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Movies I saw in 2013

For us the world expanded suddenly, as far as television watching was concerned, because we started watching streaming movies over the internet this year. There isn’t the widest selection available there. You can’t see every movie you’d like to see. But there are some things you want to watch another time and some things you want to watch for a first time, and every once in awhile there is something great. So this is a list of films (and, this year, a television series and an opera production) that really knocked me out in 2013.

EngrenagesSpiral”. This is a French police series, directed and written by several hands, set in rough neighborhoods in Paris, featuring a set of incomparable actors, with complicated, cynical plot lines that often despair of justice actually coming to pass, except, perhaps by accident. We were able to watch the first four series, made from 2005 through 2010. There are supposed to be more of them. We’re waiting. We love the energy and the sudden plot twists.

Les Boreades (2003), film directed by Thomas Grimm. Jean-Philippe Rameau wrote this tragédie en musique late in his life and it was never performed while he was alive. It was revived for the modern stage in 1974 by John Eliot Gardner and Trevor Pinnock. This performance was conducted by William Christie, designed by Robert Carsen, in a production from Les Arts Florissants and Opéra National de Paris, with Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew and others singing the major roles. The music is extraordinary, the singing and the movement on stage is very good, and I think the staging is exceptional, with its seasonal structure giving depth to Rameau’s symbolic drama. Wish I could go see this live somewhere. Unfortunately the Met’s idea what to stage in their baroque revival is Handel, not Rameau. Since it isn’t shown around here, the DVD will have to do.

The Small Back Room (1949) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. A small story, in black and white, about a man whose talent at disarming bombs during WWII is contrasted with his own personal difficulties. David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, standouts in Powell’s and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, do very well with the very different requirements of the lead characters in this movie.

Life of Pi (2012) by Ang Lee. Great visual story. I love the zoo, and the tiger in the boat. Computer-generated graphics finally grow up.

Lust, Caution (2007) by Ang Lee. Stunning story of a woman involved in the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.

Ghost Town (2008) directed by David Koepp. We’ve loved movies about angels and the afterlife for years. This is a comedy that hearkens back to those great films, usually from the 1940s. The movie is capable of evoking surprise, and echoing previous events, both good signs. Good performances by Greg Kinnear and Ricky Gervais, too.

Ulysses (1967) directed by Joseph Strick. Wonderful, visually impressive film with all the Joyce language intact, in a not really 1904 Dublin, and showcasing a standout performance by Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom.

Coriolanus (2011) directed by Ralph Fiennes. Modern dress Shakespeare, with TV news broadcasts interpolated, featuring Fiennes playing the Roman general as an American (though without the accent). Vanessa Redgrave plays his mother.

Naked Lunch (1991) directed by David Cronenberg. Hard to think how you’d make a movie out of William Burroughs’ fractured novel. This is a good try with great performances by Peter Weller and Judy Davis. The special effects – pre-computer generated, mostly big bugs imagined by the central character, Bill Lee – are something else.

On the Road (2012) directed by Walter Salles. I have loved Jack Kerouac’s masterwork for decades. This film does it justice. It is – despite the American actors – a French film, as you learn when Sal Paradise meets Dean Moriarty on the streets of New York. Sal asks his chauffeur to wait. The driver is named Remi, the same name as Charles Swann’s coachman in Swann’s Love.

A Christmas Tale « Un conte de Noël » (2008) directed by Arnaud Desplechin. A family reunites for Christmas. This family is French, living in the Nord department, and they have their troubles, naturally. I love the moment when Jean-Paul Roussilon, playing the father, listens to Charles Mingus recordings with a musical score in his lap.

London the Modern Babylon (2012) directed by Julien Temple. I like books and documentary films about London. When I was younger I read everything about London’s architectural history by John Summerson. A couple years ago I fell in love with the books by Iain Sinclair (White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Lights out for the Territory). And there was London, the 1994 film by Patrick Keiller. But this newest movie is truly great, a cinematic mosaic of life in the twentieth century in London, with a focus on the immigrant and the artist communities.

The Great Gatsby (2013) directed by Baz Luhrmann. Over the top, and a mess, but perhaps the first of the films based on Fitzgerald’s novel that really reflects the language that makes that book so compelling. We saw it in a Cineplex with 3D glasses. We enjoyed the whole thing.