I admit it; I have found the task of picking my five best films of the year impossible. Not because I am indecisive, honest, but because 2013 has been a year of such cinematic diversity and quality that I simply couldn’t mark just five out for attention. So with that in mind, here instead is my top 10 of the year, in no particular order. Hey, what’s the point of being editor if you can’t bend the rules?
In a fantastic year for British film, the incomparable Ben Wheatley delivered yet another stunner. This tale of a caravan holiday like no other is, thanks to the superb performances and devilish chemistry of Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also co-wrote the screenplay), dark, funny and surprisingly moving.
Ben Affleck’s expert retelling of the 1980 clandestine operation to extract American diplomats out of revolutionary Iran is gripping, from start to finish. Chris Terrio’s screenplay keeps the focus tight, and there isn’t a weak link to be found in the ensemble cast.
Martin McDonagh’s follow up to In Bruges is a knowing portrait of the extremes of filmmaking in modern Hollywood. The cast is divine, the script is razor sharp and it’s all absolutely hilarious to boot. Special mention must go to Linda Bright Clay, who plays Walken’s wife; in her climactic scene with Woody Harrelson, she reveals herself as one of the strongest female characters of the year.
It’s not just the phenomenal performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman that make this an obvious choice for my top 10, but also Paul Thomas-Anderson’s script, which effectively and intelligently encapsulates personal themes of identity and faith along with wider issues of democracy and freedom.
A powerful story of persecution and pride, featuring an awe-inspiring performance from lead Mads Mikkelsen (see below) as the man wrongly accused of child abuse.
Berberian Sound Studio
One of the most original films I saw this–or any–year, Toby Jones’ descent into an Italian sound stage nightmare is both terrifying and compelling. Should be seen for its use of fruit alone.
Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy are perfectly cast as the custodians of a may-be-haunted inn, and writer/director Ti West’s inventive script, exceptional cinematography and evocative soundtrack are the film’s other stars. That West gives his story the room to breathe lends it an enduring menace, and his ending is inspired.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Released in the UK on Boxing Day, this is a surprising, touching little gem that came out of nowhere and completely blindsided me. Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are charming as the couple brought together under the most unlikely of circumstances, and Derek Connolly’s beautifully crafted script effectively breathes new life into tired genre conventions.
Another of the year’s great surprises, Gareth Evans’ frenzied martial art thriller blends a traditional horror narrative with some of the most immersive camerawork I have ever seen. A breathtaking piece of cinema.
Woody Harrelson gives a raw, mesmerising performance as a take-no-prisoners LAPD office in the late 1990s. As one of a dying breed, his is a melancholic, blistering swan song given a lingering intensity by cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s close-up camerawork.
(Honourable Mentions: Sister, Woman in Black, Shame, Looper, Margin Call, The Imposter, She Monkey, Frankenweenie, Lawless, The Avengers, Headhunters, The Cabin in the Woods, Killer Joe)
Best Unreleased Film: Magpie
One of the most exciting films I saw in 2012 has not yet got a release, but I couldn’t compile a best of the year list without mentioning it. Marc Price has followed up his debut with the exceptional low-budget Magpie, the story of a distraught man who gatecrashes his young son’s funeral and takes drastic action. The original premise is given life by a screenplay and cast that effectively handle the balance of pathos and black humour, and I hope that 2013 brings it the wide audience it deserves.
Best Female Performance: Alice Lowe in Sightseers
So many wonderful actresses have appeared on screen in 2012, from Jessica Chastain to Michelle Williams, Sarah Paxton to Aubrey Plaza, but my vote must go to Alice Lowe, who created one of the year’s most memorable (anti-) heroines in Sightseers’ Tina. To create a character that remains sympathetic despite such extreme behaviour is no mean feat, and Lowe shoulders the exemplary dark comic timing and core vulnerability essential to the success not just of her character, but the film as a whole.
Best Male Performance: Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt
In a year when the likes of Fassbender, Jones, Rockwell, Phoenix and Seymou-Hoffman have all shone on screen, it was Mads Mikkelsen’s turn in The Hunt that left the most indelible mark on me. As the increasingly outlandish story revolves around him, and other characters indulge in histrionics, Mikkelsen remains steadfast in his innocence, anchoring a narrative that could have spun out of control. It’s a masterful, vulnerable, heartbreaking performance.
Biggest Disappointment: J Edgar
As a fan of American political history, Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio, I was expecting J Edgar to be a home run. Unfortunately this biopic was flabby and overwrought, and the decision to employ a sea of prosthetics to age its young cast an insurmountable nail in the coffin.