It’s December, and as is traditional, we’ve asked Empire’s writers to vote for their favourite films of the year. The assembled results have since been turned into this, a list of the very best 2013 had to offer. All films released from January 1 to December 31 in the UK were eligible, and we’ve included (but not ranked) three movies that several of our number have seen, but not enough to vote on fairly. So read on and at the end, check how many you’ve seen yourself...
50. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn
Best for: daydream believers and, heck, homecoming queens too.
It’s been five years since Ben Stiller directed Tropic Thunder, and the film that lured him back to the director’s chair is a sweet tale of a mild-mannered man who dreams of being much, much more. Quietly fascinated by colleague Cheryl (Kristen Wiig, who’s in for quite a December between this and Anchorman), he finally gets the chance to live some of those daydreams when he sets off in search of a missing negative by a star photographer. Expect glorious dreams and perhaps, in the end, a glorious reality as well.
49. ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, David Koechner, Harrison Ford, James Marsden, Meagan Good
Best for: the Channel 4 News Team. Yes, we’re talking to you, Jon Snow.
If you were asked to name some film characters who would cope well with change, the chances that you’d name anyone in the Channel 4 News Team are small indeed. And yet that’s exactly what Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy and his crew have to wrestle with as the arrival of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle fundamentally changes their business. Early word suggests that the gag rate is just as relentless as the first film, so we can’t wait to see what Brick declares love for this time, or Brian Fantana’s latest pick-up technique.
48. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lily, Luke Evans
Best for: hobbitses.
The second part of Peter Jackson’s sprawling adaptation promises us a dude who turns into a bear, a bunch of elves who fight giant spiders in the forest, a town on a lake and, most importantly, a dragon under a mountain. For Smaug alone, we’d be lining up to see it, but in fact what we’ve seen so far promises us much more in the way of intrigue and adventure. Gandalf will be off battling the Necromancer while the dwarves and their hobbit “burglar” fight their way through Mirkwood to that fateful confrontation with their big, scaly nemesis. Frankly, we can’t wait.
47. NOW YOU SEE ME
Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine
Best for: capes and robbers.
Films about magic often flounder on the fact that cinema itself is magic and can cancel out the impact of their tricks. But the spectacular illusions here and the clever addition of some hapless, helpless FBI and Interpol agents to try to fathom the tricks make for a gleeful caper. The plodding coppers can’t compare with the magicians’ prestidigitation – at first, at least – and Eisenberg, Fisher, Harrelson and Franco have a ball with their sleight of hand, particularly in an inspired chase scene that fully utilises the cops and magical robbers conceit. In an early summer that was full of tortured heroes and apocalyptic visions, this frothier romp was a deserved hit.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher do magic tricks on the Empire Podcast
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo
Best for: making us wonder how we’d cope.
As much an endurance test as a viewing experience, Villeneuve’s follow-up to the fiery Incendies throws the viewer into a parent’s hell – what if your child was abducted? – and then tightens the screws: what if you identified the person responsible? Where would you stop? The moral dilemma is compelling, but this is carried by the committed performances of Jackman’s increasingly desperate father, Jake Gyllenhaal’s professionally furious cop and Paul Dano’s all-too-punchable suspect. The tone’s as wintry as the perpetually snowy weather of its setting, but this one will hang around in the back of your mind long after spring.
- Read the Empire review
- Watch Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve discuss the film
- Read Hugh Jackman talking about the film
45 THE CONJURING
Director: James Wan
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingstone, Lili Taylor, Hayley McFarland, Joey King
Best for: things that went bump in the night – and often the day too.
A monster box office hit, The Conjuring came from nowhere to scare $316m out of moviegoers around the world. It rolled the true-life Amityville murders – for pity’s sake, don’t ever move somewhere that has ‘Amity’ in the name – into a scarefest that blew icy breath down our necks and went “BOO!” all at the same time. The rich period detail, creepy doll prelude and Lili Taylor going all Linda Blair were highlights, but James ‘Saw’ Wan offered an Edgar Allen Poe-y sense of the macabre and the story rattled along at a whip. Unsurprisingly, there’s a sequel coming. The unlikely sounding The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist (what next? The Tottenham Hale Terrors?) is also based on a true story and will be with us in the next year or two.
44 KILL YOUR DARLINGS
Director: John Krokidas
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall
Best for: showing the Beat poets before they got the Beat going.
The act of violence that drives this drama about the early lives of some of the most influential writers of the 20th century – Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg – is revealed in the opening moments, but the film keeps its real surprises close to the chest. It's only gradually that it becomes clear that this is a lot messier and more complicated than the usual coming-of-age 'Becoming Allen Ginsberg' sort of story, even before we get into questions of murder. Newcomer director Krokidas shows a gift for subtlety and nuance here that marks him as one to watch, and Daniel Radcliffe shows once again that he's more than just The Boy Who Lived.
43 MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg
Best for: saying hey nonny nonny to The Avengers.
Just after shooting The Avengers, Joss Whedon took two weeks out of the edit suite and made this monochrome take on Shakespeare's comedy of manipulated love. With a team of friends and regulars and a shoot in his back garden, he produced a breezy, easy-going version of the play with none of the self-consciousness that can plague some adaptations. For those under the impression that Shakespeare is only for snoots and stuffed shirts, this brings the Bard home to the pit audience he always kept engaged.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire podcast special with Joss Whedon, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof
42. ROBOT & FRANK
Director: Jake Schreier
Cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Peter Sarsgaard, James Marsden, Best for: rekindling lost mojos with the help of a robot.
It's been a good year for older stars, with great roles for the likes of Bruce Dern and Judi Dench. Likely to be overlooked – wrongly – is this performance by Frank Langella, as a retired cat burglar stirred back to life by a robot carer who proves amenable to engaging in some light larceny to keep his elderly charge active. The film's too pacy, funny and science fiction tinged to get the awards praise it might otherwise deserve, but Langella's rarely been better and the whole is a beautifully judged look at ageing and last hurrahs.
41. WORLD WAR Z
Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Peter Capaldi
Best for: making Brad Pitt-lemonade from troubled-shoot lemons.
The advance word was poisonous. The trailers betrayed virtually no connection to the source material (something the film bore out). And then… it turned out to be a cracking adventure film, with Brad Pitt trekking all over the world, staying just ahead of the oncoming zombie horde, to find a way to save humanity from this latest apocalypse. Great effects and a constant sense of both tension and surprise served to keep knuckles gnawed and bums barely on seats throughout a relatively lean running time (proportionate to the scale of the story, at least). While we'd like to see more of the book in the sequel, this one definitely gets chalked up as a success grabbed from the zombie-jaws of box-office disaster.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to author Max Brooks discuss his book
- Or, if you prefer, read his interview
- How's the science of World War Z? We ask a doctor about the zombie plague
- Marc Forster Q&A: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Best for: road trips for the more mature traveller.
Alexander Payne's follow-up to The Descendants returns him to the middle America of About Schmidt and Election, but often this feels more like the Sullivan's Travels version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. There are brilliant comedy moments, certainly, but there's also a Depression-era sensibility that's only emphasised by the black-and-white cinematography. As Will Forte drives his addled father Woody (Dern) across the vast state and they revisit the sparsely populated town where Woody grew up, there's an air of loss and emptiness that sets off the rare warmer moments of family bonding and sympathy. And in a Hollywood often obsessed with winning and riches, it's good to see such a triumph about a losing ticket.
39. THE BLING RING
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann
Best for: like, totally showing us, y'know, the kids of today at their worst. Or whatever.
In some ways, Sofia Coppola's film is the horror movie of the year, offering up a bleak, almost nihilistic view of the empty lives of over privileged teens in Los Angeles, youngsters who value all the wrong things and are willing to do anything to get them with very little thought to the consequences. In other ways, this is a natural progression for Coppola, who has always focused on people dissatisfied with their own lives and shifting about in an attempt to fill the empty spaces they find therein. But this one's her funniest yet – even if the best lines, like "I want to lead a country one day, for all I know" come straight from real life.
38. WARM BODIES
Director: Jonathan Levine
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco
Best for: proving that there's love life after death.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most romantic version of Romeo & Juliet this year wasn't the sumptuous, Italian-set medieval one, but the grimy, post-apocalyptic one about zombies. Jonathan Levine and his cast pulled off the nearly impossible trick of making us root for the undead in this tale of girl meets zombie, zombie falls for girl after eating her boyfriend's brain, zombie tries to convince girl that he's alright really. It helps that Nicholas Hoult is strangely adorable even when he's half-rotted, but props to the quietly effective Teresa Palmer for selling the other half of the romance.
37. WRECK-IT RALPH
Director: Rich Moore
Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Joe Lo Truglio
Best for: letting the bad guy win.
Empire has argued in the past that it's entirely possible to make a great video-game movie, as long as you don't bother making the game first (see also: Crank, Scott Pilgrim) and here is further proof. Wreck-It Ralph takes the side of the underdog, positing that sometimes even the bad guy needs a win, and its hapless (anti)hero's attempts to overcome his own nature make him more interesting than almost any Disney Animation lead we've seen before. With glorious game-hopping adventures (if anything, the film needed more) and a welter of big-name cameos, this has enough heart that you don't have to be a gamer to love it. One caveat, however: the Sugar Rush segments may be leave you with a well-nigh unquenchable craving for sweets.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to John C. Reilly discuss the film on the Empire Podcast
- We list the video game cameos we want to see in the sequel
36. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan
Best for: combining Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper in a sexy chemical reaction that might easily have exploded the planet.
If audiences came for two of People magazine's Sexiest Men, they stayed for a layered parable of crime, families and the responsibilities of fatherhood. Presumably to protect our eyes, Baby Goose and B-Coops share only a few brief scenes in the film that lurches unexpectedly from crime thriller to something more, well, profound at its midway point. If that makes it sound like 2013's answer to Heat, the comparison isn't too far off the mark. Cooper and DeHaan, calculating politico and vengeful youngster respectively, show how bad decisions can reverberate through the years. We knew Blue Valentine's Derek Cianfrance could nail the intimate moments, but this ambitious tale with overtones of Greek tragedy proved that a bigger canvas held no fears for him either.
35. SAVING MR. BANKS
Director: John Hancock
Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Paul Giamatti
Best for: showing that a spoonful of sugar makes even the worst medicine go down.
The trailers made it look like a battle of wills between Mary Poppins author PL Travers (Emma Thompson) and Tom Hanks' Walt Disney – but of course we already know the outcome of that battle. Instead, this functions best when its focus is on Travers herself, with Thompson on exceptional form under a fright perm as the stiff, schoolmarmish but somehow still likeable author. Her horror at American culture is both hilarious and – dare we say it – entirely understandable, and the clash with Disney's style is beautifully judged. Maybe he should have taken her out to fly a kite instead.
34. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Alice Eve
Best for: boldly going all over the place.
