Top 30 of 2013
After much deliberation and tinkering, I finally settled on my top 30 of 2013. I should confess at the outset that I wasn’t able to see everything I had hoped to this year, with notable examples of movies well loved by other critics that I’m yet to see including Nebraska, The Great Beauty and Blue Is The Warmest Color. Otherwise, this is as comprehensive a list as I could manage. Narrowly missing out on this list, in no particular order, were Les Miserables, Fast & Furious 6, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Cloud Atlas, Anchorman 2, Prince Avalanche and Wreck-it Ralph. All also well worth seeking out if you haven’t already!
30:/ Don Jon
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial début is an original and often hilarious comedy drama focusing on Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt), nicknamed Don Jon thanks to his flair for picking up ladies. Secretly though Jon much prefers his beloved online porn, to the point where it begins to effect his bourgeoning relationship with sassy new girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). The film is unflinching in its use of pornographic imagery and it’s not one for the easily offended but at its heart this is a story about the unrealistic nature of male fantasy and the effect that an addiction to porn can have upon real life relationships. The supporting cast are all excellent too, with Tony Danza a hoot as Jon’s bullish father. Don Jon is an assured début feature which suggests that Gordon-Levitt is a directorial talent to watch.
29:/ Pacific Rim
Guillermo Del Toro’s robots vs monsters blockbuster wasn’t beloved by everyone but personally I found it an eye-popping piece of big-budget fun. The spectacle was huge, the special effects excellent and in a cinema especially, the fight sequences were really something. Charlie Hunnam (he’ll always be Jax Teller to me) is Raleigh, a washed up former pilot of massive robots called Jaegers. These Jaegers are constructed by men to combat the scourge of Kaiju, massive monsters that have emerged from the depths of the oceans and wreak havoc upon mankind. It’s a battle draining the world’s resources and one which must be ended soon one way or another. The CGI is amongst the very best and while the story is a little light and the dialogue hammy to the extreme, this is the type of movie you just go into, sit back and switch off. Crank up the volume and enjoy a big robot twatting a monster round the head with a big boat.
28:/ Side Effects
Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is almost two films in one. It’s half a medical drama playing on America’s addiction to prescription drugs and the other half a twisting neo-noir thriller filled with double bluffs and rug-pulls. At the centre of this labyrinthine plot are Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), a successful young couple whose lives are rocked after Emily attempts suicide. Her psychiatrist Jonathan (Jude Law) prescribes her an experimental new drug on the advice of another psychiatrist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug works at first but has an unexpected side effect which sets off a chain of events that embroils the whole cast in a deadly web of intrigue. The twist and turns will keep you guessing right until the end and there is definitely a very welcome dash of the Hitchcockian thriller about proceedings.
I quite enjoyed the first Hunger Games outing, it was an entertaining and surprisingly dark and violent adventure fantasy movie and quite rightly launched Jennifer Lawrence on the path to megastardom. The sequel was equally entertaining and while the plot may offer few deviations from it predecessor, it does add in enough new little beats to keep you guessing (assuming like me you don’t already know the books) and sets up the broader overarching story. The political allegory resonates strongly and the stakes are certainly raised by the film’s climax. Lawrence is fantastic and anchors the film effortlessly as an emotionally grounded yet fiercely determined Katniss Everdeen. The film has a dark underbelly which it isn’t afraid to push to the surface and it knows how to whet the audience’s appetite for the next instalment.
An eye-opening documentary focusing on the plight of orca or “killer” whales residing at Sea World. Particular focus is on Tilikum, an orca whale who has claimed the lives of several trainers since being held in captivity. The film chronicles his and other whales’ harsh treatment and the misery of their life spent in a tiny tank, as well as shedding light on the cover-ups and misinformation put out by large sea-parks such as Sea World. Former trainers and experts comment on the true nature of these creatures and highlight the danger they were unwittingly put in by their employers. The footage is often shocking, with one sequence showing an experienced trainer being repeatedly pulled under water by an orca genuinely proving one of the most nerve-wracking moments of cinema I saw this year. It’s thought-provoking and powerful stuff and is undoubtedly a vital and searing expose.
