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Beatniks, mass murderers and other wonderfully flawed characters make this year's movies

Few other films have affected me as much as Blood Brother, the story of a regular Pittsburgh guy named Rocky who decides to travel to India to work with HIV-infected orphans. I know what you're thinking: cheap setup to tug at the heartstrings. But Blood Brother is different. Rocky is different. And Rocky's best friend, director Steve Hoover, tells a story different from any other I've seen. The film alternates between such powerful displays of love and kindness, and loss and pain, that by the end you're somehow both spent and hopeful. I cried during most of the second half—and choked up again while telling my wife about it afterwards. I sound like a sap, except that I'm apparently not the only one. Blood Brother came away from Sundance with both grand jury and audience honors for best documentary, and then earned the top prize at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. (SB)

If you're a fan of the Beats, you're in for something special, particularly after the disappointment of last year's On the Road. John Krokidas could have botched Kill Your Darlings a million ways, but he avoids overindulging the clichés associated with the Beat generation, and instead lets their work inspire his own voice. The photography is gorgeous and poetic, with a manipulation of shadow that often nears perfection. (JW)

12 Years a Slave is an expertly crafted, eerily beautiful film with a clear message and a lot of violence. If you're thinking lynchings, bloody backs and women wailing spirituals in the cotton fields while men fall down dead from exhaustion, you're right. There are times in the middle, with no real plot or story arc to hang our hat on, where our only respite is that, unlike the protagonist, we know from the title that there's a certain absolution we're working toward. And still you're thinking, just how long is 12 years anyway? (ML)

Walking out of The Counselor, I knew I'd witnessed something grotesque and brilliant. I felt disoriented and cheated, and yet the moment it was over I wanted to turn around and watch it again. How to explain? Imagine if everyone in the salacious melodrama Wild Things were a philosopher, and in between their shady double-crossings and backdoor deals, the characters took the time to sit down and discuss eloquently with each other the true meaning behind the nature of reality, truth, love and their own twisted motivations. (ML)

click to enlarge Blood Brother
  • Blood Brother

This is a comedy, sort of, except it's as serious as a heart attack and carries with it the dread of a horror film. Coming so late in Woody Allen's career, it's a gift to be given a film so fresh and current in its sensibilities. Blue Jasmine is a domestic, personal story about corporate greed and its consequences. It's about class and entitlement and it invites you to consider your own priorities. (ML)

Inequality For All, the new documentary built around Robert Reich, aims to push wealth distribution back into the forefront of the national debate. Aided by Reich's knack for simple but precise metaphor, director Jacob Kornbluth unleashes an array of graphics that consistently—and startlingly—drive home how the laws and prevailing culture in this country have given the United States the largest distance between haves and have-nots, by far, of any developed nation. The fact that Reich and Kornbluth have somehow put an entertaining spin on such a tragic story is simply icing on the cake. (ND)

I went into Blackfish, a film that takes a deep dive into the 2010 death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau and parlays that investigation into a call to end orca captivity, with an oversized grain of salt. As it turns out, the salt came in handy—it made the crow I was served by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite go down just a bit easier. I came away from Blackfish with a greatly enhanced understanding of orcas, and a newfound respect for their social dynamics in the wild. (ND)

Fans of the novel Winter in the Blood will be pleased to know that directors Alex and Andrew Smith went to great Backbone of the World heights to stay true to James Welch's original work. It's a brave move. The Smiths have turned a beautifully uncomfortable story into a beautifully uncomfortable film. It's hard-hitting and tragic, surreal and funny. It's the kind of movie a writer would want made about his own work. (ND)

The Iceman is a controlled, disconcertingly quiet film, directed by Ariel Vromen. The first thing required of you is to put yourself in the mind of a man who barely knows how to love, thinks everyone is out to get him, has a limitless capacity for violence and doesn't seem to be afraid of death or consequences. Thus is the story of Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), the real-life Mafia hit man who from 1948 to 1986 killed at least 100 people. I saw a screening in Michigan with my mother, and afterward she asked me, "I wonder what Michael Shannon is like in real life," which suggests that some men are so frightening and powerful on screen that it's impossible to imagine that they could be normal in real life. (ML)

Finally, the dismal spring season has given us the first truly awesome film of 2013. The Place Beyond the Pines is a tragedy told in three movements. It's a careful portrait of two men and their families, the choices they make and the consequences of those choices. How are fathers supposed to model the right way to live for their sons? After 140 minutes, the film isn't any closer to an answer, and yet it never feels long. I want everyone to go see it, go home and think about it, and then go see it again. (ML)

click to enlarge 12 Years a Slave
  • 12 Years a Slave

In 1965, a failed coup in Indonesia led to a communist purge in which more than 500,000 people were tortured and executed. One group known as the "Movie Theater Gangsters" carried out countless arrests, interrogations and murders. In 2005, Joshua Oppenheimer, a Texas filmmaker, and his crew met and collaborated with this gang—now wealthy old men who have never been charged with any crime—in order to recreate their exploits on film. The Act of Killing documents this process, and the result is one of the most powerful and revealing works of cinema I have ever seen. (JW)

In Gravity, I found myself carried by Sandra Bullock's breath. Her oxygen is dangerously low and she's scared. In one particular shot, the camera creeps in on her face slowly, until it circles around in one uninterrupted take and the perspective changes from observing to the observed. We become the astronaut looking out through her helmet into the dark. It's evident in the scaffolding that director Alfonso Cuaron has set out to make an enduring, classic film. Who knows how it will fare over time, but he's at least succeeded in making one of the best movies of 2013. (ML)

There are times when a moviegoer seeks shelter from the unrelenting blaze of the Big Hollywood sun, and it's comforting to know that shade can be found under the canopy of compelling narrative dramas, if you know where to look. One such respite is Mud, the film from story-driven writer/director Jeff Nichols, starring Matthew McConaughey as the title character. Nichols has a true gift for dialogue, and he uses that gift to establish his characters as unabashed romantics. When Mud is asked to describe the moment when he knew that he loved Juniper, he says it was "like the whole world split apart and came back together new." Gorgeous stuff. (ND)

In 1995, writer and director Richard Linklater made a simple independent film called Before Sunrise about an American traveling in Europe named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the Parisian student Celine (Julie Delpy) who he picks up on a train one afternoon in Vienna. Nine years later, the characters reunited to make Before Sunset. Before Midnight is unique in the series because the enemy is no longer circumstance; now they have nothing but time, and with so much real life to look forward to, they turn on each other. At times heartbreaking and frustrating, Before Midnight is a good film in its own right. You don't need to have seen the first two to get something out of this one, but it helps. And if you've seen the others, you have no choice. You can't just abandon them now. (ML)

Film reviews by Molly Laich, Nick Davis, Josh Wagner and Skylar Browning.

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