America is more or less the hub of the international film market, and as you know, the films that have the largest impact within western culture tend to be released there first. This means that we in Britain often get them a few months later, thus certain films end up being released the following year. This is certainly the case of key Oscar entries, and as such, less than half of the ‘Best Picture’ nominees at the 86th Academy Awards were actually released in 2013. So now we’ve had chance to see the lion’s share, here’s a revised edition of my original list of last year’s movies, taking into account all films generally accredited with a 2013 release. This means that the original #8 and #4 entries Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty were no longer eligible, but fear not – there are enough great replacements to feast on, and as such, every movie here is more than worth checking out.
20. American Hustle
David O’Russell’s winning streak was initially ruined by his 2013 effort. The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook were both well-constructed, emotional movies that resounded long after they finished running, yet American Hustle dropped dead as soon as its credits began to roll. The allusions to Casino and Boogie Nights gave viewers the impression there would be some huge payoff, or at least a massive blowout that came as a result of the glitzy pomposity it emitted with every second of its running time. But that’s why hype’s a bitch: Hustle is much more enjoyable as a collection of great scenes – all rife with jokes well delivered by its astounding cast of performers – as opposed to the modern day gangster masterpiece it was originally suggested to be. As well as this, its narrative somersaults through cons conning other cons’ cons worked on folks, and as we sat and wondered if the con actually went all way back to the filmmakers, whether the anticlimactic ending was just part of O’Russell’s ruse, it turns out American Hustle did actually stick with us after the credits after all.
19. Captain Phillips
Usually fodder for bog-standard big-emotion filmmaking, Captain Phillips looked barely impressive on paper save for one name: Paul Greengrass, the man who makes a habit of bringing visceral turbulence to the action genre. Furthermore, the movie avoided piling pity and celebration on the ordeal’s real-life survivor as it also evaluated the motives of the hijackers, pitting the innocent against the desperate to make an incredibly tense and surprisingly human experience. It straddled the fine line between appealing to viewers who like their stories epic and powerful as well as to those with a keen eye for cinematic skill, earning big bucks and critical respect in the process.
18. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s movies are chirpy musings on modern life, finding humour in his characters’ misfortunes before slowing down to take sobering glimpses at sad realities. Often, they get pretty dark, such as the bludgeoning Husbands and Wives, or find bleakness in purely fictional territory, as per Crimes and Misdemeanors. But nothing he’s done so far has matched the grimness of Blue Jasmine, despite its sunny California setting and schtick-ridden appearances from Alec Baldwin and Louie C.K.. The fact is, Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance as Jasmine shows a woman beyond the end of her tether, one who sinks so deeply into maddening depression that rational thought has long since become a forgotten luxury. It’s a harrowing portrait of what it’s like to lose absolutely everything, never having been exposed to normality so much as to know how to conduct yourself within working-class social boundaries, as well as helpless suffering aided not by our solipsistic western culture.
17. Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club is a heartbreaking drama that knows better than to reveal its tricks. It takes a naturalistic approach to telling the story of Ron Woodroof, an AIDS victim trying to distribute non-FDA-approved medicine to those in similar situations, as opposed to augmenting it with ham-fisted *cue tearjerk* moments. As a result of this, the subject matter is dealt the respect it deserves, as it foregrounds the issue and allows it to be the sole manipulator of audience reactions. Woodroof and Jared Leto’s Rayon barely ever behave as victims, but rather strive to survive while being fully aware that they have no real chance, thus giving the film a streamlined feel that forgoes accumulating any extra baggage. It makes a break for it, tries to remain positive against all the odds, and reminds you that, whatever you’re doing, you should be living your life while you have it.
16. Spring Breakers
Like The Bling Ring, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers dared to be as empty as its subject matter, throwing four hedonistic teenagers and a gangster-fied James Franco into a neon-lit onslaught of sex, drugs and dubstep. The movie’s gradual downward spiral makes their adventure feel like a dance of the dead, its tape-loop narrative underscoring the senseless blur of binge-culture and its overall atmosphere cementing it as an emblem of a crooked society hellbent on driving itself full-speed into an early grave. This is James Dean’s “Live fast, die young, have a beautiful corpse” mantra adjusted for inflation, and displays a world where the real losers are the ones who get away. None of this can be condoned, however, which makes the whole thing much more tragic.
15. A Touch of Sin
Broiling tension is the key to Jia Zhangke’s brutal A Touch of Sin. Four incredibly well-staged events, all based on real-life incidents, unfold in the ruins of sub-metropolitan China, a place depicted to be Hell on Earth for its more unfortunate citizens. But what Sin offers instead of a justification of vigilance, or a condemnation of its violent characters, is a surprisingly objective perspective that turns the film into a meditation of the human breaking point. Occasionally stylishly violent and other times cruelly depressing, this is a bulldozer of a film that grinds away while somehow maintaining its cool, even if its characters can’t.
