Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

An insanely great year for movies, maybe because more films were released in this year than any other. But, for me, that's a positive. Here are my choices (here's a link to the MOVIE GEEKS UNITED show where Jamey Duvall, Jerry Dennis and I discuss our top ten.

1) 12 Years A Slave (UK/US, Steve McQueen)
A film like no other---one completely of today, since this crime of humanity has hardly been vanquished, and particularly original because it dissects the miserable lives lived by both slavers and the enslaved. Unflinching and highly emotional, to the point of sheer hopelessness and then to miraculous release, and beautifully acted by a peerless cast (headed by the remarkable Chewitel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o). That it has been so controversial is a sure sign that we still have a lot to get over in this country, and in the world (hell, most of civilization has been built on the backs of slaves). McQueen's movie--adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's book--deserves to be a key part of that necessary discussion, as well as of a desperately needed confrontation of history, and an equally needed healing. There may have been other movies from this year I'd want to watch again and again, but there is no other 2013 film I'm more glad to have seen or seen made. It's absolutely required viewing.

2) Her (US, Spike Jonze)  
Jonze's film vies with McQueen's in the emotion-wringing department. For every grin and gorgeous whim of sweetness, there's a dark undercurrent of loneliness and a tinted sign of our will to love, plus a host of philosophical musings about the confluence of human affection and technology that we maybe first started thinking about with Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence (also, it should be noted, the film posits the possibility that technology could actually help us discover our true selves). Joaquin Phoenix again proves he's THE Actor of the Moment, controlling the screen with total confidence even while playing a largely underconfident character, and Scarlett Johansson impresses with a spirit  for which all can fall (and Amy Adams is outstanding, too). Also, one of the most visually distinctive movies of the year, with a transfixing design and color palette that propels Her towards its status as a unique vision of a probable near future. 

3) Computer Chess (US, Andrew Bujalski) 
Bujalski's film stunned me right down to my toes. Set at a 1980 computer chess convention (and shot on a late-70s era B&W Sony video cameras), the direction is consistently wacky in its inventiveness, with photographer Matthias Grunsky employing miracles with that now-ancient technology, eerily incorporating those machines' inherent flaws into the film's look. Computer Chess is damn funny and, with its cast of near unknowns, an almost Altmanesque peer at those nerds that now rule the world but whose cloistered existence makes it difficult for them to function properly in it. A ridiculously original picture, with an unforgettable final image, if you're paying attention. 

4) Blue is the Warmest Color (FranceAbdellatif Kechiche)
Not just a love story but a tale of personal growth, Kechiche's movie overtook my heart with its retro realism, out-of-this-world writing (it's adapted from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh), and the power of its two leads, the mesmerizing Adele Exarchopolous (who, for me, delivers the performance of the year) and the fearless Lea Seydoux, both of whom completely convinced me of the film's, and the relationship's, veracity. It's been a long time since I've seen such a knowing breakdown of a love affair's trajectory--right now, I can only think of Allen's Annie Hall as a rival. Through and through, it's resplendent, but that kissing scene, with the sunlight shining through the leads' meeting lips, is one of the this year's most unforgettable images.

5) Araf (TurkeyYasim Ustaoglu)
Released early in 2013, Ustaoglu's film has somehow escaped the eyes of most critics (though maybe this is understandable--right now, it's only available as a European PAL DVD), but when I saw it at the 2012 New York Film Festival, I was moved to copious tears by its simple telling of a love triangle, with a dreamy truck stop worker torn between the attention of two men: a devoted but ignored friend (Ozcan Deniz) and an older, barely available truck driver (Baran Hacihan). The teetering tension of Araf's third act, and then its unusual climax, completely floored me, as did the wide-eyed lead performance from Neslihan Atagul. Out of all the movies in my top ten, this is the one I hope gets the most new eyes on it, and an international digital release.

6) Neighboring Sounds (BrazilKleber Mendonca Filho)
Another 2012 New York Film Festival entry only widely seen in 2013, Filho's movie is a haunting look at the renters living in a Brazilian condo highrise, with the arrival of a somewhat suspicious security team out to provide watchful protection to its population. Ultimately, this film about neighborly responsibility had me hypnotized with its careful widescreen photography, its mysterious soundtrack, the superb supporting performance from Yuri Holanda as the aging owner of the the highrise, and Filho's dazzlingly complicated moral insights. Another film I hope more film lovers venture bravely to see.

7) The Wolf of Wall Street (US, Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese's film--his best in a decade or more--so clearly acts as a mirror to the audience that it was easy for me to dismiss the righteous criticisms many had for it. It took remarkable fortitude for the director (and writer Terrence Winter, adapting Jordan Belfort's book) to avoid spelling their positions out for us, thus leaving us to actively participate in the movie's unrelenting bacchanal. Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't delivered a performance of this energy and range since the very beginning of his career (this showing makes his alliance with Scorsese so much more understandible), and both Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie provide generous support. At three hours, and with an juggernaut source music soundtrack, it speeds by. Its dedicated portrayal of heartless excess very well might make you feel sick to your stomach (or, if you're that OTHER type of person, it may make you wanna get into a new line of business).  

8) Gravity (US, Alfonso Cuaron) 
Very simply, the big-screen event of the year, and the ONLY modern 3D/IMAX movie that I think utilizes both processes in a suitable fashion. I do think it will lose something on smaller screens (where I believe the faults in its disappointing dialogue will come to the fore). But one can't deny the effectiveness of Sandra Bullock's truly athletic lead performance (just try and imagine what she had to go through, and the creativity it took for her to achieve what she did), of Cuaron's mastery in putting you right there in the thick of this chaos, of the film's artisans' fussy but rewarding crafting of literally every frame, and of Gravity's staunchly positive position on the value of being an Earthling, which is a subject few--if any--movies dare approach.  
9) Frances Ha (US, Noah Baumbach) 
Absolutely one of the year's most charming movies, Baumbach worked closely with my OTHER Actor-of-the-Moment Greta Gerwig to create this sympathetic peer into the life of a scrambled artist who's let her rambling youth intercede too far into her adulthood. Instantly in the pantheon of great New York films, it's constantly funny, gorgeous to look at (with Sam Levy's amazing B&W images), and the utterly perfect vehicle for Gerwig who, with her articulate eyes and smile, and her inquisitive mind (she co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach), continues her path to being the most special special effect in cinema.

10) The Selfish Giant (UK, Clio Barnard) 
Barnard's movie is the sort of ineffable work I always look forward to seeing; one shining with an unwavering vision, both cynical and hopeful. In capitulating it, I could say that it's a movie about the tender and tough friendship between two dirt-poor UK 13-year-old boys. I could also say that it's a tale about reconnecting to humans and to nature, or about tired souls trying to survive while surrounded by squalor and horrible cruelty (it's not an EASY movie, for sure). But it's more than that, and I will leave to you to discover what that more is. In spite of its character's thick brogues, it moved me deeply. Astounding performances from the young Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas.
11) Inside Llewyn Davis (US, Joel and Ethan Coen)
Perhaps the most difficult movie of the year. It's easy to find much to love in it: Bruno Delbonnel's evocative, foggy cinematography; Oscar Isaac's unstoppable lead performance (and musical ability), T-Bone Burnett's confident stewardship of its early 60s Greenwich Village-flavored score, and the film's sure supporting cast (including Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver joining with Isaac in one of the best movie scenes of the year). I had problems with its main character, a despicable person who has no concern for anyone or anything else in his purview, who makes quick decisions about important matters without even thinking. Still, it may be about the difficult choices the poor, and even the talented, have to make in a life of decreasing choices, and in that, I find something to adore in it. But, man, I know it sounds lame, but as a cat owner, this movie slayed me, and left me ultimately wondering, in its third act, if I wanted to spend even one more second with its main character. I continue to grapple with my feelings about it--though my opinion of Davis as an ass of the lowest order is all but fully fixed. Arrrrgh...this movie! It confounds me! I hafta watch it again. So now I also hafta say: this is the definition of a great film.

12) Gloria (Chile, Sebastian Lelio)
Not since the heady days of Paul Mazursky's popularity have we seen a movie like this. Paulina Garcia delivers one of 2013's finest performances as a 50-ish divorcee who re-enters the dating scene and discovers its pitfalls (Sergio Hernandez is also terrific in it as her ardent but often infuriatingly distracted suitor). Joyous, funny, and shattering at times, Lelio's direction--and particularly Garcia's performance--remained with me all year long, and deserves to be seen by more film lovers.

13) Nebraska (US, Alexander Payne) 
A return to form for Payne, after an only slight misstep with The Descendants. I disagree with those who say Nebraska makes fun of the Midwestern characters at its center--it does so no less than Payne's other films (it's clear he knows what's odd and what's not about his home region). The cast is uniformly at the top of their game, Bob Nelson's screenplay is nifty, and it's heartening to see plum roles given to the legendary Bruce Dern, to the little-known June Squibb, and to Will Forte, who really reveals a alternate side of himself here. The widescreen B&W photography by Phedon Papamichael transforms the film into the jewel of Payne's entire output, and Mark Orton's score adds extra forlorn notes.  

14) The Lords of Salem (US, Rob Zombie) 
Easily the most visually arresting horror film of recent memory. In it, Zombie’s wife and muse Sheri Moon Zombie is exceptional (in a movie with a rowdy supporting cast) as a Massachusetts rock DJ who receives a demo record that sends her and any woman who listens to it into a witch-driven tizzy of depravity. Surprisingly, The Lords of Salem is an amazing parade of cinematic play--seriously, almost every shot in this film is mind-blowing. Scoff if you will, but Zombie's latest genre delve--amongst the too many bland horror films being made these days--is definitely scary, definitely fun, and most certainly immaculately produced.

15) No (Chile, Pablo Larrain) 
Unexpectedly hilarious and also triumphant, Larrain's film is a bizarre combination of an 80s-era Mad Men and a Costa-Gavras movie. Gael Garcia Bernal is super as the Chilean adman chosen to launch a campaign designed to oust the hated Pinochet regime, responsible for the deaths of thousands who opposed it. Some sequences reminded me of Sidney Lumet's Network in their ability to make a dire subject so absurdly funny, and as with Bujalski's Computer Chess this year, I really dug Larrain's decision to shoot the film with late-80s-era video technology. Even more so, I so appreciated the effort to make a movie about something so positive in the midst of so much misery.
16) A Teacher (US, Hannah Fidell) 
Fiddell's movie follows the simple trajectory of a closed-off high school English teacher conducting  an affair with a 17-year-old student. It's adorned with a detailed, ardent performance by Lindsay Burdge, a remarkably mature supporting turn by Will Brittain, and assured guidance by writer/director Fidell, in collusion with gifted cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and composer Brian McOmber. Each captain their widescreen visions with unrelenting reality, sure close-ups, niggling music, and sometimes beautifully fuzzy focus. Even a couple of days after seeing it, I could hardly process how superb A Teacher is in its intimacy, honesty and fairness.

