Once again, if for no greater purpose than my own amusement, it’s time to choose my 10 favorite films from the past year. Please note that I call them my “favorite” films rather than “best” films. The difference? The 10 films that entertained, surprised, interested and stayed with me the most in 2013 weren’t necessarily the 10 technically “best” movies I saw.
But they were my favorites. It’s as simple as that.
Before we get started, a review of the parameters. As I say every year, I see a lot of films, but I don’t see them all. So if you saw one that you considered brilliant and it’s not on the list, chances are I haven’t seen it. Either that, or our respective definitions of “brilliant” sharply differ. And I present them in no specific order. I narrow the list to 10, but I don’t rank from there. Number One is in that position simply because I wrote about it first. I don’t consider it any better than #6 or #9.
Finally, these are the films I saw in the calendar year 2013. Some of them may have been released in 2012. And there are others that have been released that I haven’t seen yet. Her and Inside LLewyn Davis would fall into that category. I’m told they’re really good, but I’ll have to see for myself.
Okay, that’s enough of the preliminaries. On to the list:
1. Fruitvale Station – I’ve only seen two films in the last 10 years that have rendered the crowd in the theater dead silent at the conclusion. United 93 was the first. Fruitvale Station is the second. It’s built around an actual event: the shooting and killing of the unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve, 2008 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) policeman during an altercation at BART’s Fruitvale Station. The movie begins with images culled from real iPhone footage of the actual shooting. So, five minutes in, we know exactly how it’s going to end. It’s getting there that gets under your skin. Fruitvale Station takes us through the last day of Oscar’s life, showing who he is, what he cares about and the seemingly innocuous decisions he makes that we know will lead to his death. The first thing to know is, Oscar was no saint. We learn that he used to deal drugs, and that he has served time in prison. He’s unemployed, with no real prospects in sight (remember, it’s December 2008 – the Great Recession was in full flower). But lord knows, he’s trying to get things right. He’s clearly devoted to his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter. His mother, played by Octavia Spencer, still plays a large part in his life. And in one scene, he literally throws away the opportunity to make a quick buck by returning to his drug-dealing ways. Oscar is played, wonderfully, by Michael B. Jordan, who fans of TV’s Friday Night Lights will recognize. Some have said that the film almost sanctifies him, turning him into a much more noble character than he really was. Okay, maybe so. But the film isn’t a documentary. It’s a dramatization, and the event at its core is no less maddening, outrageous or tragic because the filmmakers chose not to portray the victim as a jerk. By all accounts, the real Oscar Grant was trying to turn his life around. And there’s no getting past the fact that his death was completely preventable and totally unnecessary. Fruitvale Station shows us how our perspective is altered when the victim of a crime (the police officer was sent to prison) changes from “some guy in a subway station” to someone we’ve actually come to know.
2. The Gatekeepers – The gatekeepers in this documentary are six former heads of Shin Bet, the official Israeli security agency charged with the safety of Israel and its leaders (not to be confused with the Mossad, who are the Israeli spies, kind of like our CIA. Shin Bet is more a combination of our FBI and Secret Service). The most amazing thing about the film is that the producers got even one of these guys to talk, let alone all six. Shin Bet is not exactly in the publicity business, and when it comes to Israel’s security, they play for keeps. But talk they did, openly, expansively and honestly. The result is fascinating, and at times depressing. Of course, the primary subject of discussion is also the primary source of Shin Bet’s attention: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the continuing Palestinian conflict. The six may have varying opinions on certain tactics, but they all agree that the occupation of the West Bank has been a disaster for Israel and that peace with the Palestinians – which they all desperately want – will continue to be an elusive beast. Lying at the heart of the shared pessimism – a complete disdain for politics and politicians. This film dramatically demonstrates the differences between those who talk about peace and security and those who actually have to make it happen. Not one of these guys has any use for politicians whatsoever. In their eyes, politics and political considerations have always trumped logic, pragmatic thinking and sound strategic and tactical decision-making. And they have no confidence that the situation will change anytime soon. The Gatekeepers is an engrossing look at a situation that most of us only understand in the vaguest way, if at all, from a group of men who have had to live and breathe it every day of their professional lives. Like I said, fascinating and depressing at the same time.
3. Gravity – Most of the time, when a film is set in outer space, space seems pretty cool. Not so in Gravity. Gravity’s space is cold and dark and silent and deadly. It’s also the setting for the best-looking movie I saw all year. For me, the best special effects don’t become a question of “How’d they do that?” They simply become the world that we’ve entered for the duration of the film. You don’t ask how it was done, because it’s no longer an effect. It’s another place, and you’re in it. For 90 minutes, I was there (By the way, isn’t it cool that such a great story could be told in 90 minutes, instead of the 2 ½ to 3 hours a lot of filmmakers feel they need? Lessons can be learned.). A lot has been made of the scientific inaccuracies in the film as well as the too pat, too melodramatic backstory of Ryan Stone (aka Sandra Bullock). People, it’s a movie. Fiction. Popular entertainment. And I was entertained. And invested in the characters. And because it was fiction, I had no guarantee either of them would make it out alive, so I spent the entire time on the edge of my seat rooting for them and wondering what new obstacles would be thrown their way. It was 90 minutes that went by like 90 seconds, and I walked out exhilarated and yes, mystified at how they did it. What more can you ask from a movie?
4. American Hustle – Con men, con women, corrupt politicians, a fake Arab sheik, an overly ambitious and somewhat gullible FBI agent, Mob guys, and one incredibly disruptive – and hilarious- Long Island trophy wife – all sporting 70’s hairstyles, wearing absurd 70’s fashion and conning one another to the best 70’s soundtrack you’ve heard this side of a Scorcese film. And, as the opening graphic tells us, some of it actually happened. I won’t go into the plot here. It’s too serpentine, with too many twists, turns and red herrings. Just know that director and co-writer David O. Russell continues on a major roll that started with The Fighter, continued through last year’s Silver Linings Playbook and now lands on the two hours of manic wonder that is American Hustle. In this one, Russell has put together an awesome ensemble of actors, many who have appeared in his previous films and all of whom shine brightly in this one. Christian Bale is virtually unrecognizable with 40 extra pounds and the most ridiculous comb-over in film history. Amy Adams continues to show that she’s one of the most versatile, and underrated, actresses working today. Bradley Cooper picks up where he left off in Silver Linings, and Jeremy Renner is perfect as the pompadour-wearing Jersey politician who tries to do right by doing wrong. Louis C.K. shows up as an FBI supervisor and Robert DeNiro has a short, but vital, cameo. They are all great and yet, in my opinion, they were all overshadowed by one performance. As good as this film is, it gets even better whenever Jennifer Lawrence is on the screen. She plays Rosalyn, the bull-in-the-china-shop wife of Bale’s character whose odd logic and impulsive behavior send the story on more than one hilarious detour. She is funny, authentic and perfect. For me, she steals the movie. And I think she has a great shot at her third nomination and second Oscar before her 24th birthday. Not bad.
5. 12 Years a Slave – Originally, I found it highly ironic that it took a British director (Steve McQueen) directing a British actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to make what is, so far, the most honest and definitive film about American slavery. But now that I’ve had more time to think about it, maybe Americans wouldn’t have taken such a clear, unflinching view of the most shameful episode in our history. Lord knows, none have tried. By now, you probably know the story. Free man Solomon Northrup of Saratoga, New York is literally kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he spends the next 12 years as the property of two different plantation owners. One of them, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is somewhat benevolent but still laboring under the delusion that it is acceptable for one set of humans to enslave another. The second, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is a sadistic, evil, fanatically religious loon who embodies everything wrong we can possibly imagine about a 19th century slave owner. The movie pulls no punches as we sit there and ask ourselves how this could have possibly happened in this country. The language and the attitudes of the people involved in the slavery infrastructure (kidnappers, agents, buyers, sellers, owners, overseers) are shocking in their matter-of-factness. Some of the scenes depicting whippings and other cruelty are tough to watch. But, because the film is so well made and acted, it never became too much to bear. I was engaged the entire time. So, even though 12 Years a Slave is being trumpeted as an “important” film, don’t let that scare you away. It’s also a very good film, about a chapter in our history that none of us know enough about.
6. Dallas Buyers Club – The 70’s of American Hustle were fun. The 80’s of Dallas Buyers Club – not so much. It’s 1985 in Dallas, Texas when we first meet Ron Woodroof. And he’s not that nice a guy. He drinks, does drugs, bounces from one-night-stand to one-night-stand, and to say he is openly homophobic would be a huge understatement. Then, while being treated for a work-related accident (he’s an electrician, working on oil rigs), Ron learns he has AIDS. In fact, his condition is so advanced, the doctors tell him he has 30 days to live. His first reaction, naturally, is angry denial. But once reality sinks in, so do his survival instincts. And that’s when our opinion of him starts to turn around as well. Even though he may not be the greatest guy, Ron Woodroof turns out to be incredibly resourceful and, ultimately, a survivor. And we spend the rest of the film rooting for him as he cajoles, schemes and fights to get the drugs he needs to carry on. The drugs he ultimately provides to hundreds of other AIDS patients facing the same governmental obstacles standing between them and the treatments that will make a difference. By now, everyone knows that Matthew McConaughey lost nearly 50 pounds to play the AIDS-stricken Woodroof. He is almost unrecognizable, until you hear his unmistakable voice. McConaughey has been on a major roll lately (Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud) and Dallas Buyers Club is as good a performance as he’s ever given. But he’s not alone. Jared Leto, taking a break from his 30 Seconds to Mars rock and roll duties, is every bit as good playing Rayon, the AIDS- afflicted transvestite who shares a hospital room with Ron and eventually becomes his business partner. It’s hard to imagine that a film about people battling both a disease and their own government can be uplifting. But that’s ultimately what Dallas Buyers Club is. A film about a man who never gave up, and in the six years prior to his death (after being given 30 days), made a palpable difference.
7. Spring Breakers – I always strive to include at least one crazy, over-the-top film from the fringes on my list. Welcome to Spring Breakers. Anyone who has seen any of Harmony Korine’s films (Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy, Mister Lonely) knows that they’re not in for a conventional two hours at the movies. Spring Breakers delivers all the madness one could ask for, this time in a package that includes Selena Gomez and James Franco. The plot is deceptively simple. Four teenage girls decide to steal a car and head to Florida for spring break – where they take drugs, drink, party and meet up with a ridiculous-and hilarious-drug dealer named Alien. The inevitable descent into madness and violent crime quickly ensues. At least it’s inevitable in Harmony Korine’s world, where it all happens as part of an overblown, overplayed, over-drugged satire. Of course it’s violent and shocking and unreal. But Korine has no interest whatsoever in reality. His world is much more fun. And no one in the film has more fun than Franco, who throws away all vestiges of restraint in making Alien one of the most unhinged characters I’ve ever seen. There’s no doubt that Spring Breakers will not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I’m sure a lot of people who saw it were both surprised and disgusted by it. Which probably suits Harmony Korine just fine.
8. 20 Feet from Stardom – Who are the most underappreciated people in show business? According to this film, it’s the people who sing background on records and in live shows for some of the most famous musicians and record producers we’ve ever known. After watching 20 Feet from Stardom, I agree. I love documentaries, and I really love documentaries that teach me about something that I knew nothing about. Before seeing this one, all I knew about background singers was that – well –they sang background. What this movie showed me is that many of them are incredibly gifted singers (some are much better than the stars they are backing up) who simply haven’t had the breaks or chased the stardom as relentlessly. Some have sung very important parts on songs we all recognize. And some are very happy to retain their place in the background, leaving fame to those better equipped to handle it. Others feel they could have – and should have – been stars. But for a variety of reasons, they aren’t. We learn that missing out on that stardom often has very little to do with talent and very much to do with luck or circumstance. Often, it’s just a case of who they end up working with and singing for (Phil Spector, for instance, is once again revealed to be the manipulative, self-serving dick we have all come to know.). If nothing else, the interview with Merry Clayton as she reveals how she came to sing the immortal background track on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in her bathrobe in the middle of the night, and then hearing Mick Jagger confirm it all, is worth the price of admission. 20 feet From Stardom is filled with stuff like that.
9. Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen still cranks out one film a year. Blue Jasmine is 2013’s effort and it’s his best since Midnight in Paris. Everything in the film revolves around the main character, Jasmine, who is certainly blue. She is a woman of privilege who has never known, nor learned, to be anything else. Problem is, her rich husband has gone to jail and all of their money has gone to the IRS. Jasmine is left with nothing but her sense of entitlement and what remains of her wardrobe as she moves to San Francisco to live with her sister, presumably because she has no other options. Jasmine is played by Cate Blanchette in a performance that the critics like to label as courageous. I just thought it was really, really good. She throws herself completely into a portrayal of someone who can most charitably be called a case of arrested development. She has virtually no skills – social or professional – yet still believes everyone should treat her as if she’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Her character in neither sympathetic nor particularly likeable, and Blanchette is content to leave it that way. I suppose that is courageous. At any rate, hers is an amazing performance in a film filled with many very good ones. Sally Hawkins is perfect as Jasmine’s more grounded sister Ginger. And Bobby Cannavale, as Ginger’s boyfriend Chili and Andrew Dice Clay, of all people, as her ex-husband are both very good and a lot of fun. But Blue Jasmine belongs to Blanchette, as she shows us a tortured character that can’t believe she has lost her old world and can’t understand how to fit into her new one.
10. Prisoners – What would you do if your child went missing and the police, for procedural reasons, won’t arrest the person you’re sure is responsible? That’s the question at the center of Prisoners, a dark and disturbing look at what can happen when otherwise normal and law-abiding people feel they have to take the law, and justice, into their own hands. A quick synopsis: Hugh Jackman and Trerence Howard are the fathers of two six-year-old girls who disappear from their front yard. The prime suspect: a weird guy (played by Paul Dano) seen hanging around the neighborhood in a beat-up old RV. The lead detective on the case (Jake Gyllenhall) brings him in, but is forced to release him due to lack of evidence. That’s when things get intense. The film spends the rest of its time showing us what happens when good people feel forced to do bad things to protect their families or, in this case, find their missing daughters. The power of the film is that we in the audience are given the same set of facts as the two fathers. Therefore we believe what they believe, and though we know what is happening is wrong, we empathize and sympathize with them. We’re horrified at what they do, yet at some level, we get it. Maybe we even agree with it. Prisoners shows us that we are all prisoners. The little girls literally, their fathers (and us) imprisoned by a set of beliefs and emotions that lead to some horrible conclusions. It’s a really powerful film.
Close…But No Cigar
Some years it’s hard for me to find 10 films I really liked. In others, it’s tough to narrow the list down to just 10. This was one of the latter years. I had a tough time taking the following five films off the list, but 10 is the number, so these five just missed. In many other years, any or all of them would have been on it. But since it is my list, I have always reserved the right to add a “Close But No Cigar” list.
Mud – Matthew McConaughey… again. This guy can do no wrong. In a year filled with “coming of age” films (The Way, Way Back, The To Do List, Kings of Summer, The Spectacular Now), Mud was easily the best.
This is The End – If you give Seth Rogan, Jay Baruschel, James Franco, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride a bunch of money and tell them to do whatever they feel like doing, you get This Is The End. Easily the funniest film I saw all year.
All is Lost – Robert Redford, all by himself on a badly disabled sailboat in the Indian Ocean. Movie has about 12 words of dialogue. And I was completely engaged the whole time. (I will also never sail the Indian Ocean all my myself)
Enough Said – Julia Louis Dreyfuss should do more films. She is an outstanding comic actress. And of course there’s James Gandolfini, playing against type in his last role. Really enjoyable film that is much sadder than it was ever meant to be.
The Conjuring – Old school, jump-out-of-your-seat horror film. It has almost no crazy special effects, just lots of really excellent, really creepy stuff. For some reason, horror films are able to do more with smaller budgets than any other genre.