The top 10 films of 2013

TechCentral takes a look back on the year in cinema. By Lance Harris.

From thrilling science-fiction sagas to revisionist Westerns and taut political thrillers, 2013 had plenty to offer at the movies. This list of the pick of the year is based only on South African cinematic releases for 2013 and excludes films that have not yet been released here.

101Mud
It occasionally gets mired in sentimentality as thick as Mississippi molasses, but Mud is a warm, languorous coming of age tale rooted in the Southern lore of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. It’s anchored by Matthew McConaughey’s performance as a charming outlaw on the run from bounty hunters.

Matthew McConaughey seeks shelter from the law in Mud

Matthew McConaughey seeks shelter from the law in Mud

9Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks gives one of the best performances of his celebrated career in the title role of Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass’s film about the hijacking of a cargo ship off the coast of Somalia is a tense thriller with a sharp script, a documentary-like air of authenticity and deft characterisation.

Tom Hanks takes the lead role in Paul Greengrass’s true-life suspense film Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks takes the lead role in Paul Greengrass’s true-life suspense film Captain Phillips

8Side Effects
Director Steven Soderbergh made not just one, but two of this year’s best films: the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra and arthouse thriller Side Effects. Side Effects is at once a clinically efficient thriller that borrows from Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, and a thoughtful meditation on the ills that plague an over-medicated, consumption-fuelled society.

The twisty Side Effects is a smart and entertaining thriller about greed and pharmaceuticals

The twisty Side Effects is a smart and entertaining thriller about greed and pharmaceuticals

7Prisoners
Prisoners is a somber, haunting thriller about the lengths a father will go to in his quest to find a missing child. It’s simultaneously a complex morality tale and a nail-biting police procedural. It’s a dark, dense film with a labyrinthine plot and strong performances from Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard and Jake Gyllenhaal. Cinematographer Roger Deakins — who worked with Sam Mendes for Skyfall and the Coen brothers for True Grit — finds grim poetry in the film’s desolate landscapes.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman on opposite ends of the law in Prisoners

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman on opposite ends of the law in Prisoners

6Pacific Rim
In a year of angst-ridden superhero films — the sophomoric and ponderous Man of Steel, for example — the childlike joy of the rollicking Pacific Rim made it one of my favourite blockbusters of the year. Director Guillermo del Toro’s infectious love for giant mecha versus outsized lizard smackdowns makes Pacific Rim hard to resist. There’s not much here in the way of story — just one of the most confident and entertaining action films of the year, put together with all the artistry and craftsmanship we have come to expect from Del Toro.

Pacific Rim exults in the simple pleasures of mecha anime and monster movies

Pacific Rim exults in the simple pleasures of mecha anime and monster movies

5Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s suspense film about the hunt for Bin Laden equally enraged the partisan left and the rabid right in the US. But beyond the outrage, Zero Dark Thirty is a nuanced look at the psychic toll the search for the world’s most wanted terrorist took on America’s psyche.

Jessica Chastain is magnetic as the maverick, obsessive CIA terrorist hunter on Bin Laden’s trail. It is testimony to Bigelow’s skill as a filmmaker that she makes the hunt engrossing to watch, even though the audience knows where and how it will end. She handles her few action scenes with elegance and restraint in a gripping and intelligent movie that works both as thriller and political commentary.

Obsessed: Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Obsessed: Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

4Argo
Ben Affleck stars in and directs a film about a madcap scheme to rescue Americans stranded in Iran after their embassy is stormed during the Iranian revolution. The plan? Sneak a rescue team in disguised as a Hollywood crew making a science-fiction film that will use Iran’s deserts for its locations. Affleck strikes an adroit balance between humour and tension in his film about one of the unlikeliest real-world operations the CIA ever managed to pull off. Perhaps Argo is liberal with its interpretation of the historical facts, but it is made with a level of skill and panache that are becoming increasingly rare in Hollywood.

Argo-640

Oscar winner Alan Arkin with co-star Ben Affleck in Argo

3Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino’s blood-soaked, irreverent take on the spaghetti Western ranks among his best films yet. Taking his cue from Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Tarantino fashions a brutal, darkly humourous revenge saga set in the American Civil War that at once subverts and celebrates the genre.

It’s beautifully shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robert Richardson, features lashings of comical violence that rank among the funniest scenes Tarantino has ever written, and is at the same time thoroughly entertaining and deeply discomforting.

Acting is great, too, from Jamie Foxx’s laconic slave-turned-gunfighter, to Leonardo DiCaprio’s vicious plantation owner, and Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as Django’s verbose mentor.

Django, meet Django: Jamie Foxx with the original Django Franco Nero

Django, meet Django: Jamie Foxx with the original Django Franco Nero

2Gravity
Gravity marked the long-awaited return to cinema of director Alfonso Cuarón following his 2007 science-fiction masterwork Children of Men. The film is a virtuoso performance from one of the master technicians of modern-day movie making, a breathtaking 90-minute thrill ride set at the edge of space.

In addition to its dazzling special effects, Gravity features the performance of a lifetime for Sandra Bullock as a scientist stranded in space alongside George Clooney’s seasoned astronaut. This is a suspense film that understands the value of silence, one that slowly ratchets up the tension as the minutes tick by. It’s a film that only allows you to exhale once it’s all over.

Space is no laughing matter in Gravity

Space is no laughing matter in Gravity

1The Place Beyond the Pines
Of the films I’ve seen this year, The Place Beyond the Pines from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance is possibly the most staggering in its ambition. This dense crime saga is at once intimate in focus and epic in sweep, a moving portrait of everyday life on the fringes of America writ on the epic landscape of outlaw mythology.

It’s a somber film of weighty themes — the legacies fathers leave for their sons, the grip of the past on the present, the burdens of conscience — but it is utterly compelling throughout its lengthy running time. The lead performances from Bradley Cooper as a young careerist cop and Ryan Gosling as a violent but deeply wounded bank robber are remarkable.

Meanwhile, a brooding score from Faith No More’s Mike Patton and spare photography from DP Sean Bobbitt colour the film with an atmosphere of creeping existential dread. This flawed, gnarled and challenging film offers as much depth as director Martin Scorsese or novelist Dennis Lehane at their best.

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the Pines

Worth a mention:

Amour: Michael Haneke’s film about an old couple facing mortality is unsparing, unsentimental and profound. Roger Ebert’s review of Amour, written when he surely knew his death was looming, is as moving as the film.

Blue Jasmine: Every Woody Allen film for the past 15 years has been called a return to form, but Blue Jasmine truly is. Cate Blanchett’s performance as a flighty, suddenly impoverished socialite has drawn massive acclaim.

Lincoln: An accomplished and powerful film about the American icon from Steven Spielberg. It earned Daniel Day-Lewis a well-deserved Oscar for his towering performance as the great man.

Rush: A characteristically sleek, slick and entertaining Ron Howard film about the fabled rivalry between Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

Stoker: Korean director Chan-wook Pak makes his Hollywood debut in this bizarre, stylised thriller.  — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media

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  • http://www.InTheCube.co.za/ InTheCube.co.za

    Ughh… what a sucky list of movies.

  • Gareth David

    Some good movies, although I wasn’t bothered to watch half of them…

  • herman

    sorry but this is a crap list. no mention of Elysium, Man of Steel,despicable me 2, Hunger games 2, and lets not forget the highest grossing movie of 2013 – iron man 3, though it wasn’t that good. your number 1: “The place beyond the pines”……. REALLY!

  • herman

    sorry but this is a crap list. no mention of Elysium, Man of
    Steel,despicable me 2, Hunger games 2, and lets not forget the highest
    grossing movie of 2013 – iron man 3, though it wasn’t that good. your
    number 1: “The place beyond the pines”……. REALLY!

  • Liz

    Look at the rotten tomotaoes and metacritic of those films, they all rubbish cept hunger gams and iron man.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I didn’t care much for Elysium, but you reminded me there was a properly awesome scifi in 2013 – Oblivion. Best scifi I’ve seen for a long time.

  • Fred Flint

    dont agree with everything on this list especially number 1 but your deluded if you think elysium or meh of steel are top films this year. at least argo, django etc won awards and got good revues

  • Pieter

    Surely these are more like the best movies of 2012, half these movies weren’t even released in 2013!

  • Lance Harris

    As stated in the intro, South African release dates in cinemas, rather than US release dates. Some of them were early in the year, but every single one come out here between 1 Jan and 31 Dec 2013. It seems I get this quibble each year, but I don’t see the point in using US release dates when this is a local publication,

  • Lance Harris

    Not everyone measures films by box office take or special effects.

  • Lance Harris

    Top grossing isn’t the same as the best, unless you’re willing to concede that Grown-Ups 2 is one of the “best” movies of the year. By that token, I should have thrown Leon Schuster’s latest in here as the “BEST” South African film of 2013.

    The list is partly subjective, but it is also somewhat informed by awards and the opinions of other critics. So, yes, it is an opinion, but I’d like to think it’s one I have thought through carefully.

    Can you argue with a straight face that Man of Steel should be here rather than Argo, ZDK or Django, which dominated US critics lists in 2012 and cleaned up awards season this year (along with Silver Linings Playbook, which came out in SA in late 2012)?

    If so, I’m interested in hearing. After all, the the fact that ‘best’ is always open to reasoned debate is what makes lists like this fun.

    .

  • Lance Harris

    If I had to choose an animated film this year, it would probably have been Monsters University, though it’s not one of Pixar’s best. Unlike Up, The Incredibles or Toy Story 3, I can say it’s a good kids’ film rather than just a great film. whoever you are.

    And yip, I’d probably have gone for The Lone Ranger (as bad as the reviews were, I thought it was unfairly picked on) or Catching Fire rather than Man of Steel if I put another big blockbuster in here. I hated Man of Steel – it’s just not a very good film.

    The World’s End would’ve been in there, along with Drug War and Much Ado About Nothing , and a couple of others if they got local releases. I can’t decide whether I love or hate Only God Forgives :)

    And if they made it to SA in 2013, I would have wanted to put Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle on the list, too — they’re all masterpieces. Ah well, those at least will be there for the list at the end of 2014.

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