December 11, 2013

Cole Smithey’s Ten Best Films of 2013


Whew! What a great year for cinema. Hollywood may have dropped the ball with a blockbuster summer of busts — only Gore Verbinski’s vastly underrated “Lone Ranger” left a mark — but foreign, documentary, and independent films more than picked up the slack.

Cherry-picking the top ten films of 2013 means leaving to honorable mention such fantastic films as “Nebraska,” “Side Effects,” “The Great Beauty,” “Short Term 12,” “56 Up,” “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors Ricky Jay,” “Bettie Page Reveals All!,” “A Band Called Death,” “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” “In the House,” “Room 237,” and “Lore.”

Nonetheless, a steady editorial blade is called for in distinguishing the crème de la crème of 2013’s cinematic offerings. Without further ado, here are the year’s best films.

10. The Heat
The HeatMelissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock brought big laughs in Hollywood’s funniest movie of the year. Screenwriter Katie Dippold invents a new genre, the female-buddy-movie. I haven’t laughed so much since “Django Unchained.” McCarthy and Bullock share a down-and-dirty comic energy that borders on an insane marriage of polar opposites. They’d make a great married couple.

McCarthy’s comic timing and delivery never lets up. Bullock’s description of her past relationship leads McCarthy to ask, “Was he a hearing man?” with such a deadpan manner that you just might choke on your popcorn. A senseless ball-point-pen tracheotomy takes the movie into shameless Grand Guignol territory. Don’t let the fact that too many critics didn’t get the comic genius on display; “The Heat” is one hilarious buddy movie that stands up to repeated viewings. Need a good laugh? Give my name, you’ll get a good seat.

9. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Big StarThe greatest band you’ve never heard of, Big Star was every rock critic’s darling during the early ‘70s. The Memphis rock outfit recorded three records that all made it into Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 albums of all time. Led by the now-legendary Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Big Star could have been bigger than the Beatles or the Stones, had fortune favored them in correlation with their musical gifts.

Co-directors Drew DeNicola and Oliva Mori use a standard documentary form to deliver a haunting soup-to-nuts history of Big Star that will have you humming songs like “September Gurls” in your sleep. A tasteful labor of love, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” is an enthusiastic documentary about enigmatic musicians whose music still sounds as fresh and essential today as when it was first recorded. Whether or not you are familiar with the band or their music, this movie goes straight to your heart.

8. Before Midnight
Before MidnightThe first collaboration “Before Sunrise” (1995) introduced romantically inclined couple Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) travelling on a train from Budapest to Vienna. Sparks of curiosity and lust ignited to the strains of Vivaldi, Straus, and Kate Bloom. “Before Sunset” (2004) found the lovers reuniting for a one-night-stand of sorts in Paris where Jesse — a successful author inspired by the events in the first film — reads from his latest book. Things got complicated.

Now, nearly two decades since they first met, the couple lives together in France with their twin daughters. The film begins at the end of a summer vacation in Greece where they have spent the past six weeks sharing the exotic home of a fellow author and his family. A real-time conversation plays out between Jesse and Celine as they drive back to their host’s house while the girls sleep in the back seat. The seemingly impromptu conversation hits a staggering number of relationship reference points that draw the audience inside their casually intimate style of communicating. No topic is off limits. Politics, sex, religion, literature, and economic realities all come percolating to the surface. The dialogue shimmers.

A farewell dinner with their hosts gives way to a gifted night at a resort hotel that promises the couple some welcome alone time. However, Celine’s possible bipolar disorder crashes the party late in the game, causing Jesse to reach deep into his pocket of tricks to bring Celine around to a romantic reality built as much on fantasy as on a unifying method for achieving harmony in the relationship.

7. Blancanieves
BlancanievesMore evidence — behind “The Artist” (2011) — that black-and-white silent films are still a viable storytelling approach; writer/director Pablo Berger’s rethinking of the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” is a virtuosic masterpiece. Although a relative newcomer — “Blancanieves” is only his second feature — Berger displays an absolute mastery of cinema language with a litany of homages to filmmaking techniques from the past 100 years.

Seville, Spain circa 1920 witnesses one of its beloved matadors Antonio Vallarta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) being gored. Camera technology involving flashbulbs is to blame. The accident leaves the handsome Vallarta paralyzed from the neck down. Tragedy piles up when the former bullfighter’s wife dies giving birth to the couple’s daughter Carmencita on the same day. Vallarta’s evil hospital nurse Encarna (exquisitely played by Maribel Verdú) seizes the opportunity to seduce and marry him, relegating Carmencita to live in the mansion’s coal cellar. It isn’t long before Encarna is carrying on an adulterous BDSM affair with the chauffeur while the wheelchair-bound Antonio is left alone to discover a bond with his adoring daughter. A charming “dance” between Antonio and Carmencita provides an inspired centerpiece. Such momentary familial satisfaction is fleeting though.

Despite its old-fashioned trappings, there is nothing staid about the layers of narrative and visual complexity at play. Although entered by Spain in the Academy Award category for 2012 foreign film, “Blancanieves” arrives as a frontrunner in 2013 for audiences to marvel at.

6. Drug War
Drug WarMagnificent. Johnnie To’s gritty police procedural, involving a Tianjin police department sting operation, shares William Friedkin’s muscular sense of filming techniques — see “The French Connection.” Car chases move with a palpitating sense of real-life suspense and unpredictability. Shoot-outs have a randomness about them that make the action all the more intense. The storyline comes ripped right from modern headlines.

Police squad leader Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) captures drug kingpin Tian Ming (Louis Koo) after a meth lab explosion killed several of Tian's relatives and left him with permanent facial scars. Zhang uses his freshly collared perp to assist in introducing him to his underworld connections in order to arrange a massive drug deal. Zhang’s police team are planning a bust that will shut down the entire region’s drug trafficking. Detective Zhang adopts the identity of another local drug lord called "HaHa" — for is annoying habit of using inappropriate laughter to control situations and people.

The acting on display is strictly top-drawer. Each member of the film’s estimable cast delivers thoroughly believable performances in an evenly escalating story whose climax and coda hits you like a ton of bricks. Brutal and full of plot surprises “Drug War” is a type of movie that Hollywood has forgotten how to make. It’s good thing Johnnie To is around to remind them. Let’s just hope Hollywood doesn’t attempt a remake. After all, there’s only one Johnnie To.

5. All is Lost
All is LostRobert Redford gives the finest performance of his career in writer-director J.C. Chandor’s literal and metaphorical tale of one man’s attempts to survive on the high seas. Redford carries Chandor’s one-man showcase with a depth of character and emotion that speaks volumes in spite of the film’s nearly complete lack of dialogue.

Water pours into Redford’s unnamed character’s 39-foot yacht — a “1978 Cal 39 sailboat” — waking him from his sleep. His punctured vessel — the “Virginia Jean” — is lodged on the puncturing corner of a giant red cargo bin that floats in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Children’s tennis shoes float out from the broken container — an ugly reminder of how far capitalism’s nature-dissolving effect has reached.

Decisions and repairs must be made. For the next 100 minutes our unnamed embodiment of brawny adaptability will meet every escalating challenge that nature throws at him with a stoic resolve that is fascinating and inspiring to witness. “Our Man’s” constant struggle for existence takes on a macro-micro vision of cool-headed logic used to battle increasing odds against him. The captain is forced to improvise and learn on the fly. Navigating his way into a shipping lane seems to offer hope for rescue. Redford’s stoic character perseveres with grace and determination in spite of the fierce conditions he faces.

At 77 Robert Redford represents a Hollywood icon whose career of unforgettable performances stretches back farther than the eye can see. Not only does Redford do nearly all of his own stunts in the movie, he weaves narrative wool with his every gesture and facial expression. It is a pure cinematic delight to watch Robert Redford acting, alone, beside such an organic and dynamic backdrop as J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) creates. It doesn’t get any better than this.

4. Gravity
GravityJust as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) broke open the possibilities for depicting outer space in science fiction filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” makes visible a deep space reality that has never before been witnessed by filmgoers. At its heart “Gravity” is a two-man play that shifts into a solo act of survival that is as much defined by personal obstacles as by harsh external forces at play in the thermosphere — 375 miles above the Earth’s surface. There’s an understated feminist element inherent in the film’s theme of last-ditch survival.

Part of the film’s beauty lies in its intuitive casting. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are movie-star names that sound as though they belong in a romantic comedy more so than in the context of a science-fiction misadventure. Anyone who has ever underestimated Sandra Bullock’s dramatic acting skills will be taken aback. Her nuanced performance compliments Cuarón’s technical virtuosity note for note. The story is deceptively simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first outer space mission, to make repairs to the Hubble telescope. By her side is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who counts the mission as his last.

Dr. Stone fumbles with repairing a circuit board on the Hubble. News of fast-approaching debris from a self-destructed Russian satellite sends the astronauts scrambling. Cuarón’s seemingly free-floating camera (operated by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) glides and follows. More shrapnel approaches at blinding speed, flying into the audience’s eyes thanks to an effective use of 3D that makes the action on-screen all the more terrifying.

“Gravity” shares another component with “2001: A Space Odyssey” in that it sticks deep inside the viewer’s subconscious, where it lurks waiting to expand at the most unexpected moment. It is the closest many will come to ever experiencing space on a terrifyingly lonely level. Which is probably a good thing.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis“Inside Llewyn Davis” hits the ground running. Oscar Issac plays the title character, a folksinger patterned loosely on Dave Van Ronk, without pretense. Issac accompanies himself on guitar, singing the old-style song that Van Ronk once recorded — “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” — in a West Village café during the few barren weeks or months before the folk music movement exploded with the likes of Bob Dylan.

The movie offers a composite musical vantage point of the era’s social realism against a backdrop of Cold War America. Llewyn gets word that a man would like to speak to him in the alley. The large male figure that waits gives Llewyn a nasty beating for reasons that will become clear moments before the circular narrative closes. As well as Llewyn sings most people he comes into contact with treat him with a depth of contempt usually reserved for mangy dogs with three legs — regardless of how apt the comparison might be.

Llewyn spends his hours schlepping around figuring out whose couch he will sleep on next. It doesn’t help that he carries with him a cat belonging to a kindly Columbia professor, because the animal slipped out as the door closed on Llewyn — another couch story. A visit to his sleazy agent places Llewyn in the crosshairs of more hostility, albeit of a more greed-based variety.

The film’s centerpiece occurs after Llewyn shares a contentions ride with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a drug-addicted blues singer and his less-than-friendly driver (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn makes his way through snowy Chicago streets to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a famous club owner and talent manager who takes literally the title of the album Llewyn pitches (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and requests just such a view. Without ceremony, Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” with enough controlled passion to peel wallpaper.

Social changes on the horizon killed off a vibrant genre of music as quickly as it had grown. The Coens’ gift for making their audience feel like welcomed members of an elite club has never felt more sincere.

2. The Act of Killing
The-Act-of-KillingAt once the most micro and meta combination of cinéma vérité, documentary, and docudrama filmmaking techniques ever assembled, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is an earth-shattering cinematic experience. The 1965 – 1966 genocide of more than half a million accused “communists” (ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and union organizers) in Indonesia by right-wing paramilitary and freelance death squads — many consisting of self-proclaimed “gangsters” (a.k.a. “free men,” really unemployed racists) — serves as the stepping-off point for Oppenheimer to inspire, enable, and encourage a handful of aging remorseless killers to dramatize their heinous deeds with whatever artistic trappings they choose. A shadowy film-noir set, or a cheesy take on a ‘60s era American war movie, gives the former executioners artistic cinematic opportunities to act out stylized versions their ideal selves when they tortured and killed thousands of men by hand for the fun of it.

The leader of one such squad is Andrew Congo, a grandfather with a skinny frame and thinning grey hair living in the town of Medan in North Sumatra. Congo fancies himself a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He breaks into a cha cha routine on the patio where he personally killed hundreds of men either by shooting or by strangling with a long sturdy piece of wire fixed to a pole at one end, and with a wood handle at the other.

The film’s provocative title echoes throughout the movie in expanding meaning. “Killing” as an “act” takes on a host of different subjective and objective definitions from the personal to the political. Congo and his equally culpable associates retain their gangster bond nearly 40 years after their punishment-free crimes. No amount of description can prepare an audience for the sickening levels of surreal irony of witnessing Congo and his men act out staged scenes of the violence they perpetrated against their neighbors, friends, and associates. Every audience will be affected differently, but every single one will be changed by it.

1. Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue-is-the-warmest-color“Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. It would diminish this beautiful film to pigeonhole it to a modern standard-bearer for the LGBT movement (which it is); its tremendous depths of emotional intimacy demand more than that. Watching the three-hour love story unfold is a simultaneously transgressive and transcendent encounter in which the audience is compelled in no uncertain terms to fall head-over-heels in love with the film’s romantic heroine.

An epic coming-of-age romantic drama between two captivating forces of feminine nature, “Blue” is as intimate a representation of erotic and romantic love as has ever been committed to cinema. Graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex, it circumvents any accusations of pornographic intent by being hopelessly and sincerely sensual. If that sounds confusing, it should. What director Abdellatif Kechiche achieves is unprecedented.

The camera worships everything about lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos. It contemplates her persuasively wanton lips, which wait in a constant state of a half-open invitation to be kissed. Using the actress’s real first name blurs the line between the comely Exarchopoulos and the exotically nubile character she plays.

At the start, Adèle is a French 16-year-old high school junior exploring the boundaries of romance as informed by the male classmate who pursues her. Yet Emma, an older woman with blue-dyed hair Adèle passes in the street, fans her inner desires. A chance meeting during her first visit to a lesbian bar introduces Adèle to Emma in a meet-cut sequence full of overflowing curiosity and erotic ambition.

Loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel “le bleu est une coleur chaude,” Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix create extended, seemingly real-time, sequences that allow the characters and story to develop in an organic fashion.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a monumental cinematic achievement that must be experienced by anyone passionate about film. That the movie also encompasses national, familial, political, personal, sexual, intellectual, and artistic themes brings the narrative to an epic level of romantic drama. Still, it never overstresses its implicit nature as an all-inclusive portrait of love.


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