Stanislav's Top 10 Movies of 2013

This is part of our 2013 "Year In Review" series, where our contributors get to share their favorite movies of the past year. Today Stanislav is checking in to give us his picks. 

1. The Act of Killing 

Definitely the best movie of the year and of the last several years, in fact. The movie that has possibly made me think more than any other one. It is not an easy watching experience, but an extremely enriching one. Halfway through I was wondering why I did not quit, but I am grateful I stuck to it. The plot is revolutionary in itself, a concept Kiarostami only dreams of. It is about a bunch of gangsters (or as they call themselves “free-men”) re-creating the killings against the “communists” in 1965-66 after the military coup in Indonesia. These killings (which were partially ethnic cleansing of the Chinese) took the lives of possibly several million people. The killers in this movie boast of having killed at least a thousand. They are given free rein to stage the torture sessions and murders as if they were in their favourite movies, be they westerns, gangster movies, etc. All through the movie, I was hoping for it to be some kind of satire, for it not to be real, but I knew all along that it was. The horror of this movie is not that it shows us a dark part of humanity’s history removed from us in time and space. What scared me so is that it allows us a glimpse – and a very personal one at that – into what it is like to be a person killing others for ideological reasons (or often for no reason at all) without questioning himself. Because it is clear that these people did not question, not until this movie at least. It explains so much of the horror committed in our world. But the movie goes further than this. It not only shows us, but staging these scenes allows the “actors” to see themselves, if only a little. It does more than I could imagine art doing as a meta-tool for self-reflexivity. Hegel’s remark that evil can also reside in the very gaze that perceives the world around it as permeated by evil comes to mind, and on so many levels. What is evil? What role does the gaze play in it? Only one thing remains clear to me: we all need to ask ourselves these questions. Everything else in my world-view was turned upside down by this film. Required viewing for everyone. Should be made mandatory in high school in my opinion.

 2. Her

The reason it is difficult to make science-fiction movies today is that they can no longer follow the structure of the old science-fiction flicks. And it is also why the few that succeed are very original. Her is a love-story between a man and his operating system. It is first and foremost a wonderfully acted, shot and edited emotional romantic movie. While discussions of technology’s effects on our ability to socialize are all the rage, this movie does not get bogged down in simplistic for or against arguments. It seems to not judge at all. It simply documents life as it… Not as it will be, but – really – as it is already. The slight exaggeration of a clearly delineated artificially intelligent ‘entity’ falling in love provides us with the ability to look into an interpersonal relationship as if from outside of a conventional relationship. But just as in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – where through the eyes of a biologically human being raised on Mars we are allowed to observe human civilization – the main character is ultimately human, the relationship we see in Her is ultimately an interpersonal relationship in general, because we can no longer easily tell where the biological ends and the technological begins. Thus, granted the viewer accepts the premise, which I had no trouble doing, the rest of it is a very realistic depiction of life after the zero-point of radical transmutation of humans’ perception of the world around them as well as of their interactions – an apocalypse if such a word may be used, an apocalypse we are living at this moment. Without giving anything away, let me just say that it appears to me that Jonze wanted to use the operating systems in his film to show us where we can go, what abilities humans have.

3. The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is a 21st century version of Wild Strawberries, but without being Bergman-esque in any way. It is about a man getting on in years who has the opportunity not many get to look back at his life and reflect. And like Dr. Isak Borg, our main character seems to regret the life he has lived and is continuing to live. Yet, the movie is definitely a comedy. It laughs at itself, laughs at its characters, laughs at its style. It is the ultimate art-house movie, but goes beyond this even and criticizes art-house. The director did a wonderful job, the dialogue cannot be improved upon, but what touched me most was the reflection upon the pursuit of beauty. The main character, who Servillo does a wonderfully funny job playing, is under the impression that he failed in this life-long pursuit of the great beauty, and although it is a shame he is not conscious of it, I believe that he is wrong.

4. Blue Is The Warmest Color

This one needs no introduction as it has taken countless prizes including the Palme d’Or. It is a simple and very well-told story of love and its decay. I think it could have been a little shorter than the three hours it runs, but pinpointing what could have been cut is very difficult, as each scene, especially the mundane ones, allow one to feel as if present alongside the characters. I did not especially identify with either of the characters, but I certainly felt what they were feeling. This was also due to Exarchopoulos’ sublimely engrossing acting. She certainly has an illustrious career ahead of her. Moreover, she was a great choice for Kechiche’s exploration of female sensuality (the shower scene among many is a visual masterpiece). While the sex scenes seemed a little over the top, I must remember here that I am a prude, and ultimately, I would not have changed them, because they are unique in cinema’s depiction of sex (be it same-sex or not). Finally, I am a sucker for powerful endings, and this one was both powerful and restrained at once, the restraint only serving to enhance the potency.

5. The Past 

Expectations were set very high for Farhadi’s new feature after A Separation. The Past does not deviate far from what we have grown accustomed to from him. No other director can make such a gripping mystery out of a family drama. This one is about what awaits an Iranian man when he comes back to France to sign the divorce papers after having not seen his ex or her children in years. However, it is not so much about him. The characters all take a back seat to the intertwined connections between them. It reflects wonderfully (for lack of a better word) a love that is simultaneous with frustration. A perfectly told story that pays careful attention to the details, such as moving supporting child acting, sets (and weather) that reflect the characters’ states of mind, and just-under-the-surface contemporary political undertones.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis 

The Coen brothers did something slightly different this time in my opinion. Like some of their best, a first viewing leaves you satisfied and not much more, but then with time you find yourself often thinking about the movie and anticipating a re-watch. This was a musical/comedy where a folk singer in early 60s New York shows us the inseparability of (mis)fortune and the choices we make. Llewyn’s bad luck does not surprise us once we get to know him a little, but the choices he makes steering him away from even a possibility of happiness do. For its duration, the film teeters on the edge of hope and despair. When Llewyn picks up his guitar and sings, our hopes are renewed, but we are quickly reminded that despair suits him better. The musical scenes are powerful. Oscar Isaac is a great singer. The cast is delightfully quirky (Goodman, Phillips, Driver and the rest all do wonderful jobs of portraying weirdoes). Inside Llewyn Davis just might not be fully appreciated until a couple of decades down the line.

7. Blue Jasmine

Another black comedy about exasperatingly down on their luck Americans. This one by Woody Allen. His other recent efforts have disappointed me considerably, but he has redeemed himself yet again with Blue Jasmine, the story of an East Coast socialite snob (Cate Blanchett) who – after her exceedingly rich husband (Alec Baldwin) is caught, sent to jail for his fraudulent financial activity and commits suicide while inside – goes west to stay with her floozy trusting hippy-esque sister appropriately named Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine has always disapproved of Ginger’s lifestyle, and continues to do so, even though the ground she thought was beneath her own feet is now obviously inexistent. Blue Jasmine is a portrayal of the sad consequences of people deluding themselves with notions of security and self-importance, and a very serious Cate Blanchett delivers a convincing performance embodying that delusion.

8. Frances Ha 

Frances (delightfully played by Greta Gerwig) is in some respects the modern female version of Llewyn Davis, although as cheery as he is gloomy. She also differs from Llewyn in that she does not have one anchor in her life (Llewyn’s music). She has no anchors, in fact. Frances represents so many young (but no longer so young) people I know today, the ones that believe they are younger than they actually are or younger than the world sees them. She is someone that probably never had a responsible adult ever take her by the hand and show her the ropes, and it is most likely almost too late for that now. What is beautiful about Frances is that despite her naivety (or perhaps rather because of it), she is exceedingly charming and upbeat. This charm does her no good, but it warms the audience’s heart. Frances Ha reminds us of two young Americans to watch: the very original director Baumbach and the enchanting actress Greta Gerwig.

9. Mud

After Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols showcases his diversity by delivering another complex Americana in Mud. It is about two young boys from poor Southern families who search for love and the truth and think they have found someone who will guide them in that search in Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a man who is hiding in the woods, seemingly from the whole world. As the film unfolds, and we learn a little about Mud, it turns out that he may actually not be the best guide for the boys, but they take their lessons as they can. Contrasted with the “wisdom” Mud tries to emulate is the wisdom of another character central to the film and its mood:  the river around which all of the action takes place. The river connects everyone and everything and yet also seems to be of another world. In Mud, Jeff Nichols has succeeded in telling another great story filled with symbolism.

10. Stranger by the Lake 

The Certain Regard directing award in Cannes went to this movie, which is usually a sign of something innovative. I failed to do my research before going to the theatre for this one, so let me warn you. There is lots of very graphic man-on-man sex, but as long as it is not a total surprise for you, the sex scenes actually add to a certain raw suspensefulness. Just do not watch it with any squeamish homophobes. The plot is very simple. It is about Franck, a young man looking for love, who finds lust on a summer beach in Michel, a man he witnesses drowning his lover. It would not be completely true to say that fear was the turn-on, and yet, Franck (played by Pierre Deladonchamps, who won the Cesar for most promising actor) continues to see Michel. At 97 minutes, it is a short movie that nevertheless feels like it takes its time to unfold, and I, for one, went from being slightly bored to being on the edge of my seat scared as hell. The last several minutes I must have been holding my breath too, because I distinctly remember breathing out as the credits started rolling. If you are looking for an uncomplicated thriller, and are not afraid of gay pornography, see it.