Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The 13 best films of 2013


This was an acclaimed year for cinema. The continuing development of computer technology was a major factor in the success, critical and financial, of films like Gravity and The Hobbit where 3D can open up a viewing experience unmatched anywhere else. Yet, perhaps in response to the spectacular results that digital wizardry can produce there was a strong lineup of character-driven feature films, from Steven Spielberg's typically austere Lincoln to Ryan Coogler's festival favourite Fruitvale Station. Given the wealth of entertainment outlets now competing for the public's attention, film studios appear more focused than ever on providing bang for a buck and in 2013 film audiences were well served by this fast evolving industry. 

1. Gravity

Released off the back of a low-key marketing campaign, Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since the bravura Children of Men turned out to be a searingly brilliant space thriller whose simple story belies the majesty of its technical achievement. There is something refreshingly old fashioned about a film free of complex over-characterisation, a twisting narrative and any of the other tropes modern audiences have come to expect of the average blockbuster. There is nothing, however, dated about the effects used to create the endless vacuum of space with its oppressive airlessness, dark horizons and merciless physics. In exploiting the 3D medium to its maximum extent, Cuarón has given it relevance for the first time since James Cameron’s Avatar. As far as Gravity is concerned, 3D is not just a novelty but an absolute necessity. 

Add to the mix a potentially career-defining performance from Sandra Bullock - whose bland output of late should be completely forgotten after the first ten minutes - a score pulsing with sinister, otherworldly tones and soaring operatic soundscapes, and you have an odyssey that almost has to be seen to be believed. 

2. The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance’s taut, ambitious - though largely unheralded - drama came out of nowhere this year to dazzle audiences with its cleverly episodic timeline and stellar performances. In Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper The Place Beyond the Pines possesses two of the finest actors currently working in American cinema, with Gosling particularly intriguing as carnie-cum-criminal Luke. 

Opening with a stunning carnival motorcycle stunt and taking in a breathless police chase through idyllic suburbia, the film is also a fascinating meditation on actions and consequences. The mix of crime, police corruption and family strife is hardly unheard of but the confidence with which Cianfrance tied each theme to a distinct passage of the plot is both compelling and hugely impressive. It's at the point where the time period shifts, almost imperceptibly, that you realise just how clever it is.  

3. Zero Dark Thirty

An intense and muscular depiction of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow’s earthy, slightly disengaged direction lends to this the feel of a documentary. Unlike Bigelow’s previous picture, the superb The Hurt Locker, this is not a film made to impress with audacious photography and showy performances. Instead, the significant events it depicts - minus the obvious one of course - come and go with little fanfare or explanation. Whether it’s the bombing of an Islamabad hotel or the coldly brutal attack on Camp Chapman, Bigelow displays much restraint in painting those occurrences as inevitable parts of a very dangerous game. Even 9/11 features only briefly. 

As the core character of an ever changing lineup, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is a deliberately anonymous cog in a larger wheel. That said, her obsessive dedication to the mission of locating Bin Laden is a central theme, especially when faced with a shrinking team and waning interest from the powers that be. Even when she locates her target, there is little triumph given the creaking bureaucracy to which her intelligence overlords are wedded. When action is finally taken, the result is fascinating and, crucially, underplayed; a band of SEALs, lit with the eerie, clinical glow of night vision, make their way through the infamous compound with steady purpose and deadly intent. For all the mystique surrounding Bin Laden, his demise was a swift and inglorious one.

4. Captain Phillips

A tale of piracy on the high seas, Paul Greengrass’s latest take on significant world events was as complex and visceral as anything seen in his forays into world of Jason Bourne. In telling the tale of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, Greengrass, as you would expect, opts for realism over corny heroism. That which passes for action is fierce, violent and short-lived. 

Yet Captain Phillips remains every bit the seaborne thriller, with professional everyman Tom Hanks on form as the pragmatic, quietly sneaky sea captain seeking to get the better of a band of Somali pirates led by the intelligent and controlled Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Muse’s constant refrain that “Everything gonna be ok” is both naive and strangely unsettling. Indeed, by the time the might of US Navy is sent to tackle the problem, it’s clear that everything not gonna be ok. 

5. Mud

Before he became a parody of himself, Matthew McConaughey was once considered a very good actor. While audiences may well be more used to him barely registering as the leading man in any number of crap, generic romantic comedies, his obvious abilities are well illustrated in Jeff Nichols’s stunning coming-of-age tale set on the shores of the Mississippi River. As the eponymous Mud, McConaughey excels as a mysterious loner holed up on a remote island. His only contact with the outside world is the teenage duo of Ellis and Neckbone who aid him in his attempt to escape the island, the law and his past with estranged girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland display gritty maturity and boundless promise as the young men who fall under Mud’s spell. 

