1. Act of Killing – Representing the trend of inevitability, boundary-pushing, and end-game aesthetics this year in film, this documentary/horror story makes us question the ethics of filmmaking and storytelling, the relationship between media and actions, and the power of self-deception. The final vomiting sequence is the most real, satisfying, and ghastly scene I saw all year. Is the film ethical? Yes, because it tosses aside status quo ethics to plunge into a world otherwise inaccessible by a camera – the evil soul.
2. Night Across The Street – Take the best elements of Lynch, Fellini, and Jodorowsky, and you get this pitch-perfect surrealist adventure through the memories and brain of a dying man. Ruiz manages to capture the mood and style of Eugene Ionesco better than I have ever seen in a film; the non-sequitur logic, the inversion of spatial coordinates, the exploration of the liminal space between the screen and the body. I laughed and applauded more than anytime else all year. “Why do you come to the cinema, if you don’t even know anything about the film you’ve just seen?” asks Beethoven. The boy/us: “We came to have fun, not to learn anything.” The magic of the moving image again becomes joyous and miraculous.
3. Leviathan – This is what I mean by an end-game aesthetic. As Scout has pointed out, there is really no way to make a documentary now that we have been witnessed a pure embodied POV that challenges our notions of documentation and the abilities/limitations of the camera. With no real plot or characters to speak of, Leviathan is pure visceral experience of slaughter and the sea, colored by rust and blood, free from the laws of gravity and photographic restraints.
4. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet – Resnais’ Last Year at Marianbad changed everything I thought I knew about film; again, Resnais blows the mind with another challenge to the aesthetical ontology of the silver screen, and our relationship to it. Theatre, movies, remakes, adaptations, the dialogue backstage and onstage, all interweave into a funereal fugue which speaks to the ghosts of past loves and words. I am astonished by the envelope-pushing of 2013; just when I think there’s no space left to challenge and unravel the structure and ontology of film, I’m reminded by the great auteur that indeed, “you ain't seen nothing yet”.
5. Spring Breakers / The Bling Ring – I will defend these two films to the death. I include them together because they are two sides to the same coin. Like a bloody car crash, I could not look away from these piercing cuts into the American teenage myth/dream of the modern era. Few have yet to truly examine these myths of celebrity and college escapism with a critical eye. Ironically, Korine, who usually has as his subject spheres of Americana that go unnoticed here looks at the most obvious representation of ‘Americana’, and blasts it with so much ironic satire that it somehow morphs into concern, rather than fatalism and absurdity. And it looks good. Sadly, it suffered from a terrible mismarketing campaign that turned off pretentious critics and high-minded individuals in lieu of attracting the very types the film is critiquing, who of course hated it. Same with The Bling Ring, which also examines a seemingly obvious slice of the American pie but manages to transcend the banality and strike terror into our hearts as we realize that this is not fantasy. There is a difference between reality and truth; these films are true. And what else more can we really say, now? These films had to happen, and did.
6. Computer Chess – Refreshing and revitalizing, despite the fact that this is an aesthetic and cultural throw back to 1980. It caught me off-guard countless times with its brilliant genre twists and arid humor. The dramatic irony of knowing where technology will lead us in regards to dating and connectivity makes it all the more enjoyable and poignant.
7. Vanishing Waves – Disclosure: one of the two films this year that made me cry. I admit I am a sucker for movies about the retrieval and/or destruction of memories; nevertheless, this romance (in the skin of sci-fi) strips away all conceit and plot contrivances to reveal what it looks like and how it feels when two hearts fall in love. The montage of the comatose woman and the doctor rolling naked in a Malick-lit wooden room is exactly that. The Antichrist-esque/Cronenbergian [the man himself wishes we'd say Cronenbergundian, ed.] image of nude limbs and flesh crawling in and out of each other manages to avoid horror/sci-fi shtick. Forget Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
8. The Past – If this was an American film, it would win the Oscar for best picture without a doubt. This is how drama is made, and a case study for any aspiring actors. There’s really not much more to really say; it’s tight and fully packed (as Lynch says of his singer/muse Chrysta Bell). I include this, and no other “perfect” films, on my list because it reaffirms the power of a story told well without the bells and whistles of star power and Hollywood.
9. To The Wonder – I read somewhere that Malick is to light what Welles was to shadow; whoever said that is correct. While shadow is usually the optical and aesthetic frame and delineation of a form, for Malick light is the frame, the line, the ray, the alien force descending upon the earth. This film is also about silence, and the invisible currents (of toxic waste, bleeding hearts) that flow through our time here on this beautiful earth.
10. Dormant Beauty – The other film that made me shed quite a few tears. Much could be said about Bellocchio’s excellent use of topical politics as a backdrop for his drama; however, I was more intrigued by the theme of faith that underscores the four plots. Faith in God, faith in The Resurrection, faith in the Revival of the comatose, faith in the Rebirth of love. Faith supports us, but it is also alienating. Should I abandon my faith in Jesus Christ and the miracle of the resurrection, for faith in the love of a stranger? The faith that my heart is still capable of feeling? Should the cross lie across my breasts or turned around, invisible, to lie on my backbone? Does God desire life or death, joy or pain? Despite all of these questions, I never questioned the foundation of my faith but the way in which I express it and when/if I recognize other faiths in other people. Connectivity and love require the faith that when they die, we will move on. Also, I could stare at Alba Rohrwacher’s face for aeons.
11. A Field In England – A Shakespearian tragedy translated by Jodorowsky and performed by Samuel Beckett ghosts under the influence of mushrooms. This is the weirdest film I saw this year, and I loved every minute of it. When the alchemist begins gobbling mushrooms, my head truly felt like it was crackling and spewing lava. It is hard to “do weird” these days; this is how it’s done.
12. Blue Jasmine – This slot also includes the likes of 12 Years a Slave, The Great Beauty, American Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, etc. That is those films that are extremely well executed but offer nothing to the future of cinema. All of my ‘best’ or ‘favorite’ films would more accurately be described as the most important ones; importance is when a film closes, with a to-be-continued, the chapter on a movement or style or technical achievement or reveals the potential of future explorations. Or it begins blazing a new path. Blue Jasmine does not do any of these things. Woody, I’m tired. I’m tired of the same shit movie after movie. Woody, you are a perfect director. There is nothing wrong with this film and that’s why I hate it. Not only is it a carbon-copy of your other films, with new brilliant performances, it does not innovate or challenge or even have a hint of imagination. Woody, return to experimentation of form and genre, rather than creating perfect cinematic ice cream cones.
Honorable Mentions: Fruitvale Station, Post Tenebras Lux, Upstream Color, Lords of Salem, We Are What We Are, Gravity, Side Effects