2013 was a lousy year in many ways (see Washington D.C.) but not in movie theaters. The best films were backloaded into the final three months as always, and there were plenty of smart, inventive films that challenged moviegoers. Social satire was prevalent, audience expectations were overturned, and even the comedies had an edge to them.
There are any number of explanations for this happy circumstance, but one may be the influence of the small screen. Television, in particular cable TV, has upped its game in recent years, offering series like "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" on AMC and "Game of Thrones" on HBO, among others, that in their complexity, performances, and imagination put most movies to shame. The movie studios had to respond in kind, and they did so in part by bringing in writers from television. For example, Terence Winter, who scripted the madcap "Wolf of Wall Street" for Martin Scorsese, wrote for HBO's "The Sopranos" before creating HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." Ideally, movies and TV will keep pushing one another to greater heights.
Locally, the eighth annual Berkshire International Film Festival filled movie screens, restaurants and streets in Great Barrington. BIFF showed 75 films, including the terrific documentary "20 Feet From Stardom" (see below), and one of that film's stars, Darlene Love, was in town for the festival along with a variety of directors, actors and writers. BIFF, a year-round county presence, also continued to advance the cause of Berkshire filmmakers.
In North County, the Williamstown Film Festival marked its 14th year with nine films, 28 shorts, plenty of guests and, as in Great Barrington, plenty of parties. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo talked about the process of transferring books to the big screen and the WFF's association with Mass MoCA in North Adams led to the screening of the Bollywood blockbuster "Ra.One," with Berkshire-based special effects wizard Jeff Kleiser on hand to discuss the thousands of effects he engineered for the film.
Here's a look back at the best movies of 2013, along with a few failures, noble and otherwise.
Top 10 Films
Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece set in earth orbit is one extended, jaw-dropping special effect, as the director puts you in outer space with astronauts played by George Clooney, a cool veteran with the right stuff, and Sandra
Bullock, a scientist and rookie space-walker, when disaster
strikes. The stunning visuals end up enhancing the very human drama that emerges as the astronauts confront their fates in the icy blackness of space.
Based on the true story of a young single mother in England forced by the nuns who keep her in involuntary servitude to give up her baby for adoption is fueled by righteous anger, and its sentiment is richly earned. Judi Dench inhabits the now elderly woman determined to find her son 50 years later, and comedian Steve Coogan opens eyes as the jaded journalist who is transformed by Philomena's humility and strength as he chronicles her story.
A surly old codger's determination to collect what he thinks is a winning lottery ticket is the hook for this road movie that follows a tortured path through the family history of Bruce Dern's Woody, with all its disappointments, bitterness and misunderstandings. Dern avoids cheap melodrama in creating this sad/funny character, and like Coogan, former "Saturday Night Live" comic Will Forte is a revelation as Woody's long-suffering son trying to gain insight into the old man and himself on their journey from Montana to Nebraska.
4. FRUITVALE STATION
This quasi-documentary begins with actual footage of 22-year-old Oscar Grant being shot and killed while black by a white transit officer, and then winds back through time to recreate the 24 hours that led to this tragedy. The film is true to the complexity of black-white relationships in America, beginning with Michael B. Jordan's portrayal of Grant as a well-intentioned but angry young man embittered by the box society has placed him in.
5. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
The stakes get higher in the second installment of this futuristic drama as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen (a terrific as always Jennifer Lawrence) is drawn further into the revolution she unwittingly triggered. A timely satire on the dangers of an overly watchful and manipulative government and the way reality television can be exploited as an opiate for the masses.
6. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Based on the 2009 story of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates who kidnap its captain (Tom Hanks) when their plan goes awry has a spine-tingling immediacy and realism that is the specialty of director Paul Greengrass ("United 93.") Crucially, the film gives depth to the pirates and explains their desperation. The best films of 2013 in general contained this kind of nuance and insight.
7. WORLD WAR Z
The zombie-virus apocalypse genre is crowded these days, but this film worked in ways both big (the infected humans moving in frenzied swarms) and small (the slow trek through a zombie-infected hospital in search of a cure.) As our hero, Brad Pitt, who nearly wrecked "12 Years A Slave" as a godly white man who appeared to have arrived from the future, sets aside his persona to play an actual character.
8. 20 FEET FROM
A fascinating documentary on the great yet often unknown back-up singers who provided the foundation for so many pop, blues and rock classics. The movie also exposes the rotten underbelly of a music industry that exploited and abandoned these talented performers, almost all of them women.
9. THE WORLD'S END
The third of the so-called Cornetto trilogy of writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-star Simon Pegg, the film sends Pegg, perennial sidekick Nick Frost and a couple of buddies back to their hometown in rural England to re-create an epic pub crawl. The boys end up fighting alien invaders in the guise of residents in a riotously funny sci-fi-comedy and unlikely morality tale.
10. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Martin Scorsese's latest isn't in the league of the film it most recalls, "Goodfellas," but this unapologetically over-the-top black comedy, starring a surprisingly hilarious Leonardo DiCaprio as the drug-addled, sex-crazed, money-hungry stock manipulator of the title, drops us into the gonzo market madness of the 1990s with the director's trademark hyper-realism.
n "Side Effects" starts off as an indictment of Big Pharmacology and then becomes a Hitchcockian thriller.
n Eighteen years after "Before Sunrise" and nine years after "Before Sunset," Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) confront domestic boredom and turmoil in "Before Midnight."
n "12 Years A Slave" brings the institution of slavery to the big screen in all of its appalling cruelty and cynicism, though miscasting and debatable script choices dilute its impact.
n "Prisoners" is a haunting drama about child kidnapping that explores the depths of depravity of not only the kidnappers but the parents driven by fear and sorrow into their own dark places.
n Writer-director Neil Blomkamp ("District 9") explores a rotten future society where the 1 percenters live in a space station above the ruined Earth in "Elysium."
n "To the Wonder" -- An inscrutable Terrence Malick film starring Ben Affleck and acres of wavy grassy fields that plays like a parody of a Malick film.
n "All Is Lost" -- Robert Redford's boat falls apart as he sails alone on the ocean, and with no insight into who this guy is or why he is out there it is difficult to get wrapped up in his plight.
n "Blue Jasmine" -- Cate Blanchett is excellent as a Tennessee Williamseque damaged diva, but Woody Allen's tinny dialogue and stereotypical lower middle class characters undermine her efforts.
n "The Counselor" -- Director Ridley Scott is here for the second year in a row, as his drug-dealer tale contains even more gaping plot holes and puzzling sequences than did last year's "Prometheus."
n Innovative director Zack Snyder was supposed to reboot and re-energize the stalled "Superman" franchise, but "Man of Steel" was another ponderous flick along the lines of 2006's superdud "Superman Returns."