Top 20 of 2013, Part I: #20 – #11
If I could sum up the world of cinema in 2013 in one word it’d be “surprising”. Despite all of the atrocious blockbusters, miserable sequels and general disappointments, we’ve seen small, independent and foreign cinema blossom. For every Man of Steel, we’ve had a Frances Ha; for every Carrie or Texas Chainsaw 3D, we’ve had a Maniac, and for every Gosling-led mess, we’ve had a Gosling-led masterpiece…
So, as the year draws to a close, I thought I’d share my top 20 films of 2013 with you. There might be a couple of surprises in here and, as a lack of money has prevented me from attending the cinema all that much, there’ll be a few omissions too (see below)
So without further ado, here are films #20 – #11 of my top 20 the year. In order to warrant inclusion, a film must have gone on general release in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013, so films such as The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and The Spectacular Now are not included.
Stories we Tell
With Stories we Tell, Sarah Polley (best known for her roles in Dawn of the Dead and Mr Nobody) examines the very art of storytelling with a personal, intimate but thoroughly entertaining documentary.
Stories we Tell takes “meta” to the next level, as we witness Polley making the film we’re watching whilst also watching as she embarks on a journey of discovery. The film is all about the power of stories and how different perspectives can change our perception of events, all told in a story that is brimming with courage and honesty.
Stories we Tell might not be everyone’s cup of tea – after all, it doesn’t really go anywhere when you think about it, and it tells a very self-obsessed story (not that that’s always a bad thing) – but for me its approach to / love of storytelling really resonated.
The Way Way Back
The “coming-of-age” / teenage self-discovery film has undergone something of a return to form this year. This list includes quite a few COA films, and while The Way Way Back is probably the tamest of the selection, it’s also one of the most enjoyable.
The Way Way Back is the classic “summer of love” story, updated for the modern age and turned ever-so-slightly on its head. Starring Liam James as shy, retiring 14-year old Duncan, it follows his journey from childhood to adulthood with lots of laughs – and a few darker emotions – along the way.
The Way Way Back is nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s elevated by the presence of Sam Rockwell, who is hilarious as Duncan’s eventual mentor Owen, and Steve Carell who is just gloriously grotesque as Duncan’s stepfather Trent. It’s a relatively safe film, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
Philomena is one of those films that sneaks up on you. At face value it offers a tame and simplistic take on the real-life story of Philomena Lee (played here by Judi Dench), whose son was sold by Nuns in the 1950s, but scratch beneath the surface and there’s quite a lot for the audience to sink their teeth into.
The film succeeds primarily thanks to the camaraderie between Dench and Steve Coogan, who plays disgraced journalist Martin Sixsmith. For all of its dark background, the film is full of warmth, humour and joy, and the two leads complement each other perfectly. Dench’s “Irish mammy” role is a revelation, while Coogan displays an emotional side that is rare but welcome.
Also, Kyle Smith hates this film so as far as I’m concerned that automatically makes it good…
This is the End
This is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me because the trailer was just awful. What I expected to be a self-obsessed, insular, “oh look at us, we’re so cool” comedy turned out to be… well, it turned out to be exactly that. But, by some miracle, it actually worked…
The amazing thing about This is the End is that it made me like the people involved. With the exception of James Franco, I pretty much hate all of the people in this film. Their brand of “comedy” is often grating – and, worse still, painfully unfunny – and they tend to drag relatively good films down.
Here, however, they’re brilliant. The film has a sense of anarchic fun and it hits you with so many gags that some of them – if only by sheer probability and determination – have to stick. It’s not flawless by any means but I had a great time with This is the End and am genuinely looking forward to watching it again.
There are quite a few things wrong with Maniac – it’s repetitive, it runs out of steam, it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be at times – but these are outweighed by the good. For a start, the use of POV is excellent as it grants us a real insight into the killer’s mind and forces us to “become” him in a way that is all but unparalleled in mainstream horror cinema.
The big surprise here however is that Elijah Wood, everyone’s favourite hobbit, is incredible as the killer. His voice and his innocent, childlike appearance suit the killer’s broken personality just perfectly and he gives what might well be the greatest performance of his career to date.
Another selection based on a true story, Captain Phillips chronicles the hijack of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film has obvious action movie sensibilities but, thanks to a cynical and often scathing approach to American imperialism (albeit one that ultimately takes a patriotic bent) it ultimately grows into something of a political allegory.
