I saw some 80 new films last year; most on general release, some on festivals and some at home on DVD. Some have said that 2013 was an unusually good film year but judging by the films I have seen it does not strike me as being outstanding. Although I saw only three that were terrible (Now You See Me, Elysium and the Swedish Monica Z), the majority of the films were middling at best. Not offensively bad but not great either. But there were a few really great ones too. A little under half of the films I saw were American and the other half was from all continents. But Australia made it only since The Great Gatsby was made in Sydney by an Australian director. But why are hardly any films made down there that might be distributed overseas? I hope I will at least be able to see The Railway Man sometime soon. What I would prefer not to see again is a new film by J.J. Abrams. He is a remarkably untalented filmmaker for being so famous as, well, a filmmaker. He should perhaps more accurately be considered a photocopier with the ink running low, as Star Trek: Into Darkness suggests.
Something important that happened was that the transfer from analog to digital has become almost complete now. And the latest news is that Paramount Studios has decided not to release any more films on 35mm prints but to go 100% digital. Other studios are bound to follow.
It is customary to write something about what the films of the year "were about", as if that was possible to sum up. In New York alone over 900 films from all over the world opened last year and it stands to reason that they cannot be reduced to a handful of themes and ideas. It has been said that 2013 was a breakthrough year for films about racism and the concerns of black people in America. This is a questionable assumption, not least because there have been previous years when several important films were made (for example, in 1992 Spike Lee made Malcolm X, Ernest R. Dickerson made Juice and Reginald Hudlin made Boomerang, a trio comparable to 2013's 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and The Best Man Holiday) and whether the films this year will be more successful in making a profound shift remains to be see. One can but hope. I will return to the subject of race in American cinema in a later post.
A real breakthrough on the other hand happened in Saudi Arabia, where Wadjda became the first film ever made on Saudi soil, and it was a feminist film directed by a woman, Haifaa al Mansour. I wrote about it here earlier last year.
As somebody who has been following Iranian cinema since the 1990s I am pleased that I have been able to see at least three Iranian films this year, Darvag by Abolfazl Jalili, Ziba by Bani Khosnoudi and Manuscripts Don’t Burn by Mohammad Rasoulof. They were all different and all good, although Ziba, about an alienated housewife, went on for far too long. Best was Manuscripts, a brilliant film about surveillance and oppression, very powerful and moving. The development in Iran has otherwise been interesting, with the election being won by the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani and the diplomatic openings and deals that quickly followed. Iranian cinema flourished during an earlier moderate president, Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), and foundered under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, one can but hope that things will ease up now and that the many political prisoners, some of whom are important filmmakers, are released.
I saw three films from China, American Dreams in China by Peter hu-sen Chan, So Young by Vicki Zhao and The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-Wai. Chan is not a very good filmmaker, which he proved again, but Wong is one of my favourites although The Grandmaster was not all that successful. Sometimes incredible but often infuriating. The most interesting of the three is So Young, and not only because I am an old Suede fan. It was one of the biggest successes in China last year and is about a couple of first year students at a university in the early 90s. It lost its way completely in the last part which was set in the present day, but before that it was affectionate and sincere. China has had a major impact on global cinema these last years, in many ways, some for the better and some for the worse (such as self-censorship among filmmakers abroad who are afraid of losing out on the Chinese market). China is also a subject suitable for later blog posts.
Soon the Oscars will be handed out, and the Razzies. They are both annoying in many ways, but particularly so the Razzies because they are making no real effort to award really bad films, but seem to be more concerned with big budget films that have been unsuccessful at the box office. It is very unlikely that they would give a Razzie to the next film by Michael Haneke. This year The Lone Ranger is nominated as worst film of the year and Gore Verbinski as worst director. How do they decide? I was more impressed and dazzled by The Lone Ranger than most films of last year, even though it did not make my top ten, or even top 20.
Another maligned film that I liked very much (much more than The Lone Ranger) is the collaboration between Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy: The Counselor. It was somewhat unhinged but shot and told with confidence and precision, and wonderfully acted. The scene when the title character (played by Michael Fassbender) visits a diamond dealer in Amsterdam (the dealer is played by Bruno Ganz) is one of the highlights of the year. What I also liked was the unrelentlessness and professionalism by the drug cartels. It is a well-oiled machinery and the poor fools who are human enough to think they can deal with them all go under. The cartels are incorruptible; it is us who are weak. But that is what makes us human, and them something else, something truly disturbing.
Some potentially great films have yet to reach me, such as Inside Llewyn Davis, but if I should chose six films that for me were the true wonders of 2013 it would be the following: The Iranian Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Francis Ha, Sangsoo Hong's Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux and, above and beyond them all, Nicole Holofcener's triumphant, warm, tender and marvellously alive Enough Said. I have not loved a film this much in ages.
I wrote a few blog posts about new films when they came out. Here are the links:
About Wadjda, Oblivion, The Great Gatsby, Elysium, Gravity, Philomena and Wolf of Wall Street. And here is my summary of 2012.