Bright Lights Film Journal

Favorite Films of 2013


Trying to tell you of this year’s favorites, mine, you understand, has nearly destroyed me but here it is, subject to never change. It’s not some other guy’s list, one that dutifully lauds INSIDE LLEWYN as a masterpiece. Not that I’m not glad the brothers Coen have found a muse in T-Bone Burnett and made themselves a Nashville Skyline of a MacDougal Street freak-out but I liked it better when it was called O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU and everyone hated it. And 12 YEARS A SLAVE is I’m sure really great, but I’m still recovering from DJANGO and that at least had catharsis and so forth. Forget about that stuff. Films in this list fit the acidemic parameter: horror, comedy, subversion. Films in this list resolve lingering burdens on my cinematic, some are nowhere near in the same league as SLAVE or GRAVITY or even CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. But this site isn’t Leonard Maltin. Why would it want to be? Do you know he only gave DJANGO a **1/2? As the Young Ones would say, what a complete bastard.

Oh and FRANCES HA… I love the director and the star, and I love black and white, so why is this movie so unbearable? Is it that the writer doesn’t know his subject or that the subject doesn’t know itself? There’s no reason to believe girls in the city are this air headed and vapid. I’ve met them and some are vapid as hell but most of them are total sharpies, not these crumpled bags blowing in the leafless trees. Why make a movie about such unrealistic idlers? They would never last a month in NYC. And the black and white photography looks for the most part godawful though the photos like the one above are gorgeous so it might be the transfer. But I saw it on Criterion blu-ray so that can’t be it.  Maybe I’m wrong about FRANCES HA. People loved JUNO and I hate that film too, yet love Ellen Page and love JENNIFER’S BODY. Go figure. But as one critic who hates piety and second thought morality in otherwise badass films, a genuine subversive influence like Harmony Korine or David Lynch is an automatic in. They are the sole chroniclers of the myriad ways drugs and dreams and reality can collapse into one another to create cinema, and that dreams of drugs and violence can collapse into abstract video imagery, such the way Marion Crane collapses down the drain, or Bill Pullman collapses into the son of a Nolte in LOST HIGHWAY.

I focused as much as I could on films that aren’t on anyone else’s list, rescuing my personal favorites without regard to ‘importance.’ I am taking a cue from Danny McBride’s burn-the-money performance of the year as himself in THIS IS THE END and just telling the truth about what I enjoyed the most. Rather than some good safe white elephant of a film or a smutty feel-bad historical repressionist masterpiece, these are films that have escaped the maze of cliché with moxy, wit, and nutz. They all deliver something that makes me feel about movies like I used to feel, all wild-eyed and inspired watching OVER THE EDGE or THE BIG SLEEP over and over again with a drink in one hand and the other hand over my right eye to stop seeing double, and with faith restored as if wading in the sludge of an overflowing holy fountain.

1. THIS IS THE END 

Two “end” comedies came out the same year, one in the UK, one here. Ours is better, though both are great and sorely needed in horror’s now hopelessly overly zombied landscape. END delivers on all the sodomy-phobic joking these clowns have been doing since the dawns of their careers. But Danny McBride, in his turn from genial dirtbag to gonzo post-apocalyptic cannibal chieftain, is amazing like Maceo. He’s one ferocious guy and THIS IS THE END is his WRESTLER, his BLACK SWAN, his Heath Ledger joker, his Jason Robards in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, his Colonel Hans Landa, his Daniel Plainview, his Angelina Jolie in GIRL INTERRUPTED, his Johnny Boy AND his Travis Bickle rolled up in one. If Seth Rogen wasn’t in it I’d say it’s his Seth Rogen in OBSERVE AND REPORT! May we all be so lucky one day to have our own grim chance to break through into dance-in-the-flames insanity before it’s all stacked, and canned.  (more)

