Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Films of the Year 2013

Looking back on 2013, it was a year of underwhelming blockbusters, ambitious follies, strong female led dramas, a return to black and white, great smaller independent films and fascinating documentaries. 

Below I've selected my ten favourite films of the year, not necessarily what might be considered the "best" films of the year. I've tried to make my selections based purely on my own personal enjoyment or the emotional impact they had on me, but I hope you'll enjoy watching them too. As always, any feedback is, of course, welcome! 

(Disclaimer! - U.S. films of the year lists may include "American Hustle", "12 Years a Slave"
, "Her" and "Inside LLewyn Davis". However none of these were released in the UK in 2013, so aren't featured on this list. Also with so many films coming out towards the end of the year, there's a few I missed over the festive period that I preferably would have seen before writing my list. These films included "All is Lost" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" amongst others)

10. Cloud Atlas

Finding a film to finish off my list proved difficult, with many options on a fairly level pegging, but I've gone for "Cloud Atlas" for its incredible ambition. 

The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of David Mitchell's sprawling novel (which I'm afraid I've yet to read) works incredibly well considering it has to weave back and forth between multiple storylines and characters spanning over hundreds of years. It's visually striking throughout, which you'd expect from this directorial team-up, but I wasn't expecting it to provoke such a strong emotional response from me (I may have shed a tear or two at times). A lot of credit it for this must go to the actors, but I feel the real star is the score, which pulls at the heart strings and binds the often disparate narratives together (as it should, being central to many of the individual storylines within the film).

But let's deal with the elephant in the room. The makeup is pretty ridiculous and your enjoyment of the movie hinges purely on being able to get over this. I struggled for quite some time with the myriad makeovers involved in allowing the central actors to portray so many different characters throughout time. However, I eventually I came to accept this and really enjoyed the film so my advice is to give it a chance.

9. Upstream Color

"Upstream Color" represents the triumphant return of director Shane Carruth, nine years after the release of his critically acclaimed time travel procedural, "Primer".  Rather surprisingly, "Upstream Color" eschews the scientific pragmatism of "Primer" and finds itself somewhere more spiritual, like a Terence Malick directed sci-fi romance.

The opening of the film is extremely unsettling, scary in a "Synedoche New York" kind of way, as a series of mysterious experiments ruin the life of a young woman. This opening section is one of the best of the year, beautifully shot and brilliantly engaging as we're drawn into the mystery. We then witness the woman attempting to piece her life back together, developing an unorthodox romance with a fellow victim whilst striving to find some reason for their ordeal.

I loved the first half of "Upstream Color" and it seemed to be hurtling up my favourite films list, however I found the last third of the film a little unsatisfying. Caruth's "Primer" prided itself on its detailed look at time travel, but "Upstream Color", with its more elusive Malick-like approach, leaves the exact details hanging in the air. This would usually appeal to me, but I don't think it quite works here. Despite this, I actually prefer Caruth's sophomore effort to "Primer" finding it far more emotive and aesthetically developed. 

As a final note, my other main criticism, I imagine, is quite personal. A large amount of the second half of the film requires you to be very emotionally attached to a group of pigs, which while mostly effective, can also come across as unintentionally amusing...  

8. Jodorowsky's Dune

A documentary detailing Alejandro Jodorowsky's ultimately doomed cinematic version of "Dune", this film is an inspiring look at an ambitious and highly creative project, even if the risk averse attitude of the film industry can leave you slightly depressed by the end.

Jodorowsky, the excitable psychedelic director, is a magnetic presence throughout the movie as he details his vision of a film that he claims would have transcended any previous cinematic experience. His narrative is enriched with enlightening interviews and breathtaking artwork, but I'd happily watch the visionary director speak passionately about his work for hours without any further embellishment. His energy seemingly undiminished at 84, it's heartbreaking to see the pain caused by the project's collapse. His hand-picked team of collaborators all individually went on to receive great acclaim, with many central to the success of the original "Alien", so it's easy to see why he felt so let down by its failure to go into full production. 

