Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Film year 2013

Here we are again, another movie year is at an end, blah blah blah. It was a rather good year for film, (less so to writing about them) with plenty of quality stuff. In this post I shall look at the best of film year from various aspects and conclude with my Top 13 (since the year in question is -13). My criteria isn't based on the year a film was released but simply that it was a new film I saw during 2013. Only one post this year, since I didn't bother doing another one for festival films and such last year. I'll try to be brief.

Top 10 outside distribution

Finland isn't the most prolific country in the world when it comes to movie distribution. Many of the best films of the year are only shown at festivals or go straight to DVD. Thus any list of the truly best films of the year is somewhat of a lame duck without acknowledging that plenty of good things pass through mostly unseen. My top 10 of these films is as follows:

10. Cheap Thrills

The second-funniest movie of the year, this blackhearted indie comedy is also a somewhat blunt parallel of the relationship between the rich and the poor in modern societies.

9. Simon Killer

The hipster Taxi Driver, or rather just a psychological look inside a total scumbag's mind. The title perhaps gives away a tad too much. This isn't a horror movie - or really even a thriller. It's an unique look at modern loneliness and isolation.

8. The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad)

Jodorowsky's latest is true to form to the auteur - it is his own childhood story, after all. Pity the seams of the budget are a bit too visible and the director perhaps couldn't fully realize his wildest ideas. Still, we have to be greatful such an unique greatness as Jodorowsky is still with us and still creative.

7. The Act Of Killing

One of the most talked-about movies of the year. It is something that awakens a variety of emotions, all right. From disgust, to disbelief and to even odd bittersweetness. How should we try to approach or even understand people who have done despicable things in their time? For starters we should realize they are not monsters but people, which this film manages to present vividly. I have watched two versions of various length of the film. While the shorter TV version might lack in presenting the everyday life of the self-named gangsters, it's pace is a lot more easily digestible and it doesn't repeat itself as much.

6. Maniac

Very rarely do horror movie remakes attempt to do anything fresh with their concept, but usually just blandly redo every major scene. How refreshing, then to see the seedy Grindhouse shocker updated into a genuinely unnerving POV film, that allows perhaps a bit more insight into the mind of a madman. Rather than going through motions, this one dares to surprise and take the story into unexpected territories.

5. Moebius

Kim Ki-duk goes all-out crazy with his new film, which features no dialogue whatsoever, but even more various profane, disgusting and oddball moments. When Pieta was about a twisted motherhood, then this is about a fatherhood hat's very messed up. Also attempting to keep a dysfunctional family together, but just how dysfunctional, you just have to go and see.

4. Nebraska

Alexander Payne returns with a rather melancholy piece about the death of the American countryside. It's pulled by the great performances of its leads, who still don't hog the spotlight too much. It's better for the director when he's not working with A-list movie stars. The script is not half-bad, either.

3. Borgman

What's this? I've no idea. Every time I come up with an explanation, another scene renders it invalid. It may be about a lot of things. Or nothing at all. However, it is the kind of film that will leave you pondering, picking up clues, constructing, connecting, improvising and creating. Surreal, unnerving, odd, goes under you skin. That's what a really good movie can do. I can't wait to see this again, and perhaps show to some friends as well.

2. Jodorowsky's Dune

In a sense, this is a horribly sad movie about a masterpiece that was never completed, only planned thoroughly. On the other hand, this is a model piece of great storytelling. In the end, the best Dune is just the one creted in the viewer's imagination, while Uncle Alejandro yaps. It is also very comforting to see how genuine class of skill and creativity will always find some way to funnel through.

1. The Selfish Giant

Once again, a film that hit me hard to the stomach. The title is taken from a fairy tale, the concept and style from British kitchen sink realism. The end result is not a mixture of these ingredients, but a quirk that could (in a way) be either. That is a good movie, in that it successfully imitates the unpredictability and yet familiar patterns we see all the time in our human lives. Sometimes you just want to pound your fists to the boarded bottom of your bed.


The greatest directors in my mind don't come from Hollywood and even from the States, but from all over the globe. The best American studio cinema could do this year were the technical mastery of Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity, and  Kathryn Bigelow who perhaps channelled her own ambitions and experiences of a woman to an intense revenge flick Zero Dark Thirty. In the outskirts the vivid, colorful Harmony Korine who created a trippy, dippy, oddball party of a movie in Spring Breakers.

