This year I really pushed the boat out, and made it my mission to watch at least 1 new film per week – this was so that I could have at least a modicum of experience about the year’s theatrical releases to be able to judge their quality. Even so, there are a fair few movies that came to the silver screen last year that I was unable to view, movies which I was really looking forward to and may, when I eventually see them, earn higher regard than those I have chosen as my ‘best’; Blue Jasmine, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Thor: Dark World, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Kill Your Darlings, Nebraska, Much Ado About Nothing, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Captain Phillips, The Fifth Estate, Winnie… Nonetheless, I managed to watch 55 movies released in 2013, the full list of which you can find at the end of this article.
Now, on to the winners of this prestigious arbitrary blog post!
5. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Adapted from the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamed, Mira Nair directs a political thriller encompassing the ‘War on Terror’ featuring a magnificent lead performance from Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Closed Circuit). Starring as a radical Pakistani Professor whose American allegiance is torn apart by his experiences after the events of the 11th of September, Riz has an enigmatic and magnetic screen presence, and his is the character with whom our sympathies never waver. He is ably supported by Liev Schreiber (Sphere, Last Days on Mars) as the US journalist ostensibly seeking a story but surreptitiously working for American special forces, Kiefer Sutherland (Flatliners, Young Guns) as the protagonist’s initial professional mentor, and Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, About Adam) who excels as the grief-stricken, uncomprehending love interest.
The pace of the films pulls you along nicely and there are some knowing moments which stand well above any previous attempt to reveal how Muslims reacted to the 2001 attacks and subsequent witch-hunt, scapegoating and trial-by-media. The similarity drawn between religious fundamentalism and capitalist fundamentalism was particularly well executed, as was the symbolic inability of the love interest to understand she had done anything wrong when she betrays the protagonist’s trust. I have to be oblique here, as I do not want to spoil anything for any potential viewer!
In any case, this is a brilliant film; the script, characters, performances and direction are first-class. Watch it.
4. John Dies at the End
Sometimes you just love a film because it is unlike anything you have seen before. Weird, comedic, gruesome, inelegant, bizarre… Whatever it is, the result is something that stays with you, something you want to watch over and over again, something you want to recommend to as many people as possible – just to see how they react to it and interpret it.
This a dark comedy-horror, directed by Don Coscarelli whose work Bubba Ho-tep proves that he has the chops for the genre, with a wicked supporting performance from Paul Giamatti (Win Win, The Last Station) who, I must admit, is one of my favourite actors. It is difficult to describe the film, save for the fact that the ‘John’ of the title refers to one of our two intrepid heroes – John Cheese and David Wong – who are, essentially, demon-hunters. David relates the story to Giamatti’s sceptical Arnie, a reporter looking for a good yarn to sink his teeth into.
It is only now that I realise how this framing device is exactly the same as The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s. Huh. Seems I might be a sucker for that one. Ah well.
Anyway, that is literally the only thing these two movies have in common. John Dies at the End is basically a terrifying, hilarious, unpredictable romp, with monsters and bugs and possessions and gore aplenty. I defy anyone to watch it and not be immensely entertained.
3. Before Midnight
Mark Kermode, in reviewing this, called Richard Linklater’s Before… movies the ‘perfect’ trilogy. He is probably not wrong, and it has to be said that this is in no small order down to the brilliance of the final instalment of Jesse & Céline’s modern love story. I was sceptical when I first heard that this was in the works; for me, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset covered everything, nicely rounding-up the story in a romantic bow and giving the central figures a lovely ending.
How wrong I was.
The maturity of the characters is echoed in the maturity of the performances, the direction and the story (such as it is). If you know and love the previous two films, you know what to expect here, but the dialogue between the couple, now approaching middle age, is so believable and powerful that it is enthralling and painful in equal measure. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy remain the cutest and most captivating on-screen couple of our time, and their chemistry has not dimmed with the passing of years. The perfect symbiosis between them and the script is what classics are made of.
Describing the attraction of these films for someone who has not seen them is nigh-on impossible, as the central thrust of the movies is just two people talking…for an extended period of time:
Before Sunrise; Jesse and Céline meet, talk all night, fall in love, separate.
Before Sunset; Jesse and Céline meet again nine years later, talk all afternoon, fall in love again, stay together.
Before Midnight; Jesse and Céline hang around in Greece, talk and argue all evening…and I won’t ruin the end for you!
I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but trust me: Best. Trilogy. Ever.
2. Fruitvale Station
On New Year’s Eve 2009, Oscar Grant was apprehended by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police. In the course of his arrest, he was shot and killed. This is a dramatic retelling of his last 24 hours.
So, pretty depressing, right? Actually, it is strangely life-affirming. Sure, the feeling of knowing what is coming while the movie’s characters are blissfully unaware does cast a shadow over everything that unfolds, akin to the painful pre-cognition of an audience to a Greek play (perhaps something by Euripides or Sophocles). Nonetheless, this directorial debut by auteur Ryan Coogler is a thoughtful, engrossing and emotive account of one man’s final day, and it encourages us to live as fully as we can, fight against injustice wherever possible, and stand up for our fellow man.
Michael B. Jordan shines as the doomed hero, and it is rumoured that Octavia Spencer will receive another Best Supporting Actress nod at the Oscars for her portrayal of Grant’s dignified, devoted and ultimately grieving mother. If so, it will be one far more deserving than the Oscar she received for The Help. [Edit: She receive no such nomination, alas]
This movie could not have been made without the financial and active support of Forest Whitaker – this more than makes up for his participation in Lee Daniel’s abysmal civil-rights airbrushing, The Butler.
And my favourite film of 2013? DRUMROLL PLEASE!
1. The East
With echoes of political thrillers from the 1970’s, this is nonetheless the most original and politically bang-on movie of the year. Helpfully, it is also the best written. It is directed by Zal Batmanglij and stars Brit Marling, and was co-written by both, who lived as ‘Freegans’ for a year to research their subjects and make the film as believable as possible.
Boy, does that pay off.
The aforementioned Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) is extraordinary in the lead role, that of a corporate spy charged with informing on an Anarchist sect committed to eco-terrorism. The film takes its title from their group’s name. Alexander Skarsgard, best known for his fantastic performance in the HBO mini-series Generation Kill, is compelling and charismatic as The East’s most effective and confident member, while Ellen Page puts in another marvellous turn as the organisation’s youngest member who is determined to bring down her own father’s petrochemical company.
I won’t go into the storyline any more, suffice it to say that The East is the cinematic tour-de-force of 2013. Anyone who watches this and is not deeply-affected by it is no comrade of mine. A simply superb film, and another feather in the caps of Batmanglij and Marling, who look like truly exciting up-and-coming filmmakers.
Only time will tell if they can follow this up with something even approaching its standards. Make no mistake, in making The East they have set themselves one heck of a high bar.
Watch it. Watch it NOW. Seb commands you.
Solidarity brothers & sisters… ⒶP.S. I will have my ‘Worst Films of 2013‘ up shortly. In the meantime, as promised, here’s the list of all the films I saw this year. Those that are recommended viewing I have highlighted in blue: