For movie lovers and movie critics, the end of the year brings an avalanche of "best of" lists to analyze, pick apart, and argue over. Here at CT Movies, knowing that every critic and every movie lover brings different tastes, interests, and perspectives to the table, we've decided to take a different approach.
Each of our regular critics came up with a list of "best" films in categories of their own choosing, and we'll be running them over the next week. These aren't necessarily the year's best films, nor even the best movies these critics saw all year—just a sampling of the riches of 2013. We hope you'll find something to love.
Best Movie about Breaking the Family Curse
Writer-director Tommy Oliver told audiences at the Toronto Film Festival that the portrait of drug addict Shenae Brown was drawn from his own family experience. The steadfast Tim Brown (masterfully played by Hill Harper), conversely, was a conglomerate—a projection of the person he wished had been there to try to protect a child from a too-soon exposure to the problems of the adult world. Because of its Philadelphia setting, 1982 may get labeled or marketed as a "black" film. That would be a shame: family transcends all racial and socioeconomic boundaries, and the attempt to change the trajectory of a family is a narrative conflict that should be universally understood. See also: Saving Mr. Banks; Running from Crazy.
Best "Feel Good" Movie
Despicable Me 2
(Rated PG for rude humor and mild action)
This has been a great year for quality films, but the "feel good" movie has been conspicuously absent from most Top Ten lists, and for good reason. I asked for examples of quality "feel good" movies on social media and the replies I received from cinephile friends were either reaches (At the World's End) or flawed (Enough Said). Summer has been taken over by explosions and violent spectacle. Happy endings, even in traditional family fare (Frozen) must be tinged with loss or melancholy. Is Despicable Me 2 one of the ten best films of the year? No. But it is filled with people who love each and who take joy from that love. It is uncomplicated, entertaining, and happy.
Dallas Buyers Club
(Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use)
Film critics are a jaded bunch. Having been subjected to frequent doses of media manipulation, we tend to develop a suspicious (or even hostile) attitude towards any plays on our emotions. Movies that try to milk tears are spoken of in cold, legal terms. Did they earn their emotion? Those that succeed are resented for penetrating the iron armor. Yet humans are emotional as well as rational creatures, and our emotional responses—our laughter, anger, and tears—are the loudest external sign that a work of art is working.
Of the scores of films I screened this year, Dallas Buyers Club was the only one that made me cry. Other critical responses have been more measured, and critics appear content to categorize it as a performance piece, singling out Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for stellar work. More than a period piece about the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Club is archetypal. Anyone, gay or straight, Christian or atheist, who has watched a loved one rage against the dying of the light will probably feel the film's emotional pull. What finally pushed me over the edge was a concluding scene that reminded us of the importance of having dreams to pursue. Life must be something more than holding death at bay for another day. It's what we do with each precious second that makes the day worth redeeming.
See also: 12 Years a Slave.
Running From Crazy
I love documentaries, but I know most people will only see one or two in a year, if that. (Quick: what won the Academy Award for Best Documentary last year? Answer: Searching for Sugar Man.) This year's documentary love has been split between Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, with Blackfish making a late run. Almost no honors have been paid to Barbara Kopple's Running From Crazy. Perhaps because of its affiliation with the Oprah Winfrey Network and the fact that it is not particularly experimental in its narrative approach, it has been the more easily dismissed at television fare.
I admit I have a preference for Crazy in part because it strikes me as more hopeful than most documentaries, but I also think Kopple's craftsmanship is underrated. She's not intrusive when subject Mariel Hemingway gives the film's most outwardly explosive reveal, and the way she overlays home movie footage with the actress' memories is at times so seamless that we forget it is constructed. Such is the way with great artists; their skill makes us mistake ease for easiness. At the end of the day, though, it is Hemingway's perseverance, compassion, and quiet strength that make the strongest impression. My admiration for her grew steadily long after my shock and disgust at the subjects of Act of Killing or Blackfish subsided.
See also: Far Out Isn't Far Enough; Good Ol' Freda; Muscle Shoals.
Best Movie Hinging on Prayer
(Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)
The term "Christian," when applied to movies, has increasingly come to mean "evangelistic": movies made to proclaim and spread the faith. As such, the representation of Christians and Christianity has become more and more sub-textual in mainstream films. Christian critics pounce on any example of sacrifice as betokening a "Christ figure," and artists tend to limit markers of a characters' faith to visual cues (such as a cross necklace).
Occasionally, though, a film finds the sweet spot between preaching and hinting, and it is able to integrate a character's beliefs into a narrative that is about something other than describing those beliefs. We may question whether Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) shares quite the same Christian beliefs that we do, but there is no question that the film is about a man responding to his core beliefs being challenged in the most painful way. Prisoners begins and climaxes with prayer. There are no altar calls, but this is a "Christian" movie in the sense that it seeks to examine—and perhaps enlarge—our understanding of what it means to be Christian in a fallen world. Are we committed to the beliefs we proclaim, the words we speak? Do we even understand their meaning? (Brett McCracken's review for CT.)
One Film I Wish Everyone Would See
12 Years a Slave
(Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)
Film is visual. Film is narrative. But at its very best, film is immersive. We lose ourselves in the experience. We identify with what we see. As Sidney and Shelley both argued centuries apart in their defenses of art, good art strengthens our morals by strengthening our imaginations. That imagination is at the core of our ability to love our neighbors, for how can we love that which we cannot identify with, cannot imagine, cannot understand? Steve McQueen's film has engendered arguments about its historicity, but I found those irrelevant. 12 Years a Slave is a film that invokes in us something more than sympathy. It invokes a glimmer, a shadow, a sidewise glance at understanding. And when we understand we do more than sympathize. We empathize. We share. We walk alongside. (Ken's review for CT.)
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog. You can see his list of the top 10 movies of 2013 here.