Callie Petch’s Top 10 Films of 2013

At the end of 2013, the editor of asked me to write up a list of my favourite films of the year.  This was the result.

2013’s release schedule has been rather weird.  Coming off of another miserable dumping ground (commonly known as January to April) and one of the worst (or, at least, most disappointing) Summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory, we had one of the strongest awards season line-ups in at least 3 or 4 years… if you live in America, anyway.  As a Brit from across the pond (tea and crumpets Mary Poppins fish and chips ‘ello guv’ner and all that) I can only sit here and be taunted by such delights as they remain held on a tight leash until the opening months of 2014.  Consequently, this year has remained underwhelming almost across the board, for me, even as the number of films I’ve seen in the year that they’ve been released has reached record levels (40, to be precise).

To attempt to claim that picking 10 films for my Best of 2013 list was an easy process, though, would be false.  See, although this year has seen some sucky movies, some disappointing movies and some disappointingly sucky movies, the films that I have liked, and I have liked a fair number, I really liked.  In fact, my viewpoint that this year hasn’t been that great for movies may primarily be down to my having seen more movies than ever before.  And as for ordering this list… let me just say that the position of my Top 3 is how I feel today.  It genuinely changes on a daily basis, that Top 3, I’m not kidding.  So, based on the 2013 British release schedule and disqualifying Django Unchained for having the gall to miss the 2012 cut off by 17 days and expecting to get an entry in this year’s list instead… here are my Top 10 Films of 2013.

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.

(TIE) 10] 47 Ronin/My Little Pony: Equestria Girls

Dir: Carl Rinsch/Jayson Thiessen

Star: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi/Tara Strong, Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain (voices)

2013, for me, has contained a hell of a lot of disappointments.  Monsters University, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Kick-Ass 2, Rush…  All films that seemed great on paper or looked good in all of the pre-release material but ended up disappointing come release by being either boring or just plain bad.  As a result, I’ve happily cherished those films that came out of nowhere and surprised me, and 2013 had three big surprises: This is the End, Equestria Girls and (perhaps the biggest surprise of all) 47 Ronin.  All three had premises that shouldn’t have worked, for one reason or another; all three had pre-release material that either worried me or gave me the feeling that it would merely be OK; all three ended up being surprisingly great and highly enjoyable films that were so much fun that their respective flaws could be easily overlooked.  47 Ronin and Equestria Girls, though, didn’t have a tonally-jarring and almost film-killing sequence in which Jonah Hill is raped by a demon with a giant phallus; so that’s why they’re on this list and This is the End is not.

So, why Equestria Girls?  Well, because it managed to capture what makes the TV show it spun-off from, Friendship is Magic, so special.  It’s a funny, heart-warming film that doesn’t have a bad bone in its body.  It’s well-paced, the songs are actually quite good and catchy, the voice work is stellar (Tara Strong and Tabitha St. Germain, in particular, don’t flub a single line) and everything comes together expertly in the finale.  It’s a stretched-out version of an episode of the TV show, just in high school and with humans.  47 Ronin, meanwhile, is just plain fun.  Oh, sure, it doesn’t look it, but somehow I was fully engrossed in it and its world from beginning to end.  It’s a mess, you can clearly see the seams barely holding it together, but somehow it works and I had a fantastic time with it.  Plus, Rinko Kikuchi’s turn as the villain’s sorceress assistant is a revelation.  She owns the screen every second she’s on it for, practically dancing across it and radiating sultry evilness; she’s a better villain than any of the Marvel movies have so far cooked up (excluding Loki).  Between this and her work as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, she deserves big things in this industry.

So, 47 Ronin is the bigger surprise (because I absolutely did not expect that film to work) but, undoubtedly, Equestria Girls is the better movie.  Rather than agonise forever on which to cut, I decided to just split the difference and let both share the #10 slot because it’s my list and I can do what I want with it.

9] Gravity

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón

Star: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Gravity is a testament to the power of cinema, to just what this medium can accomplish when all of the pieces fall into place.  The film looks gorgeous and almost effortlessly blurs the lines between live-action and CGI at half the price of The Lone Ranger.  The score is hauntingly atmospheric and permanently perfectly deployed at the precise moment required for maximum impact.  The camerawork and movement and positioning proves beyond all reasonable doubt that you don’t need endless quick-cutting in order to make a tense action sequence.  And the 3D, and I cannot believe I am saying this, works!  Not only does it work, it actually improves the film and adds to the experience, I was close to hyperventilating in pure terror at the close of the opening disaster because, and I don’t care how corny it sounds, I felt like I was actually there in the moment in that situation!

