2013 Top Ten

2013 Top Ten December 28, 2013


It’s that time of year again. The time when I make a distinction between “best” and “favorite.” The time when I look back over Letterboxd and festival logs, checking critics’ groups for any high profile films I haven’t seen.

The past twelve months have been filled with great times at the movies for me. For the first time since I started making such lists, I had choices to make not only at the top but also at the bottom. This was emphasized to me last night as I stared at the final thirteen films, wondering which to drop. I finally let go of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Can a Song Save Your Life? on the basis of their not having had mainstream releases in the United States, though that has rarely stopped me in the past. (See for instance: The Kid With a Bike and Great Expectations.) I guess I figured those films would have one more chance, assuming I’m still around twelve months from now.  Other late round cuts: Frozen and Philomena. In both cases they were films I really wanted to find a place for because I felt they had been criticized unfairly. But, while I still hold them dear, at the end of the day there is a difference between defending a film from criticism and embracing a film because of the effects it had on you. With no further preamble, here are my favorite new film experiences for the calendar year 2013.

 10) Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story — Brad Bernstein

farout1I kept bumping this movie out of my Top 10, only to have it keep resurfacing as the initial enthusiasm I felt for some of the films that displaced it cooled. As I wrote in my review from Full Frame, I am a sucker for art process documentaries. Ungerer’s story is more than that, however. It weaves biographical criticism with political commentary. (And who would have thought that awards for children’s books were as contentious as those for movies?) There are plenty of films that deal with the trauma of war as seen through the eyes of a child. What makes this one special, what keeps me thinking about it, is the way Ungerer links the creative process with the need for survival. Growing up in a highly contested, occupied region, he had to learn new languages, negotiate unspoken rules. Out of a cauldron of suffering, where the wrong word could mean death, came a commitment to the freedom of expression that would later make his adopted homeland uncomfortable when he expanded from children’s literature to political cartooning and erotica. Ungerer has a unique story, and Brad Bernstein’s film tells it creatively, incorporating much of his work and letting us see him create. It’s a gem.

9) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks — Alex Gibney

westealsecretsStrangely enough, the film that this documentary most reminded me of was Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. Both films are about someone reluctant to allow his or her story to be told and whose every fear is eventually realized. The film neither lionizes nor excuses Bradley (a.k.a. Chelsea) Manning, but it does sympathize with him. It perhaps invites us to do so as well, though gently. It’s hard not to feel a weird kinship with Manning, particularly if one is a liberal, as the idealism of Julien Assange’s rhetoric is gradually peeled back to reveal a self-serving portrait of human nature far removed from the lofty public rhetoric. Meanwhile, the secrets that were leaked are met with more indifference than the speculation about the leaker’s sexual orientation. At the core of the film are some nagging questions. What sort of information should the public care to know, and why?

The second of three documentaries on this list, We Steal Secrets also marks the return to my list of director Alex Gibney, whose 2007 film Taxi to The Dark Side was one of my personal favorites that year. Gibney is a good storyteller, following leads and asking the right questions. This is a less artistic, more journalistic type of documentary, and I am grateful to have documentarians like Gibney who are willing to go beyond the sound bites. Most of us have heard of WikiLeaks, but do we know what was actually leaked? Do we know where the various players are now? To Gibney’s great credit, he is able to make me question some of my own political assumptions, in large part because his ethos gives his arguments greater credibility than I ascribe to most journalists.

8) Prisoners — Denis Villeneuve

prisoners2It’s not the story, it’s how you tell it.

The plot of Prisoners is straight out of Criminal Minds or CSI. Convinced that he knows who kidnapped his daughter, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps and tortures the man he knows (i.e believes) is somehow involved. That the man is is mentally impaired does not keep the threats and eventual torture from escalating. In the meantime Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) must split his time between searching for the pair of missing children (Dover’s neighbors also have an abducted child) and trying to ensure that Dover doesn’t take the law in his own hands. Will Loki discover the truth about Dover before the latter can extract information to free his child? Do we want him to?

