1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
For mine, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the year to find 2013’s best film. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a flawless picture. This beautifully written and compassionate film is a life affirming piece of cinema and, importantly, seeks to take the otherness out of mental illness. Cooper and Lawrence have tremendous chemistry and make for a memorable onscreen couple, and the supporting cast is equally impressive.
2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
Gravity is the most overwhelming cinematic experience in recent memory. Earning comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – high praise indeed – Cuarón’s film succeeds in making outer space at the same time breathtakingly beautiful and utterly terrifying. By far the most immersive use of the 3D format I have experienced, this simple narrative is a tight, 90 minute exercise in suspense and tension.
3. All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
I love the bravery of this film. With this minimalist film – one character, one setting, little to no dialogue – J.C. Chandor puts a lot of trust in his audience. He trusts them to care about this man even if he doesn’t burden us with backstory and character detail. Redford is compelling as the stoic and unemotive protagonist, refusing to overact. From beginning to end All is Lost is simply riveting.
4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and doesn’t pull his punches and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. It is a brutal and unrelenting look at 19th Century slavery in the American south. It is also visually quite beautiful and has a haunting score by Hans Zimmer. There is a surprising lack of cinematic explorations of American slavery and this film, written by a black screenwriter and made by a black director, could be the most important on the subject thus far.
5. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
For a decade Yann Martel’s beloved novel was believed to be unfilmable, but Ang Lee demonstrated that in the hands of the right filmmaker there is no such thing. Lee’s film is visually breathtaking using digital effects to create a heightened reality. It is also a deeply spiritual film, which separates it from other lost at sea films like All is Lost or Cast Away. Also contains the best performance by a CGI tiger I’ve ever seen.
6. Her (Spike Jonze)
A perculiar and surreal film, Her is very much a story for our time. The story of a romance between a man and the artificial intelligence operating system of his computer, the subject matter which could have been silly had Jonze’s film not been so very sincere. Her features two brilliant but unconventional performances: one from Johansson as a disembodied voice, the other from Phoenix who for much of the film only has that voice to play opposite.
7. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)
Stoker was film I knew nothing about until I saw it and was the year’s pleasant surprise for me. Park Chan-wook’s first English language, this psychological thriller retains the director’s talent for visual storytelling and creation of tone. It is a creepy and chilling film that elicits a visceral reaction. Had its second half maintained the subtly of its slow-burning first half this could have been the film of the year. Strong performances from a trio of Australian actresses in Wasikowska, Kidman and Weaver.
8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film for the dreamers, for those ordinary people who long to do something extraordinary. Stiller’s fifth feature film as a director, it contains a much stronger visual aesthetic than you would expect from a director best known as a comedic actor. It is a charming, whimsical and incredibly earnest film, and though it ventures into the overly sentimental, it is hard to begrudge it that.
Writer/director/performers Faxon and Rash had this screenplay stored up before they were brought on board to work with Alexander Payne on The Descendents for which they won an Oscar. The Way Way Back is a witty, affecting and at times hilarious coming-of-age story about a teenage boy from a troubled family who finds himself in a holiday job at a waterslide park. Sam Rockwell is at his charismatic and funny best, Allison Janney is brilliant as always and Steve Carell, one of the most likeable men in Hollywood, shows he can play a real jerk.
10. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Based on a true story, Captain Phillips is an interesting and gripping procedural thriller that is elevated by Greengrass’ strong direction and a fantastic performance from Tom Hanks. For Hanks, this could be the performance that puts him alongside Daniel Day Lewis in the three Oscars club. As the only name in the cast he carries the picture, with the post-trauma scene towards the end of the film being among his best ever work.
Not far off: American Hustle (David O. Russell), Blancanieves (Pablo Berger), Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow), Rush (Ron Howard), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
The Worst Movie of the Year: Scary Movie 5. It isn’t even close. With seven years passing since the fourth instalment in this lowest common denominator franchise you have to wonder if this was really the best they could come up with? A comedy without laughs and a horror movie without scares, thank God it was mercifully short.
Cinematic Highlight of the Year: This year provided me with a number of opportunities to see great old films on the big screen for the first time. It was wonderful to see The Searchers, Alien and Buster Keaton’s The General as they were intended to be seen, but the one which stands out as the biggest highlight of the year was seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 3D. While it was shot for that format in 1954, 3D exhibition quickly went out of fashion so it was primarily screened in standard 2D. Seeing it in 3D takes this great film to another level, breathing life into the shot compositions and creating a real sense of space and geography. It was a real treat.
Director: Pablo Berger
Starring: Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sofía Oria
In 2011 Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to classic silent cinema, The Artist, rode a wave of critical acclaim all the way to the Best Oscars. It was the first silent film to win the award since … in …, and in the process it demonstrated that silent cinema as a medium still had plenty to offer and there was still a market for it. The advent of synchronised sound in cinema in the 1920s revolutionised filmmaking, and in the eyes of many it made silent film a redundant medium. But silent film is simply a different medium that offers a different experience. For Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, watching Hazanavicius accept the gold statue for Best Picture and Best Director must have been a bitter sweet moment. On the one hand the success of The Artist demonstrated that a well-made silent film could still be very successful. On the other hand it ensured that despite the fact he had already been developing his own silent film, Blancanieves, for a number of years, it would always be read in relation to this other picture. But while The Artist may have paved the way to some extent for Berger’s film, there is no denying that Blancanieves is an amazing achievement in its own right.
Blancanieves reimagines the story of Snow White as a silent melodrama set in the south of Spain in the 1920s. Carmen, the daughter of Antonio Villalta – once Spain’s most famous bullfighter who is now a quadriplegic after an accident in the ring – is forced to flee her evil step-mother Encarna who is keen to rid herself of Antonio and his daughter so she can enjoy his fortune in peace. Carmen is taken in by a band of dwarf bullfighters. When they discover her talent as a matador they incorporate her into their act and she quickly rises to become a national sensation, much to the horror of Encarna.
Berger’s adaptation does away with all the supernatural elements of the story; there is no magic mirror, no enchantments and no spells. But despite this, it retains the sense of wonder and magic of a fairy tale. Blancanieves definitely aligns itself more closely with the tone of the original Brothers Grimm version of the tale. It is quite dark and tragic, and the film’s conclusion in particular is by no means sees everyone living happily ever after. This is no Disney fairy tale.
This is a completely different beast to The Artist. Hazanavicius’ film was an endearing, modern, love letter to the world of silent films. It was a joyous film which had a fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to its silence. Blancanieves is more of an homage to the silent films of the 1910s and 1920s, with its style and selection of techniques giving it the feel of an authentic product of that era. If not for some scenes in which Encarna penchant for sadomasochism is seen, which never would have made it past the censors in the early 1900s, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a 90 year old film.
The very concept of silent film is itself a misnomer. Sound, in the form of a musical score, has always played an important role in the cinema, even before the advent of dialogue in films, and this is no different in Blancanieves where the events of the story are brought to life by Alfonso de Vilallonga’s romantic score.
If this film has a fault, it is probably that it is about 15 minutes too long – even though a 105 minute runtime is hardly exorbitant by today’s standards – as a result of a slight imbalance in the story. Berger’s script seems more interested in setting up the story, establishing the characters of Carmen, Antonio, Carmen’s mother and Encarna and the relationships between them, than it is in actually telling the story. So it is not until about halfway through the film, just when you are starting to think it might be dragging, that the Snow White narrative we are familiar with really kicks in. However, the story is so beautifully told, and the performance of Sofía Oria as the young Carmen is so endearing that you are largely happy to go with it.
Blancanieves is a clever and interesting reimagining of a familiar story, a visually beautiful featuring some engaging performances and shows the simple power of visual storytelling. Somewhat ironically, given it is a dialogue free film, it was Spain’s official nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards, though it didn’t make the final nominees list.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean