Sunday, 29 December 2013

Top 10 Films of 2013

I've already mentioned some of my favourites this year elsewhere online. Unfortunately there were a great deal of not-quite-top-ten-worthy films in 2013. Throughout the year title after title seemed to fall short of its potential or have unfortunate missteps. I would like to have included To the Wonder, Bullet to the Head and Brian De Palma's Passion in this roundup but they are technically 2012 films and have therefore been added to last year's annual review. As the year comes to an end and time is running short this isn't the definitive article but it will have to do for now.
Here are my ten favourite films of 2013, in alphabetical order:

Bastards  (Claire Denis)

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont)

The Counsellor (Ridley Scott) 

 Garden of Words (Makoto Shinkai)

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn)

The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zurcher)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya  (Isao Takahata)

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

Honourable Mentions:
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

Upstream Colour (Shane Carruth)

Gloria (Sebastian Lelio)

The Nun (Guillaume Nicloux)

The Future (Alicia Scherson)

Parker (Taylor Hackford)

Aningaaq (Jonas Cuaron) 

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)

All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)

Hummingbird (Steven Knight)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney)

Standout Performances
Paulina Garcia in Gloria
Juliette Binoche in Camille Claudel 1915
Cate Blanchett & Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
Pauline Etienne in The Nun
Vithaya Pansringarm & Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives
Patrick d'Assumcao in Stranger by the Lake
Agata Kulesza & Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida
Adele Exarchopoulos & Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour
Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe & Scott Bakula in Behind the Candelabra
Jean-Claude Van Damme in Enemies Closer
Pierrette Robitaille & Romane Bohringer in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

Abysmal Performances
Shiloh Fernandez in Evil Dead
Byron Gibson in Only God Forgives
Charlie Hunnam, Charlie Day & Robert Kazinsky in Pacific Rim
Tom Wisdom in Soulmate
Cameron Diaz & Toby Kebbell in The Counsellor
James Badge Dale in Iron Man 3
Russell Crowe in Man of Steel
James Franco in Homefront

Still Need to See:
The Seventh Code, 12 Years a Slave, The Punk Singer, Only Lovers Left Alive, At Berkeley, The Zero Theorem, Snowpiercer, The Unknown Known, The Past, The Grandmaster, Blind Detective, The Spirit of '45, Shield of Straw, Tip Top, Borgman, Dark Touch, The Three Disasters (from 3 x 3D), Exhibition, Abuse of Weakness, Story of my Death, The Wolf of Wall Street, Curse of Chucky, North, the End of History, We Went to War, Man Made Place, The Stuart Hall Project, The Congress, A Fuller Life, Stray Dogs, The Missing Picture, For Those in Peril, The Plague, Anatomy of a Paperclip, Rush, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, The Last of the Unjust, The End of Time, Neighbouring Sounds, Wounded, Like Father, Like Son, A Highjacking and many others.

Films I'm looking forward to in 2014:
Maps to the Stars, Magic in the Moonlight, Godzilla, Voyage of Time & Knight of Cups, The Assassin, Welcome to New York, White Bird in a Blizzard, Mr. Turner, Fast & Furious 7, Exodus, Clouds of Sils Maria, Phoenix, The Duke of Burgundy, Farewell to Language, Winter Sleep, The Captive, Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Two Days, One Night, Pompeii, Ned Rifle, Maleficent, Big Eyes and many others.

Karen Black, Les Blank, Patrice Chereau, David Dewaele, Roger Ebert, Dennis Farina, Joan Fontaine, Bryan Forbes, Jess Franco, Stuart Freeborn, Richard Griffiths, Michael Grigsby, Gerry Hambling, Julie Harris, Ray Harryhausen, Stanley Kauffmann, Wojciech Kilar, Bernadette Lafont, Ed Lauter, Elmore Leonard, Bigas Luna, Richard Matheson, William Moody (aka Paul Bearer), Milo O'Shea, Nagisa Oshima, Peter O'Toole, Eleanor Parker, Ted Post, Lou Reed, Donald Richie, Otto Sander, Gilbert Taylor, Storm Thorgerson, Jack Vance, Paul Walker, Marcia Wallace, Christine White, Sheila Whitaker, Michael Winner, Vadim Yusov

"Thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies." - Roger Ebert 1942-2013

Further Thoughts
Inevitably one can't help doing comparisons with the previous year in these assessments and for me the last twelve months in cinema definitely fell short of the standards of 2012. So many titles got my interest but failed to deliver on their initial promise. Even after seeing the already published best of the year lists online I've ended 2013 with far more questions than at the start of the year. The questions I'm asking are things like: what the Hell happened? Did I miss something? Perhaps more importantly, as an active filmgoer, where did I go wrong? Things got off to a bad start when the first new release I caught at the cinema in 2013 was the utterly worthless Evil Dead remake. I watched it with some co-workers so at least I was being sociable. This year had fewer surprises and more disappointments, including a growing number of films that just seemed to pass the time.

Things started to look up in June with Before Midnight. Given the perfect open ended finish to its predecessor (2004's Before Sunset) it's remarkable that the film works at all. Like many others I was concerned it would ruin the legacy of a perfect duo of films but the growing pains, regrets and maturity of Celine and Jesse are still fascinating to watch. It's another delightful film that proves like Toy Story 3 did that films can return to the lives of much loved characters at certain intervals and remain fresh and vital. Only God Forgives drew a lot of scorn, unfairly in my view. As Refn's follow up feature to Drive it defied expectations, drew heavily on its unusual atmosphere and the anti-revenge storyline was actually a step away from the casual nihilism of so many modern features. Nobody does personal crisis quite like Woody Allen and Blue Jasmine finds him with his most compelling and challenging dramatic subject in a while, aided immeasurably by a phenomenal performance by Cate Blanchett. I'm very eager to revisit Upstream Colour, a fascinating puzzle of a film that confirms Shane Carruth's status as one of the most exciting talents in US cinema today. I only hope we don't have to wait nine years for his next feature. Together with Under the Skin it gives one hope for the future of thoughtful and ambitious big screen science fiction. 

The summer blockbuster season was almost a total washout. The Lone Ranger was one of the year's biggest flops but along with Fast & Furious 6 it was the only major popcorn movie I enjoyed in 2013. Following on from 2012's Rango, Verbinski's tribute to classic Westerns was surprisingly sincere. Although too long, way over budget and written off as a failure months before release it was an all too rare blockbuster movie with humour, charm and a real sense of adventure.
Shame on all those people who gave the film the rough treatment and embraced the likes of Iron Man 3, Thor 2: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Man of Steel and Oblivion. Pixar seem to be coasting with Monsters University and one can only hope they have something as ambitious as Wall-E up their sleeves again. With all the wit, character and imagination he bought to the two Hellboy films it's sad to see Guillermo Del Toro make something as empty, lifeless, bloated and generic as Pacific Rim. Later on in the year the world finally got a head to head Schwarzenegger and Stallone movie with Escape Plan and sadly it was a throwaway picture. The indifference that greeted it on release was depressing in itself. Too bad they didn't make an Arnie/Sly picture 20 years ago when it would have been a huge deal.

Admittedly I didn't see it in 3D but I found Gravity strangely uninvolving and underwhelming. Part of the blame for that i'm sure lies with the avalanche of hype that greeted it on release but I really wanted to like it more than I did. I almost feel like I should give it another chance to see what, if anything, I missed the first time around. Aningaaq, the short film made by Alfonso Cuaron's son Jonas as a 7 minute companion piece was far more human and engaging. I'm not a fan of Edgar Wright's pop culture demolition derbies but the satirical possibilites for The World's End were frustratingly unrealised. Has there been a better time than the present to do a Body Snatchers type of movie in Britain? A few jokes hit the mark but it lacks subtlety and when Pegg, Frost and co start doing ridiculously over the top fight scenes and celebrate the geek culture that spawned them it flounders horribly.

It came as a relief that there was some genuine substance to Blue is the Warmest Colour and despite certain reservations I felt that it at least justified some of the hype surrounding it. Other acclaimed film festival offerings such as Heli, The Selfish Giant and Nebraska failed to impress me. In November my Leeds film festival pass proved to be more of an excuse to see much cherished films of yesteryear such as Le Cercle Rouge and The Tenant on the big screen rather than making significant new discoveries. That said, All is Lost was a very worthwhile late addition to the programme and A Touch of Sin is a highly compelling study of personal and political corruption as well as a kind of satire of a society constantly teetering on the brink of violence. Stills from the film don't quite do it justice but Garden of Words is the most beautiful animated film in recent memory. Speaking of animation Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement (for the third time in 17 years) and if he stays true to his word this time then The Wind Rises would be a fitting finale to a magnificent career. Ditto Isao Takahata with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

The year bought some welcome developments: Although female roles are frequently criticised as being insubstantial, underwritten or misogynist, nearly all of the best performances I saw over the last year were by women in lead parts, all of whom splendidly carried their respective films - perhaps best of all was Paulina Garcia in Gloria. A Field in England's multi-format release on the same day (cinema, DVD, TV showing, online viewing etc.) helped draw attention to the film and it would be nice if others were to follow its example. Films generally seemed to provoke much more discussion than usual this year. The likes of Gravity, Blue is the Warmest Colour and The Act of Killing sparked a lot of debate about their content and overall merits and not just among cinephiles. Other topics such as the the virtues of TV and acclaimed series such as 'Breaking Bad' and 'Top of the Lake' versus those of feature films were as lively as ever, no doubt spurred along by Steven Soderbergh's self imposed retirement from cinema after he had to turn to television to make Behind the Candelabra. Meanwhile the likes of Spike Lee, Zach Braff and Hal Hartley using Kickstarter to get funding for new features certainly raised a few eyebrows. With the deaths of Roger Ebert, Stanley Kauffmann and Donald Richie and the retirement of Philip French, the role of critics again came under scrutiny, something that Mark Kermode's 'Hatchet Job' book addressed. I still feel they can have enormous importance in film culture, far more significant than the lame twitter comments that now adorn film posters anyway.

Despite the bleak intro I haven't given up hope yet. If I sound a bit undernourished by what 2013 had to offer it's worth keeping in mind that there's an awful lot I still need to see, including many must-see titles that have been held back in the UK for an inordinate length of time like Snowpiercer, 12 Years a Slave and Only Lovers Left Alive. As a filmgoer it's good to stay hungry for a while I guess, hopeful that the next major discovery is just around the corner. Are there any future classics among my best of the year selection? Well, there's a handful here I'd make a case for but otherwise I have my doubts. I've been too conservative in my choice of viewing by focussing on fictional narrative feature films and neglecting documentaries, short films and animated fare. Rather than bemoaning the state of things I'd like to think I've just been looking in the wrong places. As 2014 is imminent I'll make a resolution to exercise better judgement in my choice of viewing over the next 12 months. Happy New Year!

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