Nothing in the summary prepared me to like this movie, as depictions of this sort of violence begin already straddling the line between exploitation and truth telling. Through much of the film, I found myself running a mental checklist through all possible outcomes, convinced the film would ultimately be about either justifying Dover (and us for cheering for those who perform acts of violence we personally could not) or condemning him (and scolding us for complicitly empathizing even if we didn’t necessarily excuse him).

Much like Zodiac, another disturbing and violent film I eventually worked around to esteeming, Prisoners presents the violence as something that ought to disturb rather than entertain us. Also like that film, it ties violence to fear, and it shows how our deep need for certainty enrages us when confronted with people or ideas that challenge our most deeply held convictions. There is a religious subtext in Prisoners, but I don’t think it is ultimately about religion so much as religion is one example of abstract certainty threatened by concrete suffering.

Prisoners is a hard movie to recommend, but I’m glad I saw it.

7) Dallas Buyers Club –Jean-Marc Vallée

dallasbuyersThe first thirty minutes or so of Dallas Buyers Club plays like a movie calculated to ensure nobody could possibly like it. An AIDS movie centered on a homophobic male feels a little like those Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave prominently featuring all the white actors. Combine that with Ron Woodroof’s (Matthew McConaughey) insanely risky sexual behavior, and you have a character whose flaws are deep enough to mitigate any generic sympathy we might have for those facing death.

Some reviewers have tried to push the eventual partnership between Woodroof and Rayon (Jared Leto doing the sweet transvestite) as the film’s redemptive arc. The homophobe learns to care about the gay man as a human being…and to be frustrated when he sees self destructive behaviors in another.

Slowly, though, the film takes a turn, and the second half isn’t about AIDS so much as it is about dying.  Or, rather, it’s about how we live when we take up permanent residency in the shadow of death. More importantly, it is about affording those who are dying the opportunity to make their own choices about treatment. Being not that far removed from watching someone I love battle cancer, I could keenly relate to Woodroof’s combination of anger and indignation at the doctors and government officials who try to prevent him from choosing what drugs to use to prolong his life.

Life, the song lyric goes, gets mighty precious when there is less of it to waste. The aspect of the film that resonated most deeply with me was its realization that life has to have some purpose, some meaning, to justify the expenditure of energy devoted to clinging to it. At a certain point we will all come to a point where we realize that the things left undone outnumber the hours, minutes, and seconds needed to do them. The choices we make at the point of that realization tell us a great deal about who we are. Time, like money, given from a place of poverty is more precious than that which is given out of abundance.

 6) 1982 — Tommy Oliver

1982movie1982 also has many elements that we have seen in film before, specifically a battle with drug addiction and a confrontation between a community member and the dealer who is threatening the neighborhood.

As with Dallas Buyers Club, strong performances flesh out characters who elicit immediate sympathy for their situation. Unlike Ron Woodroof, Hill Harper’s Tim Brown finds himself in that situation mostly due to the bad choices of others. In my review from TIFF, I mentioned that Oliver stated that Tim was a composite, an idealized representation of the father he wished had been around as he watched his own mother battle addiction.

That Tim is and remains sympathetic to his wife as her addiction threatens not only his freedom but their daughter’s safety, is a testament to Oliver’s maturity as a writer. Harper is riveting in every scene, none more so than when family matriarch Rose (Ruby Dee!) pleads with him to trust in God. When Tim reacts to that advice with frustration but not contempt, I knew I was watching neither the outsider’s shorthand jibe at religion nor the homogenized representation of it we so often see in “Christian” films. It is one of the great unseen performances of the year.

5) The Past — Asghar Farhadi

thepastmovieTwo years ago, Farhadi’s A Separation wowed critics and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. In summary, The Past might sound like a regurgitation, and it does share some elements with Farhadi’s last film. There is the dissolution of a marriage as an indicator of how cultural pressures warp individuals. There is a personal tragedy wrapped in mystery, since the self-protection reflex has trained these characters to assiduously avoid telling the truth about anything that might compromise them.