2. ROOM 237

ROOM 237 is a lightning crack to the head. All is illuminated, and terrifying: first because paranoid psychosis is very contagious, two because the film is terrifying in and of itself, three because it mirrors all our film deconstruction / analysis, from the ur-dry Bordwellian breakdowns (as in “before getting started, we all have to agree what we mean by a film“) to the ultimately meaningless doctoral theses of nonwriters in a publish-or-perish deadlock, all the way to the gonzo freaks like me who see what we want to see through magic glasses; four because we tend to forget that since we’re a nation conditioned to ‘recall’ movies with an ever-dwindling series of studio-sanctioned iconic images–which in THE SHINING’s case means the “Heee-rree’s Johnny!” grinning Jack Torrance peering through his bathroom axe crack– the SHINING’s power is that it’s just crazy enough to survive and resist any chance to dumb it down, to reduce it to a few fun quotes (“and a nice chianti”). The more we try to reduce it to grinning Jack T-shirts the less we remember the actual details of a film that seems to lose all contact with the outside world. Forget about being reduced to a simple icon, the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual ‘meaning’ vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective. (more on “Lick Danny’s Dopey Decal Off, Baby)

3. BEFORE MIDNIGHT 

I might be prejudiced because Delpy’s strident and-a-little fed-up mother of gorgeous-haired twins reminds me a bit of my Argentine filmmaker ex-wife and her twins, same age, not mine but visible in occasional Facebook updates and I certainly had more than a few of Hawke’s satyric problems, some of which I’ve only recently cured myself of in a jolt of 2012 alchemical pre-apocalyptic awakening. But what I loved most was that this was a film that was alive, fluid, in ways the other eurotrip sensual awakening family dysfunction wine-appreciating movies are not. There’s no up-the-dress-of-the-virgin-camera-peering of a Bertolucci, nor the food porn of so many Sony Classics films, no Brit actors getting grooves back and hunky waiters bringing them little coffees before jetting off on their red scooters, a gloriously braless and tan Ludivine Sagnier in tow. Instead Delpy does a spot-on impression of a “bimbo,” floored that she’s talking to a man who writes books. That’s perhaps the one fatal flaw of these films is that Hawke is not a believable writer. He’s a believable actor though, and he seems genuinely turned on and worn down by Delpy in all the right places. Her problems with him are ours, and his hers and hers and his.

Maybe Linklater is still working on his masterpiece. Maybe it was DAZED AND CONFUSED. Maybe it is this film. The comfort it brings me to know that in Linklater we have a stealth auteur who can deliver the kind of thing we all thought only Rohmer or sometimes Antonioni could do, where huge gobs of unpretentious art and stuff almost happening sail by and you can’t grab any one moment, but you feel the actors grabbing them all, and creating magic in a free flow spin on the ball of reality, and here this once, and maybe the next, a moment has landed. “I’ve been sleeping with a 41 year-old man, it’s so gross, so obscene,”  Delpy says during a long Steadicam take around the village. Maybe it’s the most stunningly detailed and fluid depiction of a romance in its ebbs and flows, as it sets out to sea, tide receding, that I, at least, have ever seen, and it is gross.

Certainly also – the sight of Delpy’s middle aged body gone slightly to frumpy but still comfortable and flowing and sexy packs such a punch when they finally start making love (they don’t get far) it’s a tonic to the other big sexy actress flesh display of the artsy year, Lohan’s in THE CANYONS (See “Lost Without Yr Text”), a joyless chronicle of compulsive sexual distraction, vanity, aloneness in the exhausting need to be perfect, even in the midst of an orgy. In MIDNIGHT at least is something like genuine connection, hope that sex in the cinema might still mean something other than titillation or distraction. It’s painful without them but it’s truth pain. It’s a gift, from Linklater and his actors to us. They don’t seem to be doing this for awards, it seems impossible to single out individual accomplishment vs the collective whole. Instead it masters the art of refusing to follow one’s inclination to run away from a burning car.

