15. Mother of George: Unorthodox filmmaking is growing more and more and Nigerian filmmaker, Andrew Dosunmu presents one of the most stunning unorthodox indie films this year. The film is an emotionally penetrating story of a young newly married Nigerian couple trying to bring a new life into the world in New York. When it is realized that the wife, Adenike cannot easily bare a child, she is faced with a devastating problem that might force her to make a shocking decision. As such with society, the burden is mostly put upon the woman and it is only exacerbated when Adenike is pressured for a grandchild by her husband’s mother. This nuanced and colorful exploration of the limits one is willing to go to for love and family has some of the most realized characters onscreen this year, especially for black characters. Danai Gurira gives a truly bravura performance that isn’t being talked about, but definitely should. There is an imaginative texture to the film which discovers Yoruba culture right from the first note of the wedding music that opens the film. The aesthetic inspiration is plucked directly from the cradle of humanity that is Africa. Dosunmu has made something quite human, quite compelling and quite special.
14. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Elevated by a better sense of momentum and some great character developments and dynamics, the middle chapter to Peter Jackson’s trilogy captures the magic of Middle Earth more sharply than the first. In a year with a tragic shortage of fantastical blockbusters, this film takes the cake as the best and it’s not hard to see why. The adventure becomes more pressing and poignant, with storylines coming together that add strong resonance. Our main protagonist, Bilbo Baggins is mostly left in the periphery while we spend time developing other characters and it proves rewarding. There are some astonishing sequences here as well, from a gleefully thrilling barrel escape from the Elves to meeting the great and arrogant fire serpent, Smaug. The relationship dynamics make an intriguing shift due to some new narratives. We bring the Elves in for some of the fun and thrills too. Keep an eye on the glorious she-elf, Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly who is a highlight. The anticipated return of Orlando Bloom as Legolas is a crowd-pleaser for sure and he’s up to his old acrobatic, arrow-dynamic tricks. Once again proving to be one of the best fantasy franchises ever, Peter Jackson brings J.R.R Tolkien’s world to life and it is a very fun journey (albeit a darker one) that does everything right. This imperative middle installment is the fiery captivating buildup to the final epic chapter.
13. The Hunt: “There’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.”--William James. The best film about the nature of misunderstood moments and persecution has finally arrived and it is one hell of a harrowing experience. Mads Mikkelsen stars in the year’s most frustrating and heartbreaking film. A film that unflinchingly explores the consequences of a very serious misinterpretation. Lucas, a former school teacher finds himself accused of sexual misconduct with a minor when an untruthful remark throws his small community into a collective state of hysteria. The tragedy of the situation is irreversible and the (supposed) crime of that nature stains a man’s name forever. Lucas is forced to fight a lonely battle to maintain his life and dignity. Director Thomas Vinterberg conveys a brutal story that is exceptionally hard to watch, but is so vividly sinister and maddening that the train wreck happening before the viewer’s eyes is truly a riveting hunt down that should be seen and considered. Altogether thought-provoking and asking all the hard questions, it can be a little overwhelming at some points as the injustices our protagonist must face are truly devastating and it’s one miserable yet mesmerizing ride.
12. Short Term 12: It’s just a really sweet movie that still makes me feel warm and teary-eyed just thinking about it! All eyes are on neglected youth in this empathetic and authentic film about a twentysomething young woman named Grace who passionately works as a supervisor at a home for at-risk teens. Everyone should be talking about Brie Larson’s impressive breakout performance. The praise would not unwarranted. She largely carries the film as a protagonist with some dark secrets of her own yet makes numerous self-sacrifices along with her young colleagues to provide a safe and comfortable place for the kids they all look after. It is definitely one of the more demanding roles Larson has portrayed and she does it well; displaying Grace’s vulnerability, strengths and all. There is genuine insight and endearing originality in this look into troubled young lives; from quiet, powerful moments to the few small uproarious victories. The film doesn’t coax the viewer into caring about these kids and the kids that look after them, it just observes, which is enough to make one fall in love with them. Resulting in the year’s most rewarding piece of heartwarming artwork, full to the brim with constant bittersweet overtones. There is undoubtedly a lot to love and discuss about this very special little indie drama. One that should not remain underrated!
11. The Past: Academy-award winning director Asghar Farhadi returns with another complicated story, more complex characters and an even more skilled eye and ear for drama. The story follows an Iranian man reuniting with his estranged wife in Paris to finalize their divorce which is complicated by a surprising revelation by the wife’s daughter from a previous marriage. Some critics have called the film “hypnotically compelling” and that is right on the money. Everything about the film is meticulously woven and unfolds unlike any other conventional or domestic drama. Ever the conscious storyteller, Farhadi takes his sweet time identifying and developing characters and their relationship dynamics and even surprising with some revelations that confidently walk the thin line between overstatement and realistic credibility. The story being told here is more compelling and fascinating than one might expect, which is the same case with the director‘s previous drama film, “A Separation”. And again there are some terrific breakout performances that deserve to be noted, especially from Bérénice Bejo. Emotional narrative layers unravel resulting in a reeling conclusion. Farhadi has made another drama masterpiece.
10. Inside Llewyn Davis: Artistic integrity means everything and nothing all at the same time. One might argue that artists are heavy on feeling, tone and melody rather than meticulous plot. That can be said for the Coen brothers’ latest and possibly greatest since “No Country For Old Men”. The film follows a week in the life of the titular Llewyn Davis, a young folk singer navigating the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene while attempting to maintain that aforementioned sense of artistic integrity. Easier said than done. The film’s aesthetic is strange and at most times bleak, as is the search for artistic musical freedom. Throughout Llewyn’s journey, he doesn’t make himself the most likeable protagonist, but the viewer no doubt becomes more involved by Llewyn's many candors. Not to mention some fantastic folk tunes that express and attempt to arouse both the film’s world and the viewer’s. Yes, there was a time when folk music was cool--and hell, it still is. Oscar Isaac gives a soulful performance; this is the artistic struggle of a self-destructing man. Seemingly unattainable desires echo with excruciating truth all the way to the film’s end, making sure that the audience can walk away from this one appreciative of the journey they embarked on with Mr. Davis and his guitar.
9. Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen returns to America in his latest. Set mostly in San Francisco and in the Hamptons of New York, we basically watch Cate Blanchett’s character, Jasmine, go through a riveting, slow-boiling nervous breakdown after her glamorous life gets turned on upside down. That’s the main focus of the story. From first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly compelling about the plot, but the complexities come through thanks to one of Blanchett’s best performances. This isn’t a crowd-pleasing film--there is a creeping bitterness and emotional perversity that some critics have insisted that Woody has spun into some Tennessee Williams territory. Cruel is a good descriptor for Woody's latest, but twisted and clever. This is more than a mere brooding character study, it is a sophisticated drama about an otherwise pitiful, yet somehow sympathetic woman who finds her life enduring a major change. This is one of the finer character studies of the past year--Jasmine's state of mind makes for some excruciatingly horrible decisions and even worse situations. This film seems to highlight the absurdity of human nature at its most fragile, its most blissfully hysterical and certainly its most delusional. Darkly humorous, surprisingly shattering, and occasionally jagged around the edges--this is no doubt another career best, both for Allen and Blanchett.
8. Blue Is the Warmest Color: The sheer rawness and honest emotional intensity is alone worth the ticket of admission. The film centers around a fifteen year old girl named Adele who is reaching adulthood and dreaming of a first love. Adele is suddenly thrown into a love unlike she has ever imagined when she meets a mysterious, blue-haired girl named Emma. As the two enter each other’s lives, their entanglement becomes more visceral and complicated following the love story which spans at least a decade. With certain controversies surrounding the film, some might turn a blind-eye to this exceptional story of raw passion and love. Actresses Seydoux and Exarchopoulos put their sweat, blood and tears in their performances--truly superb, making this coming-of-age lesbian drama something special--the film does a great job at visually and emotionally exploring the dangerous beauty of love and intimacy. Near three hours long, the story holds the viewers' interest throughout; you care about these two characters, their love and passion and what happens to them. There is a strength in vulnerability and this film is definitely one of the year’s strongest love stories all year.
7. The Great Beauty: “It‘s just a trick.” This epic Italian drama is the sensitive poet‘s “The Wolf of Wall Street”. There is a huge party going on in Rome and you’re missing it! But what’s left at the party’s end? The hangover is none too beautiful that's for sure. The film explores the life of journalist Jep Gambardella who has charmed his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades all since the legendary success of his one and only novel. During his sixty-fifth birthday, Jep finds himself taking stock of his life. He wants to find Rome’s great glory--its “Great Beauty”--something he's lost or maybe never had. Jep’s efforts send him all over the famous Italian city, observing the absurd, decadent and indulgent irreverence that he has plunged himself in for so many years now. The self-indulgence and superficiality has worn thin and the glamour has become dusty regret. Writer and director Paolo Sorrentino has created a contemporary epic drama-comedy full to the brim with some of the best visually stunning imagery all year. Some shots turn out so magnificent that one might wonder how the director even managed to get it and make it look that great. There is great beauty all over this film and the musical opening signifies that. Who knew existential odyssey could be so vividly startling…
6. Before Midnight: Richard Linklater tops the “Before” trilogy with his most simplistically spellbinding effort. Love--true love is not perfect, this we know. But does it last? Contemporary relationships have a way of fizzling, don’t they and making both partners question their perspectives on love, marriage and long-term relationships. That’s basically what this film is: an intriguing theorizing and casual discussion of relationships and what makes them work, what ends them or makes them a success and all of the inevitabilities that accompany them and more. I’m not sure how the script alone won’t win the Academy Award for best screenplay; the big fight scene in the Greek hotel alone is an honest work of contemporary art. Our couple, Jesse and Celine, have a life together now, something substantial--something one can call a loving family and marriage--but they are still two flawed and separate individuals. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are as charming, passionate and endearing as ever. Their honest communication is fascinating to watch, even when some of their ugly sides come to the surface. So much of this film, like its predecessors is talk--a lot of talking and discussing, yet it is never ever boring. It's "the" conversation sustained about the dangers of love and falling in love with someone that is enticing; transporting the viewer into the moment with natural tête-à-tête. The film no doubt raises the bar of the trilogy and possibly closes it on the most romantically ambiguous note.
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© Patrick Broadnax 2013