2013 might just be another year in terms of film, but it’s been a landmark year in terms of my own contribution to the world of local film. If you’ll indulge me before we get down to business, just a few thank yous I need to put out there. I’ve continued to contribute to Cambridge 105 radio show Bums On Seats, and this year hosted the show three times as well. Huge and hearty thanks to the legend that is Toby Miller, captain of the good ship Bums and the man whose robust editing has come close to making me make sense for the first time in my life, and to all of the other reviewers who’ve had to put up with me throughout the course of the year.
I’ve also had my first reviews published during the Cambridge Film Festival on proper Cambridge film website Take One, and thanks to Rosy Hunt, Gavin Midgley and the team at Take One for embracing me so warmly. (Take One give a writer’s guidance which includes avoiding long sentences; I hope they’re not reading this post too closely.) I also hosted a Q & A at the Abbeygate Picturehouse and four during the Cambridge Film Festival as well as appearing on a panel earlier in the year, so thanks to Jonathan and Pat and the rest of the team at the Abbeygate, Keith, Jack and the rest of the team at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and Tony Jones, Verena, Claire and Emily and all those from the film festival team who supported me through the good times and the Honour Q & A where I ended up shouting questions from the sidelines after my microphone packed up and we only had ten minutes.
2013 will also be remembered as the year that we fought the fight against the Competition Commission’s decision that three cinemas owned by Cineworld need to be sold off, two of them being in the two places (Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds) where I see 90% of my films each year. I’ve written more words on this subject than I care to think about and appeared four times on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and once on the BBC’s national local radio network to discuss and challenge the position, and also freaked a few people out in the village when my radio friendly face popped up on BBC Look East’s nightly news, and the fight – while taking a brief pause while Cineworld Group continue their battle with the Commission – will undoubtedly rumble on into 2014 once the outcome becomes clearer.
When that happens, you will probably see a lot more words from me in both print and in other media, but for now I’d just like to thank all those who have helped and supported the fight and helped to put together the 15,000 strong petition, including Hugh, Mike, Anthony, Amanda, Becky, Jim, Janis, many of the aforementioned and literally hundreds of others who gave time to the debate in some way, including Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and Lord Clancarty who respectively raised the debate in the House Of Commons and the House of Lords and MPs Sir James Paice and Sir Malcolm Bruce who took the time to write with updates, and Chris Mann and the team at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire who put up with me calling from a meeting room in Preston on one occasion. If I’ve missed anyone at all in any of those lists, then please know that your contribution and support was just as valued, there’s just no room to name everyone.
EDIT: In what’s known in film circles as “doing a Hilary Swank”, I forgot to thank my wife, whose tolerance, patience and general humouring of my obsessive compulsive tendencies continue to make all of this possible. For the record her favourites of the year, of the 15 films she saw with me, were Les Misérables (just outside my top 40), Despicable Me 2 (I laughed, but it’s really just minions) and Frozen (see below). This edit has thankfully saved me from not only a divorce, but also having to buy her a kitten.
In among all that, I still managed to see some films. For the first time since starting this blog, half a dozen of those were watched at home, either as screeners or DVD catch-ups for films I’d missed. I also saw 167 films at the cinema, of which 14 were re-releases. I’m also including in this consideration the three films I saw at the London Film Festival in 2012 that I held over from last year. That leaves a total of 162 films that I saw which were released in cinemas either this year or appeared at FrightFest or the Cambridge Film Festival and may yet get a theatrical release in 2014. This top 40 is the cream of that particular crop, and everything on the list scored 8/10 or better when I reviewed it.
As always, there were a few gaps, which included the likes of Gangs Of Wasseypur, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, both of Alex Gibney’s documentaries, I Am Nasrine, Child’s Pose, What Maisie Knew, In A World…, Compliance, Metro Manila, Kill Your Darlings and a host of others. I am always open to recommendations, so let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed something, or where you can berate me for not selecting Stories We Tell, Frances Ha, Rush, Zero Dark Thirty, Blancanieves, No, Blue Jasmine, Les Misérables or any of the other films I did see but that didn’t make this list.
Right, without further ado, here are the forty films which most entertained, challenged, touched or delighted me in 2013.
40. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
We start the list with a film that’s left me feeling somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, Walter Mitty is ragingly predictable, occasionally clumsy and – thanks to Ben Stiller’s gift for making expensive, non-commercial films – packed full of more product placement than two or three Bond films. On the other, it’s deeply felt without descending into mawkishness, has some beautifully constructed moments and I was this far from getting a Cinnabon when in town yesterday afternoon. Stiller manages to make his Mitty sympathetic and his transition believable, and for all his and the film’s faults it was a post-Christmas treat.
I’m not sure of any other culture that could get away with someone as totally abhorrent as James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson, at least not in the sense of his character being so spectacularly unpleasant. But it’s a role that James McAvoy tackles head on, not shying away from either the more deranged excesses or the deeper flaws that embody the nature of Robertson’s personality. It’s nice to see that Trainspotting wasn’t a one-off in being able to transfer an Irvine Welsh novel to the screen successfully, but for all of the good supporting work from the likes of Eddie Marsan and Imogen Poots this is McAvoy’s film, and he’s a mesmeric force of nature.
I would love to be able to say that, growing up, I had regular access to the BFI and a subscription to Sight and Sound, which has made me the cultured cinephile that I am today. But I’ve taken a rather more circuitous route to film fandom, one which has its roots in a rather dingy dungeon with no windows filled with VHS tapes below a corner shop which provided much of the film watching of my teens. Rewind This! is a loving exploration of how VHS changed the landscape of film, both for better or for worse, and was a thorough and fascinating look at those still keeping the format alive against all the odds. I’m now cherishing my last few VHS tapes with even more fondness.
37. Dead Cat
One of those Q & A sessions at the Cambridge Film Festival I mentioned was with Stefan Georgiou, director of this British film which played there three times. Having seen the film on a screener, I introduced Stefan at the start of the film and then stayed in for around 15 minutes, watching the audience try to work out what to make of a film which opens on a shot of a dead cat (thankfully from natural causes). I came back for the last twenty minutes, by which time I found an audience fully engaged with the film and appreciating both the well-constructed laughs and the poignancy of the central relationship, which considers second chances in love and if you can ever go back. The Q & A afterwards ran to around 40 minutes and was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever hosted, and the inclusion of this film is in no way reflective of any bias at all, honest, probably not, well maybe a tiny bit, it’s my list and I can do what I want, shut up. Still touring festivals, hopefully you’ll see more of both Stefan and his dead cat in the future, and I look forward to seeing it again. (I may just not watch it with my cat.)
Prince Avalanche is the intersection of two slightly bewildering career paths. Paul Rudd has found fame in Friends and Anchorman, but has become slightly pigeonholed into comedies of the likes of the dire Wanderlust when not showing off the contents of his wall cabinets of perfume and condoms. David Gordon Green made his name with small, independent dramas before branching off into broad, alpha-male comedies such as Pineapple Express. Put the two together, and they’ve created this delightful slice of life in the American countryside. Rudd and Emile Hirsch are both hiding from real life by painting road lines in the wilderness ravaged by forest fire, but what they find – including real life survivor Joyce Payne who lost her home in the fire – has a touching beauty and sense of loss that complements the offbeat humour, with Tim Orr’s cinematography making stunning use of the burned-out landscape.
35. Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon can probably do anything. From taking the charred embers of the failure of his Buffy film script and turning it into not one, but two, successful TV series to managing to make The Avengers a box office behemoth that has guaranteed the future of Marvel films for another decade, he’s had the magic touch and if he put his mind to world peace, he’d probably give it a good go. In a manner that’s almost showing off, he regularly gathers actor friends together to read Shakespeare at his house and committed this production to film in his back garden. It’s got a lightness of touch and glosses over some unlikely Shakespearean plot twists with its winning performances. If you’ve got a kitten stuck in a tree or see a school bus with its brakes cut, Whedon’s probably your go-to guy.
The Place Beyond The Pines justifies a place on this list based on the first of its three acts. Derek Cianfrance’s experiment to focus on three different perspectives of the same story (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane De Haan respectively) works less well as time passes, but is nevertheless to be commended for the attempt. What works, works like gangbusters and from the intense opening tracking shot, whenever Gosling’s on screen he proves he’s got detached brooding down to a tee. Cooper and De Haan are good and supported well by a cast including Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelssohn and Ray Liotta, but ultimately it falls short of being the classic promised by the early scenes.
33. The Way Way Back
One of two summer holiday, coming of age films on the list and the more financially successful of the two, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s screenplay for their directorial debut is a world away from their Alexander Payne collaboration The Descendants. It’s not afraid to cast Steve Carell against type or Sam Rockwell very much in type, and it’s anchored by an evolving performance from youngster Liam James. Happy to confess a soft spot for Jim Rash thanks to becoming hooked on Community (where he plays the overenthusiastic Dean Pelton), it’s nice to see that he and Faxon – who also have small supporting roles – are capable of making it on their own. While there’s a host of great support from the likes of Alison Janney and Maya Angelou, it’s Rockwell who marches off with every single scene he’s in.
32. I Wish
It’s taken two years for Hirokazu Koreeda’s eighth narrative feature film to make it into UK cinemas, so long that his ninth (Like Father, Like Son) also made it to these shores this year. I still feel like I’m dipping my toes into Japanese cinema, but the waters around Koreeda seem warm and embracing and my toes feel quite comfortable on this evidence. Centred around the adventures of two groups of children, each with a child from the same family divided by their parents separation and by geography, Koreeda didn’t finish the script until he’d cast the children and their delightful innocence is well contrasted with the world-weariness of the elder generation of their family. A loving examination of the nature of family, friendship and growing-up.
I might only play games on my iPhone these days, the PS3 now a dusty relic in the corner of the room after it stopped serving its sole purpose (to me) of playing Blu-rays earlier this year, but I’ve been enough of a gaming fan over the years to recognise a fair chunk of the cameos and references in Disney’s latest animated delight. In a year when the only Pixar film was a solid but slightly disappointing return to the Monsters Inc. universe, it’s good to see that John Lasseter’s desire to return Disney to the values of old-fashioned storytelling is still paying dividends. Good voice casting across the board helps and famous cameos from the arcades don’t hurt, but it’s the narrative arcs of Ralph and Vanellope that leave the most lasting impression.
Watching the trailers for The Wolf Of Wall Street and Interstallar, it’s hard to work out why it’s taken so long for Matthew McConaughey to become one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Maybe A Time To Kill and his earlier work came too early; now slightly more aged, he’s matured like a fine wine or a well hung steak and is now turning in performance after performance of the highest calibre. While Jeff Nichols’ tale of two children and their adventure around the banks of the Mississippi isn’t quite at the level of his stunning Take Shelter, it’s still made worthwhile by McConaughey’s magnetism; additionally, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the two youngsters, in what’s turned out to be a good year for coming of age stories, are both excellent. Can’t wait to see what Nichols comes up with next, especially as it’s suggested to be sci-fi with shades of John Carpenter.
Given that it’s both the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature from a female Saudi director, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wadjda might arrive with a few rough edges. But instead, director Haifaa al-Mansour’s film arrives fully formed, clearly influenced by the neorealism of other world cinema but nonetheless providing fascinating insights into the life and culture of this middle-Eastern kingdom. It’s not quite a coming of age story for another impressive young actress (Waad Mohammed), more a catalogue of her entrepreneurial frustrations as she attempts to attain the bike she desires but that society would frown upon her having, and it illustrates Saudi society without ever sitting in judgement.
Giving an unusual perspective on a conflict well documented in film, Lore follows a group of children attempting to make their way to safety through post World War II Germany. Indoctrinated into believing the lies of Hitler’s Germany, Lore is a journey of self-discovery for Lore herself (the impressive Saskia Rosendahl) and a fascinating perspective shift on a well-worn subject. Despite its German subject matter, it’s been made by an Australian director with British funding, and Cate Shortland makes excellent use of her landscapes – both the beauty of nature and the fractured buildings in the war’s aftermath – to supplement Lore’s internal conflict. Sadly this one got lost in between the end of the awards season and the start of the blockbuster onrush, but it’s certainly worth another look.
27. Blue Is The Warmest Colour
I stand by my view that, at three hours, this is a story that could have been told more succinctly without losing its raw power and sensitivity, but nearly two months after seeing it many of its images still haunt my memory – and I’m not just talking about the beyond infamous lesbian sex scenes. You’ll not find many better performances all year than those from Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux and for all of the controversy in the wake of its release – not least from the director and the actresses about the methods of filming – only the hardest of hearts will fail to be touched by this exceedingly thorough examination of the nature of love and relationships. (It’s a sad loss to cinema that three hour films now get shown without an intermission, and we’re just a couple of weeks away from another three hour endurance test for your buttocks with Martin Scorsese’s latest.)
