To be a voracious and discerning cinephile living in a country that has very discouraging limitations when it comes to releasing certain films really doesn’t bode well for my screen junkie soul. While living in the Philippines certainly has its merits in many aspects, a diverse and unfettered moviegoing experience perhaps isn’t one of them. While we may get the usual mainstream Hollywood fare during the summer blockbuster season, the local theaters in my country barely show any love for indie films or movies that are usually promoted or featured at the top international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Sundance, and Toronto; films that would often end up in the radar of award-giving bodies such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the industry consortium responsible for presenting the highest achievement within the filmmaking world—the Academy Award.
But just because I haven’t seen many movies in the past twelve months because of my country’s ridiculous theatrical release hang-ups doesn’t mean that I haven’t enjoyed those select few I’ve managed to see. Whether I’ve seen it inside a movie theater or in my bedroom playing on my laptop screen, I have managed to draw up ten films of 2013—in no particular order, mind you—that have made a great impression upon me. Be reminded that because of the aforementioned issues I have with my country’s MO on international film releases, I have not yet seen the crop of critically-acclaimed films which have received serious Oscar attention (i.e. “12 Years A Slave”, “Her”, “Blue Jasmine”, “American Hustle”, etc.). That being said, I hope you will take my Top 10 films with a grain of salt and discover something to broaden your horizons if you haven’t yet seen any other titles on my list.
LA VIE D’ADÈLE, CHAPITRES 1 + 2 · BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, this sensational coming-of-age French drama has completely taken me from start to finish in its bold chronicle of a teenage girl’s life as she struggles with her sexual identity, her future goals in life, and her evolving relationship with a slightly older woman who is introduced in the film sporting a short and shaggy crop of blue hair. Watching Adèle and Emma’s love story unfold immediately reminds you of the first time you fell in love with your significant other (that is, if you already have one) or what your own love story would be like if you would put yourself in Adèle’s intrepid shoes (should you be single). Yes, it’s a film about lesbians in love. Yes, it has very graphic and extended girl-on-girl sex scenes that is borderline pornographic. Yes, it is three hours long. Yes, it may have suffered major controversy after its release due to production issues between the director and the rest of the film’s cast and crew.
But you know what? These are details you will probably never notice as you immerse yourself in the engaging storyline paired with the heart-wrenching and spellbinding performances of lead actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux—two extraordinary females whose beauty and talent will surely hold your attention throughout the entire duration of this wonderful modern masterpiece by director Abdellatif Kechiche. If you are a sucker for love stories in the vein of other star-crossed cinematic pairings, “La Vie D’Adèle, Chapitres 1 + 2” / “Blue Is The Warmest Colour” is an absolute must-see on your romance watchlist collection.
In a rather tumultuous year where my own personal life had suffered rather severe setbacks in terms of financial and social aspects, I couldn’t have strongly identified more with “Frances Ha” in its elegant yet honest portrayal of a twenty-seven year old idealist that hasn’t yet come to grips with the ins and outs of adult responsibility (who, me?). Shot in a gorgeous black-and-white palette that harks back to classic French and American cinema, indie actress Greta Gerwig luminously portrays the titular character of Frances (though her surname isn’t actually “Ha”) as she not only faces the emotional hardship of potentially losing her best friend due to the diverging paths their lives are taking, but also the issue of having to live her life sustained by an artistic career that doesn’t really pay that much in order to survive living in a rather expensive city that is New York.
In fact, her journey is eerily similar to how most college post-graduates and dropouts live nowadays: trying to live independently without the financial assistance of parents but still relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and acquaintances with more means so as to have a place to stay and food to eat. Smart, funny, eccentric, but riddled with hilariously bad life choices indicative of most struggling twentysomethings undergoing a quarterlife crisis, it would be safe to say that Frances is my cinematic spirit animal for 2013. And despite the many obstacles she encounters along the way, Frances manages to end the film on a deeply satisfying note, including a rather intelligent revelation as to how the film is named. I highly recommend “Frances Ha” to anyone who has ever experienced that frustrating impulse-shopping-but-can-barely-pay-the-rent stage in their lives.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Here’s the thing with most franchise sequels (and also prequels): they often end up falling short from the first film. Compromising content in order to generate box office revenue, this is the unfortunate crime Hollywood commits to popular tentpole titles. Fortunately, the second entry to “The Hunger Games” series not only manages to balance the tricky blend of art and commerce, but it actually surpasses everything about the first movie in more ways than one. From the improved production value, great acting performances, astonishing action set pieces, and even the superb supplementary soundtrack featuring artists such as Coldplay, Sia Furler, The Weeknd, and Ellie Goulding—“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” burns bright with the glow of a thousand supernovas.
Even if you haven’t yet read the books (guilty as charged), you would still feel emotionally invested in the events of “Catching Fire”, as many key players of Panem have evolved considerably—particularly my favorite supporting character that is Effie Trinket (played to couture-worthy levels by Elizabeth Banks)—now that the stakes are raised even higher as the post-apocalyptic nation braces itself for a blazing revolution catalyzed by none other than the Girl on Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in a fiery performance as hot as the spectacular flaming dresses her character wears), whose winning defiance has inspired the outlying Districts to rebel against the decadent might of the Capitol. Concurrently, the Third Quarter Quell pits former victors against each other in a twisted Hunger Games All-Stars edition with seriously damaging consequences for everyone involved. With “Catching Fire” as a fine example of a gold-standard sequel, it would only mean that the two-part finale of “Mockingjay” should raise the bar even higher upon their eventual release in the years to come.
A lot of films released in 2013 dealt with several key subjects, with survival being one of the strongest themes to resonate in the past twelve months. And perhaps the greatest survival story to come out of the past year was one set in the vast and frighteningly dead emptiness of outer space. Acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón has undoubtedly crafted the most gripping and tightly-wound science-fiction thriller that smashes down the limits of how innovative auteurs can make movies. Where James Cameron and Ang Lee put 3D technology to pitch-perfect use in “Avatar” and “Life Of Pi” respectively, Cuarón has virtually done the nigh impossible and blew those two films out of the water with “Gravity”. More than just a visual spectacle of the infinite order, the film unflinchingly focuses on the bravura performance of Sandra Bullock as a novice astronaut fighting to save her life after a freak accident during a space mission explodes in a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions.
From the get-go, you can’t help but root for Bullock’s resilient character as she breathlessly tumbles her way through the harsh, velvety expanse of space and going through an intense roller-coaster of emotions that range from primal fear (spinning out of control) to blessed relief (curled in a fetal position). “Gravity” rests comfortably alongside other human endurance films (albeit such movies remain earthbound) I have cherished such as “Cast Away” and “127 Hours”. A deeper examination of the film would lead you to discover leitmotifs not just about the meaning of life and death, but also that of rebirth, spirituality, faith, and an intangible force perhaps stronger than the film’s title would suggest—namely, the will to survive against all insurmountable odds.
Another significant theme for 2013 in films was the glorious depiction of shameless capitalist excess (see: Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring”, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”, and Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf Of Wall Street”), and for me, the most subversive and outright eye-opening cinematic experience to carry this message of unabashed gluttony was Harmony Korine’s ode to collegiate debauchery in “Spring Breakers”. At the first viewing, it initially came across as an empty and shallow piece of work that blatantly objectified females and glorified gang culture, sex, drugs, and all the shady facets of the American underbelly. But upon repeated viewings of the film, its appeal—and ultimately, its message—has strangely deepened that even I was surprised at how the movie managed to do so in an insidiously seductive and visceral manner, much like the absolutely gonzo and scene-stealing enactment of James Franco as a criminal gangsta/rapper/hustler who takes Disney Channel alumna stars turned crazy party girls like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens under his tattooed wing.
Everything about this movie should be so wrong, and yet seeing “Spring Breakers” in all its neon candy-colored shamelessness feels just right, particularly its quotability factor that I suspect future moviegoing lovers would reverently drawl “Spraaaaannng breaaaak fo’eva, bitches” as if it were a prayer to their party gods that would make all their dreams come true. Like a shroom-fueled psychedelic trip gone completely berserk that you can’t help but be addicted to with zero chance of rehabilitation, “Spring Breakers” is a heady mashup extravaganza that blends the loss of innocence and “Girls Gone Wild” to the unapologetic lifestyles of living a dementedly warped version of the American Dream set to a curious soundtrack that mixes both the abrasive dubstep beats of Skrillex and the softness of a Britney Spears ballad in the same field.
Admittedly, I had very little faith in “Frozen” before its release, mainly because of the fact that I was highly skeptical of how the Disney studio adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s grand fairytale of “The Snow Queen” and discovering that the female character designs were almost similar to their previous effort in “Tangled” (Arendelle’s royal sisters Elsa and Anna really do look like close relatives to Rapunzel). But after seeing the film in its entirety, I knew I had to repent my sins and allow for more multiple viewings. While it may still have a few throwaway faults, the many strengths of “Frozen” ultimately make up for its shortcomings and rescuing 2013 as a rather weak year for animated films (the other robust entry being Hayao Miyazaki’s poignant farewell piece, ”The Wind Rises”). But what truly made the movie a winning entry in my books was how Disney managed to sneak in a rather LGBT-positive message in the form of the film’s centerpiece song, “Let It Go”.
As Queen Elsa’s rousing theme of personal liberation to fully embrace her cryogenic powers and disregard a life of conventionality, the lyrics of the song also powerfully allude to those in the gay community struggling with their identity: to release one’s true self rather than to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know”. And as a proud and out member of the LGBT community, this empowering anthem speaks volumes about being proud of oneself and living without fear despite being ostracized in society. Quite frankly, the rest of the featured songs of Disney’s cool musical also have strong yet subtle allusions to important LGBT themes: Comedic snowman Olaf’s humorous ditty, “In Summer”, represents the naïveté of a heterosexual person who does not understand the concept of a gay lifestyle, while Princess Anna’s showstopping “For The First Time In Forever” number speaks of the unbridled longing of any gay person dying to experience something outside of his or her comfort zone. In “Frozen”, there is certainly a lot of warmth at the heart of what is now considered a modern classic reminiscent of the films in the Disney Renaissance era.
CUTIE AND THE BOXER
Movie theaters in the Philippines aren’t exactly conducive places for exceptionally made documentary feature films to be screened for judicious audiences, which is why Filipino film fanatics such as myself turn to the magic of the Internet to provide the goods we’d never hope to see in our local movie houses. One such documentary feature I stumbled upon this year that managed to captivate me was a colorful gem of a film entitled “Cutie And The Boxer”. Truth be told, I always had an affinity for documentaries that focus strongly on arts and entertainment (see: “The September Issue”, “Exit Through The Gift Shop”, “Bill Cunningham New York”, “Helvetica”), and this presentation about an elderly Japanese artist couple living in New York has charmed me in a way that other more potent—yet ultimately bleak—docs like “Blackfish” and “The Act Of Killing” didn’t. The title of the film refers to Noriko (Cutie) and Ushio Shinohara (Bullie, the Boxer), a married Japanese émigré artist couple whose relationship has spanned for more than forty years and has now approached a time in their lives where their individual creative pursuits are being pitted against each other in an upcoming gallery show in their adopted hometown of New York City.
But unlike the affectingly bittersweet love story that transpired between Marina Abramović and Ulay in another artist showcase documentary that I loved (HBO‘s “The Artist Is Present”), Ushio and Noriko’s relationship remains durably intact even as the passing years have thrown countless hardships at them; chief among them Ushio’s struggle with alcoholism in his early years and his inability to sell his outlandish signature pieces of cardboard sculptures and splatter paintings, coupled with Noriko’s underlying resentment that her much older husband financially abused her in her youth to fund his works and how she has always remained second fiddle as a visual artist despite showing great promise as an illustrator (whose fancifully drawn sketches of her and Ushio form a large part of the documentary’s narrative). Quirky, lively, heartfelt, and ultimately breathtaking in its almost biographical portrait of a creatively codependent union between two different souls, “Cutie And The Boxer” packs an emotional punch unlike any documentary film you’ll ever see for 2013.
The last time I remember watching a film that featured human sex trafficking as a key storyline element was “Taken”. I am perhaps one of the rare few individuals who really wasn’t that thrilled to see a fine actor like Liam Neeson violently make his way through Paris to rescue his kidnapped daughter being forced into the underground world of illegal sex trading, which is why I was completely surprised (in a great way) that a relatively low-budget and off-the-radar yet well-produced indie film like “Eden” affected me more than “Taken” did on how it tackled its rather controversial subject. Unlike the aforementioned action thriller, “Eden” is actually based on a true story of a Korean immigrant named Chong Kim and her harrowing two-year experience in the world of sexual slavery before escaping captivity. Don’t expect a dangerous father figure with deadly martial arts skills to rescue his virginal child from the bad guys; instead, the hero of the film is the abducted daughter herself. In what is perhaps her breakthrough performance as a serious actress, Jamie Chung (who you will most likely know more as Mulan in the fantasy TV series, “Once Upon A Time”) carries the weight of the film on her shoulders as she portrays the titular character forced into a nightmare of a life guarded by menacing men who have no qualms killing any disobedient sex slave girl if they don’t follow their extreme rules.
Through her perspective, Chung inhabits Eden with a subtle ferocity that even though her back is literally against the wall, she still refuses to let her fighting spirit die in her quest for freedom. What happens next after Chung’s capture is a narrative rife with tight suspense and emotional stakes so high that certain set pieces are sure to get your skin crawling (i.e. Eden trying in vain to escape her captors, running through a desert landscape with a bloody mouth after having bitten off the penis of a sleazy client). Let’s be honest for a second here: sex trafficking is a real but unfortunate thing that is happening to thousands of innocent victims around the world. And yet, for a fictional depiction of a grim facet of our modern society, “Eden” not only manages to truly thrill and entertain with a winning storyline, but it also outlines a real-life global issue without veering into gratuitous exploitation of sex and violence.
Films that carry a socio-political message may sometimes come across as pandering to audiences if done without certain finesse to its proceedings. And having seen the indie thriller film, “The East”, I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I have watched a great movie that not only entertained me, but actually forced me to pose thought-provoking questions in a way that great movies tend to do for intelligent moviegoers. Coming off from their previously successful indie collaboration in “Sound Of My Voice”, director Zal Batmanglij and triple-threat wunderkind Brit Marling (actress-screenwriter-producer) join forces once again to concoct an elaborate yet elegant thriller concerning another mysterious band of covert figures. Where their previous film dealt with an obscure cult led by a woman who claims she is from the future, “The East” revolves around an eco-terrorist group (the film’s title is also the group’s collective name) that targets industrial corporations by means of guerilla tactics that have a disturbing “eye for an eye” approach. Marling headlines the film as a smart and resourceful intel agent dispatched by her boss (a steely Patricia Clarkson) who infiltrates the anarchist rebels, the members of which include the likes of Shiloh Fernandez, Toby Kebbell, Ellen Page, and Alexander Skarsgård as the handsome and charismatic leader of The East.
As an ensemble film, the performances are mesmerizing to watch, particularly in scenes involving The East when Marling’s character witnesses exactly how the group moves like clockwork (i.e. a dinner table tableau showcasing a stunningly effective point on compassion and teamwork) to execute their vigilante acts against the one-percenters who have abused their position of power against the ninety-nine percent. What is great about this film is that it presents one of those deliberately ambiguous endings and leaves the viewer to figure out whether the protagonist has remained true to her ideals or has embraced that of the enemy’s. Regardless of how you may feel after watching this unraveling yarn of a movie, “The East” is certainly a film that has traveled in the right direction when it comes to sophisticated filmmaking.
IRON MAN 3
Of the blockbuster superhero flicks that have invaded 2013’s movie screens around the world, “Iron Man 3” has triumphed over everyone else in my personal opinion. To wit: “Man Of Steel” may have been an improvement over “Superman Returns” but it still fell short to audience expectations; I certainly didn’t need another solo X-Men effort in “The Wolverine” no matter how ridiculously hot Hugh Jackman looked in the film; and despite my obsessive fanboy love for all things Thorki (Google the term at your own risk!), “Thor: The Dark World” still had some sore problems that is best left undisclosed lest the fandom come at me with torches and pitchforks. I’m not exactly saying “Iron Man 3” is perfect, but when stacked up against its major competitors, Tony Stark has emerged victorious over Clark Kent, James Howlett, and Thor Odinson.
Cases in point:
(a) Much like Katniss Everdeen, Stark suffers from some serious PTSD symptoms after the cataclysmic events in “The Avengers” and his struggles with his fractured psychological frame of mind while battling the villains is nothing short of brilliant.
(b) He may be powered by the iconic arc reactor embedded in his chest, but Stark has proven through a nifty twist in his character arc that one doesn’t need to have superpowers in order to become a superhero in his own right (just ask Bruce Wayne).
(c) It’s not just about the Tony Stark Ego-Stroking Extravaganza in this third outing, but several key supporting players take one right out of the park, particularly Virginia “Pepper” Potts who gets to channel her inner Girl on Fire in the climax of the movie.
(d) Critical and commercial success aside, the film also presents a masterstroke of inventive action sequences (i.e. the nail-biting midair rescue and the fantastic shipyard showdown) and “Holy shit!” plot twists that is the hallmark of any summer blockbuster worth their salt.
(e) And finally, “Iron Man 3” stars Tony fucking Stark, bitch! Because when it all comes down to it, you certainly can’t argue with a point like that.
P.S. I still love you, Loki! If you and your ridiculously handsome blond adoptive brother would get your shit together in a possible third film, then perhaps you two might stand a chance at cracking my Top Ten Films list instead of Tony Stark consistently hogging all the attention like the charismatic media whore he is! XOXO!