The Best Films of 2013

So this year I inadvertently conducted an experiment, writing reviews of everything I saw (including stand-up and music, but centred around films). I didn’t intend to do this when the year started, but that’s how it turned out. By the end of the year it was a bit of a slog. I didn’t always have things to say about films and, at various times, I got behind and had to blitz a few to get back up to date (witness my delayed best of year list!). I won’t be doing the same in 2014, though I will still post the occasional review when I feel I have something to say. A Wolf of Wall Street post will follow this shortly. In the meantime, here’s a quick run down of what I thought were the best films of the year, in reverse order…

10. Behind the Candelabra

A camp classic. I was completely unaware of the story of Liberace and this was a brilliant film getting me up to speed. Funny, scary, twisted and heart-breaking at various junctures, and the kind of thing you rarely get to see on screen.

9. No

Another true story I was completely unaware of – the advertising campaign that ousted a dictator. That dictator being Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Imaginatively shot to bring the era to life, and shot through with the kind of humour borne of the oppressive regime. Uplifting, fun and informative.

7 & 8. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa & The World’s End

I’m not separating these two brilliant British character comedies. Both spin incredible stories out of the familiar, be that familiar characters, familiar ensembles, familiar settings. Both show Hollywood how to make good comedies – something Hollywood has been pretty bad at in recent years. Strong characters, strong stories and let those naturally bring the comedy forward, rather than forcing it.

6. What Richard Did

An antidote to American high school movies. A realistic portrayal teenagers coming of age. Likeable kids give fantastic performances, the film then throws in a heartbreaking twist, literally what Richard did. This film offers something that’s all too rarely seen and deserves a far wider audience.

5. Zero Dark Thirty

An enthralling telling of the hunt for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which gets stuck into the both the process and the moral stand points of the global hunt, culminating in a stunningly realistic visualisation of events at Bin Laden’s compound which serves as a thrilling and tense counterpoint to almost every espionage and action film of th last few decades.

4. All Is Lost

Daring and highly original film of man versus nature. Robert Redford is all at sea, battling his boat and the elements as he tries to survive.

3. The Sessions

Both heart-warming and heart-breaking, this is the story of poet and polio sufferer Mark O’Brien and his quest to lose his virginity. This is a film of touching and rare humanity that makes you think about life and the role sex plays. An incredible central performance from John Hawkes is complimented by Helen Hunt as his sexual surrogate and William H Macy as the priest Mark seeks counsel from.

2. Gravity

Yes, it’s a B movie with a B movie script, but it also does things on screen that you’ve never seen before. Tense, exciting, breath-taking – literally and metaphorically. The kind of film that needs to be seen in the cinema, and the first film that really merits the use of 3D.

1. Cloud Atlas

Insane on many levels and I’m still not entirely sure it works, and yet I was blown away. It’s like nothing else. It’s ambition is off the charts and for that alone it deserves to in the top 10, but then there’s what it actually accomplishes. It tells 6 interlocking stories, which don’t really interlock. It uses actors to play multiple roles across those stories, often unrecognisable. It has Buddhist undertones but leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions. It’s not for everyone but it is most definitely for me. Outstanding.

What’s interesting (to me) is the wide variety in there. Aside from numbers 7 & 8, the Britcoms, there’s a huge range of topics, styles and genres. There really is no film like any other on there. ven Alpha Papa and The World’s End are only really united by being British comedies, the films themselves are very different beasts. Looking back over the list, I saw 64 films at the cinema in 2013 and 26 of them I rated at 8/10 or better. That’s a really impressive hit rate. But it does bring me round to the other question. The worst films of the year. Here is my list of shame, the 5 worst films I saw this year and to save any confusion, the worst is the last one I list…

5. Elysium
4. To The Wonder
3. Kick Ass 2
2. A Good Day To Die Hard
1. Parker

Days of Heaven

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A beautiful poster for a beautiful film

