Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Favorites of 2013: Movies

Some years trying to think of movies to include on my favorites list is a bit of a struggle. Not this year; in fact, I'm leaving some excellent films off the list just to keep it a manageable length. Here are my favorite (non-Indian) movies first watched in 2013:

Classic Hollywood

Libeled Lady

If in our Classic Bollywood viewing 2013 was the year of Rajesh Khanna, in our Classic Hollywood viewing it was the year of Myrna Loy. We started with the brilliant Libeled Lady (1936). When they say "They don't make 'em like that anymore," this is the kind of movie they're talking about: a witty, sophisticated comedy delivered with sparkling timing by a quartet of glamorous stars (Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and a radiant Loy). Tracy plays a newspaper editor who's being sued for libel by Loy; to trap her in a compromising situation, he asks Powell to romance her. But for there to be a scandal, Powell needs to be married—and Tracy suggests his own long-suffering fiancée Harlow for the job. But as in comic opera, the convoluted plot is almost beside the point.

Myrna Loy, Asta, and William Powell in After the Thin Man

After seeing Libeled Lady, we decided that we had to rewatch all of the Powell-Loy Thin Man films just so we could continue to enjoy their affectionate onscreen chemistry. (After the Thin Man (1936) is not only the most cleverly-titled sequel ever, it gets my vote as the best film in the series.) And even that wasn't enough: we also watched some of Loy's earlier and later films, including Vanity Fair (1932)—Becky Sharp was one of her last femme fatale roles—and the decades-ahead-of-its-time The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). That film follows three World War II veterans (played by Fredric March, Dana Andrews and actual veteran Harold Russell) returning to civilian life, and their struggles with post-traumatic stress, disability, self-medication, and societal indifference. And, yes, Myrna Loy is as radiant as ever.


Today's Special

A micro-budget independent film, Today's Special (2009) was far and away the best recent American movie we saw in 2013. The cast includes Naseeruddin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey, Harish Patel, and writer Aasif Mandvi, who is brilliant at portraying wide-eyed disbelief as catastrophe piles on catastrophe. Mandvi plays Samir, a chef who reluctantly agrees to give up his dreams of moving to France in order to take over his family's struggling Indian restaurant in Queens. But Samir has never cooked Indian food before, and quickly discovers that he's in way over his head—until a loquacious cab driver (Shah) comes to the rescue. As I wrote in my post on Today's Special, Mandvi's film "shows that it's not the budget of a movie that counts, but the imagination of its creators."


We saw some wonderful films from outside the U.S. this year, but three stood out as favorites:


Valentin (2002), an Argentinian film, is set in 1969, just a few years before the country was plunged into social upheaval, a military coup and the Dirty War. Valentin (the wonderful Rodrigo Noya) is a precocious 8-year-old who tries to make sense of a confusing adult world. The extended scene where Valentin spends the day with his neglectful divorced dad's new girlfriend (Julieta Cardinali), and we see her dawning awareness that she faces a critical moment of decision, is heartbreaking. And the interview with writer-director Alejandro Agresti included as an extra on the DVD, shot in a poorly lit, noisy cafe in the middle of the night, is essential viewing as he reveals the elements of the film that were drawn from his own story.

No (2012), based on a play by Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta (of Il Postino fame) is about the 1988 plebiscite on dictator Augusto Pinochet's continued rule. Pinochet had declared himself President in 1973 after violently seizing power in the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende. The film follows René (Gael García Bernal), a designer of slick ad campaigns, as he tries to convince the earnest, angry opponents of Pinochet to use humor, suggestion and symbolism to win the hearts and minds of voters. We want the "No" campaign to win, but at the same time we realize that René represents the triumph of image over substance in political discourse. With its urgency and immediacy, No gives at least a hint of what it must have been like as a democratic movement struggled to emerge in Chile after 16 years of brutal suppression.

My Mother's Castle

My Mother's Castle (1990) is the sequel to My Father's Glory. Both movies are based on Marcel Pagnol's memoirs of growing up in the forbidding but beautiful landscape of Provence in the years before World War I. Every image is suffused with the glow of nostalgia and the warmth of remembered family closeness.


Perhaps because my partner worked in theater and dance for many years, we love performing arts documentaries. We saw several excellent ones in 2013:

Pina (2011) is Wim Wender's meditation on Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. The choreographer herself, who died during the filming, is largely absent; instead, we watch her extraordinary, generation-spanning company of dancers performing her works, which unfold with the logic of dreams.

Pelléas et Mélisande

Two excellent films follow the complex process of staging opera. In Pelléas et Mélisande: Le Chant des Aveugles (Song of the Blind, 2008) we watch stage director Olivier Py and conductor Marc Minkowski working with a group of French and Russian performers on Debussy's mesmerizing score. This fluid documentary exemplifies director Philippe Béziat's axiom that "Film is the continuation of music by other means." Becoming Traviata (2012) follows rehearsals for Verdi's opera La Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence festival. The cast features the extraordinary Natalie Dessay as Violetta. At the end of the opera, Violetta collapses, and the final images of the film are of Dessay falling to the stage over and over, trying to find a physical expression of the emotional truth of the moment.

Every Little Step (2008) focusses on the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Just as in the musical, we meet the auditioning actors and learn about their lives, hopes and fears. Structuring the film as a reflection of the show that it's about is a clever device. To make it all even more meta, we also get interviews with the original cast in the present day, some grainy footage of their 1970s performances, and excerpts from tapes of the famous rap sessions held by Michael Bennett as he was developing the show. Before seeing the film I wasn't the biggest fan of A Chorus Line, but I found Every Little Step irresistible.

Stories We Tell

Finally, actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012) is a compelling film about the solution to a longstanding family mystery. When Sarah reaches adolescence, her siblings tell her that there are rumors that Sarah's dad might not be her biological father. After a decade of uncertainty, Sarah sets out to find the truth—only to discover that there are as many stories about her parents' complicated marriage as there are witnesses.

Next time: Favorites of 2013: Books

Last time: Favorites of 2013: Contemporary Bollywood


  1. Myrna Loy is my hero :) I love her in The Thin Man films as the whip-smart protagonist, but I also enjoy her in more "negative" roles (as one would say in Bollywood), like in Animal Kingdom (1932). It's been a while since I've seen The Best Years, but my vague impression was that no one role really stood out in that movie except the real-life veteran and amputee in the film (heartbreaking . . . ). I've been meaning to see Libeled Lady for a while (what a cast!) . . . and it might be a good film to move up in my 1930s queue.

    Also, I agree that Today's Special was surprisingly good. I had the feeling that I shouldn't like it, but I think it succeeded in its own modest aims--to entertain and provoke a few thoughts here and there--which made it kind of pleasant viewing. It didn't try too hard, but it believed in its own message, all of which combined to make it a refreshingly enjoyable watch.

    1. Miranda, we haven't yet seen Animal Kingdom, but it looks like a pre-Code classic—I've just added it to my must-watch list. You're right about Best Years: it's definitely an ensemble piece. But in a film mainly focussed on the male characters, Loy's loyal, steadfast and loving wife and mother is the emotional center of the film.

      As for Today's Special, your comment makes me wonder why I have such great affection for films that unexpectedly exceed their modest goals, but so little patience for films with grandiose aims that fail to achieve them. Perhaps that should be the subject of a future post...

      As ever, your comments (and your wonderful blog Filmi-Contrast) are exceptionally thought-provoking. Many thanks!