Friday, 3 January 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 10-1

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.

10) Side Effects, dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "Not the film you expect it to be following a twist at the halfway point, 'Side Effects' is a gripping thriller that takes many an unusual turn, stretching credibility all in the name of entertainment value. Partly a commentary on the power wielded by big US pharmaceutical companies over the medical profession - and on the power of doctors over patients - and the over-prescription of anti-depressants, the cold and methodical nature of the first half is reminiscent of the dry and earnest 'Contagion'... The second half is tense, gripping and hugely entertaining, though it's undeniably quite contrived and a little silly. Never more so than whenever Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as a rival psychiatrist who looks more like someone's idea of a "sexy librarian" roleplay fantasy than a medical professional. There's something exploitative about some her scenes with Mara in particular, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of Soderbergh's latest in a run of recent (and varied) successes... Like most vintage Soderbergh, this isn't a film without flaws: but it's interesting, bold and dynamic cinema full of surprises."

It's over the top, elements of it are pretty trashy and the plot perhaps jumps the shark at least a couple of times, but 'Side Effects' is Soderbergh as a kind of Hitchcock for the RED Camera age, crafting a tense, high-concept thriller that keeps you guessing from start to finish. Or at least it keeps you guessing from the moment halfway through when it becomes clear that's the type of film this is, with the opening sections feeling like a genuine, straight attempt to chronicle the experience of one woman who falls prey to Big Pharma. It still is that film, of course, even as the plot takes a turn for the extreme, but it works on a less literal and procedural level than something like 'Contagion'. Through its twists and turns we still see the immense power of the pharmaceutical companies, who exercise a frightening control over doctors and those diagnosed with mental health issues - so it still has something to say about contemporary America. Yet the great joy of the film is the way it takes obvious pleasure in setting up a seemingly straightforward polemic (patient = victim, Big Pharma = bad), only to subvert our expectations and do something more interesting instead.

9) The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance, USA

What I said: "Visually it's stunning, as shot by Steve McQueen's regular DP Sean Bobbitt, and somehow structurally tight in a way that belies its long running time. Factor in the fact that both Gosling and the recently Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper are on top, career-defining form and it's potentially a modern American indie classic. It's not the crime thriller a lot of people will be expecting (it's really a fairly patient and introspective drama), yet 'Pines' isn't for want of horribly tense moments or spectacular sequences - notably a one-take car chase shot from the perspective of police cars in pursuit of Gosling's motorcycle."

At the time of release, conventional wisdom seemed to be either that 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was only good for the first of its three distinct sections or that it was only let down by a baggy final third. I can see where that criticism stems from, of course. In the first instance, the narrative shift that occurs early on moves the film away from the one that was trailed and highly anticipated - and some people aren't going to be as interested watching a Bradley Cooper movie about a put-upon, workaday cop as they are a cool Ryan Gosling movie about a renegade, bank robber on a motorcycle with Eva Mendes for a girlfriend. On the second notion, the final chapter - which brings the children of Gosling's robber and Cooper's cop (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively) into conflict - is certainly a slower burn than the previous two and isn't about cops and robbers at all, shifting focus to more divisive cinematic fare: angsty teenagers. But these three connected yet distinct little dramas, which appropriately enough come one after the other with a sense of legacy, tell a compelling story about fathers and sons - and that's what 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was really about all along. Not photogenic, young pretenders to the throne of James Dean or the perils of being "one good cop in a corrupt force", but it's about choice and consequence and what we leave behind - it's about how the decisions of the father effect the life of the son. It explores these ideas moodily and beautifully over three acts that form a more fascinating whole and which would lose all meaning in isolation.

8) In the House, dir. Francois Ozon, FRA

What I said: "Ozon's film is always fresh and imaginative. For instance, we occasionally witness the same events told by Claude [Ernst Umhauer] in different ways, responding to the directions of his tutor. His style of storytelling and preoccupations also change in reaction to [Fabrice] Luchini's advice. We see Luchini pop-up and offer critique to his student, even as events in the titular house unfold, in a device that feels like something out of the best Woody Allen comedy. There's obviously something about storytelling as voyeurism going on here throughout - and also the way events can be warped and manipulated when described to an audience, but what I found especially intriguing is the way Ozon's screenplay - based on a Spanish stageplay by Juan Mayorga - eventually finds a way to come full circle and investigate the homes of the protagonists: their growing obsession with this one, pretty ordinary family, ultimately saying more about their own unhappy lives. Literature as theraputic release or as harmful self-delusion? The ending left me uncertain."

