The Top 13 of 2013 (So Far)

Hey it’s been a pretty okay year for movies and we have a lot of good stuff to talk about, and a stacked second half of the year to come. Here are our 13 favorite films of 2013 (so far!), along with an honorable mention.

before-midnight

Before Midnight

The Plot: Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply reprise their roles as two fateful lovers driving, walking, and talking their way through a Greece vacation.

Where To See It: Currently in Theaters, on DVD and VOD September 2013.

Oh, how the years can pass you by.

I was hardly 2 years old when the first European adventure of Celine and Jesse hit the screen in 1995. It’s now been 18 years since that initial outing, and 9 years since they’re reunion in 2004’s Before Sunset.

I’ve thrown a lot of heavy accolades and hyperboles at this series (best love story ever?) and it’s wonderfully romantic yet deeply realistic look at love and connecting with another human being. But as this series grows to nearly two decades old, it has become a remarkable, unique, and moving exploration of the passage of time– the paths that lay before us, and often even more importantly, the paths that now lay behind us.

They say with age comes maturity, and Midnight is certainly the most mature entry in the series, traveling it’s chatty road with both a weariness and a wisdom that reflects the years gone by. In some ways, Jesse and Celine have not changed at all since they’re first fateful meeting. In other ways, they couldn’t be more different. Yet here the lovers lie, still reeling and trekking through the outcome of a conversation on a train nearly 20 years ago.

“I assure you, that guy you vaguely remember — the sweet, romantic one you met on the train?” Jesse pleads near the end of the film. “I promise, that’s still me.” It’s a moment that speaks to the true scope of these films– a romance that transcends what has been, what is, and what will be. – rb

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Evil Dead

The Plot: A reboot of Sam Raimi’s seminal horror series The Evil Dead, this new film follows a group of friends into a cabin in the woods (hey!), where they find a mysterious book in the basement, inadvertently summon a demon, and are faced with severe supernatural consequences in gleefully violent horror fashion.

Where To See It: On Blu-ray and DVD July 16th.

I love the original Evil Dead series because I love horror-comedy. Something about a film that aims to scare and amuse in equal measure, and actually succeeds at that always charms the hell out of me. So I was quite thrilled to see the new Evil Dead film in the hopes of getting more of that charm. Not so!

Instead, Evil Dead opts for more straightforward horror, but in an excessive and gleeful fashion. Though the absurd humor that marks the original franchise – and particularly Army of Darkness – is absent, it’s nonetheless an exciting and fun horror story. It revels in blood and gore and takes great pride in being incredibly visceral. Seasoned horror vets will have a good time with it all, but those new to the genre or with weaker stomachs may be a bit uncomfortable.

I was rather struck by the way that the film seemed to contain some drug addiction parable qualities at its center, with the framing involving main character Mia being brought to the cabin by her friends in order to get clean (after, appropriately, her drug use leading to a bout with clinical death. Dark humor at its finest, ladies and gentlemen). It was an odd decision, given that the film doesn’t take itself particularly seriously at other points, but I think it ultimately works. It adds a sort of demented fable quality to the story, a “say no to drugs” at the center of it all that doesn’t quite make the whole thing a joke, but adds a morbid spin to it that made me chuckle.

It’s horror filmmaking at its most fun. Though it lacks the humor that marked the original series and the self-aware bend that marks most modern horror efforts, it’s a good exercise in the genre’s roots that is well worth seeing. – bc

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Frances Ha

The Plot: A twentysomething New Yorker (Greta Gerwig) tries to figure out love, friendship and a career in this black and white delight.

Where To See It: Some theaters, VOD in a few weeks.

By the time the first half hour of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is through, our titular hero has lost her boyfriend, her apartment, her best friend, and her job. Her world has gently slipped away from underneath her, and she free-falls into the kind of directionless void that only a twenty something New Yorker can.

Yet the film is effortlessly joyful. Is it excessive at this point to point out how wonderful Gerwig is in the starting role? Or mention the influences the film wears on its sleeve? Maybe, but it’s worth mentioning. Gerwig is fantastic, and the film breathes the same air as Truffaut, Godard, Woody Allen– even Lena Dunham is evoked if only by the similar subject matter and the presence of Girls’ Adam Driver.

