Wow, wait, okay, what? It’s June? Right! So here we are again, rapidly approaching the midpoint of another year, and as is our custom, we’re taking a moment to pause and look back at 2013 so far, and to discuss, debate, and throw hissy fits over what we collectively consider the best films we’ve seen so far. As regards bigger releases, the year up to now has been, if we’re honest, a little so-so, with the blockbuster hopefuls ranging from the slightly disappointing to the outright dire (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain,” “After Earth,” “Oblivion,” with “Iron Man 3” probably proving the best of the bunch to date.) That said, in the smaller screens of your multiplex and at the arthouse, a few gems have managed to find their way through and there is a whole bevy of films we’ve been lucky enough to catch early that are coming down the pike soon, and many of those are so good that they should drag up the base standard of the year by a good margin.
So we’re dividing this piece into two this year -- the first part detailing those films that have already hit theaters and made an impression on us, and the second talking about those that are just around the corner and which we urge you to keep an eye out for. So let's get to it....
“Stories We Tell”
There’s family, there’s history and then there’s the truth, but as Sarah Polley explores in her beautiful and uniquely moving documentary “Stories We Tell,” all of those terms carry different weight depending on the eye of the beholder. Begun as a project to investigate her own family background, “Stories We Tell” blossoms into a riveting portrait of a family still carrying secrets, heartache and accepted truths that sometimes fly in the face of reality. But Polley’s entire point is that one person’s “reality” is someone else’s “fiction” and her brilliant film almost deconstructs itself as it goes along, calling into question its own presentation of the “facts” yet never feeling academic, and always wholly emotional. It’s the rare documentary that we’d argue contains “spoilers” which aren’t just part of the narrative (though it's more enjoyable if you’re in the dark a bit,) but the presentation itself. One of the most intelligent documentaries we've seen in quite some time, at times enlightening and profound, the film proves the simple truth that the “Stories We Tell” about our own lives can’t always be trusted. [Read our Venice 2012 review]
From its buzzy, fuzzy, authentically VHS aesthetic, to its loose, almost docu-feeling evocation of the events around the pivotal 1998 election in Chile, Pablo Larrain’s “No” is a jolt of infectious, innovative filmmaking. The concluding chapter of his unofficial thematic trilogy dealing with different aspects of life under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (the previous entries being “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” which, appropriately was on last year’s corresponding list), “No” distinguishes itself from its predecessors in more ways than just its off-the-cuff look and satirical, sarcastic humor. In fact, where Larrain's previous films dealt in darkly accented stories of violence and death, “No” is altogether breezier in tone, if never disposable, pitting Gael Garcia Bernal’s advertising executive, well versed in cheery, cheesy Coca-Cola-style ads, as the David against the State "Yes" lobby’s Goliath. In many ways the film is, and should be, almost anti-dramatic -- the occasional riot or threat scene aside, most of the action takes place in meeting rooms, living rooms or small TV studios as Bernal pitches his ideas to the willfully uncomprehending “suits.” And while he finds an unexpected idealism buried under layers of marketing pragmatism, the challenge is often to make the decision-makers see that while the topics they’re dealing in are of epic, life-or-death, historic importance, sometimes the only way to gain majority attention is with a catchy jingle. Never exaggerating or overdramatizing the story, but bringing it to vibrant, authentic life, Larrain pulls off a truly impressive feat in not just making an engaging film about an advertising campaign for an election, but in making an ordinary, everyday hero of a marketing guy who made the word “No” into a positive and, almost inadvertently, helped change the world. [Read our Cannes 2012 review]
If you haven’t slipped under the shimmery, hypnotic spell of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” yet, we can only urge you to do so without delay. Without doubt one of the best value films we’ve seen all year -- purely in terms of how long after it ends you still can feel the lasting sustain of its melancholic, wondering, questioning chords -- it’s as unique an experience as we hope to have at the movies all year, any year. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about it is the precision with which it creates such a lyrical story -- Carruth’s frightening braininess and preoccupation with the cleanliness of mathematical logic are here in spades, and yet that’s all set in service of an agenda that’s far more about the indefinable mysteries of love and connection. Boasting a labyrinthine, impressionistic plot that you can either get hung up on the details of or allow wash over you in a haze of fragmentary images and evocative soundtrack details (we’re more for the latter course, but both work out just fine), it’s a prime example of a film that many will find frustrating in its opacity, but that brings a tenfold return on investment for those willing to let themselves be borne along by its currents. Stunningly shot, evocatively scored and perfectly performed by Carruth himself and actress/director Amy Seimetz, “Upstream Color” is a remarkable, enigmatic love story that can’t be faulted for giving us no easy answers when the questions it’s brave and ambitious enough to ask are this massive. It’s a film set at the edge of everything, where reason becomes awe and where the inexplicable somehow makes a resonant kind of sense, and it’s as beautiful and infinitely detailed as a fractal image. It’s a work of wonder, and it’s wonderful. [Read our Sundance 2013 review]
