Jan 17, 2014
Today's Top Ten comes to us from Charles M. of RCL - North St. Paul. According to Charles: "The following is not a traditional best-of-the-year list, but a somewhat arbitrary mix of old and new. Forgotten masterpieces and flawed curiosities rub up against new movies, some acclaimed, others not so much. The only unifying aspect is that these have all been released or nationally rediscovered sometime during 2013."
Ten Notable Viewings from 2013
The Act of Killing sort of poses the question: what if the Nazis had won? In the case of the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, they essentially did, and the perpetrators sometimes self-identified with violent icons from the American cinema to carry out their deeds. This is a provocative, surreal, and intimate critique of both the cinema and humanity that looks at the ways in which we use storytelling to deceive ourselves.
Before Midnight is a movie that I initially had hoped would never be made, so perfect was the ambiguous ending to Before Sunset. But this one rivals its romantic predecessor with its long takes, long conversations, and series of increasingly emotional scenes that erupt in a catharsis. The frustrations of life, that often unspoken feeling that we may be wasting our time on this planet, idling by as the best parts of it slip away, and the reassurances to all that which we find in others, are explored with piercing sincerity. Great movie. I still hope they don't make another.
The Chase (1946) feels like a half-remembered culmination of all of film noir, with its twists of fate, its repeat performances, its hoodlums, its dreams of escape and its nightmares that inexorably follow. The entire thing seems to emanate from a guilty, subconscious mind. Imagine a young David Lynch watching this repeatedly during his formative years, falling asleep to it at night, mixing it up in his memory, eventually giving birth to Lost Highway... (This restoration has been making the festival circuit, but to my knowledge has not yet arrived on DVD.)
Le Grand Amour (1969) is a whimsical comedy of human foibles, making light of the proverbial midlife crisis that takes possession of men and makes them lust over lost youth. Of Pierre Etaix's small body of work, recently restored in crisp new prints, this is the film that is the most indebted to the French New Wave, parading an imaginative, capricious proclivity to meander and daydream. And yet beneath the comic veneer is a rather bitter tale of mental suffering and the human inability to find happiness in relationships. It's funny and sad and wise.
Gravity is virtuosic cinema that seeks to dazzle and impress with shots that seemingly know no end and careful edits that preserve the roving three-dimensional rhythms of Cuaron and Lubezki's camera. The visual experience is probably the closest a film has come to creating the sensory impact of what it would be like to float in space. It's a terrific movie, interweaving non-stop suspense with human interest drama in a way that feels very satisfying.
Gun Crazy (1949) is an innovative, vertiginous whirlwind of a movie that cranks its tale of doomed love into overdrive. There's an electricity permeating the whole thing that makes it all seem unreal. It's shot and edited with such dynamic techniques that it achieves a sense of hyper immediacy, careening toward its inexorable finish with nightmarish velocity until it runs out of steam up in the lethargic, swampy forests. It's sublime, and the new restoration is gorgeous.
Marketa Lazarova (1967) is an immersive historical epic that plunges you into 13th century Bohemia with its warring clans and religious struggles without any guidebooks or compass to mark your way. As one astute reviewer put it, it's initially as confusing to watch as it would be to awaken in this alien culture. You absorb this film, with all of its staggering black-and-white images, poetic editing, and operatic soundtrack dominated by choral singing, and it leaves you with the impression of having been somehow transported back to the Middle Ages, as if you were staring into the face of a piece of authentic medieval art that had been buried for centuries and only recently uncovered. Widely considered the greatest Czech movie ever made, and with good reason.
Native Son (1951) is an obscure and somewhat pedestrian adaptation of Richard Wright's acclaimed book, but it's such an oddity that it's worth seeking out. Made in Argentina, Wright himself reluctantly played the lead role when the actor slated for the part fell through, despite never having acted before in his life (he never would again) and being over twice the age of the character. The inner realm of the novel is translated into more objective scenes of action and suspense, and while it's not always successful, it's quite engrossing.
To the Wonder may be Terrence Malick's greatest achievement. His previous movies all verge on the poetic: striking compositions, associative editing, fragmentary voice-overs. Yet they all still have some semblance of the theatrical, which has long gripped virtually all narrative cinema: dialogue, drama, acting, scenes. But here, finally, he eliminates that theatricality, rendering the story in a purely cinematic, abstract fashion. There are no scenes, only sequences; dialogues are reduced to fragmented monologues; actors are turned into physical presences, the characters are ciphers, brooding, who express their emotions through gesture, and their feelings are taken up by the flow of the sounds and images. My favorite movie of the year.
Two Men in Manhattan (1959) is a low budget odyssey through the streets of 1950s New York City, a missing persons investigation that is mostly an excuse to marvel at the lights and signs of the city at night with a documentary inquisitiveness. As a fan of the great Jean-Pierre Melville, this has long been one of my most sought after movies, and has finally been restored and released this year. It's a jazzy film, a little rough around the edges, and truth be told it's probably the least of his body of work, but it's a fascinating view of the city from France's most Americanophile filmmaker that has all the energy of a kid in a candy shop.