The good, the bad and the groundbreaking: movies of 2013

The jury of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival had its say on the films of the year in May. EPA/Guillaume Horcajuelo EPA/Sebastien Nogier

Warning: this is not a list of the best movies of 2013. There were plenty of movies released this year that stirred up debates about cinema and who makes it. They were the ones that made me sit up and take notice. Here are the three that had the biggest impact on me.

1. The Great Gatsby: an intoxicating mash-up

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Trailer for The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby was an unequivocal failure before it had opened on a single screen. What audacity for an Australian, Baz Luhrmann, to adapt this novel, this sacred chronicle of America’s Jazz Age?

The film was granted the generous honour of opening the Cannes Film Festival, only to be lampooned in the next day’s global newspapers for failing to live up to its end of the bargain, to be a good film.

Of course, we knew it would be universally panned.

In the wake of that much-hyped opening, we expected that the film would simply go away, to be forgotten as one more failed attempt at an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel.

And then, in an equally astonishing turn of events, the Great Gatsby was vindicated at the American, European and Australian box office, becoming one of the surprise commercial successes of 2013.

For one reason or another, mainstream audiences seemed to love it.

Let’s consider a really radical idea: that all art is adaptation. That all artists encompass other works in their own, paying homage, perhaps, but more often simply using material for their own designs, their own desires.

Luhrmann used Fitzgerald’s novel to produce an intoxicating mash-up of images and sounds that amount to commercial success and an ever-swelling cultural significance.

Reflecting on the film now, months later, what has stayed with me are fleeting, impressionistic things: a line or two of Jack White’s rendition of U2’s Love is Blindness filtering over a late sequence; or the reveal of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby – “Who is this Gatsby?” – at the end of the first act, set against an explosion of fireworks.

Nick meets Gatsby.

In the sensory overload of that wonderfully absurd moment, why would anyone search for its source material in a novel, of all things?

The Great Gatsby is not “faithful” to Fitzgerald’s novel. But neither should it have to be. In fact, its most courageous aesthetic move is to disrespect that novel just enough to resonate as its own work of art, surely not unlike the way jazz disrespected its own musical forebears.

This is a film about the Jazz Age, after all.

2. Only God Forgives: shock value

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Trailer for Only God Forgives.

Nicholas Winding Refn has attracted a great deal of attention over the last few years. He deservedly won the Sydney Film Festival’s major prize with Bronson. Drive (2011), his first foray into (relatively) commercial filmmaking was, to my mind, stunning.

I thus approached Only God Forgives with some anticipation. I certainly wasn’t bothered by reports of unmitigated booing at the film’s screening in Cannes.

Only God Forgives sets out to offend its spectator. It’s a very uncomfortable film to sit through; at the screening I attended, batches of spectators periodically left the theatre, usually during the quieter, more discrete moments following sequences of outrageous violence.

What do we make of a film that sends audiences out the door?

My position is that occasionally we need cinema to offend our sensibilities, and so I forgive a sterile plot, ludicrous characterisation, and the heavy-handed, self-indulgent excesses of style.

In an era of sterile cinematic violence, Refn’s film is fetishistically violent, revelling in the discomfort a filmmaker can project onto a spectator. Refn is the contemporary film-artist as sadist.

Only God Forgives is not a good film. Comparisons with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) are grossly unfair to that classic, and I was astonished when it received best film at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival.

But it is a film that reminds us of the potential of cinema to shock its spectator, to make us question why we watch movies, and what we hope to get out of them.

3. Gravity: having it both ways

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Trailer for Gravity.

Gravity deserves to make all the lists this year. Once in a while, a film-making team sets out to shift the aesthetic playing field of a medium. For cinema, this happens very rarely, primarily because the majority of film-producing industries operate within a highly regulated commercial system.

Recent cinema, and here I’d be especially critical of recent Hollywood output, regularly opts for the commercial over the artistic imperative.

As does Gravity, let’s not kid ourselves. Gravity is this year’s virtuoso collaboration between director, cinematographer and effects artists, and a resounding capitulation to the studio ethos that seeks the greatest return on large monetary investment.

It is the very model of the Hollywood film that wants it both ways.

So, yes, Cuarón gives us a new cinematic image of the world projected from outer space, captured in the most imaginative, viscerally-charged 3-D. This is cinematography that rewires our perspectival senses.

And yet how quickly Cuarón returns us to the quotidian: the groundedness of world in the image of a footprint on land; the intrinsic desire for faith in Dr Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) discovery of woman’s essential maternalism; the banality of the story of survival that wrings the life out of darker material at its root.

Comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) abound, but whereas Kubrick’s radical special effects were part of a complex philosophy of being, Cuarón’s image is, merely, a passing effect, a fleeting and temporary spectacle in what could have been a much more interesting film.