The best film of 2013 may have been something I didn’t see, or didn’t even have a chance to see. There’s a wealth of great stuff being made, and a film snob’s duty is to take the time (and the trouble) to find it. But I can’t find or see everything. I was lucky in ‘13, because I saw quite a few films that I liked. Now, as I always do in February, allowing a month for Oscar bait and other end-of-the-year films to reach Tucson, I present my four top favorites from last year.
The Act of Killing, a documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, focuses on a group of aging gangsters in Indonesia who killed thousands of people during the 1965-66 government-sponsored purge of people deemed a potential threat to the regime. In a society in which mass killing was rewarded, and a society that has not admitted wrongdoing, there is no sense of shame about these actions. The director actually persuaded the killers to stage reenactments of the torture, murders, and massacres as they remember them. We’ve seen documentaries about crimes against humanity from the point of view of the victims, and the accusing conscience of the world. In The Act of Killing we hear the stories from the perpetrators themselves. This is a brilliant, unforgettable, and essential film, a breakthrough in the understanding of political violence and its devastating effect on modern history.
Something in the Air, directed by Olivier Assayas, is an autobiographical drama about radical French youth in the early 1970s. It has the ragged shape and seemingly random quality of real life, but in fact it is a meticulously crafted, lyrical portrait of an era—warm and evocative, yet unsentimental. Assayas’ artistry is such that the pace of the editing, the gliding camera, and the soundtrack filled with interesting and obscure music from the period, blends into what seems like a total environment. In terms of style, which for me is paramount, it stands head and shoulders above anything else I saw last year.
Beyond the Hills, from Romanian director Christian Mungiu, is the story of a young woman who welcomes her closest friend, with whom she grew up in an orphanage, to her home in a simple Orthodox monastery in the Romanian countryside. But the headstrong and confused outsider becomes a disruption to the routine of the monastery, and the way the head priest tries to deal with her leads to disaster. In the tension between religion and secular society, Mungiu does not take sides, but maintains the viewpoint of imperfect but worthwhile individuals, thereby making real the tensions and implications of the action. This is an example of the kind of patient, honest, incisive filmmaking that renews my faith in cinema.
British director Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years a Slave, adapts the 1853 account by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, of his abduction and subsequent enslavement for twelve years in Louisiana. The film quite deliberately refuses to soften the brutality of the story. Northup is viciously beaten, sold naked at market like an animal, and subjected to severe abuse and humiliation every day. In the central role, Chewitel Ejiofor brilliantly portrays the terrible transformation, the degradation of a soul enslaved for a dozen years, in his speech, in his eyes, and in the way he walks. The film also lets us glimpse the unspeakable tragedy of an entire culture sunk in this cruel and dehumanizing system. It rips the curtain away from the truth many of us would rather not see.
Other favorites of mine included Amour, Tabu, and Blue is the Warmest Color. And with that I wish you a marvelous new year in film.
A Film Snob’s Lucky 13
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer).
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas).
Beyond the Hills (Christian Mungiu).
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen).
Amour (Michael Haneke).
Tabu (Miguel Gomes).
Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche).
The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes).
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler).
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach).
War Witch (Kim Nguyen).
5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi).
No (Pablo Larraín)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater).