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2013 At The Movies: Diverse And Mostly Excellent

Much has been made of 2013’s survival theme at the cinema — conjoining “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” and others into a thread — but what I saw were chronicles of failure. Failures of human connection (“Enough Said”), failures of artistic potential (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), failures of flamboyant swindlers (“American Hustle”), and failures of morality (“The Act of Killing”). Looming behind the true-life successes of Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” and Richard Phillips in “Captain Phillips” were racially and economically disadvantaged outsiders who didn’t get happy endings. In “12 Years,” the slaves who remained slaves for the rest of their lives or died trying to escape; in “Phillips,” the skin-and-bones Somali pirates, whose dreams of prosperity were dashed against the machine-like might of first-world Navy SEALs who could afford shoes.

Black-centric movies from black filmmakers roared to the fore early: “Fruitvale Station” and Oprah-aided box office hit “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the former articulately curdling racial anger, the latter a hot-and-heavy, cautiously revolutionary melodrama, so much more sophisticated than its “Forrest Gump” meets Black History Month conceit. But it was Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” that quickly became the critical talking point. I found McQueen’s immaculately framed compositions artful to a fault, prettifying a subject that needed a rawer approach, and the casting of the too-contemporary Brad Pitt and Adepero Oduye jarred the historical period setting. Still, in telling a brutal story of slavery from a slave’s point of view, including a lynching sequence in one long agonizing take that fused eye-prying horror and formal beauty better than any other film this year, McQueen righted the grind house wrongs of last year’s “Django Unchained.”

Two of my top films are from female filmmakers, which, given the barriers women directors confront, was a sad high-water mark. Unpredictably, one good female-centered comedy made a strong bid for mainstream recognition without being stupid: “The Heat,” a sweetly vulgar buddy picture that positioned Sandra Bullock (with “Gravity”) as the box office queen of the year and Melissa McCarthy as a leading lady impervious to fat jokes. Unfortunately, the there-and-gone “The To Do List” from Maggie Carey made no money but proved that women can do raunchy sex comedies, and that size does matter — the snappy sub-two-hour running time shellacked many of its longer male-driven competitors.

Critical hype was sometimes misplaced. “Gravity,” while a visual wonder with the poetic DNA to trace the dimples of Sandra Bullock’s 3-D tears, felt off every time actors opened their mouths, clunky dialogue the culprit. “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” talking out of two sides of their mouths, sought to entertain us and critique greed, but were both sloppy, shaggy-dog con games. “Pain & Gain,” for all its overkill, achieved the same goals with a quarter the critical appreciation. At least the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” practically an AP English syllabus of symbolism, made the grade as a singularly bleak portrait of a self-demoting folk singer. I won’t soon forget the anthropomorphic POV shot from a tabby cat riding the subway.

Voice-overs, long seen as a lazy screenwriter’s device to tell rather than show, made a fascinating comeback. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Rush,” “American Hustle,” and “Pain & Gain,” we gained insight into multiple characters’ desires with dueling voice-overs, and what a delightful “choose your own adventure” trick it became. By defenestrating our notions of the self-absorbed protagonist, these films gave us empathy for a gallery of jerks and liars.

Just when failure of a different kind — the portentous behind-the-scenes buzz on the expensive re-writes and re-shoots of “World War Z” pointed to an all-purposes disaster — the movie was better than good, a mix of lavish mayhem and close-quarters thrills, the surprise financial and critical redemption story of the summer season.

Enough with the things that worked well and not so well: here are the 10 feature films and documentaries that worked best:

1. “Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley, director, writer and spotlight-wary actress, documents a family secret to emotionally crippling effect. Web spoilers abound for this special documentary. Not in this space. There’s no navel-gazing, just a story without apparent inflection; yet Polley’s filament-like anger, seemingly unconsidered and still sensitive to the light, becomes the best untold story of the year.


2. “Short Term 12

Star Brie Larson, as the supervisor of a foster care facility for at-risk adolescents, turns in the most impressive young performance since Jennifer Lawrence skinned a squirrel in “Winter’s Bone.” The youthful cast evades cuteness and obvious tear-baiting, the beatific cinematography in the final slow-motion shot is a parting gift, and exquisitely written bookend scenes come bearing such warmth we forget there’s an editing room for stuff this good.


3. “Before Midnight

Richard Linklater, with stars-and-writing-collaborators Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, meet every decade to film a movie about a couple, Jesse and Celine. “Before Midnight” is the third of this romantic trilogy, where fights steal their passionate oxygen. It’s all talk, and not all of it surprising. Yet while we hope that Jesse and Celine’s sense of play will paper over the hard words, our 19 years of investment in these fictional people makes the effort of saying goodbye as life-and-death real as our own love stories. Maybe it’s see you later?


4. “Her

Spike Jonze moves beyond the self-pleasuring cleverness of “Adaptation” with a futuristic love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s loner and his new operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  In the future, Los Angeles is gridlock-free and video game avatars talk back profanely. “Her,” though, has more earthbound concerns: tell the oldest story and make us believe it’s happening for the first time. HAL might cry. I know I did.


5. “All is Lost

Robert Redford is “Our Man,” fighting for his life as his yacht takes on more water in the Indian Ocean. Who is he, why is he here, and why should we care? “All is Lost” answers the last question but leaves the rest to us. Shot in quick, muscular takes by rising filmmaker J.C. Chandor, this is a young person’s film about an old man. Near wordless, “Lost” is the anti-“Gravity.” Non-commercial, stripped of goopy symbolism, and ending in a corona of fire open to interpretation, the movie few saw deserves a new life on DVD.


6. “The Broken Circle Breakdown


7. “Enough Said


8. “Captain Phillips


9. “The Act of Killing


10. “Laurence Anyways


Honorable Mentions:

“Casting By,” “Shadow Dancer,” “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” “Aliyah,” “Stranger by the Lake,” “Side Effects,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Wadjda,” “This is Martin Bonner,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

In the comments section, share your favorite films of 2013.

This program aired on December 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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