2013 was a bit of a strange year for film, from my perspective. Whenever I think back on films I saw in a particular year, I’m always struggling with the knowledge that my movie-watching habits are skewed by the fact that I don’t tend to see much of anything in cinemas any more. So, for me, “films I saw this year” usually includes a handful of films that many people saw the year prior. And this year, a number of my top 5 come from the last quarter of 2012. Oh well.
Here are my top five favourite films:
Number 5: Looper (Rian Johnson). Yup, it suffered from wibbly-wobbly time stuff that makes no sense when you think about it. But it was surprisingly strong. I really enjoyed the vision of the future it created (clearly devastated by economic depression) — it felt like a fresher future and more interesting worldbuilding than I’d seen in a long time. The ending of the film came as a surprise (so many time travel tales are bogged down with the weight of oppressive inevitability), and the scene where Emily Blunt gets in the safe was such a wonderfully constructed scene.
Number 4: iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh). I saw this at the festival, and it became my favourite. A big part of what I liked about this film was that I expected it to be a bit slower-paced and cheaply-made, but instead it was completely edge-of-your-seat-all-the-time. It’s firmly situated in the heist genre, with almost non-stop action. That a low-budget indie film can accomplish this really impresses me. And its opening credits are beautiful.
Number 3: Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn): I really liked Drive, which completely pushed all of my stylish-heist-film buttons, and I wanted to see another collaboration between Gosling and Refn. I’d previously seen The Place Beyond the Pines, which was marketed like another Drive, but which sort-of bait-and-switches you. In the end, I didn’t really love Pines, but Only God Forgives delivered on that sense of stylishness. In a sense, it’s a western, set in modern-day Thailand. It’s slow and moody. And it also has one of my least-favourite things to see in movies (amputation). But it was pretty and stylish and I never wrote it off as a film where it was obvious what was going to happen next.
Number 2: Life of Pi (Ang Lee): Of the films nominated for an Academy Award, this is the one that I would have picked (although I feel like I failed to see a much larger-than-typical number of films that were so nominated. I skipped Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, but I also, for no good reason, never got around to Beasts of the Southern Wild). I adored Life of Pi — far more so than Argo. It was beautiful to look at, thematically interesting, and wonderfully acted. I’m increasingly thinking of Irrfan Khan as one of those actors whose work gets extra “much watch” points — I think I first took notice of him in The Namesake. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen Rafe Spall, but the first time his acting really stood out to me.
Number 1: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley): a fascinating little documentary about family, and history. Sarah Polley essentially turns the camera on her own family to explore a story that had been a joke throughout her life: that she was child of an extra-marital affair. When she discovers that there’s truth to this story, she starts exploring what it means, how that knowledge might affect the man she’s always thought of as her father, what it means to learn that information as a celebrity, and how, as an artist, she (and others) might mine that knowledge to create art and stories. There are a lot of indications that both Stories We Tell and The Square (which I caught at the festival) will be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. I’m pretty sure that I favour Stories, although The Square is quite good.
I really liked Cloud Atlas. Yes, I think that the yellowface is problematic. I am sympathetic to the explanation the filmmakers give: that they’re exploring a story that takes place in many time periods and geographies while using the same actors to embody the same “souls” throughout the different storylines. I don’t think that perfectly absolves the yellowface, but I accept that what they’re doing is different. I don’t, for example, feel like the cross-gendered casting is problematic, and I think that serves the same story point, but blackface and yellowface have much more fraught histories compared to cross-gendered casting. Anyway, the way that the movie was exploring the theme of marginalization interested me. I also liked how it employed several different tones in different storylines: the almost slap-stick tone of the old age home versus the heavily oppressive sense of the neo-Seoul story. I kept thinking about the film long after I finished watching it, and that’s usually a sign, to me, of a film I quite like.
I also really enjoyed the latest version of The Great Gatsby. I own a couple of Gatsby adaptations: the Robert Redford version and Toby Stephens version. I didn’t think that the latest version was perfect, by any means, but I feel like it managed to transport me into the story in a way the others didn’t. I felt like I could experience the out-of-control-ness of Gatsby’s parties, the insecurity of Gatsby himself, even make sense of the choices Gatsby makes about why he goes through such a round-about way of making contact with Daisy. It’s probably the least true-to-the-book adaptation, but the most viscerally affecting one, in my opinion.
