Romney’s 2013 Roundup
When I began a regular review slot on this website in September, my plan was simply to write about the most interesting film of the week, not necessarily the best. It just happens that I’ve been able to enthuse about every film I’ve so far reviewed here—all except one, a film I don’t like at all but which nevertheless turned out to be extremely interesting for theoretical reasons (it was Saving Mr. Banks—and even that was redeemed in a big way by Emma Thompson’s crisply huffy performance).
So I wouldn’t want you to think, “What’s wrong with this guy? He likes everything.” But I’m surprised by how much I really have liked in 2013. I can recall many Decembers when I was just about able to scrape together a grudging Top 10, but the past year seems to have been unusually rich. Once again, reports about cinema’s demise—often based on the notion that narrative feature films have been rendered obsolete by long-form TV—were not just premature but ridiculous. If anything did feel dead to me, it was mainstream entertainment: I can’t think of a time when big-budget Hollywood output has felt more drearily mechanical. And it’s perhaps this state of affairs that has emboldened filmmakers worldwide in their determination to make films that genuinely had something to say—or at least, to find interesting ways of saying it.
So, before I get to my Top 10, some musings:
This Long-Form TV We’ve Been Hearing About
Top of the Lake
The cause of the most severe cultural anxiety of our age. Just as 19th-century readers worried about not keeping up with the latest outpourings of the Novel in its prime (“Read the latest Balzac?” “No, I’m still 15 behind”), we agonize today over unwatched box sets; I speak as someone still stalled on season one of Breaking Bad. Meanwhile, TV again proved a fertile ground for filmmakers seeking expansive new forms. Three shows stood out this year. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake was a feminist crime mystery with fiendish twists, terrific casting, and hugely evocative grounding in a specific social and geographic New Zealand landscape. The Returned (Les Revenants), a French afterlife series masterminded by director Fabrice Gobert (Lights Out, 10), flatlined shockingly towards the end but was mostly superb—and with any luck, prompted people to check out the even better film They Came Back (Robin Campillo, 04), which inspired it. And director Sean Durkin and writer Tony Grisoni collaborated on the somber, intricately structured Southcliffe, about death and memory in a small British town.
Blockbusters Good and Bad
Man of Steel
While I usually balk at the prospect of yet more Intergalactic Perils laying waste to terrestrial metropolises, part of me (probably the Marvel Comics obsessive I was at a tender age) still hopes for some glimmer of excitement in the annual crop of FX blockbusters. And there was: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 showed that the superhero movie still had room for mischief and wit. I was hoping for something to enjoy in Man of Steel, but the time to celebrate Zack Snyder as an auteur maverick is long past: apart from foaming-at-the-mouth Michael Shannon, and Amy Adams out-perting herself as Lois Lane, this was joyless stuff. And yet it was outdone by Pacific Rim, a cathedral of idiot bombast all the more dismaying because somewhere inside it was the tiniest residual glimmer of Guillermo del Toro’s idiosyncratic sensibility.
The much-vaunted Gravity proved to be a fascinating, infuriating film—not least because Alfonso Cuarón seemed finally to have cashed in the film’s potential sublimity for mere theme-ride thrills. I came out feeling short-changed, bitterly missing the promised existential melancholy—but then, on that kind of gargantuan budget, Cuarón was never exactly going to make The Turin Horse in Space.
But one blockbuster with real vim and imagination was Snowpiercer, a futuristic adventure/allegory by Bong Joon-ho (largely in English, with some Korean). Set on a train speeding around a snow-locked globe, Snowpiercer explores the dystopian social structure of Metropolis horizontally rather than vertically—i.e. the oppressed masses have to fight from the back to the front of the train. At once a special-effects epic and an unnervingly oppressive chamber drama, Snowpiercer is exciting, unnerving, distinctively weird (not least for the casting: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton in false teeth, Bong regular Song Kang-ho) and worth seeing in its full version if you can, before The Weinstein Company implements its proposed cuts.
