Top Ten Films Of 2013

Another year, another list.
As Hollywood descended into a suicidal cycle of remakes, sequels and films about the apocalypse we can take a deep breath at the end of 2013 and see a lot of hope for the future. 2013 was a banner year for television - possibly the greatest ever - and as filmmakers moved to the smaller screen there was a momentary concern that feature filmmaking was in trouble. If the 19 films I've listed below are any indiciation then we have nothing to worry about, for cinema is just as innovative, experimental and challenging as ever.
The below films are my personal highlights of the year. They are films that struck me as formally innovative, films that stayed with me for weeks after viewing, films that made me laugh, films that genuinely surprised me and also a few films that worked very hard to make me hate them. Some are out on DVD, some are in cinemas and some won't hit your screens until early next year.
This ode to cinema is the greatest supercut ever made. Creating a singular narrative simply using clips from other films is a remarkable achievement and it's a fascinating spectatorial experience as these archetypal images morph into an engaging love story. While some may have problems with the heteronormative or misogynistic nature of the narrative it seems a bit churlish to complain about a film that is merely a reflection of mainstream gender roles from the past century. The universality of storytelling is explicitly illustrated as well as countless little in-jokes for film fans to pick up as iconic images are decontextualised and juxtaposed with new meanings. A truly ground-breaking film that highlights the genuine creative spark that is present in remix art.
Talk about downer films, Magic Magic was one of the biggest gut punches of 2013. I hated this film on first viewing. It wound me up and then threw me out onto the street with literally no catharsis. As time passed I couldn't shake the experience and upon second viewing realised Magic Magic was an incredibly sophisticated examination of a troubled mind. Juno Temple and Michael Cera pitch their performances perfectly and the way the film pivots half way through from a subjective paranoid mindset to a wider look at a schizophrenic character is incredibly clever. It's punk Polanski.
I'm not a Woody Allen fan. In fact over recent years I have more often than not actively disliked his work. So it was a complete surprise to be bowled over by Blue Jasmine, a supremely misanthropic and nasty little film that felt like the work of an anti-social old man who doesn't especially like anyone anymore. Cate Blancett's astonishing performance brought an unexpected layer of sympathy to a central character that frequently felt at odds with Allen's nihilistic screenplay. This unexpected dichotomy between screenplay and performance was a moment of cinematic alchemy resulting in a truly unique and strange film. Allen's jaunty trademark jazz score constantly clashes with a narrative that is akin to torture porn. There is no hope here - and that is the joke? It's also an amazingly unexpected downer.
Shane Carruth's long awaited follow up to Primer is essentially a parable for atheists. This Malick inspired tone-poem is a joyous ode to the magic of interconnected systems – a spiritual paean for those who aren’t religiously inclined. Upstream Color is the work of a filmmaker trying something completely new. With no singular character to take the narrative from beginning to end Carruth relies on abstract connections creating a portrait of a giant interconnected intelligence that lives through all of us. An amazing cinematic achievement and a genuinely innovative way to tell a story.
This gorgeously minimalist thriller takes an anthropological eye to a subculture that will be fascinatingly unfamiliar to most of us. Ostensibly a murder mystery set in the homosexual beat scene on a beach by a lake this quietly innovative film utilizes repetitive behavioral rhythms to generate a subtly unsettling meditative quality. The graphic sex may be a little childishly provocative but the overwhleming textures of the film are incredibly memorable. Only faltering in its final moments (with a frustratingly obtuse ending), Stranger By The Lake is confronting, honest, insightful and excitingly iconoclastic.
If Gravity had too much hammy dialogue and clunky histrionics then you basically wanted it to be All Is Lost, a film that took the survivalist genre to its logical conclusion. For two hours you are stranded on a sinking yacht with Robert Redford as he scrambles to survive. With no dialogue or back story, our main character becomes an almost cipher-like representation of the human survival instinct. All is Lost is a genuinely bold film. It’s not especially innovative but its commitment to its solipsistic core has a cumulative effect that is wrenchingly gripping. Director J.C Chandor certainly demands his audience be patient and pay attention but he rewards them with an experience of pure cinema; an immersive, ascetic encounter that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated.
A carry over from 2012, we didn't get Tarantino's spaghetti slavery opus until late in January but it still held to be one of the most fascinating (and entertaining) pieces of pop culture all year. Continuing his run of blurring cinema and history this exploitation blast pissed all over respectability and peppered the classic revenge narrative with an explosive blast of anger against the darkest chapter in American history. In a world where the sombre and austere 12 Years A Slave is winning all the awards I still prefer Tarantino's angry, and questionable provocation. It may be wrong but at least it's alive with an electric energy.
