Posts Tagged top ten

The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

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Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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2016 Top Ten

For most of 2016, much like the cycle of depressing news regarding celebrity deaths and politics, cinematic prospects were pretty grim. The quality of films was markedly lower than the last two years, not only for Hollywood, but for foreign and independent cinema as well. Additionally, for much of the year (January-October) the few stand out films were usually about topics such as depression, isolation, or grief. If there were one recurring theme at the movies this year, I would say it was grief.

From the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, to Natalie Portman’s showcase vehicle Jackie, to Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Silence, to the young adult fantasy A Monster Calls, to the riveting sci-fi film Arrival, to the powerful documentary Tower, to Terrence Davies’ poetic Sunset Song, to Terrence Malick’s meditative Knight of Cups, to the disturbing indie thriller The Invitation, and to Will Smith’s acting packed Oscar bait project Collateral Beauty, grief, suffering, loss, and the ways which we deal with those things permeated cinema this year. Even the Oscar frontrunner and throwback to uplifting old school musicals, La La Land, is tinged with themes of loss and regret.

Naturally, there were a few bright, hope filled films such as Whit Stillman’s hilarious Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship and Steven Spielberg’s magical fantasy full of childlike wonder, The BFG.

I’m not equally fond of all the above films. Some of them you will see below; others will not be here. While much of the year I admittedly wondered whether my top ten would look respectable, in the last few months, several great filmmakers came through and delivered powerful, accomplished works of art that challenged and moved me tremendously, showing the power of art to transform and inspire, and I’m happy to share those. Feel free to share your favorite films of 2016 in the comments.

 

Good Films Worth Noting (35-22):

Loving; Sully; The Shallows; Hacksaw Ridge; Queen of Katwe; Kubo and the Two Strings; Little Men; Moonlight;  Doctor Strange; Pete’s Dragon; The BFG; Hail, Caesar!; Elle; Kate Plays Christine

Honorable Mentions:

21. 13th (Ava DuVernay) – This documentary about the mass incarceration and systematic discrimination against African Americans which originated with a loophole in the 13th Amendment is timely and powerful enough that it warrants expanding the honorable mentions by one slot.

20. The Young Messiah (Cyrus Nowrasteh) – As the title says, this thoughtful and meditative film portrays a possible year in the life of the child Jesus as his human nature comes to fully understand his divine nature. (full review)

19. Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood) – Is drone warfare ever permissible and what if anything constitutes an acceptable collateral loss of life? Those questions are at the front of this engrossing drama with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. (full review)

18. Sing Street (John Carney) – Carney’s third musical may be his weakest, but it is still another testament to the power of music to transform lives. This time it’s vulnerable teenage protagonists who start a band, through which we see their desire for the way the world should be while acknowledging the far from perfect way it is.

17. A Monster Calls (J. A. Bayona) – “Stories are wild things” the tagline reads, and 12-year-old Connor learns how true that is as stories from a monster teach him to face the truth that about himself which he’s been denying since his mother’s cancer. (full review)

16. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) – A brilliantly edited, hope filled sci-fi film full of mystery and wonder regarding the appearance of aliens and their pod-like spaceships, the film is a testament to the importance of communication with everyone, especially those we don’t know or with whom we disagree.

Runners-up:

images15. The Innocents (Anne Fontaine) – The first of two films on this list which explore God’s presence in the midst of suffering, The Innocents is about an horrific tragedy that forges an unlikely alliance between an atheist communist nurse and a convent of nuns in post-WWII Poland. The appalling nature of the tragedy results in some nuns losing their faith and others abusing their faith to rationalize equally horrific attempts to rectify the tragedy. However, the misfortunes and the alliance ultimately result in good, as the importance both of the vocation of the nuns and of the work of the nurse is affirmed. (full review)

