Sunday, January 12, 2014

Top 10 of 2013: Sean

10. (3-way tie) It's a Disaster

I wasn't aware of this low-budget, small-scale black comedy from first-time director Todd Berger until an "underseen movies of 2013" list on The Dissolve clued me into it. I'm glad it did, as the comedic premise (a couples' brunch in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood devolves into a series of arguments, dissolving friendships and relationships in amusingly petty ways, while a significant disaster carries on outside the confines of their quaint house) is played with just the right balance of realism and the script finds unexpected ways to raise the stakes at the right times. David Cross in particular nails his character, and the movie often relies on him as the straight-man foil to more absurd characters. If Berger can continue to deliver inventive comedies like this, I'll be watching them.

10. (3-way tie) Room 237

It's not the theories presented in this movie that are of any interest to me. I've been a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece since I first saw it at a very young age, and my interest in the movie has never really wavered. I've seen it perhaps more than any other movie, and have always preferred it over King's original source novel. But I don't need some jackass telling me that a painting of a buffalo in the corner of one frame in one scene for one minute is proof that The Shining was entirely a commentary on the slaughter of the Native Americans, or that Danny's wearing of an Apollo-themed sweater is Kubrick's sly admission of guilt in faking the moon landings. I don't need some creepy sounding old armchair film professor / stoner telling me that in one angle, a book on a desk looks like it takes the form of an erection on a man standing near the desk. These aren't the reasons The Shining is an interesting movie to me. But what interests me about this documentary is just that the movie itself could have inspired so many people to dig so deeply into it, on these bizarre Quixotic quests to derive some kind of meaning where there isn't any. It's kind of fascinating and at times even impressive the kind of logical leaps are made in this film by the various presenters of their theories. On top of that, the music is pretty cool, and the editing is impressive; the entirety of the movie is recycled footage from The Shining, and it's synchronized with the music and narration in interesting and thoughtful ways.

10. (3-way tie) Escape From Tomorrow

I'd be lying if I didn't say that a large part of my enjoyment of this film is the story behind its creation. If instead this was filmed on a backlot somewhere with a completely convincing replica of Disneyland, or with CGI-trickery, or blue-screenery or whatever - I'm fairly certain this would not be on my list. But so what? The fact that it was made in such an audaciously guerrilla style is a part of reality, and has a real bearing of the enjoyment of the movie while you are watching it. Because it was filmed mostly on-location actually in the Disneyland and Disneyworld parks with no authorization, every scene is filled with an extra intensity and level of surrealism that would have been unattainable through any other means. You could call that a cheap gimmick, I suppose, but it's something wildly inventive that hadn't ever been attempted before, and the end result is actually far more cohesive and effective than I would have thought possible through these kind of filming tactics. It's not a movie that everyone will enjoy, but for its sheer uniqueness alone it should be seen by all.

9. Upstream Color

I hated this movie for the first half of watching it. Contrary to Primer, which I really enjoyed, I felt like the film was needlessly cruel, deliberately obtuse, and at times pointlessly artsy. At a certain point, things suddenly came into focus for me, like the big reveal of a magician's final act, and the movie started to click with me. By the end, I was already waiting for a chance to relive this frustrating but ultimately rewarding experience.

8. Crystal Fairy

Michael Cera's one of those guys who definitely got typecast very early in his career, to the point of turning off some of the public. This might be why he's been branching out lately into some pretty unusual underground fare - sometime between launching his own YouTube comedy channel (JASH, with Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts, and Tim & Eric) and starring as a wheelchair-bound mentally handicapped man stuck in the Salton Sea in the black comedy short Gregory Go Boom, Cera found time to move to Chile for about six months with director Sebastián Silva to learn Spanish and eventually film Magic Magic, a thriller directed by Silva and starring Juno Temple. In the process of rehearsing for Magic Magic, Silva filmed on the side with Cera, his friend Gaby Hoffman, and three of Silva's brothers, to create Crystal Fairy, a largely improvised, Linklater-esque tale of a young and arrogant American's quest to obtain a psychoactive cactus and go on a drug-fueled bender. It's funny, weird, and sad in all the right ways, and really makes me want to check out what other movies are coming out of Chile these days.

7. A Band Called Death

Maybe it's just an artifact of mass nostalgia, but "Rediscovery Stories" seem to be big these days. Whether it's Best Worst Movie, or Searching For Sugarman, the Goblin reunion tour, or Massacre Video's discovery of Chester Turner, it seems as of late I've spent a lot of time enjoying stories of forgotten or neglected artists being appreciated in a new light years after the fact. In a way, even the whole VHS resurgence of 2013 was kind of a similar story. Of all these stories, though - the story of A BAND CALLED DEATH really is one of the more fascinating stories of rediscovery. If you enjoy punk rock music or even just rock music in general, there's a high probability you will really love the music of DEATH, despite the fact you probably hadn't heard of them (until recently). The fact that these recordings sat mostly unheard for decades is another reminder of the excitement we all have when we dig through the record bins or the videostore shelves.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

I think the phrase I've heard from a few sources now is "tackles excess with excess", and that's a pretty good summation of what Scorsese's up to here. Great performances litter the movie, with Jonah Hill's an easy favorite, and the scale of the film is nearly operatic. Many memorable scenes are to be found across the 3-hour, 17-year span of the film, but perhaps the standout is the scene where DiCaprio and Jonah Hill mistakenly consume too many vintage Quaaludes before discovering the difficulties of walking. The movie's much funnier than I expected, but bitterly so, and a lot of the humor can turn really black if you consider the gravity of the actual situation, which I think Scorsese does pay appropriate respect to.

5. Only God Forgives

A weirdly hypnotic fever dream of a movie, like the most beautiful poem written in a language you've never heard of, Only God Forgives is bound to be one of the most divisive movies of the year. Extremely pedestrian symbolism collide with wonderfully expressionistic photography and gorgeous neon lighting, a really cool low-key score, and very surprising gore into something fairly Lynchian but also completely unique to Refn's sensibilities. If you're attached to literalism, forget this movie. But if you can tolerate a high level of surrealism and want to see Thai drug-lord bloodbaths, this is probably your jam.

4. Blue Is The Warmest Color

This film became somewhat notorious this year for the lengthy, explicitly photographed sex scenes featuring the two lead actresses. But the sensationalist nature of those scenes, while admirably daring and superbly shot, are almost a detractor to this film as they seem to have diverted some of the critical attention away from the core strength of this film, which is its fantastic capturing of the minute details of the ebbs and flows of a young romantic relationship. There's also some frank depiction of the kind of violent homophobia some youths still experience in southern France today. One of a few great films (along with Her and Spring Breakers) this year that really seem to directly reflect something about the human experience of living in 2013.

3. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

This one really took me by surprise. What starts as a light-hearted look at a wacky subcultural footnote quickly turns into an expose of women being exploited and abused and then turns into a surprisingly emotional story of regret and heart-warming reunion. As someone who didn't really grow up watching GLOW at all, I never expected to become so engrossed in not only the hilariously campy pro-wrestling show and the sensation around it, but also the stories of these women who were drawn into such a weird underground arena.

2. Spring Breakers

One of the most youth-centric movies of 2013, Spring Breakers also ends up being one of the smartest. Similar to Blue In The Warmest Color in that the overt sexualization in the material has lead some to mischaracterize the filmmaker's intensions, and subsequently the quality of the film. It should be clear to any observer of Harmony Korine that Spring Breakers is clearly more an indictment of youth culture and general American sentiments of entitlement than a celebration of it. Spring Breakers is kind of like a bizarre funhouse mirror that Korine holds up to American culture, warping the edges of the picture but maintaining a core truth about the vapid self-centeredness of the post-Internet generation. James Franco is almost unrecognizable here as he continues his career path of alternating between the very best things and the very worst things, exhibiting complete commitment to a really odd character in one of the year's most surprising and entertaining transformations. Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine for their part all exhibit a similar fearlessness in their roles, which are all both more physically and emotionally demanding than you might expect given the premise. Benoît Debie provides the psychedlic dreamlike cinematography, much as he did for Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void and Irreversible, and the look of the film could not have been more perfectly realized. Perfectly fluid and surreal, an entire essay could be written on the visual style of the movie alone. Time will reveal this film to be a forgotten gem, even if audiences currently aren't ready to appreciate it.

1. Her

No surprises here, as Spike Jonze has yet to disappoint me, and Phoenix has really been on a tear lately. This was far and away my most anticipated movie of 2013, and the fact that it delivered for me so strongly renewed my interest in theatrical movie-going, which to be honest had been waning significantly this year, as I found more to watch via VOD/Streaming/cave-life. There are so many things to love about this movie, but one of the highlights is the way it builds very clearly and linearly off concerns I think we all have today about the ideas of information overload, gadget obsession, the loss of human connections in a social-networking obsessed culture, etc. It's also remarkable the way Spike is able to keep the focus of the movie so small and personal (echoed in the mostly-closeups cinematography) against a story that ultimately has some very large societal and cultural implications. As the focus is so small, Joaquin Phoenix's performance is critical to the film, as is Scarlett Johannson's - the fact that they are both so great in this didn't fully surprise me, but the fact that they recorded their dialogue months apart (Phoenix actually filmed the scenes with Samantha Morton on set, who was later replaced in the editing room) is really shocking given the apparent chemistry the characters have. The world-building here is so logically strong that we only need to see little hints of what is happening around Phoenix and his OS to get a pretty complete picture, and all of the design elements we do see like the computers, clothing, and urban planning feel completely natural and like elements of a fully realized universe. There are so many big themes tackled within the runtime of the picture, and for the most part they are addressed at such a pace that you don't get to fully resolve them in real-time - it leaves you with a lot to think about in the parking lot. Of all the movies I saw this year, Her felt most connected to humanity, and despite not being an alarmist anti-technology sci-fi movie, it is probably ultimately a call for humans to connect on a more personal level without the aid of technology. The fact that it's also so remarkably well executed in terms of performances, visual design, and storytelling made it an easy choice for my favorite of 2013.

Honorable mentions:
  • Leviathan
  • Blackfish
  • Magic Magic
  • Gravity
  • WNUF Halloween Special

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