Abuse of Weakness
I’ve spent the past few years arguing with people who have insisted that there’s nothing new and exciting in French cinema, and sometimes, I’ll admit, it’s been hard going. This year, though, has been bracing: perhaps not that much new terrain has been explored, and sometimes the tendency to revisit classic tropes has felt complacent (case in point: François Ozon’s stylish but hollow Young and Beautiful). But then there was Catherine Breillat’s audacious Abuse of Weakness (with Isabelle Huppert outdoing herself yet again), Claire Denis’ Bastards, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne, and the long-awaited second film from Laurent Cantet collaborator Robin Campillo, Eastern Boys. And two films by new names—Guillaume Brac’s Tonnerre and Sébastien Betbeder’s modest but inventive 2 Autumns, 3 Winters—featured terrific performances from French cinema’s new Hardest Working Man (the Mathieu Amalric de nos jours), the charismatically abrasive and bear-like Vincent Macaigne.
The Great Underrated
Our Heroes Died Tonight
One French film that seems to have slipped under the wire was David Perrault’s hugely stylish oddity Our Heroes Died Tonight, a moody black-and-white tribute to Jean-Pierre Melville, Serge Gainsbourg, and the art of masked wrestling. And the Cannes Competition title that got away was Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur, a facetious but hugely enjoyable chamber piece which gave Emmanuelle Seigner a chance to let rip as never before. And here’s a film that inexplicably vanished without trace when released in the U.K.: Mister John, a taut, enigmatic drama from Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy (aka Desperate Optimists), the duo behind the hugely distinctive Helen (08). About a man (Aiden Gillen) who goes to Singapore and tentatively steps into the shoes of his dead brother, this had teasing echoes of Joseph Conrad and Nicolas Roeg. See it if you get the chance.
Folly of the Year
Hard to Be a God
2013 produced nothing as heroically outré as Hard to Be a God, the posthumously premiered swansong by the great Russian visionary Aleksei Guerman. Based on a novel by the Strugatsky Brothers and ostensibly set on a distant planet where life resembled medieval Earth, this was a shambling, violent, sprawling panorama so impervious to narrative readability that it made Guerman’s notorious 1998 masterpiece Khrustalyov, My Car! look positively crystalline. It was if someone had handed Breughel a camera without stopping to explain what cinema was. It’s an authentic delirium of a film, with a minute potential audience in real-world terms, but an assured future as a revered cult phenomenon.
Dud of the Year
Almodóvar’s I’m So Excited!, a film that killed camp—and possibly the director’s reputation—with one leaden blow. If you want in-flight flightiness, look instead at Jon M. Chu’s delicious Virgin Atlantic safety video.
Hot Potato of the Year
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color was a cause célèbre partly because critics were divided over the politics of its picture of lesbian sexuality, and partly because Kechiche and his collaborators so visibly fell out over his working methods. For me, Blue proved a prime example of the way that the hothouse atmosphere of Cannes can distort critical responses: you don’t go to there just to see films, but to have arguments, and whatever you feel about a film there tends to be hugely amplified by the artificial rush of the Croisette arena. So the initial excitement of watching a film so intimate and so emotionally direct didn’t, for me, entirely survive a second viewing; Blue started to show patches of considerable clunkiness. And a chance viewing of Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle made me realize that, yes, Kechiche was way out of his depth in the sex scenes. But the intensity and psychological acuteness of the best passages—and the terrific, nerves-bared performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux—still make Blue stand out as a formidable achievement.
Other films that made my year:
American Hustle,<em> A Field in England, Her, The Last of the Unjust, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paradise: Hope, The Selfish Giant, Something in the Air, Stories We Tell, Stray Dogs (probably the film I most want to see again), A Touch of Sin, 12 Years a Slave, Under the Skin, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Workers (José Luis Valle: an inspired oddball fiction debut from a very inventive Mexican director we can hope to hear from again).
And my Top 10 (some of which I’ll be talking about in the New Year):
2. Upstream Color
4. The Act of Killing
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
6. Norte, the End of History
7. Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
9. The Last Time I Saw Macao
10. Spring Breakers
So, before I start to panic about the titles I’ve forgotten to include, Season’s Greetings and see you next year.