Several of the best movies of the last year presented the American experience — especially the African-American experience — in all of its dramatic, sometimes harsh, but ultimately liberating beauty. GLBT stories, of which there were a higher than usual number of domestic and international releases, were definitely part of these cinematic history lessons. As usual, I was unable to screen a handful of last-minute holiday movies (August: Osage County, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Her) before press time. Also, I’ve linked together a few films of equal critical assessment and related themes, so you’ll find more than the traditional critic’s top ten on my list below.
- 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (The Weinstein Company): Neither is a perfect film, with the former excessively graphic in spots and both overly dependent on sometimes distracting big-name actors in bit parts. That being said, each is a vibrant, engrossing and inspiring depiction of how far Black citizens have come in triumphing over the forces of oppression and exclusion. Powerful lead performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Forest Whitaker, respectively, ground both films.
- Gravity (Warner Bros.): The term “space race” takes on new meaning in Alfonso Cuaron’s gripping account of two astronauts, memorably portrayed by a wounded Sandra Bullock and an ever-cool George Clooney, stranded in space and struggling to get back to earth. 90 minutes of non-stop intensity and dazzling 3D visual effects.
- Captain Phillips (Sony Pictures): Harrowing true story of a modern-day pirate hijacking, with Tom Hanks giving one of his best performances as the title skipper trying to protect his crew. Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) directs with his usual you-are-there flair, which works particularly well here in the isolated middle of the sea.
- American Hustle (Columbia/Sony Pictures): David O. Russell’s zesty, funny take on the 1970s Abscam scandal boasts a terrific cast, especially the two best younger actresses working today: Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Factor in the groovy period fashions, hairstyles and an abundance of “sweet & sour” nail polish and it becomes an even more amusing yet often poignant survival story for the over-40 crowd.
- Blue is the Warmest Color (Sundance Selects) and Aftermath (Menemsha Films): The two best foreign language films of the year are these über-dramatic coming of age tales, the first a 3-hour take on a young French woman’s sexual awakening while the second is about grown brothers who uncover the horrific Nazi-era truth behind their Polish farming community. Both proved dramatic behind the scenes as well, once Blue’s lead actresses began feuding publicly with their director and Aftermath’s lead actor received death threats over his participation in the film. Apparently, historical truth is still too uncomfortable for some to accept.
- Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features): Matthew McConaughey is stunning as Ron Woodroof, a bigoted straight man infected with HIV in the early 1980’s who became Texas’s greatest crusader for life-saving medicare care of gay and straight patients alike. Jared Leto gives a similarly courageous performance as Woodroof’s transgender “partner in crime.”
- Call Me Kuchu (Cinedigm) and God Loves Uganda (Full Credit Productions/Variance): A pair of great, if disturbing, documentaries dealing with the destruction wrought by anti-gay American evangelists spreading their gospel of hate in Africa. God Loves Uganda is one of the final ten or so documentaries eligible for Academy Award consideration. It will send a strong message if the film is not only nominated but ultimately wins the Oscar.
- The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.): Critics were divided over Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s typically flamboyant adaptation (in 3D no less) of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic. I found it to be both dramatically and visually engrossing, indeed the first accessible movie version of the book. Thanks to this and its Jay Z supervised soundtrack, high school English students will actually want to watch Luhrmann’s film for years to come.
- Austenland (Sony Pictures Classics): I adored this satire of all things Jane Austen-related and consider it the most purely pleasurable film I saw all year. I even paid to see it a second time, something I haven’t done in a long time. Besides, how can anyone not love a movie in which the always hilarious Jennifer Coolidge plays the prim and proper title resort’s sauciest guest?
- Out in the Dark (Breaking Glass Pictures): The best gay-themed film of 2013 out of a very strong pack of contenders. Here, the love between an Israeli lawyer and Palestinian student is tested by forces both familial and political. Dubbed “the Brokeback Mountain of Israeli film,” it is an impressive feature debut by director and co-writer Michael Mayer.
Honorable Mentions (movies that rated a B+ or higher in my critic’s log but in no particular order):
Yossi, Koch, The Square, Beyond the Hills, I Am Divine, Room 237, Iron Man 3, The Hot Flashes, Star Trek Into Darkness, Laurence Anyways, World War Z, Unfinished Song, This Is the End, Pacific Rim, Fruitvale Station, Drinking Buddies, Upstream Color, Sal, Thanks for Sharing, Prisoners, After Tiller, All is Lost, Short Term 12 and The Kings of Summer.
At the opposite, lesser end of my review scale may be found the following 2013 releases, also in no particular order of dishonor:
- Stoker (Fox Searchlight): A dreary Southern Gothic tale, written by recently-out Wentworth Miller, that largely wastes a talented cast including Nicole Kidman.
- Bridegroom (Virgil Films): The tragic death of a young gay man, Tom Bridegroom, is given a mawkishly sentimental, one-sided recounting by his surviving boyfriend and TV writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
- Insidious: Chapter 2 (Film District): This unnecessary sequel to 2011’s superior ghost story should have been more accurately titled Insipid.
- Adore (Gaumont): A gorgeous-looking movie about gorgeous longtime friends, played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, who improbably have lengthy romantic and sexual relationships with one another’s barely-adult sons. Just plain tacky.
- To the Wonder (Magnolia Pictures): Auteur Terrence Malick’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life is less focused, even more confounding and seemingly endless, with a wooden performance by male lead Ben Affleck.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.