I did not see a lot of the big movies that came out this year, unfortunately. The first 2/3 of the year was spent living in a town with a six-screen cinema that mainly played the big stuff that came out. The final 1/3 was spent during a busy semester where I struggled to find time to go to the movies at all. What I did see wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it wasn’t what I would consider great. Pacific Rim? Very fun, but flawed. Thor: The Dark World? Again, fun, but also kinda boring. Man of Steel? Don’t. Get. Me. Started. I’ll probably wind up seeing the new Hobbit movie at some point, though I’m in no rush. And the Anchorman sequel was quite underwhelming overall. Also, I did not care much at all for Star Trek Into Darkness, which did nothing to improve my current impression of J.J. Abrams and the quality of his filmmaking overall. Iron Man 3 was fun, but it also hasn’t stuck with me throughout the year. And I’ve seen movies like Elysium and The Wolverine, which I liked, but didn’t love for various reasons. I’ve also so far missed out on features like 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Blackfish, The Act of Killing, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, The World’s End, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Place Beyond the Pines, Trance, and other movies that I still want to see.
In all honesty, what made the cut for me this year were a lot of movies that weren’t made in 2013. I wonder if that says more about me or about 2013. Probably more about me. Anyway…
Berberian Sound Studio: This one is a headtrip that rewards repeated viewing and, I think, holds up to close scrutiny (as opposed to Upstream Color, which has gotten more attention, but I think is overly obscure). What starts out as a story of a meek British sound engineer brought on board an Italian giallo (read: slasher) film in the 70s becomes something more sinister and bizarre as it goes. The final act of the movie takes it completely into WTF-ville, in the best way. I’d love for more people to watch this movie, mainly so I could talk to them about it and hear their theories on what really happens.
Holy Motors: Another headtrip, and a deliriously imaginative one. Basically, a strange man moves through a large city, inhabiting a series of radically different lives at every stop, doing sometimes mundane, sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant things. Why he does this is never explained, but there is an actual sequence to it all that can be followed quite easily. The movie is brilliantly conceived – if it were literature, it would be New Wave SF, and good New Wave at that – and the acting is superb.
Sauna: Great little Finnish horror film that stayed in my head for weeks afterward. As a student of horror stories and storytelling, I consider this required viewing for anyone in the same vein. The level of historical detail and background is really impressive, setting the story at the end of the 16th century at the close of a 25-year war between Sweden and Russia. The story itself involves two brothers – one a solider (who looks like the Finnish Walter White), the other a mapmaker and academic – who get lost in a Finnish border village where no new citizens are born and people live forever, despite still aging, and the specter of a young girl seemingly haunts them. At the edge of the town: the titular sauna, which houses horrifying visions for those who might visit. The horror of this movie is strongly derived from the intense, unnerving imagery and set design (the sauna itself is a high point), but much of the movie’s grip on me came from how deeply it excavated the guilt of the principals and made that guilt an axis for the story (the arc phrase for the movie as a whole is “Wash your sins,” and for good reason).
The White Ribbon: This one definitely wasn’t released in 2013, but that hardly matters here. What does matter is that it left a profound mental and emotional impact on me. Ostensibly a story of sinister happenings in a small German village in pre-Great War days, this movie pretty much cored me out as I was watching it. I felt like I was watching the origin story for a particular kind of evil that we are all familiar with from studying the events of World War II. What is often ascribed by some to seemingly supernatural causes – the rise and power of Nazism – is given a more realistic treatment here, and it’s all the scarier and sadder for it.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky: Lest you all begin to think I’m a completely mature individual with sophisticated tastes, feast your eyes on this. It’s a perfect example of how I can consider a movie to be great, despite obvious flaws in storytelling and moviemaking. This one feels like watching a live action anime made by a teenage boy given free range to creatively express his id-like desires. The main character punches holes in prison walls and ties a tendon in his arm with his fingers and teeth when it’s sliced during a fight. One of his foes smashes a poor fellow’s head with his hands like a soggy watermelon. Another one bloats up into a one-eyed demon when angered. You get the idea. Watch it late at night with your friends and have a laugh. (Side note: the following embedded video is the full movie.)
The Host: One of my absolute favorites that I watched this year. Part horror movie, part environmental cautionary tale, part family tragedy, part comedy, this movie holds up amazingly well because of its stellar story, which switches between and mixes several storytelling tones in a compelling and cohesive manner. The ensemble of actors and actresses in this movie is amazing as well. Indeed, if it weren’t for the naturalistic and relatable manner of their acting, I don’t know if I would have engaged with the movie’s more outlandish elements as well.
The Red Shoes: Those of you with access to the Criterion Collection (like, say, Hulu Plus users) must watch this movie. It’s a masterwork. The writing is superb, as is the acting. The story follows a template seemingly old as dirt: an aspiring ballerina is caught in a tug of war between the struggling playwright she loves and the rich producer who loves her. The actual movie is more complex than that, especially once it starts taking more creative risks in externalizing the ballerina’s struggles. The centerpiece of this movie is a staged adaptation of the titular fairy tale, where the ballerina acts out an increasingly phantasmagorical and frightening drama that forces her to engage with her own conflicts. It blew me away when I saw it.
Suspiria and Deep Red: I went on a Dario Argento kick earlier this year, after watching Berberian Sound Studio, appropriately enough. I’m not an Argento defender; his movies are way too scattered in terms of their quality, and once you see enough of his work, the Argento formula becomes exhausting. Tenebre and Phenomena and okay, though not great (and Suspiria is a partial ripoff of his own Suspiria), and I thought Inferno and Opera, though sometimes imaginative, were mostly terrible. Suspiria and Deep Red, however, are legitimate horror/thriller classics that I would consider required viewing. Suspiria is the quintessential creepy boarding school story, cooked with bizarre, metaphorically charged imagery and genuine suspense. The fantasy elements of the story work well enough (except for at the very end), making the movie feel like a twisted fairy tale, of sorts. Deep Red is a much more realistic affair, though still very much suspenseful and actually clever in its use of psychoanalysis as a mode of investigation. It also boasts a great lead performance from David Hemmings.
Brazil: Why did it take me so long to watch this movie? Why? It’s so beautiful. It’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve ever watched. It’s the best dystopian movie ever, period. It’s a fantastic satirical work and a product of genius. It’s also imaginatively and emotionally rewarding in equal measure. So brilliant that it will likely serve as a creative touchstone for me in decades to come. The best movie I saw in 2013, but it also shares that honor with the last movie…
Performance: The headtrip to serve notice to all headtrips. A genuine oddity of storytelling and moviemaking that couldn’t have been produced by any other combination of principals (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg, James Cox, Mick Jagger), any other set of influences (Borges is a huge touchstone here), and any other time (the turning of the 60s into the 70s in London). The first half of the movie is realistic gangster drama, with Cox playing the volatile gangster Chaz finding himself in trouble with his bosses for breaking too many rules of conduct. He shacks up with Jagger’s drug-addled, philosophy-obsessed, creatively blocked rocker Turner in the second half, and that’s when the fun really starts. What we wind up with is the ultimate Cortazaresque/Borgesian story, a puzzle box of conflicting philosophies, gender and sexuality, and identity as a whole. The climactic music video where Turner burrows into Chaz’s psyche – that’s a fairly literal way of describing it, by the way – is easily my favorite movie moment from this year.
Other movies that easily make this list, but I’ve already written about on my blog: 13 Assassins (fantastic samurai historical action), Walkabout (gorgeous Outback coming-of-age story), Velvet Goldmine (glam rock tribute opus), Cemetery Man (wryly funny zombie mindtrip), If… (barbed boarding school satire), Trollhunter (found footage brilliance), Mother (heartbreaking Korean family tragedy), Santa Sangre (best Jodorowsky movie? possibly), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (madcap Korean western action), The Secret of Kells (beautifully animated gem), Brick (teenage detective story with stellar acting), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (deliriously weird and fun), and A Tale of Two Sisters (chilling family tragedy as horror).