This is a fascinating look at a lost film of magnificent ambition and bravery, a collaboration of creative minds that intended to show us a completely new universe. We'll sadly never know if it would have reached these heights, or whether the sight of Mick Jagger acting alongside Salvador Dali in a psychadelic sci-fi epic would have been inspired or insane (or, most likely, both).

As a massive fan of Jodorowsky's masterpieces "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain" this was bound to appeal to me, but I feel anyone with an interest in the film making process or science fiction will enjoy this documentary.

7. Zero Dark Thirty

The curse of the early release date has hit "Zero Dark Thirty" I'm afraid, as back in January I would have placed this far higher. 

I really should have found time for a second viewing in the last few months, as my memories of this procedural thriller that details the hunt for Osama Bin Laden have slipped from my mind as the year has progressed. However, I recall being highly impressed by Kathryn Bigelow's film's balanced storytelling and lack of sentimentality. I never found it promoted or justified torture as the media furore around the time of its release claimed, it purely aimed to detail how their objective was achieved as closely to the truth as possible (whilst allowing freedom for creative license). 

"Zero Dark Thirty" is essentially the opposite of a Michael Bay action film; smart, detailed and restrained. Rousing, jingoistic patriotism is for the most part absent and in its place we are shown patriotism through the dedication of the many intelligence agents striving to bring Bin Laden to some kind of justice. To Director Bigelow's credit, the film maintains a tense tone throughout the investigation, culminating in an action-packed final siege that is both exciting yet easy to follow (a rarity in post Bourne-action films).

Bigelow's storytelling is matched by a great cast and an inspired choice of leading lady. Jessica Chastain is superb in the central role, utterly believable throughout, offering a determined yet relatable performance (without the need for fluffy back story). The rest of the cast are also excellent, with Jason Clarke in particular providing a nuanced performance in some challenging scenes. 

6. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach co-writes and directs this black and white "dramedy", which along with its New York setting, inevitably has a touch of classic Woody Allen about it. This film is no throwback, however, and brings verve and life to the perennial problems of balancing career ambitions, friendships and relationships. 

The ridiculously lovable Greta Gerwig is key to the film and dominates the movie with her clumsy charm.  She co-writes with the director and plays the titular Frances, a failing dancer facing multiple crossroads in both her personal and professional lives. We watch her as she endeavours to find her place in the adult world through a series of funny, often embarrassing, set pieces that capture small, yet defining moments in her life. 

"Frances Ha" will strike a nerve with anyone who finds themselves in their late 20's with their lives not quite going to plan. It encapsulates perfectly that feeling of being left behind as friends and colleagues mature and move onwards and upwards. In Frances' case, this is predominantly illustrated through her relationship with her flatmate Sophie, whose flourishing publishing career and increasingly serious relationship with her boyfriend, sets her at odds with Frances' laid back, student-like lifestyle. How this shift in status quo affects their friendship and other relationships is key to what makes this such a fun but engrossing watch. 

5. Short Term 12

Director Destin Cretton has crafted a great all rounder in "Short Term 12". Funny, dramatic and emotional, his assured direction and great cast create an immersive story that makes you feel part of their world.

Drawing on his past experience working in a foster care home, Cretton builds a narrative that explores the problems of both the young people and the staff to which their care is entrusted. He handles his young cast incredibly well, with all the young actors giving honest and touching performances, particularly Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever as two of the most troubled youths.

Despite the strength of the youngsters' stories, the main narrative thrust comes through the character exploration of the troubled supervising carer, Grace, played with great subtlety and talent by Brie Larsson. Her performance slips easily from assured charm to wild fury, remaining completely captivating throughout. To be honest, I find it baffling that she's not already a much bigger star. This surely must be the film to lead her to stardom.

Much the same can be said of the actor who delivers my favourite performance of the film. Playing Grace's co-worker and boyfriend, John Gallagher Jr. is funny and effortlessly likeable, in a way that reminds me of a young Paul Rudd. The chemistry between these two actors is the key ingredient in making this touching film so effective. It's a cliché, but this is truly the kind of film that will make you laugh and cry.

4. The Act of Killing

A film oddity that packs an emotional punch, "The Act of Killing" is one of the strangest and most unsettling cinematic experiences of the year. Director Joshua Oppenheimer has found a truly unique way of bringing attention to the horrific acts of death squads operating on the behalf of the Indonesian military after a military coup back in 1965.

It is thought that they killed more than a million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals in under a year, yet they are treated like heroes. They have been allowed to write their own history, justifying the need for their atrocities, with no need for regret. Oppenheimer plays on the vanity of these former death squad leaders, or "gangsters" as they call themselves, to cleverly force them into confronting the horror of their actions.

Using their love of American cinema against them, he convinces former death squad leaders to recreate their 1965 killings for prosperity. Buoyed by the possibility of forever capturing their achievements through the medium they love, they enthusiastically throw themselves into creating cinematic versions of their past deeds, including "comedy" drag queen scenes and musical numbers to lighten the tone.

At first, they seem completely unaware of how atrocious their actions were, giddily dancing and singing on the site of a mass killing, but slowly, as they reenact more and more of the blood shed, now crucially also having to play the role of victims to create the scenes, doubts start to creep in. This progression is incredibly powerful, bringing some catharsis to the viewer for sitting through the long uncomfortable minutes that precede it. 

Full of bizarre visuals, twisted morality and enlightening interviews, this is a true one off that has to be seen.   

3. Much Ado About Nothing

For many years I argued that Shakespeare is nearly always best left to live theatrical productions. Although there are rare successes (and admittedly some stories like "Romeo and Juliet" sit very easily in the film world), few translate well to the big screen, especially when updated to a more modern era. Coriolanus tried gainfully a few years ago, but failed, in my opinion, despite director Ralph Fiennes' brilliant performance. So it takes a special film to make Shakespeare work on the big screen for me and Joss Whedon has managed just that here. 

His "Much Ado About Nothing" has an effortless quality that makes it a delight to watch. Filmed in just 12 days in black and white at his home in Santa Monica, L.A, he brings us the classic love story through a group of partying 1950's socialites without any tonal jarring. The narrative moves briskly and is always easy to follow, mainly due to a fantastic cast whose excellence elevates the film.

They manage to make light of the bard's antiquated language, speaking the lines as if it came as naturally as breathing. This is the key for me, as one of the major problems for me when watching Shakespeare is often that the too obvious enthusiasm of the actors involved detracts from the narrative. There seems an extra glint in their eyes, a roll of the tongue when delivering lines and the constant hint of a smile that comes from performing Shakespeare, almost like they're enjoying it too much. This is not to be found here, with the actors using a light natural delivery that carries the story forward with ease, with characters in natural conversation. 

The whole cast is excellent, with special mention going to the charming Alexis Denisof, hilarious Nathan Fillion, stoic Agent Coulson Clark Gregg and newcomer Jillian Morgese, who Whedon discovered as an extra whilst filming "The Avengers". Amy Acker as Beatrice is the stand-out star for me though, whose sharp delivery and quick wit entertain throughout.

From TV action adventure, to superhero blockbusters, to black and white low budget Shakespeare adaptations, Whedon has proved he is the king of the ensemble cast.

2. In a World...

At number two we find a small, but perfectly formed movie. Lake Bell's directorial debut left me with a smile on my face throughout, with her oddball cast of characters bringing consistent laughs in a film overflowing with charm.
It might seem odd to have an offbeat comedy in such a lofty position when I've placed heavy-hitters like "The Act of Killing" lower on the list, but it's so enjoyable I had to give it its due. 

"In a World..." opens with an ode to the titular line, as it heralds the beginning of countless movie trailers. However, we soon learn that the voice behind these lines has passed away and a brand new voice will be needed... 

