15 January 2014

Without further ado, the Best Films of 2013

After a few delays, I’ve finally published my Top 10 for 2013. There are a number of themes running through the list: queers, lakes, explicit sex, hauntings, teachers, French cinema, among others. I decided not to bother trying to see everything I wanted to see before making the list, but with that said, I’ll always accept suggestions if you got ‘em. Expect a few honorable mention posts in the near future. Click here to read the posts in descending order.

1. Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac), d. Alain Guiraudie, France
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle - chapitres 1 et 2), Abdellatif Kechiche, France/Belgium/Spain
3. Top of the Lake, d. Jane Campion, Garth Davis, UK/New Zealand/Australia
4. Bastards (Les salauds), d. Claire Denis, France/Germany
5. Spring Breakers, d. Harmony Korine, USA
6. Turning, d. Charles Atlas, Denmark/USA
7. Blue Jasmine, d. Woody Allen, USA
8. The Conjuring, d. James Wan, USA
9. Blackfish, d. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, USA
10. In the House (Dans la maison), d. François Ozon, France

Best of 2013: #10. In the House (François Ozon)

#10. In the House (Dans la maison). François Ozon. France.

Following the international success of his first English-language feature, Swimming Pool, François Ozon’s output has been a curious mix of understated melodramas and playful farces. In the House fits somewhere in between and calls to mind the wickedness of the director’s earlier work, back when certain critics dubbed him the “garçon terrible” of French cinema. Winner of the top prize at the San Sebastián Film Festival, In the House stars Fabrice Luchini as a French teacher who enters a world of questionable ethics by encouraging a clever high school student (Ernst Umhauer) who begins writing episodic short stories of his plans to seduce a classmate’s beautiful mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) and shatter the bonds of this suburban family. Things naturally get hairier when the teacher’s wife, played by the always exceptional Kristin Scott Thomas, starts getting invested in the lurid stories.

In the House is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S. from Cohen Media Group and is currently streaming on Netflix. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.K. from Entertainment One, and in France from France Télévisions Distribution.

With: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Denis Ménochet, Bastien Ughetto, Jean-François Balmer, Yolande Moreau

Best of 2013: #9: Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

#9. Blackfish. d. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. USA.

Who would have thought that such an upsetting topic (the exploitation of killer whales) would make for such an entertaining documentary? Blackfish does an exceptional job at turning SeaWorld into a deplorable corporate villain, one which values profit over life—human and animal alike.

Blackfish is currently on Blu-ray and DVD from Magnolia Pictures and is streaming on Netflix in the U.S., and is on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.K. from Dogwoof.

Best of 2013: #8. The Conjuring (James Wan)

#8. The Conjuring. d. James Wan. USA.

Whether planned or not, my best of the year lists always end up encompassing at least one major Hollywood effort, and this year, that distinction goes to this legitimately frightening and engrossing haunted house/exorcism tale that became one of the notable box office hits of 2013. Anchored by two marvelous performances from the leading ladies (Vera Farmiga, who's almost always great, and Lili Taylor, who hasn’t been this good in a long time), The Conjuring molds a number of familiar genre tropes (youthful games, bumps in the night, creepy children, murdered pets, possessed dolls) into a scary, entertaining, and—dare I say, coming from the director of Saw—tasteful bit of horror.

The Conjuring is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.S. from Warner Bros., who also released it in the U.K. and France.

With: Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton

Best of 2013: #7. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

#7. Blue Jasmine. Woody Allen. USA.

After nearly giving up on Woody Allen after suffering through the infuriatingly awful Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine takes the director away from bubbly-ol’ Europe to a somewhat imaginary San Francisco where he treads upon a dark exploration of women with a breezy touch in place of the usual Ingmar Bergman nods that have accompanied his similar tales. As the titular Jasmine, Cate Blanchett smolders, living up to the near unanimous praise and award season buzz that has surrounded her performance.

I wrote about Blue Jasmine previously on the blog. Blue Jasmine will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on 21 January from Sony in the U.S. and 29 January in France via TF1 Vidéo.

With: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich, Tammy Blanchard, Joy Carlin, Richard Conti

Best of 2013: #6. Turning (Charles Atlas)

#6. Turning. d. Charles Atlas. Denmark/USA.

Charles Atlas’ Turning is a three-in-one triumph: a concert film, consisting of footage from a 2006 European tour that Charles Atlas and Antony Hegarty crafted together, which featured a diverse collection thirteen female artists, hand-picked song-by-song by Hegarty to pose on a spinning platform as Antony and the Johnsons performed, beside a screen of Atlas’ stunning, live-edited collages of the turning women; a behind-the-scenes exposé, which provides a charming look at Hegarty chatting with these thirteen women, all of whom inspired the singer in some way, as they share stories of their personal journeys; and an experimental video art piece, highlighting the magnificent collages that Atlas created of the women with his three cameras. Featuring performance artist Kembra Pfahler of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black and Johanna Constantine, a frequent collaborator of Atlas’, Turning was easily the best new film I saw at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco back in July.

During the Q&A at Frameline, Atlas said the film would be available streaming and on video in the near future. No release date has been set.

Best of 2013: #5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

#5. Spring Breakers. d. Harmony Korine. USA.

Unmoved and unamused by director Harmony Korine’s previous efforts, I found myself taken by massive surprise with Spring Breakers. More than any other film in recent memory, Spring Breakers astounded me at every turn. At no point over the course of ninety minutes did I have the slightest clue where the film was headed (an extremely rare treat), and all of my preconceived ideas of Korine’s artistic motives proved to be false. It also contains a career-best performance from one of the busiest actors/filmmakers of 2013, James Franco, a cinematic figure—like Korine—one shouldn’t underestimate. Like one of the more under-appreciated films of the 90s, John McNaughton’s Wild Things, Spring Breakers is a thrillingly sleazy, bizarre, and amoral love letter to the penis of America, Florida.

Spring Breakers is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate in the U.S., and from Universal in the U.K., and from TF1 Vidéo in France.

With: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Heather Morris, Justin Wheelon, Emma Holzer, Ashley Lendzion, Dave Kramer, Gucci Mane, Russell Curry, Jeff Jarrett

Best of 2013: #4. Bastards (Claire Denis)

#4. Bastards (Les salauds). d. Claire Denis. France/Germany.

While there are a number of trends and themes running through this list, the thing that truly unifies at least the top 7 was their ability to haunt and resonate with me long after the credits. Claire Denis’ latest benefits the most from this sensation. Like many of her films, Bastards doesn’t offer much immediate satisfaction. The way Denis delivers information to the audience can tend to be rather obtuse or, in some cases, puzzling or, in most cases, disconcerting. For me, the word “puzzling” comes to mind with Denis’ work more than any other filmmaker because an unfinished puzzle offers the best visual analogy for many of her films. With carefully chosen pieces, she allows for us as the audience to imagine what lies in the empty spaces, and that isn’t a task that I imagine a lot of people enjoy having asked of them at the cinema.

With Bastards, the puzzle takes the form of a film noir, offering us glimpses of familiar traits of the genre. A wounded man (Vincent Lindon) reluctantly returns to Paris after his brother-in-law commits suicide in order to help his sister (Julie Bataille) settle the sizable debts and shady affairs that have brought the family and its company to ruin. Something’s fucked up with his niece (Lola Créton) who was hospitalized after being found walking the streets naked the night of her father’s death. And things get shaken up when he starts to get involved with a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) in the building where he’s living. There’s an unsettling air to nearly every scene, made all the eerier by the amazing synth-y score from Denis’ longtime musical collaborator, Stuart Staples of Tindersticks ("Put Your Love in Me"). And like two of her best films, Beau travail and The Intruder, Bastards has a wallop of an ending that’s nearly impossible to shake.

Bastards is available to rent on Amazon in the U.S. via Sundance Selects, and is currently on DVD in France via Wild Side Vidéo.

