Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Listmania '13! The Best Movies Of The Year

LISTMANIA! should be a fun thing to do, but last year's monumental exercise in opinionising was quite dispiriting. There were plenty of good movies around but nothing truly great, though Holy Motors and The Master came close. I ended up selecting The Avengers as the top film of 2012 simply because it was the only thing I saw all year that really made my heart beat, and that was a movie that was, for the first thirty minutes, a bunch of fart noises (I exaggerate because I care; bear in mind I've watched it about seventeen times since last year and would quite happily watch it again right now, twice in a row, while eating a celebratory bag of satsumas). While I wrote that gargantuan post I wondered if this was a symptom of some malaise; perhaps I was burned out on cinema? Could I blame Vine for it? The Daily Mail says the internet erodes the attention span and they literally (really literally) shit truth and vomit integrity so perhaps it was all on me and films were still super-awesome.

Guess what; movies still are super-awesome! Because 2013 was, without a doubt, the best year for films since I started Shades of Caruso, and I say that even though I still haven't see Her and The Wolf of Wall Street. My Letterboxd account shows that I didn't give anything five stars last year (not even The Avengers despite it featuring the greatest scene in cinema history, i.e. Hulk versus Loki); this year I'd give the full whack to my top four, and four and a half stars to the next 10. Two of those five star movies showed up early in the year, so my fears were already allayed by the time I saw the third and realised we were experiencing a rare cultural moment. This run of incredibly high-quality cinema continued right until December, with my pick for number eight on this list delighting me so much it almost made me forget all of the horrors of The Worst Christmas Ever which, without wanting to get into it too much, was a maelstrom of mishap and misery that could turn Santa himself into an Ultra-Grinch.

It was such a good year that I've broken with convention slightly. Usually I write about my favourite 25 films of the year, with a quick scribble for five additional Honorable Mentions. At times I've struggled to find 25 I'm sufficiently passionate about to justify writing an entry, but this year was so much more feast than famine there wasn't a problem going all out. In the interests of symmetry this means I will do the same with my forthcoming worst movies list (this might have been a great year for film but that doesn't mean there wasn't a ton of visual sewage out there as well), though I might forgo some of the supplemental posts about the year just to save everyone from having to drink even more of my adjective soup. Also because I've already put in so much work on these while my house literally (and again I do mean literally) falls apart around my ears I'M REALLY NOT EXAGGERATING ABOUT HOW TERRIBLE THIS CHRISTMAS WAS somebody hold me and tell me everything's going to be all right.

Quick disclaimer here about the films on this list. Yes, a number of them shouldn't really be listed as they haven't even been released yet, either in the UK or anywhere at all in the case of list entry number four. There's a case for me missing them out but right now release schedules are so confusing I'm making up the rules as I go along; if I say a film has a place on this list, then it does. What are you gonna do about it? Nothing, and besides, I think I'm already doing the right thing with regards to blogging, if the praise I get in my comments is anything to go by (quick sampler: "I most indisputably will make certain to don't disregard this web site and give it a look regularly." "You're an excessively professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look ahead to in quest of more of your great post." "I've liked reading each word. Who said writing was a lost art?" Who indeed, MilfSexChat, who indeed?). Now let the excessively professional blogging begin!


It's tempting to include this minor gem from David Gordon Green simply because it stops the endless complaints that cinema has lost an empathetic director to the lure of the big bucks; a characterisation that ignores Green's autonomy in favour of regurgitating that canard about Hollywood absorbing artists and turning them into the equivalent of fry cooks. Luckily Prince Avalanche has a lot more going for it than proving some people wrong, thanks to some affecting atmospherics, sensitive pacing and unpredictable elements such asin a touching homage to her real-life predicament. Despite its different tone this shares some DNA with Pineapple Express, as two men come together in friendship over time, though this is a far less raucous exploration of male bonding and aspiration than Rogen and Goldberg's stoner classic, relying instead on a tone of reflective but humorous tranquility. Shades of Caruso always hesitates to use the word "heart" to describe anything; too often it connotes a wishy-washy, dishonest sentimentality. However no other word describes what sets this quietly moving character piece apart from so many ponderous indie dribblings, though it should be noted that Green's able to harness the power of David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky's lovely score, and a career-best performance from Paul Rudd that shows a new-found maturity that still leaves room for his uniquely gonzo energy.


There's a terrible mistake at the start of this film/audience-estrangement-exercise: the title proclaims that this is A Ridley Scott Film. Surely this is a Cormac McCarthy film, even taking into account Scott's trademark cool aesthetic and intellectual distance, both on display here. McCarthy's nihilistic exploration of morality and inexorable consequence speaks so clearly with his voice that we can only dream of the day he steps behind the camera himself so we can get a full shot of his genius without mediation. Until then we can rejoice in the fact that Scott didn't try to temper that unmistakable bleak timbre, leaving us with a curio that will either madden an audience of critics and viewers until they rage against its exasperating incoherence, or strike like a lance at a lucky -- or unlucky -- few, who forgive its rhythmic lapses and knotted narrative curlicues and enjoy the experience of seeing and hearing something unheard-of in this day and age: an experimental mainstream movie. If this confounding but unforgettable trip into the heart of darkness had been made in the 70s it would be lauded and put on a pedestal alongside Cutter's Way or Night Moves. Released now it's treated like an incoherent failure. No cats are saved; instead we see people flirt with danger and end up consumed whole. There's no process here, nothing that you expect from a traditionally satisfying story. Instead we're strapped into a car and thrown off a cliff; the worth of this film is in the gleeful terror of waiting for the impact.


Zack Snyder and David Goyer's Superman movie is this year's Prometheus in terms of how swiftly it became a target for some of the most vociferous hatred ever inflicted on a mere movie; the price you pay for tampering with a beloved property without the correct deference. Man of Steel angered fans by tainting a pure ideal with an interpretation that many felt betrayed ignorance of what makes Superman so important. Another way of looking at it is that Goyer and Snyder have intentionally created a version of the hero's myth that reveals a tension between the ideal of Superman -- here denoted by the impossible expectations of Jor-El -- and the reality of human life -- the foolish suspicion and fear of Jonathan Kent. Both forces fight for control of Kal-El's future, leaving him adrift until his nemesis forces him to choose a path that neither father prepared him for, leading to the birth of a new version of the hero, a flawed hybrid of God and Man. Those who consider this a betrayal of something pure are well within their rights to be annoyed -- Lord knows we need inspirational figures -- but some of us found this exploration of the gulf between the fantasy of an omnipotent force for rightness and the disappointing reality as meaningful as mere hero worship, no matter how appealing that archetype has been for so long. It's also a demented and imaginative space opera of almost unprecedented scale, and features an exhausting final third that, if you're on its wavelength, shocks and amazes like nothing else in this genre.


Once upon a time the films of the Coen Brothers were pretty easily categorised into either comedy (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) or drama (Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple) but since Fargo they have explored the middle ground with increasing regularity. This feels of a kind with A Serious Man; a point-of-view period film with a barely-sympathetic protagonist whose attempts at facing down the vicissitudes of life are mocked by the uncaring forces arrayed against him. As with A Serious Man the period details are perfectly rendered, this time bolstered by the expert assistance of T-Bone Burnett on music duties but, surprisingly, this is arguably a less musical film than O Brother Where Art Thou; a clever choice considering how much difficulty Davis has in sharing his gift with anyone, what with his spiky personality and uncompromising talent. And that's the key to this movie's success. Though Davis is a self-destructive jerk he isn't a shlub. What we hear of his music is excellent, but he's in the wrong place at the wrong time making the wrong enemies, unaware that he is about to rendered surplus to requirements by changing times. That melancholy air that the Coens have mastered is one of the best things about this, yet another instant classic from America's most scarily consistent filmmakers, but special praise must be offered up to Oscar Isaac, who is usually the best thing about some pretty rotten movies. How wonderful to see him be the best thing about an exceptional one.


American comedy -- certainly in the fratboy sub-genre -- has often been interested in the idea of shirking the responsibilities of the mainstream, of challenging the staid conventions of the country in favour of anarchic individualism and imagination. Lately, though, this genre has either thankfully challenged the long-accepted idea of the exuberant man-child -- e.g. Judd Apatow's ongoing series of films about growing up and accepting responsibility -- or doubled-down on the genre's excesses, ignoring the celebration inherent in the idea and instead pandering to the most inebriated and disgraced keg party casualties. How wonderful that the best examination of this trope in 2013 comes from England, home of the stiff upper lip and the disapproving, curtain-twitching Daily-Mail-reading prude. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have cleverly finished off their Three Cornettos trilogy with another intricately detailed comedy soaked in genre conventions -- both upheld and overturned -- but haven't shied away from the dark side. Pegg's protagonist can only win by dooming himself and his friends, and the way this inevitability plays out is thrilling to watch, with an unexpectedly powerful finale posing more questions about free will and the consequences of progress than most non-genre movies of recent times. Certainly this trilogy puts the rest of the British film industry's populist attempts to shame; nothing else released this century has this much imagination, emotion, and -- in that bold and unexpected epilogue -- sheer storytelling courage.


If a movie ever deserved to be loved and embraced just for giving an audience what it wants with the enthusiasm of a crew in love with their work, Pacific Rim is it. Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham's berserk monster movie got the fanbase onside even before release and managed to hold onto almost all of them by adding even more thrilling ideas onto the already super-thrilling central concept. That dedication to building a living world is rare enough in an age of cardboard fantasy, but this went beyond anything we could have anticipated. The saddest aspect is that they didn't attract enough people outside that circle; a shame considering how rarely we now get to see such ambition on this scale. For those who fell for it, however, this was the kind of imaginative revelation that could wash away decades of cynicism; this viewer is not ashamed to admit that Pacific Rim's retina-scorching images, seemingly unstoppable torrent of insane fantastical concepts, and unwavering commitment to possibility pinged his emotions back and forth from giggling with joy to crying with joy, all the while muttering "how can it be?" So why is it not higher on this list? A second viewing unfortunately revealed the narrative joins, or rather they were fully exposed once the element of gasp-inducing surprise was removed. Not a deal-breaker, but a bit of a downer. Nevertheless, it is still remarkable; a giddy, unpretentious celebration of togetherness and trust bolted onto the most spectacular gamechanging visuals since Jurassic Park.


