Image via CBS.
The last few weeks have seen lots and lots of grousing about how this was "the worst summer ever" for movies, and that's just categorically wrong. First of all, there have been billions of summers (or at least thousands, depending on what you were taught in public school), and less than 150 of those have had movies at all, so how about you people step back and get some perspective? Jeez. Hollywood is trying, okay? They're failing miserably, but they're trying. Probably. Either way, they are undeniably doing things. Say what you will about the quality of their product, but the studios successfully delivered files containing successive images (and their accompanying sounds) onto movie screens across the world, and that's pretty impressive when you think about it. Furthermore, it's not like those images (and sounds!) were just flimflammed together. No, the data contained in those files often closely resembled those from the extensive marketing campaigns that were used to promote them, a detail which I feel really ties the whole process together.
... Sorry. We tried. We really, really tried. We wanted this list to feature a healthy sampling of the blockbuster events that define the summer movie season, but to include even one of the recent mega-budget tentpoles wouldn't require a lowering of the bar so much as it would putting the bar on the floor and hoping it doesn't roll anywhere. While some of our critics memorably went to bat for the summer's biggest spectacles, it's never been more apparent that – barring a few wonderful anomalies – blockbuster films have simply become too expensive to be good, monolithic enterprises that can afford to do absolutely anything except alienate even a portion of their audience.
With that in mind, perhaps it's not much of a surprise that the most satisfying 9-figure offering this summer was James Mangold's comparatively modest "The Wolverine", which boldly refused to put the world in jeopardy, a gambit that allowed for a superhero movie that felt like it was character-driven, and not shareholder-driven. And yeah, films like "Pacific Rim" and "The Conjuring" had their fair share of fans, but it just so happens that the guy who put this list together based on the hyper-scientific principle of "I do what I want" didn't care for them.
But the most urgent rejoinder to the argument that this was the worst summer for movies is that, despite Hollywood's best efforts, this was a great summer for movies. VOD has been a known quantity for a while, but only over the last few months has it become so populated with fresh and essential films that the platform has significantly chipped away at the old "straight to video" stigma. Wonderful movies are now consistently debuting on iTunes and other VOD platforms, and the zeitgeist has crucially been forced to make room for them. It goes without saying that you're better off seeing "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" in theaters than you are on your grandma's tube TV, but making such high-quality product so accessible is the ultimate threat to mediocrity. And while we'll always hunger for empty calories every now and then, snacks should be treats, and not just what you're forced to eat because there's no real food in the house.
In other words, our 10 favorite movies of the summer grossed a whopping total of $39 million at the domestic box office. Combined. Sorry. It doesn't have to be this way, but this year it was. So here ya go, Film.com's 10 favorite films of summer 2013.
10.) "CUTIE AND THE BOXER" (Zachary Heinzerling)
Among the truer cliches out there is “behind every great man is a great woman.” It’s also the most backhanded of compliments. The increasingly dated implication is that staying behind a man is, in some way, necessary for the world to exalt in his greatness. “Cutie and the Boxer,” the spectacular new documentary from Zachary Heinzerling, is about one woman’s realization that being a mere support system for her husband is not a fulfilling life. More excitingly, she does something about it.
Nokiro was a 19-year-old art student from a wealthy family when she came to New York in the late 1960s/early 1970s. She met fellow ex-pat Ushio Shinohara and quickly fell in love with his total dedication to art. He was a well-regarded pop artist and action painter, known for strapping on boxing gloves dipped in paint and fighting his canvases. The two quickly hooked up and Noriko idealistic dreams of a creative life side-by-side with this whirlwind were soon put aside when she got pregnant. Once her parents cut her off she was living in squalor with a hard-drinking husband twenty years her senior...
...Some of the staged painting sequences are exquisitely shot, as are some lucky grabbed moments. Among them, a tired Ushio eating lunch beneath a strikingly mirrored self-portrait, may get you gasping. Yasuaki Shimizu’s original score in simple and ethereal without being another Philip Glass clone.
The emotions the Shinoharas’ story inspire are all over the road. It is at times triumphant and warm, then sad and even enraging. Eventually you stop wishing his attitude would change and simply worry “is she happy?” Luckily, Noriko Shinohara is an extraordinary enough woman that, in time, we realize we don’t need to worry about her at all.
9.) "SIGHTSEERS" (Ben Wheatley)
“Sightseers,” rising British horror master Ben Wheatleys 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 we published 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.
8.) "POST TENEBRAS LUX" (Carlos Reygadas)
The films of Carlos Reygadas evince one truth above all others: our desires are always rendered absurd by their circumstances. His previous film, the serenely powerful “Silent Light,” ends with a miracle that violates logic in order to honor faith, and while we can’t understand how it rewards the longings of the film’s hero, in doing so we more perfectly come to understand the desire, itself.
“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.
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.) "BLUE JASMINE" (Woody Allen)
And so we arrive at “Blue Jasmine,” perhaps Woody Allen’s best film since 1994’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” which opens with such a transparently fake computer-generated shot of a plane shooting West across the sky that the airliner might as well be flying into Mordor (you can see the shot for yourself early in the trailer). It would be silly to argue that the digital flourish is deliberately shoddy (more likely it’s just a particularly glaring symptom of the supreme functionality that allows Allen to maintain his pace), but it nevertheless immediately imbues this story with a patina of unreality that erodes as the eponymous Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, delivering the best performance of her film career) swerves around San Francisco in an effort to manifest her destiny.
