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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies

Slanted views in sticky shoes: Top 10 films of 2013

By Dennis Hartley

‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2013. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 60+ first run features I was able to cover here at Hullabaloo since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every new release (it’s that pesky 9-5 gig that keeps getting in the way). I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who generously chips in year round to support Digby's blog. She continues to be an important voice in the progressive blogosphere, not only via her exemplary writing, but through activism; she puts her money where her mouth is. As a long time friend, I can't help but be proud of what she has accomplished, and continue to be humbled that she permits me to intrude into this otherwise respectable bit of cyberspace Saturday nights with my silly scribbling about movies and such. Happy New Year! So, back to the list…alphabetically:

The Act of Killing- Joshua Oppenheimer's portrait of Anwar Congo, a self-described "gangster" who claims to have personally killed 1,000 people during the state-sanctioned liquidation of an estimated 1,000,000 "communists" that followed in the wake of the 1965 overthrow of the Indonesian government, is truly stranger than fiction. Congo and "co-star" Herman Koto, who would be considered war criminals anywhere else, are feted like rock stars by politicians and paramilitary youth groups. Congo and Koto were not only amenable to skipping down memory lane revisiting scenes of their awful crimes, but generously offered to reenact their exploits by portraying themselves in a Hollywood-style gangster epic. This counter-intuitive mash-up of investigative journalism and ebullient  participation from the filmmaker's intended targets could cause some viewers' heads to explode, but makes for the most compelling political doc of 2013. Full review

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me- Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the jangly, Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the 'power pop' genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone). Then, beginning in the mid-1980s, the long-defunct outfit gained a cult following after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements lauded them as an inspiration. Director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the members long beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. This is an outstanding rockumentary; pure nirvana for power pop fans. Full review

Computer Chess- The most original sci-fi film of 2013 is also this year's most low-tech genre entry; proving you don't need a $300 million budget and 3-D technology to blow people's minds. For his retro 80s-style mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski finds verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you're watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), and "documents" a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess. Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws idiosyncratic characters into a jar, and then steps back to see what happens. Just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things get weird...then weirder. Dig that final shot!  Full review

56 Up- In this age of reality TV and smart phone attention spans, the idea of a film series chronicling the lives of 14 people since age 7, where the audience has to wait seven years between 'episodes' may seem downright anachronistic. Nonetheless, in this latest installment of  the acclaimed British film series that began in 1964 with Paul Almond's 7 Up, there’s a genuine sense of poignancy, especially since director Michael Apted (at the helm since the second installment in 1970) has a sizable archive of clips for each interviewee, from all periods of their lives. The lives depicted here may not be glamorous or exciting, but most people’s lives aren’t, are they? And as cliché as this sounds, it all seems to boil down to that most basic of human needs: to love or be loved. Full review

The Hunt- There's an old parlor game called "telephone" in which one person whispers a message to another, moving on down the line until it reaches the last player, who then repeats it loud enough for all to hear. More often than not, the original context gets lost in translation once it runs through the inevitable gauntlet of misinterpretations, preconceptions and assumptions that generally fall under the umbrella of "human nature". This shattering drama from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (co-written by Tobias Lindholm)  vividly demonstrates the singularly destructive power of "assumption". Mads Mikkelsen's performance as a man struggling to keep his head above water whilst being inexorably pulled into a maelstrom of Kafkaesque travails is nothing short of astonishing. The film is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of mob mentality. Full review

Mud- There's a lot of mystery in writer-director Jeff Nichols' modern-day Tom and Huck adventure-cum-swamp noir, a tale chuck-full of characters with Dark Secrets murkier than the black waters of the Mississippi that burble and roil throughout it. Matthew McConaughey continues his recent streak of knockout performances as the eponymous character, an enigmatic fugitive who befriends a pair of 14 year-old pals (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), with life-changing results for them all. While the director’s reach may exceed his grasp at times (due in part to his busy mishmash of character study, family melodrama, coming-of-age tale, love story, mythic folk tale and suspense thriller), the strong sense of place (Adam Stone’s cinematography artfully captures the sultry atmosphere of a torpid backwater), compelling music score (by David Wingo) and excellent performances by all add up to a perfect Sunday matinee movie. Full review

The Rocket- Aussie writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a remarkable performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. This was the best drama I saw at the Seattle International Film Festival this year; I hope it finds wider distribution soon.   Full review

The Silence- Generally speaking, a field of wheat is a field of wheat; nothing more, nothing less. However, in the realm of crime thrillers, such benign rural locales can harbor ominous underpinnings (think Memories of Murder or The Onion Field). So it is in this genre entry from Germany. In the hands of Swiss-born writer-director Baran bo Odar, a wheat field emerges as the principal character; an unlikely venue for acts running the gamut from the sacred to profane, as unfathomably mysterious and complex as the humans who commit them within its enveloping, wind-swept folds. Putting the “mystery” on the backburner allows Odar to focus on the aftermath of tragedy. Consequently this haunting film is not so much about interrogations and evidence bags as it is about grief, loss, guilt, redemption…and an unfathomably mysterious field of wheat.  Full review

The Sweeney- OK, so there's subtle, haunting, arty crime thrillers (see above)...and then there's this one, subtle as a flying mallet. Inspired by a 1970s British TV series, this gritty crime flick from UK writer-director Nick Love centers on “The Flying Squad”, a modern-day team of London coppers led by a growly fireplug (Brit-noir veteran Ray Winstone). He’s DI Jack Regan, who swears by the adage: “To catch a criminal-you have to think like one”. And you also apparently have to act like one; Regan and his clannish unit bend the rules (and violate 57 civil liberties) on a daily basis. But they always get their man, sealing every takedown with the catchphrase “We’re the Sweeney…and you’ve been nicked!" Winstone's character reminded me of "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection; while perhaps lacking in social skills, on the job he's a working-class hero, relentless in his pursuit of the bad guys. Great ensemble acting, memorable dialog, and the most exciting urban cops 'n' robbers shootout since Heat.  Full review

Upstream Color- Not that my initial assessment was negative (it leaned more toward ambivalent), but apparently this is one of those films that grows on you; the more time I've had to ponder it, the more I have come to appreciate it (most films I see nowadays are forgotten by the time I get back to my car). To say it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is understatement. To say that it redefines the meaning of “Huh?!” may be more apt. A woman (Amy Seimitz) is abducted and forced to ingest a creepy-crawly whatsit (in its larval stage) that puts her into a docile and suggestible state. Her kidnapper however turns out to be not so much Buffalo Bill, but more Terence McKenna. Long story short, the next thing she knows, she’s back behind the wheel of her car, parked near a cornfield (natch), and spends the rest of the movie slowly retrieving memories of her bizarre experience in bits and pieces. As do we. You have been warned. Full review

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