Top 12 Films of 2013

On the surface, 2013 might not appear the year that the very boundaries of cinema were tested. The five highest grossing films of the year were all sequels, with turgid superhero blockbusters and cuddly CGI children's flicks dominating the multiplexes.

But from blockbusters, to independents, to documentaries, there were a few maverick filmmakers who dared to be different, and for the most part were rewarded. New names including Joshua Oppenheimer and Haifa Al-Mansour emerged, exciting talents Abdellatif Kechiche and Shane Carruth broke in to the mainstream, and established directors such as Woody Allen and Alfonso Cuarón produced arguably their greatest works.

Without further ado then, here are my top 12 favourite films of the year.

Note – This list is composed of films released in the UK nationwide during 2013. Therefore the likes of 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis (two incredible films which are sure to feature next year) are not included.

12 – Nebraska

After his last movie, the studio sanitised product The Descendants, it was great to see Alexander Payne return to form with Nebraska, a bittersweet road movie that provided a funny yet touching examination of the people that populate the Midwestern United States.

In another's hands the tale of a senior alcoholic (Bruce Dern), returning to his hometown where they believe him to be a millionaire, could have been an intellectual sneer at the lives of rural blue-collar workers. But Payne, who himself grew up in Nebraska, crafts a personal movie out of Bob Nelson's script, that in its beautifully crisp black and white cinematography infuses the film's many gags with a rueful romanticism.

Whilst covering similar ground to that of Sideways and About Schmidt, fans of Payne delighted in being served another dish of the director's dry humour.

11 – A Field in England

Ben Wheatley's warped dark rom-com Sightseers was one of the best films of 2012, so initially it seemed strange to follow up that effort with a black and white micro-budget movie set during the English Civil War.

What was more remarkable was how the film proved even more audacious than its ground-breaking cross-platform release strategy. A historical thriller set during one of the most important, but unexplored, moments from British history, it perfectly captured the chaos of the time, a world turned upside down by the people challenging God and the King.

A bravura blend of period piece, psychedelic mystery, black comedy and folk horror, A Field in England is a worthy new entry to the British horror canon to rank alongside the likes of The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General.

10 – Django Unchained

From Kill Bill to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has flirted with the western for so long that it was only a matter of time before he'd fully embrace the genre.

Switching the west for the Deep South, the genre was appropriated here to tell the story of a black outlaw seeking to rescue his slave wife from antebellum oppression. Released at a similar time to another slavery film in Lincoln, Django Unchained triumphed because it was not only a scathing examination of an abhorrent era of American history, but through its dizzying blend of styles also a pure joy to watch.

Jamie Foxx may have been the star, but it was the turns from Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and greatest of all, Samuel L Jackson, that made this revenge story so electric.

9 – Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks gave his best performance in over a decade in Captain Phillips, the Paul Greengrass thriller based on the 2009 Somali hijacking of US cargo ship the Maersk Alabama.

Playing an ordinary hero thrown in to extraordinary circumstances, Hanks squares off against fantastic newcomer Barkhad Abdi playing Muse, leader of the Somali Pirates. The riveting cat and mouse games of the first half give way to an even more interesting political comparison in the second, where the colossal strength of the US navy is the big cat to the hopeless and desperate Somali mice.

Stranded out in the ocean these two worlds collide, with the rapid editing and expert handheld camerawork employed by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd ensuring that for a film set almost completely at sea we were always at the heart of the action.

8 – Wadjda

Sometimes the act of making a film is even more impressive than the film itself. Wadjda was extraordinary not only as the first feature film to be shot in Saudi Arabia, but because it's director was a woman.

For making a movie within Saudi Arabia's misogynist regime Haifaa al-Mansour should be applauded; for making such a brilliant and heartfelt film she should be praised. A stirring neorealist tale in the style of De Sica, the film's story of an 11 year old school girl's efforts to buy a bike provided a poignant parable of the many women in the country who dream of independence.

With Waad Mohammed bringing such infectious energy to the title role, Mansour crafted not only an intimate portrayal of life for women in Saudi Arabia, but also the cracks emerging in that patriarchal society as women's rights are brought to the forefront.

7 – Zero Dark Thirty

The other female director to make major waves this year was Kathryn Bigelow, who followed up her Oscar-winning war movie The Hurt Locker with a film based around the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

Harking back to the kind of New Hollywood films once made by William Friedkin and Sydney Lumet, this was a police procedural that over its two and half hour running time methodically examined how the CIA found Bin Laden, and in a breath-taking final half hour, how the world's most wanted man was executed in cold blood.

The picture soon became a political hot potato when critics from the left and right denounced it for either justifying torture of for leaking sensitive information. But Bigelow's inclusion of the waterboarding scenes do not act as endorsement; rather the neutral portrayal of CIA agent Maya's obsessive search for Bin Laden allows the viewer to themselves judge whether so much time, effort, blood and tears was really worth the murder of one man.

