Must see: great films you missed in 2013

Stranger by the Lake

Director: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao

Quite simply, the finest film of 2013. Set around an idyllic lake, surrounded by beach and forest, Stranger by the Lake masterfully lays a ‘Hitchcockian’ atmosphere of sheer fear through a series of paradoxes:

  • a claustrophobic film circling a broad placid lake
  • a thick, well-trodden forest that reveals more than it conceals
  • a roll-call of strangers, with recognisable routines

The film’s execution shadows Hitchcock’s style from the 1930s-1960s – the awareness revealed to viewers in Sabotage, the secrets carried by people in Shadow of a Doubt and the tense, voyeuristic nature of Rear Window.

Frank, portrayed by Pierre Deladonchamps, frequents the lake and its surroundings, looking to fulfil his emotions. But many more men are scattered around the lake as well. An intersection of desire.

Stranger by the Lake deserved its accolades at the Cannes Film Festival. Confronting. Explicit. Eerie. Nightmarish. Its atmosphere lingered long in my memory, rolling over the haunting images and spectral sounds.

The Act of Killing (Documentary)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

The final 10 minutes from The Act of Killing is as memorable as any scene from 2013. A confronting documentary, at times confusing, always bizarre.

Central to this film are the events of 1965, when the Indonesian Government was overthrown by the military, thereby elevating small time crooks (selling black market movie tickets) to the roles of death squad leaders. Some one million alleged communists were killed. No one was ever tried or convicted.

One man, Anwar Congo, is unrepentant. He has no remorse for his actions from 1965. So, for the visiting documentarian, he wilfully and meticulously re-creates how he planned the killings. Because of his background which was influenced by the cinema, he goes about staging the crimes again (not to the point of actually killing anyone) with elaborate sets and costumes. Anwar is delusional. Grandeur runs in his veins.

It’s an unforgettable film experience, with a finale you can’t shake from your mind.

The Lone Ranger

Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Helena Bonham Carter

Savaged by the US critics upon its release, with a reported budget of $375 million, the film has grossed only $260 million worldwide.

Disregarded by many as a critical flop, The Lone Ranger is actually one of the finest action films to come out of America in recent years. In fact, Johnny Depp’s performance as Tonto is the best of his career. The opening scene alone is an example of what Depp can deliver – a nostalgic old warrior whose memory is reignited when a young impressionable kid enters a circus tent.

The film’s set pieces are outstanding – in particular a scintillating train sequence near the end. And the cinematography is lush and grand. Many scenes contain old western film jokes, but they are given a breath of freshness thanks to the direction of Gore Verbinski. I still can’t understand why people hate this film.


Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska

Three generations of Australian actresses – Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Jacki Weaver – give fine performances in this bizarre psychological thriller directed by Park Chan-wook.

Interestingly, the screenplay was written by Wentworth Miller, the star of the TV show Prison Break. But it’s the performance of Matthew Goode that stands out in this film (you may remember him from A Single Man or Burning Man). He fits the atmosphere perfectly as the uncle who surprisingly and mysteriously appears at a family funeral.

With clear nods to Hitchcock’s A Shadow of a DoubtStoker is a dark gothic film that is worth catching.


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello

Prisoners is gut-wrenching – two and a half hours of a sickening subject matter involving the abduction of two girls. But don’t let that stop you seeing it.

At the heart of the story are the parents, who each handle their grief in different ways. Hugh Jackman, as the stolen girls’ father, takes it upon himself to find the answers, angered by the slow police investigation. Jackman’s performance is the grittiest of his career, ably accompanied by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard.

Surprisingly, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that doesn’t quite hit the mark. There is such a youthfulness about him, that his role as a weary cop never quite clicks.

In the closing credits, up came the name Melissa Leo. I was shocked to realise she played the aunt of the suspect. Unrecognisable in her appearance (much like in Red State) , she once again proves she is one of the finest actresses at this time.

Rewind This (Documentary)

Director: Josh Johnson

Remember VHS tapes? Remember Beta? If so, then Rewind This is your nostalgic trip.

A documentary to those who obsessed over the video cassette and its often marvellous cover designs. The film tracks down those who can’t let go of the tapes themselves or the associated memories.

You will be introduced to films you never knew existed (Heavy Metal Parking lot, Sledgehammer), by collectors who fell in love with them from day one.

But the documentary also looks at the war between VHS and BETA, and how the pornography industry played a key role in the outcome.


Director: Henry Alex Rubin
Starring: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Alexander Skarsgard

Released straight to DVD, Disconnect is an important film that should be watched by families. Similar in structure to the Oscar winning Crash – it shows how our lives can be affected by social media:

  • the bullying of a student at school
  • the online fraud of a couple struggling to survive
  • a young boy’s journey into the seediness of the cyberlife.

It is a confronting film because the screenplay is so realistic. We all know of someone who has been negatively affected by social media. Starring Jason Bateman, Hope Davis and Alexander Skarsgard – Disconnect is a film that would be easy to overlook on the shelves of your local video store – but it is definitely worth the investment.

The Hunt

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Alexandra Rapaport, Thomas Bo Larsen

Mads Mikkelsen is the man of the moment. From his turn as Johan Struensee in A Royal Affair, to his TV role as Hannibal Lecter, his finest performance may be that of Lucas, a man accused of molesting a child in The Hunt.

The film’s strength is it plays out so innocently, the viewer is drawn into the dispute on Lucas’ side, whilst understanding the emotions felt by the residents of the small village.

It deserved the Best Actor prize at Cannes and quite rightly is the film Denmark has submitted to the Oscars for 2014. These slow-burning, thought-provoking European films continue to be the mark by which dramas are measured.

The Search for Emak Bakia (Documentary)

Director: Oskar Alegria

Ever heard of the short film Emak Bakia? Don’t worry, neither had I. Apparently it was an experimental silent black and white film from 1926 (which you can find on YouTube and is actually very impressive for its time). It was made by the wonderfully named Man Ray, an artist who directed only six films in his lifetime.

But what is Emak Bakia? Is it a person, a place, a mantra? Director Oskar Alegria (in his first film) goes on a journey with the little bits of information he can find scattered throughout the original film, to find the title’s true meaning. Along the way, by sheer happenstance, his encounters parallel events from Emak Bakia.

The Search for Emak Bakia screened only at film festivals – but if you can find it, you will introduce yourself to a stunning documentary and a stunning original short film.

Rhett Bartlett is an Australian film reviewer who can be regularly heard on ABC radio.



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