If you're reading this, that means you've almost survived half of 2013. Congratulations! With six months still left to go, it's hard (and probably pointless) to get a handle on how the movie year is shaping up, but one thing is for sure: there have definitely been some good films. It's impossible to say how many of these these halftime picks will be able to hang on to a spot in the top ten once the onslaught of fall prestige pictures begins, but – as of now – these are the best films of 2013. As chosen by me. Objectively.
10.) "STOKER" (Park Chan-Wook)
Hurdling over the language-barrier without breaking a sweat, “Stoker” is a Park Chan-Wook film to the bone. A giddily perverse coming-of-age story, “Stoker” introduces us to a teenage girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who becomes the center of a nature vs. nurture battle royale when her long-lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up in the wake of her father’s untimely death. As Uncle Charlie starts to move in on India’s volatile mother (Nicole Kidman), and other family members begin to disappear, India is forced to decide how much of a Stoker she really is. Naturally, this process involves sniper rifles and sex-fueled Philip Glass pieces. A woozy, gothic saga that channels Hitchcock and De Palma but is unmistakably the work of Park Chan-Wook, “Stoker” is a rich and disturbingly relatable family drama, and those willing to follow the director into the darkness will likely look back at this as one of the year’s best films.
9.) "BEYOND THE HILLS" (Cristian Mungiu)
Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is a morbidly bitter Romanian epic that begins as the portrait of an anguished friendship in a remote Romanian convent, but eventually metastasizes into one of the cinema's great exorcism stories. As Daniel Walber wrote in his interview with Cristian Mungiu, the film "takes a very local problem, an event that could easily be considered embarrassing and not worthy of presenting to the international audience by the current Romanian government, and turns it into a work of art with implications that go well beyond the Romanian context. It is about social control, profound faith, and love.
8.) "SIGHTSEERS" (Ben Wheatley)
Ben Wheatley is three for three. “Sightseers,” the rising British horror master’s deliriously dark and altogether brilliant new film, is both a departure for Wheatley and yet also unmistakably his. Built around compatibly demented pre-existing characters that co-stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe had developed on the local comedy circuit, “Sightseers” is, as described by Calum Marsh in an article about Wheatley’s ascendance, “A kind of kitchen-sink dramedy in which a young couple take their RV for a summer trip across the Yorkshire moors, the film gradually transforming from its unassuming Mike Leigh-lite roots into a bizarre cavalcade of hillside carnage, the couple flipping the switch from laid-back and bickering to crazed and murderous so quickly one hardly notices the change.” In other, shamefully reductive words, imagine “Sightseers” as a cross between “Badlands” and “Hot Fuzz,” and you’ll be on the right track.
7.) "THE BLING RING" (Sofia Coppola)
There’s a moment in Sofia Coppola’s fascinating new film, “The Bling Ring,” in which Emma Watson (née Hermione) learns that her friends have been looting the vacant homes of young celebrities, and – with a reflexive vacancy – immediately declares, “I want to rob!” Watson is playing a thinly veiled fictionalization of teen fameball Alexis Neiers, a home-schooled reality TV star at the periphery of the crime spree that briefly enjoyed national attention circa the series finale of “The Hills” (or, as historians refer to it, 2010). Her lust for fame wasn’t necessarily representative of the group as a whole, and Coppola’s film is far too rich to reduce these events to a single motivating factor, but Neiers’ detachment from her own desire, the way in which she can speak her wants without understanding what drives them, is convincing testimony to the idea that, if you don’t know who you are, the most seductive thing you can be offered is the opportunity to be someone else.
Uncharacteristically loose and deceptively frivolous, “The Bling Ring” is as much of an attack on The Hills Generation as any of Coppola’s previous films were an exercise in self-pity, which is to say not at all. On the contrary, Coppola takes an incident that seemed like a garish indictment of modern civilization and, from this mishegoss of hot pink Louboutins, carves a rich (and even urgent) portrait of a society that has lost control of its culture, a place where aspirations have become the ultimate impediment to actual happiness.
6.) "UPSTREAM COLOR" (Shane Carruth)
Shane Carruth's first film since "Primer" debuted at Sundance to a chorus of head-scratching, but – with the benefit of time and repeat viewings – a beautiful Jungian love story emerged from the wild montage of hatching larvae and municipal rock fishing. A romance between the entire collective unconscious in which the filmic form imparts as much information about the narrative as do any of the characters and their splintered relationships, "Upstream Color" is sublime proof that movies will only grow stagnant if we allow them to.
