2013-The Best of the Year
Every year starts the same way: a countdown ushering
out the old, a kiss, a song, and best wishes for the next twelve months. Some
years fulfill the promise that exists at 12:01 on January 1; many do not. It
takes 365 days to make a determination. In the world of film, there are various
metrics that can be applied to decide whether a year is successful or not. In
Hollywood, it's the box office receipts. For me, as a viewer and amateur
reviewer, it's putting this list together. Some years are a struggle. Finding 10
films to praise as the best of the year can be a chore. Not so this year. When I
began to gather my notes, I found that I had upwards of 20 films that could have
made the list. The chore was trying to determine the ones to leave OFF. So, in
other words, a very good year at the movies.
For the compleatists out there, the titles that fall just below 10 are (and in no
Now here are the top ten, in reverse order...
SHORT TERM 12
Directed and written by: Daniel Cretton
Grace (Brie Larson in a star-making turn) is an employee at Short Term
12, a foster care facility for teens with emotional problems, requiring special
supervision and patience. Alongside boyfriend Mason (a marvelously measured John
Gallagher Jr.), Grace deals with an influx of escalations and seclusion from her
kids, with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) a young man about to turn 18, forced out of
the system, while Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) is new to the home, showing little
tolerance for others as she waits for her father to claim her. There are grace
notes peppered around “Short Term 12” that guarantee tears, and the picture’s
summation of anger and its limiting, destructive characteristics is carried out
with gravity, not sentiment. Created with an open heart and intelligence, “Short
Term 12” is a rare viewing experience, articulating troubled minds with an aim
toward an emotional purging that’s completely earned and appreciated.
Available on DVD/Blu-ray.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen Writer: Joel
The Coen's latest follows a week in the life of a young folk singer as he
navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled
against the unforgiving New York winter, he is struggling to make it as a
musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles-some of them of his own
making. At this stage, the Coens are working with a confidence and a maturity
stripped of a need to razzle-dazzle. While their protagonists often find no
direction home, they transport you again and again. Don’t be fooled by the
seemingly minor key; just because Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have the genre
trappings of a Fargo or No Country for Old Men, or the Lebowski catchphrases,
this is a fine work by – let’s just call it – the most consistently innovative,
versatile and thrilling American filmmakers of the last quarter-century.
Currently in theaters.
and written by: Ryan Coogler
Fruitvale Station is the name of an Oakland stop on the Bay Area Rapid
Transit system. There, early on the morning of New Year’s Day 2009, a
22-year-old black man named Oscar Grant, on his way home from
celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends in San Francisco, was shot in
the back by a white BART policeman for reasons that remain unclear. (On
trial, the cop claimed he had mistaken his gun for his Taser, resulting
in a reduced conviction and sentence). As played with extraordinary
compassion and subtlety by Michael B. Jordan—whose face will be familiar
to fans of The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Oscar is a young black man
of a type we don’t often see on movie screens. He’s nobody’s angel. He’s
served stints in prison in the past, his chronic lateness to work has
just cost him his job at a grocery store meat counter, and when his
girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) accuses him of messing around with
other women, he barely bothers to deny it. But Oscar is also a devoted
father to his and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal),
and a loving son to his single mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). And he’s
trying to get his life together and cut out the small-time pot dealing
that threatens to land him in jail again. Fruitvale Station’s wrenching
power lies in the specificity of its storytelling and the ordinary human
warmth of the world it conjures. You walk out of it, not shaking your
head over an abstract social problem, but grieving the senseless death
of one flawed, complex, tragically young man.
Available on Dvd/Bluray and for digital rental.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Director: Abdel Kechiche Writers: Julie Maroh,
The years best foreign language film. Also, surprisingly the
best comic book adaptation of the year, based on a French
graphic novel of the same name. It centers on a 15-year-old girl
named Adèle who is climbing to adulthood and dreams of
experiencing her first love. A handsome male classmate falls for
her hard, but an unsettling erotic reverie upsets the romance
before it begins. Adèle imagines that the mysterious,
blue-haired girl she encountered in the street slips into her
bed and possesses her with an overwhelming pleasure. That
blue-haired girl is a confident older art student named Emma,
who will soon enter Adèle's life for real, making way for an
intense and complicated love story that spans a decade and is
touchingly universal in its depiction. Blue is the Warmest Color
opened amidst controversy - graphic sex scenes, actresses
sniping at the director, some lesbian critics calling it a "male
fantasy" - but the experience of seeing the movie dispels most
of those concerns. This languorous coming-of-age story provides
an intimate portrait of a young woman coming to grasp with her
sexuality, experiencing first love, and learning to live with
the consequences of a tragic mistake. For my money, lead actress
Adele Exarchopoulos gives the best female performance of the
year, with the camera frequently lingering on her features in
extreme close-up. Raw, honest, powerfully acted, and deliciously
intense, it offers some of this years most elegantly composed,
emotionally absorbing drama.
Available on Dvd/Bluray February 25.
STORIES WE TELL
Director: Sarah Polley
One of two documentaries on my list this year. In this
inspired, genre-twisting new film, Oscar-nominated
writer/director Sarah Polley discovers that the truth
depends on who's telling it. Polley is both filmmaker and
detective as she investigates the secrets kept by a family
of storytellers. She playfully interviews and interrogates a
cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting
refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to
the same questions. As each relates their version of the
family mythology, present-day recollections shift into
nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too
soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley
unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family:
always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving.
Stories We Tell explores the elusive nature of truth and
memory, but at its core is a deeply personal film about how
our narratives shape and define us as individuals and
families, all interconnecting to paint a profound, funny and
poignant picture of the larger human story.
Available on Dvd/Bluray and for digital rental.
THE ACT OF KILLING
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
The years best documentary and probably the most difficult to watch. At some
point during The Act of Killing, your brain will simply want to shut down. It’s
difficult to describe, much less process, what this documentary captures. So
I’ll start with some facts: From 1965 to 1966, mass murders were carried out in
Indonesia in the name of anti-Communism. Those who declared themselves
Communists or were suspected of being Communists or were simply guilty of being
Chinese were slaughtered at the hands of paramilitary groups and the local
criminals recruited by them. The number of victims was somewhere between 500,000
and 2 million. That’s the population of a large American city, in case you were
wondering. Today in Indonesia, this is hardly a source of national shame.
Indeed, the murderers are celebrated as heroes, to the point that a handful of
them were eager to talk to documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer about their
past. What’s more, they restage the murders in intimate detail, offering, for
example, a tour of the benign rooftop that once served as a killing factory.
There, they demonstrate how a length of wire would be tied from a pole to a
victim’s neck and then yanked, because that method resulted in the least amount
of blood. The piece de resistance – if that’s the right phrase – is an
elaborately costumed musical fantasy “directed” by some of these men, in which
one appears as some sort of benevolent god and another is dolled up in drag.
It’s all hard to fathom and almost as arduous to watch. It ends with one of the
most devastatingly candid moments I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Part
historical document, part character portrait and part art project, The Act of
Killing ultimately registers as something altogether more powerful: an exorcism.
Available on Netflix and DVD/Bluray.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Director: Steve McQueen Writer: John Ridley
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free negro
working as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player, and living
with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) offer him a two-week
job as a musician, but they drug Northup and he wakes up in
chains, about to be sold into slavery. 12 Years a Slave is a
master class in turning history into cinematic drama. Speeches
are few and far between, while sound and imagery are at the
forefront. The film contains what might be the scene of the
year. A sequence midway through depicts a botched hanging that
is harrowing and devastating. 12 Years a Slave boasts several
strong performances – Michael Fassbender, who starred in
McQueen’s previous features and plays a particularly cruel slave
owner here, proves once again he’s best as a man possessed by
demons. But the standout performance in the film comes from
Lupita Nyong’o, making her feature debut as Patsey. McQueen’s
use of ultra-violence operates to repulse rather than arouse.
His film is a tough, soul-sickening, uncompromising work of art
that makes certain that when viewers talk about the evils of
slavery, they know its full dimension. This isn't a revenge
fantasy like last year's Django Unchained.
Being rereleased to theaters.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón Writer: Alfonso
Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first
shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) in
command of his last flight before retiring. But on a seemingly routine
spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and
Kowalsky completely alone - tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out
into the blackness. If there was ever a film created for the theatrical
experience it's this one. Making excellent use of both the big screen and 3-D.
Believe the hype: “Gravity” is as jaw-droppingly spectacular as you’ve heard —
magnificent from a technical perspective but also a marvel of controlled acting
and precise tone. Itdoes everything right in ways that are both big and small.
It’s beautiful and horrifying, detailed yet enormous, specific yet universally
relatable. Yes, it’s about how space can be a wondrous and unforgiving place but
it’s also about earthly human truths: love and loss, perseverance and
redemption. From the opening 15 minute unbroken scene to the finale involving
rebirth, Gravity is filled with the same kind of exhubarance of film making that
the pioneers of early cinema must have felt.
Coming soon on DVD/Bluray.
Directed & written by: Spike Jonze
Set in an unspecified future just a few years from now, the film
stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a talented correspondence
writer at a website called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com.
Still nursing the pain of his failed marriage to Catherine
(Rooney Mara), Theodore mostly keeps to himself, save for
occasional interactions with his neighbor Amy and her husband
Charles (Amy Adams and Matt Letscher). But after purchasing a
new artificially intelligent operating system that calls itself
Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), he develops an unexpected rapport
with the device as it evolves into a bona fide companion. In a
world of seemingly infinite connectivity, we’re constantly
hearing about how all of this technology is in fact forcing us
apart — whether we're spending more time instant messaging than
interacting or looking at our phones instead of the human being
on the other side of the dinner table. Spike Jonze’s Her
examines one man’s relationship with just such an electronic
device. Far from being a cautionary tale, it highlights how
technology itself can not only fulfill our emotional needs, but
also clarify our relationships with the people it’s meant to
connect us with. Ultimately, Her possesses the drive of a
science-fiction opus that speculates where we’re going as a
species and how we might get there, and yet applies its
discoveries to the individual. All of which is why it’s a modest
sort of masterpiece, a truly great film that manages to make an
unconventional relationship seem enormously rewarding, but
mostly because it accomplishes in Theodore’s life what we wish
real ones did in ours: teach us about ourselves, and help us to
be more — not less — open to love.
In theaters now.
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy
The third movie in the Richard Linklater/Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy "Before…"
series, this is the best, most mature of the three. The three films were made
nine years apart. Allowing the viewer to touch base with these characters to see
where life has taken them, ultimately giving the audience a huge level of
emotional investment. Before Sunrise (1995) chronicled love at first sight.
Before Sunset (2004) dealt with regrets and rekindling love. Before Midnight
(2013) explores what happens when the honeymoon period is over and real life
intervenes. Eighteen years after first meeting, Celine and Jesse are not in the
same place they were that magical night in Vienna. As with its predecessors,
Before Midnight is a talky affair but the dialogue sparkles with humor and
substance. The final 30 minutes are powerful and honest. Anyone who has been in
a long-term relationship will find many touchstones in this movie. Jean-Luc
Godard famously stated that "The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second."
Often, when faced with overproduced blockbusters and special effects laden
mainstream fare, it's easy to forget that. It takes something like Before
Midnight to remind us of what "truth" means. It's a delicate thing, easily
missed either in whole or in part. There's nothing wrong with escapism; I love
many escapist motion pictures. But it's a rare and powerful thing to confront
something honest and real on the big screen. It stays with you in a way that
nothing else can. Before Midnight is fiction but it might as well be a
Available on Dvd/Bluray
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