A beautiful poster for a beautiful film

When I saw Days of Heaven was playing for one show only I had to get along and see it, for two reasons: 1. It was the only Malick film I hadn’t seen and 2. To wash the bad taste out of my mouth left by To The Wonder.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing it – there are a lot of other films out, whereas this was a one-off, and to be honest, I’m not sure how to go about discussing it. It tells the story of two lovers, Bill & Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams), who go on the run from Chicago after Gere kills a man. Calling themselves brother and sister, and with They take the train south to Texas where they take up work on a farm during harvest. There, the farmer (Sam Shepherd) takes a shine to Abby. Bill, having heard grave news about the farmer’s health, hatches a plan with Abby for her to marry the farmer so the pair can lay claim to his fortune, but things don’t turn out as planned.

This was back when Malick did plots as well as photographed the beauty of the world, and the piece hangs together so much better than either Tree of Life or To The Wonder. It features a narrator, as all of Malick’s films do, in the form of Linda, Bill’s young sister who travels with the couple. She brings information to the story rather than just musing on life, the universe and everything, and is a welcome addition.

The film’s most arresting sequence comes when a plague of locusts is set upon the farm and a fire is sweeps across the fields. A combination of Malick’s fascination with nature and the beauty and power of the terrifying flames is unlike anything else I’ve seen on screen. The fires looks genuinely out of control and I was fearing for the safety of cast and crew as overawed by the spectacle.


To The Wonder

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Move along, no wonder to see here...

Move along, no wonder to see here…

Terrence Malick is a wonderful film maker. I have loved and/or admired each of his films I have seen (the only one I haven’t is Days of Heaven and I may get to correct that this weekend). He is a visual poet and philosopher and incredibly engaging filmmaker, and there is no one else quite like him operating in the mainstream film industry today.

All of which leads me to believe that To The Wonder was directed by Terence Mallyck. It feels like a student trying to make a Malick film and it is painful to watch at times. It’s filled with shots of people standing in cornfields starring in opposite directions, or someone walking out of a room as someone walks in, neither seeing each other. The faux-philosophical narration fails to enlighten, instead sounding like a student’s idea of what life should teach us.

As Malick’s career has progressed he has strayed further and further from a true narrative, never more so than here. The ‘story’ concerns two relationships Ben Affleck has, one with Olga Kurylenko, which bookends the films, and the other with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. We see Affleck spent time with these women, but never see what draws them to him. He is an empty presence, barely muttering a word throughout the film. The relationships ignite and breakdown though we are never really shown the reasons behind this, merely the facts that they have. At one point, Kurylenko explodes at Affleck, supposedly for the way he has treated her in the relationship but we are never shown anything to back up her point of view.

There is another story played out, that of a priest played by Javier Bardem, which is so loosely connected to the main story as to feel wildly out of place. I say this is a story, but it really isn’t, merely a collection of scenes as he visits prisoners and the elderly. Is he having a crisis of faith? Who knows? It’s tough to care.

The home Affleck builds in the non-descript town in (I guess) the mid-west never seems properly furnished. It contains a bed, a chair, a table, but often belongings are seen still in boxes. The house feels empty, it is doing an impression of a home. The same could be said of the film. It contains the elements but it never unpacks them, never allows us the emotional gateway that would turn these ‘relationships’ into Relationships. It remains empty.

Likewise, aside from an opening (and briefly closing) sequence at Mont St Michel in northern France, there is none of the beauty in the photography here that we’ve come to expect from Malick. He fails to find anything of interest to say about middle America, the houses, streets, concrete driveways and freshly erected fences are as starkly tedious as everything else here.

I don’t say any of this out of malice, merely disappointment. Malick is an incredibly talented filmmaker who is famed for taking a long time over his films, with gaps of a decade or more in many cases. To The Wonder comes out around 2 years after The Tree of Life and maybe he should have spent closer to 8 years on it.