Closing out our year-end coverage are individual top ten lists from a variety of The Film Stage contributors, leading up to a cumulative best-of rundown. Make sure to follow all of our coverage here and see Nick Newman’s favorite films of the year below.
It’s never in my interest to put the just-concluding cinematic year on any kind of pedestal, its immediate impacts never truly taken for good, bad, or, much worse, through some faux-historical lens which might explain just why that particular film landed like so on what, let’s be honest, is an arbitrary scale. In (relative) conjunction with weighing these lists as much more of a personal snapshot than some cast-in-stone expression of life-or-death matters of aesthetic preference, it’s best not to consider what overlaps might exist herein. Those who wish for some grand reasoning will be disappointed to learn this basic truth: I was stirred in the experience of watching them unfold, and (especially in the case of #10) was made to react in ways which encourage the very specific hunger and desire which fuels my own sense of cinephilia. That’s the most I ask of a film, and it’s what these films provided.
10. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Terrence Malick’s sixth feature — no less the close-to-immediate follow-up to his most ambitious masterwork — does not speak to yours truly in ways that would equal any of the honorable mentions listed above, but its placement here should be taken as both an admission and a personal reminder. Returning to this slippery impression of a fractured transnational romance some nine months after a first encounter, I was greeted with something far more complex, touching, and relevant to our own moment (though not in the typically nauseating sense) than I had taken it (or given it credit) for — a sign that certain films (sometimes the best of them) just take a little time. (That initial viewing happened to inspire a reaction I’d care to just dispense with outright, but you can it read here, so long as you’re at all interested in the words of one who fell into unfortunate, expectations-defined traps.) If To the Wonder remains a stepping stone for the writer-director, I’m newly content with what it foretells.
9. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
What initially presents itself as a (slightly) dark comedy about bar-hopping evolves, scene by scene, into something satisfyingly ambitious and devastating. It’s an even greater accomplishment when taken in proper context: while sticking the landing on a trilogy initiated by Shaun of the Dead and continued with Hot Fuzz — very possibly the 21st century’s two great comedies — is no easy task, to simply rest on one’s earned laurels has proved as common an option for cappers. Full credit must be paid, then, to director / co-writer Edgar Wright and co-writer / star Simon Pegg for concluding with bared hearts, subverting what we’d expect of their science fiction turn by using homage as a direct means of addressing a deeply, terribly sad tale of addictions, personal failures, and the scars of lives only half-lived. Featuring extended bar fights with extraterrestrial robots, mind.
8. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
Viscerally brutal and entrenched in severe social angst though it most certainly is, Jia Zhangke’s new picture breaks from his tradition of relatively stoic efforts to bring about something… blissfully entertaining? For as strongly as his reputation has been cemented across the landscape of modern world cinema, the writer-director’s four-pronged examination of modern China’s utterly broken economy-citizen relationship seems to unshackle something he’s wished to express — something a bit more vibrant, shocking, and, okay, let’s just say it, fun. “Subtlety,” as it’s so often defined, is not at all in the picture’s interest, in large part because, I think, the fragility of a person-to-person connection (here writ on a national scale) extends far past boundaries of obvious or opaque, into something more elemental and, even, human. Jia reaches it, with blood and bodies strewn across the path toward success.
7. The Grandmaster [Chinese Cut] (Wong Kar-wai)
I was rather fond of The Grandmaster’s theatrical form, finding both majesty and irrepressible beauty throughout the supposedly “dumbed-down” iteration of what was once a longer, knottier international item. The memory of an American release still relatively fresh in my mind, visiting Wong Kar-wai’s homeland edition proved a startling experience — not necessarily in viewing some exponential improvement on that which was already strong, but in encountering an entirely different narrative that befits a more resonant, true-to-the-auteur examination of time’s unstoppable force and its tragic shaping of romantic fates. (The year’s finest action sequences — the train-platform fight stands out, but Tony Leung‘s blank-faced “one more kick” is the stuff of dreams — certainly do no harm to my appreciation.) While one may wish to seek out the 130-minute cut in lieu of The Weinstein Company’s outing — I’ve felt it necessary to make a distinction between those two, after all — in either form does Wong provide a ravishing, formally radical work that refuses to be dismissed.
6. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
To deem Frances Ha the most immediately pleasurable title herein might, to some, evince a backhanded compliment, but I’d wonder what these people also have to say about the finer works of Woody Allen or Whit Stillman. Lofty comparisons are necessary when the Baumbach-Gerwig pairing prove worthy of such a mantle, its former half an expert photographer of people and places, with a particular eye for reaction; the equal (and conducing action) is that latter name, imbuing her titular protagonist with a high-wire balance of naïveté and nigh-overwhelming affability. Frances’s story is as simple as it is familiar, and in either trait there lies a touching empathy which Baumbach’s prior work may have glided over a little too proudly and showily. Bonus points for the uses of Hot Chocolate and David Bowie.
5. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais)
A twilight masterpiece that gleefully eschews old-man reflection and nostalgia, and through expertly deployed digital cinematography instead strives to contribute toward a future its own maker only has so much time left to see. While the meta-cinematic gambit is best discovered for oneself, narrative (even this, [technically] one of the most studied in human history) is of less importance than the act of observing faces and voices that have shaped generations of cinephilia. I’m immensely glad to know Alain Resnais has one more film premiering in only a couple of months’ time, but, for all intents and purposes, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet is a final statement par excellence.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
The already-high profile of this Martin Scorsese–Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration has skyrocketed in the few days since its release, and for as numbingly repetitive (or simply mind-numbing) as so many facets of this wide-reaching “conversation” undoubtedly feel, it’s only proven an angry, uncompromising film to possess qualities which extend far past excessive entertainment value. While much of what I have to say has recently been stated in a longer review, there’s no doubt in my mind that Wolf will only prove conducive to further dialogue in the near-future and beyond; even when slotted at fourth-place amongst this consideration of a terrific 12 months, I feel I may be underrating the thing.
3. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel)
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel could have earned a position for no more than the transcendent ballet between underwater glides and soaring seagulls — a show-stopping sequence that forced yours truly to elicit something as awestruck as “oh my God” several times over a few minutes — but, even as a moment of overwhelming beauty, it’s only a portion amidst the most natural (yet entirely foreign) images captured this decade. I have a strong distaste for considerations of “game-changing” cinema — a strong distaste for anything that claims to forecast the medium’s future, really — but Leviathan, a first-person view equal-parts terrifying and ethereal, tests that personal preference to extreme degrees in promising a previously unthinkable terrain for documentary and experimental cinema. I can’t wait to see what follows.
2. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)
One of the very best — maybe, even, the second-best, as this ranking would evince — films I saw in 2013 remains without distribution, an unfortunate notice made all the more disheartening in context: an international master angling toward his final statement via fiercely critical examinations of economic disparity and personal humiliation. Words such as “bracing” are thrown around willy-nilly as a means of describing any half-decent film that dares to so much as look social issues in the eye; Stray Dogs, though fully embracing slow-cinema staples (this only further enabled by its use of digital cinematography), is more of an angry howl baffled at and irate with a modern state which none of us are capable of changing. God willing, it’s seen by those outside festival locations within a reasonable amount of time.
1. Bastards (Claire Denis)
Modern-to-the-hilt noir submerged in the unforgiving blackness of digital photography, emotional currents sparked with a tactile cinema appealing directly to the senses. In retrospect, it (sometimes) seems these two edges could sufficiently define Claire Denis‘s Bastards, but her films can never be boiled down to a few descriptors — which might be a tinge ironic, given the immense power of a narrative system that consists of absolutely no more than each crucial component, like a cinematic razor blade slicing its way through all that’s pure. The crescendo would prove unbearable if the pleasures weren’t so extreme, and Bastards’s final moments are the most viscerally shocking of 2013: just as the final piece is about to snap in, the roving, low-resolution images dart away from an act of savagery — not for the sake of respite, but only as a promise that cycles of violence, corruption, and systematic failure are bound to continue. As Tindersticks carry into the end credits, we’re left with no choice but to embrace the darkness.
It stimulated and galvanized in a way like no other film listed above; for this, Bastards earns my place as the best film of 2013.