This has been a remarkable year for film in some ways. While many of the big summer blockbusters have lacked originality, it has certainly been a strong twelve months for independently-minded film makers.
Our list of the year’s best films has been made with one consideration in mind: they all must have seen general release in the UK in 2013 but before the 6th of December. This means that a few of the year’s Oscar contenders and festival favourites had to be omitted. After an early screening at the London Film Festival, we would have loved to include the Coen Brothers’ amazing Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s not in UK cinemas until January. That’s the way it works, sadly.
But what we’re left with is an eclectic and wonderful collection of films. Five of them feature women in the leading role; two of them are shot in black-and-white; one is a ground-breaking documentary and another is an effects-laden comedy featuring prominent British faces.
So, without further ado: The Best Movies of 2013.
10. Side Effects
Great suspense films have an ability to obscure the truth from the audience, whether it’s the identity of the killer, the motive for a robbery or whatever. One of the best things about Steven Soderbergh’s Hitchcockian medical thriller is the way in which it conceals its own true nature.
Rooney Mara plays a troubled housewife whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, having served time for a white collar crime. Unable to sleep and suffering from panic attacks, she approaches a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who prescribes her an experimental medicine: a drug that may have incredibly dangerous side-effects.
When you finally unpack the film’s many twists and turns, you’ll come to realize that we’ve all been thrown in the same boat as the characters and led far down the garden path. This very satisfying and as Soderbergh’s final feature film, it’s a strong note on to end an acclaimed career.
9. The Impossible
Arriving in cinemas almost a whole year ago, Naomi Watts put in a career-defining performance in this real-life tale of tragedy and triumph. Set in Thailand during that fateful December in 2004, it tells the story of a British family split apart when the tsunami hits the beachfront resort where they’re staying. Films about true disasters are a bit of a hard sell but this gut-wrenching survival tale feels palpably real thanks to the power of Watt’s performance.
Ewan McGregor co-stars as Watt’s husband and in one central scene in which he shares a mobile phone with fellow survivors, he’ll show you precisely how he became a film star in the first place.
The film is tough at times, but director J.A. Bayona wisely knows when to lift his foot off the ‘harrowing’ pedal. The swelling catharsis that comes at this film’s final act is one of the most satisfying we’ve seen in quite a while.
Wadjda is a 12 year-old girl in the Saudi capital of Riyadh: she lives with her mother and (largely absent) father in what looks like a fairly comfortable middle-class home. She’s sharp, rebellious and incredibly enterprising (she sells friendship bracelets that she makes at home and haggles with a classmate who asks Wadjda to deliver a letter to her boyfriend). We follow her quest to buy a new bike, something that sees her entering a Qur’an competition just so she can win the cash prize.
Taking a cue from Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief and Iranian works like Children of Heaven, the film is structured like a classic fable but infused with culturally specific details that somehow make Wadjda more accessible rather than less.
This was the first film ever shot entire in Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn’t even have a cinema. What make this feat even more remarkable is that its director Haifaa al-Mansour is a Saudi woman, who can’t even legally drive in her home country. It’s a brave new world we’re living in.
7. The World’s End
The third film in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s loosely-connected Blood and Ice Cream trilogy that includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg plays Gary King, a middle aged alcoholic who convinces his childhood friends to recreate a pub crawl from their youth in their hometown of Newton Haven. When they all get arrive, they realise that things have changed in their absence, both metaphorically and literally. And by literally, we mean that the citizens have been replaced by robot clones from outer space.
The World’s End has all the quick and funny gaggery that we expect from their films, as well a number of riotous action sequences. The thing that distinguishes this from Shaun and Hot Fuzz is its sober undercurrent: Gary is a man paralysed by nostalgia. He still lives like he’s 18, drinking to excess, listening to the same music and even wearing the same clothes. He’s a serious wreck-of-a-man whose troubles are dealt with seriously. It’s Pegg and Wright’s most pointed work and given time, The World’s End may be seen as their best film yet.
When 77 year-old Woody (Bruce Dern, in a role for which he will be Oscar nominated) gets a letter from a magazine company telling him that he’s won a million dollars, he seemingly accepts it at face value, despite the fact that we know those things are a scam. In the face of his exasperated family, he becomes determined to get to Nebraska and pick up his winnings, even if it means he has to walk all the way.
Eventually, his youngest son David (Will Forte) relents and offers to drive him there, though the pair of them make a long detour to the town they left decades again. Through increasingly tense encounters with long-abandoned cousins and neighbours, David beings to learn about the quiet man a thing or two about small town existence.
Understated in its charm and subtly uplifting, this decidedly small film from Alexander Payne sits comfortably alongside his earlier masterpieces.
