Best film of 2013 - vote for the top ten films of the year

It was a spectacular year for cinema – but once again, many of 2013’s best offerings made little or no impact on the mainstream. Plus ça change . . .

When it comes time to assess developments in cinema – over a year, decade or century – hard-working pundits still too often find themselves discussing two distinct cultures. Over here we have films about black-and- white men in wind-battered yurts. Over there we have films about crime-fighting mutants in Kevlar dungarees. We’ll write about the critically acclaimed masterpieces, then we’ll move on to the marquee successes.

In certain circles, 2013 was not solely about Iron Man 3, Monsters University or Man of Steel; it was also about Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Great Beauty and Beyond the Hills. The hostile takeover of so much film media by the Geek Tendency – constantly worrying whether Boba Fett will make it into Star Wars VII – has pushed such discussions ever further away from the mainstream.

There are many reasonable people who believe the best film released this year was, by a substantial distance, Joshua Oppenheimer's terrifying documentary The Act of Killing. Nothing else took such an original angle on its subject matter. Nothing else left the audience so impressively conflicted. Yet Oppenheimer's film made almost no impact outside the arthouse coterie. The two cultures are as far away as ever.

The Cannes Film Festival continues to offer those who look beyond the marquee an opportunity for a massed rally. Mind you, in recent years, that event has made a slightly greater impact in the visible world. The winners of the Palme d'Or in 2011 and 2012 – The Tree of Life and Amour – both received Oscar nominations for best picture. Blue is the Warmest Colour, the 2013 winner, is unlikely to repeat that feat, but Abdellatif Kechiche's emotionally draining drama did manage to kick up a strangely old-fashioned sort of scandal.


Suddenly, we were talking about sex on screen. Was there too much of it? Was this very much a male heterosexual’s take on lesbian sex? There are no easy answers to those questions. But the fact that they were being asked in public places is encouraging for grown-up cinema.

Two years ago, with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, Cannes delivered a film that united the snoots and the populists. His wilfully extreme, dizzyingly heightened Only God Forgives managed to spread equivalent degrees of disunity throughout film-going circles. One thought of Dennis Hopper following up Easy Rider with the puzzling The Last Movie. This is what robust directors should do. The film is mad, pretentious and really rather wonderful. Cannes also found Paulo Sorrentino delivering his masterpiece with the staggeringly bewitching The Great Beauty and – possible entries in next year's annual summing-up – the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive.

What trends did we see in the year's more outré pictures? Well, Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (terrific folk horror), Alexander Payne's Nebraska (touching road movie), Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha (delicious bohemian comedy) and Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing (slightly underpowered Shakespeare adaptation) proved that monochrome was still a viable medium. Computer Chess, Drinking Buddies and, again, Frances Ha demonstrated there was life beyond mumblecore. Despite horrifying statistics concerning the continuing difficulties women face securing power behind the camera, Clio Bernard's draining The Selfish Giant, Claire Dix's touching Broken Song and Lake Bell's In a World… offered evidence of continuing stubborn resistance.

All of which is by way of confirming that, however we may complain about the dumbing-down of cinema, there is still a wealth of fine material struggling to make itself heard in underexposed corners. Our list of the year’s best cinema acknowledges that information.

Of course, there was much good work being done in big commercial cinema. JJ Abrams's Star Trek Into Darkness – though voted worst-ever Star Trek film at a Trekker conference – showed how to acknowledge tradition while moving forward. This year's news that Abrams is to direct the next Star Wars film can only be welcomed.

Though more undisciplined than ever, Quentin Tarantino continued to have fun with postmodernity in the massive Django Unchained. Both Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 built successfully on Marvel's lively work in The Avengers. The Hunger Games sequence improved in its second outing.

And then we got the phenomenon that was Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity. There is so much to celebrate in this exciting picture. It looks to be the only original live-action picture – neither a sequel, remake, nor based on an earlier source – to bully its way towards the upper reaches of the box-office charts. It is a popular film that has scared up ecstatic reviews from highbrow organs. Indeed such was the acclaim (and relief) that, before the film had even broken sweat, any criticism was already being interpreted as a backlash. It seems a little like heresy to point out that the script was often cornier than an old man's foot.

Still, the two cultures have come together briefly over Cuarón’s pact adventure. A new year beckons. Time to take separate ways again.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist