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Survivor: Hollywood

film-gravityBig and small films to remember from 2013

What is it about these angsty times that’s causing the movies to go all Gloria Gaynor on us? The biggest trend in the films of 2013 was the simple fight for survival—on land (Dallas Buyers Club; 12 Years a Slave), sea (All Is Lost; Captain Phillips), outer space (Gravity), even in the music biz (Inside Llewyn Davis; 20 Feet From Stardom). Some of these were great, but I was mostly drawn to small human stories this movie year. Here are a few of my favorites (including some you might have missed):

GRAVITY A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft suddenly find themselves adrift in space. What can they possibly do? The variety of answers may surprise you in this smart, lean, elegantly composed edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera, it’s a space procedural in which ordinary human ingenuity meets ever more incredible and daunting odds.

20 FEET FROM STARDOM Morgan Neville’s documentary tribute to the heroines of rock, the background singers, is as incendiary as the voices of these incredible vocalists. The stories of these primarily black women—how they were used, abused, and/or empowered by the industry, whether or not they dared to take that 20-foot walk into the spotlight—are a remarkable cultural document of five rich decades in the pop music scene. And OMG, the singing!

MUD Jeff Nicholls’ hypnotic tall tale simmers with danger, disillusion, humor, and heart, and Matthew McConaughey’s star performance radiates all of the above. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are astonishingly good as two 14-year-old boys growing up on the banks of the Mississippi in rural Arkansas who get involved in the crazed romantic schemes of a disheveled desperado. An entertaining yarn of fathers, sons and surrogates.

BLANCANIEVES Pablo Berger’s flavorful retelling of “Snow White” is a silent film (no spoken dialogue, but a vivid musical soundtrack), shot in luminous black-and-white, set in Seville, Spain, ca, 1920. The heroine is a young lady matadora, and her story unspools in a heady milieu of flamenco music, bullfighting, and women’s emancipation.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Who else but Joss Whedon could set William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy (original Elizabethan-era wit and wordplay intact), in modern-day Santa Monica, and shoot it in black-and-white? This visual detail suggests the sparkling vintage screwball comedies of the 1930s, an impudent idea, realized with great charm and affection.

GINGER & ROSA The remarkable Elle Fanning and a very affecting Alice Englert star in Sally Potter’s simple, yet potent story about teenage girlfriends, mothers, fathers, and daughters, and all the ways those delicate balances can be tipped. The touching authenticity of these young female voices will speak to anyone who has ever been a 17-year-old girl.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS This harrowing true story about an unarmed U.S. freighter captured in 2009 by four trigger-happy Somalis with automatic weapons is a bracing dose of recent history from director Paul Greengrass, told with his typical no-frills realism and escalating intensity. Tom Hanks is riveting as the cargo ship’s captain; Barkhad Abdi is excellent as the leader of the Somalis.

12 YEARS A SLAVE Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a haunting performance in Steve McQueen’s blistering, unexpurgated portrait of what slavery was like in the pre-Civil War American South. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, the film shows with heartbreaking precision how the loss of common humanity is the true cost of slavery. A film of rare courage that educates and mesmerizes.

THE HUNT A child’s remark brings lives to the brink of ruin in Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s complex drama, set in the twilight zone between acute moral responsibility and witch-hunting. The film plays like a compelling thriller, with Mads Mikkelsen giving a performance of astonishing force and subtlety.

MUSEUM HOURS Anyone who has ever haunted an Old World museum with a rich collection of Late Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings may find herself strangely beguiled by this meditation on art and life, past and present and the many ways and places in which they intersect.

JUST FOR FUN: GOOD OL’ FREDA Freda Kelly was just 17 when she landed a job as personal secretary to The Beatles in 1962. Ryan White’s documentary is as ebullient, down-to-earth, and irresistible as Freda herself.

GUILTY PLEASURE: THOR: THE DARK WORLD Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic thunder god, and Tom Hiddleston’s utterly delicious performance as his ne’er-do-well brother, the trickster god, Loki, propel this idiotic, yet surprisingly fun mangling of Norse mythology.

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