Best Films of 2013, Part 2.
I got a few letters asking where I thought Gravity should be on this list. I know a lot of people liked the film, and so did I. It was immensely entertaining, frightening and gripping, and upon first viewing I was completely blown away, ready to declare it the best film of the year. But then I actually started thinking about the film, and its complete disregard for basic science eventually made me understand that it’s an incredibly silly and poorly-scripted movie. It’s one thing to be The Avengers and eschew all natural laws in the name of comic book action, but for Gravity to seek an authentic space experience and yet, in one singular moment, completely blow that authenticity, well it undermines the entire premise of the film, rendering it to just yet another Hollywood action/ suspense potboiler. Gravity deserves every conceivable award for its technical achievements (just as 2001 revolutionized VFX), but I can’t in good conscience rate it with the best films of the year. So there’s that.
Continuing from yesterday…
5) Rurouni Kenshin, dir. Keishi Ohtomo, Japan.
This is one badass motherfucking movie. Based off the popular manga and anime, Rurouni Kenshin has the greatest swordplay action sequences I’ve seen since Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, and that’s a major comparison. I don’t know how this film isn’t more popular in the United States - it’s gorgeous, hyperviolent and is an incredible story, told efficiently and without any chaff. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to feudal Japanese stories of wandering assassins seeking to reclaim their honor and what is important to them. It also has a pair of beautiful leads in Takeru Satô and Emi Takei who act as good as they look. Satô is a bonafide action star, and he has an undeniable presence about him. Love it love it love it.
4) Ship of Theseus, dir. Anand Gandhi, India.
Full admission here - I am friends with the producers and the director of the film, but by no means did that influence the placement of this film on this list. Years in the making, Ship of Theseus is the magnificent telling of three different stories in contemporary Mumbai. The seemingly disparate protagonists - a blind photographer, a wayward young financial worker, and an ailing monk - all seek meaning and discoveries in the greater context where they ultimately shape each others’ destinies. It’s a deft and intellectually vivid take on the Ship of Theseus myth, which is that if the parts of a ship are removed and replaced piece by piece, is it still the same ship? Anand Gandhi smartly gives no easy answers, as some things are greater than us and we are merely to lay down the seeds of questions as we gather more information in life. This is a gorgeously shot, impeccably acted metaphysical yarn that dares to pull no punches, it’s unabashedly brainy and complex, and it makes no apologies for it. The true beauty of the film is that despite its heavyweight aspirations, it is never inaccessible, as Gandhi paints his canvas with universal human moments and truths - it never once is obtuse or abstract. A film that deserves greater study and discussion, and cinema needs more films of its ilk. A staggering achievement.
3) Upstream Color, dir. Shane Carruth, USA.
I’ve been dealing with a lot of death and loss this year, and a large part of my healing has been though art, which has an incredibly ability to mould itself to your specific condition. Two people looking at a Francis Bacon painting can see two entirely different things, depending on where they come from and their current place in life. When I saw Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color I was coming off utter devastation of loss, and in this film I found willing companions on my journey, the story of a couple dealing with loss and processing their grief. There are so many images and sounds in this film that I connected to on a very basic, atomic level, and knowing how smart Shane Carruth is, I know it cannot be an accident. There are very few films in my life that have actually guided me and healed me, and this is one of them. It’s an intensely personal film, uncomfortably intimate to the point of psychological voyeurism, but that kind of honesty is needed when dealing with the subject of grief. If grief cannot be shared, then it becomes toxic and mutates into confused anger and despair. Carruth had major expectations to exceed after Primer, and he did it in a fashion so spectacular and out of left field that I have to consider him one of the most important artists working in any medium today. He is a talent to treasure, to support, and to learn so much from.
2) Computer Chess, dir. Andrew Bujalski, USA.
Let’s make this clear. Andrew Bujalski never was, is, or will be Mumblecore. All of his films have completely eschewed the tenets of that god-forsaken family of films in that his characters have goals, aims, and do not drown in their privilege. Bujalski writes amazing scripts and creates unimaginable depth in his films, and his tireless work has culminated in one of the most fascinating films of recent times, Computer Chess.
I grew up in the 80s, which was a time of immense technological tinkering. Radio Shack was the hub of all hardware for hobbyists who wanted to really dig into personal electronics (the store is now a shadow of its former self, basically a place to buy a cell phone) and the computer was the infinite horizon. Computer Chess delves into that world with nerdy aplomb, covering a computer-driven chess tournament between competing universities and the random oddball genius hobbyist. The programmers work with furious intensity, placing it all on the line as they strive to outsmart their own brains.
