TOP TWENTY BEST FILMS OF 2013
20. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Just scraping in the countdown is Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Django Unchained”, which saw the director tackle a Western for the first time and unsurprisingly he did a marvelous job with it. While I am not as ga-ga about the film as most people (I much prefer Tarantino’s previous film “Inglourious Basterds”), what is undeniable is just how great Christoph Waltz is in the role of Dr. King Schultz; a former dentist now working as a bounty hunter. Also fantastic is Leonardo DiCaprio who is gloriously over the top playing villain Calvin Candie. While the titular character is, of course, Django, he is also the least interesting character in the film and Jamie Foxx gives a fairly one note performance as the former slave searching for his kidnapped wife. As usual for Tarantino, revenge enters the picture towards the end and it ultimately becomes a more generic film for it, but overall this is an entertaining and very well made picture but Tarantino has got to learn to that he is not a quality enough actor to be in his own films and his horrible Australian accent in “Django Unchained” almost destroys this great flick.
19. ANNA KARENINA
It’s hard to believe that “Anna Karenina” actually came out in Australia in 2013 because it feels like ages since I saw it. That said, the film still remains with me as I was bowled over by director Joe Wright’s bold and “theatrical” approach to this classic story. It is stunningly gorgeous to look at too as Wright’s regular team of production designer Sarah Greenwood and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey work wonders in creating an organic and real feel to the theatrical setting. Dario Marianelli also returns with another fabulous score for Wright that rivals (but doesn’t quite beat) the genius of his work he did for “Atonement”. One of the greatest aspects of this film is seeing Jude Law playing a role he never has before with the rigid and stoic Russian aristocrat, Karenin. Law is unrecognizable and does a stunning job in bringing this man to life, and Keira Knightly (who plays the title character) has never been more beautiful. Due to the extreme lengths with the stylization Wright took in making “Anna Karenina”, it is a film that could alienate its audience just as much as it could spellbind them. I am obviously in the latter camp and believe this is yet another feather in Joe Wright’s cap; this guy just does not make bad films. I look forward to his adaptation of “Peter Pan” to hit the big screen next year.
18. UPSTREAM COLOR
I absolutely hated Shane Carruth’s directorial debut “Primer” with a passion. It went totally over my head, I just did not get it, and as such found the entire thing excruciating to watch. It goes without saying that I was not sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for a new film from Carruth. However, when the trailer for this film came out, I was instantly intrigued by its images, I didn’t understand them, but there was a beauty to them. I felt the same way when I eventually saw the film; I cannot explain what is going on exactly but I was totally drawn into the whole thing and found it so beautiful and moving. While I am sure there is a plot, it involves a cycle or lifecycle of something, at its heart “Upstream Color” is a film that you feel. In a way it is stylistically similar to “The Tree of Life” where we are witness to tiny fragments of our characters life without any context and yet when the film ends you feel as though the story is told complete. I do not think that I am making any sense in regards to this film, so I must reiterate that this is a film you feel more than you understand, at least in the moment. Because it is so rich, it infests your mind and you continually think about it, until you want to rewatch it again to unlock more of its secrets. “Upstream Color” is a great film but not for all tastes.
17. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
The first of two films directed by David O. Russell that hit Australian shores in 2013, “Silver Linings Playbook” could almost be described as a romantic comedy, but it is much deeper and darker than what you would normally think of a film with that description. “Silver Linings Playbook” is the story of two damaged people who ultimately find each other and learn to live their lives again whilst falling in love. Bradley Cooper has never been better playing a guy recovering from a nervous breakdown after his marriage has fallen apart, whilst Jennifer Lawrence continues to show why she is the best young actress of her generation, playing a sexually liberated widow still trying to come to terms with her husband’s death. Both characters call a spade a spade, and have little time for games. You are never in any doubt how they feel about a certain situation and it is in these very blunt conversations that a lot of the humour of the film comes from. The two characters start to grow, and in Bradley Cooper’s case start to get well again, when they enter a dance competition which gives the couple discipline and a routine. What makes “Silver Linings Playbook” so good is the chemistry between the two leads, and even though the film is a comedy, it never takes our characters problems (particularly mental illness) lightly. Russell respects that these are real life issues and never trivializes them (Russell’s son actually has the same illness as Cooper’s character making the project a very personal one for the director). Whilst the finale of the film is its weakest point (it just doesn’t ring true), at the end of the day, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a feel-good film and you end up liking these characters so much that you want to see them happy.