images414. Right Now, Wrong Then (Sang-soo Hong) – When a famous director visits a Korean city to give a lecture on one of his films, he arrives one day early, and a chance meeting with a fan plays out two different ways. With reversed title cards providing a sort of commentary on those two different ways, the first half showcases a bitter reality marred by manipulation, and the second half contrasts it with a desire to understand and respect one another, even as each character’s fundamental nature remains unchagned. An ingenious use of long takes and still frames creates a meditative point of view, reminiscent of any film director. (full review)

images313. The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) – A coming of age/sports/horror/fantasy film about a young girl who regularly works out in the boxing gym with her older brother but wishes to abandon that in order to take up dancing, the deliberate ambiguity of the title overshadows the film as tracking shots follow the young protagonist through a difficult transition of her life in which she desires to fit in with the others while fearing the strange illness which seems to affect them. The film walks the line between straightforward rite-of-passage drama and surrealism until the brilliant finale, which merges both with visual flair while maintaining the ever present ambiguity.

images212. Jackie (Pablo Larraín) – As I said in my review, I fully acknowledge the many flaws in Jackie; however, this raw and messy portrayal of grief about Jackie Kennedy coping with the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination is strangely powerful. Director Pablo Larraín’s constant unconventional cinematic choices along with the non-linear structure and quiet moments of grace make Jackie a riveting, visceral, and deeply humanizing portrayal of the former first lady, helmed by what may be Natalie Portman’s best work of her career, with a strong supporting cast as well. (full review)

images111. Tower (Keith Maitland) – A mostly animated documentary, with bits of historical footage and live interviews used sparingly and powerfully, Tower recreates the first school shooting in the USA via rotoscoping. It is devastating, difficult to watch, and ultimately full of hope. Focusing on the simple acts of heroism and the ways which a community came together to support one another, the film powerfully recreates the 96 minutes of terror, placing the viewer alongside police officers, students, victims, and survivors. Additionally, the near removal of the shooter from the story and the focus on beautiful acts of courage and compassion underscores the ability of art to heal a broken world.

The Top Ten

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10. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) – What do the lives of three separate women have in common? At a first glance, not much, as the three chapters of writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s film chronicle the everyday struggles of four seemingly unrelated women. As those women, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone all give stellar performances as strikingly different characters, but the three short stories which comprise the film highlight the similarities among all of them. As we watch them resolutely deal with work related conflicts, try to live up to others’ expectations, and face subtly ingrained sexism, their common humanity shines through beautifully. Reichardt never fails to challenge the viewer’s expectations and assumptions, and her use of the cold Montana landscape is gorgeous as each segment takes us closer the vast expansive freedom offered by those mountains.

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9. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman) – Whit Stillman’s affinity for Jane Austen was made clear in his debut film Metropolitan. With Love & Friendship, he adapts her novella Lady Susan into a joyful and infectiously funny period piece. As Lady Susan Vernon, Kate Beckinsale effortlessly embodies the conceited, manipulative protagonist who has spent so much of her life rationalizing her schemes that she can utter statements like, “Facts are horrid things,” while viewing herself as an innocent victim who’s always in the right. When she moves in with her in-laws to find a husband for her daughter while allowing rumors of her adulterous improprieties to die down, she simultaneously resolves to woo and humiliate her sister-in-law’s brother as revenge against a perceived slight. Lady Susan naturally sees no irony in her actions, and her small echo chamber of devotees (primarily Chloë Sevigny) continually tell her she’s absolutely right, but the genuine love and friendship exhibited by the other characters is a stark contrast to Lady Susan, and Stillman writes and films their interactions at refreshing buoyant pace that is a delight from beginning to end.

