2013 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2013)

#11: The Wolf of Wall Street

Poster for "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort

As always, the #11 slot goes to a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, but have reservations about including in the Top 10. As expected from Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is well-made, well-acted, and a bit overlong. Following his turn in 2011’s Moneyball alongside Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill proves once again that he is capable of staggering acting quality when paired with an A-list star. The star in question is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is basically playing a drugged-out, misogynistic, and ultimately more honest version of the rich tycoon that he played earlier this year in The Great Gatsby. Like Lord of War, this is a chronicle of an unsympathetic character’s rise to power, and like Observe & Report, it is an unabashed celebration of bad people doing bad things. Make no mistake – this is a film about, by, and for – terrible people. And that’s okay. Nobody’s a single thing, and you have to be a certain amount of terrible to partake in the kind of debauchery on display here. Apart from that, this is certainly one of the best comedies of the year.

#10: Blackfish

Poster for "Blackfish"

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres

This documentary is best summed up by a quote from a former SeaWorld trainer that appears in an on-screen interview:

“I can’t imagine a society that values marine mammals as we do…without parks like SeaWorld.”

For a film that’s ostensibly a hit-piece on captive marine mammal shows in general, and SeaWorld specifically, Blackfish approaches an emotional subject with uncommon subtlety. It presents the issue purely in terms of practicality – there is no safe manner in which an orca can be kept safely as a private show animal, therefore it shouldn’t happen. Then it lets its subjects – who are apparently immune to irony – hang themselves with quotes such as the one above. Any moral conclusions about whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to keep orcas captive are left for the audience to draw on their own – even if it’s clear which direction the film is prodding you toward.

This is quite a harrowing and well-made documentary, and given its wide distribution, likely to be an effective one. As of this writing, the title is available on Netflix streaming.

Check out my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “Blackfish”, “The Kings of Summer”

#9: The Bling Ring

Poster for "The Bling Ring"

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales

Color me dumbstruck. This was a film I hadn’t even planned on seeing (after a press screening for a much worse film went awry), and it was about a group of people that I had virtually no interest in. When a group of bored, privileged teenagers go on a burglary spree in Beverly Hills, pilfering goods from the unlocked houses of Hollywood’s TMZ-elite (including Paris Hilton, whom they robbed a half-dozen times before it was even noticed), I was expecting to be bored by their vapid pursuit of overpriced fashion. And yet, this film not only delivered some of the most fascinating characters and performances of the year, but also a thoroughly well-paced, well-edited, and entertaining peek into the lives of this wild bunch of girls (and a couple boys). Relative newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard are riveting, delivering a friendship (with some chilling subtext) that manages to deftly carry the first two thirds of the film. Broussard’s naïveté and Chang’s cold calculation make for an impressive pairing – and are only made better when placed alongside Emma Watson. Watson is handed the last third of the film, as well as several of the most entertaining monologues I’ve seen this year, delivering vapid nonsense with utter sincerity to whichever members of the press will listen. This film is endlessly entertaining, and also thoroughly understands the twisted pursuit of fame and fortune that this ring is indulging in. They are essentially just a lower tier of the class of people that they are stealing from, even to the degree that in the end, their high-level transgressions don’t especially matter (a theme made clear when Watson’s character briefly shares a cell block with one of her victims, locked up for DUI).

See this film and be pleasantly surprised along with us. Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #35 – “The Bling Ring” (dir. Sofia Coppola)

#8: Side Effects

Poster for "Side Effects"

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns

Following 2012’s Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns team back up to deliver an impressive thriller of a different sort. Side Effects feels at home alongside the best of Alfred Hitchcock, and regrettably, I can say little else about the film without damaging its appeal, except that I rewatched it this past month, and can confirm that it holds up well to repeat viewing.

As of this writing, Side Effects is available on Netflix streaming. And like last year’s #2 pick, The Imposter (also available), you would do well to watch it without reading anything else in advance.

