13 Best Movies of 2013: Oversimplification of her Beauty - Terence Nance
13 Best Movies of 2013: Oversimplification of her Beauty - Terence Nance

Pass The Popcorn, Year's Best Edition: The 13 Best Movies Of 2013

It's almost Oscar time, fools--not to mention time to spend your post-Christmas weekend catching up on the best movies of 2013. Take advantage of the lull, my friends, if this year was any indication 2014 is bound to be an rapid-fire barrage of tragedy, joy and global change on a cataclysmic scale, all punctuated by an unprecedented run of really top-notch and groundbreaking movies. Pass the Popcorn and dig in--its gonna be a bumpy, buttery ride:

1. A Band Called Death (dir. Mark Christopher Corvino & Jeff Howlett) - A year full of groundbreaking "stepping out of the shadows" music documentaries was cherry-topped by this colossus exposé on the life and apparent death of a pioneering rock group from the '70s. Death, a mostly-forgotten group of  brothers whose love of the harder, less forgiving brands of rock, decimated their opportunity at a substantial career in music, even as black musicians were dominating the charts. Their trials lead to one seminal recording in a time when disco was king/queen. It's the unlikely tale of how that recording made its way into the ears, minds and hearts of a younger generation, and how that generation embraced Death as the first (black) punk band, bringing a group that had been shut out of record stores for some 30 years in out of the Detroit cold. - Zo

2. 12 years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) - The scene lasts two to three minutes - Solomon Northup barely has a toe on the ground. With the noose around his neck, his breath is laborious, his body taut, sweat rolls down his face under the hot, Southern sun. Time passes but no one comes to cut him down. The day passes; children play in the background. Finally, one brave slavewoman scurries in to bring him some water (but doesn't dare free him). The theater is silent save for the man beside me bobbing his knee. On my other side my friend grips the seat to avoid tears.  I recall thinking that I was having a more intellectual reaction; I was not. I was thinking:

But burn down what? The South during slavery? (Wasn't that somewhat what was accomplished by the Civil War?) But the Mason-Dixon line never did mark the limit of institutionalized racism and subjugation. Nor has the Civil Rights Movement and ensuing battles for equality completely altered the legacy of nearly twelve million Africans who were stolen, bound, and sold into brutal slavery for the economic benefit of the burgeoning Unites States.

Steve McQueen's stunning portrayal of Solomon Northup's true life story (based on his autobiography published under the same title) – an African-American, Northern freeman who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years – brings the depth and breadth of this legacy into sharp relief. Both McQueen's flawless direction and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's brilliant rendering of the character both humanizes and individualizes his experience, while they simultaneously forge a variegated symbol of where we have come from - and how far we have to go. -Vanessawithoutborders

3. 20 Feet from Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville)20 Feet From Stardom forces the ear to recognize and finally make the acquaintance of the most dynamic r&b vocalists the world has loved and somehow never truly heard.  Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Janice Pendarvis, Tata Vega, Judith Hill and The Waters Singers are a small but amazing selection of the unheralded talents that make the wheels of the industry turn as the unyielding and disgustingly funky backbone of the time-honored American soul sound.  The documentary walks the viewer across the bridge and the refrain, through a minefield of bright notes and bittersweet moments into a land inhabited by the enigmatic and often unsung warriors standing just afield of the burning spotlight--the backup singer.  These powerhouse talents are finally revealed to the world as the tireless legends they are; creators whose seminal recordings, emphatic virtuosity and remarkable omnipresence have made it possible for the sound to survive and the stars to have a hope of ever shining. -Karaslamb

4. Mother of George (dir. Andrew Dosunmu) - With cinematography by Sundance award-winning Bradford Young and styling by Mobolaji DawoduAndrew Dosunmu's Mother of George is without a doubt the most visually sumptuous film of the year. Like Dosunmu’s first feature Restless City (2010), Mother of George is fluid and impressionistic, and privileges the power of gesture to tell a story. The opening shots of his second, more plot-driven, feature embed us in the exquisite detail and elaborate beauty of a Nigerian wedding in New York. Gorgeous as it is, these opening scenes are shot through with both the warmth and security of familial love, and the familial expectations and keenly-policed cultural norms that often characterize close-knit communities. With moving performances from a stellar cast (Danai Gurira) deserves special mention, what unfolds is a story of love, longing, heartbreak and meddling mothers-in-law. - Derica Shields

5. Fruitvale StationFruitvale Station, the story of the days and hours leading up to the tragic death of Bay area youth Oscar Grant at the hands of Oakland PD--is in some sense the 2013 sequel to 12 Years A Slave; an unflinchingly close up look at injustice and institutionalized racism as it survives and thrives in the new millenium. But that reality is often told better by journalists and even average citizens who are on the spot when tragedy occurs. What Fruitvale Station does with admirable attention to small detail, is to tell the human story of one young man trying to make it in the world that is often left out of the news, the truth that is drained out of the police-and-thieves myth, if you will. The fact that Oscar Grant's story happens to be a New Year's Eve story just makes it that much more impactful as we reflect, spend time with family and contemplate what kind of country and world we want to live in; what kind of people we want to be in it - Eddie STATS

6. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)  

In one of the more obscure titles from this year's list, Upstream Color delivers a beautifully shot sci-fi narrative that immerses the viewer further into its disturbing-dreamlike world on virtually every turn it takes. Written, directed and starring Shane Carruth, UC is a conceptual wonder that revolves around the romance of Carruth and its female lead Kris (Amy Seimetz) after he helps extract a parasitic worm (with which she was drugged, brainwashed and robbed) from her body. The result is a moody and pitch-perfect thriller with much larger poetic ambitions, in which the audience is given the opportunity to see how love can grow in the most unlikely of circumstances--with the most unlikely of catalysts. - Zo

7.No (dir. Pablo Larrain) - Nowas the first movie I saw this year and its muted revolutionary message--downbeat, nuanced, hopeful almost in spite of itself--may be the best we can ask from any year which ends in '13. No ventures into the mundane heartbreaks and triumphs of the advertising man who takes on the task of convincing a brutalized Chilean citizenry into voting longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet out of office (in the famous 1988 plebiscite). Gael Garcia Bernal, coming across almost like a Che Guevera who's settled down post-Motorcycle Diaries, is a prosperous ad man who nevertheless plays the underdog to politicos who believe that the campaign will never succeed but should be used to air the opposition's grievances and bear witness to Pinochet's brutality. Never shying away from the contradictions of an ad campaign which uses the sunny language of capitalism and consumer culture--rainbows, microwave ovens, skateboards--to indict a fascist regime which used anti-communism to justify its worst abuses, director Pablo Larrain deserves serious props for making this story into a gripping one. Equally important however, are the film's simple but resonant themes: people want to be for something, not just against; allow yourself to imagine what victory looks like, and you might just make it real. - Eddie STATS

8. The Act Of Killing (dir. Anonymous, Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer) - The Act Of Killing is not exactly a story or documentary film as those terms are usually understood. It is more like a gigantic re-creation--a ritualistic act of psychomagic designed to exorcise the demons of genocide that have haunted the nation of Indonesia since the bloodletting of 1965-1966, when Sukarno, the first leader of independent Indonesia was overthrown by one of his own generals. More than just an essential episode of world history, in struggling to bring to light a story that defied telling, Act Of Killing may have just invented a new genre--or at the very least a whole new approach to documentary filmmaking. Must-see. - Eddie STATS

9. We Steal Secrets (dir. Alex Gibney) – We Steal Secrets brings us closer to understanding Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange than any newshour profile ever could. The film uses archival footage of Assange and interviews with his colleagues to tell the complicated and controversial story of Wikileaks. Perhaps most importantly, We Steal Secrets chronicles Bradley Manning's relationship with the organization and gives insight into why he risked his life and freedom to release classified government documents from the Iraq War. If you have a moral bone in your body you will be moved by this film and as the year of big brother draws to a close, we are more than relieved to find that it's still streaming on Netflix. - Allison Swank

10. Tey (dir. )Tey (trans. Today) sees hip-hop's prized laureate Saul Williams return to the screen as Senegalese expat Satché, who has recently returned to Dakar after some years of living in the states. Satché dies at the end of the day. And that ain't a spoiler alert– the tagline of Senegalese/French director Alain Gomis' predestined narrative is "Satché is going to die at the end of the day"). In the opening scene, dude awakes to find out, due to some unexplained custom, he's been chosen to die today. Despite its morbid premise, Tey is quite paradoxically a feel-good movie to the bone, a celebration of life with Toots & the Maytals "54-46" as its spirit guide. - Alyssa Klein

11. Muscle Shoals (dir.) – Tucked away neatly in the mountains of Alabama lies one of the most innovative and overlooked recording studios in the history of our most noble art. FAME Studios, founded and run by Rick Hall is responsible for a torrent of foundational recordings that flowed from that studio like water from the the Tennessee River which runs alongside it. With titles like Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman," Aretha Franklin's "Respect" and The Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There" (amongst countless others) under Hall's belt, the story of FAME Studios may be one of the most overlooked narratives in all of r&b. Muscle Shoals is the story of how a bunch of mountain boys from the underbelly of Alabama cemented their role amongst the titans of history at a studio that quickly became a satellite for Motown, Stax and Chess Records artists over 40 years. Music nerds take heed, this one is not to be missed. - Zo

12. Oversimplification Of Her Beauty (dir. Terence Nance) – In a famous one-line review of Arundhati Roy's novel The God Of Small Things, John Updike wrote, “A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does.” That would make a pretty good epitaph for Terence Nace's "Oversimplification Of Her Beauty" as well, which uses a unique collage of animation styles and different color and black & white film stocks to tell the love story Terence and Namik in a way that transforms 'love story' into 'singularity'. With original music by Flying Lotus (and executive produced by Wyatt Cenac, dream hampton and Jay Z ) Oversimplification Of Her Beauty is maybe best described as Okayplayerland's entry into the Oscar's Best Foreign Film Category - Eddie STATS

13. Let The Fire Burn (dir. Jason Osder) - Let The Fire Burn utilizes found footage to bring the story of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia back to the fore in a way that few have ever seen. Director Jason Osder ventures into the ruins, radicalism and yellowing stills of a wretched conflict to illustrate the tragedy through the words of Birdie Africa - the lone child survivor of the 1985 bombing - and the equally jarring testimonies of other victims called to testify during the post-bombing commission. The documentary re-opens a massive wound to expose the true story behind the lingering conflict between the followers of John Africa and local police that ultimately led to the conflagration that killed eleven people and burned through a section of the city, destroying 61 homes and leaving the population irreparably damaged. The MOVE bombing was the byproduct of an unapologetically bureaucratic system and the adjacent degrees of racial and social inequality that have bookended and often plagued the evolutionary narrative of the city. Osder does an amazing job of bringing viewers close enough to Osage Avenue to smell the smoke, feel the agony and taste the anger as hot and bitter as it was the day the City of Brotherly Love declared war on its own citizens, ordering Philadelphia’s finest to stand down and "...let the fire burn." - Karaslamb

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