Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

20 - The Counsellor

Most of the films on this list have received the critical acclaim that their quality merits, but The Counsellor is the exception to that rule. Ridley Scott's best film in at least a decade was met by howls of derision, which is hardly surprising given the film's lack of narrative clarity, cast of despicable characters and long exchanges of philosophical dialogue. This is very much a Cormac McCarthy film, in other words, and the veteran novelist has made no concessions to writing for a new medium, with Scott often amusingly appearing to be perplexed by the film's many static conversations. The director is on firmer ground when tasked with staging individual sequences in which something actually happens; an ambush on a motorcyclist, a bloody assassination in London or – most notoriously – a bizarre sort-of sex scene on the windscreen of a car. The Counsellor is surely the most wilfully perverse studio release for many years (surely a recommendation in itself) and it's a film that seems designed to get under people's skin. It certainly got under mine, but in a good way, lingering in my thoughts long after many of the year's more 'respectable' films have faded into irrelevance.

19 - Gangs of Wasseypur

Anurag Kashyap's Indian gangster epic was released in two separate 2½-hour chunks, but I saw the whole film in a single 5-hour screening, and I'm glad I did. I wasn't bored for a second as the film charted a tit-for-tat blood feud that spans generations, with Kashyap's ambitious storytelling and visual flair ensuring its running time is fully justified. There's a swagger and confidence about his dynamic camerawork and eclectic use of music, but what's most impressive is his assured storytelling, as he unfolds a saga across seven decades and incorporates a large ensemble cast without ever allowing confusion to reign. The film is frequently spectacular and violent – with one strikingly filmed murder being particularly memorable – but there is also a rich vein of comedy running through the movie, and a roster of excellent performances, led by the consistently impressive Nawazuddin Siddiqui. No film in 2013 offered more bang for your buck than Gangs of Wasseypur.

18 - Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake is set entirely at a single location; a secluded lakeside spot populated by naked men, who occasionally disappear together into the bushes. For the men who spend the sunny days swimming, sunbathing or hooking up, the spot appears to be paradise, but Alain Guiraudie's film makes us aware of a lingering sense of danger, whether through unprotected sex with a stranger or falling in love with a man who may be a killer. With just a handful of characters and one location, Guiraudie has delivered a psychosexual thriller that Highsmith or Hitchcock would surely be proud of. Claire Mathon's strikingly composed cinematography maintains a distance from the action while Guiraudie imposes a steady rhythm on the film, allowing the tension to sneak up on us until – in the heart-stopping final moments – it exerts a vice-like grip. Stranger by the Lake is a stunningly accomplished suspense film and an involving, unsettling love story; an erotic thriller that genuinely works on both levels. It also acts as a very funny comedy of manners on the etiquette of cruising, with poor old Eric the Wanker being one of the most endearingly pathetic characters of the year.

17 - The Broken Circle Breakdown

A chronologically muddled opposites-attract love story driven by bluegrass music, built around the death of a child and incorporating an angry political screed against the Bush administration's prevention of stem-cell research – The Broken Circle Breakdown really shouldn't work, and there are times when it threatens to fall apart completely. Against all odds, director Felix Van Groeningen and his cast hold it together and deliver a knockout punch that resonates long after the final credits have rolled. In telling the story of a couple's first meeting and the subsequent loss of their daughter to cancer, Van Groeningen and his star Johan Heldenbergh (who co-wrote the original stage play) cut back and forth in time, slowly building a cumulative emotional force that grows overwhelming by the film's midpoint. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a film full of beautiful moments and heartbreaking ones, and Van Groeningen lines them up side-by-side, successfully maintaining a sense of balance and preventing us from getting lost in the fractured timeline. He is aided enormously by his two leads, Heldenbergh and the stunning Veerle Baetens, who throw themselves fearlessly into these challenging roles, and by the terrific musical numbers.