2009's Star Trek had the great advantages of low expectations and a relatively stealthy arrival. But its huge success means that its sequel began with all eyes upon it and hopes somewhere in the stratosphere. Kudos, then, to Abrams and team for keeping most of the plot under wraps and delivering some surprises involving rot in the heart of Starfleet and something closer to a '70s thriller than the series has ever attempted before. Cumberbatch's villain proved able to hold his own against the mighty pairing of Kirk and Spock, and every crew member got at least a moment of heroism. Roll on the five-year mission!
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire podcast interview with Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci
- Listen to the Empire's spoiler special podcast
- Listen to the second spoiler special, with more from Lindelof, Burk, Kurtzman and Orci
- Watch J. J. Abrams discuss the film
- Read Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch discussing the film
- Exclusive gallery: Meet Team J.J. - AKA Starfleet's Engine Room
33. LES MISÉRABLES
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Aaron Tveit
Best for: singing live on set.
Almost a year after it came out, the music of Les Misérables is still echoing in our ears. By dint of having his outrageously talented cast sing live on set, director Tom Hooper kept the emphasis on the emotion, and as a result the music – even where a note wobbled – had more of an impact than the most polished studio performance could have delivered. While Anne Hathaway took away the Oscar for her tragic turn as Fantine, the MVP for us is Jackman's compassionate, often-desperate Jean Valjean.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast interview with Tom Hooper
- Check out the cast's previous vocal form
32. THE IMPOSSIBLE
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Best for: a raw, deeply emotional depiction of a family in harm's way.
When gifted Spaniard Juan Antonio Bayona followed up The Orphanage with a different kind of horror movie there were grumblings about recasting its true-life family with Caucasian actors. In truth it was soon forgotten, sidelined by the film's self-consciously universal themes and gut-punch impact. The Thai tsunami strike, prefaced by the eeriest flocking of birds since Hitchcock went to Bodega Bay, thundered down on the Bennet clan and left each with a brutal struggle to survive amid the convincingly rendered apocalypse. Naomi Watts and newcomer Tom Holland, an Empire Award winner, were both terrific but Ewan McGregor snuck the MVP prize for a bus station scene that might have been sponsored by Kleenex.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast interview with Juan Antonio Bayona
- Watch Bayona, Watts and McGregor discuss the film
31. ABOUT TIME
Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Domnhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Lydia Wilson
Best for: fathers and sons.
Sometimes a director can use his own reputation as a bluff. From the trailers and synopsis of About Time, we all thought we knew what to expect: it was another gentle romantic comedy of the Curtis school, this time with a time travel twist. But what emerged is as much a story about fathers and sons as one about lovers, and it's in the scenes between Domnhall Gleeson's Tim and Bill Nighy's Dad (it's significant that he gets no other name) that the film's heart really beats, as it becomes a story about growing up and saying goodbye.
- Read the Empire review
- Watch Rachel McAdams and Domnhall Gleeson talk About Time
- Read our Richard Curtis A-Z
- Listen to our Richard Curtis Spotify playlist
- Read the rules of movie time travel
30. FRANCES HA
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen
Best for: a winning helping of sheer, David Bowie-fuelled Greta Gerwiggery.
Somewhere in Movie Manhattan, probably a stone's throw from Lena Dunham's klutzy hipsterdom and the Woody Allen's therapist, we met Frances Ha, a gauche 20-something with the world at her two left feet. Presented in black and white as elegant as Greta Gerwig's sunny heroine was clumsy, Noah Baumbach's film was a kinda-comedy, kinda-tragedy: a Baby Blue Jasmine. We laughed as Frances blundered gamely through her life with all the sureness of a newborn foal, knowing that time was still on her side, but with more than a tinge of worry for her future as she finds optimism alone won't do the job. Baumbach's script gave her great dialogue to deliver ("Do not treat me like a three-hour-brunch friend!"), perfectly depicting the unique cadence of friendships and the painful changes life foists on you when you're busy organising drinks.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to Noah Baumbach on the Empire Podcast
- Watch Greta Gerwig discuss the film
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Sean Mahon Best for: recapping romance novels, making you want to call your mum.
Turning what could have been a Hallmark movie into a riveting mystery, this story of a woman looking for her long-lost son is brought to glorious life by a script that avoids cliché and melodrama and a cast who make the best mismatched buddies since Riggs met Murtaugh. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan provide a study in contrasts on every level: her Philomena is basically hopeful, sometimes naive, often meek when faced with authority; he is cynical, worldly and brash. But even he is moved by her quiet quest, and the audience with him. One of the more moving films of the year, and it succeeds without feeling manipulative.
28. MAN OF STEEL
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Antje Traue, Richard Schiff
Best for: making us believe that Superman can fly again.
Zack Snyder's reinvented Superman opens big – on Krypton, amid flying dragons and beneath an exploding moon – and then, impossibly, gets bigger even as it strives to keep the focus on the emotional, human conflicts that lie beneath Superman's impenetrable skin. There are moments of pure visual poetry as Clark Kent becomes Superman – his first flight arrowing straight up through the air is one of the shots of the year – but the film makes room for the humans around him to take a role too. Remember, this is the film where Toby Ziegler saves the world, and that is something to cherish.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast with Antje Traue
- Listen to the Empire Man Of Steel spoiler podcast
- Watch the cast and crew discuss the film
- Read the producers, Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder, on the film
- Ten Things You Need To Know About Man Of Steel
- Did you spot all the Man Of Steel Easter Eggs?
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel
Best for: the art of the long con.
Why have one twist when you can build an M. C. Escher-style puzzle of your movie? Danny Boyle's run of utterly unpredictable film choices continued with this sexy, suspicious thriller, set in a recognisable London but peopled with characters you'd do well to avoid. Given that, at times, the eternally sinister Vincent Cassel is the most trustworthy character onscreen, you know that this is a high-pressured bunch indeed. Meanwhile, McAvoy is as good as ever in a role that sees him change as his own memory comes and goes, and Dawson's never been better.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Danny Boyle podcast special here
- Watch James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel discuss the film
26. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone
Best for: proving that the odds are very much in Katniss's favour.
The first film had to overcome all those ridiculous "next Twilight" tags – which it did with some style. Catching Fire, instead, had to face sky-high expectations and wrestle with the fact that a poor adaptation could have been more-or-less a retread of the first film. Happily, incoming director Francis Lawrence widened the focus and spent most of his running time outside the Games arena, uncovering the world of Panem and explaining just how pivotal a figure Jennifer Lawrence's unfortunate Katniss has become. The result was a film that felt, yes, darker, but also stronger and more powerful.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast interviews with Francis Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci
- Watch the cast video interviews here
- Read a longer Jennifer Lawrence interview
- Read Francis Lawrence's more spoiler-filled words on the franchise
25. A FIELD IN ENGLAND
Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt, Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando, Sara Dee, Ryan Pope
Best for: things that make you go shroom.
Ben Wheatley's first foray into England's rich and largely deranged history surely won't be the last judging by how well this fun he clearly had with his Civil War mindfuck. Trippy isn't the half of it as alchemist's assistant Reece Shearsmith encounters army deserters Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover, before mysterious Irishman Michael Smiley turns up, magic mushrooms get ingested, holes dug and minds lost in a sporesomely surreal (mis)adventure. Peter Watkins' docudrama 1964 Culloden was something of a reference point, and many were quick to cite Witchfinder General too, but in truth the results were like nothing we'd seen before. Never mind Jacob's Ladder, here was Jacob's shovel.
Director: Jon S. Baird
Cast: James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Imogen Poots
Best for: men behaving badly.
On the page, the hero of Irvine Welsh's Filth is a pure sort of scumbag, a corrupt cop who's typically on more mind-altering substances than the criminals. On screen, he's still thoroughly appalling, with a rancid lack of morality you can touch, but James McAvoy gives him enough nuance and humanity that you almost feel sorry for the shitty, exploitative bastard. Meanwhile, the film transfers the book's outrageous humour and air of decaying sanity intact, so that Mary Whitehouse herself would have to give in and laugh at his desperate attempts to land a big promotion and show his rivals who's boss.
23. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche
Best for: anyone who has a heart.
Tunisian-French Abdellatif Kechiche's film became one of the stories of 2013, an unheralded 179 minute movie with Steven Spielberg's Cannes jury awarding the Palme d'Or not only to the director but, radically, to lead actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. There followed a bitter war of words between the cast and crew – who claimed they were exploited throughout the shoot – and the director, who threatened to withdraw the film from release. Happily Kechiche relented, because Blue Is The Warmest Colour – French title: La Vie D'Adele: Chapitres 1 Et 2 – is what the young people call "totes emosh", a stunning portrait of 15 year-old Adele (Exarchopoulos) as it tracks her life from leaving school to her early twenties, dominated by her passionate relationship with blue-haired artist Emma (Seydoux). But forget the much talked-about, ridiculously explicit sex scenes: this is a touching, beautifully observed, perfectly played coming-of-age story about finding your own space in the world, be it in the workplace, the living room orm indeed, the double bed. Chapitres 3 et 4 can't come soon enough.
22. ALL IS LOST
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Robert Redford
Best for: the Old Man And The Sea.
Almost wordless but never silent, this is another of this year's slate of stories of an individual alone against the elements and the odds. Redford is the sailor whose yacht suffers a hull breach shortly before he encounters a huge storm. Stoic and determined, he manages to stay afloat through torrential rain and huge waves – but the film never lets you forget that he's a tiny dot in a vast ocean, and help is far from close. Director J.C. Chandor, who delivered a great talky drama with Margin Call, proves that he doesn't need reams of dialogue to hold our attention – and Redford's performance may be a career best.
21. UPSTREAM COLOUR
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Shane Carruth, Thiago Martins Best for: mind-alteration both narrative and actual.
There's some sort of plot to Shane Carruth's dreamy follow-up to Primer. It involves the lifecycle of a drug that leaves people curiously malleable to outside control, and which has an almost biblical quality (it's expelled from people and into pigs? The drug is a demon?). Dialogue light and almost entirely exposition-free, this leaves you to do all the heavy lifting of figuring out what's going on while you're swept up in how beautiful it all looks. After Primer and this, we can't wait to see what Carruth does next.
20. CLOUD ATLAS
Director: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae
Best for: adapting an impossible book in an impossible fashion.
Sure, not all of the make-up quite works, but let that go. Cloud Atlas is an obviously impossible book to adapt, so the Wachowskis and Tykwer would deserve kudos for even the attempt. But in fact they succeed in finding a way to address the book's sprawling ideas onscreen, abandoning the Russian doll structure for an interlocking series of stories linked by the same cast playing characters across eras and races. It's an intricate and at times dizzying approach, but it's hard to imagine another half as effective.
- Read the Empire review
- What the heck is Cloud Atlas?
- A Before-And-After look at the film's visual effects
- 15 gorgeous fan-made posters
- Behind The Scenes on Cloud Atlas
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Tilikum the killer whale
Best for: making you reconsider your theme-park plans.
One of the few films to make the news as well as movie pages of our papers, Blackfish was this year's The Cove. It was also a horror movie if you happened to work in SeaWorld's PR department, because Gabriela Cowperthwaite's angry, enthralling documentary alerted the wider world to the conditions in which captive orcas are kept. An angry rejoinder by SeaWorld, convincing no-one at all that the hard-hitting film wasn't on to something, only drew further attention to the issues raised. The film's account of the death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau, mauled and drowned by a 12,000lb bull orca in 2010, prompted serious questions of psychological trauma and safety but, like The Cove, this was an issues film that raced like a thriller.
18. ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm
Best for: a neon-soaked, gorgeously-shot vision of hell.
This is the only film this year to appear on Empire's best and worst lists, a division of opinion that we suspect will please its director far more than universal adoration might. In a colour-saturated Bangkok, a shady American called Julian (Gosling), is reluctantly dispatched by his appalling mother (Scott Thomas) to avenge his brother, who was himself murdered in revenge for killing a young girl. But Julian faces the Terminator-like Chang (Pansringarm), and the crime thriller that follows serves as a Grifters-like family drama, a critique of Western imperialism and an ode to the joys of karaoke.
- Read the Empire review
- Watch Kristin Scott Thomas and Nicolas Winding Refn discuss the film
- Read Winding Refn on his 15 favourite geeky things
- Empire reader designs the official steelbook cover for Only God Forgives
17. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Director: Alan Taylor
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Denning
Best for: bringing the hammer down.
The rumours were worrying. There were tales of rewrites, reshoots and every other manner of rethink. Turns out that, not only did we have nothing to fear, but the naysayers were punched into the middle of next week. The second Thor was funnier, more assured and pacier than its predecessor, giving us plenty more bromance between Thor and Loki and lots of capering about for the non-superpowered humans. Sure, the 'science' makes not a lick of sense and you can't get from Charing Cross to Greenwich in three Tube stops, but we were laughing too hard to care.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast (spoiler-free version)
- Listen to the Thor: The Dark World spoiler special podcast
- See the 16 Videos Every Thor Fan Should Watch
- Read the (spoiler) secrets of the film
16. SHORT TERM 12
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, Frantz Turner, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield
Best for: reminding us that American indie cinema can still tell small, perfectly-formed stories.
On paper, it's almost impossible to make Short Term 12 sound appealing to the casual viewer: after all, it's the story of a foster home full of damaged kids and the almost equally-damaged young adults who supervise them. But on screen, there is so much heart and humour that it feels a million miles from the sort of misery fest you might expect. Brie Larson was one of the breakouts of the year after her compassionate, complex turn as the home's leader Grace, who's a rock for her charges but who's crumbling inwardly herself. More of this, please.
15. BLUE JASMINE
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Adam Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Louis CK
Best for: a portrait of a woman coming apart at the seams.
Ask current Best Actress Oscar holder Jennifer Lawrence about the best performance in cinema history and she will name Cate Blanchett's turn here. And it's easy to see why: Blanchett's nervy Jasmine is well over the verge of the nervous breakdown following the breakdown of her marriage and her pampered lifestyle. Turning on a dime from cool society doyenne to raving neurotic, her performance anchors the film – ably assisted by Sally Hawkins, in particular, as her more grounded and compassionate sister. The result is yet another return to form for that hardy perennial Woody Allen.
14. BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe
Best for: diamante, mink and piano music, of course.
"I can't believe Liberace was gay. I mean, women loved him," said Austin Powers on waking from cryo-sleep and catching up on a world gone mad. He could have used Soderbergh's HBO film as a primer on what he missed, lifting the lid on Liberace's private life to show that, yes, the beglittered and flamboyant pianist was indeed gay. But this goes beyond the camp mannerisms and those incredible costumes to show a figure who's often charming, sometimes cruel, hugely insecure and surprisingly sympathetic in this nuanced story. Full marks to both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon for playing out a romance that might have been one note in other hands as a back-and-forth tug of love.
13. DJANGO UNCHAINED
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
Best for: wish-fulfilment vis-à-vis the proper treatment of slave owners.
Quentin Tarantino likes a bloody story of revenge, but it's rarely been with better cause than in this story of a freed slave, the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) who unleashes hell on the thoroughly rotten plantation owner (DiCaprio) who holds his wife (Washington). It's not exactly subtle or realistic, but the comic-book glee and vim with which the violence is eventually dispatched to the utterly deserving slave owners and their accomplices make it a visceral pleasure – like much of the director's other work.
12. THE WORLD'S END
Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Rosamund Pike, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman
Best for: intricate foreshadowing and a compelling look at male friendship and growing up.
The Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy concluded in triumphant fashion this summer with an alien apocalypse the likes of which Roland Emmerich could barely have dreamed. Following a zombie triumph and small-town (OK, city) action movie, here we see the end of the world through the eyes of an alcoholic and his long-lost, half-cut best mates. A little darker and more emotionally complicated than what went before, this is a beautifully constructed story covering nostalgia, self-delusion, addiction and smashy egg men. Let's hope this isn't the last collaboration of Wright, Frost and Pegg.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost on the Empire podcast
- Read Edgar Wright on the music of The World's End
- Listen to Edgar Wright's playlist on Spotify
- Check out our World's End infographic
- Read our behind-the-scenes report
- The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy Podcast Special
- 18 things you (probably) didn't know about the Cornetto Trilogy
11. ZERO DARK THIRTY
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle
Best for: getting the bad guy.
You know you're covering recent history when the ending to your film changes before you can even finish it. Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker sees her dramatise the hunt for Osama bin Laden in a way that is morally complex, propulsive and fascinating. Jessica Chastain's Mia visibly hardens her skin and stiffens her backbone as the film progresses; surrounded by alpha males, she's soon the most dominant of the lot, driving to launch the final raid on bin Laden's compound on little more than grit and determination.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to Kathryn Bigelow on the Empire podcast
- Listen to Mark Strong on the Empire podcast
- Read screenwriter Mark Boal's spoiler-filled interview
- Watch Jessica Chastain discuss her starring role
10. ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA
Director: Declan Lowney
Cast: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu, Monica Dolan, Sean Pertwee
Best for: giving us a definitive answer on the worst sort of 'monger'.
Adapting a beloved TV character for the big screen is a task fraught with peril, but it's one that Alan Partridge managed with aplomb (not a word usually associated with the fictional Norfolk resident). This is a character who works best in a small, damp and mediocre world, and happily for us the filmmakers scotched all suggestions of taking Alan to America or thrusting him onto a bigger and perhaps actually significant stage, and kept the laughs coming by letting Alan get to his day job. So the action sticks to Norwich, the script sticks to local concerns and the polyester sticks to everything.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast
- Bill Oddie talks Alan Partridge
- Steve Coogan talks Alan Partridge
9. THE GREAT BEAUTY
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso
Best for: re-imagining Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita as a 21st century Roman odyssey.
Tony Servillo and Paolo Sorrentino reunited for the fourth time in an Italian language gem that burst out of the festival circuit in an explosion of energy and ideas. Like their last two collaborations, Il Divo and The Consequences Of Love, it had the wonderfully wry Servillo at his best. It introduced his novelist/writer/bon vivant Jep Gambardella – think Marcello Mastroianni's Dolce Vita hack seasoned by the years and the odd brandy – as a man observing his own disco-fuelled party like a mischievous imp witnessing over the end of days, it takes us on a trip through a city by turns decadent and devout, but never less than mesmerising.
8. BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
Best for: showing us what happens after the happily ever after.
This ongoing collaboration by writer-director Richard Linklater and his co-writers and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is one of cinema's most successful experiments. Over 20 years now, we've had the chance to peek into three key moments in the lives of Jesse and Celine as they debate life, love, sex and their own shared future. Their discussions feel so natural (albeit hyper-articulate and well-expressed) that viewers are left secretly hoping that "Julie Delpy" and "Ethan Hawke" are the characters, and Celine and Jesse are still out there somewhere, walk-and-talking in a way that puts even Aaron Sorkin to shame.
7. IRON MAN 3
Director: Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle
Best for: delivering blockbuster scale while wittily undercutting clichés as it goes.
Newspaper critics love to talk about superhero fatigue, but as long as the films stay as inventive and surprising as this summer's Iron three-quel, it isn't going to hit any time soon. The first post-Avengers outing for Marvel's finest saw Tony Stark with his back against the wall and deprived of his usual home comforts, but all the better for it. Incoming director Shane Black inevitably set the story at Christmas, but delivered surprises both small (a cute kid who isn't annoying!) and huge (you know the one we mean). More fun than a barrel of monkeys.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to the Empire Podcast spoiler special
- Listen to the (spoiler-free) Don Cheadle podcast interview
- Read the spoiler secrets of the film
- Read Robert Downey Jr. on the film
- Kevin Feige and Shane Black: edit bay interview
- Don Cheadle talks Iron Patriot
- Gwyneth Paltrow talks Iron Man 3
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver Best for: creepy atmosphere and novel uses for pencils.
A slow-burning coming-of-age story that defies easy categorisation, this gets under your skin and stays there. Matthew Goode plays the mysterious Uncle Charlie who turns up at his brother's funeral to comfort grieving widow Evie (Kidman) and her daughter India (Wasikowska) – but while it's immediately clear that he is hiding something and that all is not quite right in the state of India, it still comes as a shock when you realise what you've been watching all along.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field, Bruce McGill, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader
Best for: summing up a great man's character in one short span of weeks.
Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. The greatest US president in history (discuss; 10 marks). It's a dream team even before you get to the supporting cast (Strathairn, Spader, Field) and it only gets dreamier from there. By focusing on the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, Spielberg sidesteps the brutality of the US Civil War (somewhat, at least) to focus on the high ideals for which Lincoln, at least, fought. So inspiring that you may find yourself singing the Star-Spangled Banner by the end.
HOW STEVEN SPIELBERG NEARLY MADE, THEN DIDN'T MAKE, THEN DID MAKE LINCOLN
WORDS: IAN FREER
This feature first appeared in issue 283 of Empire magazine.
"I DON'T READ TWEETS, so don't share anything else with me," says Steven Spielberg, settling into his chair, flopping his trademark flat cap on the coffee table in front of him. "I read Whoopi Goldberg's tweet only because she put it right into my face." It is the afternoon after Lincoln's unofficial world premiere at the New York Film Festival and we are in a corner apartment on the 12th floor of The Ritz-Carlton hotel, Central Park filling the CinemaScope window frame. Empire has started to relay the #oscarpredictions following the screening, but Spielberg - notoriously circumspect around awards time - has stopped us in our tracks. Although the film is just a few weeks from its November 9 US opening, he is still making editing, colour and end-credit tweaks ("It's the only time I've ever thought that digital was a good thing"), but his Lincoln adventure - when he started, Bill Clinton was in the White House - is coming to an end.
"I didn't make it quickly," he suggests. "It took a long time to get the script right. It took a long time to find my Lincoln. I'm in a moment right now where I am proud of the work and relieved that we got this thing off the ground. There were many times I thought this would never get done."
It's a movie unlike anything I've ever directed.
STEVEN SPIELBERG PREPPING THE PROJECT in the early Noughties, Spielberg's research took him to the Lincoln archive in Springfield (no, not that one), Illinois. As the director perused the panoply of Presidential possessions, he came across the holy grail of Lincoln ephemera - the stovepipe hat. Donning white gloves, he took the iconic headwear in his hands. Was there even a little part of him tempted to try it on for size?
"No, never," says Spielberg, his face going through 50 shades of appalled at the very thought. "I would never put on the frock coat. I would never put on the hat. My goodness. It would be like lighting a cigarette in the Sistine Chapel. And I don't smoke and I'm not Catholic."
Spielberg's bristling is indicative of the aura that still surrounds Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States who saved the Union, ended the Civil War and practically wiped slavery from the face of the Earth. For Americans Lincoln is a figure deified in Washington memorials, cinema (John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln) and US tender (his face is on the five-dollar bill) to the point where he has become an easy target for lampooning, be it Bill & Ted ("Party on, dudes!") or Police Squad! ("… and Rex Hamilton as Abraham Lincoln"). As the overly reverent and ridiculously irreverent have hijacked Lincoln in equal measure, now Spielberg is stealing him back.
"I've always had a passion for his deeds," he says. "Not the image America has embraced, but of his actual deeds. I wanted to look closer at what it was like to be him, to hold the balance of this nation on his shoulders. And I'm glad I didn't take three-and-a-half hours to do that!"
If it took Spielberg over a decade to bring Lincoln to the screen, it took him an instant to commit to making it. In 1999, the director invited historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to join his brain trust on The Unfinished Journey, a short film Spielberg directed for CBS to mark the turn of the millennium. Learning that Kearns Goodwin was writing Team Of Rivals, a history of the Lincoln administration, Spielberg made a snap decision to acquire the film rights. For years, he worked through writer after writer (John Logan, Paul Wright), draft after draft, until he landed on a "real D. W. Griffith epic" examining the President through the prism of nine different Civil War battles. Then he had a change of heart.
Steven Spielberg gets into character to direct.
"I REALISED I'D MADE A BIG MISTAKE," he levels. "I didn't want to make Saving Private Ryan. I didn't want to do another movie about combat, this time between the blue and the grey. I just wanted to create a living portrait of a working President and an active husband and father. And I couldn't do that with the war upstaging Lincoln."
To service his new vision, Spielberg hired playwright Tony Kushner (Munich). The resulting script took five years to crack, the first draft coming in at a whopping 550 pages, covering his entire administration from 1861 to 1865. Yet within the breeze block of a script, Spielberg zeroed in on a 50-page section that focussed on Lincoln's attempts to pass The 13th Amendment and finally abolish slavery.
Studios love Awards Season. It's daft to compare chalk and cheese.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS As much as Kushner's poetic, literate script highlights the political chicanery involved in passing the amendment - Lincoln finagling his advisors, tempering radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and hiring three political bovver boys (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson) to drum up the 20 votes the amendment needs to get through congress - it is also about how the Presidency affects his relationship with possibly bipolar wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and distant son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It has big laughs - only Spielberg can mine comic relief from the ratification of a legislative amendment - but doesn't obfuscate the central dilemma: to push the 13th Amendment through, Lincoln chose to prolong the Civil War, a conflict that ultimately cost the lives of 750,000 Americans.
"Lincoln does have blood on his hands," says Spielberg. "He made a very difficult decision. He was tortured throughout the making of this decision but I think he made the right decision. I think he made the only decision."
"STUDIOS LOVE AWARDS season," says Daniel Day-Lewis, today sporting short, smart hair, an über-stylish military jacket and drainpipe keks. "Most actors I know have, at the very least, an ambivalent attitude towards them because they understand that it is daft to compare chalk and cheese. We appreciate it is helpful to the film and I think you feel encouraged on a personal level if people recognise your work, but some of them go on for hours. The Golden Globes is TV and Cinema in every single category, and in the cinema categories there is Musical/Comedy, then Drama. It just never ends. If you're lucky you get to sit with some good mates and have a good laugh and try not to get too stewed in the process."
Day-Lewis would be a front runner in any Best Actor race, but it has been a protracted journey to the start line. If you know one thing about Spielberg's Lincoln, you'll know that Liam Neeson was Spielberg's first choice to the play the title role. Only he wasn't. When the screenplay was in its "D. W. Griffith" incarnation, the director sent it to Daniel Day-Lewis and heard a word he mustn't have heard very often in the last 40 years of his career: no.
Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln leads his men on horseback.
"It was a very different screenplay at that time," says Day-Lewis. "At that time it just seemed to be unimaginable to me to take on. I did not think I was ready or able to do that."
Spielberg then went to his Schindler's List cohort Neeson, who deeply researched the role, but the pair amicably parted ways, according to Spielberg "when the film moved to a more singular focus". The project was at its lowest ebb until it found an unlikely saviour in Leonardo DiCaprio. Listening to Spielberg's Lincoln woes over dinner, DiCaprio put in a good word with his Gangs Of New York co-star, and following an intensive two-day brainstorm with Spielberg and Kushner in Dublin, Day-Lewis was in.
I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS "I've always felt Meryl Streep is our greatest actress and I think Daniel and Tom Hanks are our greatest actors," says Spielberg. "I knew that if Daniel did not commit to Lincoln, I would never make Lincoln. I had resolved not to make the picture if Daniel didn't make it with me."
Yet before Day-Lewis took on the role, he made a phone call.
"Liam is a friend of mine," says Day-Lewis. "When I'd heard he'd distanced himself from it, I was in touch immediately. I do feel there have to be some good manners in the business. It's hard enough for actors without other actors fucking them over. Look at the box office of our last four films. If he had not backed out, I would not have stood a chance."
The mythos surrounding Day-Lewis' approach to acting is legendary. Depending on who you read, he has insisted on being pushed around in a wheelchair (My Left Foot), spent three nights being hosed down in a prison cell (In The Name Of The Father), learnt to skin animals (The Last Of The Mohicans) and sported a top hat, cape and cane for two months prior to shooting (The Age Of Innocence). It's behaviour that suggests some kind of an intense lunatic or (worse) an insufferable luvvie, but in person he is neither: thoughtful, certainly, but also lucid, funny and charming. Rumours of his Lincoln methodology run from demanding to be called "Mr. President" on set, to entering a fugue state, to completely rejecting the trappings of the 21st century. So are the stories of his character immersion just bollocks?
"Some of them are," he smiles. "There are seeds of truth that get developed to the most hyperbolic degree. I am aware of the cables on the ground, the walkie-talkies, the orange anoraks. It's not like I spent four months convinced I was Abraham Lincoln. But anyone who is focussed on their work closes off their peripheral vision. If you go to inordinate lengths to create that illusion for yourself, to arrive at some cohesive sense of a life, why keep jumping in and out of it?"
Day-Lewis is fully aware of the rep his process provokes - "In England, they think I'm unhinged" - so takes steps to let his fellow crew know "that I'm not going to start speaking in tongues or something".
"I had a fantastic fella from upstate New York who was taking me to work every day," he continues. "He'd heard all those rumours as well. I thought, 'Let's have a laugh.' I said, 'Go and tell your teamster captain that he's got to send you on a training course because I have to go to work in a pony and trap every day. Tell him I absolutely insist!'"
It goes without saying that Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln, but he replaces interest in an actor's trick with absorption in a man's life. His Lincoln is a quiet, dignified, brooding presence, a raconteur ad nauseam ("I know one or two people like that, where you're thinking, 'I've got stuff to do here'") and a measured thinker ("He had an internal rhythm which seemed like his spirit had left the building") who unusually combined this almost scientific capacity for thought with a deep well of compassion.
"There is no doubt in my mind that as a young man when he saw slaves heading down the Mississippi it had a very profound effect on him," says Day-Lewis. "And that he genuinely in his spirit - not just intellectually - believed that every man had the right to be free. He was born to do the thing he did."
Lincoln consulting wife Mary Todd (Sally Field).
TO GET INTO 1865 character, Steven Spielberg directed Lincoln in a suit - he is wearing one today - so not to be the "schlubby, baseball-cap-wearing 21st century guy".
It's not just his dress code that's changed, however; it's his entire filmmaking approach. For Spielberg, Lincoln is "as close as I've ever gotten to directing for the stage". It's his most talk-filled, performance-driven piece to date. "Some of the scenes are eight, nine minutes long with their own beginning, middle and end," he says. "I don't have eight or nine minutes in any of my movies!" And while Spielberg has retained Janusz Kaminski's gorgeous, Vermeer-inspired lighting schemes (captured on film, not digital), he has mostly eschewed the "fancy shots" that have been part and parcel of his directorial DNA since Duel. He also has only 30-odd minutes of John Williams' score - "John and I decided not to underscore dialogue scenes" - shredding the sentiment his detractors often lambast him for. Schindler's List saw him adopt a black-and-white cinéma-vérité look. Tintin saw him abandon live action altogether. But Lincoln's stately, stagey approach might be his most radical departure to date.
"I don't try to upstage the content by doing something cinematically that would obviously make me think that I wasn't interested or trusting enough in Tony's dramaturgy," he explains. "And because I had such respect for his language and our screen structure, I didn't want to reinvent Lincoln on the soundstage. I had a great script, and I didn't want to get in the way by trying to make it greater."
Let's be clear. This isn't a permanent change of direction for Spielberg. Although Lincoln may feel unfamiliar, Spielberg is essentially doing what he has done his entire career: serving the material the best way he knows how. "It's nice at 65 that after 28 movies I can really say I made a movie unlike anything I've ever directed," he reflects. "And if people don't want to see it because they hear it is not typical of my work, I'll fully accept that. I'm not a barker. I can't sit outside the tent with a bullhorn. They either will or they won't."
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Best for: plunging you into a sun-baked coming-of-age tale.
Mark Twain and Matthew McConaughey collide at last in the latest film from Jeff Nichols, the man who previously brought us the excellent Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories. McConaughey plays the titular man-on-the-lam who holes up on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River in wait for his lover (Witherspoon). There, inquisitive teens Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) stumble on him and unwittingly find themselves a tattooed, superstitious father figure who speaks in riddles and represents a serious aiding-and-abetting rap. Nichols, who goes from strength to strength, got the best out of his terrific cast that included muse Michael Shannon, on a short break from filming Man Of Steel, McConaughey and eye-catching newcomers Sheridan and Loveland. And, yes, McConaughey took his shirt off.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY AND DIRECTOR JEFF NICHOLS DON'T MAKE 'EM THE EASY WAY, AS EMPIRE DISCOVERS IN THE SOUTHERN WILD FOR COMING OF AGE FABLE MUD
WORDS: DAMON WISE
This feature first appeared in issue 287 of Empire magazine.
THE JOKE ON THE SET of Jeff Nichols' new film Mud is that whenever you pull off the asphalt onto a gravel road, you're "only" half an hour from the location. "Matthew McConaughey was laughing about it the other day," says the director, "because every place we take him is, like, down this insane path that you can only get to on four-wheeler golf-cart crazy things. And that amuses me... But then you get there, to this outcropping of giant cypress trees by the side of some lake, and it's insanely beautiful. You think, ‘Yeah, that's why we're down here.'"
I've always been drawn to swamps I grew up in places like this.
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY Here is... well, frankly, Empire doesn't really know. It's a good 40-minute drive from the town of Stuttgart, Arkansas, where duck-hunting season is about to start (daily bag limit: six). Indeed, as we turned off the highway, down a gravel path towards the river where Nichols was waiting for us on a dilapidated houseboat, we encountered several men in camouflage with shotguns, and suddenly the dangers of a faint, free-floating Wi-Fi signal began to sink in.
It's Saturday, and we are in the heart of the South, not far from Nichols' family home in state capital Little Rock. From his two previous films - revenge drama Shotgun Stories (2007) and mental illness fable Take Shelter (2011), both serious stories showcasing the rough-hewn, soulful star quality of Michael Shannon - you might expect Nichols to be quite a doleful fellow. Happily, Nichols, in his mid-thirties, fresh-faced, good-looking and, unexpectedly, very funny, in no way resembles his movies.
He shows us around the houseboat, smiling broadly at the fishing lines, hooks, knives and dirty worktops, all degraded by years of service and neglect. "As you can see," he confides, "I like..."
Empire's curiosity is piqued. This is more like it: there's a whiff of danger here, a sense of lurking violence. Maddeningly, the moment is interrupted by a practical question from one of the crew. When his attention returns, we ask him what he was about to say. "Oh," he says brightly. "Just... rusty things, I guess."
MUD, NICHOLS' THIRD and most ambitious film, is perhaps the truest representation of the man. He settles into an easy chair that has seen better days and recalls how a stay on a houseboat like this - hopefully not too much like this - in 2006 was the catalyst for a story that melds local history with the boyhood reveries of Missouri writer Mark Twain. By 2008 it was finished, but, surprisingly, he put it away. "My first two films were pretty low-budget, and I was willing to compromise on money, in order just to get something made. I had to. I had to advance my career and everything else. But I knew with Mud that I didn't wanna make it until I had the resources to make it. There are a lot of moving parts that I didn't want to have to compromise on. So that's why it's taken me a little while to build up to."
Matthew McConaughey as the titular Mud finds himself in a tight spot.
You might think from that statement that this is some kind of blockbuster, but, at its heart, Mud may be Nichols' simplest story to date. "I guess the brief synopsis would be," he says, "two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, find a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi river who says he's on the run. So they form a pact and decide to help him out.
"But that's only what happens," he insists. "In movies - well, at least hopefully my movies - there's what happens and then there's what the movie is about, and these are often two different things. And when I write, I try and write some kind of universal idea, or emotion, or theme. My first film was about revenge, my last film was about anxiety, and this film, well, it's an old one but a good one.
I mean, this is just about love. It's about a boy's search for an example of love that works - and he's looking in all the wrong places.
I'm trying to make classic films... films with scope.
JEFF NICHOLS "People have been using the term ‘coming of age story'," he says, looking a little perplexed. "And..." He starts to laugh. "... I guess it is. I guess it's an appropriate term. The two main characters and this man they find, they end up mirroring each other in a lot of ways. Both of them, in a way, are in this state of adolescence and are passing from one stage in their life to another. And this movie happens to be a snapshot during that kind of passage."
At this point it should become clear that Mud is more than part of the landscape. "Mud's the name of the guy, yeah!" says Nichols. "I was listening to this Townes Van Zandt song, Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold, and I thought that would be a good name. I debated for a long time whether or not to have two ‘d's, as in the song, or one, and I went with one. So that's his character's name. And, y'know, it makes sense, because Mississippi mud is kinda famous - or infamous - and I wanted to carry it a bit further. Not to get too frou-frou with it, but adolescence is a pretty muddy time. So it seemed to fit. It made sense."
It may not seem a logical progression - revenge, depression then love - but for Nichols it is part of an almost divine plan. "It's just a dream come true," he says, "because you sit down and you chart these things out, but how often do those things come to fruition in order? I wanted to do Shotgun Stories first, I wanted to do Take Shelter second and I wanted to do Mud third. And I wanted to do them at the level that I ended up doing each of them."
Of the previous two, Take Shelter is the best-known and the most divisive, mostly due to its ambiguous ending. "It's a tricky film," he acknowledges. "And that's cool, because we got to take some risks with the narrative structure, and you don't often get to do that. Some people like it, some people don't, but I don't think anybody can fault me for at least trying. It's the kind of ending that tells you more about yourself than the movie, I guess. ‘How do you see it? How does it make you feel?' Okay - that's how you woke up this morning, then!"
Is that how he intended it?
"Yeah, absolutely. That movie was an experiment in form: let's see if we can place that decision in the audience's head, rather than just givin' it to 'em. Mud is different."
"Anyone know how to light this thing?" Nichols (left) finds his cast lacking in survival skills.
THE NEXT DAY, Empire finds McConaughey on set in a small-town hospital, slathered in make-up that looks more like wood stain than greasepaint. Tattoos of snakes and amulets traverse his arms, he's wearing Mud's "lucky shirt" (his main item of wardrobe), and his hair is an unruly, greasy mop, as is suitable for a lovelorn con hiding out in the Southern Wild. "Mud's a dreamer," he says. "He's an aristocrat of the heart. He's a poet that way. He's sort of not of this Earth, and if he got grounded on this Earth enough he'd wise up and see that he needs to go ahead and move on. But he doesn't want to come down. So he's always on the chase, always on the approach, going after his girl."
A lot of names got thrown in the hat, and I met a lot of guys. But I just couldn't shake that I'd written it for Matthew.
JEFF NICHOLS The girl in this case is Juniper, played by Reese Witherspoon, the fickle love of Mud's life and the kind of girl once memorably described by REM as "50 miles of bad road". Witherspoon has wrapped when we arrive, but McConaughey is definitely present. No-one here knows it yet, but the tide is starting to turn for the Texan actor after a slump of mediocre rom-coms, and when we speak he is at an interesting point: The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie and Killer Joe have wrapped and screened, with Magic Mike and The Paperboy to follow, and bigger things on the horizon.
On set, McConaughey is a live wire. He refuses to go to his trailer, if he even has one. "‘Constraints' isn't my favourite word for it," he says, "but on small independent films like this there are certain limitations that actually allow for more freedom. One is time: it's more precious, so you gotta shoot, because we're using natural light. So what's great about it, for an actor like me, is that you come to set in the morning and shoot. You don't go back to your trailer and wait for the shot. You're on the set, you go to work. Which is much more fun. There's a real freedom to that, and a flow."
He seems very much at home here, and the pockets of locals who turn up to wave and shout his name seem to suggest that the feeling is mutual. "I've always been drawn to swamps," he drawls. "Rivers." He laughs. "I've ended up doing a lot of water movies. I've done a saltwater before this, and now I've just done three swamp movies in a row! But I grew up in places like this. We always lived on the outskirts of small towns, so we were always outdoors, or swimming in the lakes or the creeks or the rivers. It's something I'm very comfortable with."
Nichols, watching from the monitors, is visibly thrilled with McConaughey's performance. "Funny thing is," he says, "I wrote this part for Matthew McConaughey. In fact, before I wrote the part, I wrote it for Matthew McConaughey." He laughs. "I'll explain. I remember back in college, I was home visiting, and I was trying to impress my friends. They were like, ‘What are you doing?' I said, ‘I'm working on this script for a movie. It's gonna have Matthew McConaughey in it.' I was 20, 21 years old at the time. And no-one really believed me."
So did Nichols pluck his name out of the air just to impress his friends? "No! He was just so right for this part. I was thinking about this man Mud, what he looked like and what he sounded like, and what he talked like... I was a really big fan of Matthew's performance in Lone Star, the John Sayles film, and, of course, Dazed And Confused, and I was like, ‘If I could take those two characters and squish 'em together, it might come out the other end as some version of Mud.' And so I just always had it in my head that that's how it might be. And of course, when it came to me to make the film, lots of names got thrown in the hat, and I met a lot of guys, a lot of really good people. But I just couldn't shake that I'd written it for Matthew. And fortunately it worked out."
"He's very aware of who he is and where he's at," says Nichols. "At least from my point of view. And he's making some really awesome choices. Really awesome choices."
Michael Shannon bravely takes up the McConaughey shirt-off mantle in a small role as Neckbone's (Jacob Lofland) uncle.
AS FOR NICHOLS, he, too, is making some pretty awesome choices. At a time when many of his peers are either stumbling over themselves to bag a studio job or making self-conscious art movies in the European style, Nichols is something of a pioneer, a true American voice trying to fashion something from his roots. His producer on Mud, Sarah Green, recently produced Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life, and, with his talk of Twain and love for the golden hour, Nichols resembles a more accessible, less preachy and arcane incarnation of the reticent auteur.
Nevertheless, he remains modest. "If I hadn't gotten into film school, my only back-up was to get a degree in cultural anthropology," he muses. "Although I didn't even know what that meant. And I still won't. I don't know what I woulda done.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My dad owns a small business, my middle brother's a criminal defence attorney who owns his own practice, my oldest brother's a musician who started a band. So I can't help but think I woulda done something where I tried to make my own way. I don't think I'm much of a cubicle kind of guy."
Instead, he is perhaps the quintessential American director of his day, telling stories that are sympathetic to the unfashionable, sparse landscapes of the South, with its wooden churches, ploughshares and Piggly Wiggly stores, setting them in places where mobile phones aren't used for plot points because nobody is growing up with them glued to their ears. Does he see that himself?
Nichols ponders for a minute. "I'm trying to make classic films," he decides. "It sounds pretentious, but I love pretty much any movie with Paul Newman in it. If you look at The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid... these are the kinds of films I want to make, and it's the kind of film I want Mud to be. Each one has its own purpose in the world. And I want this film to be an adventure. Which isn't to say I want it to be fun all the time. But I do want it to be an adventure. I don't know whether that's peculiarly American or not, because I also like Lawrence Of Arabia, by David Lean. It might just be because they're big. I like films with scope, whether that's emotional scope or visual scope. I mean, we're out here on the Mississippi River, where it just gets... big." He laughs. "So I guess that might be an American idea: big!"
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino
Best for: showing us all how it feels to suffer the need for speed.
Whether you are a Formula 1 aficionado or the furthest thing from a petrol head, this story of clashing egos and contrasting styles in the quest for the driver's championship is a compelling portrayal of ambition, determination and going really fast in circles. Chris Hemsworth takes off Thor's goody two shoes (and everything else) as the hard-living James Hunt while Daniel Brühl is his more considered rival. At times it looks like it might become a fight to the death, but beyond the mortal peril it's the combination of bitter competition and mutual respect that gives this its edge.
- Read the Empire review
- Rush Vs. Real Life: we fact-check the film
- Lauda/Hunt and Hemsworth/Brühl: which actor knows the other character best?
- Listen to Ron Howard on the Empire Podcast
- Daniel Brühl on his role
THE NEED FOR SPEED
HOW DO YOU PUT THE AUDIENCE INTO AN F1 CAR AT FULL SPEED? AS DIRECTOR RON HOWARD AND CINEMATOGRAPHER ANTHONY DOD MANTLE DISCOVERED FOR THEIR '70S GRAND PRIX EPIC RUSH, BY RISKING EVERYTHING...
