It was an excellent year for cinema demonstrated by how many worthy films had to be left out of this list and many others that I failed to see because they never got released in my city such as A Touch of Sin, Stray Dogs, Ship of Theseus and Norte, the End of History. The distribution problem for foreign films seems to get worse every year but since these films only make a fraction of the box-office revenue, no one seems to care. As a result, the importance of film festivals and an increasing amount of VOD options cannot be overstated.
One aspect that stood out from some of the best films of 2013 was their mature approach to relationships, especially between parents and children. Like Father, Like Son, Before Midnight and The Past come from three different countries but they all managed to smartly depict the two way impact parents and kids have on each other. The visuals and sound design of many films left a mark, including some that were left out of this list. For example, the sound of Lootera is impressive as is the background score in 12 Years a Slave which gives a cue when the nightmare is over. 12 Years a Slave could have had no dialogue and the score would have still been ample in navigating the emotional state of the characters. In the case of Gravity, the technical aspects are far superior than the story and acting. Gravity was the first film I saw in the IMAX 3D format and that proved to be a very immersive physical experience. It was also the most memorable cinematic experience of the year but Gravity does not feature in this list, emphasizing the strength of this year's output.
TOP TEN FILMS OF 2013
1. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (JAPAN, HIROKAZU KORE-EDA)
A mature film about the two-way relationship parents and kids have on each other. At times devastating but an enriching experience. Hirokazu Kore-eda is certainly a worthy heir to the cinema of YasujirOzu.
3. THE GREAT BEAUTY (ITALY/FRANCE, PAOLO SORRENTINO)
Just when I think Italian cinema can't match its former glory comes this wonder of cinema. How on earth did Sorrentino make such a film? Is it really him that directed it? It feels like the ghost of Fellini, Antonioni and former Italian masters came on the set, possessed Sorrentino and made him make this film. There are also tiny hints of Terrence Malick and Matteo Garrone as well.
4. VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR (CANADA, DENIS C T )
Denis C ttoys with the audience by making a specific genre film under the cover of another genre. I am not going to reveal what the specific genre is because it is worth seeing this film cold without any prior knowledge. C tclearly alerts the audience what to expect but his alarms are mistaken for humor which is why when the film does eventually reveal its true nature, it jolts the senses.
5. BASTARDS (FRANCE, CLAIRE DENIS)
Shares some elements with L'Intrus but this heads towards neo-noir territory with devastating results. Like the real world, some of the biggest villains don't appear to be evil on first glance but only show their true color in dark enclosed spaces.
6. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (USA, RICHARD LINKLATER)
Before Midnight depicts a perfect way to make a trilogy as the characters grow off-screen and each film allows the audience to catch-up with events in their lives, just like old friends do when meeting after a long gap.
8. THE ACT OF KILLING (2012, DENMARK/NORWAY/UK, JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER)
Even though the documentary is rooted in Indonesia, it is universal in depicting how men kill with the aid of media and politicians. The depiction of torture/killing could easily be set in Latin/South America/Africa while the media manipulation applies to most nations. But no individuals will ever admit their crime with such brutal honesty as those in The Act of Killing, making it a living digital document.
9. THE FIFTH SEASON (2012, BELGIUM/HOLLAND/FRANCE, PETER BROSENS/JESSICA WOODWORTH)
The two directors earlier work Khadak was infused with color but all color is mostly drained out of The Fifth Season in order to depict a bleak winter like feeling. Such a depiction works because this transmits the desperation and misery that hangs over the village. At times, the film hinges on dark comedy mostly associated with the cinema of Roy Andersson while some of the bar/tavern scenes and apocalyptic dread evokes B la Tarr.
10. DRINKING BUDDIES (USA, JOE SWANBERG)
Relationships are common fodder in American Independent cinema but Joe Swanberg has managed to cut through all the mumblecore and get to the heart of how two people connect with each other. In few short scenes, we can easily assess whether two characters are right for reach other because their body language depicts their true feelings. And like a Hong Sang-soo film, alcohol is always on hand allowing the characters to relax and open up.
15 Honorable Mentions, roughly in order of preference
THE LAST SHEPHERD (2012, ITALY, MARCO BONFANTI)
A few years ago, the documentary Sweetgrass showed beauty in following a herd of sheep through the mountains. That film was wordless but The Last Shepherd fills in those missing words and elevates that concept by introducing us to the wonderful person that is Renato Zucchelli. Renato decides to change the perspective of young kids who have never seen or touched a sheep. The film follows his journey from the countryside to the city as he brings 700 sheep to Milan's centre thereby creating a tiny miraculous sight.