What makes Mud so fascinating is the hint of ambiguity throughout. Is Mud just a common criminal exploiting two young boys for his own ends? Does he even know Juniper? His fondness for homely philosophy and an ever white (magic?) shirt is strongly at odds with the hardscrabble, backwoods atmosphere of the rest of the film. Even as events come together in the end with breathless speed, there remains a sense that this is all a dream. Fortunately Nichols plays it straight and honest. The result could soon qualify as an American classic. 

6. Django Unchained 

In spite of a résumé noting relatively few films, Quentin Tarantino has accomplished the enviable task of making himself the genre in which his films exist. The topics he chooses to explore - in this case slavery in the antebellum South - are essentially irrelevant such is the ‘Tarantonisation’ (to coin a phrase) they are likely to go through. 

It comes as something of a break from tradition then that Django Unchained, while unmistakably the work of its particular auteur, should be the first of his films to be marked more by the narrative than the proclivities of the director. It possesses the usual traits of course: sharp dialogue, unyielding violence, striking photography and the obligatory cool soundtrack. Yet there is also something else, a deeper message even. 

Indeed, for all the heightened levels of gore and gunplay, Django Unchained displays a fury and a profound sense of injustice when focusing on the horrors of the plantation. In Leonardo DiCaprio’s preening Calvin Candie, Tarantino deliberately crams the evils of the slave trade into one cruel, conniving and vain scumbag. Significantly (and even controversially), Samuel L. Jackson’s comfortable, meddling house slave Stephen is just as evil. As the avenging angel of the piece Jamie Foxx brings appropriate swagger to the role of Django, freed chattel turned willing bounty hunter. The consistently brilliant Christoph Waltz stands out, however, as the suave, verbose Dr. King Schultz, a genuinely heroic figure infused with goodness and a subtle measure of righteous anger. The quandary left at the end, perhaps, is which of the good guys does QT wish to be?

7. Prisoners

What lengths would you go to in order to find your missing child? That is the scenario posed by Denis Villeneuve’s chilling study of the crises - moral and emotional - wrought by the sudden abduction of two small girls. Both dark mystery and human drama, Prisoners is gripping, threatening and entirely believable. Set in the faceless Pennsylvanian suburbs, there is a hopelessness in the bleak landscape where civilisation cowers indoors, away from the inclement weather and the merciless recession. 

As the father of one of the disappeared, Hugh Jackman’s Keller is a man possessed of his own demons and a steely determination to locate his child by any means necessary. His obsessive rage is matched by Jake Gyllenhaal’s twitchy, disturbed Detective Loki, a man with significant baggage of his own. In what is an outstanding ensemble, Jackman and Gyllenhaal tower over the film. 

While observant viewers may well knit it all together before the credits, this will remain no less foreboding to those with young children. Where the whole things stands on torture is left hanging but for the key question: just how far would you go?

8. Flight

For all his appeal as a chivalrous leading man, Denzel Washington has tended to perform best in roles away from the noble and crusading niche he has carved for himself. His ability as an actor is obvious of course but when given the chance to delve into characters with many layers he has shone. From his Oscar-winning roles in Glory and Training Day to his feckless airline pilot Whip Whitaker in Flight, Washington often excels against type. Whitaker may get to sleep with air hostesses and swagger about in shades while Joe Cocker plays in the background, but he is nonetheless a hopeless drunk and a barely repentant drug addict. In the wake of the central air disaster (for which he is probably not culpable) and with his livelihood in the balance Whitaker is shorn of anything approaching a positive trait. He reverts to type as a bitter, evasive and untrustworthy lush. It is a brave and accomplished performance and one with little chance for redemption.

This is a startlingly human story. Director Robert Zemeckis exhibits his usual technical ability in depicting the terrifying plane crash but the film is more about the fallout from such an event rather than a forensic examination of it. In fact, the extraordinary feat of airmanship with which Whitaker is credited is displayed fully within the first 15 minutes. Ironically it is his skill - rather than his addled state - which ultimately proves crucial. 

9. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In 2012 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey signalled a new series of Middle Earth adventures directed by Peter Jackson, the New Zealander responsible for the peerless Lord of the Rings trilogy. While it was a spectacular and high-end blockbuster by any normal standards, An Unexpected Journey was coolly received in many quarters and suffered unfavourable comparisons with Jackson’s original films. 

There should be no such reservations attached to the 2013 effort, the second film in the Hobbit troika. If Jackson’s intention was to forge a new identity for the series, away from the unreachable heights of Rings, he has succeeded for The Desolation of Smaug is epic filmmaking of the highest class. Sure, these films have been padded with extra material for the sake of stretching a small original novel into three massive pictures (including some content which has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien at all) but Jackson’s grip on Middle Earth remains sure. The final hour is arguably the most spectacular cinematic experience this year and ably whets the appetite for next Christmas’s concluding chapter. 

10. Lincoln

An awards season heavyweight if ever there was one, Steven Spielberg’s expertly rendered historical drama would, in the end, only receive one of the big prizes on Oscar night. In winning the award for best actor, however, regular favourite Daniel Day-Lewis crushed the competition with a portrayal of Abraham Lincoln unlike any in the past or, as is likely, in the future. In adopting Honest Abe’s high lilting voice, Midwestern accent and the curious gait of an extremely tall man - the result, surely, of meticulous research - Day-Lewis imbues the character with genuine humanity. This is no rote impression of a famous American figure where a funny beard and stovepipe hate will suffice. Instead, Lincoln is a real character with very real concerns, worn down by war and conflict yet still able to joke with and cajole those around him. It is a remarkable piece of acting and one which outshines the stuffier political machinations beyond Day-Lewis’s performance. 

To Spielberg’s credit he does not rely solely on his leading man to carry the film. A fine cast matches Day-Lewis every step of the way and there is a certain bravery in rooting the crusade to end slavery in the potentially boring inner workings of a bitterly divided United States Congress, rather than more accessible events on the battlefield. Yet Spielberg has always known his audience. His effortless direction, the stunning photography and brilliantly realised sets serve to aid a brilliant film rather than enable a preaching historical lecture. 

11. Fruitvale Station

The shooting of Oscar Grant at an Oakland metro station on New Year’s Day 2009 was met with local outrage and a slew of subsequent legal action. The incident, however, was not linked to gangs, drugs or any of the other myriad problems associated with street violence in the notorious Oakland. Grant was, in fact, killed by a transit cop while being detained in the wake of a fight on a train. The confused circumstances of the incident and the wider context of his ordinary life are explored in talent-to-watch Ryan Coogler’s restrained and affectingly mature debut feature. 

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan is a forceful and powerful presence. Familiar to fans of The Wire and Friday Night Lights, he is capable of appearing both streetwise and sensitive, an underrated quality perhaps but a necessary one when portraying believable characters. In this case Grant, in spite of a criminal past, is a caring father and devoted son. The relationship with his girlfriend is not exactly idyllic but when a need for cash and a lack of opportunity appear set to drive him in an inevitable direction he rejects it, choosing instead the certainty of family responsibilities. His demise then is utterly tragic and at the crucial moment Jordan manages to convey a mix of physical pain and heartbroken confusion, the realisation of how his death will impact those around him dawning long before the end. 

12. Filth

An adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1998 novel, Filth is arguably the year’s most raucously entertaining film. The story of a corrupt, morally bankrupt police detective’s determined pursuit of a promotion, it features an all out, balls-to-the-wall performance by James McAvoy as low life copper Bruce Robertson. By turns frightening, dark and hilarious Jon S. Baird’s Edinburgh is not quite that of Trainspotting but it is populated by a coterie of incompetent, racist and unsympathetic characters straight from a human resource department’s naughty file. John Session’s smugly bigoted boss and Jamie Bell’s idiotic junior partner may stand out but it is McAvoy’s show from beginning to end as he makes his way gleefully through a fog of drink, drugs and machiavellian gamesmanship. 

As far as the plot goes, the novel’s zanier elements have been done away with for the most part and beneath Robertson’s obscene visage there lurks (strangely enough) a great deal of personal issues. What qualifies as a twist is bleak and unforgiving but it is ultimately unsurprising given all that has gone before. McAvoy’s work here is peerless and even by the conclusion his angry amorality endures as the demons obliterate what little decency is left to claim the last laugh. 

13. What Maisie Knew

The transposing of Henry James’s 1897 novel from Victorian London to present day New York may seem a strange crossover but the universality of the source material’s themes underpins David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s beautifully observed feature. Like James, the directors explore marital breakdown from the viewpoint of the eponymous Maisie, a gentle and relatively well adjusted six-year-old. As the crux of a custody battle between her loving, if somewhat distracted parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), Maisie is shifted from pillar to post as the adults vie for position and prominence over each other, their relationships impinging more and more on the little girl’s innocent existence. 

While the film could survive on the strength of its older cast, what elevates it to such highs is the performance of young Onata Aprile as Maisie. Incredibly natural and lacking any sense that she’s playing to the camera or blandly reading someone else’s words, Aprile is a revelation, offering up the finest child performance seen on screen for quite some time. This is a remarkable feat in itself but Aprile's interaction with those around her is just as important. For those she touches with quiet joy - Alexander Skarsgård’s patient Lincoln in particular - what Maisie really knows is how to love. 

Getting started

I've been writing about films on Culture Northern Ireland for about a year now. I decided recently to start a blog focusing on all sorts of stuff (hopefully) but I thought a debut entry on the best 13 films of 2013 would be an appropriate way to kick it off. 


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