The Best and Worst Films of 2013
Before explaining my somewhat heterodox approach to best and worst lists, I want to follow up on my reporting on the witch hunt against Armond White, who was facing discipline over his alleged heckling of Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle awards ceremony. Since then White has been expelled from NYFCC. Rather than giving you my take on this, I would refer you to an excellent article by Henry Stewart in L Magazine titled “Armond White is just a red herring”. Stewart spoke for me when he wrote:
Armond’s ejection from the organization seems reasonable (if regrettably messy); but does the practice of bestowing honors to films and filmmakers and then hobnobbing with them at ceremonies and industry parties? “Critics should not be in the business of giving out awards,” Times critic AO Scott (who’s professionally forbidden to belong to any awards-bestowing critics groups) wrote on Twitter, continuing, “Criticism rests on the independence and integrity of the singular voice, and group voting+partying with the winners undermines that.”
I haven’t yet seen a critics-group this year recognize a film that truly needed recognition: every one praised a piece of prominently lobbied-for Oscarbait: 12 Years, American Hustle, etc., the same movies that won Golden Globes and which will likely go on to win Academy Awards. I’m a member of the Online Film Critics Society (because belonging to any group has its useful perks, like year-end screeners), which named 12 Years a Slave the year’s best movie. But it was a movie I strongly disliked, so what does the group’s award and my membership in the organization have to do with each other? This is what Scott means, I think, by voting being meaningless: consensus is by definition middlebrow, unenthusiastic, dispassionate—nothing we should want our film criticism to be.
In line with Stewart’s reference to recognizing films that truly need recognition, my picks for best films of the year will by and large never get full-page ads in the N.Y. Times and relentless public relations blitzkriegs from the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world. (I say by and large because The Weinstein Company produced “Philomena”, one of my picks.) But mostly my choices are either fiction films not made in Hollywood or documentaries, for which this was a banner year. I also tend to shy away from American “indie” movies that come out of Sundance since I find them formulaic. My critical faculties were honed by my exposure to cinema’s greatest artists who I was fortunate enough to be exposed to when I was a student at Bard College in the early 1960s. Each week a new film by Buñuel, Kurosawa, Godard, and Kubrick et al would open. Just as we will never see another Mozart; so we will never see the likes of that generation again.
I get infuriated with the critics who booted Armond White because they would have us believe that the directors of today can compare with the classics. Unlike Armond White, whose strict standards were influenced by his readings of Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, my bucking of the mainstream trends has much more to do with a radical analysis of the film industry. To put it succinctly, Hollywood is incapable of making great films because it operates on the basis of the corporate bottom line. Films are made above all to guarantee a profitable return. No doubt that many of those films are entertaining, but as art they fail miserably.
If the films mentioned below are now available on Netflix or Amazon, they will be indicated with an S for streaming or a D for DVD, either rentable from Netflix or buyable from Amazon.
Best fiction films of 2013
1. “11 Flowers” (D)
Directed by Wang Xiao-Shuai, a member of the “sixth generation” that shares a leftist take on post-Maoist China. It is both a coming of age story about an 11-year-old boy and a chronicle of the Cultural Revolution’s sorry impact on the arts. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/02/23/11-flowers.
2. “Hannah Arendt” (D)
German biopic based on her writing “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in defiance of the same forces trying to squelch BDS today. Two of the lead characters, her husband Heinrich Blucher and her old friend Hans Jonas, were professors of mine back in the day—as they put it. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/05/21/hannah-arendt/
3. “In the Fog” (S)
Another sign of the renaissance of Russian film. Set in WWII, it depicts the moral and strategic conundrums facing partisans on the front lines against the Nazi invasion. Evokes Sartre’s presentation of existential dilemmas facing a French partisan in “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/15/three-films-of-note-4/
4. “Terraferma” (D)
An Italian film about fishermen risking arrest and loss of livelihood by rescuing and protecting “boat people” from Africa that is very much related to recent tragedies. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/15/three-films-of-note-4/
5. “The Wind Rises”
Japanese anime by Hayao Miyazaki, the acknowledged master of the medium, about the life of the aeronautical engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane. Every frame is museum-worthy. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/15/the-wind-rises-wolf-children/.
6. “Wadjda” (D)
Saudi film about a girl fighting for her right to own a bicycle. Probably the best film involving a bike since Da Sica’s “The Bicycle Thieves”. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/22/the-past-wadjda/.
7. “The Past”
Made by the Iranian director who gave us “The Separation” and who I regard as the best in the world right now. The story of a French woman trying to resolve unresolvable problems with her ex, an Iranian, and her soon-to-be new husband from North Africa that subtly involves issues of racism and xenophobia. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/22/the-past-wadjda/.
8. “Old Dog”
First film ever made by a Tibetan. It dramatizes the Chinese domination of Tibet through the metaphor of a Mastiff used for herding Tibetan goats prized—and frequently stolen–by the Chinese wealthy. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2014/01/04/old-dog-old-partner/.