You’d think that seeing Edgar Wright’s latest so relatively low on this list would be a disappointment (his last film was my top pick of 2010 and this is his first feature not to get a full 10/10 from me), but I have a suspicion that this is one film which needs time to breathe. I’ve seen this film more than any other over the course of the year, making three trips to see it at the cinema, and if it’s not quite the film many people were expecting then it doesn’t skimp on hard decisions and doesn’t settle for being a lazy retread of its Cornetto trilogy brethren. The fight scenes are breathtaking, choreographed by Brad Allen from Jackie Chan’s stunt team, and Wright’s filming style manages to keep then in sharp enough focus. One to re-evaluate in a couple of years, I think, possibly once Wright’s Ant-Man is upon us.
25. Short Term 12
To see a short film expanded to feature length always carries a risk of a lack of substance, but it’s a pitfall avoided by Destin Cretton’s adaptation of his 2008 short. In the process of that move, Cretton’s also taken the decision to switch his protagonist from male to female. Brie Larson’s excellent performance – strong, conflicted and empathetic by turns and never following predictable patterns – is surrounded by a variety of similarly layered efforts from a young cast showing a maturity beyond their years. It loses points slightly for snipping off every single one of its loose ends before the close, but that shouldn’t detract from the the power of many of the earlier scenes.
A strong year for Disney animation, this is a return to classic values in every sense. As well as being a very loose adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story, it’s an old fashioned musical with catchy Broadway-style tunes and one of the most appealing sidekicks in years in Josh Gad’s naive snowman Olaf. Kristin Bell shows hitherto unseen musical talents and provides a worthy counterpoint to Idina Menzel’s angsty warbling. While the animation is solid without being showy, the evidence of the two audiences I saw this with (once alone for reviewing purposes and a second time with Mrs Evangelist) showed that the younger members of the audience were fully invested and absolutely entranced. With enough knowing humour to keep adults interested as well, this is Disney’s best for some time and while it’s not a daring revolution, it does have the occasional unexpected story wrinkle which drew audible gasps both times I saw it and had one small child shouting at the screen. Love it.
23. A Story Of Children And Film
It feels totally apposite when applauding so many great performances from young actors in film this year that this latest documentary from Mark Cousins should also make the list. Due for a wider release later this year, it’s an absolute must for anyone looking to expand their understanding not only of the role of children in cinema but of cinema as an art form in general. Cousins takes a twelve minute shot of his niece and nephew with a marble game and, with the help of editor Timo Langer and researcher Neil McGlone, weaves a compelling tapestry with clips of dozens of films, from the American mainstream to the outer reaches of world cinema. It helps that I don’t think I could ever grow tired of listening to Cousins’ relaxed brogue talking about film, but if you could then this is an ideal bite-sized chunk of film education.
(Incidentally, I had one of those marble games as a child and it was one of my favourite toys ever; if anyone knows where I can get one cheap without me having to go to the trouble of Googling it, do let me know.)
There’s no bigger thrill for me than seeing a film with a large audience that’s totally into it, and I saw Cheap Thrills as the late night screening in the Empire Leicester Square – an auditorium holding over 1,000 people until recently – and Cheap Thrills was absolutely worth the drive home from Leicester Square at half past one in the morning after a long day in the cinema. Once you’ve got past the novelty value of David “the other one from Anchorman” Koechner actually being given a decent role, an opportunity he grasps with relish, then Cheap Thrills judges the escalation of its simple scenario perfectly. It’s a high concept – rich man gets his kicks by offering two men desperate for money for completing increasingly twisted tasks – but one that provides laughs, drama and had 1,000 people clenched on the edge of their seats by the final act. It’s getting a limited US theatrical release in March after touring the festivals, and I hope it makes it to a cinema screen again in this country as it’s worth seeing with as big an audience as possible for its darkly comic thrills.
The first film I saw in 2013, and an excellent benchmark by which to judge the rest. I love photographic documentaries, and it’s an art form I’d love to explore in more detail. The richness and deep emotion of Don McCullin’s single frames are perfectly captured on screen, and the use of archive footage and new interviews also gives a valuable insight into McCullin himself, a man never content to be a passive observer of the horrors of the world he did so much to document. In an age when print media, the foundation for four decades of his work, is under threat, it’s to be hoped that there area still opportunities for the McCullins of this world to get their work seen, but this is a gripping examination of the power of the camera lens and its ability to shock and to challenge the viewer.
