Best of 2013: 10 films + 10 plays

Finally, my yearly wrap up of films and theater is here. As in 2012, I’ve focused only on those two cultures. You’ll find my favorite read of 2013 listed at the post’s end.

A rich year in film from studio releases to indies spanned a cinematic blend of nostalgia and cynicism. There was something for everyone to enjoy. I could have easily made a top 25 list (too long) but I’ve whittled it down to titles that I found original, immersive and influential – those that made me think, reconsider my opinion, provided entertainment or some combination of all.

My viewings were down this year in both film and theater. There’s still much film to see (The Past, American Hustle, Short Term 12, Her, Blue is the Warmest Color and Wadjda…). To see all the worthy theater productions – I’d need to win the lottery. The theater season was slightly less impressive until the fall, but the Brits Off Broadway Festival was a particular highlight. I will be seeing Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land after the new year.

Honorable film mentions go to Captain Phillips, The Hunt, In the House, Stoker, Prisoners, The Grandmaster, Drinking Buddies. And Joss Whedon’s gorgeous Much Ado About Nothing. I could go on, but without further, ahem, ado…

entertainment lists, film reviews, theater reviews, top ten films of 2013, top ten plays of 2013,

Films (in alphabetical order)

1 > 12 Years A Slave: Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in upstate NY, gets abducted into slavery. This film is a survival story – not only in body, but in how far the human spirit can be bent before it breaks. With outstanding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who brings humanity in desperation, and a stellar cast (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, among many) the film ultimately delivers a hopeful message. Stunning and meticulously directed by Steve McQueen, be prepared – it’s a brutal, but necessary journey. Yes, it’s as good as the hype.

2 > The Act of Killing: How low can humans go? Lower than you ever thought possible. Horrific, unfathomable and surreal, this documentary spotlights Indonesian death squad leaders – restaging their 1965 slaughters – Hollywood (or Bollywood) style. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer puts a face on pure evil. Driven by greed, and an incomprehensible form of entitlement, Anwar Congo and his fellow lowlifes display a shocking combination of bravado and mass murder. Unique and unforgettable.

3 > The Attack: Can we ever really know a person? Amin, a successful Palestinian surgeon assimilated into Israeli society, finds his world shattered when his wife is killed in a bomb attack and is responsible for the tragedy. While the region’s politics hover in the background, the film doesn’t take sides. The story unfolds in a much more personal way – it’s a collision of the haves and the have nots. When Amin returns to his homeland, he’s forced to remove his blinders and ask hard questions. It’s there that he discovers that the peace he seeks both about his wife and the conflict may never be found.

4 > Before Midnight: The final installment of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy is the best. The epic romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who meet by chance on a train to Vienna, spans nearly 20 years – exploring love, loss, regret and rebirth. Before Midnight is darker than the previous films. The characters, now parents in middle age, struggle to keep their long relationship together. With an excellent screenplay by Linklater and the two leads, superb acting and directing, I felt like a voyeur. Yet with all the messiness, resentment – and sometimes horror – I couldn’t look away.

5 > Frances Ha: How can you not root for Frances? Millennials run wild in this latest film from Noah Baumbach as Greta Gerwig’s charming but clueless Frances desperately searches for her place in the world. Shot in beautiful black and white in homage to the French New Wave, this is a sweet fable on growing up – defining one’s place and holding on to one’s dream – as once-carefree friends move on to traditional lives. Credit Gerwig’s airey and lovable performance for the film’s success.

6 > The Great Beauty: More than a little influenced by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Paolo Sorrentino’s 21st century Rome has all the veneer of the Eternal City. Rome is gorgeous, as are many of the vapid party people who inhabit it. Leading the party is Toni Servillo as Jeb who delivers a knockout performance as a society journalist celebrating his 65th birthday and realizes that his life is all glitz and no substance. The carnival atmosphere is stunning and sensual, but it’s the melancholy that drives this narrative, as Jeb’s newfound yearning gets explored but goes unfulfilled.

7 > Inside Llewyn Davis: Bravo Oscar Isaac, I’ve been waiting for your breakout role. The film launches in Greenwich Village in 1961 (just pre-Dylan) with Davis attempting to establish himself as a solo act after some success singing as a duo. Like Sisyphus, his day-to-day is frustration at each turn. Yet he’s unable to put those feelings to song, to connect. The soul of an artist without the ability. Sadness hangs on each frame of a gorgeous desaturated palette. The Coens beautifully set a melancholy tone with an acerbic undertone peaking through. Soulful and haunting.

8 > No: I didn’t get to see this film until 2013, so I’m including it because it’s terrific. This is a behind-the scenes look at the political marketing for the 1988 plebiscite. A transitional chapter in Chilean history, the “No” campaign moved the country from oppression under Pinochet to democracy. In a confident performance, Gael García Bernal stars as the apolitical adman who sells dissent to the masses with cheesy ads and a rainbow. It’s as amusing and as it is savvy.

9 > Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley’s smart, irreverent documentary explores memory and the slippery nature of truth. A deeply personal film, Polley serves as a detective to learn more about her mother’s infidelity and untimely death. She interviews her family and their close friends, and finds that each has their own truth. In the process, Polley unearths a family secret that not only redefines her place, but changes the narrative for the entire family. Mysteries, love, betrayal, heartbreak, history and complicated relationships – that’s family. As universal as it is specific. Marvelous.

10 > Upstream Color: Stunning images and a winning performance from Amy Seimetz support a puzzling narrative in Shane Carruth’s experimentally metaphysical love story that ponders if people really ever know themselves or each other. I have theories about the soundman and the pigs, but those aside, the film is hypnotic, and at times horrific, and made me connect the narrative on so many levels. Go in with an open mind – the rewards are many.

A D D E N D U M :  I got to see Her and American Hustle. I’d definitely add Her to my top 10 list.

Theater (in alphabetical order)

1 > Bull by Mike Bartlett: Two jobs, three candidates. You get the picture already. In this tense, short standoff of shifting and pretend loyalties, Bartlett explores a corporate world where the battle to get ahead becomes its own end, with metaphorical pokes, jabes, weaves and ultimately knockout punches. Fine performances (and fancy footwork) by all, especially Sam Troughton as the victim. I enjoyed standing around the ring – I mean office – and nearly being part of the action. [Part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival]

2 > Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins: Michael Urie stars in this original, quirky, solo comedy about an out of work gay actor landing a job as caretaker of Barbra Streisand’s underground mall. The only customer of course is Streisand herself. Urie deftly switches between all the characters and without doing an impression, brings La Streisand’s oddities to life. Divas, celebrity, stereotypes and self-discovery fly by with a tight script and a stellar performance. Charming.

3 > The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin: A female Victorian anthropologist attempts to land a membership in an elite, all male explorers club. Mix generous helpings of balls and booze, a cool blonde, a love-struck botanist, and a blue, indigenous tribesman – that’s a recipe for laughter. An expertly-tuned ensemble, excellent choreography (if you saw it, you get it) and over-the-top set design merge for an hilarious journey. It’s part farce, part satire – very British, and very funny. You might even find the elusive East Pole.

4 > Good With People by David Harrower: A beautiful, complex, two-hander and part memory play where a young man and middle-aged woman cross paths in a seaside Scottish town to find they share an overlapping past. In only 55 minutes, the imagery, dialogue and choreography combine with the force of an avalanche. Their interplay switches from confrontation, confession, and ultimately reconciliation as two lost souls passing in the night attempt to break from the past and live in the present. The actors were perfection. [Part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival]

5 > Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare: Now this is theater – you enter the theater space via a holding pen, so you’re part of the production before you even reach your seat. Phyllida Lloyd directed an all-female cast led by the fantastic Harriet Walter as Brutus in the grim surroundings of a women’s prison, as inmates and guards mount the play. But who’s in charge as the powers shift? It’s a ferocious, action-packed, loud, brawling atmosphere that reveals that chaos thrives even in the most oppressive places.

6 > Life and Times 1-4: Staggering, entrancing, maddening, heartbreaking, this innovative 4-play or 10-hour marathon (expected to be 16-episodes) is an epic tale of an ordinary life rendered in a lively concoction of theatre, song and dance. It’s the journey of a young woman from Rhode Island recounting her life, through innocence and experience, as she remembers it. You’ll learn to love those wonderful sounds “like, um, just, you know.” Loopy songs, props, Greek choruses, you name it – it’s here. Inventive, high energy and um, like, you know, life – a true adventure.

7 > The Model Apartment by Donald Margulies: This 1988 play concerns two Holocaust survivors from Brooklyn who retire to Florida. Once there, nothing is as it should be. Their place isn’t ready, and they’re put in a temp studio with props instead of real appliances etc.. To make matters worse, during the night, their mentally-unstable daughter shows up. It turns out they’re not just moving, they’re again fleeing – from this overweight, abusive force of nature. The tone is grotesque and shocking, but the excellent cast made all the characters painfully human.

8 > Regular Singing/The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country by Richard Nelson: The fourth and final visit with the Apple family in Rhinebeck, NY takes place on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. As with all the plays, life in the Apple household mirrors history. Death looms large with Marian’s ex-husband dying upstairs as the siblings plan Adam’s funeral. Loss and sacrifice are woven throughout this final chapter – that feels not quite as gelled as the previous three. Yet, I’ll miss spending time with the Apples where everything and nothing happens on each occasion. The ensemble is once again superb, with Maryann Plunkett giving an extraordinary performance in the role of a lifetime. Bonus: The 4-play cycle was filmed for WNET/PBS.

9 > The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin: Listen up, one of those panned theater experiences that I strangely found original and unorthodox for Broadway. We gathered to listen to Mary, mother of Jesus, tell her side of the biblical story, without the trappings of history. Yes, Fiona Shaw as Mary was over-directed, and the stage was overly busy, but the those moments when Ms Shaw wasn’t fussing were pretty terrific. Her quiet grief, her sadness, her infuriation when the Apostles try to sculpt a script for posterity instead of hearing her truth about her son. I’m sorry it closed so quickly and that more people didn’t get a chance to experience it.

10 > The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan: This was my first encounter with the play, as I love David Mamet’s 1999 film. The Roundabout’s mounting of this 1946 play by Terence Rattigan and his mantra “Let Right Be Done” proved to be equally enjoyable, but different. Exquisitely mounted, the story of a family attempting to clear their son’s good name unfolded over nearly three leisurely hours. With a wonderful cast, led by a masterful Roger Rees as the father, and a sly Alessandro Nivola as lawyer Sir Robert Morton, humor, feminism, honor, loyalty and romance ebbed and flowed with great precision until the verdict was returned.

Lastly, the book that kept me talking and debating the most this year was Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. It reads like a mystery novel – it’s a page-turner – and it’s nonfiction. Wright is a marvelous writer, and even if only half of these stories are true (I suspect it’s more like 98%), this belief system is a cult run by extremely disturbed people, Tom Cruise included.

There it is. What topped your list in entertainment for 2013?

4 Responses to “Best of 2013: 10 films + 10 plays”

  1. Tasha Norton Says:


    I enjoyed reading your film list. Couldn’t help but notice Gravity was missing. Was that intentional?


  2. Janet Says:

    Hi Tash:

    Thanks for reading. I loved the experience of seeing Gravity – fabulous effects – but when it was over, there was no there there for me. It seemed a purely sensory experience. Not that that’s a bad thing. So, yes, it was an intentional omission from my top 10.

    janet g

  3. lg Says:

    While I am still catching up with some of the films of 2013, some of my favorites were (in no particular order):

    12 Years a Slave
    The Place Beyond the Pines
    Inside Llewyn Davis
    In a World….
    Enough Said
    The Great Beauty
    The Way Way Back
    Dallas Buyers Club

    Shout-outs also to Frances Ha, Blancanieves, Blackfish, Terrafirma, Philomena, Still Mine

  4. Janet Says:

    All good choices. I’d still like to see Blancanieves and Philomena. I don’t know Still Mine.


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