6 – Blue Jasmine

The ethereal Cate Blanchett was simply stunning in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's brutally funny return to form.

Her performance as the delusional and deranged New York socialite, a richly complex character who is both sympathetic and yet utterly irredeemable, is bound to see her win the golden statuette next year. Whilst Allen's recent crass offerings have given us caricatures over characters, here the turns from Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale all perfectly form a psychological projection from Jasmine's fragile mind of how she sees her place in society.

Finally returning to US shores after the wilderness years in Europe, Allen has finally delivered not only a triumphant comeback but his magnum opus, a movie that, thanks to the mesmeric Blanchett, can confidently be compared to the likes of Manhattan and Annie Hall.

5 – Blue is the Warmest Colour

Grabbing headlines for its graphically explicit (and extensive) sex scenes, as well as the alleged harsh treatment of its stars by director Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue is the Warmest Colour stands out as one of the most dazzling examinations I have seen of young lust and love.

Kechiche captures the ecstatic highs and painful lows of the young lesbian couple's relationship in raw and uncompromising close-ups, as well as including those much talked about sex scenes. Intense they might be, but Kechiche makes sure they are highly charged with sexuality without ever being pornographic.

Cannes jury president Steven Spielberg rightly broke with tradition by awarding the Palm d'Or to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, as well as the director, for it is the captivating chemistry between the two that ensures after the three hour running time you're still left begging for more.

4 – Upstream Colour

Indie wunderkind Shane Carruth's long awaited follow-up to time travel movie Primer was another intricate, impenetrable and highly visceral science fiction film.

The story of a woman trying to recover the trauma of being taken over by a parasite, the movie's montage of maggots, plants, people and pigs take us on a sensory voyage like nothing created before. Addressing themes of the cycle of nature and the structures imposed on our individuality, it proved Carruth as the man to bring a cerebral sensibility to independent cinema.

But where Upstream Colour excels over his first movie is that within its narratively abstruse framework lies an emotionally engaging love story about two lost souls battling to control their lives. With Carruth himself starring alongside the astounding Amy Seimitz, their journey was one that engaged our hearts as well as our minds.

3 – Gravity

After the mind-numbingly dull action of blockbusters Star Trek and Man of Steel, it was Gravity that proved Hollywood's saviour this year, a clarion call from director Alfonso Cuarón to the spectacle of cinema that exceeded the outer limits of what the medium has previously achieved.

The detail and precision in capturing the inhospitable zero gravity conditions of outer space was brought to life by the movie's incredibly orchestrated long takes, as well as the ground-breaking VFX work by Tim Webber and London's Framestore.

Leaving the cinema was to come crashing back down to Earth, so enraptured was I spinning through the orbit of this 90 minute 3D extravaganza. Perhaps most impressive of all, the enormity of the film's scope was matched by the intimacy of the drama, as Sandra Bullock gave one of the year's best performances as the resilient and determined astronaut confronted with the impossibilities of space.

2 – Before Midnight

Is Richard Linklater's triad of Before movies the greatest trilogy of all time? Nine years on from Céline and Jesse's encounter in Paris (and a further nine from when we first saw the two meet in Vienna), this time we peeked in on their world during a holiday in Greece, where the cracks are starting to form in their relationship.

In the same way modern television dramas use the longevity of the format to provide greater character depth than cinema can achieve, it's all the more absorbing, and devastating, to see the two come to blows because for three films, and two decades, we've lived with and invested in these characters.

There is nothing showy, unnecessary or rushed in these movies. Dialogue flows freely and naturally as scenes are given time to breathe, and all the while you are hooked on the quite simply extraordinary chemistry between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Collectively I have only seen the couple on screen for just shy of five hours, and yet the romance between Jesse and Céline in these magical films is both enduring and unforgettable.

1 – The Act of Killing

The greatest movie released this year is a disorientating documentary like none you've seen before, a shocking and enlightening indictment of Indonesia's dark history which also examines the commodification of violence by movies and the media.

Joshua Oppenheimer spent almost a decade in the Southeast Asian archipelago researching the atrocities, before by a miracle stumbling upon Anwar Congo, a revered gangster who himself was responsible for the murder of hundreds of people in the anti-communist mass killings of 1965-66.

Claiming to have a long-lasting passion for classical Hollywood cinema, he wilfully re-enacts his murders for the camera in the style of his favourite films, from a John Ford western, to a darkly lit Film Noir to a surreal musical number where women dance out of a giant fish.

It's a strategy that could have easily backfired if Anwar showed no remorse, but it is through his subjective account of history, the act of killing we see on screen, that the guilt and trauma he has buried for so long comes bubbling to the surface.

A phenomenal documentary that looks at how, and more importantly, why, we tell stories, The Act of Killing is daring and imaginative filmmaking of the highest order.