Top ten films of 2013

Who takes out #1 for 2013?

It’s that time of year again, when The Jam Report looks back on the year that’s been in film, and decides upon the ten best films of the year. 2013 has provided an embarrassment of riches when it comes to choosing this list, given we’ve seen one of the best years in recent times. You know you’re in for a struggle to pick just ten when your short-list contains over thirty films, and it’s meant some painful decisions to cut certain films from this year’s list. So without further ado, let the countdown begin.

10. The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s latest triumph in her short but illustrious career, The Bling Ring is a wildly entertaining, yet incredibly disturbing, insight into the modern world of celebrity-obsessed youth culture, made all the more unsettling by being based on true events. Emma Watson shines in a performance that could have easily fallen into farce in the hands of a lesser actress, and at the same time, successfully manages to break her away from the Hermione tag that she was destined to carry for the rest of her career. There were those that falsely criticised her ‘Valley girl’ accent as over the top, but all one needs to do is watch footage of Alexis Neiers, the real life Bling Ring character Nicki is based on, and you’ll see she actually nailed it. Believe it or not, the “I want to lead a country, for all I know” speech is not fictional in the slightest, and is a direct quote from Neiers herself. Nicki is a force to be reckoned with, and Watson relishes in playing a character with such disgraceful flaws and entire lack of morals or ethics.

Coppola’s flamboyant and fun style is so perfectly suited to this kind of film, and her choice of cinematography techniques here is remarkable. She closely films the majority of the Ring’s crime sprees, essentially making the audience an unwilling accomplice, but also chooses to film one spree from high above and outside the celebrity’s home, turning the audience into shocked voyeur. We sit in utter amazement at how quickly and unashamedly these kids ransack a total stranger’s house. Coppola resists the urge to create any empathy or sympathy for these characters (or even worse, turn them into modern-day Robin Hood martyrs), instead highlighting their lack of remorse and unbelievable narcissism to showcase that celebrity obsession is ultimately a damaging problem, and the very public lives of celebrities, including their exact current whereabouts and home addresses, can end up feeding this dangerous fascination.

9. Thor: The Dark World

In the battle of the superhero films of 2013, the god of thunder triumphs over Tony Stark and Kal-El. I have to admit to loving all three, each in their own way, but due to sheer entertainment, Thor: The Dark World wins out. In his third adventure playing the titular character, Chris Hemsworth truly soars, with a performance proving that he has come into his own, as a fully fledged superhero for this generation to stand behind. Gone is the out-of-place and arrogantly bratty demi-god, and in his place stands a sincere, strong and mighty character that you just want to cheer for, something I can’t quite say about Cavill (give him time) or Downey Jr (is it not getting a little old?).

As superb as Hemsworth is, it was hardly surprising that it really was the Loki show, and Tom Hiddleston takes his performance as the lovable villain to another level. You genuinely miss him when he’s not on screen, and no matter how evil he becomes, he is the star. With the best lines in the picture (“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just…I don’t love them.”), and hands down the funniest Marvel pseudo-cameo to date, Loki steals the whole damn show, as he has done in every Marvel film so far. The only letdown here was the lack of a great villain, besides Loki. Malekith and his Dark Elves were spooky and all, but they just weren’t particularly imposing or terrifying, and it never really seemed in doubt that Thor would annihilate them. And maybe the film could have done with a little editing here and there, particularly in that fairly unnecessary opening sequence. Did we really need to see the entire backstory of Asgard vs Svartalfheim? I’m sure we would’ve picked up on what had happened along the way, through references by the involving players. Seeing Natalie Portman back on the big screen again, and her stellar chemistry with Hemsworth, more than made up for this, so please for the love of Thor include her in The Avengers 2!