20. Beyond The Hills
Cristian Mungiu’s latest is an examination of the place of the church in contemporary Romanian society, and what comes over initially as a condemnation of the facile view of the church and the potential effect on its believers, it gradually reveals itself as something much more complex. It’s drawn comparisons to Mungiu’s previous 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, favourably for both its two strong female protagonists (in this case Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur) and for Mungiu’s striking use of framing, superbly backed up by Oleg Mutu’s stark, earthy cinematography. It’s initially static and may be only for those willing to let their films breathe and find their space, but by the end its descent into a reality bordering on horror (all the more so for its inspiration in fact) is worth the effort for those with the patience.
Many people were taken this year with Park Chan-wook’s first English language film this year, although a fair few were also alienated, either by the extensive drawing on the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock – Wentworth Miller, the unlikely screenwriter, has admitted the influence of Shadow Of A Doubt – or by finding the film style over substance. When the style’s this good, you could be forgiven for not being too concerned about the rest, but Park has a strong cast on top form willing to nudge a few boundaries and I fell into the camp in love with this quietly disturbed thriller. Clint Mansell’s brooding score helps the mood no end, but it’s Park’s powerful construction of imagery that lingers longest.
One performance towered over every other this year, with Daniel Day Lewis deservedly picking up a third Oscar for his portrayal of America’s finest elder statesman. Having started my 2014 cinema year yesterday with Idris Elba’s Mandela, it provides two interesting contrasts: firstly, where the Mandela biopic attempts to shoehorn fifty years of his life into a two hour run time, Lincoln shows the sense of focusing on a much shorter period, in this case the battle to bring in the Thirteenth Amendment. It also shows that, as good as Elba’s performance is as Nelson Mandela, it’s still recognisably Idris Elba acting. Day Lewis, infamously method and none more so than here, disappears into the role completely it feels more akin to time travel than watching a performance. Spielberg’s direction is satisfactory without being showy and John Williams’ score is predictable, but this is a showcase for yet another towering performance.
A step up for Alexander Payne after the somewhat morbidly obsessed The Descendants, it came as a shock to me at the end of the film when the credits rolled and Payne wasn’t listed as the screenwriter. However, the material is a perfect fit for his sensibilities and his casting is impeccable; it would be difficult now to think of anyone other than Bruce Dern or Will Forte filling those roles, despite the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson (for the father) and Bryan Cranston and Matthew Modine (for the son) being shortlisted. The black and white cinematography is a good match for Payne’s tale of squashed optimism in the American midwest, a collection of tortured souls with a still-beating heart that binds them together.
16. Captain Phillips
In reviewing films, I always aim to come to a judgement based on a single viewing, and often have a figure in my head for the final score out of ten very early on. It’s safe to say that the last fifteen minutes or so of Captain Phillips may have put as much as two points on the final score of Paul Greengrass’ latest, and if there was an award for Most Valuable Player in film this year, Tom Hanks would be a strong candidate. He gets a variety of opportunities to remind you why he’s got two Oscars in the trophy cabinet back home, but Greengrass builds an atmosphere of unbroken tension amid his military fetishism to give Hanks’ performance the platform it needs.
My favourite horror of the year, which first played at Frightfest and which I caught in their stream at the Cambridge Film Festival this year. It’s an almost pitch-black comedy with undertones so dark they have their own gravitational pull, as two Israeli film makers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, take three horror or drama stock characters – the father out for revenge for his daughter’s death, the suspected perpetrator and the bent cop willing to go outside the law to bring him to justice – and throws them together in unexpected ways. Frequently tense and with flecks of absurdity, it’s a fantastic calling card for Keshales and Papushado and is recommended for anyone who likes their horrors tart and uncompromising.
14. Upstream Colour
In my earlier list of films I’ve not seen, I didn’t mention To The Wonder; I’ve struggled so much with Terrence Malick’s last two films that it may be the only film I consciously avoided this year. Upstream Colour drew comparisons with Malick’s work for the composed beauty of many of its shots and for the sparse dialogue for much of the running time, but in terms of it’s plotting it couldn’t be further removed from the deliberate obfuscation of Malick’s constructions. Imagine instead a lengthy Malickian epic edited down to a breezy ninety minutes and with only the relevant information from any scene retained. Challenging but ultimately rewarding, it’s in direct contrast to Shane Carruth’s previous film Primer which was far more enjoyable to think about afterwards than it was to watch. Thankfully Upstream Colour succeeds both in the moment as well as lingering and provoking for days afterwards.
One of the biggest disappointments of my year as a member of a cinema audience is the complete lack of people who came to the first screening of Lucy Walker’s latest documentary at the Cambridge Film Festival this year, perhaps put off by the thought of a collection of dunderheaded snow jockeys eulogising their sport for an hour and a half. But The Crash Reel is something entirely different, a cautionary tale and a crushing indictment of the culture that surrounds snowboarding and the pressure on its participants to perform increasingly dangerous stunts for entertainment, often at the risk of their own health and all too often at the cost of their own life. At the core of The Crash Reel is the story of Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury just prior to the last Winter Olympics and the struggles of his family, including his father and his brothers (one of whom has Down’s Syndrome) to get Kevin to come to terms with what’s happened. Impossible to watch extreme sports in the same light once you’ve seen this.
12. The Kings Of Summer
Yes, it’s another teens in summer movie, but what helped The Kings Of Summer to stand out from the crowd was the tight script, with some of the year’s most quotable dialogue, and the excellent performances. Nick Offernan and Megan Mullally are particular highlights among the parents but the year’s best comic creation has to be Moises Arias’ Biaggio, with his talk of disillusioned bears and his unconvincing camouflage. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ direction and Chris Galletta’s script capture sublimely both the attempts to avoid the ennui of the summer holidays and the frequent, compelling absurdity of childhood that is often lost as we pass through adolescence.
The trailer made it look like another generic Hollywood thriller, but anyone familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Incendies will have expected more, and hopefully won’t have been disappointed. An all-star cast all get at least a moment for their acting showreels, but its the tortured yin and yang of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall that propels Prisoners forward. Never feeling overstretched at two and a half hours, Villeneuve’s confident and gripping thriller isn’t afraid to look into its own soul and to grapple with what it finds in there, capped off with an ending that retains ambiguity without feeling a cheat.
10. Side Effects
Dear Steven Soderbergh, if you have retired from directing then thanks very much for one of the most varied and enjoyable careers of the last few decades. If you decided to leave people wanting more, then Side Effects was the best way to go about it, a psychological thriller with more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly left out in the sun and just as much of a deliciously naughty treat. It manages to use big themes and turn them into window dressing, but never at the expense of them or the plot. If you feel you might still have it in you for one or two more films of this calibre, even a few years down the line, we’d remain most wholeheartedly interested. Yours faithfully, your audience.
I caught a few minutes of the Tim Allen film The Shaggy Dog on TV over Christmas, with a hyper and excited Robert Downey Jr. slumming it in a criminal role (in more than one sense of the word). It seemed as if Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wouldn’t fulfil its potential in reviving Downey Jr’s career, but here we are just seven years later, reunited with Shane Black and now one of the world’s most bankable stars, thanks in no small part to ol’ Shiny Helmet himself. Iron Man Three is not only the best of the Iron Man movies (standing equal with the first hour of the original), but overall betters anything so far to come out of the Marvel machine since the Avengers programme started and if any of the slate of the next two years matches this quality, we should be loudly satisfied.
8. The Great Beauty
I turn 40 next month, and Mrs Evangelist has some form of surprise up her sleeve. It will have to go some to top my thirty-fifth birthday, a week spent in Rome and a visit to the Vatican on the day itself. (The next day we went to the Coliseum, only to find it closed due to strike action. That’s Rome for you.) The Great Beauty captures a variety of facets of this cosmopolitan city to startling effect, and as a whole becomes greater than the sum of its not insignificant parts. Hands up, as part of my film education programme I’ve still not seen any Fellini – hopefully this year – so I may not have the basis for comparison of a learned film critic, but The Great Beauty thrilled and tantalised me in equal measure.
The most divisive film of this or many other years, it appeared on both The Guardian and Little White Lies top 10s of the year, but also popped up in Empire’s worst of the year list. It’s a completely different beast to Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous run-out in Drive, although the uberviolence, Ryan Gosling and a throbbing, pulsating score from Cliff Martinez all make a return this time. They’re joined by a heap of Thai-themed style, a dragon-like Kristin Scott Thomas and an angel of vengeance with a magically appearing samurai sword. It’s a film to be absorbed rather than enjoyed and its pleasures are none more guilty, but I gleefully drank in every seedy frame.
When I first started blogging, I had a private concern that some of my opinions were too far from the mainstream to be of any use. (Actually, my choices do tend to line up with the general public and with film critics, so if anything my concern should be that I’m not differentiated enough to be of value.) But in the final analysis, all you can do is be true to yourself, and in that I was completely smitten by the relationship between a cantankerous, barely retired thief and his unlikely artificial manservant. Frank Langella is outstanding as the forgetful septuagenarian who forms a begrudging bond with his iButler, and Jake Schreier’s direction and the supporting cast complement rather than detracting. It might not be well remembered by later generations, but it found a firm place in the heart of this one.
5. Before Midnight
Never having seen them before, I consumed all three parts of the Before trilogy in the space of a single day this summer. Taken together, they form one of the most compelling movie trilogies of all time; on its own terms, Midnight shows that Richard Linklater and his stars aren’t too attached to the magic of their earlier work to allow a welcome dose of reality to intrude. Hawke and Delpy are both a little more weathered and abrasive, both now verging on unsympathetic at times, and once again we are presented with a moment in time in the lives of these two which leaves a feeling of hope, this time tinged with a touch of sadness but all the stronger for it. I for one wouldn’t object to another catch-up in nine years if it can be as honest and open as this.
Yes, it’s giant spaceships exploding in 3D in a manner which Michael Bay probably fantasises about every night in bed, but it’s filtered through the keen eye and expertise of Alfonso Cuaron, now master of the long take, and built on a seemingly simple tale of clinging to life that seeps itself in metaphors of discovery and rebirth. I might still be having nightmares about falling out of space thanks to the dramatic opening sequence, but the character moments – such as Sandra Bullock’s desperate attempt at conversation with a fisherman – are their equal and Bullock and Clooney defy the technical straitjackets imposed upon them to deliver compelling performances. But how many more films will need to be released that claim to prove the benefits of the 3D format before other directors start to learn the lessons of how to shoot in the format?
3. The Selfish Giant
The best British film of the year, and a clear sign that Clio Barnard is now a force to be reckoned with in British film making. Coupling the social realism that’s such a staple of British cinema with both a sense of beauty, turning the British countryside into an ethereal wilderness, and at times a sense of urgency. There’s tragedy here, and it’s the only film of the year that had me properly in tears – a far cry from 2010 when I would practically weep at the opening of a bag of popcorn – but there’s also a gleefulness and a celebration of the exuberance of youth. The Selfish Giant is a towering achievement (sorry) and yet another film that stayed with me for days, if not weeks, afterwards.
2. Django Unchained
When seeing a link to it online earlier this year, I was amazed by just how much of the Django script didn’t make it to screen as by what did. There’s no doubt that Tarantino’s scripts are up there with the best of them, every line of considered dialogue having a point to make and nothing wasted, but this might be the best cast yet put together for a Tarantino feature, with Jamie Foxx just undergoing the right journey in the title role and with Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson all worthy of awards consideration for my money. If you can overlook Tarantino’s two cameos, the second of which – saddled with an Aussie accent of sorts – is especially fourth wall breaking, then for my two cents Django stands right up there alongside Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 with the top tier of Quentin’s films.
1. The Act Of Killing
Over the course of the previous thirty nine films on this list, we’ve considered the varied power that film can exert on its audience. But my top choice this year goes much further than that, having exerted a profound and astonishing effect on its subjects and one which may, in the fullness of time, have an impact on the very nation it portrays. Joshua Oppenheim’s documentary… actually, there may need to be a new word for whatever this is because the dictionary defines a documentary as, “using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject” and this goes so much further, as very few documentaries have ever done with such power, passing beyond the objectivity of documentation and staring directly into the heart of its subjects, then directly challenging them to the very core of their beliefs.
If all The Act Of Killing succeeded in doing was documenting the appalling atrocities of the Indonesian genocide that started in 1965, it would be an achievement. To then show how the perpetrators not only go unpunished but effective still see their actions influencing the politics of modern day Indonesia is shocking. To get those perpetrators to act out their crimes in a manner varying from gangster film to hallucinogenic musical is deeply compelling. But then to bear witness to the dramatic effect that achieving an understanding of their crimes has on them is by turns angering, sobering and perversely gratifying. The Act Of Killing is a stunning achievement and richly deserves all of the plaudits so far applied to it, and it is by some distance my film of 2013.
Comparison of this year’s films
As a footnote, this table shows the UK box office (where available), the IMDb user score and the Rotten Tomatoes critic score for each of the films in this year’s list, so you can see how my judgement compares to popular and critical opinion.