In Europe, arthouse darlings Christian Mungiu and Asghar Farhadi (Beyond the Hills and The Past) delivered strong new films that gripped me perhaps even tighter than the films that respectively raised both of them to fame. Also in Finland the famed documentarist Pirjo Honkasalo returned to fictional films after 20 years with a very good film, Concrete Night. A bigger comeback was from the Swedish Lukas Moodysson, who battled long with depression and made grinding, dismal feel-bad films for years. His return to youth film, Vi är bäst! is a lot happier affair and it's for the better. Another, similar feel-bad return was from Thomas Vinterberg, whose grip on the terrifying athmosphere on The Hunt was a lot tighter than on his last few, rather bland films.

As far as directors go, there's no doubt in my mind that the strongest work of the year was done by Abdellatif Kechiche on Blue is the Warmest Color. To get such overwhelmingly emotional, vunerable performances from his lead actresses is one thing, crafting a three-hour relationship film that never feels dull is another. Plus, his sex scenes are steamy and hot without losing the emotional side or feeling too voyeuristic.

To Be Seen

I haven't seen every interesting-seeming film of the year. Here's a list of Top 10 of critical darlings I have missed this year. I'm not saying each of them should necessarily be on a best-of-the-year -list, I'm saying I should check them out as soon as I can.

Eat Sleep Die (Äta, sova, dö)
Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart (Laulu koti-ikävästä)
In the House (Dans la maison)
A Late Quartet
Open Up To Me (Kerron sinulle kaiken)
The Princess of Egypt (Silmäterä)
Something in the Air (Aprés Mai)
What Maisie Knew

Top 5 bubbling under

I just can't let go of some films, so here's 5 movie that just missed a slot on the main list.

Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace - Finns got this in theatres and while I'm usually not that into Stephen Soderbergh, I got to admit in this his cold directing style, plus the warm performances of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas created an aching portrait of romance among empty luxury.
Blue Jasmine - I also don't usually care for Woody Allen much, but his trademark neuroticism is kept at bay once he's got a lead actress as talented as Cate Blanchett. This is a sort of modern retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire and is just as harrowing, sad, comic and ponderous as that.
Captain Phillips - Paul Greengrass does what he does best and crafts another strong docudrama that feels like its what actually happened.
Mud - A deep southern coming-of-age tale with just enough of a mean and dark edge to it. It's a misfit that escapes categorization.
Silver Linings Playbook - Starts out a bit bland, but once the great cast gets comfortable with their unbalanced characters, this turns out to be a worthy feel-good movie.

Top 13 of 2013

13. The Master

Upon first viewing Paul Thomas Anderson's latest movie felt a little hollow and unsatisfying. Pondering on it a bit I realized that the film pulled the right strings, since that's precisely what the main character Freddie Quell is feeling. It's not as deep a film as many would have you imagine, most of its subtext seems to be easy enough to spot. But it is a film that strengthens up in time. And of course the least compromising American film in perhaps years. At the start of the year I wouldn'tve believed this would be on this list. A couple of years later it could possibly raise to the top slots.

12. Concrete Night (Betoniyö)

Pirjo Honkasalo adapts Pirkko Saisio's dark novel that, at first seems like a coming-of-age tale. Then you realize that the worldview fed to the young Simo (Johannes Brotherus) is cold and nihilistic. Then the film turns as bleak and unforgiving. It's a very dark film for demanding audiences. It does have its patches, but the final impression is strong enough to warrant it the best Finnish film I saw this year.

11. Gravity

It's a rather silly film, once you sit down and think about it. But undeniably well-crafted. So well, in fact, that you will grip the armrests of your seats and gasp and awe while it's running. At least when watched on the biggest possible screen. One of the funnest films this year to see in cinemas. It could've offered some more, which would've improved its ranking, but this is fine, too.

10. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

We had to await for ages for the big-screen debut of one of the most hilarious British comedy characters of the past few decades. But us fans were rewarded in spades. For mass audiences, the assholism of Partridge is a bit streamlined and doesn't delve too much on the more tragic aspects of the character. But who cares, when his misadventures are so rip-roaringly hilarious. Stomach-achingly funny.

