The Best Films of 2013

Top 10 of the Year

1. IdaPaweł Pawlikowski
2. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
3. GravityAlfonso Cuarón
4. EnemyDenis Villeneuve
5. 12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueen
6. The Great BeautyPaolo Sorrentino
7. Only God ForgivesNicolas Winding Refn
8. The GrandmasterWong Kar-wai
9. Under the SkinJonathan Glazer
10. Before MidnightRichard Linklater

Best Film

Ida. It is strange to see such an explicit influence from mid-century European directors like Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni on a contemporary filmmaker. In Ida though, Paweł Pawlikowski calls back to both in his powerful use of architecture and blocking to inform his characters – one representing faith, and the other representing secularity in post-war Poland. Exhuming secrets of their own nation’s shameful role in the Holocaust takes a psychological toll on these women, and Pawlikowski proves himself to be a master of the form in carrying this through to tragic end of both character arcs.

Pawlikowski stages a sombre reckoning with Poland’s history in Ida, studying its psychological toll on a woman of faith and one of secularity acting in counterpoint.

Most Underrated

Only God Forgives. This is likely the underrated film of the decade as well. Not only does it not crack the TSPDT list at all, its Metacritic score sits at 37 – a huge miss from the consensus, and especially those critics who decry ‘style over substance’. Perhaps it has something to do with the mix of a patient, slow-burn narrative and harrowing violence which, for most directors, would typically be at odds with each other. Rest assured though, this a hypnotic experience for those who are open to its dreamy rhythms, ambient neon lighting, and surreal terror. 

A stunning arrangement of the frame here from Only God Forgives – the red lanterns hanging over the ‘Angel of Vengeance’ as he sings in a Thai night club.

Most Overrated

Her. Sitting at #5 of the year isn’t outrageous, but this year has great depth in its quality, and so it currently sits just outside my top 10. It is beautifully designed and smartly written, but it generally seems to get more praise for its ambitious sci-fi concept than anything else.

Spike Jonze’s direction is backed up by a warm, romantic aesthetic, though it is the creative screenplay where Her shines.

Best Directorial Debut

Nothing. For the second year in a row, the best films of the year are by returning directors.

Gem to Spotlight

The Immigrant. This is a highly recommended film, and yet it doesn’t end up cracking my top 10. James Gray takes great inspiration from the flashback scenes of The Godfather Part II, telling the tale of one Polish woman’s immigration to the United States in 1921 with strong narrative form and visual precision. It also features Marion Cotillard’s best performance to date, seeing her become a vehicle of pure pathos as she struggles against a system rigged against her.

James Gray brings a sensitive touch to this tale set in 1920s New York, piling up a series of hopes and tragedies against one Polish woman’s immigration.

Best Male Performance

First up, Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular character in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis is layered with the idealism and frustration of a musician who is extremely talented, but not enough to be famous. He wears the weight of Llewyn’s poverty and hardship with a beaten down acceptance, so much so that it becomes a part of himself, leading him to give into despair the moment it arises. There is no version of this character that one could imagine being better off – this is the way he has always been and will continue to be.

Next, The Great Beauty sees Toni Servillo plays an aged version of the Marcello Mastroianni role in La Dolce Vita, searching for some remaining vestige of authentic spirituality in the vapidness of modern-day Rome. Conversely in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio is all vapidness and no spirituality. Corruption and sleaziness have taken over this successful stockbroker, and DiCaprio plays everything to perfection – the rise and fall, the physical comedy, the smarmy dialogue, and most of all, the pure charisma.

Oscar Isaac’s beaten down performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is an acting landmark of the decade. He has maintained a pretty excellent career since this breakthrough, but nothing that quite touches this.

Michael Fassbender gets another mention in this category a couple of years after Shame, this time for his work next to Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Fassbender is terrifying to watch, while Ejiofor maintains a sturdy, warm presence in the lead.

Ethan Hawke ties off his work in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (at least for now) with an older, jaded version of Jesse who has finally married Celine, and isn’t nearly as happy as he expected. It is simply a masterful development of this character audiences have been following since 1995.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performances in Enemy as college professor Adam and seedy actor Anthony carries on the lineage of doppelganger roles that we have seen Jeremy Irons pull off in Dead Ringers and Irene Jacob in The Double Life of Veronique. It is one of his strongest to date, and incredibly subtle in the tiny mannerisms distinguishing both men as opposing masculine archetypes – the brash, misogynistic player, and the quiet, reserved academic.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s dual performances in Enemy reveal two sides to one man, both conjured up in his own mind.

