Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

I would normally write a lengthy intro to my favourite films of the year list. This is traditional. All pundits normally indulge themselves.

Something about the trends apparent in modern cinema. And how these confirm the declining standards of life as we know it. And how much at least two of; mobile phone use in the audience, or overlong running times, or the inedibility of modern popcorn make me want to go and live in the forest and not watch any movies at all, unless they're ones I've made myself with a camera made out of twigs (a la The Last Movie).

But this is all too angry... and kind of insane... and a 'Best Of' list should be a happy time... and I don't really know what I'm talking about anyway.

So let's get to the money! I mean, the movies...


In the wake of a massive, civilisation ending catastrophe (implied to be a meteor impact in the Northern hemisphere), residents of Perth, Western Australia face up to the end with varying degrees of stoicism. Perennial fuck up James (Nathan Phillips) wants to spend the day partying with his friends, but a chance encounter with a distressed young girl (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice), provides him with one last opportunity to show his good side. This terrific, low budget Australian film serves as showcase for talent on both sides of the camera, and provides moments of excitement and tension along with less expected elements of pathos. Echoing On the Beach (which, like this, played at this years Melbourne International Film Festival) but with a contemporary mentality, These Final Hours provides a particularly fine example of the sort of local film we don't see often enough. 


Thousands of kilometres above the surface of the planet, a small team of astronauts work to repair a malfunctioning satellite. When an unexpected catastrophe decimates the crew and leaves their spacecraft prone, two survivors - plucky but inexperienced Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and cocky veteran Matt (George Clooney) - battle the relentlessly hostile environment as they struggle to make it back to Earth. About as far removed from a conventional Hollywood depiction of space exploration as you could get, Gravity starts with a realistic depiction of the difficulties of life in space... and then things start blowing up. Once the plot is in motion, the film becomes an almost unbearably tense scramble against time, as oxygen, fuel and mental faculties start to run out. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his team spent three years in pre-production on this and it shows; the film's visuals are literally jaw dropping and among the most elaborate ever created (see it on the biggest screen you can, for maximum impact). The characters and dialogue are all cardboard, but its impossible to care much while this thrill ride is going. 


Most people have questions about themselves; where they came from, their roots, what their parents were like before they were born. Canadian director - and sometime actor - Sarah Polley's probing of these fundamentals provides the foundation of this documentary, but her personal investigation soon takes a number of turns as family secrets are unexpectedly brought to light. Utilising interviews with her extended family and friends, and carefully selected re-enactments, Polley creates a family portrait remarkable for its depth and candour, and distinguished by the range of emotions on display. Joy, pain, sorrow and love all have their place in this story and the film maker is most generous in allowing the audience to share these with her. The director's father, Michael Polley, has some of the finest cinema moments of the year, as he talks very directly about his late wife, a woman he was married to for decades but never quite figured out. An outstanding, heartfelt movie.


Towards the end of his life, famed entertainer Liberace seemed to have it all; money, mansions and a multitude of small dogs. To the public, this was a story of tremendous, flamboyant success. Behind the scenes was a lonely and isolated man, forced to hide his homosexuality - and jumbo sized libido - from public view. Enter Scott Thorson; a likable and directionless teenager who becomes the musician's lover, confidante, chauffeur and (thanks to plastic surgery) lookalike. Their affair rides a roller coaster of manic behaviour, torrid emotions and drug abuse, ending in court accusations and recrimination. For a story with so many scandalous elements, and so much capacity for overblown melodrama, it's remarkable that Behind the Candelabra also works so well as a simple love story. The connection between star and acolyte is believably established and their early times together are sweetly, gently depicted, which gives their downhill slide the weight of tragedy. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give stunning, uninhibited performances and the production design and depiction of 70's Vegas showbiz is spot on. A remarkable, funny-sad movie.


Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish trapped in a low grade nightmare; he has a dull job, a cramped apartment and a crush on a pretty girl who ignores him. He's unhappy, frustrated and trapped. And then he meets... James Simon (Eisenberg again), a visual doppelganger with a dramatically different personality. The two become friends, but Simon quickly realises that behind his double's breezy exterior some very dark things are at work. Up and coming director Richard Ayoade's (Submarine) second feature is an assured comic puzzle box. The drab, grey and brown production design radiates just the right tone of mild urban hell, the perfect backdrop for the escalating events onscreen, and the director deftly chooses his moments to ratchet up the tension. Surprises abound and you're never quite sure where the narrative will head off to next. Eisenberg clearly has a ball playing twin parts, and the impressive supporting cast features neat turns from Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn. A darkly funny, highly original treat.


