Like every year in this strange stretch of film history, with its Venn-Diagram-overlap between small-screen and big-screen moviegoing, digital and celluloid projection, home video and streaming, and grassroots and studio funding, 2013 was confusing, noisy, rattled, and disjointed. It was also, in the words of Frank Sinatra, very good. For starters, it was a banner year for American movies, with old-guard independents like Richard Linklater, Jem Cohen, Terence Malick, and the Coen Brothers expanding and in many cases improving on their past work, younger name-brand auteurs like Harmony Korine, Andrew Bujalski, and Shane Carruth reaching new formal and emotional heights, new talents like Adam Leon, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel making artistic and commercial breakthroughs, and the avant-garde going as strong as ever, with great new work from, among others, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jerome Hiler, Jonas Mekas and James Benning.
Overseas, Claire Denis, Wong Kar-Wai and Hayao Miyazaki released divisive movies that, to my mind, made for daring, deeply self-critical skeleton keys to the rest of their respective bodies of work, Olivier Assayas came clean with a reflection on his post-’68 adolescence that struck me painfully close to the bone, Raul Ruiz’s posthumous swan song turned out to be his final masterpiece, and Carlos Reygadas and Alexander Sokurov came out with films that, in very different ways, stretched the structural and formal boundaries of narrative film to their breaking points.
And that was the new stuff. One of the trickiest and most enviable things about cinephilia today is the overwhelming number of platforms on which moviegoers can choose to watch older films, from home video to streaming to dubious downloads to—for New Yorkers, at least—a wide spread of repertory theaters. This year, I attended a 3 Women-themed party at which the classic, dreamlike Altman film was projected onto one wall in a dizzyingly stretched trapezoid, fell in love all over again with Men in Black one hot summer night in a friend’s AC-less apartment, caught myself up on seven great screwball comedies via DVD while working through Stanley Cavell’s book Pursuits of Happiness, and found myself alternately infuriated and enraptured (then finally overwhelmed) by a five-and-a-half-hour rep screening of Godard’s France/Tour/Detour/Deux Enfants.
You hear a lot of talk today about the decline of the traditional communal moviegoing experience: alarmist, maybe; elitist, occasionally; but not entirely unjustified. More films are more readily available now than ever before—and for that I’m deeply grateful—but if that availability means the decline of moviegoing as a public, social event, it might be more a curse than a blessing. For those of us who tend to open up to others by way of the movies we show them, recommend them, or drag them to, a screening is like a piece of intimate correspondence made humblingly, empoweringly public. All of which to say that, despite the pleasure of dozing off alone to a Nick Ray movie on a laptop, or the joy of holing up with a dozen friends and projecting The Witches onto a creased bedsheet, we still need institutions willing and able to keep the screens wide and the lights off.
For the following obligatory year-end list, I limited myself to fifteen slots. I stopped short, though, of limiting each slot to a single film:
1. Dramas of Remarriage double feature: Before Midnight and To the Wonder
2. Jean-Luc Godard: The Spirit of the Forms at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
3. Old Masters & Swan Songs triple feature: Night Across the Street, Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man and The Last of the Unjust
4. Roots of Romanticism triple feature: Faust, The Wind Rises and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
5. Politics of Memory double feature: Miguel Gomes’ Redemption and Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux
6. Something in the Air by Olivier Assayas
7. Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
8. Communications Breakdown quadruple feature: Jealousy, Computer Chess, The Grandmaster and Like Someone in Love
9. Edward Hopper’s preliminary sketches for New York Movie at the Whitney
10. Inside Llewyn Davis by Joel and Ethan Coen
11. City Symphonies quadruple feature: Le Pont du Nord, Museum Hours, Gimme the Loot and James Nares’ Street
12. The Blue Umbrella by Saschka Unseld (Pixar short)
13. Song and Spring by Nathaniel Dorsky
14. Stemple Pass by James Benning
15. Neo-neo-noir double feature: Bastards and The Last Time I Saw Macao
A note on the first pairing: To me, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight and Terence Malick’s To the Wonder make for two radically different takes on Stanley Cavell’s classic remarriage plot—a married couple split up and enter into a second courtship, usually sustained by role-playing and games, often with one party having to educate or humiliate the other. In Malick’s film, which takes place in an explicitly Christian universe that always seems over-saturated with grace, the marriage ends up working as a metaphor for the relationship between man and God; in Linklater’s earthy, secular movie, the couple are left on their own—without miracles or metaphors—to work out their own relationship with fear and trembling. That said, both films end up defining marriage as a kind of mutual submission, a partial giving up of the self, an attempt to meet someone else halfway, or more than halfway.
Finally, a few comments on the exclusions: I’ve left out films that screened in festivals this year and are already slated for theatrical release in 2014 (including Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism), as well as undistributed 2012 films I saw for the first time this year (most painfully, Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow and David Gatten’s extraordinary The Extravagant Shadows). And you could make an entire alternate best-of-the-year list out of films I haven’t yet seen: At Berkeley, The Unspeakable Act, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, The Great Beauty, Story of my Death, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Gravity, Our Sunhi, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Closed Curtain, Nebraska, Passion, Drug War, and, I’m sure, many more. (Special mention goes to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs, which might’ve topped this list after another viewing: it’s a great, devastating movie, and I’m still trying to feel my way around it.) All in all, a great year. Here’s to another.