Captain Phillips succeeds for two very distinct reasons; firstly, it is a damn fine thriller that cranks up the tension, slips under your skin and then refuses to let go until the very end. More saliently, however, it is a brilliant character study; the relationship between Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the pirate leader Abduwali Muse (played to perfection by newcomer Barkhad Abdi) is explored in great detail, as the ambitions of both men are dragged into the open and pitted against each other. A mutual respect is suggested, though never made explicit, and Hanks and Abdi are both magnificent in the roles.
Like Greengrass’ previous efforts, Captain Phillips is an action film with serious bite. It is a tad overlong but, for the most part, it is a gripping and occasionally terrifying piece of drama that hits all the right notes.
The second “coming-of-age” film on this list, Mud, is perhaps the most traditional and eighties-inflected of this year’s releases. It is a film that explores the breakdown of relationships across different generations and one that is all but obsessed with the role of men in the post-masculine World
The beauty of Mud lies not in its performances (which are all great) or its story (which is highly engaging) but in its breathtaking cinematography. It is a seductive little film that sucks you in and then refuses to let go as the three main characters embark on both a physical and metaphorical journey of discovery.
For all of its Southern state sensibilities, Mud is a film that all audiences can invest in. It doesn’t pretend to be anything special, rather it simply relies on a solid story, excellent characters and an appeal to our innate desire to love and be loved without ever resorting to mawkishness or false sentimentality.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
Felix Van Groeningen‘s adaptation of The Broken Circle Breakdown is an emotional and often harrowing drama that has received praise right across the critical spectrum. Its tale of a young family destroyed by tragedy is one that tugs at the heartstrings without ever feeling too manipulative or convoluted.
When it’s not attempting to be political, The Broken Circle Breakdown is all but perfect. It melds the feel-good mentality of Bluegrass music with a heart-breaking yet strangely life-affirming story that is aided by a trio of great performances.
It’s easy to see why The Broken Circle Breakdown has been such a hit; the characters are likable (and relatably flawed), the script is -with the exception of a few moments that are unbearably heavy-handed – solid and the combination of the music with the gorgeous cinematography is simply stunning.
Kill Your Darlings
Make a film about the Beat Generation and there’s a very high chance that I’ll love it. Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas‘ directorial debut about how the Beats were formed against a backdrop of murder and betrayal is an expertly-realised film that succeeds, in part, because of its faults.
The most striking thing about the film is that, for all of its respect and admiration for the era, it doesn’t approach its subjects uncritically. The movement’s worth is questioned, particularly when compared to the battle against fascism in Europe at the time, and that gives it an additional oomph.
Kill Your Darlings‘ greatest strength, however, is its performances. Daniel Radcliffe is very solid but it is Dane DeHaan who steals the show. DeHaan’s turn as Lucien Carr is mesmerising. He oozes screen presence, and he brings to Carr a bristling intensity that stays with you long after the film has ended. DeHaan is one to watch for the future for sure, and Kill Your Darlings proves it.
Another major surprise, Harmony Korine‘s Spring Breakers is a glitzy, flashy and gloriously stylish film that explores the shallow banality of modern youth. It is a film that looks at the pernicious commercialisation of sex and the search for meaning amongst the Millennial Generation, and one that is much deeper than its apparent emptiness might suggest.
Spring Breakers beats along like a video game, perhaps even a nightmare from which you can never escape… maybe even one from which you don’t want to escape. It uses flagrant hedonism to critique a whole host of issues and is aided along by some beautifully inspired casting. The use of “innocent” Disney girls as the dangerous, violent, sexual, greed-driven anti-heroines of the piece is the film’s greatest metaphor; just look what Hollywood has done to these women!
For me, however, Spring Breakers deserves its place on this list purely for James Franco, who is unrecognisable and phenomenal as the beautifully weird “Alien”. Franco loves to take risks and, in this instance, it pays off majestically.
So, that’s part one of my top 20 of the year… I’ll post the official top 10 later this afternoon. In the meantime, do any of these choices make your top 20? Maybe you think I’ve been too generous to some films, or perhaps too harsh on others? Whatever you think, just leave a comment in the box below =)
Films yet to watch: All is Lost, Arbitrage, Beyond the Hills, Child’s Pose, Filth, Nebraska, Only God Forgives, Rush, Short Term 12, The Act of Killing, The Bling Ring, The Selfish Giant and Upstream Colour.