Film 2013… part II

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So, it’s come to this. I know there are best-of lists everywhere right now, but in my defence a) this is part II and b) I love lists, so screw it.

Back in August I detailed my Top 7 films of the year so far. They were, from #7 to #1: Behind the Candelabra, We Steal Secrets, Wreck-it Ralph, Good Vibrations, The Place Beyond the Pines, Before Midnight and Fire in the Blood.

Therefore instead of doing an overall top 10 and covering old ground, I’ve decided to look at the second half of the year independently. This means that there are two separate posts relating to my favourites of 2013 (thereby relieving me of the pressure to decide on an actual list of ten).

But before all that…

The Ones to Watch

That’s me, not you. Basically this is an admittance – just like in part I – of the most prominent and elsewhere-lauded films of the year that I haven’t quite managed to fit in. Lots of indie gems (supposedly) in the last few months, including the likes of The Great Beauty, The Selfish Giant, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Computer Chess and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The results also exclude the Christmas releases (All is Lost, American Hustle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) because who’s had time for all that?

The Ones to Actually Watch

Okay, here’s where you come in. Film 2013… so far looked at the first 7 months of the year, up until the end of July, leaving us August-December to look at the Awards Season films.

We have 8 additions to the 7 from earlier in the year, making it an overall Top 15. But first, let’s sneakily expand on that by throwing in a few honourable mentions:

* Prisoners was a tough, tense and tortuous drama with typically good performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The missing-child narrative offset some interesting thematic developments, although it was somewhat let down by a few cliched instances during key moments.

The Kings of Summer and The Way Way Back both explored gentle comedy within coming-of-age plots, and both featured usual nice guys in the antagonistic parental roles (Nick Offerman and Steve Carell). These two would make a very rewarding double-bill.

* As for all-out comedy, This is the End pulled no punches and makes an interesting comparison (in more ways than one) to The World’s End, almost acting as an American version in style, tone and all-round humour. One of the funniest films of the year.

* Filth was surprisingly affecting and perhaps only misses out because of the similar issues and characters portrayed in films #6, #7 and even #8 in our countdown below. A seedy, slimy film with weighty (important) undertones – and James McAvoy is terrific, with the performance of his career.

About Time was Richard Curtis’ final film which did exactly what you’d expect. Plotholes everywhere, but they don’t matter a jot. Sentimental and schmaltzy it may be, but Curtis knows exactly how to create feelgood films (no easy feat) and is helped along the way due to the warmth of the central duo (McAdams and Gleeson) plus regular collaborator, Bill Nighy.

Rush was, in the end, a surprisingly substantial look at the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda from inconsistent director Ron Howard (although he will forever be forgiven because of the wonderful John Nash biopic, A Beautiful Mind). It features an excellent performance from rising star Daniel Bruhl, an impressively grim hospital scene towards the end, and only really falters in the fact that it’s just not Senna.

* Finally, documentaries Dirty Wars and How to Survive a Plague shone respective lights on illegal, invisible wars. The former takes a more journalistic approach to a current issue, whereas the latter documents the struggle for advancements and support during the heights of the AIDS crisis. Both are more than worth your time.

With those in backup, let’s look at what the very best of August to December threw up this year…

The Ones to Definitely Watch

8. Philomena

We kick things off with Philomena which, against even my expectations, has managed to make it onto the list. It’s the closest thing to a comedy in the top 8, and these consistent laughs throughout (due to Coogan and Pope’s script) are a welcome surprise. Coogan and Dench’s chemistry and cooperative comic timing is a major fact in this regard, but they are also able to play their respective roles so well as to give the thematic elements of the narrative real impact. A real heartwarmer in just the right way.

7. Nebraska

As with Philomena above, the central character and his troubles – which in this case tend towards mental illness – are not laughed at, but are rather revered. The audience is put firmly on the side of Bruce Dern’s Woody which allows the laughs (again, which there are plenty of) to come naturally. Alexander Payne’s most serious film to date is also one of his most impressive, with the black-and-white, dated visuals matching the on-screen dramatic mode. Nebraska too is heartfelt and impactful, but it’s Payne’s directorial golden touch that elevates it into 7th place.

6. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen’s “return to form” (ignoring that the wonderfully charming Midnight in Paris was only two years ago) sees another portrayal of a protagonist with questionable mental faculties. Cate Blanchett’s formidable turn as the Blanche DuBois-like Jasmine looks set to get her an Oscar next year, but on-screen support in the form of sister Sally Hawkins deserves equal recognition for her performance. The cast is littered with humorous displays elsewhere, from Bobby Cannavale to Michael Stuhlbarg (both of Boardwalk Empire fame) as the plot – Filth-like – covertly edges into serious drama territory, giving it real depth. Therefore it is Woody Allen’s handling of the tone that is perhaps most impressive of all.

5. Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks is as reliably good as ever, but his performance is not award-worthy. The Somali pirate antagonists however, Barkhad Abdi in particular, certainly deserve recognition for their terrifying show. And yet none of these are the star of the film. That honour goes to director Paul Greengrass who, especially after United 93, has showcased his ability once more to direct tense and gripping films. The uneasiness of the scenario is replicated in the seasick-camera and not once do you feel safe or secure, whether you’re aware of the conclusion or not. His ability to keep the pace of the movie at such an exhilarating, breakneck speed whilst not sacrificing the tone for Hollywood heroics is testament to the man’s abilities. Captain Phillips also provides an interesting comparison to the similarly-set A Hijacking (released a few months prior), the Danish film which focuses more on the negotiations behind such actions. Both films have minor flaws, but overall both are very worthy indeed.

4. Frozen

I loved it a few weeks ago, I love it even more now, and I’m convinced that I will continue to love it as time goes by. You can read my glowing review for the full details, but to sum up: Disney princesses turned feminist central characters, a refreshingly positive moral throughout, a humorous tone with an Emma Stone-like protagonist, an array of wonderfully funny, melancholic and catchy songs composed in various styles, Olaf the freakin’ snowman, beautiful animation and imagery… and all of this coming just months after Wreck-it Ralph. Disney are well and truly back on form.

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

We had to sit through the good-but-flawed (Cloud Atlas, Star Trek into Darkness), the average (World War Z, Thor 2, Iron Man 3) and the downright bad (Elysium, Man of Steel) to earn our blockbuster stripes this year, but in November we were rewarded for such patience and perseverance with the second installation in the Hunger Games trilogy-turned-quartet. Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderful actor no doubt, but it’s the character of Katniss Everdeen who really shines through as the standout presence here. The 150 minutes flies by relentlessly and joyfully – even during the bleak moments – providing a virtuoso display of character-focused carnage in the Capitol. A wonderful blend of emotions, hard-hitting themes and a delightful celebrity-focused subtext (making Lawrence an even more apt choice for the Girl on Fire) makes this a rare case of a truly dazzling ‘middle’ film in a franchise delivering as promised. And it sets up the two-part finale rather excellently as the tone turns tragic and ever more serious.

(Read Barry Quinn’s review)

2. Blackfish

It would be wrong of me not to have Blackfish near the very top of 2013’s output given how much of a role it’s played this year for me. I thrice tried and failed to see it before finally submitting myself to the devastatingly depressing documentary, and have since been completely caught up in the ongoing war of words between the filmmakers and SeaWorld. Though the overarching premise is interesting enough (an expose of trainer deaths at Seaworld due to orca attacks), the narrative goes way beyond that. It’s difficult to properly sum up the extraordinary effect this film has on the average viewer, but my review from back in July does it better than I can here. Since its release and the controversy that’s come with it, it’s also played on BBC4 as part of Storyville, allowing for a further audience. And though I appreciate the positive impact that films like Frozen can have on relationships or views of children, or what Blue Jasmine, Nebraska and Filth might do for mental health perception (a la Silver Linings Playbook last year), it’s even easier to see the impact that something like Blackfish can have on wider society. It could quite literally help to change the world.

1. Gravity

No pressure on the #1 choice of Aug-Dec of 2013 then (and probably the entire year if we’re honest), but Gravity was truly outstanding. I don’t care if every other list has it at no.1 too: that’s only the case because it deserves to be there. It’s one of those rare films that really acts as an experience rather than merely a visual projection onto a screen. It immerses you into the drama in a way few others do, through a combination of the visuals, storytelling and even the way it’s presented (i.e. IMAX, 3D, etc.). I can’t think of many outside Chris Nolan who have done it so well in recent times. Gravity’s first act is one of the greatest I can remember in this or any other year – a tour de force of cinematic storytelling. Alfonso Cuaron is something of a genius, and he’s demonstrably displayed such talent here.

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What have been your favourites of the year? What have we missed? Get in touch and let us know…
@M_S_Prescott
@VadaMagazine

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