Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Top 25 Films of 2013

In a year without any default masterpiece — 2011 had The Tree of Life, 2007 had both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood — end-of-year list-making takes on an added excitement. While I should qualify that statement by saying that The Act of Killing is, now and forever, a landmark of documentary cinema, I opted for more life-affirming fare when picking my number one.

I have so much to say about all these films. In picking 10 titles above the rest, I chose those with subtext to digest, admire and write about. Following the Top 10 selections, whose order I spent too much time stressing over, I present 15 more films that could easily swap places with those I designated Top 10 material. I throw in 10 more movies at the end, bestow acting awards and name random superlatives. This whole affair sounds quite silly when I introduce it like this, now doesn’t it?

Since I have not written reviews for most of these selections, the blurbs included below run a bit longer than those you would find in a typical, professional print publication. Links to Netflix streaming are also included.

1. Nebraska
Nebraska is my film of the year because I just love it. A simple metric for judgment, perhaps, but I am at a loss thinking of another that takes precedence. Of all the excellent films this year, only Nebraska sung to me a song I so longed to hear — one I never heard before, yet with words and rhythms I seemed to know by heart.

This ineffable, alchemical connection I’m trying to evoke might explain why Nebraska tops my list and few others’. Unlike other prestige movies this year, Nebraska does not address a big historical issue (slavery, civil rights) or an ongoing epidemic (AIDS, financial corruption). Rather, Nebraska understates, slows down, miniaturizes. The plot beats hit so softly, the dialogue so steadfastly refuses to thematize, the performances — with the notable exception of June Squibb’s — lack the Oscar-calibrated fireworks that one may see this film as little more than a meandering, minor trifle. That verdict might hold water for some, but it overlooks the mountains of meaning hiding in the little molehills of action that make up this beautiful film.

Nebraska emulates the experience of life — with its disappointments, delusions and often-unpleasant interpersonal encounters — while always keeping one critical eye open. The story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a senile old man driving from Montana to Nebraska with his son (Will Forte) to claim a phony million-dollar sweepstakes, could have lapsed into easy sentimentality or bitter satire. Some critics may think the movie locks into one of those two camps, but I find it hard to believe one cannot feel the warmth director Alexander Payne, screenwriter Bob Nelson or the actors embed in these characters.

Whether you live in Des Moines or the East Village, you know people like those in Nebraska. They could be you, or part of you. At a family gathering in Woody’s hometown, the men of the family sit in separate chairs, a can of beer in hand, watching the football game. Their one-word remarks to one another span the lexicon from “yes” to “no.” They do not strain for eye contact. And, through this silence, they understand each other. They may have wrestled with anxiety and the ineffable long ago. But now, at their age, they live by what feels right. Payne acknowledges how crippling the larger questions that loom over us can be, and seems not to envy but simply appreciate how the silent majority lives, one step at a time. It makes for a complex portrait that exalts the humanity of these subjects while stopping to laugh — at them, with them, whatever — now and then.

Neither my review nor this short write-up can do this movie justice. I recommend everyone (and this is one of the few films where everyone means everyone) to watch Nebraska and for those who might have glossed over it on first viewing to give it another shot. Pay attention to how natural everything plays out, how small the defining moments of plot turn out to be. Try not to see your reflection in every frame. Like Wild Strawberries and The Straight Story, Nebraska is one of those masterpieces I’ll be admiring for the rest of my life. (My review)

2. The Act of Killing
More so than Gravity, more so than Leviathan, no film this year reset the boundaries of cinema like The Act of Killing. Documentaries can expose egregious acts (Blackfish) and allow the perpetrators to have their say (Shoah). The Act of Killing does both of those things, and yet it also dares to be surreal, delirious and strangely, persistently funny.

It goes without saying that no horror movie of this year or, maybe, any year can top the unrepentant, unaffected confessions of the film’s subjects: the Indonesian thugs who, with the sanction of the government, slaughtered thousands of communists in the mid ’60s and live unpunished and boastful lives today. Director Joshua Oppenheimer provides them the props and makeup to re-enact the stabbings, stranglings, hackings that they carried out like machines a half-century ago. These sequences take their time, though not without reason: green smoke pumps onto a soundstage, the subjects wander about, one of them (Anwar Congo, the documentary’s lead focus) gets behind a camera while wearing a face of prosthetic scars modeled after his victims. This is one of the few films where “surreal” unquestionably applies: these re-enactments evoke the most diaphanous and uncanny of nightmares.

According to Congo, he and his paramilitary buddies took cues from Hollywood when killing communists. After catching a gangster movie across the street, Congo would, literally, dance over and garrote a dozen or more men to death while under a most potent high of alcohol, marijuana, opium and cinema. These killers point fingers at the movies for their deeds, and Oppenheimer points his camera back and says, Please proceed.

Spending over two hours with these wild subjects leads to moments of hilarity, either slapstick (obese bully Herman Koto takes a real liking to dressing in drag) or black as hell (Congo interrupting a strangling simulation for evening prayers). But by the film’s end, Oppenheimer plays it straight. Congo’s final rooftop scene (which I will not spoil) ranks as the most unforgettable single moment in the movies this year: It breaks through the mind of a killer while leaving us with only more disturbing questions.

3. 12 Years a Slave
People are making 12 Years a Slave out to be like some required snuff film, as pleasant as a two and a half hour bath in hellfire. While no one will be pegging this one as a rather “joyous” time at the multiplex, the same can be said for Captain Phillips or Gravity. This is a harrowing movie, with moments (as in, a fraction of the 134-minute runtime) of graphic violence, but it proves palatable to anyone high school age and up because it is a story of human survival. Of course, the sins of slavery inform what Solomon Northup (brought to life, and close to death, by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the best performance of the year) must sacrifice to stay alive: mainly, he must forfeit his intelligence, his individuality, his personhood. Yet we watch for the struggle, for him to hold on.

Director Steve McQueen realizes history by taking your maturity for granted. This has a lashing scene, yes, but there are bloodless moments even more upsetting: when a young slave admits she wants to die; when Solomon joins in on the Negro spiritual; when a female aristocrat comforts a grieving slave stripped of her children by saying, “Before long, you’ll forget them.” These exchanges pain us because they demand not just obsequiousness but a lowering — a vanishing — of the self. Suicide beats living as a slave.

12 Years a Slave steers clear of a happy ending by reminding us that Solomon’s return to freedom is unimaginable, extraordinary; the girl who sought death will go on living, if you can call it living. But the freeman-turned-slave-turned-freeman-again narrative builds the rails for a beautifully straightforward film, with a firm tether to the present. That does not make the movie any more pleasant or ideal date movie-material, I guess. To be any of those things would cheapen what we have, which is moving, gripping, life-changing viewing. (My review)

4. Frances Ha
For the last goddamn time: This is not a Girls rip-off. In 85 minutes, Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (co-writers and, respectively, lead actress and director) capture the life of a deluded, post-college humanities major with more insight and punch than anything Lena has managed yet over at HBO. The confines of cinematic narrative help here: the filmmakers have one go to make a statement about this wandering, only-somewhat-talented girlish-woman named Frances. Who knew they could do it, and with such focus.

Frances Ha is the most satisfying film on this whole list because not one second goes to waste. The script moves scene-to-scene at a perfect clip, its cause-and-effect structural discipline only enhanced by Jennifer Lame’s inspired editing choices (quick cuts from a tax rebate check to Frances shrieking to her walking out of a bank; the brisk travel montages). The conversations include enough requisite “awkwardness” to sound (painfully) believable while always advancing the plot and building up Frances’ sweet yet indecisive character.

The movie gets real — really. Frances Ha nearly plunged me into depression as the similarities between the protagonist and myself stacked up (first and foremost, our disarming good looks). The stretch where she sleeps through half her Paris vacation — the shot of Frances wearing a backpack and fumbling with her lighter, in particular — tore me to pieces. So I am forever grateful to Gerwig and Baumbach for lifting things to the better by the film’s end. It’s like a more positive Inside Llewyn Davis, which does not necessarily mean it’s more artful (many would argue the contrary). But at least it earns its feels. (On Netflix)

5. Blue Is the Warmest Color
It’s all about Adèle. In a year of acting breakthroughs (Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Brie Larson), 20-year-old Adèle Exarchopoulos leads the pack. Some 90-percent of this three-hour movie’s shots frame Adèle at the center, where she drools on her pillow, fidgets with her hair and, as anyone who has seen this movie surely remembers, eats a lot of spaghetti. She goes all out in dirtying herself and wearing little makeup, yet emerges that much more beautiful. Put it on her natural looks or her remarkable ability. Either way, she plays the part of a love-torn teenager (also named Adèle) like no other. Follow her eyes as she connects with a boy (Jérémie Laheurte) and note the difference when she first spots blue-haired Emma (Léa Seydoux). The first is puppy love; the latter is something much stronger, and much scarier. Living her life for three hours was a high point of the year.

Update 1/10/14: Seeing this a second time, two days ago at the IFC Center with Adèle Exarchopoulos at hand to answer questions post-screening, cleared away any doubts I may have had. This is a great film. For a three-hour, French love story between an artist and a student, Blue Is the Warmest Color is remarkably unpretentious. On Wednesday, Adèle said that director Abdellatif Kechiche "does not care about makeup, or how you look." "He's not a technical director," she added. This film more than benefits from its lack of preciousness. It is all about the flaws, the quibbles, the stains. You forget you are watching a movie or watching actresses perform, because the images on-screen care not to say anything more than what they depict. You do not need to parse apart anything to "get" this film, or to be moved beyond belief. Kechiche's direct style, fastened to Adèle and Seydoux's flawless performances, explain why Blue Is the Warmest Color earns its 180 minutes, even more than, say, The Wolf of Wall Street below.

6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Tracking the villains of modern America without saying, explicitly, “These are villains,” The Wolf of Wall Street has fallen victim to the same controversy that befell Zero Dark Thirty last year. For one, depiction does not equal endorsement. That’s not my line; I have seen others throw that around on the critical battlegrounds of Twitter. But a reader of movies (as opposed to a passive watcher) should pick up on what Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are up to, behind all the excess.

I see opposing functions for the film’s soundtrack (all of its audio, not just its music) and its images. Like the cold calling swindlers at the center of this story, The Wolf of Wall Street talks your ear off: through Scorsese’s naturally euphoric music choices, through Matthew McConaughey’s primal chant, and, most of all, through Leonardo DiCaprio’s non-stop voiceover. As real-life Stratton Oakmont (a notorious pump-and-dump Long Island firm) ringleader, Jordan Belfort, DiCaprio boasts, in fourth wall-breaking tangents, about his yacht, the effects of Quaaludes, the different echelons of prostitutes he beds — pretty much every hedonistic luxury money can buy. When he actually stays in his own story, Jordan whips his 100-plus employees into testosterone-fueled frenzies, where they holler like gladiators or else crumple into tears. He has an effect on his people that Hitler and Mussolini also wielded to absolute destruction.

What happens on-screen, on the other hand, offers a glimpse at the sick reality under all the talk. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime editor, does not cut away from a female Stratford employee’s face as a male colleague shaves her head. It is a scheduled event at the office holiday party, and she has agreed to suffer the humiliation at the tune of $10,000 cash. But look at her! This moment, and many others, sends your stomach into knots. Scorsese recognizes the pleasures of Jordan’s life — even the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) on his tail envies him. So he bares it all, from the sex to the domestic violence, hoping you can indict the man and the system behind it on your own. If that last shot means anything — and it does — then Scorsese knows you will still, against all moral doctrine, want a piece of what Jordan has. It is a brilliant, distressing coda to the fastest three hours of cinema this year.

7. The Great Beauty
If innovation was everything, The Great Beauty would be nowhere near this list. Paolo Sorrentino’s stroll through bourgeois Italy wears its influences on its sleeve, with callbacks to Fellini classics like Roma, 8 1/2 and especially La Dolce Vita — so, some of the greatest movies ever. Not much time seems to have passed since the 1960s and the present day, at least in the world of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Tumbler in hand, he lazes about his apartment with full view of the Colosseum across the street. He throws bumping house parties, drinks with his friends and dances with his enemies. He would be an absolutely boring subject for a nearly two and a half hour film if he were not an artist.

Jep wrote his masterpiece (called “The Human Apparatus”) in his twenties, and aside from a newspaper column he keeps up thanks to his persistent editor (Giovanna Vignola, excellent), he has written nothing since. He blames his laziness on the seducing, soporific allure of Rome. We get his point, even if we fall for the views of the great city that Jep has long tired of. There are moments where Jep just looks at things: a violent performance art piece, a pre-teen prodigy enthralling an audience by splattering paint cans on canvas, the shored carcass of the Costa Concordia. These bursts of postmodernist art and ripped-from-the-headlines history tear us from the aesthetic pleasures that dictate Jep’s life and much of the film. Just as we may start to wonder where all this is going, Jep does, too.

The Great Beauty does not end on a revolutionary note or even some high avant-garde flourish. It echoes the art cinema tradition of Wild Strawberries and 8 ½ with its conciliatory final moments, full of promise and purged of bitterness. So, do not watch this one if you prefer to raze your idols. Simply bask in its beauty, and then slap yourself across the face so as to top it in a piece of art of your own.

8. Leviathan
Good nature documentaries are tough to come by. Tolerable feature-length experimental films are tough to come by. Something actually new in cinema ... tough to come by. Leviathan is more than a good, tolerable and new experimental nature documentary. It is a bridge between the NatGeo crowd and the acolytes of Stan Brakhage. It also pretty much invents a new way of making films, one that, unlike Gravity’s pioneering production, you or I could give a shot with a few hundred bucks.

Strapping GoPro cameras to sailors’ helmets and the end of boom poles, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel compose a wordless, lyrical portrait of life and death aboard, and around, a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. The images speak for themselves. A fisherman chopping apart still-living stingrays will grab your attention, but something more like hypnosis sets in when you swim through a matrix of starfish and fish guts propelled by the boat’s current. Leviathan immerses, which is to say it must be watched on as large a screen as possible. The texture of these digital images, especially those captured in low light, sets a new bar for the range of expression expected from cheap, durable cameras like the GoPro. The audio sucks, naturally, but the distorted, Bane-like voices of the fishermen only add to the film’s abstract, unsettling mystique.

There is a long shot near the end that must run over five minutes. It’s just a guy sitting at the table in the ship’s kitchen. He watches a TV (apparently playing Deadliest Catch) as a cigarette sags from the corner of his mouth. He drifts in an out of sleep. That is it. The friends I watched this with (more science-oriented students than I) were transfixed. After all the salty water and oblique angles and mechanical slaughter, Leviathan ends with a guy going to sleep. If one tries to read the film as an anti-fishing piece of animal welfare propaganda, they will have trouble with this shot. In the most banal way, the filmmakers unearth the humanity in these toughened vets of a most brutal trade. This moment clinches Leviathan as the real deal: an experiential action painting grappling the extremes of nature while cognizant of the comfortable limitations the human body imposes on understanding it all.

9. Prisoners
In a year when Superman toppled Metropolis to the ground and the G.I. Joes shrugged off the decimation of London, a wide majority of action films trivialized violence as nothing more than computer-generated window dressing. Not Prisoners. Director Denis Villeneuve restores the repulsing immediacy of violence, while opening up room for thought and allegory. This is not torture porn, nor is it one of those silly “puzzle movies.” While it borrows from each of those genres, Prisoners aims higher, meditating on the innate human impulse for violence. It is the best David Cronenberg movie of the year, basically.

As a survivalist father searching for his abducted daughter, Hugh Jackman turns in a career-best performance. While barking at Jake Gyllenhaal’s cop character in a police car, Jackman appears to break the microphone, which is about the most awesome production glitch I’ve encountered in awhile. But Gyllenhaal steals the show with his near-silent pantomime, communicating severe neuroses by blinking and pacing with his arms on his hips. He’s never looked this uncool, which is to say he is at the top of his game. Gyllenhaal seems to have found his niche in brooding, mature fare like this, Zodiac and another Villeneuve film due next year called Enemy. Good for him.

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins does his magic, as usual, and it is his spare, minimal style that cements Prisoners as one of the year’s best. Lighting a certain shower-torture sequence with next to no light, Deakins makes you feel sorry for a character that the narrative, to that point, has told you to hate. He also visualizes what it would look like to speed down a busy road at night with blood streaming down your face. Even as the plot takes perhaps one twist too many, the composure of Deakins’ images elevates pulp into a dense but disturbingly coherent morality play.

10. Gravity
Subtext is not the name of the game here. The much-lauded (and, in some circles, derided) shot of Sandra Bullock curled like a fetus in the space station is about as on-the-nose as cinematic metaphors go. But, in the case of Alfonso Cuaron’s aims and on-screen achievements, I welcome the chance to cast aside my film critic pretensions and enjoy the same experience as everyone else. That shot works because everyone gets it. For once, bravura filmmaking — in shot placements, camera trajectories, CGI precision — does not preclude a crazy worldwide box office tally like $653 million (and counting).

Even if the characterization of Bullock’s beleaguered astronaut, Ryan, reaches for some easy sentiment in stressing her tragic backstory, one should credit the prominence of spirituality in a film where technology, on-screen and behind-the-scenes, is so blatant a focus. I realize that might be a square thing to say. Studios sometimes make a ruckus about the Christian parallels in their mass-casualty blockbusters (as Warner Bros. did with Man of Steel this summer). Few movies actually deliver. Some Christian writers noted the suffering Ryan undergoes and the symbolism of rebirth and prayer. Others felt ties to Buddhism. Cuarón said he was going for Darwinism.

Gravity thrills you at such a basic, chemical level that we scramble to apply more meaning to the spectacle. You know what? I stand corrected. There is plenty of subtext here. Not that it needed any to land on this list. But when a chunk of the world sees the same $100 million 3D blockbuster and relates the protagonist’s ordeal to their own lives and different higher powers, you know we are in the presence of a piece of democratic art.

