Resident movie critic, Wai presents his list of the best movies of 2013.
If I measured the quality of a year solely by the films I watch, then I have to say, 2013 was a great year. And it’s not just me. Critics generally agree that we were blessed with an unusual number of brilliant films. It’s reflected in my Best Of list. Earlier in the year, I was absolutely certain I’d seen the best film ever. That nothing would topple it. Then I watched more films, and suddenly I was faced with a very tough call between my Top 3. That’s how spoilt I was for choice. The amazing thing is there were still so many other highly-rated offerings that I hadn’t managed to cover, like The Wolf Of Wall Street, American Hustle, Nebraska, Short Term 12, The Great Beauty and Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Here’s hoping 2014 will see just as many if not more shining examples of cinema. For now, I’d like to celebrate and honour 2013’s cream of the crop:
Horror generally did not have a very good year. It’s okay. I’ll take quality over quantity anytime, and in a genre known for relying on cheap thrills and being cheap in every sense of the word, The Conjuring stood way out. It brought a sense of class back to horror, where good acting, writing and directing were coupled with great production values to give us scares that felt genuinely earned. Malaysian-born filmmaker James Wan demonstrated how much he’s matured artistically, bringing restraint and subtlety to this haunted house story based on real-life events. The best horror film of the last few years.
To be honest, this was not Woody Allen at his best. It played as a fairly engaging yet run-of-the-mill tale about falling from grace and coping with it. Good but not quite up there, especially in a year of such strong contenders. This is here almost solely because of Cate Blanchett’s mesmerising performance. She takes what is a rather unsympathetic study of delusion and desperation on the page and turns her into an oddly relatable train wreck of a human being. These kinds of psychologically-damaged characters can all too easily become caricature in the wrong hands, but with Allen’s light touch and Blanchett’s sheer talent, the film remained highly watchable from start to finish. Also, very nice use of music to echo a character’s mental state.
10. THE WHITE STORM
While Hong Kong cinema continues to degenerate into shoddy, superficial mush, a handful of filmmakers have been holding the fort. One of them is Benny Chan, a guy who turned the tables on the Hollywood remake machine by making his remake (Connected) far superior than the original (Cellular). Last year, he reunited with his star Louis Koo for another excellent outing in The White Storm aka Sou Duk (Drug Sweep). Although its premise of narcotics cops in a war with a vicious cartel was nothing new, Chan and his writers gave it a fresh spin by examining the human cost of being in a prolonged war against an enemy with no regard for the rules of engagement. Playing his three leading men like battle-worn brothers in arms, Chan squeezed out some surprisingly affecting observations about loyalty, obsession and regret. Sean Lau and Nick Cheung once again showed why they’re among the most respected actors of their generation. In between, he also threw in a couple of kick-ass action sequences, like a spectacular helicopter ambush on a drug raid and a climatic shootout worthy of vintage John Woo. The best Hong Kong film I saw last year.
9. ABOUT TIME
Brit rom-com specialist Richard Curtis really confounded all preconceived notions of his work with this magical little film. It was still a love story at heart, just not necessarily of the romantic kind. It was also a loving tribute to fathers and sons, which in a way made it Curtis’ most personal film. Maybe that’s why the studio didn’t know how to market it and mainstream audiences didn’t quite know what to make of it. It died a quiet death at the box office, and that counts as one of the biggest injustices of the year. Hopefully, in time, more people will come to appreciate its elegant reflections on universal themes like attachment and loss, and the value of living in the moment. I have a feeling this is one of those films I will keep revisiting, especially when I need a pick-me-up.
8. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
This one, on the other hand, was all about exploring the darker sides of human nature. The thing that impressed me most about this film was just how deceptively epic it really was. Under the guise of a small, simple tale of a deadbeat bank robber, the narrative began to progressively widen in scope and implication until it was a full-blown Greek tragedy spanning decades and generations. Derek Cianfrance has the skills to match the ambition. Not everyone can pull off a slow-burn approach to storytelling without it coming off listless or boring. From the moody tone, to the pensive yet revealing performances he coaxed out of his actors (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane DeHaan nailed it), to the darkly hypnotic score (one of the year’s best), this was a director in full command of his picture.
7. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
There aren’t very many surprises left for a person who runs a movie website. All too often, I already know pretty much everything there is to know about any given film even before watching it. Sometimes, it takes the joy out of the viewing experience. With Dallas Buyers Club, it was one of those rare occasions where I went into it not knowing much beyond the basic premise of Matthew McConaughey playing a homophobe stricken with AIDS. Boy, was I in for a surprise. If I hadn’t known this was based on a true story, I would’ve scoffed at the events depicted because they bordered on the farcical. Not that a terminal illness is a laughing matter, mind you. But to quote Homer Simpson, ”It’s funny because it’s true”. And there were a lot of priceless observations about human folly and the pharmaceutical industry here. To say any more would spoil things for you. Let’s just call this a twisted version of the American Dream, and a superb film filled with daring, heartbreaking performances (Jared Leto is amazing). A definite must-watch.
6. THE IMPOSSIBLE
This film came out in early 2013, and the fact that it has stayed with me this long says a lot about its power. A dramatisation about the deadliest tsunami in modern history could easily have turned out exploitative or sappy. Instead, director Juan Antonio Bayona struck the right balance between drama, pathos and spectacle to give us a truly riveting experience, one that felt honest without being earnest, and heartrending without resorting to cheap manipulation. Naomi Watts and young Tom Holland’s outstanding performances really sold the terror and the confusion, while capturing the strength of the human spirit as well as the bonds of family that enable us to hold out hope even in our darkest hours. Through all the death and destruction, The Impossible found a way to be life-affirming and reminded us that once in a while, we’re not so bad as a species.
If you’d told me this time last year that one of my favourite films of 2013 would be a Ron Howard picture about a sport I have little interest in, I would’ve looked at you as if you were crazy. Yet here we are. The fact is that Howard made a damned good film, and I enjoyed the heck out of it. Rush wasn’t just a biopic about Formula One legends Niki Lauda and James Hunt. It was a compelling look at how intense professional rivalries push men to first excel, then grow. Some may view the characterisation as overly simplistic, but I think Howard and his writer Peter Morgan were going more for an impressionistic interpretation of these larger-than-life figures. Something echoed in the way he treated the racing sequences, which perfectly captured the speed and power — and danger — of the sport. Like his male leads Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, the film was full of wit, vigour, grit and heart. Thoroughly entertaining.
One of the most notable things about 2013’s offerings was the strength of the acting across the board. There were a whole host of awards-worthy performances in films that didn’t even make my Best Of list (Tom Hanks, please take a bow). Prisoners gave us two prime examples of the craft of screen acting from polar opposite approaches but with equally fantastic results. Jake Gyllenhaal was all understated, contained intensity while Hugh Jackman was a seething, unraveling mass of emotion. Both men were a treat to watch for entirely different reasons, even if the film itself was always an extremely difficult experience. In the best way possible, I mean. It took a pretty standard tale of child abduction and twisted the emotional and psychological knives until it was almost unbearable, only relenting at the end with a hopeful resolution.
Spike Jonze is a hit-and-miss filmmaker in my book. But when the guy hits, he gives us something truly special. I’m fairly certain that in any other year, Her would have been my Number 1 film. It was certainly the best ’romantic comedy’ of the year, and I use quote marks because it was way, way more than that. It was a relationship film for sure, but not just about one particular couple. It was also a very funny satire about modern-day relationships in general, and an intelligent social commentary on mankind’s relationship with technology. On the most basic level, the film worked beautifully as a love story. It just so happened that the love story was between a man and a sentient computer operating system — the ultimate long-distance relationship, since they could never physically be together. Lest you think the idea of being emotionally involved with a machine is ridiculous, it’s already happening. There are people in Japan who have married their virtual girlfriends, and Smartphone Separation Anxiety is a recognised medical disorder.
I love that Jonze never made the lazy or obvious choices as a scriptwriter and director. He deftly confronted some tricky issues, like the existential question of what is ’real’ or ’fake’. The brilliant cast he assembled also made his words sing. Joaquin Phoenix was an absolute marvel, especially considering he was alone in most of his scenes. Tender and sweet without being cloying, he took a role that at face value verged on creepy and made it the year’s most endearing romantic character. And any lingering doubts about Scarlett Johansson’s acting ability should be cast aside after this. That it was just her voice actually underlined how hard it is to sell an entire personality without all the other physical fallbacks at an actor’s disposal. Yet the warmth and vitality she brought was a large part of what made this film so wonderful. I adore Her.
Gravity is an astounding accomplishment. I could go on and on laying down one superlative after another, and I still wouldn’t feel as if I were over-praising it. That’s how deeply impressed I was and how much it spoke to the film geek in me. On a purely technical level alone, it was a revolutionary milestone that redefined the way movies could be made. This was such a complex undertaking that director Alfonso Cuaron took half a decade just to figure out whether some of the shots were even possible. Like all great creative visionaries, he practically willed it into reality. That mind-blowing 13-minute, one-take opening sequence will be studied in film schools around the world for decades to come. Along with the film’s heavy use of symbolism. For this was not all visual spectacle with no substance. Besides being the year’s most awesome thrill-ride, it also managed to feel sensitive and intimate in all the right places. Sandra Bullock delivered a moving portrait of a woman in desperate need of rescue, who in the end rescued herself… in more ways than one. I do not say this lightly: this film is a work of genius.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
It took a LOT to knock both Gravity and Her from my #1 spot. But this film did it, and as difficult as it was to decide between the three, in the end there was no doubt. 12 Years A Slave was the best film of 2013. At the risk of sounding reductive, I can’t find a better word to sum it up other than ”powerful”. Cinema at its best has a power over the audience like no other art form. And for its duration, I was held completely at this film’s mercy. Before going in I had heard of its brutally raw, unflinching portrayal of black slavery. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the onslaught of emotions that hit me — despair, outrage, pity, shame and hope (not necessarily in that order). Knowing that all this horror happened to a real person in the past only amplified those feelings.
Not that the impact would’ve been diminished one bit had this been a fictitious account, as the storytelling expertise here was so incredibly rock solid, and the performances so unforgettable. Chiwetel Ejiofor can’t be commended enough for pulling off a challenging role like this with total conviction and vulnerability. Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender also deserve whatever accolade that may come their way. As does director Steve McQueen, who by now has become one of my favourite filmmakers. Many films try hard to be important. 12 Years A Slave just is. I might not have the heart to watch this again any time soon, but I consider my life enriched for having watched it in the first place.