Sunday, February 24, 2013


Although my ability to blog longer reviews throughout the year has flagged a bit, I still continue to see as many films as ever.  (Check my blog regularly to follow my sidebar of films'I've seen for short reviews on most films, which I also post on my facebook page.)  This year's top ten list gives a brief take on each of the films; my hope is to post some longer reactions to them in the coming weeks.  You'll find some familiar names (seven of these have received some kind of Oscar recognition) but three of them have been largely overlooked by mainstream sources.  You'll find four documentaries and two French language films.  These are the very best films I saw this year--I hope you find some that catch your fancy!

1.  BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (10) imparts a vision of ultimate truth that crackles with urgency, courage, and originality. Without idealizing them, the poor and disenfranchised are portrayed with dignity and reverence for their role in the universe. In this world, a child receives gifts of love from a neglectful father far more precious than what many children (myself included) have received from more outwardly acceptable parents; real women who exist beyond fashion are depicted with genuine respect for their wisdom and beauty; and a fierce little black girl absorbs and speaks ultimate truth. It's a work of art.  [Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment, some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality; on at least 52 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and deserves Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actress, and best adapted screenplay; still playing in second-run theaters and worth seeing on the big screen.]

2.  MONSIEUR LAZHAR (10) received a lot of Canadian film awards and an Oscar nomination last year for best foreign language film, though its theatrical release in most American cities occurred long after Oscar time. The story involves an Algerian refugee to Montreal who is hired to take over a sixth grade class after the beloved teacher commits suicide. It is an extraordinarily nuanced and perceptive study in how careless we often are in our judgments and how studiously we avoid addressing the whole truth. Watching this good man show his students the way through their suffering is deeply inspiring. [In English, French, and Arabic; rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, a disturbing image, and brief language; on at least one other critic's top ten list; nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 for best foreign language film; available on DVD.]

3.  DJANGO UNCHAINED (10) breaks ground in some significant ways: it depicts the brutality of American slavery in a way that we really haven't seen in American popular media; it gives us the catharsis of a black hero; and, in asking the question (stated ironically by a slaveholder) why the black slaves don't simply rise up and kill the whites and devising a freedman superhero to do just that, the film also demonstrates the real answer to the question--that is, the system of oppression ensured that an uprising was not possible. Yes, Tarentino loves spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films and packs his films with great dialogue and reverential nods to film history--but he is also doing something profound with this film. I left quite sobered, in just the right ways--and I was blown away by the thought that he found a way to get a bunch of Americans to spend nearly three hours looking at aspects of our relatively recent past that we have been refusing to face for a long time.  I think Tarentino deserves a lot more credit here than he is getting. [Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language, and some nudity; on at least 35 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best actor in a supporting role (Christoph Waltz, who deserves to win), best sound editing, and best original screenplay (which it deserves to win), and should have received a nomination for best director; still playing in theaters.]

4.  LINCOLN (10) imparts a master class in Civil War history and, like "Django Unchained" (but using entirely different methods) alters the cultural conversation about our racist history in some significant ways.  I can't think of a dramatization of the political process that conveys with more nuance just how messy and complicated it is to get anything done, nor could one hope for a depiction of the great president (his personality, his relationships, and his politics) that is more nuanced, compelling, and appropriately complex.  Everything works--but particularly, Daniel Day-Lewis's phenomenal performance, Tony Kushner's wise screenplay, a production design that is more faithful to the period than anything I can remember, and Steven Spielberg displaying admirable restraint and none of his characteristic excess.  Bravo! [Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language; on at least 58 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best film editing, and best sound mixing; nominated for, and deserves, Academy Awards for best actor, best cinematography, best costume design, best original score, and best production design; still playing in theaters.]

5.  SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (10) deserves to win the Oscar for best documentary feature in a strong field of nominees.  It's the thoroughly inspiring story of Rodriguez, a Mexican American musician who recorded two brilliant folk rock albums in the early 1970s and then disappeared into obscurity when they didn't find commercial success, unaware that he went on to literally become a rock star in South Africa. The true story of how Rodriguez learned of all this decades later is far stranger than fiction, not least because he turns out to be a heroic person, a living example of how light overcomes darkness. Though he was exploited and forgotten here in the U.S., the beauty and truth of his music inspired resistance to apartheid and oppression while he lived a life of simplicity and quiet integrity. And the music is phenomenal.  [Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references; on at least four other critics' top ten lists; nominated for and should win an Academy Award for best documentary feature; still playing in second-run theaters. ]

6.  THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (10) ought to be required viewing, especially for those of us involved in the legal system. Co-directed by Ken Burns, it very carefully unpacks the story of how five black and Hispanic teenage boys ended up being wrongfully convicted (in the press and in court) of brutally raping a white woman jogger based solely on coerced confessions. It is hard to sit through but offers extremely important insights into our criminal justice system, how human beings work, and race in America. Attention must be paid.  [On at least one other critic's top ten list; DVD release expected in April.]

