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John Seal’s favorite film of 2013: Blancanieves
John Seal’s favorite film of 2013: Blancanieves

What lessons did I learn from cinema in 2013? First and foremost, that Somali pirates are very, very dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. From mainstream Hollywood’s Captain Phillips (an extremely well-made Pentagon recruitment film) to little Denmark’s A Hijacking and beyond to South Africa’s Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Subject Asad (which ultimately lost, of course, to the worst of the category’s five nominees), there was no shortage of heavily armed East Africans and bearded, pasty faced merchant seamen this year. Meanwhile, here at Big Screen Berkeley, gritty 21st century realism took a back seat to a silent, black and white retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. So without further ado: your humble scribe’s favorite 15 films of 2013. 

1. Blancanieves – Will the mini-silent film renaissance sparked by 2011’s The Artist yield further Academy fruit this year? Though perhaps a less than perfect recreation of silent film style – some of director Pablo Berger’s compositions are a little too modern – Blancanieves is beautiful to look at and tells a moving, emotionally engaging tale. There really was no serious competition for the number one spot.

2. Let the Fire Burn – It’s unusual for a documentary to do its job without relying on a heaping helping of contemporary talking heads, but this one pulled off the feat in grand fashion. Entirely fashioned from decades-old footage, Let the Fire Burn shamefully didn’t make the short list for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar. Meanwhile, something called Cutie and the Boxer did. Go figure.

3. Capital – There was a time when a new Costa-Gavras film would play for months in Bay Area arthouses. Those days, sadly, ended a while ago. This outstanding feature, a bitterly acerbic takedown of modern banking headlined by Gad Elmaleh and Gabriel Byrne, was yanked from release a week before it was set to open in Berkeley and San Francisco. While it may not be Z, State of Siege, or even Missing, Capital offers proof that Costa-Gavras is still fairly close to the top of his game. Hopefully it’ll be available on home video soon.

4. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – By far the funniest comedy of 2013 (perhaps the funniest comedy since Hot Fuzz tickled my funny bone in 2007), Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa may or may not get a US release. Starring Steve Coogan as the eponymous Norwich radio personality – a character created for a wildly successful BBC comedy series – the film’s humor is extremely Anglocentric, which probably won’t play well in Peoria, but should with luck earn it a Berkeley booking sometime in 2014.

5. Hannah Arendt – I generally don’t care much for biopics, but this is a good one. Carried by Barbara Sukowa’s superb performance as the German émigré philosopher and director/writer Margarethe von Trotta’s carefully constructed screenplay, Hannah Arendt provides viewers plentiful food for thought regarding the banality of evil.

6. Fruitvale Station – I cry easily at movies: all it takes is a well-timed manipulative musical cue and I’m gushing. That said, I’ve never cried at a movie as much as I did during and after Fruitvale Station. As flawed as the film was, its emotional impact was devastating – and headliner Michael B. Jordan’s performance a genuine revelation.

7. The Hunt – Filming a story about sexual abuse is never an easy task – especially when that story is told from a skeptical perspective. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt isn’t easy to watch, but it is extremely rewarding.

8. 12 Years a Slave – Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of my favorite actors, Steve McQueen a supremely talented director, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o a future star, but despite all the good work here I found 12 Years a Slave a little bit of a letdown. I guess I expected a little more Marxism and a little less Brad Pitt.

9. Berberian Sound Studio – Another film yanked from its Bay Area release at the last minute, this was the year’s best horror film, a marvelous tribute to and recreation of the golden age of Italian cinema. Enthusiasts for things that go bump in the night are urged to check out Berberian Sound Studio now that it’s on home video.

10. My Brother the Devil – Kitchen sink dramas don’t come much better than this one, a London-set drama in which future 007 James Floyd plays a young man pulled inexorably into a circle he doesn’t particularly wish to be pulled into.

11. C.O.G. – American indie feature of the year, and possibly the best film ever made about picking apples.

12. TIE: The Rabbi’s Cat and The Painting – I’m hard pressed to pick one of these films over the other, as both are wonderful French language animated features. I might give the slight edge to the extremely droll Rabbi’s Cat, but you can’t go wrong either way.

13. John Dies at the End – This weird, wacky, wonderful fantasy from Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli isn’t for everyone. It’s great fun, however, if you’re in the right frame of mind. Beer or other substances may improve the film for some viewers.

14. Parkland – A large piece of history recreated for the big screen in very fine detail. Paul Giamatti, unsurprisingly, is brilliant.

15. Sightseers – It’s grim up north – especially when you spend your holidays there.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...