by Chris Dashiell

The best film of 2013 may have been something I didn’t see, or didn’t even have a chance to see. There is a wealth of great stuff being made, and our only job is to take the time (and the trouble) to find it. I was lucky last year, because I saw quite a few films that I liked.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer).

In 1965 and 1966, the military dictatorship of Indonesia, with the support of the CIA, conducted a purge of everyone it deemed to be communist—liberals, academics, ethnic Chinese, in fact anyone considered a potential source of resistance to the state. Close to two million people are estimated to have been murdered. Much of the dirty work was done by paramilitary groups, along with paid street criminals. This film focuses on a group of gangsters in Sumatra, now in late middle age and enjoying the benefits of being considered heroes for what they did. We’re not told how Oppenheimer was able to gain the confidence of these men, but it’s obvious he did, because they open up to him with complete candor. The idea of the movie, as these gangsters understand it, is that they have a chance now to dramatize the killings they took part in, staging reenactments of the torture, murders, and massacres as they remember them.

It’s remarkable how frankly and even proudly these men discuss their murders. One of the stunning points made by the film is that in a society in which mass killing was rewarded, a society that has not admitted wrongdoing, there is no sense of shame about these actions. Instead they are celebrated. We have seen documentaries about crimes against humanity from the point of view of the victims, and the accusing conscience of the world. In The Act of Killing we hear the stories from the perpetrators themselves. Instead of being able to distance ourselves and call these people monsters, we are compelled to witness how human beings can allow themselves to do anything and justify it in their minds. The reenactments, in which we learn that the killers imagined themselves as movie gangsters in order to motivate themselves, are powerful and revealing in wholly unexpected ways. The director has allowed them free rein, which includes them staging a surreal musical number with elaborate costumes around the song “Born Free,” as a celebration of their supposedly heroic story.

This is a brilliant, unforgettable, and essential film, a breakthrough in the understanding of political violence and its devastating effect on modern history.

Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas).

This autobiographical drama about radical French youth in the early 1970s has the ragged shape and seemingly random quality of real life, but in fact it is a meticulously crafted, lyrical portrait of an era—warm and evocative, yet unsentimental. We get to know a group of idealistic students as they take different paths over the years, with the central figure a young painter named Gilles, played by Clement Metayer. His intellectual and romantic evolution leads to a beautiful ending portraying the wonder of cinema as the path to a greater understanding and commitment. Assayas’ artistry is such that the pace of the editing, the gliding camera, and the soundtrack filled with interesting and obscure music from the period, blends into what seems like a total environment. In terms of style, which for me is paramount, it stands head and shoulders above anything else I saw last year.

Beyond the Hills (Christian Mungiu).

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) welcomes her closest friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) to her home in a simple Orthodox monastery in the Romanian countryside. They were raised in an orphanage, and now Voichita wants Alina to share her religious convictions. But Alina only wants to be near her friend. This headstrong and confused outsider inevitably becomes a disruption to the routine of the monastery, and the way the head priest tries to deal with her leads to disaster. The story unfolds slowly until we are entangled in its questions, which extend far beyond any superficial answers that a lesser film may have attempted to offer. In the tension between religion and secular society, Mungiu does not take sides, but maintains the viewpoint of imperfect but worthwhile individuals, thereby making real the tensions and implications of the action. This is an example of the kind of patient, honest, incisive filmmaking that renews my faith in cinema.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen).

McQueen and veteran screenwriter John Ridley have adapted a true story: the 1853 account by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, of his abduction and subsequent enslavement for twelve years in Louisiana. The film quite deliberately refuses to soften the brutality of the story. Northup (Chewitel Ejiofor) is viciously beaten, sold naked at market like an animal, and subjected to severe abuse and humiliation every day. The film also shows us the sexual violence and oppression in the story of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), singled out for repeated rapes by the master Epps (Michael Fassbender). Ejiofor brilliantly portrays the terrible transformation, the degradation of a soul enslaved for a dozen years, in his speech, in his eyes, and in the way he walks. The film also lets us glimpse the unspeakable tragedy of an entire culture sunk in this cruel and dehumanizing system. It rips the curtain away from the truth many of us would rather not see.

Amour (Michael Haneke).

The title means “love,” and the film is an intimate portrait of dying. Two great, revered actors of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, play an elderly couple, Georges and Anne, facing the ultimate loss, as the wife suffers a series of strokes that radically diminishes her quality of life. For the husband, all the failings, the guilt, the fatigue of having to take care of someone, the suppression of grief in order to be present in the situation, are here—presented with that total honesty that impending death can bring to our awareness. Also on hand is the grown-up daughter (Isabelle Huppert), unable yet to accept that Anne cannot play the mother role anymore, nor can Georges do what she thinks he must in order to save her. Nothing in a Haneke film is random; everything has a purpose, and there’s always some mystery, as there is in life. Love—is it enough? That is just one of the questions asked and not answered in this great film.

