About a week ago I published my worst films of 2013. It’s always a fun exercise for a film fanatic, allowing you an arbitrary mechanism to shame the year’s most repellent fare. I delayed my best of list in order to embrace a few extra titles for consideration, yet the pool from which my choices have been drawn is far from definitive. Whether it be issues with releasing (12 Years a Slave and American Hustle for example aren't widely available in the UK until 2014) or simple negligence (I’m ashamed to say even with an 11 month grace period I never caught-up with Lincoln) some celebrated flicks slipped through the cracks. Still, a selection of nearly 100 titles should be sufficient – and that’s what I've got – so it’s all dandy. Same two rules as every year apply. To be in consideration you must be a feature length movie and have enjoyed an initial release in the UK during 2013 on at least one platform. That’s it. Let’s see what 2013 came up with.
Honourable Mentions: Oblivion, Evil Dead, Prisoners, Pacific Rim, Byzantium, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,The Kings of Summer, Enough Said
Dir: Ron Howard
A poor box-office showing stateside has dampened this biopic’s chances of making a substantial awards impact, but it’s a technical and thespian master class none the less. Howard’s film brings the rivalry between F1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt to life with feeling and passion, bolstered by a pair of very complimentary turns from Daniel Bruhl and Chris Hemsworth. The 70s period detail and dangers of high-stakes racing are captured marvellously and often with harrowing visual consequence, whilst Anthony Dodd Mantle’s cinematography expands on the arresting frame compositions he turned in on Danny Boyle’s “Trance”. Howard jettisons the worthy confines biopic conformity often enforces, constructing a film filled with daring, sex appeal and heart; nicely wrapped up with an aesthetic that’s appropriately all about speed and noise. A fine example of quality mainstream fare that makes good on its lofty humanist ambitions.
9. The Spectacular Now
Dir: James Ponsoldt
This coming of age story received a very slight UK release back in October (a further expansion might occur in 2014) but it was a big hitter at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, the picture marks James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to his respectable alcoholism drama “Smashed”; booze once again undertaking a pivotal role in this tale of an unlikely romance between high-schoolers. The young leads form both believable characters and a faultless chemistry – the film skilfully morphing from light entertainment into something deeply morose and illuminating by the finish. Ponsoldt and his screenwriters display an excellent grasp of warm storytelling and wit, but it’s the gentle way which this tender gem stealthily touches you that makes it so memorable. “The Spectacular Now” is an unpretentious and beautifully formed window overlooking turbulent adolescent transition.
8. The Great Gatsby
Dir: Baz Luhrmann
This gregarious adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated prose proved very divisive, but also monetarily lucrative. Luhrmann makes good on his reputation for showboating with the fizzy visuals and modernist soundtrack, but his decadent aesthetic proves a solid match for the book’s thesis on hedonism, the story losing little punch in transition from page to screen. DiCaprio does some of his best work ever in the titular role, encapsulating an array of intricacies and subtleties in depicting a tragically flawed literary icon. It’s an acquired taste without doubt, but for those who appreciate Luhrmann’s sensorial bombast; this is a classic narrative faithfully brought to life with vibrancy and reverence. “The Great Gatsby” was the summer’s most enchanting offering.
7. Pain & Gain
Dir: Michael Bay
Another audience splitter I unabashedly adored. Michael Bay’s body-building comedy deconstructs modern American values with ruthless efficiency, depicting a country overrun by greed and an appalling misunderstanding of what it means to chase the “American Dream”. Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson give knowingly excellent performances, whilst the plot zips forward with purpose, humour and enough edge to fill two traditional R-rated movies. I’m not sure if this is Bay apologising for past mistakes or simply embracing his suspect vision to the max, but his distinctive style and cinematic fascinations form a perfect synergy with the script’s rancid insights. It’s also pound for pound the funniest movie of the year.
6. Django Unchained
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
The UK release calendar meant we didn't get to see QT’s latest until January, thusly rolling up in my list 12 months later than most. It’s still an exploitation-tinted treasure worth celebrating, Tarantino forming an exquisite western out of his slave turned bounty hunter narrative. The usual Tarantino tropes are there, including off-colour comedy, hyper-violence and extensive cine-literacy, but he also ports over the playful aura of historical winking nailed in 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”. As usual he takes an eclectic cast and extracts strangely awesome performances across the board, particularly in relation to Leonardo DiCaprio and an Oscar winning Christoph Waltz. Long may this second coming of Quentin hold strong.
5. What Richard Did
Dir: Lenny Abrahamson
Adapted from Irish author Kevin Power’s harrowing “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “What Richard Did” is one of the most disarming and quietly brutal films I’ve seen for some time. After making a severe drunken misjudgement, star schoolyard athlete Richard is faced to come to terms with reality, tossing aside the compliments and cheers that have defined his adolescent years. Harsh, honest and heart-breaking, the movie finds its soul in the form of Jack Reynor, essaying a young man on the brink of collapse with maturity and spectacular assurance. Lenny Abrahamson keeps the runtime tight and the visual palette grounded, allowing for the severity of the situation to imprint itself without interference. Reynor’s contribution guides the moral compass with upsetting certainty, forcing viewers to ask an assortment of introspective and uncomfortable questions.
Dir: Chan-Wook Park
Chan-Wook Park is no stranger to onscreen savagery and with his English language debut “Stoker” the film-maker pours it on and then some. Sharing more than a fleeting resemblance to Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”, “Stoker” sees Matthew Goode’s mysterious and mercurial uncle figure invade the space of a mother and daughter, with extraordinarily heated results. The plotting is simplistic in a pulpy sort of way, the real richness coming from Park’s imagery and the tension that mounts throughout with almost unstoppable bravado. Violence and warped sexuality tinge the piece marvellously, Park’s eye for the macabre making it as much a treat for the senses as it is an endurance test for the pulse. In many ways it’s the most fundamentally basic movie on my list, but in others it’s an incredibly layered and complex freak-show, an icy and gripping thriller laced with seductive unease and tangible anger. It’s a pity more people didn't’t respond to this one.
3. The Place Beyond the Pines
Dir: Derek Cianfrance
At a hefty 140 minutes “The Place Beyond the Pines” feels suitably epic in scale, Derek Cianfrance using his sophomore stint behind the camera to explore the labyrinth complexities of fathers and sons. Shot and scored atmospherically, the movie divides very cleanly into three separate acts, all connected via criminal acts and blood bonds. Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dean DeHaan serve up career topping work, engaging fluidly with Cianfrance’s understated approach. Some have accused the movie of uneven structure, but that wasn't a problem for me, the obvious breaks allowing for a run toward a stark yet affecting finish. Amid the drama and action Cianfrance takes the time to muse on issues of identity, class and corruption, without ever suffocating the animalistic heartbeat at his story’s core.
Dir: Alexander Payne
Another film about fathers and sons, “Nebraska” chooses a more grounded route, but none the less leaves a mighty impression. Bruce Dern and Will Forte are wonderful as a Dad and his boy travelling across country to collect dubious sweepstake winnings, coming to discover untold amounts about their ancestry and each other. Payne balances comedy and pathos neatly, allowing “Nebraska” to emanate tender truth from every frame, given that extra burst of nostalgic value thanks to some glorious black and white design. For a movie so preoccupied with the past, it’s fascinating to observe “Nebraska” avoiding any semblance of saccharine cowardice – instead opting for melancholy and hard earned catharsis. “Nebraska” is a meaningful approximation of heritage and generational divide.
Dir: Alfonso Cuaron
Well there could only be one. Alfonso Cuarón's “Gravity” may be soft in terms of story, but no movie tried harder technically or thematically this year. Stunning sound design and cinematography aside, the film managed to take the 3D fad to new heights, creating an eerie environment saturated with nothingness, easily the most realistic and visceral interpretation of the solar system yet encountered. As the astronaut desperately trying to get back home, Sandra Bullock is at her best, coordinating her natural charms to exacerbate a sense of isolation and fear. The human element is broad but delicately massaged into the feature, allowing Cuaron the scope with which to assess ideas of faith, nationality and human courage. The action sequences are also captivatingly suspenseful, bringing real blockbusting credibility to Cuarón's sensitive and remarkable art-house veneer. With its 13 minute, unbroken opening shot “Gravity” reels its audience in using lush audacity, before dragging them to hell and back with its phenomenally rendered depiction of despair. For sheer daring-do and ambition, it’s the film of the year by a long shot.
An Article by Daniel Kelly, 2013