The Films of 2013 and Me

Why ‘Top 10 Movies’ lists say nothing about movies, and everything about the author


So 2013 is over, and like 2012, 2011, and countless other years before, it ended in a flurry of lists. Lists of “The Greatest Movies of 2013 You Didn’t See”, lists of the “The Movies You Have to See in 2014, or Your Eyes Will Fall Out”, lists of “Movie Mistakes That No One Gives a Fuck About”, and of course, about seventy million different lists of “The Top Ten Movies of 2013".

And while I knock it, I’m part of the problem. HeyUGuys asked me to submit a list of my top ten movies of the year, and I duly obliged. I spend at least two hours a day bemoaning the fact that film journalism has become an endless succession of rankings and nostalgia, then when someone shows the slightest bit of interest in my opinion I, like the hypocritical shit that I am, merrily make things worse.

And it really is a problem. Let’s face it, none of these Top Ten lists are for the benefit of the reader; they’re simply an exercise in self-indulgence that tells us nothing about the movies of 2013. I’d argue that they do tell us about the author, either their taste in film, or at least their willingness to lie about that taste to fit in with, or stand apart from popular consensus, but to be frank most of these articles are so cursory I’m not sure they even tell us that.

And on the subject of pointless self-indulgence, l may as well explain the purpose of this exercise in public masturbation. Not only am I giving you a list — not just my top ten list, either — I’m also giving you a commentary on what I think that list says about me, and more importantly my movie viewing habits.

The first thing to note about my list is that it features 74 movies, ranked in order of my personal preference, from first to last. They’re not the only movies I saw in 2013, and some I actually watched in 2012, but they are all of the films released in the UK, between 1st January and 31st December 2013 that I’ve seen.

Not a lot, is it? Not given that I earn a chunk of my living writing about, and talking to people about movies. My guess would be that I haven’t seen many more movies this year than the average movie goer. I’ve certainly been outdone by most of the dedicated cinephiles who own a Cineworld Unlimited Card. I tend to excuse my limited viewing by arguing that I’m too poor, and too busy to go to the cinema if I’m not doing it for work, but I think the truth is that I’ve got to a point where I’d prefer to miss out on seeing something great, if it means I don’t have to sit through something shit. Yes, the three hour long French movie that played well at Cannes might be an “instant classic”, but frankly I’d rather not spend £10 on a ticket when I can save my money and watch it when it comes on Sky, with the option to switch channels when it gets boring. Does that make me a philistine? Probably. But at least I can’t be accused of being a film snob.

Although my number one movie of 2013 was Stoker. A brooding thriller directed by Korean auteur Chan-Wook Park, that dripped meaning and subtext, and only had a limited theatrical release, so maybe even that isn’t true.

Stoker

1 to 10

Ø Stoker

Ø Jurassic Park 3D

Ø Wreck it Ralph

Ø Pacific Rim

Ø Gravity

Ø From Up On Poppy Hill

Ø Frozen

Ø The Wolverine

Ø Saving Mr Banks

Ø Compliance

Of course, for all its style, Stoker was as open and accessible a movie as you’re ever going to see. It’s an exercise in structure and character that tips its hat at the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but also feels every bit its own thing.

More to the point, it feels utterly crafted, like everything we see on screen has meaning and purpose, all of it approved by Director Park. While academics may argue that this is true of all auteurs, anyone who has ever spent time working on a film set will tell you that’s bullshit. You might think the reason the actress is holding a red book is to indicate her repressed sexuality, but the overworked art department assistant who gave her it to hold will tell you it’s actually because the stationery shop didn’t have a blue one.

Anyone who spends any time talking to me about film will be aware of my distain for auteur theory, and for metatextual analysis in general. And yet the reason I’m so fond of Stoker is that it’s one of those very few movies that does prove me wrong. Not only is most of it precisely planned, but it’s so meticulous that even the bits that aren’t are imbued with meaning after the fact. The majority of films are a compromise; Stoker isn’t.

Film number 2 is Jurassic Park 3D. I appreciate it’s not a new movie, but technically it’s a new cut. Also it’s fucking magnificent. And it holds up almost perfectly, even 20 years after it was shot. Mostly because they used such little CGI. On a side note, does anyone know what happened to that Stephen Spielberg? The one we’ve got now is just nowhere near as good.

Movie number three of 2013 is Wreck it Ralph, the first animation on the list, but certainly not the last, because I’m a massive child. When I first saw the movie I was a little torn. It seemed so imperfect, but it was utterly captivating. Then I gave it another go round, and another, and another, and what became clear was that those imperfections are why it works so well. It is, in essence, the Vanelope Von Schweetz of Disney films. And if you don’t get that reference, stop reading this and go watch Wreck it Ralph.

Next up on the list is Pacific Rim. A lot of people seem to have completely missed the point of this movie. Then again, a lot of people misunderstood RoboCop or Starship Troopers when they first came out. It’s not always possible to be sincere and satirical at the same time, but Del Toro pulls it off beautifully here. It’s either the most subversive movie of 2013, or I’ve catastrophically misread it.

Gravity is at number five on the list, and it needs little justification for being there. It’s very, very good. I enjoyed Pacific Rim more, though.

Studio Ghibli’s From Up On Poppy Hill sits in sixth place on my films of the year. It’s the studio’s best pic in years, in spite of being feather-light. From a story and performance standpoint, it probably would have been much further down the list if it were live action, and the animation is actually a little sloppy in parts (at least by Ghibli’s standards), but combined, it’s magical. Either that, or I just really like cartoons.

Choosing between From Up On Poppy Hill, and the seventh placed Frozen was near impossible. I absolutely loved both movies, and what’s more, they both grew on me the more I thought about them. Frozen is a masterpiece, with some of the best Disney show tunes in years (possibly the best ever in ‘Let It Go’), but for some intangible reason I’ve still put Poppy Hill in sixth and Frozen in seventh. Still, this is an exercise in self-indulgence, so they’re staying that way.

Having Pacific Rim at number four on my list will no doubt draw criticism. Having The Wolverine at number eight is likely to get me lynched by a pack of angry nerds. The thing is, I really liked it. Yes it has a lot of flaws, but for the first ninety minutes it feels like it’s finally broken out of the “Superhero Movie” ghetto, and is taking a character we love on a journey we haven’t seen before. It’s a brilliant idea that’s so very nearly pulled off that I’m willing to overlook its flaws. And besides I nailed my cart to this mixed metaphor when they put my quote on the DVD box cover, if I back out now, I’d be a massive hypocrite.

It seems that my streak of fanboy-baiting continues with number nine on my list, Saving Mr Banks. Since the film’s release, the internet has been abuzz with chatter criticising the film for its cannonising of Walt Disney, for its paternalistic attitude towards PL Travers, for ignoring many of the details of Travers’ life, and for boiling all of the creative influences on Mary Poppins down to a particularly troubled couple of years during the author’s childhood.

All of those criticisms are accurate, but not a single one of them is fair. This isn’t a documentary, nor is it a biopic. It’s a fun, fictionalised story that’s a joy to watch. Also, it made me cry. A lot, and for that reason it’s in my top ten.

And rounding out that top ten is Compliance, a movie that causes such a visceral reaction in audiences, that I witnessed people standing up and shouting at the cinema screen. It’s very much a horror movie, although there isn’t a drop of gore, and everyone leaves alive. It’s also one of the best examples of theme in a movie that I’ve ever seen. Every single second of the movie is about control. It’s magnificent.

Ernest and Celestine

11 to 15

Ø Ernest and Celestine

Ø Django Unchained

Ø Computer Chess

Ø Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Ø Big Bad Wolves

The next five films form a little island of genuine indie cinema in a list dominated by mainstream flicks. Ernest and Celestine is a charming French animation about a bear and a mouse who become friends, then go on a crime spree — think a surreal Bonnie and Clyde for toddlers and you’ll get the idea.

Django Unchained is as close as I’ve ever come to really loving a Tarantino pic, and Computer Chess is such an off-beat film, that after I went in knowing only the title, for the first twenty-five minutes couldn’t even work out whether it was documentary or fiction.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is most definitely a documentary, one that purports to be about the world’s greatest sushi chef, but is in fact about the difficulties of reconciling the expectations of traditional Japanese culture with the sense of personal desire and ambition that has become the norm in a modern society. And Big Bad Wolves is a great horror film, and the best exploration of the rights and wrongs of Israeli foreign policy that I’ve ever seen committed to film. What all of these have in common is that they’re all not only flawlessly executed, fascinating movies, but each of them is genuinely novel and exciting.

Place Beyond the Pines

16 to 20

Ø Place Beyond the Pines

Ø The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Ø Shell

Ø Blackfish

Ø Iron Man 3

With films 16 through 20 we’re starting to get into the ‘good but flawed’ section of the list. Place Beyond the Pines is fantastic, but probably would have been even better as a three part miniseries, Catching Fire was first rate foreplay, but the climax never happened, Blackfish is a worthy and worthwhile story, but a pretty bog standard documentary, and Iron Man 3 was great, but fell apart toward the end. Of this section Shell is by far the best movie, and if this list was about quality of acting and production it would have edged its way into the top fifteen. But it isn’t it’s about what I enjoyed most, and the truth is I got a little bit more pleasure from Pines, Catching Fire.

009 Re:Cyborg

21 to 25

Ø 009 Re: Cyborg

Ø The Hobbit : Desolation of Smaug

Ø Only God Forgives

Ø Thor: The Dark World

Ø Star Trek Into Darkness

If there were prizes given out each year for most deranged movie, 009 Re:Cyborg would win them all. A remake of a popular Japanese anime series, at one point the protagonist stands atop a nuclear missile as it flies through space, screaming at God. Every single person who watches it will, at some stage, find something in it to be offended by, and it’s rendered in 3D. But not normal 3D, as the production team decided to create their own rules for its use. The ultimate result looks spectacular, but gives little concession to the limits of human vision. It’s both glorious and migraine inducing.

A close runner up in the ‘Mad as All Fuck Awards’ is Only God Forgives. Before Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn made utterly bizarre and almost impenetrable movies. It would seem that after Drive, he will continue to make utterly bizarre and almost impenetrable movies, just now with the addition of Ryan Gosling.

The other three movies in this section are just really good fun. After suffering through the first Hobbit film, the second wasn’t only a pleasant surprise, but an absolute delight. Thor 2 had a fair few flaws, but was also an absolute riot, and so was Star Trek Into Darkness (and I say that as a die-hard trekkie).

Rush

26 to 30

Ø Rush

Ø The Bling Ring

Ø Warm Bodies

Ø Drinking Buddies

Ø The Last Stand

The final five movies in the top thirty were, again, pretty solid. Ideal, Saturday night in front of the telly fare. Every single one of them will entertain you, and while they have their flaws, all of them are competently directed, well shot and flawlessly acted. They’re just not exactly ground breaking cinema.

Much Ado About Nothing

31 to 40

Ø Anchorman 2

Ø Much Ado About Nothing

Ø Bernie

Ø Kill Your Darlings

Ø The Heat

Ø Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Ø Le Weekend

Ø Don Jon

Ø Lore

Ø Spike Island

It says something about the quality of films this year — or at least my good fortune with the ones I’ve seen — when even half way down the list we’re still looking at some really good movies. Yes, Anchorman 2 frequently hits wide of the mark, yes the morality of The Heat is abhorrent, and yes, Don Jon changes style every fifteen minutes, but they’re all still thoroughly well put together and enjoyable movies. And Bernie features Jack Black’s finest performance in years.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax

41 to 50

Ø The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Ø Blue Jasmine

Ø Love Marylin

Ø Kick-Ass 2

Ø This is the End

Ø Planes

Ø Emperor

Ø Zero Dark Thirty

Ø Oblivion

Ø Hummingbird

Now outside of the top 40, we finally get to the films that I didn’t really care for. This first batch aren’t particularly bad, in fact most of them are quite good, I simply didn’t enjoy them very much. Nor do I really have a lot to say about any of them, beyond a vague sigh of indifference.

Maniac

51 to 60

Ø Olympus Has Fallen

Ø Welcome to the Punch

Ø Hyde Park on Hudson

Ø Maniac

Ø Beware of Mr Baker

Ø The World’s End

Ø The Croods

Ø Hitchcock

Ø Mama

Ø Oz The Great and the Powerful

When Olympus Has Fallen came out at the cinema, I made the joke that it was a documentary about the demise of the sporting goods chain. That would have been a much more interesting movie. I’ve never been a fan of brainless action pics though, so I wasn’t really the target audience.

I had a similar relationship with the rest of the films in this group. I liked the idea of Welcome to the Punch, but thought it was badly executed; Hyde Park on Hudson was The King’s Speech Redux (albeit with an excellent performance from Bill Murray), and Maniac was infinitely better than I’d feared, but it was still a slasher film shot from first person perspective. None of them were awful; they were just disappointing or utterly forgettable. So much so in the case of Hitchcock, that until I started collating this list, I had forgotten that I’d seen it.

Trap For Cinderella

61 to 67

Ø Trap for Cinderella

Ø The Look of Love

Ø Flight

Ø Arbitrage

Ø Identity Thief

Ø Epic

Ø I Give it a Year

And so we come to the films that I actively disliked. In the case of Trap for Cinderella and The Look of Love, it’s for more or less the same reason: they’re utterly banal. Which is a surprise, given that the former is a film about a girl who falls in love with her best friend, then steals her identity, and the latter is a biopic of Soho porn king Paul Raymond. There’s no reason either film shouldn’t have at least titillated, but ultimately for all the bare flesh on show, they were sexless, emotionless, and boring.

Denzel Washington is an awesome actor, and his performance in Flight is pretty watchable. The problem is, that it’s very nearly the only watchable thing in the movie. It relies on the audience believing that a functional alcoholic could maintain a career as a pilot without anyone realising — which is pretty ludicrous to begin with — then repeatedly falls down a set of plot holes and logic gaps, before throwing in a series of increasingly bizarre scenes that seem to exist only to give John Goodman more screen time.

Although, to be completely fair to Flight, it’s a lot better than Arbitrage. Thus far this list has been on a gentle, downward slope. Arbitrage is where it hits the cliff. It’s shit. And unpleasant. And every single character is a cunt. Richard Gere’s performance is decent enough, and improves the film slightly, but not in any meaningful way. He’s basically just glitter sprinkled over a turd. If you really must see a movie that unofficially tells the Bernie Madoff story, and I have no idea why you would, skip this one, and watch Blue Jasmine instead.

I like Melissa McCarthy, I like Jason Bateman. I think they’re both talented comedic actors, and I know they can be very funny. Indeed, both of them are funny in Identity Thief. For a sum total of three minutes. As with many of the films at the bottom end of this list, it doesn’t make much sense, doesn’t follow any real-world logic, and often fails to follow its own logic. It’s crap.

But not as crap as Epic. I didn’t much care for The Croods, but at least that film was mildly entertaining. Epic’s just a waste of time. And one that relies on stock characters and bad jokes that were old when I was a child. Yes, it’s aimed at children, and yes, many of them will still enjoy it, but children enjoy lots of things that are bad for them, so that’s no excuse. And given how much high quality children’s entertainment there is out there, Epic really should have set the bar a lot higher.

As for I Give It a Year, well, it’s just a bit crap. Which is a shame, because I really like the work of a lot of the people involved with the film, and was looking forward to seeing what they could do. I’m sure they’ve all got a great movie in them, but this one isn’t it.

The Lone Ranger

68 to 73

Ø The Lone Ranger

Ø A Good Day to Die Hard

Ø Broken City

Ø Bula Quo

Ø Elysium

Ø Man of Steel

Buried somewhere in the two and a half hours of boredom that makes up The Lone Ranger is an excellent, fun-filled, action packed 90 minute movie. As it stands, The Lone Ranger wasn’t quite my worst cinematic experience of the year, but it was by a long margin, my most tedious. That said, the wraparound scenes were beautifully lit, and the final train sequence — played out to the William Tell Overture — was great fun. Just not worth sitting through the rest of the film for.

Although still better than A Good Day to Die Hard. Which was monumentally stupid and utterly shit.

But at least, not as shit as Broken City.

I know I watched Broken City, but I’m fucked if I can remember a thing about it. It seems that some sort of primal defence mechanism has blocked almost the entire experience from my mind, for which I’m immensely grateful. All I can remember is an emotional reaction to the film — hatred.

And then we come to Bula Quo. Which stands alone as the only film on this list that I didn’t manage to sit through. If you aren’t aware of it, and there’s no reason you should be, it’s a movie about a fictionalised version of the band Status Quo (played by themselves), who go on a tour of a tropical island (maybe Fiji, I honestly can’t remember), and end up on the run from a group of local gangsters. I lasted 40 minutes before I couldn’t take anymore. I don’t advise trying to outlast me.

And then there were two: Elysium and Man of Steel. It was hard to work out which I hate most. Both are utterly dour takes on relatively light subject matter. Both have very blunt political messages, that they ram home with all the subtlety of a bulldozer through a conservatory, and both fail to follow their own rules. They’re both shitty, horrible movies, and I wish I hadn’t seen either. On balance though, I hate Man of Steel more. And while I have problems with the movie’s portrayal of Superman, and I have problems with the total destruction of two cities by a character who is meant to be heroic, my real issue with the film is that it lacks the self-awareness that one would expect from a four year old child.

Why? I hear you ask. Well, we expect a child of about four years or older to understand that although they may be privy to certain information, not everyone else in the world would be. There’s even an experiment, often performed on children (and some higher order primates) called the Sally-Anne test that explores just this. Children younger than four tend to ‘fail’, assuming everyone knows what they know, while children older than four tend to ‘pass’. Man of Steel fails it.

Several times in the film, characters who can’t possibly know certain things suddenly become aware of information because it suits the plot. For instance Clarke magically knows about the Kyrptonian ship that crashed on Earth 10,000 years before he was born. Then the computerised Jor-El, who was created at least 30 years before the movie’s present day knows all sorts of things about what’s going on in the movie’s present and even future. Then there’s Zod’s interaction with computer-Jor-El, which is pure cinematic bollocks. And these are only three of many examples throughout the film. It’s lazy, stupid screenwriting at its worst. Hence why it’s at the bottom of my list of 2013's movies.

So there you have it, my thoughts on (almost) every film released in 2013. On the whole, I thought most of them were pretty decent. And I don’t think I have particularly low standards. Obviously a huge swathe of my more miserabilist colleagues have written thousands of words rubbishing 2013’s output, but as a general rule, they’re the same sad sack pricks who wrote articles about why the films of 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, etc., etc., ad infinitum. are shit. Basically they’re grumpy.

As I said at the outset, I doubt this really gives any great insight into the relative quality of the films of 2013, but I imagine if you made it this far, you’d have come to the conclusion that I’m a self-important wanker with a taste for cartoons, perverts and psychopaths. At the very least, I hope you feel you know me a little bit better.

Not Ranked

Ø The Rise

I said at the top of this piece, I’ve seen 74 of the films released in 2013, but the observant amongst you will have noticed that I’ve only ranked 73. That’s because, while I absolutely love The Rise, and while as far as I’m concerned it’s the best British film of 2013, and you should go out and buy it right away, it’s directed by one friend of mine, and produced by another. Consequently, while it deserves to be in my top 10 of the year, I’ve left it out for fear of being accused of lacking integrity. It really is very good though.

The List in Full

1. Stoker

2. Jurassic Park 3D

3. Wreck it Ralph

4. Pacific Rim

5. Gravity

6. From Up On Poppy Hill

7. Frozen

8. The Wolverine

9. Saving Mr Banks

10. Compliance

11. Ernest and Celestine

12. Django Unchained

13. Computer Chess

14. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

15. Big Bad Wolves

16. Place Beyond the Pines

17. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

18. Shell

19. Blackfish

20. Iron Man 3

21. 009 Re: Cyborg

22. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

23. Only God Forgives

24. Thor: The Dark World

25. Star Trek Into Darkness

26. Rush

27. The Bling Ring

28. Warm Bodies

29. Drinking Buddies

30. The Last Stand

31. Anchorman 2

32. Much Ado About Nothing

33. Bernie

34. Kill Your Darlings

35. The Heat

36. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

37. Le Week-end

38. Don Jon

39. Lore

40. Spike Island

41. The Great Hip Hop Hoax

42. Blue Jasmine

43. Love Marilyn

44. Kick-Ass 2

45. This is the End

46. Planes

47. Emperor

48. Zero Dark Thirty

49. Oblivion

50. Hummingbird

51. Olympus Has Fallen

52. Welcome to the Punch

53. Hyde Park on Hudson

54. Maniac

55. Beware of Mr Barker

56. The World’s End

57. The Croods

58. Hitchcock

59. Mama

60. Oz The Great and Powerful

61. Trap for Cinderella

62. The Look of Love

63. Flight

64. Arbitrage

65. Identity Theif

66. Epic 3D

67. I Give it a Year

68. The Lone Ranger

69. A Good Day to Die Hard

70. Broken City

71. Bula Quo

72. Elysium

73. Man of Steel