This post was originally written in January 2014. A list of the top ten 2013 films is forthcoming. Images are posters of the films and are not my own.
This was an unprecedented year of moviegoing for me. Under the guidance of writers like Jeffrey Overstreet and the Letterboxd community, I propelled myself into films that I would previously have never picked up. These were movies of caution, great beauty, patience, and character. I’m finding now that when I return to films which fascinated or thrilled me years ago, they now seem boring and tired.
But this also means that I have been introduced to a number of movies from former years that could easily hold their ground on any best of list, so it is a little unfair to add them here. Note too that the line dividing the main list from the honourable mentions is very thin and that this list is in chronological order of watching, not hierarchical order.
Towards the beginning of the year I discovered that almost all of Charlie Chaplin’s films are online. I watched a number of them, some alone and some while the family was gathered round, but City Lights remains my favourite. I returned to it in part for its brilliant humour and classic set design, but mostly for the selfless relationship that the Tramp and the blind flower girl share, particularly in the closing scene, which is rightly called Chaplin’s finest moment of acting.
One reviewer said “I cannot recall the last film that so wholly, honestly, and movingly explained what it means to be Christian” and I after seeing this twice in 2013 I would have to agree. The men of the Christian monastery in the rural Muslim village, whose daily rhythm is captured so well, felt like brothers by the end. The film explores their decision to either stay in the village and face death in the hands of approaching militants or leave the people they were called to serve. Each man knows that his choice will affect both his brother and the larger community of the village. The village’s reaction to the brothers’ presence had quite the impact on me the first time I watched it and I explained why in my review.
A wordless poem, effortlessly capturing Brugal’s painting On the Way to Calvaryin its colours, atmosphere, perspective, and sets. Filled with such gravity, it grinds its participants with the weight of sin and suffering in the same way the grotesquely shaped mill of the title grinds its wheat. Grace is present, but only on its outskirts, something I would preferred more of. But it does make it the perfect pre-resurrection Good Friday and I plan on watching it annually during Holy Week.
Perhaps the most moral show in television’s history, but I’m not talking about clean content. I’m referring to the tightly wound weight of moral decisions every character makes, decisions clearly grounded in their ordinary day-to-day lives. The show takes its patient time showing the choices unfold as a suburban high school chemistry teacher transforms himself into a drug lord, getting into the characters’ heads so that we can understand why. Yet the impending danger these choices imply haunt every moment like the minor chords that underline its theme music. A character study of Jesse alone would fill a thesis, but Walt pride is the heart of the transformation and going alone for the ride
The first time I watched this relatively simple story about disconnect in outer space I was gripping my IMAX seat the whole time and came out of the theatre panting. The second time I was moved to tears by both Ryan Stone’s sorrow at dying without being taught to pray and the film’s powerful closing episode. My only regret is that since I’m unwilling to compromise the experience by watching it on anything other then an IMAX 3D screen, I don’t expect to re-watch it. Proof that innovation and excellence in cinema is far from over.
A sparse, simple story of real people struggling for redemption as they live their ordinary lives. An ex-minster mentors a former inmate as they both work their way out of their cocoons and back into the larger world. Told with patience and grace, elegantly sidestepping any possible cliches, it is an example of the filmmaker’s power to tell stories, paint characters, and encourage the viewer to head back into real life having been reminded what makes it worth telling.
A Coen Brothers film that follows a folk singer in the 60’s, accompanied by a soundtrack that stands on its own is sure to standout on any list of mine. This is a literary film that favours character development over easy answers and endings, and mixes grace and forgiveness with the bitter uncertainty faced by any young man struggling with his career. I’ve only just seen it, but I know that it will stand up to repeat viewing.
There Will Be Blood, fascinated by the quest for power, featured terrifying acting and grinding cinematography. An important film for Albertans. I admired To The Wonder for the way it effortless captured ordinary beauty, but even more for its wisdom in understanding that love towards others and God requires work and commitment. The “Before.. Trilogy", Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, is simple yet incredibly ambitious. It’s also fascinating for its long term chronicling of the payout of a relationship that is based on our culture’s understanding love. Watching Like Someone in Love was when a foreign film humbled me, teaching me to better appreciate foreigners.Once is a low budged Irish film that knows more about human relationships then any dozen Hollywood films, O Brother, Where Art Thou is the Coen brothers teaching us about grace and power of God to baptize when he chooses. And Almost Famous graciously balanced the need a young person has for the wisdom of home while honestly portraying the charms and dangers of the wider world.
Be sure to regularly check back to my Letterboxd profile. I’ll also keep this website up-to-date as I find more treasures in the year ahead.