Top 10 Movies of 2013
Our 2013 in Review posts started yesterday looking at the worst films of the year. Today we are moving onto something a bit more positive in the very best 2013 had to offer. There’ll only be a top 10 this year, because when you do a top 25 all lists eventually start to look the same with only the order being unique. Not only that, I didn’t have an opportunity to see some of the higher profile Indie and World titles out this year: with Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight, Blue is the Warmest Colour and The Great Beauty counting highest. There’s also the inconsistencies between counties release schedules is the biggest blight on lists like this.
Before getting into our top 10, let’s do some honourable mentions. Soderbergh’s Side Effects was a brilliantly performed twisty thriller that evoked the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian de Palma. Stoker counted among Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s lesser work. Even so, the cinematography and the hysterical tone of this southern noir provided the most entertainingly sleazy effort of the year. Lastly there was The Land of Hope. In what was possibly the most necessary film of the year, Sion Sono made his most personal film to date with his intimate portrait of the fallout of the Japanese Tsunami disaster, channelling Koreeda Hirokazu and Michael Haneke’s Amour. The photography of the desolate abandoned landscape was about the most unforgettable imagery of the year… and it’s still happening now.
10. UPSTREAM COLOR
Time Travel is used as a concept for high jinx through time there are very few examples of serious time travel in cinema, the zenith of which is Shane Carruth’s primer. It’s a film you need to watch a few times to understand, even then there’s no guarantee. 9 years later he rolled around with his second film and his number 10 in my best film of 2013 chart, Upstream Colour. Time hasn’t made his material any easier to circumnavigate, on the contrary this is a more difficult film than his first. This is the art cinema film of 2013, where imagery is king. Underneath the barely concealed sci-fi and body horror undertones, Upstream Colour is a love story about two people are attempting to regain their nature. Upstream Colour is a masterpiece of authorship by Carruth, he directs, acts, does the cinematography and composed one of the year’s great scores (of those not composed by Cliff Martinez anyway). It’s probably a little pretentious like all art cinema, but for those who can come to terms with that Upstream Colour it is up there with the best. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take another 9 years to do film number 3.
9. WOLF CHILDREN
Anime isn’t exactly in a strong position, it’s financially successful, yes, but strong in terms of the material we see come from Japanese animated studios? Don’t be silly. Such an indictment makes films like Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children all the more important. In what will come to be a running theme in this list, Wolf Children is a stripped back drama about family, with the important distinction being that this story of a single mother raising wolf children; half man half wolf. It’s animated with a lo-fi aesthetic that minimises the otherness of anime, as odd as it is, Wolf Children is also an accessible presentation of a very human story. It’s a gorgeous film that extols the virtues of community and the natural world. By turns funny, adorable and insightful, Wolf Children has given the Japanese animated form (as a cinematic medium) its first classic since the passing of the late great Satoshi Kon. If any problem could be picked up on it’s that the ending is on the blunt side.
I’m not fond of including Oscar nominees in best of lists, especially after the fact, that’s why there is no Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained. However, I have to make an exception for Pablo Lorrain’s No. No is the third film in his Pinochet trilogy (completed by Tony Manero, Post Mortem), and it sees the background behind the No campaign to defeat Pinochet in Chile’s 1998 referendum. Political cinema is nothing without authenticity and Larrain commitment to authenticity is the one thing that’ll prevent some from truly giving it a chance. The film has been shot with an old 80s TV broadcast camera and it shows. Some have failed to get their head around that, put in that effort and you’ll find an incredible portrait of the time that seamlessly combines fact and fiction with the great Gael Garcia Bernal at the centre of it all. Larrain’s film breezes through the dogmatic tones of the ‘political thriller to turn in a colourful tale of revolution. Somewhere along the way it also manages to be a funny look into the world too, No has plenty to offer.
7. THE KINGS OF SUMMER
2013 was the year of the North American coming of age film. We had Mud, The Way, Way Back, I Declare War and my pick for the 7th best film of the year – The Kings of Summer. With turns from favourites Nick Offerman and Alison Brie, The Kings of Summer followed two friends spontaneously move out of home and build their own home out in woods, and a third guy who tags along. Although Jordan Vogt-Roberts film is a drama with some poignant moments come the business end and real insight into the phases of a friendship, it’s in the comedy that it becomes a fixture on this list. Simply put, The Kings of Summer is hilarious. With its antagonistic characters and their fantastic dialogue to the true comedy creation of the year in the utterly bizarre Biaggio, Moises Arias has the sort of deadpan delivery that few could ever possess. Chris Galletta’s script deserves all the plaudits.
Alexander Payne has for a long time being a ‘nearly but not quite director’. Election was great, About Schmidt is good, sideways is massively over-rated and the Descendants was a good film. He has yet to have his masterpiece, and for my money Nebraska is that film. Shot in black and white and featuring the humble premise of an elderly father wrongly believing he has won a million dollars and walking to Nebraska to get his money. Even if it manages to free Stacey Keach from terrible US TV movies, the great symbol of this film is Bruce Dern. His performance is that unflashy and real it’s all too easy to forget he’s acting, if there was any justice in the awarding bodies (which there isn’t), he’d be a shoe in for just about every acting award going. More so than quality acting, it’s in the content that Nebraska triumphs. After Wolf Children, Nebraska is another film about community. Chiefly, though, even those Woody’s (Dern) family knows his recent turn in fortune to be an over embellishment everybody supports him. This speaks volumes of Payne’s ability to craft real characters and it also speaks to anyone who has had familial contact with mental health issues, with that no film in 2013 hit me harder than Nebraska.
Film doesn’t get the opportunity to be important all that often, in that Wadjda is a rarity as it’s the first Saudi film ever directed by a woman. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the titular Wadjda is a girl who wants a bike to beat her friend and rival. Being the first film directed by a woman in the country it gives greater credence to the authenticity in its depiction of what it’s like to live in a religious state that favours men. Many serious directors would use this opportunity to paint a vision of hardship and it would be a lesser film in doing so. Al-Mansour elaborates on the more common aspects of her nation, but more often than not this is a positive film. Well. It’s actually a cynical scheme for the young lead, in the film Wadjda uses a Quran reading contest as the perfect opportunity to win some money and get her dream bike. In that conceit, the film becomes about the small victories and in that Al-Mansour has directed a life affirming piece.
4. FRANCES HA
Noah Baumbach moved from the script of Madagascar 3 to far more familiar territory. That territory is Frances Ha. Starring partner Greta Gerwig, his latest film is a black and white account and character study of Frances, a twenty-something New Yorker who struggles with the trials of everyday life. Not only is she a twenty-something lacking direction, she is also a fixture in the cities creative community. Frances Ha is an astutely observed observation into those with a lack of direction and a quite scathing satire of the young privileged creative community in New York. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script parodies this element of the community for the dirty hipsters they are. Unfortunately that isn’t a universally held opinion, Frances Ha will annoy and please as you’d expect from a film that fits well into the mumblecore canon. With a pitch perfect use of the soundtrack and a hilarious use of montage, it’s not only funny but dramatic too thanks to the comedy of errors that is Frances life.
3. THE ACT OF KILLING
Back in 2011 I stated that Steve James the Interrupters was the single best documentary I had ever seen or was likely to see, well I can report that it has already been bested. It’s not a pleasure to report this as the film that bettered it is among the most dangerous and disturbing films you are likely to see. The Act of Killing sees documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer spend time with survivors of Thailand’s infamous death squads from the 1960s and offers them the ability and outlet to recreate their crimes through the medium of their choice. With producer credits for Errol Morris and Werner Herzog it should be no surprise that this falls in the top 5 of the year. Oppenheimer doesn’t judge he just gives these men a platform, he is completely objective and it’s in that objectivity that the Act of Killing becomes truly harrowing. Just having these men talk about their past puts some indelible images into your brain, by the same token some of the people involved in the project actually show some signs of remorse. Surreal, horrifying and educational in the most darkly comic of ways, The Act of Killing is the marquee event of the year that shows just how much documentarians are bettering themselves year on year.
Alfonso Cuaron’s follow up to one of the greatest science fiction films of all time (Children of Men) is no slouch either. If one pithy phrase could be used to sum up Gravity it would be pure cinema. Exposition is at the barest minimum, so all the storytelling is purely visual and when you see this on a big screen it was almost impossible not to be overawed by the sheer power of it all. Whether it’s as potent on DVD/Blu Ray only time will tell, but on that big screen Gravity is unforgettable. There may be subtle details that don’t really work or make sense within the realm of space travel, but it’s such an incredible spectacle that it transports you way beyond inconsistencies. That it somehow managed to be one of the year’s greatest financial successes is just as startling as the film itself. That’s right; a film about Sandra Bullock struggling to survive in space was one of the year’s biggest hits. That fact alone cements just how affective a film Cuaron crafted here.
1. LIKE FATHER LIKE SON/ I WISH
I admit it putting two films in the number one slot is cheating, but to my defence, they are both by the same director – Koreeda Hirokazu. Released earlier in 2013, I Wish was the better of the two. In it, Hirokazu showed his unparalleled ability to get great performances from child actors in a story that idealised something as simple as hope. If you made a wish at the moment when two bullet trains passed, then your wish would come true. But instead of going for the melodramatic and saccharine you’d expect if a western director got his hands on the material, he allows the characters to make the best decision showing maturity way beyond their years. This outcome is arrived at because Hirokazu crafts a credible naturalism and sense of character.
Not only is Like Father like Son by the same director, it’s thematically cut from the same cloth too. Both are about parenting & separation and both feature adorable kids that could warm the blackest of hearts. In his second feature released (in the UK) this year, Hirokazu posed the question of what it means to be a father. Analytically speaking ‘Like Father like Son’ is the most perfectly expressive title of the year. And although it goes in some predictable directions, it’s thanks to the director’s ability to get the biggest of emotions from the smallest of gestures that Like Father like Son wins through. From laughing at the exploits of the children and man-child one scene, to fighting off the tears the next – Hirokazu perfectly captures the wonder and innocence and of childhood. My number 1 is technically cheating, but when the films are tied together in so many ways it was an almost impossible task to separate the two. There we have it; the best film of 2013 was Koreeda Hirokazu.