The Best British Films Of 2013

union jack flag The Best British Films Of 2013

It’s difficult to ascribe movies with a nationality, given that the murky business of film finance is nebulous at best (now more than ever), based more on tax breaks than creative concerns. Fitting with this model, this list is also nebulous, as some of the movies shown here aren’t completely British, whatever that is. Some will feature American actors or American directors, but it’s important to try not to get your knickers in a twist.

2013 was an unusually fecund year for British cinema. Sure, you still had the usual Cockney-gangster turds that get released every year – and, shudder, Diana – but there were also a lot of great movies released. Other notables not featured here include Spike Island, Byzantium, Welcome to the Punch, Trance and Sunshine on Leith. Never has there been a better time to live in the UK, film-wise. Despite the UK government simultaneously demanding more mainstream films as good as Harry Potter or Skyfall and cancelling funding to the UK Film Council in 2011 just after The King’s Speech cleaned house at the Academy awards, a film industry somehow still exists that is capable of making visible movies on a worldwide scale, if not ones that necessarily turn a profit.

Does 2013′s run of great British films bode well for 2014? I think it does. There’s plenty of solid flicks from the UK on the horizon, including A Slight Trick of the Mind (Sherlock Holmes in an old people’s home), AfterDeath (sci-fi horror in a beach house) and Black Sea (Jude Law looks for gold in the black sea). That’s just three of what are sure to be many great films from our tiny but formidable island. We might be roughly the same size as Michigan, but what has Michigan contributed lately? Nothing Michigan has done in 2013 compares to the lunatic majesty of Alpha Papa, or the hallucinogenic beauty of A Field In England. Anyway, enough about Michigan, I’m sick of Michigan.

On with the list, presented here in no particular order or bias. Enjoy!

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Rush

Chris Hemsworth in Rush movie 575x360 The Best British Films Of 2013

Ron Howard’s examination of the fierce intra-team rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) succeeded in portraying the high speed thrills of that sport in the 1970s and in somehow making Formula One interesting. James Hunt has been long revered as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, and if his legacy is defined for future generations as that shown in Rush, I don’t think he’d mind. It’s polished, turbulent, and the sexiest movie about cars since Crash. No, not that one, the one about people having sex with cars.

A British/German co-production, Rush did great business at home and elsewhere taking in $90 million worldwide on a meagre $38 million budget. It also showed that there’s more to Chris Hemsworth than Thor, or Home and Away. He gives a nuanced performance where a clichéd, dull-as-dishwater-hottie would have easily sufficed, and the counterpoint that Bruhl presents as the jealous Lauda lifts this film above your average sports biopic.

These two features, combined with the interesting central conceit that both drivers are actually on the same team, allows Ron Howard to wrestle from that fraught central relationship a movie about the limits of friendship, and the occasionally confusing line between respect and intimidation. What could so easily have been an embarrassing retrofest actually becomes a high stakes, exhilarating (and accelerating) thrillride. Our very own Matt Donato gave it a great review, because we are taste makers of the highest calibre. He singled out Bruhl’s performance, but it’s easy to forget how good Olivia Wilde was as Hunt’s supermodel girlfriend Suzy Miller in the excitement of Chris Hemsworth’s abs and luscious blonde hair.

If Rush had been terrible, I wouldn’t personally class it as a British film. Luckily it’s great, and therefore deserves its place on this list.

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The World’s End

summer preview the worlds end The Best British Films Of 2013

Great excitement surrounds the release of any Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright project, but buzz about The World’s End had been quietly rumbling for years. The guys are superstars in their home country, seen by most folks under forty as probably the shining lights of the British comedy film industry, a phrase that you don’t hear mentioned very often as British comedy films are dire nowadays. We last saw Simon Pegg and Nick Frost together in the slightly underwhelming alien-comedy Paul, the relative disappointment of which only served to heighten speculation about just how good The World’s End could possibly be.

Well? How good could it possible be?

I think even the most rabid Cornetto trilogy fans would admit that The World’s End is the least impressive of the series, but when you’re up against Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, that’s no big deal. I’d say that The World’s End would have been the British comedy of the year, had it not been beaten to the punch by the misadventures of a certain Norfolk-based DJ. It suffers from the same problems as The Godfather III - where the first two films are iconic, and the third only very very good, so it’s bound to pale in comparison.

That said, The World’s End does have certain strengths – as the last installment of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogyit strikes a bittersweet note that tempers the comedy moments, anchoring it in melancholy. At its heart, The World’s End is about the gentrification of little towns and how everywhere, in the UK at least, seems to be losing its individuality. The little pubs shown in the beginning of the film are gradually losing out to heartless chain pubs, more interested in serving overpriced gourmet food than cultivating anything interesting or worthwhile. That it does this via the medium of science fiction is to be commended, and shows that genre cinema – when done correctly – is capable of great depth and feeling.

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Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

alan partridge alpha papa The Best British Films Of 2013

Released in the UK in August, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa dominated the British summer. Like The World’s End, the film had long been mooted – it was originally delayed because of the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, 2005 – but judging by the final product, that was evidently time well-spent. It’s acquired an early 2014 release in US cinemas (as simply Alan Partridge) which will introduce the character to anyone who hasn’t been keeping a close eye on the best of British comedy over the last twenty years.

The release of the film in the US is no doubt due to the increased stateside fame of both creator Armando Iannucci – responsible for Veep and In The Loop – and star Steve Coogan, who had minor roles in big budget fare like Around the World in Eighty Days before focusing on more credible projects like The Trip (a TV show for the BBC in the UK, but gained a cinematic release via IFC Films in the US), The Other Guys, and Philomena (more on that later) with Judi Dench. If that’s the case, then more power to them – Alan has been a semi-regular feature on British screens for the last twenty years, and the more attention the movie gets, the greater likelihood of a sequel appearing in the not too distant future.

The genius of Iannucci and Coogan was to make Alpha Papa everything that Partridge fans have longed for and more. Endlessly quotable and groingrabbingly funny, it’s the logical extension to brand Partridge. To satiate your hunger in the wait for the US release, might I point you towards the audiobook of Alan Partridge’s biography I Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, both series of I’m Alan Partridge, and the less fulfilling but still funny Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. Being British, those series only add up to around 30 episodes altogether, and six hours for the audiobook, after which you can boast to your friends about your in-depth knowledge of cult British comedy. You’ll be the coolest kid around.

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A Field In England

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Ben Wheatley is one of the most gifted young filmmakers in the UK, with his previous films Sightseers and Kill List managing to make waves on both sides of the Atlantic. His third film, A Field In England, was another sidestep to disarm the audience by a director who delights in defying expectations. Aside from the countryside setting, could there be two more different films than Sightseers and A Field in England?

Set in the throes of the English Civil War, the titular field is the location of a supposed heap of buried treasure, which a small band of deserters stumble upon when, in search of an alehouse, they meet O’Neill. He’s a thief on the run from one of the deserters, Whitehead, but he tells the group about the treasure in the field, which also happens to be filled with psychedelic mushrooms.

The Civil War hasn’t really been covered in movies recently, which might be surprising given the current popularity of period TV drama – looking back, choosing to cover that period in such an interesting way seems so obvious in retrospect. Casting a series of relatively famous (in the UK) comic actors in very serious roles – Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen), Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh), Michael Smiley (Spaced) - is something that has been done on British television before, but not so much in a film. Make no mistake about it, A Field in England is absolutely not a comedy, instead using its comic cast to convey desperation and solitude.

It was also revolutionary in its release strategy, coming out on the same day across every possible platform – cinema, DVD, VOD, and TV – which made for an engrossing experience on Twitter as people watched together. A sense of community immediately sprung around the film in that moment, which only serves to make it more difficult to forget. Ben Wheatley is a director to watch out for, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s given a huge budget to work with.

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Philomena

PHILOMENA The Best British Films Of 2013

It sounds so bland on paper – journalist helps old lady find her long-lost son – but when Judi Dench is involved, you know that this is a classy production that will at the very least touch you in your special place: your heart. Stephen Frears, whose body of work includes The Queen and High Fidelity, manages to make both a road comedy and a touching story of redemption and forgiveness, of taking the high road in a world of intolerance and bigotry.

Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist tasked with covering the real-life story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) and her search for the long lost son she gave up for adoption fifty years ago. This turns into a road trip, at turns comical and heartbreaking, on which the relationship between Sixsmith and Lee is cemented. But the film isn’t all sweetness and light, as the question of Sixsmith’s real angle on the story – he initially pitches it as a story about “evil nuns,” eager as he is to make a name for himself in journalism again – initially lingers in the background, and as the twosome get deeper into the story we discover that there’s a whole lot more to this than just “evil nuns.” The themes go to the highest reaches of the American government, covering the sins of the Catholic Church and more in the bargain.

It’s surefire awards bait, and deservedly so. It has already garnered a lot of Oscar buzz, pushing the same buttons stateside as The King’s Speech managed to in 2011. Seeing as Coogan produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film, it’d be incredibly surprising if he didn’t get at least one nod from the Academy. Incredibly surprising indeed.

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The Angel’s Share

left to right gary maitland paul brannigan and william ruane star in the angels share The Best British Films Of 2013

Three very different Scottish films came out this year – Filth, the adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel; Sunshine on Leith, a musical based on the music of the Proclaimers, and The Angel’s Share. It’s reductive to suggest that these were the only Scottish films to come out this year, but these three in particular caught the attention of the public on release because of their differing views of life in Scotland, the highs and lows, the banality and the comedy. If anyone can wrestle comedy from banality it’s Ken Loach, elder statesman of British cinema and probably the most respected man in the UK film industry. He’s a director who has stayed true to his roots in kitchen-sink realism, always relying on the same process to work up movies, using casting and rehearsal to hit upon character ideas and stories with a cast of mostly unknowns.

The Angel’s Share concerns a group of friends who visit a local distillery as a reward for their good behaviour as part of a community payback scheme for offenders. It turns out one of them, Robbie, has a natural talent for identifying different flavours in whisky. Meanwhile, a priceless cask of whisky has recently come up for auction, and a local whisky collector intends on getting one of the group to steal some of the whisky for his own collection, and £200,000. “The angel’s share,” as it were.

Ultimately it’s an effecting story of hope in hopeless circumstances, and trying to turn your life around against the odds. It also uses some of the elements of the heist genre along with some light-hearted comedy to make the themes of the film a little easier to swallow. The three guys in the film might be criminals, but they’re likeable. Had Robbie been offered different opportunities in life, he could have capitalised on his excellent nose. It’s about the untapped talents in all of us, talents that we have no conception of. Maybe you’re an ace submarine navigator, or perhaps you’ve a natural talent for excavating dinosaur bones. You could be capable of the perfect murder, for all you know. There’s only one way to find out. That’s the message of The Angel’s Share, in a way.

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Good Vibrations

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Good Vibrations endeavours to tell the true story of the formation of Good Vibrations, a record store that the young Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer), a now legendary figure in the Belfast punk scene, started in the 1970s. It later went on to become a record label that most famously released “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones, a punk classic that has stood the test of time. Music aficionados will enjoy the harkening back to a more innocent time, when the punk scene was just beginning, but the uplifting tone and indiscriminate warming of the heart that Good Vibrations provides is what makes the film a modern day classic.

Although the 1970s was an incredibly turbulent time in Northern Ireland, it is against this backdrop that Good Vibrations paints its portrait of vibrancy. Dormer’s performance as Terri Hooley is that perfect picture of rebellious adolescence, but not in an idealised, James Dean kind of way. This is the painful rebellion of the lonely, of someone who finds that their needs aren’t being met, and sets about attempting to meet them. It’s artistic fulfillment of the rawest kind, and everyone but the most hard-hearted of souls ends the film on a high.

It received a rapturous reception in the UK, winning both the Galway Film Fleadh Audience Award and The Belfast Film Festival Audience Award. A big hit with fans on both sides of the Irish Sea, the film got great reviews in England as well as in Northen Ireland. What has been an incredibly tense few decades, ending for the most part only recently, makes Good Vibrations all the more impressive in its ambition and it is affecting to boot. A truly great film that will hopefully one day see a US release.

So that’s the end of the list. I’ll finish up how all British people finish all conversations – by tipping their bowler hat, opening an umbrella, and flying away. Thanks for reading.

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