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Ethan Vestby’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Written by on December 31, 2013 

5. Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi)

“Escapism” becomes a label used to separate the sectors of art and entertainment, essentially that the former is often used to hold a mirror to the world, while the latter, the possessor of this term, is a tool of diversion from our troubling lives. Yet to take that word to a more literal degree, Closed Curtain sees Jafar Panahi, still imprisoned by the Iranian government, break down the very walls of storytelling to envision his own freedom, both from the confines of his own home to the very need to create a narrative of it. Whereas the “meta” film often entails at least a good dose of snark (just look at the previous film on this list), Closed Curtain only envisions it as the means most necessary.

4. Jealousy (Philippe Garrel)

Due to the constant influence May ’68 has on his work, Philippe Garrel’s films often concern a fruitless pursuit of something lost — and, with Jealousy, maybe the simplest human concept: happiness, is the object of this typically talky trek. Amidst the festival circuit’s plentiful offerings of bloat, whether through glibly provocative subject matter or tired recycling of arthouse aesthetics, the relaxed 77 minutes comes as not only a relief, but a reminder of the power found in simple expressiveness. The best way to say it is that Jealousy feels like a story told only through the very images it requires, the multiple perspectives drawing from Garrel’s own life as a father, lover, and child all made wholly clear.

3. Bastards (Claire Denis)

Like many other a film noir, Bastards is often helplessly convoluted — just amongst the examples being a dream sequence presented without even the distinguishable marks of a break in reality. Yet that doesn’t even really seem to matter, as Claire Denis is, inevitably, far more interested in the act of seduction than explanation, whether through the sight of headlights at night, animalistic love-making, the way she can cast any actor perfectly based on their physicality, or a throbbing electronic score courtesy of Tindersticks. These preoccupations notwithstanding, the overall eroticism reaches disturbing (to say the least) ends that virtually no other director would show, even when captured through a lower resolution — the final cruelty being the insinuation it makes about a catchy Hot Chocolate cover it’s set to.

2. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)

Jia Zhangke’s films often depict an easy overlap between politics and pop culture, whether it be the entertainers of Platform or The World, or the seeming overabundance of accessibility in Unknown Pleasures. This certainly holds true for A Touch of Sin, which — while loosely based on four real stories of violence fuelled by capitalism in contemporary China — plays with the tropes of past popular cinema as many characters come to embody modern Wuxia knights, the brandishing of Zhao Tao’s knife easily recalling the heightened sword strokes of King Hu. But as a public opera of one these classic Wuxia stories directly poses at the end, “Do you understand your sin?” As easy as it may sometimes prove to cheer on these acts of violence, every one comes with their own set of repercussions.

1. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

Presumably Tsai Ming-liang‘s final feature, Stray Dogs appropriately sees slow-cinema, an art film “movement” of which he’s considered one of the defining members, at its most extreme. With shots lasting around ten minutes in length — and, more often than not, displaying acts ranging from mundane to outright inactive; in particular, an extended “climax” that’s simply two people looking at a mural — the film could easily be described as “difficult.” Yet while it becomes an even trickier narrative piece by the final third, venturing into the obtuse (or as my interpretation sees it, the afterlife), the film’s emotions are always crystal clear. Tsai’s form doesn’t adhere to the tenets of stylized realism with some distancing anthropology, but displays an intimacy of character, setting, and, above all, time. No wonder we come to look at two still figures as a living, breathing version of the very mural they’re turned to tears by.

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