A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2013

“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” Francis Ford Coppola

“Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.” Martin Scorsese

First, I’m a cinephile not a film critic. Yet, like a critic, I’m able to talk about films pretty intelligently; I see a lot of movies, I often write about them, make recommendations to friends and family and followers of my blog. I’m informed and I’ve studied the art of film-making, not from behind the camera or in the classroom, but in the audience where I believe it counts the most.

As a cinephile, a filmgoer, I do admit that I have my likes and dislikes, genre preferences and prejudices. I fall into a demographic that major film studios had forgotten for awhile but recently rediscovered. I’m a woman, a baby boomer, I like adult-themed films and special effects are like frosting on a cake, too much can spoil my appetite for more.

Venetian Theater, Downtown Racine, WI Credit: Lou Rugani

Venetian Theater, Downtown Racine, WI    (Childhood Movie Theater) Credit: Lou Rugani

Before I talk about the films that I loved this year — and loved is the appropriate word for a cinephile — it is, after all, about the unabated love of movies. Most film critics are also cinephiles, one of my favorites was Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert Photo credit: rogerebert.com

Roger Ebert
Photo credit: rogerebert.com

I’m looking forward to the upcoming documentary about his life, Life Itself, scheduled to premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s on my must see list for 2014, a film made my one of Ebert’s biggest fans and a filmmaker, Steve James, Oscar-nominated director of Hoop Dreams, who Ebert endorsed enthusiastically early in James’ career with two big thumbs up. Another critic is Andrew O’Hehir who writes for Salon.com. I will usually put his “Pick of the Week” on my must see list and his recommendations seldom disappoint and when I disagree with his reviews, I find the discourse worth the read.

Now a note for full disclosure: The following are my Ten Best Films of 2013, as of today. There are a number of films which have not yet premiered in Madison, Wisconsin and there’s one film that I missed when it was here. Three of those films, I anticipate, will be added to this list, making it my Baker’s Dozen of Best Films for 2013. The films, which I’m patiently waiting to see, and believe will be terrific based on past artistic collaboration by the writers, directors and actors involved, are as follows: The Coen brothers’ film about the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Inside Llewyn Davis, writer-director Spike Jones futuristic romantic dramedy about love and technology, Her, with actor Joachin Phoenix turning in another immersive performance, August: Osage County, the dysfunctional family drama based on the award-winning play, featuring Meryl Streep and a dream cast, with Streep chewing up the scenery, and lastly, I missed Robert Redford’s career-capping performance in All is Lost. At least three of the four will eventually make my list of a Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2013.

Since I like both documentaries and narrative films, I’ve created two lists, the ten best narrative films and five best documentaries. I also have a lengthy list of honorable mentions— I am, after all, a cinephile. Films I didn’t choose to see will be absent of course; those include most of the summer’s action films, blockbusters and recent box office hits, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Lastly, I have not named the Best of the Best or ranked the films in any particular order.

A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2013

Narrative Films

1. Fruitvale Station – Director Ryan Coogler’s first feature-length film based on the the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed by BART police at the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station in Oakland, California. The film features a break-out performance by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant. See my review and commentary.

Ryan Coogler at the Fruitvale Station /Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Ryan Coogler at the Fruitvale Station /Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

2. Philomena – Director Stephen Frears’ film based on the true story of a mother’s search for her son who was stolen from her in a convent in Ireland, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan who also wrote the screenplay. There’s a lot of Oscar buzz for Dench.

3. 12 Years a Slave – Probably the most difficult film to watch this year, but a must see for many reasons. It takes place in the antebellum United States, and is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery. The film has a stellar cast and is directed by Steve McQueen, who will most likely be named this year’s best director at more than one awards show. The music, cinematography, and acting are compelling.

Frances Ha Movie Poster

Frances Ha Movie Poster

4. Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach’s black and white film features mumble core and indie actress Greta Gerwig in her best performance to date. This film was not widely seen. I heartily recommend it. Download or rent it. The film is reminiscent of French avant garde films of the 1960s and depicts the lives of millennials and Generation Y.

5. Nebraska – Another black and white film by director Alexander Payne which perfectly captures the graying landscape of small, rural Midwestern towns. The film features the journey of alcoholic curmudgeon, Woody Grant as he walks to Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes prize while his son first tries to bring him home, then joins him on his quest. Grant is played by Bruce Dern who many believe will earn his first Oscar for this performance.

6. Gravity – 3D science-fiction thriller was directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Alfonso Cuarón. The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts involved in the mid-orbit destruction of a space shuttle and their attempt to return to Earth. The special effects in this film were absolutely stunning and a perfect application of 3D. Bullock is deserving of her acting accolades. The movie, which for most of the film only featured her, would have failed without the talent she brought to the scenes. Clooney was classic Clooney and was the perfect person to be stranded with in space. See my philosophical thoughts on Gravity.

Official U.S. Movie Poster

Official U.S. Movie Poster

7. Blue is the Warmest Color – The French-made Palm D’Or prize-winning film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival has sparked a lot of controversy and debate between the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, and the two leads who played lesbian lovers, Léa Seydoux and newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos. All three shared the prize. The film’s 10 minute explicit love-making scene has garnered most of the attention, yet the film chronicles the universal story of first love and loss. See my review.

8. Dallas Buyers Club – In 1985 Dallas, homophobic, drug addicted rodeo cowboy Ron Woodroof, convincingly played by Matthew McConaughey who lost 40 pounds for the role, is diagnosed with AIDS (from unprotected sex) and is given 30 days to live. Ostracized by his friends and community he begins taking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved AZT, the only drug legally available in the U.S, which brings him to the brink of death. To survive, he smuggles anti-viral medications from all over the world, which were still unapproved and unavailable in the U.S. Jared Leto, who plays his transsexual friend, Rayon, and Jennifer Garner, as their supportive doctor, round out the cast.

9. Captain Phillips – An action thriller directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. The film tells how merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. I resisted seeing this film at first, but once I sat in the darkened movie theater the two actors, Hanks as the ship’s captain and Abdi as the pirate leader had my attention from the first moment they appeared on the screen. The director, Greengrass knows how to bring the audience on board whether on a ship or as he did in his earlier film, on a plane. This film surprised.

10. American Hustle – It’s a crime film, part comedy, part drama, and loosely based on actual events. It’s a love child of The Sting and Goodfellas. David O. Russell, director of last year’s Oscar-winning film, Silver Linings Playbook which featured some of the same cast, wrote the screenplay with Eric Warren Singer and based the story on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was much to love about this film, the music, the art direction, the costumes, the script, and first and foremost, a dream cast of some of today’s most talented and watchable players: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and last, but not least, the amazing Jennifer Lawrence who was the blond bombshell wife of Bale’s con man. She literally explodes on screen (and so does one of her new home appliances). See this film!

American Hustle Movie Poster

American Hustle Movie Poster

Documentary Films

Stories We Tell Poster

Stories We Tell Poster

1. Stories We Tell – Oscar-nominated director and actress, Sarah Polley excavates layers of myth and memory to find the elusive truth at the core of her family of storytellers. She employs reenactments and home movies, plus interviews of her family members and their friends to get to the core of her history. This is a must see. See my review.

2. Blackfish – A documentary film directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. She began work on the film after the death of Tilikum’s trainer Dawn Brancheau. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an orca held by SeaWorld, and the dangers of keeping the species in captivity. CNN Films has also broadcast this film. Music performers have begun boycotting SeaWorld and have refused to perform because of its treatment of whales. This is an unforgettable film and you will most likely watch it more than once.

3. 20 Feet from Stardom – A documentary film directed by veteran documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville and produced by Gil Friesen, a music industry executive whose curiosity to know more about the lives of the background singers inspired the making of the film. The film follows the behind-the-scenes of backup singers and stars Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, and Jo Lawry, among many others. These women now how to sing and you won’t be able to sit quietly when you watch this film. A true delight.

56 Up Poster

56 Up Poster

4. 56 Up – In 1964, a group of British 7-year-olds were interviewed about their lives and dreams in a groundbreaking television documentary, Seven Up. Since then, in one of the greatest projects in television history, renowned director Michael Apted has returned to film the same subjects every seven years, tracking their ups and downs. If you can find the DVDs or download the
series, watch it in a marathon beginning with the first one when they’re 7-years-old until the most recent installment.

5. Shepard & Dark – Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark met in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and, despite leading very different lives, remained close friends ever since. Shepard became a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Buried Child) and an Academy Award-nominated actor (The Right Stuff), while Dark was a homebody who supported himself with odd jobs. Through the decades, they stayed bonded by family ties. Director Treva Wurmfeld began filming the two friends in 2010 as they sifted through years of their shared history for a joint book project. Wurmfeld observes the two men over a period of 18 months and captures an indelible portrait of a complex male friendship rarely depicted on screen. See my post The Ties That Bind.

Sam Shepard & Johnny Dark

Sam Shepard & Johnny Dark

Honorable Mention

1. The Wolf of Wall Street
2. The Butler
3. Saving Mr. Banks
4. Rush
5. Blue Jasmine
6. Enough Said
7. Don Jon
8. The Way Way Back
9. The Spectacular Now      

Recently added: 10. Short Term 12                                                                 

What’s on your list?

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One thought on “A Filmgoer’s Guide to the Best Films of 2013

  1. Linda Lenzke says:

    One last addition to my Honorable Mention list of films, making it #10, “Touchy Feely” by director Lyn Shelton.

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