Awards season approaches. Oscar predictions pile up. Top ten lists emerge from every corner of the internet. I figure now is as good a time as any to share my personal favorite films of 2013. I didn’t come close to seeing all the films I wanted to this year, missing American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, and Her to name a few (I will be seeing these films in the coming weeks as they finally get released in the UK). However, I feel this list does an excellent job at summarising my favorite theatrical experiences of the last calendar year. 2013 seems to be universally praised as a marvelous year for cinema, and I think the scope of films represented on my list speaks to that opinion. I loved every film on this list for a variety of reasons, and I can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store.
My list is based on US release dates, just to add extra confusion into the mix.
10. The Conjuring
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston
Horror certainly isn’t a genre I have much experience with or affection for, but after 112 minutes of perfectly-paced, toe-curling demon-hunting, I walked out of the cinema feeling that I’d seen a well-executed pedigree of the genre. Through the performances of Ron Livingston as the hard-working family man and Vera Farmiga as a particularly convincing clairvoyant, The Conjuring did something that few other horror/slasher films accomplish. It engaged my concern for the characters undergoing demonic real-estate negotiation and held it down. One of my praises of the film lies in its capacity to shift tone so seamlessly from cheery comedy to hide-behind-the-sofa terror, while managing to maintain tense throughout. I think this strength comes from it’s near-airtight structure; from Scooby Doo-esque ghost-hunting to creepy match-lit basement descents, it all flows and never seems disjointed. Beautifully layered with set-up and striking visuals, I recommend The Conjuring to all who enjoy a well-thought-out scare.
9. This is The End
Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel
2013 was clearly a year for gratuitous end-of-the-world comedies, and Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s This is the End truly sets the mark for over-the-top in the best way possible. In This is the End, the name of the game is escalation and stake-raising. The fictionalised personas of James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and Craig Robinson bicker, swear, and masturbate from the get-go. It’s as silly as it is filthy. In Rogen’s own words, ‘Our movie has more jerk-off or cum jokes than any movie ever made, and it’s a title we hold proudly.’ It also features a not-so-insubstantial serving of drugs, demon dicks, and felatio involving Michael Cera. It’s difficult to imagine the word ‘subtlety’ being used to describe the cavalcade of classlessness that is This is the End, but subtle it is (at times). What makes This is the End a truly laugh-out-loud comedy is how organic it feels while dropping A-lister after A-lister into mortal peril. The snide comments and bickering feel unscripted (and usually are), and despite the over-the-top visuals, the movie seems very genuine in the face of Armageddon.
8. World’s End
Director: Edgar Wright
Writers: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman
Concluding a marathon screening of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I admit that my first viewing of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s World’s End left me strangely underwhelmed. It felt like it should have been the biggest and most triumphant of the three films, and with returning all-stars Nick Frost and Martin Freeman, it seemed the perfect candidate for a riotous time. However, after the bloody (and) brilliant films that came before it, something didn’t quite add up. It wasn’t until re-approaching the film, and spotting Edgar Wright’s characteristic perfectionism, that I came to the conclusion that World’s End is a worthy final installment of the notorious ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. Simon Pegg’s performance as Gary King is one of his all-time best, as he perfectly matches every beat of manic, unfaltering silliness with an equal measure of darker pathos. No doubt, World’s End is a much darker film than its predecessors. For some, the ending of World’s End did a poor job of tying together the strands of the film, but every line, character, set-up meets a hilarious pay-off in the cataclysmic conclusion. As far as laughs, drunkenness, and ridiculously choreographed brawls go, look no further than World’s End.
7. Before Midnight
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Cast: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Before Midnight may appear as an odd-one-out in my top ten, but this film completely shattered my notions of narrative construction. Before Midnight is less of a ‘movie’, and more a series of conversations, oftentimes taking place in one take. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that exhibits detailed characterisation in such dense scenes, while still managing to maintain the momentum of the narrative. It saunters beautifully. The balance between the impeccable script and spectacular performances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy gives the film layers to dig through, but at no point does the film lose its incredible sense of realism. In fact, certain scenes in the film invoked genuine visceral discomfort within me, and it earned every single emotional apex, without ever feeling cheap or overplayed. In a word, Before Midnight is touching. In a few more, it is an unparalleled cinematic experience.
6. The Spectacular Now
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley
Following up on previous quirky coming-of-age dramas such as The Way, Way Back (2013) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Spectacular Now stands as what I consider the most thoughtful and triumphant of the three. Interestingly enough, I identify the least with Sutter (Miles Teller) than any of the other awkward teenage-transitioners, but found him to be the most compelling protagonist. I remember hearing frustrated sighs from the audience as Sutter digs his hole deeper, and deeper, and deeper. But, the exasperated viewers gasped because of their deep-rooted desire to see Sutter get past ‘the now’. Grow up, we think. Fascinatingly, despite his bravado and guru-esque praise of the now, Sutter’s every action reveals itself to be an avoidance of the present. His relationship with Aimee (Shailene Woodly) remains one of the most believable and gut-wrenching love stories of the year, and the film perfectly balanced either side of the coming-of-age narrative. Wise and thoughtful, The Spectacular Now delivers a detailed bildungsroman done right.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Or its more accurate title, Angular Momentum, right guys? High-five.
