The time has finally come to hastily finalise a list of my favourite films of 2013, despite having not seen The Great Beauty and various other critical favourites, and in the full knowledge that what seems brilliant now may appear hopelessly crass in ten years time, while Grown-Ups 2 is fondly remembered as the best movie of this or any other decade.

The following films were released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013.


1.

dir. Harmony Korine

A mind-altering collage of juvenile vice and Floridian debauchery, Spring Breakers finds Harmony Korine working at maximum capacity, leaving no controversy unstoked, no mind unfucked and no scene transition unadorned with James Franco’s intoxicating mantra of ‘spring break, spring break forever’. Asking no questions and giving even fewer answers, the film powers through its odyssey of excess like a hedonistic fever dream, sweating off the screen in a haze of fuzzy memories and ill-fated good times.


2.

dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Despite being saddled with a title better suited to a sixth form poetry reading than the Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Colour stormed the Côte d’Azur this May, reducing its competitors to an afterthought and the world’s critics to sobbing, awestruck wrecks. Clocking in at three hours, the film unveils the sexual awakening of 17-year-old Adèle through the conduit of one hyper-formative relationship with a blue-haired painter several years her elder.


3.

dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

Provoking untold levels of debate in the foyers of wanky art house cinemas across the United Kingdom and beyond this year, The Act of Killing was in some eyes an unforgivable piece of exploitation cinema and in others a revelatory stand for humanist ideals. Thought up when director Joshua Oppenheimer invited real-world perpetrators of the 1960s anti-communist purge in Indonesia to reenact their crimes, about the only thing the film can’t be accused of is detachment.


4.

dir. Michel Franco

The astonishing second feature from Mexican director Michel Franco is a slow-and-steady portrait of high school bullying so devastatingly plausible that, more than once, I had to remind myself it was only a movie just to quell my urge to jump through the screen and start retributively cutting motherfuckers. It serves me right that this turns out to be exactly the reaction Franco’s film invites, and warns against.


5.

dir. Sarah Polley

The suddenly-prolific Sarah Polley follows up last year’s Seth Rogen Crying sizzle reel Take This Waltz with what is almost certainly 2013′s most organic, transcendent meeting of form and function. A hugely rewarding insight into a deeply personal chapter in Polley’s own family history, the film’s narrative odyssey is perfectly mirrored in its experimental style, which refuses to fully reveal itself until the closing moments. It’s everything documentary can and should be.


6.

dir. Michael Bay

It’s entirely possible that, far from being a bad director, Michael Bay has merely spent the last thirty years desperately needing to get Pain and Gain out of his system. Satirically clear in a manner that can only be born of first-hand experience, the film sees Bay (together with stars Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) nail the excesses of contemporary America while neatly acknowledging his own grossly excessive filmmaking style. Tons of fun.


7.

dir. Quentin Tarantino

Great movies about slavery are few and far between, hampered as they so often are by over-simplified moralising and liberal squeamishness. Not since Manderlay has this darkest era in American history been handled so daringly, provocatively, and with such spectacularly engaging results. And while Foxx owns the title, it’s the supporting performances from DiCaprio, Waltz and Jackson that steal the show. Each and every one of them exquisitely off the chain.

Addendum: it’s no 12 Years a Slave, but more on that next year.


8.

dir. various

The horror genre has been in a slump ever since the Saw franchise devolved into a sort of torture-based Generation Game and somebody decided Sinister was an acceptable name for a ghost movie. Still, you wouldn’t know it to watch the five shorts that make up V/H/S, all of which pack more genuine scares, surprises and ingenious narrative devices into their respective twenty minutes than most horror features manage in ninety.


9.

dir. Cristian Mungiu

Three films in, Romanian New Wave sensation Cristian Mungiu shows no signs of quickening his stride: Beyond the Hills, his first proper feature since 2007′s Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, ups the runtime to 155 minutes and slows the pace to an almost standstill, in the process delivering a piercing, brutal study of groupthink and religious indoctrination in a rural Romanian convent. Quietly devastating.


10.

dir. Noah Baumbach

Greta Gerwig gets her first proper writing credit since Nights and Weekends on another nuanced character study co-conceived with a romantic partner — in this case, Noah Baumbach of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted fame. Frances Ha is the first of two black and white films the pair are making about twentysomething life in New York, and is refreshing primarily for all the rom-com traps it avoids falling into, not least judging its protagonist by the standard of her romantic entanglements.


11.

dir. Alain Guiraudie

Transforming a remote French cruising destination into something part society-at-large microcosm and part Agatha-Christie-murder-mystery setting, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake evokes unimaginable tension with little more than a lake, a car park and a handful of naked Frenchmen. The film’s brief moments of unsimulated sex strike an immediate chord, but it’s Stranger by the Lake‘s elusive ambience that stays with you after the credits roll.


12.

dir. Antonio Campos

Director Antonio Campos made good on the promise of his understated 2008 debut Afterschool (featuring a Kevinesque Ezra Miller before he was Kevin) this year with the little-seen Parisian emo-thriller Simon Killer, which came and went in cinemas but got one of the year’s loveliest Blu-ray treatments courtesy of the über-picky Masters of Cinema label. Worth seeing for the title sequence alone.


13.

dir. Shane Carruth

It’s difficult to imagine who on earth cast charisma-free leading man Shane Carruth in Upstream Colour, until you realise that he also wrote, directed, art designed, edited and composed the music for the film, which — luckily for him — is such a spectacularly singular viewing experience that you scarcely notice its star’s complete inability to convincingly deliver a line of dialogue. A brilliantly baffling, frequently heartbreaking 90 minutes.


14.

dir. Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh bows out of filmmaking to concentrate on his painting (seriously) with Behind the Candelabra, a ruthlessly efficient, spectacularly engaging portrait of the gayest straight man in history. As Liberace, Michael Douglas delivers a performance almost capable of atoning for Money Never Sleeps, while Matt Damon speaks volumes in the quieter role. To witness such an assured ending to a career is bittersweet — you sense that Soderbergh could keep making movies of this calibre well into his later years.


15.

dir. Denis Villeneuve

While you’re actually sitting down and watching it, Denis Villeneuve’s weird, dichotomous Prisoners — part trashy Midsomer Murders romp, part classy Roger Deakins-shot awards contender — is a strange viewing experience, filled with near-unforgivably camp absurdities. But if you’re anything like me, you’re liable to spend the next four weeks reflecting on how oddly satisfying the film is, even its wildest flights of fancy usually part of some greater, cleaner whole.


16.

dir. Sophie Fiennes

Like its similarly great predecessor The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Sophie Fiennes’ latest essay film sees philosopher-cum-rambling-self-parody Slavoj Žižek wander around scenes from iconic Hollywood movies, laying out his own (usually bizarre) interpretations of their meanings. By placing Žižek literally within the films themselves, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology gives the audience something to hold onto as the conversational tangents fly.


17.

dir. Carlos Reygadas

Perhaps the most languid movie ever to feature an explicit, extended orgy scene, Post Tenebras Lux lures you repeatedly into a false sense of boredom before striking your visual cortex with a scene of such breathtaking beauty that you’re forced to reassess everything you’ve seen up until that point. Fittingly, the entire thing is shot through a strange, hallucinatory lens that obscures vast swathes of the film’s canvas, ensuring its visuals are every bit as elliptical as its intentions.


18.

dir. Ruben Östlund

Unquestionably the most uncomfortable viewing experience of 2013 (I’m still not sure whether it’s the most racist thing in the world, or I am), Ruben Östlund’s follow-up to his complicatedly brilliant 2008 film Involuntary saw the Swedish provocateur recreate a high-profile abduction case in excruciating detail and utterly amoral terms. No film this year felt more awfully real.


19.

dir. Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney’s latest dazzlingly efficient masterwork of documentary takes a story that appeared to defy full comprehension — the rise and fall of WikiLeaks, and its skeezy founder Julian Assange — and renders it as clear-cut as The Very Hungry Caterpillar. As with his earlier films, Gibney pays equal attentions to the micro and the macro — his fonts are as well formed as his central thesis — to keep the movie firmly under his control.


20.

dir. Sofia Coppola

Located somewhere in the intersection of a Ruben Östlund film and The Sims — all cold distance and static emptiness — The Bling Ring sees Sofia Coppola throw objectivity to the dogs and dive headfirst into the amoral world of inter-brat burglary. Revealing its story with decidedly anti-dramatic pacing, the film effortlessly evokes the no-consequences environment that made the real-life crime spree it’s based on possible.


21.

dir. Park Chan-wook

Summoning a state of constant hypersensitivity with far greater flair (and far less self-satisfaction) than Perfume ever managed, Park Chan-wook’s English language debut (written by Wentworth Miller of all people) saw Mia Wasikowska finally gifted the weighty role she’s long deserved, as an inscrutable teenage girl in possession of every feeling but apathy for her enigmatic uncle Charlie.


22.

dir. Lenny Abrahamson

20-year-old newcomer Jack Reynor (who, incidentally, was almost definitely that kid at school who could get served in the pub by the age of fourteen) astounds as the eponymous Richard in this enigmatic Irish tragedy about one thing happening and a whole load of people not really knowing what to do about it. For the best part of an hour and a half, the film’s anxious tension bubbles just below the surface, until it finally boils over in a single, transcendent, super-emotional moment.


23.

dir. Mark Cousins

Examining the portrayal of children on the big screen in 53 films from 25 countries, Mark Cousins interweaves extracts from each film with his own distinctive voiceover work to create one of the best documentaries about film of recent years. At once more intimate and more thorough than his never-ending überdoc The Story of Film.


24.

dir. Lee Daniels

While its premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year is already seeming like some kind of surrealist joke on the part of the programmers, Lee Daniels’s trash opus The Paperboy will put up a strong fight for the title of 2013′s strangest cinematic experience. By way of proof, consider this: the sequence in which Nicole Kidman graphically pisses on Zac Efron’s face, is only the 2nd weirdest in the film.