round this time last year, I happened upon a copy of Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself and found in his narrative how movies have become, for me, fragments of experiences, some of the most precious minutes and hours of my life. And so, what else can I do but share a few of the best from 2013?
1. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
— Does it sound strange to talk about falling in love with a face up there on the screen? Each and every year, I find films that I love and hope to remember long after stealing them from the screen, but it is a far less frequent experience to become consumed by, quite literally, a face. And yet, I fell in love with the face of Adéle Exarchopoulos, which launched more than a thousand ships. She gave us raw emotion, as if we had never seen or felt it before.
2. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
— If I were to base my decision purely on a criteria of settling upon the best films of the year, then Steve McQueen earns the distinction for me, hands down. The proof comes early on, when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up shackled to the floor in the dark with no idea how he arrived in this state. At once, his condition recalls the existential angst of Camus, executed on what could have been a stage; it is, of course, the beginning of a great tragedy, the greatest, saddest and most quintessentially American tragedy. And it is far from over.
3. THE ACT OF KILLING
— Victims of violent crimes talk of reliving horrible experiences, either through nightmares or a constant barrage of sharp sensory fragments that slash away at the tender flesh of daily life. But what about the perpetrators? Do they replay their heinous acts, and, more importantly, how does the likely endless loop impact their psyches? The Act of Killing offers some small relief, some sense that maybe the knife cuts both ways.
4. FRUITVALE STATION
— This year will go down as the latest example of the great strides being made in black cinema. With juggernauts like Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years a Slave capturing so much attention and a host of indie titles like Newlyweeds, Big Words and Mother of George seizing art house attention, we could finally start asking about the next step in the evolution of black voices/perspectives onscreen. Which is why Fruitvale Station is so important, because this film drags us, kicking and screaming, away from the solemnly historic slave narratives and sepia-toned uplift of the Civil Rights Era into the (media heralded) post-racial age of Obama. Oscar Grant, as a protagonist, isn’t content with existing with one foot in different worlds (the whole black-white dynamic), nor is he another menace to society. He was boldly traveling forward, and it is now up to us to continue his journey.
5. STORIES WE TELL
— Sarah Polley’s investigation into a family secret exposes a darker mystery of creative storytelling. Truth is subjective, as much as the means by which we present the found narratives. Stories We Tell starts off, seemingly, as a documentary, but morphs beyond a mere filmed version of Truman Capote’s notion of a nonfiction novel into a thing of greater possibility and inevitable probability. In other words, what the truth is and could be.
6. BLUE JASMINE
— Woody Allen has built a career on exposing and exploring neuroses, and in most cases his most troubled characters have always felt like personifications of the rambling thoughts jockeying for position in his head. Blue Jasmine, while at once a very typical Allen affair, full of that comic psychological meandering around, exists in a realm all its own thanks to the fully immersed performance of Cate Blanchett, who is most definitely not just “doing” Woody Allen. In her hands, Blue Jasmine becomes the story of a nut job for the ages.
7. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
— Should we really thank Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for holding up such a large (and rather astonishing) mirror on the bizarre chaotic funhouse that is the institution of monogamous couplehood (marriage by any other name)? It is truly rare that a film even dares to peek inside the most intimate relationships of all, but this crew has given us a guided tour from the very beginning, and if this is the end the journey has been sure and true at each and every step along the way.
8. THE HUNT
— Mads Mikkelsen’s presence has been reduced to urbane villainy, the likes of which raises the hairs on our necks whenever we catch him training that piercing gaze of his in our direction because we sense him sizing us up for tonight’s main course. But The Hunt reminds us that Mikkelsen contains multitudes of characters and some of them could fall victim to the baser instincts of a frightened community of decidedly regular folks.
9. UPSTREAM COLOR
— Stephen Soderbergh, during his final judgment on the state of film before exiting stage right earlier this year, tipped his hat to a few current filmmakers who he believes should be granted the opportunity to carry the form forward. One of those artists was Shane Carruth, who, with Upstream Color, his otherworldly dreamscape, presented the kind of psychedelic vision of human connections that William Burroughs would have been proud to claim as his own.
10. OUT OF THE FURNACE
— Going from a shaggy dog tale about a loveable country singer struggling to reclaim some semblance of normalcy in life to the rural underground, where bare-knuckle brawling and gambling debts will punch your ticket straight to the lowest depths of hell, requires a steady vision, which Scott Cooper has in spades. With Crazy Heart, the co-writing director had the support of a star in Jeff Bridges who walked and talked like a country classic, but in Out of the Furnace Cooper has someone even better. Woody Harrelson, as Harlan DeGroat, embodies the heart of darkness that could only belong to a devil made flesh. ©