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. Here then is the top 10:
10. Cloud Atlas
(Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer)
In A Sentence: Six different people living in six different eras lead lives that are interconnected, their actions leaving ripples in time down the ages.
At The Time: All six stories suffer slightly from a sense that their third acts have been condensed. And the film’s final thoughts offer little more than you will have already guessed half way through. Nevertheless, there’s something weirdly enjoyable about Cloud Atlas. It is not an overarching success, but it is likely to join the ranks of Waterworld, Dune and Southland Tales as a particularly fascinating sci-fi failure. (March 1st)
And Now?: Err, can I take that back? I’m serious. While hardly flawless, Cloud Atlas has proven surprisingly durable, for all its kooky casting tics. Sure, the 2012 section is pretty poor, but elsewhere there’s enough hard work, bold ambition and stunning production design on show to make this the year’s craziest, most dazzling venture. Three hours long, never dull and wantonly unusual by Hollywood’s standards, it’s very existence makes it a gloriously improbable curio.
9. Frances Ha
In A Sentence: We follow a year in the life of a dancer living in New York as she struggles to find her feet or settle anywhere, perceiving the world to be growing up without her.
At The Time: There’s an unflappable positivity about Gerwig here which saves Frances Ha from descending into woe-is-me indulgence. And whilst you may occasionally want to stage an intervention within the film, this at least shows that you’re invested. You want this character to get what she wants, even when she is making an ass of herself. (July 21st)
And Now?: Noah Baumbach’s film is his best yet, but the real winner here is Greta Gerwig, for whom this showcase is superb. It flirts with hipster dalliances, but more than anything Frances Ha is a crowd pleaser that deserves attention from the masses. It’s also one of recent cinema’s greatest love letters to New York.
In A Sentence: A rookie astronaut finds herself struggling for survival when a routine mission goes drastically wrong.
At The Time: You can read into the film if you wish to (personally speaking, it felt to me a lot like the story of a traumatic birth), you can delve into the character and empathise for Stone and her emotional limbo, or you can take it all at surface level and experience Gravity first and foremost as a theme park ride. That it offers something substantial for each approach is a testimony to its success. (November 9th)
And Now?: Time will tell as to whether Gravity will impress quite so greatly when it is reduced to the small screen. For now though this remains 2013’s technical tour de force. A film that demands it’s audience turn up at the cinema to witness it. In an age of people watching films on mobile phones (don’t get me started on that one), I’m all for Cuarón’s event movie reminding people of the power of the big screen.
7. Blue Is The Warmest Colour
In A Sentence: Adele is a 17-year-old school girl who embarks on her first lesbian relationship after falling for an art student with blue coloured hair.
At The Time: Blue Is The Warmest Colour presents us a long, thorough dissection of what it is to feel love, to be in love, to make love, to share it, and to risk losing it too. Kechiche has chosen this aspect of the human condition and decided to give it full focus, in all it’s pain and glory. (December 1st)
And Now?: Still fresh in the mind, Blue…‘s sprawling three-hour documentation of young love is as all-consuming as it’s subject matter. This already feels like a classic of French (or Tunisian) cinema, and it ought to put Adèle Exarchopoulos on the map. Her performance is the real revelation here, elevating the film to easily the year’s most emotionally engaging piece of work.
6. Like Someone In Love
In A Sentence: An aging academic and a female student working as a prostitute form a strange bond over the course of a day as she struggles to keep her illicit life secret from her fiance.
At The Time: Background characters reveal themselves to be more than just extras, frequently moving into the foreground and taking over whole scenes. Information is doled out sparingly through the always-precise camera work and cannily constructed screenplay. These reveals keep us engaged through a sedately paced film which even dares us to guess how seriously to take it. (August 13th)
And Now?: Returning to Like Someone In Love has revealed a film of rich pleasures, from the near-perfect cinematography through the exquisitely judged performances to the deft reveals of the script. Kiarostami’s movie plays as a superb comedy of misunderstandings and discoveries, as characters shift roles depending on their companions. One to savour.
5. Before Midnight
In A Sentence: Nine years after Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine have settled into life as a couple, however they still have the ability to talk each other in and out of trouble.
At The Time: The good news is that this addition to the series doesn’t feel forced or out of place, merely the next step in an unfolding journey. Probably the best installment so far, actually. Even better, it doesn’t feel remotely like the closing chapter in this saga. Just as Jesse used to spend his time wishing his life away, I’m hoping we’ll be seeing them again in another 9 years. (June 23rd)
And Now?: It’s just wonderful. Linklater plays on nearly twenty years of history, acknowledging the past and, in a thrilling move, threatening the future. In the end though, the winning formula which made Before Sunrise and Before Sunset such pleasures are what works here yet again. Delpy and Hawke are so comfortable, so good at this, that Before Midnight sells itself from the very beginning.
4. Only God Forgives
(Nicolas Winding Refn)
In A Sentence: The withdrawn owner of a boxing club in Thailand is pressured by his domineering mother to avenge the death of his brother.
At The Time: Watching this movie invokes a kind of woozy delirium which I whole-heartedly welcome. This is not mainstream cinema, and the way in which Refn’s film has been set up as just-another-action-thriller will lead many to lose patience or actively berate this film. Only God Forgives is an impeccably crafted, wholly successful ‘audience fucker’. (August 5th)
And Now?: By some distance the most divisive film on the list, I shameless fall into the camp that welcomes Refn’s descent into darkness. It’s easy to see why so many people were upset; Only God Forgives is not Drive Part 2. It’s richer, more grimly fascinating than that. Gosling is a shadow, too long lost in his own nightmare scenario. There are no easy exits here. Refn’s film deconstructs Western masculinity and the perceived righteousness of vengeance. A hypnotic, intoxicating experience.
In A Sentence: Taken in by a marketing letter, an aging man is intent on travelling across several states to collect the $1 million he believes he has won.
At The Time: Alexander Payne films sort of sneak up on you. Working to a different tempo than most other notable American directors today, Payne offers the prospect of gentle comedy, only to underpin his stories with heartfelt depth and wryly subversive observations. He seems particularly adept at reflecting the humdrum of everyday life, while at the same time celebrating it. His characters may appear silly or misguided, but he clearly has a fondness for them. (December 2nd)
And Now?: Not enough time has passed to tell if my strong affection for Nebraska is a flash in the pan, but I doubt it. Amid the washed out skies, open fields and rusted farming machinery, Payne romanticises the Mid West with this tale of one man’s fool’s errand. Bruce Dern hits a late career high, but the cast overall is flawless. Dern has stellar support. Breaking Bad fans can look out for Bob ‘Better Call Saul’ Odenkirk, but really, this isn’t a film to watch for one element or another. It’s triumphs are across the board. This one’s here for the long haul.
2. The Act Of Killing
(Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous)
In A Sentence: A documentary filmmaker challenges a seemingly remorseless Indonesian ‘gangster’ responsible for the deaths of hundreds to recreate his atrocities in the cinematic genre of his choosing.
At The Time: I have truly never seen anything quite like this film. It’s appeared like an aberration. The whole project seems so unlikely and the result so staggeringly disarming as to beg disbelief. “It’s okay, right? It’s only a movie, right?” Wrong. Shattering doesn’t even come close to the effect of this film. Provocative doesn’t cover it. As audience members we are left with a hundred and one indelible images, a hundred and one questions to ask ourselves. (July 6th)
And Now?: The shell shock hasn’t worn off, and revisiting The Act Of Killing reveals that, yes, this is a profoundly shocking and thought-provoking piece of documentary filmmaking. The ominous list of ‘anonymous’ credits suggest how on the nose this film is, as Indonesia’s ugly recent history is delved into. But more than that, The Act Of Killing is the exposé of one man’s closeted conscience, it’s slow reveal will leave you speechless. More chilling than a hundred horror movies, this is essential viewing.
1. Upstream Color
In A Sentence: A man and a woman find themselves drawn together after they both fall victim to an unusual and invasive form of identity theft that is mysteriously linked to an omnipresent pig farmer.
At The Time: Upstream Color is a technical tour de force. An exquisite collage that is the equal (and then some) of Terrence Malick’s recent efforts. From its angelic score to the sun-bleached visuals, the film slides through the viewer’s mind as though airborne, weightless and in some way transcendent. I’m aware of exactly how precious that sounds, but it’s hard to understate. This is cinema sent from the heavens. Every motion, every cut, every music cue is simply divine. (September 24th)
And Now?: So far ahead of anything else this year that it’s a little bit ridiculous, Shane Carruth’s intuitive science fiction drama is as graceful as it is deep, as light as it is troubling. Jeff and Kris are kindred spirits in a film which dares to have a soul, kindling synaptic connections to primal responses. Fear, love, loss, need… Carruth presents us two human beings struggling to hold themselves together following a devastating personal invasion. The body horror concept may lure in the genre fans, but Upstream Color has far greater ambitions and makes achieving them seem effortless. If you surrender to it, it will consume you. The best film of the year. And of the decade so far.