There were big two movies this year about radical activists. I expected to like The Company You Keep far more than I did. I’m always interested in stuff relating to the Weather Underground, and thought I’d enjoy a film that used the Weather Underground as a backdrop. But I’m tired of activist movies that always arrive at the boring conclusion of, “yes, their motives were just but they went too far!” I’m so done with that ending. The slightly more interesting film, for me, was The East, which I expected to like less. And I fully expected it to arrive at the “they went too far” ending. And it did, but it also seemed to say, “they went too far, but they were more right than the status quo,” which was a much better message.
Finally, one of the films I really wanted to see at the end of 2012 ended up really disappointing me: Flight. Mostly because I was expecting one type of movie — the quest for the truth — and it gave me a very different movie: the alcoholic who can’t keep from hitting rock bottom. It’s probably a sign of my family history issues that I can’t sympathize with the downward spiral of addict behaviour. Oh well. But on the topic of “expect one movie and get another”, my interest was piqued by Side Effects — advertised as one type of movie, but it turns out to be a very different movie. It’s not a great film, but it succeeded in surprising me. You know how trailers these days end up giving you the whole movie? This was a case that clearly pulled the wool over your eyes.
In addition to favourite movies, there were a number of films that had really memorable scenes in them. I often say that I’m happy to have seen a movie if it has one memorable scene, and here were some memorable scenes that stood out. First, the movie, Hitchcock, had that wonderful moment where the titular director is conducting the screams of the audience from the cinema lobby. Wonderful.
I’m on the side of really liking the “Trevor” scene from Iron Man 3 — I know that it divided a lot of fans. Me, I thought it made a really interesting point about the war on terror and xenophobia and it used some problematic source material in an interesting way.
I liked the opening monologue to John Dies at the End, but I wish that the rest of the film lived up to the promise that that opening offered.
The very last moment of the movie Prisoners is amaze-balls. The film spends a few minutes toying with the audience in a “will they solve the last mystery or won’t they?” set up and then the film cuts to credits at the absolute perfect moment.
Finally, the movie Lola Versus has a great moment where the titular character breaks up with someone using dialog from The Godfather: “But, that aside, let me say that I swear, on the souls of my grandchildren, that I will not be the one to break the peace we have made here today.” And then is immediately called on it: “Did you just break up with me as The Godfather?”
Stinkers: Parker was such a let-down, especially given how great the Darwyn Cooke books have been, and how much I fondly remember the Mel Gibson version of the story, Payback. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time. I hadn’t put Steve Carroll on my “I’m sure this film will irritate the hell out of me” list, and I actually bothered watching it. Big mistake. Paranoia was the least-sensible thriller I’ve seen in a long, long time. And I was heart-crushed by The Host. Not because I imagined that the creator of The Twilight Saga was going to hit it out of the park, but because I usually love seeing Saoirse Ronan in just about anything.
Films I’m looking forward to, but haven’t yet seen: Catching Fire, Fruitvale Station, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. I have especially high hopes for 12 Years, as I’m very fond of Steve McQueen’s work to date (I don’t know yet, but I sorta expect it to be my favourite for Best Picture just going on the strength of McQueen’s earlier work and the press the film has been getting).
For the last few years, I’ve felt like a lot of real story-telling risks are happening on television, rather than film. This year had some great television. I’ve said, for a few years now, that Breaking Bad is the best show on television, and the ending of the show this year did nothing to change my opinion there.
My second-favourite series this year is Hannibal which was quite the surprise for me. I fully expected to hate it (and with Bryan Fuller at the helm, I fully expected it to be cancelled). I have an odd relationship with The Silence of the Lambs: I saw that film far too many times when it came out. I hated the book, Hannibal and refused to see the movie, but I liked Red Dragon (both book and movie — I’m less fond of Manhunter). And by the time of Hannibal Rising, I stopped caring. So I didn’t expect to get into the TV series, Hannibal. Especially given how little tolerance I have for gore. But, oh my god, it’s good. The unhealthy bromance between Hannibal and Will was captivating. And the sound design is fascinating. And in my opinion, this counts as the most hurty dialog on television in 2013: “I don’t feel like I dodged a bullet. I feel wounded.”
It also creeps me out that the show makes me so hungry.
Sure, I still watch Mad Men regularly, although this season was hard to love until the end. And Game of Thrones is very good, even though pseudo-historical fantasy isn’t really my thing. Two British series, Utopia and Black Mirror, were also great shows. It was a meh season of Doctor Who, and one show I was looking forward to, The Tomorrow People, I bailed on after two episodes. Man, it stank. The Blacklist has been a pleasant surprise, but the only other show I absolutely adore this season is American Horror Story: Coven. American Horror Story is about as wacky and non-sensical as you can get, but it totally gets under my skin and creeps me out in a way that I didn’t think I enjoyed. And I can’t stop watching it.