We ask our team of writers to rank their five favourite films of the year. Some of us cite films that we see at festivals, and which later get picked up for an Australian release, so you might notice that some of these films haven't been in general release yet (e.g. Blue is the Warmest Colour and Inside Lewyn Davis). Look out for them when they do get released - and remember we told you they were great...
There was much to love this year, from massively-budgeted CGI spectaculars (Gravity, Pacific Rim) right through to micro-budget indies (in particular, Jem Cohen's jewel-like Museum Hours). John Curran's adaptation of Tracks lingers just outside the top 10, as does The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai – much better in its Chinese cut than its US one. But one of the finest American 'films' I saw was made for television: the Sundance Channel's five-hour mini-series Rectify, created and largely written by actor Ray McKinnon, and starring two Australians, Aden Young and Adelaide Clemens, both superb.
I've already written extensively about this one, and there's not much else to say, except to wish that its director and actresses would shut up about their mutual loathing (okay, he's a bastard: we get it), and let the extraordinary, singular thing they made speak for itself. Which it does with a passionate intensity unequalled in this year's cinema. Heir to a noble tradition of naturalistic French cinema, a strand dominated by Eustache and Pialat, this is a lacerating, all-in depiction of first love: perceptive, humane, erotic, and heartbreaking.
Not quite sui generis: Mr. Carruth – the film's writer, director, cinematographer, editor, composer and lead actor – is indebted to the examples of Terence Malick (and like him, favours cutting on action) and Lynne Ramsay (that shallow depth-of-field cinematography). But the result, as hypnotic and elusive as the very process it describes, is absolutely and entirely his own. Carruth crafts pieces – odd, luminous shards of story and trusts that the viewer is clever enough to put them together for themselves. And why not? He's worked so hard; it's only fair you exert yourself a little, too.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
A chilly pair, the Coens are best when at their most dispassionate; little wonder they're so drawn to tales of personal failure. This film, a meditation on the gap between genius and mere talent, ranks among their very finest: rambling, nearly plotless, yet imbued with an obvious love of the period and the milieu, and boasting in Oscar Isaac (who performed all his own songs) a star-making lead performance. Stately, melancholy and snow-shrouded, it's a tribute to American folk music that becomes, by the end, its own Winterreise.
To my mind, the greatest working filmmaker – and while this one doesn't achieve the heights of White Material or J'ai pas sommeil (let alone Beau Travail, though perhaps you probably only get one masterpiece of that kind per lifetime), it still trumps most people's A-game. Her most oblique film since L'intrus—and the angriest since S'en fout la mort – its impressionistic structure frustrated some viewers; but once the mosaic-like pieces of this narrative click together, its story makes perfect, horrifying sense, right up to that genuinely (and necessarily) shocking final shot.
People love to talk about the 'immersive' experience of Cuáron's Gravity – and so it is. But this one, made at a fraction of the cost (and lacking that film's awkward attempts at backstory – lacking any real narrative at all, in fact) is no less terrifying or awe-inspiring: a journey into the belly of a great beast, as that title makes clear. Attaching dozens of GoPro cameras to the hull of a North Atlantic fishing trawler (and members of its crew), the filmmakers plunge us into a realm of pure sensation and dark, elemental terrors. Quoth Psalms: 'Here is the sea, great and wide.'
It was an excellent year to go to the movies, with an abundance of great stories, well-told. Cue the usual complaint about how tough it is to narrow a list down to five favourites… What follows is a broad cross-section of the films I loved this year: Bold, original stories about the world and our place in it.
Abdellatif Kechiche's lusty and wrenching Blue is the Warmest Colour is a three-hour romantic odyssey that runs the gamut from the first blush of love to a messy, sobby break-up. I confess to harbouring fears that the story of a teenager's erotic awakening might be told as a leery soft-focus Euro pastiche of the type mocked mercilessly on Seinfeld. Happily, these fears proved unfounded, and I was rocked by how honestly Mr Kechiche depicted female adolescence, sex and love, with the aide of his G-G-G leads Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.
