After a devastating summer of almost total mediocrity I’d nearly given up on 2013. No amount of love for bombast and spectacle could forgive the embarrassing, cynical cash-grabbers we endured during this blockbuster season. But as we reach the end of the year, a lot has changed. I wouldn’t like to make a call on this year’s Best Picture winner right now, because I can think of at least 10 candidates all in with a pretty good shot. If push came to shove I might lean towards my number 10 entry below, and it nearly didn’t make it onto my list. I reserve an honourable mention for Mud, Jeff Nichols’s wonderful ray of light earlier in the summer, which slipped off after a re-viewing of 12 Years a Slave.
My methodology is a little unusual – I want to include the year’s awards stock, but I also want to work off the UK release schedule. I follow my variation of BAFTA rules: any from the 2013 release calendar, plus those that have qualified for BAFTA releasing between Jan 1st and Feb 14th 2014, and excluding any that did a similar qualifier for last year’s awards.
Steve McQueen has never been closer to an Oscar – nor less Steve McQueen-y – than with 12 Years a Slave. Black history seems to have been the dominating theme of 2013, with Django Unchained (my last number one) leading us into the year. The Butler and the Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom have both been set up to run this awards season too. McQueen’s film outshines them – by far – though it’s safer than his previous artistry. More palatable. I think it might have been higher on my list if it had been similar in tone to McQueen’s previous. Honestly, I feel I learnt more about this world from Django Unchained. But a heart-wrenching narrative, and the outstanding thesping can’t be ignored.
Months later and I’m still struggling for the words when it comes to Shane Carruth’s stunning, melodic and philosophical sophomore film. Primer was a head-scratcher, but I still don’t know whether I’ve fully grasped the intricacies of the world Upstream Color crafts. All I can say with any certainty is that I loved every second I spent in it, and have enjoyed breaking it down after the fact. Few films stay in the memory quite like this.
Many of the films on my end-of-year lists seem to reflect some facet of my life and personality. Nebraska‘s gentle, hilarious tale touches me especially close and reminds me of my relationship with my elderly parents, though I’m relieved they have stronger faculties – and cleaner mouths – than Bruce Dern’s brilliant patriarch. I love everything about the journey this family takes, and I especially adore Will Forte’s character’s touching love and patience for a man who frustrates him endlessly. Alexander Payne has delighted me since his first. Few can claim such an unblemished CV.
Like Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis got to me. The plight of the starving artist is the brush with which I paint myself, even if it might be fallacy compared to the couch-surfing lot of Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac is wonderful – no more than when he’s performing – and the Coen wit sets the whole thing off. Critics, I think, ascribe greater import to the work of the Coen brothers than they might claim themselves. I suspect that’s because this sort of thing just comes naturally to them.
Vibrant, provocative and uproariously funny. Wolf of Wall Street has the distinction, I think, of being the only biopic in history that’s even more hilarious in its character’s rock bottom than when he’s at a high. Because this character’s highs are morally reprehensible, and I suspect much of the backlash for this film is born of a misunderstanding of what is being glorified here. Jordan Belfort, as imagined by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, lived the most outrageous lifestyle. I don’t think it’s being celebrated here for a single second.
Woody Allen is almost Annie Hall good with Blue Jasmine, thanks in large part to a lead from Cate Blanchett that has my vote for this year’s Best Actress. Pretensions of wealth and its correlation with happiness are ripe subjects for satire and drama, and Allen’s film balances both brilliantly. Surprising from the man who, in 2005, presented a vision of my hometown that could only have come from someone whose perspective had been long since skewed by his bank balance.
For the last four years I sat on a BAFTA jury to select the nominees and winner of the Outstanding Debut category. I discovered I Am Nasrine through that process last year, though by some quirk it seems to have been released properly this year. Partially shot in Iran – illegally – this story of a brother and sister forced to flee to Britain after a run-in with the corrupt local police force might not have made Man of Steel bank. But it does deserve to be noticed, for its importance, its sensitivity and its heart.
I loved Clio Barnard’s The Arbor – another film I found through the Outstanding Debut jury. With The Selfish Giant she establishes herself as one of Britain’s most exciting indie directors, weaving a quiet tale about two working class lads whose need to earn a crust for their families leads them to darkness. It’s a world I would love to believe doesn’t exist, but it’s created with such authenticity that I’m in no doubt it does.
Alfonso Cuarón has been one of my favourite directors since Y Tu Mamá También in 2001, but with Gravity he achieves something I didn’t think possible in today’s studio system. The budget was not insignificant, the technical challenge couldn’t have been greater, and the business risk of taking this chance is seemingly insurmountable in today’s franchise world. But the triumph of this simple story, told in the most unprecedented of ways, defies those odds, and serves as testament to Cuaron’s tremendous vision and the hard working crews and VFX teams of his adopted British home, where the film was almost entirely produced. That it has been a commercial success should tell Hollywood something about the power of trusting true storytellers.
I am thrilled to put a documentary in first position this year, and certain that The Act of Killing would top this list in plenty of others too. A gang of Indonesian death squad leaders are tasked, years after their atrocities, with recreating them in the manner of their favourite Hollywood films. It’s such an extraordinary premise to begin with, but to watch it play out is to witness every extreme of humanity, and the devastating consequences of its lack.