Behold, an object has appeared before our eyes! We crowd around it like apes before Kubrick’s monolith, jockeying for a clearer view. It blinds us, sears our retinas, but we can’t look away. We attempt to subdue it by hurling language at it: “Ecstatic!” “Repulsive!” “Neon!” “Juvenile!” “Feminist!” “Reactionary!” “Sincere!” “Ironic!” “Satire!” “Celebration!” “Bacchanalia!” “Decadence!” Yet each of these words glances off the monolith, or perhaps merely passes through it without effect; their truth is as self-evident as their inadequacy. The young flock to its altar only to be confused and disappointed; the old keep away with their noses pinched. This object turns out to be wildly successful by most commercial standards, but no one seems able to agree on its meaning or import. As is the common fate of such spectacles today, it quickly fades from memory, the radical thrill giving way to catchphrases and Halloween costumes. Yet I suspect this behemoth’s story is far from over; we may be done with Spring Breakers, but Spring Breakers is not done with us. How can we pretend to have already assimilated something as unclassifiable as the giddy montage set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” into our feeble aesthetic categories? How can even the most skeptical among us dismiss Benoît Debie’s alchemical photography – of the three titles on this list shot on film, the medium’s message burns brightest here – which seems to collapse the whole of cinema into a celluloid supernova? And how can we escape the fact that James Franco’s Alien is the most unforgettable comic persona in American cinema since The Dude? Other movies released this year may be more perfect specimens of balance, subtlety, humanism, and warmth, but Harmony Korine’s unclassifiable assault on the senses remains the most visionary and unsettling.
4. Computer Chess
For every feat of prophecy pulled off by the likes of Jules Verne and George Orwell, the history of science fiction is scattered with hundreds of dud predictions and blind spots. Narratives that gaze into the future are risky gambits; speculation opens up new imaginative terrain, but risks ageing badly in a future in which jetpacks have failed to appear, but the Internet is ubiquitous. Of course, another path presents itself to writers and filmmakers who wish to infuse their work with prophecy: stories set in the recent past, which prefigure the defining conflicts of the present and future. Thomas Pynchon, arguably the contemporary master of this form, used this technique in his most recent novel Bleeding Edge to stage our current anxieties about state surveillance and the online economy against the backdrop of 9/11 and the dot com bust. Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski’s concerns overlap significantly with Pynchon’s, but he locates the origin point of our tech-saturated society a couple of decades earlier, at a weekend congregation of programmers in a drab motel conference. Several teams of academics, amateurs, and corporate researchers – including, as Gerald Peary’s competition overseer is eager to point out, a lone female – have gathered here to enter their latest programs in a chess tournament. What begins as gentle mockumentary unfolds into a surreal techno-fantasia-cum-bildungsroman; or, to paraphrase 30 Rock: boys becoming men, men becoming machines (and vice versa). In what, for the world of cinema at least, may turn out to be his sturdiest prophecy of all, Bujalski captures this origin myth on antiquated black-and-white tube video. As film stock becomes a thing of the past and the HD standard homogenizes the moving image, more and more filmmakers may soon find themselves looking for affordable and flexible materials for the future in the detritus of the past.
3. The Act of Killing
A typical review of The Act of Killing makes it sound like a hodgepodge of philosophers’ ideology – the banality of evil, the master-slave dialectic, masculinity as performance. That’s a strange thing to imply about a film whose project consists largely of stripping away all ideologies: the myths of patriotism, individualism, religion, and machismo that we create to justify our acts, both good and bad. Of course, no film critic could be expected to do justice to Joshua Oppenheimer’s monumental documentary on cultural amnesia and genocide in Indonesia: there are images here that rank among the most bizarre and the most beautiful I’ve seen onscreen, and performances (no other word for it) that put most of this year’s Oscar nominees to shame. What impresses me most (and what no one seems to want to admit) is how laugh-out-loud funny Oppenheimer’s movie is, and how skillfully he controls the humor he finds in his terrifying subjects. The harder we laugh at Anwar Congo’s awkward dance moves and cowboy costumes, the harder it hits home when we realize what he and his cohort did to their own country. Werner Herzog, who produced the film, said that we won’t see anything like it for at least fifty years. That seems like an understatement to me.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Some films don’t need to be perfect, and I don’t mean that in the sense of subject matter that supersedes quality of execution. I mean that some films are so incredibly right and restrained, every moment so well-considered, that it is difficult, if not pointless, to identify any deficiency. 12 Years a Slave is such a film, one that enjoins the viewer to respond and to become engaged in its protagonist’s exceptional story, ominously reminding us at the end just how exceptional Northrup’s story is. All praise be to the one Sean Bobbitt whose work behind the lens serves as an important reminder that the found, deliberate, simple beauty of Almendros, Wexler, and Hall still lives. At the same time Steve McQueen brutalizes with pure sound: the tightened violin string, the unfurled whip, a chorus marking time and resolve. Still, it is McQueen’s intelligent pulling of punches that makes 12 Years a Slave far greater than a historically minded social issues picture. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s subtle transformation as the years tick by serves as a chilling reminder that circumstances often, despairingly, make the man. The tax, the something lost forever of this experience is not dwelled on, and yet it is the most important thing in McQueen’s film. Even Michael Fassbender as the slaveowner Epps is less a smiling sadist than a broken man paying, perhaps not greatly enough, in myriad, sad ways for the cruelty he inflicts and the fear he engenders. Less in spite of and more because of its Hollywood-prescribed constraints and Oscar hoopla, 12 Years a Slave is busy telling twenty four of the most essential and finely executed lies every second of its two plus hours. McQueen has all but demanded our attention and I look forward to seeing what he’ll do with it.
1. Before Midnight
What does it say about those of us who consider Before Midnight the best film of 2013 that, in a year full of dazzling formal breakthroughs (Leviathan, Viola, Upstream Color, Post Tenebras Lux) and astute works of cultural pulse-taking (Spring Breakers, Computer Chess, Frances Ha), we opted for the third installment in a series that has, so far, stuck with a straightforward, rather plain visual template, shied away from firm judgments or grand effects, and restricted its focus to two irreducible, difficult, and—it must be said—occasionally irritating people? Like its predecessors, 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, Before Midnight goes about its business busily, patiently and modestly. The same could be said of any decent marriage-on-the-brink drama, but no conventional drama moves like the films in Linklater’s trilogy, with their sudden accelerations and grinding halts, their stretches of painful uncertainty and flashes of resolve.
In Sunrise, twentysomething romantics Jesse and Celine fell in love over the course of one long Vienna night; in Sunset, which was shot—and set—nearly a decade later, they reunited for a charged afternoon ramble through Paris. In the nine years since that film, he’s grown sadder and sneakier (although he still depends too heavily on his earnest, gangly teenage charm), she pricklier and more demanding (although not without cause). Predictably, the actors who play them—Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—have visibly aged; it’s hard to shake the impression that they’ve spent the intervening years bearing the load of their characters’ accumulated losses, insecurities and disappointments. What strikes one overwhelmingly about the five conversations that make up Before Midnight—four long and sprawling, one urgent and short—is a sense that people can and do change, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, that the self is a rickety construct, and romantic commitment at best a kind of fragile equilibrium, a process of constant adjustment and correction and concession.
I make no grand claims for Before Midnight as the movie of 2013; I have a feeling that it might not bear them. But, though it never states its own intentions so crudely, Linklater’s film, like the Before trilogy as a whole, strikes me as a movie made to be visited and re-visited over a lifetime. It is built to last—and that, at a moment when movies are starting to feel more and more disposable, might be the timeliest virtue of all.