Click to the right of the curious child to begin...
20. BLUE RUIN (dir. Jeremy Sauliner, USA)
Blue Ruin's genius comes in its ability to pare its revenge plot to such a fine tipped point that all we have left is pure, unfiltered cinema at its most minimal aesthetic and gut wrenching emotion. Sauliner's take on the classic American pulp stylings of the sins of the father is all the more stark, devastating and real thanks to Macon Blair's turn as Dwight, an everyman killer if there ever was one. Sauliner and Blair also make it quite a funny affair without ever losing that heart of darkness.
Dwight's tale may end up exactly where we expect it to, but the way it gets there is full of surprises, thus making it the only film I saw this year that had me on the edge of my seat in full on suspense. Are childhood pals Sauliner and Blair a pair to watch then? Sure, but they've kind of already arrived.
Blue Ruin will be released in the US in early 2014 from Drafthouse Film
19. A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS (dir. Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, UK/USA)
Call it an avant-garde documentary. Call it post-cinema. Call it utopian-cinema. Rivers & Russell's film isn't wholly concerned with labels, and thus, the nature of words; their work is a full on experience for that part of our being which migrates between our bodies and the silver screen. Its behavior is triptych, moving from a summer on a commune off the coast of Estonia, to the wilds of Finland, to a Black Metal show in Norway. Its through-line is Robert AA Lowe, our solemn faced, clear-eyed guide through melancholy, community, rage and peace. If it is anything, A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is just that.
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness is currently on the festival circuit and can be seen next at IFFR 2014, Göteborg and Ambulante.
18. SHORT TERM 12 (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton, USA)
While the magnetic Brie Larson is no doubt at the center of why Cretton's film about a short term foster care facility works, there are a lot of other elements that make this one click so well. First off is Cretton's ability as a storyteller to hone in on the subtleties and complexities of children in vulnerable situations. While we may not spend an exuberant amount of time with many of the film's younger players, their presence is felt in every frame, in every step of Larson's journey.
In turn, there is a sincerity to her story that teeters towards the saccharine, but Cretton's decisions skew darker and deeper, making the impact heart wrenching, yes, sure, but never manipulative or trite.
Short Term 12 will be available in the US on Blu-ray January 14
17. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (dir. Steve McQueen, USA/UK)
I really don't like it when movies make me cry. Frankly, I just feel manipulated. But by the end of this one I was a blubbering mess. So yes, I now know exceptions to the full-on sobbing rule start with two names: Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been an absolute fave of mine since Dirty Pretty Things.
And while everyone is praising this one in someway, one thing that I haven't read about is how McQueen casts his film in a very particular and powerfully clever way.
All the whites in the film are played by major actors or actors with recognizable faces (to mainstream audiences). They are prominent in a way that none of the black actors, outside of Ejiofor, are. Any black actor a wide audience may actually know is used in a very particular context, such as Alfre Woodard as the slave turned wife (a role we expect her to play), or the briefly seen Michael K. Williams as the upstart on the ship (again we expect him in that role). Both white actors and black actors play into contexts and concepts that we've come to expect from cinema, and especially a certain kind of studio film. McQueen uses that to subvert and condemn what has been a very narrow, arguably racist angle to scathing effect.
12 Years A Slave is currently in wide release in North America
16. BASTARDS (dir. Claire Denis, France)
I'll let you in on a little secret. For quite a few years I really wasn't too keen on Denis' films. Fact is White Material just didn't hit me any which way and so I never gave her a fair shake. That is until this pitch dark noir came along.
At the core of Bastards is the wonderfully grim analogy on old Europe, the white Europe that is collapsing in under its own grandiose and grotesque weight, essentially eating itself alive because that is all it knows how to do.
Positions we largely associate with goodness and helpfulness, such as police and doctors, are all played by non-white ethnicities in the film. What the affluent whites are left with is extortion, suicide, power plays, affairs, incest, corrupted business... you know, all that glamorous stuff.
Bastards is currently available in the US on VOD and releases on DVD in its native France on January 14
15. KOHLHAAS, OR THE PROPENSITY OF MEANS (dir. Aron Lehmann, Germany)
There are few films that handle the spark of creative energy and that absolute willing madness to lead like Aron Lehmann's Kohlhaas. A film that starts off as a mockumentary on the making of an independent feature about the famous German literary character, Lehmann's tale soon unravels into a joyous, madcap and even meditative look at why we need to create. Realities collapse into themselves and are born anew as the film crew and rural townsfolk alike find a freedom on the fringes of the imagination that none thought possible.
Kohlhaas was released in Germany last summer. An international release is forthcoming. Read my full review here.
14. NOBODY'S DAUGHTER HAEWON (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
It's always such a delight to discover a filmmaker you instantly fall in love with. This past summer it was doubly so with Hong Sang-soo, since his films are more often than not such playful, if ruminative and emotionally thorny walks through life.
And make no mistake one of the best, most lovely things about Nobody's Daughter Haewon is its presentation of the fine art of walking and wandering. Never can so much and so little be done as when we wander.
Read my full review here.
13. R100 (Matsumoto Hitoshi, Japan)
Explaining Matsumoto's latest upturning of modern society and its ills would be useless, and also just spoil the fun of it all, so I'll just leave you with this: S&M ninjas + Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" = Pure ecstasy.
R100 will be released in the US in early 2014 by Drafthouse Films.
12. EXIT ELENA & SOFT IN THE HEAD (dir. Nathan Silver, USA)
Nathan Silver's second and third features run like water and blood. They're complete opposites and yet they undoubtedly come from the same talent. Exit Elena makes you feel nauseous and uncomfortable from its very first frame, while Soft In The Head hits you with one gut punch and then just continues to pummel you for 70 minutes.
Exit Elena follows a young live-in nursing aide as she navigates the fine line between work and the home life of the family she works for and lives with. Soft In The Head charts an angry young woman's path to salvation through the kindness of a man who runs an unorthodox men's shelter out of his New York apartment. Both films are unlike any other American offerings this year. Silver's improv/doc approach is raw and refreshing and very, very human. As far as tales about women on the verge of nervous breakdowns go, the seemingly prolific Silver is batting two for two.
Exit Elena is streaming online right now at Seed&Spark, Fandor and Vyer Films. Soft In The Head is currently wrapping up its run on the festival circuit.
11. SPRING BREAKERS (dir. Harmony Korine, USA)
Korine's latest (and greatest) is excessively hollow and empty, which reflects an incredible well of sadness and desperation propped up by stereotype after stereotype and spoon fed trash culture that is glorified to absolute ritual.
Apocalyptic is one word to use here. Hypnotic is indeed another, as is hyper-kinetic.
There is poetry in Spring Breakers too; hideously naive poetry. And dreams, but these are dreams of the end -- the American dream which can no longer sustain itself because it never really came true. What came true was a nightmare. Spring Breakers is a celebration of that nightmare framed in day-glo mornings of night and nothing.
Spring Breakers is available on Blu-ray and VOD in most regions.
10. SIMON KILLER (Antonio Campos, USA)
If Spring Breakers is about the dangers of excess, then Campos' follow-up to the brutal Afterschool is about the dangers of privilege. And it is perhaps even more brutal than his debut. If in a roundabout way.
Distraught over the break up with his longtime girlfriend, the recent college grad played wonderfully off-kilter by Brady Corbet takes to the streets of Paris, a wanderer, helpless, a victim... only he's the hunter too. He plays the helpless American only because he knows that's how he can get attention. He may not fully understand how he manipulates, but it is true to say the victim becomes the victimizer. Myopic and deadly in his machinations and desperation, this is not Simon's fall from grace, for as an affluent white man he never had grace. He had everything but that handed to him on a silver platter. Thus making him helpless to his rage, to his destruction, to his dyslexia to self and women.
Simon Killer is a quiet tale of wrath, a further unraveling of an unraveled soul, lost in the wilds of blind loathing.
Simon Killer is currently available in the US on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon
9. DIAMOND ON VINYL (dir. J.R. Hughto, USA)
Hughto's SoCal noir is a fascinating and thrilling study on the role of the other and the destruction and reconstruction of the self through painstaking process. It's also a damn fine inversion of the genre, with Sonja Kinski and Brian McGuire constantly swapping the roles of victim and voyeur, subject and saboteur to the point of where labels are limiting.
In this way there are no outright detectives or dames in Diamond On Vinyl, no large conspiracies (outside of the mystery of the self). These are just people. Like you and me. Lonely and desperate and in need of love. But few other recent films crackle with an intensity that echo back to the darkly cloaked pulp writings of David Goodis, or recall paranoid-audiophile classics such as The Conversation or Blow Out in their social-psychological labyrinths.
Diamond On Vinyl is available in the US via iTunes. Read my full review here
8. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, Denmark/Thailand/USA)
Only God Forgives is an expressionistic nightmare of a western, populated not by actual characters but more or less avatars for mythological and religious archetypes. It's a repulsive, visceral and equally very spiritual film that asks its audience to not shut down, to stay aware, to look beyond its stylized violence. It asks us to look deep within ourselves, within human history, and by reflection cinematic history. To be repulsed by this film is to react, and thus, be awake.
Refn is here to wake us up.
Only God Forgives is available on home video formats and VOD in most regions
The title of commercial director Harry Patramanis' feature debut sure sounds like science fiction. Truth be told the beguiling and strange world we encounter on screen isn't too far off from that of a Martian landscape, even if it is just the Western Cape of South Africa (where a plant called Fynbos thrives). The post-modern house that sits atop the hill is our crashed rocket ship; the scattered souls which populate it, the shattered crew -- they are strangers in a strange land, and strangers to each other. What little is said among them are riddles. What few events happen remain mysteries.
Patramanis as a storyteller isn't looking for answers, he is asking the audience to remain mesmerized at the thought of the unknown; to be wowed by the possibility of story in nothing and everything. That is, indeed, breathtaking.
Fynbos has no current release. Read my full review here
6. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (dir. Richard Linklater, USA)
It's very hard not to sound like some kind of fan boy when talking about Before Midnight as it was just one of those films I was predestined to love on so many levels. Like its predecessors, it is frank and funny in how it addresses relationships. I love spending time with Celine and Jesse more than any other movie characters out there. In large measure that's because I relate to them so closely, which is very comforting.
Before Midnight is available on home video formats and VOD in most regions.
5. POST TENEBRAS LUX (dir. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)
Featuring what is perhaps the most breathtakingly gorgeous opening shot I have seen in the last five years, Reygadas' unorthodox fable on faith and class, masculine powers vs. the feminine, fatherhood vs. motherhood, also features a devil with a toolbox; a sauna orgy; rugby and... truly a beguiling, and indeed challenging experience, Post Tenebras Lux is the film I had hoped Tree Of Life would be: spiritual, uplifting and meditative, it flows in and out of time, in and out of cinema, and is so completely human as to be perplexing.
Post Tenbras Lux is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix in the US
4. THE DIRTIES (dir. Matt Johnson, Canada)
The Dirties was no doubt the most timely film of 2013 for the way it handled the subjects of school shootings, bullying, and the way we receive and process information of all kinds, especially through the media. As a director Johnson aims for the hard questions with little to no answers, unless, of course, we're willing -- as he is -- to not outright label a young man who commits such violent acts as a mere monster. Because it's a lot more complicated than that. And The Dirties proves it ten fold. It's also a hilarious meta bromance which stars Johnson and real life buddy Owen Williams -- Say what?
The Dirties is currently available on iTunes in the US and Canada. Read my full review here.
3. THE WIND RISES (Miyazaki Hayao, Japan)
One doesn't merely watch a film by Miyazaki, one lives with it for weeks, and if it's really great, for months and years. His swan song to feature film animation is undoubtedly his most impactful work since Princess Mononoke, and perhaps the most personal and introspective piece of his entire career.
The Wind Rises releases in the US in March 2014.
2. EXHIBITION (Joanna Hogg, UK)
I am desperate to see Hogg's third feature again. Like the best art, one needs to distance oneself from it almost immediately after having viewed it, and yet the desire to see it again right away arises. It will probably be many months before I get another chance to marvel at the strangeness of Hogg's meditation on creativity, isolation, love, architecture and fear.
A perfect symmetry of detached emotion, of absolutes and uncertainties in the physical and metaphysical, is bracketed and bolstered across each masterfully framed moment of this film.
Exhibition is set for release in its native UK in April 2014.
1. THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT (dir. Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
Why is The Strange Little Cat my number 1? Because it is the all around clearest, most metaphysically complete and physically nourishing experience I had at the cinema in 2013. Because it chronicles the mythologies of domestic life and reveals the strange in the mundane. Because it is joyously sad. Because it is abstract realism. Because there is magic in the movies and this one knows it, and magic keeps me curious.
The Strange Little Catwas released this past week in its native Germany. Here's hoping it gets released abroad later in 2014