Halfway through 2013, I wasn’t sure it was gonna be all that. By summer, things seemed pretty average; reports were popping up everywhere concerning the low Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic and box office results of the sunny season’s hottest anticipations, and since the Oscars, I’d only seen three or four really great films. But suddenly everyone apparently set out to prove me wrong. At some point in August, when many of the most acclaimed American releases found their way to our shores, it seemed like now there wasn’t enough time to see all the exciting films that were being shown at a cinema near wherever I was at that moment.
So after juggling everything I had to do with everything I wanted to see, here is my list of the best films released in the UK during 2013. This will be different to my forthcoming version of this list that is the Oscar edition, given that Oscar season is a potentially more definitive way of regulating the best films of any year as the candidates for Best Picture are often released in January or February in the UK, despite being classed as a film from the year before. For example, 12 Years a Slave is being hailed all over the globe as one of the best films of 2013, but we don’t get to see it here until later in January.
Having said that, there was no shortage of riches released in the UK this year, and so my original idea of making a top-ten for the year had to be extended to a top-fifteen – it felt unfair leaving some of these out. Seeing as it’s New Year’s Day and I physically haven’t the strength to type out paragraph upon paragraph to justify all 15 entries on the list, I’ll be revealing winners in chunks over the next few days. Have a good read, and enjoy!
15. Captain Phillips
I love being able to root for the bad guys in a story – give me Trevor over Michael or Franklin any day of the week. That’s why I wasn’t looking forward to Captain Phillips, because it looked as though it might’ve been a gung-ho praise ‘Murica type deal, glorifying the country’s patriots in all lines of duty against the infidels who threaten the American right to everything. But thankfully it wasn’t.
And neither did it fully bend the other way. You don’t sympathise with the Somali pirates as much as appreciate their position – they are starving and under command from a ruthless gang, yet their actions are still rightly regarded as unforgivable. So for 133 tumultuous minutes, Paul Greengrass navigates this moral struggle through riveting, seasick and utterly human territory, emerging victorious on the other side but letting any sense of triumph to sink to the bottom.
14. Only God Forgives
Possibly the most Marmite film released this year, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up to 2011’s Drive took everything the earlier film was slated for and amplified it to extremity. What was left was a hyper-symbolic, slow moving, gratuitously violent and narratively defunct tale of an Oedipal drug dealer drifting through a spiritualised vision of Bangkok, drawn in orbit to a gravitational centre embodied by Chang the vindictive policeman – God, basically. A visual phenomenon, Only God Forgives is a trip in every sense of the word, and uses its own already-notorious violence to administer punishment for those attracted by the desire to witness its already-notorious violence.
13. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen barely directs his films; he’s said as much in interviews. Furthermore, his auditioning techniques are practically non-existent. So it’s always been quietly astonishing how most of his films feature mostly considerable performances from every member of the ensemble casts he employs.
But there’s never really been one like Cate Blanchett’s in Blue Jasmine. An only-just-mentally-stable ex of a rich fraud, Jasmine seeks to reinstate herself in society through moving in with the only other person she has: her impoverished sister. Seeing Blanchett accomplish what she does in Blue Jasmine is one of the finest things you could have witnessed in 2013, but the film’s secret weapon is how close to home it feels – everyone was struck by the economic crisis in their own way, and Jasmine’s quiet, unnoticed descent into madness shows that everyone else is too self-obsessed to lift you back up once you collapse in our post-millennial landscape.
12. The World’s End
2013 may well go down in history as the year sequels started to become consistently worthwhile. The final entry in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy may not have reaped the quotability of Shaun of the Dead or the box office of Hot Fuzz, but it feels altogether stronger as a more sympathetic and thematic effort concluding a series examining the battle between the man-child and himself.
Simon Pegg’s portrayal of emotionally stunted idiot Gary King could well have slipped into Adam Sandler territory (where its symptoms would’ve included a lack of justification for its existence) but the effectiveness of his joke delivery combined with the sheer sadness underlining the role – which comes to an explosive, heart-breaking climax towards the end – makes it seem like the most definitive statement the man-child has achieved in years. On top of that, The World’s End is a more confident and cohesive version of an already perfected formula which cements the trilogy as one of the best there ever was.
11. Spring Breakers
The film that opens with slow-motion shots of tits, beers and beach-partying backed by Skrillex’s ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ should have been the worst thing anyone saw all year. But when the film makes this kind of culture go from being appealing, exhilarating, gratuitous, destructive and depressing all in the space of 90 gradual minutes, what can you say?
