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.)

inside-llewyn-davis-posterWith their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers show a profound understanding of the existential quandary of musicians. As a longtime chronicler of the local Miami music scene, I have met many talented musicians who have fallen on one side of the fine line of recognition versus the other. In between there are many levels of accomplishments that defy such black and white notions as success versus failure. Whoever thinks becoming a recognizable musician defines success will miss out on the divine subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis.

One could think of musicians as inter-dimensional travelers. They can move between two distinct worlds: the world of music and the conventional world non-musicians known. With their latest film, the Coens take the viewer Inside Llewyn Davis with only one special effect: the music. Actor/musician and Miami native Oscar Isaac does a stunning job of playing the titular character, a folk singer on the famed Greenwich Village circuit of the early 1960s whose blossoming talent seems doomed to ruin at every turn.

The film opens with a close up view of the bearded Llewyn, softly singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional folk song that has never been attributed to a writer. The camera closes real tight, as he strums an acoustic guitar and sings the entire, dreary song to a darkened, crowded, yet silent cafe. Something almost religious is happening as Llewyn sings and strums. The lyrics speak of a life rich in experience but destined to be cut short by an executioner.

They put the rope around my neck, they hung me very high.
The very last words I heard them say, “It won’t be long ’til you die, poor boy.”
I’ve been all around this world.

Oscar Isaac performing in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Coens have admitted to modeling Davis’ character on Dave Van Ronk, an obscure folk artist essential to the Greenwich Village folk scene (just look at this album cover). Van Ronk was known for a purist’s interest in the oral history of folk songs such as “Hang Me.” It’s an example of music that has so overshadowed its composer, no definitive record of its songwriter exists, an ironic touch that’s no accident in the detailed world of the Coens.

The Coen brothers’ interest in a musician who sings such a song foretells what sort of man, outside the music, Llewyn is destined to become. What follows is a journey both pathetic and sublime. It’s sublime in those moments the filmmakers allow for the songs, affectionately produced by T-Bone Burnett, to unfold, always in their entirety, as Llewyn dives into the realm of music and seems to exist in another almost divine world that has a different language and sense of time. Then there are the moments outside the music that reveals a rather sad and sometimes angry life of the homeless folk singer, who must spend much of his energy in search of a friendly couch to sleep on during the snowy winter of the Northeast while also peddling his musical talents.

Llewyn has an incompetent manager who seems far from invested in Llewyn’s music and an irascible sister (Jeanine Serralles) annoyed with his pursuit of art instead of a more practical career. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVISThen there’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married sunny singing duo Jim & Jean. She has two-timed Jim (Justin Timberlake) with Llewyn, and she’s angry with Llewyn for maybe getting her pregnant. She flings “fucking asshole” at him like it’s his first name, and Llewyn takes it with hangdog pathos.

Meanwhile, Llewyn tries to eke out a living from his art, which includes a sincere, almost virtuous repertoire of folk songs, including one song that dates back to the 18th century (“Fare Thee Well”). He’s a Luddite musician who hates the idea of selling out yet aspires for some level of success. He’s so haunted by his desire to make an honest, authentic mark, even vandalism in a toilet stall has resonance. “What are you doing?” the universe seems to ask him, adding another heavy ounce of pressure to the matter.

It’s not accidental that Llewyn’s name sounds like Lou and Davis, something belligerent, misanthropic jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman doing a harrowing impression of Doc Pomus) so casually notes. Llewyn is a man missing his other half, as is revealed literally early in the film, when he looks at a corny record cover featuring him and another musician, who has met a rather sad, untimely demise. Beyond a literal sense of Llewyn existing as one half of a duo, he is also figuratively half a man when not performing, incomplete without the music. He’s the ideal noble warrior for the purest reason of artistic expression.

Oscar Isaac winter in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Between naps in the backseat of a car, Roland pokes at Llewyn, shaving down his esteem with insults that Llewyn shakes off with annoyed, quiet resentment. He puts up with the troll of a man, as he is providing the ride to Chicago where he hopes to audition for an important manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Once again, the Coens offer a shadow of greatness as this manager shares a name and an implied history of the impresario who became Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. When Llewyn makes an opportunity to audition for Grossman, it’s a reference to how close he has come to achieving the success he so yearns for. So often the line between success and failure depends on being at the right place at the right time, and no other film captures this with so much melancholy and depth.

Besides a subtle and distinctive sense of humor and pathos to the narrative, the Coens again prove they know how to create an absorbing cinematic atmosphere. Art director Deborah Jensen and costume designer Mary Zophres have worked together to achieve this sepia-toned world of a lost time (and lost opportunity) that is both vintage chic and ghostly somber. Then there’s the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The image often looks soft and the gray area in which this man exists never blended so well between the black and white. It’s the perfect complement to the muted vision of a world that revolutionized popular music at the time. It befits the unlucky Llewyn, who merely seems a passenger on this ride to near glory. After all, we all know there’s someone else besides him waiting in the shadows to transcend this scene.

Hans Morgenstern

Inside Llewyn Davis runs 105 min. and is rated R (for cussing and sexual references). The only art house that has it in South Florida is the Coral Gables Art Cinema, where it opens this Friday, Dec. 20. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, they include:

AMC Sunset Place
Regal South Beach
AMC Aventura
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Palace
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Paragon Jupiter 18

But the best seat to see to see the film in South Florida, as ever, is the Coral Gables Art Cinema. CBS Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of awards consideration. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.

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