16. THE GRANDMASTER
When you take over five years to make a single film, the resulting film needs to be something special, which thankfully “The Grandmaster” has turned out to be. Wong Kar-Wai’s latest film is about kung-fu grandmaster Ip Man and to give an indication just how long he took in making the picture, when he announced the film it was the only film about Ip Man to go into production and yet by the time the film made it out into cinemas, a total of four Ip Man films had been made. You would think that taking so long would have cost Wong Kar-Wai seeing as audiences were now well aware of the character and his story no longer fresh. However this is a Wong Kar-Wai film and unlike any of the Ip Man films before it, as the director has created a gloriously beautiful martial arts film that focuses just as much time on the philosophy and disciplines of kung-fu, as it does on the fight scenes. Being a Wong Kar-Wai film, there is also a tale of unrealized love that is weaved into the narrative as well. While Ip Man is an integral part of the film, Wong Kar-Wai has opened up his vision to make the film be about a number of Kung Fu grandmasters, and as great as Tony Leung is as Ip Man, it is Zhang Ziyi’s turn as grandmaster Gong Er that steals the show, and gives “The Grandmaster” its heart. She is stunning and heartbreaking all in one, and she equips herself magnificently in her fight scenes particularly a very impressive fight at a train station next to a moving train. Speaking of the fight scenes, as you would expect from Yuen Woo-Ping they are brilliant and intricate, but a lot more stylized (no doubt due to Wong Kar-Wai’s influence) than what you would see from his choreography. As usual for a Wong Kar-Wai film, “The Grandmaster” is stunningly beautiful to look at, the director working with Philippe Le Sourd as cinematographer for the first time on a feature (the two have collaborated on two shorts together), but losing none of his visual flair. While the final film is great, it does feel that it is truncated from a version longer than presented because certain characters that appear very important when introduced end up having very little screen time (particularly Chang Chen’s “Razor”). I should mention that the version of the film that I have seen is the 130 minute Hong Kong version, and not the shortened 108 minute U.S version, so I cannot comment on the shortened version, but in terms of the Hong Kong version of “The Grandmaster”, it is another great achievement from Wong Kar-Wai (I just hope we do not have to wait another five years for a new film from him again).
15. THE BEST OFFER
As much as I enjoy his nostalgia pieces, after “The Unknown Woman” and now, “The Best Offer”, I think it is safe to say that I love it when Giuseppe Tornatore goes genre. Tornatore’s latest is a mystery / thriller in the Hitchcock mode that has a fantastic (and melancholic) central performance by Geoffrey Rush. Rush plays Virgil, an auctioneer dealing only in the rarest of pieces, that finds himself falling in love and becoming obsessed with a reclusive young woman suffering from agoraphobia, when she asks him to come to her mansion to valuate her collection of fine arts. Immediately intrigued that the young woman conceals herself in a secret room during all their meetings, Virgil is slowly drawn into her life as he attempts to draw her out so she can be a part of his. However the deeper he gets, the more blind he becomes to the fact that he may be the victim of a serious heist. This is an amazingly fun film, but also an incredibly sad one. Unfortunately, “The Best Offer” is a hard film to talk about because its success relies on the twisty turning plot and knowing as little as possible about it when watching the film. I have always been a fan of Tornatore’s visual style; it really suits genre films particularly, and with this film there really is a Hitchcock vibe to it that I attribute mostly to the camerawork. Ennio Morricone produces another memorable score for a Tornatore film, this time closer in style to the work Bernard Herrmann created for Hitchcock. Similar to “Shutter Island”, when you really sit back and think about the intricacies within the plot of “The Best Offer”, I may suddenly fall apart due to the complete lack of realism behind making it all work, but in the moment of watching the film, you just do not care. “The Best Offer” is fun, entertaining, enthralling, suspenseful and just a hell of a good time at the movies.
14. THE LORDS OF SALEM
Rob Zombie returned this year with his best film since his 2005 masterpiece “The Devil’s Rejects”. With “The Lords Of Salem” Zombie proved to the world that he wasn’t a one trick pony. Stylistically he has turned 180 degrees as he replaced his trademark rough and violent images with beautifully composed and symmetrical shots that exude class. All of Rob Zombie’s films previous have had an immediacy to them; they all felt in the moment and are briskly paced, whereas his latest film is again the complete opposite. Zombie takes his time setting up his story and creating an atmosphere before carefully ratcheting up the suspense until the film explodes into madness towards the end. As usual Zombie has cast his wife, Sheri Moon, this time in the leading role of Heidi and she does a fantastic job with the role; it is easily her largest role to date and her most successful. Heidi is a DJ at a local (the film is set in Salem, Massachusetts) radio station who, one night after her show, receives a mysterious package by someone known only as “The Lords”. When she opens it she finds the contents within to be a strange record which she ends up playing once she gets home. As soon as the needle hits the vinyl, a strange and ominous (not to mention disturbing) tune is played that sends Heidi into some sort of trance as she is bombarded with images from the past of the infamous “witches” who were burned at the stake back in the 16th century. From the moment Heidi hears this song, she starts hallucinating and dreaming strange things; is she going insane or have the witches returned to take their revenge on modern day Salem? As I have just mentioned, “The Lords Of Salem” is a slow burn horror film, that explodes into the most bizarre images you are ever likely to see for its finale; images that could only come from Zombie. The whole film is just gorgeous to look at, it is easily Zombie’s best looking film to date, and the whole thing just has a grandness to it. Probably the thing that becomes obvious thanks to “The Lords Of Salem” is if you leave Rob Zombie alone to make his own film, the way he wants to make it, the results are going to be great. This is the first time since “The Devil’s Rejects” he has suffered no interference from producers and he had final cut. While the film definitely isn’t for everyone, I loved it and have already watched it four times. Click here to read my original review.