The word that springs immediately to mind when I think of Francois Ozon's 'In the House' is 'clever', though it isn't smug or overly self-conscious about it as it weaves deftly between fantasy and reality, multiple accounts of events and stories within stories - exploring how we project our own perceived inadequacies and disappointments onto the art we create and, sometimes, onto lives of complete strangers as they exist in our imagination. It's also slyly funny and charmingly perverse in the director's usual style, as ever resting just on the border of camp.

7) The Great Beauty, dir. Paolo Sorrentino, ITA

What I said: "It's a beautifully sad film punctuated by a bouncy, euro-dance soundtrack, which perfectly encapsulates the gilded cage that Rome has become for its protagonist. And it's also capable of being extremely funny, and more than a little wise with some really pithy dialogue worthy of future quotation. As you might expect from Sorrentino, it's sharply observed and offers a stinging, satirical rebuke to aspects of contemporary Italian culture: from a conveyor-belt approach to cosmetic surgery to the empty pretension of Rome's young avant garde set. Yet it's also a tender and sincere piece in which sex, death and the Catholic church all play a part. And gosh is it pretty to look at."

"I didn't just want to go to parties. I wanted to have the power to make them a failure." One of the best lines in a film full of them, most delivered with urbane wit by star Toni Servillo, playing a jaded intellectual who, on turning 65 at the film's outset, reflects on the dissatisfaction of his life to that point. He might be a self-styled king of parties, holding sway over the nightlife and certain intellectual circles in the most glamorous corners of Rome, but Jep Gambardella is otherwise a failure in his own estimation: with love and literary inspiration (he is said to have written one great novel) both abandoning him in his mid-20s, plunging him into a state of perpetual apathy and empty encounters with women. Sorrentino blends the modern (kitsch dance music and CGI flamingos) with the classically beautiful and culturally refined, painting a portrait of a modern day Italy rife with contradiction. Here we're shown a devoutly religious state that revels in licentiousness and hedonistic excess, with both equally vacuous. There's a sad overriding feeling of entropy over the whole movie, as if Rome and Jep, who have both seen better days, are both about to crumble into the Tiber. Yet, as you'd expect with something called 'La grande bellezza', it's also inherently life-affirming and, well, beautiful.

6) No, dir. Pablo Larrain, CHI

What I said: "In attempting to do the unthinkable and aid the "No" cause to victory - in an election assumed by most to be a formality, only staged to legitimise the regime's power - [Gael Garcia] Bernal's Rene successfully uses the language of vapid, feel-good empty consumerism rather than engaging in traditional political discourse... The film's final shots ingeniously play on our concerns about his victory, seemingly pondering whether a victory gained with empty, cynical consumerism can only lead to an empty, cynical and blandly consumerist society. It's a compelling point that renders the campaign's victory - almost a happy endpoint for the director's loose "Pinochet trilogy" - bittersweet. The decision to shoot the film on 80s cameras is likewise ingenious, allowing the fictionalised drama to blend seamlessly with contemporary news footage and the original campaign clips themselves. In featuring the original adverts - with their crude comedy sketches, cheesy imagery and despicably catchy jingles - the film also becomes a historical document and a sort of documentary about that period in the nation's history, further enhancing how engrossing and fascinating the whole thing is."

As the morally ambiguous protagonist of Pablo Larrain's latest masterpiece, Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly cast. Not only is he a fine actor and effortlessly charismatic screen presence, but his place here also serves to represent the film in a microcosm. Much like the shallow, US-influenced political ad campaigns devised by his character were a break from the daily grind of life under the dictator, he represents the only bit of Hollywood glamour in the film's otherwise grainy and dour reproduction of 1980s Chile. It's star semiotics exploited to the movie's great benefit. Supporting Bernal is Alfredo Castro as his opposite number, playing the same role for the other side of the campaign and almost equally morally blank - Castro, the haggard star of Larrain's previous two Pinochet films ('Tony Manero' and 'Post Mortem'), in both of which he plays deeply disturbing psychopaths, is an altogether different animal in front of the camera and they play off each other brilliantly before even a word is spoken. As much as it's a good account of events that happened very specifically in Chile in 1988, what's brilliant about 'No' is its timely look at a culture of style over substance and of the victory of comfortable consumerism over political idealism. The dark beauty of 'No' is that it ends with the overthrow of a murderous tyrant and asks us if we really got a happy ending. How you win and how you argue are vitally important.

5) Mud, dir. Jeff Nichols, USA

What I said: "'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that."

