Those films of 2013

The end of the year has brought us to film journalists’ annual navel gazing, including for yours truly – it’s the Top 10 list!

But 2013′s been just too good a year for film – perhaps the best of my short film-going life (see Robbie Collin’s comment that this is the best year since 1999) – so I’m extending this year’s list to 20.

There are, as every year, a few I haven’t seen: Short Term 12, What Maisie Knew, Kings of Summer, and most notably The Act of Killing (which topped Sight & Sound‘s and the Guardian‘s poll) are still on my list to see. Oh, and I’m only including films released in the UK in this list, so no Under The Skin or 12 Years a Slave, and only those released after the February awards season, so no Zero Dark Thirty or Lincoln. Have a gander:


20. The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s finale to his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy was no Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but still it packed laughs amongst a scatterbrained sci-fi narrative. As a coming of age film – albeit for 40-year-olds – it was warm hearted, and very British, and the end packed an unexpected emotional punch.

19. Star Trek into Darkness (dir. JJ Abrams)

Abrams sets himself up for Star Wars with this gripping second round of the Star Trek reboot, with the omnipresent Benedict Cucumberface as the year’s coolest villain (we won’t name him).

18. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)

I never thought I’d be in a position to put a Hunger Games film on this list, but this year’s sequel was hard-hitting, tense and had an edge of political fire in its scenes of masses rising up against an elitist system (headed by the superbly hammy Donald Sutherland). Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence, as ever, is terrific.

17. A Field in England (dir. Ben Wheatley)

Ben Wheatley has proved himself a bit of a polymath – before we kitchen sink drama, horror, black comedy, and this year we had a civil war mindfuck, a drug-fuelled trip through the muddy fields of 17th century England, with the kind of imagery you just don’t find in British cinema.

16. Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears)

A great script from Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope lift Stephen Frears’ movie from TV-movie-of-the-week territory to an extraordinary tale of lost children and faith in the face of malevolence. Philomena is surprisingly raw, even if it is a much lighter revision of Paul Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters, which touched on the same topic of Catholic schools for “fallen women” in Ireland. Judi Dench and Coogan make great ideological foils, so different from each other that they can only be great friends at the end.

15. Something in the Air (dir. Olivier Assayas)

An impeccably realised vision of post soxiante-neuf France, Olivier Assayas’ film is one of the great films of political, social and sexual coming of age – a better film than Bernardo Bertolluci’s 1968-set The Dreamers. It’s also a sneaky, but somewhat powerful, indictment of today’s teenagers’ lack of political anger in the face of worsening prospects for themselves – where are the students of today crying out about bankers’ bonuses?

14. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)

Violent, dramatic, and just a little bit silly, the second Refn-Gosling match up (after Drive) was a deranged descent into a purgatorial Bangkok, with a mercenary cop and a barnstorming performance from Kristen-Scott Thomas.

12 = A Hijacking (dir. Tobias Lindholm)
12 = Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Both of this year’s hijacking dramas were gripping, thought provoking, even if they were remarkably different films. A Hijacking has stayed with me since I saw it in the panorama section at Venice 2012, a taught, finely balanced thriller where the sweat and horror of the situation has almost documentary precision. Paul Greengrass’ action drama is more explosive, but no less nuanced, with Tom Hanks’ best performance in recent years that culminates in a special final scene.

11. Gloria (dir. Sebastián Lelio)

A powerhouse performance from Paulina García is not all that makes this Chilean drama one of the year’s best. How often do you see a film that understands and cares for the trials and tribulations of the middle-aged, divorced, looking for love?

10. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (dir. David Lowery)

David Lowery’s Malickian western is a subtle, sumtuous rural romance between Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck that has dashes of Bonnie and Clyde, with a cool musical score and a thrilling climax.

9. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

Bruce Dern is brilliant as an irascible old timer developing dementia, returning to his home town in rural Nebraska with his son on his way to pick up a million dollars he believes he has won. Like Sideways before, Alexander Payne gives us a twisted take on the road movie, where the unexpected comes around every street corner.

8. The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Bernard)

Andrea Arnold’s hard realism blends with a kind of poetry in Clio Bernard’s expressive state-of-the-nation fable, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s story. Two kids (stunning newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) run amok nicking copper cable from railways, turning tragic when they realise that the money to be made from selling it.

7. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen)

Perhaps Woody’s best film since Husbands and Wives in the early-nineties (although I have a soft spot for 2008′s Vicky Christina Barcelona), this scabrous comedy drama is most striking for its unexpected political undertone, and of course, Cate Blanchett’s fiery performance.

6. The Place Beyond the Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)

Unfairly overlooked by many, Derek Cianfrance goes up a gear from Blue Valentine, in this expansive family saga, that had the expressiveness of a Greek tragedy. Mesmerising performances from the entire cast (including a Bradley Cooper finally revealing hidden acting depths) add to the garlands this film has missed.

5. Gravity – only in IMAX 3D (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

Mammoth in scope, but unexpectedly intimate in outlook, Gravity launched at Venice to wowed audiences, and seeing it at the BFI Imax screen revealed – for the first time – the true value of 3D to cinema. Alfonso Cuaron delivers a wondrous thrill ride that, even if lacks depth in its characters, still has the power to awe at our own smallness in the universe.

4. All Is Lost (dir. JC Chandor)

Robert Redford has no dialogue, all alone at sea, but this is still a crowning achievement of his great career.

3. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)

Paolo Sorrentino’s sprawling, Fellini-esque trip through modern Rome is gorgeous filmmaking, a contemplative mirror not just to a modern Italy, but to a rapidly evolving world. The whole film seems like a change of the guard in the world, and that makes Toni Servillo think again about his choices in his own life.

2. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Before Midnight is less a film, more revisiting old friends you’d forgotten. But it’s as powerful a drama of modern family as any I’ve ever seen.

1. Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

A passionate, devastating cri de coeur about love’s both creative and destructive forces, Abdellatif Kechiche leaps into the big league of European auteurs, bringing out the performance of the year – or any year – from the astonishing Adele Exharpoulos. It’s one of the great love stories of recent cinema.

Best Shot Robert Redford looks towards the storm at the top of his mast in All is Lost

Best Scene James Franco sings Britney in Spring Breakers

Best Score Daniel Hart’s music to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Screenplay Before Midnight

Biggest waste of money The Great Gatsby

Biggest waste of money on wigs American Hustle

Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

One of the surprise packages of the year comes in writer-director David Lowery’s low-key Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an ethereal Malickian western set in 1970s Texas. Although inflected with lovers-on-the-run films like Bonnie and Clyde and Malick’s Badlands, Lowery’s film is grounded in a dirt-filled reality, sporadically tinged with cruel violence, but set amongst dreamy southern corn fields, filmed in that “magic hour” between day and night when the dust settles and the rolling plains look their best.

Lovers Bob and Ruth (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) are separated after Bob takes the rap for a shoot-out in which a policeman is wounded. Pregnant at the time of his arrest, Ruth is left to raise their kid while years pass, until Bob plots his his return to the family after he soon escapes from jail.  Meanwhile other forces – the cops, rival gangsters – threaten the serene atmosphere that rests on the edge of violence, as Bob realises he may never make it to his family with his freedom, or life, intact.

This could be Rooney Mara’s best performance to date, quiet and sympathetic in an unexpected but entirely understandable way even after the events of her recent past. Affleck produces his most accomplished performance since The Assassination of Jesse James, a film that has something of this film’s visual palette, despite being set 100 years beforehand. The music is superb too, a twist of southern folk that added a unique quality to the film’s rambling narrative. Indeed, although barely 90 minutes, the film is never brisk, instead contemplative and arresting in equal measure as an old folk song might be.


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