The best films I saw in 2013

I watched 108 films in 2013. Here are my top ten, and you can see my top 25 over at Letterboxd.

Orphans of the Storm (1921). I’m not normally as much of a fan of silent films as I feel I should be, but this masterpiece by D.W. Griffith is really the pinnacle of silent film as far as I’ve seen. It’s not that I couldn’t appreciate the technical innovations or contribution to Hollywood continuity style in Birth of a Nation (1915) or the view of the old Chinatown in Limehouse before London was bombed in Broken Blossoms (1921). But Orphans of the Storm is just riveting despite its 2.5 hour runtime, and it’s as relevant as ever as inequality increases worldwide. More thoughts here.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987). I first learned about this film on Mark Cousin’s incredible fifteen-part documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, and assumed it would take quite a bit of effort to track down. Much to my surprise, while looking for more information about it I found the entire film on YouTube. You really owe it to yourself to watch it. Because of its dogged pursuit of the redress of age-old injustice, it’s a documentary that I felt must have been a big influence on Errol Morris. Afterwards I learned that it is actually his favourite film. I don’t want to say too much about it as it really is a film that should be experienced on its own terms, but suffice it to say it’s incredibly powerful.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Few others seem to have liked Derek Cianfrance’s second film as much as I did, but if you preferred Blue Valentine (2010) to Drive (2011) as I did, then it’s definitely worth checking this one out. It’s not that it’s a perfect film, but it’s incredibly ambitious and succeeds in enough respects to make it a fantastic film in my book. More thoughts here.

The Great Beauty (2013). This is another ambitious film, a staggeringly beautiful tribute to Fellini, Antonioni, and Visconti. More here.

The Naked City (1948). This is film noir at its best. It’s done in a documentary style that instantly draws you in immediately, zooming in from a macroscopic view of New York in to an individual murder investigation. It’s suspenseful, well-crafted, and brilliant. I’m sorry I waited so long to see it.

Diary of a Country Priest (1950). I’d always thought this was a Dreyer film from the title, in my ignorance, but it’s actually something of a spiritual cousin. It was my introduction to the films of Robert Bresson of which I intend to see more soon (really liked A Man Escaped which I saw shortly afterwards). The title is unpromising but accurate—it really is about a rural clergyman. But like Tolstoy’s equally unprepossessing The Death of Ivan Ilyich, this is an unflinching look at mortality, morality, and the meaning of life.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). Ignore all the press about how explicit this film is; it certainly crosses lines, in its sex scenes or gender politics, but actually in how emotionally brutal it is. It’s a deeply moving look at a failed relationship in several stages, and it’s quite visceral. The acting is superb and I had no problem (like a few of my friends did) with the direction. The focus on the lesbian sex just shows how narrow-minded people can be. Get over it and appreciate its incredibly powerful insight into relationships.

The House I Live In (2012). This documentary examines how the prison complex in America is destroying the poor, to the point that it has become a “holocaust in slow motion”. Like Inside Job (2010) it depicts a complex set of forces in an utterly comprehensible way, that foregrounds the unconscionable injustice that is taking place in the United States. Read Adam Curtis’ piece on how we’ve come full circle in terms of injustice and inequality, and get ready to be depressed about how we’re reverting to the robber baron era.

The Act of Killing (2012). What great films have come out in the past few years. This is another documentary, initially intended to be about the victims of the Indonesian genocide (masquerading as political struggle) that took place in 1965. The US and other Western countries took the side of the “capitalist” incumbent Indonesians against the “communist” immigrant Chinese population, turning a blind eye towards repression and atrocities that killed three million people in Indonesia. Facing barriers at every stage in an attempt to make a film about the victims, the filmmakers turned their focus to the thugs who perpetrated the violence, who, unlike their Nazi counterparts, are not only alive and well, but essentially still running the country. As if this weren’t enough, the killers themselves agree to re-enact the war crimes they committed in the style of various film genres, including a gangster film, a western, and—wait for it—a musical. Unbelievable, a must-see.

Children of a Lesser God (1986). Like Gosling, William Hurt never seems to quite make the film, but damned if he doesn’t know how to pick them. Playing a speech teacher at a school for the deaf, he encounters a belligerent and disengaged Marlee Matlin whom he eventually begins a relationship with. It follows a typical romantic drama plot arc, but the performances and emotion of it are unforgettable. A real example of a standard genre template carried perfectly in every regard. It’s hard to think of a better romantic film.

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