4. SPRING BREAKERS 

Of the reigning images of 2013, two involve James Franco ascending to heaven, both times he fails to make it all the way. Harmony Korine however makes it, shooting a Florida spring break under black light starring three girls wearing matching pink ski masks and sporting machine pistols, with Franco and a silver grill on his outdoor piano singing a Britney Spears song and melting one and all’s hearts. Mine too, as it molds GUN CRAZY or THE BIG SLEEP halfway into a PIERROT LE FOU crescent and glazes it with delirious contagious psychedelic shivering like ENTER THE VOID. I haven’t had drugs on my person in years but suddenly I feel the cops are coming in through the window. Man, they’re coming in through my skin! Tiny cops in my pores! This movie reminds me why I never liked cocaine — I’ll gladly sacrifice the sexual gyrating moment by moment heavy breathing tactile intensity to not feel the blood run cold pit of the stomach disappearing empathy response. Coke turns me into a reptilian or reminds me I am one. In other words, SPRING BREAKERS is better than the real thing. Even when the characters walk into GUMMO-style abstraction, the film never loses its beauty. This is Korine’s best, he’s finally fusing his subversion to sex and violence, and setting both of them free from tedious morality. Haji Lives!The music and sound editing are the real scene stealer here – it made my blood run cold, enough that I finally figured out what that even means. Some of the end shots, wherein the three survivors walk into an infinite pinks sidewalk point are like a reverse of the climax of THE RING, they’re merging into the infinite “Pretend it’s just a video game” indeed. Reptilian –you are one!

5a. HER

Spike Jonze’s 10 years-after apology letter to Lost in Translation, this film will be a quick bolt to the heart of anyone who fell in love with a series of words typed from another person who, if only for a moment, captured exactly the shade of empty their unconscious archetypal animus/anima looked like. “All this time I’ve loved you / and never even known your face,” – that’s a line from a Bristol trip-hop group from the 90s that I loved, Lamb. I would listen to them in my Sony Discman while wafting around Central park, high on the fumes of e-mail love in the early pioneer days of AOL. When she finally sent me a picture I was a little wary – why was the pic from 10 years ago, when she was a child? It was too late to change my flight plans. Dating in the age of the internet is fraught with paradoxes few of us understood in those heady days. Now we know… and aside from being way too emotional, this little rose-tinted masterpiece is of its time, and in refusing to judge or decry even the most dubious of choices it’s a quiet little testament to the power of forgiveness, and the necessity of setting free any bird whose wing we mend, even if we built that bird ourselves from fucking scratch, and how everything really does look, literally, rosy, rose-tinted, when we are finally free of fear and doubt and living in the pure joy of universal love. I had forgotten that, so thanks, Spike, on behalf of disembodied voices everywheren’t.

5b. WARM BODIES 

It hopes nakedly and unafraid that America’s doomsday prepper mentality might one day be exchanged for a more inclusive optimism, ala the end of THE ROAD, and that a budding teen romance can infect the whole world as quickly as AIDs. Maybe love is more than anything else a kind of anti-virus, a collective warm fusion, deliberately reaching across lines not only of gender, but class, race, dimensions, and now living/dead status. Like me you may have scratched the entry wound on your forehead at the glowing reviews. I grudgingly rented it. Lo! I was a crying mess by the end. Is it the most beautiful film I’ve seen all year? I’m afraid… (more)

6. AMERICAN HUSTLE 

It’s got clothes and style of the 70s but there’s something missing from this tale of hucksterism and everybody playing everyone else and so forth, but what it really is is a good bookend with the latest HUNGER GAMES in showing Jennifer Lawrence as the reigning goddess of acting. Far crazier than everyone else in the film she does effortlessly does what Sharon Stone in CASINO expended great effort at, outmaneuvering the coasting titans around her. I think it’s hilariously annoying that people all praise Amy Adams here, which is reason #2 to bring up Stone. Lawrence reminds us that all the great actresses made their roles spontaneous, dangerous, ready to expose the deep secrets of everyone around them with a noncommittal shrug. Adams always feels like she’s protecting the weaker men around her. And the last thing we need are more CASINO-era Sharon Stones putting gold patinas on their over-emoting. We need more BASIC INSTINCT Sharon Stones, effortlessly deadly.