I remember a lot of people walking out of this when I saw it at the cinema, and the reason is obvious: Spring Breakers never lets up for one minute. Those attracted by the idea of another Project X were condemned to repetitive imagery presented as a lucid dream, a slow moving pop-culture epic on a tape-loop narrative which pushes the party on and on and on until nobody can bear it any longer, not the audience, not the characters. But the emotional exhaustion you feel by the end is as gratifying as any real life party: you felt great, you got wasted, you saw shit, everything was amazing but you had too much and the magic faded. And now it’s time to go home.
But there’s no denying how good it was.
10. Stories We Tell
One of the year’s most vivid characters is one we never actually see. Diane, the subject of Stories We Tell and the mother of director Sarah Polley, is constructed through the aggregated memories of her family, friends and lovers and only shown to us in archive footage (or is she?), yet the image of her that we see in our heads feels real almost to the point of sentience. We get the sense that Diane encapsulates the very essence of the life she no longer inhabits, and this revealing documentary is a much more potent eulogy than any 100 word obituary column: it’s more than incredibly touching to witness.
Stories is a breathtakingly mature work that approaches storytelling as one of life’s greatest mysteries, highlighting its fragility and the impact of memory, emotions, time and candidness on its validity. That Polley has grouped all the interviews together in this specific order in revealing to us the story of her mother proves, that no matter what, truth is an ephemeral notion that exists only in storytelling. Basically, it doesn’t matter exactly what happened; it’s the way it’s recounted that makes all the difference in the world.
9. Blue is the Warmest Color
If the phrase ‘behemoth romance movie’ could only ever be used once, it’s here. Blue is the Warmest Color takes the warts-and-all self-discovery of a French teenager and stretches it out until you can see every single tiny detail that constitutes the experience. Noted for being dirty as hell, the film holds absolutely no punches in its invasion of the life of Adèle, and is staggeringly draining as it drills through its three-hour running time. It is as capable of lifting spirits to euphoric levels as it is of choke-slamming an audience to the ground, and the two lead performances are purely suffocating things to encounter. Color will no doubt be a landmark film within the LGBT community, but its appeal extends far beyond that: it’s about being comfortable with your identity, whatever your orientation, and almost dares you to explore yourself further than you ever thought was possible.
8. Django Unchained
It’s hard to beat Quentin Tarantino in terms of sheer entertainment, but more and more his films have been challenging their audiences more than just ‘can you stand this ear-hacking scene?’ 2004’s Kill Bill vol. 2 wrestled with the idea of revenge as a necessary or even justifiable motive. Inglourious Basterds challenged the common prejudice held against every German who existed in the ‘40s. But Django Unchained goes further than that. It takes the portrait of slavery and rams it in the face of the white American – it’s not often a country’s highest demographic is presented as the bad guy in a £100m film.
As part of a new wave of films (quite rightly) accusing the Land of the Free as being founded upon a bed of blood, greed and intolerable cruelty, Django Unchained channels catharsis through a fantastic shoot-out in which just about every ignorant white-trash son-of-a-bitch is usurped from their cultural pedestals by the man who was freed by the hand of God (or rather, a German bounty hunter). By remaining passive throughout the first four fifths of the film, Django earns his right to blast his way to freedom rather than being the recipient of generous pity (which would have been backhanded discrimination anyway), so in this way he’s a hero just about anyone can identify with. But as well as that, if you’re a citizen of any country that previously endorsed slavery and were offended by the sight of a man being torn apart by dogs, or a woman being slow-cooked in a hotbox, or the endless use of the word ‘nigger’, then Tarantino’s only message to you is: yeah? well?
Gravity is a terrible shame. It’s $100m of glorious overkill available in its full potential only to those who saw it at the IMAX, and seeing as it’s no longer there, that potential has gone. You can buy the biggest TV you want, or the finest Blu-ray player, the best surround-sound system or even a 3D set-up, but you’ll never come this close to seeing something like this again, at least not for a long time. But if you actually did see this at the IMAX (and you weren’t one of the people who couldn’t shut up about how shit it was despite the fact that you probably saw it on a 42” non-HD screen at the Odeon) then what you undoubtedly saw was by far the most fantastically realised vision of what cinema can really achieve.
With Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón flung the viewer beyond the Earth’s threshold to where its forces can no longer save you from floating into oblivion, showing that no matter how cute it looks from the ground and stuff, space is terrifying. And it did this without resorting to cheap shocks symptomatic of everything else that tried to scare you in 2013: the music churns its way through your bowels as the characters drift helplessly as their doom speeds closer and closer, all while the cameraman is performing insane acrobatics. Perhaps most astonishing is the fact that, through all this, Gravity also manages to be tale so human you wouldn’t believe you were watching sci-fi.
