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My Favourite Films of 2013

While ranking this list, I was thinking that while 2013 didn’t have one movie that took over the conversation for the year, like The Master last year, that only means that there were so many good films released this year that we were faced with an embarrassment of riches. Plus the vagaries of international release mean that the films of this year’s Oscar season that American critics are currently raving about won’t arrive until into 2014; see Twelve Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street, among others. So take this to be the list of best films that I saw due to cinematic/home video release in the UK in the calendar year 2013, and come back next year when I’ll probably end up ranking more of 2013’s best as I’ve actually been able to see them.

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15. Blue Jasmine

Dir. Woody Allen

USA / 2013 / 98 mins

“Money isn’t everything…”

A testament to control of tone, Jasmine is a far darker character study than Allen’s trademark breeziness (and incessant jazz tootling away in the background) makes it appear. As much as the culture clash between Cate Blanchett’s brittle society wife fallen on hard times and her new West Coast acquaintances is played for laughs, there’s a genuine sadness and tragedy always close to hand. Blanchett’s intensity and skill at portraying an emotional maelstrom just beneath the surface carries the film.

An excellent supporting cast round out the proceedings; Sally Hawkins is especially good as Jasmine’s long-suffering sister, and Bobby Cannavale imbues what could have been a two-dimensional buffoon with a surprising amount of depth and pathos. Alec Baldwin (appearing entirely via flashback) as Jasmine’s ex-husband and Madoff-esque swindler is in his element as a charming white-collar sociopath.

It’s not a perfect film; the plotting is contrived in at least one moment, and a late-film scene muddies the issue of Jasmine’s innocence or otherwise. However, the degree to which Allen wants you to empathise with Jasmine is more or less irrelevant when Blanchett so perfectly embodies such a neurotic, maddening, fascinating character.

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14. Behind The Candelabra

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

USA / 2013 / 118 mins

“I love to give the people a good time.”

A director with as detached and clinical a style as Soderbergh seems like he’d be interested in the artifice and spectacle of Liberace in his Vegas prime, giving virtuoso performances for audiences of Midwestern squares who never suspect anything about his private life. But as we follow dog trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) into Liberace’s bed, household and life, it becomes a moving love story.

Michael Douglas’ amazing performance gives us Liberace as an essentially vulnerable, lonely man, shuffling around his mausoleum-like mansion (Soderbergh’s wide angles and use of depth of field are particularly good at deepening the sense of isolation). His alternate possessiveness and fear of attachment, which show in the relationship’s rough patches and ugly ending, weigh against his need to be loved. The film could have been a satire of showbiz vanity and delusion, and it feints towards that (especially in Rob Lowe’s cameo). But Soderbergh’s skill at uncovering the pathos beneath the glamour makes this a worthy note to bow out on.

 

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13. The Act of Killing

Dir. Johua Oppenheimer

Denmark, Norway, UK, Finland / 2012 / 115 mins

“He’s a happy man.”

By now, the basic premise of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is well-known enough. Oppenheimer, working with a mostly-anonymous local crew, approached a few of the perpetrators of mass killings that took place in the wake of the US-backed military coup of 1965, and asked them to re-enact the murders on camera. Unpunished and unrepentant, they happily oblige, and the result is a fascinating statement on the role of the investigator as confessor, the creation of fiction in place of suppressed memory, and the human capacity for rationalisation.

Retired gangster/paramilitary Anwar Congo and his small group of cronies, who helped to slaughter their neighbours decades ago, now live happily as minor local celebrities, their own personas informed by Hollywood. This creates a bizarre feedback loop where the men act out their past deeds through a thick filter of genre cinema, starring in their own version of the gangster movies they used to watch.

Oppenheimer’s smart enough not to tip his hand (although he has spoken extensively in interviews about the film), but one gets the sense that as horrifying as Congo’s past crimes are, he sees him as a different kind of victim; playing the role of genial old war hero, trapped by guilt he can’t even acknowledge, let alone process. The film’s real rage and contempt is reserved for his blithely uncaring superiors, and the government minister who pumps up a crowd of extras for a village massacre scene, before smoothing over his image once the cameras are off.

Beyond the compelling subject matter and presentation, Oppenheimer brings some eye-catching visuals to the screen; the technicolour fantasias of the gangsters’ musical number, the urban vistas of empty streets, and the open doorway in that final shot, a telling absence where reckoning should be.

 

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12. Blue Is The Warmest Colour

Dir. Abdellatif Kechice

France, Belgium, Spain / 2013 / 179 mins

Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour-long, Cannes-endorsed romance pretty much lives up to the hype; it’s a moving portrait of the first flush of youthful romance and what happens when that isn’t enough anymore.

Most of this is down to the two leads; Adèle Exarchopoulos (as Adèle) carries more or less the entire running time on her shoulders; she’s rarely out of shot, usually filmed in close-up, and the camera explores every contour of her face as she builds her character through subtle shifts in expression. It’s a remarkable performance. Her chemistry with Léa Seydoux, who plays the older Emma, gives weight to the film’s portrayal of a budding relationship, its disintegration and the emotional fallout that follows.

The film is all about life, as lived fully as possible. Adèle eats voraciously; she loves with a fierce passion; when her heart’s broken, she’s crushed. The section of the film set at the height of the relationship explore Adèle’s fierce loyalty to Emma as lover and artistic muse, but also emphasises that living solely for someone else isn’t enough; at some point, you have to become your own person.

The strange rhythm of the film, including numerous time jumps and ellipses, mirrors the experience of time rushing by as you grow up; schoolfriends left behind, days and weeks lost in the wake of a major breakup.The length of the film works in its favour; the cumulative effect of those moments builds to communicate the weight of a person’s past. We leave with the feeling that despite the elisions, we really have seen Adèle grow up before us.

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11. The World’s End

Dir. Edgar Wright

UK / 2013 / 109 mins

“I. Hate. This. TOWN!”

Edgar Wright’s fourth feature film, and his latest genre comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (billed as the concluding entry in their “Cornetto Trilogy”) has the same furious pace and rapid-fire gags of their previous two collaborations. But there’s also a darkness there that their past films didn’t have. It’s a film about the inevitable disappointments of life, about how nostalgia and conformity can trap us, and about the cost of breaking free.

All involved have stepped their game up significantly. Pegg leaves behind his usual lovable-manchild schtick; his Gary is a selfish, unrepentant fuck-up obsessed with recapturing the glory of his schooldays. Frost is more serious than usual, playing a man with responsibilities and a longstanding heap of justified resentment towards Pegg’s character. For his part, Wright applies the stuntwork and fight sequence chops he displayed on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to this film, creating ridiculously entertaining set-pieces that punctuate the schoolfriends’ long journey into the night. (The fact that it’s a bunch of out-of-shape fortysomethings involved in these furious brawls makes it even funnier.)

The sci-fi trappings bounce off the domestic drama in a way that enriches both (especially the poignant subplot featuring Eddie Marsan’s character and the former school bully), as Gary races towards a reckoning with the responsibility he’s been dodging his whole life. There are flaws, such as the underdeveloped supporting cast, and the audacious denouement that feels oddly underexplored. But it’s still  the most entertaining and resonant action comedy of the year.

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10. Stoker

Dir. Park Chan-wook

UK, USA / 2013 / 99 mins

“We don’t need to be friends. We’re family.”

Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut is an expertly-done series of icily efficient crescendos in tension, combining the slow burn of Thirst and JSA: Joint Security Area with the bravura setpieces of his revenge superthrillers. Mia Wasikowska is predictably excellent as the young girl whose coming of age is marred by the death of her father and near-simultaneous appearance of her charming but mysterious uncle.

It’s a wonderful-looking film; the camera glides smoothly around the Stoker family’s cavernous mansion, alternating between poised, elegant steadicam work and eerie off-kilter compositions. While the script echoes Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt, another obvious touchstone is David Lynch, with ultra-creepy soundscapes, flickering electric lights, rictus grins and frosty domesticity poised over an ocean of barely-concealed horror. “Realism” or “restraint” is the exact last thing I want from a director like Park, and it’s an utter treat seeing his heightened pulp-opera stylings play out within the Southern Gothic fairytale atmosphere of this film.

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9. Room 237

Dir. Rodney Ascher

USA / 2012 / 102 mins

“And that is the moon room, this is where everything happens.”

Probably the most fun you’ll have watching a documentary about a bunch of people watching a film, Rodney Ascher’s unconventional video essay takes as its subject obsessive rewatchers of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and their far-fetched theories on the classic chiller.

Two decisions taken by Ascher elevate this premise into something special. The first is to never show the interviewees, keeping them as disembodied voices unpacking their interpretations. The second is to compose the film exclusively of archive footage and excerpts from The Shining. The Adam Curtis style patchwork of footage makes it seem like an eerie found product that grew out of some vast film archive, as the interviewees calmly parse out their takes on the film, sometimes frame-by-frame.

Some of the theories seem quite plausible (the numerous reference to the genocide of the Native Americans); some are genuinely interesting (mapping the impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel); some start off low-key and then take a hard right into lunacy (the moon landing one … ’nuff said). But as we travel further down the rabbit hole of the hermetic, conspiratorial side of film theory, The Shining takes on the characteristics of the Overlook; a labyrinthine enigma that has trapped these poor souls within a never-ending maze of signs and portents. For film obsessives, it’s scarier than Jack Nicholson with an axe.

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8. Gravity

Dir. Alfonso Cuaron

USA / 2013 / 91 mins

“I hate space.”

Alfonso Cuaron’s years-in-the-making survival-against-all-odds space thriller/groundbreaking effects showcase/well-deserved career revitalisation for Sandra Bullock is the most visually astounding film of the year. An exercise in sustained tension that’s the equivalent of the last ten minutes of Jaws extended to feature length, the film draws its greatest dramatic charge from the primal terror of isolation in the pitiless emptiness of space.

The technical brilliance is always apparent but never overwhelming; Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes are unfussily precise in the way they track each character and position them in relation to each other and the point they’re trying to reach. The film also mines the potential of 3D to make it an integral, immersive part of the cinematic experience.

