A&E

The best of 2013 on the big screen

Critics single out the top cinematic tales -- and show no mercy to the worst ones

When the Palo Alto Weekly film critics assemble their lists of the top 10 movies of the year, it's anyone's guess whether anyone will agree. Some years a blockbuster title crowns more than one list; some years the reviewers don't see eye to eye on anything.

For 2013, an unusual trio of films impressed our panel. There's the odd romantic comedy ("Her"), which transcended "quirky" to reach "daring"; and the insightful look into an evolving, grown-up relationship ("Before Midnight").

Most serious was the unflinching historic tale ("12 Years A Slave") with devastating performances. Critic Susan Tavernetti described one scene in the drama as "an indelible image of human bondage and its legacy."

Two Weekly critics, Tavernetti and Peter Canavese, took part in the list-compiling. (Tyler Hanley was unable to take part this year.) Canavese also gave us a taste of the bottom of the barrel, choosing his five worst films of the past 12 months.

Read on for the best and the worst of 2013 in film.

Susan Tavernetti's top films:

10. The Clock The film-going event of the year did not come to a theater near you. Instead artist Christian Marclay's "The Clock," a 24-hour montage of found footage with cinematic time references, marked the minutes before the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art closed for renovations in June. The 2010 masterpiece depicting movie and television references for every minute of every hour of the day was synchronized to local time. So as noon approached, a film clip showed the face of the town clock about to strike the hour before cutting to Gary Cooper's lawman striding down the deserted main street to the iconic shootout in "High Noon." Surprisingly, no single minute was more climactic or riveting than another. Marclay modulated the pace, offered thematic and visual riffs and delivered a mesmerizing reel experience. Stanford's Cantor Arts Center had also treated us to the artist's acclaimed 14-minute "Video Quartet" (2001) installation in 2012.

9. Gravity (in IMAX 3D) Known for his long takes, Alfonso Cuaron stretched this film's opening shot to a stunning 17 minutes. Visually breathtaking in scope and spectacle, the space thriller immerses the viewer within the weightless, silent expanse above Earth's atmosphere. The thin narrative is as tenuous as the astronauts' tethers when an unexpected storm of space debris wreaks havoc on their mission. But lost in space, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney make us care about their characters and the ensuing journey through darkness. Without the existential payload that grapples with meaning and faith, "Gravity" would lack the gravitas that elevates the cinematic experience to infinity and beyond its CGI artistry.

8. Before Midnight Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy has followed Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) from their first meeting on a Vienna-bound train to an unplanned reunion in a Paris bookstore nine years later and now to married with children. The light romantic comedy of "Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Sunset" (2004) has grown heavier, like the protagonists, with the onset of middle age. Their vacation on a Greek isle bristles with tension: Celine is resentful of being saddled in compromises while raising their twin daughters, while self-centered Jesse has become a successful author and wants to move the family to New York -- despite Celine's attractive job offer in Paris. They have grown up, and their adult dynamics resemble real ones. Some of the improvisatory exchanges between the two actors catch lightning in a bottle, trapping the elusive essence of the moment in a magical way that could never be scripted or directed.

7. Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adele) Tunisian-born filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche's controversial love story nabbed the prestigious Palme d'Or at this year's Festival de Cannes. Clocking in at almost three hours, the riveting drama fully develops the coming-of-age story of Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) and her relationship with Emma (Lea Seydoux), an artist sporting blue-streaked hair. The performances pulse with emotion, and the women emerge as fully realized three-dimensional characters. Although the male gaze of the camera tends to commodify the female body in the simulated lesbian sex scenes, the protracted exchanges of passion intensify the couple's strong bond. The film also resonates on a political level, whether supporting freedom of expression or France's recent legalization of same-sex marriage.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis Ethan and Joel Coen embark on another Homeric odyssey with music producer T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), giving Oscar Isaac a breakout role as the titular singer-guitarist. The Sixties folk musician sings so soulfully at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, yet his personal life is in shambles. More character study than folk revival, the dark comedy delves into the question of why some talents shoot to stardom and others can't catch a break and remain complete unknowns, like rolling stones, in the hardscrabble world of music.

5. Nebraska Alexander Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have turned their home state into a memorable character. Defined by Phadon Papamichael's elegiac black-and-white imagery of vacant main streets, desolate highways and abandoned farmhouses, Nebraska represents a vanishing way of life. The same can be said of Woody (Bruce Dern), a Midwesterner of few words and fewer dreams. Similar to his counterpart in "About Schmidt," Woody needs a reason to live when hope arrives in the form of a mail-order sweepstakes letter. His son (SNL alumnus Will Forte) agrees to drive the stubborn old man to claim the prize money in a comic, carefully observed road trip to Lincoln, Neb. Payne tempers the sharp satire of stoicism and greed with values befitting America's Heartland. Woody's face may be chiseled in granite, like those memorialized on Mount Rushmore, but his son's actions could crack any heart of stone.

4. Blue Jasmine Woody Allen did not fashion a love letter to San Francisco (as previously to New York City, Barcelona, Paris and Rome), but "Blue Jasmine" is his best film since "Match Point" in 2005. Cate Blanchett is brilliant as the title character, infusing the former socialite with the fragility and snobbery of a modern-day Blanche duBois. She, too, arrives penniless at her sister's modest home -- albeit wearing a Chanel jacket, clutching a Hermes Birkin and toting monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage. Leveled as much by her own character flaws as by the losses incurred by her philandering, Ponzi-scamming husband (Alec Baldwin), the desperate woman is close to being crazy and homeless on the streets of San Francisco. Allen's devastating portrait of privilege, denial and lack of self-awareness finds its perfect expression in Blanchett's Oscar-worthy performance.

3. Her The high-concept premise -- a lonely man falls in love with an operating system -- sounds off-putting and creepy. But writer-director Spike Jonze has crafted a fresh, smart and sweet romantic comedy set in the not-so-distant future. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a sensitive performance as the Cyrano of Cyberculture, writing touching personal letters for people who cannot communicate with their loved ones themselves. His character is completely surprised that his newly purchased OS1 (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) fills the void after his wife (Rooney Mara) leaves him. Subverting generic expectations, "Her" ultimately affirms the need for humans to embrace their humanity -- and each other. Brava to Silicon Valley native Megan Ellison and Annapurna Pictures for producing the most daringly original work of the year.

2. The Past (Le Passe) Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi extends his masterful storytelling beyond "A Separation," his 2012 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in Paris instead of Tehran and dealing with the finalization of a divorce after years of living apart, the nuanced drama offers yet another film of emotional and moral complexity. The past impinges upon and informs the relationship of the estranged couple, Marie (Berenice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), as well as the situation with the Frenchwoman's boyfriend (Tahar Rahim) and her troubled teenager (Pauline Burlet). Secrets and scenarios unveil, shifting the narrative into fascinating new directions that tug on the heartstrings and encourage you to switch loyalties. Create your own ending to this tale without closure.

1. 12 Years a Slave Perhaps only an outsider can look at the deep scars on America's back without flinching or glancing away. British filmmaker Steve McQueen does just that. Working from John Ridley's adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir, the director of African descent treads the ground of history that stretches from Spielberg's "Amistad" and "Lincoln" to Tarantino's "Django Unchained." He deals directly and matter-of-factly with the treatment of slaves in the Cotton States -- separated from family, auctioned like livestock, horrifically mistreated and sub-humanly perceived as three-fifths of a person. With great emotional range, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the educated New York freeman who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northrup maintains his dignity, wits and courage while reeling from disbelief, fear and despair. An excruciatingly long take of him hanging from the branch of a tree, supported by only the tips of his toes, seems endless -- and sears an indelible image of human bondage and its legacy.

Peter Canavese's top films:

10. All is Lost In critics' minds, J.C. Chandor's tale of survival spent the year waltzing with "Gravity." Both films are technically proficient (though "Gravity"'s brilliant effects, in 3D, dazzle like nothing else this year), but "All is Lost" proves a more pure and moving experience, shot through with sincere melancholy about facing death alone. Robert Redford does fine work as the only human in sight, holding the screen with the strength and frailty of mind and body under fatalistic duress.

9. In the House Francois Ozon's devious adaptation of Juan Mayorga's play "The Boy in the Last Row" was the headiest comedy of the year. The meta-literary tale of genius envy and thieved intimacy boasts deftly drawn characters, sharp performances and incisive satire: of teacher-student psychology, our increasingly voyeuristic global culture (thank you, internet), our escapism into stories fictional and "reality," capricious criticism and hypocrisy, and all colors of denial.

8. The Wolf of Wall Street There's a Dorian Gray effect at work in Martin Scorsese's 23rd narrative feature. Leonardo DiCaprio has finally grown up -- his performance as hotshot stockbroker Jordan Belfort is the real deal -- and Scorsese's simultaneously aging in reverse. In terms of energy, this doesn't feel like the film of a 71-year-old, even as abetted by Terence Winter's whip-crack adapted screenplay and Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing. Sterling supporting work by Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie and others bolster this get-angry epic of quintessentially American conspicuous consumption, one that rests comfortably beside "Goodfellas" and "Casino."

7. A Hijacking Business as usual takes on new meaning in this potent, well-researched verite thriller. In work that approaches documentary realism, Soren Malling gives arguably the best performance of the year as the shipping-company CEO forced to negotiate for the lives of one of his crews. What are those lives worth, and what risks are acceptable? Writer-director Tobias Lindholm manages to make his hostage drama twice as interesting as Paul Greengrass' superficially similar "Captain Phillips." Taken literally, "A Hijacking" is gripping drama; seen through a wider lens, it's an allegory for today's global economy, the ugly choices it offers to high and low, and what happens when push comes to shove.

6. The Act of Killing With the most audacious film of 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer gambled and won by allowing Indonesian death-squad thugs, "victors" of a sort, to "write" recent history as movie scenes starring themselves. Laying bare attitudes and acts that come as close as anything to "evil," Oppenheimer gives the torturer-executioners enough rope to betray themselves and for one, unexpectedly, to find his guilt bubbling to the surface. Weird, shocking and riveting, "The Act of Killing" means to be offensive -- you should be appalled -- but also fascinates in how the processes of acting, reenacting, and revisiting can offer access to unexpected emotion and inconvenient truth.

5. Frances Ha Cycles of disappointment make up most of this funny-sad movie co-written by star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach. A quirky, funny take on work life, art life, romance and friendship, "Frances Ha" locates a fresh style of humor, creating magical moments of conversational nothing. Remarkably, this black-and-white, Manhattan-set film survives the inevitable comparison to Woody Allen's "Manhattan," another film that usefully explores the tension between romanticization and reality in New York City.

4. At Berkeley Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and one might say those are words the legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman lives by. This time, Wiseman shows up at U.C. Berkeley, which just by being there becomes a potent symbol. Concretely, it is that sui generis institution fired into shape by the student protests of the '60s, but it also stands in here for the tenuous space occupied by public (higher) education and how any school functions as a microcosm of its community. Wiseman wisely observes, then assembles his footage into a four-hour fascination that teases provocative notions while allowing you to draw your own conclusions about what the evidence on display proves about the film's many subjects.

3. Before Midnight The third in a trilogy shared by co-writers Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater continues to foster dramatic intimacy and tension by radically prioritizing conversation. If the honeymoon is long since over for Delpy's Celine and Hawke's Jesse, they offer a good facsimile of one on a Greek family vacation -- until, that is, modern-family issues crack open festering resentments, unleashing bitter recrimination and scary midlife evaluation. Plus, as is his wont, Linklater makes room for entertaining digressions and interesting supporting characters.

2. 12 Years a Slave The year's top tale of physical and emotional survival wasn't "All is Lost" or "Gravity" but this wrenching film adapted from free Northerner Solomon Northup's autobiographical account of being pressed into slavery. Without succumbing to either undue caution or melodrama, director Steve McQueen thoughtfully unfolds a serious drama of the undeniable pain and the considerably more interesting existential threat of slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor impeccably traces the odyssey of Northup: beginning with contentedness devastated; proceeding through torture, despairing denial and self-awareness; and arriving at someplace unsettlingly like and unlike his starting point.

1. Her The "zeitgeist"-y American movie of the year is a slightly futuristic tale that reflects blindingly on our present. Written and directed by Spike Jonze with elegant, melancholy calm, "Her" functions as a sincere and most unusual romance -- between a human and a figureless artificial intelligence -- a consideration of the meaning of consciousness, and a dissection of our continental drift away from each other. Yes, (modern) man is an island: a plugged-in depressive noncommittally straddling life and virtual reality. Brilliantly performed by Joaquin Phoenix and an offscreen but vital Scarlett Johansson.

Peter Canavese's pans:

Romeo and Juliet On Shakespeare's grave, these words: " ... curst be he that moves my bones." How does screenwriter/desecrator Julian Fellowes sleep at night?

Charlie Countryman What's the difference between watching this Shia LaBeouf-romps-through-Bucharest crime-drama-romance and burying your face in a loaded diaper? That's not a riddle ... I'm really asking.

The Host Do not consume before operating heavy machinery. Side effects may include spontaneous coma or fits of giggling.

Grown Ups 2 Adam Sandler really ought to take himself out of competition next year. It's just not fair to all the other bad movies.

Getaway This peerlessly stupid fast-car thriller somehow goes from 0 to 0 in 90 minutes ... while still putting precious miles on your odometer.

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