Ugh, it is so damn hot. This is the third or fourth day in a row over 40 degrees, which is just lame. I whine like this as a way of explaining why this post is a day or two later than I had hoped. I have just not felt like writing after a day at work, especially when our un-air conditioned home is so oppressively hot. I hope you are doing ok if you are in this kind of weather, or the opposite in that crazy cold. Stay safe in these extreme weather times.
Enough of that. Time to celebrate my favourite ten films of 2013. I thought it was a fantastic year of film and spent a huge amount of time narrowing this list down. The reason I expanded it from five to ten is because I have expanded the eligibility to straight to DVD films this year, because I have found that in Australia a lot of really fantastic films are skipping cinemas altogether. There are two films that did not see cinema release on the list and another few in the honourable mentions as well. I saw somewhere around 100-120 films eligible to make this list and there were plenty of crackers. Let’s get into it (once again, titles are hyperlinked if I wrote a full review).
Honourable Mentions: I loved so many films this year. I considered narrowing this list of mentions down. But stuff it, this is meant to be a celebration of film and I loved, loved, loved all of these.
It was a weak year for comedy and I thought The Heat was by far the best of them. Two sorta comedies that really did it for me were the highly original horror-comedy Grabbers and the brilliant coming of age ride The Way Way Back. In arthouse/indie style territory Mud, the beautiful The Loneliest Planet and (shame on me) The Counsellor all wowed me. Plenty of the big name dramas were powerful and engaging stuff including Zero Dark Thirty, Flight, Philomena, Cloud Atlas, Amour and Silver Linings Playbook which I much preferred to the average American Hustle. Whilst there were obvious disappointments, I thought that some of the big blockbusters were fantastic this year and am very surprised not one cracked my top ten. Star Trek into Darkness, Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug were all a cracking good time on the big screen.
Probably the two strongest sectors of film for me this year were the doco and Australian film, and both feature films below. Other docos I really loved were Chasing Ice and the incredibly powerful West of Memphis about the denial of justice for the West Memphis Three. As an Australian I love to get you interested in the cinema of my own country and The Turning, Satellite Boy, The Great Gatsby (I don’t consider it Australian, but technically it is apparently) and 100 Bloody Acres are all films well and truly worth your time. Finally, a very special honourable mention to my clear number eleven film of the year, which dropped out at the last moment – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I think the most underrated film of the year too.
10. The Conjuring
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – James Wan is the best Australian director working today, no matter the genre. This is probably the scariest film I have ever seen and it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Yeah it is similar to Wan’s Insidious. But it improves immeasurably on that film. I remember not even being able to watch the trailer of this when it showed at the cinema. And Wan has transferred that into an atmosphere which makes the film fist clenchingly terrifying. A masterful update of the old school haunted house flick from a very clever and creative director.
This Australian doco is one of the most affecting films I saw this year. It is simultaneously a portrait of the early (West) Australian hip-hop scene and also of a man facing his own mortality. You get intimate access as Hunter manages to grow and learn as a man, right to the end. But this is no whitewashed picture of a perfect guy. There is a frankness to the film and the depiction of its main subject that is pretty rare. You definitely don’t respect everything that he has done. The film though shows that even someone so imperfect (aren’t we all) can provide us with the template for approaching our whole life.
When I first saw Cuaron’s exceptional film, I thought it would probably end up my number one. This was no doubt the big screen cinema experience of the year. But so much of the film is caught up in the size of the screen, the quality of the sound and the 3D effects. I will never be able to replicate the experience in my home or even my mind. That is not a criticism at all, but it is perhaps why the film has not stayed with me as perhaps it could have. Sorry don’t mean to sound negative, this is such an amazing film, as you already know I would imagine. Visual splendour like you’ve never seen before and a lean narrative with an underrated human story.
You must see this film. A doco that shines a light on a totally neglected and heinous chapter in human history. But through director Josh Oppenheimer, it is turned into an audacious, creative piece of art. By tapping into two active members of the Indonesian genocide’s love of cinema, he is able to first of all challenge his audience and make them constantly examine and rethink what they are seeing. And secondly, in what is genuinely one of the most exceptional moments ever committed to film, we see his approach bring one of the men to the realisation of exactly what he has done. This is a powerful film that you need to see once, but will probably never be able to watch again.
6. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Alex Gibney is probably the highest profile doco director working today and I think this is his best film. In many ways it is an auteur piece and some of his decisions really elevate the shocking story. Some of the deaf men who were abused by priests as children serve as ‘talking heads’. They sign, whilst their words are spoken as voiceover. This is one of a number of really clever decisions that Gibney makes and it allows the emotion and devastation that has been wrought on these victims to come out. Like Oppenheimer’s film, one that you won’t enjoy and that will make your blood boil. But most definitely an essential, shocking and timely film.
Technically Terrence Malick’s newest film did get a cinema release in Australia, but I think it only managed one or two screens. I am not really sure why this has gone under the radar so much, it is in the realm of Tree of Life brilliance from the greatest cinema artist of our time. A somewhat simple love story that was shrouded in Malick’s signature imagery (though it must be noted he challenges himself here, showing the intersection between the urban and the rural) and a very much not in a rush approach to story telling. But I think this is Malick’s simplest narrative with the simplest character motivations which in same ways makes it his purest work. Let’s hope we get to see something new from the maestro in 2014 and if you missed this for whatever reason, go back and see it.
This is like no vampire film I have ever seen. For starters it is oh so pretty, there is almost a sense of Malick in the visual approach. Neil Jordan uses colour, or more specifically a lack of it, to tell us so much. And the narrative builds up such an immersive world of vampire mythology. It is not beholden to any source before it, but it also feels ‘classic’ already. It also features a performance from Saoirse Ronan that is streets ahead of anything else she has ever done whilst also launching Caleb Landry Jones as a supreme talent. I cannot recall a film that combined the classical and the contemporary as well as this film. It also manages to succeed on a number of levels, both as moody atmospheric and very dark horror story as well as a teenage tale of first love. Good luck trying to balance that, but Jordan does in this exceptional and criminally under seen film.
3. Rust and Bone
If you outline the plot of this film in a sentence, it sounds like the biggest pile of pap ever. An orca trainer loses her legs when she is mauled by one of the animals she works with, but finds love and redemption in the arms of a hulking cage fighter. That is an accurate description of what goes down. But this film made me think more deeply about life than any other film on this list. The spectacular of day to day life is contrasted with the aching, crushing pain that it can bring, often in the one scene. Probably the oldest film on this list, but one that still sticks in my mind.
2. Mystery Road
In an awesome year for Australian film this is the pick of the bunch and the highest ranked Aussie film in the history of these lists. A film that engages with and dabbles with both genre and Australian society, it is anchored by the second best performance of the year from Aaron Pederson (hint – the best is still to come in my #1). It looks like a Western – widescreen arid imagery, gunfights, and hats – but it is straight up crime. There is a sense of classic Eastwood in Pederson’s character, the cop against the system, who seems to be the only one interested in solving a vicious murder. Cerebral and action packed, the film also features the most original shootout I have seen in a long long time. Do me a favour and check this one out.
The Fourth Ever Kick-Ass Award for Favourite Film of the Year: Fruitvale Station
This film, based on real life events, is quietly powerful. It is the day in the life of a young African American man, trying to make his life right after a stint in prison and risking it all with his unfaithfulness. The day (and this is revealed at the beginning so not a spoiler) will also be his last. But the entire day sheds such a light on contemporary America that is raw and real, especially the treatment of men of colour and the unchecked power of those who possess it (a theme in a number of these films actually). And it is not just applicable in an American context. I’m not American and this is the film that impacted me the most this year. And the performance of Michael B. Jordan in the main role is the best in not just this year, but a number of years. Full of qualities that so little of cinema possesses, Fruitvale Station is a searing film that you won’t soon forget. It left me in a glazed over haze and may well do the same for you.
The time has come for me to wrap up the year that was 2013 in film. The first thing you might notice is that I have expanded these lists from five to ten. I will write about that more tomorrow when I bring you my top ten, because that is what has driven the expansion.
Without giving too much away for tomorrow, I was really satisfied with the year that was in 2013. There were a huge number of films which were excellent, including what seemed like an abundance that came out of nowhere and wowed me. Having said that, I had no issues filling up this bottom ten either, so let’s get going. Please note that for films to be considered they had to be released in cinemas or straight to DVD in Australia in 2013 and full reviews are hyperlinked in the titles if I wrote one:
(dis)Honourable Mentions: Comedy seems to bring out the worst in contemporary filmmakers and both We’re the Millers and This is 40 were rubbish, just not quite rubbish enough to crack the top 10. Michael Bay tried to convince us all that Pain and Gain was not just another Michael Bay film. It was. Lastly G.I. Joe Revolution was possibly worse than the first one. Now that’s an achievement.
10. The Internship
Even worse than the fact that this was a deeply unfunny and unoriginal comedy, was the fact that this is literally a 90 minute advertisement for Google. The gratuitous use of Google in the central plot and essentially every scene takes product placement to absurd new lows. Rehashes every previous Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn effort, only this one never threatens to be anything but pathetically tired.
Who knew a Jet Li starring buddy cop film could not only not be all out fun, it could be eye gougingly terrible. Somehow barely showing Li, and when it does showing him sans charisma or athleticism, this was a miserable experience. No crime story, utterly devoid of humour, incompetent writing, acting that manages to be worse and unsatisfying action make for one terrible buddy cop flick.
In what was a decent year for new horror films, this was tepidly lacking in atmosphere. A huge budget was seemingly not matched with any filmmaking nous. A storyline that is simultaneously shamelessly unoriginal as well as nonsensical much of the time makes it impossible to lose yourself in the film. Totally annoying, the only claim to fame here is that it is a film that manages to make even Jessica Chastain, one of the best in the business, give a woefully bad performance.
7. Frances Ha
I have no doubt I will anger a few people out there with this choice. Baumbach definitely has his admirers and plenty of people loved this film. Personally, I cannot remember another film that consisted of an interesting central character arc that was so utterly covered and rendered ineffective by the layers of dirge that the viewer has to trudge through. So frustrating was this film, with its eye-rolling dialogue, that of all the films on this list, this one was probably the hardest for me to actually bother finishing. Sort of like an episode of Girls only less enjoyable, insightful or engaging.
6. Machete Kills
I’m a big fan of Robert Rodriguez as a filmmaker and generally like his films that even others can’t handle, such as the first Machete effort. It is perhaps unsurprising (though no less disappointing) that in an attempt to ramp up his grindhouse series Rodriguez resorts to really over the top sexism and stunt casting (Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga). What is surprising is just how little fun this movie turns out to be. Dispensing almost entirely with any semblance of plot or characters to invest in, along the way, Rodriguez lost all the charm that so endeared me to the first film.
5. Only God Forgives
You either love it or you hate it, and I definitely hated it. Like many, I was exasperated that this was the best that Winding Refn could come up with after the searing originality that was Drive. At times it felt like pastiche or parody but with no insight whatsoever and that the director was just trying way too hard. This is a nasty film, irredeemably so unfortunately. Film can illuminate and help us to understand the nastiness of the world around us. But this film absolutely does not do that.
4. The Man of Tai Chi
Keanu Reeves’ debut directorial effort is just cringingly bad. Fails on every single level and unfortunately Reeves (who I like more than most) seems to be at the heart of most of the problems. He gives one of the worst performances ever put on screen in this. It is absurdly bad. Add to that the fact that he has no feel for directing, totally unable to steer the narrative or action in the direction it needs to go, and this is a hodge podge of failed attempts at both social commentary and tournament style martial arts goodness.
3. Kick-Ass 2
A little Beermovie.net history here, with this becoming the first franchise to have films appear in both the best and worst of the year lists (Kick Ass was my film of the year in 2010). This was such an overwhelming disappointment. All of the vitality, charm and vibrant originality is gone. It is replaced by a story that abandons the central character for the most part and a sense of humour that is totally at odds with what these films are meant to be. I thought the first film had something to say about the nature of violence, both on the streets and on film. But this is just violent for the sake of being violent, which we as the audience are supposed to find hysterical.
2. After Earth
Some films make this list because they bungled their promise or offended me in some way. Other films make the grade because they are flat out, mind numbingly terrible. This film is the latter. Much has been written about how woeful Will Smith’s kid is in this film. Rightly so too. But what the hell has happened to the Fresh Prince? Smith Sr used to light up any film with his charm and charisma. His performance here is so wooden that he almost matches the awfulness of Keanu Reeves in my number four entry. Mind numbingly stupid, ugly and totally cliché, truly up there with the worst films of the year. Another shocker from everyone’s favourite ‘new Spielberg’ M. Night Shyamalan.
The Fourth Ever Scott Pilgrim vs the World Award for Least Favourite Film of the Year: The Impossible
Publishing such a scathing review of this film yesterday probably took away some of the anticipation of what would top my list. Simply put, the whitest film ever. Putting aside all of my issues with the racial aspects of the film, this was uninspired and really over-contrived. Examining the racial aspects, this is a triumphant tale of a single Western (Spanish in real life, English in the film) family surviving the Boxing Day tsunami. A film that wants you to be uplifted whilst shamefully not mentioning the astronomic number of people in various South East Asian countries who were killed in the tragedy. Horrific.