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Tue December 31, 2013

Screen Time: Bob Mondello's Favorite Films Of 2013

Originally published on Tue December 31, 2013 4:56 pm

Conventional wisdom has it that television is where the creative action is these days, and yes, there are some terrific shows on cable.

But there are things it's hard to do on the small screen, and the year's most cinematic film delighted in reminding audiences why they like seeing movies in theaters.

Spacesuited figures in orbit. Serene, breathtakingly gorgeous. And in IMAX 3-D, on a huge screen, you're completely immersed, which means when things go wrong in Alfonzo Cuaron's Gravity — and they go reeeeally wrong — you feel as if you're there.

Gravity is a total thrill ride. But it's hardly the only film this year calculated to get your pulse pounding. The crime-caper comedy American Hustle does that, too, by making you nervous that its amiable scammers aren't as in-control as they seem to think they are.

The dreams of an old codger are the driving force in the black-and-white road flick Nebraska, with Bruce Dern determined to walk 800 miles to collect sweepstakes winnings that his son knows are a just a magazine-subscription come-on.

Nebraska looks spare and iconic filmed in black and white, whereas the palette is candy-colored in Her, a surprising techno love story about a guy and his computer. Think Siri, but with more personality.

Virtual relationships turn out to be as complicated as real ones in Her. And real ones can be really complicated, as the spellbinding Iranian drama The Past establishes, especially when you mix in immigration issues, children and folks who don't communicate well. And if The Past is troubling, a story from America's past is all but overwhelming — the true story of a free black New Yorker, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. A powerhouse performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor anchors a harrowing story in 12 Years A Slave.

That is six of my Top 10. The last four come in two matched sets. Start with women who have the blues in Blue Is The Warmest Color and Blue Jasmine. The former centers on a French high school student who does a lot of growing up when she gets romantically involved with an older woman. While Blue Jasmine finds director Woody Allen giving Cate Blanchett a startling variation on a role she played on Broadway: Her Jasmine is an updated Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire — deluded, spoiled, tone-deaf and about to start mooching off her less-well-off sister in San Francisco.

Rounding out my Top 10 are two documentaries that deconstruct the very idea of what a documentary can be.

Sara Polley's Stories We Tell starts out as a film about her mother who died of cancer. Then family secrets come tumbling out and it turns into the story of how the filmmaker herself came to be.

Even more unusual is the stories mass murderers tell in The Act of Killing, which sometimes looks like a Bollywood musical as it explores the slaughter of more than 1 million Indonesians. What's astonishing is that the folks staging re-enactments for the camera are the very death-squad leaders guilty of the atrocities.

OK, that's my Top 10, but if I stop there, I'll be leaving out more than half of my favorite pictures this year, so I'm going to keep going.

Quickly now, two other terrific documentaries dealt with the artistic process — Tim's Vermeer, in which a guy who's never painted before manages to re-create a 17th century masterpiece, and 20 Feet From Stardom, about the backup singers who stand behind the likes of Springsteen, Jagger and Bette Midler. That last movie made me realize that I've spent most of my life listening to the wrong voices in pop recordings.

There was some extraordinary site-specific Shakespeare this year in Caesar Must Die, where Italian convicts perform Julius Caesar near where the real Caesar was slain, and in a Much Ado About Nothing that Joss Whedon staged in his living room in Los Angeles while decompressing after he finished directing The Avengers.

The adventurous indie flick Short Term 12 filled a halfway house for troubled kids with anguish and quite a few laughs, often simultaneously.

Two of the year's most nerve-wracking stories were torn from headlines: Captain Phillips cast Tom Hanks as the skipper of a freighter taken over by Somalian pirates. Closer to home, the indie drama Fruitvale Station followed a young black man through what would be, tragically, his final hours ... on what started as a peaceful New Year's Eve.

Also based in truth, though it was aggressively stylized, was Kill Your Darlings, the jazz- and drug-fueled story of beat poets who changed the literary landscape in the '40s: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Foreign filmmakers took us nearly to the edge of the world, with The Wind Rises, a ravishingly animated tale of love and aviation in Japan; The Hunt, a harrowing Danish film about an innocent man accused, and Wadjda, an exuberant Saudi Arabian picture about a girl, a bike and a glimmer of social change. And tooling entertainingly around Greece (though at the behest of American filmmakers, not foreign ones) was that talkative couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, still gabbing away in Before Midnight.

No joke, though, this was quite a year. That's my Top 10 — plus 12.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And Robert Siegel. The movie industry had a record-breaking year at the Box Office again. Actually, with ticket prices rising all the time, especially for 3D and IMAX, the real news would be if Hollywood didn't break records. But critic Bob Mondello says profits this year did not come at the expense of quality. Here's Bob's annual 10 best list.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Conventional wisdom has it that television is where the creative action is these days, and yes, there are some terrific shows on cable. But there are things it's hard to do on the small screen, and the year's most cinematic film delighted in reminding audiences why they like seeing movies in theaters.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "GRAVITY")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Matt) Beautiful, don't you think?

MONDELLO: Spacesuited figures in orbit.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "GRAVITY")

SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Ryan) What?

MONDELLO: Serene, breathtakingly gorgeous.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM, "GRAVITY")

CLOONEY: (As Matt) The sunrise.

MONDELLO: And in IMAX 3-D, on a huge screen, you're completely immersed, which means when things go wrong in Alfonzo Cuaron's "Gravity," and they go really wrong, you feel as if you're there.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "GRAVITY")

BULLOCK: (As Ryan) No.

CLOONEY: (As Matt) Houston, Dr. Stone is off stretcher.

MONDELLO: Gravity is a total thrill ride. But it's hardly the only film this year calculated to get your pulse pounding. The crime-caper comedy "American Hustle" does that, too, by making you nervous that its amiable scammers aren't as in-control as they seem to think they are.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I could be a con man, all right? I'm in and I'm out. I was there the whole time. You don't know it, all right? (Unintelligible) to become somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.

MONDELLO: The dreams of an old codger are the driving force in the black-and-white road flick "Nebraska," with Bruce Dern determined to walk 800 miles to collect sweepstakes winnings that his son knows are a just a magazine-subscription come-on.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "NEBRASKA")

WILL FORTE: (As David) I can't let you go.

BRUCE DERN: (As Woody) It's none of your business.

FORTE: (As David) Yes, it is. I'm your son.

DERN: (As Woody) Then, why don't you take me?

FORTE: (As David) I can't just drop everything and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska.

DERN: (As Woody) Oh. What else you got going on?

MONDELLO: "Nebraska" looks spare and iconic filmed in black and white, whereas the palette is candy-colored in "Her," a surprising techno love story about a guy and his computer.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "HER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Please wait as your operating system is initiated.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Hello. I'm here.

MONDELLO: Think Siri, but with more personality.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "HER")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Theodore) Hi.

JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) Hi. I'm Samantha.

MONDELLO: Virtual relationships turn out to be as complicated as real ones in "Her." And real ones can be really complicated, as the spellbinding Iranian drama "The Past" establishes, especially when you mix in immigration issues, children and folks who don't communicate well.

And if "The Past" is troubling, a story from America's past is all but overwhelming: the true story of a free black New Yorker, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: My back is thick with scars for protesting our freedom.

MONDELLO: A powerhouse performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor anchors a harrowing story in "12 Years A Slave." That is six of my top 10. The last four come in two matched sets. Start with women who have the blues in "Blue Is the Warmest Color" and "Blue Jasmine." The former centers on a French high school student who does a lot of growing up when she gets romantically involved with an older woman, while "Blue Jasmine" finds director Woody Allen giving Cate Blanchett a startling variation on a role she played on Broadway: her Jasmine is an updated Blanche DuBois from "A Streetcar Named Desire," deluded, spoiled, tone-deaf and about to start mooching off her less-well-off sister in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BLUE JASMINE")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Jasmine) I need to stay here for a while. No, I do. I'm out of cash. Couldn't pay my rent in Brooklyn. I mean, can you believe I had to move out of my beautiful home and take a place in Brooklyn? Should I have another drink? We're celebrating, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Of course, yeah, all right.

BLANCHETT: (As Jasmine) Flight was bumpy. Here it is. I mean, you'd think first class, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You flew first class?

MONDELLO: Like I said, Jasmine is tone deaf. And rounding out my top 10 are two documentaries that deconstruct the very idea of what a documentary can be.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "STORIES WE TELL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Can you just go back over that one line?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I was being so real.

MONDELLO: Sara Polley's "Stories We Tell" starts out as a film about her mother who died of cancer. Then family secrets come tumbling out and it turns into the story of how the filmmaker herself came to be.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "STORIES WE TELL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I remember Johnny saying your father might be someone that Mom had acted with in a play.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I remember we talked about how you didn't look like Dad and Dad joked about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I always thought she does look like me, got that little straight nose. Yeah, definitely, this is all nonsense but it's fun. Who do you think your father is this week, Sara?

MONDELLO: And that's "Stories We Tell." Even more unusual is the stories mass murderers tell in "The Act of Killing," which sometimes looks like a Bollywood musical as it explores the slaughter of more than a million Indonesians. What's astonishing is that the folks staging re-enactments for the camera are the very death-squad leaders guilty of the atrocities.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE ACT OF KILLING")

MONDELLO: OK, that's my top 10, but if I stop there, I'll be leaving out more than half of my favorite pictures this year, so I'm going to keep going. Quickly now, two other terrific documentaries dealt with the artistic process: "Tim's Vermeer," in which a guy who's never painted before manages to re-create a 17th century masterpiece, and "20 Feet From Stardom," about the backup singers who stand behind the likes of Springsteen, Jagger and Bette Midler.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "20 FEET FROM STARDOM")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: It is my honor to induct into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and about time, too, Ms. Darlene...

MONDELLO: "20 Feet From Stardom" made me realize that I've spent most of my life listening to the wrong voices in pop recordings. There was some extraordinary site-specific Shakespeare this year in "Caesar Must Die," where Italian convicts perform "Julius Caesar" near where the real Caesar was slain, and in "A Much Ado About Nothing" that Joss Whedon staged in his living room in L.A. while decompressing after he finished directing "The Avengers."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "A MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING")

JOSS WHEDON: She would not have his head on her shoulders for all Messina is like him as she is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I wonder that you still would be talking, Senor Benedict. Nobody marked you.

MONDELLO: The adventurous indie flick "Short Term 12" filled a halfway house for troubled kids with anguish and quite a few laughs...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "SHORT TERM 12")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Hayden, come on, just open the door.

MONDELLO: Often simultaneously. Two of the year's most nerve-wracking stories were torn from headlines: "Captain Phillips" cast Tom Hanks as the skipper of a freighter taken over by Somalian pirates.

(SOUNDBITE FROM "CAPTAIN PHILLIPS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Look at me.

TOM HANKS: (As Phillips) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Look at me.

HANKS: (As Phillips) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I'm the captain now.

MONDELLO: Closer to home, the indie drama "Fruitvale Station" followed a young black man through what would be, tragically, his final hours on what started as a peaceful New Year's Eve.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "FRUITVALE STATION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Get off the train now.

MONDELLO: Also based in truth, though it was aggressively stylized, was "Kill Your Darlings," the jazz- and drug-fueled story of beat poets who changed the literary landscape in the '40s: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "KILL YOUR DARLINGS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Allen Ginsberg.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Welcome to the edge of the world.

MONDELLO: Foreign filmmakers took us nearly to the edge of the world, with "The Wind Rises," a ravishingly animated tale of love and aviation in Japan; "The Hunt," a harrowing Danish film about an innocent man accused; and "Wadjda," an exuberant Saudi Arabian picture about a girl, a bike and a glimmer of social change.

And tooling entertainingly around Greece - though at the behest of American filmmakers, not foreign ones - was that talkative couple from "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," still gabbing away in "Before Midnight."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BEFORE MIDNIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Great. You know, I feel close to you. But sometimes I don't know. I feel like you're breathing helium and I'm breathing oxygen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: What makes you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: See? I'm trying to truly connect. It's a joke.

MONDELLO: No joke, though, this was quite a year. That's my top 10, plus 11 and I'm only stopping because I'm out of time. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.