16 - Her

Set in a near future that's extrapolated just far enough from our own to be plausible, Her is love story with a sci-fi twist that feels startlingly modern. Spike Jonze's tale of a lovely divorcee (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with the voice of his computer's new operating system (given vocal life by Scarlett Johansson). As in all of Jonze's films to date, he uses a fantastical premise to explore simple, universal emotions, and he finds unexpected depths in Her as he explores the nature of real and artificial relationships. There are moments of comedy here, of course, but what lingers is the sense of longing and the deep desire to make some kind of connection with another soul, even if that soul doesn't appear to be real. Her is a film that could easily be viewed as a dark cautionary tale about our fixation on technology (the very familiar sight of crowds walking with eyes cast downwards at their phones makes it eerily relatable), but Jonze has made a tender, beautiful and melancholy love story that is simultaneously futuristic and old-fashioned, and enormously satisfying.

15 - All Is Lost

JC Chandor received a lot of acclaim for his debut film Margin Call, but I don't think even that picture's most ardent fans could have anticipated a follow-up like this. After making a dialogue-driven ensemble drama, Chandor has changed gears completely for All Is Lost, an almost wordless drama that stars just one actor. That actor is Robert Redford, playing an unnamed sailor whose yacht is damaged in the film's opening minute and who then spends the next ninety-odd minutes simply trying to survive. That's about all there is to All Is Lost, but it is a remarkably gripping experience thanks to Chandor's economical direction and Redford's commanding presence. We watch as this resourceful protagonist works silently to stay afloat, but is he simply delaying off the inevitable? All Is Lost is both a gripping man vs. nature survival thriller and a quietly moving meditation on life and death, with the bold choice Chandor makes at the film's close elevating the whole picture to another level.

14 - The Selfish Giant

Loosely adapted from a story by Oscar Wilde, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant takes place in the less-than-Wildean surroundings of working-class Yorkshire, a society destroyed by poverty. The setting may resemble so many grim kitchen-sink dramas of the past, but the grace and tenderness with which Barnard handles this material allows it to transcend our expectations of such pictures; there is a stark beauty amid the bleakness here. This may be a more conventional film than her genre-busting debut The Arbor, but her ability to view this landscape and these characters with a fresh eye is crucial for the film's success. First-time actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas are unforgettable as the tearaway kids illegally stripping copper to secure cash for their struggling families, and Barnard draws us so deeply into their experiences that when tragedy strikes, it lands with an impact that will leave you reeling.

13 - Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Although the sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Colour may be unusually long, it hardly deserved to dominate conversation about the film in the manner that it did this year. There's so much more to this tale of first love and broken hearts, which uses its three-hour running time to immerse us into Adèle's world and allow us to view her tumultuous relationship with Emma with unguarded intimacy. Blue Is the Warmest Colour is a film that attempts to replicate the feeling of being in love, capturing the dizzying, passionate highs before plunging us into the wrenching lows. Kechiche's approach is far from subtle, but it has a messy, raw energy and immediacy that I found irresistible. Given the acrimony that exists between the stars and director now, we will never get the further instalments promised by the film's French title La vie d'Adèle - chapitre 1 & 2, but that doesn't really matter; there's a lifetime's worth of passion and intensity in this movie.

12 - Beyond the Hills

After 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills again uses a female friendship as a means to explore the strict rules and contradictions of a community, and he has again crafted a gripping, moving drama. Set in a remote Orthodox convent, the film reunites two young women who once had an intense relationship at the orphanage they were both raised in. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is now a nun, devoted to her duties, while Alina (Cristina Flutur), having come to seek her friend's help, wants to rekindle the relationship they once shared. A slow-burning, ambiguous piece of filmmaking, Beyond the Hills gradually tightens its grip as Alina's actions come into conflict with the practices of this religious house, and the film moves into shocking territory later on as the resident priest (Valeriu Andriuta) resolves to deal with Alina's illness. Mungiu handles all of this with the skill of a filmmaker in full command of his craft, once more showing his mastery of long takes and staging a number of wonderful ensemble sequences in his perfectly composed frames.