With: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Michel Subor, Julie Bataille, Lola Créton, Grégoire Colin, Christophe Miossec, Alex Descas, Florence Loiret Caille, Hélène Fillières, Eric Dupond-Moretti, Sharunas Bartas, Nicole Dogué, Élise Lhomeau, Jeanne Disson, Laurent Grévill

Best of 2013: #3. Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, Garth Davis)

#3. Top of the Lake. d. Jane Campion, Garth Davis. UK/New Zealand/Australia.

With equal parts Prime Suspect and Twin Peaks, Jane Campion and Garth Davis’ Top of the Lake revitalizes the television mini-series (which has been in decline in recent years), exploring the abundant possibilities of the non-serial long-format narrative, co-produced by the BBC and aired on HBO in the U.S. earlier this year following its official premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. In essence a mystery involving the failed suicide attempt of a young pregnant girl, Top of the Lake’s scope expands to the dark treasure trove of secrets, lies, drugs, and sex that rests beneath a small town in New Zealand with haunting and rather devastating results. The entire cast is uniformly great, but special mention should be given to Peter Mullan, as the grizzly father of the pregnant girl, and Holly Hunter, re-teaming with Campion as the mysterious, reluctant guru of a commune of damaged women who take up residence in “Paradise,” surrounding the portentous lake.

Top of the Lake is available streaming in the U.S. through Netflix.

With: Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan, David Wenham, Thomas M. Wright, Holly Hunter, Jacqueline Joe, Jay Ryan, Kip Chapman, Sarah Valentine, Matt Whelan, Cohen Holloway, Skye Wansey, Geneviève Lemon, Robyn Malcolm, Madeleine Sami, Alison Bruce, Lauren Dawes, Robyn Nevin, Mirrah Foulkes, Luke Buchanan, Jacek Koman, Oscar Redding, Lucy Lawless

Best of 2013: #2. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)

#2. Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle - chapitres 1 et 2). d. Abdellatif Kechiche. France/Belgium/Spain.

Chances are you’ve heard some of the controversy surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Color, this year’s recipient of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival which, in an unprecedented move, Steven Spielberg and his jury divided between the director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Becoming not only the gayest but also the most sexually explicit film to claim that honor was just the beginning of months of headlines and back-and-forth brouhaha. In short, both actresses said they’d never work with Kechiche again after discussing the director’s grueling methods to getting the scene just right, Kechiche fired back at them, threatening (unfounded) legal action against Seydoux and even stating that he wished the film would never get released. This all came following claims from the crew of lousy work conditions and labor law violations, not to mention harsh criticism from Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, calling the film pornographic and taking issue with the absence of real lesbians involved in the making of the film. Toss in some prosthetic vaginas, debates about whether actual lesbians do in fact scissor, an NC-17 rating, accusations of the film’s “male gaze” rendering it anti-feminist, a three-hour running time, two more major film prizes (the FIPRESCI Grand Prix and the Prix Louis-Delluc), and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the noise around Blue Is the Warmest Color.

But, in the grand scheme of things, nothing beyond what we see on the screen actually matters. And what I saw took my breath away. Divided into two “chapters” of the life of Adèle (which is literally how the original title translates into English, a nod to the character’s favorite book La vie de Marianne), from her high school years hanging out with bitchy girls and going through the expected motions of dating with a cute boy (Jérémie Laheurte) at school to her early adulthood as she begins her first year as an elementary schoolteacher, the film depicts Adèle’s journey of self-discovery through a series of glorious long takes, usually in medium close-ups of characters’ faces. Scenes linger beyond what one might consider “the norm,” and the camera captures the mundane and the sublime as if they were the same thing. The film moves in such a way that makes three hours still seem like three hours, but that is an alluring, captivating, and magical 179 minutes. In, hands down, the best performance of the year (sorry, Cate Blanchett), newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos radiates onscreen in a star-making turn in a role that demanded a helluva lot. She appears in every scene in the film, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. While Seydoux is quite good as Adèle’s blue-haired art student girlfriend Emma, I’m not sure why the Palme d’Or was given to both actresses, as the entire film rests on Exarchopoulos’ shoulders. In fact, it probably would have been appropriate to award her mouth a special jury prize. Whether devouring spaghetti, kissing her lover, reading aloud to her students, singing along to a Lykke Li song, swallowing oysters, or smoking a cigarette, her mouth is a treasure. To both Adèle’s, I could have watched you dance, snot, cry, fuck, dance, shout, cum, bawl, teach, swim, kiss, eat, and live for another three hours.