13. BIG SUR
“Big Sur” was one of the best surprises of the year and it was a film I knew nothing of until just before I saw it, so I went into the film with no expectations at all. After really enjoying last year’s beatnik tale “On The Road”, I became immediately interested in “Big Sur” when I found out that it was about the author of that tale, Jack Kerouac, and his group of friends much later in their life. Then I realized that the film was directed by Michael Polish who I used to be a big fan of (but hadn’t followed his work of late). The film immediately made an impact on me; it just connected with me on an emotional level and I ended up loving “Big Sur”. This picture is much different than “On The Road” because here Kerouac is a lot more jaded with life, he is struggling with his sudden fame (after his hit book “On The Road” is published) and the fact that he feels like a sham particularly due to the fact that his fans think he is this twenty something kid travelling the world on foot, where the reality is he is a forty something drunk struggling to come up with a follow up book. He no longer believes in what he is doing and decides to head out to Big Sur and stay at the cabin there owned by his poet friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He binges on drugs and alcohol whilst attempting to find himself again and his love of the world and the written word. Like “On The Road”, “Big Sur” is a stunningly beautiful film to look at with the location photography absolutely jaw dropping. As opposed to the earlier film, “Big Sur” is not a road picture, instead it is more of an internal and emotional journey as our lead character tries to find himself. Because a large portion of the film takes place in Kerouac’s head, dialogue is limited but the film is narrated throughout in the words of Kerouac himself, as portions of his book “Big Sur” are read over the images to describe his state of mind. Narration is such a tricky thing, but I thought its use here was beautiful; I just loved the poetry of the words, and it really gave an insight into Kerouac’s soul at this time in his life. In terms of acting, I thought Jean-Marc Barr’s internal performance was magnificent, and completely different than Sam Riley’s wide eyed performance in “On The Road”. I much prefer Barr’s performance, it has much more weight to it, as we witness a man disillusioned with the world and his own role within it. There are also fine supporting turns from Josh Lucas, Anthony Edwards and particularly Kate Bosworth, who play Kerouac’s friends and lovers. “Big Sur” is a fantastic film that needs to be recognized for its greatness and I hope that more people get a chance to see it.
Just three features into his career and it is safe to say that Jeff Nicols is the best and most important new director to come out of America in the past decade. He is someone who understands the human spirit and what makes us tick, and all three of his films have been about family dynamics and all three are dynamite. “Mud” is his latest film and is basically a coming of age tale, with a lot of heart. The film is about two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who after finding an abandoned boat stuck high in a tree which they claim as their cubby-house, meet a wanted fugitive named Mud. The outlaw is living on the island whilst waiting for his girlfriend to arrive and at the same time hiding from the law and dodging bounty hunters intent on collecting for his arrest. The two boys strike up a friendship with Mud, particularly Ellis who looks at him as a kind of father figure, and decide to help him in his quest to reunite with his girlfriend. What I love about Jeff Nicols’s films is that he gives a real sense of place, the locations the story is set become as important to the story as the characters themselves. In “Mud” (like his first film “Shotgun Stories”) he really brings Arkansas to life, there is a texture to it and to the lives of the people living there. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of incredible performances as the title character infusing the outlaw with a kindness and a sense of mystery to him, as well as a selfishness in the fact that he is willing to manipulate people to get what he wants. Tye Sheridan is amazing as the young Ellis, a boy who looks up to this questionable man and there is a fantastic scene between Sheridan and McConaughey when Ellis finally realizes that the man he has built up in his mind, is not what Mud really is. Ellis has looked up to this guy to the point that he sees him almost as a hero, but when he finds out that Mud is simply just a man who has made some mistakes (most of his own doing), it devastates the boy. It is a powerfully emotional scene and rings so true because it is reminiscent of a moment every child goes through in their lives in regards to their parents. Reese Witherspoon has a small role in the film as Mud’s “girlfriend” and it is a role quite different then we are used to seeing from her. She is not America’s sweetheart here, there is a lot more darkness to her in this role, and she really pulls it off. Nicols’s muse or good luck charm Michael Shannon also has a brief role in “Mud” and as I have mentioned numerous times he is an actor I rarely respond to, except when he works with Nicols who always brings out the best in him. While I wouldn’t rate “Mud” above “Take Shelter” (Nicols’s second film), it is still an amazing achievement and I look forward to Nicols’s next project, the science fiction / romance “Midnight Special” which will probably see the light of day in 2015.
This will be the third time I have written about Brian De Palma’s “Passion” so I do not know what more I can say other than I love it. What I will also say is that this is a film that gets better with each viewing, which I think says a lot about it. This is De Palma at his most fun since 1992’s “Raising Cain” and the whole thing is worth seeing alone for its final scene. “Passion” is a great thriller that also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Click here to read my original review.