It’s fair to say that the simple pleasure I get out of writing and updating this page has encouraged me back to the cinema even more in 2013. What’s been striking, as ever, is the tremendous range of styles and perspectives being captured on film. Last year I put together a Top 10 in December to mark some of the exemplary work done, but 10 won’t quite cut it this time. So I’ve bloated the list to 20 and, as the countdown to year’s end accelerates, have tweaked the order to reflect each film’s impact on me over the last 12(ish) months.
As such, the films don’t necessarily appear according to the scores they were initially given. My reviews are almost always based on immediate reactions. Over the months some films have settled down (would I give Much Ado About Nothing 5 stars now? Maybe not) and some have revealed themselves as surprisingly durable (as you will see).
As before, the only criteria for inclusion has been that the film received its UK release in 2013. Starting with 20 through 11… here we go:
20. Zero Dark Thirty
In A Sentence: The hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
At The Time: Zero Dark Thirty is a film that demands your attention. And one which surpassed my expectations, whilst questioning what serves as entertainment, what quantifies dramatisation, and where the line is between the two. (January 27th)
And Now?: I haven’t been back to it since January, but it still lingers long in the memory, chiefly for Jessica Chastain’s powerhouse performance, but also for the tactical suspense thriller that makes up the film’s back end. Ethical ambiguities abound, but this is searing drama and possibly Bigelow’s best.
19. V/H/S 2
(Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard)
In A Sentence: Two private investigators watch a series of horrific videos whilst searching for a missing student.
At The Time: V/H/S 2 is overall far more ambitious, with three of its four stories feeling decidedly apocalyptic. The supernatural was everywhere in the first film, but where previously it took the form of intimate close encounters, here you get a larger sense of a world in turmoil as insurmountable forces threaten entire communities or cultures. The cassettes viewed here are like transmissions from the end of the world. (July 29th)
And Now?: That rare thing in horror; a genuinely superior sequel. V/H/S 2, by its very nature, is episodic in quality, but the highs here represent some of the most remarkable genre filmmaking in recent years. Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s segment “Safe Haven” alone is worth the admission price, jamming in more ideas that most movies in their entirety.
In A Sentence: How a marketing campaign helped overthrow Pinochet.
At The Time: With Larraín’s shooting style drawing you in and Bernal’s leading role offering an emotional hook for the audience, this retelling of history comes across as both thoughtful and entertaining. There is room for light comedy just as there is room for more serious moments of contemplation and even a little suspenseful menace. (February 27th)
And Now?: Mixing dramatised scenes shot on video with news and documentary footage of the time, Larraín has created a snapshot of change in recent Chilean history with a unique and highly engaging twist. Such gimmicks would be all for nothing without Gael García Bernal’s central performance, injecting a whole lot of heart into proceedings.
17. Pacific Rim
(Guillermo Del Toro)
In A Sentence: Humans build giant robots to fight off giant monsters coming out of a dimensional tear in the Pacific ocean!
At The Time: Pacific Rim is pure popcorn escapism. You’ll probably need two buckets. (July 19th)
And Now?: In a summer of returning franchises, Pacific Rim felt like the underdog, despite its gargantuan budget. Yet at the year’s end this was 2013’s most indulgent and enjoyable summer movie. Don’t get hung up on the weak acting and hokey dialogue; they’re part of the package. This is Del Toro’s love letter to the monster movies of his childhood, admirably resurrected in glorious high-definition.
16. American Mary
(Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska)
In A Sentence: A struggling medical student starts performing unorthodox body modification surgeries to pay for her tuition and phone bills.
At The Time: The Soska Sisters themselves (both behind and in front of the camera in a delicious cameo) are firmly in control of their work. Visually, American Mary is frequently beautiful, sharing a detached iciness that recalls Dead Ringers as much as Audition. High praise indeed. (January 25th)
And Now?: It’s not just the visuals. Katharine Isabelle’s central turn is terrific, and whilst American Mary mostly (and pleasingly) sidesteps the regular conventions of the horror genre, it’s a key title in a welcome resurgence in the field. A bold film. The Soskas are names to watch.
