Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Top Ten Classics I Saw in 2013

I don't have a Top Ten List of my favorite 2013 films yet, but I do have a list of the best movie classics that I saw for the first time in 2013. Enjoy.

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996) - The film that marked the emergence of Lars von Trier as the provocateur that we know him as today. Featuring a performance by Emily Watson that should be counted among the all-time greats, the film follows the now-familiar pattern of a noble Von Trier heroine's decline and degradation in the name of love. In this film, however, transcendence and redemption are not illusory things, and the ending is one of the most beautiful in all of cinema history.

OLYMPIA (1938) - For all the Nazi propaganda that finds its way into Len Riefenstahl's coverage of the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin, "Olympia" is a great sports documentary. It effortlessly captures the highlights of the big events, including several of Jesse Owens' most celebrated wins, using pioneering filmmaking techniques. Compare "Olympia" to the blundering coverage of the most recent summer Olympics by the American media, and Riefenstalhl's brilliance couldn't be plainer.

THE BIG CITY (1963) - Satyajit's Ray's social drama initially comes off as didactic, but it also includes a warm portrait of a middle-class family that learns to embrace the changing times. The heroine, a housewife who decides to take the unusual step of working at a job outside the home, has a wonderful arc that follows her transformation into an independent, assertive contributor to society. It's well matched by her loving husband's own journey in coming to terms with their new partnership.

EDVARD MUNCH (1974) - Initially created by documentarian Peter Watkins as a miniseries for Swedish television, "Edvard Munch" was later released as a three-and-a-half hour film that combines dramatizations of Munch's life and career with contemporary interviews and critical discussions of his work. Watkins narrates the film, and draws fascinating connections between the artist's background and his approach to art, often using filmmaking techniques that mirror what Munch did with his paintings.

RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991) - I struggled with the choice between this film and Zhang Yimou's lovely "Ju Dou" for a spot on this list. "Raise the Red Lantern" won out because the visuals remain so iconic and so stunning. Gong Li, his longtime muse, gives one of her best performances as the youngest of a rich man's four wives, who vie for power and position in his household, which is dictated by unbreakable rules and restrictions. Even in Zhang's later, more elaborate epics, you never saw such dazzling imagery.

OASIS (2002) - Cemented Lee Chang-dong as my favorite of the modern Korean auteurs. The film's premise seems cringeworthy at first. A mentally challenged young man becomes involved with a severely disabled young woman in secret. "Oasis" is painful to watch at times because it is so honest and unflinching in its portrayal of these characters and their afflictions, but it is also extraordinarily moving. Despite its occasional sensationalist touches, the love story avoids sentimentality and easy answers.

EXOTICA (1994) - Atom Egoyan's film unfolds from a series of loosely connected stories revolving around an exotic dance club into a lovely, sad exploration on the nature of grief and loss. I don't think that the film's stars, Elias Koteas, Bruce Greenwood, and Mia Kirshner, have had roles nearly as rich and wonderful since. I'm not entirely on board with the film's portrayal of nightclub life, but for this one, particular story and this particular grouping of characters I'm willing to suspend disbelief for a while.

BLACK GIRL (1966) - Perhaps the birth of meaningful African cinema came in 1963, when Ousmane Semb ne of Senegal made his feature film debut with "Borom Sarret." However, his first masterpiece came three years later with "Black Girl," which charts the descent of a Diouana, a young nanny who works for a rich white family. When her employers move back to France, she goes with them, resulting in social and spiritual difficulties. It's a stark look at the clashing of cultures from the African POV.

BOY (1969) - Young Toshio is the elder son in a family of con-artists, who scam people out of their money by faking car accidents. Director Nagisa Oshima worked with a shoestring budget and a minimal crew to film the story of this dysfunctional family on their travels through Japan, always struggling to stay a step ahead of the law and their own worst impulses. It's one of the most wrenching portrayals of childhood that I've ever seen, anchored by a guileless young actor as the titular "Boy."

LA BELLE NOISEUSE (1991) - I usually find the films of Jacques Rivette confounding, but here he's telling a simple, straightforward story about an elderly painter, a reluctant model, and the creation of a masterpiece. Running nearly four hours in length, the film is a mesmerizing look at the act of creating art, the struggle for inspiration, and the price that often comes with truth and perception. Some of the most absorbing shots are the simplest - of the artist laboriously drawing sketches or putting paint to canvas.

And Honorable Mentions go to "Orlando," "The Long Day Closes," "A Moment of Innocence," "El," "The Baby of M con," "Cairo Station," "Sugar Cane Alley," "Ju Dou," "O Lucky Man!" "The Devil's Envoys," "Stella Dallas," "The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On," "Destiny" (1921), "Late Chrysanthemums," "The Match Factory Girl," "Way Down East," "The Saragossa Manuscript," "The New World," "Possession" (1980), "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "The Canterbury Tales," "Bloody Sunday," "Strictly Ballroom," "Chop Shop," "Rosetta," "Secret Sunshine," "You Only Live Once," "Dersu Uzala," "Syndromes and a Century," and "Seconds."
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