5. Captain Phillips
If we were to talk about this story in movie-terms, the plot of this true-life film could be likened to that of Air Force One: a seemingly mild mannered leader (Tom Hanks’ cargo ship captain) has to summon up his resources to fend off hijackers (in this case Somali pirates). But where a conventional Hollywood hero would take up arms and murder their captors, Captain Phillips’ strength lies in his level-headed response to the situation. He’s not a glamorous action hero in any way, but his ability to stay calm and talk to the pirates turns out to be the only thing keeping his crew alive.
Shot with his usual frenetic camerawork, Paul Greengrass’ vérité-style of direction works wonders at creating expressive and visceral moments of real tension. As with his 9/11 non-fiction thriller United 93, he’s also careful not to dismiss his antagonists as faceless monsters. The pirates are criminals by any standard, but they’re driven by influences more complex than what we read in the headlines.
In short: Captain Phillips is a deeply entertaining thriller with one hell of an emotional and intellectual punch.
The movie opens with his camera in Earth’s orbit, the distant sound of radio chatter grows as a space shuttle drifts into shot and we find astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the middle of upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope. The shot remains unbroken for the next 14 minutes as the crew is suddenly endangered by a field of high-speed space debris heading their way.
The camera glides around the ship and into Bullock’s helmet while the carefully unobtrusive use of 3D reinforcing the reality of the film despite the fact that almost all of the sequence was created in a computer. That’s perhaps the most remarkable feat of this film: everything on screen seems tangible, which is rarely the case with CGI.
The film plays out like a survival thrill ride, as the two leads desperately try to find their way to the International Space Station and its last remaining escape pod. And a thrill ride is exactly what it feels like, in the best way possible. Gravity one of 2013 most hyped films and yet it has managed to meet expectations on every level.
3. Frances Ha
In a film that rarely leaves her off-screen throughout its 90 minute run-time, Greta Gerwig puts in a quirky, sympathetic performance that’s one of the finest we’ve seen all year. She plays Frances, a dancer who’s seemingly refuses to see that her fledgling career has hit a brick wall. After her best friend and flatmate decides to move to a more expensive neighbourhood in New York, Frances is set adrift. Like a transient she shuffles between temporary homes, outstaying her welcome with relative strangers and attempting to befriend people who can’t possibly connect with her.
Working from a script he devised with Gerwig, director Noah Baumbach crafts a black-and-white, Godard-influence study of an extrovert dealing with disappointment and loneliness in the big city. In some ways a platonic love story between her and her best friend, Frances Ha is never better than when it achingly crystallises the way people delude themselves when they feel their dreams begin to slip away.
2. The Act of Killing
In 1965, following a failed coup of the Indonesian government, a purge of Indonesia communist took place over several months. Drafting in the services of gangsters and paramilitaries spread throughout the nation’s islands, General Suharto presided over the extortion, torture and execution of over half a million suspected communists. After Suharto’s rise to power, these killers became national heroes and even today, they remain feared and respected within their communities.
At the invitation of director Josh Oppenheimer, a few of these gangsters were invited to film re-creations of their killings. Inspired by the Hollywood films of their youth and given creative freedom, the killers draft in neighbours to play victims. They choose to film their exploits like a musical, or dress up like gangsters and cowboys to retell their stories.
The film is utterly compelling and disturbing for its refusal to abhor its subjects: unlike former members of the Gestapo, these killers survived to become heroes and have never faced a reckoning. Instead of apologising for the mass killings, they remain boastful of them. But by allowing them to tell their own stories, the re-enactments get gradually more surreal as they open up to their feelings. To see grown men in costume and horror make-up casually discuss murder is so banal yet so chillingly grotesque.
This film gets closer to the men behind evil acts than any other film before it. It’s devastating and remarkable.
1. Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a New York socialite whose vapid life of Fifth Avenue shopping and summers in the Hamptons is brought to an end when her charming cad of a husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be a Bernie Madoff-style huckster. Left with nowhere go, Jasmine does the only thing a bankrupt woman can do: pack up her Louis Vuitton bags, book a first class flight to San Francisco to crash with her common-as-muck sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Jasmine is one of the most compellingly condescending characters we’ve seen for quite a while, constantly putting down her Ginger’s modest lifestyle while ignoring the fact that her ex-husband is responsible for squandering little sister’s savings. She also openly insults her Stanley Kowalski-ish boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) for being rough around the edges while still harbouring delusions of class and standard.
The tightest and most cohesive film he’s made in ages, Blue Jasmine ranks right up there with best Woody Allen films of the 70s and 80s. That alone would put it in the top ten list of any year.
Which films did we miss out? Which films deserved to be higher? Which films shouldn’t have been on the list at all? Let us know in the comments board below.
For more of the year’s finest films, check out our Best of 2013 Collection