes his first appearance) to two-shots marks alliance gradually forming between Ellis and Mud.




Another collaborative screenwriting as accomplished as Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's is none other than BEFORE MIDNIGHT by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater. To describe my thoughts on this movie I can't help but resort to comparatives and superlatives. A rare success as the third part of a trilogy in itself, it is also the best installment among the three. Now in their 40s, the couple resumes their journey, this time in Greece, after a 9-year hiatus. Like its predecessors, the movie spans less than a day, but the mere fleeting joys make way for heavier stuff, running the gamut from family to death. Jesse and Celine are as witty as ever, but their conversations now reveal layer upon layer of their life together and emotion that they have built up over those intervening years. Indeed, the gifted director-writers team offered a more organically constructed, more profoundly written piece.

The theme of traveling extends to the Coen brothers' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN. Certainly, the Coens' and Glazer's are two entirely different films, but along with Frances, Llewyn Davis and Alien, the characters memorably inhabited by Oscar Isaac and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, represent the year's most intriguing nomadic lives. Hopefully, I will write up my thoughts separately on these two when I get a chance to revisit them. Just one quick observation on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, though: except the big question whether Mike Timlin is the son of the Gorfeins (of course not), what drew me deeper to this vagabond's story was pervasive interaction between, or coexistence of the opposing forces, namely, the seemingly preordained form of life given to Davis, i.e., on an infinite loop, and the thoroughgoing randomness of the cat's existence in the context of the film.

One of the most remarkable facets of the year's cinema for me is women in distress and each trapped in a losing battle of deception. Yes, I'm referring to Jeanette "Jasmine" French in BLUE JASMINE and Emily Taylor in SIDE EFFECTS. If Jasmine commits self-deception as part or product of her general existential crisis, Emily performs deception out of drive for a better life, as warped as that desire might be. Also worthy of note, of course, are stories of survival set in space and at sea. Essentially one-(wo)man shows, GRAVITY and ALL IS LOST both are quite technical and dramatic accomplishments, though I find myself preferring the more pragmatic, trimmed-down approach J.C. Chandor adopts towards his material. 

So this is it. I have discussed films I was fond of and those I considered worth mentioning. Happy new year, everyone, and farewell 2013. 

Here's my 2013 favorites list in not-entirely-random order:




BEFORE MIDNIGHT 





INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS



THE SELFISH GIANT



MUD



FRANCES HA



BLUE JASMINE



UNDER THE SKIN


SPRING BREAKERS



SIDE EFFECTS



ALL IS LOST