Tabu (Miguel Gomes).

This bewitching and utterly original film has two parts. The first concerns a middle-aged woman in Lisbon who spends her time supporting various overseas human rights causes, while her loving and tolerant attitude towards her friends helps mask her loneliness. She becomes concerned for the mental health and well-being of her elderly neighbor Aurora, who loses all her money at the casino, and is absurdly suspicious of her stoic black housekeeper. The second part tells of Aurora’s marriage in colonial Africa and her passionate, risky affair with another man. This section is silent except for natural sounds and the narration of the story by her former lover. The quasi-silent film strategy has a remarkable effect. The disconnection between the reality of Africa and the colonial romance is hypnotic—an evocation of the past which blends memory and illusion, the story we tell ourselves, and the truth that other people can see.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche).

Kechiche gives the epic treatment to what usually seems a smaller and more personal theme—young love and the new discovery of passion. Adèle (the remarkable Adèle Exarchopolus) is a high school student tentatively exploring her sexual identity. Eventually she meets and has a relationship with an art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux). There is an abundance of close-ups, and the camera follows Adèle with untiring intimacy. The film’s patience, its careful progression of everyday event and detail, is a key part of the style. It works by making the emotions, the tenderness, the frustration and hopes, all the feelings that make up Adèle’s inner world, so close to us that we feel it too. The complete dedication of the style allows us to re-experience the time when we felt the undeniable importance of our own lives for the first time, and struggled to find meaning in it.

The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes).

That the great English author Charles Dickens had a mistress during the last dozen years of his life was a well-kept secret only revealed some seventy years after his death. Her name was Ellen Ternan, and the film illustrates how the constraints on women, not just sexual but social in the widest sense, of Victorian times, have left their mark on us. Felicity Jones’ performance as Nelly is moving and subtly shaded. Fiennes himself brings Dickens, with his seemingly endless energy, coupled with a concealed melancholy and loneliness, to brilliant life. But he keeps the focus squarely on his heroine: in a society offering little respect to women outside of the role of wife, her affair with Dickens will isolate her from the world. She must become hidden—“invisible” as the title says, and the tension between her genuine love for Dickens and her own frustrated ideals is a source of grief.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler).

I was expecting this film, based on the true story of a young African-American shot to death by San Francisco Bay Area transit police a few years ago, to be melodramatic, maybe sensationalistic. I was not prepared for the beautifully nuanced, subtle and resonant work that it is. Michael B. Jordan brings an easy-going charm to the role of Oscar Grant, who is by no means a saint, but a flawed person trying to get by and do right by his girlfriend and young daughter. Coogler, in his debut feature, demonstrates a delicate touch. The tone of the film is also its main idea—the ordinariness of a day in which someone will fall victim to injustice for no other reason than being black. There are no polemics, just the simple depiction of life, with its joys, angers, mistakes, and hopes for the future.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach).

At first glance, this might seem like a tough sell, what with it being a low-key comedy drama shot in black and white, and without much of a plot. But no—it’s about the most intelligent and charming bit of fun you could ask for. Greta Gerwig plays Frances, who goes into a tailspin of confusion when her best friend Sophie moves out of their apartment to be with a man. Baumbach’s style, combining a laid-back mood with some jump-cutting effects, keeps hitting the mark every time. There’s so much funny dialogue (he co-wrote the film with Gerwig) that the film’s basic sadness may come as a surprise. Frances’s attachment to her friend extends so deep down into her being that the severing of that bond makes the ache pulse through the film. The picture is never simple, yet maintains a light spirit and a clear-eyed gaze.

War Witch (Kim Nguyen).

Almost every year I list an ugly duckling—a film no one else seems to have noticed. This one is about an African girl (Rachel Mwanza) who is kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier. After a vision warns her away from an ambush, she is proclaimed a “war witch,” a kind of supernatural talisman of victory. Nguyen doesn’t amplify the horror of the situation, but presents it in a matter-of-fact way, which makes it more powerful than a more dramatic method could ever do. There is no need to know which government or which rebels are fighting here, or why they fight, only that the mindless destruction sucks the innocent into its whirlpool. In the midst of this madness, love is a perilous risk, but somehow it endures.

And here are the B-sides, all well worth your time:

5 Broken Cameras
(Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi).
No (Pablo Larraín)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater).
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen).
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami).
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen).
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley).
Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu).
Happy People: a Year in the Taiga
(Dimitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog).
Renoir (Gilles Bourdos).

Favorite TV: Breaking Bad

Interesting Failure: To the Wonder. Terrence Malick runs out of ideas.

Avenue of the Overrated: Her. Or, how not to develop a satiric premise.

Music: David Wingo, Mud.

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnell,
Inside Llewyn Davis

Proof that Tom Hanks is a great actor: the ending of Captain Phillips.

Too soon!: James Gandolfini, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

@2014 Chris Dashiell