This is the final instalment of my three-part review of 2013. Part 1 can be read here, in which I complain about the fifteen worst new films I saw last year, and part 2 can be read here, where I talk about the twenty films in the middle of the pack. Today it’s on to the big guns – the best of the year. So sit back (but not so far back that you can’t read the screen) and enjoy what I believe are the best new films I saw from the past 12 months.
My girlfriend is something of a Ryan Gosling fan, and I rented this film, Gosling’s second collaboration with director Derek Cianfrance, primarily because he’s in it and therefore she might like it. The fact that she made me turn it off after about an hour should tell you this is nothing like The Notebook, and the fact that the next day I made the time to finish it alone should say how gripping this film is. It tells the story of Gosling’s bank-robbing stunt rider, Luke, and Avery, the cop who sets out to bring him down, played by Bradley Cooper. Or at least, that’s what the marketing would have led you to believe, as in fact that’s just the first act, and there’s two more wildly different directions later on that I never saw coming and loved when they arrived. The film opens with a beautiful tracking shot, following Luke as he prepares for a cage-riding performance, and the acting is incredible throughout, particularly from Cooper, Ray Liotta as a fellow cop and Dane DeHaan as a friend of Avery’s son. I still haven’t seen Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine but it’s been added to my list to watch now, as he’s become a director I’m taking an interest in.
I expected big things from This is the End, primarily from all the hype and praise I’d heard rained upon it from all sides, so when I eventually caught it on DVD I admit I was a little disappointed. Watching the likes of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel all play heightened versions of themselves during the apocalypse was still very entertaining, and I laughed raucously on several occasions, but it never quite hit the high I was expecting. In the film, the guys, also including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, all play a version of themselves that spins on the public opinion of them, so it makes sense the Franco is a little weird and egotistical, Rogen is the big loveable bear, Hill is secretly a dick and McBride intensely annoying, but therein lies the problem – McBride is so damn irritating and such a pain in the ass that every time he came on screen I wanted to stop watching the film. He’s often the worst part in movies, and this was definitely the case here, with his brash, overbearing character ruining everything. Elsewhere, however, I loved the opening 15 minutes, as a host of other celebrities are offed in tremendous fashion – although it would have been far more enjoyable had that not been in the trailers – and whilst the start remains the peak of the film, there was still a lot of entertainment to be had in the remainder, with some decent surprise cameos along the way too.
Jeff Nichols is a director I’m not yet familiar with – I’ve had Take Shelter for a little while now and, despite loving Michael Shannon I still have yet to watch it, and I’ve had Shotgun Stories from LoveFilm for at least a couple of weeks without putting it in the DVD player – but as with Derek Cianfrance above he has become someone I’m very interested in after watching his 2013 feature. Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a drifter living in a boat in a tree in a secluded part of Arkansas that can only be reached by boat. He is stumbled upon by two boys, Ellis & Neckbone (Tye Sheridan & Jacob Lofland), neither of whom has an ideal upbringing, so Mud becomes something of a surrogate father to them, albeit one who needs more help than he provides. Overall it’s a story about sons and their father figures – Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) struggles to maintain his role as the head of a family he is no longer able to take care of, Neckbone lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), who is neither a bad man nor an ideal role model, and Mud himself has a pseudo-patriachal history with Neckbone’s neighbour, the surly Tom (Sam Shepard). It’s a beautifully shot film, which doesn’t shy away from minor subplots involving Ellis attempting to hit on an older girl, and whilst some elements of the plot can be seen a mile off – a pit of snakes and Mud’s history with them will of course come back into play later on – overall this was a welcome surprise and, had McConaughey not more recently received mass plaudits for his later work in 2013 (which has yet to be released here) then I’m sure his Mud would have at least been a possible contender in the 2014 Oscar race.
17. Les Miserables
(Released in the UK on 11th January 2013) I’m surprised this film is listed as highly as it is, even though I put it there. About 15-20 minutes into the film I very nearly walked out – something I’ve never done unless for medical reasons – as I just wasn’t prepared for the constant onslaught of never-ending singing. However, once Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean had been forgiven for stealing the church’s silverware and we arrived in Montreuil-sur-Mer with Anne Hathaway and the rest of the factory workers it all picked up, and the rest of the film was thoroughly rewarding. I’d never seen the stage production before, and thus was fairly unfamiliar with the story – I guessed by the title it wouldn’t be ending happily for everyone – but almost immediately after leaving the cinema I purchased the film’s soundtrack, and have been listening to it a great deal ever since. Yes, Russell Crowe’s singing style doesn’t quite match the rest of the cast, Amanda Seyfried is insipid and simpering as Cosette and the pratfalling of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter feels a bit out of place, but the rest of the film is so good that I can let all that slide in favour of Samatha Barks and her reprisal of Eponine from the stage show. She and Hathaway were easily the film’s highlights, and I still cannot get over the guy who thought halfway through I Dreamed A Dream was the best possible time to nip to the loo.
(Released in the UK on 8th March 2013) I’d been waiting for this small drama to come out for a long time, and was delighted when I finally got to see it. Frank Langella plays retired cat burglar Frank, whose busy children (James Marsden and Liv Tyler) opt to get him a robot assistant to help around the house as he gets older. However, the surly Frank wants nothing to do with his new mechanical pal (voiced a little creepily by Peter Sarsgaard), that is until he realised the robot can help him get back into the burglary game. It’s a touching tale of friendship between a curmudgeon and his butler, but there’s also a lot to say about the progress of technology, and how it’s both good – robot butlers! – and bad – Frank spend the film trying to woo Jennifer (Susan Sarandon),who works in a library that’s being completely overhauled to remove all the useless books. The subtle near-future changes were nice too, with the big-screen Skype TV and the dandy little cars.
Similarly with yesterday’s Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkenss has suffered a little from me re-watching it since seeing it in theatres. I really enjoyed J.J. Abrams 2010 reboot, having never seen a scrap of anything Star Trek related prior to that movie, and earlier this year I thought the sequel was even better. I loved the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain, and more time for Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Karl Urban’s McCoy was more than welcome, and the design of the action set-pieces, particularly the brightly coloured opening, with Kirk (Chris Pine) and McCoy running through a luminous red field, chased by yellow-clad pursuers before jumping into the bluest sea ever, whilst Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempted to defuse a bright orange volcano. However, the re-watch allowed me to empathise a little with the naysayers first time around, who called this movie nothing more than a remake of The Wrath of Khan (which I’ve still yet to see, and to be honest have no real plans to). You see, with the surprise factor out of the way and knowing where the plot was going the whole time, I wasn’t left with too much in terms of the story. Some elements were silly, in terms of what Cumberbatch’s John Harrison was actually planning to do, and some characters, like John Cho’s Sulu and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, were even more sidelined than in the first film. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is initially given plenty of time, but she peters off screen towards the end, though as someone who isn’t her biggest fan I can’t say I minded that too much. It remains a great film, though it’s now not nearly as good as the first one.
I’m still not sure what to do with this film. There isn’t a great deal to it – three kids all run away from home and build a house in the woods for the summer – and everything that happens to them is fairly predictable – worried parents, fall-outs between the three, eventual discovery – but I still really, really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the supporting cast, including Megan Mullaly and Marc Evan Jackson as Patrick’s (Gabriel Basso) parents, or Nick Offerman as lead runaway Joe’s (Nick Robinson) beligerent father – his encounter with a takeaway deliveryman (Kumail Nanjiani!) is a wonder to behold – or perhaps it was just the notion of throwing away all the responsibilities of life and just striving to make it on your own for a while, or maybe it’s just how crazy Moises Arias is as the group’s required oddball, Biaggio. Whatever the reason, this was a charming indie gem that came out of nowhere and found itself streaming on LoveFilm for me to enjoy.
I feel like I should begin by saying how much I loved Max Brooks’ book, from which the title of this film gets its name, initial premise and then literally nothing else. Where the book is an after-the-event retelling of how mankind suffered, overcame and survived the zombie war, the film instead follows one guy, Brad Pitt’s former UN worker Gerry Lane, as his family comes under attack in the initial outbreak of the zombie virus in Philadelphia, before he treks around the world trying to find the root of the problem, or some way to stop it. So no, it’s nothing like the book, which I, along with a lot of other people, assumed would be a terrible thing. As it happens that’s a long way from the truth, as this was pretty damn brilliant (though probably not as good as a straight adaptation would have been, I’d love to see the Japan segment put on screen). It seems that no matter how many zombie films come out, there’s still new elements that can be brought to them. For example, in the opening attack, Gerry sees someone get bitten by a zombie, then counts to see how long it takes before they change. Later, there’s a chance that he’s become infected whilst on a rooftop with his family. He rushes to the side, counting in his head, knowing full well that if he feels even the slightest change before his time is counted he’ll throw himself off that skyscraper with no hesitation, just to save his family. It’s moments like this, combined with huge set pieces, wonderful cameos (James Badge Dale! David Morse! Peter Capaldi!) and a jarring but expertly accomplished climax that sewed this up into this year’s most unexpected pleasure, as long as you pronounce it “Zed”.
Joss Whedon followed up the astonomically successful The Avengers with a complete U-turn, a black and white Shakespeare adaptation set entirely within his own home, shot on weekends between other work and starring his mates, pretty much all of whom have worked with him in the past. It’s the kind of thing he does anyway – hosting Shakespeare parties where his actor and comedian buddies put on their own renditions of the bard’s plays, but here he thought “Well, why not just film one?” and so he did, and I loved it. I’m unfamiliar with most works of Shakespeare – something I’m working on improving – and up until now that included Much Ado About Nothing, so I knew very little about the story other than its largely comedic tone but I found it just wonderful throughout. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are amazing as Beatrice and Benedick, two tangentially connected people who initially despise one another but, through the machinations of their mutual friends and relatives are drawn together in a web of lies and love. Star of the show, other than Whedon’s beautiful house, of course, is Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the chief of police and mirth-bringer in the film’s latter two-thirds. His speech, in which he repeatedly declares himself an ass is something I long to reacquaint myself with. Also, it was a welcome surprise to see the guys from sketch troupe BriTANicK crop up as Dogberry’s watchmen. If you haven’t seen their stuff before I encourage you to check it out on the link above.
Yeah, so, Gravity didn’t quite make my top 10, despite how much I was looking forward to it, and how much I was amazed at all of the effects work involved. From a technical standpoint the movie is groundbreaking and looks phenomenal, but storywise I found it deeply lacking, as it was basically Sandra Bullock failing to grab hold of things for 90 minutes. OK, that’s a little unfair, but if you remove all of the shiny, shiny effects, there’s not very much of a movie left. Wow, this is way more negative than I intended to be about Gravity, let’s back it up. This is a great film that’s incorrectly being labelled as science fiction purely because it’s set in space. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a first time astonaut on a mission with George Clooney’s seasoned veteran Matt Kowalski as they attempt to fix something in space. Whilst outside of the shuttle, an outdated Russian missile is destroyed, and the debris leaves Stone and Kowalski alone with no way back to Earth. The two must survive together if they’ve got any hope of getting home. As with a lot of people, I was tentative going into this movie because it stars Sandra Bullock, who to this day has appeared in a total of 2 films that I really like (Demolition Man and Crash) and one that I tolerate (Speed), so the prospect of an entire feature focussed almost entirely on her, without even very much background to be diverted by, was far from appealing. However, she was actually not at all bad here, so much so that I forgot it was her I was watching. I never forgot it was Clooney in his role though, as no-one else can be so charming, so damn likeable, and the large sections of the film without his presence were disappointing for me, purely because I wanted more of him in this film. I will eventually write a review, probably after my second viewing, because I predict this will be added to the 1001 Movies list later this year. I look forward to watching it again, but I highly doubt it will play as well on the small screen as it did in giant 3D.
Steven Soderbergh made his bow out from film-making with two features last year, and whilst I’ve still not gotten around to Behind the Candelabra (which received a theatrical release in the UK, and therefore counts as a movie), I have seen Side Effects, and it was brilliant. A running theme throughout these Review of the Year lists seems to be that if a film turns out differently to how it was billed then I seem to like it a lot more, and whilst the trailers and first act of this film seemed to point towards it being a film focused on Rooney Mara’s Emily, whose life falls apart after her doctor prescribes her a new drug to deal with her anxieties, in fact the majority follows said doctor, Jude Law’s Jonathan Banks, as he struggles to cope with the aftermath of giving a new drug to Emily. Law has been gaining respect from me lately in terms of his choices – I heard Dom Hemingway was terrible except for his risky performance in it – and I feel I may have unfairly dismissed him early on as being another pretty-boy actor incapable of anything but romantic leads in dross like The Holiday. Sorry about that Jude, I take it all back. As for Side Effects, the film offers some unexpected twists, a suitably cruel but by no means undeserved ending and excellent acting from all involved. Whilst it’s not up amongst Soderbergh’s best – the likes of Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven or Traffic – it’s still good enough for him to be proud of his last work. If, however, he wants to come back and make some more, well the door’s always open.
(Released in the UK on 25th January 2013) Yes, Spielberg’s latest opus may be 2 1/2 hours of men talking in dusty rooms, and if you’re unfamiliar with the American political system it may all seem like the subtitles are missing, but I found this film gripping. Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t great as the 16th President of the United States, he was the guy, so why any other actors were even nominated for the Best Actor Oscar I’ll never know. Amongst the rest of the cast, which is impossibly deep, Tommy Lee Jones excelled himself as Thaddeus Stevens, particularly in the court room scenes against Lee Pace’s Fernando Wood, and the three vote-obtaining miscreants, played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and the wonderful James Spader, brought almost enough comic relief to buoy the otherwise very serious plot. The weak links were found amongst Abe’s family, however, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt becoming lost in the shuffle as Robert Lincoln, and Sally Field being annoying as all Hell as Mary Todd. Had that aspect of the film been ommitted it would have come in at a much more agreeable length, and would have been a film I’d be far more likely to watch again. As it is, whilst I long to revel in Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography again, and bathe in Tommy Lee Jones’ furious ire, at 150 minutes long it may be some while before I can find that time again. Shame really.
Doesn’t feel too good, America, does it, when someone’s got a film on their best-of-the-year when you haven’t even seen it yet? Well suck it, because Filth, the latest adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel, came out here in October, and you don’t get it until at least May. *blows raspberry* I had no intention of seeing this film, but when I went to see Machete Kills for the Lambcast I found myself with nothing to do for two hours before the film started, and Filth was just coming on. I knew next to nothing about the film, so wandered in and was blown away. James McAvoy is phenomenal as Bruce Robertson, a hard drinking, drug-taking prick of a policeman, who pulls no punches with his colleagues (including Jamie Bell), as he weaves his way to a promotion. There’s a lot to be offended by here, but they cut out some of the more risky elements of the book, which featured among other things bestiality and a tapeworm subplot. McAvoy is almost unrecognisable with his scraggly beard, bloodshot eyes and gleefully devious grin – you’ll never look at Mr. Tumnus the same way again – and Jim Broadbent looks like he’s come from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for his turn as Bruce’s pill-prescribing psychiatrist. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the off-kilter humour, constant swearing and Eddie Marsan twiddling his own nipples seemed to appeal to me.
This is another film that’s yet to hit worldwide shores, but that’s hardly surprising considering the very British-ness of it’s hero, TV stalwart Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan). I think Coogan is a brilliantly comedic actor, but as yet I’ve never seen a single episode of any of Partridge’s TV shows, so I was a tad trepidatious when it came to seeing this, his first big screen outing. I needn’t have been though, as the Norfolk native’s exploits were damn hilarious, and I intend to seek out all the TV shows I can find. For the uninitiated, Alan Partridge is a fictional TV and radio personality, known for generally meaning well but being a bit of a prat and essentially walking around with his foot permanently in his mouth. He’s beleaguered by a bunch of hapless, clueless or downright useless assistants, friends and sidekicks, who always manage to assist Alan in unwittingly destroying his career. In the film he’s back on the radio, his TV show having gone off air some years ago, but the station he works for – North Norfolk Digital – is being taken over by a hip new multi-hyphenate corporation, and being rebranded as Shape. The new bosses have no need for Alan’s stuck-in-the-past colleague Pat (Colm Meaney), so they sack him, causing Pat to return brandishing a shotgun, and taking everyone inside the station hostage. Alan is the only person Pat will communicate with, and hilarity ensures. It’s a real credit to the show’s writers – Coogan, along with Neil and Rob Gibbons, Peter Baynham and show creator Armando Iannucci – that this film worked so well for even the likes of me, who only knows Partridge as a series of catchphrases and very basic character information (as in, he’s from Norfolk, is an egomaniac and a bit of a wally). I’m not sure if the humour will travel too well, as there’s quite a lot that’s very British, but I hope it gets released more internationally than it currently has. If you get the chance, check it out.
It’s no secret that I love Pixar films (except the Cars movies) so whenever one gets released you can guarantee I’ll be seeing it in theatres, especially if it’s a prequel to one of my favourites, Monsters Inc.. This film is essentially an origin story for the friendship between Mike and Sully (Billy Crystal and John Goodman who, despite having an average age of 63, still pull of sounding like they’re at university). To add a little conflict, the two eventual-best-buds begin by hating one another when their rivalry in the Scaring class gets them both kicked out. The only way back in is to compete in, and win, the Scare Games, a five-round sporting contest competing six teams against one another in every aspect of scaring, but in order to win, Mike and Sully will have to – you guessed it – work together. The shining light of creativity that is Pixar Studios really got to unleash their imaginations here with some of the monster designs, all the while pastiching classic college movies like Animal House along the way. The fact that the conclusion was already predetermined didn’t matter too much, as this is a kids’ film you kinda know it’s all going to work out fine, meaning the ride along the way could be enjoyed and drunk in completely. I’d love to see a spin-off or short featuring the other members of Mike and Sully’s team, particularly Art (Charlie Day), a fluffy, energetic purple hug of a monster who just wants to have fun.
Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy, made his much-anticipated English-language debut with this chilling mystery thriller following India (Mia Wasikowska) who, after the death of her father (Dermot Mulroney) must accept her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) into her home. India’s mother (Nicole Kidman) is vacant and self-obsessed – India seems more like a mother to her than the other way around – and it’s not long before Charlie starts to show an eerie centre beneath his otherwise perfect outer shell. The look and sound of this film are wonderful – I hope it wasn’t released too early in the year to miss out on a Best Sound Design Oscar nomination, or potential win – and the editing is award-worthy too, particularly the cut from hair being brushed flowing into a field blowing in the breeze. Wasikowska is decent enough, if a little ethereal and distracted, but then that fits in later on, and Goode is perfectly sinister as a man with questionable motives and even more questionable methods for achieving them.
The best way to watch this film, about the inspiration and creation of the Disney classic Mary Poppins, is to watch that 1964 classic almost immediately before going to see this film, and preferably to watch Poppins for the first time in a very long while. At least, that’s how I saw it, and I damn well loved it. I remember watching Mary Poppins as a child, and what with it’s recent addition to the 1001 Movies list I thought it a perfect opportunity to catch the film before heading to the cinema to see this, which features a cast full of some of my favourite actors. Tom Hanks is the perfect casting as You-Gotta-Call-Me Walt Disney, though they wisely strayed away from his well known seedier side, the supporting cast is comprised of actors it’s pretty much impossible not to like, from Bradley Whitford’s increasingly frayed screenwriter Don DaGradi, to the composing siblings Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), and of course Paul Giamatti as Ralph the loveable driver. However, as insanely adorable as that cast is, none of them hold a candle to the brilliance of Emma Thompson, as Mary Poppins’ writer P. L. Travers. On the surface she is nothing but a prim and proper stiff-upper-lipped tea-drinking English woman, but there’s so many nuances going on here it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Just look at the scene where she’s confronted with the notion that Dick Van Dyke is “one of the greats.” She has absolutely no clue how to react to that sentiment, and her lips quiver like jelly on a carousel as she tries to find any words that would be an appropriate response. I was initially less keen on the Colin Farrell flashbacks of Travers’ youth in Australia, and they came as something of a surprise having been missing from all the promotional material I’d seen, and I felt they lessened the overall impact of Thompson’s performance, as everything they showed on screen was something I picked up from her via a look or a few words, but the sheer joy and brilliance of the Hollywood and England scenes were more than enough to make up for it.
3. Iron Man 3
Possibly the most controversially high placing on this list, I cannot understand why the third part of the Iron Man franchise has such nay-sayers. In my mind this re-teaming of writer/director Shane Black with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star Robert Downey Jr., was almost perfect. Iron Man remains my favourite superhero, despite the misfire of Iron Man 2, but this came back kicking and screaming with buckets of action, an awesome twist in the middle, whip smart dialogue and scenes which took a mega-budget superhero blockbuster in alltogether unexpected directions – I’m speaking predominantly of the small-town Tennessee segment in the second act. Plus, it was funny as hell, and there’s a bit where Tony Stark takes out a helicopter with a piano. People, please, tell me what’s not to love?
(Released in the UK on 18th January 2013) I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino – even Death Proof – and I can’t help but get excited when he releases a new movie. Django Unchained retains the great director’s knack for stellar dialogue (“I like the way you die, boy”) being spoken by a frankly immense cast, of which Jamie Foxx was a risky lead that I’m more than happy to say proved me wrong. I initially thought he’d be terrible – I’m not a huge Foxx fan – but he doesn’t put a foot wrong here, and holds his own against the likes of Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. Granted, they all have more of a character to display, whereas Foxx’s Django tends to internalise more, but either way they’re all great. At times the plot meandered a little, but the scenes into which it delved – the KKK meeting, the miners – were always more than entertaining enough to distract from the overall plot. I’m sure the story could have been cut down a little, but with dialogue, performances and scenes this great, why would you want any less?
And so it is, the best film of the year, coincidentally my most anticipated for 2013 too. Edgar Wright has so far made four widely released feature films, and they’re all gold, as is Spaced, the TV show on which he started out. Here he teams back up with the likes of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to complete his Cornetto trilogy, previously featuring Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and here instead of zombies and buddy cop actioners, he pays homage to apocalyptic movies. The twist? This time around, the world is ending during a pub crawl that our hero, Pegg’s Gary King, is none too eager to stop, regardless of whether the world will be here tomorrow or not. Edgar Wright, as I’ve discussed before, is my favourite active director, and I expect him to remain so for quite some time. I look forward to whatever he’s going to do with Antman without a hint of apprehension or concern, as I trust the man implicitly to do nothing but entertain me. Here, he and fellow writer Simon Pegg wisely opted not to follow similar threads from their previous two movies, ignoring the easy jokes (at no point does anyone say “You’ve got blue on you”) and making Pegg and Frost, who so often play best mates, here something closer to enemies after an initially unspoken incident that happened some years ago. Frost’s pink Hulk remains the most valuable player of the cast, but he’s surrounded by a wealth of other British comedy gems, from regulars Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy to newcomers Eddie Marsan and Rosamund Pike. I don’t have a negative word to say about this film and, now I’ve seen it a second time, I can go back to my review and give it a 10/10; it’s perfect.
Now, obviously there’s a lot of movies missing from this list that I just haven’t gotten around to seeing yet, because either they’ve not come out here, or more likely I haven’t made the effort to track them down. I’ll be posting a slightly updated list in about a month or so, after I’ve appeared on a Best of 2013 Lambcast, and between now and then I aim to fit in as many more films from last year as possible, hopefully starting with the DVD of Danny Boyle’s Trance that I’ve had for months and still haven’t seen! Is there anything else I should move to the top of my list to track down? Bear in mind that, due to release dates and whatnot, stuff from earlier in the year is much easier for me to get hold of. Let me know in the comments, thanks people!