We have come to the end of another year on this blog, and therefore it's time to look back through all my reviews for the inevitable Top 10. I must confess up front to having seen a lot fewer current releases this year, for various reasons; hence you can probably expected an updated list at some point in the first six months of 2014. But for now, with a number of reviews still outstanding, here is my Top 10 as it stands on New Years' Eve 2013:
10. Elysium (dir. Neil Blomkamp)
10. Elysium (dir. Neil Blomkamp)
Neil Blomkamp's second feature sees him returning to many of the concepts which made District 9 a popular success. Elysium has many of the same problems that dogged its predecessor, chiefly that it has more ideas than it can adequately apply, and its references to all the films its draws on are far too blatant. But it is structurally and narratively a little more sound than District 9, and finds Matt Damon extends his streak as the most reliable leading man in Hollywood. Blomkamp won't able to pull the same trick three times, but this second time is still enjoyable enough.
9. Bernie (dir. Richard Linklater)
Bernie is the first of five films on this list which claim to be based on a true story - a term that often fills critics with dread. Fortunately we are in safe hands, as Richard Linklater reunites with a fantastic Jack Black in a gently dark comedy which draws heavily on the work of Hal Ashby and Alexander Payne. Linklater uses his typically adept touch with naturalistic characters to ask a number of subversive questions about criminality and the legal system, and while the film is narratively slight it is emotionally rewarding.
8. The Impossible (dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Impossible is the second follow-up entry on this list, with Juan Antonio Bayona continuing most of the goodwill and skill that was on show in The Orphanage. For all its great special effects in recreating the Boxing Day tsunami, the real power of the film is in the human drama, much of which is seen through the eyes of the children caught up in it. Naomi Watts gives a typical committed performance and the film on a whole demonstrates that stories about the triumph of the human story don't always have to be mushy and soporific - sometimes they can be truly gut-wrenching.
7. Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan)
Neil Jordan's third outing in the vampire genre is one of the most interesting horror films Britain has produced in recent years, putting a feminist slant on often-sexist character dynamics and giving us a truly scary horror film driven by women. At turns dream-like and lurid, Byzantium examines different approaches to female sexuality, romance and power, raising questions about how women are so often marginalised from polite society through sex. While not all of it works, it is a fascinating piece of work and the perfect antidote to the often-anaemic vampire films of recent times.
6. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby may not quite be great, but it is a lot better than many people first thought. Despite its clumsy framing device and needless 3D, Luhrmann's film is both a visual feast and a substantial approach to F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece. The film brings out the novel's themes (the emptiness of wealth, worship of false idols, the dangers of excess) by drawing fitting comparisons between the Roaring Twenties and the Credit Crunch. It's no Moulin Rouge!, but it works really well, and Leonardo DiCaprio's performance knocks Robert Redford's attempt into a cocked hat, old sport.
5. Saving Mr. Banks (dir. John Lee Hancock)
Saving Mr. Banks was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. What could be just another syrupy, based-on-a-true-story Oscar contender is actually a well-made, bristlingly funny tale about adaptation, childhood and the awkward relationship between film and literature. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks excel as P. L. Travers and Walt Disney respectively, and while the film is respectful of Disney it isn't afraid of having a few jokes at the company's expense. It's a proper feelgood film, in that is genuinely makes you feel good and offers so much more than just a smile.
4. Rush (dir. Ron Howard)
While Senna remains the definitive document of the classic era of F1, Rush is a great dramatic recreation of the period which finds Ron Howard returning to the best of form. After a somewhat confused opening act which plays things for broad comedy, the film soon gets into top gear with Niki Lauda's accident, rendered all the more horrific through Anthony Dod Mantle's unconventional cinematography. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl are outstanding as James Hunt and Lauda respectively, and the film is both exhilirating as a spectacle and smart in its depiction of obsession.
3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is one spot higher on this year's list than its predecessor managed on last year's list - and fittingly so, since Francis Lawrence's sequel is marginally better than the original. Drawing more on Rollerball than Battle Royale this time around, the film ups the stakes without compromising its characters, and when it does repeat the beats of the first instalment it gives them added weight and tension. Jennifer Lawrence continues to excel in the lead role in a franchise which proves just how good teen blockbusters can be in the right hands.
2. Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
There's been a lot of moaning about how much better The Hobbit films would be if Guillermo del Toro had stuck around - but Pacific Rim only vindicates his decision. A smart, genre-savvy blockbuster, the film is equal parts an affectionate tribute and a boldly designed crowdpleaser. Its effects are stupendous, its storytelling brisk, its performances believable and its new additions to the genre are intelligent, exciting and a lot of fun. No other film this year had set the standards higher for blockbusters, bringing both brains and entertainment in one hugely thrilling punch.
1. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
Three years after the (undeserved) failure of Green Zone, Paul Greengrass came back with a bang in 2013, delivering a thrilling, tense and multi-layered film based upon a real-life story of Somalian piracy. Combining Greengrass' characteristic aesthetic with one of Tom Hanks' best performances, Captain Phillips is a smart and nuanced examination of globalisation, the impact it has on individuals, the dynamics of a hostage situation and the all-encompassing sense of paranoia that surrounds our culture. Forget the news stories of historical inaccuracy: as a drama, a thriller and a weighty examination of themes, the film is a fantastic piece of work.
Honourable Mention: Gravity.
Forthcoming Reviews: Saving Mr. Banks, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.