Friday, June 28, 2013

Half Time Top 10: The Best Films of the First Half of 2013

Every year, at the end of June, I do a Half Time Top 10 List for the first six months of the year. So far, 2013 has been a pretty good year – and I hope it gets even better. Of course, there are many films that I WANT to see that either haven’t opened in my area yet or else I missed. So before I get to the end of the year, I want to ensure I see the following films, already released: At Any Price, The Attack, Dead Man’s Burden, Dirty Wars, The East, A Hijacking, Hors Satan, I’m So Excited, In the House, The Kings of Summer, Leviathan, Paradise: Love, Post Tenebras Lux, Reality, Renoir, Simon Killer, Something in the Air, 20 Feet For Stardom, The Unspeakable Act, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, What Maisie Knew, and Wish You Were Here.

As always, I don’t worry too much about this one – it’s mainly for fun, so placement isn’t as important as it is at the end of the year. Anyway, I think the top two films will definitely be on my top 10 list at the end of the year – the rest, I’m not as sure of. But all are fine films, and none are HUGE hits, so they deserve your attention.

Before I get to the runners-up and the top 10, let me point out one more thing. Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary Stories We Tell would be on the top 10 list – had I not included it in last year’s ranking when it was released here in Canada. Joshua Oppenheimer’s excellent documentary The Act of Killing would also clearly be in the top 10 – but it has not been released yet (I saw it at TIFF last year), so I didn’t include it. Tomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, which I also saw at TIFF, may have made the top 10, but again, it has not been released yet. And although it did make Indiewire’s Survey of the best 50 films of 2013 so far, I consider the great Neighboring Sounds to be a 2012 film, even if I didn’t see it until March.

Runners-Up: Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh) may well have been in the top 10, except it’s a TV movie, which normally I do not include at all – but it really is a great biopic of Liberace, with two excellent performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein) is an uncommonly thoughtful, beautiful film about a young woman for an Orthodox Jewish community in Israel who is being pressured into marrying her sister’s widow. Lore (Cate Shortland) was an interesting, beautiful well acted movie about a the children of Nazis travelling across Germany as the Allies move in. Monsters University (Don Scanlon) may not be vintage Pixar, but it is still very good Pixar and the best family entertainment so far this year. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) makes the Shakespeare masterpiece feel fresh and new again in modern day AmericaThe Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance) was an epic, three part father-son crime drama, with another great Ryan Gosling performance. Sightseers (Ben Wheatley) was an insane, pitch black comedy about two seemingly normal people who morph into serial on holiday. Star Trek: Into Darkness (JJ Abrahms) is the year’s best blockbuster so far – balancing a good story, characters and spectacle quite well. Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz), This is the End (Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg) was the most fun I had at the movies so far this year as a group of Hollywood actors, playing themselves, face the Apocalypse. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick) is undoubtedly the weakest film of the master director’s career – but still one of the most gorgeous films of the year so far. The We and the I (Michel Gondry) was a toned down film by Gondry about teenagers, and how they’re different in a group than by themselves.

Top 10

10. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)
Believe me when I say that no one is more surprised than I am that a Michael Bay film made this top 10 list, and a Terrence Malick did not. However, that’s what happens when Bay delivers far and away his best film, and Malick makes his weakest. This may not be the small character study Bay said it would be, but this wonderfully dark, violent comedy that borders on offensive for nearly its entire running time is Bay at his best. The film is about three idiot bodybuilders who want their piece of the American Dream – and do horrible things to get it. The film actually fits in very well with two other films on this list (see 8 and 3) as a portrait of idiot Americans, entitlement and consumerism run rampant. It is also marvelously entertaining and contains the best performance ever by The Rock. If another filmmaker made this, no one would have questioned if they were making a satire (the movie could have made an excellent, albeit very different, Coen Brothers movie). Bay has always had talent, although he’s mainly wasted it on one shitty movie after another – but with Pain & Gain he found the perfect movie for him – and delivered the best film he has ever made (and considering his next film is Transformers 4, probably ever will). For this one movie only, count me as a Bay fan.

9. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)
Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s American debut didn’t catch on at the box office this spring, which is a shame, because although it’s not as good as Oldboy, this is still a stylish, Hitchcockian thriller, with great performances by Mia Washikowska as a disturbed teenage girl, Matthew Goode as her even more disturbed uncle, and Nicole Kidman, adding another horrible mother to her resume. The film is all about style, and Park has a lot of fun playing with the audience, especially in a few of the murder scenes, and a shower scene that starts out disturbing, and gets even more so when you realize what exactly is going on. The best pure thriller of the year so far.

8. The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s latest is another study of spoiled rich kids – like in a sense all her films are. And yet writing it off as her repeating herself would ignore the fact that each of her films are markedly different in the lives they explore. Here, she focuses on a group of rich teens in L.A. who rob the house of celebrities when they’re not around – they already have everything they could want – but they want what they don’t have – fame. The characters start out almost interchangeable, but take on added dimensions as the film moves along. Emma Watson should be (but probably won’t) in the conversation for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her spot on performance as one the teens, who has absolutely no self-awareness. I’m getting tired of people bashing Coppola for having a famous father – she has more than proven herself over the past decade and a half – and The Bling Ring ranks as one of her best.

7. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is probably a more complex film than his Palme D’or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but less immediately satisfying. Once again, the movie is about two female friends, but this time, everything is a little bit messier. Both girls were raised in a Romanian orphanage – and were best friends (and it’s hinted at, perhaps more) – but have gone separate ways since leaving – one leaving the country in search of employment, one into a convent to become a nun. The friend who left comes back, to try and convince her friend to leave, and sets into motion a horrible sequence of events, in which neither woman – nor the well-meaning convent – is fully to blame, yet still ends in tragedy. Mungiu’s film unfolds slowly and methodically and contains two top notch performances (which shared the best actress prize at last year’s Cannes film festival) by Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur). The film is based upon a famous, sensational case in Romania, but Mungiu strips away the bombast, and tells a simple story – one that has no real answers. Mungiu continues to be one of the most interesting filmmakers in the world right now.

6. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
I know some critics hated Room 237 – as they felt that director Rodney Ascher was mocking them. I didn’t feel that way, even though the movie really is about the folly of reading too much into movies. The different perspectives on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on display in the movie range from semi-plausible, to batshit insane, and yet as you’re watching the movie, and Ascher slows down or freezes frames on certain spots of The Shining as the obsessive of the moment prattles on, you find yourself almost believing the crap they’re trying to sell you. The Shining is the perfect movie for this sort of treatment – it’s Kubrick, so everyone knows he was a “perfectionist”, which means every little thing must be the sign of something bigger, and it’s also Kubrick doing horror – a genre piece, which he wasn’t really known for. Why did he do that? Well obviously, it was to talk about the Holocaust/genocide of Native Americans/or admit that he faked the moon landing. Room 237 is a movie for movie lovers – you may think the people in the movie are batshit crazy – for the most part, I did – but you also may see a little of yourself in them.

5. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
I’m not sure any film so far this year made me feel as good as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Co-written and starring the intelligent, funny, adorable Greta Gerwig as a would be dancer in New York, who during the course of the movie has to come to terms with two very difficult things – the first being, she is never going to be a great dancer, and the second being her best friend from college is going to marry her lunk-headed stock broker boyfriend, even though she’s miserable with him much of the time, and he likes to come in her face. That may not sound like the setup for a buoyant, intelligent, whip smart comedy – but in the capable hands of Baumbach and Gerwig, it is. Even when Gerwig’s Frances frustrates us because she cannot see what is painfully clear to us; she is still never less than lovable, and completely real. Gerwig has flirted with stardom ever since Baumbach casted her in his last film Greenberg (where she stole the movie from star Ben Stiller – which is hard because Stiller was also great in the film), but this really should be her star making role. As a film, Baumbach is equally inspired by Truffaut and Woody Allen, and he’s made his optimistic, enjoyable film yet. This one will leave you smiling.

4. Mud (Jeff Nichols)
The indie hit of the year so far, is Jeff Nichols third film – an excellent follow-up to Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter (although Take Shelter remains his best). The film is about two boys who live alongside the river in the South – and find a strange man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on an island – and even though he has a gun, and a dark past, decide to help him. Mud is the best kind of coming-of-age story, as it nails the lives of these two boys on the cusp of being a teenager – not immature children, but still haven’t become cynical like many adults. The film is almost a dark fairy tale – even though Nichols ground the film in the realism of everyday life in the South. McConaughey continues his excellent string of performances with another great one in the title role – and Reese Witherspoon is excellent in support, as is Nichols’ favorite Michael Shannon in a small role. The film is well written and directed by Nichols, who continues his run as one of the most interesting young filmmakers working in American right now.

3. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
While I’ve always admired indie provocateur Harmony Korine for making precisely the movies he wants to make, until Spring Breakers, I cannot honestly say I’ve actually liked one of his movies (with the exception of Kids – which he wrote, not directed). But with Spring Breakers, Korine has made far and away his best film yet – and the ballsiest, in your face, provocative film of the year so far. Is Korine celebrating these characters and their empty lives, satirizing it, or decrying it? Why not all three? Korine embraces the contradictions in the movie – both in terms of how it perceives its characters, and the visuals – going for MTV style gyrating, to the most artful tracking shot of the year (staying inside the car with one character as they slowly drive by the chicken shack, as two others rob it), to even its stance on race. James Franco delivers the best performance of his career as Alien – the rapping drug dealer who bails the girls out, and seduces them – even though he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. But the four girls – Selena Gomez, Ashley Bensen, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine – are also great, and deserved more praise then they got. Spring Breakers is one of the must see films of 2013 – you may love it, you may hate, but you won’t forget it.

2. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Back in 2004, I didn’t think Before Sunset was the masterpiece many did – I loved the film, but like the first in the series, Before Sunrise, it struck me more as a fantasy than anything else – the characters were older, wiser and more miserable, and Linklater didn’t make it as dreamily romantic as the first film, but it was just as much of a fantasy – this time, that you could go back to a prior love and everything would be fine. But Before Midnight is every bit the masterwork critics have proclaimed – and it has made the first two films better with its inclusion (you won't be able to look at those two films in quite the same way again). Why is this the best in the series? Because for the first time, it is not a fantasy. Jesse and Celine have spent the last 9 years living together – so instead of being the object of each other’s perfect fantasy lives, they are now all too real to each other. This film is more mature about relationships than the previous two – and the fight that makes up most of the last third of the film is perhaps the more realistic martial fight I have ever seen in a movie (be careful seeing this with your spouse – it may drag up things you don’t want drug up). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy are amazing in the film, and Linklater’s direction is perfect. I can almost guarantee this will be on my end of year top 10 list.

1. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
With his 2004 film Primer, Shane Carruth established himself as an uncommonly intelligent writer/director as he took his time travel premise seriously, and made one of the best science fiction movies of the decade – with almost no money. It took him 9 years to make a follow-up – but Upstream Color was worth the wait. Once again, his film has science fiction elements – including a very strange worm, and pig farmer who conducts experiments. But the film is much more than that – it is really about two shattered people trying hard to put the pieces of their lives back together – while trying to figure out what the hell happened in the first place. The best performance I saw in the first half of the year belongs to Amy Seimetz, who plays the lead here. You could say her story is in the classic “rape-revenge” model, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice. As for Carruth, he has gotten even better as a writer – constructing the year’s most complex screenplay, with its jumps in time, and as a director – the film certainly recalls the style of Terrence Malick, even while his the content of the film recalls David Cronenberg. Upstream Color is a movie you have to let wash over you – don’t try to piece it together your first time through – that really isn’t the point anyway. But this is the best film of the year so far – by far – and given how much I love #2 and #3 on this list, that’s saying something.


  1. Good collection of movies...Thank you for sharing such a nice piece of information.

  2. I loved Upstream Colour and Stoker, but hated Spring Breakers! Loved your list! I'm surprised to see Pain and Gain on there! haha :)

  3. Trust me, no one was more surprised than I was that Pain & Gain made this list - but my feelings towards most of Michael Bay's films are irrelevant when he makes something this good - something I think some critics had a problem with (for example, it shares a similar theme to Spring Breakers, but no one questioned that Korine was making a satire - but many wondered if Bay knew he was).

    I don't expect everyone to like Spring Breakers - it is certainly a divisive film, but for me the film was utterly fascinating, even as it (deliberately) contradicts itself throughout. I haven't really liked any of Korine's previous films, but he nailed this one.