By the time the world waved farewell to 2013 I had sat through no fewer than 375 films. I’ll be honest and say that sometimes it was an honour, other times I questioned the meaning of life and, in the extreme cases, I had to wonder if I’d make it to the end. While I have experienced some spectacular films this year, I have also seen some real turkeys, many that should be put in metal boxes and buried in a remote desert. As much as I’d love to dwell on the bad films such as Piranhaconda, Ratman and Swamp Zombies, I’ve chosen to share with you all the films that I felt were worth a five star rating.
Now, you might be thinking this will be a long list but you’d be wrong. Of the 375 films I watched, only 18 deserved that coveted 10/10 that I am loathe to hand out except to the very best. Many films I watched were 9/10 efforts, almost there, but just missing that magic ingredient to push them to the maximum.
I don’t go to the cinema very often so what you’ll find here are a selection of films from various years, the oldest from the 1940s and others being more recent efforts. Feel free to share with me your best films from 2013. I’d love to hear your recommendations.
**FILM OF THE YEAR**
Makoto Shinkai’s anime love story is unquestionably one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Tracing the friendship of Takaki and Akari who form a bond at school and, when separated, try desperately to maintain contact strikes many a chord with real life. Shinkai avoided melodrama and being over sentimental here. There was no cliched Hollywood ending, but a brutally honest truth about the ideals of youth not being fulfilled in adulthood. Takaki and Akari’s story may not end the way we wish but it is still a wonderful story nonetheless and 5 Centimeters Per Second is undoubtedly my film of the year. It may only last one hour but what an amazing hour it is.
How can you make a film about a young man diagnosed with cancer funny? Well, having Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen in it is a good way to start. Based on a true story, we follow Adam Lerner whose diagnosis with a rare form of spinal cancer while in his late twenties turns his life upside down. Adam has to face the very real possibility of dying but in his best friend, Kyle, and a young therapist, Katherine, he finds that he isn’t alone in battling his illness. Both funny and incredibly moving, 50/50 is a film that will make you smile, maybe even cry, but the overall experience is heart-warming and uplifting.
Often regarded as Woody Allen’s finest film, Annie Hall boasted great characters and a terrific script. It has Woody Allen’s character, Alvy, looking back on his relationship with Annie Hall and how and why it all came to an end. He also reflects on relationships prior to Annie and how different factors contributed to their eventual downfall. This was a fascinating study of love and relationships in general with Alvy striving for the perfect equilibrium with a woman but finding his efforts to be in vain, not just through faults with others but ultimately with himself. Annie is as close to perfection as Alvy gets and watching their good and bad times is both funny and tragic.
Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Robert James Waller’s novel steers clear of being too soppy and melodramatic, delivering a convincing and very moving romance. Eastwood is a travel photographer, Robert, charged with taking pictures of bridges in Madison County. He meets Meryl Streep’s lonely housewife, Francesca, and, with her family away, they have a four-day affair, that is clearly more than just sex. The film divides between Robert and Francesca’s romance and events in the present as Francesca’s children sort through her belongings following her death. Even knowing what has transpired in the present, it is hard not to wish Robert and Francesca well, despite her infidelity and longing to escape from an unhappy marriage into the freedom and solace that her lover offers.
Often heralded as the greatest film ever made, I don’t share that sentiment but it is hard to deny that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is anything other than a work of genius. A journalist’s painstaking effort to uncover the meaning of media tycoon Kane’s final word of “rosebud” on his deathbed forms the perfect backdrop to his story. The boy that begins poorly, inherits a media empire and seemingly has everything is also the focal point of a tragic tale. Welles is a striking presence on screen with impeccable delivery and dominating every shot, just as he did in The Third Man. I can appreciate why Citizen Kane has the reputation it does and although it will never dislodge Blade Runner as my favourite film, it is still one of the best I’ve seen this year.
Yojiro Takita’s drama blended beautiful music with the poignant Japanese encoffining ceremonies. An unemployed musician and his loyal wife return to his home village where he takes a job at what he thinks is a travel agents, but ends up being a funeral home. Although there were some sentimental moments involving the protagonist and the father he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, this was a wonderful film from start to finish with the encoffining ceremonies depicted here never failing to mesmerise in their intricacy and reverence for the loved and lost. Departures was a deserved winner of an Oscar and easily one of my favourites of 2013.
You can’t go wrong with a film that has great actors, a sharp and quotable script, and has a fabulous soundtrack in the background. Benjamin Braddock’s affair with the sexy Mrs Robinson and his later falling for her daughter, Elaine, is played out amidst the sumptuous music of Simon and Garfunkel with such classics as The Sound of Silence and Scarborough Fair. It’s one of those films that you’ll know so much about even though you’re watching it for the first time. The Graduate memorably shies away from an all is well Hollywood ending and leaves us with some ambiguity as Benjamin chooses between Elaine and Mrs Robinson.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
I’d actually seen Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 prior to this film and, though it was a sequel of sorts, it was still an engaging and terrific film. In the Mood for Love proved to be so much better. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung depict next door neighbours in a block of apartments who learn that their respective spouses are having an affair with one another. Our two protagonists end up spending a lot of time together in the midst of this revelation and fight the urge to commit adultery themselves. On the surface this may be slow-paced and ponderous at times, but it is a delicate depiction of two people who have been wronged by those they love and find understanding and compassion in one another’s company.
Mental illness is an important subject though one which has an unnecessary stigma attached to it. If there is one lesson to take from the brilliant It’s Kind of a Funny Story then it’s there are many forms of mental illness and that all should be taken seriously. Craig Gilner is a suicidal sixteen year old who ends up in a mental hospital due to numerous pressures in his life. He finds friendship with another patient, Bobby, and also forms a close bond with Noelle, who is in the hospital for self-harm. This was both a funny and moving film that addressed the severity of its subject matter but managed to be uplifting and inspirational in equal measure thanks to a great cast, script and some memorable set-pieces. This gem was discovered almost by accident really which makes it all the more special.