Fifteen more films that could easily join those above. In alphabetical order:

All Is Lost
One could charge this film as rarefied Oscar bait, with one of the most respected men in the business (who has never won for acting) carrying an entire movie without saying more than a few words. That charge stands, I would say, but it does not take away from the film’s power. Somehow, writer-director J.C. Chandor stresses the immediate physical danger of Robert Redford’s predicament (stranded, by himself, on a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean) while almost constantly raising spiritual, contemplative questions.

Note the brilliant interplay between light and dark near the end, when a flare extinguishes in the water by the left third of the frame as a cargo ship plows ignorantly ahead on the frame’s right side. Redford communicates fear, anguish and mortal acceptance through his face alone. What really makes this movie something special, however, is how its images reflect the subjective experience of its protagonist. Like Redford's character, you search for meaning in these spare, oceanic canvases not because you have nothing better to do, but because the fight for life can beget its meaning.

American Hustle
The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook tied up their stories in cute little bows that Oscar voters love. In American Hustle, man, does David O. Russell not do that. Sure, Russell’s best movie since Three Kings plays loose with narrative continuity, three-act structure and whatnot. I will take more of this, please. To sit in a theater and watch almost nothing but faces (with plenty of make-up and hairpieces, sure, but not a touch of CGI) snap and snarl at one another, often preceded by a needlessly fast tracking shot and followed by a 70s rock number ... what was I saying? Um, that — that is cinema. The best movie of the year? Eh, no. But few can top its delights.

Before Midnight
This thing is, first and foremost, a master class in blocking. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) walk and talk through old Greek towns, touching on their marriage and how they still feel for one another. No seams are visible, nothing feels forced. That’s great directing.

Before Midnight culminates in a complex face-off that tangles together the notion of a fight scene and, as Richard Linklater would prefer to call it, “a love scene.” At its start, Celine lands some choice words without a top on, as a moment of intimacy turns sour. Jesse deflects by pacing through the room and spreading his arms across a doorway, before plopping on a chair and laughing off some of Celine’s more trenchant complaints. The scene throws us in the middle of these two, letting each make their case. We may follow gender lines as to who we “root for,” but, by its end, we just want the two back together. Love scene, fight scene, or both, it is a great scene.

The Bling Ring
I included this one over more enjoyable fare like Monsters University and Behind the Candelabra. I have no plans to watch The Bling Ring again. However, I see it as mandatory viewing for those my age, especially those who come from wealth. Sofia Coppola’s clinical dramatization of the teenagers who robbed celebrity homes approaches Kubrickian levels of satire. That is to say: there is no life behind those Prada sunglasses.

Coppola, a daughter of wealth and privilege herself, twists the materialism of her subjects into a self-deprecating, stubbornly beautiful spectacle. How you feel about these characters says more about you than them. Do you envy the Louboutins they nab? Do you think Paris Hilton needs all those shoes? Do you? The brilliant long shot devised by late cinematographer Harris Savides sums the movie up: Two of the teenagers run through Audrina Partridge’s transparent modern home, grabbing any valuables they can as we watch from a distance. From this god’s eye view, we see them as the petty thieves that they are. But doesn’t a house with windows for walls practically invite these kids in? Look at all my shit — look at it. Don’t you want it?

Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett will win the Oscar this March in a rare aligning of attention-grabbing histrionics and actual, nuanced performance. Even when playing a mess, Blanchett keeps a few steps ahead. When married to her crook millionaire husband (Alec Baldwin), Jasmine plays smug and ignorant but too rich to be hateful. When he goes to jail and offs himself, Jasmine descends onto San Francisco, where she alternates between dishing relationship advice to her long-suffering sister and carping on anything that does not meet her standards. Jasmine is a pretty empty person, except we sense an intelligence and even warmth through Blanchett’s work. Woody Allen surrounds her with hot-tempered softies (Bobby Cannavale), working class wisemen (Andrew Dice Clay), creeps (Michael Stuhlbarg) and vacant success stories (Peter Sarsgaard). None understand her like her old hubby did. Given what we learn of her actions near the end, not even he knew the beginning of her.

The Conjuring
No theater experience in 2013 can top watching The Conjuring with friends in a packed AMC Palisades theater. The audience could not shut up, which made it that much better. James Wan’s haunted house horror show unfolds with an ineffable sense of dread punctuated by shameless, and totally effective, jump scares. When Annabelle the Doll first showed her pretty little head, a guy a row ahead of me muttered, “Oh, shit.” From there, the place was a circus. Nervous laughter, high-pitched shrieks and desperate pleas poured in when something was about to go down.