Bell writes, directs and stars in a "dramedy" that shines a light on this little explored aspect of the film making process. Bell plays a struggling voice-over artist striving to make a big breakthrough in a male dominated industry. Her father, himself a legendary voice-over artist, is dismissive of her ambitions and instead throws his considerable weight behind his protege, played with a smug arrogance that only Ken Marino can bring.

This relatively straightforward premise is enriched with family drama, heartbreak, gender politics and some genuinely touching moments. Bell directs her script with great pacing and comedy timing, making the most of her fantastic cast who are note perfect throughout. In the central role, Bell leads the charge with a performance of awkward charm that eschews vanity to make the most of her brilliant physical comedy. With this great cast chemistry, the laugh count is higher you might expect and I doubt you'll find a more rounded comedy this year.

"In a World..." is an excellent showreel for Lake Bell's talents as a writer, director and performer and I eagerly await her future work.

(It also has some great little cameos, so look out for them.) 

1. Gravity

In the opening of the film we are told "Life in space is impossible" and we soon find out why in this cinematic force of nature conjured by director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men"). 

I had to go for Gravity as my number one, as no other film this year, or any recent year, has kept me so immersed and on the edge of my seat. I remained tense and engaged throughout, overwhelmed by the intense visuals and score. This is a film made to be seen on the big screen, even justifying the use of 3D as part of the immersion. This is the closest most of us will come to being in outer space, and after seeing this, probably the closest we'd want to be.

Gravity encapsulates the intense and harsh cruelty of space, using it like a horror movie uses an unstoppable serial killer. Although the beleaguered astronauts find moments of solace and calm, you know it's only a matter of time before gravity draws back the barrage of lethal space debris to torture them again. The score echoes this horror-film-like quality, with long sections of quiet, building menacingly as it slowly ratchets up the tension until it reaches full blown audio mayhem for the action set pieces. Subtle it's not, but it's certainly effective in spreading dread amongst the audience.

The film is also incredibly beautiful from beginning to end, with memorable images strewn throughout its running time, notably the air lock womb scene (you'll know it when you see it, it lingers a little too long just to make sure you've got the idea).

Like most films though, it does have its faults. As I hinted above, it sometimes lays the symbolic imagery on a bit thick and I'm not a fan of the fake-out scene, which jarred terribly with me. Many also point to its scientific inaccuracies, which if the film gave you time to think about them (which I don't feel it does), are pretty glaring. However, the main criticism has to be aimed at the dialogue, which it has to be said, can be pretty terrible. Clunky back stories are developed over the characters' radios, that in all honesty weren't really necessary and could have derailed many films.

Thankfully Cuaron has selected the perfect antidote through his casting of George Clooney and, more surprisingly, Sandra Bullock. Clooney's warm soothing voice could sell nearly any script and Bullock's tough portrayal of Doctor Ryan Stone makes you believe in her slightly contrived back story. With a cast this small you have to get the right actors and Bullock's selection as a grieving, emotionally detached mother is pretty perfect. She seems the perfect age to play this character too, all of the actresses linked with the role before she claimed it (Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, even Angelina Jolie) would not have conveyed the required experience to play an astronaut as well as her. There's also an unexpected muscular physicality that she brings to the role.

Alfonso Cuaron has created something unique with "Gravity". It's simultaneously a small personal story, a tense thriller, a monster-less horror movie, an inspirational survival story and a big action packed Hollywood blockbuster. It's a film that's been seven years in the making, with Cuaron having to wait for technology to catch up with his vision so he could fully implement his project. Looking at the results, it was worth the wait. 

I'd like to add one caveat. I imagine the power of "Gravity" will be much diminished when screened at home, as the film is almost like a ride or experience. It'll be interesting to see how effective it is without the bombast of the cinema, but I would hope it will still hold up. 

