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My favourite 10 films of 2013

As always, several notable releases slip between the years, never fully receiving the formal acknowledgment they deserve. To their credit, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Cloud Atlas (yes, really) would appear in the top half of any list, the first two in particular worthy of praise as effusive a year later as given on original viewing.

2013 has been a terrific year with no shortage of viable options to choose from with a veritable goldmine of great work vying for contention. Titles I’ve missed or have yet to be released in the UK include Beyond the Candelabra, About Time, Blue Jasmine, Escape from Tomorrow, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. I’ll try to catch up with missed nominees prior to the Oscars on March 2nd.

So far as this list is concerned, many skimmed the edges of inclusion but just missed the final cut. These included the wonderful Mud, Spring Breakers, The Place Beyond the Pines, Captain Phillips, Prisoners, Pacific Rim, A Field in England, Rush, Fast and Furious 6, You’re Next, Upstream Color, The Act of Killing and Stoker. Catch me in a different mood on a different day and any of them could have made the big 10.

10) Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan)

Even in a market saturated with inadequate efforts, there’s always room for a unique and worthy contribution to the vampire picture. Made for a slight budget by a director well-versed in the genre, Byzantium picks and plays with pertinent vampiric archetypes and carves out its own little seaside mythology as mother and daughter survive through the centuries against a patriarchal vampire hierarchy. The Sean Bobbit photography (Place Beyond the Pines, Shame) scrapes at the fuzzy edges of the grimy Hastings setting, with his soft digital frame convincingly capturing these women in danger as they struggle against the pressing threat of discovery. Very enjoyable.

9) The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

The World’s End, Edgar Wright’s farewell to the Pegg/Frost ‘cornetto’ trilogy, never goes for the cheap laughs, using its superficial sci-fi exterior as effectively as its predecessors in aid of the exploration of friendship, growth and youthful nostalgia. Like Wright’s previous directorial work, and (his additional production credit Attack the Block), this is the best sort of genre picture, using the expected tropes and thrills to tread into weighty, thematically resonant areas with maturity and thoughtfulness. It’s been quite something watching the evolution of this group since Spaced, with Wright at its heart pushing forward his stylistic ambitions whilst keeping the work grounded, touching and indelibly English. At the very least, no other comedy this year is likely to feature the combination of alien robots, teenage decapitation and reckless alcoholism.

8 ) The Way Way Back (dir. Jim Rash/Nat Faxon)

It’s been a battle between this and Jeff Nichols’ excellent Mud for which ‘coming of age’ story I favoured this autumn. Ultimately I’m siding with The Way Way Back, for coasting the edge of quirk and avoiding all the pitfalls that sink so many similarly inclined pictures. Funny, warm and populated with a string of excellent support, Sam Rockwell’s perfect performance is probably the best work he’s ever delivered.

7) The Conjuring (dir. James Wan)

With impeccable production design and flawless performances, James Wan’s latest period horror is both his best work so far and a complete triumph of its type. As well as being the most satisfying horror film of the summer, it’s a stunning reminder of the elegance and beauty of the genre when in loving hands.

6) Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Like the most violent episode of Twin Peaks ever made, Nicolas Winding Refn’s otherworldly vision is so distinctive, so without comparison or mainstream ambition that it stands as the most esoteric of masterpieces, goading in audiences with the promise of gangster violence and Ryan Gosling then launching them off a cliff of Thai karaoke numbers and minimalist dialogue. It’s brilliant.

5) Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears)

Alongside the best original score of the year (another bow for the unstoppable Alexandre Desplat), Philomena features two perfectly observed, tightly complimentary performances from the never better Judi Dench and (co-writer) Steve Coogan, both funny, charming, and knocking lightly through the journey without smoothing down those rougher edges around their characters.

4) Sunshine on Leith (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

Knowing next to nothing about The Proclaimers, I’m ill equipped to assess whether jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith satisfies the hardcore that’ve pined over every syllable of their back catalogue for thirty years. My emotional baggage, for better or worse, limited to a spike of delight whenever the camera glosses over the Edinburgh scenery, I found this something of a voyage of discovery, engaging with the songs simply in the context of Dexter Fletcher’s film without worrying about omitted favourites or oversight. On this level, I found it inordinately satisfying, charming and a reminder of the quite unique pleasures the movie musical can offer.

3) Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)

Exploring the constructed truth of our individual memories and how we craft meaning from our own interpretations of events, Polley’s beautifully structured film is the work of a filmmaker completely engaged emotionally and intellectually with the topic, digging into the sensitive area of her parentage with the rigour of journalist and the delicacy of a painter.

2) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

So often are blockbusters raved as the ‘game changer’ we’ve been waiting for, so rarely do they achieve that revolutionary leap forward in the way of technological possibility in a way that’s pressingly evident in every thrilling frame. The visual achievement of Gravity makes for an almost overwhelming experience, baffling in its immersion, stripped back and exhilarating in its rawness, engaging and utterly brilliant in its simple humanity.

1) Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Move over Toy Story, Linklater’s Before series might be the perfect film trilogy, each new instalment straddling the concerns and worries of these immaculately realised characters at a later stage in life. The triumph of Linklater’s film is that it’s never content to just pop Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on screen and let their interplay do the work. The stakes are higher, the relationship a strained, distorted shadow of that easy chemistry of Sunrise and Sunset as Jessie and Celine slip into middle age. It’s an immense achievement to take all that energy and exuberance of the first two films and knot it around the stresses and concerns of a couple later in their relationship, finding both the pathos and strange hope that there’s still a future for these two, and that come 2022 we’ll be spending another couple of hours in each others company.

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