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8. The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig) – A morbidly offbeat comedy that may not be to everyone’s taste, The Edge of Seventeen exuberates compassion and sympathy for its flawed yet loveable characters. Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is perhaps more of a drama queen than the average high school student, but she has suffered some excruciatingly painful losses, with which she never came to terms. Her feelings of depression and isolation reach a peak when her best (and only) friend begins dating her older brother. As she lashes out at most people in her life, the film refuses to whitewash her mistakes, but it also never abandons portraying her with empathy, especially as personified by her acerbic history teacher (Woody Harrelson). The witty sarcastic banter between the two of them is delightful, and it also conveys an unorthodox way of listening and caring for someone who needs help. (full review)

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7. Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) – Hell or High Water demands at least two viewings to fully appreciate all the meticulous craftsmanship that went into it. From the first scene, images are loaded with meaning, as the camera pans over a graffitied protest against the recent bank bailouts while veterans are losing their homes. As a story of injustices about changing times and losing one’s way of life due to corporate policies, not only are Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s bank robbing brothers trying to preserve what they have always known, but so is Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger, who throws himself into this last case of his, partially out of duty and partially as an attempt to put off his looming retirement. The crosscutting is absolutely perfect, whether to contrast the lawmen with the robbers, the brothers with each other, or to build tension for the final robbery and chase. The entire cast makes Taylor Sheridan’s droll dialogue crackle with life and wit, and Sheridan does a brilliant job of shifting our sympathies from character to character, making it so no one is purely a villain or a hero. The result is a nontraditional Western that brilliantly subverts the genre, while acknowledging the tragedy of the cycle of violence instigated by greed and rationalizations.

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6. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda) – A wonderfully gentle and life-like film, Our Little Sister chronicles the ordinary, daily life of three sisters who agree to adopt their younger half-sister when they learn of their father’s death. Even though their father abandoned them years ago to run off with another woman, the sisters cannot deny the bonds of family which extend to thirteen year old Suzu (Suzu Hirose) who has now lost both her parents. As the film shows all four sisters adjusting to a new life together, the compassion, love, and occasional awkwardness displayed make for a truly beautiful work of art that builds to a wonderful climax of forgiveness and grace. Like last year’s Brooklyn, this is the sort of conflict free film about wholesome endearing characters whose lives I would happily follow for five hours, as we glance through a window into a different culture, yet see actions and emotions which unite us all.

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5. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook) – Every film critic has a short list of movies that he loves but would recommend to absolutely no one. The Handmaiden is such a film for me. Featuring stellar performances, perfect editing, gorgeous art direction, and entrancing cinematography, the story is so disturbing and graphic that despite my love for the film, I do not recommend it to any casual viewer. When a professional thief recruits a naive assistant (Tae-ri Kim) to help him marry and then institutionalize a rich heiress (Min-hee Kim) so he can steal her fortune, the stage is set for a Hitchcockian thriller with elaborate deceptions and double-crossings; but underneath the sinister scheming, the film’s focus is on the two women, both of whom have been victimized and objectified by more powerful men all their lives. Their relationship at the center of the film serves as powerful catalyst for the women to claim their own identities, which culminates not only in several brilliant plot twists, but also in the destruction of a library of pornography – both a symbolic and literal prison.

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4. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) – This is a film about joy, the joy of Adam Driver playing a bus driver named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, NJ. The joy of writing love poems about matches, the joy of listening to your wife’s dreams, the joy of a cameo of two actors from one your favorite movies. Jarmusch’s thoroughly delightful film follows a week in the title character’s life, focusing on his daily encounters, beginning with his wife Laura, ending with the local bartender, and punctuated throughout the day by passengers, pedestrians, his English bulldog Marvin, and his melancholic coworker. In his spare time Paterson keeps a notebook that he fills with poems, some of them love poems, others observations about the daily happenings. Naturally some days are better than others, but regardless of what misfortune or blessings Paterson receives, the sun rises and sets every day, and Jarmusch captures both with an optimistic sense of humor and pathos not only for the titular bus driver, but for the oddball characters he encounters as well.

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3. Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson) – I confess, when I first heard of Cameraperson, I was skeptical that it would be as good as the raves I had heard. It was better. Compiled purely from unused footage that cameraperson Kirsten Johnson shot for documentaries over her career, the film reveals the secret life of cinematographers. As we watch the scenes that never made it into the finished movies, we see the relationships she forms with each of her subjects, always treating them as people regardless of what decision they are making. We see the spontaneous moments of joy, such as berry picking on the mountains of Bosnia or a Nigerian midwife starting a newborn baby’s heart. We also the see the first hand ability of cinematographers to raise awareness of grave injustices from the Bosnian genocide to the attacks on the World Trade Center to the practices at Guantanamo Bay. Regardless of what Johnson is filming, her attention to detail and capturing truth and beauty all comes through in her brilliant editing that makes the film infinitely watchable.

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2. The Witch (Robert Eggers) – With The Witch, first time feature director and writer Robert Eggers has crafted a modern horror masterpiece that offers no easy answers as it explores the dangers and tragedy of rigid fundamentalism that despairs of the mercy of God. Set in Puritan New England, the film is deeply unsettling in the way it recreates the mentality of the sixteenth century and asks the viewer to accept that worldview along with the fears which motivated the witch trials. When a strictly fundamentalist family is exiled and forced to set up a farm on the edge of the woods, the family’s infant son soon afterward disappears, and the question of whether only a witch or something else in addition is terrorizing the family hangs over the film with brilliant dread and tension. The most horrific aspect of the film is not the presence of the demonic entity, but the destruction of the family though fear, despair, and the misuse of religion, the toll of which is most clearly shown on the eldest daughter, (Anya Taylor-Joy) whose inability to navigate her coming of age adds a powerful sense of tragedy to the horror. (full review)

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1. Silence (Martin Scorsese) – There are few things more endearing to a film critic than a highly anticipated film delivering all that one hoped it would. After reading Endo’s powerful and devastating novel last January, I eagerly waited to see if Scorsese could pull off his long planned adaptation. For the first half of the film, Scorsese’s reverence for the novel was clearly apparent, and his recreation of imperial Japan was beautiful and haunting. During the second half, the best of his filmmaking skills shine through, and the mounting tension in each confrontation between Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and his Japanese inquisitors makes for some of the most compelling cinema of the year. As a portrait of a dark night of the soul, the film treats its central question with solemn dignity, and the climax is every bit as challenging here as it was in the book, reminding us that whatever choice we make when we feel abandoned, God is right there alongside us. (full review)

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Favorite 2015 Discoveries

Not my top ten list, a list of older films I watched for the first time in 2015.

Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/1morefilmblog/favorite-2015-discoveries-evan-cogswells-list/

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2014 Top Ten

Updated 2/25/15 to include A Most Violent Year. Snowpiercer was dropped from #20 as a result.

 

I don’t have a hard fast rule about eligibility. The purpose of a yearend list is to highlight the films that I found most rewarding over the past year, not document which year a film was released. I made a pretty good effort this year than last to track down my most anticipated films in time for this list, but I’m sure there are still some great films which I missed. I have highest hopes for Force Majeure, Beginning with the End, Siddharth, Virunga, and The Strange Little Cat.

In addition to a top ten, I’m also including five runners up, and five honorable mentions.

As a necessary disclaimer, just because these films from last year that meant the most to me, does not mean I necessarily recommend them. If you think any of them sound like something you might like, research them and make an informed decisions. And with that, onto the lists:

 

Honorable Mentions:

20. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Lima)

19. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)

18. As It Is in Heaven (Joshua Overbay)

17. The Sublime and Beautiful (Blake Robbins)

16. A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor)

Runners-up:

15. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson) – There’s almost no one to whom I’d recommend this; the plot is a semi-incoherent mess, and the story itself is more than a little disturbing, but that’s basically the point of this neo-noir comedy, in which the hippie, stoner private eye “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in the midst of an increasingly convoluted, dangerous mystery in which everyone seems to want his help for different reasons, but the Doc is just as lost as his clients.

14. Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) – An aging Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) tries to prove his relevance by conquering the Great White Way, and amidst disastrous rehearsals, the messy backstage life of actors raises interesting questions as to whether these foolish conceited actors have any insight to offer. Carefully edited to appear as a single take live performance, Birdman will likely either enthrall or infuriate you. (full review)

13. Noah (Darren Aronofsky) – Not everything works – the film stumbles a bit once onboard the ark – but Aronofsky’s vision of the antediluvian world is fantastic to behold, and his interpretation of the story of Noah adds new depth and insight to one of the oldest stories about the consequences of original sin. (full review)

12. Selma (Ava DuVernay) – A powerful dramatization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, as well as the dynamics between King, his family, his friends, and politicians. Especially touching are the scenes between David Oyelowo (King) and Carmen Ejogo (his wife Coretta). Portraying real, flawed human beings and their struggles, Selma is not one to miss.

11. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn) – A sleek espionage thriller helmed by great performances, especially from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel is surprisingly effective and unnerving.

The Top Ten

10. Gone Girl – I haven’t always been the biggest fan of David Fincher, but Gone Girl may be changing my mind. Combining several Hitchcockian elements with biting dark satire, Fincher’s latest film is a brutal exposé of obsession with appearances, media manipulation, maintaining fake personas, and the public’s gullibility. When amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, passive husband Nick (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect in the subsequent police investigation. Featuring two antiheroes (not one, as some reviews have said) and a psychopathic protagonist, Gone Girl deliberately plays into the nastiest examples of sexism in order to expose just how shallow and absurd they are. (a lengthy, spoiler filled discussion here)

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9. The Immigrant – Beautifully tinted with sepia tones, The Immigrant immediately sets up an haunting contrast with the cold brutal world of 1920’s New York that Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives in. Looking for work to help her sister, she is exploited by the pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who will do anything for his own survival even as he suffers flickers of conscience due to his cruel treatment of Ewa. Director James Gray expertly frames each scene, and with careful pacing and subtle foreshadowing throughout, all of the film masterfully comes together for a powerful, thought-provoking finale indicating that there is often much depth beyond mere surface appearances.

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8. The LEGO Movie – Containing references to Star Wars, The Matrix, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Buster Keaton’s The General to name a few, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s witty and hilariously self-aware parody of and tribute to blockbuster entertainment is undoubtedly this year’s biggest surprise. Not just an exciting adventure story for children, The LEGO Movie deconstructs the standard tropes of many superhero and kids movies with lines like, “Always follow your intuition…unless your intuition is terrible.” It also emphasizes the importance of fantasy and creativity as a way which children learn. Indeed, everything is awesome.

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7. Ida – When a young woman about to take her vows to be a nun learns of her family’s dark history, her entire world is shaken and she undergoes a crisis of identity. Embarking on a journey with her aunt, she uncovers painful secrets which test her resolve and remind the viewer that nothing should be taken for granted. Director Pawel Pawlikowski frames each shot with stunning precision, and his use of still camera and a full screen aspect ratio creates the sensation of a window into a world and even into a soul. (full review)

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6. Begin Again – This is a heartfelt story of second chances in which a song really does save several people’s lives. As drunk, washed up music producer Dan, Mark Ruffalo is very likeable and as Greta, a down and out songwriter, Keira Knightley effortlessly shines. The two meet in bar and decide to record an album outdoors in New York City. Eschewing Hollywood clichés, Once director John Carney crafts another story about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. (full review)

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5. Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s moody rumination on desire, temperance, art, its place in society, and eternity is beautifully realized in the story of two vampires: the melancholic perfectionist Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and the knowledgeable, pragmatic Eve (Tilda Swinton). Cursed to destructively feed on others throughout eternity, their search for beauty and great art is threatened by the increasingly prevalent mediocrity that supplants excellence as well as the carelessness, drugs, and pollution of the last couple decades, which has poisoned much of their blood supply. The vampires’ need for blood acts as a metaphor, suggesting we need to be careful what we consume; bad art and good art affects and influences us, and allowing mediocrity to permeate soon makes bad art (blood) more prevalent. Only Lovers Left Alive recognizes the power of art’s influence on a culture as well as the tragedy of its destruction.