Frances’ downward spiral sends her from home to smaller home until she’s residing in a dorm room at her former alma mater. It’s not an inspiring journey yet never once does Frances let despair capture her. She spends the film with a grin on her face and an awkward yet endearing bounce in her step. As the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. But Frances Ha knows that happiness does not necessarily lie in certainty or permanence, in keeping the same dreams, the same friends, the same loves or the same home. The joy is in the journey, and what a wonderful journey it is. – rb

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Mistaken For Strangers

The Plot: Tom Berringer is in his 30s and lives with his parents. His older brother, who happens to be a highly successful indie rock star, gets him a job as a tour manager to get him out of the house.

Where You Can Get It: Nowhere currently, but keep your eyes on VOD services over the next couple of weeks!

Maybe it’s because of the bombast of current mainstream cinema– bigger, faster, louder, and most definitely longer– that Mistaken For Strangers makes such an immediate and emotional impression.

The film is a totally minimalistic project– initially shot as a kind of on tour profile of the indie band The National, the band quickly takes side stage as the doc dissolves into something much more emotionally resonant.

To say too much more would be to ruin what is such a pleasant surprise. I will say that the film is unbreakingly honest, frequently hilarious, and of course features some kick ass tunes. It’s well worth hunting down. – rb

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Monsters University

The Plot: Mike and Sully, long before they were partners in the scaring kids business that powers the monster world, are college roommates.

Where To See It: Still in theaters.

The golden age of Pixar appears to be over. Gone, it appears, are the days when the studio would take a premise as tired and basic as “college movie” and do something different and novel with it. Here are the days when it takes that premise, applies it to characters that, at first glance, do not at all suit that environment, and then makes a fun movie out of it, demonstrating that these characters fit rather naturally into the environment.

It’s not a bad film at all, and it’s one I quite enjoyed. It’s a great family-friendly send up of college movie classics, playing off the familiar tropes and formula to great effect. The Mike and Sully relationship is handled exceptionally well, with great payoff in the third act. I was impressed at how naturally the pair (as well as the other recognizable monsters from the original film) fit into this not-particularly-kid-friendly environment, and how organically the film grew their friendship. Nothing felt forced or overwrought or underdeveloped; it works, and works well.

This is one of the better films so far this year because it doesn’t have high aspirations and it reaches its target expertly. It’s a charming and appealing kids’ film, even if it isn’t quite the treat for adults that Pixar’s best efforts are. The film is funny enough and entertaining enough to merit the price of the ticket, and may well be one of the better animated films this year. It’s an entertaining film, and that’s fine. – bc

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Mud

The Plot: Two young boys stumble upon the hideout of a wanted outlaw (Mcconaughey) who’s attempting to reconnect with the love of his life (Witherspoon).

Where To See It: On DVD August 27th.

Mud isn’t exactly a title that evokes rabid interest or provocative thought. It’s blunt, straightforward, and simple– and thus the perfect name for one of the year’s best films.

Jeff Nichols returns to the deep south in his follow up to 2011’s Take Shelter, which for my money, still stands as one of the best films of the decade so far. This time around, mystery arises in the form of an island dwelling outlaw by the name of, you guessed it– Mud.

Yet mystery doesn’t seem to be on Nichols mind this time out. Though the film offers many questions and quandaries, none remain mysteries for too long. This is forgone, instead, for the coming of age tale of two boys who are pulled into something that is way, way over their heads.

It’s of course another stunning performance from Mcconaughey in a string of stunning performances from Mcconaughey, though everyone in the film is really fantastic (with the possible exception of Reese Witherspoon, who can’t help but seem a little out of place). It’s also another home run for the deft direction of Jeff Nichols, who proves he’s one of the best American directors working today. – rb

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The Place Beyond The Pines

The Plot: A carnival stunt man (Gosling) and a rising man of the law (Cooper) come head to a head in a collision that sends ripples through both men’s families. Eva Mendes and Ray Liotta co-star.

Where You Can Get It: On DVD August 6th.

Derek Cianfrance new film begins as we follow a heavily tattooed torso through the crowded, blurred and bright jumble of a traveling carnival. The whole lengthy take is filmed with no cuts of any sort, reminiscent of Welles’ Touch of Evil opener, or more recently, Cuaron’s Children of Men. It’s a shot that’s paralleled twice later in the film, by two different torsos, in two different locations, in two different times. There’s large breaths of scope and thin lines of connectivity that thread through Cianfrance’s new film, and through these threads often end up too slight for the wide world around them, the movie still lands as something surprising and impressive.

Cianfrance’s previous effort, a much-loved-by-me film by the title of Blue Valentine, was an excruciatingly intimate affair, yet his follow up is anything but. What in concept sounds like a taut and tense thriller expands to something that feels more like a classic novel. It’s a film about men and manhood, an epic of fathers and sons.

It’s a very rare occasion today to go to the movies and be surprised by something. The Place Beyond The Pines sure wasn’t what I was expecting when I walked into the theater. But how refreshing and rare of a feeling is that? – rb

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Side Effects

The Plot: A psychologist prescribes a drug to a patient after a suicide attempt, and she begins to have bizarre side effects that eventually lead to murder.

Where To See It: Now available on Blu-ray and DVD

I love Soderbergh’s films, because there’s always an immense sense of style that dominates the film, even in the presence of a strong story. In this case, he crafts a tense psychological thriller with a decidedly Hitchcock feel to the entire affair, from the very first scene all the way to the last shot.

Though I went into the film curious to see how it would differ from his previous medical-themed film, Contagion, I came out convinced that these movies are entirely and utterly incomparable, and are similar only in their marketing. Whereas Contagion was an ultimately political film, about how various agencies deal with pandemic, Side Effects is a very personal and sterile film. It’s not as much about the titular side effects as you would think, and far more about the minds of the people in the film and their relationships with each other.

It works very well, as despite the beginning feeling like a very different film from what it has become by the time you reach the end, it evolves naturally and invisibly. There’s no sudden moment where it all goes off kilter and becomes something different. Both parts work really well, and both parts appear to have things to say. There’s a commentary about reliance on drugs in there, as well as a tense deconstruction of psychosis. But it’s a Soderbergh film: message is secondary in the face of style.

The film, as you should expect, is wonderfully shot and features a fantastic stable of actors turning in good performances. Jude Law in particular does well here with a rare-for-him leading role, but Rooney Mara turns in an equally gripping performance as the patient. The two work really well together, making the therapist-patient relationship feel natural before it gradually shifts into something more sinister. That’s where the Hitchcock element comes in, and though Law is hardly Jimmy Stewart, he’s a great stand-in all the same.

The ending is probably the part that unsettled me the most. Naturally I won’t spoil it, but it made me think a great deal about the characters of the film and whether any of them can be said to be truly healthy. It’s a haunted film that has a lot of psychologically unsettled and unsettling characters, but there’s a tremendous beauty and craft to the affair. Soderbergh’s done it again. – bc

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Spring Breakers

The Plot: A group of college girls rob a restaurant in order to fund their spring break adventure, and eventually find themselves in jail. They’re busted out by Alien (James Franco), a drug and arms dealer who gets them to work for him in exchange.

Where To See It: Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

This film is pure, unfiltered excess. It’s filled with absurdities, loud music, vibrant colors and a manic energy. Some scenes are the sort of scenes that amuse you simply by the improbability of their situation. Others are the kinds of scenes that border on exploitation film status. It’s bizarre, it’s dissonant, and it’s excessive. But it somehow, through that veneer of style over substance, works.

A large part of the reason it works is James Franco’s performance, which is fantastic. He brings the excess and ridiculous qualities the role demands, but beneath it is a layer of disillusionment. He repeats dialogue seemingly unaware of it. There’s an odd quality to some of his body language. All of it betrays this sense of unsettlement just beneath the outward revelry. It’s like a sickness creeping forward from beneath.

That sickness pervades the entire film, in truth. As crazy as it gets, there’s always this slight sense of dissonance. The casting of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens – formerly Disney girls – in this decidedly adult and profane film was rather inspired, not necessarily because of the inherent acting ability of either girl – but they both do just fine – but because it contributes to the weird dissonant quality at the film’s center. Girls formerly crafted by a corporation to be paragons of purity doing the things they do in this film didn’t sit right, and contributed to a growing sense of discomfort as the film plodded along.

