As awards season is well underway, it's a good time to look back at some of the unsung films of 2013. While these films might be long shots in terms of critics' prizes and Academy Awards, they deserve your attention and will probably outlive many of the year's prestige movies. And you can stream them at home.
"Side Effects" (Netflix)
Rooney Mara gives a wicked and beautiful performance in Steven Soderbergh's cinematic swan song "Side Effects," in which she plays the cunning, duplicitous Emily Taylor who is the victim of a prescription drug experiment gone wrong. One minute she has our sympathies and the next, you want to strangle her. That's the brilliance of young Mara, who is oh so good at playing complicated women (Fincher's underrated "Dragon Tattoo" anyone?) -- but aside from her work, the film stands on its own as a mesmerizing noir-thriller that is utterly impossible to predict from the Hitchcockian opening shot to the last.
"Post Tenebras Lux" (Amazon)
No other 2013 film seeks to redefine cinematic convention quite the way Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux" does, abandoning all concept of narrative, linearity and plot for an exploration of a deeply troubled, and hardly likable, man's soul. While the film veers toward the abstruse at times, often caught up in the symbolism of its director's head -- he cast his own wife and children in leading roles -- Reygadas' beautifully bevelled lens, measured takes and milky colors make for a strange and unique experience. He won the best director prize at Cannes in 2012 for this wonderful film that went virtually unseen in its theatrical run this year.
"Computer Chess" (Fandor)
While Andrew Bujalski's witty and darkly humorous mockumentary is perhaps the most formally off-putting mumblecore yet -- it's shot in black-and-white on a circa-1980s video camera -- "Computer Chess" is a delightfully far-out weekend spent with a bunch of nerds competing in a chess tournament. Bujalski makes all the awkward geekdom and techie jargon accessible and specific, all through his amateurish lens -- and a smart screenplay that is anything but.
"Museum Hours" (iTunes December 10)
Starring Mary Margaret O'Hara and Bobby Sommer in two breakout performances, writer/director Jem Cohen's "Museum Hours" is a lovely walking-and-talking film about two strangers who meet (not unlike "Before Sunrise") in Vienna. While mulling over some of the big questions of everyday life, Johann, a museum guard, and Anne, a meandering tourist, examine works of art with intelligence and wit. It's a pleasant escapist reverie, but one with a great deal of intellect. Fans of Richard Linklater's "Before" series, and of Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" will find much to savor here.
The subplot of a bored lesbian housewife's descent into prostitution is merely a glaze atop this ennui-laden cake. But Robin Weigert plays that role to such perfection that her character becomes entirely believable in the sad, messy world of "Concussion." Where so many gay and lesbian films dwell in the "coming out" tale, Stacie Passon's daring probe into female sexuality asks the question, What happens after you've come out, and married, and now you're suddenly just like everybody else?