2013 was, overall, a very solid year in film. There are many films from last year that, if they had been released in a previous year, would have made my top ten; however, an abundance of very solid films meant that my favourite films of the year are very concentrated. However, as much as I absolutely love my number one film form 2013, I don’t think there was a singular, outstanding opus of filmic artistry this year as there have been in other recent years – like No Country for Old Men in 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2008 and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in 2012. This article is a prelude to my top ten list, and it contains my honourable mentions, as well as my underrated, overrated and worst films of 2013.
There are a couple caveats that I need to put on these forthcoming articles. The first, and most important to keep in mind, is that I write my yearly best-of lists based on each film’s Australian release date. This means that some ‘awards season’ films that are technically 2012 films will appear in these reviews. It also means that many ‘awards season’ films from 2013 will not appear on this list, because I have not seen any of them. Thus, films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Past, The Great Beauty and Blue is the Warmest Colour will be eligible for my 2014 lists. This is because I want my list to have some degree of relevance. If I wrote my top ten list after I saw all the films I wanted to see, my list would not be published until March, at which point all Oscars buzz will be over.
I saw 41 films in the cinema in 2013; a record for me. Yet there were still many films that I did not get a chance to see. I want to make mention of some of the films that I wanted to see but did not; thus, these films will not be appearing in these articles: Spring Breakers, The Act of Killing, To the Wonder, Captain Phillips, You’re Next, Short Term 12, The Hunt, Cloud Atlas, Expedition to the End of the World, Barbara, Blancanieves, Rust and Bone, Kon-Tiki, Only God Forgives, Sleepwalk With Me, Stranger By The Lake and The Grandmaster.
Forget any preconceptions you have about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln; the film is so much more than a stodgy, phlegmatic and tedious historical drama/period piece/‘look how good White people were at helping Black people’ film. The key to making a great biopic about a grandiose historical figure is to minimise the focus, and Lincoln uses the few months before Abraham Lincoln’s death as a microcosm of his entire life and worldview. Instead of portraying Lincoln as an infallible person, as would be so easy, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner explore the discreet flaws in Lincoln’s personality. He is represented as a man whose egotistical and loquacious ramblings alienate others; his is depicted as a man who struggles to intimately connect with his family as he begins to constantly prioritise politics over relationships; he is shown to be a man whose egalitarian ambitions were compromised out of horrible and unfortunate necessity.
And yet, in no small part thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis’ glib and imposing performance, we never forget that Lincoln was one of the most important harbingers of equality in history. The self-referentially verbose dialogue sizzles, making the film’s two-and-a-half hour run time fly by, despite some overreaching Spielbergian sentimentality. Even though the film occasionally decelerates in the scenes between Lincoln and his wife, played by Sally Field, Lincoln is rollicking entertainment from start to end.
Farewell, My Queen
Continuing the theme of solid historical dramas is Benoit Jacquot’s Farwell, My Queen, a French film about the last days of Marie Antoinette’s reign before the Reign of Terror. Like Lincoln, Jacquot’s depicts the extravagant Antoinette’s life in a restrained manner. Rather than outlining a dull synopsis of her entire life, Farewell frames Antoinette’s persona (played by Diane Kruger) through the eyes of an outsider – a young servant in Versailles called Sidonie (Lea Seydoux). I found Farewell, My Queen’s absolute disregard of historical accuracy refreshing, in a postmodern sense. It does not care about depicting the minutiae of French Revolution accurately, instead concerning itself with uncovering a core truth or interpretation of Antoinette’s personality. She is a woman who uses her disconcerted extravagance as a masquerade to conceal her desperate, unrequited passion for another woman.
This is ultimately Sidonie’s film, and the hand-held, point-of-view cinematography perpetually reminds us of that. Seydoux’s filmic presence exerts a pale, tempered nonchalance, which complements Sidonie’s reserved confusion over her place within divergent personal and political spheres. She is a poor commoner, much like the revolutionaries, but she upholds an obsessive duty towards the common folk’s most hated figure – Marie Antoinette. Farewell, My Queen manages to balance both the claustrophobic and the grandiose within the same scene; there are such large themes of youth, sexuality, deception, contrivance and class disparity at play, and they unravel entirely in the walls of Versailles.
I saw quite a few animated films this year. I enjoyed them all, to various degrees, but I had some rudimentary problems with Frozen, Monsters University, Despicable Me 2 and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Unlike these four films, ParaNorman was a 2012 release in America, but it was far and away the best animated feature I saw last year. Beautifully animated, consistently witty and a little bit scary too, ParaNorman is an homage to schlocky 1980s horror movies. The opening scene features Norman – a boy who can interact with the ghosts of dead people and animals – watching some shitty zombie flick with his dead grandmother.
The film is not entirely original (the plot is somewhere between The Sixth Sense, Night of the Living Dead and Monster House). Many of the characters are mere archetypes as well – the nervous and shy protagonist, the fat and unintentionally funny red-headed friend, the ditzy blonde sister. There are, however, a couple of ingenious exceptions – the gay bodybuilder immediately springs to mind. This feeds into the film’s Shakespearean cautions against vengeance and blind judgement – messages like ‘don’t bully your bullies’ and ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ pervade the film, but are extrapolated with nuance, ensuring that the messages are not oversimplified to pander to children. Despite a handful of flaws, ParaNorman is a delight to watch.
Stoker is a stolid, cold and emotionless film. A stolid, cold and emotionless blankness consumes many of the actors’ facial expressions and their measured way of speaking. This is not necessarily a flaw. Director Chan-wook Park, of Oldboy fame, is not interested in silly trivialities like ‘characterisation’ and ‘dialogue’ and ‘verisimilitude’ in the search for something larger. There are myriad strands of unexplored themes and emotions in Stoker, but Chan-wook’s film gets to the heart of the deceptive, corroded nature of family, and how independence is the only tangible concept that us mortal beings can endeavour to achieve.
Stoker is a formalist’s wet dream. Every aspect of Stoker is inherently cinematic, from the exquisitely smooth match-cuts to the languidly precise cinematography to the neo-gothic costume design to the eerie chiaroscuro lighting. The film is glossy and at times superficial, but if your experience of cinema transcends the subtle arts of character, plot and dialogue, then Stoker is for you. In terms of sheer formal acuity, few films from 2013 can match Stoker.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
There are countless reasons why The Secret Life of Walter Mitty should not succeed. The central love story falls completely flat; at times it strains too hard to be quirky; there are moments of ridiculous silliness; Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig are pretty bland performers; the film is like an extended Tourism Scandinavia and eHarmony ad rolled into one (even though Walter repudiates eHarmony towards the end of the film). There are endemic problems with the stakes of the story as well. We learn early on that our bizarre protagonist Walter daydreams a lot, dreaming of numerous falsified action set-pieces. These fake action set-pieces train us to believe that the situations Walter finds himself in are not real – so when he is actually attacked by a shark in REAL LIFE, we assume it is a daydream and hence there’s no real sense of danger.
But when a film is as relentlessly exhilarating Walter Mitty, you tend to forget its flaws, no matter how abundant or ignominious they are. Walter Mitty flies by thanks to an epiphanic-sounding soundtrack, crisp and taut editing and the picturesque photography that pursues the luscious hills of Iceland and the rugged solitude of Afghanistan. Almost every frame looks like a painting – even the birds-eye shots of the New York cityscape – which echoes Walter’s pursuit of a photograph throughout the film. Walter Mitty is a film about the importance of art, and how your best friend could be someone who you only meet for a fleeting moment. It is one of the better fun and feel-good feature films of 2013.
The Bling Ring
I am not the world’s biggest Sofia Coppola fan. I love Lost in Translation and Somewhere, but I don’t care for The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. Basically, don’t take it lightly when I say I fucking loved The Bling Ring. From the opening credits, which are accompanied by the heart-pumping noise pop stylings of Sleigh Bells’ ‘Crown on the Ground’, I could tell The Bling Ring was going to be one of Coppola’s most unhinged and unremitting films to date. The Bling Ring is not merely the most underrated film of the year because it had mixed reviews; it is the most underrated film of the year because I have not read one review that properly examined what The Bling Ring is trying to achieve.
The Bling Ring was criticised for failing to explore, in detail, the values of its characters. However, the film is a rather simple instance of form mirroring content. It is a superficial film about superficial people. It uses facile dialogue with very little subtext and basic characterisations to demonstrate how these characters’ lives are shallow and unfulfilling. This is again reflected in the film’s brilliantly cyclic and repetitive structure. The eponymous ‘Bling Ring’ breaks into the house of a celebrity, goes to a party or a club, and then brags about their robberies to themselves at home or others at their school. Rinse and repeat. Each time this three-sequence structure is repeated, another subtly insidious element is introduced: more people join the ‘Ring’, the drugs they take get increasingly harder, they start to hear sirens, a gun is briefly brought into the mix. This evokes a burgeoning aura of paranoia, most especially represented in Marc (Israel Broussard), which is helped along by a relentless soundtrack made up of a plethora of PBR&B, hip hop, ambient and indietronica tracks – from Frank Ocean to Oneohtrix Point Never. Broussard is terrific, as is Emma Watson, who looks and sounds like Chris Lilley’s Jam’ie, if Lilley was actually talented (and female).
Coppola does not judge her simple and simple-minded characters for a reason. The late Harris Savides’ camera often stays static and distanced. Many of his long-shots very slowly zoom in on the robberies taking place, as if threatening to scrutinise the actions of these characters but never doing so. Coppola does not judge or scrutinise her characters, because the celebrities whose houses they rob probably did something illegal or immoral on their path to fame and fortune as well. The Bling Ring is about something more worrying than the characters’ actions themselves. The thieves are privileged evaders of the law – they enter the hottest nightclubs even though they are underage, and worm their way out of jail sentences. If you live in the right place at the right time, you can do anything.
I was not prepared to hate American Hustle as much as I did, but oh boy did I hate this film. American Hustle is essentially Goodfellas on Vicodin, complete with mood swings, an inability to focus, anxiety and a lethargic lack of energy. Do not mistake its capriciousness for pastiche. It tries to be a comedy, a thriller and a romance, but fails miserably at evincing any of these genres effectively. It isn’t as funny or quirky as it thinks it is, substituting witty dialogue for blank expressions on the characters’ faces, unfunny cutaways, unfinished rambling stories (Louis CK’s ‘ice fishing story’ is a shallow appropriation of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction – we never know what it’s about) and messy improvisation that did not serve the plot or substantiate the characters. The film’s vacillating pace has fooled people into believing it is a film of unbridled energy and excitement. It is not. I liked the slower moments of the film – like Christian Bale fixing up his hair, and Jennifer Lawrence interacting with her son.
There are some decent performances in American Hustle. Christian Bale is overly vigorous in his Jewish gesticulations and always looks like he is hiding something – not just his belly (#LOL) – in his excellent depiction of the gruff conman Irving Rosenfeld. Amy Adams is solid too. Jennifer Lawrence delivers the year’s most overrated performance. Her performance reminded me of the fucking plebeians who heap praise on Rebel fucking Wilson’s performance in fucking Bridesmaids when she barely has two scenes. Jennifer Lawrence delivers her lines perfectly, but beyond that she is never more than merely serviceable to the film’s plot. This is not her fault – she does everything required of her, but there is not enough in the material for her to create a dynamic, complete, lived-in character. All she is required to do is play a more basic version of the character she played in Silver Linings Playbook – ‘crazy’, but with over-simplified motivations – and that’s all she strives to do. Perhaps the love affair with J-Law should stop until she lives up to the promise she showed in the extraordinary Winter’s Bone.
David O. Russell has managed to create a film that somehow manages to feel rushed and overlong simultaneously. It is rushed in the sense that there is no depth to the characters or themes. There is a potentially interesting idea at play regarding multiple levels of deception and contrivance – from the main fraudulences to Bradley Cooper’s hair curling – but the expository voice-over makes every idea the film tries to portray so obvious that the film requires no intellectual processing once the credits have rolled. O. Russell clearly had no idea how to end the film, so it peters out, once again giving the film no lasting impact. But the film also feels overlong because it is so monotonous and repetitive. American Hustle is so disappointing because the fundamentals of the film could have been depicted so much more substantially.
I am not a professional, paid film critic, as the quality of this article would probably indicate. That means I don’t have to see anything that I don’t want to see. I didn’t see any movie involving superheroes, or comic book adaptations, or with the name ‘Zack Snyder’ attached (and I especially avoided the film that ticks all three of those boxes). I didn’t have to see whatever human atrocity M. Night Shyamalan or Adam Sandler offered this year, as I already know they should be banned under the Geneva Convention without having to see them. But I did see the Australian film Goddess.
Words cannot describe how asinine, naive, tonally inconsistent, soporific, simplistic, condescending, misogynistic, unfunny, on-the-nose, clichéd, strained and false Goddess is – apart from all those words. It hurts to hate an Australian film as unequivocally as I hated Goddess. It really hurts. But Goddess is so irredeemably awful; it is the only zero-star film I saw in 2013. It wants to be a musical, but the musical sequences are over-composed and the songs sound like they’re written by The Wiggles – a microcosm of the little trust the filmmakers place in the intelligence of the audience. It wants to be a comedy, but the film’s idea of a joke is a child playing with cow shit. Waka waka waka. It wants to be a romance, but the film’s leads – Laura Michelle Kelly and Ronan Keating – are so wooden and unconvincing that any chemistry between them is eroded. Earlier in the year, I tweeted that “I’d rather attend 47 Ronan Keating concerts than sit through 47 Ronin”, but after seeing Goddess, I might just have to sit through 47 Ronin.
All the actors look giddy with excitement that they’re going to be in a movie, and consequentially each line is delivered with either too much gusto or riddled with nerves. The plot revolves around a woman whose musical vlog about the life of a housewife in Tasmania becomes so popular on the Internet that an agent from the ‘big smoke’ – Sydney – played by Magda Szubanski enlists her for some bullshit marketing campaign. I can’t remember. It’s been a while since I saw it. Ultimately, the film presents a disgustingly misogynistic message: that women should not have any ambitions in life aside from cultivating a family, since men aren’t capable of looking after children. That concept alone should put you off seeing this film. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure if we can be friends anymore. Sorry.
Dishonourable mentions: Song for Marion, Much Ado About Nothing, Flight, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.