Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ed's Top 20 Films of 2013

A still from Pain & Gain, a film which will not be included in this countdown.
Since 2013 is almost done, and since I've now run out of time to cram in any more films, it seems only appropriate to look back on what has been a really quite stellar 12 months and reflect on the very highest of the highlights. As I said, this year has been pretty fantastic for cinema, and it has been one of the few years where drawing up a Top 20, which sometimes seems like a bit of stretch to fill, feels somewhat inadequate. As such, I've thrown a whole heap of honorable mentions in at the end, because it would be a shame to leave out films just because they aren't as great as some of the others.

This is by no means a definitive list, since I wasn't able to see every film that I would have wanted to, but it's a good one, and it reflects the stuff that I really loved this year. Here's to a great 2013, and the hope that 2014 is anywhere near as bountiful.

Harmony Korine briefly gatecrashed the mainstream with his vivid, hallucinatory story of four college students who rob a restaurant to fund their week of debauchery at spring break, then get sucked into an ever more violent spiral once they hook up with drug dealer and Britney Spears enthusiast Alien (James Franco). Korine edits the film so that it more close resembles one long sensory montage than a film, but that approach makes for a truly strange and intoxicating experience. It's also one of the best examples of  a trend that ran throughout the year - depictions of excess that emphasise both the emptiness and the allure of lives of pure pleasure.

Robert Redford, a man who at this point has nothing to prove when it comes to his legacy, shakes out of the complacency that has marked his recent career to deliver a bravura performance as a man lost at sea. Nearly silent, he conveys absolutely everything he needs to through pure physicality, and his minimalistic approach is perfectly matched by Chandor's muscular, focused direction.

18. The Way Way Back (dir. Jim Rash and Nat Faxon)

The best '80s Bill Murray comedy not set in the '80s or featuring Bill Murray, The Way Way Back is an incredibly winning coming of age story that doesn't do a whole lot new with its material, but its characters are so much fun to be around that it doesn't matter if it doesn't break much new ground. It'd be worth including on this list for Sam Rockwell's guileless, hilarious performance, but everything about it is utterly delightful.

17. 56 Up (dir. Michael Apted)

Michael Apted continues his revelatory series following the lives of ordinary British people from childhood to middle age. Much of its power comes from the relationship we the audience have with the subjects, having seen them grow from fresh-faced children to become parents and grandparents, but Apted's inquisitive nature, and his willingness to explore his own relationship with his subjects and the impact the series has had on their lives, makes this installment as fascinating as all the previous chapters.

One of the most staggering documentaries ever made, The Act of Killing manages to examine a very specific crime - the Sumatran genocide - and uses it as a way of exploring the relationship between art and violence, how societies rewrite atrocities into acts of heroism, and how people who commit the most heinous of crimes are able to live with themselves. The central conceit of letting the men who committed mass murder recount it is bleakly fascinating in and of itself, but it's also merely a jumping off point that takes the audience into very dark and murky waters.

It was a banner year for documentaries that played with form and questioned the audiences' relationship with the art they watch. Sarah Polley's personal account of her family history may not be as dramatic or shattering as The Act of Killing, but it is every bit as inventive, and just as revelatory when it comes to the question of how we perceive ourselves, our parents, and the question of whether where we came from defines who we think we are.

14. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Cretton)

If nothing else, Short Term 12 demonstrates that brilliant filmmaking will overcome any limitations. Made on an incredibly small budget, Cretton's film about the lives of workers in a home for troubled teenagers succeeds because it keys in on the relationships between its characters. Brie Larson is utterly superb as the lead, giving a performance that radiates empathy. It's a small, but quietly heartbreaking examination of how much caring hurts.

The seesawing quality of Allen's recent work was on the upswing this year, largely thanks to a great central performance by Cate Blanchett as a formerly rich New Yorker forced to move in with her working class sister in San Francisco. It displays some of Allen's tone-deafness when it comes to class, but it still works wonderfully as an examination of someone discovering there is a world outside of their cloistered existence, and how they will risk destroying themselves to escape it.

Though it's easy to dismiss as just a retread of La Dolce Vita, Sorrentino's take on the decadence of Rome and the subsequent intellectual malaise of its ruling class could not be more modern or vital. A sad, biting indictment of post-Berlusconi Italy, it's a by turns giddy and melancholic look at a man and a country with incredible promise which is being squandered on idle things.

