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.

the-book-thief-poster

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).

the-hobbit-the-desolation-of-smaug-poster3

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.

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster-mountain

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).

luss-enterprise-si-schianta-sulla-terra

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:

Movie_Poster_of_-Beware_Of_Mr._Baker-

5. Beware of Mr. Baker

(read my review)

leviathan

4. Leviathan

(read my review)

The-act-if-killing-poster

3. The Act of Killing

(read my interview)

storieswetellposter

2. Stories We Tell

(read my review)

cutie_and_the_boxer

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).

Heli

Hans Morgenstern

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster artFocusing on 10 years in the life of a man who has decided to undergo a transformation into a woman, Xavier Dolan handles the drama of Laurence Anyways with a wry sense of balance that includes powerful performances, expertly paced scenes, spectacular set design and costumes and a brilliant command of cinematographic language. Though tackling an often misunderstood subculture in the varied array of the LGBT world (a man who wants to be a woman who still has an attraction to women) the film is simply a brilliantly sculpted piece of cinematic drama that should be seen by cinephiles in search of something that boldy explores and exploits the cinematic medium to its limits. But there’s a brilliant, compassionate story at the center of it, too.

At the film’s start, against nothing but company logos of production houses that made the film possible we can hear Laurence (Melvil Poupaud): “I’m looking for a person who understands my language and speaks it. A person who, without being a pariah, will question not only the rights and the value of the marginalized, but also those of the people who claim to be normal.” It’s a bold statement beyond sex and gender, and the film stays true to that, never over-sexualizing but focusing on acceptance of a person out to challenge what seems “normal” in a compulsive yet honest— if not passionate— manner.

As the intense drama between Laurence and his girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clément) offers up one conundrum after another while offering insight into the troubles involved in Laurence’s desire to finally be true to who he believes he really is, laurence-anyways-3Dolan provides a kaleidoscope of cinema that always feels fresh from scene to scene. He even throws in a few scenes of poetic fantasy sequences to express revelations that exist beyond the tangible world. For instance, to cap off one conversation between the couple, Laurence opens his mouth to only have a butterfly flutter out.

But that’s mere stunt work compared to the subtle craft that permeates the many scenes in the film. Laurence Anyways feels like an experience. Early on, in 1989, when Laurence is about to reveal his desire to change, he and Fred are making out inside a car as rain pounds on the windshield and Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes” blares from the radio. The scene is lensed with a fish eye, making the interior seem expansive. Fred, her brunette hair partly painted a brilliant red expounds on tapping into experiences via color. They exchange intense phrases of sex and trauma and their associative colors. In the distance a woman in a red raincoat walks by, blurred by the fierce raindrops. It’s a brilliant allusion to the personality Laurence and Fred are about to tangle with for the remainder of the film.

Many scenes in Laurence Anyways echo with layered meaning and drama. It’s in the small details as well as the grand. The film is full of surprises, from inventive camera angles to the a varied color palette. A later confrontation inside the car is punctuated by the wash cycle of the car wash the couple is sitting through. laurence-anyways-4The details in the set design are worth noting for the glaring dichotomies, from floral print pillows coupled with zebra-print roll pillows to the conscious decision to show a metal rail on a red, wooden door frame. Some shots could be framed as art pieces, like the image of carefully torn pages of a letter scattered inside a toilet bowl, shot straight from above.

The film’s two-hour-and-40-minute runtime should not be considered a detriment. Dolan does so much with the many scenes that never feel overlong from a cinematic standpoint. The film never feels like it drags. Divided into several chapters, noting certain years, Dolan even varies fonts of the intertitles. The director also does not stick to one sort of cinematographic technique. Some scenes merit long, lingering distant shots, others handheld work. Laurence Anyways is all about change, after all.

laurenceanyways_01-560x282

Despite all the flash, it never overshadows the heartfelt performances of the actors who take on their damaged personas with amazing gusto. Fred’s outburst toward an older and over-inquisitive waitress during a Saturday Brunch with Laurence probably stands as the reason why the jury at Cannes took notice of her to give her the best actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category. The tension between her love of Laurence, her frustration with a situation in their relationship she had no choice in and an anger at a world filled with people who judge from a distance pours forth with a fervor that will break your heart.

Though the film feels personal and intimate, it never loses sight of the glam and glitter side of Laurence’s pull toward the feminine. There are scenes of such high-tilt glam,Laurence-Anyways-Xavier-Dolan-2012-cannes-640x350 Ziggy Stardust would go home and cry. At the same time, the film never loses sight of the passionate connection between two souls who are drawn together no matter their situation. It’s similar to what Cloud Atlas said with its various characters drawn together over various centuries, but without the hokum. This feels real. There’s passion in this young director and he knows how to tap into a similar passion in his two leads to make for one of the more compelling dramas of 2013.

Hans Morgenstern

Laurence Anyways Trailer from Breaking Glass Pictures on Vimeo.

Lauerence Anyways is not rated, runs 168 min. and is in English and French with English subtitles. It plays in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which loaned me a blu-ray screener for the purposes of this review. The film is presented in conjunction with Dolan’s 2009 debut feature, I Killed My Mother, marking that film’s US theatrical debut. FYI: Dolan won Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival Director’s Fortnight with that film when he was 19 years old. If you are outside South Florida, Laurence Anyway’s national screening dates can be found here.

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