Top 20 Films of 2013 2 227

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It’s that time of year again when everyone looks back over the last 12 months and serves up what they believe are the best and worst films the year had to offer. Below are my official top 20 films of 2013 which, like every year, features a mix of the big and the small, the Hollywood blockbusters and the little gems that could.

Keep in mind that this is my own personal list and is therefore my opinion. Feel free to comment on this post with your own lists but remember to play nice!

There are many films I loved that there simply wasn’t room to include: for example, Steven Soderbergh’s prescription drug mystery thriller Side Effects; Jeff Nichols’ haunting drama Mud, which featured another terrific performance by Matthew McConaughey; Disney’s hugely enjoyable ode to video games, Wreck-It Ralph; Noah Baumbach’s charming and infectiously upbeat Frances Ha; Stephen Frears’ heartfelt Philomena, which once again proved Judi Dench as one of the UK’s finest acting talents; and Paul Greengrass’ tense Captain Phillips, which featured one of the best scenes of the year. I could go on and on but there are simply too many to name here. And keep in mind that just because any of those above films (and many, many others) aren’t on the following list doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place.

Note: This list adheres to the UK release schedule so films like The Wolf of Wall Street, 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, Dallas Buyers Club, American Hustle, Her, August: Osage County and many others aren’t included because they are not being released in the UK until early 2014. Similarly, certain films on the list that may have been 2012 films for some are there because they were released early in 2013 in the UK.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my top 20 films of the year 2013. Enjoy!

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20. Behind the Candelabra

Released as a TV movie in the US, this deservedly got a theatrical run elsewhere. Michael Douglas gives a career-best performance as the eccentric Las Vegas piano-playing superstar Liberace, completely diving into the performance of a man so obsessed with being famous and the riches that brings. He is supported superbly by Matt Damon as his “lover, father, brother, best friend” Scott Thorson, who ends up almost unrecognisable when he is made by Liberace to have plastic surgery. Douglas and Damon make for one of the year’s most believable, funny and all around compelling on-screen duos and the film, on top of being immensely entertaining, was an affecting and insightful look at fame and how that can get in the way of relationships. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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19. Nebraska

Bruce Dern took home the prestigious Best Actor award at Cannes for his sublime performance in Alexander Payne’s subtly moving film, about an elderly man who sets out to collect a million dollars a letter in the post dubiously stated he’d won. Presented in crisp black and white, the film has a tremendous sense of nostalgia and longing about it as we follow the crotchety, but never less than likeable, Woody Grant and reluctantly understanding son, David (Will Forte, giving an unusually subdued performance). It’s a film filled with little truths about life and quirky, interesting characters that are a joy to spend time with. And it features what might be the comedic performance of the year from June Squibb as Woody’s foul-mouthed wife, Kate.

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18. The Kings of Summer

Speaking of nostalgia, The Kings of Summer was a spot-on portrayal of what it’s like to be young and full of the passion, that idea of wanting to grow up before your time i.e. to pack up supplies and live out on the woods on your own to prove that you can. Coming-of-age films are a dime-a-dozen and hard to pull off without seeming clichéd but an excellent script imbued with just the right balance of quirky and believable – as well as great performances from relative unknowns Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias – made this one of the (sadly underseen) gems of the year.

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17. Les Miserables

Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the hit stage musical is certainly not for everyone. Some found the sing-through approach to be too much to take, especially for a fairly lengthy 150+ minute runtime. But if you were drawn in from that first moment of the camera swooping down on a giant ship being pulled by a group of prisoners as they sing “Look down!” then it was a feast of set-design, camera movements and songs (sung “live” as opposed to mimed and recorded later) that were equal parts powerful and hopeful. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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16. Iron Man 3

After the disappointing (though still somewhat entertaining) Iron Man 2, newly drafted Shane Black gave the franchise a kick up the ass with a blockbuster that was both immensely entertaining and actually dealt with what had come before in a way that few modern blockbusters do. The Avengers wasn’t just another blockbuster that didn’t shape those involved as Black and Drew Pearce’s script allowed for the events of that film (chief among them Tony being through a wormhole and back) to affect Tony’s behaviour in the form of panic attacks and it never sacrificed that in favour of action.

However, that’s not to say the film didn’t deliver on that level as it contained a couple of the summer’s best set-pieces (the attack on his house and the skydive rescue), while bringing Tony back to being the right level of cocky but loveable instead of just the asshole we had to deal with in the 2nd film. Some people had an issue with the way it ultimately treated Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin character as (SPOILER ALERT!) it turned out that the Bin Laden-esque terrorist persona was actually all an act. But I personally thought it was an astute way for a blockbuster to include modern terrorism and the idea that people need to put a big bad face on evil (END SPOILERS). READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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15. Stoker

I’ve been a huge fan of South Korean director Park Chan-wook ever since I saw his masterpiece Oldboy. The likes of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Thirst and I’m A Cyborg but That’s Okay have cemented him as one of my favourite modern directors.

Stoker is his first English-language film and while many may have found that something got lost in translation, I loved his unnerving tale of a teenage girl dealing with the death of her father just as her mysterious uncle comes into her life. Featuring three excellent central performances from Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman all brimming with menace just underneath the surface, Stoker was a masterfully put together and visually sumptuous film that respectfully nodded its head to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt while carving an unsettling sense of identity all its own. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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14. Blue is the Warmest Colour

The controversy surrounding this Palme d’Or winner almost unfairly clouds just how great of a film it is in its own right. The notorious extended sex scene at the centre of the film is more of an issue because of its duration rather than what’s actually shown on-screen and it’s the one major wrong note in an otherwise powerful, astute look at young love and the way it can totally overtake everything else. Relative newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos is utterly sublime in the lead role of a girl utterly besotted by a young woman, Emma (a similarly excellent Lea Seydoux), whose blue hair catches her eye in the street and whom she later meets/seeks out in a bar. Exarchopoulos is gorgeous and director Abdellatif Kechiche repeatedly frames her face in close-up to highlight it as such. The camera seems almost as much in love with her as she is with her newfound girlfriend and it’s that ability to communicate that feeling that helps make this a special film.

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13. Man of Steel

Probably the most divisive big budget blockbuster of the year, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Superman mythology after the frankly boring Superman Returns was a moody, far grittier take than we have seen before. For some it was disappointingly po-faced and far too reliant on CGI, for others (myself included) it was a brilliantly grown up version that took itself appropriately seriously and made Superman feel believable and real for once. It all builds to an extended CGI-led fight sequence in which the buildings of Metropolis falls as Superman does battle with the vengeful Zod (played with brilliant, spiteful menace by Michael Shannon). I personally found that and the rest of its action to be absolutely thrilling and completely in line with the idea that these are two, essentially, gods fighting and thus cities will crumble in their wake. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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12. Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly picked up his record 3rd Oscar for his leading performance in Steven Spielberg’s intricate, dialogue-heavy biopic of the legendary US President, focusing not on his whole life but of his fight to get slavery abolished. Quite apart from Day-Lewis’ astonishing performance into which he disappears so much to the point that you completely forget you’re watching Day-Lewis and not the real President Lincoln, we have a who’s who of famous faces – including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace, to name but a few – all bringing their A game to a wordy film that is somehow never boring. And Spielberg effortlessly captures a sense of time, place and above all else weighty importance to the events the film depicts. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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11. Blue Jasmine

As with any filmmaker who is prolific, not every film is going to be great and no truer is that the case than with Woody Allen. For every Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona there’s a You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome With Love. However, his latest film Blue Jasmine arguably his best in decades. Led by a tremendous performance by the inimitable Cate Blanchett (a performance sure to nab her at least an Oscar nomination if not a win come next year), Allen’s latest film is an emotionally affecting, funny and insightful look at the life of a deeply troubled woman dependant on prescription drugs and the money and support of other people to get her by. The film is framed in such a way that it jumps back and forth between her present day life with her loving sister and her lavish previous life with her rich husband. Blanchett is supported superbly by the likes of Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Louis CK and, quite surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay, who jab in and out of the story, revolving around Blanchett’s neurotic and self-absorbed Jasmine like moons around a planet. It proves Allen still has what it takes to deliver in a deep, insightful film that’s also fun in its own offbeat sort of way. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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10. Pacific Rim

There were many blockbusters this year that did what they set out to do – make for an entertaining time at the movies, even if that meant taxing the logic part of the brain to do it – but no other blockbuster had me sitting in such joy as Guillermo del Toro’s giant robots punching giant monsters spectacle. Featuring some dazzling visual effects and well choreographed set-pieces (best among them a stunning battle in Hong Kong), it transported me back to being a kid when smashing toys together was the highlight of the day. And there’s nothing wrong with that. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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9. The Act of Killing

I caught up with this one very late in the year and was a little worried that the hype would soften its affect. How wrong I was. This harrowing gut-punch of a documentary gets former leaders of Indonesian death squads to re-enact their atrocities in whatever manner they see fit, which includes surreal musical numbers and scenarios done up to look like noir-era crimes. It’s a deeply upsetting and shocking watch but ultimately hugely rewarding.

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8. Only God Forgives

Now we get to arguably the most divisive film of the year. With it, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had the uneviable job of following up his beloved 2011 film Drive. The result was a film that seemed to lead the viewer who loved Drive down the path of giving them more of the same but constantly subverted expectations. I personally loved Refn’s nightmarish view of Bangkok’s criminal underworld, bathed as it was in gorgeous blue, red and neon pink lights. Superstar Ryan Gosling hardly says a word throughout, in fact, with the exception of his foul-mouthed gangster mother (played fantastically by Kristen Scott Thomas), no one says much. It’s a film of silent glances and violent actions, brimming with palpable menace and, yes, actual meaning if you wanna’ look for it. And I loved every second of it. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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7. The Conjuring

