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Paul Stafford
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Paul’s top 15 films of 2013

Here it is: the annual list of my favourite films. By 2013, the films that make my list are all ones released in the US during that year, which were liable for inclusion in the Oscars 2014.

It has been an unusual year for films. There were far more very good films released than normal, and that made the competition intriguing and selection difficult. All 15 films in this list are of a high quality. Yet at the same time I didn’t see a single film that I would deem brilliant. There were no timeless masterpieces released at all in 2013. Most years there is one, maybe two that really move me and that change the way I look at filmmaking. I laughed and cried and rooted for the protagonists this year. But I didn’t get many moments where the little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

15 – Philomena  – Yay for British cinema. Steve Coogan could have made it onto this list twice with the movie high on my honourable mention list. Judi Dench had me teary-eyed at least three times during this film. And a new first was that I cried during Act 1 of the film, which is ridiculous. Not only are the characters well realised, the journey, a true one, is gripping and beautiful. Both Coogan and Dench experience profound changes to their character over the film in equally compelling ways. Coogan has to fix his own shortcomings and prejudices after recently having been laid off from his job; Dench must overcome all the odds set up to prevent her from finding her son, whom she was forced to give up for adoption at a young age.

14 – Spring Breakers – “Look at all my shit! Look at all my shit!” James Franco belts out over and over as he itinerises the weapons and vast material wealth he has amassed through his vice-ridden lifestyle. It is classic Harmony Korine, exploring the bloated underbelly of the American dream, through one of its most popular annual events, spring break. A party that is, at its classiest, about getting wasted. It is an event that often leads even the most well-behaved of youths astray. It is a compelling story too. Selena Gomez is brilliant as Faith, a Christian who wants social acceptance, and for whom the escalation of their break becomes too much for her to handle. Spring Breakers is Korine’s easiest film to sit through, as anyone who ever attempted to watch will be glad to hear.


13 – August: Osage County – Tracy Letts is back adapting one of her plays for the screen. is not quite as disturbing as was but it is harrowing. There are some wonderful moments between incredibly well acted characters in this film that document the frank and open demise of a family unit after the apparent suicide of the family patriarch. Barbara, played by Julia Roberts in her best role for years, is one of three daughters of Violet, played by the even great Meryl Streep. Her marriage is failing, and she is determined to avoid making the mistakes of her mother, a pill popping, hate-filled woman. With the whole family together, a complex web of secrets and lies unravels. The dinner scene is delightful to watch and the suspense held brilliantly through to the end.

12 – Nebraska – An old man with onset dementia tries to walk a thousand miles to collect a million dollar prize that is clearly just a marketing scam. That is the surface. Below that is a story about the consequences of the life we lead. Bruce Dern plays the confused Woody to perfection. Although the dialogue is a little over written and the performances not always compelling, the story has enough weight and acute observation to carry it through. The sadness and boredom of small-town middle America is effectively portrayed. It is a world that rarely gets a sniff of the American dream, so when one comes along, everyone is blind to the obvious truth.


11 – Before Midnight – Richard Linklater’s trilogy could not have had a better third helping. The dialogue-driven two-hander brings us nine years forward in Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke’s relationship. They are a long way from the train station in Vienna, now married with kids. It is one of those films that’s about a period of life I have not yet gone through, but which I feel I understand implicitly having watched it. There is so much honesty and futility in there that you cannot help but love both characters and hope for the best. Perhaps in another nine years we shall be treated to a fourth film, and judging by this franchise, it will be just as good.

10 – The Act of Killing – Documentary filmmaking at its best and most visceral. When Errol Morris and Werner Herzog claim that a documentary is the best they have seen for a long, long time, you know that it must be durn tootin! And it is. Having travelled in Indonesia for quite some time, it came as a shock to learn of the magnitude of the genocide there. Added to that the scale of death by natural disaster, especially in Sumatra where I was, and there is an almost prosaic attitude to death there. That comes across so well in the way the perpetrators of a genocide systematically set about reconstructing their crimes against humanity with a disturbing air of alacrity.

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9 – Captain Phillips – I love the scale of this film. I thought the ending was an amazing piece of acting, and indeed some of my favourite performances, and least favourite were contained in this film. What a revelation was Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pushiest of pirates. One of the best performances from a previously undiscovered actor that I have seen, and I basically go around calling people ‘Irish’ the way he did because he was just that captivating (and captive-berating). The other pirates were, by and large, shit actors. That made it quite annoying at times to watch. But with an unusually stoic Tom Hanks on top form, and the scale and inch perfect tone created from moment to moment by Paul Greengrass: man at the helm, Captain Phillips was one of those films that you leave the cinema thinking ‘this is why going to the cinema was invented’.

