Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Five Best Movies I Saw in 2013

Getting this post in under the deadline. And, in case it isn't obvious, read the post title carefully: these are the best films which I saw this past year--and as we don't get out to the theater nearly as often as we once did, not one of these were 2013 releases which we caught in the theater. Still, they all rocked. So, in alphabetical order:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, which tell the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy as she and her poor family and neighbors in Louisiana face a natural catastrophe, was a tremendous film, gorgeously shot, bravely acted, and expertly put together. But there are always a few films in any basket of movies who manage those feats; what really set this movie apart was the fact that my understanding of it developed organically along with the widening perspective of Hushpuppy, the holy innocent and heroine at its center. At first, I thought it was a movie about some individuals; then I thought it was about the community they were part of; then I thought it was about the landscape and moment in time they inhabited; by the end, I knew that it was a myth, a parable of the kind of decency and determination that allows human beings, as we move through a world far older and more powerful than we will ever know, to actually make something that lasts. Just an awesome bit of cinematic story-telling.

City of God was a thrilling coming-of-age story, a furious and fantastic tale of violence and escape, taking place in a vicious slum of Rio de Janeiro. I wish I'd seen it when it first came out a decade ago, because if I had, I likely would have viewed the wonderfully Dickensian movie, Slumdog Millionaire, which was also a tale of a young man escaping violence and poverty through his own luck and pluck. City of God is far less sentimental, and far more realistic, even hyper-realistic, in the way it tells its story. But it is never impersonal, and every scene helps you know the characters as individuals making choices every step of the way. A first-rate urban adventure story.

Margin Call called to my mind another great film, the movie adaptation of David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, which also told a story which revealed the dark thoughts and the limits of knowledge within the human heart via the machinations of capitalism. Some of the parallels between the two--the fact that both feature Kevin Spacey, or tell a story that takes place in a very constricted time frame--are obvious. But whereas GGR placed its story in a sleazy and fictional sales environment, Margin Call tells its story by fictionalizing, with as much attention to detail as possible, the circumstances and motivations and confusions which attended the spectacular collapse of major financial institutions on Wall Street in 2008. The blogger Noah Millman, who spent years trading derivatives on Wall Street, said Margin Call was the best story about the perverse (yet internally logical) mechanics of high finance that he's ever seen, and if you watch and listen carefully, you'll believe him: while much of financial jargon is way over the head of the great majority of viewers, anyone who seriously attends to the film will pick up how it makes sense. Which means, in short, the movie taught me something, without going the dishonest route of turning any of these people into conventional heroes or villains. Add to that a mostly subtle but nonetheless vicious presentation of the sexism on Wall Street, and you've got a great film.

Memories of Murder is a tightly presented police procedural, examining the hunt for a serial killer in a rural part of South Korea in the late 1980s and its effect on the people who know there is a murderer in their midst and on the detectives called to find the criminal, all of which it does very well. But none of that is why this movie is in my top five for the year. The reason I put it here is because every detail of this film rang true to me, taking me back to my two years of missionary service in South Korea from 1988 to 1990 with every scene. The rough, abusive, and defiant village people and their cops, as contrasted against the wealthy and professional disdain visible in Seoul. The cheap linoleum on the floors. The rampant and condescending sexism. The divided anti-Americanism. The tight association between masculinity and alcohol consumption. The street-corner churches. The office girls serving tea. Memories of Murder is a compelling and gripping crime thriller, but for me, it was a superb anthropological document as well.

Moonrise Kingdom is probably my third favorite Wes Anderson movie, after The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore--though admittedly, deciding between Moonrise and The Life Aquatic is pretty damn hard. I'll confess--call me a hipster, but I've seen everything he's made, and I adore his cleverness, his stylized off-kilterness, his insistence upon drawing authentic feeling out of self-ironizing kitsch. In my view, all his movies are worth attention, and only one so far has been a failure (Fantastic Mr. Fox--which I realize many people consider Anderson's absolute best, because it was a perfect playground for his desire to exercise completely stylistic control over his films' mise-en-scène, but in my view that much control was bad for Anderson has a story-teller; he needs to shape his cameras around actual people, methinks). Anyway, Moonrise Kingdom was a delight, a campy story of first-love that walks right up to creepy territory but absolutely refuses to acknowledge that the innocence of its characters are in any way compromised by placing them in proximity to such almost-sexual weirdness--and he pulls it off. Plus, it has Bob Balaban as the quasi-omniscient narrator, and if that isn't the best bit of casting I saw all year, I don't know what is.

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