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The best films of 2013

Executioners in Indonesia, astronauts adrift in space and a writer blocked in Rome have helped make 2013 a memorable year for film lovers

By on Thursday, 19 December 2013

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, filmed near Lake Toba in Indonesia

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, filmed near Lake Toba in Indonesia

When looking back over an entire year of film, it can sometimes be tricky to pick one out for special praise. Great films often defy comparison or ranking. This year, though, there was one that stood out from all the others. The Act of Killing lodged firmly in my brain from the moment I saw it, and I’ve got the feeling it’s taken up long-term residence. For me, it’s
the film of the 2013.

The documentary, executive produced by Werner Herzog, is unlike any that I’ve seen before. It explores the purge of Communists that took place in Indonesia after the military coup of 1965 and is told from the point of view of the executioners who helped carry out a mass murder that’s estimated to have claimed anything between 500,000 and three million lives.

The film does more than simply tell this grim story. The killers and their associates are given the opportunity to re-create their crimes on camera. So we see torture scenes imagined as set-pieces from gangster films, a village burning in the jungle and nightmare sequences in which ghosts of the executed appear under waterfalls to thank their killers for speeding their passage to heaven.

As well as offering a disturbing vision of the past, The Act of Killing also shows how corruption, violence and racism still dominate Indonesian society, and at the centre of it all there’s the executioner Anwar Congo, an old man with a twinkle in his eye and a lifetime of blood on his hands. To begin with he’s jokey and glib: when he watches footage of his demonstration of a favoured strangulation method, he complains he shouldn’t have worn white trousers. By the end of the film, though, a creeping guilt has overwhelmed him and it’s extraordinary to watch.

Elsewhere, the world went berserk for Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s space adventure featuring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts cast adrift in space. The plot and script had few ambitions beyond the B movie, which is fine by me, but Gravity was worth all of those critical stars because of the way space was rendered on screen. It was beautiful to look at with the 3D working (for one of those rare occasions) to properly draw the audience into the action, rather than having us constantly ducking for cover.

Taking a very different approach, British director Paul Greengrass made use of his customary handheld camera technique to get viewers right into the heart of his latest nerve-shredder. Captain Phillips told the true story of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates and it was an intense experience. Tom Hanks excelled in the title role and he was ably supported – some might say surpassed – by his debutant co-star, Barkhad Abdi who injected the leader of the pirates with equal amounts of viciousness and
humanity.

Another film based on a true story, but far less widely seen, was Beyond the Hills, a fictional take on the fatal Tanacu monastery exorcism of 2005. Some thought this art-house offering was too hardgoing – it’s long and undeniably slow – but I found its examination of faith, adolescence and Romanian society at large riveting and, ultimately, devastating.

Fans of Italian cinema had a good year thanks to two of the country’s brightest directors. Modern master Paolo Sorrentino provided us with The Great Beauty, a lavish ode to Rome starring his regular collaborator Toni Servillo as an ageing, blocked writer. Light on plot but strong on formal artistry and imagination, and often bitingly funny, Sorrentino fans lapped it up, and I’m sure those new to his work were converted too. Reality, Matteo Garrone’s follow up to the acclaimed Gomorrah, was equally as good. An engaging satire about a petty criminal desperately trying to win a place on Italian Big Brother, at times it reminded me of Scorsese’s masterpiece The King of Comedy.

My biggest and most welcome surprise of 2013 was how much I enjoyed Nicole Holofocener’s Enough Said, a grown-up romantic comedy about two middle-aged divorcees played by James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It was an absolute joy, with the warm glow it engendered tempered only by the knowledge that this was one of Gandolfini’s final performances before his untimely death earlier in the year.

Other noteworthy performances came from Cate Blanchett and Bruce Dern, who carried their respective, slightly overrated films, Blue Jasmine and Nebraska. Both actors are tipped for Oscar nods, and with the awards season about to properly kick in some heavyweight offerings, including 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street, Men, are heading our way to get 2014 off to an excellent start for cinemagoers.