This year proved quite fruitful for worthwhile cinema experiences for this writer. So much so, I want to vary up my year-end list. There were so many amazing documentaries, I have decided to rank those separately because, quite honestly, some of those could dethrone several of my top feature films (stay tuned for a top 20 in February). I have also decided to rank separately some of the great sentimental films that pulled me by the heartstrings despite their contrivances.

All lists below are ranked from descending to ascending order. There are links to reviews or interviews, if applicable. All the large, bold, italicized titles under the posters link to the home video releases on Amazon. If you follow that link and purchase them, a percentage of the sale goes back to support this blog.

First, some might call the following guilty pleasures. I call them sentimental favorites, where I swooned along with everyone else who wanted to escape for just a pleasant night at the movies, be they action-adventure or idealized depictions of true stories:

movies_saving-mr-banks-poster5. Saving Mr. Banks

There’s something a bit surreal and somewhat incestuous about Disney dramatizing the true story behind bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen. Though much of the hype surrounding the film came from a not-always-flattering portrait of Mr. Disney (big deal, you get to see him sneak a cigarette), the real skeletons depicted come from the traumatic childhood of the book’s author. The film spends a great amount of time flashing back to the past of author P. L. Travers who proved stubbornly uncooperative in the adaptation of her novel on the Disney studios lot. There’s much talk of Emma Thompson in the role of the author and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. However, Colin Farrell offers the film’s most tangibly tragic performance as the father who cannot seem to rise to task during the author’s childhood. He’s the heartbreaking glue that explains all the trauma, escapism and defensiveness of Travers.


4. The Book Thief

More childhood trauma in real-life. This time, it’s a little girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Director Brian Percival, he of the stirring Downton Abbey series, brings his romantic eye to a place not often treated with romance. However, this is a child’s coming of age, so a hint of rose-colored lenses may be forgiven. Also, personal bias, my father survived living through Nazi Germany after he was drafted to fight for Hitler at the ripe age of 16. To add some more bias, I had a chance to speak to Percival, the film’s star (Sophie Nélisse) and the original book’s author, Markus Zusak, a conversation that began with sharing my dad’s journals during the war … which are still looking for a serious translator (read my interviews).


3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

While the first Hobbit film felt like an overdose of effects and Rube Goldberg-like action sequences, things finally came together with the second part of this trilogy. There was time to get more intimate with the characters, as the film slowed down for some substantial moments between them. It also had a brisk pace and sense of adventure that harkened back to the great epic action films director Peter Jackson so much loves, like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.


2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I had no idea I would like this film as much as I did. I think its message that celebrates experiencing life without the escapism, ironically enough, touched me. It’s funny how a film so anti-escapism can also feel escapist. It started with obvious, overly stylized, stagey fantasies by the title character and ended with him out-growing them. (Read my link to my review here).


1. Star Trek: Into Darkness

This movie was just the greatest thrill that had it all. The sentimentality on screen overwhelmed as stakes ran high, including a bromantic exchange of affection in the face of death between Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). Even the evil Khan (a scene-stealing Benedict Cumberbatch) shed a tear for his cause, though it meant the extermination of humanity. It gives you high hopes for what director J.J. Abrams has planned for his series of Star Wars films under the ownership of Disney (Read my review).

* * *

Some of the most extraordinary documentaries I saw included these, again in bottom to top order. I reviewed all of these, so I shall spare additional commentary; click on the link below the poster art to read my reviews and the titles to purchase from Amazon and support the Independent Ethos:


5. Beware of Mr. Baker

(read my review)


4. Leviathan

(read my review)


3. The Act of Killing

(read my interview)


2. Stories We Tell

(read my review)


1. Cutie and the Boxer

(read my review)

* * *

Finally, the 10 best feature films I saw in 2013. I was surprised by my own ranking. Though consistency of tone, acting, cinematography, pacing and complexity of story all play a factor, I determined the ranking by considering  how strongly the films drew me in and then delivered their message and punch line. As usual, ambitious foreigners often win this list, but there was also a strong showing by a pair of American indie directors and one pair of directors who are given free-reign in the Hollywood machine. Again, click on the link below the poster art to read my reviews; the titles all link to product listings on Amazon, which supports the Independent Ethos:

thegreatbeauty_poster10. The Great Beauty

(Read my review)

Poster art9. Laurence Anyways

(Read my review)

museum_hours small

8. Museum Hours

(Read my review)

computer_chess_poster7. Computer Chess

(Read my review)

inside-llewyn-davis-poster6. Inside Llewyn Davis

 (Read my review)

frances-ha-poster 5. Frances Ha

(Read my review)

BLUEITWC_Poster_1080x16004. Blue is the Warmest Color

(Read my review)

apres3. Something in the Air (Après mai)

(Read my review)

la_noche_de_enfrente_xlg2. Night Across the Street

(Read my review)

beyond-the-hills-movie-poster-21. Beyond the Hills

(Read my review)

I think the Wolf of Wall Street, probably the biggest disappointment of the year for this writer, had some influence in my number one choice. Beyond the Hills indeed looked at some despicable people, but threw the lambs among them for a sense of dynamism that was missing from Wolf. It also had a similar ending that gave a shocking twist in perspective regarding the power of a leader who has led many astray that was well-earned over an extravagant run-time of two-and-a-half-hours. Because of that, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu proves himself a stronger director than Martin Scorsese is now.