9. Only God Forgives

This certainly wasn't for everybodys taste. While Drive was much beloved, it was more or less a minor work in Nicolas Winding Refn's filmography and with his latest he returned to the kind of divisive work he is better known for. Stylized study on the affects of violence and the grim consequences thereof. People expecting for a narrative as straight as in Drive were horrified. But films aren't necessarily stories, they can be vessels for emulating emotions. The sense of dead and impending judgement here is just intense. It has a religious aspect to it as the title suggests. And while actors (like Ryan Gosling) are mere vessels for the larger canvas here, Kristin Scott Thomas manages to deliver a truly memorable villain role.

8. Zero Dark Thirty

Another film that was judged by audiences that didn't bother looking beneath the surface. Precisely the fact that this was not a black-and-white morality tale makes it intriguing. Without the modern setting set on the very familiar newspaper headlines, what do you get? A manhunt-turned revenge film that proves ultimately unsatisfying to everyone but the viewer. That, and the invasion of the bin Laden house was the most intense action scene of the whole year.

7. Before Midnight

The world took Jesse and Celine's third outing with surprisingly open arms, considering that the young idealists have turned into a dreary middle-aged couple. Watching them argue makes for a truly cringe-worthy experience, but precisely the fact that even their love isn't all silver linings and steamy passion makes it so much more relatable. The naturalism is not as much on the foreground any more, but the discussions are still very well-written and life-like.

6. We Are Best! (Vi är bäst!)

Another sharp-eyed portrayal, this time about the lives of pre-teen girls. But it's a lot more rocking than that. It's a film where misfits find each other and have the times of their lives. It's a film where the dumbness of adults and how their rules are silly and pointless. And it's even a feminist piece on how girls are treated differently just because. But all in all, it's a film that gives hope and happy feelings to anyone who sees it. Punk is not dead!

5. The Past (Le passé)

It's a testament to Asghar Farhadi's skills on how he can pick up a seemingly-similar topic to the next film following the Oscar- and Berlinale-winning A Separation, but still deliver a completely different kind of a film. What starts out as a sort of mystery on why Marie and Samir separated years ago, becomes a study on the problems of almost every member of their (extended) family. And the revealed skeletons in their closets are truly heart-breaking. Another very humane film, one that finds reason in every mood swing and case of mistreatment.

4. Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri)

Cristian Mungiu was supposed to make a straight-forward retelling of a news item where a young woman was exorcised to death in a remote monastery. But he fictionalized the ordeal to be a comment on the situation on sexual minorities in remote areas, the relationship between the church and the state and the position of traditions in even the modern Romanian society. So Beyond the Hills are we that it's even hard to figure what decade (or century) the film is set before the final scene. Instead of exploiting the situation, Mungiu delivers a quiet, dignified and leisurely proceeding mood piece. Absolutely stunningly brilliant.

3. Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adele, chapitre 1 & 2)

It is just such a damn good movie. I'm tempted to use the stereotypical critic-words, such as "sensual" or "powerhouse" but in the case of such a high quality film, I can barely come up with more to say than the sentence above. Three hours fly by as a closely inspected lesbian relationship blooms and then turns sour. It's not "just" a LBGT film either, but anyone can find connections to their own love life from the rollercoaster of emotions this film presents.

2. Spring Breakers


Harmony Korine succeeds in both creating an absurd parody of MTV-like idle party culture, and yet avoiding moralizing or talking down to the young partiers. He must remember his own time when he toured the world getting wasted and hanged out with batshit crazy rappers like ODB. Anyway, much as his colorful party statement is morbid fun, he also posits that partying doesn't necessarily have to lead to a downer, but can be an empowering experience. Thus he also has feminist aspects to a film where the female cast wears revealing neon-colored bikini almost for the whole rundown. It's a cult classic in the making.

1. The Hunt (Jagten)

I like movies in which someone gets into a troublesome situation which there just isn't any way out of. What would I do in a similar situation? Probably I would go into a dark room and sob, which is what one would like to do after watching this particular film as well. The tensions are gripping, as an innocent man is condemned from paedophilia, which wrecks his closest friendships, losts him his job and even costs dearly to his family life. Mads Mikkelsen is perfect as the lead, since he does look a bit suspicious, but can believably play a run-down, emotional wreck of a man that earns our symphaties as well. Kudos also for the ending to be dark, but not succumbing to the feel-bad punches to the gut Vinterberg has made his trademark.

So, I'd like to know what are your favorite films for 2013? Don't be shy, tell me in the comments, or just give me a holler on Twitter (@LastMB in english, @pmihal if you speak Finnish).



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