The best releases of 2013 explored themes of isolation – an astronaut stranded in space, a sailor stranded at sea, a cargo ship’s captain separated from his crew by hijackers – while the worst included disappointment from film-makers whose track records raised expectations.
The vast majority of releases, as ever, were decidedly average, earning 2.5 or 3 stars or our 5-star rating system, but four films scored an exemplary 4.5 stars and a healthy 13 picked up a creditable 4, making 2013 generally a strong year for mature and entertaining features. At the other end of the scale, 3 shamed-faced production teams had to make do with just 1, with a further 4 scraping an extra half a star.
Because of the peculiar discrepancies between the release calendars on the two sides of the Atlantic, many of the best films of 2013 here were honoured by Hollywood earlier this year. Similarly, one of our best films of 2012, the Danish drama The Hunt, has been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar and Golden Globe at the ceremonies to be held in 2014.
In no particular order, here’s what was worth seeing – or not – in 2013:
FOUR AND A HALF STARS
GRAVITY: Gravity might pull things down to earth, but the film of the same name has pushed the bar for future space film so high, short of shooting a film on the actual space station, it will be tough to match Alfonso Cuarón’s ambition and level of success. Rarely has a film achieved such universal critical and commercial success, and it’s more than justified. The 3D, unusually, adds to the experience, giving audiences the most thrilling roller-coaster ride of the year. It’s visually stunning and the simplicity of the story is refreshing. It’s a remarkable piece of visual and emotional entertainment.
ALL IS LOST: An ideal companion piece to Gravity, JC Chandor replaces a young woman with an old man and outer space with an ocean. In both films, a solitary human pits their wits against nature, using brain more than brawn to try to survive against the odds. With both films studying the fragility of mankind, this one is more about the acting, with a pitch-perfect performance from Robert Redford showing that even in his mid-70s, he can handle the most physical of roles as well as saying everything any actor could ever want to with his eyes alone.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS: Staying on the sea for a film that, until Gravity came along, was without doubt the most exciting film of the year. Whether or not it’s been tweaked from the real-life story it purports to tell, with one of the best working actors at the top of his game, and a director who can arguably handle suspense and action better than any of his contemporaries, Captain Phillips meets the high expectations placed on them. Anyone with a weak heart should steer clear of this or have a finger poised on the pause button, because even the most hardy film viewer could benefit from stopping for breath. Holding your breath for the best part of two hours just isn’t good for you.
THE SESSIONS: You have to cast your mind back a long way for this one, but The Sessions, a drama about the sexual awakening of a quadriplegic academic, was recognised for its excellent performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt during the last Awards Season. It was one of those films released close to the end of 2012 in the US, to qualify for the Oscars, but didn’t come out in the UK until mid January 2013.
LES MISERABLES: Fresh from his Oscar success with The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper turned his hand to bringing the much-loved stage musical to the big screen. With Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading a who’s who of a supporting cast, the singing is as impressive as the sets in this faithful adaptation.
NEBRASKA: Launched at Cannes, where it earned a well-deserved Best Actor award for its lead Bruce Dern, Alexander Payne’s darkly-comic monochrome drama-cum-road movie is a beautifully paced study of family dynamics, as a put-upon-son humours his father’s naive dreams and remains there to support him despite the consequences.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA: Another Cannes favourite, Steven Soderbergh’s bio-pic of the flamboyant 1970s pianist Liberace didn’t get a theatrical release in the US, so it won’t be up for Oscars and it’s already been nominated at the Golden Globes as a TV movie. In the UK, it will be in the running for film BAFTA nods, but will the British academy push a film whose release status means that it can’t build momentum stateside?
JEUNE ET JOLIE: Also nominated for the Palme d’Or this year was the latest film from François Ozon, centred on a sexually frustrated teenaged girl who keeps her moonlighting as a high-class hooker secret from her supportive, middle-class mother.
IN THE HOUSE: First screening in the UK at the 2012 London Film Festival, but not released until March 2013, this study of a precious, trouble-making teenaged boy, who gets off of poking around in other people’s lives – and the teacher he unwittingly draws into his scheming is the second Ozon film to feature among UK Screen’s top films of the year.
