(I’m a little late in posting this. I’ve been stuck in a dark cinema and couldn’t find my way out.)
I guess I’m with Oscar.
Comparing my list of the 10 best films of 2013 to the 2014 Oscar nominees for Best Picture, we share five entries. Three of the other nominees just missed my top 10 — and I have yet to see “Philomena.”
For both narrative films and documentaries, there was a lot of quality cinema to see in 2013.
Here were my highlights:
10. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s unflinching adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir is a haunting piece of cinema that reminds us how casual the slavery system was in its brutality. The depiction of an interrupted lynching is particularly difficult to endure. The film is a demonstration of the power history can have over us and is McQueen’s best work yet.
If you think the idea of falling in love with a computer operating system is ridiculous, you haven’t seen “Her.” Spike Jonze’s look at loneliness and the difficulty of connecting with other human beings in a slightly futuristic world is tender and penetrating at the same time. Yes, you may initially laugh at the goofiness of Joaquin Phoenix’s mustache and pants, but you’ll probably join him as he falls in love with a computer voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
8. Selfish Giant
In recent years, British directors such as Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Ken Loach have given audiences some brilliant, heart-wrenching films about characters who live in poverty. Now we can add Clio Barnard to that list. “The Selfish Giant” was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, but in this case the film is definitely better than the source material. It follows two boys who collect scrap around the city in order to make money. However, greed soon leads to tragedy.
Filmed largely in northeast Nebraska and written by Bob Nelson, who has Yankton-area ties, “Nebraska” will likely make you uncomfortable with just how spot on it captures life in this part of the country. Bruce Dern gives the performance of a lifetime as Woody, a cantankerous old man who believes he’s won a million dollars. Once again, director Alexander Payne manages to mix humor and drama in a way no other directors are doing today.
6. The Hunt
An elementary teacher played by Mads Mikkelsen is accused of raping a student in a small Danish town. Friends that have known him his entire life immediately shun him and even become physically violent. The thing is, the student made up the accusations. She even admits it, but no one wants to listen. Thomas Vinterberg’s film takes a subject that is usually looked at in black and white and explores the grays. The scene where the accused goes to church and confronts his friends is still hard for me to think about without becoming emotional. (Currently streaming on Netflix.)
Jeff Nichols is one of America’s best filmmakers, and “Mud” is the latest example of that. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy that hits all the right emotional notes and tells a thrilling tale at the same time. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of excellent film work — words I never thought I’d have reason to say several years ago.
4. Post Tenebras Lux
Director Carlos Reygadas opens “Post Tenebras Lux” (“After Darkness, Light”) with a small girl in a field. Animals thunder past her as lightning flashes overhead — and before you know it, you are watching Satan himself casually entering a home with a toolbag in hand. If that sounds disorienting, it’s because it is. The dream-like film is a parade of unforgettable images and emotions that never quite unveils its precise intentions. I was awestruck from the stormy beginning to the explosive ending. (Currently streaming on Netflix.)
3. Upstream Color
I’m not going to try and tell you what this film is about, because I can’t entirely explain it. It’s got a love story; a parasite that passes from humans to pigs to orchids; and references to “Walden.” Put those disparate elements together, and you’ve got an incredible movie. I don’t know how Shane Carruth did it, but he did. (Currently streaming on Netflix.)
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Mountains of cocaine are consumed in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and I imagine this movie as the cinematic equivalent of doing the drug. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best performance to date as Jordan Belfort, a New York stock broker who is merciless in his pursuit of riches. Those who believe the film glorifies Belfort and his accomplices saw a different movie than I did. “The Wolf of Wall Street” may be visceral and entertaining, but it is also an indictment.
“Gravity” was a unique cinematic experience that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. It was the only film in 2013 that I saw twice in the theater. The cinematography was breathtaking, and the story had just enough meat on it to give the journey meaning without getting in the way of the action. Despite the dire circumstances, it was a pleasure accompanying Sandra Bullock and George Clooney through the depths of space. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” was my favorite film of 2006. “Gravity” is his first directorial effort since that tale of a dystopian future and, once again, he carries the mantle.
Here are some honorable mentions for the year: “American Hustle,” “A Hijacking,” “Before Midnight,” “Into the Fog,” “This is the End,” “Captain Phillips,” “Spring Breakers,” “Vanishing Waves,” “John Dies at the End,” “Only God Forgives,” “Blancanieves,” “A Place Beyond the Pines,” “Short Term 12,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Frances Ha.”
It was also an extraordinary year for documentaries. My 10 favorite ones were “Black Fish,” “Maxima Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” “Stories We Tell,” “The Act of Killing,” “The Gatekeepers,” “A Band Called Death,” “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” “The House I Live In,” “56 Up” and “Room 237.”
What was my biggest disappointment of the year? I usually love Terrence Malick’s work, but “To the Wonder” failed to connect with me emotionally and left me feeling frustrated. Still, I can’t wait to see his next outing.