Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which I caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.
Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.
The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.
Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).
Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.
A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand by Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.
A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.
A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.
The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. The result on paper is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.
David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.
The “Nearly” List
We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.
Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.
Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.
One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switchabout sympathy into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.
Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 (yes, one thousand seven hundred) years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.
A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.
François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow postmodern theorists enjoying with beer and a deconstructed pizza.
Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that teases, entertains, beguiles and grips by the throat.
This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.
A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.
Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.
Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as indicate the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.
Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a blameless poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.
Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out that the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.
A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish, unusual drama even more enjoyable.
The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.
Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.
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© Steve Morrissey 2013