Whereas most film reviewers and podcasts I follow seem to produce their ‘best of the year’ reviews sometime in early December, I’m finally considering mine now. While our children are getting older and (even) more cine-literate, I still don’t get to the cinema very often, so only a few of my best cinematic experiences of 2013 were either actually at the cinema, or of films released in 2013. Nevertheless, it was a pretty good year for me…
Three sporting films surprised me, not least because my wife Rachel also enjoyed them, a tribute to their storytelling and (in one case especially) the jaw-dropping visuals on the screen.
Moneyball featured great performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (yes! really…) in the tale of the Oakland A’s baseball team’s rise from the poor relations of the Major League to statistical miracles. Lots of talking and stats about baseball can make for a really engrossing 2 hours.
I’ve already written at length about the brilliant documentary Senna, by Asif Kapadia. Even if you know nothing about, or care not a jot for Formula 1, I urge you to see this. But a terrific companion piece to Senna and its driven hero would be TT(3D): Closer to the Edge, which depicts the life in a week of the Isle of Man TT Races, following a few of the riders as they scream around the tiny, twisting island roads at up to 200mph, battling with uneven kerbstones, roadsigns and drystone walls just inches from the racing line. The spectre of death is never far away and the footage is mind-blowing, but even more astonishing are the men themselves. I don’t think it’s possible for world-class sportsmen to be any further from the pampered prima donnas in the UK Premiership. These guys operate out of winnebagos (or in one case sleeping in the back of a transit van on the beach), they live in modest houses, and if they weren’t doing what they do, would probably be mechanics in their local garage, spending Friday night in the pub with their mates.
Although last year I think I surpassed myself, seeing around 65-70 films, the number of foreign language films was down. Am I losing my arthouse tendencies? But although I didn’t see many, I did see an absolute belter, and it’s not a sombre drama in leaden rooms either. La Haine is a brutal depiction of the Parisian banlieue, featuring a breathless tour de force performance from Vincent Kassel. Shot in stark black & white, it follows three teens from the projects as they mope, drift and blaze their way around Paris, raging at the police and injustice and boredom. You sense from the start it probably won’t end well when the opening narration retells the story of a man falling from the 51st floor, who reassures himself as he passes each floor on the way down “so far, so good”.
Another striking depiction of a particular community and place is the poetic, ambitious, fantastical (and flawed) Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here we’re in the Deep South of Louisiana, on an island forever under threat from the sea and storms. Poverty is endemic and crippling, housing seems ramshackle at best. They’re literally and figuratively a long way from the American Dream of the 21st Century, but the community spirit is unrivalled. The film focuses on a young girl’s quest to find her father under the imminent approach of a Hurricane-Katrina-like tempest. Thematically it reminded me a lot of Studio Ghibli films, where children (especially girls) take the leading roles, often in the place of irresponsible or simply absent parents. There’s a strong mystical element to the storytelling too, as she fears the invasion of mythical giant beasts (another Ghibli reference…).
Two films surprised me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’d heard good things about Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, and the DVD had sat on my shelf for more than a year. As (another) comic-book adaptation, I presumed I’d be underwhelmed as I had been so many times before. But this is ultra-violence, profanity and black, black comedy at its best. It’s audacious in ways that most films aren’t. Its daring left me open-mouthed several times; indeed, the least surprising and over-the-top element was Nicolas Cage.
And then there’s Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers. I’m a big fan of this British film-maker, from his debut film about low-rent gangsters in Brighton, Down Terrace, to his genre-busting Kill List, he’s never short of interesting, even if he’s not to your taste. The simplest way to describe Sightseers would be a mash-up between Mike Leigh’s brilliant Nuts in May and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The most unlikely serial killers take a caravan around Northern England; carnage ensues.
Two films I expected to love and wasn’t disappointed… Scott Pilgrim vs The World and The World’s End, both directed by Edgar Wright. I’ve been a proper fanboy of this director since I fell in love with his TV series Spaced. These films are simply fantastic in mostly different ways. They know what they want to be and go for it, no holds barred, for good or ill. Hilariously funny but with real depth and charm, excellent acting and inventive direction.
Another great comedy that I feared would be diminished by the hype was Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, in which the eponymous and tragic radio ‘celebrity’ reaches the end of everyone’s tether in 90 minutes of mayhem before becoming an unlikely hero… we laughed a lot. A lot.
I was beginning to think that I’d exhausted the cream of the crop in animation, as we’ve already run through the Pixar and Ghibli catalogues, but Paranorman was a wonderful treat. From the studio that created Coraline, it’s a brilliant mix of CGI and stop-motion animation with fabulous characters and a true love of cinema. There are countless horror genre references that all work. It repays multiple viewing with all sorts of details that are a wonder to behold.
Lastly, and I’ve written about these at length, comes the outstanding trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight. Directed by Richard Linklater and co-written with stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, they depict a relationship in snapshot episodes filmed with 9 years in between each instalment. The actors/characters age, and yet their relationship is so perfectly drawn; the writing, the performances, the dialogue are all filled with humanity, which makes them my films of 2013.