Best Films of 2013: 10-1

The easy question to ask is: “why do a list at all when you already have an awards slate on your site?” It’s a good question and I finally may have formulated the best response to it yet. Basically, it’s a less comparative discussion on each film that you feel marked the year for you. In writing a list you discuss each film and a only every few numbers or so get bogged down in discussing placement.

I will try my best to avoid redundancy and will link and self-quote where I deem necessary but it was in re-watching something that I came upon that truth. Awards with their winners and fellow nominees and then snub-ees can be read as a slight, thought that is never the intent. A list as celebratory, if not more so because of the insularity of conversation. So let us begin to the first five.

Now 30 is a high number and I could’ve increased it. I saw the most eligible titles ever this year, but I wanted to further honor these films by having the percentile they represent be a smaller fraction than prior lists.

Let us conclude with 10 to 1…

10. It’s All So Quiet

It's All So Quiet (Big World Films, 2013)

As you’ve noted both by my quoting and hyperlinking a vast majority of the films in the top 30 have been written about. However, this title was one one that garnered not one but two write-ups immediately. It did so, in part, because I did want to analyze it some, but split because that part was spoilery and I thought it best for those who haven’t seen it to read a spoiler-free review. Here’s that one:

It’s All So Quiet is a film that sets you up from its pace virtually from the start. The opening titles roll for two-and-a-half minutes on a shot of wheat, with farmland and sunlight behind it. From this you should be prepared for a fairly deliberately paced film. If you’re not you’ll surely get the hint from the next few scenes where the protagonist Helmer (Jeroen Willems) first moves his bedridden father and then sets him up upstairs with a new bed in the living room.

However, as deliberate as the pace is the subtext of the film is fairly clear throughout and thanks to the actors most of their thought processes communicate their sentiments where words do not.

Helmer’s deciding to move his father upstairs is just the first upheaval in this film. The next that will occur is that a new, young farmhand Henk (Martijn Lakemeier) comes to work and live there and throws things into further disarray.

The cinematography in this film is magnificent. The cast proves time and again that so little of film acting is about the spoken word but rather playing the frame and physicality; dialogue-free Willems and Lakemeier share one of the most poignant and moving scenes I’ve watched this year.

As the story progresses, despite its lack of blunt commentary on the fact you soon will see what the film is about and the tale of repressed desire and unrequited love woven so skillfully by Nanouk Leopold here is one of the best of its rare breed that I’ve seen.

9. Class Enemy

Class Enemy (2013, Triglav Film)

I’d love it if there was an Academy Award submitted film every year that I can champion vehemently until I’m blue in the face, however, I know how fortunate I’ve been to have one two years running. Here are two excerpts from my review:

Class Enemy, which is Slovenia’s official selection for Best Foreign Language film, tells a tale of a high school class that singles out its new German teacher (Played by Igor Samobor) as the party responsible for their classmate’s suicide (Sabina played by Dasa Cupevski). The film picks up right as their favorite teacher, whom Robert (Samobor) is replacing, is going out on maternity leave and follows the back-and-forth struggle between the three main factions (teacher, students and administration) throughout the school year consistently adding layers to the characters, and conflicts.

Class Enemy, when all is said and done, is basically everything you want out of a dramatic piece. It tackles difficult dramatic questions and does not shy away from exploration without concrete answers, but instead knows that better films usually take the journey well; exploring and changing their characters along the way, and more importantly, it understands that the best dramas aren’t about victors or where they audience sides, but how much we enjoy watching them engage in battle.

8. Frozen

Frozen (2013, Disney)

From the moment Frozen begins where you could construe it as visual allusions either to Dumbo or Snow White I knew it was going to be something special. And, as I cited at the BAM Awards:

“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” induces chills and nearly brought me to tears something less than five minutes into the film, which is a nearly impossible task, and part of what makes it so memorable.

The animation is incredibly dynamic and the tale have some truly great turns. Most of the songs do work at progressing the story and are incredibly catchy, but perhaps what works best is the New Age approach to the story where it’s really more about sisters than finding a savior-husband. Disney really hit on something here, especially when you add to that the Olaf factor. It’s great, great stuff.

7. The Giants

The Giants (Kino Lorber, 2011)

My review really says it all here, it’s one of my better ones this past year. This film I believe still streams on Netflix and is available on DVD.

If there’s a trope, or worse yet a cliché, you can name in a coming-of-age film it’s very likely that The Giants sets you up to expect it and then subverts it. That is not to say you should approach this film with a checklist, but there are many times wherein either salvation or damnation threatens these characters, but what you see instead is maturation and survival. Brothers, Zak and Seth, along with their friend Danny are isolated both by circumstance and by choice. The adult world is an invasive burden on their existence but one they are ultimately forced to cope with by themselves.