#7: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

Directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko, written by Denis Osokin

I feel a bit bad including a film that is unlikely to find distribution in the United States, but I am compelled to include this film because it is nothing less than a master class in short-form storytelling. Taking the form of 22 vignettes about an ethnic and religious group living in a Russian republic east of Moscow, this film is not only beautifully shot, but manages to tell a series of fascinating stories that each deliver a clear beginning, middle, and end – even if you sometimes have to dive deeply into the subtext to find it. This film is alternately funny, touching, and bizarre – and at all times, it remains exhilarating.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Review: “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” (dir. Aleksey Fedorchenko)

#6: Her

Poster for "Her"

Written and directed by Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze‘s Her features a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson). And I must say, when one of Samantha’s first lines is telling the film’s depressed, antisocial protagonist to “maybe try and get out of bed?”, I was quite nervous that I was about to see Manic Pixie Dream Bot: The Movie. But what the film delivers instead is an impressively mature take on romance. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, the film explores romance through the lens of the failed relationship, between Theodore and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). But unlike that film, the relationship merely feels like a backdrop to the well-realized sci-fi love story on display here. And the sci-fi world itself is an equally impressive backdrop. The visual effects (which mostly consist of greatly increasing the number of skyscrapers in Los Angeles) are subtle and well-rendered, and what’s more, the science fiction elements left me walking out of the film asking all kinds of questions about how this world operates. And these were the good kinds of questions – the ones that are provoked by a sci-fi world that feels so lived in that I assume that each of my questions has an answer. And by the end, many of these questions are about the nature of Samantha herself, as well as her relationship with Theodore. This is an always-on girlfriend, who will immediately answer the phone and start a conversation whenever you want – and as such, it would be easy to assume that she has no inner life of her own. But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Samantha’s inner life is far more elaborate than is immediately apparent. The film’s most impressive theme regarding artificial intelligence is that any entity that is designed to replicate human emotion will be unlikely to end up a perfect match in capability to actual human beings. When an artificial being fails to quite measure up to a human being, we refer to this disparity informally as the Uncanny Valley. But when such a being measures up to the capabilities of a human and then some, what do we call that disparity?

Apparently, we call it romance – and certainly one of the most fascinating ones of the year.

#5: The World’s End

Poster for "The World's End"

Directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg

I saw The World’s End in close proximity to Neill Blomkamp‘s Elysium, and was quite surprised when the former turned out to be the better sci-fi action film. Ostensibly, this is a film about five middle-aged men coming back together to go on a 12-pint pub crawl in their hometown, but coming as it does from the creators of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there are some genre trappings at work in this film that are not immediately apparent. But what makes this movie work so well is not just the well-rendered frenetic action, but the solid, character-driven comedy at the center of it. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is an immature and infectious partygoer bordering on the sort of serious self-destruction that is rarely seen in comedy (much the same as Russell Brand’s character in Get Him to the Greek), and Andy (Nick Frost) is the straight man and former childhood friend who wants absolutely nothing to do with him. This reversal of the Pegg and Frost dynamic from the rest of the Cornetto trilogy works rather well, particularly with regard to Frost, whose surly demeanor becomes more and more justified as the history between these two characters is made clear. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan round out the cast, and it is one of the film’s great strengths that each of these characters (even the latter two, who are definitely the least prominent) have well-established roles, desires, and history within the group. Indeed, the history between the members of this group – particularly Pegg and Frost’s characters, weighs heavily on the proceedings at all times. In much the same way as Shaun of the Dead, this film is a farcical sci-fi comedy that manages to make its characters matter – both to each other and to the audience.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#4: Stories We Tell

Still from "Stories We Tell"

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, with narration by Michael Polley

Actress and writer/director Sarah Polley is no stranger to putting personal stories on film (2011’s Take This Waltz had some undeniable connections to her personal life), but this documentary definitely takes it to a new level, turning the cameras upon Polley herself, as well as her family and friends. The mystery of Diane Polley (Sarah’s deceased mother) is at the core of this film – and believe me, it’s a doozy. With this woman dead and gone, all that her loved ones have left are their own memories and perspectives – and the narratives that they construct from them. If this sounds boring and navel-gazing, the film demonstrates an impressive degree of self-awareness about that expectation. It never insists that anyone outside of the Polley family will find this personal story interesting (in fact, several members of the family explicitly question this), but the fact is – the story is interesting, as are the family members themselves. Of particular interest is Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, who is a riveting on-screen presence, and alternates between reading a prepared third-person account of his life experience, and reacting (in an on-camera interview) to the very same events as they appear on-screen through archive footage. Structurally speaking, this is one of the most complex documentaries I’ve ever seen, but it never once feels gimmicky, or fails to maintain interest. In the end, the film is all about the evolving personal narratives that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our lives – despite our faulty memories and incomplete facts.

Since I haven’t seen this film since May, rather than trusting my memory any further, I’ll just defer to the story I told about it at the time:

This film is nothing short of a masterpiece – hilarious and heartfelt, and brilliantly blurring the lines between documentary and reenactment. It is an act of courage and personal conviction, delivered with an admirable measure of humility.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “We Steal Secrets”, “Stories We Tell”

#3: Mud

Poster for "Mud"

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a coming-of-age adventure story featuring a pair of Arkansas boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who discover a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in a fishing boat stranded on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Following some drama with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud is in hiding, and the boys gradually begin to help him – both to try and make contact with his lady love, and to escape.

It’s a curious footnote that actor Michael Shannon, who plays a small part in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle and legal guardian, was only present for a few days of filming due to his commitment to play the villainous General Zod in Man of Steel. If we’re speaking purely in terms of scale, the latter film certainly has more at stake, with all of the main characters, Metropolis, and indeed, the entire planet, under threat of destruction. And yet, in Mud, wherein ostensibly only the life of the title character is at risk, the stakes feel not only higher, but ultimately more substantial.

If this were simply about saving the life of one character (and one who strains the audience’s sympathy over the course of the film), perhaps it might not seem so important. But what makes Mud feel so weighty is that it is a heartfelt and honest story about romance. What’s at stake are the future romantic notions of the film’s young lead, Ellis, who is in the process of learning a series of dubious lessons in love. Ellis still believes in true love, but if Mud and Juniper (or his divorcing parents) are the best examples of romance that he can muster, his innocence in this regard might just be ruined. Sheridan’s performance certainly carries the emotional weight of the film, even as McConaughey continues his trajectory over the past few years toward becoming one of the best working actors today. This is a stunning adventure film with a fantastic musical score (from previous Nichols collaborator David Wingo), and is chock full of solid performances – both from the actors I’ve mentioned, as well as supporting players such as Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Sam Shepard.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#2: 12 Years a Slave

Poster for "12 Years a Slave"

Directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup

This film is essential viewing, plain and simple. It offers a critical understanding of an important period in American history, and does so through the lens of a man who was kidnapped into slavery during a time when the only thing that separated a free black man from a slave was a piece of paper – and one that could be snatched away as easily as that person’s life. As is typical for director Steve McQueen, this film looks gorgeous (even in its depiction of disturbing subject matter). And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender each deliver incredible, career-defining performances.

Beyond that, I’ll defer to our podcast discussion below, and admit that this would probably be swapped with my #1 selection below if not for the fact that I likely will not want to see it again nearly as much. This is essential viewing, and with the exception of a minor gripe about Hans Zimmer‘s score, I consider it an absolute masterpiece. And yet, like Schindler’s List before it, it’s not likely to be a film I’ll want to revisit too often.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #38 – “12 Years a Slave” (dir. Steve McQueen)

#1: Gravity

Poster for "Gravity"

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

The opening title card of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity announces, in no uncertain terms, that life in space is impossible. And as hard as that is to believe in the glorious age of information and space exploration in which we live, the film does a marvelous job at conveying just how much we might be kidding ourselves with all this manned space travel nonsense. And yet this film, featuring a simple and small-scale story of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) dealing with a crisis in orbit, nonetheless feels huge, significant, and ultimately optimistic. It is a modern day epic myth, full of larger-than-life figures riding chariots in the sky – and also one of the finest hard science fiction films ever made.

Read my full review here:
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” – Life in space

Honorable Mentions:

  • Captain Phillips (directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on an article by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty)
  • Blue Jasmine (written and directed by Woody Allen)
  • Don Jon (written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
  • American Hustle (directed by David O. Russell, screenplay by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer)
  • Blue is the Warmest Color (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, screenplay by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the comic book by Julie Maroh)
  • Dallas Buyers Club (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack)
  • The Kings of Summer (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, written by Chris Galletta)
  • Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce, based on Marvel comics by a characteristically large number of people)
  • Fast & Furious 6 (directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters by Gary Scott Thompson)
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (written and directed by Alex Gibney)
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SIFF Review: “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” (dir. Aleksey Fedorchenko)

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

Warning: As has become SIFF tradition, this review was typed and posted after midnight. The copy-editing and coherence may be a bit more lax than usual.

