I’ve covered my least favourites, so now for the matched post about my favourite films of 2013. Before I get into it, I’d just like to thank all my readers and commenters this year — of which I know I have at least five or six, more than I expected when I started this blog in March. I know I probably need to have more features and lists, rather than just reviews, and maybe that will be a project for 2014, when I move into my second full year of film blogging. But for now, I’m pleased to have made it this far.
At the start of my last review, I waffled on about the films I haven’t seen yet in 2013 (whether because they weren’t released over here in the UK during 2013, or only had limited festival screenings, or just because I didn’t make it to them), so all the usual caveats apply. I saw 116 films in the cinema, and 73 films at home during this past year. I’d mention which ones I haven’t seen, but as I’ve reviewed everything I’ve seen since about February, you can just check my A-Z of reviews page if you are concerned at something’s non-inclusion. Here then is a list of my favourite films of those officially released in the UK (though one or two are from festival screenings).
EDIT: I inexplicably left To the Wonder (2012) off the list, a film I saw in 2013, so in the list below, imagine it falls somewhere around equal with Blue Is the Warmest Colour.
10. Night Moves [festival screening only]
This was a good year for slow-burning dramas marked by subtly-observed acting performances, and Night Moves (which was not actually released here, but just received a London Film Festival screening) is one of my favourites of those. It deals with environmental activists (drawing comparisons with another fine film from this past year, The East) whose unorthodox lives are pulled apart by one destructive act. The film splits into two halves: the first covers the act, the second the fallout. I just love director Kelly Reichardt’s minimal long-take style, which is of a piece with her earlier films — if I’d been making ‘favourite’ lists in previous years, then Old Joy (2006) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010) would have been in them.
9. All Is Lost
I’ve just posted a review of this film, released here only a few days ago, but it strikes me as the year’s most successful attempt at a modern religious allegory, as Robert Redford’s lone sailor moves towards redemption through the suffering he receives while marooned at sea and struggling for survival. It’s a sparse, pared-down film with almost no dialogue, but a commanding performance and a tensely gripping narrative momentum, thanks to director J.C. Chandor.
The third instalment of Richard Linklater’s recurring saga of two lovers, Jesse and Céline (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who take co-writing credits). The second film, Before Sunset, was probably my favourite film of 2004, though this new chapter brings some far darker and more disruptive notes. Still, it’s full of generosity towards its characters, and even if you feel like it should have been a bit harsher on its narcissistic male protagonist, it remains really beautifully observed.
In fact, director Hirokazu Koreeda’s previous film Kiseki (I Wish) (2011) was released to UK cinemas earlier in 2013, but I only caught up with it recently at home. It may even be a little better, but I still found a huge amount to like about this most recent story of two sets of parents and their respective children, dealing with the revelation of a mix-up at the children’s birth. It’s a story about class tensions in modern Japan, as much as about the characters involved. It spends a little too much time massaging the ego of its wealthy male protagonist (albeit with plenty of emotional shading), but when the other characters are on screen, particularly the men’s wives, it really shines. Like much of Koreeda’s cinema, it strains at the edges of sappy melodrama, but never fully gives in to being a sentimental tearjerker (though there are hints of that, and plenty of tears if you’re looking for them).
6. Frances Ha (2012)
Director Noah Baumbauch has made a lot of films I could give or take, perfectly nice WASPy stories of neurotic New Yorkers, and in some senses this latest film starring the gorgeous Greta Gerwig ranks among them. And yet, and yet… The black-and-white cinematography sparkles, and it presents its title character in self-conscious hommage to the French Nouvelle Vague. Slight perhaps, but oh so charming.
I seem to be in the minority on the subject of Sofia Coppola’s latest airless story of entitled Los Angelenos, but I loved it. It feels like the culmination of her obsession with the shallow feelings of pampered American teens, and their intersection with the celebrity lifestyle culture that the media feeds on. It has a repetitive structure that lingers on the beautiful surfaces long enough to make us aware of the profound depths of emptiness that lurk beneath them, but I don’t see that as a weakness of the film, just of the characters. Also, it features a wonderful performance from Emma Watson in a supporting role.
4. Stories We Tell (2012)
For some reason, I really connected with director/subject Sarah Polley’s documentary about her childhood and family. It has a wittily self-conscious structure that refracts her family’s theatricality through many layers of metacommentary, leading up to a revelation about her mother that is enfolded into the drama. The lines between fact and fiction are blurred, but in an artful and enjoyable way that brings to mind some of the better (i.e. 80s and 90s) films of Canadian compatriot Atom Egoyan, in whose work Polley first came to prominence.
3. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
This was released to UK cinemas right at the start of the year, just before I started writing up my reviews. However, I think it’s been generally quite unfairly overlooked in critical discourse, sort of sidelined by some harsh blogging backchat (at least, that’s how it feels to me). And yet it’s a fantastically complex and fascinating account of the operation of US intelligence services. It’s not just a thriller about the hunt for Osama (although it is that, too), but a dissection of the devastating effects of US interference around the globe.
2. Bernie (2011)
This may have been on many Americans’ 2012 lists (I certainly hope it was), as it was released in the US in April 2012 (following its earliest festival appearances in 2011). However, it only made it to the UK earlier this year, and it really took me by surprise. Of course, director Richard Linklater is no stranger to ‘best of’ lists (his more recent Before Midnight is #8 in this same list), but Bernie‘s ostensible subject — a much-loved small-town character and his real-life crime — in conjunction with its central casting of comedian and gurning facial contortionist Jack Black seemed to promise something really quite shallow. And yet, even as it foregrounds a folksy small-town sense of humour, the film manages to broaden it into something deeper and more resonant. Black meanwhile really reins in his facial tics to give a rather affecting portrait.
It’s received plenty of opinion on either side of the critical divide, but I think that this odd little low-budget biological-science-fiction/murder-mystery thriller hybrid was my favourite film of the year. Partly it’s because it was unexpected, as I’d not encountered director Shane Carruth’s previous work. It makes its budget into a virtue by crafting an elliptical, impressionistic rush of imagery which is not only beautifully shot but also tightly interwoven into the film’s narrative, so that even the most fleeting image seems to refer back to something else or foreshadow some development. I can’t pretend I understand every intricacy of the plot, but to me that seems beside the point. It makes some kind of emotional sense to me, and for that I loved it.
There were plenty of other films I really liked, and as I found it difficult to really whittle my list down to just 10 picks, I feel I must nevertheless mention the following. Perhaps in 10 years’ time I will look back and realise that some of these are far better than I’d initially thought, that stand the test of time, are films to which I will want to return again. Or maybe not. But at least when I saw them, I liked them a lot.
11. Every year these days seems to have a modern ‘silent’ film, and if All Is Lost did not quite qualify, then the Spanish film Blancanieves (2012) definitely does, presenting a beautifully-shot black-and-white vision of heightened melodrama appropriate to the era in which it’s set. One wonders where director Pablo Berger can go from here, though.
12. There was a lot of talk around La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1 & 2 (Blue Is the Warmest Colour), much of which boiled down to its much-derided (and for good reason, I think) sex scenes or its director Abdellatif Kechiche’s tyranny over his two female actors, but the result is in some ways rather breathtaking in its scope and intensity. Wonderful performances too from newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos and the more seasoned Léa Seydoux, who uses her greater acting experience to create an alternately tender and reserved antagonist to the wide-eyed Exarchopoulos.
13. Captain Phillips is about as well-crafted and involving as any big Hollywood thriller has any right to be, thanks to Bourne director Paul Greengrass. Its piracy-on-the-African-coast setting may be a few years out of date, but it mostly avoids any suggestion of racism by giving its Somali pirate (Barkhad Abdi) an equal place to the much-praised Tom Hanks, who turns in one of his finest performances, even if all the awards he justly receives may boil down to the film’s final few wrenching minutes.
14. It may be a story of male egotism playing out at an advanced age, but director Alexander Payne and his lead actor Bruce Dern find something rather affecting at the heart of Nebraska. It’s a black-and-white road movie that recalls The Straight Story in its lilting ruralism, as much as to the kinds of Golden Age of Hollywood stories that the monochrome cinematography seems to suggest. Chiefly, though, it never overplays its hand and keeps the sentimentality reined in.
15. Another year, another Shakespeare adaptation, but Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012) makes me like it far more than I do most such undertakings, and possibly even more than Whedon’s own previous output (not just the recent blockbuster Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, but his overly lauded TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, for both of which I have a by-now-nostalgic fondness that I sometimes find difficult to reconcile with the experience of re-watching them). Much Ado, I think, benefits from its tightly-focused filming schedule, the whole thing being shot at Whedon’s house over the period of about a week. There are times when those constraints show, but mostly it’s quite delightful, nicely balancing the drama and the comedy in the original with some excellent character interpretations, not to mention the fine black-and-white cinematography.
16. I suspect I will be thinking about the mysteriousness of Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History) [festival screening only] for quite a long time. It unfolds at a seriously unhurried pace, but this film by Filipino director Lav Diaz, builds to something quite unsettling over its 4 hours, taking cues from Crime and Punishment to create a moralistic portrait of modern Philippine society.
17. Can we can say ‘mumblecore’ is dead now? Several of its founding directors made films I liked this year, but Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is the most interesting and the most sui generis. Its ghostly lo-fi monochrome is used wonderfully to bring to life a vision of resolutely unchic 80s computer geekery with some excellent unshowy performances.
18. Olivier Assayas has made plenty of strong films over his career, but Après mai (Something in the Air) (2012) is one of my favourites. It deals with idealistic young student radicals trying to forge their lives coming out of school in the tumultuous late-60s and early-70s. It’s surely a coded autobiography, but it feels heartfelt and I like the idealism at the heart of its characters.
19. Of all the films on my favourite films list, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Thai-set Only God Forgives is probably the one that I am most unsure about (if I’d included Spring Breakers, which I admired, that would be another one). It either fully deserves to be in the top 10, or it’s a nasty and twistedly exploitative morality play that I shouldn’t be rating at all. To call it divisive would be an understatement, and yet its violently saturated neon colours linger in my mind, as does the face of the laconic Ryan Gosling, though it’s his Thai co-star Vithaya Pansringarm who really steals the film as a cop/avenging angel of death.
20. Call it silly, but over its six films, I’ve come to really enjoy this petrolhead series, and Fast & Furious 6, if not my favourite (I think that honour goes to the fifth), is a strong entry. Director Justin Lin comes back for the fourth time and by now is able to coordinate the high-octane action very well. It gives a generosity and warmth to its characters, and it’s just good stupid fun for those looking for that.
21. That said, I can’t think of a more different film than Wadjda (2012), a rare feature film from Saudi Arabia, by female director Haifaa al-Mansour. It may not be a stylistic tour de force, but it has a wonderfully sparky performance from the young actor playing its title character, who pushes back against all the repressive restrictions of Saudi society in a memorable way. Deserves to be compared to the best of Iranian cinema 20 years ago.
22. I might be alone in really rating How I Live Now, but I was taken with the disjunction between Kevin Macdonald’s distinctly English sense of pastoralism and the growing encroachment of world war. It’s an odd way to do the post-apocalypse, and without the wonderful Saoirse Ronan at its centre, it might not have worked at all.
23. Gravity does not really deserve a ‘backlash’ as such, and I hope my placing it at #23 on my list won’t be taken as a diss, because it’s a fine film. Its script is a little underdeveloped, and I can’t imagine how it could work on a small screen, but that’s just to say that its visuals and special effects are stunningly well put together by director Alfonso Cuarón and (I imagine) a small army of technicians.
24. A small and tender portrait of an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, Lemale et ha’chalal (Fill the Void) (2012) is largely non-judgemental towards its religious characters in a way that other films I’ve seen set in this world (for example, Amos Gitai’s Kadosh) have not been, but then that’s probably because its director Rama Burshtein is herself a member of the community. It handles a small domestic story of one woman’s relationship with her family and community in a way that deserves comparisons with Jane Austen.
