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

Just like last year, we’re presenting a list of our favorite films of 2013 so far to accompany our recently-published mid-year music list (or, you know, vice versa). While it’s popular to gripe that no good films get made anymore, we had trouble narrowing our selection to just 15. Among stuff we loved that barely missed the cut were Room 237, Hors Satan, Paradise: Love, About Sunny, From Up on Poppy Hill, Pain and Gain, No, Like Someone in Love, Beyond the Hills, Berbarian Sound Studio, In the House, and People’s Park. Phew! And 2013 doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in its second half (two words: Computer Chess). While our staff went totally splitscreen on a couple of the films below (most notably Upstream Color and Post Tenebras Lux, which receive new blurbs here, as does Behind the Candelabra), our tastes generally converged around films that made formal inventiveness and trash indistinguishable — whether through florescent vomit, philosophical romcom, or T&A set to Skrillex. We hope you enjoy these avant-discards as much as we did.


Pieta
Dir. Kim Ki-Duk

[Drafthouse]

“Kim Ki-Duk has been pulling a viscera-strewn vision of life from the slaughterhouse floor of the human condition for years. Sitting atop a mountain constructed from animal cruelty and nihilistic violence, his films over the past decade-plus articulate the moral and spiritual failings of our species via narratives spawned from an unholy marriage somewhere between Schopenhauer and Sade. Electrocute a fish with a car battery? We’re helpless at the feet of capricious gods. Fierce rape prying at the stuff of Noé? We all acquiesce to greater external force. A platitude has accompanied nearly all the shock-and-awe tactics in his films, like a sycophant PR rep tidying up after a pederast senator. In his past films, Kim managed to jar you with his imagery, but he failed to stain the memory with a compelling story or a lingering moral. It’s taken a lengthy career to do so, but the director has finally realized his potential and birthed a haunting, eerily unshakable meditation on violence, philos, and redemption: Pieta. The title is taken from the Italian term describing a depiction of the Virgin Mary weeping over the dead body of Christ, but Kim Ki-Duk skins the concept alive and places it back together in his own image. Pieta revolves around the life of brutal debt collector Gang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin). His presence is similar to other Kim narrative leads: solitary, brooding, and quiet. Gang-Do, however, may be the most violent character in Kim’s cache: his job is solely comprised of crippling loan borrowers in order to collect on their insurance policies, and he silently relishes in the act.” [full review]

Post Tenebras Lux
Dir. Carlos Reygadas

[Strand Releasing]

In one moment in Post Tenebras Lux, the fourth film from Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, a man on his deathbed reflects on his life and seems to find some sort of meaning. As it nears its own end, the film lets us do no such thing. Reygadas meanders without explanation, sure — an AA meeting in rural Mexico; a glowing, 2-dimensional devil invading a home; youth playing rugby in England; swingers in a Parisian bathhouse — but it’s the overwhelming immediacy of the film’s lucid imagery, not the obfuscating tangles of its plot, that lets it so uniquely circumvent narrative modes of meaning-making. Shot in a 1:33 (square) format usually reserved for silent film and Instagram selfies, cinematographer Alexis Zabé and Reygadas have filtered out any vaguely retro associations from the format to create a film that, for all its temporal uncertainty, seems to unfold always in the present: the act of seeing itself, the pleasure it entails. That’s not to say the film’s circling around an upper-middle-class family in rural Mexico is a stream of images outside of story or sequence. Both brutality and tenderness do occur, their consequences rippling across time and characters in an adequate enough approximation of life. But simply, the titular “lux” isn’t metaphorical: the light of these images lingers long after we’ve stopped trying to make sense of them. [original review]

Spring Breakers
Dir. Harmony Korine

[A24]

Spring Breakers goofs off in a way atypical in Korine’s body of work in that it’s a tightly controlled substance. The narrative is a straight shot at noir storytelling — a group of reckless women get a taste of crime and money and want more of it — and each scene leads to the next scene instead of the director’s usual orbs of weirdness that are more focused on presence than anything scripted. But the blackness behind the veneer still shows through with repetitive shots of tits on the beach, skin in slowmo, the whispering mantra of ‘Spring Break Forever,’ and the looping of scenes, which create a sense of ecstatic repetition. Korine’s refusal to be contained within his own constructed narrative is evidenced by the way moments can drift to create spaces entirely their own — like an insane montage of the girls fondling their guns as Alien (Franco) serenades them with a piano-on-the-beach rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime’ — yet the film always continues its forward motion. […] Korine doesn’t need to create some metaphorical trapdoor shit in order to anticipate and milk our reactions. He can collate a bunch of images from Pornhub, Bang Bros, Daytona Beach, MTV, Disney, Wal-Mart, Tennessee, and throw it all up on the screen and say, ‘Look at this freakshit, isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it poetry?’ And it is.” [full review]

Leviathan
Dir. Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor

[Cinema Guild]

