Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best Films of 2013

It was an excellent year for cinema demonstrated by how many worthy films had to be left out of this list and many others that I failed to see because they never got released in my city such as A Touch of Sin, Stray Dogs, Ship of Theseus and Norte, the End of History. The distribution problem for foreign films seems to get worse every year but since these films only make a fraction of the box-office revenue, no one seems to care. As a result, the importance of film festivals and an increasing amount of VOD options cannot be overstated.

One aspect that stood out from some of the best films of 2013 was their mature approach to relationships, especially between parents and children. Like Father, Like Son, Before Midnight and The Past come from three different countries but they all managed to smartly depict the two way impact parents and kids have on each other. The visuals and sound design of many films left a mark, including some that were left out of this list. For example, the sound of Lootera is impressive as is the background score in 12 Years a Slave which gives a cue when the nightmare is over. 12 Years a Slave could have had no dialogue and the score would have still been ample in navigating the emotional state of the characters. In the case of Gravity, the technical aspects are far superior than the story and acting. Gravity was the first film I saw in the IMAX 3D format and that proved to be a very immersive physical experience. It was also the most memorable cinematic experience of the year but Gravity does not feature in this list, emphasizing the strength of this year’s output.

Top Ten Films of 2013 

1. Like Father, Like Son (Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda) 

A mature film about the two-way relationship parents and kids have on each other. At times devastating but an enriching experience. Hirokazu Kore-eda is certainly a worthy heir to the cinema of Yasujirô Ozu.

2. Neighboring Sounds (2012, Brazil, Kleber Mendonça Filho) 

Rarely do I utter masterpiece after finishing a film but this was the only word that came to mind as the credits rolled. The sound design is remarkable as is the constant sense of dread that lingers over every frame.

3. The Great Beauty (Italy/France, Paolo Sorrentino) 

Just when I think Italian cinema can't match its former glory comes this wonder of cinema. How on earth did Sorrentino make such a film? Is it really him that directed it? It feels like the ghost of Fellini, Antonioni and former Italian masters came on the set, possessed Sorrentino and made him make this film. There are also tiny hints of Terrence Malick and Matteo Garrone as well.

4. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Canada, Denis Côté) 

Denis Côté toys with the audience by making a specific genre film under the cover of another genre. I am not going to reveal what the specific genre is because it is worth seeing this film cold without any prior knowledge. Côté clearly alerts the audience what to expect but his alarms are mistaken for humor which is why when the film does eventually reveal its true nature, it jolts the senses.

5. Bastards (France, Claire Denis) 

Shares some elements with L’Intrus but this heads towards neo-noir territory with devastating results. Like the real world, some of the biggest villains don’t appear to be evil on first glance but only show their true color in dark enclosed spaces.

6. Before Midnight (USA, Richard Linklater) 

Before Midnight depicts a perfect way to make a trilogy as the characters grow off-screen and each film allows the audience to catch-up with events in their lives, just like old friends do when meeting after a long gap.

7. Leviathan (2012, USA/France/UK, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel) 

The fluid style jolts the senses forcing one to experience the world in a new light. The sound and visuals also make this feel like a horror film.

8. The Act of Killing (2012, Denmark/Norway/UK, Joshua Oppenheimer) 

Even though the documentary is rooted in Indonesia, it is universal in depicting how men kill with the aid of media and politicians. The depiction of torture/killing could easily be set in Latin/South America/Africa while the media manipulation applies to most nations. But no individuals will ever admit their crime with such brutal honesty as those in The Act of Killing, making it a living digital document.

9. The Fifth Season (2012, Belgium/Holland/France, Peter Brosens/Jessica Woodworth)  

The two directors earlier work Khadak was infused with color but all color is mostly drained out of The Fifth Season in order to depict a bleak winter like feeling. Such a depiction works because this transmits the desperation and misery that hangs over the village. At times, the film hinges on dark comedy mostly associated with the cinema of Roy Andersson while some of the bar/tavern scenes and apocalyptic dread evokes Béla Tarr.

10. Drinking Buddies (USA, Joe Swanberg)

Relationships are common fodder in American Independent cinema but Joe Swanberg has managed to cut through all the mumblecore and get to the heart of how two people connect with each other. In few short scenes, we can easily assess whether two characters are right for reach other because their body language depicts their true feelings. And like a Hong Sang-soo film, alcohol is always on hand allowing the characters to relax and open up.

15 Honorable Mentions, roughly in order of preference

The Last Shepherd (2012, Italy, Marco Bonfanti) 

A few years ago, the documentary Sweetgrass showed beauty in following a herd of sheep through the mountains. That film was wordless but The Last Shepherd fills in those missing words and elevates that concept by introducing us to the wonderful person that is Renato Zucchelli. Renato decides to change the perspective of young kids who have never seen or touched a sheep. The film follows his journey from the countryside to the city as he brings 700 sheep to Milan’s centre thereby creating a tiny miraculous sight.

The Past (France/Italy, Asghar Farhadi) 

Examines the complicated and messy aftermath of a separation. As the film shows, a separation does not guarantee a better future but instead can lead one down a never-ending hole of misery.

Thou Gild’st the Even (Turkey, Onur Ünlü) 

This gorgeous black and white surrealist love story is unlike any film released in the last few years. It is packed with surrealist images that are seamlessly integrated within the ordinary fabric of town life. As a result, the film's blend of humor and shock results in a darker blend of comedy that most palates have not yet encountered.

Borgman (Holland, Alex van Warmerdam) 

The initial premise appears to be taking a page out of Haneke’s Funny Games but that is a red herring as Borgman builds on Alex van Warmerdam’s previous films, especially The Last Days of Emma Blank. The dark humor style cut across Dutch society can be found in Warmerdam’s previous films but Borgman takes everything to the breaking point.

Drug War (2012, China/Hong Kong, Johnnie To) 

The documentary style throws one off from the usual Johnnie To stylish films. But make no mistake, this is vintage Johnnie To as he dives deep into the world of police and criminals in a way that only he can. The two films that came most to mind while watching Drug War were To’s PTU and Infernal Affairs with regards to the police procedures and surveillance activities.

A Hijacking (2012, Denmark, Tobias Lindholm) 

Just like his previous film R, Tobias Lindholm uses a double perspective to paint a complete picture of events. And he does so without using any violence or even having a hero in the film. The entire film instead focuses on tense hostage negotiations which end up becoming bargaining sessions stretched over weeks and months. 

Aurangzeb (India, Atul Sabharwal) 

Atul Sabharwal’s film smartly fuses the family-political battles from Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981) with the double character element found in Kagemusha and numerous 1970-80’s Indian films. The end result is a film that feels familiar yet is still unique given the contemporary setting in Gurgaon where real estate deals are ruthless.

Frances Ha (2012, USA, Noah Baumbach) 

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created a memorable character whose honesty puts her in many foot-in-mouth moments but those awkward moments only add to the film's bittersweet style.

Watermark (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal/Edward Burtynsky) 

Once again, Burtynsky captures beauty in the most unlikely places forcing us to contemplate the consequences of our actions on this planet. The film is an extension of his retrospective that toured Canadian museums a few years ago. Essential viewing!

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (India, Tigmanshu Dhulia) 

Tigmanshu Dhulia heightens the sexual and political elements from the first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) film thereby creating a riveting follow-up chapter to the story of a man holding onto his crumbling kingdom. Jimmy Shergill continues to thrive in what may be his finest on-screen role to date.

Passion (2012, Germany/France, Brian De Palma) 

For most of its running time, the film is an enhanced version of Love Crime but the dizzying Hitchcockian ending is truly mesmerizing. The ending left me out of breath and feeling similar to what others have felt when watching Vertigo for the first time.

Inside Llewyn Davis (USA, Coen Brothers) 

The best Coen Brothers film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? features characters who are perfectly in tone, with the exception of Jean (Carey Mulligan). At first, the anger of Jean feels overplayed in comparison to the material but as events later in the film indicate, her behavior is an act meant to suppress her guilt. That realization takes place shortly before a literal kick to the stomach is delivered making it an appropriate fade to black.

In Another Country (2012, South Korea, Hong Sang-soo) 

Hong Sang-soo's easy flowing style incorporates Isabelle Huppert's whimsical character perfectly resulting in plenty of humor.

Computer Chess (USA, Andrew Bujalski) 

A playful look at various computer programmer personalties, ranging from the very shy to those whose supreme confidence borders on arrogance. The black and white visuals coupled with the video footage give the film a 1980’s look and feel, at a time when computers were bulky machines that required some effort to transport from room to room. The humor is derived from the collection of eccentric personalities and as a result, the scenarios feel natural and not forced. As a bonus, the film also literally depicts HAL's birth. 

Blue Jasmine (USA, Woody Allen) 

This feels like a Mike Leigh film filtered through conventional Woody Allen characters. As a result, there is some anger in the material that is displayed on a few occasions. Some of the best moments appear when the characters stop talking and we get a sense of their true feelings.

Update: Jan 2, 2014

For my 2013 year end list, I only included films that I saw from Jan 1 - Dec 31 2013. This means Nebraska which I saw on Jan 1, 2014, can't be included. However, it is a truly wonderful film that is far funnier than American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street. Nebraska would have surely found a spot in my 2013 Top 10.

Also, restricting the list to 25 films meant Gravity, Lootera, 12 Years a Slave, The Missing Picture, Fruitvale Station and OXV: The Manual just missed out.


Sam Juliano said...

Sachin, I will actually be seeing A TOUCH OF SIN tonight at 9:30 at the IFC Film Center in Manhattan. It is one of the films that thus far has eluded me. I will catch BASTARDS and UPSTREAM COLOR on VOC before the week ends.

I am no big fan of COMPUTER CHESS, LEVIATHAN, BEFORE MIDNIGHT and NEIGHBORING SOUNDS, but your #1 film is from a director I do adore, and I have not yet seen it. As I write this response to you now Sachin, I am trying to figure out a way to catch up with it before I make my list. I don't think it is in NYC right now, and the DVD and blu rays aren't due until February. Still I will investigate ASAP. If you know anything about its availability by all means let me know, I'd much appreciate it. There are seven films on your two lists that I do like quite a bit, especially your #3 choice, which will also finish Number 3 or 4 on my own list: THE GREAT BEAUTY. I also like:

The Past
The Act of Killing
Frances Ha
A Highjacking
Inside Llewyn Davis
Blue Jasmine

As always your list is eclectic, distinguished and diverse, and you have included a half-dozen or so films I have never seen nor heard of, including the Indian title. Every year you present one of the best round-ups of anyone out there my friend, and your capsules are brilliant!!!

Sachin said...

Thank you so much for your kind words Sam.

I am glad that you will be able to see A TOUCH OF SIN, a film that I really wanted to watch before the year was over.

I didn't know you were not a fan of NEIGHBORING SOUNDS or BEFORE MIDNIGHT. The latter I know drew some harsh words from some friends. While, I don't know too many people who have seen the former. The only friends who have seen it have liked it quite a bit.

I am not sure where LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON would be available. It is not a high profile film so it is not even on any VOD option. I think you might have to wait until next year for that. I think it will be released in 2014 anyway for North America. It was only on a few film festivals this past year in Canada & USA.

Sam Juliano said...

Ah I see. Indeed, my investigation has revealed that LINK FATHER LIKE SON has not yet opened in NYC, so in the manner of how I present my year-end lists it would be considered a 2014 film anyway. But regardless I am greatly looking forward to it. I was never a fan of any of the BEFORE Linklaters, but I will take a second look at the DVD copy of NEIGHBORING SOUNDS.

I did like A TOUCH OF SIN, which I saw last night with Lucille, and think it will probably make my runner-up list.

Sachin said...

Sam, I do hope you enjoy LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. I can't imagine you not liking it. I don't think it will top anyone else's list this year or even next. I seem to be the only person who was shook up by that film to that extent.

And likewise, I look forward to finally seeing A TOUCH OF SIN in 2014...

Sam Juliano said...

Kore-Eda is such a great artist Sachin, that I would agree that the prospects on this film are very high. Annointing it poll position greatly adds to that perception.

Happy New Year to you all!!!

Unknown said...

Another year, another global list of excellent films to try to catch up on. Neighbouring Sounds, which I only heard about thanks to you, is one of the best films I saw in 2013. I'm looking forward to Like Father, Like Son. Still Walking is the last Koreeda I've seen and I feel like I saw it yesterday. Incidentally, I've got a Koreeda back log...

Sachin said...

Thanks Norman. Glad to hear you liked Neighboring Sounds. Like Father, Like Son will likely get a proper release later this year and I hope you get a chance to see it. I have been singing its praises for a few months so curious to see what others will think of it.