by Sam Juliano
Including the Tribeca Film Festival, where Lucille and I watched 38 films in 10 days, and several revival venues at the Film Forum and elsewhere, we watched just under 300 films in theaters for 2013. This represented a modest increase over the previous year, though there was a comparable decrease in the number of operas, plays and musical events that were negotiated in 2012. Still we were sufficiently busy on all fronts, and experienced the most extensive year of travel in our lives. How good a year in film was 2013? All things considered, I’d say it was definitely above average and pretty much on par with the previous year. If I had to impart some specific observations, I’d conclude that 2013 was weaker than most years in the overall quality and incidence of foreign-language cinema. Moreover, multiplex fare was especially trite, and there was a marked dearth of memorable animated features. On the other hand the Tribeca Film Festival was the strongest on record, with more features than ever before getting theatrical release just weeks or months later. My rules for inclusion are consistent with the manner I have presented year-end lists dating back for decades: if the film opened theatrically on USA screens during the year in consideration it is eligible. I have added to this qualification pool the Tribeca Film festival in its entirety, especially since most of the best films shown there have been gaining US release just a short time afterward. The only film on either of my two lists (the main and honorable mention) to make it without an official opening is the Tribeca documentary Kiss the Water. This exceptional work ran four times during the festival and the publicity for the film includes a most flattering quote from yours truly and WitD:
In keeping with long held tradition my ten-best list includes a tenth-place two-way tie. Hence there are eleven films for the ten spots. Methinks that’s a modest alteration, especially when one considers the difficulty in finalizing a short list from such a plethora of choices. While in the past my honorable mention list has more than tripled the total in my “Top Ten” this year I have limited it to twenty-six (26) choices, which basically are the films that challenged for the premium list. Sure I had generally positive feelings for other films like Renoir, Saving Mr. Banks, Frozen, Dallas Buyers Club among others but I felt they fell behind the titles that were invariably more memorable for me during this calender year. I have dispensed with the inclusions of best performances, directors and the various crafts, as I felt such discussions would be more appropriate for the usual Oscar report (s) of later this month. I never had any use for “worst of” lists as I found them snooty in spirit and counter-productive, but have included what I see as a much more polite of expressing disparity: “A Dozen Films Others Like But I Never Did.”
The Ten Best Films of 2013 in order of preference:
1.) 12 Years A Slave (U.K./USA) Steve McQueen
Based on a real-life memoir about a free black from the north who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the unconscionable brutality committed on him and some fellow slaves, Steve McQueen’s harrowing film is unquestionably the most exceptional on the subject – America’s most shameful institution. The lead performance by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is electrifying and the entire cast is superlative. A searing film of indescribable emotional power.
2.) Short Term 12 (USA) Destin Daniel Cretton
This moving and intimate film features two powerful and naked performances by Bree Larson (Grace) and John Gallagher Jr. (Mason) as counselors in a halfway facility for troubled children. Treading cliched and mawkish territory, the emotionally expansive and intellectually intricate film is about ricks and challenges and the sharing of pain. The prime focus is on two teens: Marcus, formally abused and with an explosive temper, and Jayden, a bright but bored girl, whose life parallels some issues in Grace’s past. The final unforgettable scene bears the same kind of emotional resonance as the final coda in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
3.) Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) Haifaa-Al Mansour
Wadjda features a 10-year-old Saudi girl (Waad Mohammad in a remarkable and brave performance) who badly desires a bicycle and can’t understand why boys can have and ride them, but girls cannot. Wadjda enters a Koran-memorization contest hoping to use the prize money to buy a bicycle to race against a neighbor boy. The film such issues as child marriage, polygamy and intimidation by it’s perhaps most importantly about the first concessions by one of the world’s most conservative and repressive societies. It is the first feature-length film directed by a Saudi woman, Haifaa al-Mansour, and the first produced entirely in Saudi Arabia. It has been reported that al-Mansour wore a black hijab -the traditional Arabic head-dress, and directed from inside a van issuing instructions to the actors and craftsman from within. The film is beautifully framed, pictorially elegant and packs an emotional wallop that is both inspirational and hopeful. Even as women continue to be denied voting privileges, and all decisions surrounding travel, work, admission to a hospital and marriage and divorce must receive male approval, there are signs that changes are forthcoming. This isn’t the first film in the history of cinema where a bicycle is the central symbol, but it may be the first time the world’s most popular mode of transportation is a catalyst for change. Wadjda is a work of art.
4.) Her (USA) Spike Jonze
This alternately melancholic and humorous examination of oneself is wistful and poetic, and American cinema at its most profound and engaging. The central deceit unexpectedly turns into something as profound as life itself, and Phoenix gives an extraordinarily applied and moving performance. Playing it straight with deadpan humor seems to be a vital artistic decision. Without question this is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece and it features another magnificent turn from Joaquin Phoenix, and the unforgettable voice contribution from Scarlet Johansson.
5.) My Brother the Devil (UK) Sally El Hosaini
The British drama My Brother the Devil resonates almost ten months after it was initially seen. Ihave since acquired the blu-ray of this remarkable, almost operatic gangland re-invention by the talented British-Arabic director Sally El Hosaini. Culture collision, sexual awakening and tough life on the streets on an infamous London neighborhood showcases the country’s ethnic diversity serviced by a sharply-written screenplay with a British language derivative that almost needs subtitling, but is superb in it’s authenticity. The film is brilliantly acted and photographed and offers up an unforgettable finale.
6.) La Grande Bellezza (Italy) Paolo Sorrentino
A poetic, dream-like and impressionistic film with a frenetic vibe and a pulsating and operatic score, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA captures the melancholic and subversive images of Italian culture, history and night-life that echos Fellini and “La Dolce Vita” with more than a generous sprinkling of decadence and satire. It’s a kind of travelogue, but in the very best sense. Paulo Sorrentino is a major talent, and THE GREAT BEAUTY (American title) is one of the best Italian films in years.
7.) Blue is the Warmest Color (France) Abdellatif Kechiche
The deeply affecting Cannes Festival Palme d’Or winner BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR brings consummation and heartbreak into an engrossing three hour drama that examines the love between two women and the almost inevitable interference that ultimately impacts the affair. The film is erotic, intense, and features two superlative performances by Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, and is based on a graphic novel by Julie Morah. No film in memory has been more highly charged by graphic lesbian sex scenes. The relationship between the two women is marked by the stronger emotional and intellectual investment of one, and the unbridled passion of the other, hence ‘class’ is just as important as ‘sex’ in this doomed equation. The film’s controversy centers around the kinky sex scenes, but such shallow appappraisalsses the mark by some distance. In any case the film (directed by French-Algerian Abdellatif Kechiche) is impossible to shake, and rightfully takes its place among the year’s best films.
8.) The Past (Iran) Ashgar Farhadi
For the second time in three years with THE PAST gifted Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has served up a transformative and universally profound study of marital discord, crafted through intricate character development and the shattering force of strife-ridden drama. The film is essentially about the near-impossible task of maintaining stability in the face of rapid change. Again the director pulls stupendous performances from his lead players in a film that surely deserves mention on every ten-best list.
9.) Nebraska (USA) Alexander Payne
An aging patriarch from Montana has an oft-comical fling with dementia, insisting that an obvious mail scam is the real thing, and that he needs to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up the million dollars he thinks he’s one. In the only film that director Alexander Payne did not also write the screenplay for (Bob Nelson provided that) it all still has very much a Payne feel to it, and the performances are extraordinary. Bruce Dern as the old man gives a career capping performance; his wife played by June Squibb has many of the films best lines, and as the son Will Forte is modulated perfection. Phedon Papamichael’s wistful black-and-white cinematography sports bittersweet textures. One of Payne’s best films.
10) To the Wonder (USA) Terrence Malick
Many critics missed the boat with the director’s latest abstract tone poem about love and marriage, spirituality and landscape, all examined with an allegorical underpinning. The searing, elegiac and hypnotic score that brings together Wagner’s Tristan, with Arvo Part, Gorecki, Berlioz and Tchaivovsky. The music weaves a spellbinding hold while the arresting images in the film render the spare dialogue inconsequential. Malick’s film invites, even demands that viewers submit to an indescribable sensory experience that slowly envelopes the viewer until the conclusions, and leaves one grateful that this reclusive genius has opted for a prolific late career spurt that promises a few films more the next year or too. TO THE WONDER almost defies description, but any attempt to dismiss it will earn that viewer a long period in the cinematic doghouse.
The Hunt (Denmark) Thomas Vinterberg (tie)
In The Hunt the devastation wrought on an innocent man and his rural Danish community reaches tragic proportions after an innocuous comment leads authorities on a witch hunt. Family relationships are severely strained, loyalty succumbs to mistrust and banishment, and simmering resentment morphs into guilt by association and finally, violence. Acclaimed Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to the central focus of his exceptional 1998 film Festen, though it examines a different aspect of sex abuse issue that was broached almost immediately in the earlier work. In the appropriately-titled new film, the thrust is less concerned with denial, than it is with how easily a community is willing to believe an unsubstantiated allegation without any semblance of fair play. The film is certainly a cautionary tale aimed at those who embrace rumors and baseless charges, but even more resonantly it’s a harrowing drama that is powerfully engrossing, all the time boiling your blood over the shocking injustice it showcases. he film is elevated greatly by the electrifying turn of Mads Mikkelsen, an accomplished and versatile thespian who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this performance. A caring and compassionate man, his Lucas is mainly introverted until he so seriously damaged by the emotional disaster that he turns to uncharacteristic rage. His role recalls Dustin Hoffman’s in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, as a quietly intense and mild mannered academic, who is victimized by a raging out-of-control lynch mob. Like Hoffman, Mikkelson sports a raw intensity driven by the heights of injustice and savagery to uncharacteristic retaliation.
Honorable Mention (listed in no particular order):
Kiss the Water (USA/UK)
Frances Ha (USA)
Beyond the Hills (Romania)
Hannah Arendt (Germany)
The Wolf of Wall Street (USA)
Fruitvale Station (USA)
Inside Llewyn Davis (USA)
American Hustle (USA)
Laurence Always (France)
Before Snowfall (Norway/Turkey)
A Highjacking (Denmark)
All is Lost (USA)
Stand Clear of Closing Doors (USA)
The Spectacular Now (USA)
The Act of Killing (Indonesia)
A Touch of Sin (China)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (USA)
Enough Said (USA)
Blue Jasmine (USA)
The Hobbit: Desolation of the Smaug (NZ/USA/UK)
A Dozen Films Others Liked but I Did Not:
Berberian Sound Studio
Stories We Tell
Kill Your Darlings
The Invisible Woman