Incredibly subjective as my choices are, these are the films I enjoyed most over the course of my year's cinema viewing. Everything considered for this list was something I saw this year and which were released this year (otherwise Alien and The Blues Brothers would be sitting pretty high up there). And it should be noted that there was much I missed at the time (like Malick's To the Wonder) or that I simply haven't seen in time for making this list (like The Hobbit: a The Desolation of Smaug). Would these films have made the list? Seems unfair to count out their potential, but my parameters are what they are.
And so, with that explanation (and, let's be honest, defence) aside, I present to you now my 10 Favourite Films of 2013. Feel free to disagree in the comment section below.
It may seem an odd choice for Byzantium to make it onto a Top 10 list, mainly because it doesn't feel particularly cinematic. It feels more akin to a made-for-TV movie, the kind that the BBC have been known to trade in. However, I found it to be a very satisfying experience, not in the least because it has Neil Jordan returning to the realm of vampirism for the first time since Interview With a Vampire.
For how low-key and insular Byzantium feels (as it may do ring written by playwright Moira Buffini), it also has a rich sense of mythology, reinterpreting how vampirism works, who gets turned and why. And through that, we follow two young(ish) women who walk through their world, barely part of it, but cutting an undeniably bloody swathe through it. And the performances from both Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton anchor things wonderfully.
Byzantium almost feels like it belongs in its own horror sub-genre - "seaside noir", tracking the murky morals of survival, revenge and just simple existence. Perhaps not for everyone, but a solid and welcome swing from Jordan.
I love me some Shane Black, and when he gets the chance to reteam with Robert Downey Jr. after the superb Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it's all the better. So when Marvel brought them back together, along with an incredible cast, to tackle the third instalment of the Iron Man trilogy, colour me gold with a little hotrod red thrown in there.
More than just a slap-bang actioner liberally peppered with snappy one-liners, Iron Man 3 was a cracking action movie layered over a satire on the use of media to perpetuate the War on Terror... liberally peppered with snappy one-liners. The set-pieces are amongst the best in the entire Avengers-oriented Marvel canon, the performances are great all round, and it still feels like a Shane Black movie.
And that bit... you know the one... is, frankly, inspired. Simultaneously dismissing an outdated character model steeped in Orientalism, presenting a superb blindside that feeds into the film's satirical edge and being so distinctly Shane Black (bloody actors!) all at the same time. That this film also made me laugh more than any other this year also keeps it pretty high on my list.
I'll be honest and say that I was rather worried about my filmic relationship with Soderbergh, and had become increasingly so over the past decade. Between that and his repeated threats to retire once and for all, I was very worried one of the more unique visions in quasi-mainstream film was going to just fizzle out.
Then this year, he released a damn fine one-two of Side Effects, a great little medical thriller, and Behind the Candelabra, his long-awaited Liberace biopic. And as much as I enjoyed the taut play of Side Effects, it was Behind the Candelabra that caught me.
Featuring two excellent performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the story of Liberace's relationship with Scott Thorson was a torrid and painful one, marked even more so because it's clear just how much they cared for each other. It also features one of my favourite moments of the year, where Michael Douglas performs The Impossible Dream for an audience of one. Beautiful scene, and one that bumps this film up considerably for me.
Park Chan-wook is one of the more unique voices to come from South Korea, which is saying something considering that country's output over the past decade. As such, there was much anticipation surrounding his first English-language feature, and he sure didn't disappoint.
Written by Wentworth Miller (until this movie known as "that guy from Prison Break"), it's a story of a very unique family, coming to terms with loss. However, whilst that's a true summation of events, it's also wildly inaccurate. The characters are all pretty much sociopaths, and their methods of coming to terms with things are both destructive and oddly restrained. I once described the film to someone as like a repressed family drama that was made by a total pervert. It's such a tense affair, it all feels so damn unsavoury, even when all you're looking at is a family quietly sitting around a table. And Clint Mansell's disquieting and haunting score is also amongst my favourites of the year.
The tonal shifts, typical to Park, can mean it's often difficult to grab hold of what you're seeing, but it's kind of a blast to watch it all unfold. And it holds three damn fine performances from three damn fine actors. Might not be for everyone, but I loved this.
During the first ten minutes of Prisoners, I was pretty worried. Catching it just before it left cinemas, I had a lot people saying how good it was, even some suggesting it was the first real contender for best of the year. And yet as I watched the opening moments of family togetherness, I was very underwhelmed. It felt clunky, awkward, false. However, that feeling quickly vanished as the plot properly got under way.
The feeling of initial uneasiness was replaced by a sense of utter dread (in a good way) that just deepened as the film progressed. There is an uncontrollable sinking feeling that accompanies Prisoners as characters get lost and trapped, in a variety of ways. Moments where the film is perhaps fairly predictable overcome this flaw by creating such a grim atmosphere that it's still so easy to succumb to it all.
Villeneuve racks up the tension and eerie foreboding with great skill, and the performances from all involved (particularly Jake Gyllenhaal's stressed investigator) mark this as an intense thriller that holds you from (nearly) beginning to end.
Cloud Atlas was a very early contender for my favourite of the year and, though others eventually came in ahead of it, I don't think there was much danger of it leaving my Top 5. It's a film that, even just on a level of logistics in filmmaking, is a feat that genuinely may surpass all others for what it accomplishes. For scope and sheer ambition, Cloud Atlas is incredible. Fortunately, it has a lot more than that going for it.
Cloud Atlas could be regarded (and occasionally dismissed) as an admittedly epic way to indulge in the quasi-New Age notion that we're all connected throughout time and space, and that we are in fact all one. Others took serious umbrage with the use of various actors portraying characters outside of their own race (white guy plays Korean guy, Korean woman plays Hispanic woman, black woman plays white woman, etc.). However, to take offence at these decisions is to fail to engage with the purpose behind them. Cloud Atlas shoots for something beyond simply good storytelling or technical mastery... Cloud Atlas goes for transcendence, wants to make the audience experience something absolutely and totally profound, and to do so with every weapon at its disposal, like colour, scale and music. Cloud Atlas wants to shake something within all of us.
Bad art is something that can live on notoriety. Good art is something that can connect people across simple barriers. But great art is the stuff that can change people, removing borders between people entirely. Cloud Atlas is a film that shoots higher than perhaps any other this year, and for that it deserves recognition.
Controversial, I know. This has probably been the single most polarising film of the year. People either loved it or hated it, and the realm between seemed to be a sparsely populated region. I would say Only God Forgives is an unarguably bold film, but how that boldness strikes the viewer is entirely a question to be answered on a case by case basis.
Me? I loved it. I loved the dark, incredibly amoral plain on which the film was set and the utterly damned characters that were set apart by only degrees of the violence they were willing to inflict upon someone else. Refn created an incredibly stylised and beautiful world where things like Justice and vengeance existed, but in a vacuum separate from things like divinity and righteousness. It's an absolute hell, and everyone in it is lost to the abyss without any hope of escape.
Is it incredibly pretentious? An exercise in style without substance? I can certainly see the points of those who hate the movie. However, I can't hate on a film that left me in an ever-so-slightly awed silence when it ended. Amongst my Top 10? Most definitely.
Some films you watch and by the time the end credits roll, you have to admit that you have no idea what just happened. That's pretty much how I felt with Primer, Shane Carruth's first film. Very interesting premise, but thanks its convoluted structure and near impenetrable techno-speak dialogue, it honestly just left me bewildered and cold. I've watched a few times now, and I just can't warm to it.
Not so with Carruth's follow-up effort, Upstream Color. It isn't an easy watch, much like its predecessor. In fact, it will make you work for every bit you get, but I found myself more and more willing to give in to it as it progressed. The ideas were still intriguing, the performances effectively engaging, the overall flow of the film just kept pulling me along that by its end, I felt both thrilled and oddly calmed.
I'm not going to say I understood it all on the first watch, but sometimes that doesn't matter. Sometimes, it's enough to know that you've been held by something so well that you know you'll want to go back there again. And I do.
Frankly, I'm as surprised as you are that this only lands at No. 2 on this list. Speaking as objectively as possible, this is probably the film I would regard as "The Year's Best", and considering what it did to me, that's no surprise.
Gravity is a force of nature. And Gravity is a force of cinema. Alfonso Cuarón's space-set drama may play fast and loose with the laws of science, but it is a resolute affirmation of what cinema can do. The vastness of space, the delicate minutiae of human emotion, a crushing sense of claustrophobic isolation, the massive potential for triumph.
And it's the best work Sandra Bullock has ever done. Pretty much everything rests on her performance, and she stands up to the task with skill, poise and just everything you'd want from her. It's a great showing.
I'll bet very few of you saw that one coming. Considering how I just spoke about Gravity, how exactly could I put something like Mud higher in the list, let alone the top spot? Put simply, Mud caught me pretty early in the year (a May release) and just never let me go.
Mud isn't a movie of particularly high aspirations, like Cloud Atlas. Really, it's a pretty simple coming-of-age story about two boys who befriend a mysterious stranger they meet on an island whilst out on their boat. What follows is how the pair come to be introduced to specific aspects of the world of grown ups, and that simplicity isn't something too easily found. It's very simple, but it does it very well, and utilises a style that's distinct and firm. In the same way that I described Byzantium as "seaside noir", Mud is something like a "bayou noir" (or perhaps more broadly classified as "film soleil"), a tale of morality writ across the waters of the Mississippi.
Mud also showcases another superb central performance Matthew McConaughey, who looks to be moving from strength to strength with each new project. And he's not alone, since every performance is on point, from Reece Witherspoon to Sarah Paulson to Sam Shepard to youngster Tye Sheridan to Nichols regular Michael Shannon. David Wingo also provides a fine and excellent score, atmospheric and teeming with the personality of the riverside community in which the film is set. And having Dirty Three in there as well just makes it better.
Jeff Nichols came to my attention with his previous film, Take Shelter. Really enjoying that, I was indeed very eager to see what else he'd produce. And, as it turns out, the guy followed it up with my favourite movie of 2013. Mud isn't big or ostentatious or even likely to show up on many other end of year lists. In fact, with its quiet, solid power, it's likely to be seen as one of those overlooked gems that deserved more attention when it was out. And perhaps it's that aspect that brings it closer for me than the others. Anyone can love the big stuff, but I like holding onto the smaller films so that they don't get lost in the morass.