Best of 2013: Film

This was a really good year for films and I say this in comparison to the past few years. What made this year great was that a lot of independent and arthouse films made good money from their box-office collections with Mud and Before Midnight being the cream of indie successes. But more than that, 2013 was the year that saw one of the most underrated genres — documentary — finally come of age and evolve into a unique form courtesy some very subversive works which bent the rules of the genre. 2013 also saw the return of “mumblecore” — another of the overlooked American arthouse genres in recent decades with two excellent films which reiterated the strengths of the genre while experimenting with its oddities even more.

Here is the best of what films had to offer in 2013:

Best Performances in a Film

I am not choosing any one best as it would be unfair to a lot of these deserving performances. Instead, I’m highlighting why each was special the way they were. Excluded quite a few including DiCaprio’s best performance since The Aviator in the slightly overrated The Wolf of Wall Street, Adele Exarchopaulos in the surprisingly competent Blue is the Warmest Color and Michael.B.Jordan in Fruitvale Station among others, just to keep the list restricted to seven.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave

In a fair world, the Academy would award him the Oscar blindly. He was absolutely brilliant in this no-holds barred take on the brutality of slavery, his eyes expressing a million emotions during numerous stand-out scenes.

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Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

Carrying the movie on her sole shoulders was something a lot of good actors do well but essentially personifying the entire mood of the film is another task. Gerwig does it brilliantly, embodying the spunky and driven by instinct-Frances, a selfish but well-meaning twenty-something in a refreshing take on the NYC lost youth comedy/drama.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

While Scarlett Johansson’s voice deserves equal praise, Joaquin had an unenviable task of being the sole emotional core in the physical realm of a love story. He was the only person on-screen whose emotions the audiences could visibly see and so he had to be even better than he usually is in personifying both the awkwardness, genuine affection and loss his character goes through in various stages of this beautiful film on human connection.

Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color

Again, this was a very difficult role of being the emotional core, the only guiding light in a densely opaque and abstract film but Seimetz, the rising star in multi-talented young actors does a brilliant job, churning out some standout scenes showcasing raw emotion in a movie where there was on the superficial layer very little room for it.

Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

Jesse and Celine have changed quite a bit in nine years of marriage but there are moments in this masterful film that you can see the flashes of who they used to be. Portraying shades of characters they’ve been playing over almost 2 decades of their life now is a challenge and both these characters have such a genuine working chemistry together that you can see how these two people have grown together — in ways both towards and away from each other.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

Isaac was robbed of a very deserving nomination for playing a very understated character, a typical loser portrayed in older Coens films but with a rare degree of nonchalance we didn’t see before. Isaac is also a brilliant singer showcasing the right amount of expression on his face when singing a folk ballad, lost in time, devoid of his life’s worries.

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Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

It’s a no-brainer that she is going to sweep all the awards in the Best Actress category and I’d say she deserves it, playing a bipolar rich socialite brought to the brink of poverty by her husband’s downfall and BOY does she play her character so well. Hysterical crying and hyperactive talking triggered between blank-faced white lies and faux smiles, she transitions from one mood to another in matter of no time, easily becoming the best bipolar character to play in a Woody Allen film since Woody himself in Annie Hall.

Bonus: Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing

This is not even a fictional character, but an actual person — a crazed gangster who was the leader of a notorious death squad in Indonesia, mercilessly butchering thousands of people during a failed coup in mid-60s. The wicked, evil grin on his face as he recreates all the killings in Hollywood style — completing a cycle of influence, with almost no sign of remorse on his face, he is a villain in the truest sense and he never comes out of that character throughout the movie.

Best Films of 2013

Honorable Mentions:

Room 237

Blue is the Warmest Color

The Past

Fruitvale Station

The World’s End

A Touch of Sin

The Top 10:

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10) Inside Llewyn Davis

Despite the Coens’ staying among familiar themes, this film saw them explore new territory atleast internally through the eyes of a struggling, folk artist set in the 60s folk scene in New York. The tone is very somber and large parts of the film takes place during the cold winter, reflecting the isolation and coldness left within the titular character’s directionless life. Atmospherically, it felt closest to Fargo, even if its themes were far more personal of a man struggling to accept that maybe, this is it. 

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9) Leviathan

A breath-taking wordless documentary on the life aboard a fishing ship in the Atlantic Ocean, this was among the finest examples of “film as a visual medium” in 2013, largely because it subverted the traditional by completely ignoring the talking, narration and interviewing common to documentaries and instead focused entirely on wordless scenes of nature, exploring its patterns, how the humans silently interact with it and ending up saying a lot more  than it could with mere words. A masterpiece in visual film-making, Leviathan is a must-watch for those who believe in the saying “a picture is worth a million words”

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8) Computer Chess

The return of mumblecore (an American subgenre of naturalistic acting and dialogues) made a big comeback and it was only fitting that one of its’ founders, Andrew Bujalski was at the center of it. Presented in the form of a cheaply shot on an 80s-era recorder, Computer Chess is a formal experiment in form and structure of films. Beginning as a mockumentary of a computer chess event pitting AIs against one another in chess events overlooked by nerds, it becomes increasingly odd as it progresses. Taking a turn for a surreal analogy of nerd culture cliques and government surveillance mashed up with a swingers group, it ends up becoming a sci-fi nightmare in the oddest sense laying forth a puzzling but disturbing image of a future as seen through the paranoid lens of pre-millennial psyche. Funny and occasionally a biting satire of our times, Computer Chess worked both within and outside the constraints of its genre. A genre-bender in truest sense.

