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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Zero 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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