So here's my ten favourite films of 2013 in descending order. Please note: I don't claim these as the best films of the year, just the ones I personally enjoyed the most. There are some films I saw in 2013 which would have made this chart but I left out as they were not technically 2013 UK releases but had already been released here prior to 1 Jan 2013. Also, at the bottom of this post you'll also find my five least favourite films of 2013. Enjoy.
10. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
The sequel to Kenneth Branagh's 2011 God of Thunder epic is a fast, fun, epic fantasy which opens up the restricted scope of the original to new worlds and new places on Earth (specifically London replacing a small New Mexico town). Game of Thrones' Alan Taylor comes aboard as director and brings a less shiny more lived in look to Asgard and its people. Principle cast returnees Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Natalie Portman as Jane, Kat Dennings as Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard as Eric are all once more top notch. But it's the not-so-secret weapon of Tom Hiddleston as Loki who once again commands the screen and makes the audience just love a bad guy. Above all else though, Thor: The Dark World does what the best of Marvel movies should do - it is tons of fun. And sometimes that's all you need. All hail MeuMeu!
9. THE WOLVERINE
The Wolverine sees James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) directing Hugh Jackman as the badass mutant with the cool adamantium claws. And in doing so makes up for the horrible poop fest that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Based on a classic run of the comics by Chris Claremont, the story sees Logan travel to Japan at the behest of dying Japanese industrialist Yashida who as a young man was saved by Logan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Yashida wants to repay his life debt to Logan by offering him the one thing he wants – mortality. However it appears there is a hidden agenda behind Logan's visit and our hirsute hero soon becomes involved with Mariko, Yashida's granddaughter, who has become a target of Yakuza gangs vying for control of her Grandfather's company. The Wolverine is a rare beast of a superhero flick in that for much of the time there are not any real super-heroics going on. It is more about character building and interaction and is not afraid to have well written, well acted scenes of just two people talking. But when the super-heroics do come then they come in style with some wonderful action sequences including a thrilling fight atop a speeding bullet train and a battle in the snow against an army of ninjas. All in all then a top notch character driven superhero thriller with Jackman hammering home yet again his total ownership of this role. Snikt!
8. IRON MAN THREE
I had a real hard time figuring out my fave Marvel movie of 2013. To be honest, it could easily be any of them (I include FOX's The Wolverine in this even though it is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). They were all great and they all had something different to offer while retaining the central Marvel demand that first and foremost they be FUN! But in the end, it came down to one thing...or I should say one person. Shane Black. Yep, the man behind Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was given $200m and told to go away and make a superhero film. Only Marvel would be this brave. And God bless 'em for it. It is precisely these smart and often brave choices that have made their films so much quirky, endearing fun, not to mention hugely successful. So what did Shane Black do with Marvel's $200m? What he did was to pretty much discard Iron Man and instead make a Tony Stark movie. For much of this film the armor is not even in use and when it is Tony is often not in it and is instead operating it remotely. Either that or other people are getting to wear it. In IM3 Tony is cast adrift and forced to use his wits and smarts to uncover the truth behind the terrorist known as The Mandarin as well as stopping a very bad guy from creating an army of exploding super-soldiers. Black invests his film with many of his usual tropes. In parts it becomes a buddy film (Stark and the kid, Stark and Rhodey), it is set around Christmas time, there is a torture scene where the hero turns the tables on the villains. And Black is also in super playful mode as he gleefully pulls the rug out from under the audience with a controversial twist about two thirds through which puts the whole film in to a new perspective. Also he is a dab hand at witty cutting banter. As such, IM3 is very, very funny with Downey Jr yet again proving why he is Marvel's most valuable on screen player. The action sequences are all good with the two highlights being the destruction of Stark's home via missile attack and the brilliant mid-air rescue of Air Force One passengers in free fall. The ending might devolve in to a bit of a flying CGI melee but it still contains some great character beats and gags amidst the carnage. Performances are all great with Downey Jr still at the top of his game. But special mention must go to Sir Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin. He is scary and...a lot more. Oh, and Brian Tyler provides a wonderfully toe tapping score with his end theme being sublime. So yeah, in the end, Iron Man Three clinches the title of top Marvel movie of 2013 mostly by virtue of being a Shane Black flick. And thanks to Marvel (and IM3 making $1.2bn), Black will now go on to make more movies of his choosing. And for that alone we must all be truly grateful.
7. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) replaces Gary Ross as this series' director, and in film number two brings a wider scope and deeper mythos to the building story of Katniss Everdeen and her growing role as unwilling focus for a building rebellion in the future land of Panem. The story here builds logically and smartly on the first film with nasty President Snow (a wonderfully snakelike Donald Sutherland) looking to discredit our heroine before getting her killed in a new round of winners only Hunger Games. Once again Jennifer Lawrence is superb as Katniss – steely and smart, haunted and vulnerable. And she is given strong support by the rest of the cast with special mention going to the fab Elisabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett who brings new depth to the previously shallow Escort to the District 12 Tributes. As before, the underlying themes are all about social control, the power of a complicit media, and the horrific extravagance and waste of the Capitol contrasted against the extreme poverty of everywhere else. It is perhaps this huge gap between the haves and have nots of Panem that hits home hardest making for a powerful message in this time of real world austerity for the poor and seemingly continuing greed and avarice for the wealthy. What makes this series work and raises it above all other young adult adaptations is that it has something serious and important on its mind. It is actually about something. Something important. Plus it has at its center perhaps the best leading lady and character actress of her generation in Jennifer Lawrence. I mean, how awesome must it be to be Jennifer Lawrence right now? Pretty damn awesome I reckon. Top of the world. Girl on Fire! And good for her. Bring on Mockingjay.
6. ODD THOMAS
Tricky one this. Odd Thomas has not been officially released anywhere yet. It's been made for nearly two years but due to legal wranglings remains locked in distribution limbo with no release in sight. I saw it via other means and we'll leave it at that. That this movie hasn't been and may not be released is a crying shame. Based on the novel by Dean R Koontz, Odd Thomas tells the story of a young man, a short order cook in a small town, who has the ability to see and communicate with recently dead people. Dead people who often need Odd's help to pass on. And being a kindly soul, Odd is more than willing to oblige them, using the knowledge the dead impart to him to track down murderers, rapists and all kinds of scum. However when Odd starts seeing a major increase in the number of bodachs (invisible creatures that appear when death and disaster is near), he becomes convinced that something terrible is going to befall his town and sets out to stop it from happening. Now I've not read Koontz's books so I have no idea how faithful the movie is or isn't. What I do know though is Odd Thomas the film, as written and directed by Stephen (The Mummy) Sommers is an imaginative, witty, warm, emotional and exciting supernatural adventure helped along by a great cast led by Anton Yelchin who is superb as the highly capable and likable Odd. Yelchin is wonderfully supported by Addison Timlin as Stormy, Odd's cute and loyal girlfriend, and Willem Dafoe as local Police Chief Porter, a friendly father figure to young Odd. The core of the film though is Odd and Stormy. And they are great together. You really do buy in to their playful, loving relationship and the obvious history behind it. You care about these two kids. The supernatural story proceeds as you'd expect – always fun, always creepy, always cool – but the tale of Odd and Stormy is what counts. By movie's end I don't mind admitting that I was moved. An emotional connection had been made. The film had worked. It was lots of creepy charming fun, yes, but it connected too. And in the end, that is what really counts. Way to go, Odd one.
5. JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS
Okay, so I had a big silly grin on my face all the way through this. Genius Chinese filmmaker Stephen (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle) Chow returns with his epic prequel to the famous 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en. To western audiences (especially kids who grew up in 70's/80's Britain) Journey to the West is best known as the classic Japanese TV show Monkey! The novel and TV show concerns the pilgrimage of Buddhist monk Xuanzang who traveled to India to obtain sacred texts with the aid of three protectors: a magical monkey king with fabulous powers, a pig demon, and a water demon given human form. But instead of telling this tale again, Chow has created his own prequel concerning Xuanzang and his pre-pilgrimage days as a rather hopeless Buddhist demon hunter who won't slay the demons but prefers instead to naively use the non-violent method of reading old nursery rhymes with the intention of calming the demons down and reawakening their goodness. Of course this approach does not go well for Xuanzang who soon runs in to a fellow demon hunter called Duan, a tough and beautiful woman who slays demons the old school way. Xuanzang doesn't seem to like his new competition very much. Duan though becomes hopelessly smitten by the hopeless young monk/demon hunter and their paths intertwine, eventually leading them both to come face to face with the legendary Monkey King imprisoned by the Buddha beneath a mountain. To be honest, there is not much of any real story to Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. It is mostly a series of incidents as poor hapless Xuanzang keeps trying (and failing) to calm those demons and become a better man through finding enlightenment. The film's throughline is Xuanzang and Duan and their weird and wacky one sided courtship mixed in with lots of gloriously entertaining set pieces involving all kinds of crazy monsters and Tom and Jerry style cartoon action. This could easily have been one big rambling mess. But Stephen Chow knows what he is doing. And like the awesome Kung Fu Hustle, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons ends up a wildly inventive, very funny, very silly blast. The fact that it is based around the same tale that brought joy to millions of 70s/80s kids like me is just an added bonus. This time out though, Chow does not star in his own movie as he usually does. A younger actor was required to play Xuanzang. And Wen Zhang is a spot on Chow substitute. Then there is the beautiful Shu Qi (best known to western audiences as Jason Statham's 'cargo' in the first Transporter) who is terrific as the feisty, fighty, slightly unhinged Duan. The movie looks great too with big detailed sets, glorious design and lots of nifty FX. But in the end it is the pure nutty fun factor that Chow can harness so well in his films that makes this one a winner. Sequel please.
