Best Movies of 2013

Scene from "War Witch" -
one of the best films of 2013
It was the year of black cinema, or was it? The premiere and acclaim of Fruitvale Station at the beginning of the year when it played at Sundance kicked things off. Half through the year Michael Cieply, writing for The New York Times penned an article that supposedly heralded 2013 as "a breakout for Black films."

We got four biopics on four important black figures, including Jackie Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Eugene Allen and Solomon Northup. We got great documentaries on Angela Davis, Uganda as well as Venus and Serena Wiliams. We got a musical Black Nativity, a typical Tyler Perry film, a typical Wayans film, a major studio sequel to The Best Man and a ton of independent films dealing with a wealth of social issues from Welcome to Pine Hill, Mother of George and Four.

Yes, this was the year of black films, but was this also the year of "blue" films. It's just a lark, but I did notice quite a few films with the word blue in the title. Top among them is probably Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. Yet, there was also Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Caprice and The Sapphires. The last one is a bit tricky, but a sapphire is a gemstone that is typically found in the color blue. In fact, "sapphire" is a Greek word that translates to "blue stone."

Notable deaths were Roger Ebert who won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, Peter O'Toole who was nominated 8 times for the Oscar, his first time for Lawrence of Arabia and Joan Fontaine who won the Oscar for Hitchcock's Suspicion. Surprising deaths included Tony Scott, director and brother to filmmaker Ridley Scott. James Gandolfini, Cory Monteith and Paul Walker were also shocking losses to the Hollywood community. Walker's death probably got the most press being that he was in the middle of filming The Fast and the Furious 7. The billion-dollar franchise had to be delayed a year and re-written. He was relatively young and very handsome and his death in a way mirrored that of the most iconic film star, James Dean.

There were quite a few actors who kept busy in 2013, having made appearances in multiple movies within the calendar year. In 2013, Dwayne Johnson, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker were all in at least three movies, which again furthers the great year for black cinema and black actors. Of course, plenty of white actors were kept busy too. This includes Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, James Franco, Robert De Niro, Chris Hemsworth, Justin Timberlake, Tom Hanks, Chris Pratt, Rachel McAdams, Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonathan Groff, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Sylvester Stallone, Channing Tatum, Harrison Ford, Steve Carell, Ewan McGregor, Alexander Skarsgard, Adam Driver, Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Paul Rudd, Bruce Willis, Hugh Jackman, Jon Bernthal, Brie Larson and Miles Teller.

I loved quite a few movies and their respective stars. My list of favorite movies was at the beginning 40 strong, but, through careful consideration, I've managed to cut that list in half. Now, I have 20 titles that I hold rather dear. These are films that played in a movie theater in 2013. This is of course separate from the dozen or so movies that only saw a digital release either through DVD or VOD that I also hold dear, but, here they are, the best movies of 2013, according to me:

Best Movies Released Theatrically

WAR WITCH by Kim Nguyen - Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this movie is about a young girl living along the river in the Congo-Kinshasa, a country in a civil war and whose rebel armies recruit child soldiers. It's Blood Diamond meets 12 Years a Slave. Rachel Mwanza stars as Komona, a 12-year-old who gives as great a performance as Chiwetel Ejiofor but writer-director Kim Nguyen isn't as tortuous. His film contains brutality but also romance. Invoking the images of Nollywood, he has perhaps a grasp on the foreign culture as good as any insider.

DIRTY WARS by Rick Rowley - An adaptation of Jeremy Scahill's book about military attacks in the Middle East that resulted in the deaths of innocent women and children. Like The Imposter or Man on Wire, the documentary operates like a mystery and we follow Scahill's investigation to uncover the truth. Essentially, it's a murder mystery but because it's the murder of an Afghan and his family, and not an American, it's a murder about which many in the United States don't know or care. Therefore, we truly have an opportunity to discover things.

THE ACT OF KILLING by Joshua Oppenheimer

GRAVITY by Alfonso Cuarón - a spectacle to behold that doesn't say that much more about human's relationship to space travel, isolation, loneliness or the will to survive despite all odds that other movies haven't already said. TV shows like The Twilight Zone have even had more insightful messages. Gravity simply does so in a much simpler but yet ironically a grander way. Cuarón makes excellent use of 3D imagery. The use of depth here is sheer phenomenal. Photographed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski (The Tree of Life), the visuals of this adventure and slight horror film are what's most outstanding.

AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY by Terence Nance - This autobiographical film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. To describe it succinctly, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a hodgepodge of various film styles and techniques, a large chunk of which is animation. It starts as a narrative in the loose Terrence Malick sense and ends as a documentary but blends and transitions between the styles and techniques in obvious ways as well as in natural and almost seamless ways. Not since Medicine for Melancholy (2009) have I seen such an intelligent and quietly wondrous look at an African-American romance that isn't about the histrionics, melodrama or melocomedy that typically comes from major Hollywood releases or even those from Tyler Perry. Nance is more methodical and thoughtful.

WHAT MAISIE KNEW by Scott McGehee & David Siegel - This film is this generation's Kramer Vs. Kramer but with a story that takes a surprising and heartbreaking turn, an even more heartbreaking turn than that 1979 Oscar-winning Best Picture about a custody battle in New York. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Henry James, Julianne Moore is an aging rock star named Susanna. She's the mother of Maisie. She was married to a British art dealer named Beale, played by Steve Coogan. Maisie is whisked back-and-forth. She bounces from staying with her mom in her house to staying with her father in his. As the movie goes along, a change starts to occur that I didn't expect, having not read the book. It makes total sense when the change happens. It's lovely but also sad, and it's all centered around this little girl. Onata Aprile who plays Maisie is just as amazing in her performance of this character.

MY BROTHER THE DEVIL by Sally El Hosaini - The performances from James Floyd and Fady ElSayed are spot on. El Hosaini's direction showing the choices of these young men both leading up to and following the inciting incident paint a full and complete picture that is probably one of the best on brotherhood I've ever seen.

YOSSI by Eytan Fox - Of all the sequels released so far this year, Yossi is my favorite. Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox revisits a character he left ten years ago. That character was essentially living Brokeback Mountain but set in a snowy war zone. For this one, the titular character is basically living out How Stella Got Her Groove Back, minus the sassy, seasoned companion that was Whoopi Goldberg. Fox achieves what is probably the sexiest and at the same time most romantic moment on screen in a while.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET by Martin Scorsese - We watch as Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a stock broker and this generation's Gordon Gekko, start with nothing but a degree and the tutelage of a greedy, drug addicted, masturbatory miscreant and build an empire that embraces all of that miscreant's ideals. This is now the fifth time that DiCaprio has worked with Scorsese. While there have been some laughable moments in their previous works, never has Scorsese demanded from DiCaprio a full-on comedic performance. DiCaprio has had to be comedic, most recently in Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby, but Scorsese has him way more over-the-top, going for the big laughs, which he achieves.

DISCONNECT by Henry Alex Rubin - To compare this film to Paul Haggis' Crash (2005) might be accurate but it's too reductive. Disconnect is a far better film than Crash. There are essentially three story lines that start off as three separate things and by the end they remain separate things but each do cross each others' path in one way or the other. The urge to have them narratively converge isn't satisfied, but what Stern does instead is have them converge emotionally. The acting performances are really great and Rubin balances each very well.

THE CONJURING by James Wan - Patrick Wilson stars as Ed Warren, the only non-ordained demonologist recognized by the Catholic Church. Oscar-nominee Vera Farmiga stars as Lorraine Warren, the clairvoyant wife in 1971. Lorraine accompanies Ed to houses where people report paranormal activities, suspecting the presence of ghosts and demons. Right from this beginning, Wan lets the audience know that it's the cinematography that's going to be outstanding. Wan just delights with shot after shot that is interesting or with sequences that are very well crafted. Other sequences seem ripped from films like Poltergeist (1982) or The Blair Witch Project (1999), but technical flourishes help to elevate those sequences.

FROZEN by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee - Yes, the film was a constant reminder of other children's movies past and present, but directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee infuse enough energy, humor and heart that clear storytelling wins out. Yes, it's a throwback to the tradition set by The Walt Disney Company with fairy tales adapted from Brothers Grimm stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Yet, it's glorious and beautifully rendered and filled with magic and music that will give you all kind of loving joy. I was also thankful the movie ended with the focus being on the relationship between the sisters and not any possible romance with the men.

BLUE JASMINE by Woody Allen - Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a woman who comes to live with her sister Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins and her future brother-in-law, Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale. A lot of the humor is built around a person being put into a situation that he or she doesn't like and watching as she has to endure out of politeness or decorum, or, worm her way out often in artful or really awkward ways. Yet, this is Blanchett's movie. It all boils down to her and she more than delivers. She runs away with the movie. She's all at once funny, fierce and fearful. Whether she's doing pratfalls, being depressed or rocking sweat stains under her armpits, she makes this movie work in wonders.

C.O.G. by Kyle Patrick Alvarez - Based on the book Naked by David Sedaris, which consisted of autobiographical, humorist essays, this comedic film, written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, continues the theme in Alvarez's previous film Easier With Practice, that of a young, American man of questionable sexuality on the road, almost in Beatnik fashion, trying to find some kind of spiritual or even emotional, human connection. Alvarez's previous character was named Davey. His character here is named David. No, they're not the same. The former is straight. The latter is gay. The former is more timid. The latter is not, but both become socially isolated.

THE SAPPHIRES by Wayne Blair - This film is in the same vein as Sparkle (2012) and Dreamgirls (2006). It's about a R&B girl group in the 1960s. The difference is that this story is set in Australia and involves the "Stolen Generation." Until 1967, the native population of Australia, known as Aborigines, were denied citizenship and were segregated to reserves. The Aborigines were basically treated like the Native Americans in the United States but were looked at as African-Americans were in the U.S. south. Yet, there is a disconnect between the Aboriginal girls here and the identification with what African-Americans were experiencing and expressing at the time. This amazing film by Wayne Blair attempts to bridge that gap.

AMERICAN HUSTLE by David O. Russell - This movie is a film about film-making. Amy Adams’ character is an actress with her costumes and accents. Bradley Cooper’s is the producer, always asking for more money of a production gone way over budget and Christian Bale’s is the director whom everyone keeps referring to as having “vision.” Like with his last film, which was about his son, O. Russell is doing a movie that comments on his feelings as a filmmaker.

THE GREAT GATSBY by Baz Luhrmann - DiCaprio is brilliant. His performance here is beyond stellar. Gatsby's first encounter with Daisy has the suave socialite revert back to an awkward and anxious, little boy, acting as if he's never seen a woman before. He's sweet and simply wants so badly for the other person to return his affections or to be impressed by him or simply to love him. DiCaprio portrays this to perfection. At the same time, he's so funny and touching. It's similar to a moment in J. Edgar (2011) when DiCaprio's character first encounters Armie Hammer. That character too maintained a facade. Ironically, it's Gatsby and not J. Edgar who's referred to as the man in the pink suit.

THE HAPPY SAD by Rodney Evans

RED FLAG by Alex Karpovsky - Early 2013 saw the release of a handful of films starring Alex Karpovsky. A couple of them were written and directed by him. Of the three notable, Red Flag is the best. It's a film that plays to what might be Karpovsky's strength, which is comedy. Karpovsky had a brief scene in Sleepwalk With Me and Gayby and he was funny in both, so to me he's much better invoking laughs than anything else besides naturalistic drama.

SHORT TERM 12 by Destin Cretton - Short Term 12 is the name of the quasi-foster care facility where children are temporarily housed. The movie focuses on the quasi-adults who work there and whose job it is to make sure the children don't run away and don't hurt themselves. The manager of the facility is Grace, played by Brie Larson, whose personal issues are exposed and may be the cause of her working there. This film is one of the best of the year because it gets at something so personal and so profound that it can't help but resonate to one's soul.

Best Movies Released on DVD or VOD

A ROYAL AFFAIR by Nikolaj Arcel
GUN HILL ROAD by Rashaad Ernesto Green
FAT KID RULES THE WORLD by Matthew Lillard
GAYBY by Jonathan Lisecki
MORGAN by Michael D. Akers
THE DYNAMITER by Matthew Gordon
IN THE HIVE by Robert Townsend
THE LAST FALL by Matthew A. Cherry
ALEKSANDR'S PRICE by Pau Masó & David Damen
THE WISE KIDS by Stephen Cone


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