Worthy Mentions
Not quite on the main list...
Alpha Papa - This is how to translate a TV sitcom to film; don't stray too far from what made the original show so great. It felt like a long episode of "I'm Alan Partridge" and was all the better for it.
Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley investigates hidden family secrets 
Django Unchained - I love westerns and this an ambitious and entertaining entry, but I'm still struggling with the jarring tonal glitches Tarantino has insisted on since the Kill Bills. 
Star Trek Into Darkness - It may not have made a lot of sense, but its great cast and brisk pace made this one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Despicable Me 2 - Consistently funny whilst maintaining a lot of heart, 
Captain Phillips - Incredibly high on tension, my only complaint is a lack of character development to really make me feel for those involved. Still pretty great though.
Robot and Frank - It was on last year's list, but maybe should have been counted as a 2013 film as I saw it at a preview.
The Double - I was impressed by Richard Ayoade's follow up to "Submarine" when I saw a preview screening at Brighton's CINECITY film festival, however, it's official release date isn't until well into next year, so I've excluded it from this year's list.

Worth a Watch
Films worth a look -
Pacific Rim, This is the End, Behind the Candelabra, Before Midnight, Stoker, Les Miserables, Thor: The Dark World, The Great Beauty, Philomena, Blue Jasmine, A Field in England, Nebraska, About Time

Man of Steel - Not my vision of Superman, too brutal and angsty. The collateral damage and murdering did not sit well with me. On the plus side, great casting and I liked the updated costume.
Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn teams up with Ryan Gosling again, but unlike Drive, the style completely overwhelms the substance. 
World War Z - A disappointing adaptation. It jettisons everything that makes the book so great.
The World's End - It get's going about half way through, but doesn't reach the heights of the previous Cornetto films.
Iron Man 3 - Entertaining, but my problem with the film was.... IT MADE NO SENSE.
Like Someone in Love - For such an acclaimed director as Kiarostami, this felt quite minor.
Trance -  Probably the best opening twenty minutes of the year, but the pace is soon lost in the messy plot.
The Place Beyond the Pines - I really enjoyed the initial section involving Gosling's stunt motorcyclist, but its ambition to span through generations of the family involved caused the film to become over-long and lose its early momentum.
To The Wonder - A  tiresome self-parody by Malick. 
Lincoln - Too long for its own good, I also felt part of the film was missing. The soldiers introduced in the opening scenes would have been a fantastic way of showing how Lincoln's stubbornness, whilst justified, lead to more deaths through the extension of the war.

Probably Not Worth a Watch
World War Z
Gangster Squad

The ones that got away...
In an ideal world, I would have seen these too -
Monsters University, Evil Dead, G.I Joe Retaliation, Fast and Furious 6, The Purge, Mud, Europa Report, Pain and Gain, The Bling Ring, No, Beyond the Hills, Good Vibrations, Spring Breakers, 
A Touch of Sin, The Selfish Giant, Norte, The End of History, Stranger by the Lake, The Hunt, Rush, Filth, What Richard Did, We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks, The Impossible, Caesar Must Die, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Great Gatsby, Wrong, All is Lost

Hope you enjoyed reading my breakdown, Happy New Year!

2012 Update
The ones I caught up with that I missed last year...
Safety Not Guaranteed, Lawless, Compliance, Berberian Sound Studio, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Silver Linings Playbook, Damsels in Distress, Ruby Sparks

The ones I didn't...
Sinister, Anna Karenina, The Campaign,  Resident Evil: Retribution, Iron Sky, Frankenweenie, Ill Manors, "I, Anna", Wrong, This is Not a Film, The Imposter, Bernie, The Kid with a Bike, Margin Call,  Rise of the Guardians

The ones I didn't see despite owning the DVD or being able to to stream them (so I'll hopefully watch them soon)...
Sound of My Voice, Your Sister's Sister, Alps, Haywire, Monsieur Lazhar, The Bourne Legacy and The Hunt.

Last Years Top Eleven
12. Life of Pi
11. Amour
10. Room 237
09. The Raid
08. Seven Psychopaths
07. Killing Them Softly
06. Martha Marcy May Marlene
05. 21 Jump Street
04. Robot and Frank
03. Moonrise Kingdom
02. The Master
01. Avenger Assemble

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