The Conjuring uses a lot of clichés to get what it wants. But it gets it — that it does. My fellow theatergoers, especially the men, laughed not at the movie but at the profound effect it had on them. Like good spicy food, good horror movies rattle us out of complacency. We realize that moving images and sound can send our physiological system haywire, to which we laugh and snicker with our unseen friends coming to terms with the same joke.

Inside Llewyn Davis
If I wrongly omitted one film from my Top 10 (and I know I said they're equal and everything, but come on now), it would be this one. With only one viewing under my belt, I sense that, given time, I will learn to love Inside Llewyn Davis. I must admit: the eponymous protagonist pushes the Coen brothers’ sad shmuck archetype to new heights of deplorability. Perhaps I am just a sucker for the bewildered sweetness of Larry Gopnik’s Job from A Serious Man. Also, Carey Mulligan’s character can too easily labeled a “bitch,” as can the rest of the female characters.

That being said, I know I will return to Inside Llewyn Davis. Why? For one, Oscar Isaac is a force of nature. He sings, he sprints, he broods. He hammers home the toxic idealism at Llewyn’s core, yet, somehow, gets even deeper. We sense the vagabond life has drained him, so why does he refuse to settle? I find the moment where he passes Akron (significant, in the story) on the highway to be a key moment in understanding his character. He seems destined — as suggested by the film’s looping narrative structure — to continue some stubborn Sisyphean fight.

Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is the real reason I cannot wait to see this movie again. As the only real rival for Emmanuel Lubezski’s Oscar for Gravity this year, Delbonnel lets us breathe in the smoke floating about the Gaslight Café and squint through the peeks of daylight bathing Chicago’s Gate of Horn. He reminds us that nothing beats traditional, grainy 35mm celluloid. Even if you remain at an emotional distance from most of the proceedings, the snow-swept interlude when Llewyn makes an emergency stop off the highway will move you close to ... well, something. This is not the kind of movie you cry to; it’s too sad for that.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The 1960s civil rights movement: kicked into overdrive and squeezed into a campy, crowd-pleaser of a movie. There’s Oprah, there’s Vanessa Redgrave saying the n-word, there’s Alan Rickman with a Reagan toupee. It should all be a train wreck, so why is the ride so smooth? I credit Lee Daniels’ mastery of melodrama, with oversaturated period rooms, swaths of make-up and award-ready performances. Editor Joe Klotz strings it all together with natural rhythm and kinetic montages that lull you into this world for its 132-minute lifespan.

Yet The Butler has stayed with me for its political balancing act, personified through a father-son struggle. White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker) rebukes his activist son (David Oyelowo) for defying the security and anonymity he has worked his life to maintain. Danny Strong’s script plays one side off the other, letting both have their say and, crucially, keeping agency within the black characters (the parade of presidents is little more than set dressing). By the end, in a shameless tearjerker of a scene, The Butler chooses a side. It earns that moment, as it does a place on this list. (My review)

Like Someone in Love
2013 was the year I discovered Abbas Kiarostami. Over the summer, Close-Up blew open my little mind, which is saying something because that movie is slow and almost ambient. Kiarostami is a master of slow, ambient films, and you’re bound to hate them if you have no better words to describe them than that.

Set in Tokyo, Like Someone in Love starts in a bar before moving to, in typical Kiarostami fashion, a car. From the back of a taxi, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is overcome at the sight of her grandmother waiting by a samurai statue in the middle of a roundabout. She told Akiko she would like to meet before leaving once more, but Akiko cannot, or will not. In addition to being a student, Akiko moonlights as a prostitute, something she is reluctantly on her way to do. But that does not stop her from blurting to the cab driver to drive around the statue once more, to watch, in vain, her grandmother stand dutifully in anticipation of her good granddaughter to appear.

It is one of those slow, ambient moments, yet it sets into place the pull of family and confidante, innocence and reality, love and violence that drive this quiet and powerfully resonant film. The client she is paid to service turns out to be an old linguistics professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), who fumbles and stumbles on his words as if straight from an Ozu film. Over the course of the film, he helps her more by feigning wisdom than pulling anything tangible from his academic background. This is a movie more about wearing masks in the face of humiliation, or worse, than it is about love. After all, it’s called, “Like Someone in Love.” Akiko and Takashi are like close, but not truly. They better fix their problems before that changes.

Now that we have settled that Matthew McConaughey is, in fact, a top-shelf actor, let me point you to two more names. First off, Jeff Nichols is the kind of writer-director who will keep the spirit of American cinema alive and well, not just 10 years from now but also 20, 30 down the line. He makes movies in the Heartland of the United States, the land of an obvious inspiration, Huckleberry Finn. He balances the terrors of mental illness (Take Shelter) or adolescence, as he does here, with a glimmering, barely detectable dose of fantasy. Fireside confessionals capture life as we know it, while guns-blazing finales tap into our want for action. There is a lightness to it all, yet there is no mistaking this for anything but serious, steady art.

The second name you should remember is Tye Sheridan. I have been going crazy the past few weeks watching academies and critic groups alike overlook his name come award-giving time. Sure, he is not even 18 years old, but his performance in Mud is star-making material. Despite what the marketing materials might want you to believe, Sheridan runs the movie. As a teenager with a temper, he carries himself with more confidence than you or I likely possessed, yet he never obscures the pouty existential funk one stews in at this most vulnerable of age. He’ll shock you when he clocks a man twice his size. He’ll hit even deeper when he’s just doing his thing.

Museum Hours
Looking over this list, I realize that I place a lot of value on films that try to emulate the experience of life while hinting at — not highlighting, underlining and throwing in your face — its little epiphanies. Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours is a movie about the importance of art in life that is a rigorous work of art on its own. Set in Vienna and mostly within the dark red walls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Museum Hours follows two lonely souls: he is a museum guard who passes the time looking at visitors looking at Rembrandts, Brueghels, et al; she is a Canadian visiting a comatose cousin in much need of a distraction. The two meet and connect, though you would be way off expecting the usual to follow. Rather, Cohen lets these two help each other, often through silence. A breathtakingly beautiful sequence near the end has the two take a boat ride through the Seegrotte, an underground river and cave system on Vienna’s outskirts. Not a word is spoken, but, through a dance of shadows and light, we witness a transference between human and nature, nature and history, history and life, life and death — and it all of it as some gift, through art.

Pain & Gain
Like the most unhinged in the Coens’ canon (Burn After Reading comes to mind), Pain & Gain is about stupid people doing stupid things. It is also the smartest movie Michael Bay has ever made. A blockheaded bodybuilder with the gift of gab, Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) drones on via voiceover about fitness, the American Dream and making a name for himself. Turns out he means robbing some poor shmuck, Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), for all he has — not just his cash, but his house, cars and trove of sex toys, too. What makes this movie something interesting is that Lugo and his cohorts (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson, who pokes fun at his brawn by playing a big mush) get away with it. No one likes Kershaw, but everyone loves the Sun Gym gang.

You will pick up on the usual Bay staples: sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism. For once, the argument can be made that Bay is in on the joke. These guys start as likable knuckleheads before spiraling into deranged, sexualized savagery. Noel (Mackie) takes a liking to tasering people or stabbing a woman with horse tranquilizer — given the attention his girlfriend (Rebel Wilson) pays to the small size of his manhood, there is a clear corollary between his impotence and violence. These man babies could not look more different from The Bling Ring, but they’re both after what is rightfully theirs. The Constitution, or something, told ‘em so.

Stories We Tell
As moving it is to watch Stories We Tell, I am convinced its power only settles in after it's over. There are a few stretches in this meta-documentary that feel overlong and rambling; I might have checked my phone once or twice. Yet as I thought about what I just watched — how one relative’s recollections differed from the next, how some laughed off past troubles and others still held resentment — my admiration for Sarah Polley’s work grew. With the quest to discover her biological father as a catalyst, Polley interviews brothers, sisters, uncles and so on, in order to uncover the real truth. Since no discernible truth emerges, Polley decides to subvert the nonfiction-ness of documentary. She shoots new sequences in Super 8mm to look like home movies and casts her remarkable (legal) father, Michael Polley, to read a beautiful reflection on his life, his late wife’s and hers. Who claims ownership of the emotions Michael has as he orates his daughter’s prose? Does it matter that the home videos are fake? Stories We Tell is a film of questions more than answers, but here’s one question you will not be asking: Who cares?

To the Wonder
I get you. This movie can be tough to take. Terrence Malick’s shortest movie since Days of Heaven still runs 112 minutes and takes its sweet ol’ time. Olga Kurylenko dances through wheat fields, Ben Affleck looks sad, yeah, yeah. I understand all the criticisms, but I still really like To the Wonder. I fell for its beauty: the shot of contrails in the Oklahoma sky, the shot of Kurylenko walking through lighted archways, the cut from our lovers at Pont Alexandre III to them gunning toward Mont Saint Michel. Malick and DP Emmanuel Lubezki are the kind of artists we should cherish.

