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.)

museum_hours smallIn the 1958 comedy by Ronald Neame, the Horse’s Mouth, the film’s main character, an artist named Gulley Jimson, portrayed as equal parts guru and buffoon by Alec Guinness, may well be mad or have unlocked the door to artistic brilliance. He tells an acolyte too impatient to spend some time looking at a painting: “Thirty seconds of revelation is worth a million years of know-nothings.”

It makes for an apt commentary more than ever in today’s second-screen mentality when it comes to media consumption. That’s why Jem Cohen’s feature film Museum Hours feels like such a miracle, and the revelations arrive aplenty and effortlessly. He places two rather distinct characters inside the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. Johann (Bobby Sommer) is a security guard who has lived his life to fuller degrees than most ever will (he was once a disco and punk rock road manager and now enjoys the quiet contemplation the museum job offers him). Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a Canadian visitor who distracts herself from the weight of concern for a cousin in a coma lying in a hospital bed by visiting the nearby art museum.

The two meet inside Johann’s world of the museum. He is drawn to her for her repeat visits and something more intangible, he admits in an ever-present voice-over. It’s not a sexual attraction, as he is gay, and the actors’ aged, rugged features are so unglamorous and real they subvert any pretense of the superficial sort of romance Hollywood loves to pedal to the masses. With inevitable death hovering over their visits in the form of Anne’s cousin, they trade life stories. Anne worries about “over-sharing” and “prying” while Johann seems happy revealing his past with casual, fulfilled matter-of-factness. A respectful concern and reminder of the cousin constantly appears in their exchanges. And then there’s the art world.

MH_Bobby Sommer1

Cohen does several inspired things with his film that meld art and life like a hand fits a glove. The most noticeable are the conversations on the pieces by the characters. Often, Johann offers his contemplation on the pieces in voice over. Some of it, however, is resigned to the patrons, like the children and teenagers who are not merely judged for their short-attention span but also appreciated for their sincere, visceral reactions to the art, even if it only lasts a few seconds.

Along with extreme close-ups of the art that reveal not only the age of the pieces but also accidental stains and the light reflected off the pieces that highlight texture, Johann also plays games to rediscover pieces he has spent so many hours with, like the dense pieces by Bruegel the Elder. Looking at the many tiny characters that form larger statements on religion, society and the politics of the time from whence these works came he finds a frying pan sticking out of one character’s head, and then he’s off counting all the eggs that appear in the paintings at the museum. On a wider level, he notes the state of the eggs and the context their state means within the stories of the paintings.

Cohen even weaves the bigger presence of life and death with art during a scene where Johann joins Anne at the bedside of her cousin. MH_Mary Margaret O'HaraAnne asks Johann to describe a religious painting to try to get a rise out of her unconscious cousin, who Anne describes as an agnostic. His choice of words melds the real and the divine in a way that remains respectful to the work while also veering away from anything that would have possibly upset anyone who might question a reductive presence of God in this world. It’s an ingenious and subtle moment of transcendentalism.

The director also craftily fills his film with exterior montage sequences of a wintry Vienna that sometimes sneak in a few details of the paintings inside the museum. Birds perched on naked trees flutter away and there’s a cut to a frozen blackbird on a gray branch against an overcast sky inserted in between that is clearly a painting. MH_Cathedral SquareThere are also sequences of landscapes and details of rubbish in the snow. The camera also performs wonders inside the museum with shallow focus on artifacts from Egypt and other long-gone civilizations that appreciate the worn, decaying quality of the work as much as the work itself. Life and art and the fleeting quality of it all, it’s all to be appreciated, the director seems to state.

One of the most amusing elements Cohen employs to meld art and life include some rather candid moments that reveal actors slipping out of character for moments that feel so organic, many may miss these moments, as they subtly break the fourth wall of cinema. In one scene, the film is cut a split second later showing a character turning from serious, almost belabored concentration in her role as an observer of art, and then turning relaxed, as if the director has already called “cut.” It melds beautifully in a film about art taken out of original context in history and placed on display. There are also a couple of moments with Johann where he sounds boisterous or seems more relaxed, behind the walls of the museum, in a locker room and a cafeteria, that may as well have been filmed during downtime from the actual shoot. The layers of art and life exposed as both warm and serious and visceral last for mere seconds but have profound effects that echo throughout this decidedly un-self-conscious film.

Hans Morgenstern

Museum Hours runs 107 minutes, is in German and English with English subtitles and is not rated (any good art film has nudity, though). It opened Friday in the South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It has already opened in some theaters across the US and others will follow. For a full list of screening dates, visit the film’s official website: here (that’s a hotlink).

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