WORDS: WILL LAWRENCE
This feature first appeared in issue 291 of Empire magazine.
IT RESIDES IN a cathedral of pines, a 14-mile raceway cut into the forest that envelops the medieval castle of Nürburg in the Eifel Mountains. With 160 turns, this is the formidable Nordschleife section of Germany's Nürburgring, dubbed 'The Green Hell' by driver Jackie Stewart. It houses the infamous Bergwerk, or The Mine, a tight, long right-hand corner that is notoriously difficult to take at high speed. The Bergwerk claimed the life of Dutch driver Carel Godin de Beaufort in 1964, and was the scene of Austrian Niki Lauda's crash and subsequent fireball 12 years later.
Shooting for two days at the site where Niki actually had the crash, that was very sobering.
RON HOWARD It is Lauda's near-fatal accident that lies at the heart of Rush, the latest offering from Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, which explores the rivalry that raged between Lauda and James Hunt, two of Formula 1's most illustrious lights, during the 1976 Grand Prix season. "This was such an exhilarating movie to make," begins Howard, "but shooting anything around the crash and Niki Lauda's recovery, especially shooting for two days at the site where Niki actually had the crash, that was very sobering.
"Honestly, up until then it had been really joyous, but then suddenly we were doing these scenes and it was real. It had actually happened and it was like, 'Fuck! This is dark...'"
The filmmaker looks across to his Oscar-winning director of photography, Slumdog Millionaire's Anthony Dod Mantle, who nods in solemn concurrence. "There's something incredibly apocalyptic about the Ring," adds Dod Mantle. "It's like the Romantic paintings, something by (Caspar David) Friedrich. It feels very close to heaven and that particular bend has a spirit. It's a scary place and though the drivers loved the circuit, they knew it was lethal. That's feeding into your subconscious all the time, with how we'd move the camera and the types of shots we did."
The production unfolded as two separate operations, though each worked digitally to create results that are linked via colour palette and tone. The filmmakers first concentrated on what Howard describes as "a $12 million, '70s character movie, very indie in style", shooting four or five pages of the script each day, sometimes taking in multiple locations as they built the off-track drama between the two main characters, Lauda, brought to life by Daniel Brühl, and Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth. "And then there was the race unit," Howard says.
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl as the F1 rivals.
THE RUSH RACE unit worked for four weeks and devoured an even larger budget, the filmmakers collecting enough shots for at least eight races, which would capture the flavour and key moments of the 1976 season, taking in Grand Prix at Interlagos, Kyalami, Monaco, Brands Hatch, Nürburgring, Monza, Watkins Glen and Fuji. And the most momentous moment of all came on August 1 of that year.
Lauda was leading the Drivers' Championship as they went into the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring two weeks after Hunt's disputed victory at Brands Hatch. A handful of drivers, led by Lauda, complained about the safety conditions on the Nürburgring and requested that the race be cancelled. The majority of drivers disagreed, however, and the race went ahead.
Then, early in the race at Bergwerk, out at the back of the circuit, Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and spun through the catch fencing into an earth bank. The car was enveloped in flames and bounced back onto the track into the path of three cars that were following. Lauda was dragged from the inferno by his fellow drivers and rushed to hospital where he began the fight for his life. The footage of the real-life crash can still be found on YouTube.
"Sometimes, there's almost something blasé about existing footage," notes Dod Mantle. "You imagine the Fast & Furious moment, the spinning car and the big explosion, but with the footage of Niki's crash it is caught by an eight-year-old with a Super 8... Often the footage is not the amazing spectacle you expect as a filmmaker and that really informed what we did.
I have crashed too, so I am Niki now.
DANIEL BRÜHL We didn't want things perfectly framed, because it's not like that and it takes away some of the reality." They were intent on an aesthetic based on a certain amount of real material, but with the understanding that the physical movement would be expanded.
For instance, Lauda's crash was constructed predominantly with CGI. "We broke down that Super 8 footage to understand it," Howard explains. "We talked to Niki, though he doesn't remember much, and we got a lot of help from CGI because we couldn't destroy a car to that degree - though we did destroy one eventually in the scene."
Following the Super 8 footage very closely, the filmmakers employed the computer for the actual crash and flip, though a real car was then used for some of the spin and for the fireball. "You do what you can without mutilating half the film's budget," laughs Dod Mantle. "So you bring the real car round at various degrees, you start the spin, drag it along a rail a little bit and then the burn we could do for real - we burned a wreck. We had Daniel in a fire suit and the camera is in there. It was petrifying."
The burning car was especially petrifying for the DP because he was packed into the wreck. "We wanted to film some subjective stuff so I am packed in there with the camera as if I were Lauda," he says. "I was looked after by quality stunt people with burn blankets wrapped around me, but my eyebrows were going and my knees were shaking."
To capture the full effect of the accident, Howard also asked the Steadicam operator to crash into the flames just as the drivers were pulling Lauda/Brühl out of the burning car. "I had some experience of working with fire going back to Backdraft," Howard recalls, "but you just never know. I was so relieved when we wrapped because I did much more stuff in-camera than I ever imagined we would." He wanted to get the camera into places that would help carry the psychology of the driver into the race. You weren't just going to be in the cockpit of an F1 car. It wasn't just going fast. You were learning something about the relationship between the driver and the car, the road, the mechanics. "That was vital for getting the true feel of an F1 race," explains Howard.
Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda prepares for another race.
THERE IS ONE seminal film that had a powerful influence on Rush, a documentary that relates an incredible story via real-life footage, shunning the use of talking heads. It is a simple and quite brilliant film. It is not Senna. It is 1970's Gimme Shelter, the legendary documentary of the Rolling Stones' controversial gig at Altamont. "I decided that if we approached Rush like a behind-the-scenes rock 'n' roll film, that would be a style that would be energetic and cool and sexy and something that we intuitively link to," says Howard. "It would move it away from the feeling of being a sports documentary with all the action."."
Watching Gimme Shelter can be an unsettling experience - Rush by contrast is rather uplifting - though both Howard and Dod Mantle extol the influence of its directors, the Maysles brothers. "With the moment of violence in that film, the camera is there and you're not sure what you're seeing," says Dod Mantle, referring to the infamous footage showing the stabbing of a man in the crowd by one of the Hells Angels unadvisedly hired as security. "You see weird body language and you're like a detective viewing it, wondering, 'Was it that man, and did it really happen?'"
Ron and I had very honest pacts about those cameras - they bring the audience into this piece of metal: the sharpness is close and the rest falls off.
ANTHONY DOD MANTLE While both the real Lauda Ferrari and the Hunt McLaren were used during filming, along with a host of other historic vehicles, the production also commissioned a series of replicas "and we could drill the hell out of those," beams Dod Mantle.
Mounting cameras on fast-moving machines has been a staple ever since John Frankenheimer's 1966 classic Grand Prix, which set the bar for high-stakes driving movies. "But we made the cameras move when attached to the cars," continues Dod Mantle, "which was a huge challenge because of the G-force. Even the replica cars, which couldn't go as fast as the F1s, were still pulling Gs that would foul any camera rig on the turns."
As a consequence, Dod Mantle and Howard had to find cameras they'd never worked with before. They employed IndyCams. "They're very small, hence significantly inferior in terms of latitude and ability but you can use them in an interesting way," he adds. "And Ron and I had very honest pacts about those cameras - never try and grasp a normal picture. They do what they can. They bring the audience into this piece of metal: the sharpness is close and the rest falls off, they bring a painterly softness which helps in post - it becomes more abstract."
Dod Mantle would strap himself into a Subaru with his focus puller and a monitor, travelling at high speed amongst the cars. "At the critical moment in the race, against the odds of inertia, I could try and have the camera move, which is something you've never seen, really." He christened them "sliders". "Frankenheimer attempted it with incredible cameras and managed a couple of panels, but this camera, from being stuck, suddenly starts to struggle across. It was a brave thing to do but it works really well. There are things we've done that have never been done before."
Both Howard and his DP concede that they took enormous risks, as the budget didn't allow them time to get full coverage for every shot. The edit would be taxing, but the filmmakers had the support of their producers, Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, who green-lit 2010 BAFTA-winning F1 doc Senna, which set a new standard in the use of real-life racing footage.
"I jumped into Rush before I knew that Senna was going to be as well received as it was," Howard says, highlighting various moments on his directorial CV where he has worked outside the box - Splash, Cocoon and Apollo 13 all in their own way broke with what was expected of him. "But I thought that Senna and the TT documentary (2011's TT3D: Closer To The Edge, about the race on the Isle Of Man) were both great. With Senna they only used existing footage, and often what was most interesting was when the shot was a little blocked or off."
As well as using real footage to plan the composition of their own shots, the filmmakers also use actual archive race footage in Rush. "Sometimes it's a whole shot," Howard confesses, "and sometimes it's a Forrest Gump thing, where instead of placing Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon, we put our car into that plate, which makes it very evocative of the F1 environment and it gives us scope and scale. Ultimately, though, we used far more real driving than I ever thought we would."
Director Ron Howard with the Thor star.
EARLY IN THE test-driving process Daniel Brühl, who like Hemsworth did plenty of his own driving, lost control of his car at Longcross, the circuit in Surrey that hosted a clutch of Rush's racing scenes - he blew a tyre. And not only was the actor in dire danger, so too were those around him. "If that tire had hit someone it would have done serious damage," says Howard. One only need look at the footage from this year's German Grand Prix where a wheel from Mark Webber's car slammed into the back of a prone cameraman.
I assumed we'd do more CGI, but when we started working with the cars and drivers, these guys were remarkable.
RON HOWARD Brühl had completed an F3 racing course in Spain during pre-production, but his fate was out of his hands once his tyre went. "I wasn't in control," he remembers, "and there were three or four seconds where I thought, 'Oh no, shit! This is it. I'm not going to do the movie.' But afterwards it was quite funny. I took it as a good omen. I thought, 'Well, I have crashed too, so I am Niki now.'"
The replica F1 cars could hit speeds of just over 100 mph and were filmed at that speed. "I assumed we'd do more CGI," says Howard. "At the outset I wasn't worried about the choreography because I suspected every near-miss was going to be a real car shot going down the road then a CGI car doing something crazy. But when we started working with the real cars and the precision drivers, these guys were remarkable. So we filmed them at speed."
That said, shooting digitally allowed Howard to work with speed variations. "It used to be that you'd have to make a decision: you could go from 24 frames to 18 frames to 12 frames to six frames, but you couldn't do 17 frames, for example, at least not in post," he says. "But here we could speed up a little bit on a straightaway and then bring it back to normal as it got closer to camera so we could extend the length of the shot."
Indeed, Howard called on his experiences gleaned on his Russell Crowe boxing movie to amplify some of the on-track shots. "In Cinderella Man we had a couple of places where we extended the hits on the jaw, just for a frame or two, and distorted it a little further," he explains, recalling a glove-on-face shot done in slow-mo. "So here we could do little tiny things like that with the cars, and just on a subliminal level it gets that F1 look."
