Favourite Films of 2013

22 December 2013

From the 300+ feature films I saw this year, these are the films that most excited, inspired, moved and challenged me – restricted to films that got a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia, where I am based.

Top ten favourite films of 2013

Amour: Anne (Emmanuelle Riva)
1. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
By stripping back any aspects of film style or narrative that feel false or constructed, Haneke ensures that everything that happens between Anne and Georges is an act of intense kindness and personal sacrifice shared by people who love each other unconditionally. Full review

Gravity

2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Not only is Gravity a celebration of what cinema in the current era can achieve, but it is a celebration of what humans are capable of. Full review

Frances Ha
3. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012)
A genuinely heartfelt, gorgeous and beautiful celebration of youth, friendship and grappling with all the contradictions and challenges that life throws at us. Full review

Mystery Road
4. Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
An effective neo noir film that uses key characteristics of the genre to  critique the abuse of power and how it affects vulnerable and innocent people, especially in a culture of gender, racial and class inequality.

The Rocket: Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe)
5. The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, 2013)
An extremely rewarding and entertaining film made all the stronger for the integrity and cultural details that underpin it. Full review

Broken: Skunk (Eloise Laurence) and Archie (Tim Roth)
6. Broken (Rufus Norris, 2012)
By framing such universal issues such as the power of forgiveness, redemption and love through a coming-of-age narrative of a generous and kind 11-year-old girl, Broken delivers a moving and thoughtful cinema experience. Full review

No
7. No (Pablo Larraín, 2012)
An extremely perceptive and intriguing examination of the effect that media hype and spin have on the political process. Full review

Blue Jasmine
8. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)
One of Allen’s cleverest and most compassionate films, making it also one of his greatest. Full review

Stoker
9. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013)
Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. Full review

kinopoisk.ru
10. The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012)
The film has both an old fashioned yet otherworldly feel, in keeping with its subversion of film noir style and themes. Full review

Honourable mentions

Every one of the following ten films (and a few others) were close contenders for my favourite ten list. I’ve simply listed these ones alphabetically as it was hard enough to order the previous ten by preference.

The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

Behind the Candelabra
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013) Review

Django Unchained
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) Review

The Hunt
The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2012) Review

Life of Pi
Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) Review

Oh Boy
Oh Boy (Jan Ole Gerster, 2012) Review

ParaNorman
ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) Review

Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012)

Stories We Tell
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) Review

Stranger by the Lake
Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac, Alain Guiraudie, 2013)

Favourite ten films not given a full theatrical release

The following films were screened publically in Melbourne, Australia, in 2013, but not given a full theatrical release. And to the best of my knowledge at the time of publishing this list, these films are not yet confirmed to get a theatrical release in 2014. Listed alphabetically.

Bastards
Bastards (Les salauds, Claire Denis, 2013)

Blue Ruin
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013)

Cheap Thrills
Cheap Thrills (EL Katz, 2013)

The Day of the Crows
The Day of the Crows (Le jour des corneilles, Jean Christophe Dessaint, 2012)

The Interval
The Interval (L’intervallo, Leonardo di Costanzo, 2012)


Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, 2012)

Nothing Bad Can Happen
Nothing Bad Can Happen (Tore tanzt, Katrin Gebbe, 2013)

Starlet
Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012)

The Weight of Elephants
The Weight of Elephants (Daniel Borgman, 2013)

What Richard Did
What Richard Did
 (Lenny Abrahamson, 2012)

Special mention

The following is a television miniseries, but it is one of my favourite things that I saw this year:

Top of the Lake
Top of the Lake (Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, 2013)

And that’s what I loved most about cinema in 2013! I feel this was a really strong year for films and there were several titles that I fell bad about leaving off these lists, not to mention the titles that don’t get released in Australia until early 2014, which I have to hold off on listing until this time next year.

As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts via the comments, just please focus on the positives as the spirit of this list is celebratory!

Thomas Caldwell 2013

This list was originally compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2013 World Poll


Film review – Stoker (2013)

2 September 2013
Stoker: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.

The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.

The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.

The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.

India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.

Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.

Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.

The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 1

8 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

The full 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival program was announced last week so I thought I’d start sharing my recommendations from what I’ve seen so far. This list is by no means exhaustive, there’s no order or system to what I’m listing, I may repeat some of the films listed in my post about the Next Gen program, and there will be more to come as the festival gets closer. So for now, here are eight films and two short film packages that I recommend you get along to:

The Rocket

The Rocket

This is a wonderful Australian production, set in rural Laos about a ten-year-old boy who believes he is cursed and whose family is being forcibly relocated from their home. The critique of the way entire cultures are of secondary importance to the business interests of multinationals never overwhelms the film’s moving and dramatic story about childhood.

Mystery Road

Another sensational Australian film is the latest by Ivan Sen, which mixes many of the themes Sen has previously explored, regarding the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians, with a slick and slow burn murder-mystery thriller narrative. Immediately after seeing this film I wanted to see it again.

The Act of Killing

This documentary about the Indonesian perpetrators of war crimes during the 1965-1966 anti-communist purges has to be seen to be believed. The participants happily speak about and reenact the horrors they inflicted on others in what is a fascinating and disturbing look at a recent example of the banality of evil.

Stoker

It is not that Park Chan-wook has toned down his approach to cinema in his first English-language film, but he has made the guilty-pleasure nastiness more psychological rather than visceral. And it works brilliantly, maintaining the filmmaker’s meticulous and bold approach to film style.

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

We don’t fully understand why the protagonist is homeless, possibly mentally unstable and driven to kill a man just released from prison, but the economic storytelling in this low-key yet utterly gripping revenge thriller means that we are captivated the entire time.

Cheap Thrills 

This is what happens when a violent exploitation film with a dark-as-dark-can-be sense of humour is injected with a searing critique of class and capitalism. The build up to the extreme moments is plausible, the message of the film is never compromised, and watching it is disturbing and fun.

What Richard Did 

A  strong Irish drama that if transposed into an Australian context would contain the same amount of relevance and power in its examination of masculinity and personal responsibility. The first half of the film endears the audience to its Alpha-Male ‘good bloke’ protagonist and then the second half looks at the aftermath of an incident committed in the heat of the moment that changes everything.

The Day of the Crows 

A beautifully animated fantasy film that delves into some painful and dark themes concerning parental abuse, persecution and death. A great example of how animated films from non-English speaking backgrounds are capable of appealing to a wide range of age groups with sophistication.

Desire Shorts

Undress Me

For this collection of short films  about sex, sexuality and gender, the concept of desire seemed to be a suitably broad umbrella term to encompass them all. Protective parents have to accept that their children are sexual beings in For Dorian and The Gift, fidelity and sexuality are explored in Summer Vacation, Clay is a sensual film starring Édith Scob and Undress Me is a particularly arresting film featuring raw and honest performances from its actors.

Documentary Shorts

There are numerous great documentary shorts scattered throughout the MIFF program as pre-feature films, but the collection of films put together in this program showcase  how diverse documentary films can be. Not Anymore: A Story of a Revolution captures the immediacy of the Syrian civil war with confronting war footage and interviews from its two highly articulate subjects. Deco Dawson’s Keep a Modest Head is a glorious blend of animation, experimental film and documentary that pays tribute to Jean Benoît, the final living member of the French Surrealist group. Ebb and Flow is a beautiful observational documentary on a Brazilian man who is poor, hearing impaired and a single father, yet continually finds joy in life.

More recommendations to come…

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival

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