2 January 2014

The Mad Prophet's Top 20 Films of 2013

"All your favourites are belong to me."
There are really two running themes to the list- coming-of-age films, because there are loads of them here, and Tom Hanks, because every single film he was in this year is here, and two of them are in the top ten. I can't say I've noticed patterns in previous lists, so maybe this is a 2013 thing- it's been a damn good year for both of those things, and many other things aside.

These lists are only ever a snapshot of how the writer feels at the end of each year, but in casting off 2013 and looking forward to this year, it's still worth remembering the highlights. There are still a lot of films I haven't seen that I really want to get around to- Nebraska, All Is Lost and Enough Said amongst them- but these are all based on the film release schedule between January 1st and December 31st 2013.

Anyway, now that we've got the worst out of the way, these are my favourites of the year- not necessarily the films I would say are the best, but the ones I enjoyed the most in the last 12 months. I think the longer list reflects the general quality of films released in the last year, but I'll really go into detail about the whys and why-fors in the top 10. Let's start from no. 20...

The first new film I saw in 2013- stirring performances from Naomi Watts and Tom Holland and some world-beating sound design made this a gruesome but deeply affecting chronicle of one story within a massive tragedy.

Woody Allen keeps us guessing with a character study that's all about light and dark, centred on an unforgettable turn from Cate Blanchett as a modern Southern belle, in a film that has shades of A Streetcar Named Desire and Young Adult.

18. RUSH
One of Ron Howard's best films, which finds an unlikely central character in Niki Lauda, (played brilliantly by Daniel Brühl) and truly manages to capture both the dangerous intensity of Formula 1 racing, and the drama that takes place off the track.

17. MUD
Released very close to Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, this is a more adventurous, Southern-fried rendition of a similar story, with another terrific performance from Matthew McConaughey, and an utterly captivating atmosphere.

It's rightly been said that Steven Soderbergh's Liberace biopic would have been eligible for all kinds of Oscar consideration if studios had been less skittish about the subject matter. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon really bring it to life, when it could've simply been embalmed in glitz and nostalgia.

A deeply unsettling and visually uncompromising English-language debut from Park Chan-wook- we should've known, really. The story is impressively straightforward, given its complexity and sophistication, and Park clearly takes delight in mind-fucking mischief.

A film that would've been in the top 10, if it weren't for a slightly shaky ending. In its own way, it's one of the many coming-of-age films on the list, as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg change lanes right at the end of their thematic Cornetto trilogy, and Pegg's lead performance is one of 2013's most underrated turns.

13. IRON MAN 3
If you have to follow The Avengers, then follow it with a Shane Black Christmas movie. The best of Tony Stark's solo trilogy, putting uproarious comedy and some serious character development hand-in-hand for the best, most entertaining blockbuster we got all summer.

A coming-of-age tale in which our hero runs away from home, purely because he can't handle Nick Offerman's craic. This is the modern answer to Stand By Me, with teens who are appropriately less tough, and the absurdity of their situation brings hilarity throughout.

Tom Hanks film, take a shot! Far more exciting and intelligent than other movies based on recent true stories, this was one of the most intense films I saw all year. On the strength of this, Hanks and Paul Greengrass could be a formidable new actor-director pairing in the future.

Dir. Alfonso Cuarón // 91 mins // USA

While it's topping many people's lists overall, this never really felt like film-of-the-year material to me. Still, it's my list, and I wouldn't have put it into the top ten if I didn't feel like it deserved mention. What makes this special to me is that it comfortably stands in the forefront of the year's achievements in visual effects, held in previous years by Avatar and Life of Pi, but it also has a better script than either of those movies.

If you want to imperil America's girl next door in a way that really lets her show off her range as a performer, this is the way to do it. Sandra Bullock's towering performance grounds the film, despite the irony of her character spiralling uncontrollably through space for most of the running time.

Even if it's the technical aspects that inevitably and deservedly come in for the most praise, this is a massively ambitious science fiction drama that does wonders for the genre, by proving that a character drama can work on an interstellar scale, and finds frightening feasibility in an extreme situation.

Dir. Jon S. Baird // 97 mins // UK

The most festive movie of the year centres around a sociopathic Scottish detective, as he screws over his friends and colleagues in pursuit of a promotion over the Christmas period. I think that says more about the shortage of good festive films last year, but this is a strong film all on its own- a fearsome, fucked-up comedy that makes great sport out of an unsuspecting audience.

