Film: Out of this world
In movie terms, 2013 sagged badly during the summer months as the multiplexes were yet again clogged up with over-hyped and disappointing blockbusters. The Great Gatsby, World War Z, Man of Steel and Monsters University were all right, I suppose, but nothing to get too excited about, and the critical knives emerged to eviscerate Gore Verbinski's big-budget flop Lone Ranger, though I rather enjoyed it.
Elysium, Neil Blomkamp's eagerly awaited follow-up to the brilliant District 9, was nothing much to write home about, and Pacific Rim and Wolverine were bloated and overlong. The summer, then, was no great shakes for moviegoers, but there was a lot of quality filmmaking at either end of the year.
Spring releases Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness proved it is possible to make witty and engaging action blockbusters, while in the autumn Woody Allen surprised us all by unleashing Blue Jasmine, his best film in years. Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty marked a welcome return to form for the Italian after his dire 2011 film This Must Be the Place, while Abdellatif Ketiche's Palme d'Or-winning lesbian romance Blue is the Warmest Colour attracted both controversy and high praise.
And, in recent weeks, the 2014 Oscar contenders have begun lumbering into view, and none more impressive than Alfonso Cuaron's spare, tense and absolutely terrifying space drama Gravity.
In fact, all in all, it was a pretty decent year for cinema.
Steven Spielberg's uncompromisingly intelligent biopic Lincoln and Kathryn Bigelow's harrowing thriller Zero Dark Thirty dominated the Oscar nominations this year, and deservedly so.
Lincoln painted a rounded and convincing picture of the 16th US president's last few years, and Zero Dark Thirty starred Jessica Chastain (inset below) as a CIA agent hunting for Osama bin Laden.
Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty starred the excellent Tony Servillo as a jaded Roman journalist who realises he has wasted his life. Shane Carruth's beautifully photographed and slow-moving thriller Upstream Color was magnificent, as was Richard Linklater's winning sequel Before Midnight.
Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was snubbed a bit at the Oscars, possibly because its unblinking focus managed to offend both the left and the right. But she did a brilliant job of telling a complex and difficult story, as, of course, did Steven Spielberg in Lincoln.
There were flashes of genius in Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, an elegantly nostalgic drama about the Paris riots of 1968, and Ben Wheatley showed how a really good director can make a great film for next to nothing with A Field in England.
Parts of The Great Beauty took your breath away, but I think the most audacious and creative directing this year was done by Cuaron in Gravity.
For all his faults, Quentin Tarantino is one of the most brilliant and effortlessly cine-literate screenwriters there has ever been, and his work on Django Unchained was some of his very best. Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson all got to make long and witty speeches in a film that played fast and loose with the conventions of the western.
Tony Kushner did a very fine job of shoehorning Abe Lincoln's hectic last year into a two-and-a-bit-hour film, and Alexander Payne was on sparkling form in his sombre comic drama, Nebraska. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke collaborated to hilarious effect on Before Midnight, and Woody Allen's writing on Blue Jasmine was nothing short of sublime.
DiCaprio was outstanding in a lost cause in Baz Luhrmann's brave but frantic Great Gatsby, and managed to capture the battle between despair and optimism that defined the glamorous but doomed Jay Gatsby. Michael Douglas was uncannily good as flamboyant entertainer Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, and Bruce Dern was equally impressive as a tenacious old Midwesterner in Nebraska.
There's no getting past the brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis's work on Lincoln. He literally disappeared into the character of possibly America's greatest president and richly deserved his Best Actor Oscar. I've a feeling Tom Hanks may be getting one of those in 2014: he was really terrific in Captain Phillips.
In the past few years, Jessica Chastain has become one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses. She effectively had to carry Bigelow's controversial thriller Zero Dark Thirty, and was compelling as Maya, a CIA officer obsessed with hunting down Bin Laden. Another redhead, Julianne Moore, was disturbingly good as a terrible mother in What Maisie Knew, and Greta Gerwig was tremendous as Noah Baumbach's awkward heroine in Frances Ha.
By all accounts French actress Adele Exarchopoulos didn't have the best of times on Abdellatif Kechiche's steamy lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour, but was unforgettable as a naïve young schoolgirl. And Cate Blanchett deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least for her work in Blue Jasmine.
Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz must bless the day he first met Quentin Tarantino: he won the Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for his work on Inglourious Basterds, and triumphed again early this year in Django Unchained, playing a loquacious bounty killer who befriends Jamie Foxx's slave. One of Waltz's fellow nominees for this year's Best Supporting Actor award was Tommy Lee Jones, who brought grandeur and complexity to the role of anti-slavery Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.
Belfast-born Michael Smiley has done some very fine work in recent years, and was terrific as a tricky Irish adventurer on the lookout for gold during the English Civil War in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England. Christopher Walken has tended to get typecast as gangsters and maniacs, but was superb as a classical cellist whose powers are fading in Yaron Ziberman's A Late Quartet.
Best Supporting Actress
Lea Seydoux was edgy and enigmatic as a charismatic artist in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and her fellow Frenchwoman Audrey Tautou gave perhaps her best performance ever playing a cold and frustrated country housewife in Thérèse Desqueyroux. I loved Julie Delpy in Before Midnight: she and Ethan Hawke painted a funny and compellingly real portrait of a couple in midlife crisis.
Vanessa Hudgens continues to move away from her squeaky-clean High School Musical image, and was most convincing as a debauched college kid in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.
Here's a catalogue where you're always spoilt for choice, and 2013 was certainly no different. I hated Kick Ass 2, a nasty and mean-spirited superhero sequel that tried to make a virtue of gratuitous ultra-violence and totally failed, and there was something profoundly smug and dislikeable about Judd Apatow's Knocked Up follow-up, This is 40. Sophie Lellouche's Woody Allen-inspired comedy Paris-Manhattan was spectacularly awful, and Oliver Hirschbiegel's thoroughly ill-advised biopic Diana was so bad it was almost good.