I guess I should do this, yeah? I saw more films in 2013 than any year before – both films from 2013 and just films in general – so I at least feel like the following “ballot” is a more comprehensive list than I may have given years prior. All of that, of course, has to do with my moving to America and, most specifically, New York City. I got to see more new release films in cinemas than ever before, including obscure, little-known and all but invisible titles that Oscar voters likely have little time for. I was also able to attend various film festivals including Tribeca (within days of arriving in New York), San Francisco, and New York. It all allowed me access to films that in Australia would only be seen if you were lucky enough to pick the right festival schedule. Many of the films I saw in 2013 will never get a release in Australian cinemas, and will instead be relegated to home entertainment and direct-to-TV releases at some point over 2014.
I thought 2013 was a great year for cinema, although I don’t think my own personal tastes have aligned less with the Academy’s before (again, maybe just symptomatic of seeing more movies than usual). With the Oscars this Sunday (Monday in Australia) I thought it was finally time to publish this “best of” list that is in no way definitive and final. I will add to it over the years if I catch films that went under my radar (or, in the case of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, rather inexcusably missed). But, as of now, this is a very good look at my time at the movies in 2013. These are the performances and technical achievements that I will associate most fondly with the past year. Some of my eligibility rules may appear lax: Oscar-qualifying runs count, Australian films released in 2013 (but 2014 in America) count. Some categories have six or seven because I thought they all really deserved it, plus it’s my blog I can do what I want to. Some of the best films I saw in 2013 - Hide Your Smiling Faces for instance – won’t get official releases until 2014 so they’re not featured. Films that I saw in 2012, but didn’t get American releases until this year - Lore, Berberian Sound Studio – are not included here.
* Image choice doesn’t necessarily denote who I’d pick as the winner. I’m not choosing “winners” apart from the top ten.
1. The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh)
2. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
3. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
4. Laurence Anyways (dir. Xavier Dolan)
5. A Touch of Sin (dir. Jia Zhangke)
6. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
7. No (dir. Pablo Lorrain)
8. Una Noche (dir. Lucy Mulloy)
9. In the House (dir. Francois Ozon)
10. You’re Next (dir. Alex Wingard)
2o13 Oscar Prediction: 12 Years a Slave
Like many modern films that fall into the niche genre game, Grand Piano and Blood Glacier owe much of their inceptions to other, old films. Thankfully, these two wonderfully audience-baiting flicks find new rhythms and maneuvers to allow them both to step out of the shadows of their obvious forebearers and become entertaining, even original, works. Despite indulging in the horror and thriller tropes, they become more than mere copying, spinning off into directions that are inspired by, but not beholden to, the classics.
Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a thoroughly ridiculous premise that borrows liberally from films such as Jan de Bont’s Speed, David Fincher’s Panic Room, and, most strikingly, Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth. Much like that 2002 thriller with Colin Farrell as a man stuck in a telephone booth with a sniper’s rifle fixed on him, Mira’s films features a more-or-less single location with a lone man aware of the stakes and an escalating tension that is seemingly at odds with its intimate focus. Needless to say, it is a better film than Phone Booth, but that may be because the Spanish director (Grand Piano is in fact a Spain/US co-production) decided to reference Brian De Palma more than his most direct influence, Alfred Hitchcock.
Marco Berger’s Hawaii is essentially 100 minutes of mental foreplay. A game between two men filled less with heated physical battles of strength and stamina, but rather secret glances, escalating desire, and heated eroticism. The kind of temperature rising sport that comes from sneaking a look at the object of affection when they least expect it. The thrill that comes from feeling like one has gotten away with a trickily maneuvered flirt. The boiling yet unspoken passion that can rise from the mere touch of flesh on flesh. The almost unbearable sexual tension that can emerge when we least expect it.
More impatient viewers may find the seemingly endless psychosexual flirtation of Berger’s protagonists, well-off Argentine writer Eugenio and homeless drifter Martin, too much. The yearning for release therefore extending beyond just the characters on screen, but to the audience where breathless heckles may make way for frustration. Others will find its gentle, melodic take on rekindled friendship to be sumptuously handled and deeply involving in spite of its long stretches of silence, meditative scenes of potentially one-sided lust, and unspoken love.
It’s Laura Dern’s birthday today, which is cause for celebration. Hell, it should be a national holiday! On my old blog I used to have a tag labelled “The Facial Expressions of Laura Dern” because, well, nobody gives face quite like Laura Dern (Madonna would have to chance the lyrics to “Vogue” if it were made today). I met Laura Dern just last year at a luncheon to celebrate her father, Bruce Dern, and his eventually Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska. She was a pleasure and a delight and allowed me to geek out about all things Lynch and Enlightened as we sat one-on-one after everybody else had left. She sipped on a coffee and I desperately tried to control with my mind the allergic reaction I was having to the the W 54th Street restaurant’s tree nut-tainted fondant dessert. I spoke of how I had visited the Twin Peaks convention in Seattle that past August and she spoke of potential new developments in the world of David Lynch. I mentioned I watched all of Enlighened in two days and purchased a copy of Wild at Heart on VHS when I found it in an antique store in the town where Twin Peaks was filmed. I even got a photo of her that you can see to your left. It has been my social media profile picture ever since for obvious reasons.
Anyway, as proof of Dern’s amazing face – and general amazing everything – here are 11 more of the best Laura Dern gifs.
Gosh, remember that opening scene of Enlightened? What a way to start a new series. And how about the weird spotlight sequence from Inland Empire. Somebody should host a Halloween party and just have that video sequence playing on a loop for hours on end. And I end on this amusing capsule gif from – again - Enlightened that is basically the exact opposite of all the gifs above, utilising Dern’s still face to just as good comic effect as the mascara-stained, frazzle-haired one above. Such a damned shame that show only lasted two season, but those two seasons are two of the most perfectly complete seasons of a show you could possibly get. It ended on such a great moment that in some ways it’s a good thing it finished when it did because there was no chance of the series’ magical spell ever getting lost or diluted. Laura Dern is 47 today and if directors like Mike White, David Lynch and John Curran keep being brave enough to cast her then we should have the sight of her face contorting and twisting itself into brilliant shapes for years to come.
Most of the images were sourced from the Laura Dern Face tumblr. A treasure-trove of beauty.
In Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, the director places his camera in the figurative and literal position of God. In this Cannes-winning title from 1961, Kawalerowicz’s stunning, evocative images made of starkly contrasted black and whites – in a nicely twisted spin on the old black = evil, white = good cliche of symbolism – takes on the POV of a divine entity, suggesting a directorial statement that places the physical camera above all. In the 110 minutes of this arresting film, Kawalerowicz and his collaborators certainly worship the camera, making for one of the most visually ravishing films I can recall.
It’s perhaps an easy stretch to make when the film itself deals with the fracturing realities of religion and, perhaps even more importantly, faith. Kawalerowicz’s film follows a priest on his mission to a convent that is believed to have come under the possession of a demon, with his (both the priest and the demon/s’) attentions focused most intently on that of Mother Joan, the leader of the convent and the one believed to be the most possessed of all. Questions of whether the nuns are possessed at all are raised by the film, as if its characters are attempting to reveal their lying sins to the camera/God by performing acts of so-called possession that could be explained away by simply physics or logic, and many of Kawalerowicz’s recurring visual motifs give the illusion of a God-like presence.
For the second year in the row the humbly self-titled “Australian Oscars”, or the AACTA Awards, gave a single film all but one of the awards for which it was nominated. Last year’s belle of the ball was Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, which won 11 awards from 12 nominations (it missed out on visual effects) including film, director, actor, actress, supporting actress, adapted screenplay and all the technical craft categories that one would think could have been divvied up amongst the competitors for the sake of fairness, transparency, and, well, maybe because other movies deserved them. This year’s big winner at the ceremony held last week in Sydney was Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which stormed home winning 12 of the 14 awards it was nominated for as well as a special honorary award for the visual effects, a category that the AACTA people curiously decided to axe after last year’s ceremony despite being a truly globally recognised industry in which Australians are successful. The two categories it lost? Best actress, which went to Rose Byrne for a seven-minute performance in the portmanteau Tim Winton adaptation of The Turning, and supporting actress, which was a matter of Isla Fisher losing to Elizabeth Debecki so it doesn’t quite count. Such all-encompassing hauls hadn’t been seen since the infamous 2003 ceremony where one of the industry’s weakest years of record gave way to Somersault‘s 13 awards.
At the time of the nomination announcements I had said, “The Great Gatsby would feel like a strange winner given the rumblings about whether it even deserves to be called an Australian film”, and that “I think it will be between the tiny south-Asian charms ofThe Rocket and the mammoth undertaking of 3-hour omnibus ensemble The Turning for the win.” Given those two films were arguably the most high profile and critically acclaimed of not just the six-wide best film roster, but also of Australian film in general for 2013 (excluding Gatsby, of course, which had a bit of an unfair advantage in that arena), it seems perplexing that the AACTA voters would send them home with only one each (original screenplay and actress respectively) while showering trophies on Luhrmann’s extravagant, big-budget F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation as if anybody is going to see its tally and think “Well now you’ve convinced me!”
Perplexing, and also worrying. No, it’s not the AACTA’s job to reward the little films that need the awards and the exposure (like Mystery Road or Dead Europe) over large-scale pictures with more money and resources behind them. However, in only the third year of their new existence as the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, the organization is in dire jeopardy of falling into the very trap that they had so desperately wanted to avoid: irrelevance.
The Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 album, Very, is identified as their unofficial “coming out” record by fans given its musical and visual stylisation, lyrical content, and the fact that lead singer Neil Tennant had recently spoken publicly of his sexuality before confirming that he was gay in a 1994 interview with Attitude magazine. If this period confirmed what most already suspected, it wasn’t because he and bandmate Chris Lowe had been trying to hide it. The music, which through the 1980s had fit quite comfortably in with the mainstream world of Brit-pop before veering towards euro-trance and global influences of later albums, had always had a queer bent to it, their music videos were directed by Derek Jarman, and they even collaborated with Liza Minnelli.
One can only imagine how flamboyant It Couldn’t Happen Here would have been if made in 1993. Nevertheless, the Boys’ first and only film stands as a genuinely strange curiosity. An avant-garde novelty that hasn’t gained much in the way of sense since its debut in 1988 (including a 1987 premiere at the London Film Festival). Filled with moments of crass surrealism and plodding nonsense that nonetheless gives way to a fleetingly fascinating glimpse into the Pet Shop Boys’ world at the time. Directed by Jack Bond, It Couldn’t Happen Here exists in a strikingly strange anti-Catholic, anti-Thatcher AIDS wasteland that sees Tennant and Lowe on a nonsensical road trip to Kings Cross with musical detours at every turn and discombobulating comedic vignettes featuring Barbara Windsor, Gareth Hunt, Carmen du Sautoy and Joss Ackland in multiple, yet equally baffling, roles.
I almost can’t tell if It Couldn’t Happen Here is any good. Whether it is or not might be completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It certainly doesn’t look good. The visuals are rather flat, reminiscent of cheap British TV and music videos. Unsurprisingly, the project started out as a longform music video before being stretched to feature-length and released theatrically on a perplexed (presumably limited) British public and even America (once upon a time this film was released in an AMC multiplex in Century City!) When the film enters musical mode, such as a guffaw-inducing piece of choreography set to their 1987 single “Rent”, it lacks reason, but so does everything else in the film. It’s experimental in structure if not visually.