There’s a lot of apparent symbolism in the film and I’ve seen a number of interesting analyses, including a couple of intriguing Christian iconographic interpretations. I don’t necessarily agree with them, but it’s exciting to see that this is a film that hasn’t sat quite right with anybody, and people are doing what they can to discern why that is and probe the deeper meaning. It’s a film that feels so off in its execution that it invites and inspires deeper thought and understanding. Even if the film is ultimately as shallow as its main characters – which I doubt – it’s inspired discussion and thought and has been an experiment quite unlike anything I’ve seen at the movies. – bc

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Star Trek into Darkness

The Plot: Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) of the U.S.S. Enterprise, along with the classic crew, is sent in pursuit of wanted criminal John Harrison, a former Starfleet operative who engineered a suicide bombing and attacked a room filled with Starfleet admirals with a stolen vehicle.

Where To See It: Might be in some theaters still, though unlikely. On Blu-ray and DVD September 10th.

Man, I just love Star Trek.

I was never much of a Trekkie. I had seen Wrath of Khan, because that’s a cinema classic that manages to transcend the Trekkie trappings and engender itself in the broader pop cultural milieu, but I hadn’t ever watched the original series or even Next Generation until J.J. Abrams’ 2009 revival. That film kicked open the doors of the at times impenetrable Star Trek universe with its unabashed sense of thrill. It didn’t pause and it didn’t relent. It was just fun.

Even though I’ve since watched a lot more Star Trek, that initial hit of exuberance remains my fondest memory with the franchise, and I was utterly thrilled to see that Star Trek into Darkness not only matched that sense of excitement, but took it even further. Removed from the time travel shenanigans and establishing the new canon that at times dragged down the first film, Into Darkness is free to chart its own course, which it does with a more mysterious plot that gradually comes into full focus. There’s a bunch of militarization of an explorer’s organization tossed around, along with some fun eugenics portents and criticism, but the film isn’t particularly concerned with these themes. As before, its number one priority is fun, and the setpieces deliver in spades.

It’s greatly assisted by the addition of Cumberbatch’s Harrison, a sneering and sardonic villain that spits vile and vitriol with every word in a gleefully villainous manner. His interactions with the main cast are one of the film’s highlights, and any setpiece involving him – particularly a rather tense jump from ship-to-ship across debris filled space – is exhilarating.

This isn’t a very thoughtful discussion of this film, but the film honestly isn’t all that thoughtful. It’s summer filmmaking at its finest, a film that has characters we all know and love getting themselves into some tense moments so we can watch the spectacle of it all. It’s fun, the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year, and if you’ve ever liked Star Trek it’s a must see. – bc

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Stoker

The Plot: After India’s (Mia Wasikowska’s) father dies in a car accident, her mysterious uncle (Matthew Goode) decides to move in with the family. Nicole Kidman also co-stars.

Where To See It: Currently on DVD.

It’s all about the execution.

Stoker is South Korean film director Park Chan-Wook’s first English language film, and if you recognize his name, it’s likely because of violent classic Oldboy, which will see an American remake of at the hands of Spike Lee later this fall. (Topical!)

The story of the film itself is classic Hitchcock. An unexplained death, the arrival of a mysterious stranger, things that go bump in the night. Indeed, everything about the film, despite its current day setting feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s era. The family lives in a large victorian home, they drive classic cars, Kidman’s overblown housewife could be straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, and Matthew Goode’s Uncle Charlie steals the show as a modern day Norman Bates.

The actual plot itself may not be anything remarkably new or fresh, but Chan-Wook takes the material and makes it as twisted, intriguing, and bizarre as can be. The film may not always make the most logical sense– plot strands float in and out on a whim– but as a piece of atmosphere and entertainment.. creepy, brooding, unexpected, lustrous, violent entertainment– it’s about as enjoyable and provocative as you could ever hope to get. – rb

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This Is The End

The Plot: Party at Francos! Rogen, Hill, McBride, Franco, Barchuel, Robinson, and many others play themselves in this dick joke fueled tale of the end of the world.

Where To See It: Currently in Theaters.

Like it or not, the Apatow clan has proven themselves to be our generation’s Brat Pack. Starting from the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks and expanding out to a wide range of comedy classics (Superbad, Anchorman) and utter crap (Year One, Drillbit Taylor), the Apatow clan is the distinctive comedy voice of the past 20 years, or at least of everything that isn’t The Hangover.

This Is The End falls somewhere in the middle of the group’s scattershot output. The script by Superbad writing partners Rogen and Goldberg is not nearly as strong or as smart as the premise suggests, and in some slower places there’s a pretty strong stench of lost potential. But to pretend that This Is The End doesn’t bring the laughs would be worth of eternal damnation. The laughs per minute ratio is through the roof, far outnumbering any other comedy released this year.

The film’s at it’s best when it’s totally off the wall, as it is in the film’s best sequence- a gut bustingly wild send up of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Watching the parade of familiar famous faces near the beginning of the film is also a good time, especially a performance from Michael Cera that aggressively attacks his nice guy persona. While it’s fair to say that This Is The End isn’t the film it could of been, it’d also be pretty unfair to say that it isn’t pretty fucking hilarious. – rb

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Upstream Color

The Plot: Hahahahahahahahahaha I’m not even going to try

Where To See It: Now available on Blu-ray and DVD, instant streaming on Netflix and VOD

This is my favorite film of the year so far.

I am and always have been a sucker for a good puzzle of a film. As I watched Upstream Color for the first time – knowing full well that it came from the brilliant mind of Shane Carruth, who brought us the fantastic sci-fi film Primer in 2004 – my mind was leaping all over the place trying to “solve” the film. Was it a story about drug addiction? Are these people still having flashbacks to their hypnosis under the mysterious substance at the beginning of the film? No, that seems too grounded. Perhaps it’s an alien invasion? These people are being influenced by otherworldly beings meddling in their everyday lives, unseen and unfelt? Too out there, not enough information to support it. Is it a dream? Is it continued hypnosis passed off as freedom? Are these people still the captive of the man with a sun for a face?

I was intrigued the entire time, and as the film marched on, confident and unrepentantly mysterious, the answers became no clearer. Later discussion and examination with other people and the internet has since cleared up much of the mystery behind the film, but when the credits began to roll, I was no clearer about the plot of the film than I was at the beginning of it. What I did know was that I had just seen a great film.

Beneath all of that wondering about what exactly is happening, the film paints a very clear portrait of two people lost in a confused state. It’s tragic, in a way. Jeff (Shane Carruth, in a starring role as well as pretty much every other role) gains confidence as Kris (Amy Seimetz) loses it, but he’s just as confused and unsure as she is. They’re drawn together but can’t quite determine why. They’ve got mysterious and undefined histories with large blanks and events that they both remember as having happened to them and not the other. There’s a sweetness in the way they deal with this confusion together, eventually ceasing their efforts to understand it and simply helping each other power through it all.

It’s far more effective that the film is so well shot and edited. It’s a gorgeous film, and Carruth’s own musical score adds tremendously to the emotion. Unlike my other, second-favorite film of the year, Before Midnight, Color often diverges into long stretches of silence. These stretches are carried by the music and cinematography. Entirely silent characters are somehow richly drawn simply through the lens and the music. Behind the mystery that pervades the film, the confusion that both the viewer and the characters feel, is a touching portrait of two people coming together to endure a shared experience that neither of them can explain, framed and crafted in an immaculate and beautiful way. – bc

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Much Ado About Nothing

The Plot: A bunch of actors and Joss Whedon hang out and put on a Shakespeare show.

Where To See It: Playing in some theaters, Blu-ray and DVD later this year.

This is an honorable mention, because while I loved the film, there really isn’t much here. It’s a bunch of Joss Whedon staple actors hanging out, chewing the scenery as they read some Shakespeare. Whedon wisely turned a camera on it, and the result is delightful. It feels like a bunch of actors just having a good time, and we get to be in on it. If you’ve been a fan of Whedon’s work before, it’s a fun time at the movies and well worth your money.

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