Thursday, July 11, 2013

Best Films of 2013 So Far: Mid-Year Review

The first half of 2013 has flown by and provided cinefiles with several incredible films, a few of which I fully expect to be on my end-of-year list.  We'll jump right in, but click here for a running, ranked list of every 2013 film I've seen to date.

10. War Witch

War Witch was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.  Set somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, it centers on a 12 year-old girl who is kidnapped by a rebel army and forced to become a solider.  Due to her ability to discern enemy troops in the area like sixth sense, she is referred to as the "War Witch" by the leader of her captors.  However, after a particularly harrowing battle, she is convinced by a rebel commander that the best course of action is to leave with him and desert the rebel army.  Needless to say, she is never far from danger as she journeys to find members of her extended family, and even tries to start one of her own.  The film is very violent and far from lighthearted fare, but it still offers inspiration through this girl's desperate story of survival.

9. Side Effects

Side Effects is the most recent (last?) theatrically released film from prolific director extraordinaire, Steven Soderbergh.  With many of his recent films, Soderbergh has been exploring within different genres and elevating them to new heights due to the incredible casts he's able to attract and his technically superb direction.  The genre being elevated in Side Effects is the psycho-sexual thriller, with the backdrop of American drug companies and the culture that constantly needs/desires to medicate and be medicated.  Jude Law stars as a psychiatrist who prescribes his new patient, played by Rooney Mara, a new experimental drug, primarily because it earns him a significant amount of ancillary income by participating in the new drug study.  After things go horribly wrong, the blame game begins, with everyone's motives and responsibilities being called into question.  As a pure genre exercise, the film is enjoyable and a satisfying drama worth checking out.

8. Shadow Dancer 

James Marsh is certainly more well known for his documentary films, such as Man on Wire and Project Nim, but his latest is a return to fictional film making and worthy attention.  Set in the early-mid 1990's, Clive Owen stars as a MI-5 operative that begins managing a new informant deep within the IRA, played by the up-and-coming British actress, Andrea Riseborough.  She only cooperates in the hopes of protecting her young child, but back-handed governmental dealings and bureaucratic mismanagement lead to some difficult decisions for each of them. Exploring themes of family loyalty, political freedom and violent vs. nonviolent protests, this espionage thriller is chock full of genuinely tense, thrilling moments.

7. Stoker

Stoker is the first English language film from Chan-wook Park, the iconic Korean director whose previous film Oldboy might be the most popular Korean film ever made.  Equal parts crime mystery, coming-of-age drama, and psycho-sexual thriller, Stoker features Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman as an atypical dysfunctional mother/daughter mourning the death of their beloved father/husband.  When the mysterious uncle, played creepily by Matthew Goode, comes for a lengthy visit, the dark truth about this family gradually comes to light. Although previous directors have tried with lesser success, this film proves the conversion from Korean cinema to America can be made without losing anything in translation.

6. Chicken with Plums

This French film, from the directors of animated film, Persepolis, is about an Iranian musician who loses his will to live after his wife breaks his beloved violin.  The ever talented Mathieu Amalric is fantastic in the lead role.  Whilst waiting for death to take him, he thinks back to happier times in his life, and events that ultimate kept him from being with the woman he truly loved.  Although often absurd and even silly, this odd, whimsical little film ultimately left me feeling an overwhelming sense of melancholy and longing. I was surprised by the strength of the feeling after not being entirely on board earlier in the film.  If this sounds at all appealing and you decide to check it out, I recommend giving it time to unfold and work its magic.  

5. Upstream Color

Shane Corruth's second directorial effort has perplexed audiences this year similarly to when his first film, Primer, confounded the film festival crowds nine years ago.  Corruth, who also writes and stars in his films, is known for his complicated plots that require at least a couple viewings for most to piece it together.  The thing that separates Upstream Color and makes it an ultimately better film is the emotional core that Primer lacked.  This core is personified by Amy Seimetz, who stars opposite Corruth.  Her character is put through the ringer of emotions, and she pulls each of with a rawness and truthfulness that most actresses only wish they could access.  As a whole, Upstream Color is a fascinating blend of sci-fi, mystery, drama, and romance, and shouldn't be missed by any self-respecting film lover.

4. Lore

I had never heard of Lore until I noticed it on a list of new rental releases, and decided to check it out due to the high Tomatometer.  The story centers around a young teenage girl and her siblings as they try to travel across Germany to their grandmother's house at the end of World War II.  They are completely on their own because their parents are Nazi officers, and are arrested early on.  Along the way they find themselves in some harrowing circumstances and are pushed to their limits physically and emotionally; however, for me, their personal journey eventually takes a back seat to the overarching theme of denial displayed by the German people in relation to the atrocities performed against the Jews in the concentration camps.  These children will have to come to terms with the sins of their parents, and it will no doubt affect them the rest of their lives.  Lore is a good story well told that makes a lasting impression.

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

This second film by writer/director Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines is a sprawling dramatic crime epic, told in three distinct segments.  Each segment focuses on different characters within two different family units.  Like Lore, this film also explores the effect that the sins of fathers has on their children.  The film features notable performances from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, but the entire cast does a tremendous job with this material. Although almost 2 1/2 hours long, it never feels bloated, rather I thought it could have been even longer.  I've been particularly vague on the plot, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone.  Just do yourself a favor and see this film.    

2. Before Midnight

Before Midnight is the third film in the series from writer/director Richard Linklater for which he collaborated with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who star in the films and also write.  I did not call it a trilogy, because I sincerely hope they continue to make more films about these characters; but if it is just a trilogy, it's one of the best trilogies in film history.  Going into Before Midnight, I thought there was no way this movie could live up to the hype of the first two films. I mean those films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are already revered classics even though they came out relatively recently (1995 and 2004, respectively).  Gladly, I was wrong.  Before Midnight might not be as enjoyable or delightful as the first two, but it is just as profound and truthful, maybe more truthful than is comfortable.

I realize I've simply been gushing about the films without telling you anything about them. Let me give a quick, spoiler-free synopsis.  In 1995, Celine and Jesse (played by Delpy and Hawke) meet on a train in Europe, and end up spending a day together in Vienna and basically fall in love.  They are soul mates and meant to be together, but unlike a fairy tale, real life is complicated.  In 2004, we see these same characters in Paris, and we learn what's happened to them over the past nine years.  In 2013, again nine years has passed and we catch up with them in Greece.  OK, so that was a terrible synopsis, I just don't want to potentially spoil anything for someone who hasn't seen them.  Start with the first film, and watch all three.  You'll be glad you did.

1. Mud 

Jeff Nichols is one of the best American writer/directors working today and can do no wrong.  "Preposterous," you say?  "What proof do you have," you ask?  Exhibit A:  His first film, Shotgun Stories, garnered much praise on the film festival circuit in 2007 and has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes.  It's a fantastically tense family drama set in rural Arkansas, and features a tour de force performance from Michael Shannon.  Exhibit B:  His second film, Take Shelter, came out in 2011, again to much critical praise and adoration, earning a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.  This film also features an amazing performance from Michael Shannon (my favorite performance of that year) as a man struggling with schizophrenia.  It's also set in a rural setting, this time Ohio, and contains one of the most memorable endings I've seen in quite some time.  

Exhibit C: The film of the hour, Mud.   Again set in rural Arkansas, this time Michael Shannon gets a supporting role while Matthew McConaughey get's the starting gig.  This film has been compared to a modern Huck Finn tale, and I personally think it will go down as one of the most effective southern gothics ever caught on film.  The film also features a couple strong child performances, including the main character played by Tye Sheridan who got his break in Tree of Life.  That kid has a bright future if he can stay off the smack.  To continue the theme of critical support, Mud sports a healthy 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.  So I'm not alone in saying that this is an impressive cinematic treat, and one I fully expect to still be pretty high on my list at year end.