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.)

la_noche_de_enfrente_xlgRaúl Ruiz is one lucky son of gun to have left a testament like Night Across the Street as his swan song. The film, released posthumously, stands as evidence of a master filmmaker interested in exploring not only cinematic images but movie-making’s unique characteristic of editing to tell a profound story that explores life and death and the tendrils that intertwine them. Besides gorgeous, fluid cinematography and art direction, Ruiz also maintains a sly sense of humor when confronting the abyss.

The film unfolds through layers and layers of coming to terms with what defines a life when faced with one’s inevitable twilight. The story might seem cumbersome at first, but a viewer who loosens up the mind and forgives a narrative that refuses to follow a straight line will reap enchanting rewards. With Night Across the Street Ruiz does with existentialism what he did with identity in his masterful Mysteries of Lisbon (read my review here).

Ruiz seems well aware that movies looking to answer the deeper questions of life are better served by obtuse structure in order to mimic an encounter with the sublime that defies literal language. For instance, Terence Malick’s Tree of Life indulged in wonder and pastiche that begged inference from the audience. Either you gave to it or you took from it. Those who took from it in search of logic left disappointed. By the same token, a film such as the Life of Pi replaced revelation with a gimmicky twist ending that reached for sentimentality. The latter film may feel easier to digest to some, but to others it might feel manipulative. If that is the case, does that make the film as intellectually satisfying and, more importantly, representative of the mystery we all shall face when the inevitable arrives?


Stanley Kubrick knew a film that harbors a message in the images, defying language, re-creates a more transcendent experience than an expository work. His most sublime film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, proved as much. It famously only contains about 45 minutes of dialogue in 141 minutes of images. He also knew the value of editing, noting it’s cinema’s only distinctive characteristic that separates it from all other media. In a 1972 interview in “Sight and Sound,” he said, “… editing is the only aspect of the cinematic art that is unique. It shares no connection with any other art form: writing, acting, photography, things that are major aspects of the cinema, are still not unique to it, but editing is.” (Read the interview).

In Night Across the Street, Ruiz uses language, editing and images in a playful manner while looking at deeper, edschoice_LaNuitdenexistential themes. The film is as soul-stirring and heart-breaking as it is witty and life-affirming. It opens with a few sweeping aerial shots that unites the desert and ocean: two grand representations of death and life. Our hero, Don Celso Barro (Sergio Hernández) may just be dead already, if not unconscious and in a dream world reflecting on his life.

The director introduces the elderly version of Celso as he sits among students in a classroom from the past. A teacher who later is revealed as the author of the 1951 literary classic the Horseman on the Roof, Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), discusses the subtleties of translation to a class of teenage boys ordered to close their eyes. It’s a statement on the limits of language and how unreliable it may be without vision. That most of the class does not get the lecture stands as condescending testament to the unenlightened naiveté of youth unconcerned with defining their lives, yet at that hormonal moment of know-it-all attitude.

Celso also appears in the film as a boy on the cusp of his teen years with a seeming knowledge of a life fulfilled. This version of Celso (Santiago Figueroa) interacts with heroes like Beethoven (Sergio Schmied) and Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) to varying dynamic effect as far as an exchange of ideas and knowledge. la-noche-de-enfrente-raul-ruiz-02As this may be the life of a dying man in reflection, this intellectual boy seems a fantasy projected by the elder Celso of returning to naïve youthful days with the perspective and knowledge of maturity. But, even then, Ruiz will trip up our hero with a humbling encounter with an opposing figure who personifies the immovable contrarian.

Though much of the film seems to unfold in a period of the early to the middle 20th century, the boy version of Celso explains to Beethoven how soon “you don’t have to learn anything. Machines will do everything.” He could very well be talking about such definitive cultural modern inventions such as the Internet and how easy it has become to lean on things like Wikipedia or Google for knowledge. Beethoven’s response? “It’s sad.” The pleasure of Night Across the Street comes from an intellect let loose in search of defining a mortal life, hence why it dwells on a time mostly in the past, before the digital world, the Internet and cell phones, which all seem to be crutches on our current human intellect.*

Ultimately, the film is concerned with its own limitations as a medium but also its possibilities and power to create sublime cinematic encounters like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Tree of Life. Santiago Figueroa and Sergio Schmied in Raul Ruiz's Night Across the Street.Courtesy of Cinema Guild.When Celso takes Beethoven to the movies and describes film as “special shadows that give off light” he defines the medium with a metaphor that beautifully captures both the medium’s possibilities as well as its limitations. Soon, Beethoven seems confused as a result of the editing and shifting perspectives of the moving pictures, to which the young Celso says, “It’s hard to explain.” “Why come to the cinema, if you can’t explain the movies you come to see?” Beethoven replies. It’s a witty moment addressing antiquated perspectives meeting new forms of story-telling. As much as Ruiz seems to celebrate the past, he also seems open to the future, as revealed by this scene.

Night Across the Street is filled with such stimulating moments, which will reward repeated viewings. I can only scratch the film’s surface, but rest assured there are wonderful, humbling moments that go into coming of age, self-worth and yearning for a well-defined, mortal life that are explored and turned on their heads. It’s an enchanting film about time, memory, language and existence that never forgets a sense of humor. Sailing ships assembled in bottles, the recurrent concern of creative definitions of Rhododendron are just some of the many symbols that add further richness to the literary quality of this film where a bullet is described as an “epiphany from the depths.” Night Across the Street is truly an extraordinary work that constantly surprises with one layer of seeming enlightenment after another. Once you might think you understand it, Ruiz turns another subversive corner in his narrative of life in reflection, always celebrating epiphany while keeping it grounded.

Hans Morgenstern

The Night Across the Street is in Spanish and French with English subtitles, runs 110 minutes and is not rated (despite implied murder and low-key violence, the film should not offend). It premiered in Miami at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and plays there exclusively through March 20. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.


*Whether Ruiz knew it or not, it’s a rather prescient observation. Not too long ago, I heard futurist Ray Kurzweil discussing his 2012 book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed on the “Diane Rehm Show” on NPR. He predicts that in the very near future— within most of our lifetimes— one will be not only be able to expand the brain’s neocortex by simply uploading it to the Internet but also find immortality, which is not too different with what happens that great science fiction movie by Duncan Jones, Source Code (read a transcript of the the show by jumping here; the relevant section begins at 11:49:50 ). 

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