Parvathi Nayar takes a look at the best of Hollywood films released here in 2013

It’s back to that time of year when movie-lovers are wistfully talking about our unrealised dream: having at least one screen in one multiplex devoted to showing less commercially-minded films, the sort that may sell less popcorn but offer more bite. In other words, we’re considering the list of 2013 movies released in Chennai — and realising we’re missing so many.

Many of the films gathering buzzzz and making early Awards lists such as Spike Jonze’s Her or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave or David O. Russell’s American Hustle haven’t made it here as yet. With luck though, some of the Oscar contenders/winners might get released in early 2014 — remember how Lincoln finally hit theatres here in February 2013 — but the others are likely to fall by the wayside.

Among what did get released, here’s a flavour of what we thought was Chennai’s best from the West in 2013.

Gravity

While the Golden Globes are notorious for their puzzling and uneven choices, Gravity deserves its four nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Director and Original Score. A medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and a seasoned astronaut (George Clooney) are on a routine space shuttle mission that goes astronomically wrong, leaving them stranded in space. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s film is both psychologically unsettling and visually breathtaking.

Rush

Even if you know nothing about Formula One racing, Rush is guaranteed to give you an adrenaline high. Ron Howard captures the 1970s racing rivalry between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) with precision and style. We are drawn in, completely, by the drive to win and the clash of personalities between the English playboy and the super-focussed Austrian, on and off the racetracks.

Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. has charisma in spades. He offers us the full treatment in the third instalment of the franchise, advertised as a zingy take on the conundrum “does the man make the suit or the suit make the man”. Iron Man 3 takes well-judged risks in the creation of its archvillain, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). In fact, everything is skewed slightly off-centre from the Superhero formula — making the movie a surprisingly entertaining ride. Audiences voted with their wallets; with a box-office take of $1.2 billion, it’s apparently the fifth highest-grossing film of all time.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The in-between story of the Hunger Games trilogy has feisty Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) come of age emotionally and politically. Based on Suzanne Collins’ super successful young-adult book trilogy, Catching Fire continues Katniss’ tale of survival in the totalitarian regime of Panem. Set on a future earth, it’s a place where children are forced to fight to the death on reality TV — both as a way of entertaining the masses and cowing them into suppression. It’s a rare case of the film being better than the book — yes, really.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s sprawling ambition isn’t fully realised in The Place Beyond the Pines — it doesn’t quite pull off the tripartite meditation on fathers and sons, still, it is a jangly, powerful film. Ryan Gosling is an electric presence; he plays a drifter whose decision to stop drifting in search of a rose-tinted version of fatherhood sets off a chain of disastrous consequences.

Captain Phillips

It takes a director like Paul Greengrass to take on the terrain of a much-publicised real-life story — and yet find a fresh angle. Captain Phillips focusses on the 2009 account of its eponymous hero — played by Tom Hanks — who was held captive by Somali pirates. Greengrass cleverly forces us to reconsider who exactly are the victims and aggressors in today’s uneven globalised world. Memorable acting debut by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the gun-toting pirates.

The Croods

It sounds like familiar territory: rebellious daughter struggles to assert her independence against Neanderthal father — the catch being that papa Grud (voiced by Nicolas Cage) really is a caveman. Director Chris Sanders’ fast-paced film is an enjoyable, if light, exploration of the themes of families and Change being a certainty of life. Overall, the visualisation of this prehistoric era is sly, smart and sensuously coloured.

Mud

Matthew McConaughey's fabulous career reinvention continues with Mud where he plays the title character: a vagrant with dubious dreams of love who lives in a boat on a tree. He becomes the object of adulation for two 14-year-olds (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland), and the coming-of-age story has both charm and danger. Jeff Nichols' third film cements his position as a must-watch director.

Star Trek into Darkness

It’s everything you could want as a Trekkie — a plot and characters who offer just the right amount of resonance with the icons on which they are based, but are also fully realised creations in themselves. Director JJ Abrams, and the new actors — notably Chris Pine as Capt James T Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock — deliver the goods in Star Trek into Darkness. Upcoming Brit star Benedict Cumberbatch works excellently as a villain, the terrorist John Harrison.

The Hunt

Admittedly this is a sneaky entry, since The Hunt was shown in town, thanks to the Chennai film festival. However, the haunting Danish film can’t be ignored — it leaves its imprint on you for a long, long time. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, an immensely likeable kindergarten teacher getting his life together after a messy divorce. Then, a tiny lie by a small girl spirals out of control. In a Kafkaesque chain of events, an innocent Lucas is reviled first by his colleagues, then by his friends and finally the entire village. Thomas Vinterberg’s film poses uncomfortable questions about justice and our judgmental nature.

Finally a few passing nods — Oblivion, for its visual stylishness and meticulous art direction in creating a future world; Frozen, for its charming return to a more old-fashioned style of story-telling about magic and princesses; Pacific Rim, for the guilty pleasure of watching large machines and monsters knock each other senseless.