Best Films of 2013

It seems Tinseltown has a new muse: the economic crisis. We have the moral decay of high society in The Great Gatsby, the greed and excesses of manic traders in The Wolf of Wall Street and the chronicle of a mental breakdown of a financially and morally bankrupt socialite in Blue Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett will win her first Leading Actress Oscar. Hollywood, not just a little bit ironically, has had it with the onepercenters. Its disgust with what has happened the past decade has clearly left its marks. Depending on who you ask this could be a natural reaction against the current state of affairs or another proof of Hollywood’s left-wing liberal bias.

Running in parallel with moving away from the upper class this past year is the theme of the African-American civil rights movement. We have 12 Years a Slave depicting where US society came from, the steps taken throughout the 20th century in a carefully constructed history lesson that is Lee Daniels’ The Butler and where we are today in Fruitvale Station.

Below is my personal top 10 from the year 2013:

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

9. Rush

8. Mud

7. La Vie d’Adele

6. Captain Phillips

5. Her

4. The Wolf of Wall Street

3. The Act of Killing

“Where are your roots?” A Harvard study showed the brain always notices race and gender first when meeting someone new. I don’t always say the same thing. My most common reply would be Indonesia and be done with it, which would be a long story cut short. My father is partly ethnic Chinese and was a student when the mass killings began. After years of hiding in Jakarta he fled to Europe lest he be killed.

It’s been called a forgotten genocide, of up to a million people murdered, tortured, raped, having their houses burned down… with impunity even to this day. “War crimes are defined by the winners” says one of the murderers in the film. Indeed, as the film shows, the perpetrators are still in power and being heralded as heroes. We see them boasting about their achievements, happily reenacting the horrible acts they had committed, often inspired by American gangster films. We see them dancing, singing, shopping and having fun. It’s a surreal exercise, a “What if nazi Germany had won” thought experiment come true. It delivers keen insight on how inventive human psyche is just to be able to live with itself. This story has never been told in this way. No story has ever been told this way.

I sincerely hope this movie, if seen by large numbers of people, might be a first step towards acknowledgement, making the events part of our collective consciousness and addressing the continuing discrimination in Indonesia. As you can imagine, with an unhealthy situation wherein mass murderers are walking free, never having been forced to admit any kind of wrongdoing and an entire society built on that, there are few mechanisms preventing something similar from ever happening again, as the violent riots in 1998 have already proven. The Guardian and Sight & Sound have already called it the best film of 2013. If the Oscars achieve anything at all, it’s huge publicity for the films they recognise. The Act of Killing is likely to pick up a Best Documentary nomination tomorrow, and looking at all the awards it has already won and the double nomination at the BAFTA’s (for Best Documentary AND Best Foreign Language Film), even in a year with exceptionally strong competition like Blackfish and Stories We Tell, I’m confident that it will.

2. 12 Years a Slave

Slavery is a subject Hollywood has a difficult relationship with. It’s not something that has moviegoers coming in droves, not only because of its serious nature, but because of guilt and shame. World War II, however horrible, is associated in the US with heroism and patriottism, slavery is not. That’s why it’s striking that it took filmmakers outside America to make this movie. Neither director Steve McQueen or actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender or Lupita Nyong’o are Americans.

The subject of the film shouldn’t scare anyone away, the film is much more accessible than I had anticipated. McQueen has dialed down the rawness he’s capable of, both in showing what’s on screen and what isn’t, and in aesthetics. In what is arguably the hardest scene to watch, the whipping scene, he lets the camera carefully move between the actors without cutting thus drawing the viewer in, focusing on their facial expressions and body language. He’s more interested in the psychological aspect of the characters than in shocking the viewer with a graphic depiction of this horrible act, without minimizing its severity. This makes the scene honest instead of just vengeful. This is a fine line he walks throughout the whole movie, the compromise between truthfulness and telling a story.

12 Years a Slave will probably win the Best Picture Oscar, and I would absolutely have no problem with that. More so than being a great film, it’s an important one. This is a movie they will show to educate future generations.

1. Gravity

With a giant Earth in the background, we see a small white dot, hardly noticable. Dr. Ryan Stone, without any control whatsoever, is spinning and quickly moving towards us.

Dr. Stone, do you copy?!

Stone approaches the camera and we follow her. She’s still spinning. The camera slowly locks on to her, beginning to spin with her. The giant Earth is now making us all dizzy.

I see nothing!

We have her in close-up now, she’s overwhelmed and looking in all directions.

I can’t breathe!

The voice on the other side is fading away. We only see her, choking, while the sun and Earth in the background continue to rotate. The dizzying effect is enhanced by the score reflecting each cycle. She finally exhales.

We’re now so close to her, the condensation of her breath on her helmet is filling the screen. The planet unrelentingly continues to spin. The camera, still in the same shot, now moves through her helmet. We hear everything more clear and see her looking at the information projected on the inside of her helmet. The camera now moves into her position, we get to view everything from her eyes and try with her to locate ourselves in the disorientating scenery.

I can see the Chinese station. No, it’s the International Space Station.

No response. This doesn’t look good. We’re moving out of her position and see the doubt in her eyes. She’s alone, and even we are leaving her, slowly moving out of her helmet, out of the close-up.

Anyone?

No one. We’re giving up on her, letting her go and we see her again spinning away from us. We’re no longer dizzy. She’s leaving without us, away from Earth and into the dark depths of space, seemingly forever lost. The music dies down. We now barely notice her in the darkness.

A crackling noise over the communication channel.

Dr. Stone?!

A sign of hope. The camera rushes towards her and catches up.

I’m fine, I’m fine.

We’re looking behind us, with her in the frame. The voice is now clear and we notice another small dot approaching us. Quickly. The audio braces us for impact! Bam!

Gotcha!

We’re now looking at the two of them. They’re spinning together, to the right, to the left, upside down… He’s pushing her away now, they’re spinning is no longer synchronised.

Let’s get outta here.

We’re staying here, looking at their connected little train going on their little spacewalk. And after six minutes without interruption, Cuaron finally cuts to the next shot.

Hang on, Sandy!

The space setting lends itself amazingly well to the big screen, not only because of the beauty of a starry sky, the view of Earth (“You should see the sun on the Ganges”) and the high contrast between the two, but because it breaks all limitations in using all dimensions, including 3D. There is no left or right, up or down, front or back, which is accentuated by the continual camera movement. Objects and actors can be anywhere in relation to eachother or the camera, often we see one of the main characters upside down, even when interacting with one another, giving shots touching the realm of surrealism. Yet never does a shot seem aesthetically out of tune, which is a huge achievement of the DP. All the rules that exist in how to do composition can be thrown out of the window. Gravity reinvents the game. What’s on display here is a cinematic ballet of choreographed blocking, camera movement and all the dangers of debris and space stations, with our eyes on the prize in the background: Earth.

Also outside of the visual domain there’s playing with large contrasts. Since there’s no sound in space, a lot of the movie is quiet, intertwined with characters talking over the comm channel, or sound based on touch with soundwaves moving from the point of contact through the space suit. But when (emotional) tension is high, the Steven Price score takes over, such as when intensifying the beautiful panoramic view, foreshadowing the impending doom, guiding the main character’s emotional arc, or blasting through the thrill rides that are the action sequences.

And there’s the pacing. Cuaron understands that just having one loud chaotic scene after another becomes weary and loses its effect, and switches between the action and calmth, all while maintaining a very high pace. In these calm scenes he perfectly captures that space is indeed beautiful, but also very, very lonely.

Gravity will likely walk away with the most Oscars, regardless of a possible Best Picture win, due to very high chances in the following categories:

  1. Best Director
  2. Best Editing
  3. Best Cinematography
  4. Best Sound Editing
  5. Best Sound Mixing
  6. Best Original Score
  7. Best Visual Effects

Johan

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