Top ten films of the year

It’s that time of year to compile the list of the films that rocked my cinematic world in 2013. I am going to just admit this straight away and confess that I missed a few of the critically acclaimed movies of the year, which may, or may not have changed this list, so apologies to Blue is the Warmest Colour, Captain Phillips, The Selfish Giant and All is Lost and potential others.  Also despite the praise that The Act of Killing and Blackfish garnered, I could not bring myself to watch these films due to the subject matters but am sure these ranked high in many other lists.

So here are my favourites from the films I managed to see this year. Don’t be surprised if perennial favourite Gosling makes the list, it just wouldn’t be the same without him.

10) The Way Way back (Jim Rash/Nat Faxon)

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I could sum up this film’s awesomeness in one sentence- Sam Rockwell plays a lifeguard/water park owner- but I will elaborate for the sake of continuity and the excellent work of the rest of the cast of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s hugely likeable coming of age comedy. A well-worn path of the Independent film sector, the Way Way Back still manages to feel fresh and touching between the comedy gems that Rockwell’s man-child character Owen creates. He is the kind of dude that we all wish we had met on our summer holiday, for shy 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) he is that dude and  he shapes not only his summer vacation but his attitude to life.  With a great supporting cast, from Alison Janney’s batty neighbour to Steve Carrell in surprising jerk mode, The Way Way Back is a film with a big heart, one that will put a big smile on your face and make you want to act like a kid again.

9) Stoker (Park Chan-wook)

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Park Chan-wook’s first English language feature was an oddity, one that was not universally received by all and one that disappeared in cinemas as quick as it had arrived. Many felt it was too pretentious, too slow-paced and too self important, it was a spell you either fell for or did not, a malevolent marmite movie. I personally fell for its spell; its deliberate malaise suspense was one of the most beautifully crafted films of the year. The name of the film would suggest something vampiresque, though it is an altogether different kind of evil that lurks in the Stoker household. India Stoker (an icy Mia Wasikowska) is a stubborn teenager with an old soul, a creepy air surrounds her, which is intensified when mysterious uncle Charlie (a stylishly sinister Matthew Goode) comes to stay, and unleashes a hidden dark sexuality. Add to the mix Nicole Kidman’s fragile, persuasive widow and you have a recipe for a modern gothic family drama, one with glacial atmosphere and cruel intensity. A strange concoction of a film and a script by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, this is a genuine one-off from a visionary director.

8) Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)

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Steven Soderbergh’s swansong to cinema is, behind the glitz and glamorous excess, a bittersweet tale of the fickleness of fame.  Chartering the relationship between legendary closeted pianist Liberace and his young lover Scott Thorson, Behind the Candelabra presents the trappings of wealth and ego as a fabulous cocktail of excitement but also as a cautionary tale, a celebrity fable that many a modern-day star could heed.  Michael Douglas has an absolute blast as Liberace, a vision in fur and sequins, he adorns the screen with the sparkle of a pre Madonna who has been pandered to for a long time, his charmed life has warped his sense of any subtlety.  Matt Damon meanwhile shows layers of depth that have rarely been touched in previous roles, as Scott he goes from naïve star struck man to spoilt boy toy to spurned cast off, displaying an array of emotions that add poignant weight to the film. For whilst there is comedic value to be had in the garish opulence and absurdity of celebrity riches and the sight of seeing Douglas and Damon going (literally) full throttle into their roles is a revelatory sight, the story of Liberace and Scott is a sad tale of love, loss and leathery skin.

7) Place beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)

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A list wouldn’t be a list with Gosling, though this year his onscreen presence wavered a little for me personally with Only God Forgives, a film that was (intentionally?) cold but left me unimpressed, he pulled it back with his magnetic turn in Derek Cianfrance’s generation spinning drama.  From the opening frame where we see Gosling’s tattooed torso and follow him through the carnival to his motorcycle stunt cage, you become intrigued by his mysterious character. Gosling is on brooding form as he tries to reconnect with an old flame (Eva Mendes) and provide for his newly discovered child. Bradley Cooper continues to show new depths with his role as ambitious cop Avery who becomes connected to Gosling’s Luke and the corruption that lays in the system he believes in.  Cianfrance creates a much bigger canvas in Place beyond the Pines than his previous film Blue Valentine which was very insular in its intense focus of one couple and it suffers slightly from its ambition. However when it is good, it is truly very good, creating an absorbing atmosphere that questions the moralities of destiny and relationships. It also reignited my love for Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, due to a particular scene with a swaying Gosling and a small dog!

6) Populaire (Regis Roinsard)

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Joyous, stylish, effervescently entertaining, Populaire was the most delightful film of the year. Set in 1958 in France, in another world where ladies aspired to be Secretaries and speed typing competitions were all the fashion.  Rose Pamphyle (the charming Deborah Francois) lives behind her dowdy village life to become a Secretary in the city, despite the fact that she is inept for the role, her hidden skills as a speedy typist are spotted by her boss Louis Echard (Romain Duris).  So Rose is thrust into the spotlight of competitive typing whilst she navigates her feelings for her tempestuous boss/trainer. Like a bubbly version of Rocky, Populaire, which even includes a typewriter training montage, brims with a vitality that leaves the viewer smiling from ear to ear, its playful pastiche of a colourful culture is undeniably infectious.  The film is light and the narrative is predictable but this for once does not matter, its zingy recreation of a 50s Hollywood rom com ala Doris Day is a welcome breath of fresh air in a film world overpopulated by sequels and remakes. Tres enchanting.

5) Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

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For better or for worse, I was hooked on the character of Jasmine straight away. Such was Cate Blanchett’s fearless performance in Woody Allen’s latest film that no matter how vicious or calculating she became, I had to keep watching her. As Jasmine, Blanchett is a woman on the edge, having been the epitome of the Park Avenue Princess, her life of luxury has been downgraded to living with her laid back sister in San Francisco after her Husband’s financial fraud ruins their ‘perfect’ lives. The cultural clash of the sister’s social standards creates humour in the sea of drama that surrounds Jasmine but ultimately the film is tinged with a jet black comedy, it highlights the delusional world that Jasmine has created, unable to accept the predicament she has now befallen. Her unflinching self-importance affects not only her life, but those around her, building to a crescendo of destruction to a truly damaged woman. The Oscar should be in the bag for Blanchett, her modern-day Blanche Dubois is an unforgettable tragic performance.

4) Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) 

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I could literally watch Greta Gerwig doing not a lot, just hanging around in the space of the film frame, and that is pretty much what she does in Frances Ha, Noel Baumbach’s Black & White love letter to the New York City Slacker. As the eponymous Frances, Gerwig moves from situation to situation with the skittishness of a young adult not ready to become an adult, one that most of us can associate with, even if our early life crisis is not as stylishly shot as hers. That Frances is a slightly selfish character only makes her more real, she cannot be entirely carefree without being a little self involved, making the character more human and relatable. Now if only I can get David Bowie to soundtrack my daily blunders….

3) Mud (Jeff Nichols)

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Jeff Nichols continues his impressive assent as one of the new great directors of American cinema with Mud, his third feature, following the startling Take Shelter. In a film that echoes Mark Twain and Stand by Me, Nichols shows us the world of those living on the cusp of suburban civilisation, on the backwaters of the Mississippi river, where two young best friends befriend an enigmatic fugitive Mud (Matthew McConaughey) whom they vow to help reunite with his true love. McConaughey, currently enjoying the acting period of his life, embodies Mud with the kind of worldly-wise charm that would capture the imagination of those at an impressionable age, his famous southern drawl used to charismatic, romantic dreamer effect. But he is almost acted off-screen by young newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as best friends Ellis and Neckbone, whose naivety and beliefs are shaken by the adults around them. The loss of innocence is captured beautifully on a backdrop of faded ideals on a watery way of life; the naturalistic performances of the young leads bring a quietly devastating air to a childhood that will be changed.  Nichols has created a modern fable that is simplistically stunning, where he goes next is very exciting indeed.

2) Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)

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Every now and again, a film comes along out of nowhere and knocks your socks off and that is what Short Term 12 did, leaving me with the only experience at the cinema this year that made me cry. On paper the plot of the film sounds like schmaltz territory as it centres on a bunch of young workers at a foster care facility for at risk teenagers, so far so TV movie. However Short Term 12 sidesteps the trappings of over sentimentality by showcasing some of the most naturalistic acting of the year, filmed with compassion and real heart. The film’s ace card is Brie Larson, as Grace she is the bruised yet determined spirit of the care facility that she works at, on the basis of her performance; big things should be destined for this talented actress. Short Term 12 shows the spectrums of humanity, that the ones supposed to protect us, our parents, are sometimes the ones that hurt us the most and that salvation can come in the most unlikely places. It is a raw, beautiful gem of a film that needs to be seen. It also features the most heartbreaking story about an octopus and a shark that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

1) Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

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Because of the special effects, that didn’t feel like special effects. Because it immersed you into a situation and place like no other film this year. Because it proved that 3D could be used cleverly to enhance a film beyond gimmickry. And because it used a plot device from Wall-E.

These are the reasons why Gravity was the film of the year, it delivered a cinematic experience quite like no other, one that was truly unique and all-absorbing. It also contained a performance by Sandra Bullock that did not irritate, which was a feat in itself, her usual fast talking, annoying manner was pared down, her subtle manner which transformed to instinctual survival (with a little help from Clooney) was a revelation. Cuaron meanwhile directed the impossible, recreating an atmosphere that is unbearable to endure, his effects team achieved a look and feel that somehow did not look like a giant green screen but threw you head on into Space, the most inhospitable place in the Universe. Enhanced by a meticulous sound design and score, Cuaron’s space thriller asked the big questions in life flight or fight, rebirth and the desire to live, elevating Gravity from merely a stylish space trip to a breathtaking journey of the human spirit.