The Denver Film Critics Society (of which I'm a member) just unveiled their picks for the best movies/performances of 2013. Next week, Plugged In (which pays my bills) will announce its own picks for the "best" films of the year. No surprise that these two "best of" lists will look quite different. We Denver Film Critics judge films on artistry and quality, while we Plugged In reviewers are more concerned with a film's morality. Sure, American Hustle might be sharp and funny, but it's not the sort of thing folks would likely watch in small group.
To this miasma I add yet another list—a "best of" list for me. It doesn't set aside artistic quality, because I like good movies. It doesn't completely set aside my Plugged In hat, since I also like good movies (if you catch my drift). And it also, of course, reflects my own personal taste—how it made me feel. After all, watching movies, and even reviewing them, is an inherently subjective process. What we see and hear is not designed so much as to teach us as to move us—to laughter, to tears, to sheer terror. And what moves us differs greatly from person to person.
So with that said, here are 10 movies (in alphabetical order) that moved me this year.
12 Years a Slave: It's one of those movies that everyone should watch, even though you might never want to watch it again. 12 Years—based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sent to the pre-Civil War south—lays bare the evil of slavery, showing the scars of its victims and the corruption of its perpetrators. A raging Michael Fassbender is wickedly great as a tyrannical slave owner, using the Bible as justification for how he runs his plantation. Benedict Cumberbatch (who seems like he's in everything this year) exposes the lie of the "good" slave owner, who despite his best intentions feeds the diabolical system. "In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all," we hear. "The curse of the pharaohs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class." A fantastic, hard-to-watch classic.
August: Osage County: Think Grendel had a monstrous mother? The Beowulf creature doesn't have anything on Meryl Streep's Oklahoma beast, Violet Weston. Besieged by relatives after the suicide of Violet's long-suffering husband, Beverly, the drug-addled matriarch seems set on making everyone as miserable as she is—setting up a titanic clash of wills with her daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts). For Plugged In, I called this an Old Testament story of reaping the whirlwind—a tale in which lives are crushed and no one leaves Osage County without being bruised by the story's tornado. This is a dark, sometimes bitter comedy, but the performances—particularly by a gritty, angry Julia Roberts—are uniformly great.
Before Midnight: This is the third of a trio of movies filmed over 18 years—all directed by Richard Linklater and all starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The first two chronicled the curious romance of Jesse and Celine: The third finds the couple middle-aged and married now, but not happily so. Before Midnight is a delightful, painful cascade of dialogue showcasing a relationship falling apart. Batting eyelashes are replaced with terse retorts, languid kisses make room for long-held grievances. It's the most realistic picture I may have ever seen of an unraveling marriage and the frustrations that plague solid relationships from time to time. This is a movie that shows love—not the infatuation or romance or lust that movies sometimes mistake for love—as a darker, more complex thing, and wonders aloud whether it exists at all. But Before Midnight holds out a candle of possibility—a flicker of truth that Christians know particularly well: Sometimes, love can endure the darkest night. Sometimes it can be reborn.
The Conjuring: Almost every moment of this 2013 frightfest was a cliché. The old house, the possessions, the evil witch, the music boxes, the creepy puppets, the murdered dogs. None of that made The Conjuring any less terrifying. This flick creeped me out more than the two-year-old tomato I found in the back of the refrigerator (though the tomato and the demon Bathsheeba did look surprisingly similar). And if scares weren't enough, it was also an in-your-face exhortation to read your Bible—and read it right now before the monsters come. Sometimes, Christian-tinged movies give me nightmares for all the wrong sorts of reasons. But this one was meant to be scary.
Frozen: Oh, Disney, how I've missed you. For almost two decades, the Mouse House has played wallflower to sister studio Pixar—Sue Ellen O'Hara to Pixar's Scarlett. But Frozen may signal that the animation's grande dame may be ready for another turn on the dance floor. Sure, maybe this film isn't quite Beauty and the Beast. The music is more trendy than timeless, and I still the magic of 2-D animation. But the gags are funny, the story first-rate and the themes are simply wonderful. Back in the day, a Disney princess would need to be saved by a prince—perhaps with a tender kiss. This time 'round, it's these princesses themselves that do the lion's share of the saving. The result is magical—so magical that this is the only film on the list that I've actually cried during. Twice.
Gravity: I've written so much on Gravity I'm loathe to bang out many more words on the subject. You can read what I said about Alfonso Cuarón's beautiful epic here or here or here, if you'd like. So let me just offer one stray, perhaps slightly nonsensical thought—that the universe we see in Gravity may give us a very small glimmer of God, maybe. After all, both are beautiful, terrifying, completely incomprehensible in so many ways. And yet, there's a familiar spot of it that we call home. It gives us warmth and sustenance, provides everything that we need in the way that we need it. It feels like it was made for us. And when we, like Ryan, become overwhelmed with how big everything is and how small we are, we focus our attention on that spot of home, and do whatever we can to get back there.
Philomena: With the help of a caustic journalist, a woman struggles to reunite with her son—a child she was forced to abandon 50 years before. It's perhaps the most understated movie on this list: Star Judy Dench does not float through space, nor is she possessed by demons, nor does she sing with any snowmen. But Dench does offer us a measured, moving performance of an old lady who was woefully misused by her church but still loves her God all the same—and in keeping with His wishes, shows the capacity to forgive.
Saving Mr. Banks: It's a clash of storytelling titans—P.L. Travers, the caustic creator of the beloved Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney, the animation impresario who wants to bring Poppins into his own fold. This gloriously acted period piece delves deeply into the redemptive power of storytelling: How we can, through the alchemy of language, twist what was or is into what should've been or could be. For me, the film had a whiff of the great Christian wit G.K. Chesterton, who often talked about the power of story. Some critics have noted that Saving Mr. Banks twists its own facts: Travers detested Disney's Mary Poppins and certainly would've hated this retelling of how it came to be. Which makes this movie, I suppose, a meta-narrative of itself.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: I don't know how much this charming Ben Stiller movie had to do with James Thurber's original short story. I don't know what so many critics have against this film (hovering right now at 50% on rottentomatoes.com). All I know is that, when I left the theater, I was practically ready to ask my son if he'd want company on a cross-country roadtrip to Brooklyn. Granted, Walter Mitty doesn't have anything to do with Brooklyn (though it is set at the old Life magazine, based in New York). But it does have everything to do with shedding our fears and worries to embrace life at its fullest and most frightening—a timely message always, but especially timely today when so many of us can fall into our own virtual lives.
The Way Way Back: Almost everyone has forgotten about this summer sleeper. But I couldn't. The Way Way Back, about a 14-year-old boy (Duncan) with a life-changing summer job, is a funny, poignant coming-of-age story that shows what a family should look like--and it sometimes doesn't bear much resemblance to the folks raising you. Steve Carell is fantastically caddish as Duncan's overbearing would-be stepfather. Sam Rockwell makes a great bad boss. And Liam James plays Duncan with just the right amount of awkward insecurity. The Way Way Back shows what a world of difference that a little bit of love and confidence can do for you.