Ethan Hawke has been fond of saying that "Before Midnight" is the conclusion to the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures, which makes us wonder just how much the "Police Academy" movies made. Hawke's statement also both heightens and diminishes the colossal accomplishment of these three amazing films. Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" seemed like something of a lark, a charmingly experimental love story co-conceived by its two leads (Hawke and Julie Delpy) that was so miniaturized in size that it could have been the final word on whatever it was the three of them were trying to say (something about emotionally messy connections and the kind of impromptu way that two people can fall in love). The sequel, "Before Sunset," was more technically ambitious and emotionally raw – it unfolded almost in real time, like the most achingly beautiful episode of "24" you could ever imagine (it also has one of the great final lines in the history of movies). But somehow "Before Midnight" manages to blow them all away – this is the love-struck couple in middle age, when things have become thorny and complicated and sometimes unbearable. That Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are able to pull this off at all is kind of incredible, but the real magic lies in the way that the movie never feels like a grind; you may squirm but you never want to leave your seat. The air of romanticism that's braided through these movies still remains, but it's been dulled and worn down by time. After watching "Before Midnight" it's hard to get into something like "Iron Man 3" that's all dazzle, no soul -- so it may be the conclusion (for now) to the lowest-grossing movie trilogy of all time, but "Before Midnight" is undoubtedly one of the most creatively successful. [Read our Sundance 2013 review]
“The Act of Killing"
We left the screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” trembling and dazed, and trying hard to cast around for the right superlatives to attach to what we had just experienced. The fact is the film is an extraordinarily disturbing and provocative watch, occasionally almost psychologically unbearable to invest in, and yet at the same time completely impossible to tear your attention from, and we’re very glad it’s starting to get the kind of attention and distribution it deserves. We should warn you, it’s not for the fainthearted in its depiction of a side of human nature so dark it's normally impossible to detect, and of a genocide rendered all the more horrifying for being so casually acknowledged, it isn’t in any way at all an easy experience. It is however, profoundly intelligent, narratively inventive, challenging and thought-provoking and almost impossibly revealing as to how depraved and corrupted a person can become within a depraved and corrupted society. But it’s not simply bleak, it does chart an incredible, if incremental change in its lead character that a lesser film would paint in simpler, brighter colors to end on a note of hope. “The Act of Killing” is not that film, it’s gone too far down the rabbit hole for any such pat conclusions -- there may be catharsis here, but there is no redemption because some sins are simply too soul-staining -- but it’s a voyage deep into the heart of darkness that we will never be able to forget. [Read our Berlin 2013 review]
There have been countless attempts recently to depict a hardscrabble, low-income life in an attempt to replicate the "Southern Gothic" aesthetic beautifully depicted by authors like Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams. The problem is that most of these endeavors (everything from TV's "True Blood" to February's "Twilight" riff "Beautiful Creatures") come across as campy, soulless approximations, all snarled cartoony accents and loopy, moss-draped sets. Jeff Nichols' "Mud," his third and most assured feature film, never feels like a put-on. Everything is slightly heightened – from the titular character (played with a kind of rattlesnake slipperiness by Matthew McConaughey), a man encased by self-styled mythologizing and a code of ethics that doesn't extend to killing gangsters, to the way Nichols' camera glides glacially along the river – but that's because life in the south is heightened too, everything is sweaty and sticky and slightly rusty. At its heart, though, "Mud" is a coming-of-age story, one profoundly interested in the things that fascinate in youth – young romance, shoot-outs, and the seemingly Herculean task of freeing a boat from a tree. "Mud" is a movie that, like the river it's centered around, washes over you, a beguiling, charming, genuine Southern-fried treat (without all the calories). [Read our review]