11 - 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's skill as a visual filmmaker has never been in doubt, but in 12 Years a Slave he marries that skill to a strong narrative and supports it with a depth of emotion that has been absent from his previous work, and the result is extraordinary. By recounting the tale of Solomon Northup, McQueen can build his film on a powerful redemptive narrative while showing the myriad ways in which slavery corrupted all those who were tainted by it. In this way the film feels worthy of comparison to Schindler's List, in the way it finds a balance between bring a painful subject to the attention of a wide audience, without softening the cruelty of the age. McQueen's approach is intelligent and measured. He knows that this material carries an inherent power, and all he has to do is render it honestly and without adornment. The film keeps simmering quietly for almost its whole running time until, in an shattering closing scene, all of that anger, pain and despair finally overflows.

10 - Frances Ha

Nobody has quite known how to best utilise Greta Gerwig's unique screen presence, so thank God she decided to do something about it by co-writing this gorgeous film with Noah Baumbach. Her input appears to have had a rejuvenating effect on Mr Baumbach too, as Frances Ha is far less caustic and bitter than his earlier works, which is a very pleasing development. This portrait of a 27 year-old New York dancer struggling to work out where exactly her life is going will resonate with anyone who has felt lost and confused in a big city, and who has felt like they are failing at life while their contemporaries move forward and become "a real person," as Frances puts it. The film is so light on its feet, and so effortless, it's easy to overlook the skill that has gone into its filmmaking, with its superb cinematography and jaunty rhythms recalling the spirit of the French new wave. Every scene rings true, sometimes painfully so, and the film has a timeless quality that suggests we'll look back on it in years to come with the affection we have for early Woody Allen films.

9 - Paradise: Love / Paradise: Faith / Paradise: Hope

Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy occasionally exhibits the director's worst instincts, but taken as a whole these three films represent his most accomplished filmmaking achievement to date. Each film boasts a tremendous performance from its female lead and typically striking compositions (Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography ranks among the year's finest), and each film is filled with the kind of long, uncomfortable, unpredictable sequences that only Seidl can produce. But what really distinguishes these films is the compassion evident in Seidl's handling of these tales. I found Love's portrait of a middle-aged woman looking for love in a place where sex and money are all that matters to be painfully moving, and while Faith is the weak link in this triptych, it still contains a number of powerful moments and two fascinating performances. However, the real surprise here is Hope. An Ulrich Seidl film set in a teenage fat camp sounds like a recipe for disaster, but he confounds all expectations by producing a sensitive and touching portrait of a teen's unrequited crush on an older man, which ends his trilogy on a surprising high note.

8 - Before Midnight

It is a rare thing indeed to find the third film in a trilogy on a number of 10-best lists, but then Richard Linklater's Before... series is no ordinary trilogy. Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (who co-wrote) have let nine years elapse between each of their sequels to 1995's Before Sunrise, allowing the characters time to grow and change, and ensuring that we find them in new circumstances every time we visit them. These films have created a portrait of a relationship that is quite unlike anything else in cinema, and they have done it largely through dialogue, as each film focuses on the long conversations that Jesse and Céline share. Before Midnight again follows this couple as they wander the streets and discuss matters both large and small, but this time the tone of the conversation is more fractious and combative. If Before Sunrise was a film about falling in love, and Before Sunset was a film about second chances, then Before Midnight tackles the difficulty of keeping love alive. The argument that rages between them in the film's second half is vividly real, but so is the depth of affection they share with each other, which is mirrored by the rapport that we have established with them over the course of these films. Before Midnight is fluid, witty, probing and perfectly performed by two actors who know their characters – and each other – intimately. Will we see Jesse and Céline again in nine years? Who knows, but it's reassuring to know that they're still out there, enduring life's ups and downs together.

