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My 12 for ’13: Cloud Atlas & Sheer Ambition

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 1…

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It’s very rare to see something quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Cloud Atlas is bizarre, insane, messy, ambitious, inconsistent, difficult-to-parse… and quite brilliant. I first saw Cloud Atlas at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in February of this year. It was the Saturday night screening. I had just spent most of the day (and most of the week) in dark rooms watching films from all over the world. My mind was a little zonked, my phone overflowing with notes jotted down after each screening to be processed later, sorted and filed into reviews or summaries.

It’s a bit much to describe my first viewing of Cloud Atlas as a blur. I had a reasonable understanding of what was going on. I was certainly awake and alert for all of it, which is quite an accomplishment for a three-hour-long Saturday night screening during the height of an film festival. It looked luminous and sounded stunning, even as it stubbornly refused to make much sense. I could see what it was doing, building a piece of cinema as you would a piece of music; different tracks looping one another, rising and falling and colliding; intersecting only briefly before the combination changes and the tune becomes something else entirely.

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I was delirious. I had not slept a full eight hours since the start of the Festival. That’s par for the course. It makes me a bit a grumpy and irritable. I apologise to anybody who has to meet me at the height of these sorts of things. It was (as ever) wonderful; I’ve done it for three years and I’ll do it again next year, but it is draining. And that’s just attending it, trying to soak in everything that happens around you. I can’t imagine working at it or organising it, the stress must be absolutely incredible. And the people who do have my most heart-felt respect and admiration.

And so, that was how I saw Cloud Atlas. I was beyond tired, a little worn out, a little depleted. However, Cloud Atlas was an absolutely invigorating experience. It just grabbed me. I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it, in terms of scope and ambition and energy. It’s a tough movie to make sense of – “explain Cloud Atlas in ten words or less” is a fun party game for any cinephiles at home. It doesn’t conveniently classify itself, and it actively defies any attempt to pin it down.

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Are some of the stories within the narrative fictional in the context of other stories? If this the story of souls caught in a reincarnation cycle, how can Hugo Weaving be inside Tom Hanks’ head? Is the central character a single soul, or does the lead role fall to a different soul within each cycle? What about the significant overlap between the three stories most closely linked in chronology? How can all the participants have died and been reborn in order to age to precisely the right point?

Cloud Atlas is a a film that ultimately relies on the viewer to make sense of it. What each viewer gets out of it will be entirely up to them. Is it the most abstract film about slavery and power ever constructed, existing as a bizarre companion piece to Lincoln, 12 Years A Slave and Django Unchained? Is it a meditation on the existence of a human soul? Is it a damning commentary on mankind’s limitless capacity to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? It is all of these things, and more.

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It’s a film that invites discussion and dissection and debate, and which seems deep enough that there is always more to be found. After several watches, the film still poses questions and mysteries, many of which can be intuited from what was seen on film, but some of which remain with the viewer to decide for themselves. It’s genuinely ballsy film-making, ambitious and risk-taking cinema. It’s an intimate epic, and has been described as “the most expensive indie film ever produced.”

Cloud Atlas is an absolutely incredible piece of cinema, and the movie that stayed with me longest and most profoundly of the year that has been.

Our top twelve films of the year:

Honourable Mentions

12.) Blue Jasmine

11.) Lincoln

10.) Much Ado About Nothing

09.) Iron Man 3

08.) Philomena

07.) Only God Forgives

06.) Star Trek Into Darkness

05.) Stoker

04.) Gravity

03.) Rush

02.) Django Unchained

01.) Cloud Atlas

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4 Responses

  1. I’m putting my top films of the year list together but there’s still many I haven’t seen!

  2. Delighted to see this here. I found it very difficult to even say whether I thought this movie was good or not at first, but as you put it in your whole ’12 for 13,’ it really did stick with me a lot longer than most movies do.

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