Andrew Bujalski took a leap off the deep end with his fourth movie, reportedly working from vague ideas of where his story of a 1980s computer chess programming convention would lead, then letting his cast of editors and technicians improvise their way towards these defined end-points. As a result the entire film feels like it could spin off into irrelevance and chaos at every moment, and for some the confounding last twenty minutes would certainly qualify as such a failure. But that unpredictability, and the chances taken by Bujalski and his cast, are also electrifying in a way that few other movies are, aided by the fact that its players are naturally funny and awkward in the most deadpan way so this experiment never feels stodgy or leaden. The reality of the performances and the amusingly petty squabbles between the programmers runs against the deliberately bleary images filmed using technology of the period, a stylistic choice that primes the audience for the flights of fancy in the last third where realism fades and we're catapulted into a series of mystifying fantasy sequences that more accurately mimic the nightmarish style of David Lynch than anyone has managed, while still maintaining the good-natured tone that permeates the rest of the movie. The result is challenging but endearing, not to mention packed with nonchalantly delivered ideas, and features one of the great comic creations of the year; the abrasive and cocky Michael Papageorge, played brilliantly by .


Paolo Sorrentino's lettera d'amore to Rome is, on the surface, a ravishing visual treat thanks to glowing and swooping photography from Luca Bigazzi that qualifies for this year's Shades of Caruso Honorary Rian Johnson Award For Unpredictable But Exhilarating Camerawork. That beauty is a thin veneer hiding a moral decay and intellectual ossification that has slowly ruined the life of protagonist Jep Gambardella, a man whose early promise has been squandered on a life of spectacular but empty bacchanalia, surrounding himself with a fawning coterie of gossipy pseuds that he courts like a fickle emperor. Toni Servillo and director Sorrentino bravely walk this character along a tightrope, making him simultaneously charming and deeply irritating, his capacity for pyrotechnic arrogance tempered by the slowly dawning realisation that his rosy life is a lie and the beautiful city he loves is not just a dream-scape but also a prison of his own making. This frustrating know-it-all suffers the weakness that torments us all; a regret at time lost that can never be alleviated. Whether or not Jep manages to find a state of grace is unimportant; the victory is in deciding to strive towards it in the first place, and giving hope to a similarly afflicted audience. If Sorrentino bangs on his points too emphatically he can be forgiven due to all the things he does right, with the movie flirting with fantasy imagery in its depiction of a city that's as much a product of fiction as the delusions Jep employs to keep his darkness at bay.


How to write about this without a heavy heart? Since its release we fans of cinema's most consistently underrated action franchise have received the most terrible blow with the tragic death of star Paul Walker. His virtuous presence onscreen was one of the keys to the Fast franchise's success, his dorky sincerity as important as the stoic machismo of Vin Diesel, the slapstick incompetence of Tyrese Gibson and the monolithic presence of Dwayne Johnson. To write this I have to cast my mind back beyond this horrific event and remember what it was like to watch this on opening day, to attempt to put into words the mental frenzy triggered by Justin Lin's almost perfect action direction and Chris Morgan's delightfully unpretentious soapy plotting. If Fast Six isn't as thrilling as the previous installment it's not for lack of trying; a dump truck full of kitchen sinks are poured over the audience from the first frame to the shocking finale, the glee of the filmmakers in providing exactly what the fans want so palpable that it's hard not to watch this bonanza of hectic but clearly shot action without applauding throughout. Its joys are almost too numerous to list, but it's imperative I single out the breathtaking setpiece finale, a masterpiece of cross-cutting between multiple protagonists that evokes the complex narrative wizardry of last year's editing triumph Cloud Atlas. So we are sad now, but let's try not to let that get in the way of celebrating this insanely thrilling, indecently entertaining familial drama.


Judging by the tone of the criticisms levelled at Terence Malick's latest freeform visual poem, you'd think that reducing the scale of his movies from the cosmic scale of The Tree of Life down to the intimate relationship traumas of three people in Oklahoma was the worst thing he could do. Can't he keep going bigger?, they seemed to cry while lambasting this as a trivial diversion compared to that ambitious work. Arguably he has, though the largest and most impressive thing Malick's camera catches here are those breathtaking wide Southern skies. Instead he tackles romantic love, one's obligation to God and the people we live amongst, and the way we poison love by not trusting in it, thereby turning it into a prison for the soul. Dinosaurs and Douglas Trumbull effects sequences pale in comparison. We get a sense that Malick is now filming countless hours of footage -- all shot with the piercing sharpness of Emmanuel Lubezki's traditionally world-class cinematography -- before sitting in an editing room for months on end, working on his psyche as much as these movies as he works towards a finished product that is felt more than understood. Perhaps this magical end-product, simultaneously airy and weighty, is the only way he can present his internal monologue as he tries to understand his own heart. The reason for this film's inclusion in this list, above and beyond its visual and emotional majesty, is that by giving us a codex to his own soul he might help us decipher our own.