4. WOLF CHILDREN
Acclaimed Japanese director Mamoru (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) Hosoda co-writes and directs this beautiful, simple animated film that tells the story of nineteen year old Hana who meets and falls in love with a man who she soon discovers is the last of his race: a legendary tribe who can physically transform in to wolves. The pair marry and Hana soon becomes pregnant, eventually giving birth to a daughter, Yuki, and then a year later a son, Ame. However tragedy strikes and Hana and her two small children are left alone with Hana struggling to bring up two small wolf children with hardly any money and no experience of rearing such creatures. All the while she is also trying to keep the children's existence secret from the rest of the world while also trying to give the two (literal) nippers enjoyable and fulfilling lives. Mamoru Hosoda has said that Wolf Children was conceived as his love letter to motherhood, to mothers the world over. And that it is. There is no big intricate story here. There are no bad guys. What there is, is a mother struggling against all odds to make a wonderful life for her two growing children while also giving them the strength and the space to find out who they are and to make the right choices for themselves. The film rings true throughout and visually it is truly lovely with the gorgeous and vivid watercolour style countrysides striking to behold as are the almost photo-realistic cityscapes. Perhaps the single greatest sequence in the film is of Hana playing with and chasing her two small wolf children through the snow on the mountainside where they live, all three of them filled with such unbound joy. Truly uplifting stuff. Wolf Children is a lovely film. Touching and emotional without being sentimental. Funny and charming throughout. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars were both great but this is Mamoru Hosoda's best film to date. A treat.
3. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
So, you're in the middle of directing one of the biggest blockbuster movies of all time (3rd biggest to be exact) and you get two weeks off. What do you do? Take the wife and kids on a break? Go home and sleep? Well, if you are Joss Whedon you go make a film in your own house with no money starring a load of your friends. And not just any film either. Oh no. You make an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. In black and white. But surely not I hear you cry? That could never work. No where near enough time. And who the heck wants to watch a black and white Shakespeare play shot in someone's backyard anyway? Well, me as it turns out. And a lot of other people too. I won't bother with a plot summary. Go look it up if you don't know. Just know that Beatrice loves Benedick and vice versa but neither of them know it or will admit it until romantic circumstances arising between Benedick's friend and compatriot Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero force the issue. There are conspiracies, back-stabbings, tragedy, fury, romance, and lots of laughs. Yes, I swear. It is honestly, properly funny. Possibly the first time I have ever found a Shakespeare comedy funny. This being a Joss Whedon film he focuses on the gender issues highlighted by the story with Beatrice's heartfelt and rightly furious rant about the unfairness of it all being a highlight. Oh yeah, Amy Acker as Beatrice. She is fabulous. But then she always has been right back to her days as Fred and Iliyria on Angel. And as Benedick, Alexis Denisof is also great, full of swaggering charisma and latterly a growing fury and passion. The rest of the cast are good too including Clark Gregg as Leonato, the governor of Messina, and Fran Kranz as Claudio. However it is the duo of Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk as bumbling cops Dogberry and Verges who almost steal the entire movie. They are hilarious. Even if you don't understand the language you will get what they are doing. Comedy gold. I've watched this several times now since it came out and it never gets dull. In fact, it is a pure joy from start to finish. I truly hope Joss shoots some more Shakespeare plays this way. It would be a crime not to let his little rep company get their Bard out more often for all of us to enjoy. Yup, Joss (and William) remains Boss!
2. PACIFIC RIM
It's big. It's not subtle. It's kinda daft. But boy, is it a blast! Guillermo del Toro brings to the screen in the way only he could the story of humans piloting giant mechas knows as Jaegers to fight off the cross dimensional invasion of giant monsters who appear through a rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. And that's pretty much it really. There's not any great depth to Pacific Rim (except when they are literally at the bottom of the Pacific of course). It's a giant monsters versus giant robots smash em up movie as filtered through the brain of monster loving, clockwork/gears obsessed Mexican geek demi-god del Torro. The cool and imposing Idris Elba as Stacker Penticost leads the charge for humanity in the dying days of the Humans vs Kaiju war which humans are now losing. However Penticost has one last card to play. He has a plan to end the war forever with one last major strike against the Kaiju's rift at the bottom of the sea. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a washed-up Jaeger pilot is called out of retirement and teamed with rookie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) who also happens to be Penticost's adoptive daughter, to lead this last-ditch effort to defeat the Kaijus. What Pacific Rim really is, is an old fashioned WW2 against the odds mission movie. Backs against the wall, chaps. Tally ho! The look and design of the film for all its high tech robots echoes WW2 flicks from the Jaeger hangers and bases and barracks to the battered leather fleece lined jackets the pilots wear. It is this future retro feel that really makes me love the movie. That and the terrific visuals including the designs of the Jaegers and the various monstrous Kaijus. The epic battles when they happen are humongous and inventively staged slug fests using supertankers as baseball bats to batter a monster and rocket powered arms to land a more powerful punch. The performances are fine with Elba being suitably gruff and intense and Hunnam reluctantly heroic. Rinko Kakuchi as Mako is good too with a nice line in deceptive fragility. However it is the little girl Mana Ashida who plays Mako as a child who deserves most credit. The sequence of her wandering Tokyo utterly terrified as a massive Kaiju runs riot is scary good. The poor kid looks like del Toro was threatening to shoot a puppy off camera or something. Tremendous performance! In the end, Pacific Rim is just big gleeful nonsense. But I bloody loved every minute of it. Thankfully (mostly due to the great people of China) it became an international hit after only doing so so in the US. This may mean we get to see a sequel, although the movie ends the story perfectly so I wouldn't be too upset if we didn't get another does of this mecha on monster action.
In space nobody can hear you crap your pants! At the start of this end of year round up I made the point that I am not claiming these to be 'the best' films of the year, merely the films I have personally enjoyed the most. However I can honestly say that Gravity IS the best film I saw this year. Hands down. It is quite simply astonishing. Sandra Bullock is scientist Dr Ryan Stone who becomes stranded in orbit after her shuttle is destroyed by debris from a satellite mishap. Along with fellow astronaut Kowalski (George Clooney) she must find a way to get back to Earth before either the debris field comes around again or they both run out of oxygen. What follows is one of the most intense, scary, stressful, beautiful, awe inspiring pieces of cinema ever. Just the visuals alone with the groundbreaking use of CGI and other visual FX is enough to make your jaw hit the floor, but add in the buttock clenching and seemingly hopeless fight for survival and you end up with what is an unparalleled cinematic experience. Gravity is only one of three films you simply must see in 3D. The other two being Avatar and Hugo. Okay, so Gravity is basically a genre film which plays out kinda like a horror movie. But it does have depth to it. It has themes and layers. The main ones being about the preciousness of life, birth and rebirth, the vastness of the cosmos but also the vastness of the human spirit and its will to survive, to go on no matter what. Of the actors, Clooney is of course splendid but the film belongs completely to Bullock who cements her position as one of the biggest genuine movie stars on the planet as well as being a tremendous actress. Because despite the visual wonders on show if you don't buy in to Dr Ryan Stone as a character then nothing else will work. But buy in you do. Gotta say for a woman in her late 40's Sandy B is seriously bucking the Hollywood starlet meatgrinder trend. And more power to her. But the success of Gravity would not have been possible without the visionary direction of Alfonso Cuarón, the genius Mexican director of Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, and the sublime A Little Princess. Cuarón is simply one of the very best filmmakers working today and I can't wait to see what he does next. Make no mistake, Gravity is the real deal. A tremendous piece of film making with a great central performance from a genuine movie star. I just hope Warners re-release it every few years so we can continue to see it as it was meant to be seen: on a huge screen in 3D. Cuz I really want that experience back.
