Top Eleven Films of 2013

These are the best new movies I saw in 2013… as determined by a mixture of UK release schedules and what I managed to see at the 2013 LFF.

Not yet seen: Before Midnight, The Selfish Giant, The Great Beauty, The Act of Killing, Blue Jasmine.

Narrowly missing out: Sightseers (which is excellent and would be in my top five, but I saw it last year), Captain Phillips (very good, sagged a little in the middle), and Cloud Atlas (which came out in the UK in 2013, but in the US in 2012. It feels like forever ago, though, so I left it off. Hugh Grant was never better than as a slimy Nuclear Power boss).

Anyway.

11. The Place Beyond the Pines

Epic family crime drama that plays out like it was conceived as three seasons of a TV show compressed down to 140 minutes. The earlier stuff is better, but it’s all good (some disliked the teen-centric ending, but I thought it worked). Ryan Gosling was all over the poster, but this was also yet another step in convincing me Bradley Cooper might actually be a decent actor. Plus: Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan and (closest to my heart) Eva Mendes. The reason this is a top 11 rather than a top 10 is so I can find a place for Eva Mendes.

Due the presence of bikes, in the run up to this movie’s release I kept getting it confused with dire cycle-messenger thriller Premium Rush. To this day, my subconscious is absolutely convinced Premium Rush has Ryan Gosling in it.

Bonus photo featuring Eva Mendes:

PlacePines

10. Frances Ha

I loved the first half hour, when it was an affectionate skewering of Brooklyn hipster foibles. Then it become an increasingly depressing study of arrested emotional development and the dark ennui of being. Not sure they were really enthused about the ending either – all the hallmarks of a movie where they workshopped the character a lot, and just made some cursory gestures towards a satisfying narrative conclusion towards the end of the creative process.

But it has Greta Gerwig. Who is always good.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis

Good but not great. It’s no A Serious Man. The Coen technique shows through a little too clearly. The missing cat is a little too schematic as the trademark unresolved signifier. The sense of a life being spent going around in a circle is achieved via a bit of unearned narrative trickery at the audience’s expense. And the main character is a bit too much of a dick. But, you know, it’s a Coen Brothers movie. So it’s still pretty good.

And it has this scene:

8. Thor: The Dark World.

He hangs Mjölnir up on a coat hook! Ha. SILLY THOR.

7. Upstream Colour

From Shane Carruth, writer/director of the timetravel classic Primer, and a vision of what would happen if Malick met Eisenstein to film an early script by Cronenberg.

Basically Tree of Life meets Crimes of the Near Future, that whole genre there. That whole thing.

Through a series of dreamy, elliptical shots, a hazy narrative swims uncertainly into view… in which people are hypnotised and robbed via mind-altering orchid-eating worms. These are later extracted and placed in pigs by a sound engineer farmer. Meandering dreamlike ambiguous hijinks ensue as the traumatised victims are now psychically linked to said pigs.

If you see only one montage-driven film this year about the emotional devastation of having your brain scrambled then being psychically linked to a pig, make it this one.

6. Stoker

A fever-dream fairytale remix of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, from Chan Wook Park and Wentworth Miller. Like Under the Skin and Upstream Colour its cuts, edits and associations take it through loaded imagery and pregnant symbols. Unlike them it has Nicole Kidman going full crazy. Psychotic Kidman lifts any movie. Add in Matthew Goode lizarding around an Edenic estate in a pair of Clubmasters, some lovely wallpaper and a bunch of spiders, and WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE. Best scene: drawing not only on Shadow but also The Birds and Psycho with a frosty motel phone box murder.

5. Pacific Rim

The Citizen Kane of robots punching lizards.

4. Under The Skin

An alien wearing the body of Scarlett Johansson as a disguise purchases some clothes at Primark, tries on some lipstick at Boots, and cruises around Glasgow in a shabby van. Picking up men. Whom she takes home. To an old house. Which contains an endless black nightmare void. Where the men are ‘processed’.

Complications ensue when (to quote Bladerunner) she develops her own emotional responses, and begins to deviate from her mission…

This movie was great in so many ways. Probably more than any other movie, this was the one that stuck in my head, like a half-remembered nightmare. The hidden camera footage of alien predator Johansson prowling Glasgow is worth the ticket alone.

It has one key flaw, in that it likes to use lengthy static shots to instil a feeling of alienation in the viewer (and therefore encourage them to relate to the protagonist, to whom Earth is akin to another dimension). This is a great idea, but it is used again, and again, and again. So yes, this movie felt like about two and half hours. It was only one and a half.

Right after I saw it I thought (checking my watch) “that was almost great”, and then it sunk into my subconscious and swam around for a bit and two weeks later I woke up in the early hours of the morning and thought “…no, that really was amazing”.

3. Only Lovers Left Alive.

A Jim Jarmusch vampire flick starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As. Good. As. It. Sounds.

Features blood sucking. Underground rock. References to Faust, Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, AIDS, Telsa, Stax, Poe and the apocalypse. John Hurt cameo. Mysterious plants. And just kinda cruising around Detroit at night. Joins Mystery Train and Down By Law as one of my three favourite Jarmusch movies.

BONUS FACT: I saw Tilda Swinton in real life this year. Very tall, very beautiful. END OF FACT.

2. Gravity

Cinema as spectacle, in the best possible way. The performances are decent. Sandra is better than usual. George is in Nespresso ad mode. The minimal dialogue is at first functional, then increasingly cheesy. The plot is just a linear series of obstacles standing between A and B. None of this is particularly relevant. Gravity marries seat-gripping tension, phenomenal virtual camera work and perfect grasp of mise-en-scene. It’s particularly worth seeing if you suffer from claustrophobia and vertigo, and would like to self-administer in some cognitive therapy.

Gravity is not a deep movie. Gravity is a more like a cinematic machine for producing exhilaration, and the machine works.

Note: probably not worth watching on a mobile phone.

1. 12 Years a Slave

Brutal, tragic, exhausting… and yet it keeps its audience spellbound throughout. It is hypnotic. The performances are all excellent, and the script (so simple at first glance) is carefully constructed so as to pull the viewer in and work its way into the mind.

Steve McQueen is rare in having come from a video art background into comparatively mainstream cinema. But in just three films he has moved from the auterish formalism you would expect with that background (as shown in the excellent Hunger) to 12 Years a Slave, a movie that combines the simple lyrical humanism of a late period Spielberg with a dash of the transcendence of Malick.

The best British director working today.

Bonus Fact

Man of Steel was disappointing.

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