8 – The Wolf of Wall Street – The marmite of films this year. There was a lot of dispute about whether was any good or not. It is another film this past year that had amazing moments, but that felt quite limp and unrounded as a whole. The biggest failing that has made people dislike the film is that it is a first person account of Jordan Belmont’s life as told by Jordan Belmont in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio. This is a hugely restrictive device that works so well in the set up, and hampers the second half of the film. The problem being that the tone switches from a lifestyle of decadence and debauchery to having that taken away, but I never truly felt the drama or threat of this being lost. It was like a fall from grace by numbers film, unlike or where the main characters fight with everything they have to hold onto what they have gained. Jordan Belfort loses what he has almost by proxy and seems to lack the fight in him to withstand the pressure. Yes there is a grand moment where he decides to stay at the company when he should have stepped down, but that only fuels my lack of giving a damn about his fall from grace as he continues to make choices that contribute to his demise. The film would have been higher up this list if it was shorter. But it drags on too long and ends up here in 8 th.


7 – 12 Years a Slave – If you are white and like feeling guilty about it, then this is must-see film of the year. It is a Steve McQueen helmed film, so you can guarantee the subject matter is going to be heavy and deeply relevant. I love his films and love the way he details the physical punishment that the human body can withstand at the hands of repressive degenerates who simply cannot stand equality. It really isn’t for everyone. is still his best film in my book, but this is a well shot, compelling drama that had me gripped throughout, and had one of the best emotional pay offs at the end. Brad Pitt was key to making this film happen, but him cropping up as the righteous white man with a heart of gold did feel a little out of place. And this line was my favourite of the year: “I will survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune.” Now that is damn good writing, and damn good acting.

6 – Gravity – It was always billed as a game changer. And visually it was. The only thing is, there are not many films that can be told using the kind of technology built to bring realistically to the screen. And the film proves in its 91 minutes that there is not much of a story either. A strong idea, a beautiful film, deserving of Lubezki’s cinematography Oscar, but a story that relies heavily on flying debris not hitting and killing Sandra Bullock to continue on the story. The debris is also used at least three times when the Cuaron father-son writing duo run out of ideas to raise the tension. Aside from this, the scrīpt relies on a weak back story too often, and George Clooney is stuck in Danny Ocean territory so much so that I began to believe he has conned NASA into believing he was an astronaut. So why is it at number 6? Because it is so unique, and because there are moments – like the foetal position scene – that are pure brilliance. That’s why.


5 – American Hustle – Great ensemble, everybody trying to outdo each other on screen, but not to the detriment of the film. I just saw and it got me thinking about the dangers of amassing a great cast who all want great characters and funny lines to the detriment of the overall film. David O. Russell, both in and the year before has mastered the amassing of an ensemble cast of high pedigree who don’t collectively undermine the film. Although at times he does come dangerously close to this in , the film stays witty and engaging. There are plenty of scenes in this film that I wish I had written, including the one where Jennifer Lawrence has broken the science oven. But it is the characterisation that really makes me love this film. From Christian bale’s paunch and weird comb-over, to Amy Adam’s English accent, these are characters embroiled in vicissitude who are impossible to dislike.

4 – Dallas Buyers Club – The McConnaisance at its most refined. This is a performance to watch the film for, even if there are no other reasons going. But there are plenty of reasons. The film is sad and hopeful. It is a classic against the odds tale filled with humanity. The most unlikely of characters: womanising, drug riddled all- American man Ron Woodruff (McConaughey), is diagnosed with AIDS in the 80s when society still viewed it with extreme prejudice. All of Ron’s friends quickly distance themselves from him, leaving the man sick, alone and with a limited number of days to live. An experimental new drug approved by the FDA is clearly not working in the long term, and the film’s B story kicks in. Woodruff is going to prove that the corruption of the American healthcare system is costing lives and he will use his guile to bend the rules and keep the sufferers of HIV/AIDS alive for longer, by importing better drugs illegally from abroad. These people also become his new friends, exemplifying his growth as a man.

3 – Prisoners – A ‘what would you do?’ scenario that hopefully none of us will ever have to answer. Not only is one of the best-shot films of the year, thanks to the incredible Roger Deakins, and the highly capable direction of Denis Villeneuve, but it is one of the better thrillers of the last few years. Increasingly claustrophobic and tense, Hugh Jackman is Keller, the father who pulls out all the stops, and fingernails, to find his missing daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki, the man who must find the two missing girls and keep everyone else from breaking the law. It is a brilliant conundrum, and the best familial togetherness-whilst-breaking-the-law film since It is gritty and bold and missing from practically every top films list this year, quite inexplicably. It deserves to be here.