All three rightly shared this year's Palme d'Or at a very public love-in at the Cannes closing ceremony. Pity then, that the intervening months have seen that relationship follow the same doomed trajectory as the on screen lovebirds…
ALL IS LOST
There were two films this year that summoned exceptional lead performances from actors who threw themselves into very different versions of the same survival story; that of stranded adventurers battling fatigue and the unforgiving elements. I saw Robert Redford try to patch up a sinking ship in All is Lost many months before I saw Sandra Bullock backflip through a hailstorm of space junk in Gravity. The two films share much and, though I admired the latter, the former's focus on the Here and the Now and avoidance of backstory makes it the better film. All that you need to know is there on screen, as Robert Redford wordlessly (save for a lone, overdue swear word released in desperation) goes about the business of trying to save himself. While we're at it, I reckon it also beats Life of Pi for the year's 'best existential drama set partially on a raft'.
THE ACT OF KILLING
Joshua Oppenheimer's chilling hybrid doc was the gold standard of non-fiction films this year. I saw the full 3-hour director's cut at the Sydney Film Festival, and was transfixed and terrified by the story it told about state-sanctioned execution and group think. Oppenheimer (and a team of anonymous co-directors/collaborators) asks Indonesia's ex-Junta to tell the story of how they got away with genocide, and the subjects respond to the brief with gusto, boasting about the body count, laughing about the messy logistics, and invoking tough guy movie tropes as they stage the re-enactments of their deeds. The film recently won the Asia Pacific Screen Award for best documentary feature but it deserves a wider audience for its revelations about one of our nearest neighbours.
STORIES WE TELL
Staying in the 'hybrid non-fiction' realm, Sarah Polley's story of unreliable authorship was another of the year's standouts. Polley sets up the standard narrative of a fact-finding mission about unknown aspects of her childhood, but is undermined by the obfuscated memories of her nearest and dearest. Hilarious, shocking, devastating viewing, Stories We Tell earned every one of the crowd's (and my) rousing teary cheers, at the Sydney Film Festival in June.
An elegant, hopeful account of a Congolese child soldier's abject grief and remorse. It was in the running for this year's foreign language Oscar but couldn't best Michael Haneke's powerhouse Amour. Director Kim Nguyen found the perfect way to tell a harrowing story with grace and discretion, and her name was Rachel Mwanza (13).
Don't tell anyone, but this was a fantastic year for film. The roughed out guide that fostered this definitive list was long and filled with great talents, from the performances of Rooney Mara and Amy Adams to the new wave of documentary filmmakers such as Dror Moreh and resurgent directors Thomas Vinterberg and Ivan Sen. Praise be, the movies ran deep in 2013.
A war film for the information age, where to be put on a list became a death sentence, Kathryn Bigelow's take on the pursuit and eventual elimination of Osama Bin-Laden was a study of revenge, dedication and power's ability to create nightmares, all told with magisterial technique. One for the ages.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES
The most misunderstood film of the year: Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive was a dissection of failed masculinity taken to bleak extremes. Conjoining impotence and violence, Ryan Gosling's minimalist gangster is haunted by a mother figure (an unforgettable Kristin Scott Tomas) and punished by ghostly patriarch (Vithaya Pansringarm).
The third instalment of Richard Linklater's collaboration with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke pushed into remarkably nuanced and telling territory, as the two previous Before movies were marked as joyous flirtations in the wake of married life and parenthood. The discussion, and eventually arguments, that transpired were acutely breathtaking.
STORIES WE TELL
At the age of 34 Sarah Polley announced herself as a leading international director, surpassing her worthy previous efforts with this astounding meditation on the nature of family and the necessity of invention. Examining her own paternity, the Canadian filmmaker made the tribulations of family into a storyteller's web.
Shane Carruth's second film drew immediate comparison to his first, 2004's Primer, but whereas that was knotty science-fiction, Upstream Color celebrated the unifying strength of love in the face of scientific destruction as two survivors of an unknown drug's control break down biology's chains in this hyper-alive, one-off psychedelic inversion.
It's a numbers game and the odds are against spending much of your movie-watching time capturing masterpieces. But like a slot machine that strategically pays out ten percent of the time, there's always just enough reward to keep me hooked on the magic of cinema.