For all the sense of scale and visual spectacle, it works because in terms of cast, plot and theme, it’s stripped down the most essential core. (Some critics were sniffy about the script; my take is that there’s a difference between simple and simplistic.) I found the focus on determination and will to survive inspiring, with the triumphant finale ranking as one of my favourite scenes of the year.

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7. In The House

Dir. Francois Ozon

France / 2012 / 105 mins

“What are we doing in the story?”

Treading a fine line between creepy and charming, In The House ingratiates itself with the audience before pulling off a nimble series of twists and reversals. It’s a film about voyeurism, wanting things seen from a distance and the lengths we go to believe in perfection.

Pompous schoolteacher and frustrated novelist Germain (Fabrice Luchini) takes his calm, self-assured pupil Claude (Ernst Umhauer) under his wing, aiming to nurture his writing talent. Claude delivers bitingly sarcastic dispatches from his best friend Rafa’s seemingly perfect middle-class family home.

The balance of power between the two slowly shifts, with Germain rationalising away his interest in these dirt-dishing reports, and encouraging this infiltration of the oblivious household despite himself. Claude’s actions begin to have consequences, and Germain wakes to his complicity in events too late to make a difference.

Writers, Ozon suggests, are a selfish breed. They take the world around them as raw material for their work, and would rather analyse the motivations of their characters than attend to the feelings of real people. The film takes a clear-eyed look at how powerful, enticing and dangerous the creative impulse can be. After all, everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

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6. Zero Dark Thirty

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

USA / 2012 / 157 mins

“Fuck does that mean?” “It’s a tautology.”

This is a monumental film about the national security leviathan that America built for itself, viewed from inside the belly of the beast. It’s peopled by characters who have willingly turned themselves into tools of the system, who torture wholeheartedly, who sublimate their jihadist zeal for vengeance into a bloodless bureaucratic structure.

It’s maybe the only war on terror movie that’s become more, not less relevant after the NSA surveillance revelations. The film charts a process of sifting through a formless morass of information, of a picture slowly coalescing out of suppositions and probabilities. (Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” also apply here.)

Bigelow’s expert blocking and shot choices belie the look of faux-docudrama realism. The film really lives in the gulf between the grim displays of pain meted out in the name of revenge and the uncertainty and hunger for information that defines the hunt. Its cipher-like operatives swim in immense, abstracted patterns of data, lost in a never-ending fog of unknowns and probabilities. The masterful, horrifying raid sequence takes us back down into the realm of the real, of bloodstains and dead bodies. There’s no catharsis, no triumph – just more data to feed the machine.

 

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5. Frances Ha

Dir. Noah Baumbach

USA / 2012 / 86 mins

“I’m sorry … I’m not a real person yet.”

One of the funniest films of the year (only The World’s End competes on a pure gags-to-runtime ratio) and one of the most charming. It’s a partial softening of Baumbach’s acidic worldview, perhaps thanks to the input of star Greta Gerwig (who co-starred in Greenberg and co-wrote this film with Baumbach).

It’s still fairly sardonic towards Gerwig’s Frances; flighty, self-absorbed and more than a little unsure about who or what she wants to be. But there’s a balance struck in not treating twentysomething ennui too seriously, or too trivially. The understated, slightly grainy black-and-white photography tracks her running, dancing and stumbling through a New York that seems at once full of possibility and forbiddingly difficult. It’s this empathy that makes it such a hilarious and touching film.

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4. Before Midnight

Dir. Richard Linklater

USA / 2013 / 109 mins

“It’s not about time … more, perception.”

This third entry in Linklater’s Before… series hits harder and goes deeper than its predecessors. It’s no longer just about romance, but about what comes after; the hard work of commitment, along with bitterness, disillusionment and the accumulated dead weight of history.

The witty interplay between Hawke’s Jesse and Delpy’s Celine, now settling into comfortable middle age with family of their own, still remains, as do the unshowy single takes that track the couple as they wander around beautiful locations talking about everything and nothing.

But time has taken its toll, especially in the decision made by Jesse to leave his first wife and share custody with his son. He and Celine are no longer connected by contingency, but in this for the long haul. The underlying tension all erupts in the late-film hotel room argument, a brutal eruption of suppressed discontent from two people who’ve been together long enough to know intimately how to push each other’s buttons.

The romanticism of a couple in love walking around Europe’s most beautiful tourist spots only lasts for so long. This far down the road, you have to reckon with the disappointments of the past and the frustrations of the present, and this film is all the richer (and maybe even more romantic) for the inclusion of serious fractures within this latest snapshot of Celine and Jesse’s relationship.

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3. Drug War

Dir. Johnnie To

China, Hong Kong / 2012 / 107 mins

“High risk, high reward. High reward, high risk.”

This is one of Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To’s greatest works; a relentless procedural thriller in the Mann/Friedkin tradition which portrays cops and crooks as equally-matched gangs going toe-to-toe within the confines of a rigged, self-perpetuating system. When meth dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is hospitalised after a lab explosion, he’s captured by hyper-professional Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and coerced into cooperating with the police in a scheme to entrap his colleagues, in the hope of avoiding a mandatory death sentence. There’s no grudging respect here; both men consider themselves the smartest guy in the room. What happens when that isn’t the case provides the series of hugely entertaining switchback plot twists.

In To’s movies, action is character. Every act has a purpose, and a consequence. There’s next to no expository dialogue in this film; the audience is simply shown characters doing, as if we’ve come into the scene a beat or two late, and left to unpack the meaning. The massive climactic gunfight, which tracks three separate groups through the carnage and makes room for significant character moments, is a masterpiece of action filmmaking.

As To’s first film made in mainland China, it takes pains to cooperate with official strictures, with its straight-arrow cops and moralistic Crime Does Not Pay ending. But there’s a note of bleak irony underneath. The supposed victory for law and order at the end feels ultimately hollow, with the numerous corpses strewn throughout the story left as casualties of an unwinnable war.

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2. Django Unchained

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

USA / 2012 / 165 mins

“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”

This is Tarantino putting his love of genre – Western, blaxploitation, good old mythic hero’s journey – to use in an assault on both the antebellum South and its representation onscreen. You feel his glee in demolishing the genteel Gone With The Wind Southern cliches; as with his previous film Inglourious Basterds, he fights the good fight he only way he knows how – with cinema.

The squib-heavy gunfights and geysers of old-school Hollywood blood are pure filmic joy. (And for all the shade he gave John Ford in the film’s publicity tour, Tarantino’s clearly learned from the master in how to shoot widescreen American landscapes.) Foxx is akin to Melanie Laurent in Basterds as the film’s steely avenger who anchors the more baroque Tarantinoisms through force of character.

He’s more than able to hold his own against Waltz’s fussy old-world gunfighter Schultz, and the reptilian slaver Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio, chewing scenery like he’s just come off a starvation diet.) But it’s Samuel L Jackson in an extraordinary performance as Stephen, the house servant who’s spent so long under the barbarism of slavery that his canny survivor’s instinct has curdled into his own brand of bigotry, that’s the most audacious and disturbing aspect of the whole thing.

It’s not a perfect film, but you don’t watch Tarantino for perfection. The wild ambition, the bizarrely misfiring comic riffs, the odd indulgences: they’re part of his films’ DNA. It’s a pleasure to watch him steer his ramshackle masterpiece to a triumphantly cathartic ultraviolent conclusion.

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1. Upstream Color

Dir. Shane Carruth

USA / 2013 / 96 mins

“The water before you is somehow special.”

There wasn’t a film of last year more purely cinematic than Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s follow-up to his mind-bending time travel debut Primer, arriving after almost a decade of Carruth trying to make several projects with as much independence as possible. On a surface level, they couldn’t be more different; while Primer was a dry, sterile hard SF exercise, Upstream is impressionistic, concerned with selfhood and subjectivity, with a beating emotional core.

While somewhat elliptical and abstract, it’s never obtuse. Indeed, the focus on conveying details through cinematography, editing and sound design mark it out as particularly in tune with the strengths of cinema as a medium. Voiceover and shot choices are combined so that both convey information independently. The muted colour palette creates a strong visual identity for the film. The sound design deserves particular appreciation, both in its use in building the disorienting ominous mood through the film, and its presence as a plot element.

Amy Seimetz and Carruth play two vulnerable, unsure people with a strange trauma lurking in their pasts who drift together, sharing a hesitant connection and eventual romance. On one level it’s a story of two damaged people learning to overcome their separate hurts together, and it loses none of that strength for operating in a possible metaphorical space. As a film of ideas, it’s richly ambiguous and thought-provoking, allowing a lot of conceptual leaps that never lose the audience.

There’s a distinct note of Cronenbergian body horror within the film, stemming from the concept of the body as a biological system connected yet separate from our consciousness. In a way, it does for biology what Primer did for physics. If Primer is about the damage caused by running up against the hard, unyielding physical laws of the universe, then Upstream is about the tension between accepting that we are simply biological organisms and reckoning with what consciousness means in light of that. Where does that intangible thing that makes us human reside? It’s an ambitious, smart, and incredibly assured film. I can’t wait to see what Carruth does next.

 

 

And to finish up, the best non-2013 films I saw last year:

Outrage (Takeshi, 2011); The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973); Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950); Skeletons (Whitfield, 2010); Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943); The Kid With A Bike (Dardennes, 2012); The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963); Southern Comfort (Hill, 1981); Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Ceylan, 2011); Cascablanca (Curtiz, 1942); Wild At Heart (Lynch, 1990); To Live And Die In L.A. (Friedkin, 1985); Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002); They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Pollack, 1969); Margaret (Lonergan, 2011); Black Caesar (Cohen, 1973); Real Life (Brooks, 1979); McCullin (Morris/Morris, 2012); Exiled (To, 2006); Jaws (Spielberg, 1975); The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafaelson, 1972); Oslo, August 31st (Trier, 2011); The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2011); Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959); Enter The Dragon (Clouse, 1973); Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012); Trading Places (Landis, 1983); Sightseers (Wheatley, 2012); Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957); Wake In Fright (Kotcheff, 1971); Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979); Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947); Classe Tous Risques (Sautet, 1960); Side By Side (Keneally, 2012).

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The best music of 2013

Here are the 15 albums I enjoyed most this year, in no particular order of quality, with two or three standout songs listed below if you want to get a feel for what they sound like and why I liked them.

Action Bronson – Blue Chips 2

Essential tracks: Silverado, Contemporary Man, Flip Ya

Busta Rhymes & Q-Tip – The Abstract And The Dragon

Essential tracks: Thank You, Come On Down, Vivrant Thing

Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe

Essential tracks: The Mother We Share, Gun, Night Sky

Danny Brown – Old

Essential tracks: Side A, Clean Up, Smokin and Drinkin

David Bowie – The Next Day

Essential tracks: Valentine’s Day, I’d Rather Be High, You Will Set The World On Fire

Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost

Essential tracks: Refuse To Be Saved, Come The Meantimes, Viceroy’s Row

Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge – 12 Reasons to Die

Essential tracks: Beware Of The Stare, I Declare War, The Rise of the Ghostface Killah

Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Essential tracks: Givin Em What They Love, Electric Lady, We Were Rock & Roll

Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia

Essential tracks: Year Of The Glad, Immortals, Proof Of Life

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Essential tracks: I’m From Nowhere, City Swan, Local Girl

Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Essential tracks: Numbers on the Board, Nosetalgia, Pain

Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels

Essential tracks: Banana Clipper, Sea Legs, A Christmas Fuckin’ Miracle

Suede – Bloodsports

Essential tracks: Barriers, Snowblind, It Starts And Ends With You

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

Essential tracks: Closer, I Was A Fool, I Couldn’t Be Your Friend

!!! – Thr!!!er

Essential tracks: Even When The Water’s Cold, One Boy/One Girl, Meet Me At The Station

 

And here’s link to my top 50 tracks of this year, with streaming links for your listening pleasure.

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33rd Cambridge Film Festival – My Reviews

This year’s 33rd Cambridge Film Festival was the first one I attended as an official reviewer for Take One magazine. I wasn’t able to see everything I wanted, but I still got to catch a few interesting films (and crossed Upstream Color off my too-see list, where it’s been pretty much since I first heard about it). Where I didn’t review the film for Take One (excerpts and links to the full review included below), I’ve crossposted the review from my Letterboxd account.

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For Those In Peril

Dir. Paul Wright

UK / 2013 / 93 mins

Watched: Saturday 21 September

A strong debut feature, with a striking visual sense and a feel for life in a small fishing town. George McKay makes for a vulnerable lead as the lone survivor of a fishing trawler disaster, and Kate Dickie is wonderful as the grieving mother trying to hold onto her son in the midst of the town’s suspicion; the scene where she sings “The First Time I Saw Your Face” at karaoke is a standout.

The constant interpolation of different film types, news footage, dream fantasy sequences and ethereal voiceovers create a powerful mood, making the setting into a borderland between ordinary dry land and the mythical, elemental power of the sea. If the catharsis of the ending doesn’t entirely convince, the experience of the film as a whole is rich and strange.

[Letterboxd]

 

Rock the Casbah

Dir. Yariv Horowitz

Israel, France / 2012 / 93 mins

Watched: Monday 23 September

The soldiers’ first mission is shot with a kinetic sense of tension and movement, with the hand-held digital cameras roving after characters as they race through the narrow backstreets. A routine patrol turns into a clash with stone-throwing protesters, then a foot chase, and finally an ambush resulting in the death of gung-ho soldier Ilya (Henry David).

From there, the film is moored to a central location: the roof from which the ambush took place. Posted there on the orders of their hard-nosed commanding officer, Tomer and three other soldiers settle into a routine of boredom and frustration, eking out petty struggles with the local Palestinian population, most prominently the family whose home they occupy.

[Take One]

 

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Upstream Color

Dir. Shane Carruth

USA / 2013 / 96 minutes

Watched: Tuesday 24 September

Filtering into the audience’s eyes and minds like an eerie kind of infection, Shane Carruth’s second feature suspends the audience in its dream-state of loose association and surreal concepts.

It’s a film unafraid to be utterly filmic, using sound and vision in non-conventional ways to construct mood as a storytelling element. While Amy Seimetz and Carruth play the hesitant connection and eventual romance between these damaged, unsure characters with heart and vulnerability, so many other elements of the film add to the story; the gorgeous cinematography, the colour palette, the score which works so well as to be a character in its own right.

One can draw a throughline of interest in how humans relate to the natural world connecting Carruth’s two features. If PRIMER is about the damage caused by running up against the hard, unyielding physical laws of the universe, then UPSTREAM is about the tension between accepting that we are simply biological organisms and reckoning with what consciousness means in light of that. Where does that intangible thing that makes us human reside? It’s richly ambiguous, and never less than gripping.

