Summer 2013 is over, and so ends another season of loud, dumb, propulsive blockbusters and noisemakers. Lost within the rubble of explosions, posing, next-day blockbuster think pieces and box office discussions, there was also no shortage of options for audiences who didn’t want to turn their brains off, who didn’t want to feel like a kid again. Not that great films are measured in budgets or studio support, but this was an unusually dismal season for popcorn features, and the lines were drawn pretty clearly between the robots, aliens and superheroes of this season, and the lovers, comics and oddballs of the arthouse. For better or for worse, in ten years we’ll be talking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive, maddening “Only God Forgives” more than “White House Down” or “2 Guns,” even if that talk is mostly about how some of us hated it.
We’re in the golden age of choice for film buffs, and a lot of the best stuff was available on VOD this summer, giving people outside of metropolitan cities a chance to check out alternatives to multiplex fare. As a result, not only were people seeing new and more interesting work, but they were also opening up the conversation. Any film fan not aware of some of the great films released during the warmer seasons has to be almost willfully oblivious, particularly with the embarrassment of riches we had during this season.
In fact, we had some difficulty limiting our top picks of the season to just ten, though we went by the industry’s definition of summer (mid-May until the end of August). As a result, this top ten feels incomplete in a way, in that there are several movies and standout performances we’re leaving out of it. But when you put together a list at the end of August that almost feels like it could be an end-of-year best list, then it's gotta be good news for film fans, right? For some of you, it may feel like we've been carping on about these films all summer, but if this leads to ten people to cancel their ticket purchase to one of this summer's utterly forgettable tentpoles and discover one of these efforts, our work here is done.
“In A World...”
Making a film about a woman in the voiceover industry seems like potentially niche material, to the point where seeing it’s the writing and directing debut of prolific comedienne Lake Bell gives one pause. Bell stars as an up-and-coming voice therapist who sees a golden opportunity when the film industry attempts to resurrect trailer voiceovers for a gaudy “quadrilogy” blockbuster. The institutionalized sexism she fights doesn’t just come from an oily competitor played by Ken Marino, but also by her own father, a legend in the profession who refuses to acknowledge a market demand for his daughter, or any other female, in the world of movie promotion. Bell’s film tackles a number of issues regarding the representation of women in the film and marketing world (driven home by a biting late-film moment from a cameo-ing Geena Davis) but it never forgets that it’s a comedy, and a wonderfully perceptive, exceptionally cast one. Bell’s picture gives grace notes to an entire ensemble, including the smarmy father played by Fred Melamed and the distracted sister essayed by Michaela Watkins; her subplot with husband Rob Coddry fleshes out Bell’s world and showcases her as a compassionate, powerful voice in independent cinema, one able to juggle charming workplace comedy, social commentary and humanist ensemble storytelling.
“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”
The wind blows often through David Lowery’s fractured fairy tale romance, marking not just the passing of time, but the ways in which two heartbroken lovers drift apart and towards each other simultaneously. The wind feels just like another character in this picture, as does the grass, the soil, the mud and the rain. Lowery’s film has been compared to the work of Terrence Malick, but Malick views nature as an ideal, an Elysium for all souls to strive for. In Lowery’s picture, the nature seems to be more of a malevolent presence, controlling these characters, willing them to do their deeds. It’s the sun peeking over the horizon that makes moony Rooney Mara fire into the shoulder of local cop Ben Foster, and it’s the visiting moon that takes haunted lover Casey Affleck off to prison, leaving behind promises of a return. The idea he might return for his lover is disturbed by the tremor of her guardian, played by an imposing Keith Carradine as if he emerged from the ground to strike thunder into poor Affleck; a moment where he uses force against the outlaw almost makes the ground shake beneath you. By the time Foster begins making eyes at Mara, it’s almost elemental: outside forces brought these characters together, and ultimately outside forces will pry them apart, and to see this film is to surrender yourself to the emotional tempest and hope for the best.
The drama was overrated. Of course Celine and Jesse got together by the end of “Before Sunset.” Now, it’s more a matter of whether these two can navigate domesticity properly. Richard Linklater’s film isn’t an example of social realism, of course, instead opting for the liberal fantasy of the talkiest of the French New Wave, where beautiful intellectuals visited extravagant locales and spitballed ideas of politics and social radicalism with no one’s eye on the clock. Placing Jesse and Celine in the Greek countryside has that lulling affect, giving the series a premature happy ending. But when the second-half of 'Midnight' surfaces, that's where Linklater’s trilogy-ender becomes one of the most suspenseful films of the year. Did Jesse cheat? Is Celine miserable with Jesse’s career? Is his pseudo-intellectual machismo going to forever clash with her wounded, adversarial feminism? Linklater fixes the camera in that extended final sequence to stretch out one of the year’s most agonizing question marks, seeing both sides adapt, and then alter, can’t-miss strategies in what feels like a war of the sexes where everyone has a chance to lose. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both heartbreaking in this film, playing characters with years of history who clearly aren’t learning of each other’s shortcomings, instead understanding them as character flaws, ticking time bombs destined to erupt at an inopportune time. Linklater’s film features both a bracing harshness in its depiction of a romantic paradise, but also an unexpected lyricism that possibly makes it the loveliest picture in the series thus far.
“Short Term 12”
Brie Larson takes her first full-fledged steps towards stardom in Destin Cretton’s sophomore effort. Her turn as a youth officer in charge of a small group of troubled children captures not just the hard work and deep compassion of those who watch over unfortunate youth, but also the more mundane day-to-day activities that come with rehearsed room checks, handy pep talks and extensive safety procedures. “At-risk” isn’t just a phrase limited to the kids, but to her domesticated home life with a co-worker, where the unspoken tension about going public with their love and possibly having a child could lead to their relationship collapsing. The film’s class sensibilities are reflected subtly but powerfully, both in the idea that theirs is a relationship, and a career, barely teetering on financially manageable, while they cope with children in more dire straits who nonetheless emerge, broken, from more well-off circumstances. This is a compassionate film, but it still manages to feature sweet moments of levity, as both Larson and beau John Gallagher Jr. leaven their portrayals with good humor and an agreeable attitude that suggests great, joyful pride in what they do for a living. It’s a beacon of bright light in a dark subject, making “Short Term 12” ultimately one of the season’s more uplifting offerings.
“The Act of Killing”
There’s not a single comfortable moment in one of the year’s most compelling documentaries. This brief retracing of Indonesian legend finds a place where history has been written, and re-written, by the victors, in this case a mob of killers who wiped Communists off the face of the earth. “The Act of Killing,” produced by both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, has both the former’s fascination with the sometimes appalling beauty of disquieting human behavior as well as the latter’s emotionally explicit invasion into the intent hidden behind the words of people rationalizing their inhumanity. Here, the killers walk the street, saluted as heroes by descendants of people they brutally, publicly murdered. Their cheery anecdotes about yesterday usually involve ending the lives of a couple of innocents, delivered over a cold drink with like-minded friends, morality never once entering the conversation. The gamble then becomes allowing these men to star in a movie, one that depicts their crimes as mercy killings, with the heart of a nation at stake. There’s nothing even remotely like “The Act of Killing” that seems familiar: you can’t find these sorts of off-the-cuff conversations anywhere, nor can you see such candid moments as a man addressing and forgiving his father’s killer, or a tacit admission that the lack of acknowledgement from international forces validates their actions. It’s impossible not to be moved, repulsed and fascinated by this unique film, a darkly comic look into the abyss that stands alone as the summer’s most unique achievement.