Thursday, 5 December 2013

My favourite films of the year, 2013

I regret that I have not updated this blog much of late. Although I have several ideas in store, I simply have not found the time. Curse you, dissertation! And I haven't even started writing you yet!

In the previous two years, I selected my favourite three films released theatrically in the UK at the time. Last year there were a lot of enchanting corkers I did not write about. So this year I have decided to compile a list of the top ten films released this year. Why would I need to write just about three films? Is this an austerity blog? No, I hope not! Self-imposing constraints like that is silly and will get us nowhere!

I was hoping of writing in great length about each film, though I think that I will keep it as concise as possible. Concision is elegant.

The list will start with the TENTH film and move down to the FIRST film. That will keep you on your toes.

There are no blockbusters here, sadly. I prefer arty films, it seems. Chances are that you will not have seen any of the films listed below. If that is the case, do not feel ashamed. If anything, I should feel ashamed of myself for going to the local arthouse every weekend when you, dear reader, dutifully chase birds.

10: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Documentary) (Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, Russia/UK)

Totalitarianism is now at an outmoded concept. The only true totalitarian society today would be North Korea. What we do have now is authoritarianism and illiberal forms of democracy. Russia has both right now.

Pussy Riot are a feminist punk band who performed in a Russian cathedral. The song they sang had the lyric 'God shit.' They were sentenced to two years in prison for inciting religious hatred. This documentary has fly-on-the-wall material of their court case, talking heads and footage of Pussy Riot up to shenanigans.

Their prison sentence has intensified Russia's problems with orthodox religion, its shady corruption and its treatment of homosexuals and minorites. It has also put further strain on its leading autocrat Putin. This is a enthralling documentary which has a lot to reveal about the country on a political and social level as well as being a case study of the provocative ladies.

9. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA)

Semantically, this is quite probably a turkey. It has nothing revealing nor incisive to say. In fact, it is riddled with epigrams about love that are quite frankly stomach turning.

But, on a purely visual level, this is one of the best experiences I have ever had in a cinema. Each scene is a little masterpiece in its own right. I was captivated by Malick's masterful shots of cathedrals, ebbing tides and meadows. I will say that again: it is masterful.

This is Malick's sixth film and it has echoes of Tarkovksy's Nostalghia. Beautiful to watch, but marred by its own towering ego.

Why should film be strictly narrative, anyway? Can't we go to the cinema and be in awe of the technical flair of directors like Malick?

8. The Gatekeepers (Documentary) (Dror Moreh, Israel)

This is a cinematic coup. Six of the former heads of Israel's security service are interviewed at length. There are plenty of revelations about the heinous ways in which the Palestinians have been repressed.

In one startling instance, one of the older former heads mentioned that it was 'great' that Hamas started because they started to have a lot of work in hand. All the agents, though guarded at times, are thoughtful and articulate.

On many instances they seem to agree that their methods are brutal and that what Israel has done is unjust. They even agree that a two-state solution should be on the cards. Shouldn't heads of state take notice?

7. In the Fog (Sergei Loznista, Russia)

This is a brilliant, brooding, atmospheric film. It is set in the second world war in a Nazi occupied sector of Russia. It follows the ways in which Russian peasants help the SS and their ensuing ignominy in the local town. At times elliptical, it also has the quality of great Russian literature - slow, introspective and bloody.

6. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, USA/Austria)

Avan-Garde filmmaking is often nothing more than a cold intellectual exercise. This is why this films is such a gem in that it is avant-garde filmmaking which is beautiful to watch and has emotional resonance.

It follows an unlikely friendship the guard of a museum strikes with a Canadian tourist in Vienna. The film follows the guard's lifestyle of quietly contemplating the paintings on display and observing the expressions of the visitors. It is full of insights on the masterpieces.

What I think is the greatest achievement of the film is the way Cohen shoots Vienna. Litter and debris is reconfigured as static paintings. (Cohen's filmography consists of museum exhibitions and this is first feature film.)

5. NO (Pablo Larraín, Chile)

Pablo Larraín's film has made quite a big impact internationally. This is surprising in that it is about a very specific moment in Chilean history: the advertising campaign for the NO bid in the 1988 referendum.

The film is shot in the 80s video, so it has the same look of the time. The cast includes the actual politicians of the campaign (alongsde Gael Garcia Bernal, of course), again lending it a touch of authenticity.

It is also charged with a lot of humour. The scenes with Pinochet are particularly funny, because what he says is so ridiculous.

The film is very ironic in the way it posits its argument. Yes, Pinochet is deposed, but he is deposed with his own language. The NO campaign wins with cheery coca-cola styled ads. Once democracy is installed the leader of the campaign is shown making more innocent TV adverts. Although Chile has democracy, it continues to clutch to free markets.

4. The Act of Killing (Documentary) (Jossen Oppenheimer, International Co-Production)

500,000 people were killed in three days in the Indonesian genocide of 1965. 'Gangs' were assigned this gruesome task. This film follows them now and asks them to recreate their murders (play-acting, of course). This results in some disconcerting, and at times downright strange, viewing.

The film is interested more in spectacle than in examination - there is no historical context of the genocide, for instance - but it is one of the most striking and eye-opening films of recent times. It is also an interesting film on the nature of guilt. Many are unrepentant, though one is haunted by nightmares. In one bizarre dream sequence, the gangster is given a 'medal' from the ghosts of the civilians he murdered.

3. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mingiu, Rumania)

In this film, we delve into the lives of a convent of orthodox nuns. A girl who visits the convent becomes is accused of witchcraft and conflict soon arises. The convent is apart from society, aligned to values which are almost medieval. They are apart from the contemporary society, in a microcosm. Their well-meaning pious behaviour ultimately results in a terrible tragedy. A masterful drama.

2. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK)

This film is mooted to have started a new wave of British filmmaking. Very, very exciting stuff. It is in the vein of British social realism, like Ken Loach. The performances of the two adolescent boys are brilliant. Two working class kids from the midlands start trading scrap metal for cash and become embroiled in illegal activity. Although it is a realist film, it also imbued with lyrical shots. I also liked the way in which working class people are depicted for who they are. A very moving, emotional film. I was thunderstruck for the remainder of the day.

1. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

I am tired of writing now, so I copied and pasted this chunk of writing about this film from my Facebook. Hence the dodgy font.

The film, in terms of its technique, is a composite of two lauded filmmakers: Terrence Malick and Frederico Fellini (I love the former, loathe the latter). Yet, in many respects, makes up for what those directors lack.
It is ridden with the kind of tracking shots Malick loves to shoot (which often become clichéd). It deals with a whole class of people who are, ultimately, completely vacuous and decadent - the literary bohemia (and here we see copious allusions to the films of Fellini). And, whilst it has this grandeur of Malick (there are several poetic epigrams and a lot of reflection), and the flaneur milieu of Fellini, it treats the characters very ironically. As it happens, the film is very funny (in a very absurd, irreverent way).

Mind you, when you come out of it, you think - what's his thesis? What is he getting at? I don't think he is getting at anything. The film is strewn with ambiguity. You could tease out comments on their decadence, on literary pretension, on ageing, on lost love, on Berlusconi's Italy, though I think that would be superfluous. It could also do with more narrative flair (it sometimes becomes needlessly elliptical). Fuck all that, though - you should see it!



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