Ronan Doyle’s Top Ten Films of 2013

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Editor’s Note: to see the Next Projection team’s collective top ten, click here

It takes no particular expertise in the human mind to recognise that any list inevitably says more about the lister than the listed; I can no more summate 2013 in cinema in only ten films than I can teach carpentry to an anteater. What I can do, though, is explore my 2013 in movies, a subjective view of fifty-two weeks of releases that betrays the state of my mind above the state of cinema. And what a state it’s in, after having had to whittle down dozens of adored movies that might at any point in the year have seemed destined for the top spot. I reached this list, for a change, by simply scrolling through a 36 film shortlist—plucked from 253 eligible releases—and snatching those that stood out still as particularly elating experiences. Of course there were exactly ten. Whatever they might have to say about the state of cinema—that it stands strong the world over; that imagination is the only limit to expression; that silence can sometimes say so much more than words—they certainly betray a personal predilection toward the existential, infused with faint, fleeting glimmers of hope. These are movies stood in stark defiance of life’s dizzying meaninglessness, acknowledging the futility of all and yet finding in it an essentiality. They’re not unlike this list, in that sense.


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10. La Sirga

Part of the pleasure of penning Next Projection’s “This Week on Demand” column, as much as it’s part of the pain, is sifting through the rough of hundreds upon hundreds of Netflix additions in search of diamonds like La Sirga. William Vega’s feature debut is a work of uncanny unease, his camera arriving through the fog like the Colombian orphan it follows to her uncle’s lake-side guest house as she flees the encroaching chaos of warring factions. Easy allegories as the crumbling building and the girl herself may be, there’s a tragic grandeur to Vega’s lyrical storytelling, a quasi-horrific intensity to the manner in which these doomed characters float through the fog in terror of what may lie amidst it. Meticulous sound design fills the characters’ silences with howling winds and creaking floorboards; is this stray noise in the night the somnambulant youth or her past’s horrors catching up with her? With its stark opening and finale offering perhaps the year’s most frightening bookends, La Sirga is an astonishing effort.


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9. Alois Nebel

Another film that would surely have slipped me by were it not for the hawkish intensity with which I survey Netflix’s latest, Alois Nebel attracted next-to-no attention outside its native Czech Republic, whose storied post-war past this gorgeous rotoscope animation addresses. Neat in appearance, haggard in head space, the rural train dispatcher who lends the movie his name is proxy to debut director Tomás Lunák’s illuminating invocation of cinema’s power to render dreams and memory upon the screen. It’s not just for its technical parallels that the film invokes Waltz with Bashir: here is the very real pain of the past understood through the lens of aesthetic abstraction, the difficult and discomfiting truths of history somehow given shape in their disfigurement. Boasting a beautifully sad score to boot, it’s a film that captures the timbre of film noir like nothing since the 1950s, melding history and horror in its absorbingly anti-sensationalist address. Nothing on this list deserves—needs—your eyes’ attention more.


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8. ¡Vivan las Antipodas!

“I could watch that forever,” whispered a friend with precisely the awe I’d anticipated when I dragged him to see ¡Vivan las Antipodas! at the Cork Film Festival just one week after encountering it on—you guessed it—Netflix. He and I both: if there was a better sheer spectatorial experience to have at the cinema this year, I missed it. Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary, shot at four of the few dry land antipodal pairs on Earth, is a visual experience without parallel, the Russian director’s camera soaring through the skies with a dizzying fervour that demonstrates just how true it is that we are atop the world and at its end all at once. Wisely staying silent for the most part—in dialogue terms, at least; its magnificent score is as much a treat for the ears as is Kossakovsy’s cinematography for the eyes—it’s a film built on inference above all. Watched in the right frame of mind, these pictures are worth so much more than a thousand words each.


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7. Faust

It is surprising for me to see Faust find a place in this list, if only because I thought myself to have admired it more than enjoyed. Yet few films this year, indeed perhaps not any, resurfaced to the fore of my mind so often since seeing them as Aleksandr Sokurov’s extra-earthly twist on Goethe’s immortal play. Opening on a digital descent from the heavens before locking sights on a cadaverous cock, it’s a film that playfully prances between “high” and “low” culture, tracing the good doctor’s desperate efforts to find something more in life than earthly pleasures. The best double act of the year, Johannes Zeiler and Anton Adasinsky are utterly compelling as Faust and this hideous incarnation of Mephistopheles, by turns hilarious and horribly strange in the way they work together. Ever the impeccable stylist, capable as well as any of the greats of tweaking his aesthetic predilections to each story’s demands, Sokurov lends his camera a drunken debauchery that’s as desperately pathetic in its (mis)direction as the doctor himself.


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6. Upstream Color

Peculiar a crossover as it makes one imagine, Faust might have found friends in Upstream Color’s characters, who with much the same sense of desperation struggle to make sense of their own strange circumstances in whatever way they can. It’s easy to appreciate how so many were turned off by the opaque oddity of Shane Carruth’s narrative, yet to search for “answers” amidst this obscure action is as to do so in life: a maddening quest that can only leave us cluelessly clutching our heads between our knees—or indeed hiding from the world curled up in a bathtub. No, the mysteries that permeate Upstream Color are not so much there to be explained than they are to be marvelled at; the sublimely sympathetic work of Carruth and Amy Seimitz as a couple drawn together by a strange shared past emphasises the idea of finding solace in another who shares this strange, startling journey we call life.


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5. Gravity

The film student in me was fascinated, the critic in me was compelled, the existentialist in me was enveloped, but above all the child in me was elated by the awe-inspiring enormity of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, surely the final word in the debate as to digital’s long-perceived “inferiority” to film. What an immaculate achievement this is, a movie that thrusts us into the great unknown with a technically-driven theatricality that lends every cut the force of a slap to the face, that makes a flat screen as stunning to behold as outer space itself. With its supremely streamlined narrative, supplementing the bravado beauty of these extraordinary, revolutionary images with an essential emotion just as effulgent in its efficient simplicity, Gravity demonstrates that as much as cinema’s changing face may allow us to invent anything our minds can imagine, it’s the humanity that remains at its heart. The tools, they are a-changin’; here is proof positive that it’s change for the better.


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4. Mud

Much as the ongoing “McConaughssaince” might reach a local peak in Mud, if there’s an actor here worth touting it’s Tye Sheridan, who follows his The Tree of Life debut with a performance every bit as exceptional. He’s but one of the many wonders on show in this confluence of confidence on all fronts, a film that feels like the perfect possible capitalisation on the story at hand. And oh, what a story it is, a classical coming-of-age tale that’s smart enough to relay formula while deconstructing the very framework it depends upon to work. Jeff Nichols proves himself—not that proof was necessary—as one of the true modern greats of American cinema with a third successive story of masculinity under siege; his men are fascinating even for their feet of clay, fabled heroes whose flaws are part of what makes them so fixating. To behold Mud is to behold a master at work, drawing together terrific elements to a whole that seems more the product of its parts than the sum.


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3. The Act of Killing

The guttural wrenching that closes Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing might just as easily be coming from the aisles as from the speakers: here is a movie so powerful it elicits a physical reaction on par with an intellectual and emotional, illuminating such mundane monstrosity that the body can’t but wish to excuse itself of its insides. That Werner Herzog lent his name to the film is no surprise: here Oppenheimer stares unflinchingly into the void that is our kind, unearthing in the story of the feted gangsters of Indonesian genocide the most terrifying evidence of the inescapable inhumanity of our species. It’s also, of course, an extraordinary ode to the empathetic impact of the movies: “Did my victims feel what I felt here?” asks the chief subject, somehow appreciating through the distance of a screen the human suffering he was so alien to as he inflicted it. In form as much as in content, The Act of Killing is a testament to the power of the act of seeing.


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2. Cutie and the Boxer

In placing anything at all above The Act of Killing I can’t but think of Roger Ebert’s confession that The Tree of Life snuck past Synecdoche, New York onto his Sight & Sound ballot for no better reason than its being more hopeful. So it is with Cutie and the Boxer, a film at times every bit as wrenching as Oppenheimer’s but that much more elating for its eventual optimism. No other film this year left me in such a strange state as did Zachary Heinzerling’s beautifully-shot documentary, sobbing at the screen with a smile as the credits rolled, unsure whether the tears were more of sadness or joy. So it is with these subjects’ desire to create, exposing their emotions to a dizzying ride that’s not so much pleasant as it is profoundly necessary to survive. And so too it is with their love, as upsettingly and irrevocably destructive a force as it is constructive. And so too it is with this movie, which makes us desperately sad and yet somehow so happy too.


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1. The Great Beauty

But in a year defined—for me—by movies centred on the struggle to find something sufficient to make manageable the maddening meaninglessness of life, nothing hit home quite so much as The Great Beauty. His face just as much on the brink of an ear-to-ear grin as it is sat on the precipice of pain, Toni Servillo turns in the year’s finest performance as the one-hit wonder author whose sixty-fifth birthday has him mourning how little his socialite existence means. Using his Roman locations with a pristine appreciation for the eerie cross-section of past and present they represent, Paolo Sorrentino offers an ode to his city amidst his elating examination of art and all else we explore to give us some purpose as we wander through the world. This is not only a film that advocates accepting our lot and finding contentment; in the sublime closing credits drift down the Tiber, as perfectly shot and scored as everything that preceded it, The Great Beauty shows us just one place where we can find it.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.