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: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara
Two men, both brilliant but both completely different. One is flamboyant, brash and impulsive. The other is calculating, methodical and abrasive. They are James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and they are the subject of Ron Howard’s latest film, Rush, which tells the story of their famous rivalry from its origins in lower division racing to its culmination in a head to head battle for the 1976 Formula One World Championship, a season which would for different reasons change both of their lives.
This is not just a movie for Formula One fans. In fact, to call Rush a sports movie feels reductive. The film starts with a voiceover from Lauda. “Twenty-five people start Formula One and each year two die. What kind of person does a job like that?” Rush is a character study. What kind of person willingly takes that kind of risk? The movie presents us with two opposite but co-dependent figures who are, in their different ways, that kind of person.
With two characters as diametrically opposed as Hunt and Lauda a more simplistic film would have sought to establish a clear hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist. Rush gives no such clear cut definitions. Instead both characters are complex personalities and both characters at different times have the audience on their side. Hunt, despite his charm, provides many of the films darker moments. Likewise, Lauda, despite his analytical nature provides most of the films laughs.
With the entire film being built around these two personalities, much falls on the shoulders of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl and both arguably deliver career best performances. The key to both performances is the actor’s ability – with the help of Peter Morgan’s fine screenplay – to take their character beyond caricature. Having already played a superhero and being blessed with superhuman handsomeness, Hemsworth heightens Hunt’s charm and makes for a believable playboy. But it is the moments where he takes you beneath the surface, beneath the façade, that really show his talent. Likewise, Brühl’s calculating and abrasive Lauda could have been yet another a simplistic, Germanic villain but Brühl gives him depth and as a result his own charm and likeability.
That all being said, Rush still really works as a sports movie. It is the best film ever made about motor sports. The racing scenes are exhilarating. While the actual depiction of the sporting event is where many sports movies fall short, Howard successfully brings life to the contest between these two men (the rest of the drivers are irrelevant), demonstrating the speed, closeness and incredible danger of what they do. Just as importantly, no two of the races feel the same. For each race there is something specific that draws our focus, so the drama never disappears.
Ron Howard has always been a gifted storyteller but over the last decade he seems to have had more misses than hits. He is a filmmaker who at times has been prone to playing it safe, but there is nothing safe about Rush either in its subject or its execution. Rush is a real return to form for him, the best motor racing film ever made, and one of the films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean