30 December 2013

My top 10 films of 2013

I’ve seen 46 movies at the cinema in 2013, mostly thanks to plenty of Monday night outings to the Film Society screenings at the Paramount in Wellington’s Courtenay Place. If you include the clutch of Royal Shakespeare Company filmed plays and the National Theatre productions, usually seen at the Lighthouse in Wigan Street, that tops out at about 50 cinema outings. I still miss my weekly outings to the Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square, but Wellington’s cinemas do a fairly decent job of bringing interesting stories to the screen. The film festival helps a lot too, and for me it is always the highlight of the New Zealand winter. While I don’t go overboard and see dozens of films, the festival does provide a great opportunity to see a whole lot of interesting material that I mightn't otherwise find.

I’ll leave out the usual ‘bottom five’ list of cinematic howlers because I really haven’t seen anything particularly bad this year; the Filmsoc and RSC/NT films I’ve been seeing have occupied most of my filmgoing time, which means I haven’t caught as many mainstream movies as I might have in other years. Well, The Master and The Wolf of Wall Street tried my patience, and I had to leave the screening of the silent German classic The Joyless Street because the accompanying music was getting on my nerves. Clearly I must have a problem with the definite article in film titles.

Instead, let’s focus solely on the positive stuff. There’s definitely plenty of good material in the list below, but first, let’s examine my top 10 list of this year’s films, in reverse order of preference:


10. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (dir. Declan Lowney, UK)

Probably one for Coogan fans only, but for those of us who long ago succumbed to the chat-based glory of (North) Norfolk's finest digital audio broadcaster, this is a ruddy good Partridgean cinematic treat. Quick listener survey: what's your favourite monger: fear, rumour or iron? Iron, clearly.

9. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, US)

This is no late-period Woody Allen trifle, nor is it a frothy piece of whimsy. Blanchett's performance as the pill-popping crack-up socialite Jasmine who is forced to stay in San Francisco with her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is the centrepiece of an intriguing character study with surprising depth, as she finds her privileged world crumbling around her thanks to her philandering high-flyer husband (Alec Baldwin). Perhaps some of the characterisation in the supporting cast is a little stereotyped here, but that can be forgiven when Blanchett's performance is this good. There might be an Oscar nomination in this for her, particularly as she channels the same silver-age screen legend material that she essayed so well in The Aviator.

8. No (dir. Pablo Larrain, Chile)
 
You needn't have the background for the Chilean plebiscite of 1988 down pat for No to be a compelling watch. The deliberate styling of the film as a contemporary fly-on-the-wall, full of bad videotape footage and lens flare takes a little while to get used to, but it also helps to place the referendum advertisements in context and avoids diminishing their impact in comparison with slick modern clips. The ad-man's decision to stay positive, stay optimistic and offer a vision of hope garlanded with the commercial world's aspirational imagery was the ideal foil to the dictator's shameless jingoism and out-of-touch bluster, because the main battle wasn't really between Yes and No - it was between Yes and Afraid To Vote. No contains some marvellous scenes, particularly the recreation of a rally dispersed by riot police and the referendum night street revelry, and the series of ad pitches Bernal's character makes in his day job, and it's the latter aspect that adds an appealing consideration to the film. Despite the No campaign's stirring victory (um, you did know that, right?) you can't help but wonder if the ad man thinks he's emerged victorious or is just back where he began.

7. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, US)

Indie goddess Greta Gerwig may have the sort of bearing that leads otherwise sensible men to long to brush a stray lock of hair away from her perfect, perfect eyebrows, but aside from that she also boasts a usually impeccable taste in scripts. This one she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach (who wrote the Fantastic Mr Fox screenplay, and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou), and it manages to portray a convincing slice of Brooklyn twenty-something apartment-hopping life without peppering in a slew of irritating hipsterisms. These slightly callow but oh-so-worldly city folk move through the itinerant life of would-be dancer Frances (Gerwig), particularly her wry best friend, Sophie. Frances Ha is loosely about the enduring nature of female friendship, the quest for meaning when you haven't found your calling in life, and the transience of youthful relationships. (It's no coincidence that one of the two well-known songs licensed for the film is Bowie's 'Modern Love'). Perhaps this sounds dire to you, but in these capable hands Frances Ha is a charming and surprisingly engrossing comic character study with unexpected emotional heft. Stumbling from career setbacks to middle-class poverty to embarrassing 'grown-up' dinner party rambling, any-port-in-a-storm dead-end jobs, catastrophically ill-advised credit card splurges, and finally telling your friend's boyfriend what you REALLY think about him, Frances Ha packs a lot in, and the viewer genuinely feels invested in the lead character's struggles with the trappings of adulthood. Perhaps my favourite line is when a self-possessed young fellow texts a newly-single Frances with 'Ahoy, sexy!' and Frances enquires of her girlfriend: 'What, now I'm nautically sensual?' Throughout, Baumbach's glowing black and white cinematography shines.
 
6. Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan)

Like his triumphant and exuberant 2011 tale I Wish, this Koreeda film is another foray into family life in Japan, and again it is a perfectly cast, winning formula. The director is particularly adept at selecting child actors, and in Like Father, Like Son the stand-out is the precious little six-year-old imp Keita, who tips the scales of charming cuteness in a wholly natural and winning performance. The film's adults and other children are expertly portrayed too, as the story of a wealthy urban family and a down-at-heel working class family from the suburbs whose baby sons were switched at birth unfolds. Careerist Ryota dismays his wife Midori when he opts to swap the boys to ensure they grow up with their own blood kin, but welcoming a boy raised by strangers into their chic apartment is not as straightforward as Ryota had hoped; and despite Ryota's snobbish disdain, the shambolic shopkeepers are actually brilliant parents who provide Keita with a loving, carefree home. Only when Ryota begins to question his own understanding of father-son relations does he begin to reconsider what family and fatherhood really mean. Like Father, Like Son is one of those rare family dramas that engrosses viewers throughout; I for one didn't want it to end.

5. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, Canada)

This family history of Canadian actress Sarah Polley digging into the secrets and lies of her larger-than-life mother, who died of cancer when Sarah was 11, has its own share of surprises but is no bitter tale of recrimination. It is both a personal journey of discovery, seeking to fill in the gaps in her knowledge, but also an experiment in zeroing in on what might be closest to the truth without her mother being able to offer her side of the tale. Diane Polley's story is expertly told through the recollections of her family and friends, but the film also wrestles with the notion: who really owns this story? Who owns the truth in the complicated, messy world of families, and how can you piece things together when your entire perspective is challenged? Throughout, Polley displays a deft but firm hand, allowing her siblings, father and associates to give their side of things but also pressing harder when tough questions need to be asked. This is no sob-story or hatchet job - the mystery of Diane Polley is celebrated and no-one seems to begrudge her failings at all. Rather, everyone still feels her loss keenly. Perhaps in some small way this frank and funny film will bring them closer together, and give viewers a refreshingly honest appraisal of what it is to grow up in that strange and chaotic thing, a modern family.

4. 20 Feet From Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville, US)

This year's compelling music doco, 20 Feet From Stardom offers a glimpse into the world of the overlooked but vital heartbeats of the rock world, the backing vocalists. These unheralded performers - many of whom you will never have heard of - have graced the greatest records of the past 50 years and made them what they are. As Stevie Wonder points out in the film, try listening to Ray Charles' What'd I Say without the backing vocals and it'd sound ludicrous. As with the best documentaries, 20 Feet covers its ground adroitly but also casts a spotlight on a few memorable personalities, including pop pioneer Darlene Love, killer glam queen Claudia Lennear, the supernaturally talented Lisa Fischer and the young striver Judith Hill, whose career was derailed by the death of mentor Michael Jackson in 2009. It's sad and a little worrying that the art of backing singing is endangered by the wanton rush to autotuned anodyne anonymity where the ability to sing is relegated far down the list of priorities for pop stardom. If only half the people who bought the overcooked Rodriguez soundtrack bought the 20 Feet soundtrack too, then the balance would be tipped slightly back in favour of the artists who never stopped singing their hearts out. (See also: Merry Clayton, Southern change gonna come at last)

3. Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg, US)

A restrained Spielberg offers a thoroughly worthy tale lifted from America's history books and targeted directly at the Academy. This is sterling material, with excellent actors, stirring speechifying and the ultimate in just causes: the abolition of slavery. The complete package is expertly realised, particularly in Day-Lewis' eerily apt performance. As usual though, the self-importance of the story and its historical significance leads to an overlong running time (albeit not hugely excessive). Despite the pivotal importance of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in reshaping American society, Lincoln is not quite a modern classic. Like Hugo, this film is a pet project with real and lasting quality, but it is unlikely to be remembered with particular distinction even in five years time. That's not to say you shouldn't see it - you should, if you're intrigued by the man and the process by which he ended the Civil War and cemented the emancipation of southern slaves, this is a quality offering.

2. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, US)

A top-flight thriller with an impressive visual impact, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity boasts a solid and likeable performance from leading lady Sandra Bullock and a twinkling, ebullient George Clooney. The story is straightforward and the dialogue relatively uncomplex, but the implacable dangers of low Earth orbit hold the viewer's attention for the full running time. Clooney is of course ridiculously charming, but it's Bullock as the novice spacer Dr Stone who is the real star. Stone is in constant mortal danger but Gravity is no Perils of Pauline pantomime - she's resourceful and tough and only occasionally maudlin. Throughout the film there are many memorable moments of striking onscreen imagery, and it's clear that despite some creative interpretation of the science, this is a sumptuous example of modern sci-fi film-making at its best. See it on the best screen you can, with 3D if possible - anything less will sell the film short.

1. Antarctica: A Year on Ice (dir. Anthony Powell, NZ)




New Zealander Anthony Powell has been tending radio gear in Antarctica for over 10 years, working in some of the most isolated places on Earth, and in his spare time he shoots beautiful, epic time-lapse photography. This film stitches together the stunning imagery into a world-class nature documentary, with the welcome addition of a dry New Zealand sense of humour ('When you're out on the ice it pays to remember which bottle is for your water and which one is for your pee') and a strong focus on the psychology of that rare breed who winters on the ice. The sun is absent for four long months and no ships or planes visit - this is what it must be like to live in a moon base. The inhabitants of the neighbouring McMurdo and Scott Bases tell their stories of both the gripping, unforgettable beauty of the Antarctic and the many challenges it poses: enduring solitude, brutal hurricane-strength storms, missing key family events such as the death of a parent, and ceaseless fantasising about feeling rain on your face, clenching grass beneath your toes, and gorging on ripe, fresh vegetables. In the darkest weeks, everyone goes slightly mad, and many seem afflicted with curious memory lapses brought on by the isolation. All through the documentary, Powell's labour of love is his photography, captured on conventional D-SLRs with home-made dolly mechanisms, which evokes the grandeur and ferocity of the empty continent. Most stunning are the night-time sequences of auroras flickering as the constellations wheel overhead, and a single 9-second shot of an ice field surging into the air, which took a full five months to shoot. One can only hope that as many people as possible around the world get to enjoy Powell's remarkable endeavour.

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To close, here’s the full list of what I caught at the cinema in 2013. Naturally I’m looking forward to another year of intriguing cinematic offerings in 2014.

  • The Imposter
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Master
  • Lincoln
  • Argo
  • No
  • La Jettee (1962)
  • A Sense of History (2002)
  • Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • Hyde Park on Hudson
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
  • Pierrot le Fou (1965)
  • Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)
  • 35 Rhum
  • Better Off Dead
  • Village at the End of the World
  • Antarctica: A Year on Ice
  • Stories We Tell
  • Oh Boy
  • Frances Ha
  • The Bling Ring
  • Lines of Wellington
  • The Human Scale
  • 2 Autumns 3 Winters
  • Fallout
  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Like Father, Like Son
  • Museum Hours
  • Design For Living (1933)
  • The Piano in a Factory
  • Deep End (1970)
  • Blue Jasmine
  • The World's End
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)
  • Gravity
  • Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)
  • Trouble in Paradise (1932)
  • Mr Pip
  • Videodrome (1983)
  • Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
  • Viva Maria! (1965)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
See also:
Blog: My top films of 2012, 2011, 2010
Blog: Mark Kermode's 10 worst films of 2013 (Great, contains Kick-Ass 2!)
Blog: Jess' top films of 2013, 2012
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