Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 20-11

For the first part of this article, detailing 30-21, click here.

20) Philomena, dir. Stephen Frears, UK/FRA/USA

What I said: "It's a testament to star Steve Coogan's screenplay (written with Jeff Pope), Stephen Frears' light-footed direction and Judi Dench's nuanced lead performance that 'Philomena' isn't the most depressing film of the year, even if it's still a reliable tearjerker. It's based on the heartbreaking real-life story of just one of many teenage girls became indentured servants to nuns in 1950s Ireland after falling pregnant, many having their babies taken from them by the Catholic church - and sold to wealthy families overseas. It's a story almost tailor-made to provoke outrage, indignation and buckets of tears from an audience - and rightly so, but the strength of this film adaptation lies in its steadfast refusal to wallow. In fact it's frequently quite funny amid the weeping and ruminating on the pros and cons of religious faith."

From the cosy, yellow theatrical poster, the presence of Dame Judi and the "from the director of 'The Queen'" tag, you could be forgiven for avoiding 'Philomena' on the grounds that it's probably one of those middle of the road dramas, targeting grey pound as inoffensively as possible. But it isn't that movie at all, even it does nothing that would see it lose any appeal to that audience. It's both a tear-jerker and a crowd-pleaser, combining moments of crippling sadness (the true life tale it's based on is hideous) and gentle comedy to brilliant effect - each making the other more palatable. It also looks more deeply at the concept of "faith" than most movies do, that term usually being thrown about to imply great depth where there is none. Here Steve Coogan's atheist journo and Judi Dench's devout Catholic play against each other in a way which showcases how blind religious faith can be both a healing crutch and a stupefying form of self-delusion. For her part Dench is brilliant as the title character, apparently reveling in the chance to play somebody with such spirit and warmth after a great many years of being typecast as the opposite.

19) We Steal Secrets: the Story of Wikileaks, dir. Alex Gibney, USA

What I said: "An amazing piece of work: balanced, stylish, thrilling, sick-making - sometimes funny and never less than compelling. Alex Gibney takes on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in this revealing documentary that - like many of the contributors - is on one hand in awe of its subject and on the other immensely troubled by him. Bound up with the potentially world-changing and arguably heroic activities of Wikileaks itself - which, among other things, helped bring to light the ugly reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the increasingly odd story of Assange, the organisation's founder: whose behavior has been increasingly antithetical to the ideals the whistle-blowing website stands for in the eyes of supporters. It's neither a hatchet job, nor a celebration, but an examination of flawed human beings. It's a sad portrait of a man who seems equal parts a brilliant idealist, a paranoid loner, and self-styled international celebrity."

Walking a delicate middle-ground between respect for its subject, as a brilliant idealist standing for a great many good things, and disquiet about his character and recent behaviour, Alex Gibney's tense, gripping doc about the story of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation is compulsive viewing. The sort of documentary that leaves you sad, angry and better informed about the world in which we live. Ultimately the film transcends its subject matter and, to me at least, makes a more universal point about the problems inherent in binding political causes to fallible, human individuals, as Assange the person threatens to undermine the credibility of Wikileaks the organisation and the ideals for which it stands. A tough watch, at times, but a vital one.

18) Blue is the Warmest Colour, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, FRA

What I said: "The film's quieter character moments, as Adele deals with the different stages of her relationship with Emma, navigating interactions with her friends and family, are great work. Certainly the two "dinner with the in-laws" scenes, that do so well to contrast Adele and Emma's backgrounds, education, interests and aspirations, all through attitudes to food and parental interactions, are miniature masterpieces. However, the film falls down when it comes to some extremely long sex scenes that stretch the running time in an unfavourable direction and which break from the film's otherwise naturalistic tone by presenting sex in a way which suggests you've stumbled onto Channel 5 post-watershed."

The target of many fair criticisms about its portrayal of lesbian sex - the film even attracting criticism along those lines from the writer of the source graphic novel, Julie Maroh - 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' is a great film hiding within a rather baggy and overlong mostly-good one. Basically, if you cut (or merely edited down) the ridiculous sex scenes, you'd be left with a brilliant coming of age drama, boasting 2013's strongest single performance from an actor. Adèle Exarchopoulos is incredible portraying a character who goes from high school student to school teacher over a span of several years, subtly altering her posture and demeanor over the course of the film to reflect recognisable changes in age and character. Co-star, and co-Palme d'Or winner, Lea Seydoux is also really great (as ever) but this is Exarchopoulos' movie. One of several cases on this year's list where a strong central character, played to perfection by the right actor, has elevated an entire film (also see 'Nebraska' and 'The World's End').

17) Iron Man 3, dir. Shane Black, USA

What I said: "The script somehow blends all the best elements of a buddy cop movie (notably in Downey Jnr and Don Cheadle's team-up), a sort of Capra-esque Christmas movie (it'll sound shit on paper, but Iron Man's pairing with a smalltown kid is entirely winsome), an espionage thriller, a deft political satire (maybe overselling that a touch, but what the film does with Kingsley's villain is inspired) and a classic modern superhero movie. It's a 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' style deconstruction of action movie tropes and a faithful sequel to both 'Iron Man 2' and 'The Avengers' - which it references whilst also managing to be its own thing completely. It bravely takes Tony Stark out of the suit for most of the movie - putting him in more peril than ever before, and allowing him to be more genuinely heroic - whilst also still recognisably being a Marvel comics adaptation. It does a lot of things and it does most of them excellently. And it's probably the only superhero movie to have a satisfying "end boss" fight to boot."

Pure popcorn in the very best sense. Spectacular set pieces (like when captive Tony fights those henchman whilst in various stages of suited up) married to some of the year's best gags (the Ben Kingsley reveal, the buddy cop dynamic between Tony and Rhodey in the third act), 'Iron Man 3' has admittedly suffered on repeat viewing now that I know what to expect (a great part of the pleasure is that it isn't the film it was advertised as being), but it was a film I watched with a bloody, great grin on my face in the cinema. Though an avid Marvel comics fan, and broadly a fan of Marvel Studios' film output, 'Iron Man' has never been something that's excited me too much (even though Robert Downey Jnr is terrific in the role) and given that 'Iron Man 2' is probably the worst of the in-house Marvel movies, the fact that this one was so much fun was a really great surprise.

16) A Field in England, dir. Ben Wheatley, UK

What I said: "This bizarre, sometimes unfathomable, mix of pitch black humour and sleep-disturbing horror won't be a surprise to fans of Ben Wheatley's other films - or at least to those who've seen the equally macabre 'Kill List'. Set during the English Civil War, 'A Field in England' follows a group of deserters as they flee a battlefield, stumble upon some magic mushrooms and become embroiled in an unsettling, occult treasure hunt, whilst ostensibly looking for the nearest pub. The performances, from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, are enjoyably exaggerated and thespy, the sound design is magnificent and Laurie Rose's black and white cinematography yields wonders that belie the film's tiny budget - facts that all combine to create a unique sensory experience."

Ben Wheatley's fourth feature was arguably his strangest and (relatively speaking) least commercial to date: a psychedelic and characteristically macabre film set during the English Civil War and starring Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley. Though released on TV, DVD and online on the same day it hit cinemas it's also paradoxically his most cinematic movie, relying extensively on an atmosphere created by unsettling sound design, Laurie Rose's austere monochromatic cinematography and startling editing work done by Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Like the best cinema, it demands to be seen on a massive screen in a dark room, with the volume cranked right up. Though the script is clever and full of funny lines, which beautifully mix the sacred and profane to comical effect, it's the haunting images and long takes that linger in the mind, burrowing deep into your subconscious. Earlier in this list I said 'Elysium' was a film destined to be swiftly forgotten by most who see it. 'A Field in England' is conversely a film most will struggle to forget, though many may try.

15) Pacific Rim, dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA

What I said: "Packed with jaw-dropping set-pieces, characteristically striking visuals and boasting gorgeous production design, it's a visual treat and the sort of thrill-ride you only get from the very best Hollywood fare. Even the 3D - post-converted, but apparently given more time and attention than usual - is a treat, adding texture to the rain effects in particular, as the Jaegers battle the Kaiju at sea. From a character point of view it's broad, but certainly not dumb or empty: the drama feels humane and ties into the action rather than being a perfunctory afterthought. It's also pleasing how international the whole thing is. Yes: it's an American movie, so the American pilot and American mech win the day. But, on the flip-side, rarely is an action movie of this kind less militaristic or nationalistic than this. There's a Russian mech, a Chinese mech and we're told the Australian mech is the best of the bunch - the most successful and effective around - allowing a sense that this is truly humanity fighting together in its darkest hour."