The scene wherein Christian Bale gives up trying to fight with her for getting him in deep with shady mobsters and instead just surrenders and lets her view of the crazy reign supreme, this is her great moment here like her cracking open the beer without looking down at it in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. It resembles Marty Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS/CASINO phase, but in his hands Lawrence would be shown going down on Joe Pesci or some such degradation. Russell lets her be queen of the island, stealing the movie far away from everyone else as Bradley Cooper torpedoes the cool confidence he worked so well to create in the various HANGOVER films, Adams does her draggy moralist, and Bale hides behind shades and pudge and elaborate toupee-combover hybrid ‘dos.

HUSTLE isn’t quite at the SILVER LININGS level; it wastes too much time in idle chatter and mundane THE STING / OCEAN’S ELEVEN style double fake-out which by now is cliche –it would have been better if they stuck to all the facts if any. But hey, the hair and clothes are all deliriously trashy, the period music expertly used almost at the GOODFELLAS level. But one thing Scorsese knows well is the cocaine and that drug was front and center in the style and momentum of CASINO and GOODFELLAS. Here it’s like Cooper tries to gain that coked up Scorsese momentum, but O’Russell only shows him tooting up on the side, in ways you might not notice if you weren’t looking for it. Bale and Adams are too busy slowing down the pace to have much chemistry and you never forget they are Acting. O’Russell is still the key filmmaker of his day, as urgent and street eye view as Scorsese once was and is just trying to make a film that gets at something like the truth about personas and who we are when and if and ever the make-up comes off, He doesn’t find out. But at least he doesn’t look so hard the film feels like he’s got auteur sweat. We don’t get the sense he’s just throwing money and excess at the screen in hopes something sticks, ala GREAT GATSBY and WOLF OF WALL STREET, starring Leo “Marty’s Albatross” DiCaprio.

7. THE CONJURING 

Looking to get some of that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY opening weekend box office (the scary film thanks to that series is now understood as best seen with a late night opening weekend audience, ideally filled with keyed-up nervous young couples on dates), this film really didn’t get perceived as it should. It’s a first class true story ghost picture starring one of my favorite actresses playing one of my favorite paranormal researchers. I’m fascinated by the real life Lorraine Warren, who appears here in a cameo. She’s psychic, alive and going boldly where no one else can go and has since the 70s, which is wherein this place is set, with enough attention to lived-in detail I feel like it psychically read all my complaints with 99% of this sort of film (i.e. any of the AMITYVILLEs) and made a film without any of them.

A lot of care went into this film, from the homey, live-in set design, the believable rapport within the family, Lili Taylor’s marvelously over-the-top possession and homey vibe, and Vera Farmiga’s very real embodiment of demonologist-clairvoyant Lorraine Warren. Sure it’s not the best movie ever, or the scariest, but I admire its chutzpah even if it denigrates one of my relatives, the real-life Mary Easty, who here is reimagined as a real witch who hung herself after sacrificing her young daughter to the dark lord. The real Easty was hung all right, in the Salem witch trials, an innocent victim in a land dispute with her false witness neighbors. Whatever, you can spot the real Lorraine in the audience at one of the Warren’s slideshow lectures. Some critics are including STOKER as one of the best of the year, but I’ll take this. For life!

8. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO 

Hard to believe that the most disturbing image of 2013 is a little British sound engineer breaking up lettuce heads while staring in dismay off camera, towards some unseen screen, from whence issues agonized female screams. Sure it can be hard to stick with this enigmatic fusion of Antonioni-esque ambiguity, Argento stylistic anti-misogyny, Bergmanesque post-modern meltdowns and Lynchian “no hay banda”-ism. But it’s on streaming so you can take your time over several sittings. Sooner or later all elements merge in a deeply unsettling visually (and most importantly aurally) seductive post-structuralist fantasia wherein a reserved Brit sound mixer is hired for some reason to work on a horror film in 70s Rome. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO!

We never actually see the film they’re working on, which just adds to the unsettling frisson. No visual violence can really match our sickening imagination, aptly mirrored in the sickening dead-inside feeling overtaking Toby Jones as he rattles the chains and drenches the bone crunches in echo (from the fractions of script and scenes the film seems one part Argento’s SUSPIRIA, one part Soavi’s THE CHURCH, and one part Fulci’s CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). Director Peter Strickland trusts his expert blocking and cagey actors and actresses in and around the studio’s tight places, and though the rudeness and misogyny of some of the male filmmakers got on my nerves this is a masterpiece of enigmatic self-reflexive horror, with all the ingredients of an average Italian trash classic reassembled like a collage into a making-of fantasia that puts broader stuff like SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE or A BLADE IN THE DARK to shame.