Django Unchained, Rush, American Mary, The World's End, Les Miserables
And now my bottom five films of 2013:
5. THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES
A dull, hackneyed grab bag from other better fantasy franchises stuffed together in to this confusing, poorly written and completely uninvolving bore of a film. Only the super cute Lily Collins makes this even close to bearable. Thankfully it flopped...and yet they are making a sequel. Huh?
4. DRACULA 3D (Dario Argento's film)
Oh how the once mighty have fallen. Dario Argento has been a true visionary in the realm of horror cinema with classics such as Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebre. But those days are long gone. Dracula 3D is a laughably bad retelling of Stoker's classic featuring some truly terrible acting, awful FX and poor general production values. Argento manages to reduce Stoker's creepy gothic horror story to a silly bland cartoon. Only buxom vampire bride Tania played by the gorgeous Miriam Giovanelli provides any life being charismatically sexy and nicely ferocious in her role. But this is mostly some major suckage.
3. LOVE BITE
A British alleged horror comedy set in a small seaside town which sees teen Jamie (Ed Speleers) and his three pals looking to get laid so that they don't fall victim to a possible werewolf who is out hunting down virgins. The situation gets complicated by Jamie falling for a visiting American girl Juliana (Jessica Szohr) who may or may not harbour a dark secret. Okay, so the filmmakers were obviously going for something akin to The Inbetweeners meets Cherry Falls meets Ginger Snaps. Unfortunately they failed dismally on every level. It's crude. Sure, that's easy. But it ain't funny. And it sure ain't scary, tense or even gory. It is just a big fat nothing. A big empty hole lasting 90 mins. I felt sorry for poor Timothy Spall as a deranged werewolf hunter. How did he end up in this rubbish?
2. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
And so director John Moore and writer Skip Woods took a franchise I love (the first Die Hard is my second fave film ever), killed it, shat on it but then didn't even bother to flush it. They just left it there lying dead in cinema's toilet bowl mouldering away for us all to see before we turn away in violent disgust. Fuck them. Fuck them all. The basic premise of this the fifth Die Hard film is fine - McClane goes to Russia to help out his son who is in a spot of bother and gets dragged in to a criminal conspiracy to steal nuclear weapons. So far so solid. Problem is the resulting script is awful being filled with bad plotting, terrible dialogue and worst of all devolving John McClane – one of cinema's greatest heroes – in to a grumpy, ignorant, unlikable borderline psychopath who appears to care nothing about crushing cars with innocent civilians inside and seems to glory in getting his gun off whenever he can. That is NOT John McClane! McClane is always a reluctant hero, just a regular guy who is not eager for violence but who will step up and do the right thing if needed. But above all...he CARES!!! Add in the fact that John Moore is a director who can't shoot decent action to save his life and is incapable of bringing a sense of life or energy or drama to anything he makes and what we end up with is a complete and utter travesty of a Die Hard film. For all those people who thought Die Hard 4.0 was bad (I don't, I really like it) well, watch this and you'll think it was a stunner by comparison. Part of me hopes this is the end of McClane's adventures as I don't want to see the great man shat on anymore. But another part of me hopes that when John McTiernan is let out of prison he will get to make a sixth and final Die Hard which will restore the good name of the franchise and above all the good name and high standing of Mr John McClane. This? This is just utter, utter dispiriting shit. Shame on you, FOX.
1. A HAUNTED HOUSE
Any other year and A Good Day to Die Hard would easily clinch the bottom spot on this chart. However this year The Wayans Brothers (chiefly Marlon) unleashed this utterly wretched turd of a film on us. It's basically a spoof of the Paranormal Activity films (a series I've given up on now after the crap fourth film) that is so spectacularly unfunny and even offensive in places that I was quite amazed while struggling through it. What is even more amazing is that it made money and a sequel is on its way. Oh god no! But hey, if you think Marlon Wayans gurning like an idiot amidst lots of shouting, stupid sex jokes, borderline homophobic jokes, as well as a sequence which sees a young child being violently beaten is remotely funny then good luck to you. I don't. Quite the opposite in fact. I found nothing at all to like about this. I hated every vile second. At least A Good Day to Die Hard had a good score from Marco Beltrami to distract me from its shitness. No such luck here. Congrats Wayans Bros. With the likes of this, White Chicks and Littleman you continue to scrape the bottom of the comedy barrel. Gross.
That's all folks. Happy cinema going for 2014.