Dod Mantle agrees. "Even for people who know about motor racing we have tried to show a bit more of what it is like to be in a car at speed - you can't see the character ahead of you or the bend, you can just see these posts indicating that you are approaching a bend at 150 mph..."
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.
2. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Max Martini, Catherine Keener
Best for: humanising both sides in an impossible true story.
Paul Greengrass is back, and thank goodness for that. The true-life tale of Captain Phillips (Hanks), abducted and held hostage by Somali pirates after an attempt to rob his ship goes wrong, is a masterclass in cranking the tension and keeping it high – even if you know how it all ends. The unknowns cast as the pirates, in particular Barkhad Abdi as Musa, are flawless as the powers ranged against them line up, and Hanks is as good as ever, particularly in a ravaged final scene.
TOM HANKS IS IN TROUBLE AT SEA AGAIN, BUT THIS TIME THERE'S NO VOLLEYBALL TO HELP HIM. HE'S CAPTAIN PHILLIPS IN THE LATEST TRUE-LIFE DRAMA FROM PAUL GREENGRASS - THE YEAR'S FIRST SERIOUS OSCAR CONTENDER
WORDS: CHRIS HEWITT
This feature first appeared in issue 291 of Empire magazine.
ON APRIL 9, 2009, the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, bound for Mombasa, Kenya, with 17,000 metric tons of freight on board, was attacked by a small group of Somali pirates using a Taiwanese fishing vessel, the Win Far 161, that they had hijacked just two days earlier.
Shipping is a blue-collar world, a very physical world at that, and when I worked that out in my head, that's when I knew I could make the film.
PAUL GREENGRASS Crewed by merchant marines, who despite their name were unarmed, and captained by a lifelong sailor named Richard Phillips, the Maersk Alabama attempted evasive manoeuvres, but to no avail. It was soon boarded by four corsairs, who seized Captain Phillips and took him hostage. The rest of the crew shut down the ship's power, thwarting the invaders' plans to sail away with it, and managed to take one of the pirates hostage themselves. A tense stand-off followed; an exchange of prisoners went wrong, and the pirates escaped the ship onto a lifeboat. They took Phillips with them, and a game of cat and mouse ensued. Only, instead of a cat, the US Navy deployed two warships. Eventually, on April 12, after an ordeal lasting four days, Captain Phillips was rescued, and the Somalis shot dead or taken into custody.
It's hardly surprising that Hollywood would be interested, almost immediately, in adapting this story and, quickly, powerhouse producing trio Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Scott Rudin snapped up the rights, with Tom Hanks signing on to star in the title role. Now all they needed was a director. With its blend of real-world drama, intrigue and even, when you really looked at it, socio-economic relevance, it seemed like a perfect fit for a man who'd previously turned his journalistic eye to the true-life likes of Bloody Sunday and United 93, while injecting a feverish verisimilitude into the action arena with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Namely, Paul Greengrass.
"I WOULD SAY it's in my wheelhouse," says Greengrass, talking exclusively to Empire from his office in Oxford. "It's a moment in time, it's very contemporary, and it's got a lot of complexity and richness."
But that didn't stop him from turning the gig down. "I didn't want to do it to begin with," he says. "I couldn't quite see it."
A man who tends to originate his movies, particularly those about real-world incidents, the 57 year-old Londoner didn't see a connection, a way into the material. And then it came to him. "One of the things that really made me want to do it was that my dad was at sea," confesses Greengrass. "He was a merchant seaman, and he was at sea all his life. I'd always wanted to make a film about what it was like at sea. That was part of it."
Barkhad Abdi's Muse confronts Captain Phillips onboard the Maersk Alabama.
In fact, Greengrass had, in the gap between Green Zone (his 2010 Iraq War film with Matt Damon which underperformed at the box office) and finally saying yes to Captain Phillips, flirted with a big-budget adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. That fell by the wayside; it's hard to imagine someone of Greengrass' pedigree faffing around with wooden legs and eyepatches and talking parrots and actors doing bad impressions of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. For Greengrass, authenticity is the juice. "I was very interested in real-world piracy," reveals Greengrass. "On the one hand, it's incredibly physical, so you get these intense confrontations on the high seas. And it felt like a very fresh world to me, very dynamic. And what I loved about it was that it goes to winners and losers, and how the world is. It's not about good guys and bad guys, it's basically the conflict between kids who've got nothing, watching the riches of the world roll past them 50 miles out to sea."
Hanks makes this character so human, so absolutely the Everyman.
PAUL GREENGRASS Greengrass' attention to detail and commitment to veracity is well known. On United 93, he recreated the fuselage of that ill-fated plane and asked his actors to go through takes that lasted for the duration of the flight. And throughout his career he's cast real people where he can. That continued on Captain Phillips. Hanks was in the bag, providing starpower galore, so Greengrass wanted less recognisable faces for the rest of the US crew, from Max Martini to Chris Mulkey. But for the Somalis, Greengrass was looking for faces even less recognisable than that. "I absolutely wanted and needed to cast real Somali guys," he says. "They're young, unknown kids. That whole issue is very real to them, and it's wreathed with complexities from their side."
Open casting calls in the US and Britain ("There's a huge Somali community in Minneapolis — the first open casting we had there, 900 people turned up!") yielded "these kids who'd never acted professionally before. They'd done a bit of stuff in youth clubs, and they were fantastic. They brought an authenticity to it".
Captain Phillips is almost two films in one. The first is an epic, modern-day, high-seas action film which, Greengrass being Greengrass, was shot for real on the ocean, principally in Maltese waters. After all, sea legs run in his family. "It was such fantastic fun," he laughs. "I loved it. You're on these gigantic ships, rocking around in the ocean. And once I had really thought about it, you get this amazing seaborne adventure film with a little boat trying to run down a huge boat, and then you get the reverse happening with these gigantic naval ships tracking this tiny little lifeboat. I just felt that visually, it's a fantastic canvas."
And on that lifeboat comes the second part of that Captain Phillips in-movie double-bill: the intimate survival story as the good captain, subjected to some brutal treatment by his captors, tries to endure. "At the heart of it," says Greengrass, "it's about a fantastic character in Captain Phillips and his adversary, who's a young Somali captain (newcomer Barkhad Abdi). It really is a very powerful dynamic — it's real-world pirates, it's what they are like, and what their goals are. The film is really the story of the collision between two captains. Going head-to-head with Tom Hanks is not easy."
Greengrass explains that it's a pirate's life for him.
HERE'S SOMETHING THAT may shock you. Tom Hanks, who once held a monopoly on the Best Actor Oscar that looked likely to end with the ceremony being rebranded The Gumps, has not been nominated for the big one since 2001. Now, when it comes to predicting the future, we're not exactly Nostradamus — we're not even the terrifying floating head of Ray Winstone — but we suspect that Captain Phillips might break the streak. 'Ave a bang on that.
"He's absolutely brilliant in it," says Greengrass, who has already finished the film, spending the seven months between now and its awards season release trying to get his assassination of Martin Luther King movie, Memphis, off the ground. Hanks — bespectacled, goatee beard flecked with grey — doesn’t look as if he’s entirely replicating the real-life Captain Phillips (the floppy, greyish hair isn’t there for one). But Phillips, who’s now back as a working captain, was often on set if Hanks ever needed a top-up of his essence.
"It was interesting, me having grown up with those guys," says Greengrass of Phillips. "He was absolutely one of those guys. It's trucking, basically, trucking on the water. You're hauling freight all around the world, and it's the lifeblood of the global economy. It's that world I remembered so well, with very unpretentious, hardworking people. It's a blue-collar world, a very physical world at that, and when I worked that out in my head, that's when I knew I could make the film."
And, despite only having met Hanks a few times before taking the job, he had no doubts that the veteran A-lister was the right fit for this calloused ‘sea-trucker'. "He just makes this character so big and so human and so absolutely the Everyman. It speaks to us. When you're on that small lifeboat, it was absolutely, completely physically arduous. But he was completely up for it."
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Best for: taking us out of this world.
It wasn't even close this year. Leaving aside the fact that Gravity is a technological marvel that reduces VFX artists to giddy pools of sheer disbelief, it's a great piece of storytelling and an astonishing piece of cinema. Sandra Bullock is the astronaut lost in space, and she's never been better, but it's Cuarón and his team who emerge with the lion's share of the plaudits, constructing an impossibly tense example of pure cinema thrill.
- Read the Empire review
- Listen to Alfonso Cuarón on the Empire Podcast
- Read producer David Heyman on the film
- Watch Bullock and Cuarón discuss the film in Venice
TOUCHING THE VOID
GRAVITY IS THE MOST INTENSE SPACE THRILLER IN YEARS. AND CONSTRUCTING IT REQUIRED THE MOST INTENSE AND AMBITIOUS SHOOT SINCE AVATAR
WORDS: DAN JOLIN
This feature first appeared in issue 293 of Empire magazine.
Nothing could go wrong. Not in the sense that it was impossible for anything to go wrong. Rather: something going wrong was simply not an option.
Sandra Bullock was pinioned in a small frame, positioned so her head, encased in a hi-tech helmet filled with markers and laser beams, sat at the very centre of an elevated, nine foot-by-nine foot cube, its walls formed from flickering LEDs. Stretching away from her face and out through an aperture was a track, raised about eight feet on scaffolding. At its other end, across a darkened Shepperton soundstage, waited a robot, the kind you'd expect to find constructing Vauxhall Vivaros on an assembly line in Luton. Except this one was modified to carry a camera, which the robot, named Iris, operated with untrembling precision under the command of a technician hunched over a computer nearby.
As conceived by Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, master of this quietly state-of-the-art facility, and his two lieutenants Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki (director of photography) and Tim Webber (visual effects supervisor), the ensuing shot would require Iris to whizz along the track at 20mph and stop a mere inch from the immovable Bullock's nose. Prudently, one crewperson was given the job of hitting a big red button, the kill switch, in case Iris misbehaved.
"The problem is," says Cuarón recalling that day two years later, "if everything does go wrong while the robot is here," he indicates the far-end of the track, "by the time you react with the switch, there's no more nose on Sandra Bullock!"
Alfonso Cuarón with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on one of Gravity's very few sets.
Nothing did go wrong.
As her appearances before rapturous audiences at Comic-Con and most recently the Venice Film Festival confirmed, Bullock's cartilage remains beautifully intact. Yet making Gravity was hardly plain sailing. Sailing, for starters, requires wind - or more to the point, air. Something that is conspicuous by its absence 400-odd miles above the Earth, where the movie is set.
"This film was a big miscalculation," admits Alfonso Cuarón. One that began four-and-a-half years earlier, when an attempted collaboration with his son Jonás collapsed owing to lack of funds. The younger Cuarón pulled out another script he'd written, Desierto, and asked his dad for notes. Alfonso was impressed by Jonás' chase thriller, involving only a few characters in a harsh, arid environment. "I don't have many notes," he told his son, "but I would like to do something like this, and I want you to help me."
