Top 20 VOD films of 2013
James R | On 31, Dec 2013
At the end of 12 months that have seen digital distribution break through into the mainstream, we look back and pick the best movie releases across all video on-demand platforms.
Mea Maxima Culpa
Released on Netflix in December 2013, Alex Gibney’s documentary about abuse within a Catholic home for deaf children is a timely and provocative piece of filmmaking. Mea Maxima Culpa shouts the truth about its victims from the steeple tops. The quiet that follows is deafening.
Captain Phillips made waves in cinemas, but pay-per-view VOD waters were held hostage in August 2013 by Tobias Lindholm’s thriller, which delivers the story of a company trying to negotiate the release of its cargo and crew with gut-churning realism. Its quiet, natural approach suggests a fly-on-the-wall documentary rather than a piece of fiction, making powerful points about globalisation while never losing sight of the personal stakes.
Safety Not Guaranteed
One of the best things video on-demand can do is give a platform to indie films without a wide release. Safety Not Guaranteed falls firmly into that category. Unavailable on DVD, Colin Trevorrow’s comedy was good enough to get its director the gig for the next Jurassic Park movie as well as a release on Film 4oD – and, months later, on Netflix UK. It’s a hilarious sci-fi/romance/coming-of-age adventure… that just so happens to be about time travel. Go stream it now.
Stories We Tell
“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion.” Sarah Polley’s documentary was released simultaneously in cinemas and on-demand through Curzon Home Cinema. It does what some of the genre’s best films do: blurs the line between fact and fiction. Turning the camera on her own family, the result is a fascinatingly personal piece of filmmaking – and that’s the truth.
This controversial movie about the treatment of killer whales in SeaWorld (and their reaction to it) has become one of the biggest talking points of 2013. Snapped up by distributor Dogwoof, it was made available through their own on-demand platform as well as through iTunes and has already been secured a Netflix release – Dogwoof know the digital game as well as the documentary one. That’s a good thing: Blackfish is an angry, righteous piece of work that demands to be seen.
In a year where Behind the Candelabra has caught everyone’s eye, it’s easy to overlook Steven Soderbergh’s other masterpiece – unless, of course, you saw it. Slipping through genres like a well-oiled Hitchcock, Side Effects a breathtaking thriller that boasts pulse-racing performances from Rooney Mara and Jude Law. And those are just the side effects we know about. After its release in cinemas at the top of 2013, the movie has since struck DVD and ultimately found a home on LOVEFiLM Instant.
Another Netflix UK addition from the second half of the year, The Hunt was one of 2012’s most shocking theatrical releases. An excruciating look at what happens to one man’s life when a child wrongfully says he abused her, Thomas Vinterberg’s drama boasts an incredible performance from Mads Mikkelsen and prescience that shows no sign of fading. Devastatingly brilliant. Brilliantly devastating.
After seeing Ethan Hawkes’ Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine meet on a train in 1995, Richard Linklater’s second follow-up, Before Midnight, isn’t just the next chapter in their relationship or a deeply honest exploration of love and reality (unlike the majority of romantic comedies produced today) – it’s like catching up with old friends. When was the last time you could say that about a film?
Michael Haneke’s drama about an elderly husband struggling to care for his departing wife won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013. Five months later, it debuted on Netflix UK, proving that the raw account of one man’s devotion loses none of its heart-wrenching impact on the small screen.
In under 80 minutes, Jeff Orlowski’s documentary Chasing Ice (now on Netflix UK) manages to capture something that disaster movies have been trying to for years: the colossal, beautiful and horrifying destruction of our planet. It makes The Day After Tomorrow look like Trumpton. Essential viewing and an eye-opening piece of cinema. Literally.
Who are we? What’s it all about? And can anyone find the ice machine? These are just a few of the questions hot-wired into Andrew Bujalski’s lo-fi baffle ballad Computer Chess. Released simultaneously in cinemas and on-demand, it’s smart, funny, weird – and so naturalistic it’s practically free range. More than worth a rook. Ahem.