17) All is Lost (US, J.C. Chandor) 
An exercise in problem solving, endurance, and creativity, Chandor's film stands as the polar opposite of his debut film Margin Call, which was packed with dialogue and exposition. Here we get Robert Redford, better than he's ever been (it kills me he's not in the running for the 2014 Best Actor Academy Award) as a man in an impossible place, trying to think of crafty solutions to a relentless slate of horrors. The film--extremely well shot and with subtle scoring by Alex Ebert and a ravishing soundtrack of detailed effects work--is a metaphor for every single person struggling with present economic challenges, and as such, it's incredibly illuminating.

18) Beyond The Hills (Romania, Cristian Mungiu) 
This stultifying yet remarkably open tale of a misbegotten woman taking refuge in her one-time lover's strict, monestary home is at once terribly uncomfortable, supremely understandable, and utterly involving. With its generous lead portrayals from Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, plus a mighty supporting performance from head priest Valeriu Andriuta, you'll find your head spinning with every passing second. Mungiu is quickly becoming one of the leading lights of world cinema.  

19) Spring Breakers (US, Harmony Korine) 
The second half of a 2013 double feature about conspicuous consumption (with Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street being the A-list title), Korine delivers the best film of his spotty career, smashingly photographed by Benoit Dobie and scored by both the apparently infallible Cliff Martinez and king of dub step Skrillex. James Franco deserves all accolades for disappearing into his role as the "Look at my shee-it" Alien, but the women in the film--Vanessa Hudgens, Selina Gomez, Rachel Korine, and Ashley Benson--impress equally with their hard-ass competence, and often innocent incompetence.  

20) Behind the Candleabra (US, Steven Soderburgh) 
Soderburgh continues to solidify his position as the chanciest of filmmakers by delving into television and saying goodbye to theatrical films (and this decision I totally understand). This movie which, despite its star power, would've been difficult to market in American theaters, arrived on HBO with extraordinary energy. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (who, if there were a way to do this, should have shared Best Actor awards at the Emmys and so forth) each seem palpably energized by their roles, and the film's craft--costumes, art direction, and music (by the late Marvin Hamlisch)--is the definition of spectacular. This is the way to do a biopic.

21) Blue Jasmine (US, Woody Allen)   
Woody Allen doesn't often make a film with as unlikable main character as this, a woman who profited off the scams of her Wall Street husband, and then only made a stink when her position in his world was threatened. Rarely have I seen a movie in which I wanted to simultaneously see the lead character's head decapitated, and then also wanted to see her make her way to some sort of significant revelation about herself. This is the most adventurous work Allen has accomplished in years, with a cast that include superb work by Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale. But let's face it: Cate Blanchett OWNS this film.  

22) The Spectacular Now (US, James Pondsoldt)
Remarkably real and well-observed, with this exceptional love story between a drunken high school player (Miles Teller) and a hesitant wallflower (Shailene Woodley), Pondsoldt deepens his continuing peek into the lives of those with crippling substance abuse problems. With its phenomenal screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, this lovely film keys into the small-town wisdom I cherished in movies like Peter Yates' Breaking Away, but it does so with a studied feel all its own. And I need to add: with his performance here, in Breaking Bad, and in Payne's Nebraska, Bob Odenkirk is becoming an actor to watch.

23) 56 Up (UK, Michael Apted) 
Released in the UK in 2012 (on TV), but in America in 2013, Apted's continuing glare into the lives of his subjects still resonates with utmost care. (Seriously, has there ever been a documentarian with as much devotion to his studies?) This particular entry into the series becomes more valuable with the reentered participation of some of its key players and so it seems more deeply felt than some of the more recent entries. Honestly, as long as the Up series continues on, it'll have a place on lists like this. It's the finest documentary series in film history.  

24) Short Term 12 (US, Dustin Daniel Cretton)
Cretton's film, many years in the making (adapted from his 2008 short film) stands as THE way to do a successful indie movie. Centered around a school for troubled teenagers, it's impeccably cast with mostly newcomers (Keith Stanfield makes a deep impression as a kid about to be released from this program). Short Term 12 emerges most memorably as a vehicle for the totally committed Brie Larson and the also superb John Gallagher Jr. as two scarred instructors trying to navigate a relationship with each other and with the kids they love. Writer/director Cretton is a promising film presence now: his film comes to us as if we're watching the real play out before our eyes.

25) This is The End (US, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen) 
Obviously the funniest movie of 2013, and the most destructive of a year filled with apocalyptic film scenarios. What I loved is the cozily connected, odd, fourth-wall breaking performances by its cast (including co-writer/director Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and the deranged Danny McBride, but not excluding all the nutso cameos in it, too). If a comedy leaves me with a headache from laughing so hard, as this one did, then it certainly deserves to be included in a list like this. I also have to point out the film's massively creative art direction and special effects.

26) The Crash Reel (US, Lucy Walker) 
I've often been fascinated by what drives extreme sports figures into taking the risks they do, and I have wondered, too, what happens when the outcome of their stunts isn't what they expected. Walker's film is the documentary of the year, because you can feel her curiosity all throughout the film, which took years to complete. In telling the story of Kevin Pearce, a once-top snowboarder whose head injury put a stop to his career, the director shines a light on the risks not only the athlete takes, but also the risks his friends and family take in supporting him. To boot, it also implicates the sports community and the sponsors that promote it in the question of whether further dangers should be attempted by such athletes. An incredible film!
27) Enough Said (US, Nicole Holofcener)  
Holofcener continues her impeccable, multi-film journey into modern love with this weirdly-shaped, often discomfiting yet satisfying look at a massage therapist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her newfound relationship with an out-of-shape sweetheart (James Gandolfini). Along with Holofcener's always marvelous dialogue, we have Dreyfus and Gandolfini delivering two of the year's less showy great performances. The fact that this is Gandolfini's nearly final work just leaves one heartbroken, while Dreyfus' breakthrough to the big screen seems radically hopeful.

28) Blackfish (US, Gabriela Coperthwaite) 
With her film, Coperthwaite lofted the most worthwhile political/cultural campaign of 2013. Seaworld scrambled to battle it and, in one of the most disappointing decision by the Academy, Blackfish failed to get a Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (a decision I just cannot reconcile with reality). But still, her film makes it clear that this practice that cannot go on; jailing these creatures for our bemusement has to come to an end. In this way, I see Blackfish as a twin to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.  

29) Prince Avalanche (US, David Gordon Green) 
A Waiting for Godot for the new age, Green's movie made me reignite hope for his career, after seeing him waste his time in recent years on goofy comedies like His Highness and Pineapple Express. In it, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch give outstanding performances as two sometimes combative men left stranded in go-nowhere (and everywhere) jobs as line-painters on winding mountain roads. The evocative photography by Tim Orr, and the lovely score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo, did much to contribute to the film's rarity.

30) What Maisie Knew (US, Scott McGehee and David Siegel) 
I was extremely moved by this adaptation of Henry James' novel about a child caught between two bickering, divorced parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore), and her new connections to their respective lovers (Joanna Vanderham and Alexander Skarsgard). Chief among the film's many assets is the preternatually fine performance given by Onata Aprile as Maisie, who carries the film on her very tiny shoulders.

OF NOTE (in alphabetical order): The Act of Killing, Afternoon Delight, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Alan Partridge, August: Osage County, The Bling Ring, Le Capital, Captain Phillips, Casting By, C.O.G., Dallas Buyers Club, The English Teacher, Fruitvale Station, Good Ol’ Freda, The Grandmaster, The Great Beauty, A Highjacking, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Inequality for All, The Institute, Iron Man 3, Last Love, Liv and Ingmar, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, Mud, Now You See Me, Our Nixon, Passion, The Place Beyond the Pines, Sarah Prefers to Run, Side Effects, Still Mine, Stories We Tell, This is Martin Bonner, The To Do List, Tim's Vermeer, To The Wonder, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, 20 Feet From Stardom, World War Z, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

GREAT TV: Alpha House, Breaking Bad, Derek, Getting On, Girls, House of Cards, Key and Peele, Masterchef Australia, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black, Top of the Lake

STILL NEED TO SEE: The Attack, A Band Called Death, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Black Nativity, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, Ernest and Celestine, Hannah Arendt, In Berkeley, Leviathan, Like Someone in Love, The Missing Picture, Mother of George, Muscle Shoals, Museum Hours, The Past, Pain and Gain, Post Tenebres Lux, The Punk Singer, Omar, Renoir, A Touch of Sin, Upstream Color, Wadjda, The Wind Rises

GUILTY PLEASURES: Dealin’ With Idiots, Escape Plan, The Great Gatsby, Last Vegas, Only God Forgives, Sharknado, Touchy Feely, Violet and Daisy, We’re The Millers

UNRELEASED GEMS: The Great Chicken Wing Hunt (which received its release in Jan 2014), HazMat, Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride

OVERRATED: American Hustle, Before Midnight, Blue Caprice, Frozen, The Hunt, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Out of the Furnace, Philomena, Prisoners, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, The Way Way Back

DISAPPOINTMENTS: All Is Bright, Clear History, Cold Turkey, The Conjuring, Don Jon, The East, Elysium, Europa Report, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Story, 42, The Heat, In A World, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Lone Survivor, The Look of Love, Monsters University, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Smash and Grab, Star Trek Into Darkness, The World’s End

WORST: The Call, Chez Upshaw, The Company You Keep, Drinking Buddies, Escape From Tomorrow, The Fifth Estate, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Olympus Has Fallen, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the latter film being my choice for the WORST and most irritating movie of the year)

MY PERSONAL WINNERS AND NOMINEES FOR 2013 (ten in each of the major categories): 

PICTURE: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2nd: Her, followed by: Blue is the Warmest Color, Computer Chess, Araf, Neighboring Sounds, The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Frances Ha, The Selfish Giant)

DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2nd: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity, followed by: Spike Jonze, Her; Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess; Yasim Ustaoglu, Araf; Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street; Clio Bernhard, The Selfish Giant; Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha; Alexander Payne, Nebraska)

ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2nd: Robert Redford, All is Lost; followed by: Chewitel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave; Joaquin Phoenix, Her; Connor Chapman, The Selfish Giant; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Michael Douglas, Behind the Candleabra; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club; Matt Damon, Behind the Candleabra; Bruce Dern, Nebraska)

ACTRESS: Adele Exarchopolis, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2nd: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine, followed by: Paulina Garcia, Gloria; Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha; Sandra Bullock, Gravity; Brie Larson, Short Term 12; Meryl Streep, August: Osage County; Lindsay Burge, A Teacher; Onata Aprile, What Maisie Knew; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jared Leto, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (2nd: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street, followed by: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; James Gandolfini, Enough Said; James Franco, Spring Breakers; Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine; Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave; Will Brittain, A Teacher; Shaun Thomas, The Selfish Giant; Will Forte, Nebraska)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2nd: Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color, followed by: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Scarlett Johansson, Her; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Julia Roberts, August: Osage County; Mickey Summers, Frances Ha; June Squibb, Nebraska; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Spike Jonze, HER (2nd: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha, followed by: Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess; Yasim Ustaoglu, Araf; Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said; Bob Nelson, Nebraska; Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station; Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Gloria; Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis; Clio Barnard, The Selfish Giant))

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: John Ridley, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2nd: Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, Blue is the Warmest Color, followed by: Pedro Peirano, No; Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street; Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now; Cristian Mungiu, Beyond the Hills; Dustin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12; Richard LaGravenese, Behind the Candelabra; Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, This is the End; Billy Ray, Captain Phillips))

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: THE CRASH REEL (Lucy Walker) (2nd: Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite), followed by: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer); Casting By (Tom Donahue); 20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville); Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley); The Trials of Muhammad Ali (Bill Siegel); Good Ol' Freda (Ryan White); Liv and Ingmar (Deheeraj Akolkar); The Institute (Spencer McCall)) 

NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE FILM: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (Abdellatif Kechiche, France) (2nd: Araf (Yasim Ustaoglu, Turkey), followed by: Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil); Gloria (Sebastian Lelio, Chile); No (Pablo Larrain, Chile); Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania); Sarah Prefers to Run (Chloé Robichaud, Canada); A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm, Denmark); You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet (Alain Renais, France)

ANIMATED FEATURE: FROZEN (Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck) (2nd: Despicable Me 2, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud) (a lackluster year for animation)

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki, GRAVITY (2nd: Bruno Dubonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis, followed by: Benoit Dobie, Spring Breakers; Hoyte Van Hoytema, Her; Brandon Troust, The Lords of Salem; Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska; Matthia Grunsky, Computer Chess; Emmanuel Lubezki, To The Wonder; Philippe Lu Sourd, The Grandmaster; Sam Levy, Frances Ha)

ORIGINAL SCORE: Steven Price, GRAVITY (2nd: William Butler and Owen Pallett, Her, followed by: Daniel Hart, Ain't Them Bodies Saints; Cliff Martinez, Spring Breakers; Mark Orton, Nebraska; Brian McOmber, A Teacher; David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky, Prince Avalanche; Craig Armstrong, The Great Gatsby; Christophe Beck, Frozen; Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks)

SHORT FILM: JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING (Xavier Legrand) (2nd: Silence (Pegah Arzi, followed by: Cavedigger (Jeffrey Karoff); Gloria Victoria (Theodore Yushev); That Wasn't Me (Esteban Crespo); Requiem for Romance (Jonathan Ng); Winter Hill (Melissa Bruno); Comic Book Palace (Felipe Jorge); Get A Horse! (Walt Disney and Lauren McMullan), The Second Nurse (Jenny Plante))

PRODUCTION DESIGN: HER, The Great Gatsby, Inside Llewyn Davis, Behind the Candelabra, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, The Lords of Salem

COSTUME DESIGN: THE GREAT GATSBY, American Hustle, Behind the Candleabra, Her, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Lee Daniels' The Butler

FILM EDITING: 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Frances Ha, The Crash Reel

SOUND: ALL IS LOST, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips, World War Z, Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby

ORIGINAL SONG: "For The Time Being" from THE WAY WAY BACK (Music and lyrics by Edie Brickell) (2nd: "Young and Beautiful from The Great Gatsby (Music and lyrics by Elizabeth Grant and Rick Howels), followed by: "The Moon Song from Her (Music by Karen O, lyrics by Karen O and Spike Jonze); "Atlas" from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (music and lyrics by Chris Martin, Guy Berrymkan, Jonny Buckland and Will Champion); "Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Music and lyrics by Paul Hewson, David Evans, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr., and Brian Burton); "In Summer" from Frozen (Music by Robert Lopez, lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez); "Get Used to Me" from The Sapphires (Music and lyrics by Diane Warren))

VISUAL EFFECTS: GRAVITY, Pacific Rim, World War Z, This is the End, Iron Man 3, All is Lost


And now something new in my year-end line-up--something for the TRUE movie lovers:

NEW DISCOVERIES OF NON-2013 FILMS (in order of preference): 

Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)
Stunningly beautiful widescreen drama about a cynical, alcoholic writer (Frank Sinatra) returning to his home town, with a big city call girl (a magnificent Shirley MacLaine) chasing after him, trying to get him to fall in love with her. Dean Martin completes the picture with one of his best performances as Sinatra's extremely loyal, hat-wearing best friend. They just don't make anything like this anymore--little stories told on the widest, most inviting canvases.
Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)
A breathtaking cousin to serial shorts and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Walter Pidgeon plays a man who's caught catching Hitler in his gun sights, and then spends the entire movie escaping the Nazis. Exciting throughout, one cannot possibly forget its final shot, or the travails of its director, who himself escaped the Nazi purge.

Her Master’s Voice (Nina Conti, 2012)
Nina Conti's movingly personal documentary is easily one of the three best films I've watched this year (it's a 2012 production, and was a big hit last year at SXSW). In it, Conti, a quick-witted British ventriloquist, looks back on her romantic and professional relationship with a much older mentor while trying to forge a future for herself. Her Master's Voice is a documentary, yes, but it twists inward to also become an evocative personal quest for a firm direction in life, while also being a lament for a treasured love and a surprisingly tearful tribute to the act of speaking through another set of lips.

Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Inurritu, 2000)   
Inurritu's paen to dogs and violence was tough to get through, me being an animal lover (that's the reason I avoided it all these years).  But it was also taut and extremely rewarding in its telling of the connections between the victims of a terrible car crash, and the dogs that complicate their lives.  Dire and essential viewing.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (Liz Garbus, 2011)
A riveting mystery, this HBO documentary dissects the events that lead up to the car accident death of a mother and two children. This is the way a documentary should be done; you can feel the filmmaker searching deeply for answers, and ultimately being dumbstruck that there simply are none.

Pickup (Hugo Haas, 1951)
Vintage noir from the poor man's Orson Welles, Hugo Haas (whose movies I had long heard of but had never seen). Beverly Michaels is terrific as the money-hungry floozy who hoodwinks sweet ol' Hugo Haas into marrying her, then complains when the money fails to appear. Just a good old fashioned B-movie, but when they're done this well, they seem like A-movies to me.  

I Saw What You Did (William Castle, 1965)  
Castle's film has a simple premise: two teenage girls (Sarah Lane and Andi Garrett) on a sleepover at Garrett’s creepily-lit mansion decide to make prank phone calls to unsuspecting victims. This leads the girls into dark territory, with one phone-call recipient--Joan Crawford as a desperate, aging romantic who’s taken a deadly turn against her slimy lover (John Ireland)--suspecting that the girls know all about her murderous deed. Joseph Biroc’s marvelously contrasting black-and-white photography does much here in transmitting a horror feel, but this movie is as much a comedy as anything else (especially with the over-the-hill Crawford playing romantic scenes as if she were still the queen of the ball). 

The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958)
Sweeping wide-screen western with Gregory Peck as an East Coaster who arrives west and finds himself in the middle of a battle over a plot of land he's purchased. Great cast--Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Chuck Connors, Charles Bickford and an Oscar-winning Burl Ives as the strait-talking patriarch of one of the warring families. It's a film that needs the biggest screen possible, so as to take in its breathtaking compositions. Jerome Moross' score is one of the best ever written.  

Lookin’ to Get Out (Hal Ashby, 1982) 
An overlooked comedy from the always reliable Hal Ashby, with Jon Voight as a reckless gambler who escapes his New York debt crisis by cajoling his best friend (Burt Young) into an impromptu Vegas trip. Lots of laffs all the way through, and the two leads have a ridiculously warm bond. The supporting cast includes Ann-Margret, Burt Remsen, Richard Bradford and, in the final scene, a very young Angelina Jolie.  

Sanjuro (Akira Kurosawa, 1962)
Mifune plays the mysterious stranger who arrives to assist a milquetoast band of samarais in their fight against a vicious warlord. Searing black-and-white scope photography and a strong sense of pacing, plus a stern showing from Mifune--all the things one expects from a Kurosawa film of this time period.  

Gerry (Gus Van Sant, 2002) 
A tough movie to get through, but also strangely hypnotizing. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (who co-wrote the screenplay) portray two guys named Gerry (or at least, that's what THEY call each other), who drive out to a point in the desert and promptly get lost in its expanse. The sound work, locations, and Harris Savides' superb photography are major reason why the movie works--though I really leave it up to you to decide if it works or doesn't. On that count, it's a true toss-up.

Breezy (Clint Eastwood, 1973)  
Affecting account of a May-December romance between a serious L.A. businessman (William Holden) and a free-spirited hippie girl (Kay Lenz, who's really great in it). Notable as Eastwood's first movie, it's an unexpectedly delicious debut from this rough-hewn actor-turned-filmmaker.  

Fourteen Hours (Henry Hathaway, 1951)
Tense, real-time telling of the chaos that results on a New York street when a depressed man (Richard Basehart) steps out on a high-rises ledge and threatens to jump. Paul Douglas is lively as the beat cop who tries to talk him down. The cast is further filled out by Agnes Moorehead (as the man's needling mother), Barbara Bel Geddes (as the woman he may or may not love), Debra Paget and Jeffery Hunter as two in the crowd of onlookers, Grace Kelly (in an early supporting role), and Howard Da Silva (as the police captain). Excellent early NYC location work as well.   

Jubal (Delmer Daves, 1956)
The usually blah Glenn Ford comes to life here as a ranch hand who strikes up a friendship with his amiable new boss (Ernest Borgnine) and then finds himself on the receiving end of romantic advances from Borgnine's dissatisfied wife (Valerie French) and violent ones from a jealous former top hand (Rod Steiger). Engrossing through and through.

Warning Shot (Buzz Kulik, 1967)  
Excellent late-60s TV movie that was so good, it got theatrical distribution as well. David Jannsen is an L.A. detective who shoots a respected doctor while on a stakeout, and then has to defend himself when the gun Janssen said the doctor pulled on him can't be found. The constantly surprising  supporting cast includes--get ready: Lillian Gish, Ed Begley, Carroll O'Connor, Walter Pidgeon, Joan Collins, Keenan Wynn, George Sanders, Eleanor Parker, Steve Allen, Stefanie Powers and a hipster George Grizzard. And the late-60s TV look to it, with all those bright colors and lights, often approaches an odd surrealism.  

Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959)
This morally complex western has Henry Fonda as a famed gunslinger hired by the troubled town of Warlock to clean up its streets, which're being terrorized by a gang of animalistic goons (including Richard Widmark and Bones himself, DeForrest Kelley). Anthony Quinn is Fonda's loyal right hand man, and Dorothy Malone is the woman who accuses the heroes of a terrible crime. Terribly overlooked, Dmytryk's film deserves a higher reputation than it now enjoys.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang, 1956)  
Late-period Lang--maybe his last great film--has Dana Andrews as a writer who conspires with a newspaper editor (Sidney Blackmer) to confess to a murder that he didn't commit, in order to prove--along with his innocence--that capital punishment is a barbaric practice.  The outlandish story is given real weight by the convincing, twisty script. Joan Fontaine is particularly good in it as the woman who questions her love for the redoubtable Andrews.  

After Lucia (Michel Franco, 2012)
Shattering Mexican/French co-production, with the accomplished Hernan Mendoza as a recently widowed chef who picks up and moves with his daughter (Tessa Ia) to a new town. At school, Ia quickly becomes the butt of many pranks, including a terrible bout with internet bullying that ultimately illuminates for us the new landscape of cruelty that kids now have to navigate.  

Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)  
In his first film, Kris Kristofferson (who also supplies much of the movie's music) is a retired pot dealer cajoled back into the game by a harried cop (Gene Hackman). Excellent 70s feel, with a great supporting cast that includes Harry Dean Stanton, Karen Black, and Warhol-stamped star Viva.  

American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)  
I was surprised how much I liked this Ridley Scott gangster epic, with Denzel Washington as a 70s-era drug lord being hunted down by FBI investigator Russell Crowe. I was particularly impressed with the film's burnished look, its complex screenplay (by Steve Zaillian) and with its remarkable supporting cast, including Idris Elba and the always great Ruby Dee.  

Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011)  
Consistantly funny farce with Ed Helms as a meek insurance guy chosen to replace a fallen colleague at a midwestern insurance professionals' convention.  Often vulgar (especially with the appearance of a randy John C. Reilly), but always with its heart in the correct place.  Out of its seamless supporting cast, I particularly liked Anne Heche as a warm fellow insurance provider, and Isaiah Whitlock Jr. as a relatively level-headed presence. Arteta is turning out to be a rather reliable director these days.  

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (Chad Friedrichs, 2011)
Distinctive documentary chronicling the short history of America's first low-income housing project, in St. Louis. Friedrichs conducts remarkably honest and emotional interviews with one-time tenants at this heralded but doomed triumph over impoverished living conditions.  A truly haunting film.

Alex in Wonderland (Paul Mazursky, 1970)
Donald Sutherland has one of his most meaty lead roles here as a newly-minted director searching for his next project. It's Mazursky's take on 8 1/2, and as such, it includes a great cameo appearance by Federico Fellini (whom Mazursky idolizes). Sometimes uncomfortably chaotic, and always filled with that terrific dialogue Mazursky is known for (the director has a role here as a wine-swilling producer), it also features Ellen Burstyn and the director's daughter Meg in notable roles.

Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (Andrew Beall and Frank Molieri, 2011) 
A happy return-to-form for a cartoon series that had been, for years, summarily devalued. Lucy tries to get Linus to give up his blanket, and goes to extreme lengths to make sure this addiction is broken. Filled with laughs that are totally devoted to Charles Schulz's original comic, and scored by Mark Mothersbaugh in an appropriately Vince Guaraldi-esque fashion, I was heartened to see that this newest entry--co-written and produced by Schulz's son Craig--was on par with the earliest and best of the Charlie Brown films.

Mr. Sardonicus (William Castle, 1961)
Our title character (Guy Rolfe) is a man who once committed an unspeakable wrong and, as penance, has to spend his life with a hideously frozen face. Oscar Homolka is very creepy as his leering, damaged henchman. A very weird and kind of lovable cult film.

REDISCOVERIES (in order of viewing): 

It Happens Every Spring (Lloyd Bacon, 1949) 
Ray Milland is a university scientist who comes up with a chemical that repels wood. So naturally he tries it out with a baseball team, and finds that coating a baseball with this goop ensures strikeouts each and every time. Always inventive, with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Valentine Davies.  
Rhubarb (Arthur Lubin, 1951) 
Another Ray Milland baseball-related comedy, with the star as the executor of a rich man's will. The benefactor? The man's cat, Rhubarb, who becomes the taciturn owner of (and good luck charm) for a failing baseball team. Lovely and well-written, and a special award for being one of the great cat movies of all time.  

Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2000) 
A modern classic that gets better and better with age.

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) 
I was blown away by watching this for only the second time. The performances from Julianne Moore (as the perfect housewife), Dennis Quaid (as her sexually conflicted husband), Dennis Haysbert (as the black gardener Moore falls for), and Patricia Clarkson (as Moore's concerned best friend) are all unbelievably top-notch, and the Ed Lachmann photography is to die for (as is Elmer Bernstein's lush score). 

Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) 
Still as funny as it ever was.

Rollercoaster (James Goldstone, 1977) 
Schlocky 70s thriller with LA P.I. George Segal on the trail of a madman (the chilling Timothy Bottoms) who's placing explosives on roller coasters. Surprisingly tighter than I remembered it being, it actually had me tensing up at its most terrifying moments.  

Mike’s Murder (James Bridges, 1984) 
Underrated thriller with Debra Winger unusually vulnerable as a bank teller who has a one-night stand with her troubled tennis instructor (Mark Keyloun), and then spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what's happened to him. The horrifying final act features an idiosyncratic performance from Darrell Larson as Mike's coked-up co-hort. The film is highlighted by a very unique screenplay from Bridges, and a graceful score from John Barry.  

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (John V. Avildsen, 1975) 
From the 70s heyday of Burt Reynolds, this incredibly likable film has his W.W. taking up the management of a country band (headed by Connie Van Dyke and Jerry Reed, and with Jim Hampton and country legend Don Williams). The songs, by Reed, are a constant joy, and it's also great to see Art Carney and Ned Beatty in villainous roles. Avildsen would go on to winning the Oscar the following year for directing Rocky. And, really, Reynolds strikes a lovable chord here.
Comfort and Joy (Bill Forsyth, 1984) 
Bill Forsyth's laconic comedy has Bill Patterson as a Scottish radio DJ who soothes his recently broken heart by involving himself in a turf war between two owners of competing fleets of ice cream trucks. Totally unlike anything you've ever seen, with a lovely score by Mark Knopfler and subtle laughs throughout.

Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006) 
Lee's extremely satisfying caper film, with Denzel Washington trying to foil a bank robbery led by a steely Clive Owen. I had forgotten how utterly entertaining this phenomenal film is.  

The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens, 1959) 
A brilliant cast and director, working in harmony with an indelible story.  

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) 
A horror classic, of course. Its sumptuous look really impressed me on Blu-Ray.  

Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) 
I don't think I was paying attention the first time I watched this riveting tale of a samarai searching for a house to commit suicide in, and then relaying some revelations about another man who visited the same house many years earlier. The widescreen photography by Yoshio Miyajima is breathtaking, and the discordant score is by Toru Takamitsu also assists in deepening our involvement in this already entrancing tragedy.  

Z (Constantine Costa-Gavras, 1969) 
The king of all political pictures, and the progenitor of a then-new way of blending documentary and narrative styles. There is nothing out there quite like this one!  

Midnight Lace (David Miller, 1960) 
Imitation Hitchcock at its best, with Doris Day delivering one of her finest screen performances as a newly married wife (to rich London businessman Rex Harrison) being terrorized by a mysterious man threatening her life. The tremendous supporting cast includes a slimy Roddy McDowell, a by-the-book John Williams (playing a Scotland Yard inspector, of course), and a lively Myrna Loy as Day's spark-plug aunt.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003) 
Andersen's film-loving documentary (which can be seen on You Tube--all three wonderful hours of it) also serves as a spiky valentine to his home city, and to the movies that use it in sometimes routine, sometimes inventive ways. With its head-spinning variety of film clips and Andersen's amusingly dry, witty narration, Los Angeles Plays Itself still stands as the pinnacle of filmic essays.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957) 
Unbelievably dark and dour, this sci-fi classic is something I hadn't seen since I was a kid, when I was totally unaware of its philsophical musings. Written by the late Richard Matheson, the film oozes longing and helplessness in the face of a cruel universe. I was unexpectedly blown away with its special effects, too, which were years ahead of their time.  

I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) 
Susan Hayward definitely deserved the Oscar she got for playing Barbara Graham, a woman framed for murder and eventually put on death row.  A harrowing indictment of capital punishment, Wise's film gets better and better as it goes along and, by the sobering end of this true story, all you feel is outrage.  

Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)  
As scary and emotional as I remembered it, but also funnier and more clever, with the only great performance by Mel Gibson, on equal footing with his co-star Joaquin Phoenix. It's too bad Shyamalan can't seem get back to this level of work.
Creator (Ivan Passer, 1985) 
One of the underrated performances by the magnificent O'Toole, here playing a scientist going to extreme lengths to keep the memory--and the very cells--of his dead wife alive. Affecting supporting turns from Vincent Spano (as his assistant), then-newcomer Virginia Madsen as the girl Spano falls in love with, and Mariel Hemingway as O'Toole's ardent romantic suitor. Unjustly underseen.  

AND, FINALLY, A LOVING GOODBYE TO: Peter O'Toole, James Gandolfini, Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, Ray Harryhausen, George Jones, Joan Fontaine, Jean Stapleton, Julie Harris, Les Blank, Hal Needham, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Elmore Leonard, Ed Koch, Stanley Kauffman, Richie Havens, Richard Matheson, Syd Field, Jonathan Winters, Ray Dolby, Eleanor Parker, Karen Black, Chico Hamilton, Jim Kelly, Eileen Brennan, Paul Walker, Slim Whitman, Esther Williams, Ray Manzerek, Wojcieck Kilar, Nagisa Oshima, Ray Price, Tom Laughlin, Tom Clancy, Milo O'Shea, Bigas Luna, Eydie Gorme, Nigel Davenport, Stuart Freeborn, Patti Page, Vadim Yusov, Bernadette Lafont, Jess Franco, Anthony Hinds, Gil Taylor, Deanna Durbin, Richard Griffiths, Dennis Farina, Gerry Hambling