Friday, 3 January 2014

Best of 2013: Film Pt.1


Read on to find out what treats from the past year grabbed our attention and lingered in our minds long after viewing...


The Act Of Killing

Perhaps it's unfair to make other films compete against Joshua Oppenheimer's one-of-a-kind documentary; it's almost certainly an act of trivialisation to rank this monumental record of human evil and repression alongside the other releases this year, as great as many of them were. For all of 2013's cinematic innovations and emotional wringers, The Act Of Killing stands alone as a text with genuine historical import. It functions as a harrowing record of the too-little-known genocide in Indonesia in the second half of the twentieth century as told from the point of view of its garlanded, disturbingly ordinary perpetrators.

But its exploration of an important event is not alone what makes it an important piece of cinema. Rather, it's Oppenheimer's twisty, treacherous approach, freighting the national trauma with reflections upon the mass media's role in constructing the past, received truth, and the modern psyche. The killers, drunk on their own celebrity, are invited by Oppenheimer to re-enact their crimes for the camera, and embark on an increasingly haunted journey into the heart of darkness. For anyone interested in the possibilities of film, its capacity to encode complex ideas about the nature and the nightmare of reality, this is an essential watch. Extraordinary. (Nick Pierce)


Beyond The Hills

Like his riveting abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Romanian Cristian Mungiu's latest is another merciless dissection of his home country's social malaise and economic privation. Using the real-life incident of the Tanacu exorcism as its starting point, in which a young member of a Moldavian monastery died during an exorcism ritual, Hills depicts the tragic fallout from the arrival of a headstrong, worldly woman, Voichita, into an isolated religious order. Having come to be reconciled with her childhood girlfriend, with whom it seems that she could be in love, Voichita finds herself at loggerheads with the fiercely conservative and quietly controlling male head of the community.

Mungiu keeps the camera distant at all times, letting the scenes play out in long takes, and refusing to pass judgment on the worldview of this very alien, antiquated order. Slowly, engrossingly, the story reveals Mungiu's preoccupation with his country's subjugation of women's freedom and bodies; a power that - as we learn here - is often bought at a terrible price. (NP)


Blancanieves

Does the world really need another retelling of the Snow White story? Yes, it seems. At least, it needed one as deliriously inventive, endlessly fun, and sensuously shot as this Spanish silent film. If there was any justice in the world, the far more deserving Blancanieves would've captured audiences' imaginations in the same way that The Artist managed two years ago. Unlike that Oscar-winner, which effectively treated the grammar of silent cinema as little more than a novelty for winning press attention, this update of the Brothers Grimm narrative hearkens back to the expressive, visually dynamic heyday of the form in the 1910s and 20s. References abound, to the frenetic crosscutting of Eisenstein, and the creepy surrealism of early Bunuel, but they never distract from the drama.

The revisions to the plot are inspired: setting the fairy tale in and around the world of bullfighting, and having Snow White herself become a celebrated matador, allows for several action scenes that border on the poetic. And the script restores some of the darkness of the original folklore, recasting the evil stepmother as a sadism-fuelled dominatrix, and totally disposing of the Disney version's insipid romance and reassuring ending. (NP)


Blue is the Warmest Colour

The hoohah surrounding the lesbian relationship at the centre of Abdellatif Kechiche's three-hour romantic tour-de-force, and the accusations that the film is a male, heterosexual view of female, 'transgressive' sexuality, are a bit of a red herring: Blue is the Warmest Colour is just as much if not more of a drama about social class, and the way it shapes our conception of and expectations from life.

Called The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 & 2 in France (a third chapter is reportedly potentially on its way), it follows the eponymous heroine, a working-class teenager enrolled at her local college and studying to be a primary school teacher. Hard-headed, pragmatic, and schooled in the value of money by her frugal background, when she meets blue-haired middle-class artist Emma and embarks on a passionate love affair, she is introduced to a whole new world of intellectual and sexual liberation facilitated by affluence. Although Adèle is the younger of the two, and not as 'worldly' as her lover in some respects at first, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that she has an emotional maturity fostered by her upbringing alien to the flightiness and arguable shallowness of Emma. But aside from its digs at middle-class solipsism, Blue is also, despite its slightly self-indulgent length, just a very involving and visceral love story, brilliantly acted by its two leads. It would be a tremendous shame if the mudslinging it has generated in the press, much of which has nothing to do with the movie itself, was allowed to overshadow its obvious quality. (NP)


Computer Chess

Following its quiet release a decade ago, the DNA of Andrew Bujalski’s funny ha ha still lingers on in today’s current trend for depicting Generation Y as hopelessly adrift. Computer Chess sees the low-fi aesthetic of the Mumblecore movement Bujalski helped create reinterpreted as the visual language for the birth of the Information Age, Bujalski’s hand held cam perfectly complementing the film’s initial presentation of its cast as eccentrics and losers operating on the fringes of society though. What follows, however, soon shifts from a caricature of the 80s’ DIY ‘punk’ programming culture into a bizarre and unsettling debate on life versus automation, with a barely-together tournament ultimately becoming the unwitting background to a clandestine battle for the future. It’s easy to dismiss Computer Chess as a wry, nostalgic look at a time so close yet so far removed from our post-Internet world, but it has a hell of a lot to say about just where it is we’re all blindly heading towards. (Tom Dunn)


Django Unchained

Neither as blisteringly innovative as Pulp Fiction nor as deliriously unhinged as Inglourious Basterds, Django is perhaps primarily notable for being Tarantino's most heartfelt and soulful movie since 1997's Jackie Brown.

Racism has always been a thematic pressure-point in his pictures, but never so boldly and unflinchingly addressed as it is in this spaghetti Western set amongst the cotton fields and colonial mansions of 19th-century Mississippi, a Southern empire built on the bodies of African slaves. Tarantino has fashioned something akin to a photo-negative of Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, those epic apologias for institutionalised white supremacy: here we have a portrait of America whose Caucasian citizens are uniformly despicable and ridiculous, tainted one and all by their tacit complicity in, if not outright support of, this so-called 'flesh for cash' business.

Unlike his other recent offerings, where the characters seem to exist in isolation from one another, Django shows Tarantino anchoring his narrative in two loving relationships: that between freed slave Django and the wife, Broomhilda, from whom he has been cruelly separated by his former masters, and the burgeoning friendship Django experiences with his saviour and subsequent partner, Dr. King Schultz.

It might forego any measure of subtlety, but the fact that Tarantino can get such an excoriating satire made and released to huge commercial success is surely impressive enough. (NP)


A Field in England

British auteur Ben Wheatley is that rarest of beasts: a genre-movie director with a genuinely art-house sensibility, unapologetically relishing of the chance to splash gore and scatological humour across the screen, but equally unafraid to challenge his audience with unconventional narrative and stylistic choices. Both of these impulses find a demented, gleeful outlet in his fourth feature about a group of English civil war deserters coerced by a malevolent alchemist into helping him search for buried treasure. The result is something like a diabolic chemistry experiment in its own right, mixing equal parts League of Gentlemen gallows humour and Lynchian trippiness. It's great fun, supremely creepy, and one-of-a-kind. (NP)


Frances Ha

I love Lena Dunham and all, but she must have been taking a long, hard look at the latest script for Girls after watching this enchanting collaboration between indie super-couple Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. A world away from their previous cinematic portrayal of the ultimate wet weekend, Greenberg, this latest character study is full of life, eschewing weighty / self-serving commentaries on the plight of entitled twenty-somethings in favour of something that, in spite of its frequent allusions to Truffaut and Godard, feels far more true and warm. Gerwig’s take on Frances is fully aware of the character’s foibles without letting them define her, and in its more jubilant approach to life in New York, ironically offers some stark criticism toward many of its celebrated peers. (TD)


Gravity

Gravity must be this year's most flawed excellent movie, a truly daring and contradictory piece of work from director Alfonso Cuaron. For every focus on scientific realism (no explosion sounds in space) there was another entirely implausible aspect (an astronaut in space after 6 months training). To read too much into it, however, is to miss the point; this was a masterclass in roller coaster edge of the seat action that still managed to push boundaries. At times plot devices were obvious (case in point: the back story of Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone), but this was overridden by the genuine sense of peril created by the Spanish director, and one of the first intrinsic but gimickless uses of 3D. There may have been many smarter, more plausible movies this year, but I seriously doubt there were many nearly as exciting. (George Bate)


The Great Beauty

Depending on your point of view, either Paolo Sorrentino's picaresque panorama of life in present-day Rome transcends the limitations and formula of story, or simply forgets to include a proper one. What story there is concerns ageing playboy-cum-journalist Jep Gambardella. Having conquered high society early in life, Jep has spent the intervening years growing fat and lazy indulging in its intoxicating but frivolous pleasures. Now in his autumn years, he's still tumbling from bedroom to bedroom and nightclub to nightclub, but beginning to sense that once upon a time he might have traded in any possibility of genuine fulfilment.

It doesn't take a genius to recognise that Sorrentino is indebted to Fellini's kaleidoscopic late-60s masterworks like La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, which similarly attempted to encapsulate the entire pageantry of human life, the divine and the profane, in a city seemingly designed for such philosophical meanderings. So beholden is it to these classics, in fact, that Beauty never quite escapes from their shadow, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable, or the sudden ambushes of pathos any less painful. Plus, it looks ravishing: an orgy of luminous dancefloors and womb-red ruins, like a perfume advert with elephantiasis. (NP)

Ten more films for 2013 will be announced tomorrow, completing our look at last year's best in cinema and sounds. Until then!