Gravity is incredible, the second-best cinema-going experience I had all year (behind a Cornetto Trilogy marathon screening), a statement from cinema that practically screams “THIS IS WHAT WE CAN DO AND THIS IS WHY WE EXIST!” and I guarantee that the film will lose something the instant I see it on home media.  Look, I’m one of the very few people who was actually completely fine with the dialogue and Dr. Stone’s backstory and the philosophical undertones and all the stuff that people irrationally hate about this film, but Gravity is a rollercoaster ride without the handlebars.  It’s an experience that needs, no, demands the biggest possible screen, the best possible projector, the best surround sound system available, in 3D with all of the lights down and no distractions.  In short, this film needs the cinema screen and watching it at home will rob the film of at least some of its impact.  So that’s why Gravity is down at number 9.  It’s a phenomenal film and the only real knock against it is the sad fact that cinemas can’t permanently keep a screen open for the sole purpose of showing this film at least once a week.

8] The Act of Killing

Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing is tough, brutal viewing primarily because its director, Joshua Oppenheimer, refuses to judge.  Outside of the opening text that sets up the film, where it notes that its subjects “happily boasted of their actions”, the film documents and leaves the judging up to the viewer.  And I did judge, I judged harshly: these were people who gleefully described the various ways in which they exterminated over 1 million supposed Communists, who decried the corruption of politics whilst they themselves ran for a political position purely so they can extort more civilians out of more money, people who were unrepentant for their crimes and held up, unchallenged, as national heroes for their atrocities.  It’s the kind of thing that you watch and, no matter how cynical you think you think you may be, a part of you slowly dies as, over the course of two hours, you see your faith in all that is good and just in the human race be constantly shaken time and time again.

Then, however, a funny thing happened.  The film draws to a close and Anwar, one of the leaders of the Indonesian Death Squads of 1965, begins to slowly crack, the realities of his actions being thrown right in his face as the production of his own movie rolls on.  He relates how he’s been having nightmares because he can’t forget the time when the eyes of a man whom he decapitated stared straight at him.  He stops the filming of a scene in which he plays one of the death squad’s victims because he’s too terrified of the garrotte he’s being strangled with.  And then, when watching that sequence back, the realisation hits him: he did this to so many people, upon which point he completely breaks down as he tearfully explains to Josh that he does not want the memories to come back.  It was at this point, somehow, I began to feel sorry for Anwar.  The man was a genocidal bastard who got off completely scott-free from his actions, and yet something about his rawness in that sequence and the seemingly genuine regret and remorse he was expressing, like the full weight of his actions almost 50 years prior had finally caught up with him, caused me to pity the man.

But the camera does not judge.  Oppenheimer does not judge.  This is how Anwar was in that moment of time and nobody involved in the film could care less.  Anwar’s realisation is treated in the same non-judgemental way as an earlier sequence in which somebody states their belief that “war crimes are decided by the winners, and we are the winners”.  The Act of Killing is powerful, uncompromising viewing and I will never watch it again.  One viewing of the abyss of humanity was more than enough.

7] Fast & Furious 6

Dir: Justin Lin

Star: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson

The Fast & Furious franchise is to movies what Saints Row is to videogames.  The basic principles and characters are the same throughout but the genres change between instalments.  The Fast and the Furious was a silly Point Break flick, 2 Fast 2 Furious was a crappy buddy-cop movie, Tokyo Drift was a coming-of-age drama with Yakuza and drifting, Fast & Furious was a good buddy-cop movie, Fast Five was a silly heist movie and Fast & Furious 6 was a big, dumb, stupid action movie.  And, like Saints Row (but excluding 2 Fast 2 Furious), every Fast & Furious film has been surprisingly great and somehow getting better with every new entry as it slowly, and then emphatically, embraced its true colours: as stupid, entertaining fun.

Yes, fun!  Remember fun?  Because a lot of films this year seemed to have forgotten what this thing called “fun” was.  Far more so than any prior entry in the series, Fast & Furious 6 makes absolutely no sense (there’s a betrayal late on in the film that genuinely makes zero sense) but anything resembling narrative cohesion is not the point.  Fast & Furious 6 wants you to instead sit back, turn off your brain and enjoy watching this surprisingly well-developed and sympathetic cast of characters get themselves into and out of ridiculous situations like taking on an evil car-based crime syndicate, being chased along a motorway by a tank and attempting to bring down a cargo plane using only their cars and some harpoon guns.  And it is enjoyable, because it’s silly and everybody involved knows that it’s silly and, most importantly, they care about the fact that it’s silly.  Every single person involved in this film is clearly having the time of their lives and that radiates from every frame of this film.  I was laughing, cheering, smiling from ear-to-ear but, most importantly, I was having stupid amounts of fun!  More so than at any other film this year and I really hope that, even with the extremely sad passing of Paul Walker, Fast & Furious 7 can continue in that vein.

6] From Up On Poppy Hill

Dir: Gorō Miyazaki

Star: Sarah Bolger, Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson (voices)

From Up On Poppy Hill is likely lesser-Ghibli.  I wouldn’t know though as, embarrassingly, I have only seen three Ghibli films in my entire life and this is one of them (the others being Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away).  However, as a film in its own right, From Up On Poppy Hill is magical, despite being a coming-of-age drama firmly rooted in reality.  The atmosphere of the film is relaxing and calm without ever being patronising in its pursuit of said comforting atmosphere because the film rarely attempts to forcefully tug on your emotions.  Apart from two moments in the film’s entire 90 minute run-time, I never felt like I was being manipulated into the emotions I was feeling, and the two times when I was, the scenes were so magnificently constructed and pressing so many of my personal buttons that I honestly didn’t care.

The relationship at the heart of the film managed to transcend a cultural boundary that I didn’t think was possible to pull off (specifically: a mid-film twist makes the relationship the kind of thing that should otherwise play very differently to non-Japanese audiences) and the cast of characters were all well-defined and a joy to watch.  In fact, rather than just state technical reasons as to why From Up On Poppy Hill is on my list (besides, I’d need a thesaurus or twelve to express my thoughts on the animation), let me give you the real reason: it’s the happiest I’ve been watching a film in the cinema all year.  In much the same way that Fast & Furious 6 was the most fun I had at the cinema, this year, From Up On Poppy Hill left me feeling happy.  Like, for well over an hour after I left the cinema, there was glow emanating from my heart, like somehow, despite almost nothing involved in that film being based in our reality, a part of my faith in humanity had been restored.  The anti-Act of Killing.  Hang on, I’ve now got a burning desire to watch this film again…

5] Drinking Buddies

Dir: Joe Swanberg

Star: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick

Drinking Buddies is a film about nothing.  I mean, it’s seemingly a film about two extremely close and flirty friends in separate relationships trying to come to terms with the fact that their attraction as friends may hide actual romantic chemistry, but it kinda isn’t.  There are no real events or plot turns, in the blindingly obvious sense.  Things just kind of drift along, tensions bubbling under the surface, until they explode and release in a manner that seems hard for its characters to come back from… until they do and then the film stops.  Nobody learns anything, nobody makes any giant life-changing decisions, the status-quo is almost completely restored at the end of the film and life goes on.

That honestly might be why Drinking Buddies has stuck with me so.  More than any other movie or TV show about relationships and how friends deal with the fact that there may be more between them than either are willing to admit, this one felt real.  It felt honest, it felt genuine, it featured characters acting and reacting to these sorts of scenarios as actual people would do, it felt real; and as somebody who has been in this sort of situation before, I know what I’m talking about.  That realness, though, would not exist without the exceptional chemistry that Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson cultivate in two of the best performances of the year as the friends in question.  The pair are on absolute fire and I was sold on their friendship from frame one and found myself kind of rooting for them to get together.  But they don’t, because that’s not how life works.  Sometimes two people who are clearly perfect for one another don’t get together.  Not for the reasons of ‘we both have partners and it would be wrong’ but for genuine reasons, like they just don’t want to.  It’s not about ‘not wanting to ruin what we already have’, it’s about their bond as friends being stronger than their romantic attraction.

As I left the cinema, I did not expect Drinking Buddies to stick with me as much as it has.  Yet here I am, two months later, still thinking about that film and the most perfect closing shot of 2013.  And it’s down to it being the most genuine look at the nature of friendships and relationships I have ever seen.  All by being about nothing at all.  Seek it out.

4] Only God Forgives

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Star: Ryan Gosling, Kristen Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringham

Upon my first viewing of Only God Forgives, I was certain that director Nicolas Winding Refn had made a movie that was purposefully designed to keep the viewer at arm’s length the whole time through.  The fourth line of the film involves a character stating to a hostess bar owner “I want to fuck a 14 year-old.”  Long stretches of the film involve unsubtitled Thai dialogue and even longer stretches involve no dialogue whatsoever.  There are no nice people in this film and violence seems to happen to them for violence’s sake.  What story there does seem to be is dealt with at a pace that one could charitably describe as languid.  That badass fight sequence that the trailers and adverts suggest Ryan Gosling would be taking part in, the one he supposedly took 3 months’ worth of Muay Thai lessons for, lasts barely 2 minutes and purely involves him getting beaten black and blue.  It’s dark, evil, barely comprehensible, hates you, the viewer, and everything you stand for.  I loved it.

The second time through, I began to pick up on the symbolism.  And not symbolism in the way that films traditionally do symbolism, more subtle symbolism.  How there was actually a point to the film all along.  How Julian’s character arc is so gradual it’s barely noticeable.  How everything in the film could have been prevented had Julian’s mother, Crystal, simply not been so fixated on revenge as to cause her and her family to lose everything.  And then there were other aspects that I had enjoyed the first time around and grew to appreciate even more the second time.  How it’s probably the single most gorgeous film I have seen in all of 2013; how Ryan Gosling’s seemingly blank and dull performance is actually quite nuanced thanks to his expressive eyes; how the sound design and Cliff Martinez’s score are impeccable; how the pacing is deliberate instead of painfully slow, allowing the weight of certain actions to sink in long enough and the expectation to build before the violence hits.

In one of the behind-the-scenes clips, director Nicolas Winding Refn likens violence to sex.  “It’s all about the build-up.  The sexuality of the violence is the more you engage in the build-up than the act itself.”  What my second viewing showed, which backs up Refn’s analogy, was that Only God Forgives is an in-depth and personal study on violence and the effects that begat that.  I loved it even more.

3] Spring Breakers

Dir: Harmony Korine

Star: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens

First and foremost, Spring Breakers is an audio-visual experience.  Pure sensory overload.  Lots of slow-motion partying and posturing as the soundtrack pounds away at your eardrums and the recurring sound motifs of gun slides and the frequently-whispered, almost-mocking rallying cry of “Spring Break forever” loop throughout.  More than almost any other film this year, Spring Breakers immerses the viewer in its world.  By sitting down to watch this film, you are inviting it to take you away to an almost surreal exercise in excess and depravity as three girls become seduced by the appearance of power and excitement.  It’s a world that appears superficial because, to its characters, it is.  Their hometown of Nowheresville, USA is the kind of place people fear of dying in and out there, in Miami during Spring Break, is where they will find excitement, good times and, though seemingly less importantly to the characters, themselves.

But to call Spring Breakers “all style, no substance” is to short-change the film totally for there is plenty going on under its loud, garish surface.  All five of our leads are individual and distinguishable characters instead of interchangeable masses of blood and organs.  They even act halfway believable, too.  When Faith begins to feel uncomfortable around Alien and cries about wanting to go home, she actually goes home.  And that’s it, she’s out of the film.  She had a taste of debauchery and got the hell out of dodge when she realised how little she actually liked it.  But rather than acting like an after-school special, where its message could have been endlessly bashed over the viewer’s head, Spring Breakers’ message is subtle.  So subtle, in fact, that I am still yet to fully figure it out.  I know there’s one there but I keep getting lost in the bright lights and loud music because the ride is too hypnotic for me to question it.

I’ve seen this movie three times, this year, and I think of it frequently even when it’s not on.  Without a doubt, Spring Breakers is an unforgettable experience.

2] Wreck-It Ralph

Dir: Rich Moore

Star: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer (voices)

Released in February of 2013 in the UK, Wreck-It Ralph is quite possibly the best Disney film since… Mulan?  It depends if you count 2011’s Winnie The Pooh as an official member of the Disney Animated Classics canon or not.  The animation: fantastic.  The characters: endlessly relatable and lovable and full of depth.  The action sequences: exciting and tense thanks to very extremely strong character work put in beforehand.  The jokes: hilarious.  The emotional undercurrent of sadness that runs throughout the flick: exceptional which helps make the final 15 minutes an exercise in running the gamut of all of the separate kinds of tears.  The voice work: stunning, especially from Sarah Silverman who, beforehand, I had never really liked in anything.  The gaming references: nice, loving in-jokes that work as bonuses to the film yet never overshadow or detract from the film itself.

See, Wreck-It Ralph does not break new ground.  Not for Disney, not for Western Animation, not for anybody.  What it does do, however, is bring together all of those exceptional parts and make a film that is the exact sum of those parts: exceptional.  Put simply, I haven’t seen an animated film this flawlessly constructed in a long-ass time.  Correction: I haven’t see any film this flawlessly constructed in a long-ass time.  Folks, I’ve seen this film at least three or four times now and I cannot find a single thing wrong with it.  I can’t find a wasted second, a redundant line of dialogue, a questionable plot turn, a flubbed line reading.  Nothing.  This film is airtight in its exceptional quality whilst still having a constantly beating heart at the centre of it, a heart that causes me to shed tears every time I watch it.  A phenomenal film.

1] The World’s End

Dir: Edgar Wright

Star: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine

Allow me to share with you a little secret, dear reader.  When I first filed my review of The World’s End back in mid-July, with the glowing recommendation and the 5 star rating and the strapline that proudly boasted it as “one of the best films I have seen this year”, a pang of uncertainty cropped up in me.  See, the five star rating and the poster-ready quote of “one of the best films I have seen this year” is not the kind of thing you give out lightly.  They are only to be deployed if you are 100% certain in your beliefs.  And I was, until I saw other people’s reactions come in.  Some declared it the worst of The Cornetto Trilogy, others a giant disappointment, others merely thought it was OK and a select few simply went for “it sucks”.  As those with low self-esteem can attest to, my immediate response was to wonder if I had gotten it wrong.  I wrote my review the morning after having gone to a Cornetto Trilogy screening that led into a midnight screening of The World’s End and that night was one of the best I’d ever had.  Was I blinded by that night?  Had the lingering awesomeness of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz caused me to be too kind to the final Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright creation for the foreseeable future?

And then the film arrived on Blu-Ray and I realised that the detractors were wrong.  Completely wrong.  I don’t like telling people that their opinions are wrong, because you can’t use opinion as demonstrable fact, but I’m going to make an exception in this case because the people who disliked The World’s End are just plain wrong.  From start to finish, The World’s End soars; a painfully funny, painfully poignant and painfully angry film about addiction, nostalgia, maturity and the lack thereof and free will.  It’s the most ambitious thing that Pegg and Wright have ever done, a comedy that’s going to be remembered for everything but its very big and very frequent laughs, arguably the first time that the duo have had something to say beyond “Hey!  Aren’t genre movies awesome?” and they pull it off better than directors who have been doing feature films for a decade longer than them.

The World's EndThe almost trademark Edgar Wright symbolism and double-coded foreshadowing is back and in full effect, practically demanding the viewer watch the film a second time through to catch everything.  Every shot has a significance that only becomes clear in a second viewing, every set has subtle jokes and clues buried in it, even the pub crawl order means something.  Whereas the tightly controlled nature of Only God Forgives is artificial in a manner that’s almost ordering the audience to notice it, The World’s End still manages to feel ramshackle and natural.  The fight scenes, which have shots that last for much longer than you typically see in a Western action film, are hilarious and a tonne of fun.  The pacing is flawless, never once dragging or sagging even during the rather ordinary opening 30 minutes.  And holding the whole film together is Simon Pegg’s career-best turn as Gary King, a selfish, irresponsible, dick-ish, pitiful, washed-up husk of a man whose best days are behind him and he more than knows it.  He and co-star Nick Frost swap the roles that they occupied in Shaun… and Hot Fuzz (where Pegg was the straight man and Frost was the man-child) and both demonstrate range I didn’t think they were capable of and both have to go to a place in the third act that’s actually kind of heart-breaking to watch.

I’m going to stop myself from writing more, now, because this is paragraph four in entry number 10 of an article that has stretched to 7 A4 Word document pages.  But to sum up: I went into The World’s End wanting (and expecting) another fun genre riff from Wright and Pegg and Frost.  I ended up getting so, so, so much more and to explain why this film worked and why I love it so is to require an entirely separate article dedicated solely to this movie.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is why The World’s End is my favourite film of 2013.

Callie Petch likes their job and they do it well.

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