It’s always difficult to say at the end of a year what will be remembered and what will be forgotten, but looking back over 2013 I suspect that very few of the blockbusters of this year will be remembered. What might last, however, are the smaller films championed by a few that will only gain fans over time, or the odder, more difficult films that maybe require multiple viewings to really appreciate.
Man of Steel, one of the worst superhero films ever, topped off a list of disappointing blockbusters like Star Trek Into Darkness and Thor: The Dark World; films that maybe had an impressive sequence or two but were just plain forgettable. They brought in the punters to the box office, but it’s unlikely that anyone will discuss Into Darkness with any affection 5 years from now, or even discuss it at all. Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium were all enjoyable in their own ways, and Gravity was technically astonishing and provided the most spectacular scene of the year, but the general consensus is that this last year was disappointing for fans of big franchises and bigger budgets. Perhaps to blame is the increasing homogeneisation of the blockbuster scene as part of the countdown to the Hollywood apocalypse that will be 2015; anything churned out by the formula adhering studio system felt like it was the product of a calculating brain trust as opposed to a team of passionate creatives. On the whole, Hollywood’s output in 2013 was just dull, and the result is that many big name film publications were quick to dismiss the year as a bad one.
Anyone who dismisses an entire year, however, probably isn’t watching enough films. Looking back, 2013 was filled with some wonderful cinema; films that cared more about telling stories than blowing stuff up. Here in Britain, Clio Barnard‘s phenomenal The Selfish Giant impressed just about anyone that saw it, and one suspects that its reputation and respect will only grow with time. Philomena, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, A Field In England, For Those In Peril and, ahem, Les Miserables among others all kept the British end up as well, while the American indie scene was well represented by The Way, Way Back, All Is Lost, The Kings of Summer and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – all of which were directed by fairly young, new names. As ever, cinema from around the world also produced some exciting, fascinating films with Saudi Arabia’s first ever film Wadjda the best of a list that included Blancanieves, Caesar Must Die, In The House, and a number of films that were only available at festivals such as Attila Marcel, Faro and Historic Centre.
The biggest disappointment of the year, however, was animation in general. From Up on Poppy Hill and Wolf Children, two of my favourites from last year, got limited cinematic releases, while Makoto Shinkai’s astonishing The Garden of Words got its festival debut here, but leave Japan behind and the picture is bleak. Disney’s Frozen was the only American animation that left wholly smelling of roses and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 managed to be one of the funniest films of the year, but The Croods, Monsters University and Epic were all a little bit disappointing. Then further down the quality scale, Turbo, Despicable Me 2 and Planes were all truly dreadful and I’ve heard bad things about Justin and the Knights of Valour, Free Birds and Walking With Dinosaurs, all of which I sadly missed. It’s been a bad, bad year for animation, but perhaps 2013 will go down in animation history as the year that Sir Billi was released, an execrable independent animation from up here in Scotland. A full review is coming for that film but no words can properly describe just how awful it is. Still, at least 2014 looks to set the animated record straight.
Anyway, below are my arbitrary awards and a list of my favourite 20 films of the year. You’ll notice the general paucity of animation there, and I should point out that Michel Gondry’s brilliant The We and the I was something I was privileged to see at Glasgow Film Festival but I don’t think has had a UK release yet. And yes, I really did like Les Miserables that much and I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit it. If you were wondering about the title of this article, that’s my favourite quote of the year, taken from the incredible Frances Ha.
My Favourite 20 Films of the Year
1. Wadjda (Haifaa Al Mansour)
2. Cloud Atlas (Tykwer & Wachowskis)
3. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard)
4. The We and the I (Michel Gondry)
5. Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
6. Philomena (Stephen Frears)
7. The Way, Way Back (Rash, Faxon)
8. Caesar Must Die (Taviani Brothers)
9. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
10. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints? (David Lowery)
11. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
12. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
13. Frozen (Buck & Lee)
14. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor)
15. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
16. Robot and Frank (Jake Schreier)
17. Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor, Paravel)
18. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
19. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
20. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
I haven’t included From Up on Poppy Hill or Wolf Children as I harped on about them enough last year. Also worthy of mention is the brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed which barely got released right at the tail end of 2012.
Worst Film: Sir Billi
Film I Hated Most: Pain and Gain
Best Performance: Waad Mohammed, Wadjda
Best Visuals: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (honourable mentions: A Field in England, The Selfish Giant)
Best One-Person-Against-the-Odds Film: All Is Lost
Most Sexist Film: Oz, The Great and Powerful
Best Re-Release: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Best Score: Cloud Atlas
Biggest Disappointment: To The Wonder
Best Film I Didn’t Get: A Field In England
Worst Film I Didn’t Get: Upstream Colour
Best Comedy Cockerel: Blancanieves
Films I Still Haven’t Seen But Maybe Intend To: The Act of Killing, The Place Beyond the Pines, Before Midnight, Beyond The Hills, Something In The Air (Apres Mai), Computer Chess, Only God Forgives, Ernest Et Celestine
Most Bafflingly Adored By Critics: Django Unchained
Film With The Best Extras But Was Otherwise Rubbish: Sunshine on Leith
The best cinema extends beyond mere entertainment and engages the audience with big ideas and provokes them with a thoughtful message. Then occasionally you see a film that transcends even that, by making the viewer to contemplate their place in the universe. Films can be a potent force for shaping ideas about our role in the grand scheme of things; recently Life of Pi examined man’s relationship with God through suffering, whilst one of the choicest quotes from Beasts of the Southern Wild had the 6 year old lead observing “that I am a little piece of a big, big universe…” Cinema can be a mirror making us look at ourselves and ask what it is we put our faith in. Undoubtedly not all films will make you ask questions like this, but it’s always rewarding when they do. Two films in February question what it is we live for, grappling with big, metaphysical concepts and confronting the audience with intimidating words like ‘purpose’ and ‘eternity’.
To The Wonder, the latest by director and genius Terrence Malick seems to be a film about frustration, populated by people who are stretching for something that is just out of reach. It opens with a couple who visit a church in Mont St. Michel, the eponymous wonder, and then spend the rest of the film striving for some of the bliss and joy they found there. Yet their ambitions are thwarted by the male lead Neil (played poorly by Ben Affleck) and his inability to commit. Neil’s struggle to dedicate himself to the relationship suggests that he lives first and foremost for himself, thus blocking any chances of a happy marriage with Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Marina seeks solace in the church, but the priest seems to have lost faith in his own teachings. The central couple’s wedding does not take place in a church, but in a courthouse where criminals are the witnesses. It’s as though everyone is reluctant to throw themselves wholly into anything, due to fear and lack of trust; a sentiment reflected by the restless camera cutting away quickly from each shot.
The ecstasy of love and the joy of knowing God are never fully realised in To The Wonder, either in the lives of the characters or in the very make up of the film. It’s shooting for the sublime, but falling short. Tellingly, the names of the characters are only revealed in the credits, as if the film is deliberately detached from their story. Although the camera shows the intimate moments of their lives, it’s difficult for the audience to truly invest in them. Just as Neil is reluctant to open himself up to someone else’s life, it feels as though the film is reluctant to truly open to the audience; it never quite takes us to the wonder. It is a remarkably straightforward film compared to the cosmic ponderings of Tree of Life, but it’s emptier, too, simply a story about people with too much faith in themselves, who hurt others because of it. For all the aspirations to divine significance, God feels as distant as the rest of the characters.
Straightforward is probably the last word you would use to describe the multi-narrative, time and space spanning epic Cloud Atlas. There’s too much plot to describe here in one go, just go and watch the film whilst it is still in cinemas (which won’t be for long). Across the six plots that form all three hours of this ambitious epic there are linking images and motifs that make the theme explicit: everything is connected. From a personal perspective, I believe in one life here on earth and one eternal life after that, but Cloud Atlas presents something far closer to reincarnation, suggesting that souls can be trapped on earth for eternity, reliving moments both good and bad. Each strand is told with a different style, from pulpy 70s thriller to Ealing comedy, but they are all inextricably linked by theme and recurring actors. One character’s journey – a slave-clone forced to work in a fast food outlet who rebels against the government – ends with her declaring that “our lives are not our own,” and the message is clear; there is more to our lives than the present moment, or what we see and feel and earth.
Whilst I don’t buy into ideas about reincarnation myself, Cloud Atlas provokes questions about eternity, and the significance of our actions. A composer writes a piece of music, the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ that has recurring importance in the other stories. His creation, and his story, affect the lives of others for future centuries. Although many of the stories end bleakly, it’s a far more positive outlook than something like To The Wonder. Cloud Atlas has a perspective that is a lot less self-centred than To The Wonder, which is an almost purely sensual experience. In To The Wonder, all that seems to matter is the moment, how you feel then and there and what relationships with other people can do for you, personally. But relying on feelings will betray you, especially as, if Cloud Atlas is to be believed, this life is just a small part of something a whole lot bigger.
There’s still that element of frustration, though, as one character writes “I believe there is a better world waiting for us…” but he doesn’t quite know what that looks like. Yet in another story, set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, one character resolves to help someone else, defying the devil (‘old Georgie’) to display courage in the hope of something beyond his island, even though he can’t see or understand it. That sounds a lot like faith, to me.
Yet society today seems to promote the importance of how you feel here and now ahead of anything beyond our own personal experience. Ultimately in a secular culture that is quick to reject God (and thus, the concept of eternity), there isn’t any need to live beyond the immediate present. Something about that refrain from Cloud Atlas seems pertinent, though: our lives are not our own. It’s worth considering Cate Shortland’s harrowing film Lore as a conclusion. This reduces the big, metaphysical ideas of Malick and Mitchell to one intensely personal story of a girl whose parents were high ranking Nazis, and how she copes when the war ends. She spends most of the film convinced that the ideology she received from her parents is irrefutable, and that conflict makes up the core of the film. With hindsight, however, we as the audience can see that the belief system passed on to her is abhorrent. Whilst it’s ridiculous to compare you, the reader, to Nazi sympathisers, what a film like Lore should do is provoke you to think about your own ideology, to question your belief (or lack, thereof).
Perhaps the cumulative experience of these films would be that you start to think about the longer term significance of your actions and long term doesn’t mean next week or next year, either. The pursuit of happiness is a misleading one because ultimately it won’t lead to anything eternal. It’s also a pursuit that places your faith entirely in yourself, another empty experience as you are more likely to let yourself down than anyone else is. Cinema is here to suggest that you can start looking beyond your own experience and wonder, even if you only wonder it for three hours of running time, whether your life is not your own, whether there’s something more than your life than the seventy three or so years your heart will be beating.