Blanchett’s possessed performance allows Jasmine’s unraveling to become less about privilege than it is about pathos, and if everything around her feels comparatively colorless, it does all the more to help align us with Jasmine’s self-perpetuated exceptionality (Louis C.K.’s much-discussed subplot is wonderful window dressing). When Allen conceives of a character this great, it’s hard not to wish for him to slow down and maybe write that extra draft to refine his creation, but Blanchett – at once both repellant and eminently relatable – uses the casual tone to her advantage, the same way that monster movies use miniatures for scale. It’s brilliant work, delicately exposing the rot at the heart of Jasmine’s regrets until there’s only one left. To quote something Woody Allen once said in the epigraph of an old biography: “My one regret in life is that I’m not someone else.”
5.) "SHORT TERM 12" (Destin Cretton)
A modest drama in the vein of the “trying to reach these keeeds!” type of picture that “South Park” once famously and rightfully mocked, “Short Term 12” is far better than its premise might have you believe, a tense and tender look at the deep-seated dysfunction of foster home teens and the adults they will become.
We join the staff of Short Term 12 on the first day of work for new hire Nate (Rami Malek). He’s nervous, but Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) try to put him at ease as he contends with the troubled residents, their various tendencies towards acting out and the established procedures in place (for instance, should any kid make a break for it, he or she is legally untouchable once they reach the gate). It’s an open secret that Grace and Mason are an item off the clock, but the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to the home reignites traumas previously suppressed by Grace and threatens to undermine their fledgling relationship in the process...
... Lately defined by her spot-on comedic chops (“21 Jump Street,” the upcoming “Don Jon”), she conveys a vital empathy right from the start and proceeds to incorporate an increasing emotional burden without grandstanding or otherwise upsetting the film’s intimate scale.
Coming from the young actress, this performance is something of a quiet revelation, and in turn, the same could be said of the film itself.
4.) "THE WORLD'S END" (Edgar Wright)
Just as “Shaun of the Dead” riffed on the horror genre while “Hot Fuzz” gave American actioners their due — Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” is an out-and-out sci-fi comedy that pits yet another slacker lead against both a literal and figurative apocalypse. Though “End” spends about as much time in introducing its characters before working in the primary genre elements, more care has been taken to establish Gary’s lamentable reputation for living in the past and his delusional determination to follow through on his juvenile dreams. He has exploited and abused these people over the years with such recklessness, and yet he hardly seems to care, nor do they care to prevent him from wasting away in either a London rehab center or a Newton Haven pub, each one seemingly indistinguishable from the last. (Steve refers to such insidious corporate influence as “Starbucking.”)
...The emotional core that June’s “This is the End” snuck in amid much self-deprecation is placed front and center here. Gary’s anxiety over shedding his teenage mindset for a rational adult existence is palpable throughout, countered equally well by Frost’s long-simmering frustrations over his comrade’s self-destructive tendencies. Both kinds of fights offset a certain degree of familiarity with the formula of Wright’s informal blood-and-ice-cream trilogy. A knowing take on movies and maturity alike, “The World’s End” is just as thoroughly thoughtful as those which came before it, and maybe more than ever, you’ll find yourself laughing to keep from crying.
3.) "THE ACT OF KILLING" (Joshua Oppenheimer)
The Indonesian word for “gangster” translates to “free man.” Over the course of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing,” we’re constantly reminded of this fact by Anwar Congo, a movie ticket scalper turned genocidal murderer. According to Congo and members of the country’s government, gangsters are a fundamental cog in Indonesia’s mechanics. They have been since 1965, when the military staged a coup against Indonesian leaders, took power of the nation, and tasked men like Congo to slaughter anyone with Communist ties. As Congo boasts in the film, during the year long purge that followed the coup, he singlehandedly killed over 1,000 people. Today, he’s revered as a hero. “The Act of Killing” depicts the legend in all his glory...
...The movie’s length is disputable — on one hand it’s too long, often doubling back on points and locations that only echo, but the length earns a full sense of immersion. Oppenheimer wants to drown us in dread, wake us up to the fact that, yeah, this all actually happened, and continues to perpetuate itself as the result of being one of the great travesties of the 20th century where the bad guys won and remain in power. Even Congo is suffocating by the end. For a prolonged conclusion, he feels the just way we do. Hacking, choking, dry-heaving over the very idea of what happened in 1965, and what continues to happen today.
2.) "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.
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.
"Museum Hours" (Jem Cohen)
"Frances Ha" (Noah Baumbach)
"Stories We Tell" (Sarah Polley)
"You're Next" (Adam Wingard)
"The Wolverine" (James Mangold)
"Much Ado About Nothing" (Joss Whedon)
"This is the End" (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
"The Spectacular Now" (James Ponsoldt)
"Magic Magic" (Sebastían Silva)
"Ain't Them Bodies Saints" (David Lowery)
"The Grandmaster" (Wong Kar-Wai) // The Chinese Cut might have topped this list.