In a summer where other superhero blockbusters failed to really capture my imagination, Man of Steel being very hit and miss, Iron Man 3 proving fine but unremarkable, it was the unexpected delights of Thor: The Dark World which most impressed. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Thor outing as the ‘fish out of water’ stuff got all rather tedious for me. This second offering though is a far more enjoyable beast, filled with a snappy script, some genuinely funny moments and a thoroughly entertaining story. The story involves a vicious race of space bastards (technical term) led by the malevolent Malekith (Christopher Ecclestone) who are back to destroy the universe and both Thor’s home world of Asgard as well as our own planet Earth are in danger. Tom Hiddleston stands out once more as the manipulative Loki, a hugely enjoyable boo-hiss villain. The playful tone and sense of romping adventure is what makes this Marvel outing a real blockbuster treat.
24:/ This Is The End
It may not have been to everyone’s taste but as a fan of a great deal of this ensemble cast’s work, I have to say I found This Is The End hilarious. Comedy is inherently a subjective thing and one man’s This Is Spinal Tap is another man’s Little Nicky. However if you are a fan of Messrs Rogen, Hill, McBride, Franco et al normally, you can’t go far wrong here. Playing quasi-versions of themselves, the gang and some other celebrity pals are at a party when the apocalypse hits and the central cast then has to hole up in Franco’s house as they await rescue. The humour is often crass and puerile, but it is also frequently hysterical. There are plenty of in-jokes on display, but never to the point where you feel they are going all smug and Ocean’s 12 on you. It’s an interesting premise and one which produces one of the most unexpected fist-pump inducing endings of the year.
Released way back in January 2013, I almost forgot how good Lincoln was. Daniel Day-Lewis was simply superb as Abraham Lincoln and was thoroughly deserving of his Oscar win. Completely immersing himself into the role as he always does, he gives a performance that captures the determination, patience and the high principles of the man himself. The film focuses only on a snapshot of the President’s life, detailing his fight to abolish slavery as America is ravaged by civil war. Steven Spielberg recreates the 1860s perfectly and delivers a movie rich in atmosphere and vital moral debate. It may be a little dense for some, it is extremely wordy and more of a legal drama than anything else, but for anyone with an interest in political history or even just in well rendered period drama, it’s a must-see. The issue of slavery is unavoidably and quite rightly a thorny one to handle, but Spielberg’s movie does a great job of demonstrating the conflicting opinions white America possessed a century and a half ago. It may slightly gloss over less admirable elements of Lincoln’s stance on slavery, he did after all in real life emphasise that he certainly did not see blacks and whites as equals, but purely as a snapshot of a crucial time in American history, it captures the spirit and determination of the great man admirably.
I’m not a fan of Formula 1 racing at all, but Ron Howards retelling of the fierce rivalry between 70s racing stars James Hunt and Niki Lauda was a hugely enjoyable thrill ride of a movie. Chris Hemsworth is perfect as the handsome British playboy Hunt, and Daniel Bruhl equally excels as the determined Austrian Lauda. I went into the film completely unfamiliar with their story, which perhaps added to my enjoyment of the movie as I really didn’t know what was coming next. I know that some liberties were taken with the story, and perhaps the duos’ relationship wasn’t quite as unfriendly as it may appear here, but leaving that aside for now, the events that unfold are absolutely gripping. It looks and sounds spectacular and the race sequences are incredibly visceral in their impact. Excellent popcorn entertainment.
21:/ Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s latest movie is anchored by a superb performance by Cate Blanchett as the titular Jasmine. Jasmine is a New York socialite fallen on hard times who is moving in with her sister in San Francisco as she seeks to begin afresh. Clearly in denial over something that happened in her past and struggling to adapt to her new lot in life, Jasmine’s mental frailties begin to come to the fore and even effect those around her. This isn’t your standard Allen movie by any means. It’s got a far darker edge than most of his recent work and while there are still odd moments of humour dotted around the place, it errs far more on the drama side of the comedy-drama spectrum than it does comedy. Blanchett gives an Oscar worthy turn, filled with nervous, on-edge confusion, but able support also comes from the excellent Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Louis CK, Peter Sarsgaard and surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay. It’s one of Allen’s best ever casts and a fascinating study of one woman’s world slowly falling apart.
A film famously decreed ‘too gay’ for mainstream American cinema was thankfully given the wide release it deserved in the UK and proved an extremely popular biopic. The film chronicles the turbulent relationship between legendary piano icon Liberace (Michael Douglas) and the much younger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), from their first meeting to their final goodbye. Both leads are exceptional with Douglas especially disappearing into the role and giving one of his best performances for years. The film revels in the excess and exuberant showmanship of Liberace and at the same time doesn’t shy away from his eccentricities. The tender relationship is also incredibly believable and Douglas and Damon fully convince as an infatuated but troubled couple.
19:/ Captain Phillips
Director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks combine here to powerful effect. Charting the true life story (the veracity of which has been called into question by some it should be noted) of Captain Richard Phillips whose container ship was hijacked by a band of Somali pirates. The film operates from two viewpoints, one being Phillips’, the other the leader of the Somali hijackers Muse (Barkhad Abdi). As the drama unfolds and the hijacking turns into a kidnapping, we begin to sympathise not only with Phillips but also with the desperate Muse who has been left with little choice other than turning to a life of piracy. Greengrass’ main triumph here is pulling off this duel viewpoint and making his hijackers even remotely sympathetic. The film doesn’t seek to condemn them as such, simply to highlight their plight as well as the dangers facing innocent men at sea. The two central performances are phenomenal, with newcomer Abdi more than holding his own against old hand Tom Hanks. Hanks himself reminds us why he’s one of the very best with some work towards the films end in particular which is truly outstanding. A tense and wonderfully crafted thriller which packs quite an impact.
18:/ The Spectacular Now
Yet another great coming-of-age American comedy drama here and one which feels incredibly grounded, raw and honest. It follows the story of Miles Teller (Sutter Keely), a smooth-talking popular kid who enters into an unlikely romance with shy good-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The film charts their uncertain romance and portrays the thrills and perils of young love in a frank and recognisable manner. It is at its heart a standard cool guy/uncool girl romance story, but director James Ponsoldt and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber create a charming and yet uncompromising movie which features tremendous turns from its two young leads. There is a dark edge to the movie in places, with matters of wasted talent and the perils of alcohol addiction taking centre stage, and these aspects are blended with the teenage romance elements perfectly.
17:/ The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing is an unforgettable and extremely troubling documentary which will linger with you for days afterwards. The film focuses on Indonesia and members of an infamous Death Squad who murdered hundreds of thousands of ‘communists’ and ethnic Chinese in the name of the new military regime in the 1960s. Two local gangsters, Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, are the two primary protagonists who are invited by Oppenheimer to recreate their atrocities in the style of their choosing. The gangsters embrace their love of Westerns, Gangster films and Musicals in order to tell their stories. It’s a startling insight into the mind-set of mass murderers as we see them vigorously defend their actions and take such glee in what they have done. It’s a difficult film to watch, not because of any graphic or bloody footage, but because of the shocking questions it raises about the nature of humanity. A unique and surreal documentary experience.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the first instalment in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. It was perfectly enjoyable but was a three star film at best. This second instalment though was a massive improvement. The story was more adventurous, the peril heightened and it whizzed along at a great rate of knots rather than lagging like its predecessor. Jackson really nailed the action sequences this time around with the barrel sequence in particular really catching the eye. I think I’m ranking this so highly partly out of surprise at how much I enjoyed it. The Hobbit story was expanded deftly and I never felt like there was anything that was superfluous and could easily have been chopped. For me it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of the year!
15:/ Robot & Frank
This great little comedy drama slipped under the radar a little bit but it’s well worth seeking out if you get chance. Directed by Jake Schreier, it is set in the near future and stars Frank Langella as Frank, an ageing former cat burglar who is becoming increasingly forgetful and whose two kids are beginning to worry that he cannot live alone. The solution hit upon by son Hunter (James Marsden) is a live-in walking, talking robot programmed to help improve Frank’s health and provide general companionship. Over the course of the film Frank and the robot form a strange bond and the former begins to learn a thing or two about friendship and family along the way. The film deals with the issue of growing old poignantly and tenderly, never resorting to cliché or sentimentality. It’s a thoroughly engaging and moving movie with one of the most surprising buddy match ups of the year.
This shocking adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name is a dark, grimy and unflinching tale of one man’s descent into utter moral decay. James McAvoy stars as Bruce Robertson, a drug-addled cop who wears his bigotry and corruption as badges of honour and who will stop at nothing to get the promotion he feels he deserves. This involves screwing over his colleagues and concocting an elaborate web of lies and deceit. Slowly both his plans and his sanity begin to unravel and the demons from his past begin to take over. There is definitely a deeply dark comic streak to Filth, but we are talking pitch black comedy here. Bruce is an utterly horrid human being, with no redeeming featured whatsoever; the brilliance of McAvoy’s performance is making the viewer still care what happens to him as he goes about his schemes. It’s a no-holds barred assault on the senses, and in part seems to play out like an unrepentant waking nightmare. It’s definitely not one for the squeamish but if you like your movies downright grubby, you can’t go far wrong.
Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to Blue Valentine is a melancholic drama buoyed by strong performances from Ryan Gosling as softly spoken stunt-rider Luke and Bradley Cooper’s fiercely ambitious cop Avery. When Luke turns to a life of crime to provide for his child, it results in his life colliding sharply with Avery’s. The aftermath of their crossing resonates years down the line and goes on to deeply effect their respective sons. It’s been accurately described by some as a film about ‘the sins of the fathers’, an apt description for a film that boldly allows its focus to shift time frames and really analyse the consequences that one man’s choices can have on those around him. A phenomenal opening tracking shot that follows Luke into his ‘wheel of death’ stunt riding show is a particular highlight, and while the final act does sag slightly, it still provides a satisfying conclusion for this sprawling generational story.
Park Chan-wook’s first English language movie is a stylish and moody Hitchcockian thriller that gets under your skin and stays there for days to follow. I know a lot of people weren’t as taken with it as I was but for me it was one of the most striking movies of the year. It’s a dark tale, bathed in a deliberately stylised and stark colour palette and dripping with sexual tension. The film’s focus is teenage misfit India (Mia Wasikowska), a quiet and shy girl living with her unhinged mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). After India’s father dies in as car crash, the mysterious ‘Uncle Charlie’ comes to stay with them. Charlie is played by Matthew Goode and he’s the one who really haunts this film, a disturbed and threatening presence despite his smiles and apparent good intentions. India soon catches on to the fact that Charlie may have ulterior motives for moving in with her and her mother, but nonetheless finds herself becoming drawn closer to him. Stoker is part psychological drama, part family mystery and part horror. The end result is an unsettling movie which embraces its gothic aesthetic and ratchets up the tension as the mystery unfolds.
11:/ The Way Way Back
Another glorious coming of age American comedy drama and definitely the one which most noticeably edges towards the comedy side of things. It follows the summer of fourteen year old Duncan (Liam James), an introvert who is facing the summer at a seaside community with his mother (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend (Steve Carell). Carrell’s character is inherently unlikeable, an overbearing and often mean man who cruelly belittles Duncan throughout. As the adults in the town regress to acting like teenagers, Duncan feels increasingly isolated until he befriends the manager of the local water park Owen (Sam Rockwell). Eventually Duncan ends up working at the park and gradually comes out of his shell thanks to his friendship with Owen. It may not be the most ground-breaking movie in terms of story, but it is carried out with such warmth, humour and charm, you can’t help but fall in love with it. There are great performances from Alison Janney as well as Collette and Carrell, but it’s Sam Rockwell who really steals the show. His Owen is a swaggering man-child who acts as a de facto guide to enjoying life for young Duncan and basically every scene he appears in proves a comic treat.
