2013 has come and gone, and left with it a wonderful host of films for us to pour over.It has been a big year for features with fantastically strong female performances, with Kate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, L a Seydoux, Ad le Exarchopoulos, Judy Dench and Greta Gerwig all making the most of their starring roles.Dedicating focus to one primary character has been great, it has allowed for a return to a cinema of individual struggles: whether they are physical, from Bullock's space adventure (Gravity, Alfonso Cuar n) to Robert Redford's 'old man and the sea' fight inJ.C. Chandor's gritty All is Lost; to the fragile psychological battles involved in expressing sexuality (Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche), individuality (Francis Ha, Noah Baumbach), and guilt (The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer).
[Kate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine]
Sadly some titles I have been waiting for have slipped into the schedule for 2014, due to UK distribution dates; key titles include: Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, Miyazaki Hayao's The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) and Bong Jong-ho's Snowpiercer.I feel that my roundup may consist of a recently released films (such as Alexander Payne's Nebraska) that have been held back until the forthcoming award season.But, alas, I digress; here is my slice of cinema from 2013.
[Until next year, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave]
My highlights this year have ranged from the big and bombastic Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro) to the bright and boorish Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine); as well as a host of weighty, nourishing films from established auteurs Woody Allen, Shane Carruth, Nicholas Winding Refn and Quentin Tarantino.
[Ryan Gosling reunited with Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn for his intoxicating anti-revenge feature, Only God Forgives]
Since audiences and critics were so enamoured by science fiction this year, I must vent this now (please hang in there).Although I've put Gravity in my 'top five' I value del Toro's new film for the same reasons: both are science-fiction adventures, and (maybe more so in the case of del Toro's film) both are designed as effects-driven thrill rides - perfectly calibrated for the three-dimensional cinema spaces where amped explosions and shiny pixels immerse and bombard viewers.Yes, the plot and acting is a little thin in Pacific Rim, but (and this is true of Gravity too) it brings some of the spectacle back to cinema, and with more tact and imagination than a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer movie.And yes, I am well aware that I may have a weakness for Pacific Rim as the giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters plot closely mirrors the subject matter in Anno Hideaki's landmark anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-), so it is a guilty pleasure.
[Guillermo del Toro sets his bustling imagination to colossal robots and monsters in Pacific Rim]
On the note of guilty pleasures I have to include two American films that couldn't be any more antagonistic: Spring Breakers, from Harmony Korine (Gummo, 1997; Mister Lonely, 2007), and Upstream Color, from Shane Currath (Primer, 2004), both are lavish films in terms of visual and aural content, by filmmakers who also polarise audiences and critics.Both of these are a pleasure to watch, and although they don't slot into my final selection I do want to pour over them just a little.
[The principal cast of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers]
The day-glow neon colours in Spring Breakers are more reminiscent of Refn's release for 2013, Only God Forgives, but this is no coincidence as Refn has echoed Gasper Noe (Irreversible, 2002; Enter the Void, 2009) in recent years in both style and content.Korine, for his gun-toting and sex-charged rugrat rampage, recruited Noe's cinematographer, Benoit Debie, and the results of this creative marriage become a key strength of the film.Together they have found a colour palette and shooting style to reflect the girl's moods and actions in the film, which when supported by a Skrillex soundtrack make it perfectly searing, annoying, and addictive cocktail.It transforms watching four scantily clad hard-bodied teens (and James Franco) enjoying 'spring break' (a purely indulgent American concept that we have no equivalent for) into an eloquent, if dub step can be eloquent, slice of contemporary hedonistic culture.
[Upstream Color: a film by Shane Currath - writer, director, cinematographer, editor, composer, and actor]
Then there is Shane Currath's film, Upstream Color - his first release since the mind-melting hard-science Primer - which is a beautifully constructed collage of dramatic moments interlaced with a non-linear narrative that was most commonly described as 'cerebral' by critics.Where Terrance Mallick's To the Wonder, also released in 2013, strips back the dialogue and focuses on body movement as a means of expression Currath allows uses his script to further explore the complex notions of identity, intimacy and memory.Although both To the Wonder and Upstream Color utilise beautiful photography throughout, favouring a roving movement style and a bleached tonal range similar to Mallick's Tree of Life (2011), Upstream Color is a fuller experience that drifts from Cronenberg body-thriller to a Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) styled romance, and ultimately to metaphysical musing on universal connectivity.Both Spring Breakers and Upstream Color may be a trying watch, in very different ways, but definitely worth every (potentially arduous) minute of that initial session.