I remember first watching Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and being impressed by the multitude of roles he and Arsenio Hall had. Back in the 1940s, Alec Guinness took on no fewer than eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Dennis Price is Louis Mazzini whose mother was disowned by the D’Ascoyne family and left in poverty. When she dies, Louis swears revenge and systematically arranges the deaths of the various members of the noble family, paving the way for himself to claim the title of Duke. Very funny with memorable turns from Alec Guinness, the film is a winner thanks to the terrific lead performance of Price who veers between graceful and charming to conniving and malevolent at the drop of a hat.
2013 proved to be my first experience of legendary Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. While 8½ is often lauded as his masterpiece, I actually preferred La Strada. It is a simple tale of a young woman, Gelsomina, who joins entertainer, Zampano, on the road and assists him in his act of binding himself in chains and breaking them through sheer will and muscle. Gelsomina is an innocent woman at the outset but life on the road gradually takes its toll on her. Beautifully filmed, sublimely acted and with an air of poignancy at the end, La Strada is the very definition of simplicity but, by the same token, it is a near flawless masterpiece.
Zhang Yimou is one of my favourite directors so, unsurprisingly, he has not one but two films on this list. The first is a simple tale of a school teacher in a rural village. She has her class help raise funds to send her to the city to find and bring back one of her students, who has run away from home to earn money for his family. Beautifully filmed with amateur actors making it look easy, this may not have the visual wow factor of Hero and House of Flying Daggers but it was an honest and heartfelt film, which raised a major issue at the time of its release about education in China.
What do you get when you put an Irish busker and a Czech flower seller together on the streets of Dublin? The answer is some beautiful music and one of the most wonderful films I had the privilege of watching in 2013. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova are musicians first and foremost but as actors they are both completely natural on screen, conveying a moving friendship that clearly develops into mutual love. With our Dublin guy wanting to go to London to pursue his music career and our Czech girl having a child at home, can they overcome the obstacles and be together? Once is a simple tale but with two endearing leads and some lovely music it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying this.
The second of Zhang Yimou’s films on this list. Red Sorghum was Yimou’s debut effort and also starred one of his proteges – Gong Li. Very much a film of two halves, Red Sorghum is a simple and delightful story at the outset as Gong Li’s character is taken for a pre-arranged marriage to a much older man who owns a distillery. When he dies, she is the sole owner but romance isn’t far away in the form of a sedan carrier that initially brought her to her new home. Gong Li’s character works with a group of men at the distillery and begins producing fine wine again, but harsh times in the form of the Sino-Japanese War are just around the corner. At this point Red Sorghum becomes a much darker film. Yimou delivers on gorgeous scenery, memorable characters and a far from predictable ending. As debuts go, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Film adaptations of books I love always leave me nervous as I have seen so many ruined on the big screen, with The Time Traveller’s Wife and my favourite book of all time – Norwegian Wood – being just two examples. I approached David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel with some caution but I soon realised there was nothing to worry about. Okay, Russell has changed a lot from the book, made it his own to an extent, but he has produced was a memorable romantic comedy drama with a great cast all on top form. Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver alone were great inclusions but this film was all about Bradley Cooper as Pat and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, the latter earning an Oscar for her efforts. While I would have liked a more faithful adaptation of the book, I was soon lost in this film and left grateful that the essence of what made the novel so great was retained here.
Paul Verhoeven’s World War II epic focuses on a group of Dutch students who have different experiences during the war when the Netherlands is occupied by Germany. While some join with the Germans, others lay low and some even find themselves involved in resistance to the Nazis, seizing the chance to work with the British. Soldier of Orange is notable for an early appearance from Rutger Hauer who would steal the show four years later in my favourite film – Blade Runner. This is an unpredictable and epic war film that delivers the moving contrasts of a group of young men who are brothers at the outset during their time in university, but by the end the war has changed them irrevocably. While I would hail Das Boot as the best war film I’ve ever seen, I was very impressed with Soldier of Orange and seeing the war from the perspective of the Dutch was both insightful and fascinating.
Emilio Estevez directed his father, Martin Sheen, in this moving and spiritual journey of Thomas Avery, an ophthalmologist and workaholic who has a delicate relationship with his son, Daniel. When Daniel dies at the start of a journey known as the Camino de Santiago across the Pyrenees, Tom initially goes to France to recover his son’s body but instead he decides to take Daniel’s ashes on the pilgrimage himself. He joins with an overweight Dutchman, a Canadian woman fleeing an abusive husband and an Irish travel writer. Along the route, the quartet all search for their own meanings and insights in their complicated lives. Beautifully filmed throughout, depicting some breathtaking scenery, lots of good food and wine, friendly locals and often having tension and resentment amongst the travellers, The Way is a moving drama of family, friendship and self-discovery that was one of the year’s undoubted highlights for me.
New Zealand and Maori tradition were the order of the day in this wonderful film from Niki Caro. The story of Pai is both memorable and inspirational as she strives to break the centuries old tradition of only grandsons being eligible to succeed as the tribe leader. Pai is devoted to the current leader, her grandfather Koro, and does all she can to win his admiration and approval. While initially dismissive of her, Koro has warmed to his granddaughter but also blames her for problems in the tribe, which he fears is going to fall apart. As Koro looks to the other boys in the village for a successor he fails to realise that the ideal candidate is standing right before him. Much of Whale Rider’s appeal comes from a deeply touching performance from Keisha Castle-Hughes who was deservedly nominated for an Oscar. The ending may be predictable but it makes for an uplifting and moving experience all the same.
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