There has been a glut of movies about Ip Man in recent years, but Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster is the most singular and lyrical, tweaking the previously told tale of a quiet man being thrust into unwanted battles -- as is the way of the genre -- into a rumination on loss and regret, on paths wrongly taken and the price paid for chasing a folly. Though it contains plenty of exquisitely choreographed combat from Yuen Woo-ping, The Grandmaster is more interested in depicting the impact that a person can have on another even if meeting only for a moment, and the ways in which ideas and emotions are passed through time, either unintentionally through longing, or intentionally through education. The original cut of this movie has been treated as if it is incomplete, and certainly some of the digressions initially seem to distract from the emotional core of the film, but we're being presented with fragments of history, the key moments in lives connected by yearning, yet broken by tragedy and hubris. The martial artists in this ravishing period drama are part of a long line of experts carrying their knowledge through strife and warfare, and our awareness of the fragility of this knowledge when held in the heads of people vulnerable to the whims of fate makes their lives and connections even more precious. Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai evoke this longing beautifully, but the most valuable player here might be Philippe Le Sourd; his cinematography is exceptionally evocative and atmospheric.


Peter Jackson's project to insert his own vision into Tolkien's continues apace, which viewers and fans will either think is a ballsy and occasionally inspired move or the height of arrogance, depending on the strength of their connection to the source material. The majority of the criticism is still aimed at the length of these movies in comparison to the single volume that partially inspired it, but , what we have here is demonstrably not a thin tale, "sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread," but a robust and wide-ranging fantasy epic that explores the parts of Tolkien's world unseen in the previous trilogy, fleshing them out with the same pleasing attention to detail but with a different tone. Where The Lord of the Rings was mostly a tale of nobility either thwarted or attained, The Hobbit trilogy has proven to be a scrappier tale, with impetuous or conniving kings seeking glory through foolhardy choices or hiding from the world in fear and disdain, while melancholy low-born survivors are exploited by their masters as they seek greater power. The Desolation of Smaug is not without its flaws -- that ornery tone means there are fewer delightfully florid passages than the previous films, and the abrupt cut at the end makes fools of we who have defended Jackson's decision to craft three films instead of two -- but what joy when it works at full tilt, providing epic scope, a pleasingly large cast of well-crafted characters, and some of the most exhilarating action sequences of Jackson's career. If you're onboard with this mutation of Tolkien's work, this is pure joy.

18. IRON MAN 3

Another year, another twenty-eight-thousand superhero movies (actual number: five). This year we got The Wolverine (compromised by a softening cut but mostly strong), Thor: The Dark World (an unholy mess that was fun despite itself), Man of Steel (highly controversial ) and Kick-Ass 2 (bollocks). The best of the crop was Shane Black and Drew Pearce's Iron Man 3, and not just because it was the funniest superhero movie of the year. The genius of this lively, thematically resonant adventure is that we're given a concrete sense of progression in the character of Tony Stark, with consequences fully explored in a way we don't often see in "serialised" cinema. We expect to see characters evolve in prestige TV shows, but in films it's a rarity. Black and Pearce don't shy away from the ramifications of the enormous battle at the end of The Avengers, showing Stark dealing with the psychic fallout from his near-death experience and his ensuing crisis of confidence. It's arguable that this movie is a sequel to the moment in Avengers where Cap insinuates that Stark's power lies solely in his armour. Iron Man 3 is a statement about what heroism really is, a paean to intelligence and ingenuity, and a fascinating character study. All that and it's hilarious, surprising, exciting, and features the year's best satire on the military-industrial complex's use of propaganda to further its goals. If only all protagonists were this rounded, or all summer movies this complete.


Derek Cianfrance's previous movie, Blue Valentine, fractured two exceptional performances with a structure that must have seemed interesting on paper but led to a dissipation of emotional power as the crosscutting leached energy from the "happy" sequences. It wasn't helped by an over-reliance on the current voguish US indie aesthetic that matches pretty photography with predictable hand-held, sun-burst composition. The few of us who found Valentine underwhelming could never have imagined that Cianfrance would follow that small-scale drama with something this ambitious and visually confident, not to mention something so bold and crazy and emotionally satisfying. The Place Beyond The Pines dares to tell an unabashedly sincere three-part tale of virtue wrestling with unfettered ambition, of moral strength fighting weakness, risking audience frustration by continually defying expectation, breaking numerous precious story rules by throwing coincidence and convenience at the story in order to make its point. It shouldn't work but miraculously it does, building to an ending of almost operatic scale. All the while Cianfrance displays the breadth of his visual repertoire, creating a cinematic experience that pays homage to the touchstones of modern film without ever directly referencing anything else. His next project cannot come soon enough, but until then we have this crime classic, with thematic layers we can peel back over and over again, and performances and photography to cherish.


