The close of each year sees a slew of ‘best of’ lists from critics. Here’s my personal top ten, in descending order:
10. The Hunt (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
I saw The Hunt in December, when lists of ‘films of the year’ were beginning to be published. I watched many of the films mentioned by critics to catch up on what I’d missed; The Act Of Killing, Beyond The Hills and even The Lone Ranger, whose supporters and detractors were equally vociferous. But it was the story of Mads Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a primary school teacher who is accused of sexually abusing the child of his best friend Theo, that was the best of those I saw. Vinterberg, who shot to prominence in 1998 with the classic Festen, returns to material that is incredibly absorbing but almost impossible to watch as the on-screen tension plays out. Lucas loses control of the situation as more allegations sweep over him and he is treated detestably by those living about him in the village. The only people who believe him are his son Marcus, brilliantly played by Lasse Fogelstrøm, and his friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe), who jokes with Lucas at one point about a basement where the child alleges the abuse took place. Mikkelsen’s performance is breathtaking: we see his character show a wide range of emotions, which are transferred effectively to the audience. Cinema as empathy machine, as Mark Cousins would say.
9. Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
The second Danish director in my top 10 is Nicolas Winding Refn, who followed up the violent and stylish Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, with another violent, stylish film starring Ryan Gosling. The film is set in a neon-lit, night-time Bangkok where drug dealer Julian (Gosling) is compelled by his mother and matriarch Crystal (played with élan by Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the death of his brother Billy. That Billy deserved his grizzly fate matters not to Crystal who, in true gangland style, must reclaim an eye for an eye. Trying to police the violence is Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) who deals justice to the criminals he encounters using methods just as violent as those of the gangs. The film is a strange beast indeed, and many critics couldn’t forgive Refn for, as they perceived it, placing style over substance. Gosling takes the the minimalist performance he gave in Drive to a new level, acting with glances, nods and bursts of violence, much in the way of a more silent Toshiro Mifune. but this fits perfectly into the visual style and narrative of the film, allowing Pansringarm and Scott Thomas to go all out in their quest to see each other off in ever more bloody and vengeful ways. The film looks dazzling, and the world and characters it created was true to itself, allowing the viewer to be truly immersed. I was hugely impressed by the sound design and mix, which was perhaps only second behind the otherwise disappointing Upstream Color. There is much here to admire, and I look forward to Refn’s next film, whatever it may be.
8. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty was one of the marquee world cinema releases of 2013, and Artificial Eye braved an early September release date, a time when cinema audiences have had their fill of summer blockbusters and tend to stay at home to recover from all the cinematic crashing and banging. This Fellini-esque tribute to Italy’s capital city centres on Toni Servillo’s Jep Gambardella, a socialite journalist who is coming to the end of his career and is beginning to question his life’s journey and the choices he has made along the way. His friends are, in the main, shallow and vain but he has warmth and love for a select few of them, allowing us to see their good qualities. In another director’s or actor’s hands, Jep could be highly unlikeable – we see him dishing out judgements and leading a very materialistic existence of parties and excess – but we grow to like him because he acknowledges these points throughout the film. The party scenes are incredible, with dance music filling the auditorium as the grotesques on screen get drunk and out of control. This excess is always balanced with another facet of the city’s identity, religion, although it is questionable whether spirituality comes into the religious lives of the characters in the film. I can’t wait to see this film again, perhaps in a double bill with La Dolce Vita.
7. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (dir. Chiema Karasawa)
A gem of a film. I saw this at the 2013 London Film Festival and thought it was the best documentary I had seen all year. The film is about Elaine Stritch, Broadway entertainer and force of nature, and her return to performing as an 86-year-old. Stritch had been a singer and performer on Broadway for many years, developing an idiosyncratic singing and acting style, before starring in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company in 1970. She has gained fame with younger audiences by playing the wonderfully acerbic Colleen, Alec Baldwin’s mother in Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. The documentary is in thrall to her, and she is an incredible woman: at times strong; at others, weak and insecure. Health problems mean she gets tired easily but it is clear her passion for performance and her audience’s desire to see her perform are undimmed. Her musical director Rob Bowman has been with her for years and their relationship is intriguing to watch. She talks openly about life, death and love and we see a tender moment between her and James Gandolfini, who admits if they had known each other when both in their thirties he’s sure they would have had a hot and tempestuous love affair. I hope this film gets a theatrical release in the UK in 2014; however, as yet, it’s just doing the festival rounds.
6. Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)
Joe Swanberg has been supported well at the LFF and he took his latest, biggest film, Drinking Buddies, to this year’s festival. His usual style of film-making is incredibly lo-fi, using digital cameras to great effect, using their small size and portability to portray his characters’ tenderness and vulnerability. For Drinking Buddies, he has moved into more mainstream territories, especially with the casting of recognised faces Olivia Wilde (Kate) and Anna Kendrick (Jill), alongside Jake Johnson (Luke) and Ron Livingston (Chris). Swanberg has built a reputation for making films about lives in stasis or at crossroads, and Drinking Buddies is no different. The film revolves round the craft beer brewery where Kate and Luke work, and through them we see their respective partners, Jill and Chris. At the start of the film, Kate and Chris are a couple, as are Luke and Jill; however, each couple shows varying degrees of attraction to the other, during flirtatious nights at the bar and on a remote camping trip. The characters are genuinely likeable, not because they are perfect but because they are struggling through their lives by making mistakes (as we all do) but trying to learn from them. Swanberg encourages improvisation in his cast, and their performances reflect that sense of never knowing quite what will happen next: it feels incredibly fresh, as long as you can cope with their countless ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. A great piece of American indie filmmaking.
5. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the group of men and women whose job it was to hunt for the top men in Al-Qaeda, and Osama Bin Laden in particular. As the popularity of Homeland has shown over the last few years, not to mention the Wikileaks revelations, there is great interest in post-9/11 stories. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a counter-intelligence agent with the CIA who is on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The evidence we see her team collect (using methods controversial both in their practice and in their representation in this film) is used to contribute towards the tracking down of Bin Laden and, ultimately, to conduct a midnight raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, believed to be his hideout. The first two hours of the film is a gripping patchwork of interweaving investigations, clues and patterns, but it is the final forty minutes during which the raid takes place, which is among the most gripping pieces of cinema I’ve seen. We know what the outcome will be, as the film is based on that famously successful raid, but it is Bigelow’s skilful depiction of the raid that always keeps her audience on edge, unable to relax even though we know the outcome.
4. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
As soon as the title screen vanished and the camera floated towards a group of astronauts with a bright Earth in their background, I believed I was being shown what it was actually like to be in the world of those men and women living in space. We were presented with a crystal-clear picture of space, looking down on Earth, the like of which I have never seen before. The verisimilitude of the images was extraordinary, and the technical achievements alone are enough to elevate Gravity to a position as one of the year’s most important films. There was, however, so much more to adore about the film. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are excellent as the two astronauts left drifting in space after Russian debris collides with them and their colleagues on a routine repair mission to a space station. The film’s plot contains tropes from disaster movies and melodramas and is played out with effortless control by Cuarón. A near-flawless piece of cinema where, for the first time in my cinema-going experience, the gap between the real and CGI worlds disappeared almost completely.
3. The Place Beyond The Pines (dir. Derek Cianfrance)
Where Only God Forgives reunited Ryan Gosling with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, The Place Beyond The Pines reunited him with the director of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance. Both were highly anticipated but the latter edged out the former as a film that was truly ambitious and successful. The film was structured in three parts, following in turn the life and legacy of Gosling’s character Luke, his girlfriend Romina (played by Eva Mendes) and Bradley Cooper’s excellent policeman Avery. The film’s characters were tragic archetypes and the film has plenty of echoes of Greek tragedy, which is why the film seemed at times timeless yet deliberately plotted. That is not meant as a criticism, although some felt its final third was a disappointment. It’s a great American film with scope and ambition and manages to pull off all it attempts with aplomb. All the cast is superb and the interweaving of the plot, although not seamless, finds a fitting way to begin and end.
2. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
I am a huge fan of the group of films and directors tagged ‘mumblecore’ (including the aforementioned Joe Swanberg) and it was in his film Hannah Takes The Stairs I first saw Frances Ha’s star Greta Gerwig. I am also a huge fan of Woody Allen, whose monochromatic love-letter to the Big Apple, Manhattan, serves as a visual and sometimes tonal sibling to Frances Ha. Until now, however, I haven’t been a fan of Noah Baumbach, whose The Squid And The Whale I found self-indulgent and cold and whose Greenberg (featuring Gerwig and Ben Stiller) was only marginally better. After watching this film, I realise that Baumbach needed the right person to collaborate with and that came in the form of his writing partner Gerwig. I love films that feature characters with integrity and a good heart, characters who, although may be making mistake after mistake, can look themselves in the mirror and say ‘I’m trying’. Of course, like Drinking Buddies, some viewers may be completely frustrated with the hipster attributes and lack of drive shown by the characters, but I loved them all. Frances has these qualities and it is a joy to be in her company for 85 minutes. Good turns by ‘Man of 2013’ Adam Driver and Mickey Summer give extra tones to the film and stop it from ever becoming self-satisfied.
1. 12 Years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
The two previous features directed by Steve McQueen, former visual artist, were both critical successes. In this, his historically accurate portrayal of slavery in America, the critical consensus has been even more positive. McQueen has made a truly remarkable film that may end up on school syllabuses alongside the Holocaust in studies of racist hatred, enslavement and genocide. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a middle-class musician living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The range of characters he meets is diverse, from those who treat him with some dignity to those who treat him as an animal. There are some incendiary performances in the film. Ejiofor is, of course, superb and deserves every accolade bestowed upon him. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as the sadistic Edwin Epps, the major player in the majority of the film’s grizzly and violent scenes. Lupita Nyong’o deserves to be singled out for praise for her heartbreaking performance as Patsey, a woman who bears the brunt of Epps’ advances and then his violent temper. McQueen directs the picture with great skill, creating and releasing tension in increasing frequency as the film moves forward, and making the scenes of violence seem so real and horrific that they are incredibly difficult to watch. An important film that should be seen by as many people as possible in 2014.