I have been a fan of James Wan ever since he created and directed the first in the Saw franchise. And while I still find the wackiness of his Insidious to be his crowning glory, The Conjuring was still an excellent old-school horror film that actually sent chills down my spine. Yes, it uses just about every trick in the horror handbook (creaky old house, innocent family terrorised, things lurking in the shadows, exorcism and so forth) but that’s entirely the point; it’s hearkening rather skilfully to horror films of years past, particularly the ‘70s and ‘80s. Anchored by some very talented actors who add dramatic weight to it – Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lily Taylor et al – The Conjuring was a genuinely scary experience but not only that, it had characters you actually cared about. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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6. Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s multi-Oscar nominee could easily have backfired as it took such a recent event in our history and attempted to get at the intricacies of it while it was still such a raw issue. She and regular screenwriter Mark Boal should be applauded, then, for taking this tricky and complicated true story and turning it into a rewardingly complex, challenging and most of all compelling film with one of the tensest endings in recent memory. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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5. Stories We Tell

2013 was another strong year for documentaries – along with the aforementioned The Act of Killing there was Blackfish, Room 237, The Gatekeepers, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Fire in the Night, among others – but no other documentary affected me quite as much Sarah Polley’s ultra personal exploration of memory, Stories We Tell. Using a mixture of home movies, voice-over and interviews with her family and friends in an effort to discover who her late mother really was and how and why she affected so many people around her, the film was a fascinating and emotional look at how we choose to remember those that we love. The film has really stuck with me ever since I saw it and one I look forward to revisiting again and again. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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4. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent, smooth-talking Western (or “Southern” has he himself has dubbed it) may not have been the most subtle of films but nor should it have been. A little long for some, I loved just about every moment of the director’s latest film, who once again shows off his knack for great characters, set-pieces (both action and dialogue-driven) and a killer eclectic soundtrack. Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson both give arguably career-best performances as two very nasty human beings, while Christoph Waltz is a lot of fun as ever as the dentist-turned-bounty hunter helping the titular Django get his wife back. Tarantino’s horrendous Australian accent aside, this is supremely entertaining stuff from a director who always knows how to get people talking about his film, by any means. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

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3. Cloud Atlas

The prize for most ambitious film of the year surely must go to Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s brilliantly sprawling tale of interwoven fate, love, sacrifice, religion and power was a truly dazzling display that managed to be almost 3 hours long and still be bursting at the seams with ideas. Featuring a cast of many-a-famous face from Tom Hanks to Halle Berry to Hugh Grant, all playing different characters in different eras, it’s a film that works even better (and thus demands) rewatches to fully grasp its intentions and all the little tiny details you may have missed the first time around (and there are many; I’ve seen it 4 times now and I’m still picking up new things). While it’s certainly not perfect – some of the segments work better than others – the film was a triumph of ambition, boldness and spectacle.

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2. Gravity

Every so often a film comes along that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with cinema. Gravity is that latest film. Almost 5 years in the making, Alfonso Cuaron’s space-set epic is a stunning technical achievement and a visual and aural cinematic experience unlike any other to come along in I don’t know how long. Sandra Bullock gives an excellent performance in the lead role, basically carrying the film for most of its runtime with the occasional help of George Clooney as the experienced astronaut on the cusp of retirement helping her to get back to safety. On a pure visceral experience level, Gravity was my film of the year. READ FULL REVIEW HERE

However…

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1. Before Midnight

In 1995 Richard Linklater made the perfect love story. Before Sunrise was a beautiful, irresistible tale of two people, Jesse and Celine, who meet on a train in Vienna and decide to walk the city together and talk. By sunrise we are left wondering if they will ever meet up again as they made plans to. The sequel, Before Sunset, caught up with the duo 9 years later (the same amount of time in the story as in real life between films) and managed that rarest of things; to capture the essence of the first film without feeling like it just copied it, adding layers to the complexity of its themes and making for an arguably superior film.

How, then, do you follow that up? Linklater, along with co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, somehow managed to perform a hat-trick and make for one of the best trilogies of all time. Set a further 9 years after Sunset, and thus 18 years after they first met on that train, Before Midnight was a painfully truthful film about aged love, at once beautiful and heartbreaking and most importantly utterly believable. It was a joy once again just to be in the company of these two characters – thanks largely to the pitch-perfect performances from Hawke and Delpy – as they walked around another beautiful setting discussing their lives together, where it’s been and where it’s going. And once it gets to what you might readily call a set-piece in which the two of them get into a truly believable fight over what they mean to each other, it’s almost too much to take for those hitherto invested in their lives. It’s a testament to Linklater, Hawke and Delpy that every single note of the film rings true and it made for what was, in my eyes, the best film of 2013.

Well that’s it for our top films of 2013. Which films made it onto your list? What did we miss out? What’s on there that shouldn’t be? Let us know in the comments below and, as I said, remember and play nice!

Curious what my worst films of 2013 were? Then make sure to check out the list over on Letterboxd.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2 Comments

  1. I totally agree with your #1! Before Midnight was also my favorite of the year, though I still have a lot to see. It is the toughest of the three to watch, but it’s so affecting even in its roughest emotional moments. I also love the inclusion of Stories We Tell.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 422

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 454

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10