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.
Known as ‘The Master of Suspense,’ Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first genuine superstar directors. As well as being a popular success, he is undoubtedly one of the true masters of the cinematic medium. Hitchcock was a central figure in the 1950s revaluation of the popular Hollywood cinema by the critics at Parisian film journal Cahiers du cinema who saw the potential for legitimate artistry in a commercial, studio context. With a career spanning six decades and transitioning from the UK to Hollywood, from silent film to sound, and from black and white to colour, Hitchcock has arguably done more than any other director to shape contemporary commercial filmmaking.
This 1940 adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel about a young bride living in the shadow of her husband’s deceased wife was Hithcock’s first American film and the only film he ever made to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film, brilliant as it is, is not as unmistakably Hitchcock as his work in the 1950s largely because his combination with producer David O. Selznik, hot off the heels of Gone With the Wind, meant there were two strong authorial presences on the film. Selznik’s influence results in a film with a much more typical classical Hollywood feel. A haunting piece of gothic cinema, George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography which featured strong use of deep focus photography a year before Orson Welles famously employed the technique in Citizen Kane. The way in which Hitchcock and Barnes shoot the De Winter mansion, Manderlay, was clearly an influence on Welles’ approach to shooting Xanadu in his masterwork.
Adaptations from the stage, particularly those which take place in a single setting, often have a tendency of feeling decidedly uncinematic. The fact that Hitchcock manages to avoid that stagey, theatrical feel in his adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play is in itself an impressive achievement. Already an excellent film, Dial M for Murder becomes an absolute masterpiece when you see it as it was intended to be seen, in 3D. Hitchcock’s inspired use of the 3D format brings the shot compositions to life and creates a real sense of the space and geography of the apartment in which the film almost exclusively takes place. It is a testament to his mastery as a filmmaker that his one 3D film, made 60 years ago, is still one of the finest examples of the potential of the format. Dial M for Murder was also the first of three films Hitchcock would make with Grace Kelly.
1954 was clearly a brilliant year for Hitchcock as he followed up Dial M for Murder with one of his most enduring masterpieces, Rear Window. The story of a photographer cooped up in his apartment while his broken leg heals with only watching his neighbours to keep him entertained embraces the voyeuristic appeal of the cinema like no other film before or since. The entire film is from a single point-of-view: that of L.B. Jeffries’ apartment window looking out into an incredible purpose-built New York tenement set. From his apartment we watch different lives unfold before us. More to the point we watch Jeffries watch. Through the like of Miss Lonelyheart, Miss Torso, the songwriter, the fire escape couple, the newlyweds and, of course, the suspicious Lars Thorwald, Hitchcock finds the perfect blend of suspense and comedy and captures the complete spectrum of the joy we take from voyeurism.
While it was not initially well-received critically, Vertigo has gone on the become Hitchcock’s most celebrated film. In fact, in 2012 the picture managed to unseat Citizen Kane from the number one position in Sight and Sound’s top ten poll for the first time in 50 years. An incredibly disturbing and unsettling film, it takes one of American cinema’s most loved and likeable figures in James Stewart and makes him disconcertingly maniacal. With Hitchcock being a director renowned for controlling relationships with his leading ladies, the manner in which Scotty seeks to mould, shape and control Judy as he tries to transform her into his dream woman can be read as representative of Hitchcock’s own relationship with women. On the stylistic front, the simultaneous zoom in and pan out used to such great effect in Vertigo has become a much imitated technique (see Jaws).
North by Northwest is the classic Hollywood blockbuster. It has big names, spectacle, action and thrills, and it exemplifies Hitchcock’s ability to turn out high-quality commercial fare. It is also the best film to come out of Hitchcock’s four-film, eighteen-year collaboration with Cary Grant. The story of an advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy, North by Northwest is one of the more extreme examples of Hitchcock’s fascination with the innocent protagonist swept up in a situation beyond his control. The film also provides some of the most iconic images not only of Hitchcock’s oeuvre but of Hollywood cinema, firstly with Cary Grant being swooped by a crop duster and secondly with the films climactic chase scene on the faces of Mount Rushmore.
With Psycho Hitchcock took a largely forgettable novel by Robert Bloch and transformed it into the most influential and imitated horror film ever made. Killing off a main character at any point is a bold move, but only a filmmaker of Hitchcock’s stature and self-assurance could get away with killing off his main character in the first third of the film. A masterstroke, it throws convention out the window, turns the movie on its head and tells the audience that anything is possible. To make sure audiences got the full effect, Hitchcock insisted that cinemas enforce a strict policy of not allowing people in once the film had started in case they missed Leigh’s appearance. While Jaws made people afraid to go in the water, Psycho made people afraid to have a shower.
By Duncan McLean