Friday, February 28, 2014


It’s hard to believe another movie year has come and gone.  Yet here we sit on the cusp of Oscar® night 2014 and await the verdict of a relatively small group of people as to which films and/or artists are the so-called “best” in the calendar year 2013.

But as per usual, before that happens, I offer up my personal selections (primarily as to films) for the same.  The purpose of this and of the reviews I have endeavored to diligently post throughout the year is 1) to verify critical consensus or 2) to question critical consensus or, most importantly, 3) to point out films that, due to small advertising budgets or unfair critical treatment, you should consider seeking out.  Here I must confess that I haven’t seen enough films, or at least not a wide enough variety.  Resources are limited, and too often I use other critics and the Academy Awards® as a guide.  I will endeavor to do better next year.

As I look over this year’s list of favorite films, the one common thread seems to be that of belief, and, more specifically, how beliefs affect our actions and our reaction when, as is sometimes/often the case, our beliefs do not match up with reality.  You’ll find these examples in the list of films that follows:

  • A mass murderer who believes his actions lawful because the genocide was state sponsored.
  • An FBI agent who believes he’s one step ahead of the con artists he’s entrapped.
  • An addled old man who believes he’s won a million dollars from a mail order sweepstakes.
  • Slave owners who believe that treating human beings as property does not corrupt their soul.

And list could go on.

My reviews do not profess to be in-depth analyses.  I operate under the assumption that most of you prefer to read (and, let’s be honest, I prefer to write) short, digestible reviews.  However, if you find yourself longing to “go deep,” I recommend two exceptional books.  The first is Robin Woods’ Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, and it’s really two books in one.  The first half contains reviews of seminal Hitchcock films that Woods wrote in the 1960s when he was a proponent of the auteur theory.  In the second half, as the title suggests, Woods revisits most of these films from his new Marxist and feminist perspective.  The second book is A Cinema of Loneliness by Robert Kolker, which examines the filmmakers Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman.  Either of these books will give you much to digest.

Thanks to everyone who has read my reviews over the past year (and for some, much longer).  Particular thanks to Corey Nathan and David Fruechting, who are my biggest proponents on Facebook®.  I should also note that my reviews do not pop out of my head fully formed (wouldn’t that be nice!).  Most evolve through discussions with some insightful and passionate friends.  And so I must thank Dale Becker, Sterling Belefant, Trinh Dang, Julius Galacki, and Jeff Thomas for letting me borrow some of their ideas.  The following folks, in addition to being great sounding boards and passionate filmgoers, are also great friends and deserve profound thanks:  Pilar Alessandra, Cathleen Alexander, Nina Berry, Maria de la Torre, John Mark Godocik, Caroline and Michael Hick, Paul Millet, Michael Musa, Peter Shultz, and Cheri Waterhouse.  And there are others – Valerie Ahern, César Alvarez, Naomi Catalano, Tara and Adam Collins, Pat Dodson, Carrie and Corey Elliott, Jim Myers and Meriam Harvey, Pam and Scott Paterra, Kurt Ramschissell, James Serpento, Maritza Suarez, Brenda Thorson, and Frank Woodward – whose thoughtfulness, generosity and friendship mean more to me than I can adequately express.

Finally, I have to thank my mother and father, David and Vanette Pope, who have supported me without fail in all my endeavors, as well as my siblings, Tammy, Scott and Amy, just for being who they are.  Last but not least I must thank my niece and nephews, Devin, Mikayla, Sam and Levi, who have renewed my hope for the future. 

And now I offer you The Pope's Picks for 2013.  At the very least I hope they inspire you to see movies you might not otherwise consider.  If I have done that, then my work here is done. 

Brian Pope
February 28, 2014

(in alphabetical order)
THE ACT OF KILLING  This brilliant documentary follows two perpetrators of the mass Indonesian genocide in the 1960s as they unapologetically recreate their atrocities for posterity, and it shines a shattering light on the human capacity for denial and on society’s ability to justify and internalize the most cruel and repellent of acts.
AMERICAN HUSTLE  David O. Russell perfects the long con in this intoxicatingly entertaining comedy elaborated from the 1978 ABSCAM sting operation.  By emphasizing emotional acuity over plot intricacies, he elevates his film into an exploration of trust and the double-edged sword of belief with a touching gravitas.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT  Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke dive deep into the complex vagaries of long term relationships as we revisit Céline and Jesse nine years after BEFORE SUNSET.  They look with unblinking compassion on a marital crisis with an honesty that’s harrowing but also profound and affirming.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS  Director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray fashion this fact-based story of a Somali pirate hijacking of an American freighter into a taut nautical thriller that smartly shows the tragic trajectory of desperation, ponders the qualities of leadership, and acknowledges the devastating human toll of violence.
FRANCES HA  Evoking the spirit of the French New Wave, director Noah Baumbach finds an apt stylistic fit for this episodic story of a free-spirited woman finding her own way into adult responsibility.  The luminous Greta Gerwig gives Frances a daft blend of whimsy, guilelessness and self-absorption that’s impossible to resist.
FRUITVALE STATION  Ryan Coogler refuses to get on a soapbox in this heartbreaking chronicle of the final day of Oscar Grant III, a young black man shot to death on a subway platform by a transit officer.  He turns outrage into sadness by focusing on little details, and Michael B. Jordan’s performance adds depth to the tragedy.
NEBRASKA  The harsh, bleak landscapes of Alexander Payne’s best film since ELECTION reflect the inner life of its surly protagonist, and Bruce Dern projects regret from Woody’s watery eyes.  And yet, despite these unwelcoming environs, Bob Nelson’s screenplay finds warmth and tenderness in the smallest acts of kindness.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW  Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber’s beautiful adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel perfectly captures the portentous period between an open future and a closed past, and director James Ponsoldt elicits raw, tender performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley that feel refreshingly true.
STORIES WE TELL  Actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family to piece together the life of her late mother, and the journey becomes one of revelation and self-discovery.  Using every means at her disposal, she explores the idea of personal history as storytelling and creates the year’s most moving film.
12 YEARS A SLAVE  Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley tell the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery.  Ridley employs a formal period speaking style, and McQueen a rigorous visual formality to show how the institution of slavery corrodes the soul and corrupts all it touches.
Runners-Up of 2013
THE WORST of 2013
(in alphabetical order)
THE BOOK THIEF  The powerful young adult novel is made bland like cold oatmeal or an after school special set in Nazi Germany.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB  Strong performances are severely weakened by a clumsy, dated script and ham-fisted direction.
THE HEAT  Director Paul Feig turns the camera on and walks away, resulting in an overlong comedy that’s not as funny as it thinks it is.
MAN OF STEEL  What starts as an intriguing origin story becomes a sensory assault and, worse, undermines Superman’s core principles.
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS  J.J. Abrams puts the final nail in the coffin of the STAR TREK franchise.  Next up:  STAR WARS.  

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