Alright. So I'm late. About a month late from everyone else's end of the year top ten list. But maybe just in time to offer an alternative to the usual Hollywood pap that gets nominated as art for the ages. That's not to say that Hollywood doesn't make any good movies. In fact, I'd be the first to argue that it makes great movies once you look past the billboards and the sides of buses. As a belated response to last month's out-of-touch outcry regarding a certain potty-mouthed showcase of laughable debauchery, "Yes, Hope (oh, the irony in her name!), there's hope for the future of cinema. Maybe take a holiday and watch something else besides a free screening at the Academy." Because why would anyone simply be content with being spoon fed what's popular? when there's so much fantastic stuff that's being created right under the radar of Hollywood and across the world from it.
But if you want Hollywood, then yeah, Scorsese is still great (what did you expect from the guy who gave the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, and The Last Temptation of Christ - another Hugo set in the Wall Street of the '90s, perhaps?), as are a number of other big time directors who are coming out with films every few years, to this movie lover's delight. As far as American cinema is concerned, other names like the Andersons (PT and Wes, of course), the Coens, Tarantino, Payne, Allen, etc. are just the top layer of a cake that reaches all the way down to the cream of independent cinema. I say any year that gifts us with a movie both by Shane Carruth and Andrew Bujalski is one for the books and one to be memorialized with some champagne and caviar, indeed.
Which brings me to my top ten favorite films of the year. These are films that I absolutely adored in what I thought was another banner year of independent, Hollywood and foreign cinema. Is it just me or are we living in a new Golden Age of Cinema? Or is it more complicated than that?
Most simply overlooked or suffering from overcrowding, from highest to lowest they are:
1. Upstream Color - should be essential viewing in every screenwriting and filmmaking class in the world just for its sheer audacity. If you want to see what thinking outside of the Hollywood sandbox looks like, look no further and marvel at the beauty of true American independent filmmaking. Carruth's only other film, the mind-bending time travel flick, Primer, comes off as Screenwriting 101 by comparison. Although not as Byzantine in its structure as Primer, Upstream Color's plot is, well...pretty out there. (SPOILERS) Its story could be taken straight out of the pages of a parallel universe where thieves hypnotize their victims with the use of roundworms and have them transcribe passages from Thoreau's Walden while shattering their lives. And that's just the beginning. Before you type another FADE IN see this movie now.
2. Room 237 - see my review here. Not without its faults: Until this recent interview on Reddit, in fact, I'd no idea that one of the theories the documentary was referring to was the U.S. government's fabled Monarch/MK12 mind control program. Director Rodney Ascher essentially concedes in the interview that it was the one theory he skimps on. As far as the subject matter is concerned, however: pure gold. I don't give a shining that these theories are, as Kubrick's assistant Leon Vitali proclaims, "balderdash and gibberish." What's fascinating is that they exist at all, and like a good essay paper, they're backed up with empirical evidence. And like questionable essay writing, that evidence is shoehorned into each thesis. A fascinating look into the nature of theories.
3. Only God Forgives - I don't really understand all the hate for this movie. That it's a conga line of violent set pieces? No, not really. Sure, prolific Hong Kong director Johnny To comes to mind as does French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville. As with those two auteurs' work, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's detached yet in the moment protagonists are bound to their honor - however skewed - and their (typically) inevitable pitiful fate. Like the blank space between comic strip panels, there's a lot going on between those moments of ultra-violence.
5. You're Next - Not one or two but three great horror films this year: See #7 below, the long-shelved All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which gets honorable mention; and this film, You're Next, a fun, twisty breath of fresh air amid all the re-hashed ghost in the house shining that's been getting overplayed. I think at one point I clumsily described this movie as a slasher flick meets Die Hard and for the sake of hitting a larger demographic I'll stick to that clumsy description. Suffice it to say the would-be "slashers" get yippee-ki-yayed by an unforeseen guest.
7. Beyond the Hills - and then read this interview here. Regardless of what Romanian director Cristian Mungiu insists, he makes movies that are horrifying in tone and in the guise of every day melodrama starring women who find themselves in dire emotional and personal situations. I'll just refer to his films as horror films until I see proof of otherwise.
8. Frozen - this couldn't have come at a more perfect moment in my life. To have Disney knock it out of the ball park with an animated film with not just one, but two - count 'em, TWO - strong female role models as we're introducing our two young daughters to the joys of cinema...well played, Mouse.
9. The History of Film: An Odyssey - as far as 2013 film events are concerned, few were as ambitious and as epic in scope as this 15 part series which had its US premiere on TCM over the course of as many weeks. Keenly idiosyncratic in his curation of films for this film-essay of sorts and reminiscent in tone of the documentaries of Chris Marker, Scottish director Mark Cousins takes the viewer on the ultimate road movie as we travel through many points around the globe not exactly known to Western eyes as hotbeds of cinema. Along the way he has the audacity to celebrate as masterpieces such minor works as Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem. Inspirational and informative, one man's odyssey through the history of film is another man's enlightenment.
10. Gravity - its heavy-handed symbolism aside and ultimately forgiven, Alfonso Cuaron and son do the impossible: they create a one-person action film and tearjerker (parent, anyone?) rolled into one. With a female scientist. In outer space! In a (mostly) realistic scenario!! Give the man, his son and the film their Oscars already...