10:/ Django Unchained
Released way back in January this year, I decided to go back and revisit Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained in order to remind myself just how much I enjoyed it. Sure enough, it was every bit as great as I remembered. Tarantino-does-Westerns was always likely to be a winning formula for me, as a fan of both QT’s work and the Western genre in general. However, even taking away my inbuilt bias, the film is a gleefully violent story filled with storming performances. Jamie Foxx does admirable work in the largely thankless role of Django, but it’s the supporting acts around him who steal the show. There’s Samuel L. Jackson as the ghastly house slave Stephen, Christopher Waltz as the cool, calm and deadly bounty hunter Dr King Schultz and especially Leonardo DiCaprio as the despicable slaver Calvin Candie. The portion of the film taking place at Candieland ranch is especially enjoyable but there are countless memorable scenes dotted throughout, often including shockingly graphic portrayals of the horrors of slavery. The script is Tarantino at his best once more, packed with a crackling wit and creative cussing, and while the film is undeniably a little overlong, it still zips by and keeps you enthralled throughout.
9:/ Before Midnight
I’m a big fan of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ movies and while they may not be to everyone’s taste, I for one was incredibly excited to see this third instalment. Each of the three films are set 9 years apart and by this third encounter, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are a long-term couple who now have twin girls of their own. Unlike in the previous movie outings, this time they are not dewy eyed romantics or star crossed lovers, they are middle aged adults who are struggling to maintain the spark that brought them together in the first place. The two leads are exceptionally good and share an electric on screen chemistry. Theirs is one of the great on screen love stories and here for the first time we see their relationship in genuine crisis as the realities of growing older and sharing your life completely with another person come to the fore. As always with these films, it’s driven entirely by dialogue and conversation, but if you love the characters and are interested and invested in their outcome, you relish every word.
8:/ Spring Breakers
This is a movie which has grown on me considerably. On first viewing I certainly enjoyed it, but I wasn’t really sure how much. After I went away and let it swish around the old brain for a while though, it was a film which really stayed with me and then seemed to improve on a second viewing. It’s a dark, scuzzy and purposefully garish story that revels in the overblown extravagance of American youth. The plot sees for friends embarking upon the biggest spring break blowout of their lives only for them to get in with the wrong crowd and slowly become immersed into the world of shady rapper turned gangster ‘Alien’, played by an especially game James Franco. The first half of the film is perhaps a little too ‘MTV Girls go Wild’, but it’s the film’s second half that really packs a punch as the girls get more unhinged, events get more surreal and the whole film plays out in some neon-drenched melancholic nightmare.
7:/ All Is Lost
A late addition to this list, All Is Lost has only been out in UK cinemas for just under a week but it’s well worth its high ranking. It’s such a simple premise but one which is executed brilliantly. Robert Redford is sailing alone at sea when his boat gets into difficulty and he becomes hopelessly lost. It’s a story of isolation, perseverance and the human spirit, and can in some regards therefore be compared to Gravity. The cast is even smaller than Cuaron’s movie however as it is literally just about one man. Robert Redford is exceptional in this movie and I’d go as far as to say he should be a prime Oscar candidate. With next to know dialogue involved, Redford conveys his fears, frustrations and hopes purely through body language and the tiniest flickers of emotion. It’s a thrilling and surprisingly riveting piece of cinema and one which will definitely benefit from being watched on the big screen.
Based on the book ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, this incredibly affecting drama hinges upon the two magnificent performances at its centre. Steve Coogan is on fine form as the increasingly determined Sixsmith, but it’s Dame Judi Dench who truly excels as Philomena. Dench is simply outstanding, delivering a role filled with heart-breaking poignancy, gleeful charm and an astonishing capability for forgiveness. The story itself charts Philomena’s hunt for the boy she conceived out of wedlock that was taken from her as a girl by Irish Catholic nuns and given over to adoption by American parents. She has signed a contract to agree to never question her son’s whereabouts but eventually, with the help of her daughter, she convinces Martin to take on the story and help in in her search. The film is filled with issues of Catholic guilt and the strength of religious belief, but is also surprisingly funny and heart-warming too. There is a definite odd-couple element to Martin and Philomena’s journey, but it’s entirely in keeping with the two wonderfully fleshed out characters created by Coogan and Dench. It’s a well-balanced and moving comedy drama that skilfully avoids taking a turn for the saccharine.
