2013 was an incredibly rich year for cinema—certainly the richest since I’ve been writing FilmCapsule.com—so there’s more excuse than ever to extend my year-end list to 20 titles. Hopefully this collection can shed some light on great films both foreign and domestic that you might not encounter on other critics’ lists. Stay tuned for my Top 10 later, but in the meantime consider catching up some of these titles, many of which are already available on Netflix Instant.
Exploring the deeply personal domestic drama of her own parentage, Sarah Polley turns her documentary Stories We Tell into a powerful and universal investigation into memory and narrative. She’s concerned not just with uncovering the identity of her biological father—a compelling narrative mystery in its own right—but with interrogating how individual perspectives and the march of time obfuscate any notion of “truth.” Polley may have pushed her use of contrasting documentary form even further, but as it stands the film gestures towards the notion that truth can only be found within a multiplicity of voices.
In The Hunt, Danish powerhouse Mads Mikkelson plays a kindergarten teacher wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a child. It’s an incredibly loaded topic, and indeed director Thomas Vinterberg chooses to concentrate precisely on the highly-charged emotional reactions the accusation generates. Nobody is able to view the situation dispassionately, and with each passing minute and rash judgement, justice becomes less and less likely for the innocent man. Vinterberg is uncommonly sensitive to the many ways, both quotidian and exceptional, that the events impact everyone involved, and is much too smart to suggest a tidy resolution.
A story of artistic, emotional and political awakening, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air is a loosely biographical account of a teenager swept up into the rebellious excitement of Europe’s May ’68 student movement. From dingy basements printing leftist pamphlets to underground concerts and artist gatherings, Assayas has a knack for dramatizing not just the look and style of a period, but the intangible spirit that brings it to life. With Something in the Air the French director also combines seductive nostalgia with the wisdom of age to gently shepherd his cinematic foil through a period of tumultuous self-discovery.
Though not as mysterious and existentially rich as Kiarostami’s last film Certified Copy, Like Someone in Love is nonetheless warm, vibrant, truthful, modest and unexpected like some of the Iranian master’s best work. The film follows a Japanese call girl over two chaste days with a lonely and grandfatherly retired professor, yet somewhat miraculously wrings moments of spontaneity and beauty from the simplest of situations. Kiarostami is a true artist of time and the everyday, a filmmaker with patience and humility enough to cede authorial control to the elements and allow the mundane to suddenly cohere into something more.
I never would have thought a Michael Bay film would end up higher on my list than entries by arthouse stalwarts like Kiarostami and Assayas, but then I never thought he’d make a film as weird and accidentally potent as Pain & Gain. Perhaps working on a smaller budget than normal allowed Bay to understand the superficiality, inanity and downright stupidity of his tonal and stylistic tics. Perhaps the wild true-crime story of a trio of brain-dead meatheads unearthed a level of irony Bay was hitherto incapable of. Whatever the cause, Pain & Gain somehow emerged as both overstuffed, ‘roided-out bombast and a funny satire of those same impulses.
While Frances Ha felt a bit slight (if charming and relateable) on first viewing, its modesty now strikes me as the great success of the film, and no small feat either. Director Noah Baumbach, but especially his effervescent co-writer and star Greta Gerwig, create a very specific and minutely rendered character, a directionless drifter who tap-dances the line between likeability and annoyance. She’s frustratingly apathetic for a lead character, but ultimately that nonchalance is part of the charm of both character and film. Frances needs to grow up, but we still want her to stay who she is. (Read my full review.)
Few films from this year have stuck with me the way The Place Beyond the Pines has. It’s incredibly portentous and novelistic, perhaps even a bit too ambitious, but the tangle of emotional relationships at its core continues to grow after the credits roll. Showing significant formal and thematic maturation since Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance traces the cascading effect of key decisions across two generations of fatefully-entwined families. He keeps the film pitched at a slow boil throughout and elicits simmering intensity from Ryan Gosling, and more surprisingly, Bradley Cooper and the promising young actor Dane DeHaan.
Though hit and miss like sketch comedy and improvisation, at its best This Is the End is both riotously funny and bitingly and boldly self-deprecating. With a cast of talented performers all playing variations on their own public personae, This Is the End derives most of its laughs not from the high-concept apocalypse looming outside the doors of James Franco‘s self-designed modernist home, but from the petty and immature squabbling among the actors stuck inside. To me, the key to the whole film is Franco, who is game to lampoon his pretentious artiste personality just as he’s game to try pretty much anything else.
Drug War is a badass, Swiss-watch of an action film from Hong Kong master Johnnie To. To has such control over pacing and style, and never allows the energy to dip, nor his active camera to get in the way of the film’s barreling momentum. The cryptic Louis Koo plays an untrustworthy drug dealer turned snitch, leading Sun Hong-Lei‘s mercurial investigator deeper into in a world of mob bosses and layered undercover identities.
Beginning with an unlikely visual callback to Psycho, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects eludes our expectations at every turn. The film is really several in one, with each development modifying and manipulating what’s come before it. This isn’t simply a trick for the sake of narrative surprise, however, but a sophisticated formal gambit to play with the identification and participation of the audience. Like Soderbergh’s best work, it’s an engaging story and a genre experiment at the same time. (Read my full review.)