While the word “selfie” was Oxford’s word of the year “visceral” is the defining word for this year in film. Many of the best films of 2013 were more focused on striking a certain emotional chord in the most potent way possible rather than dabble into ambiguities or complex riddles like There Will Be Blood or Zero Dark Thirty. This is not to say that the films are dumber than average year, if anything it shows a sense of confidence in the filmmakers’ understanding of their topic, enough to explain clearly. In short, the best films of 2013 familiar but nuanced, which is fascinating because it shows film progressing as a creative medium. Anyway, the movies:
*Gravity– This was arguably the best film that I have ever seen in a movie theater; that being stated though, I am not sure how it would hold up in a home theater system, which is what this blog is all about, more or less. So with this in mind, I will keep this one on hold until I find a Blu-ray to review. If it holds up, it is my number one but until then I will have to taint it with the dreaded asterisk.
The Act of Killing– In the years of 1965-1966, there was an anti-communist purge, which resulted in the slaughter of 500,000 people. Notably, some of the killers were gangsters who hated communists but loved going to the movies. In 2013, director Joshua Oppenheimer visited these gangsters and suggests that they reenact their “glory days” in a Hollywood fashion. This is a sprawling, shockingly violent, and personal monster of a documentary that truly looks at villains during their most naked moments.
As a casual viewer, the subjects of The Act of Killing give a definite sense of culture shock. For example, the killers are considered to be native heroes whereas every other country would consider them to be war criminals. It also points out how far reaching Hollywood films actually are as the killers talk about their love of westerns, musicals, and gangster films; then suddenly, the film cuts to them reenacting a torture in the style of a James Cagney gangster flick.
However, what really makes the film transcend from fascinating into greatness is how the subjects take the project so personally that they start thinking introspectively. Small moments like commenting on how he would not have worn white pants to an execution evolve into discussions of denial, flimsy justifications and regret… possibly. The film becomes a Dorian Gray-like experience as time progresses. The Act of Killing is a raw film to watch, definitely not for the faint of heart, but the fact that it shows how film can affect one’s perspective, in many more ways than one, makes it a required viewing experience. In The Act of Killing, film is not just entertainment but a powerful weapon that is prone to misuse and backfire.
Frozen– The story on how Frozen was probably pitched:
In a fit of despair a Disney producer shouts, “Argh! We need to make a new Disney Princess movie but everyone calls them formulaic!” His crony mumbles. The producer overhears and angrily responds “Well, what’s your big idea big shot!?!” Nervously, the crony mutters “Uh… you know how we always do one princess?” “Yes.” “Well, it makes me think… and…” “Well!!!” “Have we ever done, uh, two princesses?” "..."
In spite of what the marketing implies, Frozen is far from any traditional Princess film; in fact, it deconstructs Disney’s formula with greater finesse than Brave ever mustered. For one, the film is not ashamed of it’s own femininity, even as it rips clichés like “love at first sight” apart without mercy. Neither protagonist is forced to replace their femininity with masculine traits to prove their worth and save the day; nobody had to brandish a sword, bow and arrow or what ever the phallic weapon of choice is these days. By completely breaking and rebuilding the Princess Formula, Frozen not only brings Disney into the contemporary mindset but also becomes a deep, poignant coming of age story. Shameless marketing schemes aside, Frozen is probably the best film Disney has made since the 90s.
12 Years a Slave– A month before seeing the 12 Years a Slave I was sitting in an Anthropology class and the professor mentioned that the common idea of race, as in stating one’s nationality, is an incorrect way of defining humans. The idea of stating someone is say African-American, Caucasian, and et cetera was a social construct that was created to further segregate those who are considered “foreign”. This moment in college is relevant because it represents a running theme about the antagonists of 12 Years a Slave, they use race to manipulate.
Not only do the slave traders and masters and the film never acknowledge that their slaves are human beings but they actively demean them into thinking in a submissive mindset. This was why Paul Dano’s character performed that racist, expletive filled, mock gospel song to the newly purchased slaves, so to remind them that they are cheap tools every time they sing a field anthem. The reason why this is so disturbing is how moments like this are treated as part of a routine even though we the audience know that this is wrong.
12 Years a Slave is about how manipulation spawned a system that tainted this country with the belief that violent dehumanization can be justified a reason as simple as money. Even today I have known people who play “devil’s advocate” and try to justify the economic necessity of the slavery, forgetting that the slaves are human. The fact that long ago one sect of humanity thought that another sect was inferior, and everyone agreed at the time, is so disturbing that it is nearly incomprehensible. 12 Years a Slave portrays this system in detail to show how easy to forget that we are all Homo sapiens, and that is why the film is so effective. Even the ending, as bittersweet as it is, provides an implicit reminder that even successful battles like this story are short term and rare, if that were not the case then events that led to The Act of Killing prove otherwise.
All of these films are influenced from the rich history of cinema but keep a progressive mindset that can only be found in this decade. The Act of Killing marries the fly-on-the-wall approach of Maysle Brothers, the staged theatricality of documentaries Nanook of the North, and Hollywood culture to create one of the most revealing documentaries in years. 12 Years a Slave could have easily stuck with the sentimental routes taken by films like Glory, Amistad, and arguably Roots but instead goes a cold, honest, almost scientific observation on the subject of slavery. As for Frozen, even ignoring any of many subtexts that people love writing about, the film is classic Disney that is unashamed of its feminism and femininity. In the end the films of 2013 shows the entire film medium becoming more progressive. The same old stuff and made with new minds, for some people this may not be enough but if films like these are still being made then this year and the next are going to be fine.