15. Much Ado About Nothing
In A Sentence: Joss Whedon has some of his friends over to perform the Shakespeare play.
At The Time: Much Ado About Nothing may be filmed in monochrome but it feels like a Technicolor success story. Great as entertainment, perfect date-movie material and primed for mass consumption across the age strata, I strongly urge any and all to catch it whilst it’s playing in cinemas. (June 26th)
And Now?: One of the most simply enjoyable movies of the year, the only reason Whedon’s Shakespeare adaptation isn’t higher up the list is how unassuming it is. While other films here seek to impress or prove more provocative, Much Ado About Nothing is a pleasure all too easily taken for granted. It won’t demand repeat viewings, but you’d do yourself a disservice to skip it.
14. Django Unchained
In A Sentence: A German dentist helps a newly freed slave to track down his wife who is still in servitude.
At The Time: Transplanting the Spaghetti Western’s sensibilities to the Southern states, blending it with his own taste for the gaudy and adding a liberal dash of blaxploitation flavour, Django Unchained is about as indulgent a production as QT has mounted thus far. It’s also quite easily one of his best. (January 20th)
And Now?: The statement still stands. Django Unchained is undoubtedly indulgent stuff, and the days of Tarantino being considered a ‘serious’ filmmaker seem long over, but give over to it and this magpie Western will provide all the gratuitous 18-rated violence and smart-alec wordplay you’ll require until his next genre assault.
13. You’re Next
In A Sentence: A well-off family find their home under attack by masked men wielding crossbows, only to discover a secret weapon among them.
At The Time: You’re Next is pretty much a blast, offering the kind of fun that the genre rarely affords as long as you’ve got the stomach for it. This is not an attempt to pry open the toolbox ala The Cabin In The Woods or Scream, and expecting something in that vein may leave some disappointed, but it does give the toolbox a loving shake. (August 31st)
And Now?: Anyone planning on making a home invasion horror anytime soon may want to have a rethink. You’re Next is as good as there’s been in a long time, mixing up new twists on old thrills, water-tight plotting, unapologetic goofiness and (if there’s any justice) a star-making turn from Sharni Vinson. Adam Wingard’s movie takes horror-of-the-year on enjoyment factor alone.
In A Sentence: A young woman on the eve of her 18th birthday who is mourning the death of her father learns she has a morally ambiguous uncle that she never knew.
At The Time: Though the trappings of melodrama are rife, Chan-Wook is smart enough to play on these, and as such Stoker hits a tone somewhere between Twin Peaks and Heathers. It even shares the former’s quixotic timelessness. (April 28th)
And Now?: Now… I’ve seen Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, to which Stoker owes a considerable debt. Regardless, this is an immaculately crafted family-based thriller, which sails on some captivating performances (especially from Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode), not to mention director Chan-Wook’s exceptional visual storytelling. A few awkward character shifts aside, this is a superior and compulsive ride through dysfunction.
11. Post Tenebras Lux
In A Sentence: A Mexican family struggle with thunderstorms, a strained marriage, unreasonable animal cruelty and an act of desperation that underlines a class divide.
At The Time: Like a devil creeping about the house in the dark when you’re asleep, Reygadas’ film is here to preoccupy you on an almost subliminal level long after the waking world is blurred out at the edges. For this as well as for some astonishing visual poetry I recommend the film, but it (sadly) more or less defines the term ‘niche viewing’. (April 11th)
And Now?: Post Tenebras Lux is film as art. Brimming with ideas, backed with indelible, provocative images, it paints a picture of Mexican life, class and family with as many shades as a rainbow. Reygadas’ work may confound, but when separated from the typical sensibilities of narrative cinema, it is bold and entirely freeing. His is a cinema of endless possibilities and the high points here are transcendent. Boundary-pushing stuff.
Numbers 10 through to 1 coming soon…