You may have read this tidbit here before: Each December inevitably brings two things to the movie review world: 1) Top 10 lists that include limited-run or obscure films. 2) Readers complaining (sometimes, rightfully so) that the inclusion of such titles comes from reviewers who just want to seem smart, exclusive or both.
There’s no way I would highlight lesser-known films just to make waves. Frankly, I’m too old for that shit. But in the course of being a movie reviewer — whatever your contribution to the critical world — you do get more opportunities to see smaller movies. And this is where the sometimes unforgettable gems pop up.
The great news is that the rapidly expanding universe of video on demand (VOD) is making it increasingly easier for everyone to see just about anything that gets even a tiny release. Theater profits be damned, spreading good film is a plus for our culture and VOD expands a fantastic variety of movies into cities and towns far beyond just New York and LA. So, for this year’s Top Ten, I’ve included where and when you can see the movies on the list if they’re not available on the big screen in your area, plus other opinions (Rotten Tomatoes and the IMDb, in this case). As the years go by, you can bet that those opportunities offered to critics will be available to more people. Everywhere.
10. Blue is the Warmest Color (aka The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2)
It’s unfortunate that this three-hour character examination, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is often defined by its graphic sex scenes because it’s so much more. Director Abdellatif Kechiche has created one of the most thorough studies of a young woman — played here by Adele Exarchopoulos, an unbelievable talent — from high school to her early 20s, through romance and bisexuality and an eager curiosity about life. Exarchopoulos is the definition of fearless, letting us see her character eat with abandon, sleep with her mouth open, cry, scream and fuck, all with human detail that most actresses would consider way beyond the pale of their own humility. You can’t take your eyes off this girl and, often, this movie.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89 IMDb: 8.1
Coming to Criterion Collection Blu-ray on February 25, 2014.
9. Wish You Were Here
This barely seen Australian drama stars Joel Edgerton as a family man who comes home from a couples-only Cambodian vacation with dangerous, life-altering secrets. After opening with slow, spare hints of what may have happened to Edgerton’s character, the film shifts to the point-of-view of his wife (co-writer Felicity Price), with the audience picking up information as she does. It’s a subtle strategy that keeps us on edge about the one friend who never returned home—even as we learn that the film’s pain comes from something else entirely. Emotionally tense, extremely well-acted. (Full review of Wish You Were Here at Film Racket.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 71 IMDb: 5.9
Now available on streaming video and DVD
8. A Band Called Death
The best 2013 documentary to chronicle the soul of an artistic family is not Stories We Tell; it’s this poignant treasure about a 1970s Detroit punk band of three African-American relatives, whose music is discovered decades later in remarkable ways (think Searching for Sugar Man.) So few films are this passionate about the tears and triumphs of being a family and fewer still can trace it across generations. Directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett invite their subjects to let it all out — the result is bursting with energy, matured by time and sentiment. (Full review of A Band Called Death at Meet In the Lobby.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 IMDb: 7.3
Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming video
7. Short Term 12
Brie Larson gives one of the year’s most impressive and appealing performances as a foster home caregiver straddling the line between her murky childhood and impending adulthood. Writer-director Destin Cretton, adapting his 2008 short of the same name, conveys the social and cultural constraints of the foster home world without wrapping his film in commentary or sympathy. Cretton wrote what he knew (having once worked in a foster facility), and may have done it better than anyone else in 2013. The film’s small signature at the end is magically evocative, one of my favorite scenes of the year.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98 IMDb: 8.2
Coming to Blu-ray, DVD and streaming video on January 14, 2014.
We already knew director Alfonso Cuarón was a technical wizard based on the uninterrupted sequences in Children of Men and their super high degree of difficulty. We could not have predicted the level of graceful, special-effects mastery he would display here (with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), moving Sandra Bullock’s newbie astronaut through an adventure film-format of challenges, with a vision of space (both literal and figurative) that has no recent parallel in film. When Cuarón tilts Gravity toward its less commercial, more artistic side, we see the film’s potential for all-time Hollywood greatness. (Full review of Gravity at Meet In the Lobby.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97 IMDb: 8.4
Home video release dates currently unavailable.
5. Museum Hours
Life and art intertwine in beautiful, modest ways, in Jem Cohen’s quiet examination of the spontaneous friendship between a Canadian tourist and the museum guard she meets while traveling in Vienna. Surrounding them is the tonal palette of their world, the art that exists within the confines of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but also in everyday life. Cohen holds still on single, exterior shots so they look like framed works — a bold artistic flourish, yet understated. In the film’s most compelling scene, Cohen summarizes the challenges of art analysis as a museum lecturer gets an earful from guests while discussing the cultural commentary in Bruegel’s paintings. Fascinating. (Full review of Museum Hours at Film Racket.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 93 IMDb: 7.0
Now available on Blu-ray and DVD
4. Enough Said
Simply calling this one of James Gandolfini’s last films (next to last, actually) short changes both his performance and the movie. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener took a big risk casting two actors — Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who, despite their enormous talents, are practically defined by previous roles and genres. Both overcome those pigeonholes to create a special romantic drama for a middle-aged audience. With Holofcener’s continuously impressive wit and insight, both actors bring a little of their past personas into their roles, just as their characters carry along some of their own baggage while trying to build a relationship. If it’s true that Gandolfini’s onscreen warmth and sensitivity reflects his real-life personality, Enough Said has an unintended weight that’s hard to shake once the film fades to black.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 IMDb: 7.5
Blu-ray, DVD and streaming video coming January 14, 2014.
3. Upstream Color
After Shane Carruth’s mind-bending, time-twisting Primer, we should have known something like this would be next: A sprawling drama that’s overflowing with bizarre ideas and endless, overconfident creativity. Blending a psychic chiller, tentative romance, and scientific mystery, Carruth (writer, director, composer) makes a supernatural connection between two people (he and Amy Seimetz) who have suffered a similar, brain-frying abduction perpetrated by some very advanced bad guys. On a higher plane, Upstream Color is about shared destinies and the elements that conjoin us metaphysically — not just people, but plants, water, animals, everything. Hey, how many indie movies do you know have a “biological effects” visual team? Some find Upstream Color pompous. I think it’s an impressive, difficult, absolute thrill. (Full review of Upstream Color at Meet In the Lobby.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 85 IMDb: 6.8
Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming video.
2. 12 Years A Slave
If I had to describe just one reason why Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir is just about perfect, it would be the film’s remarkably consistent tone. How do you create a slavery story with all the necessary tension and power, but without it being too unbearable for an audience to finish watching? McQueen does it, and it’s a nearly unbelievable achievement. Working from John Ridley’s epic-style script, McQueen never lets the action teeter toward saccharine pride (cue sweeping music) or push-button emotion, and never, ever relies on a breath of comic relief. The actors, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, are uniformly superb, everyone on the same wavelength and satisfying the same storytelling mission. This is a beautiful film that, if attempted by any number of big-name directors, could have been an unmitigated disaster.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 IMDb: 8.7
Blu-ray and DVD now available for pre-order.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’ narrative tomfoolery reaches all-new heights of intelligence with this story of a man (a “serious man,” if I may) trying to make it as a folk singer in the early 1960s. As the Coens bring us further “inside Llewyn Davis” — his anger, his sad lack of center, his hippie existentialism — we discover this movie isn’t really about folk music at all. It’s another somber, surreal Coen Brothers character study, one that lays out a series of potential plot pivots only to pass them by and send Llewyn down a road from which he simply can’t pull off. By the film’s coda, a real honest-to-goodness coda, our expectations of what makes up a filmed story have been skewered, the brilliance leaving us wanting a little more time with Llewyn, just to get our head together and move on to the next gig. (Full review of Inside Llewyn Davis at Meet In the Lobby.)
Rotten Tomatoes: 94 IMDb: 7.9
Home video release dates are not yet determined.