Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 20 Films Seen in 2013

I've seen an unusually high amount of movies this year so I decided to make a Top 20 list instead of the usual Top 10 one. Here they are in chronological order from date seen along with their initial review.

01. WORLD ON A WIRE (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) 1/1

It's quite hard to believe this film was made in 1973. A mysterious death of a creative director of an institute which runs a virtual reality program called Simulacron kicks off a heady, twisty film on computers, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. That's all one needs to know. This was made before Tron and way before The Matrix and Inception. Yet somehow manages to be more thought-provoking and mind-bending than any of them. The film is almost eerily prophetic on the way it depicts the virtual world. Originally a TV miniseries, the 3.5 hour running time doesn't feel that long at all and it gives you a lot to digest philosophically.

02. HOLY MOTORS (2012, Leos Carax)  2/3

Who says art house films can't be fun? This sure is! At least for me. If you're into film, acting or the arts, it will probably be for you too. The film's strange, bizarre structure where an actor drives around in a limo acting vignettes is a stupendously unpredictable tribute to both the art of acting and of film in general. The film is a strange, weird but joyous ride that mixes shocks, drama and laughter in almost equal doses. I'm guessing this is what happens if a Godard film and Bunuel film meet and have a baby. These types of films for me can be either pure joy or pure torture (...and the latter can be a good thing or a bad thing). This is definitely pure joy. One of the best films of 2012, for sure.

03. COME AND SEE (1985, Elem Klimov) 2/27

I've seen tons of World War II movies and a whole bunch of the subgenre of World War II films from the point of view of children and adolescents. This one ranks as one of the best. The plot is simple: An eager beaver teenage boy from a small village in Russia volunteers for the army during the war and witnesses first hand the true horrors of war. I've heard this film's reputation for being bleak. It is. Very. But also it has moments of beautiful imagery that almost borders on dark fantasy/horror/surrealism especially on the first half. I thought I've seen everything but this managed to still shock and horrify me despite seeing and knowing all that I know about World War II. It hammers the point too hard just a tad at the end but it's still a stunning piece of cinema.

04. A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) 3/28

Quite possibly one of, if not, the best film about love, death and the afterlife ever made. David Niven is a World War II RAF pilot who falls in love with an American service woman moments before he's supposed to die finds himself fighting for his life. It's extremely intelligent, sweet, funny and moving, no matter what your religious or spiritual beliefs are. It also helps that the Archers' vision of Heaven and the Afterlife is among the best I've ever seen helped by Jack Cardiff's fantastic cinematography which alternates black & white and technicolor (The way they switch around is also similarly breathtaking).

05. A MAN ESCAPED (1956, Robert Bresson) 3/31

I've seen quite a number of prison escape films: From The Great Escape to Le Trou to The Shawshank Redemption. This is probably the best prison escape movie. It's my favorite so far at least. The plot is simple enough: A French man is in imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II and wants to escape. Like with most films by Robert Bresson, the film is fairly minimalist and the emotions are muted but there are still moments of suspense. Bresson was masterful with his direction here, particularly his use of sound. Like with many Bresson films, there's an added spiritual layer to this film which makes the ending surprisingly moving in an odd way. A real masterpiece.

06. FITZCARRALDO (1982, Werner Herzog) 4/9

This is a film that has many layers of insanity and I absolutely love it, not quite as much as Aguirre, Wrath of God but I still do. Basically, it's all about a man who treks deep into the jungles of the Amazon river and enlists natives to help him drag a steamboat over a hill to the other side of the river in order for him to earn enough money so he can build an opera house in the Amazon village where he lives. It's as insane as it sounds and I love it. Even more insane is the fact that they actually did it on film. The passion that the title character has for this project is very much reflective of the passion of director Werner Herzog and his star, Klaus Kinski. 

07. SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960, Francois Truffaut) 4/20

I'm a huge fan of Francois Truffaut so it's amazing even to myself that I haven't seen this before which is widely considered one of his major works. A piano player gets caught up in a web of murder and kidnapping. Despite the crime angle and the experimental nature of the film, it's very much Truffaut. I can see how much influenced this film made to generations of filmmakers: It's funny, it's thrilling and it's so much fun and stylish without sacrificing character. Truly it's one of the best.

08. CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974, Jacques Rivette) 5/12

I didn't know much about this film going in. I've heard of it. I knew of its reputation. I knew it was gonna be kind of a strange film. I'm glad I didn't know because part of the joy of this film is letting its strange narrative structure to unfold before your eyes. What goes on is alternately confounding, disturbing, shocking, surprising and even hilarious. The three-hour running may be intimidating and indeed as the film progresses, you may feel that the film is going off the rails but believe me when I say that the final 20 minutes that it all builds up to and it all comes together, it is pure cinematic joy. An astounding piece of work.

09. HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE (1991, Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper) 6/1

I'm a huge fan of Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now and I was aware of the fact that it was a troubled production and he went through almost literal hell to get it made. Having seen this brilliant documentary, which is about almost as great as the film it was documenting, I have to say it's a miracle that it got completed and turned out to be both critical and commercial success. It's an endlessly fascinating and compelling documentary.

10. HATARI! (1962, Howard Hawks) 6/16

I wonder why this movie isn't more popular than it is. It stars John Wayne, it's directed by Howard Hawks, one of the greats and it features an unforgettable score by Henry Mancini which includes the piece "Baby Elephant Walk" which is way more popular than this film. Add to that the fact that it's really a fun, delightful and superbly crafted film. It's about a group of men and women who make their living capturing wild African animals for zoos. Sure, it's vaguely politically incorrect (but a lot of films of this era are, though) and the animal capturing sequences may upset PeTA supporters but it still doesn't change the fact that those sequences are quite impressively shot (because they're REAL, no CGI here!) and just as rousing and exciting (and in many cases even MORE exciting) than any modern era action sequences. Oh, and it's also really, really funny! It's very light and breezy and more character than plot-driven. It's something that they hardly make any more. It's a wonderful, wonderful film. I like "Baby Elephant Walk" a whole lot more now.
11. THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (1953, Max Ophuls) 8/11

A wife of a count pawns her earrings in order to pay off some debts and this little incident sets off a series of events that culminates in a moving, heartbreaking love story. This is one of those films that really makes you think and stays with you always. On one end, it's a very sharp critique of the hypocrisy of the upper-class (very comparable to The Rules of the Game), it's got surprisingly funny moments and yet the last 20 or so minutes, it sucker punches you in a beautifully moving, tragic denouement. It's a masterpiece.

12. THE ACT OF KILLING (2013, Joshua Oppenheimer) 8/17

During the mid-1960's in Indonesia a group of government-supported paramilitary groups went around murdering "communists" i.e. groups of people they perceive to be threats. Over 2 million people were killed. I had no idea about this grim chapter in history probably largely because it's not seen as wrong by a majority of the population in Indonesia. These mass murderers are seen as heroes rather than criminals. The documentary actually lets them tell their story and chronicles what their lives are like today. However, they tell their story in a very unique way: They actually do their own re-enactment of the events in any way, shape or form they want to. So their dramatizations could take the form of a gangster movie, a musical, a Western or just plain straightforward re-enactments. The result is often disturbing, occasionally darkly humorous, fascinating and very thought-provoking and even moving and heartbreaking in a way. This film brings to light the capacity for human beings, and indeed they seem to be pretty nice, normal people, for doing evil monstrous things and of course, without giving away anything, the transformative power of film as an art form. It reminds me why I love film so much. It's an extraordinary piece of work, not just as a documentary film but as a film period.
13. WINCHESTER '73 (1950, Anthony Mann)  8/21

My exploration of director Anthony Mann's filmography continues with this Western. I've been told time and again that this one is pretty fantastic.....and IT IS! The title character (of sorts) is a highly coveted rifle which was won by the character played by James Stewart and through a series of events, it gets passed around which gives the film its very unique structure, almost episodic in a way. Despite the short running time of less than 90 minutes, the film feels very deep, rich and epic filled with fascinating characters. It's beautifully photographed and has great action scenes. Anthony Mann is rising in my list of favorite directors

14. PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948, William Dieterle) 8/26

After two less than satisfactory cinematic experiences in a row, I think I needed a palette cleanser and boy what a palette it is. Speaking of palette, this film is about an impoverished painter who encounters a little girl who seems to appear out of time. Then begins a beautiful, romantic love story which inspires him to paint his masterpiece. It's such a stunning, beautiful piece of work. The cinematography, which made some shots look like they're paintings is simply genius but only serves to heighten the beautiful love story that's about to unfold. Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones are both impressive. This film is a masterpiece. It's what great films should do and should aspire to.

15. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984, Sergio Leone) 9/29

This is one of those films that I classify under Why The Hell Haven't I Seen This In Full Yet? The length is pretty intimidating but once the film starts to unfold, it really hooks you in and the 3.5 hours almost just flies by. This is the final work from Sergio Leone and it's evident that this is the work of true master of the medium. Everything here is perfect or near-perfect: The performances, the cinematography, the design, not to mention Ennio Morricone's goosebump-inducing score. It's a stunning piece of work which stands among the best gangster epics out there.

16. SAMURAI REBELLION (1967, Masaki Kobayashi) 10/6

Between this and Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi must specialize in samurai movies that will make you cry. This one's about a samurai warrior whose lord asks that his mistress be married to his son. Reluctantly, they agree. But then his son and the mistress fall in love and just as they have their first child together, the mistress is ordered back to the castle. They refuse. Let's say shit hits the fan. The film takes a while to get to the samurai action but it's an emotional roller-coaster ride getting there and by the time the action hits, you'll be too busy crying to see the astounding sword play. It's masterfully directed and Toshiro Mifune has never been better! Kurosawa may get a lot of press but I think Kobayashi deserves some attention too.

17. BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956, Nicholas Ray) 11/24

This film blew me away. A mild-mannered schoolteacher/family man discovers he has a serious heart ailment and is prescribed an experimental medicine that will help prolong his life. But then the drugs start changing his personality. This is a heartbreaking and even thrilling film. James Mason plays the lead in this and his performance is absolutely astonishing. The way he goes from loving family man and mild-mannered schoolteacher to....something else was masterful. Also masterful was Nicholas Ray's direction. The way he uses technicolor, light and shadow when composing the scenes and building dread was pitch perfect. This easily, EASILY ranks among his very best that already includes In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. I absolutely LOVED it.

18. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967, Jacques Demy) 11/30

For me, this is probably the cinematic version of a deliciously sweet and luxurious but light and airy dessert. Three women in the titular place long for love with the men they seek just around the corner. It's fluffy stuff but the filmmaking is simply breathtaking. It's obviously heavily inspired by classic MGM musicals (including a supporting role from Gene Kelly!) but manages not to feel like a cheap imitation. This is from the director of another French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy. This musical considerably lighter in tone and features dance numbers this time around. But it also features a memorable score courtesy of composer Michel Legrand. As a huge fan of movie musicals, I never wanted this one to end!
19. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965, Orson Welles) 12/16

Filipino film critic (and on-line acquaintance) Noel Vera considers this one of, if not, THE best films ever made. He's right that it's a great film, probably one of the BEST Shakespeare cinematic adaptations ever. It wouldn't QUITE make my upper-tier all-time list but I just saw this a few hours ago and I have to say my admiration for it grows the more I think about it. This adaptation is unique since it is actually not based on one Shakespeare play but five of his historical plays, constructing a narrative around the fictional supporting character of Falstaff. Orson Welles plays Falstaff embracing his more grotesque features. The film has a grimey, almost avant-garde feel to it but despite that, it still manages to pull off one of the BEST medieval battle scene ever committed to film and one would EASILY stand up along CGI/gore-laden battle scenes of today.

 20. NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013, Lav Diaz) 12/22

Lav Diaz's films can be a bit intimidating due to their tendency to be very long and deliberately paced. He's one of the most uncommercial filmmakers out there (he made an 11 hour black & white silent film for crap's sakes!). But brave open-minded film buffs are often rewarded with a one-of-a-kind emotional, immersive, thought-provoking cinematic experience that comes from his brand of cinema. Norte is no different. More than that, and I don't use this word lightly, it may be his masterpiece. It's about a horrific double murder that happens in a provincial town. The real killer gets away with it while an innocent man who has a wife and kids goes to prison. The film chronicles and examines the fall out during the next few years following three main characters: The innocent convict, the killer and the convict's wife. It's alternately shocking, heartbreaking, moving, suspenseful and even funny! Despite it being deliberately paced and over 4 hours long (short for Lav Diaz's standards but long for most people), I almost never drifted away from the film nor did it feel dragging or felt too long at all. I felt like watching a master at work.

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