2013 turned out to be a good year for film, with a wide and varied range of excellent movies, from pretty much everywhere, covering the mainstream, art house and documentaries. Two things I found striking this year – many of the best films I saw were of the sort that are usually done so ineptly on screen, be it the historical drama of Heimat, the quirky comedy of Frances Ha or the ‘fan’ documentary of Fifi Howls from Happiness. I also noticed how long many of the films listed here are: five are three hours or longer while another few are not far off that. That comes as a surprise to someone who never tires of complaining that most films are too long and drag on inexorably. Length need not be a problem though if the director has a sufficient command of the pace and the material to keep the audience’s interest.
The rules for inclusion, as ever, are: a French cinema release before the third week of December this year. Hence there are some films that will have appeared elsewhere in 2012 or have yet to; conversely some films are missing here that are in other lists, such as Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave and Like Father, Like Son. They may make an appearance in this same list in twelve months’ time.
1. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke – China/Japan)
Jia Zhangke continues to be a man interested in just about every facet of Chinese society. A Touch of Sin has fallen foul of the Communist Party on account of the violence and social discontent it portrays so sparely. It is a compelling crime film, with brilliantly mounted set pieces and an almost documentary-style take on a China one rarely sees on screen. Jia also frames his four stories (and epilogue) in such a way that you want to see it again as soon as possible to see how it works and what you missed. In an exceptionally tough year at Cannes, A Touch of Sin came away with the screenplay prize. Many would argue it was the best film on show there.
2. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland – UK)
Few British directors roll like Peter Strickland. After a low-budget debut filmed in Hungarian and Romanian, he came up with this ingenious film that is a homage to Italian giallo horror films from the 1970s, a comic account of British resistance to continental culture and a genuinely creepy Kafkaesque thriller. Toby Jones plays a mild-mannered Foley artist missioned to the shady Berberian Sound Studio in Rome to provide sound effects for a low-budget slasher film, in spite of being too squeamish to watch what is on screen. There are inevitable echoes of The Conversation and Blow Out but Berberian Sound Studio is very much its own film, as cerebral as it is hair-raising.
3. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger – Spain/France)
The silent film revival is unlikely to be an enduring phenomenon but Pablo Berger’s Snow White adaptation shows how silent cinema might be made in this day and age without recourse to gimmickry. Blancanieves is an inspired conflation of the famous fairy tale and another (‘Sleeping Beauty’) and Sevilleano bullfighting lore. It looks gorgeous too with beautiful high-contrast photography from Kiko de la Rica and Seville, a city too rarely seen on screen, looks resplendent. Far more than a pastiche or a homage, Berger’s film is a great literary adaptation.
4. Heimat: Chronicle of a Vision (Edgar Reitz – Germany/France)
You don’t have to have seen Edgar Reitz’s legendary TV series (I haven’t) to appreciate this prequel of sorts set in the Rhineland in the early 1840s. A four-hour black and white glimpse into rural poverty against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of German nationalism, this ‘other Heimat' is masterful historical cinema. It faithfully reproduces the period trappings yet integrates them into the physical drama, unlike many other such films. And as an unexpected bonus, there's a wonderful cameo from Werner Herzog as the great geographer Alexander von Humboldt.
5. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche – France/Belgium/Spain)
Adbellatif Kechiche’s brilliant lesbian love story had barely won the Palme d’Or at Cannes when he was accused of mistreatment by his crew, manipulation by his leading ladies and inauthentic sex scenes by lesbians (one wonders what ‘authentic’ sex is and who sets the standard). The film - Kechiche’s fifth - will long outlive the petty controversies though. In the manner of his previous masterwork, La graine et le mulet, this adaptation of Julie Maroh’s comic book is a long and unflinching look at love in a way the movies rarely have the patience or heart to do. Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux are fantastic in the two lead roles, however unpleasant the experience might have been. Blue Is the Warmest Colour will leave you as drained as the characters themselves but it’s exhilarating stuff.
6. It’s the Earth, not the Moon (Gonçalo Tocha – Portugal)
This three-hour documentary about life on Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores, is both a marvellous piece of anthropological filmmaking and also the most likeable film of the year. Gonçalo Tocha sprinkles his narrative with wry self-deprecating asides as his camera captures the everyday of a tiny community and he constructs as best he can a narrative history of this most westerly point of Europe. There is an air of Father Ted about it but only in an amiable way. Tocha, for all the justness of his detached observation, clearly loves the people he films and there is no condescension on display. Yet another film that shows the gently thoughtful Portuguese cinema to be sui generis.
7. In the Land of the Head Hunters (Edward S. Curtis – USA)
A re-released film from 1914 gets a spot on this list because it didn’t benefit from a general release back then (though it has hardly been widely seen this time round either). Edward S. Curtis, famous for his photographs of North American Indians, made this, his only feature, in collaboration with the warlike Kwakwaka’wakw tribe of British Columbia. As well as being a priceless historical document, In the Land of the Head Hunters tells its tale of pursuit and revenge with gusto. It also has a bracingly modern air to it, with costumes and dances that the Western world has only recently started to catch up with.
8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón – USA)
Cuarón’s tight space drama was one of the most hyped films of the year and, for once, it lived up to the advance noise. The circumstances of the plot reduce things (and onscreen personnel) down to a bare minimum early on and not even the distractions of some corny dialogue and cursory backstory can lessen the impact of the film’s sole concern: survival. Technically masterful and terrifying in an almost tactile way, Gravity is not the sort of film you get from Hollywood too often, but it makes you wish the studios would use the means at their disposal to make more films of such graceful simplicity as this.
9. Once I Entered a Garden (Avi Mograbi – Israel/Germany/France)
Avi Mograbi, who, for my money, made the best documentary of the past decade, ventures a more personal effort this time - a series of conversations with his Palestinian Arabic teacher, Ali Al-Azhari, interspersed with a number of outings to the sea and to Al-Azhari’s childhood home that he is now effectively barred from. There are also Sebaldian episodes where actress Hiam Abbass reads from the diaries of a relative of Mograbi’s written from his European exile. It’s part My Dinner with André, part Vladimir and Estragon, and is effortlessly watchable. Mograbi is a free-wheeling formalist who once again shows that the best stories often lie outside of fiction.
10. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie – France)
Heretofore little known outside of France, Alain Guiraudie was one of the revelations of Cannes this year with his fifth feature. A tense thriller set entirely on a gay-cruising lakeside spot, Stranger by the Lake is both a theoretical essay on group codes and conventions as well as an icy interrogation of the risks gay men run. The frustrated hero Franck is drawn to a handsome stranger, only to witness the latter kill another bather late one evening. An initially unassuming chamber piece, it grows into something monstrous and devilishly smart.
11. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg – USA)
You’d be forgiven for not expecting much from Spielberg’s Lincoln but Tony Kushner’s screenplay helps steer Spielberg away from worthiness and the film is true to the historical moment. There is little complacency about the historical gains made by the abolition of slavery, even though due respect is paid. Buoyed by stirring performances, most notably Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, Lincoln is a fine political film, anchored by a healthy dose of pragmatism. One of Spielberg’s finest.
12. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-soo – South Korea)
The prolific Korean Hong Sang-soo offers up a film that retreads his familiar concerns: the capacity of sad-sack men for petty betrayal and the gentle alienation of youth. Haewon is a young student being finally abandoned by a mother that rarely cared for her. Her lover, one of her teachers, is feckless and unresponsive and Haewon has burned her bridges with her friends after a failed relationship. It all sounds underwhelming but, like Éric Rohmer, the filmmaker Hong most resembles, there is a lot going on in this languid comedy of manners.
13. Story of my Death (Albert Serra – Spain/France)
Albert Serra is the standard-bearer for challenging European cinema and his lo-fi digital explorations of figures of fiction and history will seem like watching paint dry to some. Story of My Death yokes together the biographies of Casanova and Dracula for what is a highly unconventional historical dialogue. Despite being made with few resources, the film is luminous like a grand old tableau. It imparts a clear sense of importance while striking a note of playful levity throughout. It’s difficult cinema but sometimes the difficult can be beautiful and charming too.
14. In the Fog (Sergei Loznitsa – Germany/Netherlands/Belarus/Russia/Latvia)
After his highly regarded feature debut My Joy, Loznitsa attempts an ambitious adaptation of Belarusian author Vasil’ Bykaw’s novel In the Fog. The book may not be well known in the West but it’s a landmark 20th-century text in the Russian-speaking world. A tale of a railwayman’s despair at being accused of collaboration with the Nazis during the war and the two Soviet soldiers charged with carrying out his execution, it is both intensely bleak and atmospheric. Loznitsa captures the existential terror of both the period and the source novel, and Oleg Mutu, cinematographer of the New Romanian Cinema makes it all shimmer on screen.
15. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel – USA)
Castaing-Taylor, a Harvard anthropologist and director of the 2009 film Sweetgrass and Paravel, who herself made the New York documentary Chop Shop, team up for this mesmerising film about New Bedford fishermen. The film is mostly shot at night so the images take on an uncanny abstraction as birds wheel around the vessel and tiny cameras bob about amid the captured fish, making it a film as much about the captured prey as it about the men that catch them. It’s fashionable these days to call such a film a ‘tone poem’ but Leviathan is more visceral than simply photogenic. A film without any dialogue that roars.
16. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach – USA)
Credit must go to Noah Baumbach for making the sort of film that US filmmakers give up on as soon as they get a foothold in Sundance, but it is Greta Gerwig who owns Frances Ha. She has it all locked down. Her Frances is a shambling Manhattan Candide, determined to succeed as a dancer even as her maladroitness seems to distance her further and further from the big break. This is a touching tale of thwarted ambition that shows a New York that is all but excluded to anyone without a trust fund behind them. It’s all the better for being very funny. One of the best comedies of recent years and if there is any justice, Gerwig will win an Oscar (even if I know, deep down, she won’t).
17. The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann – France/Austria)
Lanzmann revisits Shoah and makes a long film with some of the material he couldn’t fit in the original one. The Last of the Unjust is based on interviews he made with Benjamin Murmelstein, former Chief Rabbi of Vienna and head of the Judenrat in Theresienstadt under the Nazis. It is in the same mould as Shoah though lacks that film’s insistent edge – Lanzmann is almost forty years older now and has easier access to a budget than he did back then, so there is less improvisation. It is a scholarly yet thoroughly cinematic film that offers a firm apologia for a man scorned by international jewry.
18. Clip (Maja Miloš – Serbia)
It’s tricky making a shocking film about contemporary teenagers while maintaing a clear sympathy for the people you are portraying but 29-year-old Maja Miloš pulls it off. Clip is a warts-and-all portrayal of a working-class Serbian teenager and her hedonistic, selfy-obsessed friends. There’s very little left to the imagination in it and, were it made in English, you can be guaranteed it would have roused more moral outrage than it has. Miloš’s film can be questionably amoral at times but its characters’ motivations, however venal they might be, are perfectly believable. Miloš knocks the puerile exploitationism of Larry Clark into a cocked hat.
19. Shokuzai (Kiyoshi Kurosawa – Japan)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa ended a few years of production nightmares with this TV mini-series that got a cinema release outside of Japan. Shokuzai (meaning ‘penance’) centres on four former schoolfriends who witnessed the murder of a classmate when they were only seven-years-old and the child’s mother who never forgives them for their inability to help police find the killer. Each of the girls brings a weighty burden with them into adulthood, and each is tracked down by the obsessive mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi). Shokuzai is a horror film without any supernatural presence and a pyschological thriller without any clear adversary. Though adapted from a pulpy bestseller, Kurosawa’s film is one of the most sophisticated onscreen treatments of guilt and repentance.
20. Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra Farahani – USA/France/Iran)
Young Iranian director Mitra Farahani tracks down elderly (and largely forgotten) Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses to his Rome hotel suite and gets him to agree to a fly-on-the-wall documentary in return for securing him a commission. Fifi Howls from Happiness (named after one of Mohasses’ paintings) is more than just a simple homage thanks to Mohasses’ rebarbative nature and mordant sense of humour and also because of Farahani’s skill at weaving narrative out of lived (and filmed) experience. A fine tribute to the painter, who died in 2010, during filming.
Also worth a look
Mundane History (Anocha Suwichakornpong - Thailand)
The German Doctor (Lucía Puenzo – Argentina/Spain/France/Norway)
Home for the Weekend (Hans Christian Schmid - Germany)
Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon - USA)
Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour - Saudi Arabia/Germany)
Here and There (Antonio Méndez Esparza — USA/Mexico)/Spain)
The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard – UK)
No (Pablo Larraín — Chile/USA/France)
5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat/Guy Davidi – Palestine/Israel/France/Netherlands)
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont - France)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai – Hong Kong/China)
What Richard Did (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland)
The Lebanese Rocket Society (Joana Hadjithomas/Khalil Joreige – Lebanon/France/Qatar)
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany)
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino – Italy/France)
A Simple Life (Ann Hui – Hong Kong)
Meteora (Spiros Stathoulopoulos – Germany/Greece)
Grigris (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun – France/Chad)
Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallières – France/Germany)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen – USA)
Omar (Hany Abu Al-Assad – Palestine)
Films many others loved but left me a bit underwhelmed
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson – USA)
Mud (Jeff Nichols – USA)
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm – Denmark)
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer – Denmark/Norway/UK)
The Immigrant (James Gray – USA)
Bastards (Claire Denis – France)