Much of the criticism levelled at this adaptation of Julie Maroh's has focused on Those Sex Scenes, a number of lengthy and contorted pieces of extravagant erotica that bear all of the marks of the Male Gaze, with lesbian sensuality arguably translated into the equivalent of high-end porn directed by a man with a dismaying, blundering lack of tact. But even if you argue for these gallumphing scenes by saying they match the frantic passion of protagonist Adele in almost every other scene, they represent only a fraction of this film's immense running time, which is used to unsparingly explore the sexual and social awakening of a young woman over a period of years in the most exhaustive detail imaginable. As important as the representation of lesbian sex is, this portrait of a single person's formative years is an emotional rollercoaster unmatched in recent cinema, with Abdellatif Kechiche filming very nearly the entire movie in close-up to force us to confront these feelings almost as if there is no barrier between our eyes and poor Adele Exarchopoulos' snot-stricken, agonised face. The tragedy of the film lies not in the ultimate fate of the relationships between Adele and Emma, but in how that first explosive relationship can simultaneously open a person's world and then close it off; Adele finds happiness and immediately stagnates, stuck in a rut for years by love and its aftermath. This film's primary achievement is in facing that truth with such unflinching commitment.


As with Fast Six it's hard not to let terrible real world issues leak in and affect one's enjoyment of this movie; no matter how happy the ending, the empathic part of your brain that is perpetually tricked by cinema's power to generate feeling will ignore the artifice and connect the late, great James Gandolfini to his role here as the quiet paramour of frantic Julia Louis-Dreyfus, lending a bittersweet note to what would otherwise be one of the feel-good movies of the year. Shades of Caruso has previously come out as a hardcore pro-Nicole-Holofcener blog, decrying the critical temptation to dismiss her as a purveyor of lightweight fluff, so it's no surprise that this latest triumph hit our sweet spot so successfully. As ever Holofcener includes far more than mere romcom trappings, depicting a mid-life crisis with her traditional attention to detail; Louis-Dreyfus' Eva finds herself emotionally at sea as her loyalties are torn between her lover and her newest and most interesting friend, and her soon-to-depart daughter and the surrogate daughter who looks to her for guidance. The unsurprisingly great Louis-Dreyfus adds a new kind of energy to Holofcener's work, which usually revolves around Catherine Keener's brand of oblivious sourness, but her scattiness is coloured by an immense sadness at the consequences of her childishness, and the realisation that she has to risk losing everything in order to gain any control over her life. Perhaps the movie was bittersweet already but we didn't notice.


First thing's first; yes, a $250m budget is an absolute obscenity, and for this to happen to Disney twice in about 15 months is shocking. But as with last year's John Carter, the result of that terrible profligacy is an accidental classic thrown on the shitpile of history for all the wrong reasons. Gore Verbinski's semi-fantastical Western has a number of flaws, none of which matter a damn in the face of such bravura filmmaking. No other populist film this year was as radical in portraying uncomfortable truths without flinching; only Iron Man 3's use of The Mandarin comes close, and that didn't contain the furious anger against the capitalist system that Verbinski sneaks in under the cloak of amiable adventure. The casting of white Johnny Depp as a Comanche certainly raises the hackles but despite that deeply questionable decision the movie's sincere attempt to portray and denounce the genocide of the Native American by white settlers and to connect it to corporate greed -- and from there, to modern America -- is so total that every frame of the film seems to quake with anger, that critique of the White Man and the lies used to subjugate an entire people and despoil a landscape etched into Verbinski's visual language. The fact that on the surface this seems like a mere frippery is what makes this such an unexpected treasure; there is a thrilling friction between the text and subtext that justifies every longueur and directorial decision. On top of that, Verbinski stages the most thrilling action setpiece of the year, if not the decade. If you don't feel every hair on your body rise when That Theme kicks in, then I weep for you.


Hailing Disney's latest lovable fantasy saga as the studio's best original film in years does a disservice to 2010 s beautiful Tangled; one of Shades of Caruso's favourites and a classic unfairly neglected since its release. Nevertheless, it's gratifying to see that Frozen has been hailed as a real step forward for the company and for its long-running unofficial series of Princess films. To say more would be to ruin some of the surprises of the final act for anyone who has yet to enjoy the movie; suffice it to say, writer / director Jennifer Lee and co-director Chris Buck have avoided the "Strong Female Character" problem that so infects modern attempts at addressing the gulf in gender representation in modern culture by creating two female characters with inner lives that not only pass the Bechdel test in the first minute of the film but also have an emotional relationship and personal goals that don't revolve solely around men, though that traditional swooning romanticism is also present (just in a different form; look, it's very hard to talk about this without spoiling its best moments). If the middle section is a little dry -- with a lack of clear villainy to focus on, the use of some lazily-designed trolls, and even more unsubtle emphasis on themes and motifs than Tangled - this is forgivable for the sly subversion of expectations and those character-driven highlights, which include one the best scenes of 2013; Elsa's rite-of-passage as dramatised during the ear-blasting rendition of Let It Go, sung by Idina Menzel with a voice so powerful she could put out a fire with it. Just thinking about it starts the tears again::choke::


How strange to admire a movie, to revel in its artistry and the strength of its message, and yet to resent its existence and to hope to never endure it again. To watch Before Midnight after following the real-time growth of Jesse and Celine's relationship for eighteen years, to sit through the tumultuous horrors of this sweet and sour conclusion to the trilogy of their lives together is, as the Internet would put it, to experience ALL OF THE FEELS. For those of us who have lived a shadow of what Jesse and Celine have, to have grown in life in much the same way that they have, this is a horribly difficult film to experience, one of painful honesty that you don't want to recognise as truth, wincing with every dagger thrown during the exhausting final third. Kudos to Linklater, Delpy and Hawke for not shying from the challenge here, to visit the darkest moment (we hope) of this couple's life and present such a contrast to the heady romance of the first two films, even if it then recasts those films as almost tragic. It's also a rarity to see a movie that is able to create a disagreement that can be appreciated from both sides; a happy consequence of the length of time we have spent with these people. And yet it's hard, I can't lie. Coming out of the cinema I was grateful to all involved for making a movie this intelligent and forthright, but I was fucking angry too. And I'm even angrier now that this exceptional film has shown me how willing I would have been to accept a lie even if I'd known it to be so. Stop making me think, guys!


Forgive a poor blogger for being unable to separate these entangled cinematic experiences, but they were watched so close together, and share so many similarities, that it's hard to think of them as separate entities. Alfonso Cuaron and JC Chandor are both worthy of praise and garlands and awardsfor making two movies of such stunning focus and technical mastery, depicting the travails of lonely protagonists in life-or-death situations. What's telling about both films is how they differ in the most subtle ways, beyond the settings and the scale of the threats they face. Cuaron has turned the world-spanning scope of his survival film inward, so that Dr. Ryan Stone's attempts to save her life are matched by her unconscious attempts to save her soul: the wave of debris that chases her as metaphor for the guilt and remorse she cannot escape, enhanced by imagery that matches her embryonic state and subsequent rebirth, all while giving us suspense sequences so exhausting and exquisitely crafted it's too much to take in with one viewing. Cuaron has always been a master of the fantastic; here he has created something that will redefine the cinema of science, and perhaps even reinvigorate our interest in space exploration -- one can hope.

Chandor eschews the temptation to add frills to his survival tale where none are necessary. Instead he makes his protagonist as blank as possible, but that intentional erasure of detail transforms this into a universal tale of humanity battling not only with the threat of extinction, but the struggle to even find something to live for; it is something so much grander than just a guy on a boat. The sophomore director doesn't put a single foot wrong, and ends his tale with a beautifully-timed image of such simple, perfect beauty it took a feat of strength not to leap into the air with gratitude. Both films are anchored by exceptional performances, with Sandra Bullock triumphing over some ill-advised emotional arm-twisting by Cuaron to give a career-defining display of thespian artistry, and Robert Redford bringing incredible fortitude and grace to his own battle against the elements. They are backed up by two filmmakers with astonishing, elegant control over their pared-down but technically complex movies, both of which say so much about the human condition and its triumphant resilience, but with so few words.


Is this even a movie? It's barely a story, certainly not in the sense of giving us a glimpse into human nature. Is it a homage to cinema? Certainly the genre conventions are there, after a fashion, harking back to the classics of the Giallo sub-genre, often only in symbolic terms but enough that it is classifiable as such, and thus worthy of consideration alongside its peers. But other than that, this is less a tale told than a fever-dream forced into the eyes and ears like an assault, a kaleidoscope of Freudian imagery, discordant sound and recycled music designed to rattle the audience and continually challenge its expectations. As a result you will either resist it as if fending off a violent attack, or you will happily succumb while H l ne Cattet and Bruno Forzani play around inside your mind's eye with their aggressively unpleasant and disorienting collage of horror and hysteria. None of it makes any sense, but it all makes perfect sense somehow, because by using primal imagery as colours in their palette they create an inferential narrative using dream logic that bypasses our expectations of what storytelling should be. Come to it with expectations of order, and you will likely be nonplussed, but if you can tune into this perplexing mish-mash of cinematic styles you will be rewarded with an experience like no other, something like a lightning bolt fired right at the amigdala. It's the Holy Motors of horror; praise not offered lightly.


The current "period" in the career of David O. Russell has seen him abandon the extravagant eccentricities of Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and the unreleased Nailed for an earthy quirkiness which, for fans of his more outrprojects, has been a bit of a drag. The Fighter was competent and mostly well performed, and Silver Linings Playbook was notable as a showcase for Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper but my God, that finale was hard work. Early word on American Hustle was muted but it's easily Russell's best film since his Gulf War morality fable, a smorgasbord of deceptively powerful character moments bright enough to shine through even this beige 70s veneer. Russell has been collecting brilliant character actors for years now and he corrals them here to incredible effect, orchestrating an obscenely talented cast -- all of whom are at the top of their game -- and a chaotic but coherent screenplay where the double- and treble-crosses of the deceitful protagonists are underpinned by longing, fear of rejection, and turbulent emotion. At any moment American Hustle could disappear beneath a sea of gaudy period tics, or Russell could misjudge the tone and obscure these confused and recognisably venal people behind an easy caricature, but he walks along a tonal precipice with the confidence of a master. There is a real affection for these people, a gaggle of losers who yearn for better things and can, at least some of the time, find dignity and even love amidst the frenetic chicanery. The result is the best kind of madcap crowdpleaser; one with a nigh-perfect balance of absurdity, honesty, and satirical bite.