SAVING MR BANKS: It’s been a good year for Tom Hanks, who opened the London Film Festival with the aforementioned Captain Phillips and closed it, playing another real-life character. He slides convincingly from a ships captain combating armed Somali pirates to Walt Disney, trying to charm Emma Thompson’s PL Travers into letting him put her favourite character Mary Poppins on the big screen, in a delightful, feel-good passion piece, brought down only be too much interest in her troubled childhood.
COMPLIANCE: Based not on a real story but a real scam, this chilling thriller provides a frightening demonstration of how people act under the threat of authority.
ZERO DARK THIRTY: Following up one macho film, The Hurt Locker, with another, the most successful female director in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow brought the story of the capture of Osama bin Laden to the big screen in Zero Dark Thirty. The film had to be rewritten mid-shoot when the al Qaeda leader was caught.
PHILOMENA: Steve Coogan takes the book by the former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith – and plays the author – as he help the elderly Judi Dench trace the son she’d been forced by the Catholic church to give up for adoption, fifty years earlier, in a thought-provoking, dryly witty drama that tugs at the heart strings.
ENOUGH SAID: Gravely predicting his impending untimely death, an overweight James Gandolfini showed he could be as tender as he could be tough alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus in this mature, heart-warming romantic comedy about middle-aged parents finding new love.
DON JON: Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns his hand to writing and directing, as well as taking the lead role as a charming womaniser who’s given a run for his money by a seductive Scarlett Johansson, who struggles with his unorthodox hobby.
WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS: Acclaimed documentary-maker Alex Gibney turns his attention to Julian Assange in this balanced study of the origins and development of WikiLeaks in a film whose release fortuitously coincided with the flight of the American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
RUSH: Ron Howard’s high octane Formula One biopic chronicles the thrilling 1976 title race between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, with German’s Daniel Brühl winning particular acclaim as the Austrian, who’s presented as the bad guy, but in any other film would be the hero.
And at the other end of the list, we have:
ONE AND A HALF STARS
BROKEN CITY: A political thriller with a cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones should have been a winner, but its post Oscars release-date was an advance sign that even the producers weren’t too confident it in. It turned out to be stylish and certainly sparkled, but was a corny and cliché-ridden disappointment.
THE BIG WEDDING: Another star-studded failure saw divorced couple Robert de Niro and Diane Keaton pretending still to be married so as not to offend the conservative Catholic mother of their daughter’s groom. Embarrassing supporting performances pile on top of contrived plot twists to deliver a shameful farce.
THE SEASONING HOUSE: A deaf mute orphan drugs young kidnapped women so that they can be raped by Serbian soldiers in her effort to avenge her mother’s brutal murder. This is not a comedy. A vicious, violent and hateful film that could work in the right circumstances, but with a bunch of English actors gurning through embarrassing dialogue in Serbian accents, as a confused and incoherent narrative unwinds, the film leaves you feeling as cold and dirty as its antagonists.
INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2: Revisiting the characters from the 2011 horror Insidious, and limbo-land The Further it explores, this second helping is the kind of cheap, incoherent, pedestrian and illogical horror which fails to engage you with the people at the heart of the story and uses loud noises and figures in the shadows to scare audiences, rather than any kind of psychological persuasion.
I’M SO EXCITED: Over the years, Pedro Almodóvar has delivered some of the most thought provoking and visually arresting dark comedies and thrillers, from Matador and Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to Bad Education, All About My Mother, Volver and the Oscar-winning Talk to Her, so the soul-destroying disappointment of this camp farce makes you want to check the credits. Can this really be him? Not that there’s anything wrong with a camp farce, but when it’s making jokes about sexually aroused women raping drugged men, it’s so ill-judged as to make your stomach turn. I’m So Excited is supposedly a satire on Spanish politics, but for any audience outside the Iberian peninsula, it will be a painful experience.
THE INTERNSHIP: Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are two of the most talented comic actors in Hollywood, but even their charm and timing can’t save a script that reads like a feature-length advert for Google’s range of products, wrapped around the weakest of narrative skeletons.
AUSTENLAND: There was a chance that a romantic comedy about Jane Austen enthusiasts whose exploits mirror the themes of an Austen novel could have worked. But this attempt is so far from the mark that from the moment we see a Colin Firth cut-out in a grown-woman’s bedroom, we know it’s going to be too far removed from reality to work on any level.
A version of this article was previously published on ukscreen.com