The film has opportunities to embrace conventions either of dystopian coming-of-age stories, like Kids, or more utopian ones where despite all the travails the characters go through there’s a classical Hollywood ending. This film takes the road less traveled as often as possible when faced with a plot point that can be seen as fairly common and that choices pays off over and over again.

With parents that are perpetually absent without true explanation, it’s a tale essentially of individuation rather than any of the other pitfalls of growing up. There’s definitely no love interest in the tale, and, without station too much, if there is even any true commentary on sexuality is left ambiguous.

The restraint and certainty that the film has in the handling of its plot, edit and musical selections is matched by the young cast. This especially applies to Zacherie Chasseriaud shows the poise and control of a veteran from first scene when he deals with his mother’s absence and nearly cries, but doesn’t, through to the end.

Bouli Lanners does not seem to be going for either extreme of the emotional spectrum with this tale, but rather and accurate portrayal of kids in circumstances out of the ordinary forced to grow up. They are neither idealized through nostalgia or auteristic proclivity nor are they “gritty” just for the sake of it. Elements that could be used for shock value in less-skilled hands here are what they are, meaning part of their existence and are there without commentary. The Giants is a highly effective, well-crafted tale deserving of a larger audience.

6. Time of My Life

Time of My Life (2012, Strand Releasing)

This was definitely the tear-jerker of the year for me and seemingly a staple pre-requisite of being on this list. It was well-represented and discussed at the BAM Awards. My initial reaction can be found below:

This is the kind of film that faces and overcomes the danger of falling into an issue-film trap of being overly-involved in stump-speeching, soap-boxing and campaigning. When your film purports to highlight seminal case in the instituting of euthanasia laws in a country both that, and an eventual death, become inevitable.

However, what Time of My Life does so well is tell the personal narrative first and foremost and then fold in the issue film as the tale progresses. Yes, there are many issue films that will have circumstances dictate their cause, but what you also get here is a film whose emotional impact is withheld until later.

That is not to say this film doesn’t pack an emotional wallop, it most certainly does, and quite a big one. What it does do is postpone the big hit. The story travels through time and each of the early, fairly short sequences have their own tenor and know when they should end. What it builds is a more rounded, bittersweet emotion not overly-concerned in melancholy, not consciously pulling at heartstrings until the very end. When it does attempt to play them it does so very successfully.

Time of My Life features brilliant performances throughout, and some really smart, great writing; especially as it draws towards its conclusion and a crushingly beautiful emotional climax. If you know what you’re signing up for, it’s a tremendously moving and rewarding experience.

5. Stoker

Stoker (2013, Fox Searchlight)

This film came as a great surprise please check it out:

This is one of those films that grabs you from the first frame and scarcely ceases long enough to let go. It’s the kind of film that peels back layers of mystery and intrigue, slowly at first, but, then it escalates them until you find yourself in a delirious whirl of rapt tension and drama. All the while, as it slowly sets the foundation of the most basic facts, it’s setting up reveals of more precisely sinister revelations of motivation and past incidents.

The film is technically constructed to match this narrative drive employing montages, cross-cutting sequences, frames and L-cuts (cuts where audio lingers after a scene, or starts before an accompanying visual) to link what are at first seemingly disconnected events.

Stoker builds mystery regarding enough elements of its story, while keeping things simple, such that it easily achieves misdirection from one unanswered riddle to another. Thus, answers you had half-formed are forgotten briefly as you puzzle something else and when you’re confronted with confirmation of a fact it lands with the desired impact, whether you intuited the information or not.

Practically everything regarding Stoker is precise and stylized to the utmost for impact, yet scarcely ever feels forced when you consider all the pieces in the whole. It’s a mesmerizing portrait that is sure to rank among the best of the year.

4. Disconnect

DISCONNECT1-articleLarge

Disconnect got lost in the shuffle I believe, even in terms of indie releases, and in terms of this site. I didn’t write about it after I had seen it because it was a theatrical release I saw and I had gotten sidetracked. I barely had a chance to mention it during the BAMs though it did have some nominations and was close to a few more.

Disconnect rather clearly examines the influence of technology, and being connected on our daily lives. It tells three stories all of which dovetail into one another, but because the characters have issues connecting, so do the tales completely by design. This is very tense dramatic tale with a great climax, in a rarity it also employs effective use of slow motion. The cast which was honored with a nomination is great, and since they divide so much time among themselves that’s a good thing. This film tells a tragic tale, which while it does build-in suspense mechanisms towards the end avoids simple resolutions to it fundamental conflicts, and is well worth seeing.

3. Broken

Broken (2012, Film Movement)

I’ve been banging the drum for this film all year. See it. It’s already on DVD. Do yourself a favor.