14. The World’s End
While bringing less laugh-out-loud moments than the first two entries in the Cornetto trilogy (2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz), The World’s End is a fitting final installment to this beloved loose series of modern British classics. Heavily referential as its priors were, Edgar Wright looks back on staples of sci-fi this time as it builds a fantastic fanboy collage while delivering a great, unprecedentedly human story full of tragic humour, pathos, and deep-rooted pain. Its climax also unites the trilogy thematically, although whether that’s all part of the joke is debatable. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost tend to be at odds whenever they appear together onscreen, yet here they have real chemistry as best friends separated by one fateful incident that came as the result of unshakable nostalgia for the good old days, and as a result, The World‘s End stands as the real high point of the series.
13. The Wolf of Wall Street
Deserving a spot on this list for its sheer audacity alone, The Wolf of Wall Street sees Martin Scorsese, the master of the greed epic now in his seventies, absolutely unleashing a tirade of obscenity through the medium of cinema, smashing every semblance of decency it ever had to offer. Opening with a scene of midget-tossing, soon followed by Leonardo DiCaprio blowing cocaine into a hooker’s arsehole and then, more or less, everything else, this movie is the very idea of arrogance rammed into 180 minutes. At least, it doesn’t feel that long, and it also feels as though it’s bursting from the seams. Landmark entertainment, full of gaudiness, greed, and pure glib.
12. Blue is the Warmest Colour
Possibly the most gorgeously-shot dose of realism in recent memory, Blue is the Warmest Colour sees the bliss of self-exploration unwinding beautifully over the course of three hours. Controversial in its making, with rumours that director Abdellatif Kechiche pushed his cast and crew to gruelling extremes, with further accusations of exploitation, Blue stands as a point of contention for many, yet it’s plain to see that this is a striking example of queer cinema, with mature representations leading the movie towards universality. Soul-draining emotional battles, blissful romance and sexual epiphanies make this a love film to be remembered.
Mourning the midwest after spending nearly two decades mocking it, Alexander Payne returns once again to his home state after taking detours through California (Sideways) and Hawaii (The Descendents) for Nebraska, which is full of ailing folks, tortured family bonds and wonderful landscape shots drained of life due to the black-and-white filming. With the recession in recent memory, Payne throws his characters through the saddening realisation that the American Dream is but a long-lost ideal, even if it was pretty illusory to begin with. This isn’t to say that’s a completely morbid affair; it’s still full of the priceless humour we’ve come to rely on Payne for, as well as the slice-of-life essence that make his movies so warm and familiar, even if you’re not an American yourself.
10. Short Term 12
You don’t have to be a foster-child to feel the sheer pain running throughout Short Term 12. While the screams of domestic abuse are almost audible in some of the movie’s deafening silences, it’s the acknowledgement that struggles can tend to occur behind the strongest of facades. Some of the scenes contained within are absolute gut-punches, such as the part where a young guy performs an anguish-saturated rap inspired by his troubled past, a moment that becomes one of the most memorable and well-executed stretches of filmmaking of the entire year. It’s full of stunning character studies, surprisingly good acting and great emotional rhythm that feels every bit as alive as something like this should.
9. Stories We Tell
The year’s best documentary (sorry, Joshua Oppenheimer), Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell dissects the very nature of narrative by performing subtle tricks to undermine the viewer’s engagement with the story. By focusing on one single, never-seen person (character?), it becomes a testament to the endless pool of detail behind ostensibly average human beings, as well as blurring examination of the ideal that art imitates life, and vice versa. In her early thirties at the time, Polley created an incredibly mature piece of work that, while potentially coming across as ‘airing your dirty laundry in public,’ is highly inspirational as a story that anyone could have made, yet one that Polley made distinguished through her stunning ingenuity.
Flawed from the arse upwards, Gravity turned the tables on the effects-ridden blockbuster by building a masterwork out of a poor script. To anyone who normally neglects these kinds of things based on the principle of “it’s stupid, it relies on CGI to entertain people,” well, yeah, Gravity‘s no different, apart from the fact it’s simply awe-inspiring to see what these filmmakers have achieved. It’s a dread-inducing monolith that bashed open several doors for Alfonso Cuaron, the cinematic mastermind behind the God-tier Children of Men, as he somehow manages to bring all the tricks of the lower-budget trade to an astronomical movie while still maintaining a completely human edge.
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
Everyone agreed that Inside Llewyn Davis is exceptional feat of filmmaking, from its melancholic folk-based soundtrack to its gorgeously-lit settings captured so stunningly by director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. What upset the balance, however, is that Llewyn Davis is too much of an absolute dickhead to be anywhere near likable. Optimum enjoyment tends to involve a large degree of schadenfreude, if not merely the willingness to be depressed by how little change tends to occur in peoples’ dispositions, especially when they need it most. Llewyn is essentially a culmination of the Coen’s stable of characters, the ones we either love or love to hate, and so running through the movie is a strong sense of not knowing how on Earth to feel about what’s happening to this irredeemable loser who is hellbent on maintaining his principles in the face of social doom.
6. Frances Ha
From its title alone, Frances Ha is susceptible to inevitable comparisons to mumblecore, specifically Andrew Bujalski’s 2002 Funny Ha Ha, which launched the movement and became a massive influence for Noah Baumbach. This isn’t aided any by Greta Gerwigs’s incessant umm-ing and ahh-ing and her character’s blasé approach to life, as well as the free-spiritedness of the movie which many have traced back to the French New Wave. But Frances Ha is entirely its own thing, a sheer blast of life so identifiable for anyone who’s ever struggled with keeping up appearances, or spent too much time wrestling with life ambitions. It’s invasive in that it feels more earnest than it should be, but that makes it all the more endearing, and a comfort regardless of how much you can relate to its eponymous character.
5. Computer Chess
Another mumblecore permutation, Computer Chess is the work of an artist dedicated to pushing a single idea to its fullest potential, as opposed to having any interaction with audience expectations whatsoever (not that Bujalski’s ever had much of an audience). As a result, it’s stop-start, glitchy, yet perfectly free-flowing as a manifestation of a once-in-a-lifetime personal vision. Alternatively amusing, bewildering and deeply disturbing, Chess reaches a new level of meta by managing to make obsolete techno-dread feel relevant again, mainly through Bujalski’s budget-determined approach to making one of the most immersive period pieces I’ve ever seen.
4. Upstream Color
Upstream Color is the best a movie managed to be all year based solely on its formal achievements. A majorly DIY affair written, directed, shot, scored and edited by Shane Carruth, Color moves to its own rhythms, driven by a pulse around which every little part is determined, just as its subject matter revolves around its own simultaneously internal and universal logic. It was one of those movies that I ended up seeing three times in its opening week, partly to get my head around it but also because it’s a completely transcendental experience.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s harrowing epic could not have been made much earlier than it was. 12 Years a Slave is an extraordinary piece of cinema that represents a cultural milestone, one that shook just about everyone that saw it – including the Academy – despite (or because of) its complete upturning of traditional cinematic values. For the first half of its existence, Hollywood prided the white male as the undisputed hero of western civilisation, yet here we are with one of the most valued movies of its year shaming the same figure that audiences have supported for so long. Propped up immensely by its technical prowess, its unflinching approach to tackling its subject matter as well as its cast of incredible performers (from industry stalwarts like Brad Pitt to acclaimed newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), 12 Years is sure to become one of the key movies of this era, instantly iconic and already promoted to legendary status.
2. Before Midnight
Together, these two movies encapsulate the tectonic shift in our society that has taken place over the past fifteen years or so. Perhaps the most talked-about decade of the 20th century is the ’60s, due to the unprecedented social changes that occurred and its aftermath, yet the 21st century already has a decade of cultural rift under its belt, given that the rise of technology in the ’00s has changed the western world, most likely, forever. In Before Midnight, there is a discussion between three couples, all from different generations, and the topic is love. The youngest pair have been separated by long-distance just as Jesse and Celine originally were, yet social media determined that they wouldn’t be separate in quite the same way. Her takes this idea to another level, flawlessly exploring the role of technology in our lives in the most human way possible.
This is where the strain in both movies come from. Before Midnight doesn’t necessarily close the chapter on its beloved central lovers, but it does achingly eulogise the completely human aspect of romance that has been such a huge part of everyone’s lives since time began. Her isn’t suggesting that, in the future, everyone will fall in love with their phone, but together they hit the nail on the head as regards the uncertainty of coexisting with technology. In this sense, Her is like a spiritual sequel to Midnight, and in the future people would be wise to look back on these two movies when evaluating cultural changes in the same way as people now look to Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider when discussing the ’60s.
There’s more to say when it comes to each film’s individual merit, but as this list is already at 2800 words and you’re probably bored of reading it by now, I’ll leave it here. But these are two films I could talk about forever. I’ve spent every free second over the past week or so battering out this list, so errors are going to be inevitable; I’ll proof read it properly later when I’m not working at Sheffield Doc/Fest (which involves being super busy and constantly hungover) but as for now, I just wanted to get this list out there, because on it are 20 fantastic films that shook me throughout the past 18 months, and if you’re a film fan, I can’t recommend any of them enough.