Looking over my final list I’ve noticed a conspicuous absence of documentaries, which isn’t to say that there weren’t some fantastic factual films which just fell outside of this final ten; such as the horrifyingly revealing The Act of Killing, the anger inducing Blackfish, the joyfully bizarre Mistaken for Strangers, the musical odyssey of Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, the sumptuous marriage of music and archival footage of How We Used to Live and of course our very own Jeanie Finlay’s record industry bamboozling Scots in The Great Hip Hop Hoax. OK, so now I’ve cleared my documentary conscience (and snuck an extra six recommendations into this post) here are my favourite features of 2013:
10. SIMON KILLER | Antonio Campos
Initially, Antonio Campos places our sympathies with this listless, relationship grieving stranger abroad as he attempts, and fails, to leave his stateside heartache behind by drifting through Parisian streets and encounters. But the more time we spend with Simon, the clearer it becomes that he was likely damaged long before love left him and the wisest thing any woman could do is flee his insidiously manipulative grasp as soon as is humanly possible.
9. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR | Abdellatif Kechiche
Much has been made about the lengthy lesbian sex scenes and Kechiche’s working method which demanded “blind trust” from his fantastic leads Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos – an experience which led the pair to state they would never work with him again. Yet to only view the film through the lens of these issues would be a great disservice to the intense relationship which coalesces then dissolves over its 179 minute running time. The performances are powerful, the relationship one of the most compelling to be set on screen and therefore the breakup all the more heart wrenching because of it.
8. SHORT TERM 12 | Destin Daniel Cretton
Troubled kids and the flawed adults who try to connect with them and make a difference to their lives is a genre fraught with cliches and overt emotional manipulation. However Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 deftly navigates around those pitfalls to deliver a film in which the relationships are truly touching and the reality that no matter how well you do today, tomorrow will bring its own problems feels like an uplifting challenge rather than a foreboding inevitability.
7. A FIELD IN ENGLAND | Ben Wheatley
Never one to repeat himself, nonetheless over the 4 years or so that I’ve been captivated by the cinema of Ben Wheatley, I’d come to believe that I had a good grasp of what a ‘Wheatley’ film is. That was until he chucked a fistful of psychedelic mushrooms down my throat and had a psychotic Michael Smiley press gang me into a Sysiphean search for treasure with a wayward band of English Civil War deserters in A Field in England. Not only one the most self-assured pieces of cinema to hit pretty much every type of screen known to man, its simultaneous multi-platform release broke new distribution ground, proving that letting people watch when and where they like is a winning formula.
6. FLOATING SKYSCRAPERS | Tomasz Wasilewski
Tomasz Wasilewski’s Cuba finds himself torn between the affections of Sylvia, his long term girlfriend and Michael, the man he forms an instant, powerful connection with in Floating Skyscrapers. Whilst the film has been billed as Poland’s first LGBT feature, sexual orientation is far from its core theme. Rather it’s a beautifully observed story about love – heterosexual, gay and maternal – and the search to find and make peace with one’s true identity.
5. 12 YEARS A SLAVE | Steve McQueen
In both Hunger and Shame Steve McQueen demonstrated that he could subvert cinematic conventions and combine them with his own artistic sensibilities for an enthralling cinematic experience, but it was with 12 Years a Slave that he proved his ability to work within a more conventional narrative structure and yet not have himself subsumed by its rigors. As beautiful as it is harsh, 12 Years a Slave left my emotions raw enough for a fellow critic to wordlessly pass me a tissue to silently sob into.
4. SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY | Drew Tobia
The biggest compliment that I could pay Mona, the main character in Drew Tobia’s feature See You Next Tuesday, is that she makes Buffalo ’66’s Billy Brown seem like a rather nice guy you’d love to span time with in comparison. Full of abrasive characters and humour which surfs on an “undercurrent of things that are really offensive”, Tobia’s debut has fenced off a barbed wire place in my heart.
3. THE SELFISH GIANT | Clio Barnard
With her debut feature The Arbor Clio Barnard redefined the documentary form and while her latest film The Selfish Giant doesn’t break the mold of the fiction feature, it nonetheless shows Barnard to have a mastery of whatever aspect of cinema she chooses to tackle. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Victorian fairytale of the same name, young leads Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas give a heartbreakingly convincing performance of friendship tested, set against the harsh realities of poverty and petty crime.
2. UPSTREAM COLOR | Shane Carruth
I realise that it sounds cloyingly pretentious to say that a film has to be ‘experienced’ as opposed to watched, but I can think of no better way to express why you should give Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color your total and undivided attention. This isn’t a film to watch with a tablet on your lap or mobile in your hand, let it flow into you and you’ll find yourself enveloped in this interweaved narrative of lost souls, interconnectedness and nature. It’s a film that you’ll emerge from a changed person.
1. THE BATTERY | Jeremy Gardner
When it comes to recommending The Battery I’m torn. Not because of any concerns over its quality as a film – trust me it’s brilliant and unlike any other zombie film you’ve ever seen – but rather because I want to be there with you on that initial watch to see the film win you over more and more as each scene unfolds. Jeremy Gardner’s debut feature embodies everything that DN is about. It’s about as independent as a film can get and with that comes a level of inventiveness which perfectly serves the narrative and makes the film so much stronger for the production’s ‘work around’ solutions. The Battery is my new litmus test of friendship. If you don’t love it at least half as much as I do then I’m not sure I can see a future in our relationship!