By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 31, 2013 at 11:40AM
Oliver Lyttelton's Top 15 Films List: Damn, what a year. I've had tough decisions to make when it came to putting together my year-end list before, but never as tough as this time: I could have fairly happily gone through 50 picks and still be talking about movies I liked a lot, but I figured I'm being indulgent enough with 15 rather than 10 as it is.
A quick word before we start: while many writers, including Playlist colleagues, stick strictly to U.S. release dates when compiling their lists, I simply go by whatever I've seen, providing it's relatively new, and in theaters. Being based in the U.K, release dates sometimes get wonky, but beyond that, I'd rather reflect my own moviegoing year and come up with something personal than stretch myself to write about a movie that I saw eighteen months ago at a festival. That means that "Wadjda," "The Hunt," "Stories We Tell," "No" and "Sightseers," all of which made my list last year, aren't on this year's list: if you're a stickler for release schedules, feel free to insert them wherever you feels appropriate.
15. "The Kings Of Summer"
For the most part, form follows function with big-screen comedy. There's the odd exception (more than one on this list, not coincidentally), but for the most part, even A-list comedy directors like Paul Feig and Adam McKay, both of whom delivered films in 2013 that were stacked with laughs, seem wildly uninterested in doing much more than pointing their camera at funny people. That "The Kings Of Summer" wants more is one of the things that makes it so exciting: it's a comedy that's genuinely beautiful, with a lyrical, borderline-expressionist feel that proves you can be balls-out funny and aesthetically pleasing. But it's not just a picture-postcard with some gags, either, because there's real substance here. While the dominating theme of cinematic comedy of the last decade has been of arrested development, of the perpetual man-child, this feels refreshing because it's about the reverse: kids who desperately want to grow up before they're quite ready to, and amidst the belly-laughs, there's a yearning, melancholy tone that imbues meaning without drifting into sentimentality (it's about five times more effective than the similar-on-the-surface "Mud," for one). It also announces, in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, writer Chris Galletta and its absurdly talented young cast, the arrival of a host of hugely exciting new voices. The film might have been overlooked on release, but I'd wager that a decade from now, it's going to feel like the arrival of a new wave of comedy filmmakers in the same way that, say, "Freaks & Geeks" did fifteen years ago.
14. "Starred Up"
This tiny, fierce little British prison-set gem was overlooked by most at Telluride and TIFF this year, and it's easy to understand why: a cast of mostly unknowns, a director (David Mackenzie, of "Young Adam" and "Hallam Foe") who'd never quite lived up to his potential, and a genre, the prison flick, that's inspired almost as many terrible Britflicks as "Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels." But when I caught up with it at the London Film Festival, it bashed me around the head like a sock full of snooker balls -- it's a firecracker of a movie, a brutal, yet deeply tender drama that's lingered long after more prestigious and hyped fare has come and gone. The film (written authentically and even a little poetically by former prison psychologist Jonathan Asser), sees borderline-psychotic ultra-violent young offender Eric (Jack O'Connell, who's about to become a huge star) sent to the same wing of the same prison in which his dad (Ben Mendelsohn) has been serving a life sentence since Eric was knee-high. Father doesn't want much to do with father, and vice versa, but there's soon a three-way battle for Eric's soul, as both creepy crimelord Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) and compassionate psychologist Oliver (Rupert Friend) start to make impressions on the young'un. It's an uncompromising and brutal film (Eric spends one entire early scene with his teeth clamped onto the genitals of a prison guard), but the violence feels real, never stylized or glamorized, and the tos-and-fros of prison life have the quiet assuredness of "A Prophet." And in O'Connell in particular (though all the cast are great), it has a performance for the ages: a feral nightmare one moment, a scared little boy the next. Fans of muscular, no-nonsense crime films, you need to mark your diaries for this when it hits in 2014.
