Monday, 30 December 2013

The Best Films Of The Year 2013

At the very start of the year I launched my new Letterboxd account, enabling me to keep track of and log every film I viewed in 2013. This invariably spurned me on to indulge my passion for film on a far greater scale, interacting with fellow fans and taking inspiration and recommendations from their comments and reviews. Looking through the list below, I would say it's been a very solid, if not a bona-fide classic year for cinema. Certainly the Summer blockbuster season was particularly underwhelming this year I thought, although this was more than compensated for by a particularly strong showing for both horror and indie-spirited American dramas.

Criteria for inclusion on this rundown of my favourite films of 2013 in the end boiled down to films that were released in UK cinemas for the first time this year and new films which debuted on DVD / Blu-ray which had bypassed UK cinemas. In a change of policy from previously, films available on import discs which had not yet been released in the UK, but were legally available to purchase from overseas, and films that featured in UK film festivals or regional screenings were omitted from my selection process this year, I'll do a separate post (or more likely a Letterboxd list) dedicated to them in the coming days. The full list of all the films I saw in 2013 (both new & old) from which I selected mychoices can be found in my Letterboxd Film Diary 2013.

Despite viewing nearly 300 films this year, the vast majority of which appeared to be new releases, it was as always the case that it's impractical or indeed impossible to see everything in time before the year ends, so while there were a few notable exceptions which appeared on many other end of year 'best of' countdowns, several of these were films I have little or no interest in actually viewing. Such titles would include (in alphabetical order): Before Midnight / Blackfish / Blue Is The Warmest Colour / Blue Jasmine / Behind The Candelabra / Beyond The Hills / Frances Ha / Short Term 12 / The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and a few others. Other releases I didn't catch, and may or may not have impacted on inclusion below in some capacity, were (again in alphabetical order):  47 Ronin / All Is Lost / American Hustle (limited UK release over Christmas) / Anchorman 2 / Big Bad Wolves / In Fear / Nebraska / Philomena / Saving Mr Banks / Stalled / The Counsellor / The Hobbit - The Desolation Of Smaug etc - as many of which as possible I look forward to catching up with next year. So, here then at last is my final list of my favourite films of the year:


Kathryn Bigelow's exhaustive account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is one of the finest American movies of the last ten years. Remarkable for its attention to detail and objective docudrama approach to its controversial subject matter. Portrayed through the dogged determination of the superb Jessica Chastain's indelible CIA operative, Maya, obsessively tracking down her man. The tone of the film is one of simmering suppressed emotion building to visceral urgency as she closes in on her prize target.
Devoid of Hollywood cliche or accepted thriller convention - there's no small-talk, sentimentality, romance or needless subplots, this is a film about the minutiae of a manhunt and the strategy of surveillance. A film defined by characterisation, steadfast determination to prevail and intricate extensive methodical procedure, which gives way to a fabulously tense and surgically shot action climax as investigation turns into insurgency. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Zero Dark Thirty is the decision to have it devoid of jingoism and conventional audience manipulation. This is a non-judgemental film, subdued not celebratory, morally and politically ambiguous, unafraid to let the viewer fill in the blanks and make their own judgements on its eventual outcome. For me, from when I first viewed it in January, right through until the dying days of 2013, this remains the year's very best film.

Cloud Atlas is in many ways a staggering achievement, a film from three different writer / directors with an all-star cast each taking on numerous roles across the spectrum of age, race and even gender, encased in a storyline spanning several hundred years through the past, present and into the distant future. As such this hugely ambitious film is something of a sprawling cinematic conundrum, truly epic in scope, with endless visionary avidity, a real multiplicity of ideas and underlying ideologies each of which come to be unified by the grand theme of freedom via ultimate inter-connecting destinies. Cloud Atlas is rather like watching six films at once, as structurally the various time lines and sagas dart back and forth via seamless editing, although such a concept can be overbearing and almost too much to absorb in a single sitting, as a density of ideas and styles interweave throughout the narrative tapestry. By its very overreaching nature Cloud Atlas is undeniably flawed in places, there's some particularly risible dialogue at times, as well as an over-reliance on pseudo philosophical and theological rambling, which also gets weighed down further at times by mawkish sentimentality. However, if you are willing to overlook such faults, and set aside snobbery, there's the opportunity to be rewarded by a film which is without question a technical, visual and logistical marvel, its cumulative time-spanning stories delivering a rich, rewarding experience. This is the sort of adventurous film that just doesn't get made anymore, a massively high-reaching, risk-taking movie which breaks just about every perceived rule of the modern day blockbuster by being full of ambition, inspiration, originality and artistry.
Visually astonishing, technically revolutionary, very much a ground zero film for the true potential of 3D, Gravity was cinema as a genuinely immersive experience and in many ways the not inconsiderable hype surrounding it was entirely justified.
What I still wonder about Gravity though is just how much it relies on its jaw-dropping visual trickery, especially in stunning stereoscopic form? Because without such zero gravity gimmickry, the basic plot is just that.....basic. It really is a very routine and incredibly minimalist survival storyline which piles on the peril thicker than a drag queen's make-up to paper over its narrative shortcomings. Yes there are moments of genuine raw emotional impact here and undeniable nail-gnawing tension at times, but it's not any kind of spoiler to assume that despite their seemingly insurmountable plight everybody doesn't perish. Mainstream Hollywood films just don't work like that. Besides, there's a strong spiritual subtext running throughout and none too subtle visual hints about birth and rebirth (glaringly obvious foetal metaphor anyone?), that outline precisely where this is headed. Even at the film's bleakest, most desperate, most heart-wrenching moment when a single tear floats towards us as the rest of the screen evaporates into fading nothingness, we're still fully aware redemption is on the cards, so the sense of jeopardy remains tempered.
It will be very interesting indeed to watch Gravity again in the near future, on a television, in intimate surroundings, away from the initial hype, excitement and cinema projection theatrics, to see if it holds up on a fundamental dramatic level. But based solely on that single cinema screening in November, Gravity is in many ways a game changer - a technical, artistic and cultural watershed moment in the evolution of movies, which truly encapsulate the pure escapist, immersive and wondrous quality of cinema as an artform.

