The first of our takes on 2013’s best cinematic achievements. What’s your number one?
Another year, another twelve months of movies. 2013 was beset with a string of awards-worthy titles and a plethora of hugely-enjoyable blockbusters (which the fanboys just chose to moan about, naturally). Picking a definitive list is hard, but I’ve managed to whittle down my own top ten.
Please bear in mind that this is my selection from what I enjoyed the most, so feel free to strike back below with any gems I left out…
10. The Conjuring
James Wan’s The Conjuring was THE horror film of the year for me. I used to be a big fan of the genre, but when everything turned to torture porn and “Found Footage,” I promptly tuned-out. The Conjuring is a good old-fashioned scare machine with spot-on 70s detail and several gut-tightening moments. As a movie, it is pure formula, and I have to admit that ghost stories usually leave me cold, but Wan’s command of the material and two fine performances from Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren make it an instant horror great. The odd ridiculous moment aside, this film had me in its grip from the throwback title card to the sequel-baiting final shot. Wan is becoming the modern-day answer to John Carpenter or Wes Craven, and I can’t wait to see what he does next…
9. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Steve Coogan’s TV comedy icon makes the transition to the big screen better than many of his predecessors. Put-upon presenter Alan Partridge (first seen all the way back in 1994’s The Day Today) has always been an inspired creation, and his “siege faced” cinematic debut has plenty of belly-laughs. The core conceit of his North Norfolk Digital radio station being taken over by sacked gun-toting DJ Pat Farrel (the brilliant Colm Meaney) is a wonderful excuse for several side-splitting scenarios, including that uproarious bit when Alan tries to get through a tiny window (you have to see it). Alpha Papa isn’t awards-worthy filmmaking, but for fans of the long-running Alan Titschmarsh parody, it was certainly the way we wanted it to be…
8. Before Midnight
Cult director Richard Linklater returns to his romantic movie universe nine years after the fantastic indie sequel Before Sunset (which followed one of the few “girlie” films I could ever stomach, 1995’s Before Sunrise). The Dazed & Confused helmsman can now lay claim to producing one of the finest (and most unique) trilogies out there as its three-for-three. This is for people who know flicks like (500) Days of Summer are pure synthetic fantasy and need a romantic film that’s, well, real life.
Almost twenty years after they first met by happenstance on a train to Vienna, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are now firmly together and living in Greece with their children. But as they saunter around the picturesque locations, we soon realise that there are cracks forming in their two-decade relationship, leading to a stand-off in a hotel room that is one of the most painful sequences of the year.
Before Midnight is like visiting old friends and realising that they’ve changed dramatically. Nothing in these films feels forced or conventional, and while they’re not in any way “cool,” dismissing them without acknowledging the genius of a twenty-year character study is ridiculous. Midnight only enriches everything that has happened till this point. As with the first two, Linklater’s effort is overly talky, cultured, and only a teensy-bit pretentious, but its beautifully lyrical filmmaking powered by the combined force of its two wonderful stars (who also co-wrote the script). It’s enough to make you wonder where Jesse and Celine end up in another nine years…
7. Star Trek Into Darkness
After four years, J.J. Abrams returned to Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated sci-fi universe with one of the most underrated follow-ups in recent memory (in fact, it edges out the problematic-if-enjoyable Iron Man 3 for me). The die hard fans were disgruntled with the “homages” to The Wrath of Khan, and the action scenes were indeed the main reason to see it, but along with the 2009 relaunch, this remains one of the best entries in Trek‘s cinematic history. A complex script, some truly staggering special effects, and a winning cast combine to provide pure summer entertainment. Each time I see it, I marvel at how a simple blockbuster can be so well-made. Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t deserve the ludicrous criticisms levelled at it, and in a sequel-heavy year, it is undeniably the best. Hey, at least Cumberbatch’s character didn’t turn out to be an actor…
6. Man of Steel
Holy crap, did this film get a lot of unwarranted flack…
A pure sci-fi movie, Man of Steel is a brilliant redo of the Superman legend because it knows we’ve already seen it… countless times. Akin to the flashback structure of Batman Begins, we slowly learn the backstory of this Clark Kent (a spot-on Henry Cavill) without the origin being the main focus, settling on an alien invasion motif that is the perfect cue for a string of epic scale set-pieces, all superbly orchestrated by Zack Snyder (for me, the battle in Smallville, below, is the undisputed action highlight of the year). You could say that David Goyer’s script should have been tighter and that the running time could have been trimmed, but they seem like such hollow criticisms in the face of so much awesome. The cast is fantastic, the updates to the mythology make total sense when you actually stop to think about them, and the CGI wizardry is phenomenal.
As for the pet-peeves: Mass destruction of Metropolis? Yeah, happens all the time in the books, sorry you could enjoy it in The Avengers but not in a Superman film. Kal-El killing? Yeah, that happened once… twice depending on the continuity in question. Put aside your superhero biases and enjoy an adult Superman movie that most of us thought we’d never, ever see. Anyone ranking the overly-comedic Iron Man 3 above this boggles my mind.
Danny Boyle was red-hot after the 2012 Olympics and his last few films, so there were a lot of critics just waiting for Trance to disappoint. I wasn’t one of them.