13. "The Wind Rises"
If you're going to go out, go out on a high. Steven Soderbergh did that this year, with "Behind The Candelabra," if you believe he's retiring, and Hayao Miyazaki, the animation genius behind "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Spirited Away," among many, many others, did it too, announcing his retirement on the day that "The Wind Rises" premiered for international audiences in Venice. And it's a remarkable way to end a remarkable career: a film with all the artistry that we've come to expect from Studio Ghibli, but by some distance proving to be a more grounded and realistic work, doing away with the giant cat creatures and courier-witches and flying pigs and moving castles that have defined his work. "The Wind Rises" is a deeply personal story, one of a man obsessed by his craft -- in this case, airplane design, rather than animation, but hardly a million miles away. It's an almost unique insight into the mind of the director, who makes his driven hero a figure of sympathy even when he's ignoring his dying wife or, more controversially, that his planes are going to be used as war machines the latter sparked a backlash, though I'd say that the film absolutely and clearly deals with the price that Jiro pays for his obsession). It's rich, thematically speaking -- though sometimes chafes against the biopic structure, probably the reason I won't rank it with "Princess Mononoke" and "Porco Rosso" among Miyazaki's very best -- but appropriately, it's the artistry that shines through, with images and moments (the earthquake, the paper planes, the wedding sequence) that stop your damn heart. It's the perfect note on which to say goodbye to one of our very best.
Holy shit: it speaks to the quality of the year we've had, that a film like "Gravity" can't even crack my top ten. So much has been said already, in every quarter, about Alfonso Cuaron's bravura spectacle: I've had conversations about this more than any other movie in the last twelve months, and it's undoubtedly the one that, when we look back on 2013, will be the film that defines the year. My first viewing, at the premiere screening in Venice, was the thrill ride: one of the tensest experiences I've ever had in a theater, a quite literally nail-biting 90 minutes. But it was the second viewing, months later, that hammered home why I don't think I'll ever understand those who see the film as nothing more than an amusement park attraction. There's a soulfulness to Cuaron's film that's rare in the blockbuster world, as Sandra Bullock's astronaut goes from a shut-away loner who wouldn't be all that unhappy drifting off into space, to someone fighting desperately to make it back to the rest of humanity. No, the backstory isn't especially innovative, or subtly introduced, but thanks to Bullock's performance, it proves enormously affecting. But of course, it's Cuaron that's the star here, and as someone who considers "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Children Of Men" two of the best films of the 00s, it's enormously satisfying to find Cuaron finding critical and popular acceptance on this broad a scale.
11. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
Historically, I've never especially gotten on with Jim Jarmusch -- "Ghost Dog" made an early impression on me, and I love "Dead Man," but I've mostly failed to connect with his early work, and actively disliked the more recent likes of "Broken Flowers" and "The Limits Of Control." But no such problem with "Only Lovers Left Alive," which I straight-up adored on just about every level, and again, I'm sort of puzzled that this isn't in my top five, let alone my top ten. Excuse the pun, but Jarmusch somehow manages to find new blood in the vampire genre, which has otherwise faced increasingly diminishing returns over the years, by playing up the ennui: Tom Hiddleston's Adam and Tilda Swinton's Eve are mostly just bored by their many centuries (millennia?) of life, just about in love with each other to keep going, but starting to realize that their civilized existence may not be the way forward. It's a wickedly funny and quietly sexy little film (thanks principally to the two stars, who are the best screen couple of 2013 and 2014), but one infused with a deep melancholy, not least when John Hurt's Christopher Marlowe comes on screen. More than anything I saw this year (with maybe one exception), this had a mood quite unlike anything else, a killer soundtrack and some top-notch photography by Yorick Le Saux combining with Jarmusch's effortless command of mood and tone to build a world that I've spent months wanting to return to.
10. "The Great Beauty"
If this was a list of the Most Movies of 2013, "The Great Beauty" would happily sit on top: in a year where Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, Harmony Korine and David O Russell, among others, documented American excess with excess, it took an Italian to show how it's really done, with a two-and-a-half hour epic that felt like a dozen films crashing into each other. Paolo Sorrentino's film has been divisive, and I can absolutely see where the detractors are coming from: it's indulgent, unruly, self-absorbed, overly indebted to Fellini, messy, probably overlong, certainly unevenly paced and sometimes baffling. But all of that can be true, and it can still also be vital, gorgeous, deeply rich, and genuinely soul-stirring, as Sorrentino eventually corrals his episodic stops into the story of a man who's searched for beauty his whole life and found mostly corruption and rottenness. It does (just) add up to something satisfying, but really, it's a film both about, and glorying in, the little moments: the astonishing party sequence that out-Gatsbied "The Great Gatsby," the child art prodigy, the glimpses of Rome at dawn, the ancient nun making a pilgrimage up a stone staircase, the incomprehensibly beautiful teenage girl who can haunt an entire lifetime. It's a film about, and in celebration of, beauty, and the sharp stings that so often come with it.
9. "12 Years A Slave"
Sometimes it takes an outsider to really get to the heart of the problem, and it's sort of notable that by far the best American movie about slavery -- or really, any movie about slavery -- comes from a British filmmaker (albeit one with his roots in Grenada). There's no politeness in "12 Years A Slave," no desire to forgive or excuse, and no reluctance to offend, but simply a retelling of one man's story in the same clear and sparse style that director Steve McQueen brought to "Hunger" and "Shame" (the latter of which could easily have lent its title to this film). There's no interest in shielding the viewer from the many indignities and outrages of America's greatest disgrace, from the monstrous -- that unforgettable flogging sequence, which made me feel physically sick, something that I'm probably not alone in -- to the, well, more quietly monstrous -- Benedict Cumberbatch's character, who's as kind to Solomon as he could be, given that he doesn't consider him to be a human being. And it could risk being unwatchable, were it not for the finely modulated tone of McQueen, who knows his own technique just well enough to keep it palatable, and for the deeply humane performances at the center. In particular, it's Chiwetel Ejiofor who towers above everyone: my favorite working actor finally gives the performance that lets everyone else know what a once-in-a-generation talent he is.
For a minute, it seemed like I wasn't going to catch up with "Her," which was almost heart-breaking: I loved Jonze's first two films, "Where The Wild Things Are" topped my 2009 list, and I very nearly included "I'm Here" on my top 10 the year after, despite the latter only being a 30-minute short. Thankfully, fate came through, and I managed to catch up, and my heart got to break in an entirely different way: with "Her," Jonze has delivered his most personal and idiosyncratic film to date, one that unexpectedly hit me like a dump truck full of iPhones. Undoubtedly a close cousin of the "I'm Here" short, Jonze (in his first solo self-penned script) delivers a delicate break-up record of a movie, one wracked with self-loathing and pain, as Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that somehow, is at least the equal of his seemingly-untouchable work in "The Master" last year) attempts to get over his broken marriage and unexpectedly falls for his artificially intelligent operating system, only to find himself being left behind again. It would be so easy for the film to become mopey and self-pitying, but somehow Jonze keeps it away from bleakness, in part thanks to how good Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams (the latter in particular being the most inexplicably overlooked performance of the year) all are. As personal and deeply moving as it all is, Jonze has more on his mind, though, and he sneaks in one of the most complex and engaged examinations of the singularity (and sets in the most rigorously and convincingly designed near-future we can remember), all under the guise of a love story. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jonze himself might be some highly advanced artificial intelligence: it's the only way that he can pull all of this off so effortlessly.
