2013 Top 10

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This may be the earliest I’ve ever completed a Top Ten list in my life, not even half way into January.

01) The Grandmaster – Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong) *****
02) Her – Spike Jonze (USA) **** 1/2
03) An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terrence Nance (USA)
04) Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach (USA)
05) The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino (Italy)
06) Inside Llewyn Davis – Coen Bros (USA)
07) 12 Years a Slave – Steve McQueen (UK/USA)
08) Short Term 12 – Destin Daniel Creton (USA)
09) Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron (USA)
10) The Broken Circle Breakdown – Felix Van Groeningen (Belgium) ****

The Top Five Documentaries of 2013

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One of the biggest topics of discussion in film circles in 2013 was the dearth of women directors and leads, especially in mainstream films. It’s absolutely the right time to have that conversation (it’s way past due, honestly), but just because there weren’t enough women represented in the industry doesn’t mean there weren’t any worth noting. It just so happens that some of the best docs made in 2013 involved women as subjects or directors. Here is my pick for the best documentaries made in 2013 – and all of them featured women, either on screen or behind the camera.

Blackfish
directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, available on VOD

Easily the most important documentary of the year for Central Florida, Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, the largest orca living in captivity, at Orlando’s SeaWorld. Tilikum has been involved in three human deaths, the last of which was in 2010, when trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by the giant whale after a show. The power of this film comes from Cowperthwaite’s ability to make the case that, although Tilikum has killed, he is also a victim. She interviews former SeaWorld trainers, employees and a former orca poacher who calls the capture of Tilikum as a young, wild whale one of the worst things he’s ever done.

The Act of Killing
directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, available Jan. 7

There is no real precedent for processing this stunning film about a 1960s death squad leader, Anwar Congo, who agrees (quite proudly) to film re-enactments of his murders. By his own count, Congo has killed 1,000 Indonesian “communists” (read: anyone unwilling or unable to pay bribes; or not behind the military dictatorship; or Chinese) in his lifetime. The re-enactments are so calmly done that the film feels like a surrealist nightmare.

Cutie and the Boxer 
directed by Zachary Heinzerling, available on VOD

Love is a dumb emotion. It’s not a stupid emotion to have, it’s just dumb. And deaf. And blind. Love doesn’t care what’s best for you. This is a general truth, not a universal truth, but it’s certainly true for artist Noriko Shinohara, who is madly in love with her husband and fellow artist, Ushio, who is dubbed Bullie in Noriko’s “Cutie” graphic stories. The story of this dynamic pair unfolds at a natural pace as she struggles to find her artistic voice and he struggles to get someone to pay him for his talents so they can keep the lights on.

Manhunt
directed by Greg Barker, available on VOD

If you saw Zero Dark Thirty, you’ll recognize a lot in this documentary about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It’s told primarily from the point of view of the crew of women at the CIA who assembled the secrets of al-Qaida from disparate pieces of information, sometimes discovered years and countries apart. Through interviews with the analysts, in-country agents and reporters, this engrossing film proves to be one of the most important documents of 9/11, its extremist roots and its aftermath.

Stories We Tell
directed by Sarah Polley, available on VOD/DVD

Polley emerges as a brilliant storyteller in this personal film about her mother, and whether or not her father is really her father. The film is occasionally too self-aware, but it’s emotionally compelling and intelligently constructed.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 IV: The Stragglers

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Good Ol’ Freda –  Ryan White (Available on Netflix)

The world is running out of original Beatles stories; in fact, this may be the last one, as the Beatles and their contemporaries enter their 70s and, as Freda Kelly notes at one point, many of them are already gone. The story is one of a young girl who won the social lottery, happening upon the Beatles in the Cavern Club before they made it big and becoming tight enough with the band that they eventually asked her to work for them as secretary. Kelly also served as president of the bands’ fan club, hounding each member for autographs and locks of hair for adoring fans who wrote in because she knew exactly what it was to be one. Kelly is remarkable for her service, but more still for not taking advantage of it, cashing in with a tell all book or selling any of her incredibly rare memorabilia picked up from her time with the band. It is at once frustrating and enamoring that Kelly still holds to her Beatles secrets to this day, even with a camera in her face.

No Place on Earth – Janet Tobias (Available on Netflix)

If it came to it, if Nazis were coming, could you survive in a cave for nearly two years? What a question, but that’s what it came to for a handful of Jewish families in rural Ukraine as the Nazis arrived during World War II. The film focuses on the Stermer family in particular in this recreation of the 511 days of fear, hunger and darkness the endured that was brought back to life after a man from New York came across shoes, keys and buttons while caving in the Ukraine. It took him a decade to suss out any part of the story before finally coming upon the diary of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families who survived life in the cave.

Ip Man: The Final Fight – Herman Yau (Available on Netfix)

By now, you must all know who Ip Man is, the legendary Chinese martial artist and teacher of the Wing Chung school whose most famous student was Bruce Lee. He is the new Wong Fei Hong right now, and your choices are almost limitless if you want to watch a movie about them. The Final Fight is more of a traditional biopic version of the story, condensing much of his life into two hours. There are plenty of fight scenes though, and the film won the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema at the NY Asian Film Festival last year. This is the version of the story that brings its lunchpail to work with it.

Touchy Feely – Lynn Shelton (Available on Netflix)

It’s kind of hard to believe Josh Pais is the same actor who, vocally at least, brought the ball of rage that is Rafael to life in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the first and best one, not this new bullshit). In Touchy Feely he plays a timid, conservative dentist. He is a comic foil for his wild, hippy massage therapist sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) until their fates interchange: he finds that his hands can heal, while she loses the ability she’s been honing and comes to loath the touch of another person’s skin. The cast of this bright, unassuming comedy is filled out by Allison Janney and Ellen Page. Lynn Shelton continues to be a voice to pay attention to in independent film.

Which Way Is the Frontline From Here: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington – Sebastian Junger (Available to stream on HBOGO)

Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who came to wide prominence for the Oscar nominated documentary Restrepo, is lovingly profiled here by his friend (and fellow Oscar nominee) Sebastian Junger following his tragic death in Libya, where he was covering the uprising. Featuring interviews from family, friends and fellow journalists, it is a compelling, no bullshit account of Hetherington’s too-short life. He was a brilliant photographer, seemingly because he didn’t care about photography — he cared about the people he was photographing. Borrow someone’s HBOGO password if you have to, but see this.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 III: The Animes

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We’re fans of all types of film around these parts, and some of the best films of 2013 were feature length anime. I can’t pretend that Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises even comes close to fitting the “underrated” banner, but it led a particularly strong pack of films this year (it opens in Orlando at the end of February, but has already played NY and LA for Oscar qualification), films worth highlighting as much as any others — and that’s without having seen Mardock Scramble, One Piece Film Z or Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.

Wolf Children – Mamoru Hosoda (DVD/Blu out now)

I always viewed Mamoru Hosoda as more of an art director than a storyteller, but he fully brushed that bias off of his shoulder with Wolf Children, a coming-of-age story about two half-human/half-wolf children and the trouble their human mother goes through in raising them after their shape shifting wolfman father is killed while out hunting to feed his new family. Before long the childrens’ wolf instincts get them from their Tokyo apartment and their mother decides to move them to a rural town to keep their secret safe. But once there, the secret becomes more explosive. It’s a touching story, and Hosoda’s comedic instincts are both well measured and well timed, something he didn’t manage to do in Summer Wars.

Colorful – Keiichi Hara (DVD/Blu out now)

Though it was originally released in Japan in 2010, it wasn’t until 2013 that Colorful became available in North America. It’s the story of a recently deceased boy who arrives to the afterlife and finds out he’s being given a second chance at life, albeit in the body of a 14 year old boy who has just committed suicide. He is tasked with discovering his own greatest sin in life, as well as discovering the secret of his host’s suicide. I had some problems with this film initially — the characters are very hard to like in the moment — but it’s grown in my mind in the months since seeing it and I find I appreciate the film the more I think about it and its maddening plot twists. Life and death are maddening ideas on their own, ones that you can’t shut yourself off to just because you don’t like the idea of it.

From Up on Poppy Hill – Goro Miyazaki (DVD/Blu out now)

From Up on Poppy Hill, a high school melodrama set right before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is somewhat of a departure from the norm for Studio Ghibli. Though co-written by Hayao Miyazaki with Ghibli regular Keiko Niwa, there are no flying pigs, wolf girls or floating cities. Instead, there is young love – and only young love.  It’s a sweet film, almost an idealized film of youth and zeitgeist. The analogies and metaphor might come from the manga that the film is based on, but the soft, measured feel of youth seems to come directly from Hayao Miyazaki’s memory, more like reminiscence than anything else. I do feel a little badly for Goro Miyazaki though, being stuck with that name and forever living under the eclipsing shadow of his legendary father. If he were Goro Suzuki, say, he might be regarded better, a good director but not a great director; at least he would be regarded without a qualifier.

The Garden of Words – Makoto Shinkai (DVD/Blu out now)

Makoto Shinkai and his team are simply the greatest and most detailed artists currently making features. The attention they give the photographic quality of art and the animation in their films is just staggering and worth any price to watch for by itself. Unfortunately the storytelling is a weak point in The Garden of Words, which is about a 15 year old boy who dreams of becoming a shoemaker who meets a mysterious older woman in the park on rainy days. While they bond over poetry and he makes a pair of shoes for her as a gift, the relationship is a little removed from reality. It’s too reserved to handle the burst of emotion in the climax.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013 II: The Revenge

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For the most part, I say good riddance to 2013. For me and my memory bank, it won’t be a good vintage. But my charge here is to write about movies, and 2013 did see its fair share of good ones. Like I’ve done the last couple of years, I’m going to piggyback the Underrated piece I had in the paper and empty my brain of more under-loved films that I didn’t have room to write about in print.

It wasn’t necessarily a great vintage for the top end of the spectrum of the moviegoing experience either, neither in arthouse nor mainstream films. There were certainly enough films to be satisfied by, but to look over the various top 10 lists is to be slightly disappointed. But what the top lacked, the middle had in abundance. Here are five more to keep an eye out for.

Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener (VOD out now, DVD 1/14)

Enough Said was probably not underrated upon its release as much as it was sent into the spotlight for the wrong reason, the unfortunate death of James Gandolfini. The bright side of this film is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus just keeps getting better and better in a way that’s completely unfair to other comedic actresses, but the downside is that the farther removed from Gandolfini’s death, the clearer it becomes that he will be perhaps one of the most missed actors ever. The two share such an easy on-screen chemistry that the film is a joy to watch even when they are fighting. Holofcener branches out too. Always one to make well observed dramas, this is a well observed drama with an earthy layer of comedy set upon it.

The Past – Asghar Farhadi (Coming Soon)

The twisting and turning of Farhadi’s The Past starts out so slow that you might be tempted to give up on it, but it’s a rewarding drama once the momentum is built up (about 40 minutes in, in my opinion). The story unfolds in a torrent of lies and omissions (still a sin, right?) that are not as fulfilling as guesswork as much as they lead to fulfilling dramatic scenes between Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and the family of his ex-wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), and her new fiance, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Melodrama is almost a lost artform but when it’s done right it’s so good.

Mud – Jeff Nichols (DVD/VOD out now)

Where has this Matthew McConaughey been all these years? Since The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past flopped in 2009 he’s done nothing but make risky, amazing films, starting with The Lincoln Lawyer through to his three films this year: Mud, The Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Wolf of Wall Street. Let his career be a light for others because we’re all better off because of it.

The Kings of Summer – Jordan Vogt-Roberts (DVD/VOD out now)

This is about as solid a coming-of-age film as you’re ever likely to find. It’s wish-fulfilling — who hasn’t wanted to run away and live in the woods after a particularly bad fight with their parents? But that’s a heat of the moment decision, not a well thought out plan for a life. The film shows both sides with equal care and weight, and it comes with bonus Ron Swanson rage.

Blue Caprice – Alexandre Moors (DVD 1/14)

This story about the Beltway snipers is told with a quality of paranoia that made New Hollywood such a vital experience. Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond are so good together in the first half of the film, while they are bonding, they make it so hard to look away once the film turns into a horror story.

The Most Underrated Movies of 2013

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Over the last few weeks, every paper, blog, magazine and friend on Facebook has probably offered you their list of the top 10 movies of 2013. Probably with some combination of Her, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis at the top. Probably, you’ve thought about beating the next person who offers a top 10 list to death with their own shoe. So with that in mind, we offer another kind of list. Not the top 10, but of the films that got lost in the cracks and crevices of critical and social appreciation. Films that deserve so much more.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terrence Nance

Told in flurry of live action, hand drawn animation and stop motion animation, the film is a half art piece/half documentary soap bubble of complexities, encapsulating the emotions and self-sabotage a young man of a certain lovesick, melancholy demeanor tends to put himself through, spilling the secrets of young men the same way Girls has for young women.

Boy – Taika Waititi

Though the film never takes anything about itself seriously, there is nothing frivolous about Boy. It’s a serious work that happens to be swaddled in a gauzy wrapping of oddball quirkiness like bubblegum flavored medicine, but there is a heartbreakingly relatable story of fathers and sons and disappointment underneath the bedrock of 80s jokes and the lyrical mix of tall tales and inventive cursing.

Short Term 12 – Destin Daniel Creton

It’s a tough thing these days to make a film about child abuse that doesn’t end up on the Lifetime movie of the week side of the ledger. The thematic pitfalls of the genre are many and hard to escape, but Creton embraces them here, even manipulates them to his will. He asks much of Brie Larson, but she delivers everything he asks for and then some as the counselor to broken kids who once was — and in too many ways still is — a broken kid herself.

The Broken Circle Breakdown – Felix Van Groeningen

This may be the greatest hillbilly film since Rip Torn starred in Payday, but there is a twist: it’s from Belgium. Didier is an America-obsessed bluegrass band leader, and Elise is a tattoo-obsessed artist who discovers a killer voice when she sits in with the band. They fall in love and have a child while the band flourishes. In the great tradition of country songs, you can probably guess where all of that happiness goes. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are electric on screen together.

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino

Jep Gambardella is a novelist who has given up his search for something new to write about 40 years after his modest hit of a novel, instead floating in his existential apathy through the labyrinthine Roman night life. But now he’s turn 65 and the returns on the night life are diminishing. Sorrentino’s sprawling and beautiful, but devilishly backhanded ode to Rome is the kind of love/hate letter that inherits the spirit and dismay Fellini imbued La Dolce Vita with.

The We and the I – Michel Gondry

If you ever took the bus home from school as a teenager, this film may be an unwanted kick in the head that brings back old horror stories and panic attacks. It’s every high school aged social nightmare stuffed into one slow moving, zit-filled bus. But it’s also brilliant and uncannily observed. The teenage actors are uneven, as you might expect, but the wit and horror make it easy to overlook. Gondry has made a true film that can sit aside The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine.

Twixt – Francis Ford Coppola

Saddled with a terrible trailer and dumped onto VOD after a year of trying to attract a distributor, Twixt was destined to fail. But it’s an injustice, even if the film is campy as hell. Val Kilmer returns from a long vacation as the charming, chill Val Kilmer we used to know (albeit fatter), while  Elle Fanning continues to pad an already incredible resume as the little deal girl who haunts him.

The Grandmaster – Wong Kar Wai

So much was written about the alternate U.S. cut controversy that the film itself seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Having seen both versions of the film, I’m struck by the silliness of the controversy. They work so well together as companion pieces, telling the same story from slightly different vantage points. Scenes excised from each shed light on the other to the point that they feel like sibling films, though the U.S. cut is visually marred with an unfortunate amount of style-less screen text.