8. The Conjuring

Given I’m a huge horror fan, it’s almost a certainty there will be a horror film in my top 10 list. While it was hardly a great year for the genre (The Purge, anyone?), there was thankfully one brilliant highlight – James Wan’s terrifying The Conjuring. On the surface, it appeared like this was the type of film that we’d seen many times before. A spooky house. A tormented family. Paranormal investigators arriving to help, and underestimating what they are there to face. Yet despite this, The Conjuring manages to seem entirely fresh and new, and far more frightening than many films we’ve previously seen in this genre. Much of the success rests with Wan’s wonderful direction, where he consistently ignores the temptation to show the audience everything, and instead follows the less is more horror film notion. It’s often far more horrifying for an audience to imagine rather than see, something his other 2013 film Insidious: Chapter Two sadly did not follow, much to its detriment.

Also key to the film’s success is the wonderful cast, led by superb performances by Vera Farmiga, Lily Taylor and the five young children, particularly Joey King. These poor girls are relentlessly tormented, in ways that even adult actors would struggle with, and yet their performances are so incredibly real and emotional that you genuinely care for their characters, an extreme rarity in horror. Farmiga delivers a warm and lovable character, with some sadly unexplored demons of her own, and again proves that she’s one of the best actresses working today. With some of the scariest sequences ever committed to film (who knew someone clapping could be so gut-wrenchingly terrifying?), it’s a triumph in a field where triumphs are few and far between. Clap, clap…

7. Lincoln

Yes, it’s time to journey way back to the start of 2013 for the number 6 & 7 positions, and it takes a special film to remain in contention for almost a full twelve months. Such is the case with Steven Spielberg’s latest masterpiece, showcasing the life and times of beloved American president Abraham Lincoln. What is there to be said about Daniel Day-Lewis that hasn’t already been said before? The man is one of, if not the greatest actor of our time, and he once again proves why he holds that title, with his astonishing Academy Award winning performance. Day-Lewis completely encapsulates the persona of Lincoln, with a powerful and moving performance that just soars off the screen. His manner of tone and elocution is so immensely accurate that he just completely disappears into the character, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.

Supporting Day-Lewis are two remarkable and shamefully overlooked performances by Sally Field, as Lincoln’s unstable wife Mary, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Lincoln’s right-hand man Thaddeus Stevens. Field steals every damn scene shes in, and should have been awarded with her third Academy Award for yet another brilliant performance in her illustrious career. Likewise with Jones, who’s character is much more understated and restrained, but no less powerful and stoic, managing to achieve the film’s most touching and beautiful moment towards the conclusion. Beautifully shot, marvelously directed, and wonderfully scripted, it’s a travesty this film was not showered with Oscars last February.

6. Silver Linings Playbook

All hail Jennifer Lawrence. Nobody owned this year like Miss Lawrence, and she began the year with her star-making, and Oscar-winning, turn in David O. Russell’s brilliant Silver Linings Playbook. In a frenzied and fierce performance, she dominates the film with her presence, as the unhinged but ultimately adorable Tiffany. It announced the arrival of one of the most exciting talents the screen has seen in years. Jennifer is the new Meryl, and you can’t help but be excited by what she will do next.

In the film, we find a pair of obsessive and unbalanced protagonists, played superbly by Bradley Cooper and Lawrence. Their frenetic lives are on the verge of spiraling out of control on a daily basis. One would think pairing the two together would cause a disaster of epic proportions, but it’s through their unbalanced natures that the two somehow find balance in each other. Cooper’s Pat is incredibly likable, but scarily intense and disturbed, while Lawrence’s Tiffany is just a complete and utter mess.

Over a common goal, a dance competition of all things, the two bond and connect in such a beautiful and amazing way that the audience quickly forget they are watching two mentally disturbed people. Somehow, Russell has managed to bring such reality to the world of mental illness that the two are just completely irresistible, despite their numerous and disturbing flaws. After all, nobody’s perfect.

Sprinkle in two utterly brilliant supporting turns from Robert DeNiro and Jackie Weaver, plus some wonderfully surprising work from Chris Tucker, and you have a truly magic actor’s film. Cooper and Lawrence are just dynamite together, and their confrontations are some of the best you will ever see on screen. Funny, moving, depressing, delightful, and unsettling. Somehow, the film manages to elicit all these emotions, and then some. If it’s a travesty that Lincoln wasn’t showered with Oscars, it’s a downright disgrace that Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t the one beating it to the trophies.

5. Prisoners

The most harrowing and uncomfortable film of 2013 also happens to be amongst the year’s best. Uncomfortable may sound like a criticism, but it’s really one of the film’s finest achievements. In Denis Villeneuve’s intense and gripping thriller Prisoners, we bear witness to an unspeakable crime, and the unspeakable actions of a father in a destructive downward spiral, as he attempts to cope with his daughter’s disappearance. Villeneuve never shies away from anything in this movie. There’s no sugar coating. There’s no turning away when things get too intense. And there’s not even a particularly well-resolved ending.

However, this combines to create an unflinching portrayal of the desperate methods a father undertakes to find his lost daughter, and punish the man he believes responsible for her abduction. The film forces the audience to battle with their own moral dilemma, by essentially asking them to put themselves in the father’s shoes. Yes, what he’s doing is disgracefully brutal and highly illegal, but can we really blame him? Would we not not consider the same course of action, if it was our family in danger? Blurring the moral lines of justice is a powerful message, and the film absolutely nails it.

Hugh Jackman is utterly superb, with his confronting and intense performance being the highlight of the film. How there wasn’t awards buzz for Best Actor, I will never understand. His work here is far superior to last year’s Les Miserables, and he should have been rewarded thusly. Likewise for Maria Bello and Jake Gyllenhaal, who may not have the destructive nature in their performances, but still deliver powerful and gripping roles, even with their somewhat understated characters. Kudos also to Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, who provide the film’s intrigue and mystery. Dano suffers through enormous torment and anguish, and succeeds in creating empathy for a character we are intended to despise.

The cliché phrase ‘edge-of-your-seat cinema’ gets thrown around a lot, but it is so incredibly accurate when describing this film. Once the film gets going, it doesn’t let up. The last 30 minutes were the most gripping moments on film in 2013. Loaded with twists and turns, none of which follow any typical film formula, Prisoners is a gripping thriller of the highest order. It should be amongst this year’s Best Picture nominees, it’s an absolute gem.

4. Saving Mr. Banks

Alright, before I begin, let me confess my bias here. Mary Poppins was my childhood film. As a young boy, I would literally watch it at least two or three times a week. It’s where my love of all things Disney began. For a film to portray the originals of the film, as well as the first on-screen depiction of Walt Disney himself, was really a dream come true. There was always going to be a high chance that I would adore this film, and it would be on my final list. That said, and taking all bias away, Saving Mr. Banks is truly a wonderful and beautiful film, with two utterly amazing performances, and it really is a charming ode to the world of film-making, much in the vain of Hugo or The Artist.

I don’t like to even bother acknowledging the accusations of the film not depicting an accurate portrayal of Walt, but I will say this. Yes, there may have been some aspects of Walt’s life and his treatment of P.L. Travers, and perhaps even women in general, that were less than stellar. And yes, maybe the film glossed over that in some ways, but therein lies your answer to this idiotic accusation. This is a film. This is not a documentary. This is not an exposé on the evil men of Hollywood. This is entertainment. This isn’t even really supposed to be a film about Walt Disney at all! It’s Travers’ story, and her struggles in giving her beloved character over to the Hollywood machine. And the movie was made by the Walt Disney Studios, for god’s sake. Did anyone honestly expect it to portray Walt Disney as some sort of monster? It’s that kind of mud-slinging that cost the film its chances at the Oscars. You throw enough mud, and sadly some of it will stick.

I’m getting off topic. Back to the film itself. What truly sets this film apart is Emma Thompson, and her glorious performance as Mrs. Travers (never Pamela). At first glance, the character seems to merely be a horrid spinster, who is determined to undermine the production of what could be a film classic. Thompson relishes in the opportunity to be quite nasty, short-tempered, and altogether uppity to the point of exhaustion, but it’s through the back-story of her life that we begin to understand her motivations. Mary Poppins (never just Mary) is as real to her as a person can be, so of course she’s protective of giving her over to Walt and his merry men. It’s through her struggles that we sympathise to her, and it takes a special kind of actress to deliver a performance that is both cold and incredibly warm, all at the same time.

On the flipside, we have Hanks, and his performance that is just overflowing with warmth. Walt was a magical man, despite attempted rumours to the contrary, and Hanks was the only one who could deliver that magic, in a film setting. He expertly captures Walt’s heart and his absolute love for film, which is even more astonishing, given he lacks any physical resemblance to the man at all. It’s embarrassing that the Academy didn’t think to reward both these actors with nominations, particularly Thompson, and I will never understand their snubs, nor the film’s in general.

The number of extraordinary magic moments in this film are many – Walt taking Mrs. Travers on a tour of Disneyland, Richard Sherman playing Feed The Birds for Walt late one night, Mrs Travers hearing Let’s Go Fly A Kite and finally letting the music in. The tears. The goosebumps. The sheer joy. Absolute magic. Practically perfect in every way, Saving Mr. Banks was the most beautiful film of the year…itttttttttt’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

3. Frozen

The renaissance of Disney animation continued in 2013, in a big way. After the triumphs of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, it seemed Frozen had some mighty big expectations to live up to. In a year of fairly disappointing animation adventures (Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Monsters University – yawn, yawn, yawn), all hopes were pinned on the final animated film of the year, and it certainly did not disappoint. Frozen is an absolute masterpiece, in every sense of the word. Based on the animation traditions that Disney created decades ago, at first glance the film appeared to be just another princess fairytale, and yet it’s unlike anything the company has ever produced before.

The kingdom of Arendelle is plunged into despair, after their powerful Queen uses her magic to plunge the land into an eternal winter, and it’s up to one brave girl, the Queen’s sister, to save them all. Sounds pretty stock-standard with many fairytales, but what sets Frozen apart is where the story heads from there. From the initial impression, it would appear that the Queen was a typical Disney villain, using her evil sorcery to create chaos and havoc, yet Elsa is anything but. She is flawed. She is scared. She is not evil. This is not the story of one sister battling against her evil sibling, in the hopes of saving humanity. This is the story of one sister attempting to save the other, not defeat her. And it’s only through discovering what makes you different is what makes you strong can they both be saved. Talk about an empowering message for young children. While there is of course a boy-meets-girl love story within the film, the true heart of the plot is the love between two sisters, and the immense power that can bring. When you combine this truly original story with some of the most beautiful animation Disney have ever produced, you have a winning combination.

Frozen marks a return to the glorious animated musical, something we haven’t seen in pure-form in almost five years, and certainly something we haven’t seen truly succeed for Disney in over a decade. The crowing glory of this achievement was hiring two Broadway musical geniuses to create the film’s songs. Song-writing team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have created true Disney classics, with “Let It Go” being among the greatest songs ever created for film. It’s the true highlight of the film, thanks to the soaring and radiant vocal performance by Broadway goddess Idina Menzel, who brings a touch of “Defying Gravity” to the song. The Academy will hear my bloodcurdling screams, all the way from Australia, if this song isn’t awarded Best Original Song at the Oscars. Avoid the U2/Mandela temptation, please. The fact that the Frozen soundtrack is the first Disney soundtrack to reach #1 on the charts since Pocahontas proves what an achievement the songwriting is here.

What sets Frozen apart from other animated fare this year is the voice cast. Kristen Bell instils Ana with an enormous amount of heart and warmth, juxtaposed by Menzel’s Elsa, who is determined to keep all around her at arm’s length, for fear of the power that lies within her. Their relationship, and the conflict it brings, is the soul of the film. Ana is light and breezy, Elsa is dark and brooding. Yet somehow, they must find common ground. Delivering the humour and lighter moments in the film is Josh Gad, and his deliciously hilarious performance as the talking snowman Olaf. Gad is his typical quirky and off-beat self, and the naivety of the lovable snowman is too adorable to resist. How can you not fall in love with him, as he narrates his longing for the warmth of summer, seemingly unaware of what heat does to snow. In a wise decision, the script doesn’t overload the audience with Olaf, so he never crosses the line into becoming just another loud-mouth, annoying animated oaf, à la Eddie Murphy’s warn-out Donkey in the Shrek franchise.