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7) Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s Primer became an Internet cult hit purely for how densely opaque and indecipherable it was. People loved speculating on what was going on at any precise moment while watching that film. That is partly true of Carruth’s sophomoric feature film, an existential exploration of human emotions detached physically from their memories.  Unlike Primer, this film relies on visual imagery to do a lot of conveying of its themes despite some of Carruth’s purposely obtuse tendencies. Not to mention, it is anchored by a brilliant performance by Amy Seimetz, bringing a much-needed humane layer to Carruth’s metaphysical story.

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6) Her

What could have been hilariously awful in the wrong hands got the perfect treatment from the soulful eccentric Spike Jonze, who followed up the brilliantly surreal Where All the Wild Things Are with this superb, futuristic twist in the traditional love-story formula spun into a delicate exploration of human connection and loss. A perfect complementary piece to Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, this film is grounded by Phoenix’s constrained performance, Johansson’s beautifully evocative voice and a tale that sensibly handles all the awkward kinks of a human-AI relationship to allow it to focus at its core — one that resembles like the very best of love stories we’ve been told over the ages. Add a great soundtrack and art direction to it and Her is a modern science fiction of a very possible future but with a soul and a heart.

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5) Ship of Theseus

Personally a proud moment when I include an Indian film without any concessions, Ship of Theseus is a beautifully shot and respectably deep film exploring the connection between human identity and physical ailments. With some of the most well-written, thought-provoking imagery and conversations, Anand Gandhi constructs a delicate picture of identity sans definitions and largely succeeds because the script and visual direction driving the film is so good. Peppered with standout scenes with great performances, Ship of Theseus is one of the best movies to emerge from this country in ages.

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4) 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s arthouse tendencies took a backseat in this brutal and unflinching depiction of slavery. Not holding anything back, McQueen does a brilliant job emphasizing through long shots and extended torture sequences of not the brutality, but of the human suffering. This important difference pays dividends as separating the act from the impact it has on a human is where many films on slavery on the past have slipped, but McQueen glides through it comfortably. He has a brilliant cast to help him out led by the superb Ejiofor, the painfully tortured character of N’yongo and Fassbender, who as the plantation owner is adequately despicable. A simple case of directorial treatment elevating the film to a higher level, 12 Years a Slave is also one of the better feature films on slavery, pandering for neither sympathy or sadness, as there was little space for those emotions back in this era.

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3) Stories We Tell

Among the trio of subversive, genre-breaking documentaries of 2013,  Sarah Polley’s documentary ironically begins as the most conventional. Set with a rather underwhelming premise of a film-maker exploring her own family history by switching back and forth between a series of vignettes of family VHS videos and interviews with her family members, it takes a turn into the meta territory becoming an interrogation on the idiosyncrasies of memory and of storytelling itself. One of 2013’s best creative ideas, the behind the camera-interviewing by Polley, decidedly breaks fourth wall as the family members talk back to her, and over the course of its meta-narrative, it becomes clear why she chose such a technique. Spinning such an exploration of creative techniques of a very unusual premise for a documentary while extending its boundaries from family drama to meta-narrative, SWT was 2013’s unlikely on paper success.

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2) The Act of Killing

In the year of subversive documentaries, Joshua Oppenheimer’s brutal non-fiction investigation of a couple of gangster-turned-mass killers at the behest of government is one of the most eerie explorations of the “form” of film. In between remorseless recollections of their past genocide “triumphs” and recreating some of their killings in Hollywood style — completing a cycle of influence — the film changes form as it progresses into a surreal allegory of sorts, beginning to extend the story of these genocidal murderers into an anti-nationalistic view of a government who can conveniently execute its own citizens at the behest of a coup. A part exploration of the influence of violent films on deranged people and a part experimentation of the same violence turning the film itself into a strangely meta-narration between the past and present Indonesia, TAOK is one of the bravest and most original films, let alone documentaries in ages.

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1) Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s two previous films in this trilogy — the idealistic optimism and romance of early 20s in Before Sunrise and the bittersweet reunion of the jaded 30s Before Sunset — offered some of the most realistic and genuinely heartfelt depictions of love on-screen. Not just that, they were also excellent markers of how two characters evolved over the decade. Following a similar suit of focusing on the pair of Jesse & Celine after every 9 years, Before Midnight found them in the middle-phase of marriage. Long over the “honeymoon phase” and now struggling to often accept each other as human beings. Yet for all its jaded pessimism and the Big Argument, Before Midnight is one of the most romantic movies I’ve seen since Sunset because it doesn’t sweeten the reality of how marriage is less about eternal love and more about the constant will to understand one another and accommodate their needs. The long and brilliantly shot/acted/directed argument scene was heart-breaking for an average viewer expecting a date night movie, but it was also an excellent window into these two characters who are forming a lasting connection with their viewers akin of friends you’ve always known, but only see in fleeting glimpses. The film with those brilliant conversations revealing layers of depth to these characters, also has some beautiful wordless scenes personifying that sometimes the most romantic thing in a marriage is the commitment to give a shit, to keep fighting, to keep compromising and to be there.

Next Time: Best of 2013: Television