Hap’s favorite films of 2013: No one standout, but lots of winners
As the year comes to a close and moviegoers start thinking of awards, there is no clear favorite for the Best Picture Oscar, but a general acknowledgement that 2013 has seen several first-rate films, from major studio releases (Gravity) to small independent movies (Nebraska). From the over-praised (American Hustle) to the underappreciated (Stories We Tell) to superb biographical films hard to sit through (12 Years a Slave) and sublimely fictional (“Inside Llewyn Davis).
Headed to this list until it changed its local release date to early January was August: Osage County, as good an ensemble drama as they come. And lower your expectations for Spike Jonze’s much hyped high-tech love story, Her, also due here next month.
Here is my highly subjective list of the 10 best new films of the past year:
1. Nebraska — Filmmaker Alexander Payne hails from Nebraska, the site of his early films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt), and returns to his native state with another pain-laced, character study comedy about deeply flawed, but recognizable folks. That describes this father-son road trip from Billings, Mont. to Lincoln, Neb., to collect the sweepstakes winnings that deluded old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced will be waiting for him. Add in the spunky performance by June Squibb as his intolerant wife and the gorgeous, though desolate black-and-white cinematography and you have the year’s best film, no matter what the Oscars tell us later.
2. 12 Years a Slave — With unflinching direction, Brit Steve McQueen brings to the screen the authentic history of post-Civil War free black man Solomon Northup, a cultured family man and fiddler who is abducted and sold into slavery. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, Kinky Boots) moves up the Hollywood A-list with this film, allowing us to experience from the comfort of a theater seat what slavery felt like. In that sense, the movie is an antidote to so many previous punch-pulling Hollywood depictions. This is hardly an easy film to sit through, but it deserves to be compulsory viewing for all.
3. Captain Phillips — Known for his documentary-like style, director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) unfolds the true story of New England seaman Richard Phillips, the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be boarded and hijacked in 200 years. Tom Hanks gives an Oscar nomination-worthy performance as this ordinary man plunged into extraordinary circumstances, trying to keep his cool and protect his crew from Somali pirates. Props also to Barkhad Abdi as the lean and hungry terrorist leader who finds himself in over his head in the confrontation with Phillips and, eventually, the U.S. Navy.
4. Stories We Tell — Canadian actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley (Away From Her) has made another impressive film, a documentary that is her most personal film yet. She focuses her camera on her own family, many of whom are performers and all of whom seem to be born storytellers. By piecing together their stories, sorting out the secrets and lies about her origins, she makes a discovery about the identity of her biological father. In the process of relating her history, Polley fabricates some home movies, which understandably rankles documentary purists, but by peeling back the layers of her family’s past, she has made the year’s most involving non-fiction film.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis — Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou) probably could not make a film without tongue-in-cheek quirks if their lives depended on it. So to capture the folk music scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, they invented their main character, an unlovable loser (Oscar Isaac) who keeps getting in his own way, insulting his friends and turning his back on his supporters in his doomed attempt to forge and sustain a performing-songwriting career. The Coens do show an undeniable affection for the music of the period, recreating the era with amusing accuracy and even some empathy for sad sack Llewyn.
6. Gravity — Although this film is set in outer space, it has no aliens, no futuristic inventions. Instead, director Alfonso Cuaron has come up with the most realistic depiction of outer space since 2001: A Space Odyssey, packed into a brisk, tense 90 minutes. It begins as a fairly routine mission for a scientist (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran astronaut (George Clooney), but it becomes a fight for survival when their ship is damaged by space debris. From the opening 13-minute continuous shot to Bullock’s many harrowing adventures through to the emotional conclusion, Cuaron shows a mastery of high-tech, yet human drama.
7. The Great Beauty — Italy’s official submission for the foreign-language feature Oscar is a visually sumptuous homage to the great Federico Fellini and his admirable La Dolce Vita. So immerse yourself in the world of 65-year-old Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), our guide for a sensory overload tour of contemporary Rome, full of excesses of the flesh and the soul. From his 65th birthday celebration to the faces and sights of The Eternal City, Jep educates the viewer in the sweet life, even as he contemplates his own mortality. With director/co-writer Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, which featured Servillo) piloting his nimble, mobile camera, the result is pure decadence.
8. Philomena — With her popular run as James Bond’s M behind her, Dame Judi Dench now devours the juicy role of an elderly Irish woman who suddenly becomes intent on finding the 50-year-old son she was forced long ago to give away by convent nuns who ran an adoption mill. The naïve, provincial Philomena teams up with a cynical, worldly journalist (Steve Coogan, who also wrote and co-produced the film). Their search takes them to the United States, where there are plenty of plot twists. Dench is the main reason to see the movie, but the real-life story is gripping and a little horrifying.
9. Blue Jasmine — Writer-director Woody Allen draws from the headlines and from theatrical literature for his latest annual film, which sees him back on firm footing. He merges a scam artist reminiscent of Bernie Madoff with Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois, in a yarn about a New York socialite (the great Cate Blanchett), reduced to poverty and forced to move in with her uncultured sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Unwilling to curb her spending habits and oblivious to the needs of others, Jasmine is one of Allen’s most dimensional female creations. He gets a couple of knockout performances from the two women and has something to say about self-delusion, wealth and the lack of it.
10. Dallas Buyers Club — Like Philomena, this fact-based true story makes the list primarily because of the performances by Matthew McConaughey, as a womanizing rodeo redneck who contracts AIDS in the days when being diagnosed as HIV-positive was a death sentence, and Jared Leto as a feisty transvestite who also has the plague-like disease. Yes, we are going to have to start taking McConaughey — previously relegated to rom-coms — seriously as an actor. His wheeler-dealer character amasses AIDS drugs not approved by the FDA and distributes them to those who pay to join his club. It is a look back on the early days of AIDS and a reminder that it continues to disrupt lives and kill.