Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Film Wrap-Up

Usually when I've done these best of the year write-ups, I just make it simple: the ten best new-release films I've seen, regardless of what territory I've seen them in or what their "official" release is. This is historically easy to do, on account of nobody really cared about such details. With my unexpected (but very welcome) inclusion in the Skandies last year, however, this has all changed, and my attempts to make a top-ten are stymied by all sorts of exigencies with conflicting international release dates.

To wit: my favorite new release of 2013 is NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, the jewel of the New Zealand International Film Festival's program this year (and the best film I've seen since CERTIFIED COPY). For most filmmakers, a 4+ hour novelistic study of amorality and contemporary Filipino culture inspired by Dostoyevsky would seem like their magnum opus. (And for most viewers, it probably sounds like a first-class ticket to a 3 1/2 hour nap.) For Lav Diaz, who typically works at running lengths exceeding 7 hours, it appears to have been an effort to focus and condense, and its running length flies like a shot. Whilst many scenes rely on long takes (often with near-imperceptible camera motion), Diaz is canny enough to mix things up now and again, never letting formal rigor ossify the film, but nonetheless maintaining an effortlessly patient pace that allows its myriad narrative explosions to emerge at unexpected points and intervals. While it's the first Diaz I've experienced, I'll never skip another one. But it's not "poll-eligible" for 2013, although the reliably adventurous US distributor Cinema Guild appears to have picked it up for 2014 distribution there. I don't expect it ever to return to screens here or get a Blu-Ray release; due to a number of extremely wide shots, I can't imagine it functioning usefully on DVD in home viewing, but it's worth a shot if it's your only option.

Three other highlights of NZIFF have also yet to be released in the US in 2013. STRANGER BY THE LAKE poses challenges of a different sort to a distributor in the form of copious male nudity and unsimulated gay sex. By extension, it also poses challenges to anyone who wishes to recommend it to the anonymous reading public, but regardless on your personal sexual proclivities, this formally clever, darkly absurd, and deeply sad thriller exploring a murder at a gay cruising spot is essential viewing for adventurous filmgoers. Shots of a parking lot have never been more ominous. BLUE RUIN is a thriller of a more traditionally crowdpleasing sort, and was the highlight of my Incredibly Strange slate this year, with expert photography, strong performances, brilliant tonal shifts, and some hysterical dialogue moments. And festival closer THE DANCE OF REALITY saw the return 84-year old Alejandro Jodorowsky to the screen after a 23-year absence. An unruly magic trick of semiautobiography merged with quintessential Jodorowskian excess, REALITY isn't just a surprisingly credible film from an aged filmmaker, but a vital piece of cinema that deserves to stand aside his greatest work.

Other NZIFF titles won't be returning to the big screen but uphold the festival's reputation as the single greatest force for bringing quality cinema to our screens. I could easily fill out a top ten for 2013 with UPSTREAM COLOR, THE ACT OF KILLING, A BAND CALLED DEATH, COMPUTER CHESS, THE GREAT BEAUTY, and STORIES WE TELL and be quite proud of it, but few if any of these will return to cinemas in New Zealand; a pity. The relentlessly pleasurable ERNEST AND CELESTINE, an animated Belgian film featuring the antics of a mouse studying the dental arts and a reclusive saxophone playing bear, was equal to any of these; it's slated for US release in 2014. The NZIFF's off-season festival, Autumn Colours, brought Olivier Assayas's terrific AFTER MAY (aka SOMETHING IN THE AIR), as well as the best short film I saw this year, "O Is For Orgasm" (from the directors of AMER, and nestled within the very mixed bag of THE ABC'S OF DEATH). Meanwhile, the DocEdge fest continues to improve its fare, most notably with ONLY THE YOUNG, a quiet gorgeous coming of age documentary with young skaters set in suburban California.

But festivals can't save everything, and three of the best movies to release in New Zealand in 2013, all essential viewing for genre fans with a bent for the arty, went more or less directly to video. I use hedge language on account of the one-off screening of Peter Strickland's BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, a nervy and nerve-wracking masterpiece of style that follows a mild-mannered foley artist (Toby Jones, in an all-too-rare leading role) as he descends into insanity whilst working on an Italian horror film. It's a divisive film that takes the form of a nightmare, and thus similar to BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Panos Cosmatos' vision of an undiscovered science fiction film from his imaginings of lurid VHS covers in the early 80s. The result has echoes of the icy precision of Cronenberg and the conspiracy theories of LOST, but is a hallucinogenic journey all of its own, one of my most-evangelized films of the decade and unjustly deprived of its chance to transport Kiwi viewers in a late-night big screen session. It's less surprising that nobody took a chance on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, and whilst I feel cheated of the chance to experience it in 3-D, even in 2-D this is a testament to the potential of termite cinema, what can happen when you give a director (John Hyams) a built-in franchise and his response is to mix together equal parts of David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, and MMA ass-kickery.

Three of my favorite mainstream releases in New Zealand can't be counted in polls on account of them being 2012 releases in the States. I got to give DJANGO UNCHAINED its due in last year's Skandies, as I caught it in the States in 2012, but couldn't see RUST AND BONE or ANNA KARENINA in time for the poll. The former has been much praised, and I'll gladly cosign all its deserved hosannahs, but the latter didn't really receive its due, perhaps because of bias against Kiera Knightley. Perhaps she's callow, but so too is her character here; what interested me more was the astonishing precision of choreography that director Joe Wright performs here. For anyone even remotely interested in watching the movies because of the language of cinema (vs as a narrative delivery device), it's a must-see. Meanwhile, Alyx Duncan's debut film THE RED HOUSE hit cinemas in New Zealand this year (after a successful appearance in NZIFF 2012); it's a stately, gorgeous exploration of numerous themes of identity, progress, and belonging, all whilst quietly exploring a liminal space between drama and documentary. While I've become friends with the filmmaker over the year, I feel no need to recuse myself from its praise, which has been shared by virtually every reviewer and cinephile in this country. That it's yet to break out to a wider cinephile audience is unfortunate, as it's one of New Zealand's great films; hopefully, 2014 will change that.