Of course all these films, from sentimental faves, documentaries and features could be mixed for a top 10, or as in many previous years, a top 20, which I plan to prepare in February, when more late-coming foreign titles will see release (Miami has yet to see Mexico’s entry to the Oscars, the harrowing Heli arrive in theaters, and only now the multi-award-winning Wadjda is seeing release in indie art houses).


Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Movie_Poster_of_-Beware_Of_Mr._Baker-Ginger Baker is probably rock ‘n’ roll’s most infamous survivor. Call him the original, archetypal rock drummer … and you might just piss him off, as the intense documentary Beware of Mr. Baker reveals with an almost breathless pace. Jazz music was his home, and beyond that, African rhythms. But at the same time he ingested the hardest drugs possible, fucked every girl who threw herself at him and came to blows with many fellow musicians. He invested all his intellect in playing drums, leaving behind several ex-wives, traumatized collaborators and, worst of all, children who never had a father they could connect with.

First-time filmmaker and long-time Baker expert Jay Bulger tells Baker’s storied life in one of the most spectacular documentaries ever on a living nightmare of a personality.  He captures the passion of an artist who has devoted his life to playing his instrument with no sentimentality. The heartache on screen comes from as real a place as anything. As devotional as some of the great drummers who celebrate Baker’s talent seem, they all recognize the perils of getting too close to a flame of the appropriately ginger-haired Baker’s aura. “He influenced me as a drummer,” says Simon Kirke of Bad Company and Free, “but not as a person.”

The talking heads are all well-merited personalities and include former band mate in Cream and Blind Faith, Ginger BakerEric Clapton and such important rock drummers like Stewart Copeland (the Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Neil Peart (Rush) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica), who all credit Baker for making them drummers. But, also, no one denies what an imposing figure Baker was socially. Clapton seems to downright fear him, admitting he could only stay on the sidelines as Baker and Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce pummeled each other. In his late age, however, Bruce still cannot help but say he only has love for Baker. “He’s definitely the best Ginger Baker in the world,” he says.

Baker, however, seems to have no nostalgia about his old cohorts, and Bulger wastes no time establishing that, opening the film with his final confrontation with Baker on the recluse’s property in South Africa. When Bulger reveals his plans to speak with other people in Baker’s life, Baker angrily warns him he best not do any such thing. He then busts Bulger’s nose with a cane. “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose,” he tells his cameraman after returning to a waiting SUV, the bridge of his nose split and bloody.

For Baker, it is clear his main drive in occupying his mortal coil is to use it for drumming. Nothing else. Everything else may as well be damned. Keeping time mattered most to him. Transcendence for him could only be found in the shift from 4/4 rhythm to 5/4. Bulger uses Baker’s own words to narrate his childhood captured  visually in dark, rough-edged animated sequences. 28beware-1-articleLargeThe life experiences that formed this man seem almost mythic. He says he was born into an England bombarded by Germany during World War II. “I still love explosions to this day,” Baker says. He took beatings from hoodlums and beat on his desk in school in a rhythmic pattern, inspired by what he heard on a Max Roach record. When he first sat at a drum kit, he found he could play. “Fuck, I’m a drummer … I had it … time … natural time.”

If ever a link existed between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, Baker was that. He hated being called a rock drummer, and he makes that clear, shrugging off such iconic rock drummers like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and the Who’s Keith Moon as dull technicians with no swing. In the early 1970s, at the height of his career, he disappeared from the rock ‘n’ roll pop scene to Africa. Ginger Baker's Air ForceHe could care less about the civil strife and lawlessness of the continent, as he gathered with tribesmen in drum circles to enjoy their unique rhythms where he seemed to find an almost religious sort of bliss. He went on to play with Africa’s most famous popular musician Fela Kuti.

Bulger does a fascinating and riveting job presenting one hell of a talent in rock ‘n’ roll history. This was a man so deep in touch with his primal side he was able to parlay it into a career. However, Bulger does not forget to show that this does not come without costs. ginger-baker-beware-of-mr-baker-documentary-film-noscaleBaker left many broken hearts in his wake, most of all his children. Beware of Mr. Baker might seem at first to be a celebration of a man who lived to fulfill every waking moment of his life and chase after his craft by living it to the fullest. But it truly lives up to its title, as the “Mr. Baker” in the title may just as easily be replaced with Mephistopheles. The film has another dimension beyond seemingly celebrating a man who has sprinted after his dream. It might at first seem sweet and nice that his son Kofi Baker learns to play drums in part to get closer with his father, but there is also something fundamentally tragic about it. As his third wife, Karen Loucks, notes, it’s not about Baker’s verve to follow his art but his “inability to stay.”

Hans Morgenstern

Beware of Mr. Baker runs 100 minutes and is not rated, but Baker is a man born of violence and rock ‘n’ roll is a music that uses offensive language liberally.  The documentary returns to O Cinema in Miami this weekend starting today, Friday, Feb. 15. If other screenings around the US visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)