It’s chilling to already know the future of this endeavor, from Big Blue to to the most basic chess app on an iPhone, and it feels like we’re witnessing an act of creation with this film. Perhaps more poignant is the film’s setting, a ramshackle no-frills hotel that is occupied by a bevy of spaced out weirdos and, bizarrely, a bunch of cats. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of technological hubris versus metaphysical questioning, and it makes us think of where we belong in the pecking order of neuroprocessing.
What binds all of this together is the format of the film, which was shot on analog video tape using Sony AVC-3260 cameras. The cinematography creates a ghostly, otherworldly feel, and is authentic to the desire to find “better” technologies when they may not actually be an improvement at all. It’s a barbed commentary to the shift of cinema to digital capture from film, and I think it’s apt. Computer Chess is one of those rare films where it all comes together when in theory it shouldn’t have. A gem of a film, owing much to David Lynch, An Occurrence at Owl Creek, Trash Humpers and The Twilight Zone, and yet completely unique and divorced of the aforementioned pillars. Truly special and worthy of multiple viewings.
And my pick for best film of the year, and maybe best film of this young decade so far, is…
1) The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous, Denmark / Norway.
The film camera has a unique power to bring out the true nature of people. For some reason, there’s a kind of pressure put on people when the camera is rolling. It’s for them to either play perfect - in which the lie is revealed - or be brutally honest, in which the truest forms of human nature come out. Actors will always attest to the power of the camera, as they transform in an almost out-of-body manner when the director calls “action!” The world melts away, the camera records the moment, and there is nothing impeding the distance between lens and subject. Actors do strange things when the camera rolls, and they go to places they never knew existed within their heads.
So what happens when you turn the camera on someone who has killed over a thousand people under the protection of a brutal right-wing paramilitary group, and who sees them self as a rockstar for what they have done? What truths will the camera reveal?
The Act of Killing explores that question, documenting the recollections of a group of men who freely and proudly admit to slaughtering thousands of people who stood in the way of their sponsored political party. A legit death squad who used means such as garrotting with wire and other masochistic forms of death-dealing. The men who enact these crimes talk about their exploits like basketball all-stars discussing their storied careers, describing acts of torture like it was a finger roll in Madison Square Garden.
What a difficult film to watch, as we are constantly barraged by the cold distance of these men, and we can’t help but think there had to be some kind of collateral damage in inflicting so much death. Can one truly be that desensitized? Director Joshua Oppenheimer uses a brilliant and provocative method to investigate this, which is to have these men reenact their crimes against humanity, but in the form of filmed vignettes done in varying genres: musical, western and gangster films. What happens after is the aforementioned magic of the camera and its resultant effect upon the actor. Dark truths are revealed.
I cannot express how important this film in our understanding of our species. We see senseless crimes all the time - school shootings, genocide in Sudan and North Korea, US military drone strikes and people generally being so callous and thoughtless to the greater whole around them. We often wonder what drives people to do such things, and what might be going through their heads. We rarely ever get the answer to that because the perpetrators of the crimes are either dead or completely inaccessible under the judgement of the legal system. The Act of Killing is that rare opportunity to access the mind of killers and sociopaths who have yet to face any kind of justice or judgement, and if we are lucky we just might see a revelation or comeuppance. We are that lucky. What transpires in the film left me gasping for words, flooded with tears and such a confusing array of emotions that I have yet to ever experience.
When we make films we are on one simple journey - to seek the truth. Many times our search for answers only spawn so many more countless questions, and our quest for the truth begins anew. So rare is it then that we reach a decisive moment as we do in The Act of Killing, and as a result it rightfully belongs as one of the most important films made in recent memory, belonging with the Zapruter film and other documents of true human nature. This is required viewing for all, and should be mandatory in schools and academia. I cannot recommend or rate a film any higher.
If there is any kind of connection between the films that have made a mark on me this year, it is that they all revel in the curiosity of mankind, they ask the questions of our nature and constructed societies and they seek verification of our responsibilities to one another, to the planet and its myriad inhabitants that we share it with. We are alone in our thoughts always but we create company by sharing, and that is what these truly great films do. The community of art, a family of man, and a celebration of our flaws that make us truly special. While blockbusters continue to seek and cultivate the lowest hanging fruit - a danger no doubt - it has quietly also been a simply outstanding year for cinema. Where there is spirit, education and community, art will always find a place to thrive.