7 - To the Wonder

Once upon a time we would wait years for a Terrence Malick film, but here we are, having just recovered from The Tree of Life, with the gift of To the Wonder in our hands, and with a couple of other Malick films in various stages of production. It seems that finally unburdening himself from his long-gestating project has revitalised Malick, and To the Wonder is a film made by a man following his instincts, wholly rejecting narrative convention and searching for nothing less than a new cinematic language. A sad love story about displaced characters losing their grip on each other, To the Wonder is largely expressed through body language and movement, with Olga Kurylenko's former dancer being the perfect Malick muse. To the Wonder is a film about loss, about people living with a void in their lives, both emotional and spiritual, and trying to recapture something they once had but will never hold again, and Javier Bardem's conflicted priest is a deeply moving figure. As ever, Emmanuel Lubezki's camerawork is totally attuned to the director's wavelength, rushing headlong around the characters at times and then pausing to find beauty in the most apparently commonplace sights; fittingly, the film's opening line is, "Newborn, I open my eyes".

6 - The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a spiritual successor to Goodfellas and Casino, and while it would be a big task for most 71 year-old directors to recapture the energy of pictures they made two decades ago, Martin Scorsese attacks it with a ferocity that is exhilarating to witness. This portrait of Jordan Belfort's life of excess and criminality is one of Scorsese's most audacious films; a richly entertaining three hours in the company of repellent characters. The film doesn't explicitly condemn Belfort and his swaggering buddies for their behaviour (in fact, it aligns itself with Belfort's point-of-view, with DiCaprio acting as an unreliable narrator), it simply presents their decadent, amoral lifestyles to us and allows glimpses of the consequences for those who fell victim to these loathsome men. Scorsese is firing on all cylinders here, with his amped-up camerawork and editing being perfectly suited to Belfort's drug-fuelled misadventures. The Wolf of Wall Street is also, by some distance, the funniest film of 2013, with a number of side-splitting performed by a cast clearly relishing the opportunity to cut loose in this way. Although it runs for three hours The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't feel like it contains an ounce of extraneous material, and forty years after Mean Streets, it is astounding that Scorsese is still making films as exhilarating, troubling and hilarious as this.

5 - At Berkeley

You might not have thought that we needed a four-hour documentary that went behind the scenes at the University of California, Berkeley, but then Frederick Wiseman went ahead and made one and the result feels absolutely essential. Wiseman has always been fascinated by the workings of institutions and this picture allows him to see what happens both in the classroom and in faculty meetings, with his typically curious but unintrusive cameras apparently having free reign to explore all areas of the campus. The most fascinating aspects of the film surround the problems faced by administrative staff who have to maintain standards while facing deeper budget cuts in a worsening economic climate. The film essentially boils down to a simple question – what price do we place on education? As heartening as it is to watch students engaging in debate and attempting to push themselves to a higher level, we are always conscious of the problems being discussed concurrently that may prevent the university from maintaining their core values. At Berkeley is entirely engrossing, consistently thought-provoking and far more universal in its reach than its title might suggest. It is a late-career masterpiece from one of the truly great documentarians.

4 - Ida

After his disappointingly sketchy The Woman in the Fifth, I was hoping for a return to form from Pawel Pawlikowski with Ida. Instead, I got much more than that – an unexpected artistic leap forward from a director displaying a whole new set of filmmaking tools. Pawlikowski's first film in his native Poland is set in the early 1960s, in a country still recovering from the war. Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young nun exploring her past with the help of her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), and in turn questioning her own beliefs. It's a simple story rendered in stark terms by Pawlikowski, who creates a number of breathtaking images with the assistance of his brilliant young cinematographer Lukasz Zal. Every black-and-white frame is stunningly composed and lit, with the images frequently being framed slightly off-centre. Ida recalls the work of great masters such as Dreyer, Bergman or Bresson, not only because of its vivid imagery, but because it is a serious study of faith, made with a quiet intelligence and curiosity, and not one of its 80 minutes feels wasted.