[Letterboxd]

 

Cold

Dir. Uğur Yücel

Turkey / 2013 / 105 mins

Watched: Saturday 28 September

Played by Cenk Medet Alibeyoğlu (discovered by the director while working in his local bar), [protagonist] Balabey is a dour, taciturn railway worker and family man. Constantly slumped into a posture of defeat, he is diffident to the point of near-total silence, with a thick bushy moustache hiding a large part of his face. His volatile, sharply-dressed brother Enver (Ahmet Rıfat Şungar) is his opposite number; their scenes together are coloured by mutual incomprehension. They live in a small remote town in the deep hinterlands where Turkey meets the Caucasus, permanently covered in snow. From the very opening, we are gradually immersed into this slow-moving world via a series of seemingly unconnected scenes. We see vignettes of Balabey and Enver’s home lives, as they navigate fractious relationships with their respective wives (who happen to be sisters) and go about the ordinary business of living.

[Take One]

 

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Wake In Fright

Dir. Ted Kotcheff

Australia / 1971 / 114 mins

Watched: Saturday 28 September

A horror movie where the monster is booze, FRIGHT takes us on a nightmarish tour through the underbelly of outback Australia, fueled by boredom, testosterone, and a seemingly endless supply of beer.

The stuffy English teacher protagonist, in his pristine white Roger Moore safari suit, is our fish-out-of-water audience surrogate, but enough of an arrogant snob that we secretly like seeing him fall further into debauchery and madness. Donald Pleasance is great as the devilish alcoholic guiding him through this sweltering underworld.

[Letterboxd]

 

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Dir. Sophie Fiennes

UK, Ireland / 2012 / 136 mins

Watched: Sunday 29 September

The film achieves a surreal blurring of lines between the films being analysed and the commentary itself. We jump from a clip from Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER to Zizek addressing the camera from inside Travis Bickle’s filthy apartment. It’s akin to a more typical documentary presenter wandering around castles or battlefields as he recounts historical events. The overall effect is to endorse Zizek’s thesis; works of fiction are rendered solid, as he discusses the power of the invisible messages buried within them.

There’s something of Adam Curtis’ playful, casually transgressive video essays in Fiennes’ film. But while Curtis specialises in excavating secret histories from bottomless reserves of archive footage in order to challenge accepted narratives, IDEOLOGY looks at what is hidden in plain sight, embedded into the films that both reflect and construct wider conventions of narrative.

[Take One]

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My current digs

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Irony, Culture and ETEWAF

In the various recent obituaries of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Tura Satana, there was an intriguing detail about how Russ Meyer's films and their stars languished in obscurity for years before being discovered by proponents of "trash culture" or whatever you'd like to call it. For someone my age, who more or less grew up in an irony-saturated era where cult movies had become an accepted canon themselves, thanks to Danny Peary and others, it's a novel sensation to think about a time when films like Faster, Pussycat! were genuinely underground items.

I've been critical before of the culture of ironic appreciation which is everywhere these days, but frankly I loved seeing Faster, Pussycat! at the IFC Centre in Manhattan, and having access to these wonderfully odd, off-kilter pieces of art all the time thanks to the magic of the Internet and what Patton Oswalt called "ETEWAF:  Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever" (he sees it as a negative – I think it's a positive thing). Plus, ironic enjoyment only becomes an impediment to genuine enjoyment if you take the whole experiencing-and-discussing-culture  thing way too seriously – which I definitely do at times. But having grown up in a cultural climate where Quentin Tarantino – that avid consumer of trash culture – is the de facto inspiration for a huge amount of young wannabe filmmakers, John Waters is a cuddly establishment figure and the midnight movie grindhouse experience of community has been turned into something similar yet different by the internet (where people miles apart can watch and livetweet Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus or something else), it's very odd to consider a time when cult/trash movies were a genuinely underground proposition.

And it's also interesting to consider the generation of filmmakers who came of age or broke into the mainstream in the late 90s/early 00s when the Age Of Irony was fully underway, some of whom are dangerously close to becoming elder statesmen themselves, and the relation of our culture-wide sense of irony to their work. As mentioned above, is in Tarantino's lifeblood. He couldn't jettison it from his films even he wanted to. The Coens have an excellent grasp of genre and pastiche, and a quizzical detached style which makes for surreal and addictively intriguing films. That said, they've gained the most mainstream praise when they play it (relatively) straight, as with No Country For Old Men and True Grit. David O Russell has been on a similar trajectory with more disappointing – after I Heart Huckabees' poor box office reception (justified, I think – it's a film that's a little too pleased with its own cleverness) he cycled through a variety of uncemploeted projects before losing the surreality and quirkiness of his early work like Three Kings and making a fairly conventional boxing drama – which, sure enough, found itself Oscar nominated. Wes Anderson ploughs his own furrow, to slightly diminished returns with each new film – I remember when he made films where you actually cared about the characters (Rushmore? Tenenbaums? Anyone?). Steven Soderbergh has alternated between conventional Hollywood films and more off-kilter projects. At the very least, he should be praised for being one of the most entertaining directors of populist entertainment working today, as well as getting some genuinely original stuff made in Hollywood's unforgiving cultural climate. Paul Thomas Anderson has an excellent grasp of irony, but rarely deploys it upfront. It's used to very subtle effect, as with the surreal moments of black comedy in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood. Darren Aronofsky is the only major new-ish talent who completely eschews ironic distance in his films (aside from The Wrestler, which comments cleverly on 80s nostalgia while still being a straightforward, heartfelt indie drama).

