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


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

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

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

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 (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 (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 (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 – No (2012)

18 April 2013


The strange bedfellows of politics and publicity are at the heart of Pablo Larraín’s historical film about the 1988 Chilean referendum to decide if dictator Augusto Pinochet would remain President for another eight years. No depicts the workings of the anti-Pinochet advertising campaign that was allowed to air for 15 minutes a day during the lead-up to the referendum. It is Larraín’s third film about the Pinochet era and uses both the film’s content and form to address how politicians and the media manipulate reality in order to produce an emotional response to influence democracy.

No challenges the manipulative power of the moving image not just within the context of the advertising campaigns depicted in the film, but in the way cinema represents history. The film is based on true events, but features a fictitious advertising man René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) as the protagonist. Participants in the campaign act in the film as versions of themselves, intercut with actual footage of themselves as they originally appeared in the various televised spots during the campaign. Larraín has shot No with the same low quality U-matic video cameras that were used for television broadcast in Chile throughout the 1980s, further blurring the boundaries between actual archival footage and fictionalised presentations of real events. This mix of actual participants in archival footage with re-enacted scenes starring a famous international actor deliberately creates confusion about what is real and what is a constructed version of reality. It is not blatant self-awareness nor is it a distancing technique as the film remains engaging throughout, but it stands as a point of difference to films such as Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) where history is transformed into a classical Hollywood narrative genre film or Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), which adopted a faux-cinema vérité style to deliver an aesthetic of realism.

The visual style of No very successfully informs the themes and narrative of the film, which concerns the extent in which René compromises the importance of the anti-Pinochet movement in order to produce a successful advertising campaign. The tension is between the desire to act truthfully and with integrity versus the desire to do whatever it takes to convert undecided votes into No votes. The politically active left members of the No campaign want to use the allocated airtime to finally speak out about the terrible economic inequalities and human rights abuses under Pinochet, while René wants to sell democracy like he would sell a consumable product. René wants a jingle written, the leaders on the campaign want their dead comrades to be honoured. The validity of René’s fun message versus the authentic and politically engaged message is deliberately left ambiguous throughout the film. As René argues, the culture of fear in Chile has resulted in a ‘learned hopeless’ that only an upbeat and forward-looking ‘happiness is coming’ message can seriously hope to overcome. However, the film also cynically portrays René as somebody who brings the same rhetoric and false enthusiasm to every client he is working for, regardless if promoting democratic freedom or Free Cola.

The Yes campaign are similarly portrayed as being preoccupied discussing image and, later in the film, how to undermine the message of the opposition through ridicule rather than actual criticism. At one point the pro-Pinochet camp even discusses their desire to have key members of the No campaign made to disappear, but cannot do so because of it would be a bad look considering all the international scrutiny Chile was experiencing. The Yes campaign identify the appeal of Pinochet’s capitalism as selling the free-market belief that anyone can get rich (as opposed to everyone can get rich) and everyone thinks they can be that anyone. René’s opposition in the Yes campaign is his boss and colleague Lucho Guzmán (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro) who also wishes for his campaign to succeed by doing whatever it takes. While working on another campaign he is shown to be developing a strategy to  ‘infiltrate the news’ by creating an attention-seeking media event, suggesting the calculated way news media has become compromised by commercial interests.

Given how the film begins and closes with René and Guzmán going about business as usual, despite being on opposing sides during the campaigns, it feels like No is making a grim and depressing statement about the superficial nature of media driven political events. And yet, the fact that the outcome is the desired one suggests that like it or not, reducing politics to emotional triggers is effective and can be used for good. But how does that ultimately serve democracy? Was wining the No vote against Pinochet worth the compromise that in the long run does so much harm to democracy? Larraín deliberately avoids conclusive opinions or statements. On the one hand it is hard not to feel cynicism by the film’s final scenes or by René initially being most worried about his car in a scene where a No rally is violently broken up by the police. René motivation to take the campaign is for the professional challenge, and possible prestige. He seems more annoyed and unsettled when witnessing violence or experiencing harassment, rather than outraged. And yet Larraín still portrays him as a sympathetic character who is reluctantly separated from his radical and politically active wife and attempting to raise a son.

Ultimately Larraín presents René as something of a tragic figure who even when being instrumental in achieving the No vote against Pinochet, is still a product of the regime’s unsustainable, aggressive and reductive economic liberalisation. Unlike the older and more pragmatic Guzmán, René does display a passion for his work even if the motivation and approach seemed to contradict the message he is broadcasting. However, through Bernal’s acting and Larraín’s direction, there are enough moments to suggest that while René may not ever feel politically engaged, he does get a sense of the momentum and exhilaration of being part of something bigger that his own immediate ambitions and concerns.

Even through the battle was won the residue of the system remained. And it is a system based on artifice and illusion: the illusion of equality and the artificial belief of a strong economy when 40% of the population lived below the poverty line. The prosperity of Chile was as illusory as a soft drink branding campaign, a supposedly glamorous photo-shoot of soap-opera stars or a film that pretends to be historically accurate without acknowledging its own limitations and manipulation of actual events for cinematic purposes. No is none of these things because it directly addresses its own artificiality and that of its protagonist and the artificial campaign his real life counterparts devised to end a deceitful and abusive dictatorship. René may be left looking exhausted and disillusioned while once more saying the same lines of dialogue he uses in pitches, but the conversation about how politics are packaged and presented go far beyond the confines of the film, making No an extremely perceptive and intriguing examination of the effect that media hype and spin have on the political process.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013