Easily my favourite comedy of the year, Alpha Papa had me in absolute stitches throughout. Like every fan of Alan Partridge, I went in to the screening with a definite sense of trepidation and a fear that the character just wouldn’t translate to the big screen. It was a massive relief therefore when I watched the movie and within about 5 minutes those fears were put to rest. The film sees Alan at the heart of a siege at his radio station and he is forced to step up and become the hero of the day. This is Alan far more likeable and less loathsome than his earlier televisual character, but it still works perfectly. Steve Coogan knows this character back to front by now and his comic timing is perfect throughout. Crucially, as is the litmus test for any comedy, it is hilarious from start to finish with a sharp and witty script that appeals to both Alan fanatics and newcomers alike, something which is no mean feat in itself.
Another coming-of-age story here but one with a far darker edge than the likes of Kings of Summer and The Way Way Back. Jeff Nichols movie is set in a small Mississippi river neighbourhood and follows two young boys who find a mysterious stranger hiding on a nearby deserted island calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The two boys keep Mud’s whereabouts a secret even after he reveals to them that he is being hunted for having killed a man defending the woman he loves. What follows is part crime cat-and-mouse and part boy’s own adventure as bounty hunters close in and things begin to get progressively more dangerous. McConaughey is superb in the lead role, a complex character that is at once cocksure and confident but at the same time filled with sorrow and regret. Unrequited love and loss of innocence play a key role in later proceedings in this captivating Mark Twain infused backwater drama.
3:/ Frances Ha
I was strangely surprised at just how much I loved this movie which provided yet another valuable example of never judging a book by its cover. The story follows a young woman in her mid-twenties who is trying to make it as a dancer in New York City. Indie darling Greta Gerwig is the titular Frances and she is a wonderful mix of awkward clumsiness and upbeat determination. Frances is struggling to achieve her dreams of being a dancer, and yet despite a series of setbacks, she does her best to plod on and muddle her way though. Despite Frances’ hipster New York world being very different to that known to many twenty-somethings, it is still very much a film that will resonate with any twenty-something still not sure what they are doing with their life yet. Noah Baumbach’s film has quite rightly drawn comparisons with Woody Allen’s work and understandably so as the same brand of charming intellectual comedy permeates throughout as does the wonderful capturing of New York itself as a character all of its own. A scene where Frances dances down a busy New York street to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern love is one of my highlights of the year, perfectly capturing France’s exuberance and awkwardness all in one go. A wonderfully endearing indie comedy-drama.
It’s been a year full of superb coming-of-age American teen movies but for me Kings of Summer is the pick of the lot. Everything about it was note perfect, from the well-judged perils of young love and tested friendships, to the gorgeous woodland cinematography and genuinely funny humour that runs throughout. The three male leads are all inherently likeable, and there’s able support from Alison Brie and Nick Offerman too. The story sees three boys breaking free of perceived parental oppression and building their own summer house away from the hustle and bustle in a nearby wood. It harks back to a time we all perhaps long for to a degree, a time of no responsibility and of an endless summer stretching out ahead of you. It’s a charming and funny indie movie which taps into the rebellious teen inside all of us.
There’s a good reason that Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has appeared at the top of so many end of year ‘best-of’ lists. It was quite simply one of the most inventive and thrilling movies to grace cinema screens in recent years. It was genuinely a cinematic experience to savour and I struggle to think of anything that compares to it in this regard. The premise is relatively simple, after disaster strikes during a supposedly routine spacewalk, two astronauts, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), face a life or death struggle to survive and somehow make it safely back to earth. As the drama plays out in the vast confines of space, you shuffle to the edge of your seat and, if you’re anything like me, barely stop biting your nails for the final hour of the movie. The sheer scale of what is unfolding is expertly handled and as the action ramps up, it’s a masterclass in tension and to a degree, terror. Gravity is undoubtedly for me a modern day classic and a truly unique film which is fully deserving of all the praise flowing its way.