3 - Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers' latest success is a film about failure. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented singer-songwriter trying to eke out a living in the bars and cafés of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, but he hasn't made it big, and we suspect he never will. He lacks that special, indefinable quality that turns a good singer into a great one, or maybe it's simply a matter of timing, with Llewyn plugging away before the New York folk music scene really took off. This portrait of a struggling artist is one of the Coen's most beautifully realised and resonant films. Their depiction of many setbacks and indignities that Llewyn faces feels so specific and true, and while the film is often very funny, it is marked by a melancholy undertone that reminded me of John Huston's great Fat City. Is there anyone to touch the Coen brothers when they are on this kind of form? Inside Llewyn Davis is flawlessly shot and edited, superbly cast, and every minor tonal fluctuation is judged to perfection. It is one of their very best films.

2 - The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is an unforgettable film, although you might feel the overwhelming desire to scrub your brain clean after watching it. Joshua Oppenheimer's film gets up close and personal with men who have committed multiple murders, and who will smile and laugh as they describe exactly how they did it, even as they sit with their grandchildren on their knees. This singular documentary took a hell of a risk when it gave ageing former members of Indonesian death squads the opportunity to restage their past crimes in whatever filmic style they chose, but the gamble paid off with some of the most extraordinary scenes I've ever witnessed on screen. The Act of Killing is a troubling, surreal, fascinating, shocking and ultimately devastating piece of filmmaking. It allows us a glimpse into the minds of evil men, and exposes for us a society in which past crimes have not only gone unpunished but are proudly discussed. It also poses interesting questions about our relationship with cinema, and what it means to see violent acts enacted rather than simply spoken of, with the effect of this experience being powerfully evident in the film's extraordinary final moments.

1 - It's Such a Beautiful Day

The best film of the year by a million miles is an animation that runs for just over an hour and has as its protagonist a simple stick man, the kind a child would draw. That description doesn't prepare you for the philosophical scope and emotional heft of It's Such a Beautiful Day, though. In the hands of Don Hertzfeldt, Bill the stick man becomes one of the most expressive and moving characters in any form of contemporary cinema. It's Such a Beautiful Day is an anthology film of sorts, consisting of three 20-minute shorts made over a number of years, but taken together it stands as a piercing examination of one man's crumbling health and mental fragility, with memories and everyday experiences being thrown together in an emotional maelstrom. This is a stupendously ambitious piece of work, focusing both on the most intimate details of Bill's character and contemplating this everyman's place in the universe, all of which is brilliantly captured by Hertzfeldt's boundlessly imaginative artistry. It's hard to describe the impact of It's Such a Beautiful Day, as many of its effects may sound banal shorn of context, but the handcrafted quality that Hertzfeldt brings to the film makes every minute feel full of humanity, compassion and wisdom. It feels like Hertzfeldt's whole career has been building towards this masterpiece, and it deserves to be considered among the greatest films – not just animated films – ever made. 

The Best Lead Actresses of 2013

10 - Agata Trzebuchowska - Ida

9 - Margarethe Tiesel (Paradise: Love)

8 - Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

7 - Paulina García (Gloria)

6 - Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)

5 - Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown)

4 - Golshifteh Farahani (The Patience Stone)

3 - Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said)

2 - Greta Gerwing (Frances Ha)

1 - Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour)

The Best Lead Actors 2013

10 - Jack O'Connell (Starred Up)

9 - Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

8 - James Gandolfini (Enough Said)

7 - Conner Chapman (The Selfish Giant)

6 - Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

5 - Steve Coogan (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa)

4 - Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)

3 - Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

2 - Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)

1 - Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)

The Best Supporting Actresses of 2013

10 - Rosario Dawson (Trance)

9 - Maribel Verdú (Blancanieves)

8 - Paprika Steen (Love Is All You Need)

7 - Verena Lehbauer (Paradise: Hope)

6 - Raven Adamson (Foxfire)

5 - Scarlett Johansson (Don Jon)

4 - Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida)

3 - Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)

2 - Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Colour)

1 - Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster)