Friday, February 28, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2013

10) Computer Chess

Period pieces have an unusual burden. They must present a series of values and customs that are antiquated enough to appeal to an audience's historical curiosity, but they also can't be completely unmoored from contemporary framework, for fear of alienation. In that regard, Computer Chess is an anomaly. Shot on analog video cameras and improvised from an eight-page treatment, the film is formally vexing. Dry as a bone, rhythmically uneven, and laced with complex computer jargon, Andrew Bujalski doesn't transport you to the 80s so much as strand you in it, shooting "actors" on obsolete technology as they interact with obsolete technology. To call this niche would be charitable. But Bujalski's fourth feature is more relevant than its creaky exterior lets on, and once this tournament of competing computer chess programs sneaks in plot threads about a budding romance and a government sponsor, you're suddenly smack in the middle of an allegorical story about the birth of a new technological era. The film's freewheeling structure and casual engagement with genre elements allows it to bounce between the intersection of scientific growth and militarization, the human urge to reject new experiences, and the first inkling of a computer's capacity for intelligence, chillingly rendered through a series of simple messages. And this is to say nothing of the fetus or the prostitute or the army of cats. Difficult to watch, not for everyone, but unique enough to really stick.

9) All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

Well, I keep on thinkin' 'bout you
sister golden hair surprise

And I just can't live without you
can't you see it in my eyes?

Now I been one poor correspondent
and I been too, too hard to find

but it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind

8) The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling isn't in a lot of this movie. You wouldn't guess it from the promotional materials, plastered over with his Brando smolder and his awful peroxide dye job. But for an actor who is as bankable and immediately striking as he is, he's also extraordinarily unselfish. It's easy to watch this movie and imagine someone more self-involved (Edward Norton perhaps?) raising hell about his lack of screen time or trying to control the editing in a way that maximizes his contribution. That's the beauty of Gosling's Handsome Luke, though. Like the performer himself, Luke is an enigmatic charm factory, acting as a current of dark color that courses through The Place Beyond the Pines long after his contributions have ceased. For this massive family drama triptych to work, Luke/Gosling must be often felt but rarely seen so that his son can continue to chase his shadow. Given 30% of the movie in which to operate, Gosling is asked to craft a man working toward goodness, against his own faulty moral compass, for the sake of his newfound family. The script demands he fail, to be beastly and unsympathetic, but also to project the image of a man who might have been great had this life not dealt him such a terrible hand. Who else in Gosling's age bracket has that kind of emotional reserve? What other face can say so much with so little? The movie would never have worked without him, and some argue that it doesn't anyway, but for my money he's a perfect fit for what this Sins of the Father narrative needed: superficial stature that belies poisonous distance.

7) Before Midnight

Knowing what we know about Jesse and Celine's relationship, eighteen years in the making, even the title of this film invokes a certain melancholy. This third and final chapter is the midnight of their relationship, the point at which the luster of romantic idealism has faded completely. These people have spent nearly a decade together; they've had children; they are mutually aware of the other's every fault and neurosis and emotional pockmark, which turns even the smallest of conflicts into an emotional minefield. Before Midnight is Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's chance to really scorch the earth, challenge what we know about their characters and the sustainability of their bond in the absence of passion and novelty. In this regard the film could have used a little more fire; the editing is pokey, especially during a hotel room fight that lumbers along to no real effect, and Linklater's decision to frame them in the first act with two stories of love younger and older than theirs reads as an uneasy attempt to give their marriage outside perspective. Being in the bubble with Jesse and Celine is just more intoxicating, and I suppose that bubble would widen naturally throughout a long-term relationship, but these films are always at their best during the one-on-one walk-and-talks. There's a pleasure in the repeat opportunities to immerse ourselves in such intimate conversation, a voyeuristic one obviously, and the fact that the edges of this once easy candor are starting to fray is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. But that's life, right? The ending is ambiguous, like in Sunrise and Sunset, but with an extra dose of terminal bittersweetness. Jesse and Celine finally recognize their fundamental incompatibilities and in doing so weigh the responsibility of accepting them against the idea of an empty life alone. Before Midnight avoids the promise of blissful uncomplicated love foisted on us by most romance movies, but instead closes this series with the rationality we've come to expect from it. Human existence is uncertain, doubly so when entangled with another person.

6) Like Someone in Love

Fresh off the success of his delightful Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami took his brand of clinical intellectualism over to Japan, a country known for a culture of emotional repression, and decided to shoot a film about love. The oppositions in play here are obvious, limiting, but nonetheless intriguing, and Kiarostami's cast pull off their complex characters without a hitch. Rin Takanashi stars as Akiko, a smart young sociology student who moonlights as a prostitute. Her pimp sends her to visit retired professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who is immediately taken with her bright demeanor, and although the two do not have sex a bond forms between them. Akiko, in true Kiarostami form, is opaque: on the car ride to Takashi's house she ignores a series of increasingly heartbroken voicemails from her grandmother, lonely and desperate to meet her; her natural rapport with Takashi calls her engagement to Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a brutish car mechanic, into question; she mentions that she is constantly compared to images of other women, mothers and portraits and call-girl cards tacked onto busy bar walls. Akiko's role as a fantasy is reflected in her quicksilver nature, as she means a great deal to the people who interact with her, and yet she never quite commits to any of them. Most of the credit for this illusory woman goes to Takanashi, fully convincing as a woman of curious social power while remaining enough of a blank slate for each character to project their burning loves onto - erotic, filial, intellectual, there's a part of her that might richly consummate these loves, if only she would. This film, like Before Midnight, closes on an insurmountable question about accepting love and the obstacles it brings, but much more abruptly, almost shockingly so. It demonstrates the inadequacy of love for all three main characters, paints it as a force that lets them down in the face of reality, and does it all in less than a second.

5) Frances Ha

Sacramento doesn't exactly produce a ton of top-shelf film talent. For every Jessica Chastain or Brie Larson, we turn out a Smosh or a Sasha Grey. (Grey has her own merits, naturally, but she ain't much of an actress.) Greta Gerwig, born and raised in my state's lovely capital, is probably my new favorite of the bunch. She is a bizarre woman, full of surprises, funny as hell and capable of tremendous intensity. It seems inconceivable that she could find any sort of success in Hollywood, but an early foot in the mumblecore mumbledoor was a big help, as it eventually led her to her splashy role in House of the Devil and an opportunity to act across Ben Stiller in Greenberg. If I've ranted too long about her qualifications, it's because her character in Frances Ha is a clear autobiographical image. Both Gerwig and Frances are native Sacramentans who left home early, aspiring to begin some kind of career in dance, and found themselves frustrated with the expensive elitist trappings of New York city life before eventually discovering a comfortable niche. Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach, isn't on to anything particularly new here - if you have even a passing familiarity with Girls, the little-artist-in-the-big-city scenario may come off as played. But Frances Halladay is more mature than Hannah Horvath, and Frances Ha is definitely more mature than Girls, and although a little immaturity never hurt anyone, it's uplifting to see a film that addresses my own concerns as a semi-creative airhead in a levelheaded way. Instead of confronting her problems with complete buffoonery, Frances takes legitimate strides toward self-improvement, misguided and a bit pathetic though they often are. She powers through each of her numerous failures and continues to seek an opportunity that matches her ambition. She refuses to let her poverty or the fact that she's kind of an outcast get in the way. Frances Ha is diffuse, but that's because like Frances, it does not have one particular goal in mind. Her journey is about the revelation that pursuing a dream requires compromise, which is not an easy thing for the young and impatient to remind themselves of. To see a local woman tell this unconventional tale of success was a real inspiration. Viva Gerwig!

4) Antiviral

Antiviral is a gaze into one potential future of celebrity culture, where the entertainment industry has become so powerful that the pretense of artistry is done away with completely. Fans pay to receive injections of a star's unique, home-grown disease, a pretty direct statement by Brandon Cronenberg about Internet virality's natural endpoint. Why bother trying to spread the mass hallucination that is celebrity worship with music or film when a virus, self-perpetuating and literally contagious, accomplishes the same thing? What sense does it make to pay vocal coaches or directors when you can spread a starlet through the populace with one carefully-timed GIF? Sounds like a perversion of vertical integration to me - an industry collapsing all of the ways its product can potentially fulfill a person into one easily controlled and distributed phenomenon. To hear Antiviral tell it, this method is astronomically successful to the point where it has overwritten society's every other concern. Do I think we'd ever reach this point? No, there's obviously an element of fantastical prognostication here, especially in its brief exploration of a celebrity meat business. (Though maybe this isn't so far-fetched after all.) It is still humbling to see the extent to which our obsession with celebrity can be exploited, however, a cold reminder of how easy it is for a person to fixate on a pretty face instead of a pressing issue.

