My favorite films seen in 2013 include Saint Misbehavin’, Philomena, About Time, and the French film, The Well-Digger’s Daughter.
I saw 17 excellent films in theatres, on cable/dish TV and via Netflix and Netflix Instant streaming. A few are somewhat older films I just saw in 2013. And I haven’t seen some highly reviewed and nominated films, such as 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, August: Osage County and Inside Llewen Davis, so I will list them next year if I believe they merit that.
Once again, the most enjoyable were TV series (mentioned below the films list). If you click on my name, you will find 60 or more terrific mysteries and comedies from U.K, Canada and New Zealand that I reviewed on The Rag Blog.
- SAINT MISBEHAVIN’: THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE: I loved, laughed and was inspired by this fabulous documentary about clown, commune leader, entertainer, frequently arrested peace activist and major humanitarian Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Romney). He founded and for 40 years headed the Hog Farm commune, which voluntarily fed most of the 600,000 groovers at Woodstock.He and his wife founded and ran children’s circus and performing art Camp Winnarainbow, and he (with guru Ram Dass and ophthalmologist Larry Brilliant) founded, ran and successfully fundraised for an international health organization (Seva Foundation) which saved the sight of more than 3 million third-world people. For the latter purpose he threw a series of all-star benefit concerts featuring The Grateful Dead, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and many more. It is rare to experience a film that makes you feel this wonderful. It’s on DVD and Netflix.
- PHILOMENA: Brit genius Stephen Frears directed this great comedy-drama, which earned Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival and has been nominated for 40 major awards (winning six so far). Fifteen of the award nominations are for lead actress Judi Dench, who is sublimely masterful as Irish woman Philomena Lee who got pregnant as a teen and was sent to a convent by her embarrassed parents. There she was overworked and mistreated by Catholic nuns, who raised her son (allowing her to see him for only one hour a day) for three years and then sold him to an American couple for $1,000.Fifty years later, she and Journalist Martin Sixsmith (co-star and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan, whom I routinely dislike in comedies, but who is excellent here) search for her son at the convent and then in the U.S.I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what happens there. This greatly moving and very funny film deals intelligently with more things than you might expect. The film runs viewers through a gamut of emotions.Dench, who is always wonderful, exceeds all former performances here. At rottentomatoes.com, one reviewer wrote “If at the end of this beautiful film you don’t at least get a little misty-eyed, please check your pulse: you might already be dead.” Film critic Kyle Smith of the Rupert Murdoch-owned rag The New York Post called Philomena “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.” Producer Harvey Weinstein ran a full-page ad in The New York Times, protesting this ludicrous characterization.
- ABOUT TIME: Because this marvelous love story is about time travel, and I don’t usually like sci-fi, I was dubious entering the theatre. My reservations were unjustified, and this film is a completely charming and enjoyable delight. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and TV gems The Vicar of Dibley and Blackadder), who is one of my very favorites, is in fine form again here.An actor I always love, Bill Nighy, confesses to his son (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) that the men of their family can move through time and reexperience situations at a different times, removing embarrassing mistakes. The son falls for Rachel McAdams’ character and humorously jumps through time to relive various situations. This one is very enjoyable.
- THE WELL-DIGGER’S DAUGHTER (France): This is a terrific fable, well directed by and starring beloved French actor Daniel Auteuil and featuring an excellent Gallic cast. A widowed laborer raising five daughters encounters challenges when the oldest falls for the World War I pilot son of a wealthy and prominent Provençal family. This is an involving, heartwarming story with fine performances.
- LITTLE WHITE LIES (France): I greatly enjoyed this story of a group of friends who decide to ignore one pal’s serious injury hospitalization and hold their annual beachside vacation anyway. The fine ensemble includes Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Midnight in Paris) and François Cluzet (Tell No One, The Intouchables). As the film title indicates, each character lifts veils that contain their long-hidden secrets. The characters are very interesting, two of the actors were nominated for France’s top award (César) and the film was up for the 2011 European Film Awards’ Best Picture honor.
- HULA GIRLS (Japan): This treat was nominated for 30 awards, winning Japanese Academy Awards for Best Film, Most Popular Film, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography and two supporting actresses. In 1965, when a closing coal mine will throw 2,000 out of work in a northeastern Japanese town, the mining company plans a Hawaiian cultural center to attract tourism. A Hawaiian dance group is trained and formed, led by a popular but haughty Tokyo dancer fleeing creditors. The film is full of fascinating personalities, and the dancing is delightful.
- 56 UP (UK): I have been fascinated by the six latest films in this superb nine-movie series by 19-award-winning director Michael Apted. Every seven years he updates the funny, touching, surprising life stories of two dozen British kids from various social classes. The latest is 56 Up, and it is just as compelling as its predecessors. BAFTA Awards went to 28 Up and 35 Up, and nominations were earned by 42 Up and 49 Up. Fortunately, each film features segments of the previous films for each person.
- THE INTOUCHABLES (France): This is the very dramatic, touching, surprising and funny dramatized true story about an aristocratic Frenchman (a fabulous François Cluzet) who becomes quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. He interviews many men to be his helper and settles on a poverty-stricken Arab (Omar Sy: sensational). They develop an extraordinary relationship. This film was nominated for 55 awards and won 31. In the closing credits we see the real guys depicted onscreen.
- SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK: This was nominated for 138 awards, winning 62 (including Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress Oscar and noms for Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Best Picture, writer-director David O. Russell, and Best Editor). This is a beautifully realized story of a man (Cooper) leaving a mental hospital who is depressed over his wife’s departure. He slowly falls for a mysterious, troubled young woman (Lawrence), as he helps her prepare for a pairs dancing contest. De Niro is excellent as his father, a fanatic Philadelphia Eagles football fan.
- PROMISED LAND: Matt Damon is very good as a gas company employee who goes around convincing small town residents to sell their property’s gas-drilling rights, while he lies about the dangers of fracking. He is assisted by Frances McDormand and opposed by schoolteacher Hal Holbrook. This is a smart, timely motion picture.
- 42: This biopic about Jackie Robinson’s debut season (1947) as the first black player in major-league baseball is first-rate. Alan Tudyk, who was hilarious in the original British version of Death at a Funeral, is properly hateful here as a racist Philadelphia Phillies manager. Harrison Ford, despite his annoying deep gravelly voice, is good as team owner Branch Rickey, who takes a chance on Robinson. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, is outstanding. Writing and direction by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) are admirable.
- AMERICAN HUSTLE: This is a very interesting, oddball story of a real-life con man who got caught by and then assisted the FBI in bribing six Congressmen and a Senator on camera. In the film they all reside in New Jersey, whereas the real sting went down in Pennsylvania. The hilariously wacky cast includes Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. The film is nominated for seven Golden Globes and 84 other honors, winning 23 so far.
- QUARTET: Directed by Dustin Hoffman and written by Ronald Harwood (Oscar for The Pianist), this is a very satisfying tale of retired opera, symphony, and other stars preparing for a gala Verdi’s birthday concert designed to keep their retirement home from closing. The cast is truly outstanding, consisting of Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon and scores of real retired former opera singers, musicians, etc. Because the sound was low and our hearing is declining, wife Sharon and I watched it again on Netflix, so we could catch the wonderful lines and jokes we had missed. Smith plays a retired diva who initially refuses to sing — and who surprisingly encounters an ex-husband. This is a great movie.
- THE SAPPHIRES (Australia): This is an extremely enjoyable film dramatizing the career of four Aboriginal girls from Australia’s Outback who formed a soul music singing group and performed in Vietnam during the war there. Everything about this gem is first-rate. It was nominated for 34 awards and won 19. It stars Irish funnyman Chris O’Dowd (TV’s The Family Tree), who won the Australia Film Institute’s Best Actor award for The Sapphires.
- NEVER APOLOGIZE: The best film I saw in 1968 (I’ve been doing this a long time!) was If, the powerful indictment of snobby, cruel British private schools, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm MacDowell. This film is a love letter to Anderson and his directing career, with Malcolm reminiscing about it. It covers and features scenes from Anderson films including O Lucky Man, Time After Time, This Sporting Life, and The Whales of August.
- IF I WERE YOU (Canada): This clever Canadian film features a bravura performance from Marcia Gay Harden, who prevents her husband’s young mistress from hanging herself and then strikes a strange deal with her whereby each allows the other to make major decisions for them. Implausibly, they end up playing King Lear and his fool together in a local amateur production.
- THE METHOD (Argentina): This is a clever film where seven company employees who desire a big promotion in Madrid compete in a series of mind games, some of which are really dirty tricks. They also struggle to discover which of them is a mole. It has a good cast, a twisty plot and much to enjoy. It was nominated for 22 awards and won 10.
Although I liked those 17 flickers a lot, I enjoyed many British and American TV series even more. This year I particularly appreciated the artistry behind U.S. series (in no particular order): The Newsroom, Dexter, Family Tree, Blacklist, Elementary, Masters of Sex, Homeland, House of Lies, Boardwalk Empire, Law & Order SVU, C.S.I., The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Vegas, Major Crimes, Justified, White Collar, Suits, Covert Affairs, The Rachel Maddox Show, Crash, Luck, Orange is the New Black, Veep, Southland, Damages, John Oliver’s New York Standup and the eight winning Dallas Cowboys football games.
From across the pond came fine series Luther, Ripper Street, The Hour, Lark Rise to Candleford, Midsummer Murders, LINK Family Tree, Body of Proof, Injustice, Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Single-Handed, The Guilty, Taggart, Inspector Linley Mysteries, Without Motive, Appropriate Adult, Dalziel and Pascoe, George Gently, The Secret Policeman’s Balls, The Graham Norton Show, and Not Going Out. I also really liked the new Australian female detective series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in 1920s Melbourne.
Happily, in order to provide YouTube or Netflix Instant episodes for you to link to from my 50 or so weekly Rag Blog reviews, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed them again in 2013.
[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman’s articles on The Rag Blog.]