I was pleading for us to shoot in space...
ALFONSO CUARÓN Inspired by setbacks in both their lives, they settled on a theme: adversity. It is a word that comes up many times during Empire's conversations with the Cuaróns. Then it was a matter of exploring that theme through "a narrative that keeps the audience gripped to the edge of their seats and that is non-stop action," says Jonás.
"But we're also working with metaphorical elements," says Alfonso. "So, being huge admirers of space exploration, we decided to set it up in space," Jonás explains. "For a character in a perilous situation, space seems the most terrifying environment."
"The character is suspended above the Earth - life and humans and nature and social dynamics," explains Alfonso, "but she's floating towards the void."
That character is Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first extra-terrestrial mission with experienced space-walker Matt Kowalsky, whose upgrade work on the Hubble telescope is disrupted by a deadly cascade of bullet-velocity debris in the Earth's orbit. "The debris as a metaphor for adversities," confirms Alfonso.
What follows is one of the most intense and intimate fights for survival imaginable, during which the audience will never leave Ryan's side. "The whole concept of this film was to create a rollercoaster ride where the audience would be feeling the same emotions as the character," says Jonás. "We couldn't do things like cut back to mission control." Or, indeed, cut much at all; to deepen the immersion, his father was determined to construct the film with the kind of long, sinuous takes that graced his previous work, 2006's Children Of Men.
Pleased with their first draft, Cuarón The Elder went to his trusted DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, nicknamed Chivo. "I call him and say, 'Here's a script. Read it. It's only one or two characters. We do it very quickly and then we move on.'"
(Clockwise from top) Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone. George Clooney's Matt Kowalski takes the lead. Ryan loses her grip.
Gravity is not a science-fiction. Jonás Cuarón is insistent about that. "It happens in present times," he says. "More like a space documentary gone wrong!" There would be no artificial gravity concocted for this adventure in space. There would be no cheating.
"When you're writing and imagining, you're not being pragmatic about how you're going to mount the whole thing," admits Alfonso Cuarón. We meet at a photo studio in West London in mid-August, just ten days before Gravity will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This is the first time he's spoken, at length, with a journalist who's seen the movie, and he's pleased not to have to talk in abstractions; "I'm so happy, man!" The grey of his hair belies a youthful exuberance that compels him to grab impromptu props to help act out complex procedures, and makes him quick to laugh and beam and make jokes at his own expense: "I kept on pretending everything was under control!"
Cuarón and co. quickly realised that there was no existing technology to achieve what they needed. "So then began the whole thing of creating our own technology. And once we did create our own technology, we realised the process was going to be very long."
We had to complete post- production before we began pre- production. It was crazy!
ALFONSO CUARÓN Too long for Universal Pictures, where Cuarón had made Children Of Men. The studio put the project in turnaround after a change in administration. In 2009, Gravity found a home at Warner Bros., and Cuarón was able to bring in a longtime friend, producer David Heyman, shepherd of the Harry Potter franchise with whom the director had worked on The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Heyman soon realised he was involved in something that had never been attempted before, even on the FX-intensive Potters. In its own way, this was every bit as ambitious as James Cameron's Avatar.
"Obviously there have been attempts at recreating zero-G," says Heyman. "But the real challenge was the way Alfonso likes to shoot. The first shot of the film is around 12 minutes - without a cut!"
They considered wire rigs. They looked at shooting underwater. They wondered if they could lay the actors on glass. They investigated the 'vomit comet', used by astronauts in training and to great effect by Ron Howard in Apollo 13: a large, hollow jet whose sharply parabolic trajectory enables its queasy passengers to briefly experience weightlessness as it hits each 'hump'. Cuarón, along with VFX supervisor Tim Webber and a stuntwoman, even went for a ride in one (only the stuntwoman threw up, reports Heyman). "Ron Howard was very smart," says Cuarón. "He didn't actually shoot that much in the vomit comet." But that method neither provided the director with enough time to achieve his extended takes, nor the correct lighting to portray thermosphere-based astronauts bathed in the off-worldly glow of Mother Earth.
Empire risks a question we fear could be the stupidest we've ever asked: did they consider actually shooting in space?
"Yes," replies Heyman. "Alfonso did."
"I was pleading for it!" cries Cuarón. "But how much is it costing right now to send one person to the space station? Twelve million quid? And that's just one person. And, also, nobody will insure it. I said, 'Let's go for it!' and they just laughed. I was talking with James Cameron about it. He's going to do it..."
The ultimate solution would require an approach which was less physically adventurous, but more mind-boggling. In a sense, more sci-fi than the film itself.
Cuarón prepares Clooney and Bullock for another scene..
It was around the time they started digitally mapping his face that Robert Downey Jr. announced, "Wow, this is too intense for me."
When Downey Jr. had first accepted the role of wry, seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalsky, the technology had not yet been fully defined. But now they were close to shooting, it was clear that, as Alfonso Cuarón puts it, "the technology was not going to be very friendly to what Robert does best". Downey Jr.'s style is very fluid, improvisational, always finding new things in the moment. But before he'd even stepped (or rather, been strapped) in front of one of Cuarón's cameras, his character's every movement had already been plotted out. He would need to match them, beat for beat. No room for unanticipated manoeuvres.
"Everything was pre-programmed," explains Cuarón. "We invented all these technologies, and depending on the scene or the shot, we change from technology to technology, and in some instances, one same shot will be a combination of different technologies. What they all have in common is all of these different technologies were pre-programmed.
And just the amount of time it took to programme all the load of information we had to have ready for the shoot meant we had to split the shoot into two different stages. So we shot one part during one summer, and then the other part in the next summer - both with actors."
YOU, ME AND DEBRIS
JONAS CUARÓN EXPLAINS
THE KESSLER SYNDROME The catastrophic event which kicks off Ryan's ordeal was first posited by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler back in 1978. Jonás Cuarón lays it out: "It is a scenario in which the density of objects in outer orbit becomes too huge: so many satellites, so many space probes... we have a lot of junk up there. The problem is that when you're in orbit you're travelling at incredible speed. You go around the Earth once every 90 minutes. So, if two objects travelling at that speed collided, they would explode into a cloud of tiny shrapnel. If each tiny piece of shrapnel hits a satellite, that satellite would also explode and the cloud would keep growing. And that would make space exploration, even the possibility of having satellites in outer orbit, impossible for many years."
In effect, the director explains, "we had to complete post-production before we began pre-production." Empire can't suppress our incredulity. "No, really! It was crazy! We edited twice, three times, we had to have very defined animations before we even began with the actors.
And the big challenge during the shoot, because everything was pre-programmed, was the actors were very limited with what they could do. The shots were already written in stone, so we could only change performances within the frame of the time and the positions and the physical requirements that were already set."
Exit Downey Jr., then. Even his replacement, George Clooney, veteran of three shows with the anti-improv Coen brothers, had his doubts. "I got to this shoot late," he says. "I walked in and I was like, 'I can't do this! You guys are nuts!'" He was, though, inspired by how his co-star was bearing up under Cuarón's trying process. "It was stunning what she was doing in this film," he says of Sandra Bullock - Cuarón's Ryan Stone.
For some shots, Bullock was tugged through the air by puppeteers while painfully tethered 20 feet up within a 12-wire rig. For others, she entered a contraption named "the washing machine" by Emmanuel Lubezki for its circular 'window'. For a few scenes, she was allowed the rare luxury of sitting in an actual set, of a space-pod (pictured above). But mostly, she had to stand, isolated, for hours at a time in the centre of "the lightbox", that nine foot-by-nine foot cuboid structure which glowed impressively at the centre of the shadowy Shepperton soundstage, with only Cuarón's voice, directing her through an earpiece, and mood music for company. "Physically and mentally it was the craziest, most bizarre, challenging thing," says Bullock, who also spent months training to get in shape for the role. "But you find what you're made of."
To portray Ryan flipping and floating and gasping for air, all the while "honouring" the unique lighting in space and persuasively depicting a perpetually moving environment where there is no gravity, no microgravity and no ambient pressure (which would have been detectable on Bullock's face and body in a subaquatic or entirely wire-rig set-up), Cuarón, Webber and Lubezki took all the photo-real images of pretty much everything that wasn't the actors, which they'd painstakingly conjured during months of work, and projected them from the disco-floor-like LED walls of Bullock's temporary tomb - "like in Piccadilly Circus", says Cuarón. This created the perfect illusion of weightless movement, as if each camera itself was also in zero-G. "It was interesting, it was fun, it was a pain in the ass," the director reflects. And as each actor-performed take needed to precisely match the already-in-place VFX, computer-controlled robots were required to handle the cameras; there was no room for discrepancy or human error. Except...
"The day before we started shooting during the first summer, nothing was working," says Cuarón. "We had already invested a lot of time and money, two years, in this technology. So that day was a bit scary, because suddenly you realise everything is going to be a disaster. Then the midnight before, something started happening. So we went to sleep and when we came back the next morning, suddenly everything worked." He shrugs, mystified. "It was one of those things."
"It was never boring," says Heyman. "And it was always thrilling. And it was always demanding. But demanding is good if you know you're working for someone who is ambitious and a genius."
Alfonso Cuarón ministers to his striken star.
The time, the pain, the exertion, the adversities, oh, the adversities... It has all paid off, there is no doubt. Jonás Cuarón has his own movie going into production this month: Desierto, the very script that inspired his father all those years ago. For Jonás, it was as reassuring as it was gratifying to witness in Venice how an audience responds to the force of Gravity.
It was the most bizarre, challenging process.
SANDRA BULLOCK "They're very different stories - one happens in space and the other happens in the desert - but what Desierto and Gravity have in common is you follow one character who becomes kind of an avatar for you. I wasn't sure it would work. But when the movie ends, you see the audience come out as if they have been shaken in space for 90 minutes!"
His father is keen to play down the part technology (from his own innovations, to 3D - not native, interestingly, but post-conversion - to Dolby Atmos) plays in achieving such profoundly thrilling immersion. "From a geek standpoint you can say, 'That's all amazing,' but it's even more extraordinary from a performance standpoint," he insists. Bullock has found acute emotional reality in the most constricting shooting environment, in which her every move is tightly choreographed. "You are always confined," she says. But that, in fact, helped her. "It's frustrating and painful but in the end you use it. It's another layer that can help you be more authentic in your discomfort."
"I think it was her dance background," concludes the director; Bullock describes the process of acting weightless as "like water ballet... It was weird but somehow we did it enough to get to where it was second nature. Most of the time..."
Both Bullock and Clooney were in that audience at the Venice premiere, viewing the finished movie for the first time. She, quite simply was "blown away". So was Clooney, but he'd like to point something out: "It is done with great visual and sound design but in an old-fashioned-movie sort of way, relying on the visuals just to keep the story moving." For all the bells and whistles, robots and lightboxes, we must focus on the heart. "The fun part is not just, 'How did they do it?' It is about really good storytelling."
For more in-depth articles on your favourite films, subscribe to Empire today.