THE PAST (FRANCE/ITALY, ASGHAR FARHADI)
Examines the complicated and messy aftermath of a separation. As the film shows, a separation does not guarantee a better future but instead can lead one down a never-ending hole of misery.
THOU GILD'ST THE EVEN (TURKEY, ONURNL )
This gorgeous black and white surrealist love story is unlike any film released in the last few years. It is packed with surrealist images that are seamlessly integrated within the ordinary fabric of town life. As a result, the film's blend of humor and shock results in a darker blend of comedy that most palates have not yet encountered.
BORGMAN (HOLLAND, ALEX VAN WARMERDAM)
The initial premise appears to be taking a page out of Haneke's Funny Games but that is a red herring as Borgman builds on Alex van Warmerdam's previous films, especially The Last Days of Emma Blank. The dark humor style cut across Dutch society can be found in Warmerdam's previous films but Borgman takes everything to the breaking point.
DRUG WAR (2012, CHINA/HONG KONG, JOHNNIE TO)
The documentary style throws one off from the usual Johnnie To stylish films. But make no mistake, this is vintage Johnnie To as he dives deep into the world of police and criminals in a way that only he can. The two films that came most to mind while watching Drug War were To's PTU and Infernal Affairs with regards to the police procedures and surveillance activities.
A HIJACKING (2012, DENMARK, TOBIAS LINDHOLM)
Just like his previous film R, Tobias Lindholm uses a double perspective to paint a complete picture of events. And he does so without using any violence or even having a hero in the film. The entire film instead focuses on tense hostage negotiations which end up becoming bargaining sessions stretched over weeks and months.
AURANGZEB (INDIA, ATUL SABHARWAL)
Atul Sabharwal's film smartly fuses the family-political battles from Shyam Benegal's Kalyug (1981) with the double character element found in Kagemusha and numerous 1970-80's Indian films. The end result is a film that feels familiar yet is still unique given the contemporary setting in Gurgaon where real estate deals are ruthless.
FRANCES HA (2012, USA, NOAH BAUMBACH)
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig have created a memorable character whose honesty puts her in many foot-in-mouth moments but those awkward moments only add to the film's bittersweet style.
WATERMARK (CANADA, JENNIFER BAICHWAL/EDWARD BURTYNSKY)
Once again, Burtynsky captures beauty in the most unlikely places forcing us to contemplate the consequences of our actions on this planet. The film is an extension of his retrospective that toured Canadian museums a few years ago. Essential viewing!
SAHEB BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (INDIA, TIGMANSHU DHULIA)
Tigmanshu Dhulia heightens the sexual and political elements aspects from the first Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) film thereby creating a riveting follow-up chapter to the story of a man holding onto his crumbling kingdom. Jimmy Shergill continues to thrive in what may be his finest on-screen role to date.
PASSION (2012, GERMANY/FRANCE, BRIAN DE PALMA)
For most of its running time, the film is an enhanced version of Love Crime but the dizzying Hitchcockian ending is truly mesmerizing. The ending left me out of breath and feeling similar to what others have felt when watching Vertigo for the first time.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (USA, COEN BROTHERS)
The best Coen Brothers film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? features characters who are perfectly in tone, with the exception of Jean (Carey Mulligan). At first, the anger of Jean feels overplayed in comparison to the material but as events later in the film indicate, her behavior is an act meant to suppress her guilt. That realization takes place shortly before a literal kick to the stomach is delivered making it an appropriate fade to black.
IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012, SOUTH KOREA, HONG SANG-SOO)
Hong Sang-soo's easy flowing style incorporates Isabelle Huppert's whimsical character perfectly resulting in plenty of humor.
COMPUTER CHESS (USA, ANDREW BUJALSKI)
A playful look at various computer programmer personalties, ranging from the very shy to those whose supreme confidence borders on arrogance. The black and white visuals coupled with the video footage give the film a 1980's look and feel, at a time when computers were bulky machines that required some effort to transport from room to room. The humor is derived from the collection of eccentric personalities and as a result, the scenarios feel natural and not forced. As a bonus, the film also literally depicts HAL's birth.
BLUE JASMINE (USA, WOODY ALLEN)
This feels like a Mike Leigh film filtered through conventional Woody Allen characters. As a result, there is some anger in the material that is displayed on a few occasions. Some of the best moments appear when the characters stop talking and we get a sense of their true feelings.