People who complain that 2013 has been a lousy year for movies are spending too much time in a multiplex with only three letters in its name. Of the twenty films I single out as this year’s finest, nine held their San Diego premieres at a Landmark Theatre, four at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15, and two at the Media Arts Center’s Digital Gym. Only 20% of the films on the list debuted at a mainstream multiplex. Had it not been for Marty and the fluke booking of Drug War at AMC Mission Valley, the percentage would have been even lower.
Audiences need to put as much if not more more thought into selecting a screening venue as they do picking that weekend’s entertainment. With that in mind, 2013 welcomed a new screen to town, the Media Arts Center’s comfy 48-seat Digital Gym. Credit programmer Lisa Franek with bringing a lot of fine films to town that without the facility might otherwise have passed unnoticed.
Those of you who refuse to pay to see an old movie projected in a theater can skip this paragraph (and never read this column again). Kudos to Reading Cinemas’ Jennifer Deering for making the 40-Foot Film series an all-DCP affair. No more Blu-ray projection to cock up their annual Hitchcocktober tribute. They are the only game so far with regard to quality revival screenings. Keep up the great work, Jennifer!
Here are the films and performances of 2013 that helped to supply a steady flow of oxygen to my brain. Onward to 2014!
10) Stacie Passon’s Concussion
Robin Weigert stars as a bored interior designer whose life is forever changed after her kid beans her with a baseball, and she becomes a high-price call girl. If you’re already cringing at the prospect of another “housewife-by-day, hooker-by-night” retread, think again. Stacie Passon’s Concussion is fresh and daringly erotic with a lead performance that’s so good, it took a second viewing for me to realize how big a part Weigert played in helping to plaster over a few of the film's more implausible cracks. For those of you who bought into the sappy melodramatics of Blue Is the Warmest Color, I submit this self-assured and much more seductive antidote.
9) Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives
This film came and went so fast that I never had a chance to review it. Those offended by The Wolf of Wall Street really need to rent Only God Forgives. Refn’s scumbags make Marty’s look like paragons of moral pulchritude. It’s “God,” not “Wolf” that is 2013’s most lurid, aggressively antisocial audience bucker. How do you segue from a surprise sleeper hit of a date movie like Drive to something as foul and off-putting as this? Only God knows what goes through this director’s mind, but damn if his film didn’t stick to me like crap on a barefoot stroll through Dog Park.
As Ryan Gosling’s chiseled, chain-smoking mother, Kristin Scott Thomas gives this year’s ballsiest, most unashamed performance, bar none. What’s it about? Expressionistic use of space and color. There’s also a story involving a near-catatonic Ryan Gosling who is forced by mama to hunt down and kill the revenge-seeking, Karaoke-singing sociopath who murdered her other son. Never mind the small details: when told that her baby boy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, Thomas coolly shrugs it off with, “I’m sure he had his reasons.”
Here is a film so aggressively repugnant and so stylishly told that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it. It’s not for everybody — if it was it wouldn’t be on this list — but there are a few of you loyal readers (I’m talking to you, Ghost_of_Dolores_Hope) that will benefit greatly from its atrocities. The Kensington Video rental copy will be returned this weekend after I get done studying the director’s commentary.
8) Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here
Four friends vacationing from Australia party the night away at a remote Cambodian holiday destination only to wake the next morning with big heads, minus a chum, and unable to recall the events of the previous evening. There is more virtuoso storytelling at work in the exquisitely elucidative opening credit sequence than you’ll find in many of this summer’s thrillers combined. The best way to describe the film in commercial terms is The Hangover for people longing to be challenged mentally, not the other way around.
7) Julien Temple’s London: The Modern Babylon
A monumental achievement in cinema-as-time-travel. Writer-director Julien Temple (Absolute Beginners, Earth Girls Are Easy) and his frequent editor, Caroline Richards, availed themselves of the opportunity to boil down 800 hours of sparklingly restored archival footage into a chronicle of modern-day London. The duo fling wide "the Gate of God," starting with the birth of cinema and refusing to come up for air until 133 minutes later, when their variegated wild ride through a culture in which luxury and corruption too frequently go hand in hand comes thundering to a halt.
6) Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street
Not since The Last Temptation of Christ has a Martin Scorsese movie pissed off so many people. Nice work, boss! Marty’s greatest sins appear to be an unwillingness to judge characters or tell his audience how to think. Fuck the bluenoses, Marty. The “controversy” is only helping to put more butts in seats, something the film desperately needs considering its weak $18 million opening.
5) Johnnie To’s Drug War
Had you told me last year at this time that 2013 would bring a wholly original cop drama, I’d probably have laughed in your face. Strap Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay to theater seats, force open their eyes, and give the otherwise blind dopes the Clockwork Orange treatment with Drug War. Maybe then these American purveyors of effects-driven shit will understand how a first-rate action film is made. No moldy police procedural or done-to-death squad car small talk from these “see the job, do the job” cops and a director who refuses to pump out more of the same.