25. Comedies get a bit of a raw deal from me, I guess, looking over my list, so I’ll include In a World…, which is a lovely little film set in the rarefied world of movie voiceover artists in LA. Director and star Lake Bell is not someone with whom I was previously familiar, but I shall look out for anything else she does as this is a great ensemble piece.
Bonus TV Section
I can’t pretend that I keep up with all the latest and greatest shows on television (I have completely missed this year’s main talking point, Breaking Bad) but I do watch a fair amount, so here are the shows I’ve enjoyed most this year.
1. Game of Thrones. We watched all three seasons of the show in a big binge earlier this year, and boy did I enjoy it. I can hardly make any claims for its empowered sensibility (everyone knows about the ‘sexposition’, right?), but it has incredibly high production values, excellent acting and has managed to sustain its compulsiveness right to the end of the third season with no noticeable diminution of quality. What TV does best is give breathing room to large ensembles, but even amongst such a diverse cast, Peter Dinklage stands out as the conniving Tyrion.
2. Top of the Lake. I’m most of the way through watching this Jane Campion miniseries, and though it’s been slow to get started, it’s really getting good. It has a devastating emotional range, and though it may toy with the ever-popular crime-procedural format, it never really follows the rules. Elisabeth Moss does a credible NZ accent (for most of the time) and just the knowledge that Peter Mullan is somewhere in the background — even if he doesn’t show up too often — lends a real tense edge to the proceedings.
3. The Office. This is another show we mainlined this year from the very start, and though we haven’t quite got through to the end of season 9 (which finished earlier this year), it’s been pretty compulsive. Occasionally I have to watch through my fingers because I hate to see people humiliating themselves (which Steve Carell’s Michael Scott does rather a lot) but for the most part I really like all the characters and over eight seasons it’s been suprising which ones I’ve come to like the most (but it’s fair to say Rainn Wilson as Dwight is near the top). It dips a bit after Carell leaves, but season 9 is picking up enough to include it here.
4. Treme. Everyone loved David Simon’s The Wire when it was on, but seem to have tuned out for this New Orleans-set slow burner. I love it, though. It really gives space to its story and characters, and captures a real sense of place (he says, having never been to Louisiana). I’ve not yet actually watched the third season (or the fourth, airing now in the US), but I will soon.
5. Saturday Night Live. I think it’s fair to say that this current season (the 39th) is not the strongest of recent years, not least due to the huge number of new bland white male recruits, but I can’t leave this late-night variety-show staple off my list because it’s been in 2013 that I’ve properly started getting into it. I’ve pretty much watched everything from the last five years (just slightly after Amy Poehler’s years), and when it had Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and Abby Elliott — not to mention those who are still there: Kate McKinnon (my current favourite cast member), Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad, Kenan Thompson, Seth Meyers and Jay Pharoah — it was pretty damn sweet. Of this current season, Mike O’Brien is the standout of the new cast members, and I think I liked the Kerry Washington hosted episode best, but they’ve not been quite as high quality as the previous one.
Other shows I’ve seen this past year have included Revenge (which is really picking up in its third season, so I could have easily included it above), Homeland (also picking up a bit in its third season, and in its way just as OTT ridiculous as Revenge, but perhaps a little bit earnest with it), Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 (one of my favourite comedies I’ve been introduced to in the past year, but sadly now cancelled, and a definite contender for the above list if for Krysten Ritter alone), The Mindy Project (which is hit and miss, but I find Mindy Kaling hugely likeable), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Andy Samberg’s goofy cop show, which is, yes, goofy and fun), Parks and Recreation and Mad Men (each still going strong in their sixth seasons, even if maybe I had the most warmth towards them around season 4), How I Met Your Mother (at some level it’s horrible, but yet for some reason we still watch it, probably to do with the likeability of the cast, esp. Cobie Smulders and Neil Patrick Harris), and Community (really gone off the boil since those first couple of shining seasons).