11. Blancanieves (dir. Pablo Berger)

The Snow White story has been retold so many times that it's hard to imagine anyone doing something bracingly new with it; Pablo Berger's silent, black-and-white version set in the world of bullfighting does exactly that. Absolutely ravishing to look at, it zeroes in on the aching sadness of the story, throws in just enough twists to keep it fresh, and ends on a haunting note of ambiguity. One of the biggest and best surprises of the year for me.

Shane Carruth went from promising enigma to major enigma with his second feature, an intensely emotional yet abstract examination of trauma, love and the strangeness of the world around us. A breathtaking work of artistic expression, and one of the most distinct visions to emerge in years.

Arguably a better experience than a film, Cuarón's return to feature directing after a seven year absence was a jaw-dropping technical achievement, but one which was anchored by an all too human performance from Sandra Bullock. A true roller-coaster ride of a movie.

8. The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg directs his first great film since Festen in 1998, spinning a complex and uncomfortable morality tale about a teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) who is falsely accused of abusing a child in his care. Often unbearably tense, it derives its power from the fact that everyone in the film is trying to do the right thing, but because they're being motivated by a lie, their good intentions end up having horrendous consequences.

Nine years after Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost completed their Cornetto trilogy in thrilling fashion. Yet while their riff on alien invasion films is as funny and metaphorically rich as their previous films, it's also more melancholy; they've all grown up, but their characters haven't, and the tension between those facts makes it more than just a comedy, but also an insightful dissection of the dangers of nostalgia.

6. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

After his first two films, Hunger and Shame, made for grueling but largely empty character studies, British artist Steve McQueen finally finds a story worthy of his considerable technical abilities. By telling the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, McQueen is able to forcefully and rigorously detail the many horrors of slavery. What gives the film its true power, though, is the way in which McQueen shows the different levels of slavery, and how the institution infected every element of American society. What happened to Solomon Northrup was horrible, but the fact he finally escaped only highlights how many others were not as lucky.

At 71, Martin Scorsese doesn't seem to be slowing down, and seems intent on growing old disgracefully. How else to explain The Wolf of Wall Street, a blisteringly funny, astonishingly raunchy comedy that doubles as an evisceration of the sort of men who destroyed the world economy a few years ago? Rarely has a film with such scope and money behind it offered such a big middle finger to the excesses of capitalism. Even rarer is the film that makes it all look like such fun.

Richard Linklater, along with his collaborators Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, managed to cap off a perfect trilogy with Before Midnight. Having introduced us to Jesse and Celine as young lovers in Before Sunrise, then as people who have been knocked back by life in Before Sunset, Before Midnight finally shows us what they are like as a couple. But rather than just showing us the positive side, Linklater, Hawke and Delpy also show their ugliest moments through a lengthy, unflinchingly realistic fight that takes up most of the last act of the film. It's a bold choice, but one which makes it a much richer film than if they had just trod the same ground as they had in the first two films.

An intimate epic every bit as devastating as that phrase implies, Blue is the Warmest Colour is one of the most moving and exhilarating coming of age stories I've ever seen. An evocative tale of sexual discovery that flirts with exploitation, but ultimately offers an honest and compassionate look at how relationships form, grow, and ultimately die. Adele Exarchopoulos deserves to be a huge, huge star.

Few films capture the aimlessness of youth quite as well as Frances Ha. Not only does it convey the fun inherent in being young and not quite knowing what you want to do with your life - or knowing perfectly well what you want to do, but not knowing how to achieve it - it also conveys just how scary and daunting it can be. It's hilarious and exhilarating, but its jokes are tempered by real wisdom that makes it poignant, though never maudlin or solipsistic.

The Coens' latest film is often chilly - both literally and metaphorically - but its frosty exterior masks a story about grief and loss that is achingly beautiful, and far more moving than its surface level misanthropy might suggest. Carried along by some amazing folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens' most propulsive and evocative films, and an amazing character study of someone who is unlikeable, but utterly fascinating.

Honourable Mentions

This year was so good, that it'd be remiss of me if I didn't at least mention the likes of The Grandmaster (Chinese Cut), Stoker, Captain Phillips, The Bling Ring, At Berkeley, Enough Said, Nebraska, Drug War, Valentine Road, Frozen, The Lone Ranger, Iron Man 3, Computer Chess, This is the End, In The House, Gimme The Loot, Post Tenebras Lux, Mud, War Witch, Leviathan, Only God Forgives, After Tiller, Narco Cultura, Fast & Furious 6, Monsters University, To The Wonder, Side Effects, Pacific Rim and In A World...

You know what, it really was a great year. Get caught up, and remember: Spring break forever, bitches!