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.)

storieswetellposterIf you think you know anyone, even your closest family member, you may be wrong. Canadian director Sarah Polley makes that vividly clear with her new film Stories We Tell. After losing her mother Diane to cancer, Polley tries to demystify some of the subtle mysteries behind the woman who bore her into this world.  Unfurling like a rosebud into infinity, the more Polley explores, the more unknowable her mother seems. The journey is heartfelt, witty and devastating. As Polley has proved throughout her cinematic career, which also includes such marvels as Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), she has composed another film about relationships that is both humbling and transcendent.

The candid cinéma vérité thing may seem cliché by now, but Polley’s casual set-up of her family preparing to tell the story of her mother is breathtaking in its brilliant brevity, as she ends with a match cut of her and her mother’s faces at around the same age. Her siblings, two brothers and a sister, and her father, fuss and complain of a sense of discomfort sitting in front of her camera. Stories-We-Tell-1There’s a human sense of insecurity captured in candid commentaries as they worry about how they appear on the monitor. It’s stuff they probably never wanted or expected to appear in the film, but as such becomes more real than anything played self-consciously to the camera. Then there is a dissolve to black and white footage as the elder Polley settles in similarly for a vintage television appearance. Her own discomfort passed down to this younger generation. As the beautiful Bon Iver song “Skinny Love” quietly stirs along, Polley’s face melds with her mother during the song’s climax where singer Justin Vernon howls “And I told you to be balanced/And I told you to be kind.” It’s a ghostly, stirring moment that speaks to the film’s multi-layered brilliance, capturing both the doubt and intimacy between the generations.

As Diane was an actress, and the man who married her seemed obsessive with shooting home video, there exists a lot of vintage footage for Polley to incorporate into her film. stories-we-tell-485Polley puts her father in a recording booth to read his own story about her mother. Like everyone she asks, he is told to start at the beginning, when he first met Diane, and keep going until her end. Everyone seems taken aback at such an all-encompassing question. But as daunting as it might seem, there also lies a sense of trepidation. How much knowledge is too much, and is there even truth to be had in any such knowledge?

Despite the mystery upon mystery revealed by the film’s meandering but always surprising narrative from the various interview subjects, what comes across from Polley’s research is far from empty. It actually illustrates the complexity of any one person’s life and the array of personas within all of us. We all behave differently at school versus home with family, so no one but sociopaths should be surprised. Just as children try on their personas in those two different worlds, the film offers an illuminating insight into both family and the mother’s career choice: acting. But, then there are the additional shifts in persona that exist on a more intimate level that may seem a bit more subtle. Some women interview by Polley volunteer: “She had secrets.”

The film is filled with such tidbits that keep stringing the viewer along and engaged. Polley effortlessly weaves the various perspectives while also offering behind-the-scenes glimpses that reinforce the film’s intimate quality. Stories_we_tellIt does not come across as voyeuristic. Despite some tears from her siblings over this journey into loss, the film is relatable beyond this one family unit because this is not necessarily only about Polley’s family but family in general.

Meanwhile, it remains dramatic in its own way. At the very end it offers a note, a passing thought—maybe a fact— that turns the whole film on its head, staying true to the aloof and unknowable woman at the heart of Stories We Tell but maintaining its thesis of growing up among strangers. Just when you think you might know someone, another fact pops up that will redefine the perspective. Though the story is as intimate and personal as one can imagine, there’s also a melancholy thesis that the only person and the only world one can really know is one’s own experience.

Hans Morgenstern

Stories We Tell runs 108 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in Miami exclusively at the Tower Theater this Friday, June 14. The theater arranged for on-line screener for the purposes of this review. This documentary is also playing in other theaters nationwide; check out the film’s official blogspot site for theaters.

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