The Year in Review:
The Best of Film in 2013

Features, FILM
Our editors and contributors pick their favourites from a bountiful year in film.

img_yir2013-1Tim Wong

Editor, The Lumière Reader

  1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2012)
  2. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Read More
  3. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/USA, 2012) Read More
  4. Halley (Sebastian Hofmann, Mexico, 2012) Read More
  5. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) Read More
  6. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2012)
  7. Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France, 2012)
  8. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan, 2012) Read More
  9. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang, China, 2012) Read More
  10. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France) Read More
  11. Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2010)
  12. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway, 2012) Read More
  13. Paradise: Love/Faith/Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012) Read More
  14. Camille Claudel, 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France) Read More
  15. Mud (Jeff Nichols, USA, 2012)
  16. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China)
  17. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA)
  18. The Conjuring (James Wan, USA)
  19. Winter (Amie Siegel, USA/NZ)
  20. The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt, USA, 2012)

Highlights from the Festival Circuit (Rotterdam, Sydney, New Zealand): Centro Histórico, Closed Curtain, Computer Chess, Ilo Ilo, Leviathan, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Post Tenebras Lux, Three Sisters.

Also Noteworthy: Almayer’s Folly, Berberian Sound Studio, Cosmopolis, Drug War, Hail, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, The Loneliest Planet, Marina Abramovich: The Artist is Present, Rectify (TV).

Discoveries/Revelations: At Long Last Love (Peter Bogdanovich, 1975), Les soeurs Brontë (André Téchiné, 1979), The Cloud-Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960), Daybreak (Compton Bennett, 1948), Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani? (Shinji Aoyama, 2005), Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 1962), Fireworks Wednesday (Asghar Farhadi, 2006), The Hanging Tree (Delmer Daves, 1959), Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, 2001), It Always Rains on Sunday (Robert Hamer, 1947), Lonesome (Pául Fejös, 1928), A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996), The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928), The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952), Three Crowns of the Sailor (Raul Ruiz, 1983).

Yes, 2013 has been a top twenty year. Blowing your savings on a trip to Europe, where the access to art and cinema is overwhelming, will have that effect. One doesn’t have to travel the world to experience a great year in cinema, though: the New Zealand International Film Festival continues to deliver the goods for otherwise malnourished filmgoers starved of hot property like The Master by conservative distributors. (You’ll likely see Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 feature on a lot of local ‘Best of 2013’ lists for that reason.) But there have been anomalies at the movies this year, too: namely, a theatrical release of a Bruno Dumont film (Camille Claudel, 1915), barely recognisable with Juliette Binoche toplining the poster. Johnnie To’s excellent Drug War also made it into cinemas for a short time, while a film I’d love to see on the big screen, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, is already out on DVD/Blu-ray overseas. A long overdue corrective to the dreadful My Blueberry Nights, Wong’s Ip Man biopic doesn’t measure up to Ashes of Time, a rare avant-garde interpretation of the martial arts genre, but on its own terms is a near-perfect blend of commercial and personal sensibilities, which is to say, satisfying in form and content.

In a gallery context, Aucklanders had the opportunity to take in films by American artists Allan Sekula and Amie Siegel at the 5th Auckland Triennial. While I was cheated out of seeing Sekula’s The Forgotten Space (the venue was closed when it shouldn’t have been, one of a number of organisational issues that needed addressing), Siegel’s twin dystopian futures, Black Moon and Winter, vividly engaged with the history of cinema. Winter, commissioned for the Triennial, gave us a New Zealand drained of its untouched, primordial mana, with quite ingenious use of locations, from Ian Athfield’s iconic white house overlooking the Wellington harbour, to other arresting landscapes blotted by modernity and progress. Though imaginary, its ends-of-the-earth scenario, where a nuclear free Aotearoa has prevailed through an On the Beach-style global meltdown, felt urgently removed from the tired cinematic notion of New Zealand as a mythological fantasy—lost in time, dreamt of, beamed in from another dimension. Out of the mist and out of the past, its prescient vision of New Zealand as a failed utopia was appropriate on so many levels, especially in a year where the country seemed, at times, like it was falling apart.

img_yir2013-2Brannavan Gnanalingam

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

It has been a stellar year of film-watching for me. Obvious highlights include the nuttiness of Cannes, the gentler refined pleasures of Berlin and Rotterdam, the joys of the New Zealand International Film Festival, and general mooching around Paris’ Cinémathèque. I haven’t included films I saw last year in this year’s list—but films like The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson), which appears to have completely disappeared from critical thought for some weird reason, and Gebo and the Shadow (yet another exquisite period piece by Manoel de Oliveira) would certainly have been jostling for places.

1. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Read More
Diaz’s excoriating view of contemporary Philippines does everything that one can hope from cinema. It’s moving, challenging, and fiercely intelligent. Clocking in at four hours, it could easily have lasted hours and hours more.

2. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway, 2012) Read More
One of the great documentaries, it shines a light on one of the 20th Century’s forgotten genocides. Each scene is astonishing, and Oppenheimer and his uncredited crew’s courage is something to behold.

3. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France) Read More
A wonderful thriller trapped within a formally rigorous art film, this is a malevolent look at desire and death.

4. Gloria (Sebastián Lelio, Chile/Spain) Read More
A real crowd-pleaser with a great soundtrack, it’s also deeply political cage-rattler, looking at the way nostalgia and renewing oneself coexists with the suppression of guilt and trauma.

5. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paraval, France, 2012)
I thought of a Merzbow track, and my colleague Tim Wong likened this to waterboarding. He wasn’t far off. One of the more physically uncomfortable things I’ve sat/squirmed through, but there’s always room for that in a cinema.

6. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/USA, 2012)
An exquisite and subtly political tribute to the forgotten, Cohen carries on the great tradition of the likes of Agnès Varda to glean pleasure in small, otherwise ignored moments.

7. Paradise: Love/Faith/Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012) Read More
Individually they are fine, but the richness of these three deeply moral (but never sermonising) films is most apparent in concert. The first film, with its trenchant depiction of race, travel, and racial stereotypes, gives perhaps the strongest blow, but the rare glimmer of hope in the third film is a nice little reward.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA) Read More
The best of the American films at Cannes, the Coen Brothers’ mordant but hilarious take on mediocrity is a wonderful little portrait of a scene about to blow up big, but that would cast many of those with the requisite passion to the sidelines.

9. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) Read More
Jia’s magnificent oeuvre-swerve shows a contemporary and complex China grappling with corruption, transience, and individualism.

10. Camille Claudel, 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France)
This austere and intimate film is another showcase for Juliette Binoche, who’s having a great run of great films with great auteurs. But it’s Dumont’s warmth for the outsiders and criticism of suppressed talent that forms the lasting impression.

11. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea) Read More; Bastards (Claire Denis, France) Read More
Two of the best contemporary auteurs put out two great and contrasting films. Denis’s emetic film was unfairly ignored and discarded after its lukewarm Cannes premiere, while Hong’s film is as sharp and funny as ever.

Good: The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino), Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley), Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin), Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley), The Battle of Tabatô (João Viana), Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche), Eternal Homecoming (Kira Muratova), Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino—hey, it’s much better and cleverer than people give it credit for).

Turkeys: Harmony Korine’s tame and shallow Spring Breakers (I get that it’s purposefully so, but that doesn’t make it resonant or racially unproblematic) is a film that people who don’t watch avant-garde films like to name-drop to prove how avant-garde they are. Blue Jasmine appears to be further proof of how Woody Allen is convinced of the genius of his blinkered view of the world; the film is nothing more than a nasty, superficial piece of work. Only God Forgives was a shocker, too—racist and simplistic—and thankfully buried. Love Battles by Jacques Doillon was one of the more tedious films I saw on the festival circuit, while A Castle in Italy by Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi was straight out irritating in its self-indulgence.

Films I unfortunately missed, but will endeavour to find include Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas), Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami), and Three Sisters (Wang Bing), amongst many others.

img_yir2013-3Alexander Bisley

Editor-at-Large, The Lumière Reader

  1. Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
  2. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)
  3. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA)
  4. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan, 2012)
  5. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA) Read More
  6. Grigris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, France/Chad) Read More
  7. The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Egypt/USA)
  8. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)
  9. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, UK/USA) Read More
  10. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (Alex Gibney, USA) Read More; The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France); Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2012); War Witch (Kim Nguyen, Canada, 2012) Read More; Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin, Russia/UK) Read More

Illustration by Anna Tokareva © 2013. All Rights Reserved.

img_yir2013-4Jacob Powell

Contributing Editor, The Lumière Reader

Seems everyone is saying 2013 fielded a bountiful harvest of cinematic pleasures and I’m inclined to agree. It was difficult for me to chop down to a Top 10 list without feeling like a major injustice was being done and so I present my ‘best of film’ viewed in 2013, beginning with 15 of my top 12 movies for the year. I should perhaps have presented these in alphabetic order as this list would morph with every serious consideration (at least within groups of 3-4 films). One thing is clear to me, though: my number one film is incontestable. Andrew Bujalski’s jaunt into comic surrealist time-capsuling firmly ticked all the right cinematic boxes, capturing me in its bizarre synergies despite the calibre of the other top picks.

Note: these lists include (NZ) general and festival releases, fiction and documentary, features and shorts, all jumbled in together.

1. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA) Read More
Far and away my favourite film of the year, Andrew Bujalski’s commentary on technology and social change is as acutely attuned to humanity as it is to its retro-technical setting. A surrealist psychological thriller of sorts (not that it can be summarised in such a reductive way!), the film presents as a fascinating mash of narrative/technological context, surrealist action, and thematic exploration. Mysterious, unsettling, and endlessly amusing this is truly original cinema from a distinctive authorial voice.

2. Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan)
Spare, sober, and utterly engrossing, this Kazakh tale of childhood dysfunction strongly evokes the Dostoevskyan spiritual-in-the-physical philosophy seen in the work of both Tarkovsky and Bresson. Harmony Lessons, in its portrayal of the moral ambivalence of youth (in a school setting), reminded me greatly of Antonio Campos’s equally unsettling Afterschool (2008). While the latter employs noticeably off-kilter framing, Harmony Lessons is composed of more classical locked off (and incredibly beautiful) cinematography. Emir Baigazin’s debut evinces a strong directorial aesthetic and intriguing thematic exploration. Definitely a talent to watch.

3. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway)
One of the most singular, intense, and emotionally/psychologically heavy cinematic experiences I’ve ever encountered, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a bizarre and compelling remembering become reckoning.

4. Noah (Walter Woodman/Patrick Cederberg, Canada)
Modern life distilled. Woodman & Cederberg’s short film is as refreshingly original as it is movingly honest. A first person perspective of a teenage boy’s relationship breakdown, tracked entirely via his computer screen, Noah is a fascinating exercise in construction and editing. It digs into matters of identity, communication, and social formation with a biting veracity but not without warmth. Anyone over 20: observe and feel old!

= Starlet (Sean Baker, USA, 2012)
A phenomenally written intergenerational relationship drama between a flighty girl in her twenties and a slightly crotchety octogenarian (from Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch, both of Greg the Bunny fame), Starlet is rich, warm, and adroitly funny. Including moments of real tension and drama without the need to resort to pathos, Starlet proves a smartly and artfully constructed film with a narrative to do it justice.

5. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paraval, France, 2012) Read More
Figuratively and literally an immersive film, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s irriguous documentary is equal parts cinematic feature and experimental video art. Showing no regard for such cinematic staples as narrative, dialogue, or traditional cinematography, Leviathan concerns itself with the rhythm of the ocean and observing the physical activity of boat life.

6. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA)
Two decades on and Linklater/Delpy/Hawke’s talky relationship investigation is as incisive and, in its own weathered way, as romantic as ever. Delpy and Hawke imbue Céline and Jessie (now in their forties with kids) with a depth of care-worn familiarity—with themselves and each other, their relationship showing the strain of lost ideals, compromise, and inescapable insecurity—bringing the script a vibrancy and resonance it might otherwise be without. Fantastic and at times discomforting viewing.

7. Only the Young (Elizabeth Mims/Jason Tippet, USA, 2012)
I guess a film like this is really geared in my direction. I love coming of age films. I love observational documentary. I love low-key relationship drama. I’m still an occasional skater. Only the Young combines all these flavours. It expertly fashions an almost-narrative piece out of observational documentary through skilful editing and a more formal shooting ethic than is often employed in documentary filmmaking. Altogether, it’s a succinct, moving recipe that successfully taps the heightened, confused emotion of youth without the need for heightened or ‘knowing’ melodrama.

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK)
Under The World’s End‘s beer drenched surface is some deftly layered socio-political commentary on the commodification of culture and ways in which we interpret and cope with (in/ex)ternal change. Add to this that the film is very funny, surprisingly moving, and makes an action hero of Nick Frost (yes!?), and you have one the most effective and enjoyable genre films of recent times.

= Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz, USA) Read More
Aptly titled Cheap Thrills is smart enough to give the audience some meat to chew on before causing them to gag on their next off-colour bite. A comedy marbled with darkness, Evan Katz’s film strikes an excellent balance between cringe humour, out-and-out laughs, and its wryly thoughtful undercurrent. Thematically the film explores the context of ongoing economic instability, taking a very obvious stab at social class divides. Most importantly though, Cheap Thrills is actually bloody funny.

9. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada, 2012) Read More
Is truth a personal concept, or a communal one? Documentaries which edit together the highlights package of a life story abound and are, in many cases, of great interest. Biographical documentaries that dig into the vagaries of recollection, truth, and the piecemeal construction of corporate memory are less common, and those that do it well are of great value. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is a layered cinematic investigation comparable to an Errol Morris experience.

10. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/USA, 2012)
An immensely rich yet patient film, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours goes literal with its ‘art imitating life imitating art imitating life…’ motif. That so many themes are touched on—excavated even—in a relatively short period, and in melodrama free environs, I found invigorating. Also, platonic relationships!

11. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany/France) Read More
Jim Jarmusch and vampires! Only Lovers Left Alive is an amalgam of personal fibres threaded through a glossy core of aloof coolness. Eschewing the bloodthirstiness or more recent histrionics of other such genre fare, the film zooms in on the idea of an ageless perspective of history, creativity, and love via lounging reflections on the state of humanity from its angular protagonists. Ultimately, if this all adds up to very little dramatic or thematic weight—and I’m not convinced it does—the purely aesthetic pleasures of the film are undeniable.

12. Amour (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria)
A love story in its end stages, Amour’s steely focus on the essentials of human engagement is as tight and tension-building as ever. Haneke’s unfaltering camera tracks a downwards spiral with characteristic unsentimentality, highlighting both the depth and frailty of human love and relationship. In Amour, Haneke blends his trademark formal rigour with very natural character progression to make cinema that enthralls even as it crushes.

= Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, USA)
An incisive relationship dramedy, Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said brings to bear both of its co-leads’ sharp comic sensibilities and dramatic vulnerability. It seems fitting that James Gandolfini’s penultimate role would be one of such emotional honesty, away from the big man’s usual criminal-military character bread and butter. Over and above the inherent interest of seeing such an actor’s concluding works, Holofcener’s film is a rare blend of aching vérité and whip-smart humour.

Other highlights in 2013 (listed alphabetically): A Field in England, A Hijacking, euphonia, Gravity, Jake, John Dies at the End, La Jaula de Oro, The Master, Much Ado About Nothing, No, Rust and Bone, Stoker, The East, The Past, The Red House, The Selfish Giant.

img_yir2013-5Steve Garden

Despite the welcome proliferation of new and rare titles on Blu-ray, the New Zealand International Film Festival continues to be my primary point of contact with new works of cinema. Consequently, my picks of the year are dominated by festival screenings.

Film of the year:

  • Norte, the End of History (Laz Diaz, Philippines) Read More

Big-screen top ten (listed alphabetically):

  • The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Indonesia, 2012) Read More
  • Camille Claudel, 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France, 2012) Read More
  • Gebo and the Shadow (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France, 2012) Read More
  • Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paravel, France, 2012) Read More
  • Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Japan, 2012) Read More
  • The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2012)
  • Paradise: Love/Faith/Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2012) Read More
  • Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2012) Read More
  • Three Sisters (Wang Bing, China, 2012)

Special mention: Child’s Pose (Calin Peter Netzer), Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin), The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher), Everyday Objects (Nicolas Wackerbarth).

Overrated (in my view): The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino), more cynical than it might at first seem; Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch wading in the shallow-end; To the Wonder, an enervating collection of Terence Malick’s most irritating ticks and blind-spots, despite his evident artistic and philosophic sincerity; and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, one of the most risibly self-aggrandising ‘art’ films I’ve seen for quite some time.

I hope to catch up with: Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie), Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche), The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky), Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski), Fireworks Wednesday (Asghar Farhadi), and Tales from the Golden Age (Cristian Mungiu) in due course, most likely on DVD/Blu-ray.

Home-viewing top ten (listed alphabetically):

  • Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2011)
  • Aurora (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2012)
  • Classe tous risque (Claude Sautet, France, 1960)
  • Europe 51 (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1952)
  • Here, Then (Mao Mao, China, 2012)
  • Hors Satan (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011)
  • In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, USA, 1968)
  • Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, China, 2009)
  • West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, China, 2003)
  • Whispering Pages (Alexandr Sokurov, Russia, 1993)

Home-viewing highlights include half a dozen Maurice Pialat and Michael Haneke titles plus the entire filmography of Eric Rohmer, all beautifully transferred to Blu-ray with English subtitles (available from Alas, supplements are not subtitled. Rohmer’s first feature, Le Signe de Lion (1959), was a particular revelation.

Other highlights include Blu-ray releases of half a dozen Satyajit Ray films, notably Jalsaghar (1958, aka, The Music Room) on Criterion, and five excellent films from the mid-60s on Artificial Eye. Also on Blu-ray, a set of little-seen (previously unreleased?) early works by Ingmar Bergman, including So Close to Life (1957) and the excellent Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). I’ve also been enjoying the mixed blessings of the BFI’s Flipside Series, which focuses on little-seen British B-movies from the 60s and 70s. Fascinating stuff, some of it solid, but much of it is an acquired taste.

Finally, one the most extraordinary pieces of footage this year was the bogus sign language translator at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. One can’t help wondering what Paul Whitehouse and The Fast Show team thought of this.

The above selections encompass theatrical, festival, exhibition, and DVD/Blu-ray screenings. All films were viewed in 2013, irrespective of their original release dates.