Our Favorite Movies of 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street movie

1. The Wolf of Wall Street- The funniest film of the year was made by one of the world’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese, who is now into his 70s and nearing the very end of his career. You wouldn’t know it watching The Wolf of Wall Street, an impossibly energetic riff on the true-life exploits of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort. The film depicts behavior most would find irrefutably lewd, misogynist, or downright amoral; most of which is played for uproarious laughs. The men in Wolf act out of humanity’s basest impulses; snorting drugs and screwing prostitutes in the office just because they have no one there to tell them “no.” Scorsese, much like the protagonist, never slows down to moralize anything on the screen, keeping the focus on the excessively sexual and drug-fueled life of Belfort and all of his brokers. It is in these outrageous slapstick moments and revolting conversations that the director becomes a sly satirist, allowing us to laugh at and observe this lifestyle from the self-aggrandizing narrator’s point of view. The uniformly great supporting cast, paired with DiCaprio’s career-best performance, carry out exhilarating, even visceral, comedy scenes that keep the film bouncing through its three-hour run-time.  Scorsese’s damning portrait of greed has a well-secured place in the canon of America’s great black comedies.

spring breakers

2. Spring Breakers- The perverse pleasures of cinema were mined and radicalized in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, an apocalyptic beach party and an unforgettable deconstruction of modern America’s excesses and wastelands. Aesthetically, it mirrors the sex-and-drug infused paradise of an MTV spring break, filmed under bright pink skylines and seedy red nightclubs. Malevolence has always been a way of coping with marginality for Korine’s characters, but for Brit, Candy, Faith and Cotty, it is a way to reach the ultimate high; attaining a transcendent euphoria, not through debauched revelries but through dominance and power. Big Arch and the indelible Alien are the walking, boasting incarnations of this ever-lasting Dream, and the girls’ eventual foray into criminal warfare is all an inevitable part of their quest for insatiable pleasure. As a major release in 2013, Spring Breakers is purposefully indefinable, and so nonplussed reactions from Gen-Y are unsurprising (strangely, our drug-obsessed culture doesn’t seem too interested in art inspired by drugs?). But not working directly as an obvious critique of anything is exactly why the film will endure; by evading a definite “purpose,” it is a piece of art that can be observed from a multitude of angles. If anything, the year’s masterpiece will serve as an important corrective: it’s not style over substance, style is the substance.

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REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix (screenplay), Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
Starring: Adèle Exachopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche and Benjamin Siksou

A three-hour epic of writhing limbs and ferocious love, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable and complicated movie-going experiences of year.  The performances are so raw, the young actresses so vulnerable in their portrayal of this intense relationship, that it nearly transcends some of its director’s problematic depictions of them.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film deeply impressed this year’s Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury, taking home the Palme d’Or but also sparking intense debate.  Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel, said that while watching the sex scenes it became clear to her that there were no lesbians on the set.  She connected the way Kechiche shot those scenes to a later conversation in the film, where a man at a dinner party discusses how sacred and mystical the female orgasm is.

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REVIEW: A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan and Wang Bao

Tiger, ox, snake and rooster- these four animals, symbols on the Chinese Zodiac calender, are key to understanding the central character in each of the four chapters in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.  It illustrates the clashes and cohesion of tradition and modernism as it applies to those people, who operate in four distinct areas of that industrial and economic superpower.

It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is regulated by the government.  The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.

The first is the story of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled miner.  Confronted with poverty after corruption and greed privatizes his mine, he becomes a working-class avenging angel, wielding a shotgun and a pitiless dead-eyed gaze.  That gun is wrapped in a tiger-imprinted cloth, and a loud growl precedes his rampage.  Wu is a commanding, ferocious screen presence.

Next is the ox, a gun-loving migrant worker who returns to his family in the southwestern city of Chongqing.  His act of violence is the murder of a wealthy couple so he can snatch the woman’s purse.  In fact, nearly all of the carnage in A Touch of Sin is spawned by economic injustice.  There is the snake, a spa receptionist bullied to brutality by a rich man looking to use her for sex.  And, finally, there is a young man searching for economic opportunity, unaware of endless dead ends and vast corruption.

This is my first encounter with Zhangke’s work, and the boldness and skill he executes each chapter is astounding.  His characters are not defined by their respective zodiac animals or by their violence.  Both of those are overt contrasts with their attempts at normalcy in modern China.  There are glimpses of labor factories, train crashes and ruthless economic disparity; things that do not make headlines in state-run newspapers but that Zhangke clearly wants to the world to see.

Grade: B+

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes

Since Beasts of the Southern Wild was my pick for the best movie of 2012, I thought I would revisit it here since my original review was an ecstatic, somewhat over-the-top reaction from the Cannes Film Festival.  Having seen the film twice now, I still maintain that it is a masterpiece, and one of the best translations of childhood consciousness that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Many of the criticisms of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature revolve around its treatment of race as it relates to poverty.  The harshest (and most recent) of these comes from Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who wrote:

The movie itself is this year’s The Help, a romanticized and mythologized vision of poor Southern blacks (in this case, a father and daughter in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub) that also sentimentalizes the very notion of self-help (“The Self-Help”) in a story that spotlights a tough, poetic, independent-spirited child facing dangers in aquatic adventures.

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Our Favorite Movies of 2012

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1.  Beasts of the Southern WildNo matter how skilled a filmmaker is, rarely does a movie come along that creates a cinematic world that is seething with a new kind of life, a world or vision that movies haven’t seen before.  Director Benh Zeitlin, working with a do-it-yourself low budget commune of filmmaking talent and some extraordinary “non-professional” performers, does that with Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The ferocious story of Hushpuppy (the amazingly talented child actress Quvenzhané Wallis) and her small, increasingly hopeless village on the other side of a Louisiana levee is filled with fantastical, visually stunning sequences as well as low budget narrative economy.  It is this year’s biggest contradiction, and its biggest success.

amour

2. Amour– Michael Haneke’s second movie in a row to win the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor (the Palme D’or) is the director’s most empathetic and devastating work to date.  As the camera lingers in the apartment of Georges and Anne (legendary French performers Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva in devastatingly good form), we become privy to the elderly Parisian couple’s tender, haunting final moments together.  It is a slow crawl toward death, absent plot twists or Haneke’s sadism.  Watching it yields no pleasure, but everything from the incredible performances to the wonderfully precise camera movement lingers long after the movie ends.

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CANNES REVIEW: Mud

Mud
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols (screenplay)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon

American swamplands were a preoccupation of several films at Cannes this year, including The PaperboyBeasts of the Southern Wild and Mud, the latest film from up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols.  Mud is the story of children who discover an outlaw living on a small island off the coast of their town.  They decide to help him reunite with his girlfriend and escape from the hired thugs who are after him.

The movie follows a fairly straightforward premise and is nothing really new in terms of structure.  Then again, neither was Nichols’ first feature, last year’s Take Shelter, which debuted to much critical praise and gave him the momentum to make this film.  He is a director of atmosphere and off-beat execution.  

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CANNES REVIEW: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg (screenplay), Don DeLillo (novel)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon and Paul Giamatti

All this modern billionaire ever wanted was a haircut, though in Cosmopolis it becomes quite clear that he pretty much has everything else a person could desire.  David Cronenberg brings his typical visual menace to this deeply intellectual examination of the one percent, staging what amounts to little more than a series of conversations as increasingly intense verbal battles.

When Eric (Robert Pattinson) untints the windows of his hyper-modern limousine, we see an outside world that is coming closer and closer to collapse.  He of course is numb to everything but his own concerns, a simple haircut used to exaggerate how miniscule they are in relation to everything else.  As he talks (and talks and talks) to his girlfriend, his prostitute, his financial adviser and a myriad of others, it becomes clear that there is a pent-up frustration that is slowly being unraveled as the economy and his fortune near demise.

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