In black and white or riotous colour, here’s a quick look back over the best and worst films of 2013 and a sneak preview of the movies to watch out for in 2014.
Paint It Black by Mark Wilshin
Widely touted as the year that Obama’s America made it onto the silver screen, 2013 has seen anti-slavery history back on top with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s (wishful-thinking rewrite of history) Django Unchained. And still with Steve McQueen’s brutal upcoming epic 12 Years A Slave to come. But there’s more to this year’s slew of films than the slow trickle onto celluloid of Hollywood studio funding, with new trends in one-man masterpieces and monochrome movies. From Ben Wheatley’s civil war horror and experiment in distribution A Field In England to the 1920s fairytale feel of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, black and white has evolved from the de facto period patina to something altogether more sensual. Fernando Trueba’s languorous The Artist And The Model vacillates somewhere between wartime period piece and artistic photo-montage, while Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha captures the free-living freshness of the Nouvelle Vague with a delicious monochrome texture that recalls Godard or Gus Van Sant’s early Portland movies. But perhaps the most radical black and white film this year is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska – which doesn’t appear to have any kind of nostalgia in its choice of colour palette. And yet with its semi-urban, agro-industrial vistas, there’s a monochrome intimacy to Payne’s poignant comedy, blurring the greyscale in the background in favour of Bruce Dern’s white locks and Will Forte’s black looks.
Perhaps the other most significant trend to gain momentum this year was the single-hander – in which a film is almost entirely carried by one actor’s performance. Yes, we’ve been here before, with films such as Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (more or less), but with a new emphasis on performance over the thrills and spills of one-man-alone tension. From Alfonso Cuarón’s big-budget blockbuster Gravity which sees Sandra Bullock lost in a breathtaking 3D space and her roller-coaster ride back through the atmosphere to Julian Pölsler’s sublime The Wall – an allegory of cold war and female isolation with a stunning performance from Martina Gedeck, it’s a showcase of female performance (and endurance). But even Robert Redford is getting in on the act with JC Chandor’s All Is Lost, marking his return to the silver screen with a muscular performance as the old man in battle with the sea. And as directors continue to replace (for the most part) narrative arcs with epic performance, 2014 sees more to come with Tom Hardy in Steven Knight’s taut car-bound thriller Locke and Juliette Binoche giving quite possibly her best performance yet in Bruno Dumont’s asylum-set Camille Claudel 1915.
And yet beyond the spare conceits of single-handed performances and black-and-white textural treats, there have also been some spectacular epics – Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour provided a controversial queer Cannes winner, Proustian in its length and scope, while Nicolas Winding Refn followed up Drive with the hyperbolic hymn to Ryan Gosling’s über-cool masculinity Only God Forgives and Paolo Sorrentino gave us a magnificently Felliniesque love-poem to Rome with The Great Beauty – a stunning account of the pleasures and politics of the Italian capital. But as well as intricate cat-and-mouse movies like Mira Nair’s tense The Reluctant Fundamentalist and François Ozon’s Dans La Maison (the first and better of Ozon’s films released in 2013, Jeune Et Jolie not quite making sense of the taboos it spies through the keyhole) or deliciously cyclical films like Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, there are also low-key pleasures like Pat Collins’ meditative Silence or Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda – not only the first film to come out of Saudi Arabia in a decade but also its first film directed by a woman and a fascinating look behind the curtains of Saudi womanhood.
There were great female performances from Luminita Gheorghiu and Paulina Garcia in Child’s Pose and Gloria respectively, and a thrilling return to Pinochet’s Chile with Pablo Larraìn’s ’80s nostalgic thriller No. But for me, two of this year’s best films have come (unexpectedly) from Belgium. And the Flemish side at that. First Bullhead with Matthias Schoenaerts straight from Rust And Bone in Michaël R. Roskam’s debut feature in which a steroid-injecting beef farmer must come nose to snout with his bullish masculinity. And then there’s Felix Van Groeningen’s heartbreaking The Broken Circle Breakdown – in which love, leukaemia and tragedy are given the bluegrass treatment. Oh, man of constant sorrow.
It may not have been a great year for British films, with only Clio Barnard’s electrifying The Selfish Giant and Roger Michell’s geriatric Nouvelle Vague inspired Le Week-End finding box-office and critical success, but there’s more to come in 2014 with Steve McQueen’s Oscar-tipped 12 Years A Slave and David Mackenzie’s nailbitingly tense prison-bound thriller Starred Up. As well as Lars Von Trier courting controversy (again) with Nymphomaniac (parts 1 and 2) and Wes Anderson’s long anticipated The Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s also the Coen Brothers’ deliciously sardonic Inside Llewyn Davies, Spike Jonze’s Her and Jim Jarmusch’s sexy and stylish Only Lovers Left Alive. French auteurs appear to be losing their way with Claire Denis’ reportedly muddled Bastards and Catherine Breillat’s exercise in self-therapy Abuse Of Weakness, but there are also some observational treats in store with Nicolas Phillibert’s Maison de la Radio and Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake. Xavier Dolan reaches new heights (and a cinematic language all of his own) with Tom At The Farm, while John Curran brings Robyn Davidson’s camel trek across Australia’s Red Centre to life with his dazzling travelogue Tracks. There’s also Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur, Hong Khaou’s Ben Whishaw vehicle Lilting, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, James Gray’s The Immigrant, Amat Escalante’s Heli… And the list goes on. But with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave out next week, we’re off to a (whip-)cracking start.