Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My 10 Best Films Seen in 2013

Here's my version of a best of year list. Below are the top 10 films I saw in 2013. Some are new productions, others hi-def reissues of old favorites. It's amazing how some films just get better with age.

10. Turn Me On Dammit! (2011) ✭✭✭✭

Turn Me On Dammit! is a Norwegian teen sex comedy and I’ll give you a moment to absorb that idea. The film is set in a tiny town so remote it’s not just in the middle of nowhere, it’s on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Here we meet 15 year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm), her body under assault by raging hormones and her heart consumed with hunky young Artur (Matias Myren) who plays guitar in the church choir. After an awkward sexual interlude at a party, Alma is ostracized at school and given a comical nickname by the community. The film is rich with eccentric characters, charming quirkiness and that deadpan, subtle humor the Scandinavians do better than just about anybody. The script won Best Screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival and director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen is clearly a talent to watch. Think Northern Exposure re-imagined by John Hughes.

9. Rust and Bone (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Rust and Bone is at heart a love story, but don’t expect slow motion montages of a happy couple cavorting in a field of daisies. It’s a grim, tough guy sort of romance with street fights substituting for candlelight dinners and lovemaking presented as just another form of physical therapy. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a thuggish former boxer who has fled Belgium with his young son Sam (Armand Verdure) for the sunnier climes of Antibes. His wife - who is never shown - has become involved with drug use and dealing, putting Sam’s welfare at great risk. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) is a whale trainer at Marineland, where she dons a wetsuit every day and enthralls audiences with the acrobatic exploits of these magnificent beasts. The pair meet one night at a raucous bar where Ali works as a bouncer. When he helps Stephanie out of a potentially violent situation, Ali’s sexual desire is mistaken for gallantry. This white knight’s armor may be deeply tarnished, but in the modern rough and tumble world one can’t be too choosy about guardian angels.

8. Badlands (1973) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

1973’s Badlands marked the first feature film from writer/director Terrence Malick and it squarely put him on the path to his current cinematic sainthood. Over a forty year career and a scant six feature films — three more are on the way — Malick has established a well deserved mystique as the closest thing America has produced to a true European style auteur. Frankly, no one else is even close.

7. Lincoln (2012)  ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Daniel Day-Lewis’ manifestation is a performance for the ages. What George C. Scott did for Patton and Marlon Brando did for The Godfather, Day-Lewis does for Lincoln, and that may be understating his achievement. This Lincoln is not the heroic figure of historical sainthood, but a shy, introverted man who bore the crushing weight of his crumbling nation the same way he outmaneuvered his formidable political opposition, by forging wit, decency and intelligence into an irresistible force. 

6. Postmen in the Mountains (1999) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Postmen in the Mountains is a film that outwardly seems as simple and straightforward as its title, but within its placid layers is a deceptive emotional depth. In this tale of transition, a middle-aged mail carrier (Rujun Ten), facing retirement due to declining health, prepares to hand over his route to his estranged 24 year old son (Ye Liu). The two men embark on a three day journey over the rugged mountains of Hunan province as the father shows his son the ropes. It ran the table at the 1999 Chinese Film Awards and was Japan’s top grossing film at the box office in 2001. It is a gentle, delicate film that deals with father-son relationships and generational change with bittersweet moments of humor and empathy.  And despite the film’s exotic locale, viewers are sure to recognize some of the major passages of their own lives.

5. I Am Cuba (1964)  ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

My goodness this film is everything it’s cracked up to be. I will be doing a long winded pedantic review eventually, but right now I’m too overcome by its brilliance to mutter anything worthwhile. Rumors are Criterion will release a blu-ray next year, and that will be a glorious day. In the meantime, I'll be thinking about this one…and the star rating may move up.

4. Wild Strawberries (1957) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Wild Strawberries is a stunning cinematic experience. Filled with mystical beauty and chewy philosophical constructs in a tidy, perfectly tailored ninety-two minute package, the film is a mandatory part of the syllabus for any serious cineaste. And even if you’ve experienced this recondite road movie in the distant past, it’s high time for a revisit thanks to Criterion’s sublime new blu-ray edition. With this disc, viewers will discover boundless new textures and detail, leaving that dreary 16mm print from college film class in the magical dust of Swedish high summer.

3. Amour (2012) ✭✭✭✭✭

There is a profound method to Haneke’s dry clinical approach. As the film progresses to the final act, audiences will find themselves as physically drained as Georges, and wholly sympathetic as his faculties and judgement reach a dangerous brink. In true Haneke fashion, Amour ultimately delivers its own shocking moments and disorienting aftermaths, and it does so with raw courage unfiltered by sentiment. No Amour is not a feel good popcorn movie. It’s a brilliantly guided journey worthy  of admiration and a perfect embodiment of Bette Davis’ immortal phrase: “Getting old ain’t for sissies.”

2. Tokyo Story (1953) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story from 1953, now available in a superbly packaged Blu-ray edition from Criterion, is a film that subtly captures the dynamics of family life in ways that feel shockingly real. There are moments here of such immediacy and personal truth that it seems impossible for Tokyo Story to be a relic of a bygone age and culture. Yet, due to Ozu’s masterful – one could say otherworldly – powers of observation, this sixty year old glimpse into the everyday lives of the Hirayama family presents the human condition with a universality that still rings true in 2013.

1. Babette's Feast (1987) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works.

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