Archive for December, 2013

The best films of 2013

The above title is misleading. It’s something I mention every year, but it bears repeating nonetheless: the above title is misleading. It implies objectivity when in fact there is nothing more subjective than those end-of-the-year lists. “My favorite films of 2013” would be a better title, or at least a more accurate one. I mention it every year, and every year I still go with “the best films of whatever year it is,” because tradition, and because it sounds much better, and because it gives me an excuse to talk about this objectivity/subjectivity thing and to acknowledge that my lists always end up looking somewhat weird. As in different. (To a certain extent, of course.) Not that different’s bad, obviously. The last thing we need is for all those lists to include the exact same films in the exact same order. (See also Yeezus topping way too many best albums of the year list while not even being the best rap album of the year by a long shot.) Those lists are meant to encourage discussion, so different’s not bad, as long as it’s justified. Being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian is just trolling. Armond White may have made a career out of it, but it’s not a terribly interesting position.

The reasons my lists tend to look a bit strange are twofold. The first and more obvious one is taste; Blue is the Warmest Color, for instance, is a film you’ll see pop up on quite a few of those best of the year lists, but while I liked it well enough, I didn’t quite love it as much as many did. The second reason is simply that I live in France, not the US, so when I talk about “the movies of 2013,” I’m not actually referring to the same set of films many list-makers are. There’s a lot of overlap of course, but also significant differences. For example, Twelve Years a Slave and Her, two of the most acclaimed movies of the year, won’t be coming out until January 22 and March 19 of next year, respectively; meanwhile, two of the films on my list won’t be coming out in the US until next year at the earliest. Other well-received films not yet out here include Nebraska and American Hustle (although I haven’t been a fan of the recent output of both Alexander Payne and David O. Russell), Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, and even Johnnie To’s Drug War and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. (That last one is unlikely to ever be released here, so I went ahead and got it on DVD instead of waiting for a theatrical release that’ll never come; for a good long while it was my favorite movie of the year, and it likely would have ended up 3rd or 4th.) That also means that quite a few 2012 movies were only released this year here; those include Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all of which would have had a solid shot at my top 10 had I considered them. Instead, as usual, I only considered movies that came out in France this year while arbitrarily excluding those that had an American release in 2012. I’ll readily admit it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I’ve been doing it for the past four years now, so yay tradition. (I also somehow missed The Act of Killing, A Hijacking, and The Great Beauty while they were playing here, three movies that received significant critical acclaim in the US.)

And now, without further ado, the list.

10. The Past

The Past
Asghar Farhadi follows up A Separation with another heartrending drama, set this time in the suburb of Paris. Ali Mosaffa stars as a man coming back from Iran to finalize his divorce from Bérénice Bejo, only to get caught up in a conflict between her daughter and her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim). The characters of The Past, like those of all of Farhadi’s movies, are all decent people trying to do the right thing and struggling to figure out exactly what that is. The Past isn’t quite the masterpiece that A Separation was, but what it is is a very good movie about our inability to escape from our own lives. “The past is the past,” Tahar Rahim says at one point, but of course that’s not true (Farhadi doesn’t quite quote Faulkner, but the idea’s the same). Farhadi once declared he is more interested in questions than he is in answers, and with his latest, he once again provides plenty of questions, and precious few answers.

9. Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was the most fun I had at the movies this year, so much so that I went back to see it four times (although to be fair I saw all but two films on this list at least twice, if not three times). While most blockbusters have taken a cue from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and gotten more and more grim and serious, Pacific Rim went in the opposite direction, and the result was phenomenal. Its flaws may be obvious (Charlie Hunnam isn’t exactly the most compelling of leads, the exposition-heavy dialogue is sometimes a bit stilted), but it does so many things right that it doesn’t really matter. It’s an amazing feat of world-building, and if the characters are indeed little more than stereotypes, there’s quite a bit going on under the surface. And of course the fight scenes are a ton of fun.

(Here’s my take on what differentiates Pacific Rim from many modern blockbusters, and why I don’t think it’s a “dumb” film.)

8. Stoker

Let’s get it out of the way: yeah, the screenplay to Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, isn’t the strongest, although it’s much better than some may have you believe. But any flaw in the writing is more than made up for by the incredible visuals. This is a marvel of direction and editing, a film that’s at once gorgeous and incredibly creepy, and by far the best horror movie of the year. Matthew Goode makes for a most unnerving villain, and Mia Wasikowska continues to impress in what turns out to be the origin story of a monster. Much like Pacific Rim, Stoker is more style than substance (which is true of most of Park Chan-wook’s movies to begin with), but when the style is so compelling, who cares? Plus, it closes with a kick-ass Emily Wells song that perfectly fits the mood of the movie.

7. Like Father, Like Son

Like Father Like Son
After the relative disappointment of Air Doll and the solid-but-not-spectacular I Wish (although many will disagree with me on that one), Like Father, Like Son marks a return to form for Koreeda Hirokazu. The story of two families (one well-off, one not so much) whose 6-year-old sons were switched at birth, it explores the questions of class you would expect it to, but focuses just as much on what it means to be a parent. Never sentimental but often heartbreaking, Like Father, Like Son manages to avoid the clichés it could have easily wallowed in and refuses to pass judgment on any of its characters. It also once again showcases Koreeda’s ability to film children like nobody else, although this time most of the film is seen from the point of view of the adults, who seem to have at least as much trouble adapting to the situation as the kids.

6. Gravity

The thrill ride of the year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an incredible feat of filmmaking. Following Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to make it back to Earth however she can after getting caught in a storm of asteroid-like debris that kills everyone on her team but her and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), it is a visceral experience that grabs you right away with its amazing opening scene, one of Cuarón’s trademark long takes that lasts some seven or so minutes, and never lets go. Gravity is a breathtaking technical achievement, a movie that uses 3D in a more interesting and convincing manner than any other film before (although I have a soft spot for the way 2011’s Final Destination 5 embraced the 3D gimmick in its opening credits). I literally saw it twice in a row on opening night, after seeing it a week before at an advanced screening, and it felt every bit as awesome (in the strongest sense of the world) every time.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street
By far the best American comedy of the year, The Wolf of Wall Street also just so happens to be about a bunch of drug- and money-crazed crooks. Anyone who thinks Scorsese is endorsing Jordan Belfort’s deeds and lifestyle isn’t paying attention; we’re meant to laugh as much at these assholes as with them, and it’s made abundantly clear that for all his charm, Belfort is a monster. “Money makes you a better person,” he claims at some point, before doing everything in his power to disprove that notion. “Stratton Oakmont is America,” Belfort tells his cohorts, calling his company the real “land of opportunity,” but five minutes later his closest associate is leading them in a chant of “Fuck USA!” This is the American dream taken to its logical extreme, where all that matters is the individual, and fuck everybody else. The Wolf of Wall Street is insane and brilliant and exhausting, but at almost three hours, it doesn’t feel a minute too long.

4. Before Midnight

Before Midnight
Nine years after Before Sunset (and eighteen after their first meeting in Before Sunrise), Céline and Jesse are back, this time as a married couple with children. The opening scene, which has Jesse say goodbye to his now-teenage son going back to his mother thousands of miles away, makes it clear that their getting together at the end of Before Sunset did come at a cost. And now that cost is threatening to become too high to bear. “This is how people start breaking up,” Céline says early on, and for the longest time it feels like we might very well be looking at a break-up about to happen. For the first time in what’s now become a trilogy, Céline and Jesse fight, arguing not only about abstract concepts but also about their own day-to-day life, and they do so in realistic fashion, jumping from one topic to another, bringing up old grudges the other didn’t even know existed, getting caught up in ever more hyperbolic arguments that quickly spin out of control. Before Sunrise was a movie about falling in love, but this is a movie about what it takes to stay in love in the face of time and the routine of life. Here’s hoping that, nine years from now, we get another sequel that’s just as good as this one.

3. The World’s End

The World's End
The final installment in Edgar Wright’s so-called Cornetto trilogy is also arguably the best. Simon Pegg (who once again co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Gary King, a former high school rebel now pushing forty who wants nothing more than to relive his youth by dragging his old friends through their hometown to complete the pub crawl they attempted twenty years before. Except this time they also have a bunch of Stepford Wives-like robots to contend with. The World’s End is just as funny as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it’s surprisingly affecting, too (Gary’s “They told me when to go to bed!” is, in context, pretty fucking heartbreaking). Pegg and Wright understand both the attraction of nostalgia and the danger of living in the past, which makes their Gary King, alternatively a charismatic leader and a drunken buffoon (and often both at the same time), more than just a cautionary tale or the butt of the film’s joke. And then there are those crazy fight scenes, a reminder (especially to those who haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) that Edgar Wright is also a pretty great action director.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens’ latest follows Llewyn Davis, a doomed folk singer in early-1960s Greenwich Village. A tragicomedy that’s part Barton Fink and part O’Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is an almost pointless odyssey that has Llewyn (Oscar Isaac finally getting the part he deserves) run in circles and learn seemingly nothing, except perhaps that closing the door before the cat can get out is a pretty good idea. Llewyn is another one of those characters the Coens like so much, an asshole we can’t help but feel sympathy for and a talented artist (Isaac does all the singing, and damn does he have a good voice) who keeps getting in his own way. For all the laughs it gets (and it gets a lot of them), the movie hits surprisingly hard, and a little too close to home at times. When Llewyn tells his sister that working as a sailor and not making art is “just existing” in a way that makes it clear what he thinks of that, it’s hard not to relate, while at the same time realizing that he is being a huge dick. Some have argued that the Coens dislike their characters in general and Llewyn in particular, but to do so is to forget the fact that, for all his dickishness, Llewyn is profoundly human, and often profoundly touching.

1. Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer 2
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read that glowing review I wrote a couple weeks ago (or who follows me on Twitter, where I’ve repeatedly called it the best film of the year). Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut is everything one could have hoped for and more, a crazy action thriller packed with twists and turns, a movie that’s funny and brutal and that’s got more to say than all most of those other science fiction allegories put together. This is Bong Joon-ho showing Hollywood how it’s done, and then some. This is, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a masterpiece.

(My review.)

Honorable mentions: Jeff Nichols’s Mud and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (my review) were the last two films I cut from this list. Other movies that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another but deserve a mention include, in alphabetical orders, Ain’t them Bodies Saints, All is Lost, Behind the Candelabra, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Fast & Furious 6, Frances Ha, Les Apaches, Mama, A Simple Life, To the Wonder, A Touch of Sin, Venus in Fur.


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Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

A blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot. This is how, towards the end of the movie, a character describes the events of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, in a brazen moment of meta commentary. Because of course that description applies to the movie itself. For his first English-language film, South Korean genre-mashing master Bong does indeed go blockbuster-big, with a movie that’s larger in scale than anything he’s done before and a star-studded cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Bong stalwart Song Kang-ho. At the same time, that one-sentence description can be seen as Bong acknowledging the fears of some of his fans that his idiosyncratic style could be compromised by his working with a bigger budget and additional creative constraints. (See Kim Jee-woon’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable movie that nevertheless can’t touch any of his South Korean output.) Of course, by the time that sentence is uttered, those fears have long been proven unfounded. Devilishly unpredictable, as it turns out, is quite the understatement.

Based on an ‘80s French graphic novel (and co-written with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead writer Kelly Masterson), Snowpiercer is set in 2031, aboard a train that houses the last remnants of humanity. The prologue explains that in 2014, several countries dispersed a chemical in the atmosphere in order to try to counteract the effects of global warming, a move that backfired when said chemical proved too effective, leading to a new ice age and to the extinction of all life on earth. (Those familiar with the rest of Bong’s oeuvre will notice the similarities with The Host, which opens with scientists dumping formaldehyde into the Han river, inadvertently creating the movie’s mutant monster.) The only survivors were those lucky enough to board a giant train built by the mysterious Wilford, which now runs around the world without ever stopping. Unfortunately, not all passengers were created equal; those who were able to afford an actual ticket live in the front section of the train, enjoying, we are told, steak dinners and fine music, while stowaways are parked in the tail section, living in abject squalor and at the mercy of Wilford’s brutal police force.

It has now been seventeen years since what was left of humanity boarded the train, though, and revolution is brewing. Previous attempts at revolt have been unsuccessful, but this time the tail-sectioners have a secret weapon, a mysterious informant who sends them messages hidden in the protein rations they’re given to eat every day. The de facto leader of the rebellion is Curtis (Chris Evans), a smart and driven man who seems nevertheless uncomfortable with the responsibilities others want to saddle him with, and who would much rather defer to the tail-sectioners’ spiritual leader, Gilliam (John Hurt). The enemy is the never-seen Wilford and the face of his oppressive regime, buck-toothed Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her small army of guards. Once the revolution starts, the plan is for Curtis and his forces to make their way up the train until they reach the engine room, Wilford’s inner sanctum, and to seize control of the engine and, therefore, of the train. It all sounds so simple.

The revolution, though, doesn’t start right away. Bong takes his time in setting up his movie, devoting almost half an hour to showing us how the tail-sectioners live, the violence to which they are subjected daily, the injustice of Wilford’s regime. We meet Curtis’s enthusiastic second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), who doesn’t remember his mother’s face or what steak tastes like, and mama bear Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and her adorable tyke Timmy, who wants nothing more than to be allowed to play with ‘the ball’ (for there appears to be only one in the whole tail section) for an hour. Bong’s in no rush to get to the action and as a result, when the action does finally happen, we are entirely aware of what’s at stake for everyone. The opening stage of the revolution is over almost as fast as it started, but this two-minute action sequence is more tense and thrilling than half the year’s blockbusters put together, because we know what the characters stand to lose if they fail (if not exactly what they stand to gain).

From there Curtis and his ragtag crew of rebels slowly advance towards the engine room, enlisting banished engineer Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) to help them open the gates separating each car from the next. The train setting works to Bong’s strengths beautifully: each new car is like a different self-contained world, which lets him showcase his knack for switching from one genre to another effortlessly and seamlessly. Bong makes transitioning from a brutal fight in a dark hallway to a comedy scene set in a brightly-colored classroom (complete with a crazy song-and-pantomime number) seem easy and, above all, logical. Every new car is its own crazy set piece, but the whole somehow makes sense. It’s a style Bong’s perfected over the course of his career (see in particular The Host), but it wouldn’t work half as well if it weren’t for his brilliant cast. Chris Evans sheds the squeaky-clean Captain America persona to provide a most compelling performance as Curtis, the balanced center without which the film’s craziness just wouldn’t work, while also hinting at deeper issues that don’t get hashed out until a couple of scenes late in the film (and Evans sells the hell out of what could have been corny reveals and instead turn out to be quite the emotional one-two punch). Tilda Swinton is barely recognizable as the grotesque Minister Mason, alternately haughty and grovelling, a villain that’s almost too pathetic to hate. And then there’s Song Kang-ho, probably the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a modern Toshiro Mifune, capable of going from broad slapstick to subtle drama and back all within the same scene. Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho’s third feature together, after Memories of Murder and The Host, and it’s hard to think of another actor that would be better suited to Bong’s style.

Snowpiercer is also the latest in a series of politically-minded science-fiction movies that includes films like In Time or this year’s Elysium and, of course, the Hunger Games series. The metaphor at the heart of Bong’s film isn’t subtle, nor does it claim to be; “The train is the world,” a character says at one point, “We, the humanity.” However, unlike, say, Elysium, Snowpiercer never sacrifices story or character in service of its metaphor. Here again, the setting works in favor of the movie, providing an endless source of forward momentum (no pun intended), as the rebels advance towards the head of the train. At the same time Bong remains a master of pacing who knows exactly when to slow things down and provide a quiet scene or two that will only make the action to come hit harder. (Chances are, if Harvey Weinstein does get to chop up Snowpiercer like he wants to, those essential quiet scenes will be the first to go.) Violence is something that’s always present in the film’s universe, right below the surface, but Bong knows to build towards it, to have it explode in sudden and, if at all possible, surprising bursts, and that makes it all the more effective.

Because Snowpiercer, as it turns out, is a brutal, brutal movie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Bong’s work, but it does, perhaps because by now we’ve become so accustomed to science-fiction movies providing large-scale destruction and violence that’s at the same time largely devoid of real stakes and human drama. Not so here. Curtis’s revolution is bloody, and it comes at a great and often horrifying cost. The question of whether it is worth it is actually at the center of the movie; it’s something most of those science-fiction-metaphor movies rarely touch on (although to its credit Catching Fire does, if only briefly), because the revolutions they offer are anything but. Perhaps this is the most impressive thing about Snowpiercer, the boldest thing about it, this deliberate avoidance of easy resolutions. While movies like In Time or Elysium admit that the system is broken, they also offer reassurances that it can be fixed (in Elysium’s case with the laughably literal push of a button). Snowpiercer, on the other hand, argues that perhaps the system is broken beyond repair, that the only way to fix it would be to scrap everything and just start over. It’s a much more unsettling thought, especially since Bong eschews definite answers, but it makes for a much, much more interesting movie. In the end, Snowpiercer once again proves that Bong Joon-ho’s a master. And this is his masterpiece.

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