This Korean indie film, made by a writer/director who hadn't even finished film school yet, was the most emotionally devastating movie of 2013. A story of an emotionally troubled and socially persecuted schoolgirl, the film's only flaw is its title – the central character's name meaning “princess” – which will be a non-descript and puzzling turn-off to international interest.
I DECLARE WAR
A clever critique of war, corporate life, Abu Gharib, male camaraderie, and racism in a film that mostly got overlooked because it was a kids film (while so-called mature adults turned out in their droves to see Man of Steel).
Japanese TV comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto stretches the boundaries of good taste (again) in a hilarious hymn to sado-masochism. This symphony of wacky jokes is conducted with razor-sharp precision and the effortlessness of sheer comic genius.
A domestic drama about a Filipino maid who has difficulty coping with the spoiled brat of her Singaporean employers is the best film to come out of Singapore… ever!
What could have been a right-wing, star-spangled serenade for the US of A (why else would Tom Hanks be in the title role?) became a compelling critique of American imperialism. Fingers crossed for some reward (or even an acting career) for the dynamic, Oscar-deserving, Barkhad Abdi who played the feisty Somali pirate.
There were plenty of good new movies around, even some great ones (I'm sorry I missed all opportunities to see The Act of Killing, which I've been told over and over is a groundbreaking work). What I recall most vividly is the celebratory mood that accompanied revival screenings. A scratchy, one-off showing of William Friedkin's Sorcerer at Sydney's Chauvel; the Italian Film Festival's closing night event, Fellini's Roma; Perth's Revelations Film Festival session of Dario Argento's Suspiria, with live accompaniment from the original score composers, Goblin; Troll 2 at SUFF; private screenings of Duel and Creature from the Black Lagoon at the Randwick Ritz picture palace; and, the re-release of Jurassic Park, looking fresh in 3D (Best. Conversion. Ever.) When the multiplexes were clogged with texting morons and comic-book drivel, I could usually find something that reminded me why I love this gig….
FINAL CUT – LADIES AND GENTLEMAN
Gyorgy Palfi's montage masterpiece did the festival rounds in 2013 and I pray you saw it on the bigscreen. With over 450 clips from 100 years of international cinema, its hilarious, romantic, thrilling narrative is not only any true film buff's nirvana, but also a copyright nightmare (hence, no planned DVD release).
Amongst the stockholder-centric studio dross (Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Thor, White House Down, Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger), some high-end entertainment displayed rare commercial and artistic savvy. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and Marc Forster's World War Z both deservedly found a huge audience when word of mouth spread on the new, smart spin afforded old tropes. The Wachowski's Cloud Atlas couldn't sell many tickets, but it proved the most wildly ambitious and densely rewarding big-budget studio epic of 2013.
The indie sector delivered its own gems. Horror fans were grateful for The Human Race, The Mansion, VHS 2 and Thanatomorphose. The sweet-natured alien-folk music comedy The History of Future Folk became an underground must-see. But it was Zach Clark's dark, dirty and dreamily stylish White Reindeer, a Christmas tale featuring grief, orgies and drug binges that became the adrenalin-needle film experience to match this year.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Adele Exarchopoulos will be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Abdellatif Kechiche's self-discovery classic. After scoring big at Cannes, it made a lot of headlines (graphic lesbian sex; stars and director feuding) but nothing can diminish the experience of watching this stark, heartbreaking romantic journey. Co-star Lea Seydoux had a great year, with Benoit Jacquot's sumptuous period piece Farewell My Queen high on many Best of… lists.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
I bumped David O Russell's latest, the giddy, goofy American Hustle, to accomodate his emotionally soaring and cinematically dynamic Oscar-winner. Like its central figure, this often feels crazily out-of-control but eventually brings anyone watching around to its deliriously offbeat worldview. Despite a reputation for volatility, Russell knows actors – it was the first film to get Oscar nominations in all four acting categories since Warren Beatty's Reds, in 1981.