I think I may be one of very few to walk away from Gravity not praising its groundbreaking visuals or stomach-turning effects, but rather its beautifully executed religious overtones. Dr. Ryan Stone, played elegantly by Sandra Bullock, remarks earlier in the film that ‘she never learned to pray’. She then spends the majority of the film muttering to ground control, who she isn’t even sure can hear her. All alone in a place between Earth and death, Stone comes into contact with whispers from the ground below. Ultimately, the film revolves around a kind of physical and spiritual rebirth. Think of Bullock floating in the womb-like shuttle, or her first infant-like steps upon her return to Earth. While much of the dialogue failed to blow me into the outer stratosphere, there was an unexpected moral depth to the film that took me entirely by surprise. As stunning as the visuals are, Gravity’s subtlety and compact narrative are what allow it to stand apart as an exceptional film. Don’t get me wrong, I came out of the theatre as dizzy as the next guy, but there is definitely something more to the science fiction epic than a few good shots of the Big Blue reflected off Clooney’s visor.
4. 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
12 Years a Slave tackles slavery and its difficult realities in a candid, unhesitating, and specific way. I came into the film knowing no details of the story, which is in my opinion, the best way to approach a film. Despite focusing on the specific timeline of Solomon Northup’s tragic abuse, played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years never lets the audience escape the scale of slavery in the south. Through Solomon, we see the lives of millions and the billion abuses. Michael Fassbender’s chilling Edwin Epps embodies twisted hypocrisy and helplessness. Through half-quoted Biblical passages and hideous bursts of anger, Epps attempts to justify the moral turpitude of the time, if only to himself. Wallowing in pig-filth and alcohol, he maintains only a stained illusion. No other film this year (except for maybe #1) inspired me to awe quite like 12 Years a Slave. Sitting quietly as the credits slid down the screen in front of me, I had no choice but to reflect on the lack of recompense. The film ends with an intentionally superficial resolution, and the weight of Northup’s loss, and by association all victims of the vicious act, can never truly be repaid. 12 Years a Slave serves as a dark reminder of our history, may it never be forgotten or undervalued.
3. Blue Jasmine
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard
You can’t ever really go wrong with a Woody Allen film. In the case of Blue Jasmine, you have an opportunity to go very, very right. Allen is a master of tone, character, pacing, and narrative. I’ve never seen a film that plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator quite as spectacularly as Blue Jasmine. With incredible performances from both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, playing two estranged sisters on opposite ends of the socio-economic system, the film explores the relationship between love and money while pulling no punches. The audience’s sentiment oscillates between hatred and pity for Jasmine, and this constant shift in perspective keeps the narrative dynamic and twisting. Dishonesty comes up again and again, in every context and from almost every character. I honestly believe that Cate Blanchett secured her oscar with one particularly twisted monologue, delivered to her two nephews on the subject of love and trust. Metamorphosing before our eyes, Blanchett balances psychosis and charm to win over friends, while alienating her family. The film roars forward with a tempo characteristic of Allen’s best, and manages to explore a ‘wolf-like’ subject in an inspired and stylised way.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
I’m struggling to come up with a better way to describe this movie than a hooker-infused, drug-addled, hedonistic wet dream, mostly because it’s so much more than that. Critics of this film chastise its so-called glorification of the immoral actions of Jordan Belfort and his obscene lifestyle. They didn’t see the same film I saw. I saw hollow, broken human beings parading around their complete lack of moral character and their own emotional depravity, using their money as a shield. And I laughed at it harder than anything else this year. Scorsese strikes a delicate balance between ribaldry and commentary, and the film’s subject remains topical as ever. The 180-minute riot is one of the best paced films I’ve seen this year, with highs and lows as disparate as the millionaires’ moods. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the finest performances of his career, achieving a paramount sequence of physical comedy in his now infamous Luude breakdown. However, Belfort’s inner demons remain just as faithfully depicted. There is no condonation of the film’s subject, but a comprehensive condemnation. After each scene of irresponsibility follows a sobering glance at reality. Easily one of my favourite films of the last few years, and I’m certain this film won’t be forgotten in the years to come.
1. The Act of Killing
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous
‘Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way to not feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse…After all, morality is relative.’
Not recognising The Act of Killing as the most remarkable film of the year just feels wrong. Admittedly, a documentary feels like an odd choice for the number one slot, but the intertwining narratives of the film and beautifully crafted visual motifs left me speechless, as well as distraught. The gangster-executioners of Indonesia are approached by a documentary crew to reenact their thousands of cold-blooded murders in any cinematic medium of their choice. The chilling response? They agree re-perform their atrocities with unabashed pride and the support of their nation’s political system behind them.
The premise of The Act of Killing alone fails to communicate the scope and unbearable realities this peerless documentary nails down. I truly believe that this film transcends genre, and despite cataloging the atrocities of the uncomfortably-close past, it just doesn’t feel real. It is a film that plays with the fictionalisation of history, and does so without ever compromising the reality it commits to exposing. As one of the government-funded gangsters explains, ‘Even if everything you’re finding out is true, it’s not good.’ Even the credits inspired awe in a characteristically unstated way: about half of the crew, actors, and production team chose to remain anonymous. It’s chilling, at times unwatchable, deeply troubling, and a stone-cold masterpiece.
Worst film of the year (that I could be bothered to watch): Man of Steel.
Most mediocre film of the year: Elysium.
Most overrated film of the year: Pacific Rim.