The Dissenter’s Top Films of 2013

Throughout the year, I see many films, and, whenever I have the time after viewing a film to produce a review, I do because I enjoy writing about films.

Like a number of others, it has become a tradition of mine to put together a list of ten top films at this time of year. In 2012, I posted a list of ten top films.

I managed to find the time to write full reviews of the following films this year: At Any PriceDirty WarsAct of Killing and We Steal Secrets.

The ten films I selected for 2013 are not ranked in any order, however, I will single out two films made by first-time filmmakers as being the films that had the greatest effect on me this year: Wadjda and Fruitvale Station.

The films I included as ones that I “Did Not Get to See” can be interpreted as an acknowledgment that they may have made the list if I had been able to view them.

This year, the list of films I created has added significance because I wrote it thinking about the death of critic Roger Ebert. He taught me how to write about movies. While he did not really enjoy making top ten lists and hated ranking them, his list was always something to look forward to each year. So, in tribute, I dedicate this year’s list to him.

The Act of Killing

The premise involves filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer inviting Anwar Congo, a former Indonesian death squad leader who is now a celebrated founding father of a paramilitary organization, to make a movie re-enacting their acts of torture and killing as they remember them. When given the opportunity to make a film, they choose to draw from American films that inspired them and shoot scenes in the style of classic gangster, western or musical films. Indonesian women and children, whose families may have been communists that the death squads murdered, are recruited to be in the film, and the goal of the film, to Congo, is to show younger generations why it was necessary to exterminate the communists.

There are multiple layers to this documentary, which is probably why it is one of the more compelling films ever to be produced. It examines the history of mass murder as being justified and why those who were responsible are respected by current officials in the Indonesian government. It provides a look at the influence American cinema had on leaders of death squads. And, on a deeper level, the film confronts what happens to a society that does not address impunity and how that affects memory—what children are being taught about the society in which they live.

At Any Price

This film shows the dark side of the “American Dream.” Directed by Ramin Bahrani, it tells the story of farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) and his family as they sell genetically modified seeds for an Iowa seed company. Whipple fervently believes, like other farmers he is competing against in Iowa, that his business must “expand or die.” His business is under threat from a rival family farmer, who is successfully convincing Whipple’s customers to buy seeds from him.

Bahrani depicts an ongoing social and moral crisis driven by what Bahrani characterized in one interview as the “idea that one should keep expanding endlessly, while celebrating growth and stability.” Whipple forces his family to embrace the capitalist creed of “expand or die” and, in the course of not only surviving but also trying to maintain an empire, viewers are presented with a family willing to sacrifice moral values so the Dream stays alive.

Dallas Buyers Club

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a rodeo bull rider, electrician and a hustler, who is diagnosed with HIV. Those who have the virus are presumed to be homosexual. The story also takes place at a time where a predominant belief was being near anyone with HIV could lead to the spread of the disease. But, it is not Woodroof’s transformation from a homophobe into a less bigoted person when faced with prejudice that makes the film worth viewing.

The story fictionalizes an episode in history when the Food and Drug Administration selected a pharmaceutical drug for experimentation and development to fight the AIDS epidemic. There were better cheaper drugs being produced outside the United States, but the government protected the potential profits of a major pharmaceutical company by refusing to adopt regulations to allow for the importation of these drugs. “Buyers clubs” sprouted, where drugs from outside the country which were illegal were being made available to people with memberships. Woodroof started a “buyers club” and, as this film depicts, he took on Big Pharma and challenged some of the worst aspects of America’s for-profit health care system.

Dirty Wars

Up until this film, there was no documentary that appropriately, methodically and honestly addressed the flawed and often pathologically dangerous basis for continuing to fight the global war on terrorism. Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowley, follows journalist Jeremy Scahill as he works to uncover the United States government’s covert operations and explores the story of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and Muslim cleric who was put on a “kill list” and assassinated by a US drone.

It involves an intensely personal narrative where Scahill transforms as he sees the effects of the secret war being waged by America in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc. The personal narrative ties disparate episodes in the film together and forces viewers to grapple with the reality of a country that has adopted the idea that the “world is a battlefield” and, in the name of national security, its forces can go wherever and do whatever they please, including targeting and assassinating people outside of declared wars.

Fruitvale Station

On New Year’s Eve, in the Bay Area of California, 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant was shot by police on the train platform by a Bay Area Transit Police (BART) officer. Footage of him being shot, taken by cell phone cameras, immediately spread across the internet showing an officer shooting him in cold blood. He died at the hospital. Oscar’s family and the wider community pushed for justice but Johannes Mehserle was acquitted of the most serious charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. He was only sentenced to two years and served 18 months before he was released.

This debut film from young director Ryan Coogler humanizes Oscar, showing the last twenty-four hours of his life based off research the film’s crew conducted by talking to individuals who came into contact with him on his last day. It artfully incorporates text messages that Oscar sent. Even the most insignificant things said take on significance in his final day, and it invites us to consider police brutality from the perspective of a victim’s family rather than the perspective of police who seem to always find ways to justify the use of lethal force. And this leaves us thinking about the person Oscar could have become if he had not been killed.


Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an old alcoholic with two sons and a wife, who have all become tired of taking care of him as he moves closer toward to the end of his life. There is much that Woody cannot do anymore, including drive, but that does not stop him when he gets in his head that a letter he received notified him he had won $1 million that could be collected if he traveled to Nebraska.

Whether Woody has grown senile and cannot understand that he did not win a million dollars or understands but needs to go on a trip to Nebraska to do one last thing with his life, it does not really matter. It is the scenes in between and the characters from Woody’s fictional hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska that make the film memorable. Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb) just about steals every scene in which she appears. An effort by his sons (Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk) to help their father recover an air compressor is in of the more hilarious scenes in a film this year. The black and white cinematography also nicely accentuates the simplicity of the lives of everyone in the film.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

The film, produced by Chicago-based documentary company Kartemquin, presents a period of the life of heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, when America turned on him. His birth name was Cassius Clay. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam. It was also during the Vietnam War and he was opposed to going to fight in the war. He resisted the draft and conscientiously objected to it. For that, he was blacklisted and could no longer get states and boxers to fight in the ring.

Director Bill Siegel uncovered some incredible footage for the film while also putting some of Ali’s closest family and friends on screen for viewers to see the effect the demonization of Ali had on them. It is a story of freedom, about a man who became more and more comfortable speaking out against racism and war as his government was trying to put him in jail. It celebrates the parts of this heavyweight champion’s life that made him a worldwide revolutionary figure while at the same time confronting Americans with what society did to a revered person, who they discovered had views they were unwilling to tolerate.

12 Years a Slave

There is a scene in the film that is the most beautiful visual presentation of slavery in all its ugliness and cruelty that I have ever seen. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hanging from a tree and, while he is dangling with his toes barely brushing the muddy ground, the people of the plantation, including slaves, move about behind him as if they cannot see him in agony at all. It is framed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt in such a way that the viewer feels not only the physical pain that Solomon is going through but also the mental pain as he dangles there helpless knowing there are people nearby, who could save him from this punishment yet refuse to do anything.

While several aspects of Northup’s autobiography are inaccurately presented in Steve McQueen’s film, it has a story truth that makes it remarkable. The ensemble cast is also impressive. It is a welcome antidote to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Except for the scene with a Canadian abolitonist (Brad Pitt), there is very little hope that any part of the white power structure will save Solomon or any of the other slaves. It is a fictionalized portrayal of a part of history most Americans would rather forget.  And, although one could claim it is all over, the story could easily be updated to tell the tale of a free black man sold into the prison-industrial complex in the era of what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”


From female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, this first film ever made in Saudi Arabia tells the story of ten year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) as she commits herself to raising enough money to buy herself a green bicycle. The harsh partriarchal society does not permit girls to ride bicycles. When she tells her mother (Reem Abdullah) she wants a bicycle, her mother is enraged. She decides she will win a Koran competition to win prize money that will give her enough to buy the bicycle.

The cultural repression of women—having to keep their head covered, not being allowed to drive and being responsible for not allowing men to see them—becomes the space in which Wadjda finds herself. She tests many of the traditions knowing instinctively they make little sense and are intended to keep her down. And Mohammed infuses her character with a spirit that leaves one joyous to see a young girl refusing to lose herself in the patriarchy of Saudi Arabia.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The dark comical presentation of organized crime on Wall Street in “Wolf of Wall Street” by director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter is offensive—and it should be. Inspired by the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who engaged in illegal schemes and built a stock firm that achieved infamy, characters are shown engaging in depravity and excess inside and outside the office. This involves alcohol, cocaine, quaaludes, hookers, jerking off and other self-indulgent acts that accentuate the nature of those who worked on Wall Street in the 1990s.

Showing characters routinely engaging in hedonistic behavior communicates the corruption of Wall Street far better than explanations of market manipulations ever could. If this is allowed to happen and even encouraged, it is not difficult to comprehend why stockbrokers would find it acceptable to scheme and swindle Americans out of their money so they could be filthy rich.

Honorable Mention: “American Hustle,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “Europa Report,” “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”

Did Not Get to See: “After Tiller,” “At Berkeley,” “All is Lost,” “Hannah Arendt,” “Her,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Past,” “The Square,” “Upstream Color”

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