But there are differences, too. Unlike the disputed event in A Separation, the key event in The Past happens offscreen. As a result, The Past is less of a mousetrap film and more about life in the maze. In that sense, it is a lot like Prisoners, exploring the ways in which its characters are–or at least feel–trapped. The other film that it reminded me of was John Sayles’s Limbo, which was also a reminder of how much time we spend on this earth waiting for something to happen so that we can begin (what we think is) living. I wrote about the film for AFI, so you can read a full review here.

 4) Before Midnight — Richard Linklater

beforemidnightWe are starved for words. For conversation. At least I am. Yes, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard some snotty cinephile wax about how film is a visual medium, I would be a rich man. It is. But as advances in visual representation have led to greater and greater spectacle, the imaginative muscles that shape the screenplays have atrophied. I’ll take a movie with good dialogue over a movie with striking visuals any day of the week. (You may notice Gravity is absent from my list of personal favorites.)

Yes, Before Midnight is painful to listen to at times–but it’s also excitingly honest about how people of a certain generation think. Seeing how the consequences of those beliefs can lead to unhappiness is scary. But to parrot George Bernanos (as quoted by Jacques Ellul), before we can hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose all hope in that which does deceive.

Before Midnight is about losing hope that romantic love can save us from ourselves. Not all romantic love is a deception or a lie, but it is a lie that it is sufficient to heal our deepest wounds or answer our biggest questions. I have no doubt that Celine and Jesse once loved each other; I actually believe that they still do. But they are not married. I wrote about why I think that matters here.

3) Running From Crazy — Barbara Kopple

runningfromcrazyI saw seventeen of the Top 50 documentaries in Indiewire‘s year end critic’s poll. Barbara Kopple’s latest was not among the Top 50, even though it was first on my ballot. I’ve always run a little counter to the crowd, and while I can’t say that usually bothers me, in this instance I still find myself mystified. I saw the film once at Full Frame and revisited it at the Virginia Film festival. The second viewing confirmed rather than complicated my judgment. Kopple is a well known and respected film maker. Hemingway is a complex and articulate subject. And yet very few other writers appear to have connected with the film like I did.

It’s not as though the film comes laden with the cultural or political baggage of Shut Up and Sing or Gun Fight. It is a somewhat inspiring portrait of actress Mariel Hemingway and her attempts to come to terms with her family’s history of suicidal depression.

Perhaps Kopple has been doing television work long enough that people no longer think of her a cinematic director. That would be a mistake. Her interweaving of Margaux Hemingway’s abandoned documentary, home movies, and Mariel’s narration is purposeful and effective. Perhaps people equate big topics with superior film making. (I did have one documentary director tell me at a regional film festival that juries at festivals tend to gravitate towards documentaries with environmental or political themes.) Running from Crazy may not be as explosively sensational as Act of Killing, but it’s got compassion and tenderness to spare. In a year in which Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game was finally made into a movie, I can think of no higher complement for Barbara Kopple than that I think she would make an excellent Speaker for the Dead. So too would Mariel Hemingway. In some ways, she already is.

 2) The Spectacular Now — James Ponsoldt

The Spectacula Now_ Day ten 80812_20120808.JPGPut a word like “spectacular” in your title and that’s like waving a red flag before an army of jaded, cynical, reviewing bulls. But this script is amazing. Special shout out to Scott Neustadter, whose previous works included (500) Days of Summer and The Pink Panther 2. Want to know how good this script is? I’ve actually queued up The Pink Panther 2 and am mildly anticipating watching it.

Rarely do films set in high school convince you that the characters could actually be in high school. The performers here do a lot of heavy lifting, and they are terrific. Miles Teller manages to play a more expansive, expressive character without making Sutter into a clown. Shailene Woodley straddles the line between intelligence and naivete to such perfection that she ends up providing the film with more dramatic uncertainty than one could normally imagine in a genre picture. Because we could see her character, Aimee, tipping either way, we are unsure if the film will end happily or tragically for her. Aimee is intelligent enough to understand that we don’t often get to choose between happiness and pain; we more often have to choose between the potential for happiness and risk of much greater pain.

Fifteen minutes into this film, I was patting myself on the back for noticing certain things about these characters and confidently predicting where the second half of the film would go. Then the characters noticed the same things I did and I readjusted, assuming (wrong again!) that it would be a melodrama exclusively about how Aimee either got sucked into Sutter’s problem or pulled him out of it. When the film went there in the middle of the script I stopped guessing and just held on for the ride.

Because high-schoolers are old enough to have begun to develop habits but not yet so old as to be enslaved by them, the end of The Spectacular Now felt abuzz with possibilities, each of them credible. It is the proliferation of credible possibilities that creates dramatic suspense, and a scene in which Aimee contemplates getting on a bus (or not) created more suspense than White House Down, Pacific Rim, and Star Trek 2 combined.

One of my favorite things about this script is that late scenes inform earlier scenes, casting them in a slightly different light. This is true of Sutter’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy, as well as scenes with his sister and, of course, his mom. It’s rare to have a script that provides this many generous moments to bit players, but some of my favorite exchanges are between Sutter and his boss and Sutter and his sister. These characters feel like they have lives of their own that intersect with the story we are seeing; they are not merely human props that exist solely to influence this story.

1) 12 Years a Slave — Steve McQueen

12years2Film is a lot of things: visual, narrative, immersive, entertaining. It used to be communal. I think it still is.

Any reader-response critic knows that that reading situation counts for something, so when I talk about “film experiences,” setting matters. I first saw 12 Years a Slave at a Friday evening screening at TIFF, and it was both the culmination of a great festival and an opportunity to share a moving experience with an auditorium full of like minded viewers.

Toronto began and ended feeling like a showdown between McQueen’s film and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and although several films–Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, and now Her–have garnered pockets of admirers since then, none appear to have gained the widespread momentum to make me think we won’t see that showdown replayed come Oscar time.

As is usually the case with front runners, the film has also prompted a few passionate rebuttals. It’s worth noting, however, that the film is 96% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes and has a score of 97% at Metacritic. (By way of comparison, the numbers for last year’s winner, Argo, are 96 and 86.) What those numbers suggest to me is that while 12 Years a Slave may not be everyone’s favorite, it is nearly universally respected.

The reasons it is my favorite? I touched on some of them at my review for Christianity Today. Mostly I appreciated that Solomon’s anger was laced with a tinge of moral bewilderment. I also appreciated that the film recognized that some of that bewilderment comes not not just from our shock in the face of man’s inhumanity to man but also at the way such brutality amplifies our nagging doubts about the existence, nature, and character of the God that made us all and too often feels indifferent to our suffering. Not that the film is primarily a theological argument. It never reduces Solomon’s experience to a mere abstraction. While emblematic of broader experiences, Solomon’s story remains his and his alone. Some have suggested that Northrup’s biography, like many slave narratives, is a composite, but the film appears to eschew such conjecture; truthfully, the biographical veracity of the narrative matters less to me than the historicity of the practices it illuminates.

I can’t say I’ve ever met someone in real life who was an actual slave. I’ve met hostages and prisoners of war. I’ve met victims of rape and abuse. I’ve seen in most a certain kind of post-traumatic shock affect–a guardedness, a deep sorrow that is something more noble than self-pity (though some have that), more deep and palpable than emotional scarring. One thing that life has taken from them, never to return, is the easy confidence that such experiences always and only happen to other people, that something in our heritage, our make up, our relationship with a higher power, makes us immune. I saw bits of that affect in the final scenes of 12 Years a Slave, and I deeply appreciated the film’s attempts (successful in my case) to make the viewer feel compassion for the victims and not just hatred towards the oppressors.

Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.



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