The Best Films of 2013

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The opening paragraph of a best films list is usually a time for critic to muse on how difficult it is to fit all their favourites into a list or the frivolity of end of year lists. Well I say, sucks to your trepidation. I love this time of year and the festival of lists. Cinephiles love to make lists. If you’re ever being chased by a film geek, knock over a shelf of DVDs and shout “put them in the order of best films of the decade” and you’ll make a clean getaway. 2013 has been a fantastic year and, as always, I hope you make use of the lists on offer to track down the films you missed or start a conversation with someone about the movies showing up on a plethora of lists. I’d like to thank anyone who has read a review this year, left a comment or got in touch via Twitter. I firmly believe that the films we watch are pointless without people around to share the experience. I love meeting new film fans and hearing different opinions.

The only rule for making this year’s compilation is that I saw these movies in a cinema, at a festival, or new release VOD during the course of the year. Beware that I am based in Australia so there will be a few films from 2012 that made it onto the list because they were delayed a release here.

For your consideration, here are the best films of 2013.

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36. Rush

A fine tale about two men intrinsically linked by opposition who agitated each other into the history books. Daniel Brühl’s performance as Niki Lauda was the centrepiece of Ron Howard’s excellent take on the thrilling world of Formula-1 racing. It also doubled as the perfect film to take your rev-head relative to see.

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35. The Best Offer

A vortex of intrigue sucked me into The Best Offer. Writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore pulled off deceit will elegance and style. The experience was the cinematic equivalent of quicksand. By the time you realise something was awry you were already in far too deep.

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34. Compliance

There was no middle ground with reactions to Compliance. It managed to polarize audiences but I stand firm that it’s an intriguing examination of the power play between authority and those who yield to command. A film that appears to be calm on the surface but the subtext is ferocious with the shocking way people succumb to savage impulses when people in positions of power are morally tainted.

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33. You’re Next

Masked people hack their way through a family staying at an isolated mansion. Don’t commence yawning just yet over the premise of You’re Next. Effective scares and an excellent shift in gear mid-film ensured that it not only hurdled the generic slasher label, it fearlessly did a triple somersault over it. Due to the repetitive nature of the horror/slasher films, it feels like every time a new film is released there is an expectation that it will take the genre to new heights. Mind-blowing twists, excessive gore or loving deconstruction are tools used to reinvigorate tired formulas. The key to enjoying You’re Next was to not look too hard because you would miss the blood soaked circus fun-house going on around you.

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32. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

A lot of hate has been directed at Peter Jackson’s handling of The Hobbit but adored his return to Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and that joy continued with The Desolation of Smaug. The barrel chase sequence alone stood out as one of the best action set pieces of the year and the film constantly had me in awe. Seeing Benedict Cumberbatch bring the dragon Smaug to life with the aid of an army of digital effects wizards was incredible. More please.

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31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

A masterclass is executing a great sequel in the realm of the modern blockbuster. Like all good sequels it took the ideas and set pieces of the first film and made them bigger and properly raised the stakes. There was a commitment to making the film work as a middle film in a series that served to allow a few twists and turns, but without the full satisfaction of a payoff, which only made me want to see the next films as soon as possible (Mockingjay will be split into two films released separately).

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30. Behind the Candelabra

In Australia we were lucky to have Steven Soderbergh’s final film (hopefully not) released in cinemas. Soderbergh examined a sliver of the life of Valentino Liberace and expertly examined the notions of identity and privacy during a time when old conservative American values were dominant but waning. The results were fearless and fabulous. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas gave fantastic performances but it was Rob Lowe who stole the show playing Liberace’s plastic surgeon.

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29. The Counselor

The collaboration of Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott was slaughtered by critics in 2013 but I strongly disagree with the notion that this is a bad film. A cynical examination of crime that superbly portrays illegal behaviour in a foul way, which is exactly what the characters and the setting deserved. A spectacular feeding frenzy void of any of the gloss or fantasy associated with the criminal underbelly. The Counselor had plenty of bite and it was enthralling getting lost in a complete moral wasteland.

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28. Fruitvale Station

Easily the best debut film of the year from freshman writer/director Ryan Coogler. A powerful acknowledgement of existence when the value of a human life seems to have been forgotten in the ‘gun happy’ sewer of American culture. Michal B. Jordan’s performance was superb and he effortlessly transitioned from charming to thug in an instant.

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27. Blue Jasmine

I stand by the need to re-title this film to ‘Acting: The Movie’. Incredible performances drive a tale of family, class and psychosis.

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26. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

On acting and directing duties Ben Stiller managed to magnificently showcase the tug-of-war between two worlds that gave way to a wonderful affirmation of a person’s life. Visually stunning, an ace soundtrack and boundless optimism made this film really stand out for me. Stiller managed to carve a piece of Americana with Mitty. And yes, that includes the rampant product placement. American critics have slammed the film for its commercial sensibilities but seem to have forgotten how indelible advertising is to American culture and how it slips into the subconscious of Stiller’s leading man. I guess it’s hard to look into a mirror sometimes and Stiller has held up a massive one with Mitty.

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25. The Turning

A three hour long ‘pick-and-mix’ of Australian filmmaking talent working with the prose of writer, Tim Winton, seemed daunting, heck, the idea of an interval mid screening was enough to freak out any cinemagoer but it worked! I love the courage of the ringmaster, Robert Connolly, to bring all the talent together and roll it out cohesively. Not every short film was a winner but the best part of the experience of The Turning was chatting with people about their favourites and what they interpreted from each short.

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24. Silver Linings Playbook

A bittersweet pill that mixed endearing family drama and modern romance. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence made for an incredible pairing and the supporting cast was elegantly layer with powerful performances from Robert De Niro, Jackie Weaver, Anupam Kher and John Ortiz. Writer and director David O. Russell indulged his broken characters in a world of crazy as a way of coping with a harsh reality. A kooky delight.

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23. The Spectacular Now

Imagine Ferris Bueller as an alcoholic and you’ve got Sutter (Miles Teller) from The Spectacular Now. While John Hughes’ personification of high school cool lived in a realm of teenage fantasy, Sutter occupied a stark reality where being the life of the party is starting to lose its glimmer. Director James Ponsoldt crafted an authentic tale which captured the life lessons that spring up unexpectedly when blind confidence dictates you’ve got life all figured out.

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22. Iron Man 3

I still can’t believe we got a Marvel film made by writer/director Shane Black. We are spoilt. A fiery extravaganza that was a collision between the comic book world and Black’s resume of rapid fire action thrillers. Out of the onslaught of superhero films in 2013 Iron Man 3 stood out as the absolute best of the costumed bunch. A stripped back approach made the film work as the focus was kept tightly on Tony Stark as a person coping in a world where the unbelievable is becoming a reality. Marvel Studios also gave Black the freedom to make a Shane Black film so the dialogue was razor sharp, there was a beachfront helicopter attack and a Christmas setting. Again, we are spoilt. Iron Man 3 is the jolt Marvel needed to keep their film track record intact. It was a slight step away from the superhero formula, but one needed to prevent Iron Man turning into a clichéd rust bucket.

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21. Amour

Making the commitment to spend the rest of your life with someone, through sickness or health in marriage, is one of the oldest traditions in the union between two people. The tale of an elderly couple in filmmaker Michael Haneke’s Amour sees that marital commitment through to the absolute end. A powerful piece of cinema that forces us to confront death and something even worse; the prospect of outliving the love of one’s life.

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20. Only God Forgives

One of the most battered films of 2013 stands proudly as one of the best. Please hold off leaving a comment on this list such as “OMG Only God Forgives?!?” A visceral fever dream that’s both entrancing and horrifying. Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn knows how to keep eyes, ears and mouths wide open in awe of his work. The visuals were remarkable and cinematographer Larry Smith soaked the environment with neon lighting and the tacky blend of the elegant oriental designs of the East and the grotesque influences of the West. The score by Cliff Marinez further penetrated into the murky situation with foreboding electronic synths and wailing organ pianos. Vithaya Pansringarm’s performance as the policeman Chang was incredible and akin to Javier Bardem’s Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

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19. Life of Pi

All great art has the power to make us question what higher authority or force of nature empowered someone to create a masterpiece. Life of Pi was director Ang Lee’s artistic expression of faith on film that’s close to his very own version of the Sistine Chapel, minus the neck pain.

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18. Zero Dark Thirty

In order to fight evil one must become submerged in a wicked darkness. Zero Dark Thirty chronicled the decade long manhunt to find Osama Bin Landen and is a dramtisation of a silent war that highlights the extreme risks a government is willing to take to bring terrorists to justice. A remarkable and engaging piece of filmmaking from Kathryn Bigelow considering the outcome of the story is well known. A sign of the times we live in and the processes put in place to wrangle the people that choose to live outside the realm of civility. Bigelow showed how the process consumed and slowly shredded away at any trace of morality.

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17. Lincoln

Steven Spielberg took a peephole approach to the life of one of the greatest American Presidents. Gone are flashbacks to youth or any moments where someone in the past might say to a young Abe Lincoln “by golly you might be President one day son”. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner acknowledged that Lincoln was a man whose entire life prepared him for the political battle to abolish slavery. A grubby world of politics was on show and it was a fascinating study of the methods of persuasion and tactics used by Lincoln and his opponents to achieve their desired goals. There was no sign of the actor Daniel Day Lewis when he lifted his head as Lincoln. The eyes that beamed back at you and the weary face familiar from only history books and statues was brought to life. It’s was captivating performance that humanised the President. Tommy Lee Jones was outstanding playing the ferocious Thaddeus Stevens and the supporting cast was stacked with fantastic actors.

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16. For Those in Peril

A visceral tale of grief was presented in For Those in Peril, the debut film from writer/director, Paul Wright, which composited seafaring folklore against the raw emotions of losing a loved one. A raw first film from Wright, but one that looks and feels like it comes from a seasoned professional. A powerful story told by a bold new storyteller. It was a pleasure to witness Wright’s first steps in into filmmaking.

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15. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

The character of Alan Partridge has been around for 20 years so it was always going to be hard taking that baggage into a film and trying to win over new fans in the process. Luckily, the comedic fabrication of actor Steve Coogan and comedy guru Armando Iannucci (creator of The Thick of It, Veep, In The Loop) stood on its own while still retaining every hilarious nuance of the character. It was Jam-packed with wit that ensured the tradition of great British comedy is still alive and well.

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14. Much Ado About Nothing

High school English teachers breathed a sigh of relief in 2013. If students want to take a cinematic shortcut studying William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, filmmaker Joss Whedon has made a superb adaptation that burns brightly with the wit and romance of The Bard’s work. It brilliantly delivered ye old fashioned entertainment with a slick makeover.

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13. Frances Ha

For all the whining and complaining of disaffected and entitled young people, Frances Ha arrived with a refreshing amount of buoyancy to dance and charm its way through quarter life crisis territory. Greta Gerwig occupied almost every frame of Frances Ha with her special brand of awkwardness and the results were outstanding. Her character was not one to mope around and there was a relentless kinetic energy Gerwig gave to Frances through the good times and the bad. Sure, she has her flat moments but there’s no sign of invitations being sent out to a pity party, and instantly Frances earns your sympathy where it’s necessary. A revitalisation and embrace of the good life so many people decide to take for granted. The simple pleasures are indulged and a whole generation can now look to a bubbly new icon named Frances.

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12. The Way Way Back

Coming-of-age films can be frustrating. Everyone has mixed memories about the teenage experience and it’s hard not to buy into the nostalgia filmmaker’s plop onto the screen. Personal reflections of adolescence automatically tug you into a story and it feels manipulative, but The Way Way Back lovingly retraced pubescent steps with mirth. Co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon kept the focus on their lead character’s growth in confidence instead of cementing his path to adulthood. The cast was excellent with Steve Carell ditching his nice guy persona for a great first-class jerk and Toni Collette was outstanding in the thick of the drama. Rash and Faxon appeared funny playing oddball water park employees and Allison Janney had a riotous time as a flamboyant neighbour with the blood alcohol level of a brewery. Juvenile but wise, Sam Rockwell was tremendous and put so much heart and joy into his role. The Way Way Back shattered the guard I put up to prevent Rash and Faxon plundering my own recollections of youth. A story is told gently and with a lot of humour thus earning adoration.

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11. Short Term 12

The foster kids in Short Term 12 are sorely conscious of their grim situation but are struggling to understand why their parents failed them. From the perspective of the caretakers, writer/director Destin Cretton offered a wonderfully authentic film about the families built from the fragments of broken homes. Brie Larson gave an incredible performance and for an actress who has mostly played a teenager throughout her career so far (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now and The United States of Tara) it was her declaration of independence as a serious actor. John Gallagher Jr shared a lovely bond with Larson and the supporting cast of young actors was impressive. For a film that tackles heavy issues, Short Term 12 is uplifting without being emotionally manipulative. Making things even more astounding is that it is Cretton’s second feature film, a terrific start to his career but also an excellent piece of work one could retire on.

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10. Sleepwalk with Me

The great love of one man’s life is wavering between his career and his partner in Sleepwalk with Me, a film that expertly paddled through the complicated subconscious and repressed feelings of a faltering comedian. So often in films that tackle a looming mid-life crisis or long term relationship woes the characters are so contrived. Co-writer/actor/director Mike Birbiglia delivered a film with characters and situations that were honest and affecting. It’s a film about the one before the one that can appear in life as person or career prospect (for some people a job is the love of their life). It’s bittersweet but Sleepwalk with Me managed to cherry-pick the strength and flaws of great love and express them in a touching way that’s not cheesy or over romanticised.

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9. Upstream Color

Multitasking filmmaking maestro, Shane Carruth, proved he is fast becoming the puzzle master of filmmaking with Upstream Color. It’s was a sumptuous enigma that was intricately constructed and a beautifully shot film that would make Terrence Malick blush. Thinking caps were compulsory for Upstream Color and multiple viewings are sure to be a requirement to fully embrace the concepts at play; a credit to Carruth’s densely layered storytelling.

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8. The World’s End

Filmmaker Edgar Wright has excelled exploring and deconstructing different genres; zombies in Shaun of the Dead and action cinema with Hot Fuzz. The World’s End proudly wore science fiction influences on its sleeve, and had a ball doing it, but the personal character journey inward expertly trumped any lip service to a specific genre. Easily one of the most quotable films of 2013 with a copious amount of one-liners and hilarious quips. From the awkward interactions and arguments between the crew early on, to the drunken musings and conversations in the back end, it’s consistently funny. Even when deep in drama there is enough time for a visual gag or jibe to jolt the film back into the realm of frivolity. The World’s End wildly smashed through a genre to reveal an outstanding tale of mateship and the dangers of nostalgia.

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7. Pacific Rim

The essence of sugar powered cereal and Saturday morning cartoons is bottled up and attached to fireworks, and the resulting explosion of joy was Pacific Rim. Director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro created a hyperactive gothic science fiction world that dazzled with epic scope and heroics. There aren’t enough fist-pumps in the world to properly convey the awesomeness of Pacific Rim. I tried while watching the film, but my arm hurt before it hit the halfway mark.

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6. Spring Breakers

I’ll never forget the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me as the credits rolled on Spring Breakers. The ideals of freedom, paradise and the American dream pulse in a neon coloured, bubble-gum scented descent into darkness in Spring Breakers, one of the most potent pieces of satire and filmmaking to hit the screen this year. As Captain Benjamin L. Willard took the river journey of madness to find Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, so too does Korine with his bikini clad crew in Spring Breakers. The battlefront for hearts and minds has changed in the pursuit of liberty, and it was a scummy but enlightening reflection of the western world.

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5. Prince Avalanche

Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch joined the list of superb comedy duos as result of Prince Avalanche, the mirthful new film from writer/director, David Gordon Green. The humour was ace and the film had a strong emotional backbone that moved you from laughing at the characters to laughing with them. A very moving film that functions on so many different levels of the emotional spectrum that you may find tears of laughter mixed with the sobs of heartache. It elicits a passionate response from subtle and beautiful execution.

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4. 12 Years a Slave

The feel terrible film of 2013, but for a very good reason. As a director, Steve McQueen didn’t hold back from showing a grotesque period in American history. While the setting was bleak, 12 Years a Slave is imbued with an invigorating message of hope from an astonishing tale of endurance. Powerful is an understatement when talking about 12 Years a Slave. McQueen agitates in order to educate and it’s an unforgettable experience.

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3. Stoker

Director Chan-wook Park created a morbid environment for a sumptuous mystery to unfold in the wonderfully twisted Stoker. A cunning riddle that was bursting with luscious direction, intricate scripting and amazing performances.

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2. Captain Phillips

A big cloud hung over Captain Phillips. The plot was based on a true story about a group of Somali pirates who attacked a cargo ship in 2009 which resulted in a hostage crisis. You knew entering the cinema that something dreadful was going to happen. You braced for the worst, and the situation was dire, yet it was an incredible dramatisation. Director Paul Greengrass created an experience that felt like having a gun held to your head. Compelling, ruthless and morally challenging, Captain Phillips was an astonishing piece of work.

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1. Gravity

Gravity was a gorgeous 90 minute long panic attack that caresses the soul while obliteratig the senses. Co-writer and director Alfonso Cuarón found strength in tragedy in an oddly therapeutic way while musing on the incredible technological achievements of the human race and the ability for the mind, body and spirit to endure against all odds. A film that affirms our beautiful but fragile existence and it felt like the sum of humankinds estimated 200,000 years on Earth. Cuarón totally committed to the sensory deprivation of space and it was a haunting environment to occupy. The silence was terminal, every breath a gift and the darkness of the expansive universe waited to devour any life that breaks from Earth’s gravitational pull. The chances of death were high compared with the probability of celebrating another birthday, which makes every action of the astronauts Stone and Kowalski absolutely intense. Cuarón and co-writer Jonás Cuarón continually stacked up the obstacles for each character to overcome and the situations perfectly reflected the unforgiving doctrine of nature, it’s like Charles Darwin reciting chapters of The Origin of the Species while crushing cars in a monster truck.

Sandra Bullock did a wonderful job of giving her character the jittery edge of a rookie in the beginning while steadily earning her grit and courage throughout the experience. In isolation she was outstanding and managed to produce an incredible amount of emotion working with intimate objects and scrambled voices from various radio devices. Clooney was great channelling the steely demeanour of an Apollo era astronaut but none of the wonder of the job is lost on him. Clooney’s character was constantly reflecting on the miracle of Earth’s many natural trinkets. Both actors did an amazing job of portraying the opposing forces of optimism and pessimism, particularly Bullock, whose character has plenty of back-story to justify her actions and was excellent watching her crush mental roadblocks.

Gravity is a film that pulses along with every fibre of your being; it’s as if Alfonso Cuarón has tapped into the building blocks of our DNA and prodded the psyche. Every intense step of the journey results in a cinematic baptism that highlights the extraordinary accomplishment of life itself.

Cameron Williams
The Popcorn Junkie

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