From the initial pirate pursuit to the exhilarating boarding sequence, right through to the prolonged white-knuckle hostage siege and its raw, arduous coda, Paul Greengrass is back on pulsating United 93 form here, milking every last drop of nerve-shredding suspense from another traumatic true-life story. Bolstered by arguably a career-best turn from Tom Hanks whose character arc flows from affable everyman with a neat line in resourceful one-upmanship, to the blunt realisation of just how out of his depth, vulnerable and perilous his plight has become. Matching him stride for stride is an astonishing debut performance from Barkhad Abdi as the head of the Somali pirates who acts as a perfect counterfoil, two starkly contrasting captains literally a world apart.
The film's strength is in humanising the pirates, not merely villainous Hollywood ciphers, portrayed here with even-handed balance and background. These are men who through poverty, circumstance and corruption are as much victims as the crew they hold captive. Two markedly different worlds and lifestyles clashing against a backdrop of international commerce and globalisation, pawns in a far bigger game. Yet for all its socio-economic subtext and docudrama realism, Captain Phillips at its core is just a brilliantly constructed edge of your seat thriller, with mesmerising performances, and spiralling nail-chomping tension, courtesy of the best action director at work today at the very top of his game.

When one of the first lines of dialogue in a film is a pivotal character demanding to "fuck a fourteen year old", you know Nicolas Winding Refn is being wilfully confrontational, delivering an intentionally obtuse and abrasively noncommercial movie, a truculent rebuttal to those hoping for more of the crossover appeal of his previous offering Drive. What we get instead is a film that in many ways is deliberately abstract and devoid of warmth, happy to revel in a transcendent neon cocktail of simmering sleaze and unflinching brutality. This is a film where every character is essentially hideously unpleasant or at best deeply flawed, Ryan Gosling goes for icy detachment to the point of being somnambulant, but somehow remains cooler than an ice sculpture of James Dean, even when Refn delights in subverting and emasculating his screen persona in the film's crucial fight scene. As impressive as Vithaya Pansringarm is as the shark-like avenging angel (or Devil maybe?) Chang, it is the revelatory performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as the malevolent matriarch who dominates proceedings, with her explicit venomous tirades and jarringly perverse musings.
Whilst there's no denying the aesthetic overload of the film, it's beautifully filmed, a simmering nocturne dream shot in sultry shades with a haunting soundtrack, mood and atmosphere more of a consideration than conventional plot or pacing, and whilst it may be more profane than profound, it's certainly not guilty of the crime of style over substance many have suggested. It's an unaplogetically artistic film, one that has nods to everything from David Lynch to The Searchers, a movie dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky and containing the most magnificently mental final reel since Holy Motors. Drive 2 this definitely was not. One of the year's most daring, experimental, provocative and stimulating films it most certainly was.

Don Coscarelli makes a further claim to being one of the most interesting and under-appreciated filmmakers working today. That through various trials, tribulations and lack of studio support it has taken him ten years to follow up the sublime Bubba Ho-Tep is a travesty. That his new film John Dies At The End based on another slice of revered cult fiction is every bit as imaginative, ingenious and idiosyncratic is a revelation. A film that is seriously out to (naked) lunch, this fever dream freewheelin' fantasy is a heroic heady mix of inebriated ideas and insanity, a hypnagogic hit of Fear And Loathing, Monty Python, William S Burroughs, Bill & Ted, Supernatural and the frenzied weirdness of the Phantasm series.
More mad incident and deranged invention takes place within the first fifteen minutes of this film than most genre pictures can muster throughout their entire duration. Whilst ambition might exceed budget at times, this movie constantly subverts perspective and perception with surreal tongue in cheek mirth, there's a knowing quirkiness coursing through the very fabric of the insanity, yet it manages to deftly stay just the right side of self-aware smugness. Some feat for a movie that includes scenes of people being attacked by flying malevolent moustaches, hot dogs being used as communication devices to another realm, and visits to crazed alternate dimensions that mirror Eyes Wide Shut. I absolutely loved every last minute of this mind-bending madness.

7) MUD
Mud is a sumptuous Southern rites of passage fable, rich in character and detail, beautifully capturing the fragility and complexity of trust, family and companionship. It’s a film with an ethereal, vintage sensibility, so evocative of its time and place, a film that ebbs and flows like the Arkansas tidal estuary it is based around. A masterful blend of emotive coming of age drama, bittersweet mystery and compelling crime thriller. It’s a slice of arresting, authentic Americana, which for me betters both The Place Beyond The Pines and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, great though they both were, emerging as the finest film of its type this year. Matthew McConaughey, for so long treading water in run of the mill rom-coms, is compelling as the titular Mud, his renaissance as a magnetic screen presence continuing after his equally solid star turns in The Paperboy and Killer Joe, but he’s matched all the way here by the marvellously naturalistic and accomplished performances from his two young co-stars, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Throw in more heavyweight support from Reese Witherspoon in a sort of tragic faux femme fatale role, the ever-dependable Sam Shepard and an underused Michael Shannon, all on tip-top form, to add to the general aura of quality and style of the production. The only time the film derails slightly is with its rather orthodox insistence of adhering to traditional thriller conventions towards the end, but otherwise this is one of the finest American films of the year and confirms Jeff Nichols as one of the most important and talented filmmakers of his generation.

Evocative, uplifting, buzzing with maverick energy, this brilliant biopic of Irish music mogul Terri Hooley proved to be the biggest surprise of the year. Set amid the chaos and carnage of 1970's Belfast, it tells the rather naive rise of the man who through enthusiasm and stubbornness created his own mini musical empire more by accident than any grand design. Starting off with a ramshackle record store and moving onto his own DIY record label and reluctant role as band promoter, he was instrumental in the birth of the Belfast punk scene and the man who sent The Undertones on their road to stardom.
Perfectly capturing the conflict and confusion of the period, this isn't some sugar-coated rags to riches fable, it remains grounded in gritty reality and nostalgic authenticity. With a superb central performance by Richard Dormer, and a sizzling soundtrack which not only features the Good Vibrations bands, but a whole range of fantastic tracks including Stiff Little Fingers' classic Alternative Ulster and the sublime Dream Baby Dream by Suicide, this is an inspirational, rousing, life-affirming film which proves the overwhelming power of music as a unifying force in the face of horrific division and distrust. Magical.
Enchanting, whimsical, laugh out loud funny, The Kings Of Summer is a rare subtle teen movie which beautifully captures the clumsy awkwardness, confusion, conflict and complexity of youth. Friendships and fledgling relationships are formed and fractured, as three teenage friends escape the grim regime of parental control, setting off into the leafy wilds for a rebellious attempt at independence.
With rich characterisation and charming performances, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts' feature debut is a winning combination of feelgood nostalgia and razor-sharp acerbic wit. Standouts are Nick Offerman as the grouchy father of one of the teenage runaways, displaying a brilliant line in caustic humour and brutally blunt put downs. Moises Aries as that weird kid every school seems to have, and who just sort of randomly tags along uninvited, is an equally inspired comic character, with his miserable attempts at wilderness camouflage and the baffling inability to differentiate between cystic fibrosis and homosexuality. Such quirkiness is a major part of this film's considerable charm and charisma. The Kings Of Summer is a sumptuous slice of affectionate Americana, a joyful coming of age drama, uplifting, warmhearted and alluringly evocative of those sun-drenched golden summer days of childhood. 

Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are is a lyrical, melancholic slice of pastoral American Gothic infused with a solemn tragic tone. What's more, it's actually a rare example of a remake which surpasses the movie it is based upon - the 2010 Mexican movie of the same name.
Tweaking the basic plot and characters of the original, to the point of a total gender role reversal, but maintaining all the underlying grimness and macabre menace, Mickle's re-imagining is a masterpiece of ominous mood, heavy with a pervading sense of unease and a dark portentous aura hovering over proceedings like the Grim Reaper's shadow. It's also a strangely moving film, one which doesn't paint its protagonists in easy to pigeon-hole blacks and whites, regardless of the often hideous nature of their activities. Here's a film that works on many different levels from emotionally impactful drama to religious parable and of course fundamentally a grisly and morbid horror movie, but handled throughout with a rare maturity, intelligence and powerful pathos, unfurling like a twisted fairytale of faith, family and feasting on forbidden flesh. In a particularly strong year for horror cinema, this was right at the top of the pile.



21) RUSH
34) 2 GUNS
37) IRON MAN 3

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