Pat (Bradley Cooper) has hit rock bottom; his wife has left him, he's lost his job and he's been confined to a psychiatric hospital after assaulting his wife's new lover. On release, he's forced to move back in with his parents - a colourful pair with problems of their own -while he tries to sift through the wreckage of his life. Distraction comes in the form of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), another train wreck barely functioning after the sudden death of her husband. This manic, acerbic twosome slowly - very slowly - bond over joint  participation in an amateur dance contest, while driving everyone around them slightly nuts. Romantic comedies are one of the foundation genres of cinema yet good ones have become increasingly rare, which adds another layer to the pleasure of this fresh, funny, deeply romantic film. No punches are pulled in the depiction of the main character's mental health problems, which raises the stakes considerably as they edge towards each other. Brad Cooper is simply a revelation as the well meaning, manic, Pat, but he is surrounded on all sides by a fine ensemble (Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver and Chris Tucker all shine) and director David O. Russell maintains the right tone and tempo from start to finish. One of the feel good movie experiences of the year.


Heading for home after an extended stretch at sea, the crew of a Norwegian cargo ship have their tedious routine shattered when they are hijacked by Somali pirates. Escalating events on the ship are compounded by the drama at corporate headquarters, where a controlling CEO (Soren Malling) takes personal charge of negotiations and quickly finds himself out of his depth. This taut, tightly directed thriller starts slowly and then cranks up the tension in the second half, particularly when focusing on the plight of the ship's easy going cook Mikkel (a superb Johan Phillip Asbaek). The film achieves a level of realism that is completely absorbing and gives a gripping depiction of different personality types cracking under pressure. Violence is only used sparingly, but powerfully, and is shown as simply one tool available to the tormentor. An utterly harrowing movie experience.


China is the world's most populous country and its economic miracle child; three decades of modernisation has transformed a rural, isolated backwater into a global powerhouse. But these rapid changes have not come without cost. A Touch of Sin shows life in contemporary China through four loosely linked stories, each depicting a central character struggling to cope with the unbearable pressures of their daily lives. Each day is a fight, a sprint, a wrestle, where nothing comes easy and everything hangs by a thread. In such a harsh, unforgiving environment the violence the characters resort to (taken from real life events) seems entirely understandable and eventually becomes just another element of the background noise of a hyperactive society. The importance of the individual is depicted as entirely secondary to that of the state, leaving the characters in a moral vacuum where they make their own survival rules. A powerful, thought provoking film, full of remarkable performances and indelible imagery, and one that manages to work just as well on a conceptual level as it does on a narrative one. Sure to be dissected for some time yet.


The Thief is a criminal who may have conceived the perfect crime. The Sampler is an outcast who observes the natural world around him. Kris and Jeff are victims caught between the two; robbed and psychologically damaged by the first, rescued but somehow trapped by the second. To reveal much more is almost certainly inappropriate... if not outright impossible, given the complexities of the plot. Independent American director Shane Carruth returns with his second feature, nine years after cult favourite Primer also proved difficult to summarise concisely. His new movie simply overflows with ideas, examining (among other things); relationships, patterns of behaviour, the essence of intelligence and man's impact on the natural world. As a kind of bonus, it also works as a tender love story, as two wounded souls connect and start to heal each other. A bold, at times outlandish, film that is in equal parts disturbing, funny, tender and tragic, but is never less than fascinating. A shot of intellectual adrenaline.


Frances lives, loves and laughs in New York, at least when she can afford it. A professional dancer a few years out of college, but a few years short of professional traction, she lives very much in the moment, one haphazard misadventure leading to the next. 

Over the course of a few busy months she breaks up with a long term BF, moves house, loses and regains her bestie, doubts her career, moves house, visits Paris, works at her old college, dances in the street, moves many more times and smokes a lot of cigarettes. Usually short of a buck, and always needing new digs, Frances rides the bumps of her existence with remarkable equanimity. 

She does get knocked down, but never for long. And her determination to carve her own path ultimately pays off, and gets her moving toward where she wants to be.

This warm, beautifully observed light comedy is centred around Greta Gerwig - in career best form - as the title character; funny, bold, quick witted and generous, as well as awkward, difficult, impulsive and petulant. 

In other words, utterly human, and so removed from the caricatures that often populate movie comedies. While the central performance is a delight, this is only one among many. The supporting players, cinematography, sets, dialogue and music (a particular treat for fans of Modern Love) are all first rate. The sum of all these parts is a movie that is laugh out loud funny and touching, moving and gregarious, something with a universal message. 

I may never have lived in New York, nor been a dancer, nor a woman but I felt like I could relate to much of what Frances experiences, which makes her eventual progress so much more rewarding. 

Although you don’t want her to leave when the credits roll. The reveal of the meaning behind the title is probably my favourite movie moment of 2013, but there are so many great moments ('I'm really happy for you', is another) that I want to watch the whole movie again... right now! 

Brilliant stuff.

Also Very Good...

- Drinking Buddies

- Omar 

- Fruitvale Station

- Lincoln

- The Punk Singer

- Inside Llewyn Davis

- Computer Chess

- Blue Ruin

- The Past

- A Field in England

No comments:

Post a Comment