At its best, irony is another tool for understanding, representing and commenting on the modern world and our relationship with it. At its worst, it insulates us from sincerity and real understanding. David Foster Wallace took an umbiguously pessemistic view of the subject in his essay "E Unibus Pluram". I think that just like any artistic device, it can be used in good and bad ways. In the end, our culture has a vastly expanded canon compared to only a few decades ago. And that's something to be sincerely excited about.

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My Favourite Films of 2010 (Part 1)

With 2010 over, it’s time to look back at the best films I saw this year. Due to circumstances in my life, I’ve had not had the money to go out to the cinema with any great regularity, so the amount of films I’ve seen this year has taken a big drop from last year’s figure. Still, I managed to see some great films, and want to give them their due. Here’s my top ten, in ascending order.

10. I Am Love

Dir.  Luca Guadagnino (Italy, 2009)

120 minutes

Tilda Swinton’s years-in-the-making collaboration with Guadagnino is a clear throwback to filmmaking styles of yesteryear. It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, with gorgeous interiors, extended wealthy families, forbidden love, and capital-A acting. On first viewing it earlier this year I wasn’t too impressed, but since then, memories of the wonderful cinematography and Swinton’s towering performance have only grown in my mind. Sirk-meets-Visconti may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a pleasure seeing a film this beautiful, confident, and assured.

9. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Dir. Werner Herzog (USA, 2009)

122 minutes

From an initial lukewarm reaction to the trailers, I was won over by the go-for-broke exuberance of Herzog and Nicolas Cage’s remake-in-name-only of Abel Ferrera’s grim cop drama. It’s an inspired fusion of run-of-the-mill procedural and off-the-wall Herzogian insanity, all held together by Cage’s unhinged performance as a drug-addicted detective cracking under the strain of keeping a million plates spinning at once. Val Kilmer and Xzibit try to keep up, but really, it’s Cage’s show, and that’s what makes it such a wild ride.

Standout scene: Cage pays a visit to an old lady and her live-in nurse, looking for information. Unorthodox interrogation techniques ensue.

Standout line: “Who put these fuckin’ iguanas on my coffee table?”

8. Monsters

Dir. Gareth Edwards (UK, 2010)

94 minutes

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this low-budget debut from Edwards. There were comparisons to Cloverfield, but also talk of it as an indie film. The result is closer to a free-form road movie, but one that happens to take place across alien-infested territory.

Scoot McNairy plays Kaulder, a photographer charged with escorting his boss’ daughter Sam (Whitney Able) home to the US. But when conventional routes are shut for the season, the two must undertake a hazardous trek through the “quarantine zone” in Mexico.

Monsters is an excellent-looking film. Shot on the fly during the filmmakers’ travels in Mexico, the footage was then manipulated in the editing suite to insert the scenes of destroyed settlements and brief glimpses of the aliens. The shots of abandoned villages and gigantic concrete barriers are devastatingly familiar in our world of natural disasters, post-Katrina urban breakdown and fortress-like borders between the First and Third Worlds. The improvised dialogue feels natural and unforced, and McNairy and Able give a touching and convincing performance as a young couple slowly growing close to each other.

The narrative surrounding Monsters is one of how small crews and commercial cameras, editing and computing equipment can beat the studios at their own game. But independent projects like this can also foreground elements that big Hollywood wouldn’t touch. Here’s to more like it.

Standout scene: Kaulder and Sam’s first glimpse of the US border wall, from the outside.

7. Enter The Void

Dir. Gaspar Noe (France/Germany/Italy, 2009)

137 minutes

Gaspar Noe’s hallucinatory exploration of death and afterlife as the ultimate drug trip features more pure cinematic innovation than almost any film I’ve seen this year. Taking the POV of Oscar, a young drug dealer in the last few minutes of his life, Noe never releaxes this exacting technique even after his protagonist is  shot dead by the police. We see through his consciousness as it flits over Tokyo, visiting the people he leaves behind and travelling back into his past.

Is it a hallucination caused by the last neurons firing before brain death? Is it a genuine afterlife? A nightmarish purgatory? A chance to take stock of his life before reincarnation? Whichever interpretation you pick, there’s no disagreeing with the visceral power of Noe’s images, whether recreating Tokyo as a neon-lit playground, diving inside the human body or the darkest recesses of memory.

As I said in my review, it’s a true cinematic experience; one that aims to create images and sensations that have rarely ever been experienced via the medium. It may be sleazy, perverted and self-indulgent, but it’s also wildly inventive and ambitious.

Standout scene: The car crash in Oscar’s childhood, as seen from his POV. Or, Vagina-cam. (If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

6. Four Lions

Dir. Chris Morris (UK, 2010)

97 minutes

(Earlier review by me here.)

Chris Morris is famed for his scabrous humour and contempt for the euphemisms and distortions of official language. But in his debut feature film, he settles for a classic buddy-comedy setup, following a bumbling gang of would-be terrorists as their bickering and general incompetence threaten to derail their murderous plans. Amid some laugh-out-loud hilarious scenes, Riz Ahmed provides the heart of the ensemble, as a loving and devoted family man prepared to give up his life for the cause (his conversation on the subject with his young son is particularly chilling).

Morris and his scriptwriting collaborators, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show fame, truly get the dynamics between young men egging each other on to do bigger and dumber things. The arguments and shifting personal dynamics will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a group of young male friends, or even watched a sitcom.

In the end, what stands out from Four Lions is compassion. The platitudes of religion and politics are idiotic, and our humanity (and ability to laugh) is the only thing worth valuing above all others.

Standout scene: The conversation between two police snipers over whether they’ve shot an innocent man (revolving around whether or not the Honey Monster is a bear).

Standout line: “Fuck Mini Baby Bels!”

Coming soon: the Top Five…

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My Top 15 Albums of 2010

And now, the albums list. I’ve tried to put across how I feel about each album, but I’m well aware that my descriptive abilities fall short when I’m writing about music. But I feel the songs in the links speak for themselves. Please feel free to comment and let me know if you agree, disagree or want to share something new.

15. Tame Impala – Innerspeaker

Mixture of propulsive bluesy guitar riffs and ethereal FX-heavy oddness. Manages to sound wound-up and off-hand at the time – a bit Animal Collective, a bit Beatles, a bit Stooges. Good stuff all round.

Essential Tracks: It Is Not Meant To Be, Lucidity, Jeremy’s Storm

14. The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

Big-hearted, hoarse-throated bar-room rock’n’roll anthems about the promise and disappointment of American mythology.

Essential Tracks: American Slang, Bring It On, The Queen Of Lower Chelsea, The Spirit Of Jazz

13. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

Swelling, sprawling orchestration combining with a knack for neat and concise songwriting make this album a rare treat that packs epic tracks into small packages.

Essential Tracks: World Sick, Art House Director, Meet Me In The Basement

12. The Roots – How I Got Over

The Roots deliver another essential slice of sharp, socially conscious lyrics over impeccable musicianship. The album as a whole feels like a journey through a long dark night of the soul, from despair through resolution to optimism and determination.

Essential Tracks: Now Or Never, How I Got Over, The Fire

11. The Drive-By Truckers – The Big To-Do

Gritty Southern rock retooled for the 21st Century.

Essential Tracks: Birthday Boy, (It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So, Santa Fe

10. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

My FAVOURITE BAND EVER make another great album about, growing up, nostalgia, disappointment, and the power of rock music.
Essential Tracks: The Sweet Part Of The City, Soft In The Centre, The Weekenders, We Can Get Together

9. Fang Island – Fang Island

Masters of upbeat guitar wizardry deliver progginess sans pretentsion.
Essential Tracks: Daisy, Treeton, Welcome Wagon

8. Best Coast – Crazy For You

Inspired, charming mix of 60s surf-rock and Phil Spector production soundtracks the summer.

Essential Tracks: Boyfriend, Happy, When I’m With You

7. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

A sprawling, messy sort-of-concept album about celebrity, self-loathing and the oversharing mania of the internet age. Also, it’s really awesome to listen to.

Essential Tracks: Power, All Of The Lights, Hell Of A Life

6. Big Boi – Sir Luscious Leftfoot

The often-overlooked half of Outkast serves up an excellent melange of bass-heavy rap, funky experimentation and lightning-fast lyrics.

Essential Tracks: Daddy Fat Sax, Follow Us, Shutterbugg, Tangerine

5. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks

Politically tinged pop-punk for a bruised but hopeful time.

Essential Tracks: Ativan Eyes, Even Heroes Have To Die, Bottled In Cork, Bartolomeo And The Buzzing Of Bees

 

4. The New Pornographers – Together

More impeccable chamber-pop loveliness from Canada’s greatest supergroup.
Essential Tracks: Moves, Crash Years, Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk

3. Janelle Monae – The Archandroid

Ceaselessly inventive pop-futurism that fuses diverse influences to create something completely new. Check out the review I wrote back in the summer.

Essential Tracks: Faster, Cold War, Tightrope, Wondaland

2. Superchunk – Majesty Shredding

Uplifting, catchy rock anthems set at the point between youthful optimism and adult disillusionment, learning something from both states

Essential Tracks: Digging For Something, Slow Drip, Learned To Surf

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

As sprawling as the location it studies, Arcade Fire’s latest tells a bleak story of how the past we create in our shared spaces can disappear in front of our eyes. Its instrumentation and lyrics are cranked up to deliver Springsteen-level epics of youthful alienation, even as they hope for something more.

Essential Tracks: Ready To Start, City With No Children, Suburban War, Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

 

Best Of The Rest: 5 albums that didn’t make the cut

Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Villagers – Becoming A Jackal

The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack

Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern

 

 

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