My Top Ten Films of 2013
(film comments by Mark R. Leeper)

Once again a year that seemed lackluster has rallied in the final month or so, though perhaps not so much as in previous years. Last year there was a better top range with films like LINCOLN, THE IMPOSSIBLE, ARGO, and LES MISERABLES. It is harder for me to be enthusiastic about the films in the top-rated range. This was just not a strong year for narrative films. On the other hand, documentaries seem very much to be coming to be a major part of film attraction. But here are the films I was most impressed with this year. I should note that this has been a tremendous year for one actor. Matthew McConaughey escaped the type-casting of the handsome lover in romantic comedies. I saw three roles in which he played really good character roles. Besides the two below, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and MUD) was perhaps his oddest role in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. He is an actor to watch for. I would say the same about Mads Mikkelsen, (A ROYAL AFFAIR and THE HUNT), but he is now very easy to find. He is the title psychopath in the NBC TV series HANNIBAL. I have not seen it and I doubt he has ever had good looks the way McConaughey does, but he is still an interesting actor. For me that is very important.

To save suspense, I will list them in the order of best to ... well ... good but not up to the best. And after the top ten I will include two honorable mention films.

This is the truly horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on his eyewitness account of his years of slavery, what he saw, and what he experienced. As one character puts it, "the story is amazing and in no good way." It is a powerful and important film, an unflinching look at some of (what we would hope is) the worst cruelty of human slavery in the Antebellum South. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

In a small town in Denmark a popular kindergarten teacher is accused of sexual misconduct with first one and later with many children. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen) struggles against a gossip-fed witch-hunt of hatred and prejudice that threatens to destroy his life. Thomas Vinterberg directs and co-authors a film that makes a very interesting companion piece to his THE CELEBRATION (1998). Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

3. 56 UP
Every seven years since he made 7 PLUS SEVEN in 1970, Michael Apted visits (essentially) the same set of people and documents how their lives have changed since the last film in the series. And since they were 7 years old in 1964. In this mammoth undertaking we reacquaint ourselves with the fourteen (now 13) people and get a status report of their development and see how their attitudes early in life may have shaped them. This year they are all 56 years old. The films lie somewhere in the gulf between valuable scientific study and several parallel soap operas. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10

An oddly surreal documentary made by a film crew largely working anonymously. The camera focuses on a major executioner from the 1965 killings following the military coup in Indonesia. To get him and some of his friends to be truthful the company films them re-enacting their murders in the style of American gangster films and lavish musicals, claiming to film them for a movie. The killers apparently have never given much thought to regretting their actions. Joshua Oppenheimer, Crystine Cynn, and a third person unnamed directed this film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

This Danish film covers some of the same territory as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, but in most ways this is the superior film. A cargo ship is captured by Somali pirates. But the emphasis of the film is not on the conflict between the crew and the pirates. An executive of the shipping company Peter Ludvigsen (played by Soren Malling) chooses to negotiate for the company himself in spite of the advice of a hired advisor. That condemns him to the stress of a months-long negotiation. The emphasis is much more on the bartering and bargaining with the pirates. We see the story of each side. This is not an action film. Violence is kept off-screen and primarily is inflicted on a goat. (Well, the Somalis had to bring more food on board and their most portable food source is goats.) Unlike the Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILIPS the bargaining process drags on for long months. While various people have misunderstandings of each other, we are privy to motives that are not clear to the characters involved. And because film makes the process understandable for the viewer the film reminds one of the excellent MARGIN CALL (2011). Most of the A HIJACKING is in Danish, but all negotiations are held in English, which helps a lot. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Matthew McConaughey dropped a lot of weight as well as his romantic image to play Ron Woodroof. Woodroof was big into cocaine and sex and (in the film) rodeo until in 1985 he was diagnosed with AIDS. He was given one month to live. The FDA-approved treatment was worse than useless so Ron set up an international network to buy in mass anti-viral drugs unapproved by the FDA. With McConaughey's role in MUD followed by this role McConaughey clearly transforms himself from heartthrob to serious actor. Jean-Marc Vallee directs a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Alexander Payne gives us a sad, low-key comedy/drama filmed in black and white. David already knew his father Woody (Bruce Dern) was moving into old-age dementia, but now Woody has gotten a publisher's ad claiming he has won a million dollars and he is convinced he can claim the money if he can present the ad in Lincoln, Nebraska. David agrees to have one last adventure with his father, taking Woody from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on a fool's errand that he knows can only end in disappointment. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Robert Redford is traveling a long distance alone in a sailboat when mid-Indian-Ocean he hits a shipping bin fallen from a container ship. He knows enough sea craft to avoid drowning for eight days, but it is a battle that he loses hour by hour. Fewer than five sentences are spoken. The rest is just watching Redford doing whatever it takes and finding sometime ingenious solutions to problems nearly impossible problems cropping up. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

This science fiction indie does just about everything right. This is an account of a privately funded space mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. From the beginning we know that Europa One never returned to Earth and the film after the fact tells the story of what happened. The visuals are just about right and the dialog is very believable. Sebastian Cordero directs a screenplay by Philip Gelatt. The film makes a good companion piece to the recent GRAVITY and some scenes are quite similar. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

10. MUD
Jeff Nichols writes and directs a deliberate, well-textured film set in Arkansas river country. Two boys get involved helping a fugitive hiding out on a Mississippi River island and trying to collect his girl friend. Arkansas-born Nichols knows the rhythms of the South and the feel of the country and the people. The languorous setting might capture the viewer by itself if not for the strong performances set into it. Matthew McConaughey's gristly performance stands above the atmosphere. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Honorable Mention

Sex, drugs, the most beautiful women money can buy, expensive cars, and yachts make up the world of stock scammer Jordan Belfort. There are echoes of GOODFELLAS in Martin Scorsese's portrait of Belfort based on Belfort's own memoir. At three hours in length the film shows enough sex and drug parties that they become repetitive and for some will be unwelcome. But the film almost seems to admire the man called "the world's greatest salesman" and other titles less charitable. The film sports more humor than any Scorsese film since AFTER HOURS. The most serious problem is that the nature of Belfort's crimes afford very little visual depiction. We have to take the story's word that what Belfort did was very, very bad and forget that it looks like fun. Scorsese shows us no victim of Belfort's crimes but Belfort himself and he gets little more than a slap on the wrist from the law. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

As a piece of intelligent science fiction J. J. Abrams's new STAR TREK film is only middling, but as an action film it is really quite good. It has some arresting images, some very engaging character development, and perhaps two or three too many explosive action scenes. A saboteur apparently within the Starfleet Command is bent on destroying it. Captain Kirk, dishonored for his handling of a previous space mission, nonetheless has the Enterprise restored to him to sneak into Klingon territory and capture the culprit. Don't like the plotline? Wait ten minutes and the story will have transformed into something else. This film has a complex plot that manages to balance character writing with slam-bang action sequences and great acting by the intriguing Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh, and as a "Star Trek" series film INTO DARKNESS ranks among the very best. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2014 Mark R. Leeper