Friday, December 27, 2013

REEL DEAL: Movies that Matter: Best Narrative Films of 2013

Jim Fouratt's REEL DEAL: Movies that Matter
Top Films of 2013

It has been a very good year to see quality, challenging, and entertaining movies in a variety of distribution platforms including theaters (my preference) to multiple streaming video-on-demand (VOD) choices (including YouTube, Amazon, Netflix). Given the quantity of quality films released and available to the public and your eclectic taste, I have decide to forgo an unrealistic top ten and give you my choices for a REEL DEAL: MOVIES THAT MATTER home movie festival. Think Sundance in your own living room. So make the popcorn, chill the beverages, and invite all your cineophile friends over.  Do make space for discussion after each film. This honors the work in a true Festival manner.  The top 25 films are ranked in order; 3 additional list documentaries, foreign film, and LGBT films (for all discriminating film lovers) are also included. So clip, copy or paste and get your queues started, simply Google the film with the words VOD platforms included,

(In order of preference)

David O. Russell is the best American director working today. American Hustle examines the underlying hope against all odds and the desire to reinvent oneself that is unique to the American psychic. Russell takes the viewer on a wild, unpredictable ride. Informed by the best work of both Frank Capra and Preston Sturges and tinctured with a sensitive post-modern sensibility. No one walks the path between intelligent comedy and social issue drama better than does Russell.  The film is also blessed with the best ensemble cast of the year. The stark contrast between the glorified decadence of Wolf Of Wall Street and the human condition under the complicated stress of the triumph of capital in American Hustle proves insight can be cinematic without embracing that which a director focuses on. Terrific!


Jem Cohen has been making beautiful, art-driven films and video outside the mainstream to critical acclaim in the multimedia art and music world. Here he tells a simple narrative story of a museum guard and a Canadian tourist slowly letting go of their insular loneliness and revealing themselves. This is simple storytelling with the depth of an opera of human experience. Filmed in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches art museum and featuring two understated yet sticky performances: Mary Margaret O'Hara as the tourist and Bobby Sommer as the guard.  O'Hara, a singer songwriter with an international cult following had all but disappeared from public view and wonder of wonders is alive, middle age and very present with her quirky insights emboldening her acting and her pas de deux with Sommer. Museum Hours is both an eye pleasure and a soul calming precious film.


Ziad Doueiri's controversial film The Attack was banned in some countries and denounced by both Zionist and Arab political groups.  It grapples with the politics of the Arab-Palestinian conflict through a love story set in Tel Aviv. Doueiri was born in Palestine, raised in Lebanon and brought up to hate all Jews. When he went to study film and to work with Quentin Tarantino, he finally got to know and like Jewish people for the first time in his life. Avoiding the pitfalls of pure documentary and mining the emotional boundaries of narrative storytelling, Doueiri choose Yasmina Khadra's novel The Attack to dare to ask serious question about the politics of assimilation, the meaning of marital bonding, and the shock of the unknown. A powerful love story about ambition and acceptance that asks the question can you ever be sure you fully know the person you love even after 15 years of marriage. The conversation of the necessity of change on both sides of the conflict are raised.


All the things that make a movie memorable are all the elements that director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e focuses on to make Dallas Buyers Club one of the best films of 2013. There are some remarkable performances by a ensemble cast lead by Matthew McConaughey, and Jared Leto, in a breakthrough performance that finds the brazen humanity and sassy refusal to be anyone but himself in the face of derision as a homosexual and a cross dressing, transperson.  Jennifer Garner plays the conflicted AIDS doctor and Denis O'Hare, as the play-it-by-the-rules AIDS doctor.  This is storytelling that brings to life an actor’s dream script - the complicated, messy tragedy of AIDS in the dark days of thousands dying and quilts made remembering them before they disappeared forever. It took 20 years for the script, written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, to be brought to the screen. (Thanks to McConaughey’s commitment and 12 producers out of the indie film world.)  While we have see activist film: the good (We Were Here) and the bad (How To Survive a Plague), Dallas Buyers Club picks up where Philadelphia ended. It is a film about self empowerment and the real time crisis of fighting for your life. It universalizes the struggle to live that any person diagnosed with a terminal health condition has. Dallas Buyers Club is the most important film about the people who got and get sick with AIDS. 

I am not surprised to see the attacks on DALLAS BUYERS CLUB from AIDS Inc and the
TAG activist boys who the FDA let in to sit at the table (read Elinor Burkett chilling history of this co-optation THE GRAVEST SHOW IN TOWN) . Its the AZT defense gang telling us how wonderful the cancer drug was that proved to be in fact carcinogenic and was withdrawn from the market. Until AIDS hit and it had a new new life it was suggested by its manufacturer for those incurable people facing a fast moving AIDS death. It was a leading AIDS activist, Martin Delaney the founder of Project Inform, who proposed that all healthy gay men in SF be given AZT with its DNA changing effect and its serious side effects as a prophylaxis (and that same kind of protocol is being proposed today by the Centers for Disease Control with a current equally serious aids drug. The program is called PREP ), The defense of the FDA by Peter Staley, the pin up star of Plague is reverberating in well place stories around the country is shocking as it rewrites history. So lets go back in time to the days that AZT is the only approved drug. The “take it or die” days. When the singer and founder of the National PWA Coalition Michael Callen compared AZT to draino and refused to take it. He with the support of his Doctor Joe Sonnabend gave birth to the first Buyers Club, the NYC PWA HEALTH GROUP.

Both SF and NYC had buyers clubs organized by People with AIDS who wanted to live; who cared about the quality of their lives that for the most part AZT was ruining. Alive but at what cost? I was on the founding Board of Directors of the NYC PWA Health Group's Buyers club. Neither it or nor the San Francisco buyers club was set up as profit making business such as in the movie and I don't recall in NYC non-gay PWA's being involved in setting it up. What the film gets right was the dismissive way AIDS doctors disrespected the right of PWA's to make an informed choice over what they would or would not do or take..And AZT was proving to be a nightmare with many people on it dying horrible deaths. Yes some people thrived, although it was anathema back them to suggest that all bodies were not the same and would not respond in the same way to all treatments. But most, like the Matthew McConaughey character in Dallas Buyers Club were made sicker by AZT. Yes there were many treatment straws desperate people wanting to live were grabbing at ...and some had promise and gave hope.

I think there is more authenticity to the portrait of PWAs that I knew and loved in Dallas Buyers Club than the dishonest fairy tale construed by David France in that terrible PLAGUE film. The two doctors in the film rang true to me. Denis O'Hare captured the desperate desire to find a cure that put data above the quality of life of any individual PWA. Jennifer Garner 's role honors all those health care provides who knew they were failing by sticking to protocols officially designated as the only treatment allowable treatment. These health care providers saw that the side effects of AZT upclose and saw how the Buyers Club gave individuals not only hope but also choice over their treatment their participation in their treatment.
It was the Denver Principals issued by PWAs at the 2nd International Aids Conference in Denver role-modeled this change in the relationship of the PWA with the AIDS industry growing up around people dying. Dallas Buyers Club also also breaches one very taboo subject: SEX. PWAs wanted to be sexual beings and were grappling with this reality when no one in AIDS inc want to talk about it. Again it was Michael Callen, his lover, drummer Richard Dworkin, his fellow PWA the sex worker Richard Berkowitz along with Dr Sonnabend who had the courage to talk about how to have sex in their radical essay HOW TO HAVE SEX IN AN EPIDEMIC Dallas Buyers Club captures all of this and from the point of view of people with AIDS desperate to live. Some like Michael Callen as in the case of Ron Woodroof survived years longer than the death sentence they had been given. All of this is in Dallas Buyers Club...and it is an inspiration for any person or their family facing a health crisis who demands to know ALL their treatment options and how to make informed treatment choices..and be supported by their healthcare provider in their informed choice. It is not just about AIDS... and what is remarkable about this film is it resonates not only death but the humor of looking death in the face and saying ..hold it . I am not ready. I want to live!

Oh.... I got bounced from the board of the PWA Health Group when I objected to a very serious treatment protocol that could be proven fatal  if not administered by a professional health care person. I was overruled and bounced! And that defined for me the difference between being sick and being told you were dying and being healthy and caring.

Dallas Buyers Club is the most important film about the people who got and get sick with AIDS.  It is a four-hanky movie with a much needed gallows humor to balance the sadness and anger. See it!

It is a four-hanky movie with a much needed gallows humor to balance the sadness and anger. See it!


It’s over, you live in Paris, the ex is back in Tehran, the daughter is confused. Without a divorce you can't move on. You are pissed off at the world. In his follow up to the Academy Award winning The Separation, Iranian director Asgard Farhadi looks into the life of a woman who fell in love with an Iranian expat. The relationship ended. He left and she kept the child. He needs to return, sign the divorce papers so she and her current boyfriend can move on. He does and The Past explores how complicated and full of conflict it is bringing closure into the past. The ex-husband travels to Paris to sign off on the marriage and also to move forward; a very sad and angry human condition, and one that deeply reflects not only the personal but the political realities these physical moves telegraph. It is told with the same subtlety that is a hallmark of Iranian film and full of the same kind of integrity and cinematic skill seen in The Separation and less seen but equally as brilliant  After Elly. The Past portrays a universal reality that confronts many couples across landscape and identity. The wife, Berenice Bejo (The Artist), the husband Ali Mosaffa (Lelia), and the boyfriend Tahar Rahim (The Prophet) are the triangle the beautifully crafted and shot film landscapes. Universal in storytelling and Chekhovian in how the interior dialog navigates an external political reality without ever becoming polemic. Masterful.

Q&A post variety screening with director Asgard Farhadi

6: HER

Director Spike Jones has written and directed a parable on contemporary culture where digital life has replaced personal human contact. It is seeded everywhere in the Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram culture of social interaction. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of the year as a recently-divorced computer writer nerd who falls in love with his siri-like computer operating system-generated companion. She is humanized and masqueraded in the sensual, caring, seductive voice over of Scarlett Johansson. She only exists in his ear and imagination; a frank critique of the loss of human interaction and its replacement by a digital creation of the other. What it says about the couple’s relationship is profound. Jones seems to be asking how can you be heartbroken when the person you created from your repressed sub-conscious cannot actually be touched or kiss... at least not if you do not have a 3d printer. Brilliant on all levels.


Hany Abu-Assad's Omar is perhaps the most important political drama and the saddest movie of 2013. After his Paradise Lost captured international recognition at Cannes and made visible this Palestinian director, there was much anticipation surrounding his new film. Omar landscapes the physical reality and the emotion tension young people who live in the occupied territories experience day after day. It also shows the brutal trap young Israeli soldiers find themselves in as they internalize the fear and consequently create impersonal, sometimes brutal relationship to the people of Palestine as they carry out “security” measures. It makes a shocking case for the disruptive effect the long-term occupation has in denying to the Palestinian youth the possibility of a normal life and the ritual of love and family if they stay. Beautifully construed and powerful on a human level. A companion piece to The Attack.


Alexander Payne takes us on a slow drive through any Midwest rural town on a grey fall day after the trees have been stripped of leaves and color; where communities that have FOX's news channeled into their local donuts shops and American Legion halls where retirees gather. The middle class dream has collapsed on itself and their children have fled elsewhere for work. We meet a family where the father teeters on early dementia, (Bruce Dern in a remarkable performance anchored in discipline and focus) a wife (June Squibb) whose tart tongue masks a love as solid and impenetrable as a heart made of steel, and their two sons in dead-end jobs they are lucky to have. Dad receives a letter which he believes says he has won a million dollars (the magazine sales trap). Despite his wife and sons telling him it's a scam, he refuses to believe it and defiantly begins to walk to the big city to pick up his winnings. A beautiful elegy to what the American dream was and how it left a generation behind.


Ridley Scott has never been afraid to lift the scab of the respectable veneer of business (American Gangster), space (Alien) or war (Black Hawk Down).  In The Counselor, he takes a hard look at the violent underpinning of the business of international drug dealing; the manipulation of people for profit and the conspicuous consumption of material goods. Michael Fassbender brings his sleek, cool persona to the role of a counselor, engaged to Penelope Cruz. He has no idea of the sinkhole of deception when he is seduced into saying yes to a one-time business arrangement with a stylish cunning drug lord (Javier Bardem). Enter Cameron Diaz, the most wicked female character we have seen in action drama since the earliest days of an ambitious Barbara Stanwyck. Diaz fleshes out the man- and woman-eating beauty who can as easily paint her nails as she can gun down anyone who stands in her way. The Counselor sheds the mask of civilized hedge fund game-playing to reveal the insatiable, immoral desire to use and/or abuse anything that stands in the way of being the richest drug leader in the cartel. It is a chilling and disturbing look at how capitalism works in the free market drug world.


The most Americana of all the films on this list is not made in the USA but is a Belgium film written and directed by the young talented Cannes prize winner Felix Van Groeningen. Based on a successful play that he saw by accident and fell in love with: a Bluegrass story telling that has as many bad luck turns as it does declarations of love that any an authentic country music hit should have. A remarkable ensemble of actors bring to life the heated and tragic love central to this story telling. One of the outstanding performances of the year is delivered by Veerle Baetens, as a young, tattooed, punkish, country singer, She falls in love with a singer songwriter that loves her back but a tragedy (oh so country) implodes their relationship. In the tradition of perhaps a 40s Jane Wyman women's film updated to have all the swagger and lust of a riot grrr child of feminism who thinks she is entitled to be equal in all her relationships. The faithful creation of a contemporary bluegrass adult fairy tale is rooted in the music performed in the film. I swear I thought it was June and Johnny or a couple leaving a BushwICK bluegrass joint.
interview with director Felix Van Groeningen.

10A Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen returns to serious subject matter after his recent bom bom to Paris. Blue Jasmine is a film about the world of Bernie Madoff and the people he fleeced. No, not a word of the script says this but it is the underlying tension of the film. Like a modern Chaplin, Allen organizes his story telling by focusing on the individual journey documented in each resonant frame. Here, like in American Hustle, we meet a woman who has reinvented herself to be what she thinks is success. Cate Blanchett (Jasmine) as would be expected brings to life this desperate woman whose life has fallen completely apart as she clings on to her perfect Channel suit that suffers as she does in the story telling. Think Ruth Madoff. But Woody like a comedic Fassbinder is never satisfied with one simple story line . So we meet her, slick crooked devil tongued, con man husband (Alec Baldwin of course), her working class sister she has tried to hide and now is the only one she can turn to ( Sally Hawkin in a performance begging for an Oscar) , her ex husband (Andrew Dice Clay wow is he good) her current boyfriend (sexy greaser Bobby Cannavale) stand out . A moral tale in vivid technicolor . And Woody does have a way with making a city beautiful and here he does it again including the fast shrinking working class part of the Mission district and goes to the top of Pacific Heights where wealth lives.and teh would be elected official( Peter Sarsgaard) lives and is the possible solution to Jasmine's situation until her past catches up with her fantasy of herself . I kept thinking leaving the theater just how much money does Ruth Madoff still have?

Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale post Variety screening Q&A :

11: Philomena,

Fifty years of holding a secret that Nuns shamed her to keep finally breaks. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan bring to life the indentured slave memory of a teenage pregnant girl who has her baby taken from her and sold by Irish nuns and who lie about where the child is, Dench goes searching and  Coogan as a well known British journalist sacked to cover up a politician scandal  goes with her . A story of redemption and courage. Dench is magnificence!
12: Short Term 12,

Director Destin Daniel Cretton's  break out film at SXSW about a group home for troubled teens. Bree Lawson plays a counselor with a deep secret and turns in one of the best performances of the year . Challenging questions raised and surprise answers given

13: Fruitvale Station, 

Based on a real life New Year's eve killing of a black young man out with his friends by a white cop in a subway station witness by many with cell phone's recording which contradicts the police story, Writer Ryan Coogler's debut film which went through the Sundance lab program takes us int the back story of who this man was (Michael B, Jordan) and the mother (another strong performance from Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer) and the girlfriend ( a feisty Melonie Diaz) and baby he left behind

14: Mother Of George ,

Most visually beautiful film of the year . Immigrant community tries to impose old world values on the new culture they have been transported into ,A mother meddles in a young couples life and the results are disastrous

15: Blue Is The Warmest Color

This complicated film of a teen age girl coming to sexual awaking is a smart, provocative look at class differences, high school cruelty, lesbian desire and art snobbery . All swirling around a girl whose sexual desire for another women is erotically displayed on screen, Much more than a sex romp, it is a telling story of one of the most significant rites of passage a young person has.

16: Lee Daniels: The Butler, 

Lee Daniel's bring his Greek sense of family drama that is at the core of this important look at how one black father choose to support his family. It plays against five decades of the effects of racism and the changes rooted in a father /son culture/political clash.

17: A Taste Of Sin,

A forbidden look into ho the move towards free market capitalism is effecting the grandchildren of Mao 

18: Spring Breakers, 

With Gregg Araki pastels and bikinis galore, Harmoy Kroine most commercial film plays like a strip search of permissive parenting as progeny run wild . James Franco embodies one of the most memorable characters this year and gives new meaning to sexy predator. .

19: Upstream Color

A science based mystery that twists and turns in ways unexpected. An indie film triumph is a genre that demands 100's of millions of dollars be spent in genre filk making. Writer/Director Shane Carruth on a smal budget makes a vibrant film whose story telling-is rooted in sexual desire and scientific research , Beautiful to look at and and challenging in the best way to understand.

20: Lovelace ,

Oscar winning documentary filmmakers turn to narrative feature to tell the story of the first porn star to go mainstream. Not a Hollywood fairy tale but a real time study of domestic abuse,drugs , mafia,  exploitation, celebrity and fame and a look at the dark side of the 70;s sexual revolution. An astonishing  performance  by Sharon Stone unrecognizable as the mother of Linda Lovelace 
Sundance 2013 post screening Q&A 

21: Captain Phillips,


Who knew that Hollywood's best know Mr. Nice Guy was capable of such a strong and commanding performance . Well apparently director Paul Greengrass did and Tom Hanks commands a ship in pirate take over trouble and together give the audience the most exciting ride this cinematic year

22: Lone Survivor,

A war soldier tale with a very different tone, Soldiers left out in the cold on a dangerous mission in Afghanistan show how loyalty to each other in moments of high conflict overcomes fear . Ben Foster shines but it is a true ensemble piece with supportive craft skills at highest caliber. Nice to humanize a soldiers caught in an impossible moment. The production craft skills are point perfect

Q&A with Peter Bart Director

23: A Teacher,

A taboo subject, teacher-student intercourse is focused on the teacher as also a victim when she allows her desire to overcome her judgement. She falls in love with her 17 year old student and unravels while he struts around the school like peacock in heat. A woman under the influence of lust is left seduced and abandoned. Thought provoking indeed,

24: In The Name Of...  

Polish director Malogoska Szumowska took home the prestigious Teddy at this year's Berlin Film Festival for this insightful look inside the mind of Roman Catholic priest coming to term with his homosexuality .He is a teacher and a student falls in love with him from afar and as he realizes it he has to come to terms with his repressed homosexual desire. A nuance film on a subject which lives in the world of condemnation and witch hunting .

25: Sunlight Jr.

A sad tale of how a working class couple implode under the stress of economic survival during the recent recession. Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon are at top form in Director Laurie Collyer's follow up to the acclaimed Sherrybaby,

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