3) Upstream Color

Those of us who waited nine FUCKING years for Shane Carruth's followup to Primer knew that it would be some kind of beautiful mess. Look at this thing! If your debut feature was the most labyrinthine time travel story ever committed to film, the weight of expectation would probably be too great for you to meet. Fortunately, Carruth rose to the challenge and put together this gnarly beast of a film. Upstream Color is stuffed full of vibrant colors when you least expect them, thanks largely to the efforts of its three "biological effects" artists, and has some of the most delicate sound design I've ever heard. The introduction to The Sampler is hypnotic. Its greatest deviation from traditional film technique, however, is in its editing. Most scenes are chopped up and resequenced, eschewing cinema's conventional observation of time in pursuit of creating a disoriented mood. Confounding the audience's understanding further, Carruth frequently shoots his subjects in close-up, denying us a greater perception of space that would otherwise help us to find a steady position in this narrative. If this doesn't sound like a fun time at the movies to you, it isn't trying to be. Upstream Color is a soft science fiction film about a worm that, when ingested, causes the consumer to lose all agency. A few enterprising scammers happen upon this and subject Kris (Amy Seimetz, fascinating) to the hypnobug treatment, camping out in her house for several days while liquidating her home equity and extorting her for every last dollar she has. After the fact, Kris is left with no memory of the event, no job, no money, and a pervasive sense of unease. The bare bones of this bizarre plot are intriguing enough, but Upstream Color isn't meant to be solved on the first run through. Rather than presenting an A-to-B montage of escalating events, Carruth focuses on generating an atmosphere of loss, where the viewer, like Kris, feels as though they are perpetually missing something. Kris' financial and mental security have been radically compromised to where she's hardly capable of human function, and it's only through a chance meeting with fellow worm-fraud victim Jeff (Carruth, unfortunately not an actor) that she - and we - can start working through this crippling depersonalization. If the above didn't tip you off, this can be frustrating to sit through at times, and unlike Primer there's not always a good reason why it's so goddamn confusing. Upstream Color is an experience to be surrendered to and immersed in, one that asks you to look and listen first before trying to lay it bare. It is a testament to the importance of working through insolvency, depression, and self-doubt toward the things that make our lives worth living. That Carruth was able to accomplish a film of such singular power on a budget of $300,000 should leave Hollywood feeling ashamed of themselves.

2) 12 Years a Slave

Here is a list of notable films released in the last decade that deal explicitly with American slavery:

Django Unchained
12 Years a Slave 

Considering that slavery is the foul cornerstone upon which the American empire was established, and considering the inarguable importance of exhuming and reexamining our history, the cinema has come up awfully short lately. Lincoln is less about slavery as it is about political bloviation, and despite my love for Lars von Trier I'm not sure I trust him enough with the subject to watch Manderlay. The less said about Django Unchained the better. What 12 Years a Slave gets to more than any recent populist film about black subjugation is the deep-seated psychology that motivates its propagators. Aggressive capitalism is the outward justification, but Steve McQueen enmeshes it with frustrated sexuality, religious guilt, jealousy, and inferiority complexes, an amalgam of bitter self-hatred displaced onto the suffering bodies of their "property." McQueen's approach is that of cold, Kubrickian analysis; the non-diegetic music is minimal (surprising from the recently unavoidable Hans Zimmer), his takes are long and often contain little movement, and his richly-lit compositions serve as a self-evident counterpoint to the violence depicted on screen. Some tumult has arisen about this film's supposed aesthetization of cruelty; the richest of these criticisms can be found here at Reverse Shot, where Adam Nayman accuses the film and McQueen of using slavery as a foundation for auteurial bravado. But Nayman also claims that 12 Years a Slave is a conventionally attractive film because it needs to be for a mainstream audience, who are ideally left with indelible visual impressions created by the dialectic of natural beauty and horrific violence. Although he is right to decry Brad Pitt's awful role, surely a product of financial compromise, disqualifying the movie based on perceived motive and audience reaction is unfair. McQueen's vision is clear, and his dissection of this moment in history extends past surface depictions of its brutality. Solomon and Patsey are tortured because they resemble their white captors enough to be used as sites for excising self-motivated aggression, but also because they are different enough that these captors do not have to reflect on what this torture says about their own humanity. Patsey is the key: a woman of transcendent power (500 pounds of cotton picked a day, twice as much as anyone else) and undeniable magnetism (even her owner tells his wife that he would pick Patsey over her), the white world around her is nevertheless unable to reconcile her exceptional personhood with the color of her skin. These conflicting impulses are thereby manifested upon her flesh, in claw-marks and deep whip welts, each wound an index meant to call associations of its inflictor's faulty logic. If people leave the movie simply feeling ingratiated that they had no hand in these atrocities, that's hardly McQueen's fault. If they leave with a clearer picture of how such abuses are born of projecting their anger onto the "other," a lesson that still holds and will continue to hold relevance, then 12 Years a Slave will have done its job in splendid fashion.

1) Laurence Anyways

Buoyant, celebratory, dramatic but rarely miserablist, Laurence Anyways is a visual artifact deliberately designed to be huge. It's nearly three hours long and stuffed to the rafters with daffy visual devices, put there because Xavier Dolan wanted them there. Here be filters on filters, rococo fashion and set design, unlikely and unexpected long shots cut into intimate conversations, slowdowns, Tumblr-ready text cards splashed across the film's climax, unexpected autumn storms, and dreams where clothing falls from the sky. This movie strives to be the exact opposite of the marginalization that transmen and transwomen encounter: a film full of outlandish, unashamed expression, most of which works but some of which doesn't, a distinction that ultimately hardly matters because the whole coheres into a controlled mess. Dolan, LGBT cinema's new wunderkind, has spent the last four years sculpting "ordinary" queer narratives into sprawling films that are rarely perfect, less concerned with conventional dramatic structure than imitating and embellishing on life's unexpected chaos. On the surface, there isn't a lot that distinguishes Laurence's transition from male to female as particularly different from any other story in its vein. It costs him his job, troubles his long-term relationship, and alienates his family, the sort of occurrences you might expect to accompany any coming out. Laurence Anyways matters because it rolls over each of these beats with panache, liberating them from the expectations of the audience by filling them with sensory surprises. Telling these stories in any capacity is important, but recently visible LGBT cinema has often equated importance with sobriety; recall 2011's Weekend, a lovely movie but a hell of a downer, or Milk, which was obviously never going to end well for anyone involved. The consequences of being placed in such a complex situation can be undeniably grim, but Dolan counterbalances the realities of queer life with reminders of life's unexpected splendor. Once you've finally accepted who you are, everything becomes brighter, more colorful, more beautiful. Laurence's reclamation of his identity is his first step toward acknowledging that he belongs in this world, on no one else's terms, and deserves to experience it to the fullest. To contemplate his story is to realize the depth of human experience, how immensely complicated every life is, and how the effort of being yourself in uncharitable circumstances is in itself cause for celebration. Laurence Anyways is a must for anyone who has ever felt that they do not fit in, queer or otherwise.

Almost there!

Only God Forgives: A vastly misunderstood Freudian nightmare, Only God Forgives was bound to be savaged by critics, especially as Refn and Gosling's follow-up to the easily lovable Drive. And to be fair, any viewer expecting a conventional narrative or any trace of humanity will be sorely disappointed. But as a formalist exercise, this film is aces, a gorgeous examination/parody of action exploitation in the vein of Tarantino. Don't take it too seriously; steer clear if you are allergic to hyperviolence or melodramatic posturing.

The Bling Ring: Sofia Coppola's finest film since Lost in Translation. A clever deconstruction of growing up in the social cesspool that is Hollywood, where having more stylish clothes and cool friends and wild experiences than everybody else is de rigueur. It is only a natural extension of this principle that younger and younger people are strong-armed into fitting in by doing crazier and crazier shit, so hellbent on elevating their social status that they lose all sight of what socialization is actually meant to accomplish. Carefully lit and edited, The Bling Ring is quite thin, but it says what it needs to in 90 minutes.

You're Next: Peppered with sneaky, misanthropic humor, and piloted by a new classic Final Girl. Sharni Vinson, a Rashida Jones lookalike except with actual charisma, stabs and hammers and blends her way with aplomb through a cast of villains slightly less cartoonish than a Scooby-Doo episode. Some of the performances are questionable, and the script occasionally sacrifices plausibility for flow, but You're Next is curiously skilled at setting up emotionally charged moments only to undermine them for an unexpected laugh. Fun stuff.

Ginger and Rosa: Elle Fanning is amazing! What a performance. The first hour of this film is an embarrassment of riches as she navigates the marital struggles of her highly neurotic parents, too smitten with her father's effortless intellect to empathize with her suffering mother. Adding to her inevitable teenage breakdown is the shadow of the atomic bomb, an admittedly obvious metaphor looming over Cold War England. It gets a little too heightened, clutches too many pearls, by its last half hour, but its dissection of an abusive marriage and a teenager's search for truth is fantastic.

Regrettably unseen: Inside Llewyn Davis, Blue is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, Short Term 12, Captain Phillips, Her, The Act of Killing, basically everything sorry


  1. Your favorite movies are quite fantastic! I also fell in love with Like Someone in Love. The main plot is very intriguing, and makes you want to dig in to find the story behind each of the characters. Each of them have their own share of secrets. And at the end, you will be amazed on how their lives are interconnected with each other. Thanks for sharing!

    Simon Walker @ The Viewlorium