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4. The Grand Budapest Hotel – (modified from a review published here) The second film on the list to utilize full screen framing, Wes Anderson’s latest film is as whimsical and eccentric as to be expected, but this story of nostalgia for a fantasy world of secret societies, crazy hijinks, unattainable goals, murder mysteries, and above all, friendships is rife with bittersweet humor and surprising poignancy. As the concierge of the titular hotel Ralph Fiennes effortlessly captures the typical self-centered deadpan of Anderson protagonists as well as a longing for something beyond this imperfect world. Told through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the devoted lobby boy of the Grand Budapest, the film chronicles the final glory days of a time and a world long since past.

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3. The Babadook  –  (originally published here) The festering of grief and the frightening ways such grief manifests itself is at the heart of The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent’s horror film about the relationship between a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) has never really accepted her husband’s death, which occurred as he drove her to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). With Sam’s seventh birthday approaching, Amelia is feeling increasingly overwrought, and she copes by isolating herself and Sam in their gloomy Victorian home, making an ideal setup for Mister Babadook, a sinister popup book character, to come knocking. Despite their misguided choices, neither Amelia nor Sam ever loses our sympathy. Kent expertly plays upon the audience’s sympathies and fears, reminding us of the beauty of the love between a parent and a child and the tragedy that occurs when it is threatened. (full review)

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2. Two Days, One Night – The Dardenne brothers have crafted what may be their finest film to date. When Sandra (a phenomenal Marion Cotillard) loses her job after her coworkers vote for a bonus which entails her being fired, she persuades her boss to hold a second ballot, and she will have the weekend (two days and one night) to persuade her coworkers to vote for her to stay. Each encounter with her coworkers is filmed with increasing drama and tension, and the film never demonizes anyone as it emphasizes the dignity of work and the human person.  Best of all, when you think the movie has to end one of two ways, falling on one side or another, the Dardennes find a third way that logically and incredibly ties everything together and finds quiet moral triumph in putting up a good fight.

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1. Into the Woods – Admittedly, I am one of the world’s biggest Stephen Sondheim fans, but Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Tony award winning 1987 musical is a lovingly crafted, faithful adaptation that preserves the essence of Sondheim and James Lapine’s story about being careful what you wish for and the far reaching consequences of our wishes that often go well beyond what we can imagine. With a fantastic score and an all-around great cast, Into the Woods is a delight from the first frame to the last. (full review)

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2013 Top Ten

Eligibility is determined by commercial American release date.  I still need to see The Past, The Wind Rises, Museum Hours, Upstream Color, You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, among others, but even without them, this is a very strong list.

Honorable Mentions (#20-16): Lore (Cate Shortland), Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon), The Way, Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash), August: Osage County (John Wells), To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

Runners-up (#15-11): The Bling Ring (Sophia Coppola), Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler), Great Expectations (Mike Newell), Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami), Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

10. Captain Phillips – Tom Hanks gives a powerhouse performance as the titular captain of a cargo ship who is taken prisoner when the ship is hijacked by Somali pirates.  The exchanges between Phillips and the captain of the pirates are anything but expected as the film reveals deep human interests on both sides.  To capture the relentless tension, director Paul Greengrass utilizes his trademark shaky handheld camera, which masterfully places the viewer alongside Phillips and his captors, while generating sympathy for both of them.

9. Stoker­ – Heavily influenced by Hitchcock, most notably Shadow of a Doubt and Psycho, Stoker is a near perfect inversion of the master of suspense’s favorite of all his films.  With striking imagery captured by Chan-wook Park and his longtime cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, Stoker paints an appropriately creepy and sinister portrait of a niece and her uncle who share and strengthen a special bond in the most disturbing of ways.

8. American Hustle – One of the most enjoyable things to watch can be a film from a director who loves working with his actors and lets them act at their very best and play off one another.  David O. Russell’s Scorsese-light satire does precisely that with an extremely talented cast headed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artist who are roped into organizing a sting operation for the FBI, while Bale’s unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence in her best performance yet) threatens to expose the entire operation. To top off the convincing atmosphere of the ’70’s period piece loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal, the soundtrack features “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Live and Let Die,” as well as countless other classic pop songs.