The Kings of Summer
Digital distribution reared its head once again to prove how helpful it can be for smaller movies. Not that Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ wonderful coming-of-age flick thinks small. A rounded, moving and laugh-out-loud tale of men not becoming men, it covers everything from building your own house to Blanca from Street Fighter in a delightful whirl of whimsy and charm. Released in only a handful of cinemas, it swiftly appeared on LOVEFiLM Instant where it will hopefully find the audience it richly deserves.
The Place Beyond the Pines
Netflix may have grabbed most of the headlines in 2013, but LOVEFiLM have wasted no time in bagging some of the year’s best movies. Top of the list? The Place beyond the Pines. Reuniting Ryan Gosling and Blue Valentine’s Derek Cianfrance, it’s an epic tale of failed father figures and loyalty that spans generations – and burns with the intensity of Gosling riding a motorbike around a circle of death. Mesmerising, lyrical stuff.
Iron Man 3
A wibbly-wobbly voiceover. A bickering odd couple. Robert Downey Jr. Marvel’s latest sequel may be called Iron Man Three, but it’s closer to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 2. Except, you know, starring Iron Man. Shane Black’s superhero movie manages to be both respectful to the genre and subvert it, busting blocks and splitting sides in equal measure. The fact that it’s set at Christmas is a bonus.
A film featuring plasma guns, hover bikes and an OAP version of The Great Escape? That’s the kind of madness you can expect from the bewildering, beautiful, bonkers Cloud Atlas. As for the method, well, it’s in there somewhere.
Noah Baumbach’s freewheeling Frances Ha is the perfect match of character and form; a film that feels like it was directed by its lead heroine. Not that she could direct anything. Played by the enchanting Greta Gerwig, this is a coming-of-age tale in which no one comes of age at all; Frances Ha spends his life running through the streets of life without a thought for what happens next. “I’m sorry, I’m not a real person yet,” she babbles on a date. But getting a man is never the focus of the story – that’s firmly on her friendship with Sophie (Mickie Sumner). A film about two fully-fledged women? Frances Ha is the kind of movie that’s missing from modern cinema. The fact that it’s fantastic only makes it more perfect.
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary does something incredibly rare: it hands the camera over to a group of murderers and lets them tell the story. Offering Indonesians involved in the country’s slaughter of “communists” in the 1960s a chance to re-enact their killings, the proud men jump at the chance. What follows is horrific and ranges from cross-dressing to state-sanctioned torture before finally arriving at one person’s realisation that their act of killing may have been a bad thing. Surreal, surprising and soul-destroying, it’s now available on blinkbox, iTunes, Film 4oD and other pay-per-view services. It’s a vital watch – but not an easy one.
Every now and then, a film comes along that changes the world. Sometimes, you don’t even realise it’s doing it. The first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the country’s first feature film shot by a woman, director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s quiet revolution isn’t explicitly found in the gentle tale of a young girl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who wants to ride a bike and wear purple trainers to school – and that makes it all the more potent. The very fact that Wadjda exists is inspiring. That it’s fantastic to boot makes it a joy.
The Selfish Giant
“You’ve been excluded. Permanently,” Arbor’s mum tells her 14 year old son. Clio Barnard’s tale of scrapping, horse racing and staying above the bread line is bluntly sad yet bleakly poetic. The grim tale recalls the realism of Ken Loach more than the fairytale fable of Wilde, upon which it is based, but tackles the current state of British society with little more than two young boys (the astonishing Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas) and a piece of junk metal. A tiny, towering triumph of British cinema – and a fitting launch title for the BFI’s new BFI Player, which helped it to reach audiences across the country.
A Field in England
In a year of big technological strides, Ben Wheatley’s mind-bending trip of a film moved in leaps, arriving in cinemas, on Film4, on-demand and on DVD all on the same day: Friday 5th July. (The groundbreaking step saw A Field In England account for 30% of Film4oD’s weekend sales.)
Managing to hew laughs from pitch black horror, the movie dabbles in everything from the afterlife to the Civil War. “I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for,” croaks one lost soldier halfway through. “Everything.” As events descend into hell – perfectly captured upon Reece Shearsmith’s haunting face – A Field in England plays out as a supernatural Western: a black and white shootout of faith and mushrooms that guns down rationality with a brash confidence. This is what a masterpiece looks like. And that release strategy, the first of its kind, turns out to be the least crazy thing about it.