Leviathan is the cinema of immediacy. Images hit the screen with the force of bricks, albeit sometimes bricks emerging from impenetrable darkness, often gut-wrenching and occasionally shockingly beautiful. The film is an evocation of place through crystalline fragments, except that the word ‘evocation’ is absurd for something so direct, bypassing metaphor and allusion and proceeding directly to the raw power of images: the camera sliding around untethered on a metal floor slick with blood, bumping into fish heads and receding, a large man’s tattooed shoulder moving in and out of focus, too close to the GoPro camera’s miniature wide angle lens, a repeated motion moving from a sea full of blood to a sky full of birds, in and out, the shot achieving a strange complacence in its methodical passage from gore to the sublime and back and back and back. Forgoing narrative for oppressive immersion, the furtive and uncertain progress of cameras provides what drama there is; in the absence of character and narrative, Leviathan places its full weight on the raw power of images and their unfolding, building to an overpowering sense of place and mechanics. It’s not that we’re wondering what ‘happens’ next: we’re anxious about what will appear. A documentary in the strictest sense, Leviathan’s single-minded focus on the power of its tiny digital cameras to record existence (and their inability to do much else) brings the practical, moment-to-moment functioning of biology and technology to the foreground, leaving little else.” [full review]

Sun Don’t Shine
Dir. Amy Seimetz

[Factory 25]

“We meet Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) in the middle of a fight in the middle of a mud puddle in the middle of nowhere in Southern Florida. The ferocity and unpredictability of Crystal is pretty well established by the time the opening credits start to roll, Ms. Sheil excellently imbuing her character with the air of a trapped animal. Leo, on the other hand, presents himself to us as almost totally passive, grief-stricken, and resigned. The two are on the lam, heading South to the Everglades in a barely functioning sedan and generally not getting along that well. It’s fairly obvious that, aside from any sensational criminal naughtiness involved, Seimetz is chiefly interested in exploring the way these two characters act toward each other while under duress.The washed out, sun-bleached and generally gritty environment of Florida is as much a driving force in the action of the film as the two frantic leads. We’re treated to a smattering of sometimes lengthy, rhapsodic shots of the open road and the strangely empty looks on Crystal and Leo’s faces while the previously mentioned voiceovers slowly coalesce into a discernible narrative. The timing at play here is crucial, as Seimetz only makes things clear when she feels they matter.” [full review]

Tabu
Dir. Miguel Gomes

[Adopt]

“In recent years, the notions of memory, nostalgia, and identity, and the various ways they have changed and adapted through the times, have become prevalent topics in the art world, especially in music and film. In this influx of concerns about the past and our increasingly complicated relationship with it, the aesthetic makeup of classic silent films has begun to show its face once again in popular filmmaking. […] Miguel Gomes’s Tabu makes use of this once arcane aesthetic in a […] novel and exciting way, using a bifurcated structure — its first half shot in present Lisbon and the second half 50 years earlier in Africa — to tease out these aforementioned issues through the dialectics of past/present and dream/reality that are created by its creative narrative structure, wildly inventive use of sound (and lack thereof) in its second half, and the various other contrasts between its two parts. […] Tabu is strange, powerfully evocative, playfully experimental, and truly one of the most beautiful films in recent years.” [full review]

Frances Ha
Dir. Noah Bombach

[IFC]

“For all its charm, Frances Ha has edges and is particularly sharp about class. Unlike her friends, Frances lives paycheck to paycheck, not Paris to Tokyo. Sure, she makes bad decisions — like blowing her precious tax rebate on dinner for Lev and buying an impromptu plane ticket while living out of a storage unit — but these decisions seemed to be spurred by shame and frustration that she can’t keep up with the spontaneous, well-traveled, creative New Yorkers around her. And it’s true, she can’t. They play at being low-rent, but their spontaneity and creativity are nicely cushioned by plush bank accounts, while hers send her packing, first home to her parents in Sacramento and then finally to the indignity of an on-campus job at the upstate college she graduated from years ago. But this apex of humiliation seems to cement Frances’ resolve. When she returns to New York, she does so gingerly, mending fences and grateful for the friendship that’s offered in return. It’s remarkable, and I’m very thankful, that Baumbach and Gerwig didn’t tack on a romance at the end of Frances Ha. From beginning to end, the film is perceptive in the way it imagines Frances’ life as her romance not with a lover, but with New York, her work, and herself.” [full review]

Wrong
Dir. Quentin Dupieux

[Drafthouse]

“Quentin Dupieux’s new film Wrong takes a premise and narrative so simple — a man losing his dog — then tailor fits and drapes the story in this implacable absurdity, presenting the spectacle like Buñuel and Dalí in nun outfits on bikes and giving you weird looks for asking what’s going on. Since his days as French electro royalty Mister Oizo on Ed Banger, Dupieux reinvented himself as an auteur with a palate for the surreal. […] When considering not only Wrong but Dupieux’s filmography, there’s clear heritage to surrealist French cinema monolith Buñuel. Dupieux dodges comparisons in interviews (including ours), but the feeling is similar to the pretentious kid at school showing up in an old-ass tweed blazer and swearing up and down it’s not his dad’s. Anyway, his stance on Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie is erroneous here. Wrong constructs a world simultaneously familiar and alien, drops in the main character, Dolph (Jack Plotnick, as the most rational and sane presence in the film), and lets him flail around in the fishbowl for an hour and a half. In Rubber, Dupieux set fire to the fourth wall and touted the relationship of audience to work like a weapon, making you the butt of the joke through the entire experience. In Wrong, he contains and focuses his irrational mechanisms and throws them all at poor Dolph while he haphazardly tries to find his dog. As a spectator, the result is hilarious, like watching a really fucked-up, intricate version of Candid Camera.” [full review]

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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)]