Nicolas Winding Refn's widely reviled follow up to Drive, Only God Forgives was unarguably the work of a film-maker at the top of his game. It's an uncompromised piece of jagged glass that doesn't care who likes it. Many complained the film was style over substance (an especially vacuous opposition made by lazy writers) but in fact Refn perfectly understood how style actually is substance. Only God Forgives is an immaculately textured affectual experience taking the viewer deep into the centre of Freud's uncanny in a way no other filmmaker has dared. It's an unpleasant neon nightmare with every single formal decision tailored to generating dread and discomfort in the viewer. Films like this ain’t meant to be easy but damn, they are excitingly memorable.
The narrative may be simplistic and banal, the dialogue may occasionally be trite, but no other theatrical experience in 2013 offered up such a kinetic and visceral thrill as Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron launched cinematic technique into the 21st century with this visionary exercise in suspense. The rebirth symbolism may not be subtle but it was certainly effective and the archetypal narrative succinctly understood how commercial audiences function. I don’t think Gravity will stand up to repeat viewings on a small screen but for the 90 minutes I was watching this film I was in cinematic nirvana. This is the type of pop cinema Hollywood should be making more of. Easily the most experimental Hollywood blockbuster in years.
Joshua Oppenheimer's stunning documentary was easily the most confronting, unique and memorable pieces of cinema to hit in 2013. Taking a form unlike any other film ever made this documentary was not only a disturbing examination of how horrific atrocity is framed and excused within a specific cultural history but it also raised numerous ethical questions for its audience. As Oppenheimer subtly generated empathy for a man who was a self-admitted mass murderer, the film explicitly showed how fragile and constructed historical narratives can be. This ideologically dense and morally ambiguous film left me shell shocked for months and showed us all that cinema still has new exciting frontiers to be explored.
(some extra titles that stood tall in 2013)
For the first half of the film it felt like Paul Greengrass was making a pseudo-documentary spin on Under Siege but as the film progressed it became stunningly claustrophobic and affecting. The final ten minutes deconstruct the masculine Hollywood hero myth in such a profound way that I was almost brought to tears. It may not have the wider scope that the similarly themed (and equally impressive) A Hijacking, had earlier in 2013 but the sense of immediacy is vibrant.
Still unreleased and undistributed in Australia this is the second feature from US filmmaker Antonio Campos (Afterschool). Campos' mise-en-scene is immaculately manicured and this unpleasant exploration into a sociopathic personality is often genuinely uncomfortable but moments from this film stuck with me for weeks after viewing. I'm not sure it amounts to much but I certainly couldn’t shake the experience easily. Campos is a filmmaker to watch.
Derek Cianfrance's bold and emotional generational epic takes a broad structural gambit and throws everything into the mix. It's certainly long but also honest and authentic with several magnificent performances anchoring a heartfelt evocation of the links between fathers and sons. If only more US cinema was this bold.
When director Sebastian Silva and actor Michael Cera were in Chile waiting for financing to come through on Magic Magic they decided to quickly bang out this lovely little oddity as a way to fill some time making the trilogy of Michael Cera playing a jerk in 2013 complete (Magic Magic, This Is The End). Following arrogant American drug tourist Cera on his journey to try some authentic mescaline this laconic and sly film sneaks up on you with a magnificently honest and emotional pay off. It's a slacker drug trip where the cast were actually high while shooting the final scenes.
What a final year of cinema for Steven Soderbergh! This mix of Hitchcock and 90s erotic thriller is a text-book example of how to misdirect an audience and generate sophisticated cinema suspense. Soderbergh's hermetic, almost clinical style perfectly complements a narrative that delves into the cloudy psychological space of anti-depressants and the murky corporate world they inhabit.
Cloud Atlas may be hammy but it's also insanely audacious. The Wachowski's juggle multiple narratives in increasingly impressive ways as the film slowly fragments into a portrait of interconnected lives that is bracingly sincere in this age of super-irony. It may not work for everyone but you certainly can't say you have seen anything like it. This is cinema that is trying something new on a fundamental formal level and for that I applaud it.
How Steven Soderbergh turned this bizarre true story into a highly universal look at relationships that we can all relate to is the true magic in this absurdly entertaining film. A bit too episodic for its own good at times, this is still an exciting achievement that magically turns Liberace into a real person with real feelings when it could've easily descended into garish pastiche. Rob Lowe as plastic face is one of the highlights of 2013.
Matthew McConaughey anchors this gorgeously low-key film that is just a good old-fashioned story told really well. Channeling the spirit of Huck Finn filtered through a dry 70s sensibility, Jeff Nichols third feature is a beautiful coming of age story that I would love to show my kids some day. Between this and The Place Beyond The Pines it's been a good year for US indies examining the relationships between fathers and sons.
Richard Linklater has created one of the most unlikely and rich trilogies in modern cinema with Before Midnight. Retroactively adding value to the first two films, this third entry catches up with our couple as they are married, in their 40s and with kids. Culminating in a painfully real, and long argument, Before Midnight is the most emotionally honest look at how relationships change and evolve any American filmmaker has made in years.