20. Short Term 12
I cried hot, stinging tears, through much of this story of kids raised in foster care. Brie Larson gives a breakout performance as Grace, supervisor at a facility for teens in the foster system. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Mason, who also works at the facility, leads to a climax that appealed to the pro-lifer in me, but I found the first half of the film, built around the stories of the kids Grace and Mason supervise, to be far more resonant. Keith Stanfield, as the troubled but musically talented Marcus, makes at least as strong an impression as Larson.
19. Laurence Anyways
I’ve struggled with LGBT cinema in light of my beliefs in the authority of Scripture. During a year when public opinion pivoted toward favoring same-sex marriage and Christians who believe in traditional Biblical ideas of sexuality went on the defensive, Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan’s melodrama about a man who undergoes a sex change, presented characters about whom I felt genuine compassion. It’s a sprawling, messy film that engaged me throughout its staggering 168 minutes.
18. The Place Beyond the Pines
I was so let down by director Derek Cianfrance’s acclaimed Blue Valentine that I didn’t bother to watch this follow-up until it was sent to me for awards-voting consideration. It’s a knockout, a triptych that shows how the sins of the fathers are passed to their children. Too obvious? Maybe, but on first viewing, it hits hard, in part due to the surprising structure of the film and the story’s unexpected twists. Best of all is the compelling look of Cianfrance’s film, shot by Sean Bobbitt, who did brilliant work as well in [i]12 Years a Slave[/i].
17. The Great Beauty
Another visual dazzler, The Great Beauty is a Fellini-esque story of an aging single man coming to terms with the limitations, even emptiness, of his existence. Night after night, our protagonist, Jep, parties with the most beautiful women, partaking of the richest food and best wine. But a woman’s death forces a reassessment. How deeply he engages with questions of meaning in life is for the viewer to decide. Director Paolo Sorrentino paints a picture of modern day Rome as a colorful, sensual place where attraction can turn to exhaustion. What’s the answer to Jep’s emptiness? Sorrentino doesn’t know, but he allows us to question Jep’s assumptions.
It’s not an important historical epic, and its one attempt to provide a message (involving a protagonist who prefers spacewalks to the memories of sorrow back on earth) is the film’s only clunky element. But even then, Gravity is reaching for something transcendent. A mesmerizing experience of two astronauts trying to deal with a spacewalk gone wrong, set against the magnificent, terrifying vastness of outer space, the film is enough to make viewers ponder their place in God’s wondrous creation. A closing utterance is also a prayer—an edifying conclusion to a visual epic.
15. The Hunt
A haunting film about a teacher falsely accused of inappropriate behavior with a student. Star Mads Mikkelsen carries the film in impressive fashion. Like director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), about a grown man publicly confronting the dad who molested him and his sister, the filmmaking and performances make for a drama that is electrifying rather than oppressive.
14. The World’s End
The funniest film of the year tells the story of a group of friends reconnecting to complete an epic pub crawl. Life has taken them each in different directions, with varying degrees of responsibility, but after some uneasy attempts to re-establish their friendship, the group rallies together to confront an unexpected threat. Does the film have a message? Yes, and it’s something that might not sit well. But by the time the film delivers that takeaway, you’ll have laughed so hard that you’ll be in a forgiving mood.
13. Spring Breakers
It’s not what you think. OK, it is—sort of. Yes, there are scenes of fleshly exhibitionism and indulgence, but the story takes a dark turn rather early, particularly after one of the teens on a spring break vacation—the one who’s involved with her church—tires of the partying and unapologetic excess and grabs a bus for home. She gets out at the right time, as the film delves further into an exploration of sex, violence and death, set to a pulsating soundtrack and vivid imagery. Featuring a career redefining performance from James Franco, Spring Breakers is a tough movie to recommend, but an even tougher one to shake. Count it as the biggest moviegoing surprise of 2013.
12. From Up on Poppy Hill
A delicately observed tale of parental loss and adolescent longing from Japan’s Studio Ghibli. From Up on Poppy Hill isn’t the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose final film, The Wind Rises, released to great acclaim late in 2013. This time Hayao’s son Goro takes the reins, and the hand-drawn beauty of the animation carries Poppy Hill to its unexpected, touching conclusion. Younger children won’t pick up on all the subtleties of this finely wrought story, but junior-high and older kids should find plenty to reward their attention.
11. The Past
The director of A Separation tells another story of fractured human relationships and hidden secrets. The film grows richer as its narrative veers into unexpected territory and as crucial details are parsed out. Berenice Bejo provides the only competition for Barbara Sukowa (in the title role of Hannah Arendt) for performance of the year.
10. Frances Ha
An unexpected delight from director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), usually an architect of dysfunction. Greta Gerwig’s performance as Frances is winning, even as her behavior is less than upstanding and her attitude selfish. That we root for Frances to find happiness is a measure of Baumbach’s generosity toward his characters. He earns our sympathy for a protagonist that drives us just a little bit nuts.
9. The Wolf of Wall Street
A wildly energetic telling of a life of excess—wretched in its exuberance, greed and contempt for anyone but its protagonist, Jordan Belfort. Leonardo DiCaprio is at the top of his game as Belfort, a whirlwind of indulgence and gain-at-any-cost hedonism. At three hours, Wolf plays like rapid-fire assault on the senses, but it’s anything but deadening. Instead, Wolf is an exercise in awakening us to actions and attitudes that fuel personal and corporate downfall—and which lead to ruination.
8. 12 Years a Slave
Director Steve McQueen brings a powerful command to his unflinching look at the horrors of slavery, but it’s the masterly compositions and superb performances across the board that make this one of the year’s great films. Full review here.
A treatise on spiritual warfare and the mystery of providence, with prayer as the story’s through line. Keller Dover kidnaps and tortures the man he’s convinced is responsible for the disappearance of his daughter and her friend, while a detective pursues other angles. Cries are lifted heavenward, but the means of answering those supplications are cause for extended reflection.
A title that’s also a fitting description of the experience of watching the film. Director Ron Howard’s best effort in years recounts the rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Lauda is a technician, determined to understand every element of each race so he can maximize his chances of victory. Hunt is a hedonist who gives everything on the track so he can party hard during his off hours. The film refuses to judge either of its protagonists, but the story’s outcome allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about which lifestyle is preferable.
5. The Great Gatsby
Ravishing to look at, albeit sometimes strange to the ears (the soundtrack for this story, set in the early 20th century, includes hip-hop), Baz Luhrmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is consistently bold and risky—the very things a filmed treatment of a revered story needs lest it become entombed in overly reverential stateliness. Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role owns the film, but his work here has been overlooked by awards voters in favor of an even more dominant performance in The Wolf of Wall Street (see below).
4. Hannah Arendt
Must evil be outwardly hideous or in some ways obvious? The most intellectually stimulating film this year recounts Arendt’s reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann and her coining of the term “the banality of evil.” Arendt’s philosophy is wanting in some important ways, but it reminds us that evil can take innocuous as well as extravagant form. The film, combining documentary footage with the more standard features of a biopic, is beautifully shot and acted, and features the year’s greatest performance: Barbara Sukowa in the title role.
3. Stories We Tell
Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley shows how Roger Ebert’s maxim, “It’s not just what a movie is about, but how a movie is about what it’s about” can apply to nonfiction films. Stories We Tell immerses us in the intimate details of Polley’s upbringing and then, after we’ve learned much of the “what” of her story, surprises us with the “how” of it. Beyond the technical feat lies the question of the lifestyle choices made by Sarah’s mother and the costs of her pursuit of personal happiness.
2. Museum Hours
A tourist’s delight (filmed in Vienna) and an exhilarating teaching tool on the artist Pieter Bruegel, Museum Hours is, at heart, a two-person story about the power of human companionship to sustain us during life’s trials.
1. Beyond the Hills
A disturbing portrait of people of faith working to save a sinner in their midst, this religious drama is a sterling example of the new wave of Romanian cinema. Based on the true story of an exorcism gone wrong, the film is a study of admirable devotion that goes astray. As such, the story will leave audiences uneasy about its two female protagonists and the theological convictions that drive the story forward.