The Mari are an ethnic and religious group living primarily in a Russian republic 700 kilometers east of Moscow. And prior to learning of this movie, I had no idea they existed. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari could be seen as little more than a series of disconnected vignettes, but I found it to be a master class in short-form storytelling. The film uses the lens of 22 women, all of whose names begin with the letter “O” (and please don’t quiz me on them – even with 2 years of Russian under my belt, these names were utterly unfamiliar to me) to explore the customs, culture, attitudes, cuisine, and pastimes of the Meadow Mari. And did I mention that the Mari worship trees? Animism, paganism, naturism… There are elements of all sorts of nature-imbued faiths at work here, and a healthy measure of mystery, sorcery, gods, and demons. And did I mention this is not a documentary? Each of these stories is a work of fiction.

And it is in its treatment of fiction that the film absolutely shines. There is a quote, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that is allegedly the shortest novel ever written: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. This is the sort of densely poignant short-form storytelling that the film embraces. While the stories vary in length from around 2-7 minutes, some of the shorter ones are also some of the most powerful. In one segment, a bride and her friends are bathing in a creek on the eve of her wedding. At the top of the overlooking ravine, a lone girl leans against a guard rail – fully clothed, and whistling with a leaf. As the merry, naked romp continues down below, the groom-to-be approaches the guard rail from off-screen. He attempts to touch the hand of the odd girl out, and she responds with a simple “Don’t”, and resumes her whistling. Each of these stories has a beginning, middle, and end – even if we don’t see all of the pieces on-screen. This is not to say that I found the film completely coherent – there were a great many inexplicable moments and eccentricities that I couldn’t explain, due to my complete lack of knowledge of this entire people. And yet, there was never a moment that I found myself doubting that there was a reason for everything I was seeing on-screen – which had the effect of keeping me completely engaged throughout the film.

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

While we’re on the subject of films that take place in Russia, the filmmakers of A Good Day to Die Hard should pay particular attention to this point: if I can’t explain why any of the characters are doing what they’re doing for the majority of your film, it’s a huge potential problem. But Celestial Wives presents the perfect solution – an ensemble cast of characters who always know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and do a magnificent job of conveying that certainty to the audience. The Mari women are strong and powerful creatures, and they take center stage in this film. Their primary ambition is marriage and family, and yet it is clear that they sit in a position of particular power and reverence in this community. And what’s more, they are incredibly sex-positive and open in discussing their sexuality, which leads to a multitude of interesting moments. The film mingles desire and seduction with the group’s nature-focused religion (and sorcery) in ways that are alternately poignant, hilarious, disturbing, and at all times incredibly invigorating. One segment, in which a group of young women perform a ritual (seemingly) to both honor the dead and ensure that they find good husbands, they are interrupted by a group of…well, they appear to be young men…who slap a pig hock onto the table and say, without preamble, “Let’s play hoof.” I won’t say what “hoof” entails, but suffice to say, it is one of the most bizarre and hilarious sequences I have ever seen put to film.

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

How can I possibly discuss this film further? Since each of these segments tells a complete story that is nonetheless a part of a coherent whole, I find myself unable to even discuss my favorite segments without entirely spoiling them. To put it simply, this film is exhilarating – and prone to moments of staggering poignancy. While there were certainly some segments that I enjoyed more than others, there was not a single one that I found boring. The film’s open approach to sexuality raises a myriad of fascinating questions over the course of the film’s runtime, to say nothing of the role of this culture that has somehow managed to remain a band apart (culturally and religiously) for so many centuries despite being surrounded at all times by conflicting ideologies. And I know you. You might be bringing a few of those ideologies to the table yourself. You might not be eager to check out a film with not one, not two, but 22 strong female characters. But that’s okay. Well, it’s really not okay… But I can assure you that the cast also includes the fine, upstanding gentlemen below.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"