Was this the best movie year since 2007, the best since 1999, or the best ever? We’ll discuss all that in a moment – but first, let’s get this out of the way:
1. IRON MAN 3
2. DESPICABLE ME 2
3. FAST & FURIOUS 6
4. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
5. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
6. MAN OF STEEL
8. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
9. THE CROODS
10. WORLD WAR Z
Those are the 10 most successful films of the year at the global box-office, at time of writing (I expect The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will be crashing that list in a couple of weeks) – and in fact it’s a better list than usual. Three of those films are actually original ideas, as opposed to sequels or remakes; one of them (a certain Sandra Bullock-starring space drama) will be cropping up on the critics’ lists as well, which hardly ever happens. World War Z overcame a troubled production history, last-minute reshoots/rewrites and a host of naysayers pronouncing it Dead on Arrival before it had even arrived, and turned out to be quite a fun little horror movie. And of course the year’s biggest film – Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark – was also one of the most entertaining, thanks to often hilarious dialogue by writer-director Shane Black (whose Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the great underrated 00s films). That never happens.
So yes, the top box-office hits of 2013 were better than usual – but then everything seemed to be better than usual in 2013. Critics are notoriously grumpy, but year’s end brought a flood of starry-eyed pieces with jaded reviewers singing the praises of the previous 12 months. Some called it the best year for films (especially American films) since 2007, when four modern classics – There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James – came out near-simultaneously. Others noticed the boldness and daring of this year’s crop and compared it to 1999, a famously dazzling year led by the likes of Fight Club and Being John Malkovich.
Others went even further – and I’m not just talking amateur bloggers and impressionable youngsters here. “Personally, I’ve seen a greater number of engaging movies this past year than in any single year I can remember,” wrote Nick James – which is high praise because Mr. James is the editor of Sight & Sound, an official arm of the British Film Institute and perhaps the most serious-minded film magazine in Britain (not that there’s much competition). As they’ve done in previous years, S&S asked dozens of critics, programmers and academics – more than 100 in total – to offer their five favourite films of the year, then compiled the results. This was the Top Ten:
1. THE ACT OF KILLING
3. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
4. THE GREAT BEAUTY
5. FRANCES HA
6. (tie) A TOUCH OF SIN
8. THE SELFISH GIANT
9. (tie) NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY
10. STRANGER BY THE LAKE
Not much overlap with the previous list – yet the fact, as already mentioned, that there’s any overlap at all is pretty remarkable. Gravity was the year’s undoubted phenomenon, a film that (a) made hundreds of millions of dollars, (b) did so with minimal ingredients, just two actors and a simple story of survival, (c) redeemed both 3D and the science-fiction genre from the onslaught of comic-book heroics and gratuitous special effects, (d) got popcorn-munchers pumping their fists in the cinema but also (e) got serious critics saying things like “[Director] Alfonso Cuaron thinks through every sequence, shot and screen instant in terms of spectacular visuals and culture-crossing, easily graspable metaphor” (Matt Zoller Seitz, justifying his choice in the Sight & Sound poll).
So what else is on the poll? What are the films of this great movie year, at the arty end of the spectrum? Well, The Act of Killing is a documentary (shown in Cyprus last August, at the Limassol International Documentary Festival) in which American director Joshua Oppenheimer talks to the now-middle-aged Indonesian men who murdered hundreds of thousands of alleged Communists in the military takeover of 1965 – and it sounds a bit worthy but in fact it’s audacious, because the killers are entirely unabashed about their actions and indeed replay them in kitschy melodramatic reconstructions. As Oppenheimer remarked in interviews, it feels like entering a parallel universe where the Nazis won WW2 and former SS officers talk about killing Jews on TV talk-shows.
Blue is the Warmest Colour is equally audacious (like I said, boldness and daring were this year’s hallmarks), an intimate three-hour study of a teenage lesbian love affair that won the Golden Palm at Cannes – and The Great Beauty is even more ambitious, a mammoth, melancholy satire of Italian high society played as a modern variation on La Dolce Vita. Then there’s Frances Ha, a loveable – yet sharp! – little comedy with Greta Gerwig as a fluttery half-finished 20-something, and A Touch of Sin, a tapestry of tales about the upsurge of murderous violence in Chinese society, and Upstream Color, an utterly unique, cryptic, near-experimental US indie – I repeat: boldness and daring! – that filters an offbeat romance between two survivors (of what, exactly?) through a veil of mystery that may (or may not) include a telepathic link between pigs and humans. And we haven’t even mentioned the grim-but-soulful British gem The Selfish Giant, or explicitly gay murder mystery Stranger by the Lake, or 250-minute Filipino drama Norte, the End of History.
This is where many readers will roll their eyes and move on – partly, I assume, because such films are so foreign (in every sense) to their conception of movies. Whatever the merits of 2013, one thing at least didn’t improve: the gaping chasm between what’s Out There and what the vast majority of people actually watch.
Just to give an idea: The Act of Killing has made around $500,000 in the US; Iron Man 3 made over $400 million – 800 times more. The raves for 2013 as the greatest film year in living memory went hand-in-hand with jeremiads for the End of Cinema as we know it. Films are being upstaged by TV, even YouTube; Hollywood is now entirely irrelevant to quality filmmaking – not because the studios don’t (occasionally) make good movies, but because they have no interest in doing so. As analyst Doug Creutz told the New York Times recently: “The major media companies are so big that nothing but a blockbuster really makes sense. Say you make a low-budget comedy and it brings in $150 million. So what? That doesn’t move the needle. You make a blockbuster, you market and promote it, and it plays around the world. You can do the sequel and the consumer products and a theme park attraction. The movie itself is almost beside the point. All Disney is going to be doing is Marvel, Star Wars and animation.”
Where does that leave us? In a state of confusion – but meanwhile the films keep coming, and so do the random memories. Cate Blanchett’s armpit sweat stains in Blue Jasmine; Daniel Bruhl (as Niki Lauda) calling people “ash-hole” in Rush; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eminently quotable “You hit like a vegetarian” in Escape Plan (runner-up: Jason Statham’s “Whatever you’re thinking … re-think it” in Homefront); a waterfall spouting streams of blood in distaff vampire movie Byzantium; Russell Crowe, fat and decadent, pontificating on men, women and dogs – “You ever seen a bitch in heat?” – in the enjoyably bad Broken City; Joseph Gordon-Levitt and dad Tony Danza sitting at the dinner table in matching wife-beaters in Don Jon; a glowing red demon coming home from work (he’s holding a briefcase) in Post Tenebras Lux; Christopher Walken’s bruised old-man tenderness in Stand Up Guys; Robert Redford, ageing miraculously, in All is Lost; the lengthy, hypnotic quarrel that concludes Before Midnight; a cringe-inducing performance artist with a Soviet flag painted on her vagina asking “Did you enjoy the performance?”, and Toni Servillo summoning all his powers of pained politesse – “Parts of it…” – in The Great Beauty.
Was 2013 really that good? My own theory (it’s really more of a hunch) is that there may be a kind of grade inflation going on here. TV shows have become so prominent in recent years (the ending of Breaking Bad was arguably a bigger cultural event than any film, Hollywood or otherwise) that film critics may have been stung by all the talk of TV being ‘better than the movies’, subconsciously feeling a need to defend their patch against the various incursions. Maybe there’s an unspoken sense that Cinema, at this fragile moment in its history, needs all the help it can get.
Then again, what do I know? Here’s another annual poll, this one carried out by the Village Voice; the Voice asked 96 (mostly American) critics for their favourite films, and the results were as follows:
1. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
3. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
4. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
5. THE ACT OF KILLING
7. UPSTREAM COLOR
9. FRANCES HA
10. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Quite a bit of overlap with the Sight & Sound poll, as you might expect, though a greater emphasis on American films. No. 11 is American Hustle, No. 17 is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (which might be even higher if more critics had seen it), No. 21 is Nebraska; these are all being mentioned in connection with the Oscars – the nominations are announced on Jan. 16 – as is the No. 1, Joel and Ethan Coen’s rueful Inside Llewyn Davis, and especially the No. 3, 12 Years a Slave, as uncompromising a depiction of American slavery as the title implies.
Is the Oscar hype justified? I don’t know, and this is my point – because I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, and I haven’t seen Inside Llewyn Davis and indeed I haven’t seen Her, the No. 2 film in the critics’ poll (Joaquin Phoenix as a futuristic loser falling in love with his computer’s operating system, played by Scarlett Johansson). Despite my trove of memories – one more: the final, oddly satisfying moment, explaining the title, when Frances Halladay becomes Frances Ha – I won’t really know for a while just how rich the past 12 months have been, and in fact I’ll never know for sure because there’s no way to watch everything, one can only scratch the surface. 2013, the best movie year since whenever, still has surprises in store.