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Annual Top Films Lists

Best of 2013: Jordan M. Smith’s Top 20 Films (Picks 20 to 16)

Fruitvale Station poster20. Fruitvale Station – Ryan Coogler

Sundance has left a lasting impression this year. Among the lucky few who attended the world premiere of Ryan Coogler’s Grand Jury Prize winning debut feature in Park City, to say the least, I was completely blindsided by its overwhelming emotional power and distinguished empathy. Coogler’s fictionalization of Oscar Grant III’s last day before being murdered in cold blood by a Bay Area police officer breathes life back into the man – a father, lover, son, and former inmate – by all accounts accurately illustrating him with warmth and understanding of his sometimes fiery personality. With a promising young director behind the camera and a set of vibrant new talents before it in Michael B. Jordan’s wholly fleshed out depiction of Oscar and Melonie Diaz as his girlfriend and mother of their child, Fruitvale Station is a devastating and culturally crucial work. [July 12th NYC & L.A Release – Fox Searchlight]

Cutie and the Boxer poster19. Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling

There are few things more beautiful and curious than the strength of love embodied in a decade spanning marriage that still holds strong. Bathed in the remnants of alcohol abuse and neon splashes of paint, Zachary Heinzerling has found a peculiar example in Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, a pair of émigré artists who have lived with and loved one another for over 40 years. By becoming a constant presence in the Shinohara household, the filmmaker managed to unveil a delicate intimacy beneath their wisecracking banter, all the while unpacking the complexities of what it means to live the life of struggling artists with extraordinarily compassionate, gorgeously lensed filmmaking that holds much promise for future doc projects. [August 16th NYC & LA Release – RADiUS-TWC]

Valentine Road poster18. Valentine Road – Marta Cunningham

The second of a handful of films on my list tackling the horrors of unjust killings, Marta Cunningham’s heart-wrenching investigation into the murder of a gender bending 8th grader named Larry King by his classmate Brandon McInerney shows with miraculous poise just how a community can breed such despicable intolerance. By allowing her balanced array of interviewees to freely speak their mind, friends and mentors deconstruct the events of that tragic day and lovingly remember Larry, while teachers and jury members alike openly share the opinion that Larry deserved to be killed for making Brandon uncomfortable in his own skin. Cunningham frames the film’s most shocking and sensitive moments with complete candidacy, a testament to her admirably empathetic interviewing skills. In her questioning she only seeks one thing – why did this heinous act occur? There is no easy answer, but within there a tremendous call for celebration in compassion. [October 4th – HBO]

Dirty Wars poster17. Dirty Wars – Rick Rowley

For those familiar with Jeremy Scahill’s work (he’s mostly known for his investigative journalism, which previously led him to uncovering the truth behind Blackwater), one might assume that Dirty Wars would be a condensed tie-in throwaway piece that would release alongside his newest secret exposing tome, but Rick Rowley’s doc is something much more. Taking home the Cinematography Award from both Sundance and Telluride last year, the film is an enthralling docu-noir that sees Scahill traversing the world like some kind of real-life globetrotting Mikael Blomkvist, taking anonymous threats, bedding down with exotic warlords and uncovering horrifying truths behind covert US military operations all along the way. This is important cinematic journalism at its very best.   [June 7th – IFC Films & Sundance Selects]

Leviathan poster16. Leviathan – Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel

Just off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the same treacherous waters Ahab sought his monolithic white adversary, a pair of filmmakers hailing from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab set out to document the oddly mundane and physically extreme daily experience of commercial fishermen and came back with one of the most radical documentaries of recent memory. Drenched in the blood and viscera of unfortunate sea creatures dropped from brine bathed nets and hacked into consumer ready slabs, Leviathan is both the stuff of nautical nightmare and dazzling documentary experimentalism. [March 1st NYC & LA Release – The Cinema Guild]

Next: Picks 15 to 11.

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