Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My Top Films of 2013

Originally from

This year was a special year in cinema. My top three films could all be #1 in different years. There are a lot of amazing films from this year, but out of the 167 new releases I saw, these are my favorites.

1. Upstream Color

Upstream Color is one of those special movies that rarely come along that traverse new territory. Writer/director/actor/producer/cinematographer/composer/camera operator Shane Carruth does an amazing job with this strange, complicated story that conveys a familiar but often not discussed feeling. It’s when you sense you’re part of a cycle, but you don’t know what that cycle is or your role within it. You don’t know if you’re damaging others or helping them. Carruth shows this feeling through the story, images, and sounds to amazing effect. I can’t remember the last time a movie took me to a feeling no other film had touched, at least not as truthfully or deeply.

Additionally, Upstream Color goes somewhere magnificent exploring the idea of power. There are a lot of business movies that cover why American business is the way it is, like Margin Call, Wall Street or The Wolf of Wall Street, but I find that Upstream Color is much more apt in an indirect way. It highlights the way an ecosystem exists, that leads to a highly unusual overarching structure created by singular acts. That’s the thing about movies like Upstream Color, they’re so true to human feeling that they can be applied in all sorts of surprising situations. It’s a common characteristic among masterpieces, of which Upstream Color certainly is.

2. The Past

Asghar Farhadi’s films deftly peel away the layers of their characters and the complex moral conflicts he establishes. Like A Separation, The Past meanders around a central conflict, exploring each person’s unique perspective, and in this case suffering, to establish complete understanding. As is now expected of Farhadi, each portrait is fully realized. A handful of times I couldn’t hold back tears, as Farhadi slowly pulled back the curtain. Like one rarely does at the cinema, I felt the full depth of characters’ emotions. I felt the character Lucie so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn't stop caring about her. She represents that rare instance when I’m upset that I can’t meet a character and know them in real life. However I suppose that's because Farhadi’s characters aren’t characters, they’re human beings.

The tragedy of The Past is not that we’re all different. It’s that all human beings are essentially the same, and our inability to see this often causes tremendous pain, whether that be in minor quibbles or death. The Past touched me deeply, and I will never forget it.

My review of The Past can be found here. I hope to write a more in-depth look at the film when it's out on home video. My recent second viewing in theaters was even more incredible than the first from Telluride.

3. Gravity

Grief and depression are small, personal emotions that feel insurmountable. When the space accident first happens at the beginning of this film, Stone (Bullock) is detached from the ship and Kowalski (Clooney).  The resulting panging in my chest of true horror actually had me in tears both times I saw the film. Cuarón patiently uncovers Stone's anguish from losing her daughter. Make no mistake, this is a masterful screenplay. Minimalism and simplicity are not necessarily lack of depth (my detailed look at the film can be found here).

Cuarón has created a masterpiece and frankly this has little to do with new technology, great 3D or being a thrilling edge of your seat experience. Gravity is a masterpiece because it conveys a common yet intense emotion more effectively than any film I’ve ever seen.

4. Beyond the Hills

I first saw Beyond the Hills at the New York Film Festival in October 2012 and it has stayed with me all this time. Mungiu is not a filmmaker with a purpose, he tells a deeply compelling story and allows the viewer to find the meaning. Beyond the Hills continues to reveal his mastery of cinema that we saw with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.

Beyond the Hills explores the relationship between two women in a convent at a remote location in Romania. Don’t look too far into the plot of this film, just watch it. It mesmerizes, especially when Cosmina Stratan is on screen, as she delivers one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. I implore you not to look into what this film is about because if you go in blind, like I did, the last hour will shock and revolt you. I’ve not shaken this film for over a year, and I expect to be thinking about it for more years to come.

Inside Llewyn Davis

I’ve been obsessed with this movie since I saw it in mid-November. I bought the soundtrack the subsequent Tuesday (upon its release), and haven’t stop listening to it since. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. This is not a normal Coen Brothers movie; Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange kind of road movie, moving from couch to couch and diversion to diversion. It’s effective because all the pieces fit together perfectly, and it's bursting at the seams with heart and soul. I’m still not sure exactly what I think about it, but I know that I feel a ton of emotions, and that’s good enough for me. I'll be revisiting this film many more times in my life.

You can find my initial review here.

Before Midnight
The "Before" trilogy is a remarkable achievement in exploring human relationships. The truth in things unsaid between Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight gives me the chills. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have created characters that have been deeply ingrained in my mind since I first saw Before Sunrise in high school. What I love about them, is how they recognize love in the face of our transience.

It’s like the quote from the dinner scene in Before Midnight: “It’s just like our life, we appear and we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just… passing through."  These films are rare among romantic comedies. They accept death and life’s darkness, alongside love and beauty.

The Act of Killing
Sometimes you’re shocked to find out what humanity is capable of. Even worse, sometimes you have to sit through it and experience this terror. How can people do things, and then just move on? The Act of Killing is about Indonesian leaders re-living the genocide they committed in the 1960s. It’s stunning, an absolute must-see.

8. Her

I saw Her the day before finalizing this list, so I haven't quite had time to let it simmer. Every year there's a film that I know belongs on my list but I need much more time to figure out than is permitted (Amour and Zero Dark Thirty are recent examples). For context, I've seen seven of my top ten films multiple times once is just not enough, especially for such an unusual and complex film. On top of that, Spike Jonze is my favorite artist, so expectations were high (I'm Here is one of my all time favorite films, and I'm also a huge fan of Where the Wild Things Are, What's Up Fatlip (the documentary), Adaptation., and Being John Malkovich).

Her is a remarkable film. It didn't blow me away at the level of Gravity or Upstream Color, but frankly, those didn't do so on the first try either. The relationship portrayed stunningly by Phoenix and Johansson is a unique achievement that deserves even more praise than it's getting. They show what's it's like to fall for someone, despite the unusual sci-fi circumstances presented in the film. This astounding achievement and its implications are provocative, however on first watch, I'm more drawn to reflecting on Phoenix's personal conflicts. Thus, I've barely begun to plunge into the sci-fi elements of the film. I'm still purely caught up in loneliness of this puppy dog guy. So at this point I have some reservations about Her, but that's just for now. We'll see how I feel this time next year, I'm guessing it'll place higher on the list.

The Place Beyond the Pines
Some movies bash you over the head. If the message is strong and the presentation is sincere, these films can work. The Place Beyond the Pines certainly fits this category, which kept me at the distance upon my first viewing. But when I watched it again, the film worked tremendously since I accepted some pretty unlikely coincidences. There’s a poeticism to Cianfrance’s images, like in Blue Valentine, but unlike many skilled auteurs, Cianfrance imagines his new film with a whole new visual palette, in terms of blocking, movement and color, and it’s equally stunning. The Place Beyond the Pines is haunting. Sometimes hauntingly sad and other times hauntingly beautiful. There's a moment of forgiveness and mercy in this film, which shines as a beacon of light bursting through the overwhelming hopelessness of the rest. Watch this movie for the first time, or re-watch, and remember this time to let it wash over you like a poem. Hopefully then you'll be moved by it like I was the second time.

Labor Day

Labor Day is a very different film for Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air). Rather than being sharp and quick-witted, it’s careful and considered.

It struck me as being about parenting. The boy’s father is around once a week, but he’s not truly mindful and present. Somehow this escaped convict comes into their lives, and touches both mother and son, because he truly pays attention to them. Only a great filmmaker can take a seemingly absurd premise and put the whole theater in tears. Reitman achieves this with grace, further revealing how exceptionally talented he is. You can find my review of Labor Day from Telluride here.

Honorable mention:
Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue is romantic and real, pulsing with uncomfortable sincerity. Kechiche is by no means trying to exploit these two girls. It’s not a coincidence that we see Adele eating spaghetti casually like when no one is watching. The film doesn’t just focus on Adele in the bedroom, but rather as a lost high school student discovering her identity.

This is the kind of film that I forget is a movie; I feel like a voyeur watching someone’s real life. I’m still somewhat shocked at the idea that Adele and Lea aren’t actually just playing themselves, it’s that convincing. You can find my review of Blue from Telluride here.

Honorable mention: Fruitvale Station

This film, based on the true story of Oscar Grant, is my favorite take on race since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled. It’s not an in-your-face, commentary. It’s a brief look at the life of an African-American male, mostly reveling in him as an ordinary person. Yes he sells drugs, but he doesn’t hold to your idea of a “thug”. Fruitvale is best when it’s showing him as an ordinary father loving his child, or an ordinary son buying Maryland crabs for his mother’s birthday dinner. This approach makes the shocking ending truly horrifying, revealing the tragedy of modern racism.

Additional honorable mentions:
Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Laurence Anyways

Biggest misses:
A Touch of Sin, The Armstrong Lie, At Berkeley, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Wadjda

On Labor Day (from

Originally from

I haven’t had a chance to see Labor Day since the Telluride Film Festival but my affections for it still hold strong. It continues to be one of my favorite films from Telluride 2013 and was in my top 10 of last year. I absolutely adore Jason Reitman’s films, especially Up in the Air, which I saw three times in theaters. It has left me in tears many times, and I’m sure it will do so many more times. Clearly, I have a pro-Reitman bias. 

However, Labor Day is a very different film for Reitman. Rather than being sharp and quick-witted, it’s careful and considered. Before the Telluride screening, he introduced the film as a story about love, so I was shocked when the film began as a thriller in which an escaped convict kidnaps a single mother and her 12-year-old son. Although still as Reitman said, it’s a gentle, loving story.  Rather than following someone dodging police bullets or breaking into buildings, Reitman lets the camera calmly glide up streets and around trees in the quiet yet intense New England setting or watch three people bake a pie together.

The sincerity of Labor Day allows it to be about whatever you relate to. I latched onto the films ideas about parenting. The boy’s father is around once a week, but is not truly mindful and present with his son. Somehow this escaped convict comes into their lives, and touches both mother and son, because he truly pays attention to them. Only a great filmmaker can take a seemingly absurd premise and put the whole theater in tears. Reitman achieves this with grace, further revealing how exceptionally talented he is. 

Grade: A

On Stranger by the Lake (from

Originally from

Stranger by the Lake left me stranded. While I had some connection to film, especially with supporting character Henri, I couldn’t quite grasp it.  It focuses on a lake in rural France that gay men use for “cruising”, a ritual of searching for casual sex partners.  Stranger by the Lake mainly follows Frank, who begins a dominantly sexual relationship with a rugged man named Michel. They never meet outside of the cruising lake and its nearby woods; in fact, the film never leaves this setting. Secondary to Frank’s sexual relationship with Michel is his friendship with the far more interesting Henri, who goes to the lake not for sex but for companionship. Henri’s loneliness and warmth are fascinating to observe in this setting. There’s also a murder sub-plot, which felt somewhat out of place, although I imagine it may grow on me with time.

A general sense of confusion fills me when I think about Stranger by the Lake. What is this movie about and why are these scenes tied together? I’m still not quite sure, but reading an interview with writer/director Alain Guiraudie helped. He said that he “[created] sequences that combined the emotions of being in love with the obscenity of sex, without pitting the nobility of feelings on the one hand, against the trivial function of sex organs on the other." When reflecting on this, I can see the film’s strength in conveying the odd yet intense combination of passion and dispassion present in the cruising ritual, but I needed Guiraudie to help me get there.

Henri’s character helped me stay with the film, as it exposed the loneliness behind Frank’s actions. However mostly, I’m befuddled by the tedium of the film.  Ultimately, I recognize that there’s a depth to Stranger by the Lake that I’m blind to. I can hear it in Guiraudie’s words, and the exciting reactions from some critics, but it escapes me. If the subject matter sounds interesting to you, go for it. I hope you won't be left astray as I was.

Grade: B-

On Mitt (From

Originally from

I don't generally love or hate politicians. I'm very familiar with political figures and I follow the grotesque animal that is politics fairly closely, but I don't feel passionately for or against specific individuals. This certainly holds true for Mitt Romney; however, he is a character that I found particularly fascinating due to the unusual containment of his personality this past election cycle.

The new Netflix documentary Mitt, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, follows Mitt Romney and his family from 2008, the last year of his first presidential campaign, until a couple days after he lost to Obama in 2012. The first third of the film focuses on the 2008 campaign, but the bulk focuses on Romney vs. Obama in 2012. Mitt is a personal portrait that’s surprisingly light and funny. My favorite moments have nothing to do with debates or political discussion, but rather Mitt’s family. We see Mitt Romney eat at Wendy’s for lunch, sleep on the floor of an airplane, and pray. I’m not usually comfortable watching religion, but the prayer scenes were quite special. I felt Mitt and his family’s sincerity and devotion. These scenes show the Romney family in a vulnerable, honest setting, and it is truly moving.

Mitt Romney is represented as a sweet, kind, and funny person. Mitt is essentially a dull, apolitical story about a nice person. It becomes fascinating because of its cultural context. Thus if you are like me, and follow the political process, it’s a rewarding intimate portrait of a former presidential candidate.

Unfortunately, a lack of access during crucial points in the 2012 campaign held the film back. We are exposed in great detail to certain events, like seeing Mitt’s notes from a debate with President Obama, but held back from others, like the selection of Paul Ryan as Vice President, which isn’t even mentioned. Not to mention that the film really loses steam after about 60 minutes, since there isn’t a clear trajectory. Nonetheless, the documentary was a compelling experience that I recommend to any political junkies who would like to Mitt Romney behind closed doors.

Grade: B+

On The Invisible Woman (from

Originally from 

Both when I attended the Telluride Film Festival this past August and now upon The Invisible Woman’s release, I’ve been surprised by the lack of discussion surrounding the film. It’s the second directorial effort from a famous actor, Oscar-nominated Ralph Fiennes, and takes an in-depth look at a famed author, Charles Dickens. How could such a film go relatively unnoticed? Now that I’ve seen the film, it’s clear why; The Invisible Woman is completely competent, but a bit dull.

I do not mean to lambast the film; a muted response is not a negative one. The Invisible Woman is elegantly crafted, with all artists in front of and behind the camera operating with excellence. Fiennes is outstanding as Dickens, and Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) is riveting as always playing his mistress, Nelly. The images presented are not that of a struggling amateur director, but one with a clear sense of cinema and visual storytelling. The cinematography is beautiful. Yet still, despite general excellence, it’s all pretty typical. They’re doing boring things, but they’re doing them really, really well.

The story focuses on Nelly, whose off-balance relationship with Dickens stirs contemplations of the repressed female. While Dickens may gallivant about as per usual, Nelly must hide and become invisible, as suggested by the title. While again intriguing, it ultimately has little to nothing new to add to these concepts.

The Invisible Woman is a perfectly competent period piece, which is worth seeing if the subject matter interests you, but the muted responses it continues to receive are well founded.

Grade: B-

On The Square (from

Originally from

The Square details the recent Egyptian Revolution with moderate success. Director Jehane Noujaim examines the conflict through several particularly intriguing revolutionaries, including one from the Muslim Brotherhood who struggles with the morality of his organization’s pursuits. The film explores each major event from the initial protests in 2011 until this past summer from the perspective of these main characters. By focusing on each character, without pulling back to see the conflict more generally and historically, it feels a bit chaotic.

This method of tackling the subject prevents the viewer from developing a broad understanding of the situation by favoring the specific experience of several people. Noujaim’s choice not to contextualize the history occurring on screen is frustrating. By never separating from the immersion with these particular characters, the experience is puzzling at times for those who haven’t been following the conflict closely (myself included). Tasha Robinson explained this aspect of the film brilliantly, highlighting that rather than what is generally expected, Noujaim provides “…a vivid, impressionistic portrait of the social scene in Tahir Square, and how street protests gave workaday Egyptians a feeling of empowerment and ebullience that a succession of oppressive, disingenuous leaders couldn’t shake.” Ultimately, unlike Tasha, this approach blocked my ability to engage with the material although more informed viewers might find this approach invigorating.

The Square is not the must-see documentary one may have hoped for, but it’s certainly worth a watch. It’s always valuable to develop a specific human context for historical events that we grow detached from because of geographic distance. The Square is playing at the Brattle Theater for one week only and launching via Netflix on 1/17. If you need the theatrical environment to keep focus in a less than thrilling documentary, go to the Brattle, otherwise check this out on Netflix.

Given the Academy’s history of choosing politically relevant documentaries, I'm not surprised that this was nominated for Best Documentary Feature this morning.

Grade: B

On The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (from

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has gorgeous landscape shots and an intriguing story idea, but not much else. Character decisions often feel a little unbelievable and sometimes even preposterous. It’s a great Christmas time family movie, since it’s accessible, heartwarming and fun, but it won’t last beyond the holidays.
Let me be clear, this is not a bad movie. It’s actually a good movie; however, at this time of year when you’re competing against works like Inside Llewyn Davis, Her and The Past, it’s just not enough.

Walter (Ben Stiller) is your classic daydreamer, bored by his life and desiring to escape into Hollywood-style realities.  He wants to be an action hero, a love god, etc; but this was not always the case. Walter used to be more of a daredevil, which is how the film explains his quick transition from square to adventurer. This is a very problematic story point. Walter is meant to represent the restrained societal being, the cowardly square. Ultimately, he winds up being a person with a father complex. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Stiller wants to have it both ways.

Throughout the film, Walter is trying to court co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wig). This love story feels contrived, despite strong moments. She’s actually an excellent example of how the reactions characters have don’t match the extremely high stakes of this movie. I was astounded by how calm Cheryl is when Walter calls her on the phone describing dangerous situations that someone like him would never be found in. That being said, there were times her character was used beautifully. In one moment, when Walter has finally begun to take risks, he channels her in his mind for encouragement to jump onto a moving helicopter while the classic David Bowie song
Space Oddity plays in the background. It’s actually quite memorable. Still, these successes are few and far between. Moments in this film are strong, but the cohesive whole is less than the sum of its parts.

I found
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty very disappointing, but I still have hope for it. Perhaps on future viewings, when I’m not holding it to the standard of the Coens, Jonze and Farhadi, it’ll crystalize. 

Grade: B-