2 – Mud – Jeff Nichols has to be my favourite contemporary filmmaker right now. And the mighty McConaughey is at the very top of his game. This is the first of three films starring him to make my top fifteen list this year. He plays Mud, an escaped convict discovered living in a boat in a tree by two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Nobody seems to have picked up on the fact that this bears striking similarity to a 1960s British film called I love the rites of passage film that is linked to a love story as played out in Mud. Once again, Nichols is exploring masculinity in this film, and what it means to be a man. One thing it means is responsibility, and the burden of it. That is what this film explores so well.


1 – Inside Llewyn Davis – Whilst I like to have a controversial top five films, was both beautiful and laden with pathos. It makes number one because there is something in this film to which I connected. It is a tragedy about a man who just wants to make a good living from doing what he loves. Based loosely on a real person called Dave Van Ronk (I had never heard of him either), Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a folk musician who moves from one couch to the next, often trailed by a wake of destruction. He means well, and never seems to have any malicious intent, but the odds are always stacked against him. Why this movie plays so well, is that it is a mix of fate and his own choices that are what keep him down. Anybody who has ever tried to make a living in the creative world will appreciate that the path is littered with landmines, and sometimes a helping hand from somebody else will be the push we need. This makes us creatives vulnerable as a species and often bullish. Sure we must do the hard graft, we must master our craft through persistence and discipline, but even then, there is no guarantee of success. This film is a succinct and truthful examination of that. The music is brilliant too.


What a year. Many great films. None that blew my mind completely, but plenty that were strong. I sadly did not get the chance to see either Rush,  The Place Beyond The Pines or All Is Lost, which is why they are absent from the list.

I had another nine films on my long list that deserve honourable mentions:

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – Funny, and perfect transition from TV to screen. The danger with these TV show to movie shifts is that there is no story big enough or worthy of a big screen adaptation. However Alpha Papa was well wrought, and made me laugh more than any other film this year by a long shot. Even without having seen the TV show, this film would stand up.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Beautiful 3D – and what 3D was designed for in my opinion. Stronger than the first film in all areas, and a little less indulgent, but still too long. Why oh why did they make three films out of the book? Greed trumps quality sadly, and keeps this out of the top 15.

Upstream Color – The most imaginative film of the year. But given that I had absolutely no idea about anything in this film after 30 minutes shows that it was a bit too pretentious and a little low on real substance. I wanted more but never got it.

This is the End – A lot of fun and engaging right through. Much better than which was great in the middle but had a dismal Act 1 and Act 3. had some big names woven cleverly into an end of the world story. But most of all, they were all clearly just having fun making it, and that made it fun to watch.

Blue is the Warmest Color – Another good film with blue in the title. The film material was wonderful. It is about the passage of an adolescent girl Adele, played by the captivating Adele Exarchopoulos, into womanhood against the prejudices of a society that cannot openly accept her homosexuality. What really annoyed me about this film is Abdellatif Kechiche, the director and, (well his name is on the film as, but how much did he really do) writer. But during production he argued with most of his cast and crew about a multitude of issues during filming, leading me to suspect his ego was an issue. And I feel that ego in his direction, which is heavy handed and discomfortingly, often unnecessarily, voyeuristic. I think the idea and performances were brilliant, and just wish they had a better director with them. A good example of how a pushy, self-important director can ruin a film. Kechiche needs to learn from David O. Russell’s journey.

Her – Perhaps surprising in its omission from my list. It just did not do enough to make the top fifteen. It was for all intents and purposes a pretty simple love story. I enjoyed it immensely and the dialogue was great, but just having one man talk into a phone for an entire movie is quite limited, and there is only so much one can take when that is added to a predictable story line.

The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino has here a very intriguing film, which  acts like a soliloquy on the demise of a culture. Set in Rome, amidst the relics of a rich and successful past, both historically and culturally, all that is modern is decadence and shallow ostentation. It is through this world that Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, and actor I love, trudges. He finds no substance in the modern, only decay, and yet he too is a guilty of that as everybody around him in the modern Italian glitterati, who spend most of their time dancing, drunk or high. A well deserved best foreign language Oscar, although it often feels a little clunky, perhaps the film is a bit too self-indulgent from Sorrentino.

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen is a filmmaker with no intention of giving up filmmaking. Like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, many will argue that perhaps he should take a break. But and from 2011 are good reasons why he should keep going. Requiring an incredible performance for the modern day Blanche DuBois, Cate Blanchett is more than worthy of her Oscar. However some of the other characters felt a little miscast. Just missed out on making the top 15, and in any other year would have done. Filed under: Film, Paul's News Tagged: 2013, best movies, film reviews, list, top 15 films, top films

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British actor, writer, producer & podcaster. Paul has recently had roles in Korean feature films <Pacemaker> and <Korea> out late 2011. Paul pl

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