Though Shades of Caruso praised Paul Greengrass' previous film, Green Zone, it was with the caveat that the ending was a falsehood that damaged its journalistic depiction of life in Baghdad during the recent invasion. Captain Phillips has also had its share of criticism from the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama over its authenticity, but nevertheless Greengrass and writer Billy Ray have hewed closer to the reality of the situation than Greengrass and Green Zone writer Brian Helgeland. This is more United 93 than Bourne on a Boat, but this fealty to the real horror facing the crew doesn't mean the director can't wring the maximum amount of tension from the story; he could film a tea party and rip our nerves to shreds. No one else working today has this total command of suspense, no one else can utilise the disbelief-suspending powers of cin ma semi-v ritto generate such a relentless, propulsive force, an agonising command of tension that drags the audience through hell and high water. His facility with actors is neglected in all of the tedious talk about his shakycam aesthetic; both Barkhad Abdi as the reluctant hijacker and Tom Hanks on his finest form ever as the titular captain are exceptional. The last fifteen minutes of this colossus of the docudrama genre are beyond comparison, leaving even a knowledgeable audience breathless as Hanks unleashes a veritable tornado of acting as intense as Greengrass' direction. His catharsis is the highlight of this nigh-perfect document of a broken system that leaves everyone a victim, swept along on tides no one can control.


We think we know the experience but we cannot ever. All we can do is observe the horror of slavery from a distance, depict it coolly and dispassionately and let our own disgust and mortification rush in to fill that gap. There is no better filmmaker working today to make a film that looks at the intellectual fraud and infinite inhumanity of slavery without succumbing to the temptation to make the film about his own reaction. Steve McQueen has already, twice, made aesthetically beautiful but emotionally neutral films about humans doing terrible things to themselves as either as protest or cry for help, which makes this the third part of a loosely-linked trilogy. Though Solomon Northup is abducted by external forces and trapped in a desperately cruel world, the only autonomy he has left is how much he succumbs to the horrors around him. To a certain extent he is hardened by the ordeal he faces; one of this magnificent movie's coups is in showing the full dehumanising extent of enslavement, even at the risk of damaging audience sympathy for its protagonist. But essentially the human spirit does triumph here, hope finding a way out of the most desperate situation. Northup survives, but with psychological and physical scars that would crush anyone else. In the year's best performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor's greatest feat is to bring us close to understanding the damage caused by both Solomon's ordeal and slavery on the whole, while also allowing us feel there is a way out, for those who suffered at the time and for us, who live in a world still tainted by these crimes.


It's been too long since Jonathan Frazer assaulted us with the ghostly dark fairy tale Birth, a movie that defiantly danced to its own tune in a way that inevitably annoyed huge swathes of the audience. Nine years later and Under The Skin was received with the same boos and critical seething that greeted Birth; Glazer must be getting used to this by now. But then this adaptation of Michel Faber's novel is bound to aggravate many of its viewers, being so opaque as to dance on the edge of incomprehensibility. Amusing, considering that this economically- and poetically-told story of an alien who hunts humans as food and slowly begins to feel empathy with her prey, then becomes lost as she tries to reconcile her new feelings with her old self, is familiar to anyone who has seen The Man Who Fell To Earth or The Brother From Another Planet. Stripping away all of Faber's clumsy detail and ponderous metaphors about animal cruelty, Glazer's adaptation is one of the purest cinematic experiences of the year, as alien and alienating as its protagonist, depicted with the precision and stylistic restraint of a true artist. His mastery of mood is second-to-none, offered with such confidence that his nightmare imagery becomes even more powerful; truly there are moments that will haunt the receptive viewer for months. Kudos also to a never-better Scarlett Johansson, who manages to be both alluring and terrifying, and a groundbreaking score by Mica Levi set to become the stuff of legend.


Bringing non-American directors with clear visions into the US studio system rarely works out, certainly with very few success stories. Either the qualities that made those directors interesting are leached out, or their works are co-opted and tampered with by nervous producers; anyone who has followed the miserable story of Harvey Weinstein's treatment of Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer will know what I'm talking about. How wonderful, then, that the macabre sensibilities of Park Chan-wook should survive intact when adapting Wentworth Miller's challenging screenplay, bringing his exciting eye to bear on a tale of murderous inevitability and warped familial relationships. It's a compelling tale already, filled with surprise and darkness, but Park elevates it even further with some of the year's most electrifying directorial flourishes and the kind of commitment to diving into the subject material's thematic depths that makes the viewer's hair stand up straight. Several of Stoker's setpieces are among the highlights of the cinematic year, particularly a mid-movie hook-up gone awry that so brilliantly plays with audience expectations of narrative and teenage psychology that this awe-struck viewer almost fell out of his chair with ecstatic glee at the master's choices. As with a number of this year's best, mood and symbolism take over from plot as the engines of this grisly tale; we follow the narrative with intuition rather than the plodding steps of most movies. It casts a spell on us; we surrender happily.


Sometimes a film is daring because it dances so close to being intolerable that the audience is held captivated, waiting for the moment to sour and hurl the entire movie into an abyss of unwatchable preciousness. This was exactly the fate avoided by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig in this portrait of a young woman lost in her imagination, oblivious to the needs of the people around her and her effect on them as she repeatedly mooches off her friends, concocts hairbrained schemes for her future that can never possibly work, ignores chances for success because they don't match up to her self-image -- it's Blue Jasmine without the blues. In short Frances is intolerable, but Gerwig is, paradoxically, a delight; her twinkling charm keeps us hooked as Our Anti-Hero sabotages herself over and over again, in much the same way as Anne Hathaway managed to bring humanity to the role of exasperating Kym in Rachel Getting Married. This makes a perfect double bill with Groundhog Day, with both movies sharing the theme of looping behaviour dooming the protagonist to a kind of living hell; the difference between the two being that Phil Connors knows he's in hell, and Frances doesn't realise until it's almost too late. So we have the tension of whether the filmmakers will pull off the feat of keeping the audience onside, and the tension of hoping that Frances finds her feet, making this the most stressful film of the year that also sends audiences from the cinema with a spring in its step, not just because of the gorgeous Nouvelle Vague stylings of Baumbach or the pitch-perfect choices of Gerwig, but because it provides the most precious resource of all; hope for the viewer that there is always a way out.


Usually LISTMANIA! segregates documentaries from fictional films as they so often work with different tools, but the unfortunate consequence of that choice is that it can make it seem like there is also a judgement on quality there. Joshua Oppenheimer's shocking project deserves to be hailed alongside the rest of the year's movies; indeed, it should be praised as fit to stand with the greatest cultural achievements of the decade, offering sights and truths that could literally change the world while also presenting a recognisable and relatable emotional arc for its protagonist that is simultaneously, paradoxically, unlike anything seen before. Oppenheimer, his co-director Christine Cynn and his crew journeyed to Indonesia to make a bizarre offer to the corrupt and morally despicable men of Suharto's death squads; giving them an opportunity to re-enact the murders they committed over 40 years ago, this time through the medium of cinema. What comes next is a nightmarish lesson in the psychology of evil, as his tyro filmmakers begin dramatising their crimes in a number of different genres, at first with obnoxious enthusiasm and bravado, and then with growing awareness of the enormity of their crimes. The result of this experiment is unforgettable; our "protagonist" becomes so haunted by the unconscious growth of his conscience that he undergoes an almost physical change. What is even more incredible than Oppenheimer's fortune in stumbling upon and following this story is what he did next, offering the movie to Indonesia -- via geoblock -- to be downloaded for free, to ensure that the truth about Suharto's crimes could finally be addressed. For us it's a shocking film; for the people of Indonesia, it could be the cure for a sickness that has afflicted their country for decades.


If you look closely enough you can find proof that every movie is divisive to some extent, but it's rare that a film comes along that generates such passion that its critics angrily denounce it as a fraudulent and empty insult to the audience, and its fans argue that it is actually the future of the medium. Has Shane Carruth created the cinematic equivalent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring? I can only draw that comparison from the position of vociferous defender of Carruth's incredible vision, his audacious rewriting of the expected rules of narrative, his faith in the audience to follow the inferred story beats from mysterious opening to cathartic but secretly bleak final shot. This is a Cronenberg film by way of Malick, taking both filmmakers' style and weaving them into a new form, one in which mood, tone and emotional colour are narrative building blocks as much as the obvious ones of plot and character. It's brave enough that Carruth chooses to tell a story about two people who are essentially blanks, but that decision works so well because they are the product of a crime that would horrify anyone; non-metaphorical identity theft and the invasion of their body by parasite and by alien thought.

These are the things we dread now, depicted here in the grisliest and most discomfiting ways. Carruth's concerns are modern; that we are losing touch with others, that we are flailing in a chaotic sea of information and opinion, that we are too scared to connect to anyone else. These fears are realised through the most elegant of metaphors, nightmarish and unique analogies which play alongside an unexpectedly charming depiction of the mystery of love, that overwhelming feeling that seemingly has an origin outside of oneself, a delirium that completely takes over your personality and rewrites who you are until both lover and beloved become one organism with a shared point-of-view. This is science fiction used to depict the ugliness, confusion and beauty of the human experience in the most lyrical terms, but one unafraid to disturb the audience, to discombobulate and distract, to confuse and confound, creating a sensory experience that's like dipping your soul into a lake of benevolent pink ooze. The result is challenging, no doubt, but if it speaks to you there's nothing else like it on earth. This is the Shock of the New, the Velvet's first album, a film that could change the rules of cinema if we let it.

Right, that's enough hyperbole for one day. Next, the worst movies of 2013, featuring literally (and once more I really do literally mean literally) zero hyperbole (literally).
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