A breathtaking coming of age movie set on the Mississippi River, 'Mud' is about two young boys (played by the impressive Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who encounter a charismatic fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) holed up in the wreckage of a boat they had hoped to salvage for themselves. In an effort to get "their" boat back the boys agree to help this mysterious stranger, who calls himself Mud, bringing him supplies and getting messages to his lover, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), based in the nearby town. Before long Ellis, the boy played by Sheridan and the film's emotional centre, becomes personally invested in the success of Mud's romance with Juniper, not least of all because he needs his adolescent faith in everlasting love reaffirmed at a time when his parents head towards divorce. 'Take Shelter' director Jeff Nichols has spun an old-fashioned yarn - about boys playing by the river, picking up sticks and hiding a secret in their den - that's as much a bittersweet rumination on the nature of love as it's about growing up.

4) Bullhead, dir. Michael R. Roskam, BEL

What I said: "Matthias Schoenaerts, of 'Rust and Bone' acclaim, stars in this troubling and deeply moving Belgian thriller about meat and hormones. Ostensibly the meat in question is beef and the hormones are the various illegal testosterone supplements used to bulk it up - a dodgy practice Schoenaerts' Jacky specialises in, working with dangerous criminal gangs. But it goes further with Jacky himself a testosterone-filled piece of meat, driven (by horrific childhood trauma) to take the same illegal substances, turning him into a sweaty, aggressive and sex-obsessed bull... 'Bullhead' really seems to be an examination of what makes us functioning human beings - as opposed to animalistic bags of hormones, rutting and smashing in each other's skulls. One nasty and violent change to Jacky's anatomy turns him from one into the other, questioning how much control we have over our bodies and our behaviour. At what point does chemistry and biology take over?"

An odd one this, because 'Bullhead' is a bit uneven with some odd bits of toilet humour (possibly lost in translation) that confuse the tone and, in my view at least, some fairly needless police procedural drama - but when it's squarely about Mattias Schoenaert's intimidating cattle farmer Jacky you can't take your eyes off the screen. Such a titanic physical performance, with the handsome leading man somehow turning himself into this large, sweating, panting man-bull in front of director Michael R. Roskam's camera, Schoenaert's leaves you devastated by the year's bleakest, most intensely upsetting finale. It also has an interesting central premise that it explores in a variety of ways, with the idea that humans are bags of meat controlled by little more than hormones feeding its way into depictions of the sex trade and a retirement home - which is less heavy-handed in practice than it sounds on paper.

3) Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, USA

What I said: "Essentially 'Gravity' is the story of one human's clawing, panting, sweaty fight for survival against desperately long odds, as Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone - a small-town medical engineer with minimal NASA training - tries to avoid being struck by a calamitous cloud of satellite debris and somehow make it back to Earth without a spaceship after her mission goes horribly wrong. Though Stone has some very real, physical challenges to overcome - such as a depleting oxygen supply and the aforementioned debris field - the chief obstacle she faces is her own weary indifference to life itself. The film is about what it takes for this person to make the difficult decision to live when lying down and dying would be much easier - and, even, more comforting. Through various visual metaphors and lines of dialogue we come to see Stone as someone eager to shut all of the world out in some doomed bid to return to the womb: where George Clooney's charismatic, veteran astronaut sees wonder, Stone appears indifferent and complains of feeling physically ill. At its heart this is a small-scale story about an introverted, deeply personal problem - albeit projected onto an epic and exciting story."

Beyond admitting the unmistakable fact that it's a groundbreaking technical achievement destined to redefine how we depict space on film and that it's almost peerlessly tense for its whole running length, many who saw (and even enjoyed) 'Gravity' have sighted "the script" (by which people tend to mean dialogue and story, even though everything that happens in that movie will be in the screenplay) as a terrible, near-embarrassing Achilles heal. The argument runs that Alfonso Cuaron's film is a shallow, silly thrill-ride and nothing more. First of all: so what if it is? Most heavy, life-changing dramas are not spectacular technical achievements that empty the entire cinematic toolbox in order to excite and astound us and keep us on the edge of our seats. But secondly: no, 'Gravity' isn't dumb or shallow or badly scripted or poorly written. It's simple and the characters (all two of them) are fairly broad archetypes, sure, but the story told in 'Gravity' is not a perfunctory excuse to take the audience on an amusement park ride. It's a human drama that uses this extreme situation as a way to tell a character-driven story in a total-cinema, sensory experience way. At its heart this isn't a movie about a rookie astronaut trying to get back to Earth against all odds: it's about choosing to live when it might be easier not to. It's about finding something to live for, whatever that might be. I saw 'Gravity' twice and found it extremely moving in part because of its directness and disarming simplicity.

2) Stoker, dir. Park Chan-wook, USA/UK

What I said: "'Stoker' is a stone-cold masterpiece in terms of direction, cinematography, editing and sound design. The plot itself is perhaps predictable and lacking in the sorts of twists and turns many have come to associate with the director of the Vengeance trilogy and 'Thirst', but the way the story is told is of the highest order. Some of the transitions between scenes are simply incredible, notably a shot that seamlessly goes from an actresses hair to a field of grass. The plot basically amounts to: hyper-sensitive and isolated teen, India Stoker, is troubled after the death of her father and resents her cold, dissatisfied mother (Nicole Kidman). After the funeral her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up and decides to stay in their house - only he has a secret and is more than willing to murder to protect it. But what it's really about - in keeping with the title's allusion to Bram Stoker of Dracula fame - is sex and death, both by way of touching lady-necks. Chan-wook is looking at the ability of blood, violence and mortal danger to both repulse and attract us - examining the erotic power of horror. In this context it's only natural that, after a spate of murdering, India comes to associate carnal desire with bone-snapping acts of violence, whilst seeming to fall for her mysterious and deadly new surrogate daddy. In other words, there's a lot going on here."

I pretty much cover why I loved 'Stoker' in the excerpt above. As with 'Gravity', it's a technical achievement of the very highest order - in this case due to incredibly imaginative, seamlessly implemented editing choices and especially terrific sound design. There's also a really visceral quality to the whole thing which will come as no surprise to fans of Park Chan-wook's previous Korean language movies, with sweat, dirt, blood and sex ever-present characters alongside a brilliant cast of actors - each of whom I've seen many times before and never been struck by. But here Matthew Goode is a sinister force of nature, Nicole Kidman is deliciously watchable as the protagonist's cold mother, and Mia Wasikowska is brilliant too, seemingly channelling early-90s Winona Ryder to perfection. I always describe it to people as a vampire movie without any vampires, due to its fascination with the awakening of female sexual desire and the relationship between sex and death, as well as the fact that Goode places his (apparently massive) hands around the necks of his victims. It's a fairly straightforward movie on a plot level, but there's a lot going on under the surface of 'Stoker', which makes it such a rich and rewarding experience.

1) Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach, USA

What I said: "Co-written by Baumbach and luminescent star Greta Gerwig, the film depicts Frances as she drifts between temporary, low-wage jobs, flits between various apartments and generally struggles to belong in the world of adulthood that she is nominally now considered part of. A wannabe dancer who looks destined to fall short of being quite good enough to really make it, this is the story of a wide-eyed kid who is gradually coming to the realisation that they might not get to be an astronaut and may have to accept being just another normal person. But that's OK. Baumbach and Gerwig deliver this timely and sobering message with a lightness of touch and touching humour that stops it from being in any way bleak: Frances maybe a bit of a fuck-up, but she's a loveable fuck-up and one I can certainly relate to. This isn't simply one of the best films I've seen this year but, personally, it's the rare kind of film I can see making a lasting impression in the way very few films can lay claim. Usually, at the very best, films find ways to challenge or perhaps just effectively articulate how you feel about the world. But, for me 'Frances Ha' seems to bring into sharp focus truths about myself that actually help me better understand the world I live in and my own place in it. That's a rare thing for a film to do."

A supremely personal choice for my best film of the year, 'Frances Ha' is not pure cinema in the way 'Gravity', 'Stoker' and 'The Great Beauty' can claim to be - I still haven't seen it on a big screen myself, regrettably seeing it via a DVD screener instead - but nothing reached down into my soul this year like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's bittersweet, black and white comedy-drama. It's a movie that speaks, I think, to a fairly common problem faced specifically by people around my age (late-20s) downwards: that of aimlessness and dissatisfaction with your confused place in world. A sense that your place in the world isn't what you were promised - by the media, by the education system, by your parents. Gerwig's frustrating-yet-lovable Frances perfectly encapsulates this struggle to come to terms with reality and accept defeat, to some extent, in regards to her dreams, in that she will never be the dancer she has always dreamed of becoming. But the movie isn't pessimistic or downbeat in telling this story, and that's probably why it works. This isn't a tale of unrelenting, self-absorbed woe (that would be boring and irritating), but ultimately a testament to how falling short of your own lofty expectations is perfectly OK. It's somehow always realistic and a little tragic, whilst simultaneously being uplifting and optimistic. And that's why I love it. It isn't a denial of life's disappointments, but it's defiantly upbeat in the face of them.

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.

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