9. ONLY GOD FORGIVES 

The tale of an Oedipus complex writ large by white people across the dirty expanses of Bangkok, it’s almost more of a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch on an Argento film set horror film than a revenge thriller. Then again, everything is a horror film for Sweden’s dark lord of the Seijun Suzuki-esque macho melt-down post-modernist gangster genre, Nicolas Winding Refn, and GOD is his special love letter to those Angelica film snobs who saw his earlier films DRIVE and VALHALLA RISING and said very good, Sven, but maybe slow it down a bit. Maybe don’t have a protagonist who’s such a chatterbox. There has to be one such film snob… somewhere. Maybe it’s even me, for I’m keenly aware (since I’m Swedish) that to stand out from the legions of ‘corrupt but honorable cop vs. redeemable but doomed gangster’ Asian vengeance pics currently idling along the blighted “Dark Foreign Revenge Thriller” avenues of Netflix, Refn has to import his own brand of ice and snow onto the eternally wet floors of the Bangkok Dangereuse. We Swedes know that Thai swordsman cops can out swing us, so we have to out-stare them and more importantly be willing to die without a sigh, to stand firm against the dying flesh without a flinch, without a care, with no betrayal of despiar. That’s from NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. Like that film, GOD lives in the moment, you feel almost like the actors are making it up, moment to moment, and trusting somehow it will mean something. We have a hero who might not even survive one fight, the way real fights end far faster than one of them thinks – one good shot to the head and you punch like a girl… (Suspiria for Men)

10a. BYZANTIUM 

Director Neil Jordan loves film, beautiful girls, and the coastlines of the Ireland and Britain, in that order, and here delivers the existential women’s picture (ala Suzuki not Cukor) yoked sublimely to the Anne Rice-readymade tale of a 200 year old vampire and her equally ageless daughter. The film has a rare style, so sure and gorgeous it seems unfixed to any one century, moving across spans of time with ease to create a darkly poetic mood of the sort that would enrapture both Edgar Allen Poe or a 12 year-old Twilight fan. Gemma Arterton continually astounds as the woman tossed by an uncaring captain into prostitution back in the 1800s. Saoirse Ronan is the daughter, an angel of mercy by only drinking old folks, who all recognize her and proclaim one way or another their readiness to go. Jordan’s style is all about dark beauty and how beautiful deep red scarfs and hoods look wreathing these ghostly beauties with the foggy English seaside dissolving around them. If you can imagine the scenes with Methuselah-syndrome afflicted J.F. Sebastian shacking up with Pris but with Sean Young in the Roy Batty role in BLADERUNNER stretched out over a postcard shop full of gorgeous shots, Jean Rollin-with-a-budget poeticism and Assayas-style postmodern go-for-brokerage, well, it’s better.

10b. PACIFIC RIM 

Redresses a gaping hole in my heart’s that been there since I shined the rooftop Bushwick loft barbecue of the season to drag my sneering prominent grunge band bassist girlfriend to the Emmerich Godzilla on a sunny summer Saturday in 1998, and having it suck and hearing her hiss and sneer under her breath the whole way through, and reproach me forever after. So that’s 15 years it’s been there, that hole. Every time Godzilla comes on cable I watch it and feel her chiding resentment and my own shamefaced disappointment in Broderick, Emmerich, and myself, and especially Hank Azaria. Now that the hole is closed, the resentment is canceled, because for the first time someone’s bothered to capture the draggy feel of the actual gigantic size in question. The Japanese with their Kaiju monster suit fights in old shows like ULTRAMAN, JOHNNY SOCKO, SPACE GIANTS and the later POWER RANGERS all had a gonzo greatness but could only use slow motion and landscape miniatures to create the feeling of behemoth size. And that sense of size is totally lost with the live action pro-wrestling meets-cardboard sets grandeur of KAIJU BIG BATTEL. So I love that this film kept the name Kaiju for the monsters and for the robots came out with the “Jaegers” – hand-crafted in a green bottle the size of 20 story office buildings, their every rippling metallic joint step creating huge gravitic pulls in the soundtrack, the titanic Kaiju creating huge thudding steps and extraordinarily detailed gushes of ocean and urban destruction. You really, literally, feel some sense of how big these fuckers are, and if, like me, you had some doubts about Guillermo del Toro as being little more than a Tim Burton with a better sense of narrative, wit, and darkness, then those doubts are as squashed as Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay trapped in a city bus underneath a Jaeger-Kaiju slapdown.

THREE-WAY RUNNER UP TIE RUNNERS UP– ON NETFLIX STREAMING

It’s not for dopey films no more. In fact, because of the incredible cost of distribution more and more the stream has become to the 21st century what the drive-in and grindhouse were to the 20th. While Marvel continues to release its entertaining repeat-viewing ready franchises, and Mexicans like del Toro deliver where once Spielberg alone did trod, now we have up-and-coming talents, often working from Kickstarter campaigns, real grassroots stuff, like BOUNTY KILLER, ABSENTIA, IRON SKY, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. If they were released in the 80s they would be considered classics today. But there’s so many options on streaming, its harder and harder to ‘discover’ something just because it’s say, on one afternoon on HBO or UHF and you’re not really playing attention or expecting it to be any good and then WHAM – awesomeness, the way so many of us first discovered BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Well, here’re my BIG TROUBLES of 2013. Some of them are officially from 2012 but that date often just means festival debut, or Helsinki or something, so fuckin’ whatever!
10.a. BOUNTY KILLER
If you think it’s easy to put a good Corman-esque babes-n-guns action film together you’ve never seen SUCKER PUNCH or TANK GIRL or AEON FLUX or ULTRA-VIOLET or BITCH SLAP or CAT RUN or Luc Besson’s less noted pictures, or the hundred other so bad they’re not even good bad just inert movies that figure a girl with a gun and rote mcguffin money packs and bald mobsters wearing suits that look like they have to be back at Men’s Warehouse by five PM. That’s why I’m giving a special place here to IRON SKY, JOHN DIES AT THE END and this, because they all use their under-the-radar leeway to do more than just make dick jokes and edit together video game carnage with sex scenes and hope no one’s paying focused attention. Instead they hope someone is. They hope someone is looking for them, the right reader for their own handcrafted message in a bottle. In this one, I got the message. Christian Pitre stars Mary Death; Kristanna Lokken shows up as the corporate ex-wife of the handsome but not annoying Drifter. It’s apparently based on a Kickstarted graphic novel, stick around on the credits if you want for bloopers like it’s frickin’ Jackie Chan.
10.b. JOHN DIES AT THE END 

As John Carpenter ages into his RED LINE 700 phase, a horror genius named Don Coscarelli has quietly stolen the title of the neo-Hawksian maestro de drive-in. A little bit early Sam Raimi, some Cronenberg, John Carpenter til he started doing cable TV, Quentin Tarantino if he ever made a horror movie, all rolled into one half-kidding half legit creepy all weird voyage deeper than most gone afore. It’s a loosey goosey termite art digging and goofing around – simultaneously mind-expanding and brain-addling. It never has to rely on vicious sexual violence, it understands normal healthy adult sex is the creepiest most uncanny thing ever, once you can finally see it clearly for what it is, stripped of all its alluring-in-the-heat-of-the-moment bark. (more: Pharamageddon!)

 

… if at first this seems way too-dependent on CGI to create elaborate but cold, almost-SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW-style steampunk moonbase panoramae with Metal Hurlant style weaponry, stick it out. IRON SKY will take you some really bizarre places and in doing so eclipse nominal fuzzy sci fi cult-intended efforts like BUCKAROO BANZAI. Clearly a major labor of love for all involved, six years in the making, it’s directed by Finnish industrial singer Tomo Vuorensola in a way that reminds me in a way of the Norwegian-directed prequel to THE THING (my praise here).