5.) "SPRING BREAKERS" (Harmony Korine)
Like a Ke$ha video directed by Terrence Malick (*Do* the Wonder?), "Spring Breakers" is a dub-step belly shot of the American nightmare. The zeitgeist sensation of the year (so far), Harmony Korine's wild new film is the rare pop event that reveals the heart of our culture by wantonly celebrating its flesh.
4.) "POST TENEBRAS LUX" (Carlos Reygadas)
“Post Tenebras Lux” … well, it’s the kind of movie whose official synopsis begins with the word “ostensibly.” Ostensibly the story of a brusque and brutish family man named Juan (first-time actor Adolfo Jiménez Castro) who relocates his beautiful young wife and their two small children to a mini-mansion in the Mexican countryside, “Post Tenebras Lux” – a Calvinistic expression of salvation that translates from the latin as “after darkness, light” – is ultimately a rather simple portrait of self-reflection, a fevered journey into the dark heart of a male’s moral universe.
The cumulative effect is a sense of frustrated wonder, a sustained awe that ultimately overwhelms the cynicism invited by Reygadas’ most bewildering choices (i.e. the final scene), and the fact that he’s entering the part of his life as an auteur at which an artistic signature is easily confused for antagonistic schtick. But the confidence of Reygadas’ filmmaking only enhances the power of his inquiry, and this is nothing if not a portrait of someone (or someones) trying to find a small haven from the negativity that surrounds us all. This is the story of someone who wants to be better. We’re not entirely sure who that someone is, or what being “better” even entails, but it would be foolish to reject “Post Tenebras Lux” for not defining the desire that it so compellingly encourages us to reckon with in ourselves.
3.) "SOMETHING IN THE AIR" (Olivier Assayas)
The magnificent "Something in the Air" begins with a floppy teenager named Gilles (Clément Métayer as Assaya’s blank but perceptive proxy) running around the February 9, 1971 demonstration, in which a branch of French maoists were teargassed by the Parisian police force. Originally titled “Après Mai” (or “After May”), “Something in the Air” rages with the orphaned energy that lingered in the aftermath of the May ’68 revolution, introducing us to the kids who were there to devour the crumbs of the counterculture. Gilles’ friends – the most memorable of whom is played by Lola Créton, perhaps the most compulsively watchable ingenue in all contemporary cinema – represent a generation of agitated adolescents so idealistic and impossibly beautiful that their physical presence alone is enough to suggest that this is a personal story told through a political lens, and not the other way around. Like a fire with nothing to burn, they have all the zeal in the world and no cause into which they might channel it.
Revisiting the themes of 1994’s “Cold Water” (and, in one spectacular set-piece, expanding upon individual scenes), that “Something in the Air” is a gift to Assayas acolytes mustn’t distract from how enormously entertaining and relatable the film will be for anyone who has lived long enough to realize that the past won’t make sense of itself, and that self-discovery is the only truly radical idea worth pursuing. Like all of the best autobiographical cinema, the film proves (in Assayas’ words), that “the screen is the place where a memory can be reborn, where what has been lost may be found, where the world can be saved.” Thanks to “Something in the Air,” it can also be savored.
2.) "LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE" (Abbas Kiarostami)
The synopsis that Time Warner Cable offered for last Sunday's season finale of "Mad Men" simply read: "Don Draper has troubles." Similarly, the IMDB description of Abbas Kiarostami's beguiling new film reads, "In Tokyo, a young prostitute develops an unexpected connection with a widower over the course of two days." I suppose that's accurate, and yet...
When "Like Someone in Love" played at NYFF last fall, I wrote about it at length for Reverse Shot. Here's an excerpt from my review: Seemingly uninterested in matching the emotional heights of "Certified Copy", Kiarostami denies "Like Someone in Love" the playful consent that made his previous film such a fanciful sinkhole. Few films have been so comprehensively attuned to the mechanics of isolation or how our need to define each other pivots on that process, and—as in all of his masterpieces—Kiarostami’s patience eventually allows his most abstract ideas to collect into a dramatic moment of palpable suspense. Kiarostami has publicly avowed that he prefers films that put audiences to sleep, and yet his new movie delivers the year's best jump-scare.
1.) "BEFORE MIDNIGHT" (Richard Linklater)
The third chapter in Richard Linklater’s achingly romantic series of walk-and-talk adventures allows a beloved love story to blossom into one of the great trilogies in film history. "Before Midnight" is practically a perfect film, and that flawlessness is underscored by the foibles and fallibility of its twin protagonists, the future of whom has been the subject for much post-release debate. As I read each new (and passionately certain) opinion as to the evolving dynamic between Celine and Jesse, it becomes increasingly clear that Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have created characters that feel like nothing of the sort, and a movie that we'll be heatedly discussing for at least the next nine years.