6. The Act of Killing
Maybe the most frightening thing about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is its murderous subjects’ fascination with the movies. It’s sort of a confirmation of the fears of parents and journalists through the ‘90s who blamed every violent real-world occurrence on TV and video games, especially when Anwar Congo and friends are given the opportunity to cinematically recreate the executions they carried out in the ‘60s. What it amounts to as a result is a mind-bogglingly surreal documentary which grips the viewer by the throat and draws them in face to face with mass-murderers who discuss their actions with startling nonchalance.
5. Computer Chess
I keep thinking of Computer Chess as an ‘80s film that predicted the rise of the internet and social media, completely forgetting that it isn’t an ‘80s film at all. That’s the effect of Andrew Bujalski’s use of the Sony AVC-3260, an old tube camera that records onto video. Apparently he couldn’t get the budget to make the film a period piece through the usual means, so he bought a few of these cameras on eBay which basically did most of the job for him, and for less money too. That’s along with the fact that people told him to stop shooting his movies on film.
What they meant by this was that he should keep up with the times and shoot digitally, of course, but the fact that he purposefully mistook that intention shows what kind of humour is at play in Computer Chess. Whereas in most comedy routines there is a straight man to set up the jokes and a funny man to make them, here there are only really straights – neckbeards, nerds, geeks and social failures of the highest order, earnest in their trade, hilarious to watch, behaving in ways you wouldn’t expect of anyone. The outsiders, or non-geeks, are the ones who wisely tend to give up trying to understand anything.
It’s a fantastically bizarre film, for sure. Characters linger around the chess tournament until something unexplainable yet trivial happens to them, at which point they’ll wander off on their own little storyline. At no one point is anything predictable: two characters meet their demise after randomly getting caught on a loop; an introverted student is offered a threesome with a middle-aged couple; one guy gets talked to by a foetus in a computer. It doesn’t even stop when the credits roll: the “Mysterious Woman”, who is occasionally seen strolling round the hotel, is credited as being played by “Herself.”
But it’s not just a 92 minute cinematic glitch. It may or may not be one of the most cryptic films of the year. I mean, there’re countless examples of elliptical scenes denying explanation – it feels like it’s begging you to try and figure it out – but given the film’s general attitude, how do we know this isn’t all just part of the joke? I don’t think we ever will. Nevertheless, Computer Chess remains one of the most inventive, intelligent and straight up weird films there’s been in quite some time.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
As far as I’m concerned, there wasn’t a single more challenging film released in 2013. In its opening minutes, Zero Dark Thirty remains black, presenting us with only the sound of 9/11 distress calls. It then skips the next two years of paranoia, grievance and decision-making, dropping in not on the ‘War or Terror,’ not the families of the victims, but an room on an undisclosed C.I.A. black site where a group of masked agents are torturing a Pakistani suspect who may or may not be in cohorts with Osama bin Laden.
The violent interrogation techniques – waterboarding, starvation, humiliation – seem to have produced answers and leads for the C.I.A. to follow. And for the first hour or so, you’d tend to agree with them – Christ, torture works! Let’s torture all the Middle Easterners!
But it’s only once Maya (a ruthlessly dedicated Jessica Chastain) rises to become in charge of finding bin Laden and meets countless dead-ends with the original information does it become apparent that what they got from torturing prisoners was essentially bullshit. Had different methods been used, Maya wouldn’t have wasted the first eight years of her career suffering false-starts and sifting through piles of erroneous information.
Zero Dark Thirty is not only a condemnation of torture but almost like a C.I.A. feminist rallying cry, a flag flown for the little reported roles of women in the capturing of bin Laden as well as most big tasks and operations in general, filmmaking included: Kathryn Bigelow was, after all, the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director which makes her an ambassador for female directors, and at the helm of Thirty, she puts most of her male contemporaries to shame. It’s a searing piece of filmmaking that grips for every second of its breakneck 157 minute sprint, from the fury of Maya’s work ethic to the breathless raid on the Abottabad compound.
3. Upstream Color
For a film so abstract and disparate in its delivery, Upstream Color is astonishingly focused and absorbing as a whole. This is because of Shane Carruth’s almost extreme DIY work ethic (he directed, produced, edited, scripted, scored and shot the film), which he utilises in creating a perfect realisation of the kind of themes and ideas explored within the narrative in film form – most notably, the shared unconscious and the idea of a universal rhythm. Just as the feelings, thoughts and actions recur from character to character within the film, every component of its construction is engineered into complete unison, seamlessly working like some magnificent complex machine.
Quite possibly the best example of feature-length formalism since Requiem for a Dream (if not before), Upstream Color plays like a pantomime of associations with a script that deals in broken sentences and enduring melancholy. It feels at once completely personal and achingly universal, operatic in scope and elemental in texture. If you’re really into your movies, there are few films that can top the transcendental rush of Upstream Color, a film that can be broken down and figured out if it helps you sleep at night, but arguably one that’s better left unsolved.
2. Frances Ha
When you’re in your twenties, your life can become a sort of free-fall. You lose all or most of your teenage ideals which can potentially leave you in a strange place, and responsibility begins to play a large role either as a natural shift in your personality or something you think you should have adjusted to by now. There is suddenly a lack of structural guidance, and especially if you’re at university, you find yourself with all the time in the world with you entire life in front of you – a terrible mixture.
Some people adjust to this well enough for it not to be a noticeable problem, but for others (like me), this particular listlessness can occur at any time in the roaring decade of your life. I’m over a year into mine, and everything the morose thirty-year-old has told me about my twenties seems to be already happening. Frances Ha(lladay) is twenty-seven, and has evidently been at this exact point in her life for quite some time. Aimless, clumsy and wandering, she ambles through her days attempting to become a “real person,” as she puts it, which to her includes having a credit card, a career, a soul mate and a certifiable status in society
Frances’ personal ambitions and whether or not she achieves any of them are irrelevant. Frances Ha sheds any conventional pleasures by using the freewheeling template of the French New Wave and allowing its title character, a 21st century Leopold Bloom, to simply exist. The sheer joy attained from seeing this wouldn’t be possible without the performance Greta Gerwig brings, one which couldn’t bore should the film last double or triple its 86 minute running time, or the excellent, observant screenplay which constructs its every character not as agents but as convincingly flawed human beings.
No, I’m not from New York City (I’m actually from near Rotherham), I’m not a woman and I’d like to think I’m not nearly as useless as Frances continually proves herself to be. But the overarching feeling captured in Frances Ha practically sums up my current situation. For this reason, the dozy, socially awkward American post-grad is the character I identified with most this year despite sharing few traits aside from that all too familiar statement: “I’m trying to be proactive with my life.”
1. Before Midnight
Resuming almost a decade after a perfect moment in Paris where the passion between these two loquacious lovers was reignited, Before Midnight sees Jesse and Céline older, fatigued but still together, seemingly drifting along in a relationship held together by familiarity and comfort rather than the world-beating ardour they previously shared. Tellingly, there’s trouble in paradise; finally getting to know everything about each other wasn’t as great as they once imagined, and beneath the perfect weather of southern Greece, something dark is wriggling its way through every cinephile’s favourite couple.
Complications arise right from the word go as Jesse puts his son Hank on a plane back to America after the best summer of both their lives. Here, Jesse’s gift of gab doesn’t afford him the same easy communication it does with others, and yet again he finds himself saying goodbye to someone he loves far too soon and with far too much remaining unsaid. Realising his idealistic union with Céline has far bigger problems than he ever saw through his (and our) rose-tinted spectacles, a small argument begins to grate against the pair of them and corrodes their patience for an hour and a half until they finally explode into an explosive, apocalyptic tirade against one another.
And that battle is just one of many aspects of Before Midnight that reaches complete and utter realism of the most harrowing kind. It’s essentially a film length dramatisation of ‘Hey Ya’: ‘If what they say is “nothing lasts forever,” then what makes love the exception?’ Well, what does? Jesse’s hair is thinning, his stomach growing, his face wrinkling, and his voice is much rougher than we’re used to; more than anything, he misses his son who he only sees once a year. Céline spends her time complaining about her ‘fat ass’, her mannerisms are now frenetic and she’s stress burdened as her dream job, which she’s worked towards her whole life, is slipping through her fingers. Together, they’re simply running out of patience.
But the most heartbreaking moment of the whole film actually occurs before the blowout. Midway through their idyllic sunny walk, the first time they’ve spent together without their daughters in years, Céline stops Jesse, turns to him and asks if this was the first time they met, would he still have approached her like he did nearly twenty years ago? It isn’t long before Jesse formulates several awkward answers and feeble get-out-clauses, but it feels like hours. Of course he wouldn’t, she’s forty and looks it; but how could he possibly break that to her?
When it isn’t busy destroying the lives of fans who’ve loved this couple since Before Sunrise, Midnight deals in lengthy discussions about time, love and the fading magic of meeting a girl on a train and asking her to spend the night with you in Vienna. Jesse and Céline met years before Facebook became a viable method for asking someone out and before Skype could help people to keep in touch from thousands of miles away. It’s freaky to think of how different their lives would’ve been should either of those platforms have existed in 1994, and even more so the way their story would have turned out for the series’ international fanbase to consume: basically, it wouldn’t have existed. And so as it trickles through its difficult running time, Before Midnight consistently reminds you that it’s the last of its kind, a perfect romance that has gone from being an astounding feelgood fantasy to one of the most realistic and relatable portraits of real life there’s ever been.