Complaining about the movies is an even more popular pastime than going to the movies.
But at the risk of being rude, I would say that people who would rather bellyache than belly up to the box office because “there’s nothing good playing” aren’t paying attention.
By my count, 628 “feature films” (including movies, filmed operas and other special programs) were screened for the public in Memphis movie theaters and other venues (museums, the Orpheum, even AutoZone Park) during 2013. The roll call extends from “Texas Chainsaw 3D” (one of three movies that opened Jan. 4) to “Justin Bieber’s Believe” (one of five movies that opened Christmas Day).
OK, those two titles don’t support my thesis. But after I made a first pass through my movies-of-2013 list to make my annual 10 Best and Second 10 selections, I discovered I’d jotted down the titles of 78 (!!) films. Narrowing them down to legitimate “top 10” candidates, I still had 32 titles. So picking these final 20-plus was genuinely a stressful challenge.
As usual, my lists are drawn from movies that debuted in Memphis during the calendar year. (Thus, “Her,” with Joaquin Phoenix, which has been appearing on a lot of national year-end lists, isn’t eligible because it doesn’t arrive here until Jan. 10.)
THE 10 BEST
In order of preference:
1. “12 Years a Slave”: The whipping post, the hanging tree, the cane field — these are landmarks in the nightmare landscape of the “plantation class” in the 19th century, as experienced by Solomon Northup (portrayed with fierce dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor), the educated free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., whose 1853 memoir of kidnapping and enslavement inspired this harrowing and unblinking film — the most powerful yet produced about America’s national shame. The rare movie about history and race that does not seek to absolve, comfort or flatter the mass audience it must reach to be a commercial success, director Steve McQueen’s survival story succeeds as a lament for the past, a timeless Kafkaesque nightmare and a judgment on the present.
2. “Frances Ha”: Influenced by Woody Allen and the French New Wave, this love letter from director Noah Baumbach to star Greta Gerwig is delightful, clever, poignant and wise — a portrait, in black-and-white vignettes, of a lovely, gawky, barely employed and “undateable” young woman (Gerwig) at the precise moment when life, to use a general term, has decreed she must become “a grown-up,” to use another.
3. “Computer Chess”: Boston writer-director Andrew Bujalski, the unwitting godfather of an intimate and thrifty American independent filmmaking trend that came to be called “mumblecore,” describes his fourth miniscule-budget movie as “an existential comedy.” It’s also a deadpan-hilarious formalist coup: A lovingly crafted period piece shot in black-and-white with a Sony tube video camera from the 1960s and set at the dawn of the digital age, in the early 1980s, during a computer chess competition where socially awkward and eccentric programmers show off their baby-step innovations on the road to artificial intelligence. The movie screened during the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
4. “Inside Llewyn Davis”: “Hang me, oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” warbles folk singer Llewyn Davis (a remarkable Oscar Isaac) at the start of the latest triumph from the filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. A movie of gallows humor (the comedic highlights are inseparable from Llewyn’s misfortune), “Llewyn Davis” proves as death-laden and doomy as the repertoires of the folk singers of Greenwich Village in 1961, a setting that provides visual inspiration and a thematic foundation for a story that may take place within the Stygian purgatory of a recurring nightmare that Llewyn defines with a signature joke: “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
5. “Wuthering Heights”: Shot on dank and misty Yorkshire locations, British director Andrea Arnold’s haunting adaptation — which screened exclusively at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art — cuts beneath the romantic accretion of decades of movie and TV idealizations to penetrate the dark heathen heart of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Here, the famously tragic love story of Heathcliff and Catherine is something elemental and wild: a product of the untamed moors, like the fog, the heather and the ever-present rush of ghostly wind. Arnold’s boldest decision is to cast black actors as the boy and adult Heathcliff, making him an especially forbidden romantic partner for the pale Catherine.
6. “The Bling Ring” and “Spring Breakers”: Let me cheat with this two-for-one listing of movies about cliques of self-absorbed, morally vacuous and beautiful teenage party girls (and their associates) who become criminal gangs in the pursuit of status, drugs, fun, money, nice shoes and hot swimsuits. The first film, by Sofia Coppola, is a fact-based satire of celebrity-obsessed SoCal aspiration; the second, by Nashville’s Harmony Korine, is an acidly surreal comic fantasy that transforms the Florida of wet T-shirt contests, beer bongs and beach-party booty-bouncing into the outermost circle of Hell: a Disney Princess zombie apocalypse, with former ’tween titans Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens leading the bikinied rampage.
7. “Holy Motors”: Brimming with references to movie history (at one point, the theme music from 1954’s “Godzilla” is deployed), this surreal objet d’absurdité from playful French master Leos Carax is almost an anthology film, as a mystery man named Oscar (Dennis Levant) dons a series of disguises and alternative identities to keep nine “appointments”; in the most memorable interlude, Oscar (named in mockery of the Academy Awards?) becomes a one-eyed, flower-chewing, sewer-dwelling leprechaun who brandishes his exposed erection at a kidnapped Eva Mendes. The movie (which screened in January at the Brooks) is a puzzle meant to be enjoyed, not solved. As Oscar asserts: “We’re having a ball in the back of beyond.”
8. “Like Someone in Love”: Another Brooks Museum exclusive, the latest film from Iranian citizen-of-the-world Abbas Kiarostami follows a ponytailed and innocent-seeming call girl (Rin Takanashi) to an appointment with an unusual client, a kindly professor (Tadashi Okuno), in a cramped apartment outside of Tokyo. The professor is a linguist, and the movie is filled with methods of communication: books, faxes, cellphones, answering machines, intercoms, jokes, traffic signals, car horns, even a talking parrot (or at least a painting of one). With all of this contact, Kiarostami asks, how come nobody understands one another? Meanwhile, you may have a question of your own, inspired by the title: Like someone in love with what? Kiarostami’s answer: cinema.
9. “Short Term 12”: Debuting feature director Destin Daniel Cretton is not afraid to be uncool. His drama, set at a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers, embraces the earnest emotions that scare some indie filmmakers and that scar — sometimes literally — his young characters, who understand what it’s like “to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” to quote the story’s would-be rapper (Keith Stanfield).
10. “To the Wonder”: Terrence Malick is to light as Orson Welles was to shadow: the master. The director and his genius cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, haunt the so-called “magic hour,” the filmmaking term for the first and last hours of the day’s sun; the warm, golden light they capture suggests the presence of God, as does the floating, gliding eye of the Steadicam lens, which follows the stunningly attractive performers — Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams — like an attendant spirit, “an invisible something.” Malick amplifies the ethereal voice-over, the religious symbolism and the emphasis on the mysterious that made his previous film, “The Tree of Life,” a chore for many, while reducing the man-and-woman plot to a series of episodes so impressionistic we realize the real love story here is about “the love that loves us.” If a church or monastery can be constructed as a place for people to discover the sacred, why can’t a movie?
THE SECOND 10
In alphabetical order:
1. “The Act of Killing”: An inquisition into bloody victory and its boastful aftermath, Joshua Oppenheimer’s startlingly original and profoundly disturbing documentary follows some of the most notorious surviving death-squad killers from the 1965 military overthrow of Indonesia as they reinterpret their acts of murder in artful tableaux for Oppenheimer’s cameras. The killers are extraordinarily open, even proud of their lethal handiwork, though one reveals his dreams are haunted by the memory of a particularly unsettling decapitated head: “I’m always gazed at by those eyes that I didn’t close,” he confesses.
2. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Upstream Color”: Texas filmmakers who in the past wrought wonders with the tiniest of budgets created these relatively more expansive projects, injecting new life into the “art film” scene. The first, written and directed by David Lowery, is an outlaw saga of undying ardor distilled to its emotional essence, with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as “Badlands”-esque lovers seeking to transcend the dusty folk song/murder ballad of their lives; the second, written and directed by Shane Carruth and edited by Carruth and Lowery, is an unclassifiable science-fiction parable that uses a pulpy premise (a woman, played by Amy Seimetz, is infected with a mind-controlling worm) to probe grandiose ideas (memory, addiction, identity).
3. “American Hustle”: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams (and her startling decolletage) play disco-era dress-up and have a ball (you will, too) in the latest ensemble celebration of messy/scary/lovely life by writer-director David O. Russell.
4. “Blue Jasmine”: Compulsive writer-director Woody Allen’s 45th feature film in as many years is marred by its condescending attitude toward the working class but elevated to scary heights by Cate Blanchett, who is fragile, hateful and charming as a once privileged Upper East Side socialite whose reality-challenged cluelessness gives way to actual insanity.
5. “Crystal Fairy”: Like the hallucinogenic brew painstakingly distilled here from a purloined San Pedro cactus, the fourth feature from playful Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva is a slow-simmering but potent concoction. Looking more like a string bean Harpo Marx than ever, Michael Cera stars as a somewhat obnoxious American drug tourist; Gaby Hoffman is the frequently naked Crystal Fairy (dubbed “Crystal Hairy” for her lack of grooming), a New Age flower child with a sad secret.
6. “Fruitvale Station”: Inspired by the New Year’s Day 2009 killing of unarmed Oscar Grant, 22, by Bay Area transit police, debuting director Ryan Coogler’s lamentation of a film arrived with the immediacy of a news dispatch and the urgency of a tent-revival sermon: It opened here less than two weeks after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, to affirm the humanity of victims transformed into political symbols and to chasten those who claimed it was the news media and not Zimmerman’s bullet that “injected race” into the Trayvon Martin case.
7. “Gravity”: The unnecessary backstory threatens to bring the film to Earth with a thud before Sandra Bullock is even ready for her re-entry, but for the most part this marvel of digital filmmaking technology from director Alfonso Cuarón maintains a white-knuckle tension as it challenges its lone astronaut heroine with dangers intimate (asphyxiation) and existential (the void).
8. “Stoker”: Making his English-language directing debut, South Korea’s style-drunk Chan-wook Park applies his restlessly inventive eye to a sinister coming-of-age fable set in a household so diabolical that even the eggs, as a cook informs us, are deviled.
9. “This Is the End” and “The World’s End”: Another twofer. The first is Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s panic of an apocalyptic ensemble comedy — a pot-addled and potty-mouthed faux vanity project of infectious enthusiasm that crushes objections to its crude excess as blithely as it impales Michael Cera. The second is another genius collaboration between “Shaun of the Dead” writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-star Simon Pegg, a brilliantly realized pub crawl reunion of estranged “mates” that is so witty and refreshing it would have made my top 10 easily if not for the letdown of its protracted final act.
10. “The To Do List”: Female filmmakers in 2013 asserted their authority in the traditional boy’s club of crass modern comedy (Lake Bell wrote and directed “In a World ...,” Kate Dippold scripted “The Heat,” Michelle Morgan wrote “Girl Most Likely”), but no movie from any source was looser or funnier — or, sometimes, raunchier — than writer-director Maggie Carey’s story of a virginal valedictorian (Aubrey Plaza) who creates a checklist of sexual activities to experience in the summer before college.
“Valentine Road”: Produced for October broadcast on HBO but screened in September during the Outflix Film Festival at the Malco Ridgeway Four, Marta Cunningham’s devastating slow boil of a documentary examines the origins and aftermath of the murder of an effeminate eighth-grade boy in Oxnard, Calif., shot in the head by a male classmate for wearing — to grossly oversimplify — high heels and makeup. A parent sympathetic to the killer will chill your blood when she asks: “Where are the civil rights of the ones being taunted by the cross-dressing?”
“What I Love About Concrete”: Perhaps I should recuse myself from writing about this charming Memphis-made film that its creators describe as a “high school satire screwball comedy fairy tale” with “homemade special effects”; after all, debuting directors Katherine Dohan and Alanna Stewart (assisted by Brett Hanover) recruited me for a cameo role. But I believe I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to what may be the most inventive local movie in years, a compassionate and cuckoo coming-of-age tale about a young girl (Morgan Rose Stewart) who discovers a race of bird people. The movie screened during the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
Runners-up: “Barbara,” “Before Midnight,” “Captain Phillips,” “Drinking Buddies,” “Enough Said,” “Mud,” “War Witch,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Also worthwhile: “All Is Lost,” “August: Osage County,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Caesar Must Die,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” “Elysium,” “Escape from Tomorrow,” “Found Memories,” “Gimme the Loot,” “Ginger & Rosa,” “The Grandmaster,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “I Am Divine,” “In a World ...,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Monsters University,” “Nebraska,” “No,” “Oldboy,” “Only God Forgives,” “Prisoners,” “The Purge,” “Something in the Air,” “Wadjda.”