Trance is a fantastically original film and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in recent memory, making its place in my top ten list a no-brainer. The brilliantly-twisty plot, though not in the least bit credible, keeps you guessing from beginning to end and the core conceit of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) going into the mind of an unwitting thief (a brilliant James McAvoy) is enough to breathe flesh life into some stale crime film clichés. Added to this is the fact that its a thoroughly watchable film. Boyle’s eye continues to impress and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Dredd, 127 Hours) is customarily amazing. People who can appreciate well-shot “rubbish” will be in heaven here.
Many may laugh at me for choosing this particular film, but I couldn’t give a shit. Trance is a hugely enjoyable blend of mind-fuckery, priceless art, gangsters, full-frontal nudity (thank you), and “hypnotic” violence. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a cult favourite in the next ten years like the bulk of Boyle’s work…
4. The World’s End
This is another movie that got somewhat of a fanboy backlash that wasn’t in any way deserved. Edgar Wright has completed his “Cornetto” trilogy in superlative fashion by making a film that’s nothing like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz… but one that’s also exactly like them. This is the kids from Spaced all grown up, and its a fittingly bittersweet romp that you have to see several times to fully appreciate. Multiple viewings will bring out the solid-gold comedy that’s hidden beneath pathos, and also allow you to see that Simon Pegg’s turn as the wayward Garry King is one of the most overlooked performances of the year. And when the genre element finally kicks-in, Wright proves why he’s an amazing choice for Marvel’s upcoming Ant-Man.
Formula One has never interested me massively, but like many, I have a renewed appreciation for the sport in the wake of Ron Howard’s awesome Rush. The director was in trouble for a while there, producing those god-awful Dan Brown adaptations and a certain Vince Vaughn “comedy,” but this biopic centring on the rivalry between drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) during the 1976 season finds him back in top form. This is the Howard that made Apollo 13 all those years ago.
There’s a pleasing attention to detail, a lack of perceptible Hollywood bullshit, and two very committed turns from the leads. Hemsworth in particular impresses by confirming he has range, and Brühl continues to hone his sizeable talent. Howard also injects great energy into the racing scenes, leading to a truly heart-rending conclusion that will make butch men break down in tears (Up, you’ve got company). This is a wonderful drama about sportsmanship, determination, and the power of the human spirit… and its nowhere near as syrupy as that sounds. A modern great.
For a long time now, little-known director Denis Villeneuve has been sharpening his style with a string of critically-acclaimed movies including 2010’s Incendies. Prisoners, though, is his true coming out party. A meticulously-crafted thriller with a gutsy plot, Prisoners takes some pitch-perfect turns from an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Terrence Howard, and leaves you gripped in its morbid web. Two girls going missing is merely the jumping-off point for a tale of revenge, self-sacrifice, and horrible choices. Parents will be terrified and everyone else will be left questioning their own morals.
Though dense, this is also one of 2013’s most beautiful films, too. Any movie with Roger Deakins photography is a visual marvel, and from beginning to end it is a beautifully-directed piece. It is bolstered by (arguably) the finest acting in a wide-release picture this year. Jackman’s turn here is as electric as his sorely-overlooked performance in The Prestige, finally confirming that he is a real thesp when given the right material. Everyone is amazing, though, from Gyllenhaal’s tightly-wound cop to Paul Dano’s pitiful suspect. You could argue the film caters to convention in its final third, but that isn’t enough to undo the remarkable efforts of a cast and crew at the top of their professional games.
For whatever reason, Prisoners has been left off many top film lists and was even ranked at a shocking #46 on Empire’s picks. This injustice is no doubt down to the strong and sobering subject matter. It may not be a film I will watch over and over again, but Prisoners is not a motion picture I will forget in a hurry. It seems that the public agree, too, as it is currently sitting at #232 on IMDb’s Top 250. See it.
This is the film the grossly-overrated Avatar wanted to be…
Director Alfonso Cuarón had already impressed me greatly with the brilliant Children of Men, a bleak and unsung masterpiece. But whereas that film wanted to pose tough sociological questions, the astounding Gravity is content to be a perfectly-executed B-movie. Really, it doesn’t say anything profound about the universe or our miniscule place in it, but as a piece of populist fluff, Gravity achieves every one of its goals with such a ruthless efficiency that you’re often left breathless (and how often can you say that without it being hyperbole?).
As a technical showcase, Cuarón’s film is proof positive that we haven’t seen everything film has to give us, and from the epic and seemingly never-ending opening shot to the hugely satisfying coda, it is a work of grade-A technical precision. The CGI never loses credibility and the atmosphere is so agonisingly real that we buy into the sillier sci-fi trimmings. And, in a setting where there is no “right way up,” the advent of 3D has never been put to better use. Alternately disorienting and thrilling, Gravity is pure escapist cinema pulled off with the finest toys a blockbuster budget can buy.
Shining through all the bells and whistles is a great turn by star Sandra Bullock, too. I’ve never really rated her as a performer, but she totally goes for broke here, committing to a punishing physical role that earns the audience’s sympathy. She makes the computer-generated trickery terrifying and, by the last frame, makes us thankful to be on terra firma.
Are there better films this year? Yes, if you want something with true substance, but as a sensory assault, Gravity just can’t be beaten. It conforms to the art form’s original intentions to take us to another world, and space has rarely seemed as convincingly perilous as it does here. This is truly groundbreaking movie-making that both the masses and film aficionados can embrace. Hurry up and release the Blu-ray!