There was major controversy this summer when gigantic blockbusters like "Man of Steel" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" destroyed entire cities and countless lives without so much as blinking, all while employing uncomfortable 9/11 imagery. The closest thing that "Prince Avalanche" has to an action set piece is when a disoriented dove flies out of the small work truck that two goobers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd) share. Said goobers are in Bastrop, Texas, after a devastating forest fire in the 1980s claims both homes ( and lives tasked with the difficult job of painting the white lines down the newly paved roads. That's pretty much the entire movie: two dudes fucking around and occasionally working what can arguably be deemed the most banal job imaginable. Yet somehow out of all of this comes one of the most charmingly ramshackle comedies in recent memory, a testament to the power of male bonding and the truly unusual things that can happen when a couple of buddies spend way too much time together. Director David Gordon Green seemed to deliberately harken back to his independent movie days after a series of costly studio comedies (among them the bizarre and bizarrely ignored cult-movie-in-the-making "Your Highness"); it was so secret, in fact, that the project wasn't even announced until after it was finished. Rudd and Hirsch form an unexpectedly wonderful comedic duo, with Hirsch in particular coming across as a true marvel (someone needs to hire him more regularly). Aided by an unforgettable score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo (easily one of the year's best), this shaggy dog comedy, in which virtually nothing happens, feels like an essential piece of filmmaking. It doesn't even drag. In fact, by the end of "Prince Avalanche," by turns touching, hilarious, and honest, you could spend a few more hours watching these guys paint lines and fuck around. And without a single building toppled.
Despite what you may have read, Rachel (a breathlessly convincing Kathryn Hahn), a stay-at-home mom in affluent but tightly-coiled Silverlake, Los Angeles, isn’t bored, self-destructive or going through an early midlife crisis. What Rachel is yearning for, is far less broad, insofar as it's really a collation of all the little things in her life leading her to moderate, but debilitating disenchantment. Rachel is aching for some life, but what’s worse (and keenly discerned) is how she isn’t quite sure what’s causing her malaise, frustration and dissatisfaction. With a child she’s estranged from, a husband who’s deep into his Blackberry and in desperate need of something, Rachel finds a cause which turns into an obsession: saving and rehabilitating a stripper she and her husband meet on a wild night out to spice up their stalled sex life. The private dance this young stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), administers cracks something open in the mom, but it’s far less sexual than one might think. Soon, McKenna is living in their chic, modernist home, but the change she unleashes in their lives turns out to be much more complicated than Rachel ever imagined even as she curiously tests the boundaries of acceptable behavior given her circumstance. Motherhood is a uniquely isolating engagement, happiness is a relative state of mind no matter the riches around you, and that’s keenly contemplated in Jill Solloway’s wry, humanistic and well-drawn (she won the coveted directing award at Sundance this year) portrait of a woman in need of connection. Comedic and laugh-out-loud observant, “Afternoon Delight” isn’t afraid to get sexually frank, uncomfortable and downright ugly either. It’s a painfully honest depiction of the travails of motherhood and marriage, and while it’s not to everyone’s cup of tea, we’re sure it’s easily one of the most engaging films we saw all summer. And frankly, we’re grateful a sophisticated and complex flick like this exists in the time of monsters vs. robots, capes, aliens and diminishing returns.
Easy friendship, flirtation and cold beers ... what could possibly go wrong? The surprising thing about Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is not the higher than usual wattage cast (Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston) or even the presence of an actual budget that probably has more zeroes on it than the director has seen before, but it how it slyly subverts expectations this kind of premise sets up. The film centers on Kate and Luke, co-workers at brewery whose rapport goes beyond collegial into something more electric. But both are in committed relationships, but a weekend trip for both couples—as both Kate and Luke draw closer—brings with it some surprising consequences. As we wrote in our review, “relationships are hard. Our biology is essentially wired to be completely destructive to monogamy and [the film] does a great job of exploring that friction.” Though utilizing an improvisatory approach that keeps things fresh, Swanberg also demanded a structure and goals for each scene, and the result is the rare comedy that feels both lively and authentic with recognizably genuine emotion to boot. The cast has terrific chemistry and particular Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson whose alchemy is seriously off the charts. This generation of workaday folks taking comfort where they can is usually captured with a degree of cynicism, but “Drinking Buddies” prevails for being honest with its characters and its emotion.
On the cusp of a technological revolution, a group of the country’s leading computer experts gather together to write a blueprint for the future of artificial technology. Sounds like blockbuster material, but in fact it’s the starting point for Andrew Bujalski’s playful, often absurdist comedy about nerds fumbling around in the dark in an attempt to advance computers beyond the realm of comprehension. The idea is to develop a computer program that successfully competes in chess with a human, but in the meantime, the three-day motel stay provides a ping pong machine for the various social outcasts to bunch against each other, whether it’s with the spiky-haired freeloader trying to find sanctuary on someone’s floor, the only woman attendee who has to cope with the awkward sexual tension, or the conspiratorial interloping Luddite who hosts pot-smoking bullshit sessions in his room after hours. “Computer Chess” is powered by the uncomfortable banter between participants, all of whom believe that as they type away on their massive processors, they’re being watched by government forces. Bujalski shot the picture with the most era-appropriate low-fi cameras he could find, giving the experiment the feel of beaten-up VHS, creating a world frozen in time, where the possibilities were endless as long as we could get out of our own bumbling way. It feels like a stunt, and has a similar no-budget aesthetic as Bujalski’s earlier films, and yet it’s easily one of the year’s most out-and-out entertaining movies.
Anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s Cannes Best Actor-winning central performance, Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant but harrowing “The Hunt” is a scorchingly tense return to form (and to early themes) for the “Festen” director. An account of the witchhunt that ensues after a false accusation of paedophilia among a tight-knit group of friends, some critics have complained about the central, innocent man’s passivity in the face of his increasing pariah status within the community. To them I say, respectfully, whaaa? He is not passive, he’s paralyzed with incredulity, the knowledge of his innocence, and the belief that his friends must come to their senses. So while he is victimized physically and emotionally by others, the real drama of the film is internal—it is not about proving his innocence, it is about not believing for a second that anyone could actually need proof. And finally it is him, simply having to say the words, that ends the misery but it’s also a defeat—an acknowledgement that the friendships he believed in were not what he had thought. That the protagonist’s terrible predicament is partly the result of this trapped, circular thinking is the film’s greatest strength, and it makes the man’s situation almost unbearably relatable. Terrifying, chilly and ruthlessly logical, the film may not have needed its final, slightly gimmicky twist, but otherwise nothing had us as far on the edge of our seat all year as this did.
Honorable Mention: Of course that's just the ten most of us feel strongly about. Strong, viable, worthwhile contenders are many, including Edgar Wright's ambitious, you-can't-go-back-home sci-fi/buddy comedy "The World's End." Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" has a crackling, Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett and boasts a terrific supporting cast, but the script and execution are sometimes obvious and lacking, so thus being outside the top ten. "The Spectacular Now" is a strong coming-of age movie. If you're looking for "Frances Ha" and "The Kings Of Summer," we really consider them late spring movies and you can find them in our Best Films Of The Year So Far list. Also worthwhile is the terrific documentary "Cutie And The Boxer," the tense drama, "A Hijacking," Sebastian Silva's comedy drug trip, "Crystal Fairy," the indie drama "Sparrows Dance," and the activism/journalism doc "Blackfish." If we were going to give mild props to some tentpole this season it would probably be "Iron Man 3" and "World War Z," the former is fun, but disposable and the latter has strong ideas that don't always come together. Place your gripes below. -- Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth