By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
In a banner year for filmmaking, black films, filmmakers, screenwriters and actors thrived. You can enjoy their movies, and those of other people who showcased their talent in 2013, by hitting the theaters this holiday season or seeing films on DVD or VOD.
12 Years a Slave (****) Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) puts slavery in America on full view. He bases this bio-drama on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who is hoodwinked into going to D.C. in 1841 and is subsequently enslaved. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup takes on the most difficult male role of the year. Michael Fassbender (Shame) a demonic slave owner and Lupita Nyong’o as the owner’s abused mistress excel. A perfectly directed, produced and acted allegory that fills a cinematic gap.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (***1/2) – Sometime in the 1970s, in the Texas hinterlands, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and his wife Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) commit a horrible crime. He is sent away. She is courted by the local sheriff, Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster). Bob gets out, and three’s a crowd. A very atmospheric and brooding movie steeped in southwestern culture. Wondrously photographed (Bradford Young) and directed (David Lowery). As hard-hitting as a gunshot wound.
The Attack (***1/2) – This meditative view into the intricacies of Israeli/Arab conflict provides a needed perspective. Cinematographer turned writer/director Ziad Doueiri turns a novel by Yasmina Khadra into a riveting psychological drama that exams the tense feelings between the two cultures. An Arab surgeon (Ali Suliman, Paradise Now) lives in Tel Aviv. A suicide bombing kills 19 people. His wife (Reymonde Amsellem,) is accused; he is incredulous and pursues the truth. Tense and suspenseful.
Before Midnight (****) – An American/French couple (Ethan Hawk and July Delpy) reflects on their lives one summer on Greece’s countryside. This is the third chapter in a series of films that started with the young lovers in Before Sunrise, progressed to Before Sunset and now has become an endearing rumination on love, relationships, parenting and maturing. The heart-warming script is courtesy of the lead actors and director Richard Linklater.
Fruitvale Station (***1/2) – Rarely has such a small-budget indie film made such a large impact. A young black man, Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), goes to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. On the way home on the BART transit train there’s an incident, he’s arrested by cops and shot dead—in front of witnesses. Riots and a controversial trial ensue. Oakland-born and first-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler graphically recreates the lead-up to a sobering event that unfolds like a Greek tragedy.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler (***1/2) – Finally, we get a glimpse at African American history without Hollywood’s usual whitewash (The Help). Director Lee Daniels uses the true story of Whitehouse butler Eugene Allen, who worked with presidents Truman to Reagan, as the basis for this thoughtful drama. Daniels rises to his full potential as a filmmaker chronicling the Civil Rights Movement. Oprah Winfrey’s performance as the wife grounds the movie, David Oyelowo’s interpretation of her son gives it forward momentum and Forest Whitaker provides a steady hand.
Gravity (****) – This is not a sci-fi movie. This is a drama set in outer space about astronauts (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney) who get broken from their tethers and are hurled into space. The story and characters seem so genuine you want to reach out and grab their ropes. Credit Alfonso Cuarón’s (Y tu Mama Tambien) ingenious direction for the stark realism. Sandra Bullock’s sensitive performance deserves a Best Actress Academy Award. In 3D – but you have to see it at an IMAX theater for full impact.
Out of the Furnace (***/12) – A war vet (Casey Affleck) refuses to work in a Pittsburg steel factory like his brother (Christian Bale). He turns to fight clubs to make a living. His smarmy manager (Willem Dafoe) begrudgingly sets the ex-soldier up with a venomous promoter (Wood Harrelson) who maims his prey. Strong script and direction by Scott Cooper sets a bleak, desperate small town atmosphere in this working-class revenge thriller. Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepherd and Zoe Saldana complete a stellar ensemble.
The Square (****) A group of Egyptian activists, based in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, battle tyrannical regimes in a quest to find democracy and a voice. This immersive documentary takes you inside an incessant revolution that yields upsets but no winners. Egyptian dictatorships, fought and gone. Military rule, fought and gone. Elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership, fought and gone. Still no peace, just unrest. Director Jehane Noujaim takes you to the center of the battlefield with searing documentary footage.
World War Z (***1/2) – Summer blockbusters came and went with little fanfare. Except, the very haunting Brad Pitt post-apocalypse thriller that elevated the zombie/horror genre. Pitt, as a United Nations employee, crisscrosses the globe trying to stamp out a Zombie pandemic that threatens to end humanity. Shot all over the world with daring escapes and wizardry special effects. Directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball). So scary you’re afraid to look at the screen!
Twenty Feet from Stardom
All is Lost
Blue is the Warmest Color
Half a Yellow Sun
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Mother of George
Short Term 12
Star Trek Into Darkness
This Is the End
American Hustle (Silver Linings Playbook was perfect. This film is sloppy.)
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen’s writing and direction are on autopilot.)
Captain Phillips (An archaic, John Wayne save-the-day movie.)
Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers are resting on their laurels.)
Iron Man 3 (A very shallow live-action comic hero movie that made a fortune.)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (This film needed an auteur. Not Ben Stiller)
Hangover Part 3
The Lone Ranger
Only God Forgives