I seriously considered posting this at the end of the calendar year, the logical time to do so, but decided to wait in order to see the last wave of Oscar contenders that unfortunately did not hit French theaters until now. (Actually some of them still aren't out but I feel like I've seen all the films that would have made the cut). Otherwise, it would have completely thrown off my 2013 list that will be written, presumably, at such a time when I am no longer living abroad. And what a travesty that would have been.
But more importantly, the Oscars are this weekend so this is my last shot at cultural relevance.
10. The Raid: Redemption
Set in Jakarta, a group of twenty elite cops fight their way through a mob-infested thirty story building to get to a crime lord over the course of one violent night. This is usually the type of film I would avoid, and yet when my brother and I left the screening we both couldn't stop talking about it.
My general distaste for action movies is a byproduct of the fact that because visual technology and special effects are so advanced now, filmmakers think they can get away with creating explosive spectacles completely devoid of story, character and, well, frankly all the things that compel me to watch films in the first place. Sure, the plot of The Raid is contrived, but it serves the purpose of showcasing some truly amazing fight choreography. The tag line doesn't lie; it's pretty much 100 minutes of straight up action, but each fight exhibits such finesse there's almost a balletic quality to it. In fact if you watched it without sound it probably would look like dancing, albeit with lots of blood.
There is a sequel in the works and I'm pretty stoked to see how it turns out.
Oh yes, the grand redemption of Ben Affleck. Since it seems poised to take the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards there isn't really much I can add to the discussion. However, I will say this: like his previous films The Town and Gone Baby Gone, I found Argo to be perfectly adequate in every way, and yet when the credits rolled I couldn't help but feel a little empty. Don't get me wrong - I think each of his three features delivers - but somehow I still wish they could have gone further.
8. Rust and Bone
The film I loved so much that I watched it twice at Cannes, forgoing other competition entries. My full review can be found here. The most important thing to keep in mind, if you haven't already seen it, is that even though it's technically a love story it's anti-romance. I'm disappointed that they didn't campaign harder for the actors this awards season, and that Marion Cotillard (great as she is) earned more recognition than co-star Matthias Schoenaerts who, in my opinion, was just as good and maybe even better.
7. The Hunt
Here is what I wrote for Metro in my Cannes coverage, because I'm having a hard time coming up with a better way to say it now:
"In The Hunt, a child's false accusation of sexual abuse leads to a decay of social and moral integrity in a small Danish community. Disturbingly and frustratingly realistic, director Thomas Vinterberg forces us to watch as everyone does the wrong thing while firmly believing themselves to be in the right - from the parents who believe their imaginative daughter without proof to her accused teacher, who remains unwilling to demonize his former friends who allowed the rumor to spread like a virus."
It's thrilling and psychological, and Mads Mikkelsen won the well-deserved top acting prize at the festival for his performance.
6. Chicken with Plums
My favorite director, Pedro Almodóvar, may not have released a film last year, but this one from graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi and her artistic collaborator Vincent Paronnaud struck a lot of the same chords in terms of theme, vision and aesthetic. (Which is to say a story of love, desire and death with a touch of magic realism that manages to be beautiful, tragic and comical).
Also I had the chance to speak with Satrapi one-on-one in San Francisco and she is basically one of the coolest people ever.
Since the wake of Emmanuelle Riva's Oscar nomination for Best Actress, some rare interviews are surfacing in which she ascribes her performance to Michael Haneke's explicit direction not to play it with sentimentality. When you consider the subject matter - an aging couple wherein Riva's character is slowly dying - it would have been all too easy to slip into sappy melodrama. But instead what you get with Amour is something more restrained and yet emotionally sharp. Full review here.
4. Moonrise Kingdom
"I went to sleep afterwards dreaming about it," one journalist confessed to me in regard to why he liked Moonrise Kingdom so much.
Wes Anderson is undeniably good at constructing anachronistic parallel universes in which quirky people do kooky things, but this one just felt so right.
3. Life of Pi
I'm not much of a reader but I do get nervous when I hear about some of my most beloved books being adapted for the screen. Diehards will say that book is always better, but in truth it's hard to compare the outcome between the two mediums because there are so many things that you can accomplish in one and not the other, but Ang Lee did a commendable job with a story that many deemed un-adaptable thanks, in large part, to his cinematographer.
A boy and a tiger stuck adrift in the Pacific Ocean? Use 3D and put the audience in there with them. (Actually, for the film's Paris premiere they pretty much did just that).
Much of the novel consists of the protagonist's internal philosophical struggles, which I didn't fully understand when I first read it and probably still don't, but again...some things don't translate well from page to screen. Lee got the gist of it though in showing Pi's shifting religious views.
This indie flick about three highschool friends who suddenly gain mysterious powers might seem like an odd choice, but to me it absolutely nailed two things that are often difficult to execute well: the found footage approach and the superhero story.
By found footage I mean that everything you see is, within the story, filmed by the characters. Most films that try to do this either lapse and have instances where what's being shown isn't diegetically motivated, or else they make it too realistic (i.e. handheld) and it gives you motion-sickness. Chronicle is pretty smooth in both regards.
As for the other thing, Hollywood's hatred of original material seeps into franchises by having on-screen superheros that rely more on the public's preconceived understanding from comics and television than anything that was written in the script. The exception - Christopher Nolan's reinvention of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Many of the superheros we see today can easily smash box office records but when it comes to depth and complexity of character they're seriously lacking. So without giving too much away, the best part about Chronicle is Dane DeHaan's sinister yet sympathetic performance.
Also it's set in Seattle so I guess I have a soft spot.
1. Silver Linings Playbook
Being a romantic comedy may have cheapened the film to some, but for me it was refreshing to see two characters who clearly do not have their shit together. Mental illness and disorders remain highly stigmatized in contemporary society, and plenty of people would rather pretend nothing is wrong than seek help. It was such an issue at my university that we had a special name for it - Duck Syndrome - wherein on the surface everything seems fine but secretly everyone is madly kicking to stay afloat.
It's not just the themes and the tone but the charismatic leads as well. I can't pretend not to be a huge fan of Jennifer Lawrence's candid, no-bullshit off-screen persona, but I recently read that David O. Russell originally intended the leads to go to Vince Vaughn and Zooey Deschanel. Vaughn maybe could have pulled his own weight as Pat, but I definitely can't imagine the reigning queen of twee berating Robert De Niro in that climactic monologue about football.
And for a story about mental illness it's very uplifting. While I appreciate films that are challenging and make audiences think, sometimes it's nice just to leave the theater feeling happy without the urge to look for plot holes and dissect particular scenes.