The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

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 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.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

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.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

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.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

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).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

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.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

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.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

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.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

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.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

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.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

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. What he have 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.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

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

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

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.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

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.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

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.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

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 switched sympathies 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.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

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 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.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

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.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

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 post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

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 (the 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 grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

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.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

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.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

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.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

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 point out 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.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

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 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.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out 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.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

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 type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

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.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

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.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

17 June 2013-06-17

Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson in Hitchcock

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Hitchcock (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Stuffed to the gunnels with good stuff, Sacha Gervasi’s biopic about Alfred Hitchcock is nevertheless a disappointment. Nothing wrong with the actors – Anthony Hopkins plays the director as a dead-eyed master of deadpan, greedy for everything – women, drink, food – the greed born of despair. Helen Mirren outdoes him as Alma, Hitch’s wife, screen adapter, muse, fixer, assistant director, wise counsel, editor, warrior queen. And around them spin Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh), Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles), Danny Huston (as lush writer Whitfield Cook) and James D’Arcy (a nice turn as mother’s boy Anthony Perkins – Hitchcock knew why he was casting him). Nothing wrong with the settings either, Gervasi making being rich in California in 1960 look about as tickety boo as life gets. But the decision to get clever – to try to draw vague parallels between Hitchcock and Ed Gein (the killer who inspired the character of Norman Bates), the cheapjack psychologising (the shower scene is Hitchcock’s unconscious score-settling with anyone who ever crossed him,), the notion that movie-making is, gulp, a form of voyeurism, Hitchcock’s obsession with blondes, these are all dealt with too obviously. It’s a nice bit of entertainment struggling for depth but unsure if it’s for Psycho nuts, Hitchcock obsessives or people who just want a good drama.

Hitchcock – at Amazon

 

Warm Bodies (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Nicholas Hoult used to be an irritating child star but has now, it seems, become a classically handsome young man, with the sort of proper big skull that the movies love. Here he’s playing the average disaffected teenager who also happens to be a zombie. And being disaffected means he’s actually a bit pissed off with being a zombie. Enter Teresa Palmer, a nice normal girl whose boyfriend Hoult first kills, then eats, as you do when you’re a zombie. If you’ve seen even the posters for Warm Bodies, you’ll know what happens next. Here’s another clue – his name is R, her name is Julie, there’s a balcony scene. This is a well conceived teenage fantasy zombie movie with a couple of new spins on the old zombie formula that keep it as fresh as a rotting zombie corpse can convincingly be kept. Oh, and John Malkovich is in it, and he isn’t playing a zombie, though it’s fairly hard to tell.

Warm Bodies – at Amazon

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Element, cert E, DVD)

Paedophilia in the Catholic Church. It’s 2013 and no one is going to be shocked by that phrase any more. What is shocking, as Alex Gibney’s documentary makes abundantly clear, is the lengths that the Church went to cover it up. Through a series of interviews with victims, testimony from expert witnesses and good old-fashioned pavement-pounding Gibney comes up with some killer revelations – that, for example, the Church has been aware of the problem of paedophilia and the priesthood for 1,700 years; that in the US there was a troubleshooter priest who would parachute in and buy parents’ silence for $250K; that there’s an organisation within the Church called the Servants of the Paraclete who “treat” paedophile priests. Really, on this shameful evidence, especially considering its teachings on sex, the Catholic Church should just man up and shut up shop.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God – at Amazon

 

Accused (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Not to be confused with the excellent British TV series by Jimmy McGovern, this Danish film from 2005 about a swimming instructor accused of sexual abuse by his daughter has been released to capitalise on the popularity of The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, who plays the loving dutiful wife. And it is a remarkable piece of work, tightly composed, claustrophobically shot, brilliantly acted (by Troels Lyby aka the Accused) and with an ability to blindside the viewer with plot developments that go beyond the innocent/guilty question.

Accused (aka Anklaget) – at Amazon

 

To The Wonder (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Terrence Malick reworks the Garden of Eden parable as a modern relationship drama, with Ben Affleck as Adam and Olga Kurylenko as Eve, a pair of sun-dappled lovers wandering through meadows, goofing about in Paris, inhabiting gorgeous empty houses, while Malick’s silent camera swoops about them and the only real dialogue comes from Kurylenko speaking French in voiceover. As with most Malick films, there’s more than a touch of the alien eye about this one, the beauty of it all is undeniable, Malick’s use of the camera is extraordinary and his eye for an image is unimpeachable. There just isn’t much of a plot.

To the Wonder – at Amazon

 

Mama (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

One of the 13 or so films that Jessica Chastain has appeared in the past three years (she even managed to fit in an episode of the long-running TV series Poirot). Here she’s almost unrecognisable as a rock chick with jet black hair, the new stepmom to a pair of feral kids who seem to have brought a supernatural presence with them back from their years spent out in the woods. It is an immensely impressive horror film from debut feature director Andy Muschietti, an Argentinian who mixes Spanish haunted-house atmosphere with the supernatural jolts of The Exorcist and the eerie-kids vibe of The Innocents. It doesn’t stop there – characters out of Hammer, effects out of J Horror, a soundtrack evoking now Saint Saëns’s Danse Macabre, now 1940s melodrama, Muschietti is a man who knows his stuff. And he isn’t just in the business of name-checking, he’s melding all the influences expertly and throwing in a couple of visual flourishes of his own which are so expert you’ll watch them again on freeze-frame. The ending, in which Muschietti changes tack repeatedly, forces us to re-assess everything we’ve just seen, sympathy switching from mother to father, to children, to Mama – that is just superb.

Mama – at Amazon

 

No (Network, cert 15, DVD/VOD)

Gael Garcia Bernal plays the advertising honcho brought in run the TV campaign to defeat President Pinochet of Chile in the plebiscite held in 1988 into his ongoing presidency. The country was asked to vote Yes (for Pinochet) or No (for the opposition). Pablo Larrain’s film is more interested in the how than the who – because what Bernal’s character does is bypass politics altogether, favouring instead a series of happy clappy adverts, jingles, celebrity endorsements. So on the one side we have Pinochet the dictator and torturer, on the other a purveyor of Coca Cola-style backlit, beaming moronic happiness. In spite of the fact that it’s all shot in handsome mock-1980s advertising style, No is a hard sell, doubly so since Larrain gives us very little sense of Garcia’s mountain to climb and the success, or otherwise, of his various approaches. Perhaps you have to be Chilean.

No – at Amazon

 

The Fall (Acorn, cert 15, DVD)

The five-part thriller set in Belfast that saw Gillian Anderson selling silk blouses, steely professionalism, but most of all cool sexiness as DSI Gibson, a woman on the trail of a man who is on the trail of women. We learn early on who the perp is (hello Jamie Dornan), and he’s a mould-breaking villain – family man, relationship counsellor, decent all-round guy. And murdering psychosexual weirdo. If DSI Gibson isn’t so mould-breaking – Helen Mirren has walked the road of the tough female copper before in Prime Suspect – Anderson brings a remarkable breadth to the role. She’s exactly the sort of genuinely likeable, frightening, funny, clever law-enforcer we hope the police force is full of. The Northern Ireland settings are pretty refreshing too.

The Fall – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013