I could write for days about my love for this movie. As a devoted die-hard Disney enthusiast, nothing warms my icy heart more than the return of the legend that is Disney, and they are well and truly back. Look out, Pixar. They’re taking back the crown.

And then, there were two. Over the past month of agonising over this list, these two films have switched positions over a dozen times. Splitting them has been next to impossible. They both truly deserve to be the top film of the year…but that would be a cop-out. Since I must, here we go.

2. Gravity

I knew boldly claiming on Facebook back in November that Gravity had won the race, and that no film for the rest of the year would top it, would come back to haunt me. It really did seem like it wasn’t possible for a film to outdo the stunning achievements of this new sci-fi classic…but, as you can see, I was pre-emptive in that declaration. I will learn to wait for the year to be over before making such statements in the future. That being said, it did take a very special film to even elicit that declaration in effectively ending the top 10 race early, and Gravity is the most stunning visual delight of the year, and one of the most unforgettable thrill rides in cinematic history.

What initially feels like a space documentary, due to the truly unbelievable visual effects work, quickly hurtles into a gripping thriller of the highest order. If Prisoners had me on the edge of my seat, Gravity had me cowering on the floor in the foetal position. At times while watching the film, you actually find yourself unknowingly holding your breath. That’s how engrossed in the film you become. The 3D element just encapsulates this even further, with some of the best use of the technology the screen has ever seen. You are in space with Bullock and Clooney. You are the third crew member. And you are terrified out of your god damn mind.

The credit for this intimacy lies with master director Alfonso Cuarón, and his remarkable work here. Due to his meticulous pre-production work, every single shot was painstakingly planned for absolute maximum effect, and you can tell the man has enormous devotion to his craft. What makes his direction that more remarkable is the performances he has managed to elicit from his actors. You only need to see a behind-the-scenes video to see that the sterile green-screen environment the actors were performing in couldn’t be further from what would eventually be seen on screen. To make their performances believable, despite this, is the mark of a genius at play. He put Bullock through the ringer, and managed to capture something truly magical.

The thought of being the only actor on screen for 95% of a film would send most actresses running for the hills, but not Sandra Bullock. She tackles this obstacle with such verve and determination that you can’t help but stand and applaud. In the hands of a lesser actress, her character would have quickly become irritating and annoying – oh, just let the bitch float off into space! But, no. Through her powerful and gripping performance, we want her to succeed, we want her to survive, and we want her to get back to Earth. Bullock has never been better, and that’s saying something.

Ignore the idiotic criticism that the film isn’t realistic enough. Once again, this is a film, not a documentary. Did anyone really need to see Sandra Bullock wearing an adult diaper? And if anyone tells you that this film is only amazing because it used 3D as a gimmick, I argue back that every single film on this list uses some sort of gimmick. It’s a little thing called mise-en-scène, and every single piece of cinema manipulates and crafts certain elements in some way to achieve their vision. 3D is merely one of those elements, and Cuarón uses it in the best possible way, much like James Cameron or Martin Scorsese. It’s no different to Frozen using musical numbers or American Hustle using music and costume to create the director’s vision. There’s bad 3D (I’m looking at you The Hobbit), and there’s amazing 3D. Thankfully, Gravity falls in the latter.

With some of the best cinematography and special effects you will ever see on screen, coupled with a gripping story, masterful direction and one of the highlight performances of the year, Gravity is an absolute classic. The best sci-fi movie of this decade, the last decade, and one of the best of all-time.

1. American Hustle

The film that made me go back on my word. The film that stole the unstealable spot. The film that takes out the #1 spot for 2013. American Hustle, as near-perfect a film as you are ever going to get. It is almost impossible to fault this movie. This is what you get when you pair a writer/director at the top of his game, with actors at the top of their game. American Hustle is a piece of cinema that is so perfectly executed, it’s simply not plausible for those that truly love cinema to not adore this film.

Let’s begin with the performances. I’m not even sure where to start, since we really do have four tour-de-force performances here, something the Academy rightly noticed and recognised. Christian Bale delivers a performance that somehow manages to out-do his amazing work in The Fighter. It’s not just his physical transformation that is admirable, but the depth he goes to in encapsulating the character of Irving Rosenfeld. From the opening sequence, where he meticulously creates his incredibly complicated comb-over hairdo, you get a sense of a man so dedicated to his image, that he will spend what seems like an eternity crafting his illusion. This is a man who must always be in control, and Bale plays the con-man with enormous range and intrigue. When Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser enters his life, it takes the film to another level. Adams, mysterious and cool, is the yin to his yang, and when the two pair up, it’s absolute magic. She’s already proven herself one of best actresses in the biz (five Oscar noms in seven years is no mean feat), and once again she reminds us why she holds that title. Adams breezes in and out of her alter-ego Lady Edith with such ease and composure, it starts to become unclear whether it’s really an alter-ego at all.

And then there’s Bradley Cooper, who follows up his career-changing performance in Silver Linings Playbook with another remarkable turn. Cooper’s intense and desperate Richie DiMaso steals every damn scene he’s in, with his burning desire to prove himself and pull off the biggest bust of his career. His ambition is feverish, and when he literally beats the absolute hell out of a colleague, his boss no less, you get a sense this is a determined man on the edge of his sanity. When Richie teams up with Irving and Sydney, we find ourselves entering the most delicious love-triangle, that will keep you guessing until the very end of the film. Just who is playing who, and who will come out on top at the end? Spoiler – it doesn’t end well for one of them…

But there is one performance to top them all in this film, and that belongs to queen of the world Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance here as Irving’s estranged wife Rosalyn is just an absolute treat of the highest order. She’s bat-shit crazy, she’s entirely unhinged and unpredictable, and yet, you end up falling head over heels in love with her. When she’s not on the screen, you genuinely miss her, and when she is on screen, you can’t take your damn eyes off her. Russell appears to perfectly understand this, and manages to have Rosalyn re-enter the story just as the audience starts to really long for her to emerge. Rosalyn is a force to be reckoned with, even in a film overloaded with characters who are also forces to be reckoned with, and she’s the kind of character that will kick you in the groin, at the same time as melting your heart. Ultimately, she just wants to be loved, and will do anything it takes to feel that desire from another human being. Lawrence is just sublime. I don’t care that she won last year, she needs to win her second Oscar for this brilliant and astonishing performance.

Performances are nothing without a killer script to back them up, and the actors have one of the best screenplays ever written to work with here. Russell’s script is absolutely cracking, and takes great influence from classics like Goodfellas and Casino. There are multiple complex stories at play here, and yet it never seems muddled or confusing. It’s just right. The production design is also truly superb, with brilliant hair, costume and make-up work to capture the look and feel of the 70s in an expert way. The soundtrack is a total dream, working perfectly within the film, thanks to expertly placed and perfectly fitting songs, with everything from Duke Ellington to Wings to Donna Summer. And where the hell they found an Arabic version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” is beyond me, but it couldn’t be more appropriate for its placement within the film.

I could go on, and on, and on. It’s just a fucking fantastic movie. The heist. The con. The characters. The costumes. The hair. The finale. Bale. Adams. Cooper. Lawrence. And even a special shoutout to Jeremy Renner, for his incredibly underrated, but no less brilliant, performance. Truly magic cinema, at its absolute finest. If there is any justice at the Oscars, this film would win every damn award. The best film you will see this year, and one of the best films you will ever see.

Well, there we have it for another year. I can’t help but do this, given there were so many films cut from the list that still deserve a shout-out, so I have to give honourable mentions to the following: Anchorman: The Legend Continues, Behind The Candelabra, Blackfish, The Butler, Django Unchained (definitely #11 on this list), Don Jon, The Great Gatsby, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, The Life Of Pi, Man of Steel, Now You See Me, The Place Beyond The Pines, Side Effects, Sinister, Star Trek Into Darkness, Warm Bodies, and Zero Dark Thirty. It always kills me that there are so many amazing January releases in Australia, that in other territories would be a December 2013 release. Don’t worry Philomena, Her, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club etc. I’ll still remember you in 12 months time.

Thank you, 2013. It was an absolute pleasure. Heads up, 2014. You have a lot to live up to.

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