American Hustle is an ensemble film, but Christian Bale does some of his best work of the decade in it, packing on a huge amount of weight, while Tony Leung leads Wong Kar-wai’s big return in The Grandmaster as Ip Man. His composure exudes authority, and when he wears that wide-brimmed fedora in dimly lit scenes of rain and smoke, he even strikes the figure of a film noir hero.

Lastly, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Her is remarkably warm and gentle for an actor so known for his intensity. It is also so full of pathos as he makes what he believes is a genuine, romantic connection with his AI virtual assistant.

Just a year after playing Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale is here in American Hustle with the big gut and loud mouth.

Best Female Performance

Scarlett Johansson plays with her image as a sex symbol in Under the Skin as a man-devouring alien, topping the year with a chilly, reserved performance which somehow still finds empathy from the audience in the end.

The pair of leading women in Ida are not far behind though, as Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kuleza respectively play a young woman of spiritual faith and a cynical, middle-aged women who rejects religion entirely. Both undergo a personal reckoning as they face a national trauma, and Pawlikowski’s close-ups are put to incredible use with their facial expressions.

Julie Delpy’s achievement in Before Midnight is comparable to Ethan Hawke’s, taking Celine in a new direction with her troubled marriage to Jesse, while Lupita N’yongo makes her excellent film debut in 12 Years a Slave and immediately becomes a mainstay in Hollywood.

Scarlett Johansson’s cold, blank face hides beneath a wig of black hair in Under the Skin, ensnaring men with her looks and luring them back to her void.

Marion Cottilard might be more recognised in mainstream cinema for her supporting roles, but she embodies pure empathy in The Immigrant as a Polish woman making her way to America in 1921.

Zhang Ziyi slightly outdoes her co-star Tony Leung in The Grandmaster, and even gets the greatest scene of the film as she exacts vengeance against her father’s murderer in the brilliantly choreographed train station fight scene.

Cate Blanchett’s turn in Blue Jasmine is the equivalent Blanche DuBois role in A Streetcar Named Desire, playing out a breakdown which continues to prove why she is one of the strongest actresses of her generation.

Lastly, Amy Adams’ charm in American Hustle continues her winning streak in the early 2010s, while Sandra Bullock gives her finest performance to date in Gravity. She brings a movie star quality to Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama and confidently carries large chunks of on her own, but she also transcends her usual screen persona with surprising sensitivity and emotion.

Sandra Bullock proved her chops as a movie star a long time ago – it isn’t until Gravity though that she had the perfect vehicle for a performance that shows off her range and stamina.

Best Cinematography: Ida

1. IdaLukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski
2. GravityEmmanuel Lubezki
3. Inside Llewyn DavisBruno Delbonnel
4. Only God ForgivesLarry Smith
5. The GrandmasterPhilippe Le Sourd
6. EnemyNicolas Bolduc
7. The Great BeautyLuca Bigazzi
8. 12 Years a SlaveSean Bobbitt
9. The ImmigrantDarius Khondji
10. HerHoyte van Hoytema
Lukasz Zal is one of the decade’s great emerging cinematographers, and his work with Pawlikowski is key to this talent, always finding the perfect framing of actors towards the bottom of the shot.

Best Editing: The Grandmaster

1. The GrandmasterWilliam Chang
2. EnemyMatthew Hannam
3. 12 Years a SlaveJoe Walker
4. Only God ForgivesMatthew Newman
5. Under the SkinPaul Watts
6. GravityAlfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
7. The Great BeautyCristiano Travaglioli
8. American HustleJay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten
9. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
William Chang has long been Wong Kar-wai’s editor – but he is also the art director and costume designer on many of his films. This train station fight scene in The Grandmaster may be his greatest work yet.

Best Screenplay: Inside Llewyn Davis

1. Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen Brothers
2. Before MidnightRichard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
3. The Great BeautyPaolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
4. The Wolf of Wall StreetTerence Winter
5. 12 Years a SlaveJohn Ridley
6. IdaRebecca Lenkiewicz, Paweł Pawlikowski
7. Under the SkinWalter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
8. Blue JasmineWoody Allen
9. EnemyJavier Gullón
10. HerSpike Jonze
11. American HustleEric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
The Coen Brothers continue to assert their position as their generation’s greatest screenwriters in Inside Llewyn Davis’ dark comedy and bleak drama.

Best Original Music Score: Under the Skin

1. Under the SkinMica Levi
2. GravitySteven Price
3. 12 Years a SlaveHans Zimmer
4. Only God ForgivesCliff Martinez
5. EnemyDaniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
6. The GrandmasterShigeru Umebayashi, Nathaniel Méchaly
7. HerWilliam Butler and Owen Pallett
8. The Great BeautyLele Marchitelli
Mica Levi uses minimalist musical textures, whining strings, and hollow percussion to create an ambience that could sound like the language of its alien protagonist.

Year Breakdown

There is great depth to 2013 as a year for cinema. We have 16 films total graded a Highly Recommend or higher, meaning there are 6 films that could have cracked my top 10, yet sadly miss out. It is also a fantastic year for screenplays, with three all-time great writers putting forward some exceptional work – Woody Allen doing Tennessee Williams with Blue Jasmine, Richard Linklater tying off his Before trilogy with Before Midnight, and The Coen Brothers doing some of their greatest work yet with Inside Llewyn Davis. When you consider that Her is the tenth-best script of the year, you know there’s solid competition.

World cinema makes its mark this year with many foreign auteurs such as Alfonso Cuarón, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Bong Joon-ho making films in Hollywood, though arguably even stronger are those working in their own native countries. Wong Kar-wai makes a comeback nine years after 2046 with his brilliantly tactile martial arts film, The Grandmaster, which is also the best edited film of the year. Paolo Sorrentino carries on the spirit of Federico Fellini in The Great Beauty, and Paweł Pawlikowski leaves everyone else in the dust with Ida, which probes Poland’s troubled history during World War II. This isn’t his debut, but it is a major breakthrough which puts him on the radar for many cinephiles.

Paolo Sorrentino makes his La Dolce Vita for modern day Rome with The Great Beauty, setting up 2013 as a great year for world cinema.

The last two directors who define 2013 in significant ways are Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen. Villeneuve released two films this year, and one of them belongs in the top 10. This was far more common in the early days of cinema, but it is a feat that has grown increasingly rare. Prisoners would be the audience favourite, and it possesses an incredibly engaging narrative, but Enemy is a thunderous formal achievement in its psychological character study, announcing him as a powerful cinematic force. Meanwhile for McQueen, this is the year he would finally be recognised by the Academy, winning Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave and building on his brilliant run through the 2010s.

With so much strength in the world of arthouse film, there is little of note going on at the box office, with the only major exception being the spectacle that is Gravity. Iron Man 3 sits at the top, a fine Shane Black film, though one which is heavily flawed as so many Marvel movies are.

One of Steve McQueen’s most gruelling long takes, sitting with this man torturously hanging on his toes for several minutes.

Film Archives

12 Years a SlaveSteve McQueenMS
A Touch of SinJia ZhangkeR
About TimeRichard CurtisR
American HustleDavid O. RussellHR
Before MidnightRichard LinklaterHR/MS
Blue JasmineWoody AllenHR
Dallas Buyers ClubJean-Marc ValléeR
EnemyDenis VilleneuveMS
GravityAlfonso CuarónMS
HerSpike JonzeHR
IdaPaweł PawlikowskiMP
Inside Llewyn DavisThe Coen BrothersMP
Only God ForgivesNicolas Winding RefnMS
PrisonersDenis VilleneuveHR
SnowpiercerBong Joon-hoHR
The GrandmasterWong Kar-waiMS
The Great BeautyPaolo SorrentinoMS
The Great GatsbyBaz LuhrmannR
The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugPeter JacksonR
The ImmigrantJames GrayHR
The Wolf of Wall StreetMartin ScorseseHR
The World’s EndEdgar WrightR/HR
Under the SkinJonathan GlazerMS
Before Midnight brings Richard Linklater’s decades-spanning trilogy to a close with a cynical sting.

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