7. " Upstream Color"
It's fascinating when a filmmaker changes course completely, especially when they've left years between projects. Whatever I was expecting from Shane Carruth's second feature, nine years on from his first, it probably wasn't "Upstream Color," which is almost exactly the opposite of his debut "Primer," while clearly and evidently coming from the same filmmaker. While "Primer" was intellectually dazzling, but chilly and technically makeshift, "Upstream Color" is a virtuoso, hugely accomplished piece of filmmaking that puts emotion above narrative coherence. Emotion might not even be the right word for it: Carruth's after something more primal here: the lurch you get in your stomach when you're attracted to someone even if you're not sure why, the desperate panic when loved ones are in harm's way, the breathlessness and nausea when you think your personal space, or even body, has been invaded. No film in 2013 made me feel more than "Upstream Color," and an early morning festival screening meant walking around in a haze for hours after, not quite sure what I'd just seen (though I think it's more narratively coherent than many give it credit for, especially after a rewatch), and almost wanting to shake it, but also not willing to trade the experience for anything. Even if "Upstream Color" was the only great movie to be released in 2013 -- and as we've already seen, that's far from the case -- Shane Carruth's return alone would have been reason to celebrate.
6. "Frances Ha"
Sometimes, it's all about seeing a film at the right time. There was probably no better audience, then or now, for "Star Wars" than someone who was eight-years-old in 1977. And in the same way, no-one, my older self included, will ever love "The Matrix" like I loved it at holy-shit-that's-cool thirteen, or fall for "Donnie Darko" like I fell for it at who-knows-what-my-hormones-are-doing sixteen, or cherish "The Red Shoes" like I cherished it at fell-asleep-during-it-in-class-with-my-first-love's-head-on-my-shoulder nineteen. And "Frances Ha" is probably one of those films. I suspect that I'll still adore it in forty years, because Noah Baumbach's filmmaking is top-flight, because the dialogue sparkles and sings, because Greta Gerwig is ludicrously wonderful in it, and because the music's great. I'll show it to my children because it's a film about female friendship and lord knows there aren't enough of those, and I'll show it to significant others, because if they don't swoon a little as Frances dances to "Modern Love," or beam at the final shot, then I won't be entirely sure it's going to work out. But no matter how many times I rewatch it, it won't have the same impact as when I sat down to watch it for the first time, a couple of months after turning 27 (like Frances, "not a real person yet"), and a couple of weeks after, probably foolishly, leaving a full-time job to focus on being broke and shuffling between accommodation and doing creative things for no money. It's like Baumbach and Gerwig had bottled up all my insecurities and nighttime panics and hopes and dreams, shot them in gorgeous black-and-white and cut them together with a featherlight, almost Lubitschian touch. And that's why I couldn't have loved "Frances Ha" more than I did in 2013.
5. "The World's End"
There are not many perfect movie trilogies. Some major achievements -- "Lord of the Rings," "The Godfather," "Star Wars," "Back To The Future" -- go off the boil with the final film, others -- Nolan's "Batman" -- kick off slowly. But 2013 saw the "Toy Story," "Three Colors," "Apu" and "Dollars" trilogies joined by an unlikely newcomer -- the Cornetto trilogy. "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" already numbered among the best comedies of the past decade, skillfully and uproariously turning out some of the most rewatchable and quotable films in recent memory, but Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nira Park et al excelled themselves with the trilogy closer "The World's End." Consolidating the themes of the early films -- individualism, selfishness, pubs, ultraviolence -- and adding all kinds of new concerns, it's also the most technically accomplished film of the three, Wright taking the Hollywood tricks he picked up on "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" and bringing them to a commuter-belt British new town with a secret. But more importantly, it's also the strangest and richest of the trilogy, a film that, like many of the best comedies knows when to step off the gag pedal. I was expecting the intricately-designed, always-paying-off-and-paying-back screenplay, and the astonishingly good fight sequences, but I wasn't expecting a final product that was so profoundly sad, a raucous, but melancholy sci-fi action-comedy about addiction, friendship, aging, the way that You Can't Go Home Again, and humanity's inalienable right to be fucking awful. Gary King & co are the crowning achievement of the Cornetto trilogy, and more than ever, reason to be enormously excited about what Wright & co end up doing next.
There might not be a better feeling, as a watcher of movies, than taking a chance on something and having your head blown off your shoulders as a result. That's what happened to me with "Ida," a little black-and-white wonder of a movie that I happened to watch on screener during the London Film Festival this year, based less on buzz from elsewhere (there wasn't really any), and more on my love for British-based Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski's "My Summer Of Love" a decade ago. And thank God I did, because the brisk little Bressonian miracle (which went on to win the top prize at the LFF) is one of the best-crafted films of the year, and an absolute must-see when it rolls around to non-festival audiences in 2014. It's a simple tale, barely breaking the 80 minute mark, but Pawlikowski makes his story -- of an orphan woman, a trainee nun in 1960s Poland, on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers she's Jewish, and goes on a road trip with her sole living relative in search of her parents' burial site -- as rich and rewarding as a novel. It's shot in an enormously striking manner in Academy ratio black-and-white, flecked with wry humor, deep humanity and Soviet chic cool, and blessed by a pair of outstanding performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza, but it's also grappling with big questions for such a little movie, with faith, death and the Holocaust, even if it's ultimately got more modest aims. With immaculate framing, crystal-clear storytelling and slow-burn pain like this, it's a wonder that Pawlikowski isn't considered among the top rank of international filmmakers, but as more and more people catch up to "Ida," that should change before long.
3. "Under The Skin"
No film this year had a more appropriate title than "Under The Skin." When the closing credits roll on the gorgeous, horrifying, almost indescribable new film from "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" director Jonathan Glazer, you suspect you've seen something remarkable, but you're not quite sure: you're still processing, unpacking and puzzling over it. And then, over the next few hours, days, and even weeks, it becomes apparent that Glazer's film has embedded itself in you like a parasite, making it difficult to do anything but process, unpack and puzzle over "Under The Skin," a film that seems to have penetrated every pore of you. Opening with a series of abstractions that seem like Glazer sticking two fingers up at an audience expecting a sexed-up "Species" re-do, the next couple of hours parcel out some of the most spectacular, searing images I can remember on the big screen, with DoP Daniel Landin showing a Gordon Willis-like capability for photographing darkness, and one FX-aided image in particular proving especially haunting. And at the centre is Scarlett Johansson, in her second great otherworldly performance of the year, but while "Her" relied solely on her voice, "Under The Skin" rests entirely on her physicality, and it's a movie-star turn, sultry and innocent simultaneously, without which the film wouldn't work. Her turn, along with those images, the hypnotic rhythm, and the instant classic of a score by Mica Levi, burrowed deep into me when it screened in Venice and, four months on, still haven't let go.
If you're going to go to another country and back for a day to see one movie, your expectations are naturally going to be a touch higher than they otherwise would be. So when The Playlist sent me to Paris for the afternoon in order to see the uncut, original version of Bong Joon-Ho's "Snowpiercer," which was being released in France, but may or may not see the light in the rest of the world, the pressure was on. But the man behind "Memories Of Murder," "The Host" and "Mother" wasn't about to start letting me down, and his first English-language film happily sits along his Korean masterworks, and in a year where a number of my favorites included sci-fi elements to various degrees, feels likely to enter the genre's hall of fame near the very top. A dystopian vision set entirely on board a train ploughing through an icy wasteland, pitting the have-nots at the back (Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt) against the haves at the front (personified by a glorious, vicious cartoon of a performance by Tilda Swinton), and it's a movie of perpetual motion in more than one sense, with Bong's command of the movement and direction of his camera even more accomplished than in his previous work. It's also as thrilling as any blockbuster that's come along in recent times, but with a sense of surprise and invention that Hollywood tentpoles mostly abandoned long ago, with fierce political substance and character turns that would have been noted away in a big studio version before cameras even started rolling. Funny, textured, with a very fine ensemble of performers (Bell and Song joining Swinton as the stand-outs) and thought-provoking, it deserves to be seen by audiences in the U.S and elsewhere without losing a frame.
1. "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Like I said at the top, getting this into any kind of order was a Sisyphean task, given the quality of the films I was considering, and the impossibility of picking between them (ask me again tomorrow, and the order might well have changed: it's shifted more than once since I started writing the piece). But when it came time to choose the number one pick, it proved relatively simple, when i really thought about it. Ultimately, the Coen Brothers are among the best filmmakers we have working, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" is one of their very best films. So how could I possibly pick anything else? Closer in spirit in tone to "Barton Fink" and "A Serious Man" than to "Raising Arizona" or "O Brother Where Art Thou," the Coens' sixteenth feature is both deceptively simple -- a folk musician with asshole-ish tendencies bounces from episode to episode, and doesn't learn much -- and fiendishly complex -- the circular structure, the road-movie-like tangent trip to Chicago, the layered nature of every relationship. Like "A Serious Man," this is the Coens at their most novelistic, with a richness and obliqueness that can leave a first-time viewer flailing, but only grows more in stature every time you think about it, and with a command of image (the soft-toned, nostalgic photography by Bruno Delbonnel), and music (that amazing soundtrack) that you could never get from a novel. And at the center, is Oscar Isaac -- an initially against-the-grain choice who immediately demonstrates that he's a titan, with a performance that's one part insufferable to three parts heartbreaking. It's a movie that's, in part, about failure and mediocrity, and the fear of those things, and it's a particularly Coen-esque joke that the movie itself is a wild, astonishing success.
I Also Loved: It's possible that, with a second viewing, "The Wolf Of Wall Street" could have cracked the final list -- I was a bit nonplussed when I caught up with it a few days ago, but it's stuck with me, and if nothing else, it feels like Scorsese's most substantial work in at least fifteen years. If we were talking about the best films of the year, I'd also probably include Tsai Ming-Liang's "Stray Dogs," which is astonishing, but also easier to admire than to love, and my heart ultimately favored other picks.
The opposite is true of "Short Term 12" -- I know, intellectually, that the script is too neat for the messy subject matter it deals with, but I also connected very personally with some elements of the film, loved the tone and every performance, and it only just missed the cut. Frederick Wiseman's "At Berkeley" is also astonishing, a four-hour documentary that I could have kept watching for hours longer. Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman" was a film I loved unexpectedly (read more here), while in almost any other year, "All Is Lost," "Computer Chess," "Before Midnight," "The Past," "Stoker," "What Richard Did," "Night Moves" and "Tom At The Farm" might all have cracked my list too.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Pacific Rim" were the most satisfying tentpoles of the year by some distance, while I also found a huge amount to love, if not unreservedly, in "Of Good Report," "Mistaken For Strangers," "Locke," "We Are The Best!," "Miss Violence," "A Field In England," "You're Next," "The Last Stand," "Side Effects," "Nobody's Daughter Haewon," "The Selfish Giant," "The Conjuring," "Blue Is The Warmest Colour," "Blue Jasmine," "Jodorowsky's Dune," "In The House" and "The Spectacular Now."
Catching Up: 2012 movies that I didn't catch up with until the early months of 2013 were led by "Zero Dark Thirty," a propulsive, gripping and impeccably acted procedural that (not to drag this debate up a year on), doesn't even remotely come close to endorsing torture, any more so that "Inside Llewyn Davis" endorses unprotected sex and being an asshole. It might have topped my list last year if I'd seen it in time. I also had a blast with "Cloud Atlas," which divided Playlist staff on release, but which I found bold, exciting and always eminently watchable, even in the moments when it doesn't quite work.
Worst Film: "A Good Day To Die Hard," which is barely even a film, more just a collection of fuck-ups, and misreadings of what works about the original "Die Hard." "Gangster Squad" and "Dom Hemingway" were also thoroughly dislikable, but a bit more competent.
Gabe Toro's Top 10 on the next page.