10. God Loves Uganda
Many know of the sickening anti-gay bill attempting to pass in Uganda. Many have seen the shocking homophobic videos from Ugandan pastors about LGBT people. Some might have even heard of the murder of David Kato, a gar rights activist in Uganda a couple years ago. The unsettling documentary God Loves Uganda tactfully articulates how this hatred towards LGBT community sprouted, the devastating affects of it, and even how American missionaries in Uganda view of the ‘good news’ cares more about numbers than human lives. Director Roger Ross Williams is able to articulate a broad variety of issues in the doc making it an expansive and important part of the ongoing fight for LGBT rights worldwide. With the use of stock footage, shockingly candid interviews, and keen investigative journalism Williams creates a terrifying vision of what has happened and why it is happening. His eye for haunting images is undeniable and these stick in the mind of the viewer long after the credits roll. God Loves Uganda is a moving, infuriating, informational, thought provoking, and convicting documentary that is a huge wake up call to western Christians and their churches.
9. Museum Hours
Quiet, slow, observant, and profound. This is often the experience one has walking through an art gallery; glancing at the art, walking silently, and perhaps whispering a comment or two. Therefore it makes sense that those four words above also describe the film Museum Hours, a film about going to art museums. Set in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna Jem Cohen’s highly original film tells the story of two lonely people, a security guard and a woman visiting her dying cousin, who find solace in discussing art together. Through their discussions and through the smart editing where painted objects are juxtaposed with real world objects Museum Hours asks to viewer to participate in the ongoing question of the relevance of art. What does art from hundreds of years ago have to say to us today? Does it matter? Can art museums have a positive impact of the lives of those already isolated and alone? Museum Hours demonstrates better than any film I’ve seen this past year that much like art life is not so much what we see, but how we look.
8. The Great Beauty
The Great Beauty is one of the most gorgeously shot films of this past year. Director Paolo Sorrentino has the camera swirl around contemporary Rome: It dances through the lavish parties, flies over the carefully chiseled fountains and blue oceans, and aimlessly observes the grand art museums and ancient architecture. Every once and awhile the camera will stop and stand still, usually for intimate conversations. The conversations are between the wealthy writer Jep Gambardella and his group of wealthy associates (to use the words friends in questionable). Jep, once a best selling novelist, is getting old and growing tired of being the life of the party. So are his friends. All are trying to find meaning and purpose in Rome, a city that is full of histories of important people. Surround by such great beauty they wonder if anything in their lives can measure up to what has come before them. This is an intimate story, but Sorrentino decides to tell it in a visually dazzling and epic fashion. In doing so he makes an unforgettable film about yearning for fulfillment.
7. Blue is the Warmest Color
Probably the most controversial film of the year Blue is the Warmest Color certainly earns both the heated debate and the passionate praise. Directed by a French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche Blue chronicles the entry into adulthood of young French girl, Adele, and her passionate relationship with a girl named Emma. Much of the controversy stems from the fact that no one can decide whether the ten minute sex scene, and subsequent brief but no less graphic sex scenes, between the two girls is about their passion for one another or about the male gaze (the film was directed by a straight man). Personally I still have not fully formed an opinion either way, but I do know the rest of the film is an honest and emotionally raw journey through an intense relationship. I also know that the performances from the two leads are incredible, especially Adèle Exarchopoulos who is able to convey a broad range of complicated emotions. And beyond the sex scenes Kechiche is a talented director who along with cinematographer Sofian El Fani create beautiful and memorable scenes that ring emotionally true. Overall Blue is the Warmest Color is a powerful film about sexual awakenings, growing into adulthood, and ,most of all, the consuming nature of love.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
I walked away from The Wolf of Wall Street knowing that I had witnessed another amazingly well done film by master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, but I felt uneasy about the content of the film. Had I just watched a film about men who were misogynistic or was the film itself that way? This conversation comes up routinely with Scorsese though. When Goodfellas was released people wondered whether it was a film that celebrated violence or a film about men who lived violently. I eventually decided The Wolf of Wall Street was the former and now admire it quite a bit. What makes The Wolf of Wall Street both brilliant and challenging is its honesty. People do drugs and have sex because it feels good, it is enjoyable in the moment and unlike many other films Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t shy away from that truth. The sex, the drug highs, and all the money look appealing because in reality they can be. Others were worried that the main character Jordan Belfort does not suffer as much as he should for his actions. However the film is based on a real man who didn’t suffer despite the countless lives he destroyed. Scorsese shows (not tells, thankfully no preachiness here) the unfortunate fact that in America one can get away with almost anything if one has the money. Along with Spring Breakers The Wolf of Wall Street might be one of the best films concerning the deep-rooted problems found in contemporary American society. This three-hour epic is entertaining, well acted, brilliantly structured, and thematically layered. What I thought would be a minor entry in Scorsese’s film cannon turned out to be his best film in years.
5 Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine is one of the most interesting and unique filmmakers working today who is constantly pushing the limits of taste, cinema, and storytelling. His most recent film, Spring Breakers, is no exception. The age long question of what gives life meaning gets an intense, bizarre, and provocative treatment in his most recent film about teenage delinquents. The story of four girls searching for fulfillment in everything from religion to drugs to sex and to finally murder is more of an experience than a typical straightforward narrative. The lighting is surrealist throughout the film with bright neon colors staining each setting whether that is a shower or dorm room. The hypnotic editing challenges the status quo by messing with audio and traditional scene structure. The performances by the four Disney star female leads are fascinating and James Franco as the wealthy gangster/rapper Alien manages to make a well-trodden stereotype interesting and unpredictable. With this film Korine gives a hyperbolic prophetic vision of where our current culture, one constantly obsessed with sex and violence, could end up. This is no more apparent than in arguably the films best scene (certainly one of the best of the year) Alien plays Britney Spears’s Everything on the piano while the four girls sing along. As they sing images of them robbing gangsters and stores play slow motion. The composition of these shots and their use of slow motion reflect almost exactly the opening shots of nude partiers on the beach. Compare these two sequences with the final images of bloody death and to some it might seem that Spring Breakers is too heavy handed with its message. However Korine has made this experimental, dazzling, and cautionary tale for those audience members expecting just too see a crazy party movie with hot girls. Spring Breakers subverts these expectations by displaying in a rather beautiful and poetic fashion that our culture is searching for fulfillment in all the wrong places.
4. Post Tenebras Lux
The most underrated film of the year, Post Tenebras Lux, reminded me why I love cinema so much. It is an immersive and meditative work of art that masterfully presents the divisive forces in our world. Scene after scene Post Tenbras Lux revolves around light and darkness, hate and love, violence and peace, redemption and failure, selfishness and selflessness, and beauty and ugliness. It examines socially constructed divisions as well such as men and women or the rich and poor. In the film these opposing forces are constantly at war with one another (symbolized perhaps a bit heavy handedly in the rugby match sequences). Although there are some jolting scenes of violence and sexuality, a majority of film locates these struggles imbedded in the routine of everyday life. The every day life of citizens in an impoverished Mexican village and a rich family that lives in the mountains above. The films narrative is unchronological, its scenes scattered, and at times it can be confusing for the viewer because there is no main character to latch onto. However if the viewer allows themself to stop thinking about what will happen next and focus on the present image Post Tenebras Lux quietly lulls one into the image, atmosphere, and the human faces on screen. It is then that one realizes that writer/directot Carlos Regados has done nothing short of creating a film that portrays the world in all its complexities.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s third film is a harrowing and visceral film that displays the brutality that was American slavery. McQueen’s films all have been meditations on the human soul through stories of physical suffering and 12 Years a Slave is no different. It is a brutal examination of how slavery corrupts and attempts to destroy the soul of both the slaves and their slave owners. This is accomplished through McQueen’s incredible visual eye. It is hard to find another living director who uses the camera to paint such stunning pictures or utilizes camera movement in such a visceral way. It is true that 12 Years tells a more conventional narrative in comparison to Shame or Hunger, but it retains McQueen’s art house sensibilities. There are so many times the film could have become sentimental or manipulative (cough Gravity cough), but the performances keep the film grounded in reality. This film finally confronts American audiences with the truth of our history so often ignored or diminished. The truth that “America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.”. By confronting the past, perhaps 12 Years a Slave will move viewers to consider the dark stains that slavery has left on this country and the way in which racism still undergirds many of our social institutions.
2. Before Midnight
Before Midnight is a film of astounding power and depth that both moves and saddens the viewer. It is the best of the “before” trilogy and perhaps, Linklaters best directorial outing. It is an ambitious film with a variety of themes and complex characters, despite its rather simple narrative. The film picks up ten years after Before Sunset and finds Jesse and Celine together with children, but the world has not been easy for them. The trials of everyday life and the consequences of their relationship have slowly eroded their once simple love for each other. The final act is a brutal argument between Jesse and Celine in a small hotel room intended to be a romantic getaway. It is ugly and the films dark turn leaves the viewer a little in shock. Yet this dark tone is what makes the film the masterpiece it is. Before Sunrise realistically portrayed the beauty of human connection, Before Sunset realistically portrayed searching for love in contemporary society, and Before Midnight realistically portrays how hard and complex long-term relationships truly are. The film questions if relationships should be expected to last in our contemporary society where divorce rates are 50% and refuses to give any answers. Echoing Rossellini’s Journey to Italy Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, and the films of Eric Rohmer Before Midnight authentically displays a relationship in crisis in the midst of natural beauty.
1. The Act of Klling
I don’t say this about movies often, but The Act of Killing is truly a groundbreaking film. It is a documentary that is able to capture so much depravity and humanity making it both incredible and deeply disturbing. Filmmaker Joshua Openhiemer and his crew travel to Indonesia to interview leaders of a death squad from the sixties. In Indonesia these men have not been punished for their horrific war crimes. One of the films first scenes find the main focus of the film, leader and executioner Anwar Congo, showing Josh a rooftop where he killed hundreds of people. One moment he is explaining the method he used to kill people, the next he is doing a dance and laughing with his friend. Anwar, along with his fellow gangsters, have no remorse for their actions. Openhiemer then challenges them to make a film about their actions. Anwar and company take up the challenge and attempt to make lavish film filled with violence, dreams, and yes musical dance numbers. The astonishing aspect of the film is how through the making of this film Anwar’s violent past catches up to him before ones very eyes. The viewer watches Anwar come to realize the true horrific nature of his actions and simultaneously his friends own ways of coping with their past actions. The final twenty minutes include some of the most haunting and fascinating scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema as we watch Anwar react to his own film. The Act of Killing is about more than just giving insight into human nature though. It is also about cultures that allow and celebrate violence and corruption including our own. Openhiemer doesn’t pretend to understand how the human mind and soul interact, but The Act of Killing displays that strange mysterious interplay better than any documentary I’ve seen. This work of art pushes the boundaries of what film can do and be.
Honorable Mentions: Francis Ha, Place Beyond the Pines, Concussion, Stoker, Inside Lewlyn Davis, and Upstream Color
What were your favorite film of the year?