Let's settle something right now: 'Pacific Rim' is a really good film. I've seen it dismissed out of hand, but worse still I've seen it receive the faintest of praise: as a guilty pleasure or a decent movie of its kind. Yet Guillermo del Torro's monster versus mech blockbuster is stunning, from the fully-realised setting, to the designs of the various fighting creatures and robots themselves - it's a masterful and entirely complete movie on almost every level. As I said in the review excerpt above, the human characters are indeed broadly painted, exaggerated archetypes, but that doesn't mean that the film is stupid or that the writing is bad. 'Pacific Rim', and I mean this in an entirely non-condescending way, knows exactly what it is and what it is trying to achieve and succeeds on its own terms. And, in its own small but meaningful way, it subverts many grating genre cliches, for instance, by downplaying the antagonism between the military types and the scientists (who ultimately respect each other and work towards the same goal - seriously, how often do you see that?!) and by having a main character in Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket who isn't a macho, meat-head douchebag. He's a calm, respectful and introverted character as seen in a half-dozen small character moments that most people won't notice because they've already decided a film about giant mechs fighting even bigger monsters is beneath their contempt. Well those people are missing out on some pretty great cinema.

14) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, dir. Francis Lawrence, USA

What I said: "This is a teen-focused blockbuster in which riot police shoot a helpless old man in the head for whistling, in which handsome bore Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is bloodily flogged to within an inch of his life, and in which a frail old woman is corroded to death by a cloud of poisonous gas. So being able to care about the central relationships, and take a certain amount of pleasure in them, is a huge plus. [Jennifer] Lawrence is terrific again in the central role, playing a Strong Female Character TM whose strength is not solely found in her toughness and aptitude with a bow, but in the fact she is written with considerable character flaws. She's stubborn, calculating, sometimes extremely cold, but no less a hero, and that combination unfortunately warrants pointing because multi-faceted female characters are still so rare in mainstream blockbusters. Katniss likes bows and hunting and boozing with Haymitch [Woody Harrelson] and tormenting her country's sinister president (Donald Sutherland) on national TV, but she also enjoys dresses and hunky boys and adores her young sister. She's a wonderful creation and one that seems particularly well suited to Lawrence's strengths as an actor."

A friend of mine saw this and described it to me as being "as good as 'The Empire Strikes Back'!" I immediately dismissed that notion out of hand at the time, but watching the film (in IMAX) a week later it didn't seem like such an outlandish claim. 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is not destined to have the same cultural standing as the first 'Star Wars' sequel - along with 'The Godfather Part II', probably the best direct sequel going - but it is a huge step-up from the original movie (which was decent but unspectacular) in every way. The world is more fully realised, the games themselves are more intense, the characters are at a more interesting point in their arc, the social satire comes right to the fore this time around and the scale of the thing just feels much more epic. Is it as good as 'Empire'? Of course it isn't. But the fact it merits serious comparison is praise enough. Grimy, moody and tough as nails, tweenage entertainment doesn't come any better.

13) Blue Jasmine, dir. Woody Allen, USA

What I said: "To my mind, it's his most perfect movie since 1999. Its closest contender for that accolade, 'Midnight in Paris', is easy-going, charming, inventive and often very funny - but 'Jasmine' vaults over it by virtue of genuine dramatic heft and, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, a lead performance for the ages. It's rare for a Woody Allen film - even a vintage 70s/80s one - to be so tragic, sad and consistently tense as this. It made me uncomfortable and anxious throughout, and the funny lines don't feel like jokes or witticisms in the Allen style, but are born of great characterisation. There's a lot of heart and feeling in this one and no easy answers about life's troubles, nor is there an Allen surrogate figure making sardonic wisecracks to soften the blow. It's a brave and disturbing movie, whilst still feeling like a Woody Allen film - unlike some of his previous attempts at prioritising drama over comedy, such as artistic misfires 'Match Point' and 'Cassandra's Dream'."