As I said in my review, it's tough to separate the film from James McAvoy's lead performance as Bruce, partly because he features in almost every scene, but mostly because it's the best performance of the year. He really transforms himself for this deeply unlikeable character, and the effect is both hypnotic and repulsive.

Up to a point, it's the very definition of a guilty pleasure. So often, that's taken to mean "so bad, it's good", but this one is so good at shocking and disgusting the viewer, you're meant to feel guilty for enjoying it so much. On top of that, it makes a pretty cool double bill with Sunshine On Leith, which serves as an Edinburgh-centric upper to follow this superb downer.

Dir. John Lee Hancock // 125 mins // UK/USA/Australia

Tom Hanks film, take a shot! I tend to like movies about making movies, and here's one that manages, in vast contrast to films like Hitchcock, to make the story feel lively and exuberant, rather than anecdotal and lifeless. The story of making Mary Poppins could so easily have become studio propaganda for Disney, but this one wins through with minimal sugar-coating.

While it owes a considerable debt to fondness for the 1964 classic, the film never uses nostalgia as a crutch, finding its own way through a story in which disappointing childhood experiences have motivated all of the key players, from Emma Thompson's prim and terribly cross P.L. Travers, to Tom Hanks' wily and charming Walt Disney.

Thompson is on Oscar-worthy form in the lead role, serving as an anchor for the rampant flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia, and sparking wonderfully off of everyone with whom she shares the screen, from Hanks to a giant Mickey Mouse plushy. Unabashedly a Disney fable about the making of a Disney fable, but one which warms the heart in spite of all its open emotional manipulation.

Dir. Richard Linklater // 109 mins // USA

It's the third time that we've dropped in on Jesse and Celine, and by now, these films almost feel like second nature to Linklater and his stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In a seismic shift from the unresolved tension of the first two films, the two lovers are now in a relationship, and have twin children of their own.

For as much new territory as this opens, the three of them mostly hold true to the format of Jesse and Celine walking around, on holiday, and talking to one another, and it still feels fresh and witty. They invented the basis of actor improvisation and character-led introspection that mumblecore filmmakers have taken up while they've been away, and it doesn't take long at all for them to re-establish that they're the reigning champions of it.

I could comfortably drop in on Jesse and Celine every nine years for the rest of their lives, because Linklater, Hawke and Delpy evidently have the inspiration and affinity for those characters to just keep going forever. No cinematic relationship feels so lived in, and yet so welcome for revisiting- at a point in their lives where we're unlikely to find them on their own, their feelings and problems are as engaging as they ever were.

Dir. Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski // 164 mins // Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore

This film has six Tom Hankses! Finish your drinks!

There's a monologue in this movie in which a villainous character opines that there's a natural order, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. That's a key theme throughout the film, but also one which seems to have been lent credence by the lack of critical kudos for this visionary adaptation.

Taking a unique approach to adapting David Mitchell's epic novel, Tykwer and the Wachowskis have cast their company of actors as multiple characters across the six different stories in the film, unbound by race or gender- what better way to bring the dense thematic weight of the book to the big screen? Even the author has admitted that he can't explain how he pictured the linked characters in his head.

No other film made this much work for itself, and the result, as well as being spectacular to behold, provides a terrific acting exercise for stars like Halle Berry and Hugh Grant, who are on their best form in years, as well as giving Jim Broadbent a chance to audition for the knockabout Ealing comedy that we never knew we wanted. Here's hoping that the future is kinder to it.

Dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee // 102 mins // USA

Another Disney film whose appeal lies in nostalgia, but crucially, it's nostalgic for when Disney animation was really belting them out of the park. This almost seems to pick up where Beauty and the Beast left off, shedding the arch self-awareness that has dogged them since Shrek showed them up, and replacing it with a modern, but no less magical script.

Disney's top minds (including Tom-- er, Walt himself) spent decades trying to crack Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen for an animated adaptation, but in making the story about two sisters, rather than a plucky princess and her adversary, gives the story a whole new dimension. Anna is a more grounded Disney princess than we've ever seen, and Elsa could as easily have been a character in an X-Men film.

The male characters are appreciably more down-to-Earth than ever before too, and Olaf the snowman is the best comedy sidekick in an animated film, Disney or otherwise, for a long, long time. This is a funny and moving addition to the recent House of Mouse canon, with great, catchy songs and a range of diverse, likeable characters. Between this and Wreck-It Ralph, the new Disney resurgence is officially here.

Dir. Steven Soderbergh // 106 mins // USA

If 2013 is Soderbergh's last year as a cinematic director, then he's ended it well with Behind The Candelabra (see #16) and this film, which has stuck with me since I saw it back in March. Having gone in with expectations that this would be a companion to writer Scott Z. Burns' Contagion, with equal foreboding given to the world of corporate medicine.

However, this is a film that gleefully up-ends your expectations at every turn. I never quite got a handle on it, and no other film surprised me as consistently as this one, elevating a B-movie mystery premise into something almost Hitchcockian.

It demands a second, more rewarding viewing, in which you can really appreciate how Jude Law and Rooney Mara know more than the audience in their performances, and manage to adapt their choices in sync with the twisting and turning plot without giving too much away before it unfolds. A quietly riveting thriller that's more than worth mentioning at the end of a busy year.

Dir. Declan Lowney // 86 mins // UK/France

This is the film I've re-watched the most times in the last year, and it still makes me laugh every time. North Norfolk's most famous son comes to the big screen in a singularly unambitious film, which wisely directs all of its energy into being as funny as possible.

Steve Coogan et al recognise that the character isn't liable to grow or learn anything, and that his popularity has endured across so many mediums because of that inflexibility, and so they keep him well clear of a traditional movie character arc. It's far better that he mimes Roachford, or sprints away from danger in abject terror, when the jokes around him, and supporting characters like Lynn and Michael, are this good.

I would argue with some over how high this should be placed on the list, ("needless to say, I had the last laugh") but strangely enough, in a list of my favourite films of the year, cinematic quality (or lack thereof) is kind of irrelevant when it comes to this- this was the funniest film of the year, even if we have to acknowledge that it's partly due to it being set almost entirely in a radio station. Good thing too- it probably would have been shit if he'd gone abroad.

Dir. Jim Rash & Nat Faxon // 103 mins // USA

The almost-best coming-of-age movie of the year marks the directorial debut of Rash and Faxon, who won an Oscar for writing The Descendants last year, and it feels much more personal for them. It's all about 14-year-old Duncan, (wonderfully played by Liam James) coming out of his shell by working at a slightly dilapidated water park, and if the premise feels slight, then the emotional pay-off more than makes up for it.

First and foremost, this serves as a terrific showcase for the mighty Sam Rockwell as Owen, the water park manager who takes Duncan under his wing. If this film were made 30 years ago, you would have wanted Bill Murray in that part, and it's a revelatory role for the reliably excellent Rockwell. Steve Carell serves as a great counter to that character too, playing against type as the aggressively unlikeable, domineering boyfriend to Duncan's mother.

The feel-good factor is high in this one, and there's a palpable sense of the kind of summer that you never want to end, from what starts as the worst summer imaginable for our main character. I can't wait to see what Rash and Faxon come out with next.

Dir. Pablo Berger // 104 mins // Spain/France/Belgium

If you're keeping score, Mud, Stoker, The World's End, The Kings of Summer, Frozen and The Way, Way Back all have coming-of-age themes, but for my money, this silent movie re-telling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was better than any of them. Contrary to recent reboots of the fairy tale, gritty or otherwise, this one manages to balance a sense of humour with its darker, kinkier edges.

Set in 1920s Spain, the heroine is re-imagined as the daughter of a bullfighter, hated by her wicked stepmother and forced to go on the run with a bunch of miniature matadors. It's liberated of the faux fairytale atmosphere to which most Hollywood fairytales feel beholden, because that's adapted into a more uncanny, dangerous sense of un-reality. It has less in common with Pan's Labyrinth than it does with something like Stoker, and the result is bewitchingly good.

It's a mischievous film, playing up some of its more surreal parts while building a fondness for the characters that only really hits home during the finale, which has a demented twist on the original ending of the Snow White tale. An inventive, modern silent film that thrives in alternately delighting and disturbing the viewer- the most purely enjoyable film of 2013.

There you go, my top 20. Few of these films were on my radar at the start of last year, so I'm sure that 2014 will hold just as many surprises. For now, I'm looking forward to Muppets Most Wanted, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the Phil Lord-Chris Miller double bill of The LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Street.

Please share your picks for best and worst of the year in the comments, because I'm interested to see if anyone else liked Side Effects as much as I did.

As ever, I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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