BACK IN BLACK (AND WHITE)
Say what you will about the film itself, but The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) helped put monochrome back onto the big screen, and pulled in big audiences too.However, this year it has been the indie-screen that has been full of black and white gems:Alexander Payne's Nebraska, Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, Noah Baumbach's Francis Ha, and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing all opted to disregard colour.
[Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing]
Nebraska and Francis Ha are good companions for comparison as they are both new 'comedies' from highly articulate filmmakers.Alexander Payne (Sideways, 2004) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, 2005) both pushed to film in monochrome even though it made the production process more difficult, potential distributers and financiers found it difficult to sell the end product, but they endured and made the films they set out to make.Whedon's Much Ado is an excellent adaptation and a perfectly cast version of the Shakespearean classic, and interestingly made over a weekend at his house during The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) schedule.However, the original comic material from Baumbach and Payne is, as always, wry and cutting whilst being reflective and honest.By draining the colour from their frames the films have gained an additional expressive quality, each favouring to shoot in natural light where possible.By contrast, when Berger's Blancanieves begins it is clear that monochrome has been adopted to recreate a theatrical lighting akin to the 1920 s chiaroscuro, and this aesthetic becomes another part of a flawless homage to a bygone era (watch out for superimpositions, wipes, and iris-ins to help punctuate the very moving matador adaptation of the classic Snow White tale).
[Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne's Nebraska]
[A wonderful example of the tonal depth of Berger's beautiful film Blancanieves]
[Greta Gerwig, co-writer and star of Francis Ha]
ABOUT THE REST
Before I get down to saying a little more about my final selection, I wanted to ensure that a few other films received a word or two.Irish cinema was stamped back on the map this year with What Richard Did, the new film from Lenny Abrahamson (Garage, 2007), which slots nicely into the new wave of European cinema where social realism is back at the forefront.2013 also marked Chan-wook Park's first feature made in the west, Stoker, a fantastically stylised homage to Alfred Hitchcock and Western noir, which features amazing performances from Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, and Mia Wasikowska.
[Sinister and sensual by nature: Matthew Goode in action in Chan-wook Park's Stoker]
Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine was very nearly in the top five, it rekindled my love for an auteur whom I had stopped counting on.The performances from Kate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins and Bobby Canavalle were all astounding, and made for a perfect cast to, essentially, a modern A Streetcar Named Desire.Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, 2011) new film, Mud, was another close contender for the top selection: a Tom Sawyer and 'Huck' Finn yarn concerning best friends who grow up alongside the Mississippi and become embroiled in the chaotic life of a reclusive man called Mud (adding another notch to Matthew McConaughy's acting belt as one of the best character actors working today).Another candid American performance of note came form Onata Aprile, as Maisie in What Maisie Knew ( Scott McGehee, David Siegel), which is a reworking of a Henry James novel of the same name that addresses divorce through the eyes of a child (although swapping Victorian England for present day New York).
[Onata Aprile as Maisie in What Maisie Knew]
Lastly, two animated films from two of the most creative minds working within the medium: It's Such A Beautiful Day by Don Hertzfeld and The Garden of Words by Shinkai Makoto.Don Hertzfeld has taken his craft from the simple, dark days of his Rejected (2000) cartoons and achieved a filmmaking style that teeters closer to the experimental work of Stan Brakhage (Mothlight, 1963) at times, or maybe even some of Man Ray's early abstract cinema forays.Shinkai, on the other hand, has produced another beautifully fleeting tale of passing lives, fleeting moments and relationships in The Garden of Words, much like his masterful trilogy of shorts 5 Centimetres Per Second (2007).
[Don Hertzfeld compiled his 2013 feature from his shorts Everything Will Be Okay, I Am So Proud of You and It's Such a Beautiful Day]
5. GRAVITY (ALFONSO CUAR N)
Cuar n has brought audiences back to an outer space that is terrifying, lonely, and awe-inspiring in ways that it has not been since 2001: A Space Odyessy (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).Well, with the exception of some parts of Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) or Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007).Bullock gives the performance of a lifetime as astronaut Ryan Stone who desperately tries to survive in space after debris interrupts her mission and leaves her stranded.The initial collision takes place during a seemingly continuous shot that last well over ten minutes, and this realtime event makes the action and tension all the more palpable.
4. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (LA VIE D'AD LE: CHAPITRES 1 & 2, ABDELLATIF KECHICHE)
A tale of passion, a story that is bittersweet and honest.The film follows teenager Ad le Exarchopoulos and her tumultuous relationship with L a Seydoux.We follow them from the first glance, a chance encounter on the street, through their courting and coupling.We attend family introductions, schoolyard bullying, and all of the amorous moments that punctuate infatuation.We share in their lusty youth (following Ad le's sexual discoveries) and their more strained adulthood relations.The tenderness and openness that Ad le and L a display definitely make the film, and it is hard to deny their involvement in earning a co-ownership of the 2013 Palme d'Or.
3. A HIJACKING (KAPRINGEN, TOBIAS LINDHOLM)
Forget Captain Philips (Paul Greengrass, 2013), this is the film that everyone should have seen when it comes to Somalian pirates taking over a cargo ship and the subsequent ransom negotiations.It is made with the same visceral intensity that quietly stewed under his previous film, The Hunt (2012), but rather than bubbling-over once or twice this film boils violently from the moment the pirates are spotted on the horizon line.Lindholm, who was also involved in the hit 'Nordic-noir' series Borgen (2010-2011), is quickly becoming one of my favourite names to watch out for and I look forward to any and all releases from this emerging auteur.
2. THE ACT OF KILLING (JOSHUA OPPENHEIMER)
So, I have glanced over documentaries in this annual review.I wasted time on giant robots and animation, and for that I am sorry.However, if you have to see one documentary from 2013 please ensure that it The Act of Killing.It is such a deeply affecting piece of filmmaking that I didn't want to set up any companion pieces by genre or subject matter.When the production was entering the final stages of filming Werner Herzog and Errol Morris came onboard as executive producers, and have helped guide the film to the widest possible audience.Their cinematic clout should indicate that this is not an amateur operation.The footage presented in The Act of Killing is so surreal at times that it is hard to remember that it is fact, not fiction.It is harrowing, hilarious, and unforgettable (in the best and worst kind of ways).
1. FRANCIS HA (NOAH BAUMBACH)
Well, it has appeared enough times throughout this article that you might have guessed that I have a sweet spot for this film!Sure, there are bigger and maybe 'better' films out there, but this one struck a chord with me.Francis Ha has a nonspecific energy oozing from it, granted that is mostly gushing out of Greta Gerwig's Francis, but the film follows her boundless charm as she, at 27, meanders through life.Francis Handley is a five-year graduate and backing dancer in a contemporary dance troupe and struggling for both cash and the stability expected from adulthood.When her be-speckled, intelligent-looking flatmate and soulmate ("We're the same person with different hair") Sophie, played by Mickey Sumner (daughter of Sting), wants to move to Tribeca it sets in motion Francis' relocation, which allows for a series of addresses to appear as intertitles to bookend sections of this film.
The monochrome palette and New York setting make Francis Ha a perfect bedfellow for the early work of John Cassavetes (Shadows, 1959) or Woody Allen (Annie Hall, 1977; Manhattan, 1979), who also focused on the rambling relationship-driven narratives where the city was as much of a character as the dramatise personae themselves.Or HBO's Girls.The script, co-written by Gerwig (Baumbach's off-scrreen girlfriend), uses Francis as a lens to analyse relationships and family: the friendship of Francis and Sophie, Sophie and her boyfriend Patch, Sophie's layabout affluent artist roommates Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen), and a score more.
Baumbach's previous film, Greenberg (2010), also featured Gerwig as an awkward singleton and since then she has played minor roles in films like To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012) and No Strings Attached (Ivan Reitman, 2011).Gerwig is perfect as the slightly self-centred, emotionally unbalanced New Yorker who, for a dancer, lacks certain social nuances and lies to herself and others to support her delusions.Some viewers will find her infuriating, intolerable or embarrassing.But there is heart too, Francis does care about the people around her, and Gerwig's manner enlivens the dry exchanges of wit, ever-present in Baumbach's work, and makes the most simple exchange of words all the more hilarious or poetic.