It’s an intricately told and layered tale that with many narrative threads, characters crossing paths, that could get trite, but is instead invigorating and riveting.

There are frames within the film and excellent persistent use of cross-cutting that acutely accesses the proper emotional tenor that is sought, which finds the commonality in these characters so frequently at odds. In certain ways, it’s like an externalized version of We Need to Talk About Kevin, in terms of the way it’s cut together and how the actors have to truly use the edit to great affect.

It’s what I like to term a “collision course narrative,” which is a tale wherein there’s a suspenseful foreboding to the meeting of certain events that you feel, and it’s perhaps the best example of such I’ve seen. It’s also a film that starts strong and never really lets go.

Membership in the Film Club means I’m watching it a few months ahead of most people, therefore you have ample time to heed my advice: watch Broken, it is an absolutely exquisite piece of cinema.

2. Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013, Sony Pictures Classics)

I liked Midnight in Paris and all, but I loved Blue Jasmine. It made Woody Allen the easy choice for Best Original Screenplay and a Lifetime Achievement Award.

For a filmmaker such as Woody Allen who on many occasions has been accused of using his films as therapy and being un-cinematic this film is a rebuttal. For myself, as a long-time devotee, it’s wondrous not only to see him work a story that again employs a wonderful editorial language that is quickly-learned and never off; but also such a non-judgmental character study. It’s a film of revelation rather than reparation. It has its humor, too, but is perhaps the most searing, honest drama he’s committed to the screen since Husbands and Wives. The casting, as well as the cast, is flawless; but it’s really Cate Blanchett who makes this film work. She’s as powerful, if not more so, in her character’s detached, pained moments as she is in the “big” ones, which is what makes her turn so immaculate. It’s a performance that towers not only due to the sparsity of great roles afforded women in the American cinema lately, but because of how titanic an effort it is on its own.

Engaging and enthralling from the first frame this film of a life shattered, whether by design or not, may be his most Bergmanesque, and is truly one of the year’s best.

1. Ender’s Game

enders-game-10-970x548-c

In my writings on this film so far I have talked about the book a bit. I really only tried to mention in it in terms of giving my frame of reference, and discussing interpretations of character and vision. Make no mistake about it, I chose Ender’s Game as my favorite movie of the year because it’s my favorite movie of the year and not just because it’s based on a book I enjoyed. It was the cinematic elements put in place to tell a story I knew well that made it work. Below are some movie-only comments from it’s many BAM wins:

On the film as Best Picture:

So overwhelmed was I that even if I didn’t want to see it again, it was almost mandatory due to the fact that I had to see if it stood up. A second viewing brought very little degradation to my opinion of it- minimal in fact. Sure, the IMAX experience is better, but that was always a given. I ended up seeing it a third time, and was actually a bit disappointed it was out of local theaters before having a chance to see it yet again; so that really sealed it.

The bottom line is: the temptation always exists to place a spectacle atop a Best Of List. However, this is the rare spectacle with brains, a conscience where not only stratagems but ethics are debated (and well-debated on both sides of the arguments in question), it’s unafraid to get in a protagonist’s head-space in such a way that’s less than the high concept hook. The acting is great all around. The film pulls you into a world quickly and builds upon it as things progress; further and further entrenching you. It’s always a gamble, especially now, to bankroll something that aims at something a bit more than spaceships, action sequences and explosions; it’s a bit risky but the gamble paid of here big time.

On Gavin Hood, Best Director:

and this rendition of Ender’s Game immediately ends those worries by throwing me directly into the film. It’s funny that when I was trying to think of an angle for this write-up I naturally thought that this foreword may prove useful but I had no idea how accurately his connection would be conveyed and how well I believe it played out onscreen.

On Asa Butterfield, Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Leading Role:

I didn’t believe there was someone who could play Ender. I don’t think there was an actor in the landscape at the time that could’ve captured the aggressive nature (which was a bit of a revelation coming from Butterfield) and the empathy required to play him and do so equally well. In short, it was kind of like the role of David in A.I. had there not been a Haley Joel Osment Spielberg likely would’ve waited to make it, and if there had not been an Asa Butterfield Ender’s Game was better off waiting also.

On the Art Direction:

The world that took the most building, and was also the most well-built, is that of Ender’s Game. There’s the fairly mundane, though a bit futuristic start followed by the space station and later and alien planet and a few more intermediary locales in each which take a bit of a different approach each. There’s not just one world but a few worlds in need of creating in this film, and all come to life equally well.

On the Score:

The deciding factor was that during my first viewing of Ender’s Game I thought to myself three or four times “Wow, this score is amazing” and even before the awards announcement I had to download it from iTunes. All of these scores, however, do have a different quality to them and are still searchable on Spotify if you’re so inclined.

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