British film about an Irish victim of the Catholic convent-based forced-labor laundries of the 1950s that often led to the forced separation of mother and child. I am a hard-nosed bastard but sobbed at the end of this jewel of a film. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/24/philomena-the-magdelene-sisters/.
10. “All is Lost”
Weather-beaten Robert Redford struggles to survive on the open sea after his yacht gets impaled on some detritus that slipped off the deck of a cargo ship. Perfect metaphor for Hollywood versus the principled filmmaker. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/10/17/gravity-all-is-lost/
Best Documentaries of 2013
1. “Happy People: a year in the Taiga” (S)
Werner Herzog’s loving tribute to the hunters and trappers of Siberia. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/01/25/herzog-in-siberia/.
2. “Ferlinghetti: a Rebirth of Wonder” (D)
The story of one of the sole survivors of a cultural movement that transformed America. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/08/dancing-to-ferlinghettis-beat/
3. “108 Cuchillo de Palo”
Documentary filmmaker becomes detective in uncovering the death of her beloved gay uncle in Stroessner’s Paraguay. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/03/19/108-cuchillo-de-palo-lost-angels-skid-row-is-my-home/
4. “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear” (S)
Young people from the former Soviet republic of Georgia “audition” for a film in which they describe their hopes and fears. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/08/10/the-machine-which-makes-everything-disappear/.
5. “Symphony of the Soil”
Sets the standard for films about the ills of chemical farming and the need for organic alternatives. Not only is it educational in the deepest sense of the word but artistically captivating. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/10/03/three-environmental-films-of-note
6. “God Loves Uganda”
Colonialism is alive and well in Uganda. How the evangelicals use their superior wealth and power to force their sexual politics on a weaker nation. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/10/11/god-loves-uganda-cooper-hemingway-the-true-gen/
7. “The Square” (available soon on Netflix)
Powerful on-the-scene account of Tahrir Square uprising. You can almost smell the tear gas. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/10/26/documenting-the-egyptian-and-iranian-revolutions/
8. “People of a Feather”
How warm water run-offs from hydroelectric dams threaten the Inuit and the wildlife they rely on, as well as humanity as a whole. A film that de-exoticizes native peoples. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/11/08/the-inuit-in-a-melting-world/.
9. “Two Lessons”
A Polish couple travels to Russia and then to Argentina; the woman to teach Polish to her countrymen who have lost the language or never learned it in the first place and the man who filmed her with an old-school 16mm camera. Beautiful beyond description. Full: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/16/two-lessons/.
10. “Schooled: the Price of College Sports” (S)
Taylor Branch makes the case that Black collegiate basketball and football players are treated as indentured servants. The best indictment of the NCAA anywhere. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/.
5 Worst Films of 2013
1. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
Coen brothers dish up a steaming pot of misanthropic joylessness about a great time to be alive. Supposedly they made this movie because they liked the folk music revival. God only knows what they would do with a subject they hated. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/06/inside-llewyn-davis/.
2. “American Hustle”
David Denby invoked Shakespeare, Ernst Lubitsch, and Preston Sturges in his review. That’s a film reviewer hustling us. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/01/03/the-confidence-men/
3. “A Wolf of Wall Street”
Recycling of “Goodfellas” that demonstrates Scorsese’s failing talents. He and Woody Allen should just rest on their laurels and begin doing something else. Francis Ford Coppola is doing himself proud by making wine, after all. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/01/03/the-confidence-men/
A look at the heartland as if from outside the monkey cage in the zoo. More condescending than the worst SNL skit. Full review: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/10/the-hollywoodization-of-the-heartland/
5. “Lone Survivor”
Supposedly based on a true incident, four Navy Seals holding off what appears to be ten times as many Taliban. If this were true (and it wasn’t), Afghanistan would have been pacified long ago. Produced by NBCUniversal, co-owned by GE and Comcast. What else would you expect? Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2014/01/13/lone-survivor/
5 Premature Ejectulations (DVD’s that went into the waste paper basket after 15 minutes.)
1. “August: Osage County”
Cheap imitation of Tennessee Williams, with a dysfunctional family attacking each other viciously and tearfully reconciled in the final scene, which I was not going to stick around for. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play—you know, the same outfit that has given awards to Thomas Friedman and other incompetents.
2. “Spring Breakers”
Shockingly bad satire (I guess) on “bad girls” in St. Petersburg directed by bad boy Harmony Korine. Meant to shock but it had the same effect on me as a cheap bottle of wine: nodding off and then waking up with a terrible hangover. A film that would have broken the resistance of the most die-hard jihadist in Gitmo if played repeatedly.
3. “Bling Ring”
Another terrible film about bad girls, this time in Los Angeles, by Sofia Coppola that proves that nepotism works wonders in Hollywood.
4. “Saving Mr. Banks”
Author of “Mary Poppins” comes to Hollywood to negotiate with Walt Disney on his film adaptation. I turned it off after 10 minutes for fear of coming down with sugar diabetes.
5. “The Spectacular Now”
Underachieving high school student drinks himself into oblivion in the opening minutes. Had no interest in seeing what would happen to him next. John Hughes did this kind of thing with much more panache, not that this says so much.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.