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: Chan-Wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Alden Ehrenreich, Dermot Mulroney, Jackie Weaver
Written by Wentworth Miller, who you may know as one of the stars of the television series Prison Break, and heavily indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker is a coming of age story with a difference. Think less Stand by Me and more Carrie.
India Stoker is a morose teenage girl, darker than your normal morose teenage girl, uncomfortable in her own skin and unsure of her identity. When her father, with whom she was close, is killed in a car accident she is left without a buffer between her and her troubled mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. Living alone together in large Southern mansion, they are surprised by the arrival of her Uncle Charlie, a brother of her fathers whom she didn’t know existed. Charlie arrives out of the blue and declares his intention to stay for a while. He is young, handsome, and well-travelled, and instantly charms India’s mother, while India is more cautious and distrusting of this mysterious uncle. With time she finds this distrust matched with a strange sense of kinship, before learning the dangerous truth about Uncle Charlie… he is a psychopathic serial killer.
This psychological thriller is directed by Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park who gained international attention in 2004, when his revenge thriller Oldboy won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and became a cult favourite around the world. Stoker marks his first foray into English-language filmmaking and he has no trouble applying his immense talent for visual storytelling to a different language. The images are masterfully composed, and cleverly edited together, including an interesting transitionary device where items that appear to be part of one shot end up becoming part of the shot on the other side of the dissolve.
Stoker has a creepy, chilling tone – established through the way the picture is photographed, the performances of the actors, and the music – that elicits quite a visceral reaction. Before you process the narrative information, before you understand what is going on, you are already feeling that sense of unease and mistrust.
The film has a Gothic feel to it, no doubt resulting from the fact that much of the action takes place in the Stoker’ old Southern mansion, which looks unchanged since the 1930s. In fact, it makes it initially quite difficult to pin down a time period for the events. You find yourself assuming that you are watching a period piece from the first half of the 20th century until we get a couple of scenes at the school which makes it apparent that it is the present day.
Stoker’s second half lacks the subtlety of its slow-burning first half, with that spookiness and sense of menace that is so overpowering in the film’s early passages making way for more direct, confronting images of violence. The eroticising of these acts of violence adds another disturbing layer to the bond being formed between India and her uncle.
Stoker will only receive a limited release, and likely won’t make a huge impact, but it could well be one of the year’s best films. It is a fantastic psychological thriller: creepy, compelling and strangely beautiful.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean