It’s that time of year again, everyone’s making their lists… And I’m nothing if not a bandwagon jumper, so here’s my first; top ten films of 2013. 2013 video games to follow some time next week.
10. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
There’s an argument to be made for Django Unchained being a 2012 film. But here in sunny old Britain, we didn’t get it until January 18th, so on my 2013 list it goes.
Way back in the innocent days of 2009, Tarantino made a Western that just happened to be set in World War II. He took everything he learned from that, and brought it forward to make an actual Western. The result being Django Unchained. If Inglourious Basterds was a Jewish revenge flick for the Holocaust, Unchained is a black revenge flick for slavery.
What astounds me is that even now, over twenty years after he started, Tarantino is still yet to put out a film I’d consider weak. Given how most careers go in Hollywood, it seems that he should have really gone to shit after Pulp Fiction and never recovered. But Django Unchained really is the mark of a director who is still as passionate about film as ever, with mesmerising performances by all involved. Special mention has to go out to Christoph Waltz, who manages to completely invert his Basterds performance, and to Leonardo Di Caprio, for managing to successfully make my skin crawl.
Tarantino recently said he wants to retire after ten films. Personally, if he can keep the quality up to the standard of Django Unchained, I hope he doesn’t.
9. Maniac (Franck Khalfoun)
I have never seen the original Maniac, which might be something to keep in mind here as I gush over this remake.
Turns out, Elijah Wood can act. I mean, it’s not really a surprise or anything, I really liked his Frodo in Lord of the Rings. But I never thought I’d buy him as a serial killer after that. But his super innocent routine works in his favour here. Most of the film taking place in first person doesn’t hurt either. Most of the time when we see Wood himself, it’s only his eyes in the reflection of his van’s rear view mirror. Combined with his disembodied voice, and you have probably the creepiest villain of the year.
But the real star of the show is Maniac’s aesthetic. One of the posters described it as a fucked up cousin to Drive (I might be paraphrasing there) and it’s dead on. The whole thing is presented with this washed out 70s/80s grindhouse look, with bright neons everywhere and a pounding synth soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, and worth watching for that alone.
8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
Okay, so I’m a massive fan of Edgar Wright, especially when teamed up with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Shaun of the Dead was one of my favourite comedies of the last decade, and Hot Fuzz was also genuinely good.
For me, The World’s End eclipses both of them. It’s not as funny as Shaun, and it’s not as all out mad as Hot Fuzz, but the overall package just beats them both. Compare the pool cue scene from Shaun of the Dead to any of the numerous fight scenes in The World’s End, and it’s clear how far Wright has come as an action director for example (no doubt a direct result of his helming Scott Pilgrim vs the World).
But where The World’s End has them all beat is in the amount of heart it possesses. Pegg’s character Gary King is utterly tragic, a man child who can’t let go of the past. He and Frost had a falling out over something, and a lot of the film is spent building up to what exactly that was, and the inevitable confrontation between the two.
It’s also a genuinely funny Body Snatchers spoof, but compared to the previous films in the Cornetto trilogy, that feels more like window dressing to explore issues like friends drifting apart, alcoholism, and even the very British problem of franchises coming in to take over small town pubs. I’d like to see these three work together again in the future, but they promised a trilogy and delivered. And if this truly is to be their last film, it’s absolutely a worthy sendoff.
7. Elysium (Neill Blomkamp)
Even if Elysium had turned out bad, Blomkamp would still be one of modern sci-fi’s most exciting directors to me, purely on the strength of District 9. Fortunately, Elysium didn’t turn out bad.
I’ll get this out up front. Elysium is not as good as District 9. The whole poor rich segregation theme isn’t handled as well as Apartheid was, and the story is less compelling as a result. But man, this film is still great. Matt Damon absolutely kills it in the lead role. If the Bourne trilogy weren’t proof enough that he can carry an action film, seeing him strapped into some makeshift power armour to take the fight to the rich people living out on Elysium, the orbital station, should really seal it.
But hands down, it’s Sharlto Copley who steals the show here as Kruger, a maniacal bounty hunter. Wikus from District 9 was a weird sort of bureaucratic villain turned hero, but here Copley just gets to let loose and chew scenery, and the result is mesmerising. Also worth mentioning is the ever dependable William Fichtner who only gets a fairly minor role, but I’m always happy to see him.
And the film looks great too. The Earth scenes, set in the planetwide slums all look like some depressing post-apocalypse, but there’s a beauty to it. And it works especially well contrasted to Elysium itself, which looks suspiciously like the Citadel from the Mass Effect games. If Blomkamp can continue to this standard, producing big budget fare without losing his artistic integrity, I’m happy for studios to just throw money at him and let him do his thing.
6. Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor)
The mighty Marvel machine continues strong. After the Avengers, I was nervous they were going to burn out in this second cycle of films, but if anything they seem to be getting stronger.
I confess, I wasn’t a huge fan of the original Thor. I liked the characters, and the world they built, and the almost Shakespearian overtones of the whole thing. But it was paced in a way that didn’t quite work for me, and the whole thing never seemed to come together as a cohesive package. The Dark World takes everything I loved about the original Thor, and wraps it all together in a film that just works better.
I think part of it is that the origin is dealt with. While Thor wasn’t strictly an origin story, it still had to take the time to introduce all the characters. With that out of the way, we’re free to just leap into another adventure. And what an adventure it is, opening up the wider Marvel universe, and giving us glimpses into the realms beyond Asgard and Midgard. Alan Taylor is on hand with his Game of Thrones experience, taking the grand world of the last film and applying a layer of grit and grime to make it all seem a bit more lived in that before.
If I do have one complaint, it’s Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith. He’s a great actor, so it seems strange to cast him, only to restrain his performance by having him speak an Elvish language for most of the film. But this is offset by the always enjoyable Thor and Loki, with Tom Hiddleston stealing every scene he’s in, as expected.
5. Fast & Furious 6 (Justin Lin)
How does this keep happening?! Can anyone name any other franchise that was hitting its best instalments at the fifth and sixth iterations? It just shouldn’t be possible.
I think part of it is that they’re now just playing to their strengths. The street racing stuff is mostly jettisoned now in favour of high stakes action. If Fast Five was a heist flick, Six is getting the band back together to take down the rival crew. And I kind of love that every one of these is an Avengers level event. It’s not like the characters from the first four films were great or anything, so I have no explanation as to why I’m so excited to see them all form a driving uberteam. It’s just ridiculous in the best way.
Starting with Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin has taken what should never have been a viable franchise in the first place and turned it into a juggernaut of entertainment. Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson are on fine form as ever, and I’ll never not want to see Sung Kang’s Han eating snacks. But it’s really the women who steal the show this time around. The fight scene between Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano is everything I wanted it to be. I just don’t understand how it’s the Fast & Furious franchise getting the demographics so right. It just doesn’t make sense. But I love it anyway.
4. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black)
This is going to be the most controversial pick on the list, at least for comic book fans. Iron Man 3 went from being my least favourite of the trilogy to my favourite.
Let’s be honest here, it all comes down to the Mandarin. After subtle teases in the first two films, we finally get Iron Man’s most famous (or infamous) villain on the big screen. And, spoiler alert, Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is actually an actor hired by Guy Pearce’s Aldritch Killian. I was disappointed at first. I felt like we had been cheated out of the actual Mandarin, and all the teases were leading up to nothing. But the more I think about it, the more I like it.
If Kingsley had been the actual Mandarin, Iron Man would have found him, they’d have had a climactic battle, and Iron Man would have won. Predictable comic book movie fare. Boring. Instead Shane Black threw us a curveball. And the fact I was still thinking about it months later when the blu-ray came out just tells me he succeeded.
Elsewhere, the film is just as great. Robert Downey Jr is as fun to watch as ever, and manages to keep a subplot with a child sidekick away from being too cloying. Don Cheadle is on hand as Rhodes again, with a new stars and stripes paint job and a rename to Iron Patriot (not as cool as War Machine). It all just works, and culminates in an exciting battle with Killian’s Extremis enhancements, a whole load of Iron Man suits, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper getting in on the action.
Third instalments in trilogies tend to be disappointing (still looking at you, Dark Knight Rises), but Shane Black manages to inject fresh life into Iron Man in a big way.
3. White House Down (Roland Emmerich)
Roland Emmerich is hit and miss with me. As much as I love Stargate and Independence Day, and even have a soft spot for 2012, stuff like Godzilla, 10,000 BC, and the Day After Tomorrow is garbage. White House Down might very well be his best film.
It’s a lot more focused than I ever expected from Emmerich, with most of the action taking place in the White House itself. There are bits in Congress, and some cutaways to military types fumbling about trying to sort out the mess, but otherwise the whole thing keeps it tight on Channing Tatum’s quest to save the President, and his daughter, during a terrorist attack.
Although, hang on… Terrorists attack a building. And there’s an ordinary man who they didn’t factor into their plans. And he just happens to have the skillset to stop them. But he has a personal stake in the matter. This sounds familiar…
Okay, so as good as it is, White House Down is no Die Hard. But it’s a better Die Hard film than anything since Die Hard With A Vengeance, so I’ll take it. White House Down is a good, tight action flick, solid from top to bottom.
That all said, my favourite thing about it all is that Emmerich had the audacity to make Jamie Foxx’s President a liberal wet dream who is on track to make peace in the Middle East, and make all the enemies right wing military nutjobs, and NRA members and the like. It’s kind of ridiculous, and absolutely on the nose, but it makes the film about something, which is more than can be said for the standard action fare Hollywood pushes out over the summer. If it sounds eye rollingly stupid, that’s because it often threatens to be, but I had such a great time watching it, I didn’t care.
2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
I’ve been excited about Gravity ever since it was announced. Alfonso Cuaron popped onto my radar by helming what was easily the best of the Harry Potter films, and Children of Men cemented him as a legitimately great filmmaker. The idea of him making a film set in space left me giddy with anticipation.
And thankfully, Gravity lived up to the hype. George Clooney is on hand to lend his trademark charisma, and is super cool throughout, even in the face of death. And Sandra Bullock puts in a career best performance as Ryan, which is lucky since she really carries most of the film.
There’s not really a whole lot else to say about it, since the film does rest almost entirely on the two leads. Cuaron’s style of long shots with no cuts works well in a zero gravity film, since it gives him the opportunity to move the camera wherever he wants and keep it believable. The actual opening shot stretches out for well over ten minutes, and is simply sublime to witness.
Other than that, it’s a solid action film with tension to spare. It’s only around 90 minutes, but doesn’t need to be any longer. Maybe the best paced action film of the year.
1. Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
Anyone who knows me will not be shocked by my choice for number one. Pacific Rim just ticks all the boxes for me. Let us count the ways.
Pacific Rim gives me that feeling I crave. Much like the Avengers did last year. Sitting in the cinema, watching as the Jaegers (giant fuck off robots) punched the Kaiju (giant fuck off monsters), it all just took me back to being a child again. It’s a love letter to anime like Gundam Wing or Neon Genesis Evangelion, and kaiju films like the classic Godzilla.
Which isn’t to say the rest of the film isn’t interesting. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi are fun to watch, as they learn to trust each other to drift together (since Jaegers require two pilots in perfect sync to operate), and Idris Elba is as big a presence as ever. Elsewhere, the comic relief is provided by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as madcap scientists on a mission to retrieve a Kaiju brain from notorious criminal Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman basically playing Ron Perlman).
Pacific Rim doesn’t have the best script, the best underlying message, or indeed the most believable action. But of all thirty four films I saw in cinema this year, it was the only one to take me back to how I felt watching the original Star Wars when I was nine. And for that reason, it was my favourite film of 2013.
And now, the rest…
The Bling Ring
How do you take such a potentially interesting story and make such a boring film out of it? Talented cast, but underused.
Bullet to the Head
Super disappointing. Expected more from the return of Walter Hill (The Warriors) but the best I can say is the action felt visceral. Avoid.
Surprisingly funny and heartwarming. Joseph Gordon Levitt writes, directs, and stars. And does a good job of all three.
Good, solid remake. Took the core concept of the original and put a new spin on it. Fun, but superfluous in a world after Cabin in the Woods.
Again, super disappointing. Advertised as film noir, but turned out to be a boring action film with a happy ending. Don’t waste your time.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Better than An Unexpected Journey, mostly because they finally get to Smaug. The barrel sequence as they escape the Elves was very entertaining.
Jason Statham plays Jason Statham in Jason Statham: The Movie. It was okay probably. I forgot most of it twenty minutes after watching.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suffered from the same problems as the first, the build up and the world are interesting, then the games themselves are boring. Better than the first though, with more coherent action.
Kick Ass 2
Not as fun or inventive as the first, but still alright. Seemed vulgar for the sake of it at times. Jim Carrey is good in it, and you know how I feel about Jim Carrey.
The Last Stand
Arnold should have stayed in politics.
Not very good really. Jaime Lannister adopts some children who disappeared in the woods and they have a ghost problem. The ending makes no sense.
Man of Steel
Solid action flick, not a good Superman film. Not what I wanted from it, too dour. Too… Chris Nolan.
Pointless. Taking out Boo lost the heart of Monsters Inc, and there was no clever message like the clean energy message. Also, the scare academy will be shut down after laughter was discovered.
Now You See Me
Pretty fun, saw it at a secret screening. I wouldn’t want to watch it a second time for fear of the whole plot falling apart.
Only God Forgives
More minimal than Drive, but not as good. A very ambient film, if a bit directionless at times. Very interesting, but divisive. It seems to exist to flip off anyone who thought they were cool to buy a scorpion jacket.
It was an okay mystery, with some really solid performances. But it goes on a bit too long, felt like it could have been cut down.
The least of the trilogy, but still fun. After opening up the universe a lot in Chronicles, Riddick felt small again. But it’s solid, in the way Pitch Black was.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
If I’m going to watch Ben Stiller, this is the sort of thing I want to watch him in. I don’t like his comedy stuff, but this was reasonably good.
Trashy art or artsy trash? I’m not sure. A 100 minute dream sequence music video of a film, worth watching purely for James Franco’s character. Spring break forever, bitches.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Abrams managed to make Trek new and exciting again with his reboot, so the decision to effectively remake Wrath of Khan is a puzzling one, with all the directions available to them. Not good.
This is the End
So funny, I couldn’t stop laughing throughout, to the point of tears at some points. Danny McBride is hilariously dickish, James Franco plays his douchey art house self, and Michael Cera kills it in the small amount of screen time he has.
There’s life in the zombie genre yet, even if it’s in a quirky romance picture. Nicholas Hoult’s voice over is deprecating and hilarious and heartwarming all at once.
Better than X-Men Origins, but the third act was crap. Good drama leading up to it, but it gave into generic superhero fare by the end.
World War Z
In a world where Warm Bodies exists, how can the zombie apocalypse prove to be so fucking boring?