Lost in the Movies: If These Frames Could Talk: My 10 favorite first-time viewings, 2013

If These Frames Could Talk: My 10 favorite first-time viewings, 2013

from a house made of celluloid film strips,
part of "Agnes Varda in Californialand" exhibit at LACMA
visited November 29, 2013

Recently, Twitter has been abuzz with "best of 2013" lists. Considering I saw fewer new releases in the past twelve months than in any other year of my life (one to be exact: The Great Gatsby) I couldn't really contribute. But another phenomenon piqued my interest: discussions about films people had seen for the first time in 2013.

As my theatergoing habits attest, last year was not a banner year for my cinephilia: rather than exploring new and adventurous directions, my viewings were mostly dictated by completion (films I owned but hadn't watched, titles I had to see for polls I was participating in, online lists I was trying to work through), research (themes which echoed or amplified screenplay ideas I was working on), or nostalgia.

That last impulse was very strong, and I counted 76 feature films I watched for at least the second time in 2013. But that still left 143 features I'd never seen before. Add in a huge percentage of the 314 shorts and 102 music videos I kept tabs on (I can't be sure which were re-viewings), and I had hundreds of films from which to select my top 10 new viewings.

My picks are below; surprisingly, half are from a 3-week period in April when I was on a lucky streak. I watched over a dozen miniseries last year, resulting in a couple selections, and of the many shorts I only picked one. I would gladly recommend these series, shorts, or features to anyone and have included links to further reviews or visual tributes were applicable. A full list of every miniseries and feature I saw for the first time in 2013 follows my top 10. Enjoy...

Pyaasa (1957/India), dir. Guru Dutt
viewed April 2
Here was the first unexpected masterpiece I experienced all year. Numerous Indian films had topped my queue for months (thanks to Shubhajit Lahiri's copious coverage at Cinemascope), but I knew nothing about director/star Dutt. I was blown away by the film's pathos and ambitious storytelling; my only experiences with Indian cinema had been the Apu trilogy and the 70s film Ankur, both anchored in realism. Pyaasa's mixture of music, fantasy, melodrama, and social commentary moved me and excited my senses, and I wrote about it in what would be my last review for months.

Mahanagar (1963/India), dir. Satyajit Ray
viewed April 8
As I delved into Indian cinema, I saw several Rays - and this was my favorite (though Charulata and Nayak were both excellent). I'm always a sucker for sales-movies, and this film deftly captures the excitement of a housewife venturing into her first work experience, discovering she has a knack for the business even as her husband becomes embarrassed by her success. It's a wonderful story of personal growth and interpersonal tension, full of both street savvy and a humanist ethic. Madhabi Mukherjee's performance is wonderful as the character comes into her own, struggling between professional satisfaction and personal duty.

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987/Canada), dir. Frederic Back
viewed April 14
I feel a strong personal attachment to this animated fable about a forest emerging from a desert, for several reasons. Featured in the opening to James Earl Jones' PBS series "Long Ago and Far Away", I sampled it from a VHS tape years ago for an experimental project. I finally watched the full film on the eve of the Boston marathon bombing, so its message of peace amidst turmoil and agony had extra resonance. I included it in my tribute to Boston the next day.

Brideshead Revisited (1981/UK), dir. Charles Sturridge, Michael Lindsay-Hogg
finished April 20
Despite a certain - perhaps justifiable - objection to the "literary quality" school of filmmaking  (paying scrupulous attention to novelistic and period detail and sumptuous production value) this legendary mounting of Evelyn Waugh's book is so intensely satisfying that one can't object. Granada TV spun an epic from Waugh's relatively compact tome (movie time is different from book time) and created a work that one can both luxuriate in and sink one's teeth into - it's both delightful and weighty.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003/USA), dir. Thom Andersen
viewed April 20
This is the only film here which I saw in a cinema, and I'm glad that's how I caught it. Though essentially a homemade project, Andersen's proto-video essay is so ambitious in scope that it demands the scale offered by the Egyptian theater in - you guessed it - Los Angeles. Andersen's caustic take on Hollywood's geographical carelessness is amusing, but what really takes hold is his penetrating sociological observations: L.A. as a city of masses rather than elites, and those rare but essential films which depict this reality.

Perceval le Gallois (1978/France), dir. Eric Rohmer
viewed June 22
I watched many Grail- or Arthur-themed films last year, and not by accident. For a while, I was laboring on a Grail-themed screenplay which I've since abandoned (albeit not permanently). I read numerous books on the subject and watched films ranging from Disney's Sword in the Stone to Spielberg's Indiana Jones entry to Syberberg's staggeringly weird opera Parsifal. But none bowled me over as purely and effectively as Rohmer's gorgeously elemental adaptation of the original legend, filmed on an ornately artificial soundstage. I paid visual tribute to it and the Syberberg together.

Chronicle of a Summer (1961/France), d. Rouch/Morin
viewed July 17
A documentarian and a sociologist teamed up to capture the zeitgeist of '60 with a fascinating fusion of rigor and spontaneity. What's so fascinating about this film is the way in which it manages to seem both universal and historical, existing in a continuity with contemporary feelings of alienation or anxiety while anchored in a very specific time and place. The transition occurs about halfway through; while listening to a woman fret about personal and existential woes, the camera pans down and captures the concentration camp tattoo on her arm.

It's a Beautiful Day (2012/USA), dir. Don Hertzfeldt
viewed September 9
A combination of three shorts into one feature film, this deceptively simple cartoon employs stick figures and thirtysomething Hertzfeldt's trademark dark humor and cynicism to surprisingly heartfelt yet unsentimental effect. After the extremely clever but rather jaundiced perspectives of his earlier films, Hertzfeldt's The Meaning of Life (2005) represented a turning point both mystical and humanist, and It's a Beautiful Day fulfills that promise with wry humor, poignant insight, and surprisingly intricate craftsmanship.

I, Claudius (1976/UK), dir. Herbert Wise
finished December 3
Of the baker's dozen miniseries I watched this year, the depraved and crudely-produced I, Claudius was definitely my favorite. As it covers the Caesars with gossip rather than glory and literal rather than figurative guts, the cast performs an odious parade of corruption and perversion - yet when these fiends reappeared in an encore epilogue, swimming before poor Claudius' vision during a hallucination, I could barely suppress my huzzahs. The performances are so flamboyantly magnificent, it's truly a joy to partake in their decadence.

The Battle of Chile (1975 - 79/Chile), d. Patricio Guzman
finished December 14
If I, Claudius revels in the joy of (mostly fictional) dictatorship and destruction, The Battle of Chile reveals its all-too-real hypocrisy. The filmmakers were in the right place at the right (or wrong) time, capturing the establishment's opportunistic shift from faux-democratic appeal to desperate sabotage to brutal military crackdown in order to protect its interests (I offered my own thoughts on this). Savagely real yet heartbreakingly romantic, this is a film whose spirit is desperately needed in today's cinema.

For images from most of the films I saw last year, visit my #WatchlistScreenCaps viewing diary.

Miniseries I saw for the first time in 2013

American Cinema
Brideshead Revisited
 Phantom India
Rich Man, Poor Man
I, Claudius
Band of Brothers
Heimat 3

Feature films I saw for the first time in 2013

Return of the Prodigal Son
Capricious Summer
Silver Linings Playbook
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue
My Bloody Valentine (1980)
The Love Goddesses
Courage For Every Day
Being Two Isn't Easy
The Machine That Kills Bad People
Zero Dark Thirty
The Sun's Burial
Atlantic City
Les Miserables (2012)
Short Cuts
Body Heat
Cutter's Way
The House of Yes
My Childhood
My Ain Folk
Watership Down
Tender Mercies
The Talk of the Town
A Decade Under the Influence
Kaagaz Ke Phool
Los Angeles Plays Itself
King Lear (1987)
Return to Oz
The King of Marvin Gardens
Two in the Wave
The Last of England
The Red Inn
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Exiles
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
Farewell to the King
Lancelot du Lac
The Fisher King
The Snowtown Murders
Killing Them Softly
Parsifal (1982)
Dangerous Liaisons
Perceval le Gallois
Cruel Intentions
Born Free
Chronicle of a Summer
Christmas in Connecticut
It Happened on 5th Ave.
The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman
Jeremiah Johnson
Frontier Marshal
The Train Robbers
The Private Life of Don Juan
Blues in the Night
A Safe Place
Drive He Said
Not Without My Daughter
Local Legends
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Animal Kingdom
Grand Canyon
The Mosquito Coast
It's a Beautiful Day
56 Up
Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.
Nowhere Boy
Simon Killer
Gold Diggers of 1935
The Master
Spring Breakers
Room 237
These Amazing Shadows
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth
London, Modern Babylon
Peter Pan & J.M. Barrie
Battle for Brooklyn
Electric Purgatory
The James Bond Story
Black Is...Black Ain't
Django Unchained
Roman Scandals
The Mind Reader
Poil de Carotte
Men in War
The Living Corpse
Exit Smiling
Waste Land
They Won't Forget
God's Little Acre
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1988 version)
The Evil Dead
Evil Dead II
King Kong (1976)
Becoming John Ford
Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director
Carl Th. Dreyer - My Metier
Girl Crazy
Empire Falls
The Battle of Chile
Frances Ha
The Dead
The Tommyknockers
Chile, Obstinate Memory
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
Gorillas in the Mist
The Thief and the Cobbler (recobbled version)
Scrooge (1935)
Margaret (theatrical cut)

Of the many short films I watched, I am not sure how many were new vs. re-viewings, so I won't compile them here. I also did not include documentaries produced primarily as TV episodes in the features category, although I counted them as films in my screen-cap diary.


Mike said...

Great post- I haven't seen any in your top ten unfortunately, but several have piqued my interest, especially Los Angeles Plays Itself which is one of the few 'holy grail' films for me in this day and age where only the most obscure films are virtually impossible to see. Also, great image for Pyassa, that film sounds right up my alley.

I made my own list of top ten first viewings of 2013 (which reads like it could be someone's top ten of all time)


msmariah said...

Great list. I think some of these movies sounded better than some of the 2013 releases.

I've really enjoyed reading through your blog. Following you now.

Joel Bocko said...

Mike, Los Angeles Plays Itself is a great Holy Grail film to have. I'm glad I got to see it after moving to L.A., but I wonder too what it would have been like to watch it before the move (I had never visited the city before I moved here) - as a stranger to the city. If you get a chance to see it (and I think I've actually seen it posted on YT before though I'm not 100%), I'll be interested to read your reactions on your site.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, msmariah - always nice to discover new readers/lurkers. Personally I would venture a guess that these 10 films are better than almost all of the 2013 releases - but then, as I haven't been to new movies much in the past year, that would be too much speculation ;). Still, I can't recommend these heartily enough...

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