Favorite 15 Films of 2013 (So Far)
From florescent vomit to T&A set to Skrillex

Upstream Color
Dir. Shane Carruth

[ERBP]

Upstream Color is the comeback story that nerdy science-fiction fans have been waiting for. Back in 2004, filmmaker Shane Carruth came out of nowhere with Primer, a dense time travel story that was made with a micro-budget. The film went on to win accolades at Sundance and became a cerebral cult hit. No one knew when Carruth would make his next film, and when he announced Upstream Color would debut at Sundance this year, expectations couldn’t be higher. The wait was worth it: the film follows Kris (Amy Seimitz) after she’s reeling from a cruel scheme (it involves mind-controlling worms, adding an unexpectedly creepy level of body horror). Left adrift and destitute, she meets Jeff (Carruth) on a train, and they form an intense bond. Such a description only scratches at the surface of Upstream Color’s layered narrative: the pair has a symbiotic relationship with two pigs, only they don’t know it, and Kris nearly loses her mind after a personal tragedy. The last 30 minutes unfold without dialogue — Carruth’s brooding score and the imagery are our only cues — yet the twists resonate with emotion and a bizarre sense of irony. [original review]

Behind the Candelabra
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

[HBO]

Time will tell if Behind the Candelabra is truly Steven Soderbergh’s final film as a director or if this is a Jay-Z-like fake out. But if he’s actually hanging up his spurs, Soderbergh sure went out with a bang. With the help of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, the director captures the glittering rise and ignominious dismissal of one of Liberace’s in-house lovers with a strange kind of grace. Soderbergh handles the story with restraint, letting his steady camera drink in the gaudy opulence and the slow unraveling of the relationship. Behind the Candelabra’s real flair, though, comes on from a jaw-dropping performance by Michael Douglas, who goes well beyond simply mimicking the renowned pianist’s vocal timbre and mannerisms. Douglas cuts right to the center of the famed performer to find the inner turmoil of a man who wants nothing more than to remain young and vibrant forever. If that means a string of young men have to get caught up in his sizeable, rhinestone-encrusted wake, then so be it. The film also earns bonus marks for giving us Rob Lowe as the creepiest plastic surgeon in Las Vegas (or anywhere, really) and for providing Nicky Katt with some more richly deserved screen time.

Pavilion
Dir. Tim Sutton

[Factory 25]

“It would be imprecise to describe Pavilion as an immersive spectacle. With its frequent use of long shots and lack of character development or even a plot, Pavilion could be more accurately described as a voyeuristic experience. We are not invited to identify with these kids, but to detachedly observe them — and to be engrossed by the seductive power of the pure cinematographic naturalism that lures us into the lives of Max and his friends. In one moment when a close-up shot is used, we see the legs of a young teenage girl, Max’s crush, as she strolls along the street. In a similar vein, we see a distant shot of her in the woods as she changes her clothes behind a tree. The discovery of love and lust, a common staple to teenage dramas, is merely hinted at in Pavilion; we never get to see the girl again in the film. We gaze at the gaze of these young male teenagers. There seems to be a latent tone of nostalgia in Pavilion, even when it seems to be trying to capture the feeling of an immediate present, a sensation that so often characterizes youth.” [full review]

Himizu
Dir. Sion Sono

[Gaga Communications]

“Sono has found renewed relevance in his up-to-the-minute and deliriously psychotic engagement with the new physical landscape of Japan. This desperate engagement with contemporary society reverberates throughout [Himizu], as in an upsetting and exhilarating moment involving the murder of a Japanese neo-Nazi played out in front of a TV inexplicably reporting on the Fukushima reactor in light of Japan’s relation to God and salvation. It’s a bravado moment that rests far outside the bounds of tasteful filmmaking, but if anything, it’s also a moment that proves that Sono’s disregard for good taste in both mainstream and art house contexts opens up possibilities for scathing emotional reactions and political resonances rarely seen in contemporary film. Sono is a desperately needed voice in film — neither a staid reiterate of Europe-fetishism nor a fabulist in the vein of most of the East Asian filmmakers to receive stateside acclaim, his cinematic innovations are made without recourse to enshrined end goals, breathlessly new and unafraid of idiocy and failure. Wrapped in a single, endlessly reiterated, mournful musical cue that ties its deep absurdity together under the banner of the deeply tragic, Himizu will make you weep. It’s the work of a true master, with antecedents in gonzo Japanese filmmaking and in the deadly serious camp of American filmmakers such as Greg Araki, but with a syntax and cultural specificity all his own. Somehow surpassing the highs of Love Exposure, it’s perhaps his best work yet.” [full review]

Bestiaire
Dir Denis Côté

[Metafilms]

“Writing is to language as taxidermy is to a duck. Bestiaire is an astonishing ethnographic study of a prison. With neither soundtrack nor narration, its 122 static shots — lasting on average slightly more than 33.5 seconds — frame the lives and unreal afterlives of some animals. This is one of the most distressing films I’ve ever seen. […] It becomes impossible to deny that the lives we witness are characterized by frustration, anxiety, terror, and boredom. A guanaco paces back and forth along a fence, gazing through it at an imagined way out, perhaps, if not a way home. Two zebras suffer anxiety attacks in their shockingly cramped stall as an employee makes loud noises while cleaning the facility. A lion and lioness bash at the doors of their cells. An enormous, beautiful bird with one wing pecks nervously at the wood frame of a mirror propped against the wall. […] Bestiaire isn’t entertaining. It opens up space for reflection on what’s under the noses of lovebirds and kids and all the rest. If you find yourself bored watching Bestiaire, it’s because you’re a bad person. No, but it takes discipline not to think that way. If you find yourself bored watching Bestiaire, it’s because you don’t want to think about what you’re looking at.” [full review]

Before Midnight
Dir. Richard Linklater

[Sony Pictures Classics]

“Like the preceding two films, Linklater and his collaborators gracefully articulate romantic love as a self-consciously loquacious enterprise, where every choice and verbal exchange is qualified by a certain point in time and a particular set of circumstances. Largely plotless, their durational scheme is always right there in the title, so that we already know when it’s going to end. It’s this purity of exchange and formal forthrightness that makes these films such a pleasure to watch, but though Before Midnight is brilliantly performed and executed, the stage of Celine and Jesse has begun to feel hermetic. Abbas Kiarostami’s far more cagey Certified Copy recently explored similar territory, but it depicted romantic love firmly in the performative mode, as its characters’ private lives eluded us at every turn. Before Midnight suggests that though we feel like we know Celine and Jesse, it’s possible that they now know each other too well. If this is the conclusion to their story, it’s a fittingly exhaustive one.” [full review]

The Rambler
Dir Calvin Lee Reeder

[Anchor Bay]

“Watching/reflecting upon The Rambler forced me to recall all of those Saturday nights I spent in front of the television watching marathons of terrible horror movies on SyFy. That was back, a few years ago, when I had cable television and no life. I remembered so much about those movies in general: the terrible scripts, the terrible acting, the terrible cinematography, the terrible editing. The music was bad. The pacing was awkward. The mood was consistently inconsistent. The gore was cheesy. (My gosh. It’s as though I had already seen The Rambler hundreds of times over a hundred wasted Saturdays.) And it all makes me ask myself, wading my way out of all kinds of ironic detachment, why bother? Why watch, much less celebrate, a terrible movie? I think horror — even bad horror — is incredibly cathartic. […] Horror always precedes, and does not follow, the little selves that we occupy. At our best, horror is something we’ve learned to store away in the back of our minds. Sometimes, it comes to the surface, and controls us like a poltergeist. Sometimes we’re just trained to ignore our kinder instincts. Sometimes it shows up out of nowhere, a little neural misfire. But it’s in all us. We are horrible people, kept at bay by very little. So we take joy when a foreign head explodes, because we already know that violence intimately, and we’re glad it can be expressed without our having to make trouble or dirty the room ourselves.” [full review]

Full list:

Pieta
Spring Breakers
Post Tenebras Lux
Leviathan
Sun Don’t Shine
Tabu
Frances Ha
Wrong
Upstream Color
Behind the Candelabra
Pavilion
Himizu
Bestiaire
Before Midnight
The Rambler

[Illustration: K.E.T. (click here for the full version)]

  

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