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A Year in Sensation: 10 Cinephiliac Moments

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Caveat: I don’t see enough movies to compile a remotely comprehensive or responsible best-of list. I never saw Gravity, Spring Breakers, or The Bling Ring, and, sadly, missed fest-hyped releases A Touch of Sin, Leviathan, Like Someone In Love, etc. What this list catalogs instead are some of my viewing year’s cinephiliac highlights, many of which stem from films released in 2013, with several anachronistic exceptions.

And I should say, I like this better. My default mode of spectatorship tends toward enlargement and fixation; selective, romantic, it preserves images and patterns at plot’s expense, with negligible concern for real-life plausibility. Given all the various aspects of a movie eligible for eye-narrowing critique, it can feel like such pressure to clarify the relations between whether or not I “liked” a film and whether it was (any) good, especially when I prefer to be attentive and grateful for the moment that’s visually interesting or makes affective sense. I loved the Clint Mansell score for The Fountain (2006) years before I came around to a more expansive affection for the film. I still think of the scene in Peter Jackson’s otherwise unremarkable The Lovely Bones when Mark Wahlberg’s Jack Salmon, briefly receptive to his dead daughter’s suggestion, hallucinates the resuscitation of a desiccated rose and so recognizes Tucci’s Harvey as her murderer. That may sound suspiciously random–The Lovely Bones has no place on the map of my preferences, has little to do with what I study or gravitate toward; I probably watched it on cable at my parents’ house. But it’s actually an apt example: often what elicits my strongest response are imaginings of something like recognition or realization–moments when the mental process is rendered not only visible but somehow sensible, and the diegetic concern with what “happens” is temporarily displaced by a spectatorial grasp of what the film is, or hopes to be, about.

I’ve read and heard a lot of back and forth regarding how one might assess whether 2013 was a “great year” for cinema. It was the year I saw the most films alone, like Upstream Color on closing night, and for the first time I taught different simultaneous film courses, frequently fearing I’d allude to Attack the Block in my violence class or reference The Wild Bunch in the seminar in composition (how do people not do this?). Rather than evidencing a great year of cinema, the following, in order of ascending impact, samples from points of this year when cinema felt great, or when I felt cinema “greatly.”[1]

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10. Céline and Jesse Grow Up. 

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) –– Some reject so-called torture porn for the gratuitousness of protracted bodily harm; I felt needlessly tortured by the cruelties exchanged by now-middle-aged Jesse and Céline. I like the first two films for what they seem to get right about falling in love: Before Sunrise might be built on an endless inane conversation, but that’s kind of how study abroad works–thoughtfulish young people floating existential remarks over a gathering current of attraction–and the film’s closing montage of urban spaces emptied of their magic by morning-after daylight also felt true, to the way a person’s presence (or absence) visibly alters the atmosphere. It’s not that Midnight lacks this verisimilitude–it’s central to many critics’ appreciation of the film–but that the content of what’s expressed with such accuracy turned sour. I’m not inherently opposed to onscreen explorations of marital “instability,” or even an ostensibly Crazy Wife,[2] but everything ugly in Midnight is only banally so–mutual viciousness accommodated by a self-satisfied bourgie world, a cautionary tale for marriage and success: do not get rich, do not grow up. Wincing through the relative calm of the golden hour dinner scene, I realized a) I hate these people, b) if I wanted to watch spouses who no longer like one another commit the slow suicide of staying together, I’d watch Journey to Italy.

 9. Erin kills the Tiger.

You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011) –– I waited actual plural years to see You’re Next tackle the generic codes of a home invasion narrative. Given that I’m generally unmoved by twists, it was not the film’s reveal of tiny Sharni Vinson’s (Step Up 3D!) defensive capabilities, but the ferocity of her first kill that felt rather new. Recalling the resourceful calculation of Elm Street’s Nancy, minus Halloween’s Laurie Strode’s (rather understandable) hysterics, Vinson’s performance is nearly absent of what Carol J. Clover calls “abject terror personified” –and, as such, moves us happily closer to a more complex and less comprised survivor alternative to the Final Girl.[3]

 

 8. Mana Ashida’s Crying Face.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013) –– Javier O’Neil-Ortiz has said it longer and better elsewhere, but I too was unexpectedly moved by this blockbuster’s depiction of a world in which our defense against destruction is mobilized intimacy. In the scene of her flashback, Mako Mori’s private memory poses an urgent public threat, and we get treated to the expressivity of young Mako’s stricken face: an image of fear that makes past trauma inescapably present.

 

7. Benedick and Beatrice Against the Wall.

Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012) –– Even a Buffy loyalist has to admit that once you slog through Season 1, you go to as-if-not-more dark and compelling places in Angel, and the Wesley/Fred/Illyria relationship in particular is devastating television. I confess transposing affection for the Alexis Denisof/Amy Acker chemistry to Whedon’s Much Ado, and can’t imagine how their Benedick/Beatrice reads to an uninitiated audience. While their hate you love you repartee is sufficiently dynamic–sufficiently “Shakespeare”–it’s the film’s wordless final moment, the camera panning across a party to Beatrice backed against the wall, oblivious to their company, making the kind of openly intimate eye contact that’s actually embarrassing to witness, that’s as achingly (and economically) romantic as anything I saw this year.

 6. Amy Adams’ Eyes.

American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013) –– The most capricious, unmerciful cultural critics reside relatively anonymously in LiveJournal’s ohnotheydidnt community, and for me, Amy Adams has long exemplified what they cuttingly term “basic”: unremarkable, milquetoast, with palpable but perhaps interchangeable talent–nothing to see. In American Hustle, she was all I could look at. Exchanging personas within the span of a sentence, Adams’ Sidney/Edith is the schizo, ever at risk of falling apart. The opening sequence’s close up on her skittish, fearful eyes is the closest this film comes to depicting the sense of “depth” it so emphatically and repetitively claims to invoke. (Ocular runner-up: Jennifer Lawrence’s watery-eyed beat before confessing to her mustachioed mobster: “I hate change.”)

 5. Tony Leung at the Door.

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007) –– I never get tired of looking at Tony Leung’s face. Not in In the Mood For Love which is somehow more wrenching and elegant with each successive viewing, and not in Lee’s Lust, Caution, where, as sadistic secret police official Mr. Yee, Leung reminds us how unparalleled he is at things like smoking and looking at people/cameras. Leung affords this basically unlikeable character moments of such magnetism, you forget who’s seducing whom. Once his affair with Wong Chia Chi is consummated, we can’t unknow Yee as a callous, violent man–but before this, when he lingers at the door after their first illicit date, suggesting rather than imposing his desire, all eyes and sharp lapel, our resistance, like that of the university assassins, is futile.

 

4. The Revenge of Maris.

Rid of Me (James Westby, 2011) –– Rid of Me is a pleasingly feminist coming-of-middle-age film in which lovesick Meris (Katie O’Grady) moves with her square jawed husband back to his hometown. As unintentional horror, it nails how terrifying a close-knit group of grown and coupled high school friends can be–especially to outsiders (geographic, racial)–as well as the crippling social anxiety that dooms one’s attempts to befriend people you don’t even like. Westby and O’Grady are particularly adept at articulating the distance between Meris’s positive visualizations and the disastrous reality (500 Days of Summer who). There’s nothing particularly fresh about not being able to go home again, but Rid of Me innovates with style, suspending conventional chronology to introduce Meris in the middle of her transformation(s). I’m not even opposed to spoilers and I don’t want to say what goes down in this opening sequence–only that I rewatched it immediately and can’t stop showing it, like Showgirls and Bachelorette, to everyone I know.

 

3. “No!”

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964) –– I’ve been working on an essay broadly concerning the anthropomorphism of camera movement and scenes depicting rape, but on rewatching Marnie, I got obsessed with this single scene’s peculiarities and its various critical misconstruals. Many have said that where Vertigo exhibits patience, restraint, and artistry, Marnie confronts similar material (analysis, psychosexual pathology, the troubled ice blonde) with irredeemable excess; others see the latter as evidence of Hitchcock’s infatuation with European art cinema. From Hedren’s strangled girl-cry to the camera’s restless looks at and then away, Marnie’s rape is the centermost formal mystery in a film composed largely of inexplicable, self-aware set pieces. I’ve spent more time this year with this scene than any other, and will continue to puzzle it out in my talk on the subject at SCMS 2014.

 

2. The Duet.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013) –– There are so many aspects of Stoker I could recall as having been distinctly pleasurable: the camera gliding through the wake, at turns anticipating and following the glance-tag between India (Mia Wasikowska) and Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode); Kidman’s usual frail desperation put to exceptional use. But I’m going to be obvious and highlight India and Charlie’s orgasmic duet, a scene that celebrates the film’s ongoing play with camera movement, with perversion, and with Chan-wook’s typical ambivalence toward subjective experience and objective reality. The momentum of Philip Glass’s piece actually makes audible the momentum of an encounter desired yet feared, and continues the cinematic piano tradition (The Piano, The Piano Teacher) of ecstasy in a context of rigid control.

 1. “This is the only thing that matters.”

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) –– I first watched Sirk’s film years ago, TAing for Pamela Wojcik’s Basics of Film, but the emotional charge of Cary’s (Jane Wyman) longing, and the injustice of her asymptotic proximity to happiness, breaks my heart like the first time–probably because the film suggests with great certainty that this is the tragedy to which every heartbreak refers: the disbelieving joy that you might get the life you want, ruined by the inability to let yourself have it.

Footnotes

  1. Forgive the awkward adverb, meant to transfer some focus from the films themselves to the felt viewings, and to make room for instances when a viewing experience was intense but not necessarily positive, as the first entry illustrates. []
  2. I kept thinking of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), which is maybe harder on its audience but more generous toward its wife. []
  3. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992], 35. []