Perhaps the intellectual seriousness granted Javier Bardem’s character, Father Quintana, also props up To the Wonder for specific praise. He is the rare religious figure given his day by a revered (a choice word) filmmaker; his struggle echoes Gunnar Björnstrand’s in Winter Light, one of Bergman’s saddest films. Malick does not give him lines so much as little moments: Father praying for the sick; Father drifting through a crowd celebrating a couple he just married only to be ignored. This movie is more a collection of these potent moments than a rise-and-fall kind of story. If you open up to it, it’s bound to stay with you. (My review) (On Netflix)

The World’s End
Not only is The World’s End the funniest movie of 2013, it also features some of the best fight scenes in years. I’m thinking back to Crouching Tiger and The Matrix, so we’re clear. Choreographed by Brad Allan (also behind Pacific Rim this year), action sequences manage to be both kickass and remarkably lucid. The first blows between the boys (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine) and the robots that now control their childhood town beats any fistfight from The Dark Knight or Iron Man. Edgar Wright keeps his camera on each of the guys as they fumble with the blue-blooded punks trying to kill them. He only pans to the next guy after the first manages to, somehow, dispatch his assailant. Long takes, in action scenes, played for laughs — a brilliant combo. The movie is a sweet, astute look at the threat of nostalgia and the dissolution of childhood friendships, too. But I must emphasize how The World’s End boasts some improbably amazing fisticuffs.

OK, 10 More:

Behind the Candelabra
Computer Chess (On Netflix)
Fast & Furious 6
Fruitvale Station
Our Nixon (On Netflix)
Pacific Rim (My review)
The Past
Prince Avalanche (On Netflix)
Monsters University

Films I Need to See: Much Ado About Nothing; A Touch of Sin; Philomena.

Best Performances:

Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
            Five Other Great Ones: Tye Sheridan - Mud; Bruce Dern - Nebraska; Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips; Mads Mikkelsen - The Hunt; Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street

Actress: Adèle Exarchopoulos - Blue Is the Warmest Color
            Five Other Great Ones: Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha; Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock - Gravity; Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Enough Said; Bérénice Bejo - The Past

Supporting Actor: Will Forte - Nebraska
            Five Other Great Ones: James Franco - Spring Breakers; Daniel Brühl - Rush; Javier Bardem – To the Wonder; Stanley Tucci - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Jonah Hill - This Is the End/The Wolf of Wall Street

Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o - 12 Years a Slave
            Five Other Great Ones: Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle; June Squibb - Nebraska; Angela McEwan - Nebraska; Octavia Spencer - Fruitvale Station; Léa Seydoux - Blue is the Warmest Color

Random Superlatives: 

Film We All Should Demand More of: Wadjda

Fascinating, Frustrating Curiosity: Post Tenebras Lux (On Netflix)

The Best Blockbuster of the Year: Fast & Furious 6
            The Runner-Ups: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Pacific Rim

These Were Much Better Than Rotten Tomatoes Would Have You Believe: White House Down and The Lone Ranger

Best Non-2013 Film I Watched for the First Time: Three-way tie between Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami), Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean) and Late Spring (dir. Yasujirô Ozu)

Best Film Book I Read: Devotional Cinema by Nathaniel Dorsky

Worst Films: Only God Forgives; Man of Steel; G.I. Joe: Retaliation

The 94 Films From 2013 (and Limited Release 2012) That I Saw: 
The Act of Killing, All Is Lost, American Hustle, Anchorman 2: The Legend ContinuesThe Attack, Before Midnight, Behind the Candelabra, Beyond the Hills, Blackfish, The Bling Ring, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Computer Chess, The Conjuring, Cutie and the BoxerDallas Buyers ClubDark Skies, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, Don Jon, Elysium, Enough SaidFast & Furious 6, Frances Ha, Frozen, Fruitvale Station, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, A Good Day to Die Hard, The Grandmaster, Gravity, The Great Beauty, The Great Gatsby, The Heat, Her, A Hijacking, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunt, The Impossible, In a World…, Inside Llewyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Kill Your Darlings, A Late Quartet, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Leviathan, Like Someone in Love, The Lone Ranger, Lone SurvivorMama, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Mud, Museum Hours, Nebraska, No, Only God Forgives, Our Nixon, Oz the Great and Powerful, Pacific Rim, Pain & Gain, The Past, The Place Beyond the Pines, Post Tenebras Lux, Prince Avalanche, Prisoners, RiddickRoom 237, Rush, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Short Term 12Side Effects, Spring Breakers, The SquareStand Up Guys, Star Trek Into Darkness, Stoker, Stories We Tell, This Is the End, To the Wonder, 12 Years a Slave, 20 Feet From Stardom2 Guns, The Way Way Back, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Wolverine, The World’s End, Trance, Upstream Color, Wadjda, Warm Bodies, White House Down, World War Z.

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