1 January 2014

Top 10 films of 2013

Last year I was surprised my films of the year skewed beneath the main Hollywood radar (see that list here). This time I expected it since it's hardly been a vintage year for bigger studio productions, and so again it's mostly a smattering of small indie and foreign films that I connected with the most. But first, for perspective and because I love stats, here are some numbers. In 2013 I watched:

- 246 individual films (only 12 less than the previous year)
- 6 films more than once in the 12 month period
- 96 films at the cinema (39% of total films watched and the first time in 4 years this is sub 100)

If you're vaguely interested, I've again used Letterboxd to keep a list of everything I watched in 2013, in order: http://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2013-films-watched/

And so, in alphabetical order, these are my top 10 films of 2013. This is not to say they are the "best" films of the year (how do you even quantify that!?), but these are my favourites:

Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Blue Is the Warmest Colour puts love through the wringer. It shows love in all it's resplendent glory, from the excited thrill through to the debilitating loneliness caused but it's loss. This is a girl's journey of self discovery down a road she seemingly wasn't expecting, shot in a realistic and raw style that's redolent of everyday life, ensuring it has an impact. The excellent acting from the two leads, in brave highly-revealing roles, can't be over-stated. It's an entirely engaging film with a core subject matter so prevalent in film-making, that it's amazing so few films manage to recreate it in such an honest way.
[Read my full review here]

The Broken Circle Breakdown

In many ways The Broken Circle Breakdown is the film that emotionally hit me hardest this year. It's a romance shrouded in tragedy that eschews cliché through clever editing, managing to tell the story of a relationship in a multi-layered way forcing you to never be caught up in one emotion for too long. The two leads are fascinating characters with depth, always feeling left of centre and their acting is superb. But what really seals the deal is the application of American country music to this Belgian setting and when the leads perform on stage, the film feels electrifyingly alive. This is a country song brought to life with a satisfying emotional weight.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas was probably the most audacious attempt at storytelling I saw all year. It's ability to weave six wildly different stories, set across a range of era's from the distant future to the past, is a masterclass in editing as the film continually jumps scene by scene from one thread to the next. Add to this that the same cast feature in all six stories, playing different roles and many times under huge amounts of prosthesis, it remains a fascinating film even if certain elements or stories don't always work. And not forgetting the music - this is a key component in making the film so beguiling, particularly as it reaches a crescendo. A film like very little else this year that's so easy to become lost in.

Ender's Game

This may seem like an unlikely inclusion on an end of year best of list, considering it only reviewed so-so, but something about Ender's Game just thoroughly worked for me. The story follows a direct line, shorn of unnecessary sub-plots that might otherwise distract. Visually it's stunning and may have taken so long to adapt from it's original literary source as it needed modern special effects to be at a requisite standard. But more importantly it's a film with ideas. Ideas about humanity's arrogance and survival instinct. Ideas about what it takes for youth to become both strong and leaders. And for this, alongside the sucker punch ending, it's a film that both excited me and made me think.

The Great Beauty

A film about the beauty of Rome, about aging and living life to the full. The Great Beauty is exuberantly full of life as we follow our protagonist, an aging writer, as he's immersed in the beauty of the city, the women he loves and has loved and wistfully wishing he could get back to that moment of true beauty that escaped his past. It's a film that unexpectedly sneaks up on you, washing over you with a natural insouciance that leads to a seductive experience full of life, comedy and a touch of drama.
[Read my short review here]

Only God Forgives

Staking claim as probably the most divisive film of the year, Only God Forgives is no doubt appearing on as many best-of lists as worst-of. It's the work of a perpetually creative director and one of the hottest stars in the world pulling further into esoteric territory, ensuring desires for Drive part II or something more accessible be damned. It's good to confound expectations and the darkness perpetuating deeply within is uncomfortably intoxicating. It's a metaphorical descent into hell. It's beautifully shot and lit, savagely visceral, makes dramatic use of colour and is accompanied by a score dripping in deleterious portent. All the while the story grips and Ryan Gosling's performance of near wordless moodiness fascinates. Love it or loathe it, this is an undeniably creative and challenging film.
[Read my full review here]

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines may just be my favourite film of the year. An entrancing triptych of interlocking stories, on the surface it's a mixture of bank robbery, police corruption and youth gone wild, but it's what's bubbling underneath that sets it apart. A fascinating study of patriarchs and how their absences and legacies scar their sons - this is the thread that runs throughout, explored in different tangents. But everything coalesces thanks to exhilarating camera work and a moody as hell score, and of course not forgetting the great performances from an excellent cast. This is a fantastic film that delivers confidently on multiple levels and is one that has firmly stayed with me throughout the year.

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers may be a film quickly dismissed for what it appears to be on the surface - an easy attempt at titillation - but that's a facile viewpoint that only sees stars in bikinis and the carnage caused by spring break exuberance. No, this is a neon-clad nightmare where the pressures and aimlessness of modern youth need escaping from, and where it's easy to get lost seizing power in the most dangerous way possible. Through and through it's entirely off-beat, with snippets of scenes, minimal dialogue (mostly from James Franco in the best of his many roles this year), wild roaming camera work and creative editing that helps tell the story more through feel and experience. It's a Harmony Korine film after all so what else would you expect? This is the multi-layered ennui of modern youth brought to life in the most thrilling way possible.  [Read my full review here]

Upstream Color

Where to even begin with Upstream Color? It's the kind of creative, low budget indie filmmaking that fills the heart with joy. Taking a shifting story that's always opaque, what is clear is that this is portraying a cycle of life and is concerned with existential questions. It's confident work that wants the audience to have to reach and question. There is no straight ahead. Shane Carruth is the auteur, taking on a myriad of roles in the production and again justifying the reverence with which he's held thanks to Primer. This is exhilarating filmmaking on all levels, from the way it's shot and edited, the use of sound, the story and acting. It's unequivocally one of the films of the year.
[Read my full review here]

The Way Way Back

This was something unexpected. The Way Way Back is one of the sweetest journeys of self discovery seen in recent years, set against the backdrop of summer in Cape Cod, a run-down water park and adults who use this place as a way to escape reality. There's the requisite comedy, notably from an excellent Sam Rockwell playing to his strengths, and the drama of a broken family and an awkward youth who doesn't feel like he fits in anywhere. But watching him find himself with Rockwell's tutelage is one of the most dizzyingly heart-warming moments on screen this year in a superbly balanced film.  

Note 1: This list is based on films released in the UK from 1st Jan - 31st Dec, be that a cinema release or direct to DVD/VOD release. Most end of year lists tend to be dominated by the big "award-worthy" films, but as the UK generally doesn't see these films until January / February thanks to BAFTA's rules, it makes UK lists seem weirdly out of step with the US, as Oscar consideration requires at least a week's US theatrical run by 31st Dec. And in case you're wondering, of the films that dominated the 2013 awards season, those I liked best were released in 2012.

Note 2: Reviews are only linked to where I have written one. Unfortunately I don't have time to review everything I watch and sometimes the hardest to write are for the films I like the most.

Note 3: You can see my list of the worst films of 2013 here.

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