4) Jess Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing
The only 100% original work of cinema to play San Diego this year. Director Joshua Oppenheimer set out to explore the “nature of impunity” by offering celebrated Indonesian death squad leaders a cinematic platform on which to reenact their participation in the genocide of 1965 — in a genre of their own choosing. Only in a world with democracy and corruption to spare are gangsters treated like movie stars.
3) Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain
You had your chance to see Panahi’s latest masterwork when it played the San Diego Asian Film Festival. With departmental Hobbits and Disney ice princesses raking in the big bucks, it’s unlikely that exhibitors will feel the need to free up a screen for this type of extremely personal storytelling. Too bad, for the sudden, magical appearance of the director halfway through the picture exceeds any CG effect Hollywood threw our way.
2) Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love
From its opening long take — the lead character speaks from outside the frame — Kiarostami's sleight of hand draws us headfirst into this Tokyo tale of purposeful miscommunication and calculated role-playing.There is not a shot or gesture in the entire film that could not withstand rigorous visual analysis, but the film itself is not a puzzle. It’s the work of an assured master whose greatest virtue is making it all look so easy. 2012.
1) Pablo Larrain’s No
The absurdist comedy, No, is the final installment in Pablo Larrain’s unplanned “Pinochet era” trilogy that began with Tony Manero in 2008. According to the director, “Post Mortem speaks of the origin of the dictatorship, Tony Manero about its most violent moment, and No is about the end.”
This could be the most beautiful purposefully ugly movie ever filmed. Larrain was not content to rely on newsreel footage to fuel his political satire about a band of inept PR men scrambling to come up with an ad campaign to defeat Augusto Pinochet in Chile's 1988 referendum. He shot the entire film on ¾-inch U-matic tape, so it’s impossible to tell where the reality ends and the fictionalized account begins.
Runners Up: Eran Creevy’s Welcome to the Punch; Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies; Scott McGehee & David Siegel’s What Maisie Knew; Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder; Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker; Michael Apted & Paul Almond’s 56 Up; James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer; Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting; John Crowley’s Closed Circuit; and P. J. Hogan’s Mental.
Best Directors: See above.
Best American Animated Film: Lauren MacMullan’s six-minute Get a Horse.
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong (No), Katsumi Yanagijima (Like Someone in Love); Cheung Siu-keung (Drug War); Larry Smith (Only God Forgives); Emmanuel Lubezki (To the Wonder); Yves Bélanger (Laurence Anyways); Ed Wild (Welcome to the Punch); Giles Nuttgens (What Maisie Knew); Guillermo Navarro (Pacific Rim).
Writing: Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price (Wish You Were Here); Stacy Passon (Concussion); Nancy Doyne & Carroll Cartwright (What Maisie Knew); Avi Nesher (The Matchmaker); Tom Braby (Shadow Dancer); Steven Knight (Closed Circuit); P. J. Hogan (Mental); R.F.I. Porto (Blue Caprice).
Performance, Male: Martin Scorsese (One Direction: This Is Us); Hao “Ha! Ha!” Ping (Drug War); Christopher Walken (Stand Up Guys); Alan Arkin (Stand Up Guys, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Grudge Match); Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street); Robert DeNiro (American Hustle); Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires); Adir Miller (The Matchmaker); Melvil Poupaud (Laurence Anyways); Bruce Dern (Nebraska); Michael Shannon (The Iceman); Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now); Ron Livingston (Drinking Buddies); Rob Reiner (The Wolf of Wall Street); James Franco (Spring Breakers); Justin Chon (21 & Over); Will Poulter (We’re the Millers).
Performance, Female: Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives); Robin Weigert (Concussion); Toni Collette (Mental); Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer, Welcome to the Punch, Disconnect); Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies); Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color); Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now); Felicity Price (Wish You Were Here); Brie Larson (Short Term 12); Lucy Punch (Stand Up Guys); Onata Aprile (What Maisie Knew); Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit); Rachel McAdams (Passion); Kate Bosworth (Homefront); Essence Atkins (A Haunted House).
Best Ensemble Performance: Drinking Buddies.
Proof that Hollywood Can Still Turn Out Quality Blockbusters: Pacific Rim and Olympus Has Fallen.
Best Use of 3D: Storm Surfers 3D.
The Automatic Automatic: "Monster"
Best Use of a Preexisting Song: The Automatic Automatic’s Monster in Cockneys vs. Zombies.
Omitophile Award for Best On-Screen Vomiting: It was a good year for throw-up. As much as we all enjoyed watching De Niro on the receiving end of Katherine Heigl’s upchuck in The Big Wedding, this year’s prize has to go to Justin Chon’s peristaltic wizardry in 21 & Over.