James M Macleod’s Top Ten Films of 2013

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A Top Ten films of the year list is a uniquely difficult task, especially when the year of film was as good as was 2013 .

Trying to rank experiences so vastly different from each other is rather odd- so I tried to identify the best way to decide what separates  good experiences from  great ones.

What made my top ten were the films I still think about. Some films are amazing  in the moment but the impact fades over time. Brilliant ones return you  to how you felt when watching- just when you think of them.

There are of course many splendid films I didn’t have space to include; maybe on a different day they would have even made my top ten.

Then there are the films I wasn’t able to see (such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips, Short Term 12, 12 Years a Slave, and more).

In the end this isn’t a top ten best films of the year, it’s my top ten favourite films of the year. They’re the films that perfectly gelled with my sensibilities in some way and have not left my mind since seeing them. I have not numbered this list although it is in a loose ascending order of greatness.

There are so many films I loved that there simply isn’t room for in the final Ten but they still deserve recognition for being great.

Gravity (Directed by Alfonso Quaron): This was so close to making my list for being a technical and visual marvel as well as a non-stop thrill-ride – but it was edged out at the last moment by a somewhat similar film.

The Spectacular Now (Directed by James Ponsoldt)- In a year full of excellent coming-of-age films like Mud and Blue is the Warmest Colour, this was one of my favourites.

Other films I really loved but not quite enough to make the top ten include Stoker, Computer Chess, The World’s End, Room 237, Leviathan, Only God Forgives, The Selfish Giant, You’re Next, and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear which is hands-down the year’s best action film.

Post Tenebras Lux- Directed by Carlos Reygadas

This is a strange one (in more ways than one) because it’s still a film, months after watching, that hasn’t completely come together for me. There are aspects of it I don’t fully understand and sequences that don’t even seem to fit with the rest of the film for me. Yet, it is a film that has burned images into my mind and a film that was unlike anything else I have ever seen. Post Tenebras Lux is a film that features a glowing red demon, self-decapitation, seemingly random scenes of English boys playing rugby, and an intimate drama set in the Mexican countryside. Some of these don’t seem to even have any thematic connection yet Reygadas weaves it all together so beautifully that it doesn’t even matter.

As much as the film explores themes and ideas (such as evil, self-reflection, our perception of ourselves, defilement, and more) there are times where it is purely an atmospheric and emotional experience. Many of the shots are sharp in the centre and blurred in a circle around the edges. They give the film a beautiful and dreamlike quality and it feels like we’re looking through a keyhole into someone’s fractured memories.

On top of these visual effects is the wonderful and unique use of colour that was so unlike anything I saw this year. It’s far from a perfect film but Reygadas’s particular brand of surrealism was an amazing experience. Even though some of it is a little too enigmatic it contains a couple of the most astounding scenes of the year, with potentially the most beautiful opening scene of any film I saw this year.

Stories We Tell- Directed by Sarah Polley

2013 was a great year for documentaries. From the traditional but affecting issue film Blackfish to the wholly experimental experience film Leviathan, documentaries this year ranged wildly in their play with form. A film that straddles the traditional and experimental is Sarah Polley’s delightful Stories We Tell, which is her family’s story as much as it is about how and why we tell stories at all. Using archival footage, re-enactments, interviews, and voice-over she dissects a secret within her family; covering how it affected all of them and how they all now uniquely perceive the events that transpired.

The story at the centre of the film is captivating on its own but Polley’s reflections on storytelling itself elevate it to another level of brilliance. Stories and films are our way of trying to understand and make sense of the world; it’s an idea well explored in this incredibly touching film

The Congress- Directed by Ari Folman

Many of my top ten are films that showed me things I had never seen before and no film exemplifies this more than Ari Folman’s partially-animated surreal sci-fi epic. Through a wild and imaginative story (adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress) Folman explores the evils of Hollywood, the future of film, and finding reality in an increasingly digital and artificial world. Similarly to Post Tenebras Lux it’s a film that doesn’t always make logical sense, something that some people may find frustrating. But even when the bizarre world of the film doesn’t completely make sense what does make sense is the emotional and thematic elements which are the most important.

I found myself almost tearing up in moments despite being unclear about what exactly is happening because the emotional side of things was always so strong. Folman’s vision of the future is a fantastic blend of Disney, Looney Tunes, and Yellow Submarine-esque animation. In no other film this year will you see a Disney-looking Gestapo led by Danny Huston as well as an animated Tom Cruise hanging out with Buddha and Clint Eastwood. Robin Wright plays herself in a powerful performance that doesn’t lose any of its impact when she becomes animated. The performances all around are brilliant but the stand out may be Harvey Keitel as he gives one of the year’s best and more emotionally engaging monologues. With Waltz with Bashir and now The Congress Ari Folman has proved himself to be one of the most distinct directors in the world of animation.

Frances Ha- Directed by Noah Baumbach

As I mentioned before, this has been a great year for coming-of-age films and maybe none better than Noah Baumbach’s tale of a drifting young woman becoming a more complete person. Co-writer Greta Gerwig stars as the titular Frances, an occasionally bumbling woman whose dreams haven’t panned out and whose friends are moving on. Shot beautifully in black and white ,predominantly in New York City, it evokes Manhattan-era Woody Allen as well as the French New Wave while also being altogether modern and distinctive.

Frances is one of those characters who occasionally creates her own problems and is riddled with insecurities but she is so well defined that we’re always on her side and always understand how she gets into these situations. Baumbach perfectly captures an aspect of youth rarely done this honestly without becoming insufferable. It’s also nice to see a film about a woman trying to find herself where success is not determined by her having a man or not. A lovely, witty, and charming film with more depth and truth to it than it may appear.

Upstream Colour- Directed by Shane Carruth

Shane Carruth’s follow up to his mind-bending time travel film Primer initially appears as equally complex but ends up being a much more thematically intricate and satisfying film while also being much more narratively simple than it first appears. Through a sci-fi tale of mind controlling maggots and pigs with psychic connections Carruth delves into what happens when our identity is taken from us through illness, ill fortune, or any other life-ruining event.

It’s a tale of two struggling people bonding over their shared pain but told through an utterly fantastical and original story. One of my issues with his previous film was that it almost solely felt like an experiment, especially due to how cold it was. Here Carruth continues to be experimental but utilises every aspect of filmmaking to tell his story rather than merely having an intricate plot. This film is visually stunning and Carruth gives it the look of a digital Terrence Malick but with his own specific touch. This imbues it with a much more compassionate and emotional core than was ever present in Primer. Then there’s the electronic ambient score (which Carruth also composed) that is used so well in the film and imbues every scene with an otherworldly quality that ranges from euphoric to sinister. Few films this year had images so dense with ideas and information.

The Act of Killing- Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Surrealism is a bit of a through-line with some of my choices here and no other is quite as surreal as Joshua Oppenheimer’s troubling documentary about Indonesian war criminals. War criminals is putting it nicely, these men are unrepentant murderers who contributed to the killing of thousands of Communists, Chinese, and those they simply didn’t like.

Oppenheimer said that “It’s like wandering into Germany 40 years after World War II and finding the Nazis still in power” and it’s chilling how true that is.  The open and carefree way they talk about their crimes is surreal in an almost sickening way. These murderers are like local celebrities and are so divorced from any traditional morality that the extent to which Oppenheimer gets some of them to reflect is astounding. The conceit of the documentary is that he has asked them to make a film about their time in the 60’s as murderous gangsters, particularly one man (Anwar Congo) who claims to have killed over a thousand people. In making a film about the evils they committed they are forced to face these memories again. As staggering as it is to see them talk so plainly about how they killed innocent people, it’s even more staggering to see them finally confront their wicked past. This is not just a brilliant film about the horrific acts in Indonesia’s past that have gone unpunished; it’s also an excellent exploration of the power of cinema. Film forces these men to finally acknowledge the things they have done and the results are astonishing.

The Great Beauty- Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

For a two and a half hour long Italian film about a 65-year-old man reflecting on his life and why he never did more with it, this may have been the most fun I had watching a film this year. Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque journey through modern and classic art, as well as through Rome, is so full of energy and wit. Toni Servillo as the main character Jep brings so much charm to the role and is constantly compelling. Jep lives in a world of endless parties and extravagance, yet it’s a life that has left him a little unsatisfied and disappointed. But as he looks past all of the lavishness he finds the beauty in Rome as well as life.

One thing I particularly liked was that it never looked down on aspects of modern life and art in comparison to the more classical stuff. Sorrentino shows what is wonderful about all facets of art and he does it so beautifully. It’s relentlessly lively yet manages to slow down at the right moments to pack a real emotional punch. With this film Sorrentino has fully established himself as one of the great modern auteurs as well as just one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. He perfectly balances profundity and straight up entertainment with style, thoughtfulness, and humour.

All is Lost- Directed by J. C. Chandor

Up until recently Alfonso Quaron’s Gravity was in my top ten. Then came All is Lost. Despite  not being the technical achievement of Gravity  it succeeds in many of the same ways without failing in the same ways as Gravity (very small failures mind, it’s still brilliant. It just had aspects that bothered me a little).

Robert Redford stars as a man on a yacht battling against the ocean for several days. In an even more simplistic tale of survival, Redford is the only actor and has very little dialogue. He communicates predominantly through his eyes and face, and he delivers one of the best performances of the year.

I’m always impressed when a director makes a small or isolated location feel visually interesting and Chandor takes this to the next level. He makes the endless blue such a terrifying force and entirely through visual storytelling he weaves a vast and intense adventure. The film is a non-stop ride of tension, to the point that I was genuinely gulping for air in some moments. Redford faces obstacle after obstacle but it never feels forced (which was an issue of mine with Gravity at some points). We learn very little about him but how he carries himself and acts tells us all we need to know. He is weary but will fight as long as he can. His boat creaks and groans through the churning sea just as he is doing through life.

On top of all that is the score by Alexander Ebert from “Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes” that is the perfect blend of exciting, foreboding, and elation (particularly the cathartic song that plays during the credits). There was nothing else this year that had me as constantly viscerally engaged while also captivating me emotionally too.

A Field in England- Directed by Ben Wheatley

Ben Wheatley has already established himself as a distinctive voice in British cinema with his blackly comic films Down Terrace, Kill List, and Sightseers but with A Field in England he has completely surpassed his previous work and created something wildly and vividly original yet unmistakably his.

Set entirely in a field (in England) during the 17th Century English Civil War it’s a darkly comedic story of a changing world. The five main characters played brilliantly by the likes of Michael Smiley and Reese Sheersmith become a stand in for England as a whole and people in general when adapting to a new era. Shot in striking monochrome Wheatley blends elements of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ken Russell with Spaghetti Westerns and 60s/70s British horror films.

Despite the numerous influences at play, Wheatley still manages to produce something that feels so extraordinarily fresh. The screenplay written with Amy Jump is thoughtful, strange, and deeply funny at times. Most of the dialogue is period-appropriate with such excellent Civil War slams such as “Your privy parts are doomed homunculus!” but with flashes of more anachronistic speech tying this tiny story to much more universal ideas.

And, as usual, Wheatley includes an excellent score made up of era-appropriate folk songs and more chilling ambient/drone tracks. One of the most astonishing things about this film was the physical reaction it induced in me- unlike any other filmic experience I have had.

Late in the film comes a mushroom-induced psychedelic sequence that  verges on provoking a headache. But then right afterwards comes a sequence so amazingly serene that it felt like someone was softly blowing on my brain. Not only did the film stun me visually, make me think and make me laugh, it also affected me in ways that nothing else ever has.

It’s special when a film shows you something you have never seen, the next level is when it makes you feel something you have never felt. Wheatley had already won me over with his previous films and this makes me incredibly excited for whatever he does in the future. A Field in England was simply one of the most satisfying film experiences of my year and a film that has rewarded re-watching.

Before Midnight- Directed by Richard Linklater

1995’s Before Sunrise was one of the greatest films about young love ever made, then 2004’s Before Sunset almost topped it as a film about love and regret. Now we have Before Midnight as a film about maintaining love and it may complete this as the best film trilogy of all time. Linklater and co-writers/stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy could have ended things with either of the previous films and left a satisfying end but they dared to take this story a step further.

As heartbreaking as it can be I am so glad they decided to continue the grand romance of Jessie and Celine. As romantic and charming as the previous films were, they also didn’t shy away from the reality of what comes from two very different people trying to be together – despite life getting in the way.

Here their respective flaws and differences are more strained than ever and we have to hope that true love exists and will pull them through it. The idea of true love has always played a part in the series and here its existence is at its most questionable but at the same time our desire for it to be real is even stronger. This series doesn’t just portray the development of this relationship but also the development of Hawke and Delpy as actors.

At this point I see them more as Jessie and Celine than I do Hawke and Delpy. These are two of the most well-defined and complex characters in film, and I just adore spending time with them. Few films capture the ineffable, painful, and wonderful nature of love but these three have done so three times over, while getting more intricate and sublime with each film. It’s as heart wrenching as it is life affirming and should be required viewing for anyone in a long-term relationship and anyone who loves film. In a year where, inevitably, many films did not live up to expectations this was a film that exceeded expectations. What started as a small story between two people having a great day together has become the great romantic epic of our time.

So that’s my top ten of the year, share your thoughts as well as your own favourites in the comments. I hope everyone had a great year. I shall leave you with one of the best trailers of the year for one of my favourite films of the year.

James M Macleod