Some films managed to break on both shores simultaneously. Of the mainstream releases, there weren't any I could praise unconditionally; the closest that I can come is to bow to Alfonso Cuaron's GRAVITY, a relentlessly compelling thrill ride which (even as I found the backstory to be overegging the pudding) delivered the most visceral experience of the year, just pipping THE CONJURING at the post, a thoroughly effective horror movie which goes off the rails as it heads over the top in its last twenty minutes. The last twenty minutes are (at least on a first viewing) also the Achilles' heel of THE WORLD'S END; until then, it's one of the smartest films of the year, simultaneously contemplating the nature of friendship, nostalgia, and the corporate colonization of society, all whilst delivering laughs and satisfying ass-kickery. (There's potentially no greater re-invention of an actor this year than Nick Frost here; in a just world, he'd be top-lining an action film a year.) And I've changed my viewpoint twice already on THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, in which Scorsese lets you spend three hours in the mind of a sociopath with no concern for redemption, justice, or anything other than a relentless commitment to depicting his appetites in wildly comic style and shunting away moral qualms with breathtaking speed. It's got six of the best scenes of the year, a bevy of great performances, and left virtually everyone I talked to at my screening calling it misogynist, while I pondered the wisdom of valorizing the excess of a man who makes money on the back of his crimes today. I'm still wondering, but I have no doubt that, morals aside, it's great and vital cinema.

New Zealand often beats the US to its release of Asian films, many of which release day and date here. This can be good or bad, in that it's hard to decide which films are worth one's limited cinema time when there's no overseas reviews to consult. It doesn't help that they're often barely advertised; MAN OF TAI CHI stumbled into theatres without so much as a lobby poster to herald its arrival, and left battered with negligible box office two weeks later. While it's no top ten film of the year, it's an absolute must-see for martial arts fans and far better than one might expect from Keanu Reeves' directorial debut - it might be better described as Keanu Reeves getting out of the way and showcasing legendary Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping's mastery for a good 50% of the run time, which is pure catnip for anyone who's seen his work on THE MATRIX, KILL BILL, IRON MONEY, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, and countless other films. Even better is Johnnie To's DRUG WAR, which opened with little fanfare and an unpromising title early in the year. Despite catching a late screening in which I struggled to stay awake after a long work day, I found it to be remarkably compelling (especially a scene in a hotel room where a policeman must in turn impersonate opposing figures in a drug deal, to say nothing of the relentlessly nihilstic shootout finale), but reserved my praise, thinking I might be overrating it, particularly as it lacked the stylization of some of my other To favorites (cf EXILED and THROW DOWN). Turns out I underrated it: it was one of the best reviewed films of the year when it finally opened in the States, and lingers impressively in my mind.

Two of my favorite poll-eligible films didn't see screens here in 2013 at all, because they'd previously screened. DIE WAND, aka THE WALL, stunned me at NZIFF 2012 with its crisp photography and stark portrait of one woman's survival after an invisible wall leaves her trapped from the rest of society. Meanwhile, the best film of any year, or most years, is Paolo Sorrentino's CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE; despite releasing in 2004, it finally received its first poll-eligible release in New York in 2013. Most of the attention Sorrentino received this year went to his Fellini-esque celebration of Rome, THE GREAT BEAUTY, and while I find much to like in that film, CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE remains his masterpiece, even if its belated arrival on American shores was met with negligible fanfare. In tandem, the two films serve as a testament to Sorrentino's prowess, to the range of his beloved lead actor Toni Servillo, and ultimately to the grand hope that any deserving film will finally receive its time in the sun.

My top ten for US-eligible films will be published with the Skandies (and after I see more films that I've not caught up with yet, such as HER, NEBRASKA, and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR). In the meantime, for the impatient among you, my "traditional top ten list" of new release films first seen in 2013:

4. THE ACT OF KILLING (160 minute version)

… with COMPUTER CHESS, THE GREAT BEAUTY, A BAND CALLED DEATH, BLUE RUIN, DRUG WAR and SOMETHING IN THE AIR all potentially able to have made this list on a different day, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET clambering all over the place, snorting a line of cocaine off the top of the other films, refusing to settle in or play by the rules, and demanding your attention.

If you're wondering "what about XXX", check out my Letterboxd page, which lists just about everything I've seen this year (been lazy the last couple weeks). Also you may notice my star ratings don't line up perfectly with my top ten. Life.

And in a final film-related note, 2013 saw the completion of Hybrid Motion Pictures' first feature film, JAKE, which I wrote, directed, and co-produced; the cast and crew screening was, for obvious reasons, my greatest theatrical experience of 2013. It's a huge relief to have this milestone complete, and I look forward to making it publicly available in 2014. More on that soon.

Best 2013 book I read: George Saunders, TENTH OF DECEMBER
Best 2013 NZ book I read: Pip Adam, I'M WORKING ON A BUILDING (haven't finished THE LUMINARIES yet, otherwise it would most likely be here)
Best 2013 album: Superchunk, I HATE MUSIC
Best 2013 TV experience: finishing BREAKING BAD