1) THE DANCE OF REALITY (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, CHILE)
From the auteur director who once declared “I like violence, I love violence!” and “I make films with my cojones” comes 2013′s most arresting and emotional film. The Dance of Reality retraces Jodorowsky’s troubled childhood in Chile with a wildly imaginative bent. Re-imagining his oppressive father as a Stalin doppleganger (performed by his son Brontis Jodorowsky) and his mother as an opera singer (Pamela Flores), Jodorowsky re-writes the stale rulebook of the biopic (or in this case the autobiopic) with a film that is as much a testament to his surrealistic voice as a director, as it is to the therapeutic power of cinema.
2) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)
The ever-contentious innovator Harmony Korine achieves a bizarre combination of commercialism and radical formalism with Spring Breakers. The film is driven by a plot (written by Korine) that moves efficiently and relentlessly, while maintaining the illusion of chaos. Korine’s work with editor Douglas Crise (Babel, Arbitrage) is particularly impressive, as they weave together a cyclical, hallucinatory cutting rhythm, with which to sting out Korine’s raw coverage of hedonistic partygoers. Highlights include the opening beach party (set to an unexpectedly tuneful Skrillex soundtrack), a ruthless heist scene and James Franco’s stirring rendition of Britney Spears’ ‘Everytime.’
3) MY SWEET PEPPER LAND (DIR. HINER SALEEM, FRANCE/GERMANY/IRAQ)
My Sweet Pepper Land from Iraqi–Kurdish director Hiner Saleem is a painfully funny film, with a fresh take on the Spaghetti Western. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Baran (a Kurdish Independence war hero) leaves the Iraqi city of Erbil to be stationed in a lawless town on the boarders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq where he begins a small, violent, revolution. Unlike many recent American Western, the film does not feel confined to history, owing to its contemporary backdrop of Middle Eastern rebellion. That said, the film still maintains many great Western tropes, making it an excellent contribution to the genre.
4) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (DIR. FRANK PAVICH, USA)
The greatest unexpected crowd-pleaser of the year was Frank Pavich’s celebratory documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to turn Frank Herbert’s Dune into a film. With an invigorating, emotive narration from Jodorowsky himself, as well as contributions from many of the key players in the pre-production of the project, Jodorowsky’s Dune ultimately discovers how glorious it can be to fail spectacularly. Jodorowsky tells of his search for Orson Welles, his promise to pay Salvador Dali more money per minute than any other actor and his outrage at Pink Floyd as they munched hamburgers while he pitched them the project. It is also beautifully cut and animated.
5) SIDE EFFECTS (DIR. STEVEN SODERBERGH, USA)
Before Behind the Candelabra was cut from a television series into a film, Side Effects was Soderbergh’s cinematic swansong and it would have been sufficient. A sordid tale of moneymaking in the pharmaceutical industry, Soderbergh dramatises this biting critique immaculately, without selling out an ounce of tension to the film’s social commentary. Working effectively on both levels, the film also provides room for a career best performance from Jude Law, as well as a frighteningly sedate Roony Mara. Supporting roles are cast exceptionally, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum both making an impression. Soderbergh’s own cinematography also creates an immersive atmosphere of depression, with gloomy tones and a foggy shallow focus captured on the Red EPIC camera.
6) HARMONY LESSONS (DIR. EMIR BAIGAZIN, KAZAKHSTAN)
With Harmony Lessons 29 year old Kazakh director Emir Baigazin announced himself as one of the world’s boldest young directors at the Berlinale 2013. The film tells of Aslan, a thirteen year old boy living with his grandmother in a small village in Kazakhstan. An intelligent boy, Aslan is bullied by the other students at his school, lead by the sadistic Bolat. The film observes Aslan’s descent into violence and sadism, as he transfers his angst towards various animals and insects, rather than his fellow students. The film’s style is boldly rooted in its local aesthetic, while simultaneously recalling the American tradition of the Gangster genre. The way Baigazin deals with violence is powerful and sometimes almost unbearable.
7) GRAVITY (DIR. ALFONSO CUARON, USA)
2013′s best hi-concept film was surely Gravity, a film so simple in its intent, yet so elaborate in its design and execution. Up with Jaws and Alien in its sense of dread, Gravity is a hugely tense thriller that overcomes shortcomings which include crude characterisation (George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski), unconvincing emotional stakes (Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone) and silly dialogue, with its overall purpose: the attempt to avoid dying alone in the void of space. If anything the film actually suffers from its efforts to add depth to the dilemma, because its horror is so fundamental and horrifying. That Cuarón rendered this horror so convincingly, with masterful long shots and subtle 3D, is the film’s true power.
8) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)
An enormously ambitious follow up to 2010′s Blue Valentine for director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines walks a fine line between cinematic epic and overreaching indie film, eventually emerging as a happy medium of the two. Cianfrance attempts a bold designation of screen time to the film’s four main male characters, defined predominantly by act. This creates a make-or-break situation for the viewer, some of whom will run with it, while others will baulk will the changing allegiances. For those who stay with the film, it has enormous emotional potential and boasts fine performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, as well as the younger Dane DeHaan.
9) PAPILIO BUDDHA (DIR. JAYAN CHERIAN, INDIA)
Banned in its native India, Papilio Buddha is a fierce, relevant film defending the rights of the Dalit people in the Western Ghats of the country. Poet, turned director, Jayan Cherian brings a sensitive, crafted approach to a story that brims with political anger and injustice. While the film’s primary area of interest is its attack on caste oppression, it also deals with other issues of prominent contemporary concern, including deforestation, women’s rights and homosexuality. The irony of seeing such a film banned, is that it seems so relevant to many current issues of debate. Encouragingly, Papilio Buddha has just earned a place among the Panorama section of the Berlinale 2014, which should give the film the platform it needs.
10) ONLY GOD FORGIVES (DIR. NICOLAS WINDING REFN, USA)
A divisive film if there was one in 2013. For most viewers Only God Forgives was either a provocative success, or an insulting failure. For those who were not phased by the gratuitous violence, mannequin-esque performances, broody long takes and sometimes terrible dialogue, there was an immersive cinematic experience to be had. The film is adorned with Refn’s familiar ‘fetishistic’ elements (bold colours, long takes, minimalist acting, booming soundtrack), but this time he tries something new – he asks the viewer to indulge in his (occasionally crude) symbolism, to assemble the full story. Like it or hate it, each viewer will find something different; this makes Only God Forgives a genuinely refreshing thriller in the contemporary film market.