Haneke's Amour was of course great but a hang over from 2012. With Oscar season gone, 2013 initially seemed uneventful but come festival season the outlook suddenly blossomed spectacularly and the next six months were full of rewards (below I haven't even had space to mention The Rocket or Blue Jasmine or What Maisie Knew or The Darkside or 100 Bloody Acres). The greatest formal breakthroughs were often in documentary, not just those listed below but also experimental gems like nautical poem Leviathan and Man Ray-themed The Search For Emak Bakia - plus powerful eye-openers Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer, Blackfish and The Gatekeeepers. A good year to be a film lover.
Two of my personal rules for viewing: (i) keep eyes open for Russian war film films. (ii) See them. Sergei Loznitsa's grimly compelling WW2 drama slipped in and out of a handful of cinemas seemingly unnoticed but gave no reason for deviating from those principles. Worth seeing for the opening shot alone.
For its virtuoso blend of montage, sound and neon-bliss imagery; for Harmony Korine's bravura in depicting a restaurant robbery entirely from inside a moving getaway car; for its walking the highwire between exploitation thriller and morality play without tumbling to its doom; for its intense drama and energy. And for James Franco.
THE ACT OF KILLING
Joshua Oppenheimer's jaw-dropping hybrid documentary on the perpetrators of Indonesia's mid-60s genocidal massacres is a masterpiece I never want to sit through again. I mean that as a compliment.
For making the multiplex screen an attractive, even necessary, proposition again - and for making Sandra Bullock unusually bearable.
STORIES WE TELL
Sarah Polley's exploration of her family secrets played out like a detective story with hugely personal consequences while offering a fascinating meditation on the nature of storytelling.
All in all not a bad year for cinema, and by whatever means one uses to estimate such things, probably a very good one. The ritualised ludicrousness of 'best of' lists then is all the more apparent at a moment like this. There's little debate that long-form drama from brands like HBO, AMC, Showtime and others is the sexy thing right now, annually eclipsing whatever the mainstream of movies has to offer. Its high points and claim as the dominate narrative form has moved a legion of commentators to report that such success is cinema's loss, perhaps even a fore-telling of the movies untimely death. Yet, after a year as good as this one (and last year, and the year before) I remain a sceptic of such self-satisfied sooth-saying. So what follows are a group of my favourite pictures this year - for the record I'm a non-believer in 'bests' - where I've found that cinema is alive and well and willing to dare.
A movie about family secrets and the art and meaning of storytelling that is at once a thrilling sex melodrama, a docu-drama and a self-reflexive exploration on the power of cinema to shape and construct identity. Sarah Polley's masterpiece isn't quite the groundbreaker its most ardent fans claim it to be but happily that is beside the point. In the face of lies and deceit Polley's voice remains decent, compassionate, loving.
There were perhaps more profound experiences to be found in a cinema this year than taking in the travails of a twenty-something New Yorker who contemplates career oblivion and the angst that comes when friends break-up amidst couch-surfing and wise-cracks and David Bowie. But Frances Ha is a rare delight; a film that pretends to be fluff, but in fact bites down hard on the ties that bind and rarely bond and post-adolescent solipsism, while rejoicing in the New Wave, black and white and the goofiness of youth. Greta Gerwig is perfect and Noah Baumbach tunes out his natural bleakness to let the sun shine in. It runs from 86mins and every one of them is pure pleasure.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Reviewed on this site after its Cannes premiere and released here January the Coen's return with their best film since No Country for Old Men. Set in the folk scene of Greenwich Village at the moment Dylan arrived its plot is habitually described by most as a story of a useless musician with purest ambitions – Oscar Issac - adrift in a harsh New York winter looking for a break and a warm place to hide. Delivered in a low-key, perfectly directed with typically droll whip-smart dialogue, what this funny and sad film is really about is grief…and ordinary folks' capacity to forgive those everyday betrayals we all must learn to live with. And that makes it the Coen's sweetest dirge yet.
THE ACT OF KILLING
This film is some kind of terrifying mutant thing about the mass murders of Indonesia and the weird and awful cult of celebrity found in its wake. Its co-director Jason Oppenheimer describes it, appropriately enough, as not a film of anything 'real' but rather a 'documentary of the imagination'.
IN THE FOG
Sergei Loznitsa's masterful WWII tragedy about the internecine warfare amongst the Russians of the Belarus is nearly two years old now, but only this year got a local release. With a camera both precise and voluptuous he traces a paranoid tale of inescapable moral intrigue, where loyalty itself becomes a price on the soul.
As the year races to a close, there are so many acclaimed films still on my 'need to see' list. But here's a very personal selection of titles that brought me joy, touched me deeply or delighted and surprised. In rough order of preference:
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts give stunning performances as two lost and damaged souls who find each other. Director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) creates a masterpiece that is emotionally rough and raw, but visually and sonically lyrical and beautifully restrained.
Working both as a deep love story and a terrifyingly realistic horror movie, Michael Haneke's story about the swift decline of an elderly married couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) is unforgettable devastating. Not recommended for the easily depressed.
Unashamedly heart-warming, uplifting and suspenseful, Bess Kargman's feature documentary follows six young ballet dancers from around the globe as they prepare for the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix competition.
The third and most profound instalment of the extraordinary, naturalistic film collaboration between director Richard Linklater and writer/actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight sees the central characters grappling with love, marriage and parenthood, twenty years after their first romantic encounter.
FAST & FURIOUS 6
A most spectacularly silly but exhilarating collection of high speed car chases, metal-crunching collisions and gravity-defying fight sequences. The muscle-bound cast deliver their corny dialogue with refreshing sincerity as they continually assert 'the importance of family'. Somehow it all works to create a joyously junky cinematic experience, and proof that some tent-pole franchises deserve to exist.
As has been written repeatedly in the past fortnight, 2013 has been such a freakishly good year for films from around the world that it was with a sense of relief this assignment specified not a formal top 10, but five best and three runners-up. That feels more comfortable in a year of such abundant bounty, knowing coming in exclusions must be made. Why has it been such a good year for film? Who knows? But it's sure been fun.
Writer-director David O. Russell has always made impetuous films, so anyone familiar with his work knows exactly where the barely-controlled chaos and freewheeling performances come from. American Hustle has both those in spades, and actually feels more fully-rounded and just plain fun than Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter put together. The 1970s New Jersey milieu and fashion choices—yes, they were choices back then—are spot on, and though the story plays fast and loose with the Abscam case on which it is based, the exuberant American-ness of the film is what, in the end, makes it great.
Films as technically ground-breaking as Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, or anything by James Cameron, often sacrifice logic of plot for visual showmanship. Sometimes this is deliberate on the part of the filmmaker, and sometimes not. In its technical ambitions, and the successful realizations of same, Gravitycan be forgiven its narrative conveniences. In truth, Sandra Bullock's performance as the reluctant astronaut lost in space, given what she had to work with, is nothing short of heroic.
Talk about heroic, then 13-year-old Congolese newcomer Rachel Mwanza's performance in director Kim Nguyen's Congo-shot war film/mystic allegory/love story War Witch is an unsung triumph of intuitive, intrepid endurance. She plays Komona, a girl who, after being forced to shoot her parents by marauding rebels, is trained by them to take up arms and join the cause. Nguyen's discretion with the more horrific nature of the proceedings serves the film well, giving War Witch the sting of truth without the trauma of exploitation.
STORIES WE TELL
Some will say the invasion of non-fiction film by staged dramatic sequences signals the death of the documentary, whilst others welcome the new creative freedoms promised by the strategy. The decision usually arises when a scarcity of archive material exists, and this was the case in the preparation of actress-turned-frighteningly-good-filmmaker Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell. This is personal cinema about flawed parents, sometimes uncomfortably so, yet Polley is so astute in her selection and creation of dramatic sequences that the old and the new blend seamlessly together in a dramatic harmony that smooths the roughness of her traumatic journey and injects it with a melancholy dignity.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS / SAVING MR. BANKS
Tom Hanks made two very different kinds of films in 2013. Each feature measured, thoughtful performances that culminate in close-up sequences of as great an emotional intensity as the actor has exhibited in his career to date. Saving Mr. Banks — which, of course, has yet to open commercially in Australia — is a must-see for any movie fan of a certain age who cherishes Mary Poppins as well as those fascinated with the creative process, whilstCaptain Phillips is a slow-burn adventure epic that feels like it might've been made by Warner Bros. with Humphrey Bogart in the 1930s. These are both fine things, and laudable achievements.