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John Fink’s Top 10 Films of 2013

Written by on December 31, 2013 

5. Let the Fire Burn (Jason Osder)

Let the Fire Burn tells the incendiary story of multiple bad decisions made by the City of Philadelphia which lead to the destruction of a densely populated neighborhood in attempt to “evict” the extremist African American liberation group MOVE. Told entirely in archival footage, Osder masterfully captures time and place; we know exactly what was known then, as muddy as the facts are. Framed by testimonials given before a commission investigating the day, the chips fall where they will. A powerful, thrilling, engaging and essential documentary, it’s fresh, speaking to us in the present tense from 1985.

4. Finishers (Nils Tavernier) 

Finishers is a wonderful, crowd-pleasing tearjerker, inspired by the real life Hoyt Family. Starring Fabien Heraud as Julien, a 17-year old with congenital palsy, he gravitates towards his mother (Alexandra Lamy) while his relationship with his father Paul (Jacques Gamblin) has remained distant. After several attempts, Julien convinces Paul to carry him on his back for the grueling Iron Man France triathlon. Packing a physical and emotional punch, Finishers (currently without a US distributor) is a first-rate family sports drama that left not a dry eye in the house when it premiered at TIFF.

3. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer & Anonymous)

The Act of Killing is rare kind of film that leads to a temporary paralysis. Examining the current lives of former members of Indonesian death squads, they are celebrated as heros for their work in ridding the country of communists. They continue onwards participating in talk shows, TV pageants and recreations where they receive the royal treatment. Indonesia has never had a truth and reconciliation moment and Oppenheimer (and collaborators credited anonymously), have made a brave and powerful film exploring a bastardized version of history. The film forces us to question the narratives of our national history: what atrocities have we glossed or repressed?

2. Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Alexander Payne’s latest feature is his best, a wonderful film that does so much right from its unique tone (shifting quietly from parody to melancholy) and its relationships. The story is centered around the life of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, in a brilliant performance) and potentially his alternative life as he returns to rural Nebraska on his way to claim a prize. Enabling the stubborn old Woody is his son David (Will Forte), a lonely stereo salesman. June Squibb also gives a hilarious performance as Woody’s wife. Nebraska is a rough, yet lovable movie, hitting notes so rarely seen. It is one of the best road comedies ever made, embodying the old notion that road movies are about the journey, not the destination. Here is a film that reflects on journey in truly profound and often heartbreaking ways.

1. At Berkeley (Fredrick Wiseman)

A rich, behind-the-scenes look at academia, Fredrick Wiseman studies his largest institution yet while barely scratching the surface. Berkeley is a challenging subject, a laboratory of many issues percolating in higher education, however, administrators interested in transparency give Wiseman tremendous access. Each scene never overstays its welcome as the film captures many fascinating moments from the bottom up. Juxtaposing administrators crafting a public safety and PR response to a planned protest, with a classroom where freshman undergraduates struggle to define their roles in society, At Berkley, the 38th institution-centered documentary by Wiseman, is not only one of his best, but his most accessible, despite its four-hour running time.

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