7. 12 Years a Slave – Unflinching and brutal, yet simultaneously beautiful and haunting, 12 Years a Slave is British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s portrayal of the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free African-American violinist kidnapped, taken down south, and sold into slavery.  At the center of an horrifically realistic depiction of a reverse underground railroad,  Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful, heart wrenching performance of quiet suffering as Solomon, a man who experiences unimaginable hardship along with surprising gestures of kindness, but never forgets his one purpose for staying alive: returning to his family in New York.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis – In many ways, Llewyn Davis’ heartfelt country singing is his one tenuous link with humanity.  When he performs, his audience loves him and the viewer sympathizes with him.  The rest of the time Llewyn insults, abuses, and belittles most of his acquaintances while mourning his self-inflicted misfortunes.  The Coen’s bleak drama of a musician, who continually hinders his own chances for success, is infused with country music and terrific performances, as it spends one week inside the life of Llewyn Davis as he aimlessly looks for work and halfheartedly tries to repair the damage of his actions, while his selfishness often makes matters worse.

5. Before Midnight – Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy reunite for the third entry in their Celine/Jesse series, again after a nine year interim.  Where we find the empathetic yet slightly narcissistic couple after the unresolved finale of Before Sunset (the previous film in the series) is a huge surprise.  And from there, Before Midnight takes a sobering and poignant look at relationships structured around putting oneself first versus placing one’s partner’s needs before one’s own, all the while showcasing two of the best performances of the year.

4. Frozen – Easily Disney’s best animated film since Beauty and the Beast, Frozen features a boldly original story, phenomenal songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, breathtaking animation, and the funniest sequence of 2013 – Olaf the snowman’s fantasy of the wonderful things he would do “In Summer.”  Anna and Elsa are two sisters who tragically spend their lives separated after a near fatal accident from Elsa’s magic powers when they were children.  Anna’s childhood plea to her sister for a relationship, “Do you want to build a snowman?” overshadows the entire film as a second accident triggered by the two sisters’ non-relationship causes an enchanted winter to freeze the entire kingdom, which can only be reversed by melting not one, but two frozen hearts.

3. The World’s End – Arguably the cleverest and funniest films of the year, The World’s End blends elements of comedy, science fiction, horror, and apocalyptic thriller as five former college buddies return to their home town twenty years later in attempt to complete the golden mile, a twelve pub crawl in one evening, beginning at The First Post and ending at the famed World’s End, making them just like the three musketeers, except there are five of them.  Containing references to Star Wars, Casablanca, and several other classic films, The World’s End delivers constant laughs amidst a brilliantly structured narrative, loaded with foreshadowing, as the friends’ quest to get drunk and have a good time becomes increasingly dangerous and outrageous.

2. This Is Martin Bonner – Two men, Martin and Travis, are both suffering from disillusion and trying to rebuild their lives after hitting rock bottom.  Martin has recently been divorced, lost his job, and filed for bankruptcy; Travis is being released after serving twelve years in prison for manslaughter while driving under the influence.  When Martin relocates to Arizona as a counselor for released prisoners, the unlikely friendship he forms with Travis forms the heart of a quiet unassuming story that reveals a source of love at the center of all meaningful human relationships.

1. Frances Ha – This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s heard me talk about this film, but I cannot emphasize enough how much I love Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s hilarious quirky comedy about a twenty-something dancer struggling to become “a real person” in New York City and sort out her increasingly complicated friendships and love life, while attempting to earn a living.  Frances herself is a brilliantly life-like character who is flawed, funny, occasionally frustrating, and completely endearing.  Her sense of humor pervades the film, enabling to laugh at her mistakes and learn from them.  As she says at one moment of insight: “And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s – That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.”  That’s what I want cinema to portray, and Frances Ha delivers in spades.

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