The latest in a long line of loudly touted critical "returns to form", 'Blue Jasmine' is the first to really warrant that tired old line. By far, the best Woody Allen film in over a decade - and there have been some decent ones in that time - and one that genuinely deserves a place in his pantheon alongside the classic dramas of the 70s and 80s. Though funny in places, in a dark, uncomfortable way, this is one of those occasions where Woody in serious Bergman-esque dramatist mode has decided to eschew his usual comedic style and go for something more bleak and hard-hitting. And it's maybe the only occasion where that approach has completely worked - at least since the "serious" half of 1989's 'Crimes and Misdemeanours'. I've never felt so unsettled or emotionally devastated by one of his films, with his classics usually working on an analytical and intellectual level, even in their approach to love and death. Yet Cate Blanchett sells the hell out of this self-absorbed, self-destructive, alcoholic force of nature, giving one of the best performances in a year of great individual performances.

12) A Hijacking, dir. Tobias Lindholm, DAN

What I said: "Even-handed and intelligent, director Tobias Lindholm's film doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the corporation - it doesn't present the board as villains for not immediately caving in to all the pirates demands - and doesn't even really vilify the pirates (even if they are often quite frightening and capable of great violence). Instead it seems to simply present the experience as what it is: something terrifying and life-changing for everybody involved, right down the anxious families of those held captive. [Søren] Malling's CEO is shown as a man under great pressure, who - though not subject to the appalling conditions of the ship's crew - has his life upended by events to a very similar degree. What the film doesn't do is explore any of the political or economic conditions that have made piracy increasingly common, but that's the subject for a preachier, less visceral movie: one potentially less devastating, shocking and emotional."

If 'Captain Phillips' wins any Oscars at all it'll be a massive joke. Not because it's a terrible movie (though it's not a good one), but because - for all its militaristic, gung-ho bombast - it isn't even this year's best movie about Somali piracy. Step forward 'A Hijacking', which isn't the tale of one brave, selfless hero outwitting a host of pirates with wily schemes and 'Home Alone' style death traps, but rather a traumatising little human drama about a group of very ordinary men who are held captive for the best part of a year on the open ocean, whilst their harried employer haggles dollar by dollar for their release with a penny-pinching boardroom and a hostage negotiator who's presumably paid by the hour. Whether you're in the boardroom with the increasingly stressed CEO or on the cargo ship with the captured crew and almost equally morale-sapped pirates, 'A Hijacking' is tense and gripping because of the strange banality of the day to day instances we're shown. There are no hi-octane gun battles here: just ordinary people separated from their families with no way of knowing when they get to go home. With empathy that should be enough.

11) The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, NOR/DAN/UK

What I said: "What makes the film so extraordinary and thought-provoking is that this isn't the story of a group of mad individuals, but seemingly something that runs much deeper and across the entire country. It's a reminder of many things, not least the fact that it doesn't take much to vilify a group of people and encourage a state-sponsored pogrom, but also that there's no such thing as "good" or "evil" people - that, unpalatable as it may be, most of us are capable of either in almost equal measure, guided by the hand of history as it shapes the society around us. These are men who talk of their love of dancing in the street after watching Elvis Presley movies. Men who collect crystal Tinkerbell statues and wear pink fedoras in earnest. Men who give as much thought to how to choreograph a musical number as they did to finding the most efficient ways to kill. It's also a monument to the power of art to help people better understand themselves, to encourage empathy and as a vessel for exploring existential questions."

Why is art important? Does it really enrich the soul? 'Act of Killing' seems to provide a definitive answer to those questions, as a bunch of state-sponsored mass murderers - to this day celebrated for their crimes, killing suspected communists in 60s Indonesia - come to feel something like remorse (or at least a shred of empathy for their victims) after being asked to reenact their brutal crimes against humanity - ostensibly for a movie commemorating their deeds. If the directors (one of whom, like much of the crew, remain anonymous in the film's credits for their own safety) had approached these men with a microphone in the traditional way, and simply asked them to account for their crimes, they would simply have been met with long-ingrained anti-communist rhetoric, indignation or even a complete refusal to participate in the film. But through art - through some tacky, garish re-enactments staged by the participants for the film - these men are cleverly led to a place where they seem to truly reflect on their crimes, perhaps for the first time. They are forced to think about their deeds and, in a crude way, watch them back as a detached audience member. They come to consider their actions for the first time and, as best exemplified by one extended scene of retching that's hard to watch, begin to understand the magnitude of what they've done to other human beings. It's too little too late for the families of those who were slain, who have still never been acknowledged by the regime. It won't satisfy those who hunger for Old Testament style justice for crimes such as these. But on a humanistic and spiritual level, what this film achieves is a total triumph.

Check back soon for the final top 10!

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