7.  THE HOUSE I LIVE IN (10) won the grand jury prize for documentary at Sundance but, as far as I know has not received much of a theatrical release. an astoundingly comprehensive look at the so-called "war on drugs," including the perspectives of police officers, corrections officers, journalists, historians, a federal judge, drug dealers, and people charged with or convicted of drug offenses. What emerges is a solid case that the resources spent on investigating and prosecuting drug offenses and housing those convicted disproportionately affects minorities and the poor and has resulted in no appreciable progress in reducing the use of illegal drugs. Some of the most insightful speakers include such unlikely sources as a prison guard who loves his job but astutely questions drug sentencing policies and a Lincoln scholar who connects societal attitude changes regarding certain substances (heroin, cocaine, marijuana) to xenophobia directed at various immigrant groups. David Simon, the genius behind "The Wire," weighs in cogently as well. Impressively marshalling huge quantities of information into a compelling and cohesive narrative, director Eugene Jarecki has produced a definitive and helpful analysis of a national problem that has the potential to raise the level of the national conversation about drug policy. [On at least one other critic's top ten list; available for online viewing at and hopefully will have a DVD release.]

8.  AMOUR (9.5) is a profound film about how a well-to-do elderly couple copes with her physical and mental decline. It depicts love, not infatuation or obsession or sex--and it unsparingly depicts aging and death in all their relentlessness, without platitudes or clichés. In these ways, it rises above most other films about romance and about older folks; it is so observant and so unflinchingly truthful that it makes you wince--but it also shows (without undue explanation) what love really looks like.  [In English and French; rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language; on at least 57 other critics' top ten lists; nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actress (Emmanuelle Riva), and best original screenplay; nominated and should win for best foreign language film; still in theaters.]

9:  THE INVISIBLE WAR (9.5) --The work of director Kirby Dick (who also helmed "Outrage," about anti-gay politicians who are evidently gay), this film seeks to expose the institutional corruption that has made sexual assault within the U.S. military a rampant problem for decades, even while military leaders have claimed "zero tolerance." All of the statistics in the film are from the government itself, but the filmmakers had to hire a statistician to sort through them because they are reported in a deliberately opaque manner--and what we learn is that an astounding 20% of females in the military have reported assault, and 80% of victims don't report the crimes against them--and it's no wonder because those who do end up being assaulted again by the system. Almost all of them end up being either involuntarily discharged (often after having their trauma diagnosed as a personality disorder or having been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer or adultery, though it is usually the assailants who are married) while their assailants suffer no more than a slap on the wrist; fewer than 10% are ever criminally charged and almost never with a felony. One of the most obvious problems is that these incidents are all handled through military justice system (so-called), which creates a quite-obvious conflict of interest for those charged with responding to complaints. Indeed, in an estimated 25% of cases, the assailant is the person to whom the victim is supposed to report and, in another 30% of cases, the victim is supposed to report to a friend of the assailant. What I really admire about this film is how smart it is; the filmmakers proceeded with an awareness of how intractable these problems are and anticipated the military's response. They interviewed hundreds of victims and, though they focus on a few stories, those stories are presented in a way that makes clear that these few represent hundreds of thousands of others. Lots of insiders speak as well, and there is lots of footage of military brass claiming to have taken care of the problem (just as has happened since this film was released). Some of the most moving footage is of male family members of the victims, who decided to speak on camera at the risk of their own military careers. All in all, it's a brilliant expose' of institutional oppression and a calculated move to dismantle it.   [On at least one other critic's top ten list; nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature; available on DVD.]

10. IN THE FAMILY (9) is long, but it rewards patience and surpasses typical Hollywood fare in every respect. The work of a first-time writer-director, Patrick Wang, who is a stage actor and dramaturg, it is a plain-spoken, deliberate depiction of an Asian-American Tennessean (played by Wang) grappling with the aftermath of his partner's death and a custody fight over the boy they viewed as his son but the law doesn't. No shortcuts, no polemics, no manipulation; Wang understands the importance of everyday life and the power of telling the truth. The emotional pay-offs in the last hour of the film are all earned, and the story even includes a lawyer demonstrating how to be a true change-agent and a way to view the limits of the law with both realism and visionary imagination. I think I felt the earth move a little; you will too. [On at least three other critics' top ten lists; no DVD release yet but you can follow screenings at]

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