This has been an extraordinary year in cinema. By the end of the year I will have seen over 170 films, most of them recent releases, a substantial number of which were decent, if not rather good indeed. I can’t remember another year where it was so hard to whittle down my cinema going experiences to a clear top ten.
The Perpetual Apology
Every year I miss films the big reviewers in the US and other countries have on their lists, simply because of conflicting release schedules or just not having the time to see more films. This year I have not managed to see, in alphabetical order, American Hustle, Beyond The Hills, Broken Circle Breakdown, Enough Said, Her, Muscle Shoals, The Act Of Killing, The Great Beauty and 20 Feet From Stardom – any of which might have knocked on the door of my top films of the year.
As I said earlier, this has been a wonderful year in cinema. I saw a lot top ten worthy films. It was hard not to find a place for the excellent black Icelandic comedy Of Horses And Men or the dark Southern Gothic tale, Mud. The best Indian film of the year was Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, which lingered long in my mind as did The Conjuring, the best horror film of 2013.
In terms of straight up Sci-Fi nothing really came close to Snowpiercer for sheer verve and audacity although The World’s End did have a certain comedic charm. Bending The Rules deserved a mention for some of the most intricately constructed scenes of the year. While Behind The Candlebra stood out for the quality of the lead acting performances.
Unusually, there were no documentaries in my top ten this year and, for the first time in many years, I was unable to name a really excellent animated film. Finally, to pay tribute to my new home country, I would add R100 as the best Japanese film, simply because it was so totally unlike anything else I saw this year.
Disappointments And Disasters
One challenge this year was to decide if there was anything worse than After Earth, which really set the bar low, so to speak, in terms of poorly thought out, asinine cinema. Sadly, there was a lot of competition, from the films that could have been good, but weren’t, like Stoker, Pacific Rim, Elysium and The Counsellor, through to the ones that never really worked, like The Hangover Part III, Oblivion and Mental.
But, in the end one film really stood out. Passion is a flaccid, droning, soullessness piece of drivel from Brian De Palma that wastes the talents of the occasionally excellent Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapaace and made me resent every single minute I invested in seeing it.
The Top Ten
10. Gravity – A technical masterpiece, Gravity is one of two films on my list this year to actually justify the use of 3D. Gravity reminds us of how vast and dangerous space is, while maintaining a (literally) breathtaking pace. Immersive, gripping and brilliant.
9. Ilo Ilo – A modest film which tells, in a humble and humane way, one of the most important stories behind the headlines of rising Asian economic prosperity. Never preachy or worthy, Ilo Ilo is a rich and carefully observed piece of storytelling.
8. The Bling Ring – much maligned and often misunderstood, The Bling Ring is one of a number of films from the US this year, looking at the corrosive impact of conspicuous consumption and constant materialistic comparison. Neither sympathetic nor satirical, The Bling Ring may well be the film we turn to in years to come as we try and explain to our grandchildren what it was like to live in the age of selfies and celebrity.
7. Metallica: Through The Never – A great concert film should get us close to the band, closer than any front seat, should explain the band’s relationship to their fans and should give us a framework to interpret and understand the band’s music. Through The Never does this perhaps better than any concert film I have seen and, surprisingly, gives the best justification ever for using cinematic 3D.
6. A Field In England – This dark and original tale is the year’s best exploration of cultural and social identity. War, religion, literature, friendship, humour and pride all mix in bizarre ways to give us a sweeping yet subtle picture of what it means to be English.
5. Blue Jasmine – An economic morality tale for our post-global financial crisis age, this is Woody Allen at his very best. Cate Blanchett gives the second best female lead performance of the year and the one which will scoop all the prizes. But, the real revelation is Andrew “Dice” Clay whose closing line is the most poignant comment, not just in the film, but in the whole cinematic year.
4. Captain Phillips – In a year full of tentpole franchise films and sequels, this true-life story, directed by Paul Greengrass, is the best action film of the year. Tom Hanks is simply brilliant in the lead role, while the editing, score and cinematography are superb. But, perhaps the best thing about Captain Phillips is a subtle, shifting morality that has been weaved through the film. Telling and timely cinema.
3. Much Ado About Nothing – essentially a holiday project for Joss Whedon while taking a break from making The Avengers, this is the of the freshest and best Shakespearean adaptations of recent years, largely because it hews closely to and reveres the shape of the play’s text. And, Amy Acker gives the best female lead performance of the year and Nathan Fillion delivers the standout comic turn.
2. Only God Forgives – In a great year for pure cinema few films were as bold in putting visual style over narrative structure as Only God Forgives. Captivating, beguiling and with a solid critical core, this is brave filmmaking underpinned by the best musical score of the year. Brilliant, bold and unforgettable.
1. Upstream Color – quite simply the most remarkable film of the decade. Shane Carruth is a genius, intent upon breaking so many of the rules of film-making, and in Upstream Colour, coming close to creating a new cinematic language. Magnificently crafted, with extraordinary lead performances and a story rich in contemporary themes, Upstream Color is an astonishing signpost to what may be the future of cinema.