Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Favorite films of 2013...so far

Six complete months into 2013, it has not exactly been a slow or unsatisfying movie year. While awards seasons of years past may convince you that the best movies only come out in the second half of the year (specifically November and December), there are in fact a number of films from the first half of the year that are already strong contenders for best of the calendar year. My #1 pick on this list will doubtless make my #1 spot on the end-of-the-year round-up. I haven't seen a film in theaters 4 times since Grindhouse (2007). Unfortunately, as is often the case, the best movies theatrically released these days are not given the wide exposure they warrant. I'm not sure most of these played anywhere near you this year, but thanks to the widespread availability of films on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, and on-demand, many of them might be ready for you to watch immediately after reading this. Happy hunting!

The following films were released theatrically, wide or limited, between January 1 and June 30. Films screened at festivals without a distributor or an official release date between those dates are not eligible.

20. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Alex Gibney, one of the most consistent working documentary filmmakers (Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side), initially gives the impression that his film is going to live up to its title and stick to the genesis of Julian Assange's notorious website. But frankly that wouldn't be much of a documentary. Where his storytelling excels is in relating the tale of Bradley Manning, the lonely Marine whistle blower who simply trusted the wrong people, and juxtaposing his story with that of Assange, who morphs from freedom of information crusader to reclusive entitled jerk.

19. Berberian Sound Studio
Where the contemporary horror genre is almost entirely focused on the horrific assault of the visual, director Peter Strickland's well-done homage to Italian horror of the 1970s (specifically Argento's Suspiria, and not the giallo as claimed in many reviews) refrains from showing any of the chilling violence captured in the lurid shocker that British sound engineer Toby Jones has been hired to work on. The film's effectiveness is in the sound design and mixing. Ripe fruit is stabbed and ripped apart to simulate the sounds of knives piercing flesh and dialogue artists scream in sound-proof booths over and over. Fact melds with fiction, the supernatural storyline of the film begins to bleed into reality, and while the film does not reach a particularly satisfying conclusion, it's almost the perfect climax to the best horror film to use sound so vividly since The Haunting (1963).

18. The Painting
Currently the best animated film of the year, this imaginative French feature peeks inside the world of  the paintings of a reclusive artist who has vanished, leaving figures incomplete and desperate to be finished so they can escape persecution by an upper-class composed of completed figures. It runs a brisk 75 minutes, and its smart script is complemented by a warm and absorbing visual palette. Jean-Francois Laguionie's exploration of art and its creator works just as well in its English dubbed version as it does in the original French language.

17. Koch
One of the most controversial public figures in American politics, New York City mayor Ed Koch is not completely lionized in his biopic. He participated in the making of the film, which was released shortly after his death, but a generous amount of time is spent speaking to people who don't have the most pleasant things to say about the polarizing conservative. It doesn't go as deep into the man as a biographical documentary might, but it's full of great news reports and stock footage of New York pre-Giuliani and features a photograph of gay porn star Keith Anthoni on the AIDS crisis battle front that moved me to tears.

16. Before Midnight
It helps if you've seen the first two films in the Before trilogy before you approach this proposed final installment in the filmmaking collaboration between director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. That said, it isn't necessary to appreciate the long single takes of seemingly improvised conversations between a couple connecting through memory and attempting to determine if they are still in love or not. Both characters are not completely likable, but this contributes to the . There is a scene of Delpy simply walking around a hotel room, talking on her cell phone, arguing with Hawke, with her breasts exposed. It's reminiscent of Julianne Moore's similar below-the-waist scene in Altman's Short Cuts, and both scenes have a feeling of voyeuristic realism that is practically lost in today's cinema. Where the film shines is in the dialogue, co-written by Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy, and that is what will leave you either loving or hating this film.

15. Museum Hours
Jem Cohen's newest feature-length wonder is so quiet it will be inaccessible to a good number of viewers. At the IFC Center screening I attended on opening day, people left the theater complaining that it was "pretty but boring". This would sum up Cohen's film work to the less patient moviegoer. He works with the eye of a photographer or, appropriately enough here, a painter, planting his camera for long uninterrupted single shots and savoring the details of his composition. This must all sounds very pretentious, but it all somehow works. The film features a sparse narrative: a middle-aged woman receives word her last living relative, a cousin in Vienna, is in a coma, so she travels to the foreign land to see the family member she hazily remembers. She connects with a friendly art museum guard, who buys her a member pass so she can enjoy the museum when not visiting her cousin. There are no hints at romance, or any major plot twists or revelations. The story is simple, and even takes a backseat to a fascinating diversion into a tour group guided by an art scholar. Cohen's camera captures the sublime pleasures of art and, frankly, of people and the world around us. Yeah, yeah, pretentious. But there is no other movie like this one. A completely original and unique vision.

14. Call Me Kuchu
This gay rights documentary came and went from the Quad Cinema, but deserves a wider audience. We all know about the struggle for queer acceptance and tolerance in Uganda, a nation that proposed a "kill the gays" bill. Ironic that public figures there claim homosexuality is an example of colonial residue, rejecting its supposedly western origins, but embrace the western-originated Christian faith with such a passion they pervert it into a following of hatred. Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall's film was several years in the making, covering at least the last 4-5 years of unrest for Ugandan queers, many of whom are shown here in bold declarative interviews, seemingly unafraid of the consequences of going public. The film climaxes in tragedy, but hints at greater hope in the future for equality in Uganda. How they will achieve that equality has yet to be determined.

13. What Maisie Knew
The greatest child actor performance of the year is in this film: little Onata Aprile in the title role, a young girl whose parents divorce and use her in an ongoing battle against each other. Maisie becomes a possession, an accessory to her parents, but she connects lovingly and on deeper levels with Mom and Dad's new partners, her former nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and youthful bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Both of these adult performances, together with Aprile's, anchor the film, and keep it from being a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Entertainment Weekly's review gave this film poor notice, primarily based on how unlikable both Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan are as Maisie's parents. This is true; the proposed stars of the film play one-dimensional characters, as they were in Henry James' source novel. But the film soars when it focuses on Maisie, her quiet sorrow and winning happiness, and the adults in her life who provide a stable foundation in her world.

12. Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie
Before Springer, before Limbaugh, before Beck, there was Downey. Some might say that isn't necessarily something to be proud of. While Donahue and Sally Jesse and Oprah were relatively light-weight talk show fare, Morton Downey, Jr., the failed singer son of famous vocalist Morton Downey, found his niche in the daytime circuit by embracing conservative Reagan-era values and the blow-hard tactics of Howard Stern. Fusing those two very different types of entertainment together resulted in a loud, violent, temperamental show, one that frequently found both the host and his encouraged audience to verbally attack and in some cases physically threaten his guests. Sound fun? A brief clip is shown near the beginning from his porn star panel with Gloria Leonard, Candida Royalle, and Seka, but the incident of Seka walking off is not. Go to YouTube to find that and other infuriating jewels from the Downey show. The film also attempts to inform us who Downey really was, from his very liberal beginnings to his crazed downfall, and though it's missing interviews with some key figures in his life, it does an admirable job.

11. Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley has impressed with her two previous dramas, Away from Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), but with her newest film, she tackles a very personal subject, namely the skeletons in her family closet. Threading together interviews with her family and friends, 8mm home movie footage, and family photographs, Polley reveals her darkest family secret: she is the product of her mother's extramarital affair with a mystery man. To reveal too much would detract from the overall experience of becoming a privileged part of her family for the duration of the film, but it is a wonderful and moving watch. It is not just an exploration of family dynamics and connections, but also a quest for her identity. Polley is one of few directors whose every film I look forward to.

10. In the House
Francois Ozon's latest is another of his consistently crafty thrillers, this time casting Kristin Scott Thomas in one of her many recent French-language roles, and giving one of her best subdued performances. Fabrice Luchini is a jaded English professor who finds himself drawn into the inspired writing of new student Ernst Umhauer, whose fixation on a classmate and his seemingly perfect family develops into a series of essays proposing a sordid underbelly to their suburban facade. Scott Thomas is Luchini's wife, and the pair find their marriage tested by the interweaving of their personal life with the perhaps not so fictional pieces Umhauer delivers to Luchini daily. We are thrown several curve balls throughout, typical of Ozon's superb scripting, and the climax is just perfect. The very busy director has another film coming out this year, but he's already won me over with this one. P.S., thank you Denis Menochet for doing nudity in this film :)

9. Sightseers
Ben Wheatley is one sick bastard. With his background in television comedy, few predicted that he could deliver intense violent thrillers like Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). With his newest feature, the director combines his talent for both comedy and violence into the wickedest black comedy of the year. So funny and yet so so wrong, Sightseers follows its title characters, Tina and Chris, a mismatched couple of socially awkward losers who leave Tina's clingy mother at home alone and trek on a cross-country camping trip. Chris begins to reveal an angry side to his new girlfriend, resulting in an "accidental" death that develops into the wackiest blood-spattered romantic coupling since Clarence and Alabama. The film recalls the best work of early Peter Jackson, without the zombies and puppets, but with all of the moist grue and bad taste laughs An irresistible treat, best appreciated by those with a strong stomach and a liberal sense of humor.

8. The Source Family
The second-best documentary of the year is one of the most outrageous stories you've never heard. Recalling the Manson Family with a religious vegetarian streak instead of homicidal nuttiness, the Family built up around Jim Baker, the owner of the Source restaurant in Los Angeles. Initiating his own religion, combining the best philosophies of every key world faith, Baker attracts devoted followers (mostly beautiful young women, natch) who surround him in his sprawling mansion. He changed his name to Father Yod, and then YaHoWha, assigned new mystical names to the Family members, and even started a band that played local high schools and recorded one album after another. Making the story that much more compelling is the impressive archive of home movie footage and audio recordings, collected and preserved by official Family historian Isis Aquarian, assigned the job by Father Yod himself. The film's soundtrack is entirely made up of Source Family recordings, all of which are available on iTunes. The soundtrack album is a must-buy.

7. The Attack
One of the best films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, deftly maneuvering through the political landmines attached to both sides and emerging with a fascinating and surprisingly well-balanced take on the human aspect of it all. Revered doctor Amin Jaafari rises to the occasion when a suicide bomber attacks a restaurant, sending critically injured victims to his hospital, but his life is shattered when it is revealed that his wife was the culprit. Determined to learn if his entire marriage was a lie, and to better understand her motives, Amin searches for the terrorist organization she was involved with to find answers. Beautifully acted by Ali Suliman and a tremendous supporting cast, this compelling and unsettling story has some of the most memorable moments in any film of the year so far. The final scene is a heart breaker, and special note must be made of the emotional score by Eric Neveux.

6. Ginger and Rosa
A star is born. Her name is Elle Fanning. While she has been around for quite some time as a child actress, delivering solid work in the shadow of her overrated older sister, Dakota, Elle gives the best performance by a young actress this year. She is Ginger, an inquisitive teenager in early 1960s London fretting about nuclear war and flirting with activism. Her best friend, Rosa, raised by a single mother, encourages her to rebel against the system and her parents, but the two begin to grow apart as one pursues her sexual allure with disastrous results and the other finds herself torn between friendship and family. Christina Hendricks is wonderful as Ginger's mother, and always-sexy Alessandro Nivola appropriately caddish as her father. Other visiting Americans, Oliver Platt and Annette Bening, as well as familiar character actor Timothy Spall, are equally good as Ginger's sole allies. Another triumph from Sally Potter.

5. 20 Feet from Stardom
The best documentary of the year so far. While other films may tackle important social issues and more dramatically profound subjects, Morgan Neville's ode to the background singer is the most pleasurable and satisfying non-fiction feature you could hope to see. I wrote an in-depth review of it here. If you love music (and that covers basically every human on earth), you need to see this movie.

4. Starbuck
It took a year for this film, which I first saw as part of MoMA's Canadian Front film series, to get a U.S. theatrical release. From what I can tell, it came and went, most likely to ensure no distractions from the upcoming English-language American remake (from the original's director, Ken Scott). But there are few funnier, warmer, more charming comedies than this delightful surprise from Quebec. Dashing Patrick Huard is a drifting thirty-something butcher whose gambling problem years previous resulted in him donating plentiful sperm to pay his debts. In a scenario inspired by fact, the sperm bank used an overwhelming amount of his product, resulting in several hundred children, many now joined together in a class action suit seeking the identity of their father. Ashamed of his slovenly lifestyle, Huard resists revealing himself, but does get his hands on a list of the children participating in the suit and begins visiting them as a kind of mystery guardian angel. I can't imagine how the remake could top this.

3. Mud
Director Jeff Nichols scores again with his third film; all of them have been great, but they improve with each successive story. His grasp of Southern atmosphere and characterization recalls the works of Flannery O'Connor and especially Carson McCullers, bringing the Southern gothic to vivid life on the screen. Matthew McConaughey, going for greater legitimacy as an actor and not a shirtless tabloid star, plays the title character, a mysterious drifter discovered living on an island by teen friends Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The boys agree to help him reunite with his long lost love Reese Witherspoon, being tracked by the family of her violent ex-boyfriend. Of course there are complications keeping them apart. While McConaughey's Mud might seem to be the central character, the film actually belongs to Sheridan, giving the best performance by a young actor this year. Nichols paints a striking coming-of-age story at the core of the narrative, as Sheridan is surrounded by crumbling relationships and struggles with losing his faith in people and the way life works. This young man is bound to go on to great things in his career. Nichols' favorite actor, Michael Shannon, appears in a brief supporting role as Lofland's uncle, and Reese Witherspoon (another actor in sore need of serious career rejuvenation) is quite grand here. It's also a hoot to see Joe Don Baker, well-cast, as the dangerous patriarch of the family eying Witherspoon.

2. No
The best international film of the year, and one that has already been nominated for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. In a weaker year, it very well could have won, but it didn't stand a chance against Haneke's universally praised Amour. With this gripping true-life story of a media battle for control of Chile, director Pablo Larrain completes his unofficial trilogy of political unrest films begun with Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010). Each film has been better than the last, and No is his masterpiece. In 1988, the Chilean military regime bowed to international pressure and decided to allow its citizens to democratically vote "yes" or "no" to keep Pinochet in power. Each side was allotted 15 minutes a night on national television to persuade viewers to make the right choice. On opposing sides are Gael Garcia Bernal and his boss, advertising wizards who create compelling skits and emotionally charged rhetoric to ensure their client wins. Of course, what is at stake here is far more important than selling, say, soda, as we see in the opening scene. But turning the mere words "yes" and "no" into products to sell to the public brings out a variety of creative marketing techniques, some so successful that threats of violence begin pressuring the "no" campaign workers.
Larrain's decision to shoot the film in low-def video, to look as if it was actually produced in 1988, is a stroke of genius, and allows the contemporary footage to match flawlessly with genuine television advertisements from the "yes" and "no" campaigns, as well as disturbing news coverage of the riots that rocked the streets of Santiago.

1. Frances Ha
The best film of the year so far. I wrote an in-depth review of it here. See this movie.

Runners-Up (in order of excellence) :
Dirty Wars
Room 237
56 Up
From Up on Poppy Hill
The Sapphires

Also Seen (in order of excellence) :
The Monk
Caesar Must Die
Like Someone in Love
Post Tenebras Lux
Shadow Dancer
Star Trek Into Darkness
Hannah Arendt
Welcome to Pine Hill

Still Need to See :
Birth Story (Jan. 18)
The Girl (March 8)

My Brooklyn (Jan. 4)
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (April 26)
Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film (June 21)
Trash Dance (April 26)
among others