Olson’s Favorite Films of 2013
1. The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France)
Not only does Asghar Farhadi’s followup to the critically acclaimed A Separation firmly establish the Iranian director as one of our master storytellers, it also, more specifically, establishes him as one of contemporary cinema’s great investigators of domestic drama. The way Farhadi controls narrative structure by gradually unveiling withheld information gives The Past’s story of a broken home a strong sense of thrilling tension interspersed with moments of revelation. These sudden but subtle moments of truth cast a light on the historical rootedness of familial wounds–the effects of which (time eventually tells us) cannot simply be wiped away.
2. This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan, USA)
I suspect it’s still safe to say that Chad Hartigan’s delightful film is overlooked. I’ve done my best to overcome this problem here, here, and here. By depicting Christians and unbelievers interacting in such a way that they’re all round characters, This is Martin Bonner is remarkable. But that’s just one reason among many. It’s a carefully observed, formally interesting character study that filmmakers of belief and unbelief could learn from, I think.
3. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA)
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York who is kidnapped from his life of tending to family, carpentry, and fiddle playing, and sold into slavery in the deep south. What unfolds is a 12 year travelogue that, while unflinchingly bearing witness to slavery’s fundamental dehumanizing effect, avoids being reducible to mere manipulation of tension through brutality. If providing insight means, in part, giving penetrating sight, then McQueen establishes the stakes in the film’s brilliant opening shot, in which the fourth wall is broken (and not for the last time), and it’s as if to say: are you paying attention? If we are, what we get is a deeply affecting film about the social psychology of freedom and enslavement, featuring long pauses on the haunted spaces in which persons are treated as properties.
4. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)
Upon first seeing the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street, I noticed that Scorsese was explicitly framing this film through Jordan Belfort’s point of view, an established narrative device that, if overlooked, will render vapid much of this film’s import. That is because the film’s moral center is mostly evident in Scorsese’s formal subversion of Belfort’s perspective (POV maneuvering, editing discontinuities, etc.). Belfort is clearly an unreliable narrator, and Scorsese’s film is sharply satirical black comedy. At its most comedic, Wolf is Keaton-esque. At its blackest, it’s appropriately pitch black, particularly in its tonal shifts during the last hour of the film. Some have responded that this film doesn’t depict anything unique that other films don’t already show–and without conveying so negative (so explicit) a via negativa. But I think it’s 0ver-generalizing to sum up this film as a “critique of capitalistic excess.” Wolf is about performance and audience and intentional miscommunications abetted by distance and deceit. Wolf is about how lust and greed kill the soul, yes, but it’s also about how that death is transmitted (cue Spirit of McConaughey chants)–and there’s a final shot here which undermines any temptation for the viewer’s comfy self-righteousness–a concern Scorsese has noted repeatedly in recent interviews.
5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA)
This film will have me further exploring two points with future viewings. First, how we understand this life as a “passing through”–our sensibility about the time we’ve been given–will affect the way we love and hope to be loved. Second, Linklater’s film gets the anatomy of an argument–the gestures of shrinking intimacy–in quite unsettling ways that resonate for me, though I’ve not had an argument quite like the one Jesse and Celine experience in the second half of the film.
6. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA)
I have a long essay on the film here in which I take Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos (with a touch of Robert Frost’s “Birches”)as a reference point for considering both the film’s mise-en-scene and the specific three-dimensional experience it seeks to provide the viewer. I’ll only add that I think this film has been slightly under appreciated for the extent to which it is a largely successful blockbuster spectacle qua experimental art and narrative. For now, it more than suffices to let Kristin Thompson do the heavy lifting here and here.
7. From Up On Poppy Hill (Gorō Miyazaki, Japan)
Monsters University and Frozen provided moments of enjoyment, but the animated film which most captivated me immediately on a first viewing and all the more so on a repeat viewing was From Up On Poppy Hill. It’s a delightfully self-aware melodrama that is earnestly concerned with reconciling the past with modern progress–call it an existential concern for lost and dying histories delivered histrionically. You might call the vantage point it finally advocates a renovative one. Extended thoughts here.
8. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA)
After a second viewing, I wrote an extensive essay about Malick’s latest film here; I considered the senses in which the film is “psalmic.” But it wasn’t until a recent third viewing that I was so struck by the last cut of the film, and realized that this last cut alone–including all that it means for what came before it–was better than several movies I saw in 2013. Richard Brody gets it, though I’m not sure that I’d make the kind of hard distinction he’s implying at the end of his piece when he wants to differentiate between having faith and seeing the light.
Oh, and if I was compiling a top ten favorites list for film criticism, Michael Leary’s piece on To the Wonder would be near the top.
9. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, Britain)
This action-comedy about the end of the world is brilliantly structured by barhopping. It’s an alcoholypse that’s not only riotously funny, but also sobering in its fundamental question: how do we be grownups in such a way that by virtue of growing up we grow more free? More here.
10. Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, USA)
Included in this delightful film’s diegesis is a doxology which Mason’s adoptive family sings together, and which seems qualitative of the rituals of their home life. Just after singing, Mason thanks his adoptive parents for showing him “what it is like to be loved.” A thread might be linked from this scene to Mason’s asking Grace to open up to him, and then to a gesture near the end of the film that involves an open blanket of forgiveness and re-welcome. In part, then, the last shot of this film works because of its repetition (a Short Term 12 ritual, if you will): Chase down, surround, hold tight, and remain steadfast in love.
The Next 10:
11. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, USA): One of my big end-of-year surprises is that Polley’s documentary is outside my top ten. It made quite an impression on me. It’s a filmic memoir that both sheds light on Polley’s life, and reflects on the nature of memoir itself. I had a long conversation with Amanda Mae Meyncke about viewing Polley’s filmography through the lens of this documentary; we found ourselves discussing minor issues like memory, fidelity, and identity.
12. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, USA/Australia): Gregory Wolfe said recently that art and faith “return us to our senses.” You could pair this with The Mill and the Cross and have a nice filmic testimony to that truth framed by Bruegel.
13. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA): I think my favorite action sequence of the year might be Frances run-dancing through the New York City streets. Baumbach manages to capture the plight and spirit of a generation of young adults without devolving into Young Adult. Part of his success, I think, is a nice balance between persistent sympathy and “but your blog looked so happy!” Sometimes critical, but never cynical.
14. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA): Still astonished by how much depth and humanity is packed into this simple and bleak story. I agree with Anders Bergstrom that the presence of Dylan at the end of the film seems pretty significant.
15. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Indonesia): Probably the most profoundly sad depiction I’ve seen of both the (in)human capacity to minimize committed evils in our minds and our ultimate inability to do so as embodied human creatures. One of my most memorable scenes of the year: Anwar Congo on a dock in the middle of the night with lightning striking in the background. Oppenheimer (I presume) says, “When you say karma, what does it mean for you? What are you afraid of?” Anwar replies, “Karma is like a law of nature—a law straight from God.”
16. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong/China): It’s stunning for me how much characterization is packed into every punch–whole legacies captured in martial arts stances.
17. The Conjuring (James Wan, USA): Definitely my favorite horror film of the year. I have a review here, in which I consider the film’s essential conflict as one between haunting and relieving presences. The Warrens are missionaries of sorts, equipped with analog equipment and the Spirit, so that they might perform a reclamation of spaces and souls.
18. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, USA): Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley bring high schoolers to the big screen in ways more lively and memorable than is typical.
19. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, USA): A marvelously paced action-thriller with just enough subtlety to avoid the pitfalls you might expect of a Hollywood approach to the subject matter. Greengrass and Hanks seem to really elevate one another here.
20. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China): Four based-on-a-true-story tales about four instances of gruesome violence caused and connected by pressurized, unjust social conditions. It is an exercise, as Darren Hughes’ excellent interview puts it, in “confronting the darkness.”
10 More (Alphabetical): The Counselor, Drug War, Fruitvale Station, Her, A Hijacking, Mud, No, Prisoners, Upstream Color, World War Z
Two films I haven’t seen which are most likely to disrupt the top ten: Like Someone in Love and Beyond the Hills
Five films which left me unsure, and I’d like to give a second viewing: The Counselor, Upstream Color, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Computer Chess, Side Effects
Five disappointments: Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, All is Lost, The Great Gatsby