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SDG’s Top Films of 2013

Themes of hope, survival and faith in a year of big-screen trauma.

BY Steven D. Greydanus

| Posted 1/17/14 at 7:00 AM


2013 was a year of cinematic trauma and stress, full of harrowing, at times also exhilarating, survival stories, many on the abyss of the sea or even the void of space.

Rather than fighting to overcome evil and save their worlds, like the heroes of blockbusters of other recent years (The Avengers; The Dark Knight Rises; Harry Potter; Avatar), this year the protagonists of one film after another fought simply for the hope of getting out alive and returning home: Gravity; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Captain Phillips; 12 Years a Slave; All is Lost.

The travails of African-Americans throughout U.S. history, from slavery to segregation to the Civil Rights era to today’s creeping police state, were highlighted in a remarkable convergence of films — 12 Years a Slave; Fruitvale Station; Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 — while the apartheid era and its downfall were portrayed in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Unlike past race-themed films with white heroes and black supporting characters (e.g., Amistad, Mississippi Burning), the protagonists in these films were all black (possibly excepting 42, in which Harrison Ford was at least the costar); the first three were also from black writer-directors.

It was a banner year for women on the big screen. Earlier this week The Hunger Games: Catching Fire starring Jennifer Lawrence surpassed Iron Man 3 at the U.S. box office, becoming the first female-led top-grossing film of any year since perhaps The Sound of Music in 1965. The domestic top 10 includes Disney’s Frozen, with its sister princesses — an almost unheard-of Hollywood animated film led by two heroines — and Gravity starring Sandra Bullock, who also costarred with Melissa McCarthy in the crude action-comedy hit The Heat.

Though it was not a bad movie year, mainstream Hollywood fare was generally dismal. Yes, even lamer than 2010. Not a single big-studio film I saw all spring and summer rose much above mere competence (The Wolverine, World War Z, The Conjuring and Monsters University were among the best of the lot).

There were revisionist reboots for two of pop culture’s most iconic heroes, Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger, that some admired but few would consider inspiring. Family fare, too, was high on volume, low on quality (The Croods; Turbo; Planes; Despicable Me 2; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2; Epic).

Things picked up a bit in the fall, from Gravity and Captain Phillips to Catching Fire and Saving Mr. Banks, and family audiences enthusiastically embraced Disney’s Frozen, though it left me cool. 2013 is the first year in some time in which none of my top 10 films is clearly a “family film” in the usual sense. (I did include a lovely animated coming-of-age story that might be enjoyed by thoughtful tweens, but would bore younger viewers.)

A trio of Christmas-themed indies in December explicitly acknowledging the reason for the season (the Max Lucado adaptation The Christmas Candle, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, and Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity) were among the year’s points of religious interest. Notable religious motifs ran through a number of films large and small, from the Catholicism-soaked horror film The Conjuring to a sprinkling of spiritual themes and images in Gravity; from my favorite film of the year, an American indie now streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, to a pair of remarkable French animated films.

For me, while 2013 was ultimately a good year for good films, it was not a great year for great films. In other recent years I’ve been able to put together a top 10 list and still have a number of films I rated in the A range for the runner-up list; this year my runners-up are mostly B-pluses. Of course, as in 2012, I saw fewer movies in 2013 than I once did, due to my ongoing diaconal studies, so my final tallies are far from definitive.

As always, these calls are personal, and it’s easy to imagine slightly different versions of these lists with titles swapped higher or lower, depending on taste. Which Somali pirate hijacking movie really deserves top 10 ranking, the Hollywood one or the Danish one? Who starred in the better lone-hero survival movie, Sandra Bullock or Robert Redford? Which largely dialogue-free art-house documentary is more worthy, the globe-hopping one or the one set on a fishing vessel? Which Miyazaki made the better film, Hayao or his son Goro? Did Frozen really deserve to be completely shut out — and, if not, where should it have landed in the lists below?

These are my picks. Feel free to share yours in the combox.

10 Films That Stood Out

  1. This Is Martin Bonner. Amid the trauma-filled cinema of 2013, no film spoke to me more profoundly of hope, empathy and spiritual thoughtfulness than Chad Hartigan’s quietly miraculous little character study. Following a church-based prison program volunteer coordinator and an ex-con trying to find his way, the film explores the enigma of faith in a postmodern world with extraordinary insight. A fleeting depiction of a sexual encounter (nothing explicit); brief strong language. Adults.
  2. 12 Years a Slave. More than just a brilliant, devastating film about an important subject, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir of his 1841 kidnapping and sojourn in slavery is the first major fact-based motion picture about the slave experience in America. Extremely harsh content, including scenes of vicious abuse and cruelty; a brief sexual encounter and scenes of sexual abuse (no nudity); nonsexual nudity (e.g., a slave-market scene); profane and obscene language. Mature viewing; discretion advised.
  3. Gravity. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in the year’s most gloriously spectacular exercise in Hollywood escapism, leavened with a sprinkling of spiritual themes. Alfonso Cuarón’s low-orbit survival thriller offers something remarkable: new kinds of images, set not in some sci-fi/fantasy world, but in our own. Much intense peril and some brief graphic, disturbing images; some strong language; a sequence depicting the heroine in modest underthings. Teens and up.
  4. The Past. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi (whose masterful A Separation was my No. 2 film of 2011) explores the fallout around broken family bonds and the perils of trying to build new lives on the ruins of old ones with more psychological insight and moral precision than any other filmmaker I know. Domestic complications, including divorce and remarriage theme; references to an extramarital affair and an attempted suicide; brief abortion theme. Subtitles. Adults.
  5. Fill the Void. Orthodox Israeli director Rama Burschtein’s unprecedented drama about life in Tel Aviv’s Hasidic Jewish community offers an intriguing portrait of a close-knit culture shaped by faith, tradition and family ties. A Jane Austen-inflected tale of a young girl whose hopes of making a match are complicated by a family tragedy, it’s a rare hopeful film about marriage in a cinematic season of domestic failure. Thematic elements. Subtitles. Nothing inappropriate for watching with kids.
  6. Fruitvale Station. With stunning performances and a naturalistic style, first-time director Ryan Coogler’s Sundance winner — a fictionalized account of the last hours of a young black man killed by police — makes a powerful plea for a system that works better for the marginal as well as the privileged. A disturbing extended sequence of police roughness with a fatal shooting; some sensuality and a scene of sexuality (no nudity); brief nonsexual nudity; racial epithets; heavy obscene and crass language; limited profanity. Mature viewing; discretion advised.
  7. Captain Phillips. Tom Hanks is outstanding in Paul Greengrass’ lucid, intelligent thriller adaptation of the real-life story of a container ship captain whose vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates. Much intense menace and some frank violence; limited profanity and brief crass language. Teens and up.
  8. From Up on Poppy Hill. A minor gem from Studio Ghibli, developed by Hayao Miyazaki but directed by his son Goro, this lovely period piece, set in a Japanese coastal town in the early 1960s, eschews high-flying fantasy for delicate coming-of-age drama. Thematic elements. Subtitles or English dub. Nothing inappropriate for watching with kids.
  9. Caesar Must Die. This movingly humanistic docudrama from the octogenarian Taviani brothers depicts a prison theater program with real convicts — some mafiosi, drug traffickers and killers — staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Thematic elements; a few obscenities. Teens and up.
  10. ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! Russian documentarian Victor Kossakovsky’s meditative globe-hopping film seeks out comparatively rare locations on the Earth with people living diametrically opposite one another. Footage of a beached whale corpse being dismembered; a suggestive remark. Subtitles. Too slow for kids (and many adults).

10 Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.