Blue Is the Warmest Color will be released on Blu-ray and DVD through The Criterion Collection on 25 February, the following day in France through Wild Side Vidéo, and on 17 March in the U.K. through Artificial Eye.

With: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche, Mona Walravens, Jérémie Laheurte, Alma Jodorowsky, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, Fanny Maurin, Benjamin Siksou, Sandor Funtek, Karim Saidi, Baya Rehaz, Aurelie Lemanceau, Anne Loiret, Benoît Pilot, Samir Bella

Best of 2013: #1. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)

#1. Stranger by the Lake (L'inconnu du lac), d. Alain Guiraudie, France

I think it’s usually a good idea to announce your biases upfront. One of my leanings happens to be toward queer cinema. Despite that leaning (and the fact that four of the ten listed here could fit under that umbrella), I’m fairly certain in all the years I’ve made these Best of the Year lists, no queer film has claimed the top spot. Even if I had made lists for 2010 through 2012, that would still be true (with the likely #1’s being Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy in 2010, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret or Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance in 2011, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty in 2012). Is it that there aren’t a lot of queer films out there worthy of being dubbed the “best” of the year? Am I too harsh in my judgements of queer films (as they’ve been one of my main areas of interest for as long as I can remember)? Whatever the case may be, I can’t think of a more appropriate film than Stranger by the Lake to bestow such an “honor” upon. Cahiers du Cinéma agrees. What sets this brilliant, menacing, sexy, haunting (a keyword that kept coming up as I assembled this list) film apart from any of the queer films I’ve seen in recent years (including this year’s #2) is the mastery of Alain Guiraudie’s vision and execution, in both cinematic terms and in its queer representation/identity.

Set entirely on a secluded nude beach that serves as a cruising area for men, Stranger by the Lake explores the complexities of gay male desire—something altogether unique from its heterosexual or female counterparts—in exciting and revealing ways, all under the guise of a murder mystery. I always hesitate to give too much away when writing about a film like this, but the plot centers around a murder witnessed by the protagonist, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps). What follows is the sort of suspenseful and voyeuristic perversion that you know Hitchcock would have loved, but there’s something truly remarkable and unique about how the murder unfolds and how the tension escalates from there. Guiraudie employs none of the narrative or camera tricks you’d expect from the genre. The audience is consistently on the same page as Franck, which is a lot less common of a perspective than you’d think, so as he grapples with the conflict between his sexual desire, romantic longing, moral compass, and sense of personal safety, the audience is drawn even closer to the danger.

For avoiding the manipulative genre tropes, Guiraudie manages to give Stranger by the Lake an otherworldly feel (something you can also see present in nearly all of his other excellent films)… an ominous, treacherous lake, possibly harboring mythological underwater creatures as well as dead bodies, surrounded by labyrinthine woods where men fuck half-hidden, half-exposed; a rock beach where naked men in tennis shoes scatter, always keeping a watchful, silent eye on each other; the stranger by the lake (Christophe Paou, who’s tied with Adèle Exarchopoulos for the sexiest person of 2013 if you ask me), a dead ringer for Magnum P.I. with the bluest eyes and a stare you can feel; an inquisitive detective (Jérôme Chappatte) lurking in the shadows. Stranger by the Lake is a truly astonishing cinematic experience that has resonated with me like few films have, best seen projected larger than life on the big screen in a dark theatre filled with strangers.

Stranger by the Lake will begin a limited theatrical run in the U.S. via Strand Releasing on 24 January. Peccadillo Pictures in the U.K. will release the film on 21 February. The film is currently available on DVD in France through Epicentre Films.

With: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick D’Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traïna, Emmanuel Daumas, Sébastien Badachaoui, Gilles Guérin, François Labarthe, Alain Guiraudie