2013 film retrospective

Posted in Film
By Martin Roberts on 6 Jan 2014

It’s that time of year again, when you can’t click on a webpage or scroll down a blog without being confronted by lists of this or that critic’s favourite whatever-they-may-be of the year. But who am I to deny the compulsive readability of lists, or the strangely addictive qualities contained therein? Quite frankly, nobody, since the page you’ve just clicked on contains a list of my very own, albeit one with a slight caveat.

Because my primary usage for end-of-year lists is generally to survey the opinions of the critics I most respect, and also to figure out from them which films I still need to catch up on, my own list (as a part-time film correspondent) would be inherently flawed as a ‘best of’, since I have not yet had the pleasure of watching a great many of 2013’s films, including some of the critical darlings. I also find it taxing to list films in relation to one another in terms of ‘quality’, due to the difficulty of comparing a medium as varied as cinema, and for that reason my selections appear in alphabetical order, which is something the much-missed critic Roger Ebert had been known to do as a reaction to the troublesome task of ‘ranking’.

Remember that my choices represent my most fondly remembered pictures of 2013 of the films I saw. This is just an excuse to pour a bit more love on them, while accepting the fact that some or many of them could potentially be displaced when I get round to seeing the films that I missed, which include, among many others, Beyond the Hills, The Great Beauty, Nebraska and I Wish. I also haven’t seen any of the prestige Oscar contenders that are yet to be released in the UK, such as 12 Years a Slave, Her and The Wolf of Wall Street, which would in any case have been held in reserve for next year’s list. So without further ado, here are ten of the best films I saw in 2013.

Before Midnight

The combined DVD release of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy has been titled Celeste and Jesse Forever, which, after watching Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s on-screen relationship as those two characters, we can only hope somehow turns out to be the case. The first two films established a remarkably convincing and unique cinematic relationship, and the biggest tribute one can pay to Before Midnight is that it carries that tradition on. Because of the unique structure of the series (with each installment set and filmed nine years after its predecessor), there is a connection to Celine and Jesse which genuinely transcends the medium. We feel they are our friends, and spending time with them is a joy. This third film takes us to places that are difficult to watch, because we are so invested, and Delpy unfortunately gets a bit of a short straw as regards the narrative of the relationship, but overall this is a tremendous third entry in one of cinema’s all-time greatest trilogies. Part of me doesn’t want a fourth entry, but having said that the thought of growing old with Celine and Jesse is oddly comforting.


Blue is the Warmest Colour

From the three-film relationship in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy to a three-hour submersion in one in Abdellatif Kechiche’s unforgettable epic Blue is the Warmest Colour, which featured not one but two of the year’s best performances, from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. I will be praying each day for Exarchopoulos to win the Best Actress award at the Oscars in February, and when she’s inevitably overlooked I may cry. The film is unashamedly romantic and deeply affecting. It caused some controversy with regard to its depiction of lesbian sex and its extended and graphic love scenes, but above all else it is a compelling and intelligent coming of age story; a beautifully performed exploration of young love. I would’ve been happy to sit there for nine hours.

Captain Phillips

A terrific performance from Tom Hanks anchors Paul Greengrass’ tense and absorbing adaptation of the real life story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose ship was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi gives a good performance opposite Hanks as the leader of the Somali pirates, who along with the other actors playing the pirates was not introduced to his fellow cast members until the scene when they board the ship was filmed. This is a huge step up from director Paul Greengrass’ previous film Green Zone, which felt like a tired eulogy for the Bourne franchise, and reminded us that he can draw great performances from his actors, and real tension from on-screen situations.

From Up on Poppy Hill

Goro Miyazaki’s lovely little film From Up on Poppy Hill was Studio Ghibli’s last release before The Wind Rises, the final film from iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Goro’s father, who has now sadly retired from filmmaking. I’m yet to see that film, but was pleasantly surprised at how utterly delightful Poppy Hill turned out to be. It’s less fantastical that a lot of Ghibli’s films – particularly the ones that have become iconic, such as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away - but in its own gentle, endearing way, tells a surprisingly adult tale of young love and changing times. The themes of the film are woven beautifully into its deceptively simple and family-friendly approach, while the animation is purposefully low key but no less impressive than the studio’s more ‘out there’ pictures. It begins as a musical and kind of forgets about that, but not to worry: From Up on Poppy Hill is a sweet and warm-hearted delight.


It was Sandra Bullock in space versus Robert Redford at sea for the honour of ‘best solo survival thriller of the year’, and Alfonso Cuaron’s enthralling adventure into the void wins out. Although the script is perhaps not as subtle as I would’ve liked, it’s easy to overlook the fact that nothing else about Gravity is subtle either, and nor does it intend to be. Cuaron should be commended for the way he has used special effects and technical wizadry to really put the audience up there in the fraught atmosphere of a space, even putting the gimmick of 3D to what I have to admit is good use. Bullock is great, and George Clooney too in a small role, but it’s Cuaron’s visual craft and the composition of his long takes that really sticks in the mind. Another step forward in visual effects filmmaking, yes; but also a well constructed, convincing and, at its heart, simple survival thriller.

The Kings of Summer

A joyfully off-kilter adventure into the lives of two disaffected young protagonists, Joe and Patrick, who run away from their oppressive parents to live in the forest, and their oddball friend Biaggio, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film captures little snippets of youth and growing up, while never losing sight of its comic roots. It was one of the funniest films of 2013, as well as being gorgeously shot in an almost Malickian naturalist style. The parents of Joe and Patrick are also wonderfully played, and their scenes prove to be an effective pairing with the sections in the forest. It perhaps doesn’t quite reach the heights of profundity found in the best coming-of-age teen dramas, but you’d be hard pushed not to be thoroughly charmed by it.

Les Miserables

Tom Cooper’s lung-bursting, heart string-tugging, up-close-and-personal adaptation of the classic musical is two-thirds of a great film. But if it loses its way a bit in the final third, who are we too complain too vociferously when there is so much spectacle to drink in? Yes, Russel Crowe can’t really sing, but such complaints feel churlish when the whole thing just works. The on-set live singing was a stroke of genius, as Cooper presses his actors to bare their emotions to the full while his cameras get right in close to capture every tear and wrinkle. That intimacy gives it a very different feel to the stage show on which it is based, and the actors do a good job with most of the production’s well known musical numbers.


At the last minute I decided to replace The Place Beyond the Pines with Stephen Frears’ Philomena, in which Judy Dench and Steve Coogan enact the real life story of Philomena Lee’s attempts to trace her long lost son alongside former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith. In addition to an affecting turn from Dench in the lead role, Steve Coogan (also co-writer and producer) shines as her unlikely and unreliable companion, while the script is thoughtful and intelligent, particularly in the way it deals with the initially one-sided relationship between its two protagonists. The moment when Philomena knocks on Martin’s door in the middle of the night to thank him for his efforts is absolutely heart breaking, and sums up the wit in this charming drama.

Star Trek into Darkness

As far as big franchise blockbusters go, it was a a toss up between Star Trek into Darkness (Stid) and Iron Man 3 for a place in this list, and I’ve gone for the former because, although I like them both for similar reasons, StiD managed to engage me emotionally, which is something Tony Stark’s latest adventure couldn’t quite manage. The plot, it has to be said, is a bit all over the place, and to be honest I can’t entirely remember the ins and outs of it, but it didn’t matter at the time because I had so much fun. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have a wonderful rapport as Kirk and Spock – Quinto especially looks like he was born to play the role. I laughed, I cried, and was swept up in the sheer pace of the thing. Enough even to forgive the loopy plotting and that bit with Alice Eve’s bra.

The Way Way Back

Not dissimilar to The Kings of Summer, actually, although still very much its own beast, I was taken aback by how charming and affecting I found The Way Way Back. Relative newcomer Liam James stars as Duncan, who goes on an unexpectedly eventful summer holiday with his family, and he acts with just the right mix of awkward and endearing. Sam Rockwell, as the outrageously charming owner of the water park where Duncan finds a job, is absolutely brilliant, and the rest of the supporting cast are also on top form, including Steve Carrell, playing against type as the slimy boyfriend of Duncan’s mother. Like The Kings of Summer, the film has a knack for approaching youth in just the right way to see both the melancholy and the beauty in it – and it’s also very funny to boot.

Honourable mentions:

Among others I’ve probably forgotten: All is Lost, Behind the Candelabra, Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained, Lincoln, The Place Beyond the Pines, Stoker, Zero Dark Thirty.

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