Summer 2013 is over, and so ends another season of loud, dumb, propulsive blockbusters and noisemakers. Lost within the rubble of explosions, posing, next-day blockbuster think pieces and box office discussions, there was also no shortage of options for audiences who didn’t want to turn their brains off, who didn’t want to feel like a kid again. Not that great films are measured in budgets or studio support, but this was an unusually dismal season for popcorn features, and the lines were drawn pretty clearly between the robots, aliens and superheroes of this season, and the lovers, comics and oddballs of the arthouse. For better or for worse, in ten years we’ll be talking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s divisive, maddening “Only God Forgives” more than “White House Down” or “2 Guns,” even if that talk is mostly about how some of us hated it.
We’re in the golden age of choice for film buffs, and a lot of the best stuff was available on VOD this summer, giving people outside of metropolitan cities a chance to check out alternatives to multiplex fare. As a result, not only were people seeing new and more interesting work, but they were also opening up the conversation. Any film fan not aware of some of the great films released during the warmer seasons has to be almost willfully oblivious, particularly with the embarrassment of riches we had during this season.
In fact, we had some difficulty limiting our top picks of the season to just ten, though we went by the industry’s definition of summer (mid-May until the end of August). As a result, this top ten feels incomplete in a way, in that there are several movies and standout performances we’re leaving out of it. But when you put together a list at the end of August that almost feels like it could be an end-of-year best list, then it’s gotta be good news for film fans, right? For some of you, it may feel like we’ve been carping on about these films all summer, but if this leads to ten people to cancel their ticket purchase to one of this summer’s utterly forgettable tentpoles and discover one of these efforts, our work here is done.
“In A World…”
Making a film about a woman in the voiceover industry seems like potentially niche material, to the point where seeing it’s the writing and directing debut of prolific comedienne Lake Bell gives one pause. Bell stars as an up-and-coming voice therapist who sees a golden opportunity when the film industry attempts to resurrect trailer voiceovers for a gaudy “quadrilogy” blockbuster. The institutionalized sexism she fights doesn’t just come from an oily competitor played by Ken Marino, but also by her own father, a legend in the profession who refuses to acknowledge a market demand for his daughter, or any other female, in the world of movie promotion. Bell’s film tackles a number of issues regarding the representation of women in the film and marketing world (driven home by a biting late-film moment from a cameo-ing Geena Davis) but it never forgets that it’s a comedy, and a wonderfully perceptive, exceptionally cast one. Bell’s picture gives grace notes to an entire ensemble, including the smarmy father played by Fred Melamed and the distracted sister essayed by Michaela Watkins; her subplot with husband Rob Coddry fleshes out Bell’s world and showcases her as a compassionate, powerful voice in independent cinema, one able to juggle charming workplace comedy, social commentary and humanist ensemble storytelling.
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”
The wind blows often through David Lowery’s fractured fairy tale romance, marking not just the passing of time, but the ways in which two heartbroken lovers drift apart and towards each other simultaneously. The wind feels just like another character in this picture, as does the grass, the soil, the mud and the rain. Lowery’s film has been compared to the work of Terrence Malick, but Malick views nature as an ideal, an Elysium for all souls to strive for. In Lowery’s picture, the nature seems to be more of a malevolent presence, controlling these characters, willing them to do their deeds. It’s the sun peeking over the horizon that makes moony Rooney Mara fire into the shoulder of local cop Ben Foster, and it’s the visiting moon that takes haunted lover Casey Affleck off to prison, leaving behind promises of a return. The idea he might return for his lover is disturbed by the tremor of her guardian, played by an imposing Keith Carradine as if he emerged from the ground to strike thunder into poor Affleck; a moment where he uses force against the outlaw almost makes the ground shake beneath you. By the time Foster begins making eyes at Mara, it’s almost elemental: outside forces brought these characters together, and ultimately outside forces will pry them apart, and to see this film is to surrender yourself to the emotional tempest and hope for the best.
The drama was overrated. Of course Celine and Jesse got together by the end of “Before Sunset.” Now, it’s more a matter of whether these two can navigate domesticity properly. Richard Linklater’s film isn’t an example of social realism, of course, instead opting for the liberal fantasy of the talkiest of the French New Wave, where beautiful intellectuals visited extravagant locales and spitballed ideas of politics and social radicalism with no one’s eye on the clock. Placing Jesse and Celine in the Greek countryside has that lulling affect, giving the series a premature happy ending. But when the second-half of ‘Midnight’ surfaces, that’s where Linklater’s trilogy-ender becomes one of the most suspenseful films of the year. Did Jesse cheat? Is Celine miserable with Jesse’s career? Is his pseudo-intellectual machismo going to forever clash with her wounded, adversarial feminism? Linklater fixes the camera in that extended final sequence to stretch out one of the year’s most agonizing question marks, seeing both sides adapt, and then alter, can’t-miss strategies in what feels like a war of the sexes where everyone has a chance to lose. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both heartbreaking in this film, playing characters with years of history who clearly aren’t learning of each other’s shortcomings, instead understanding them as character flaws, ticking time bombs destined to erupt at an inopportune time. Linklater’s film features both a bracing harshness in its depiction of a romantic paradise, but also an unexpected lyricism that possibly makes it the loveliest picture in the series thus far.
“Short Term 12”
Brie Larson takes her first full-fledged steps towards stardom in Destin Cretton’s sophomore effort. Her turn as a youth officer in charge of a small group of troubled children captures not just the hard work and deep compassion of those who watch over unfortunate youth, but also the more mundane day-to-day activities that come with rehearsed room checks, handy pep talks and extensive safety procedures. “At-risk” isn’t just a phrase limited to the kids, but to her domesticated home life with a co-worker, where the unspoken tension about going public with their love and possibly having a child could lead to their relationship collapsing. The film’s class sensibilities are reflected subtly but powerfully, both in the idea that theirs is a relationship, and a career, barely teetering on financially manageable, while they cope with children in more dire straits who nonetheless emerge, broken, from more well-off circumstances. This is a compassionate film, but it still manages to feature sweet moments of levity, as both Larson and beau John Gallagher Jr. leaven their portrayals with good humor and an agreeable attitude that suggests great, joyful pride in what they do for a living. It’s a beacon of bright light in a dark subject, making “Short Term 12” ultimately one of the season’s more uplifting offerings.
“The Act of Killing”
There’s not a single comfortable moment in one of the year’s most compelling documentaries. This brief retracing of Indonesian legend finds a place where history has been written, and re-written, by the victors, in this case a mob of killers who wiped Communists off the face of the earth. “The Act of Killing,” produced by both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, has both the former’s fascination with the sometimes appalling beauty of disquieting human behavior as well as the latter’s emotionally explicit invasion into the intent hidden behind the words of people rationalizing their inhumanity. Here, the killers walk the street, saluted as heroes by descendants of people they brutally, publicly murdered. Their cheery anecdotes about yesterday usually involve ending the lives of a couple of innocents, delivered over a cold drink with like-minded friends, morality never once entering the conversation. The gamble then becomes allowing these men to star in a movie, one that depicts their crimes as mercy killings, with the heart of a nation at stake. There’s nothing even remotely like “The Act of Killing” that seems familiar: you can’t find these sorts of off-the-cuff conversations anywhere, nor can you see such candid moments as a man addressing and forgiving his father’s killer, or a tacit admission that the lack of acknowledgement from international forces validates their actions. It’s impossible not to be moved, repulsed and fascinated by this unique film, a darkly comic look into the abyss that stands alone as the summer’s most unique achievement.
There was major controversy this summer when gigantic blockbusters like “Man of Steel” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” destroyed entire cities and countless lives without so much as blinking, all while employing uncomfortable 9/11 imagery. The closest thing that “Prince Avalanche” has to an action set piece is when a disoriented dove flies out of the small work truck that two goobers (Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd) share. Said goobers are in Bastrop, Texas, after a devastating forest fire in the 1980s claims both homes ( and lives tasked with the difficult job of painting the white lines down the newly paved roads. That’s pretty much the entire movie: two dudes fucking around and occasionally working what can arguably be deemed the most banal job imaginable. Yet somehow out of all of this comes one of the most charmingly ramshackle comedies in recent memory, a testament to the power of male bonding and the truly unusual things that can happen when a couple of buddies spend way too much time together. Director David Gordon Green seemed to deliberately harken back to his independent movie days after a series of costly studio comedies (among them the bizarre and bizarrely ignored cult-movie-in-the-making “Your Highness“); it was so secret, in fact, that the project wasn’t even announced until after it was finished. Rudd and Hirsch form an unexpectedly wonderful comedic duo, with Hirsch in particular coming across as a true marvel (someone needs to hire him more regularly). Aided by an unforgettable score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo (easily one of the year’s best), this shaggy dog comedy, in which virtually nothing happens, feels like an essential piece of filmmaking. It doesn’t even drag. In fact, by the end of “Prince Avalanche,” by turns touching, hilarious, and honest, you could spend a few more hours watching these guys paint lines and fuck around. And without a single building toppled.
Despite what you may have read, Rachel (a breathlessly convincing Kathryn Hahn), a stay-at-home mom in affluent but tightly-coiled Silverlake, Los Angeles, isn’t bored, self-destructive or going through an early midlife crisis. What Rachel is yearning for, is far less broad, insofar as it’s really a collation of all the little things in her life leading her to moderate, but debilitating disenchantment. Rachel is aching for some life, but what’s worse (and keenly discerned) is how she isn’t quite sure what’s causing her malaise, frustration and dissatisfaction. With a child she’s estranged from, a husband who’s deep into his Blackberry and in desperate need of something, Rachel finds a cause which turns into an obsession: saving and rehabilitating a stripper she and her husband meet on a wild night out to spice up their stalled sex life. The private dance this young stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), administers cracks something open in the mom, but it’s far less sexual than one might think. Soon, McKenna is living in their chic, modernist home, but the change she unleashes in their lives turns out to be much more complicated than Rachel ever imagined even as she curiously tests the boundaries of acceptable behavior given her circumstance. Motherhood is a uniquely isolating engagement, happiness is a relative state of mind no matter the riches around you, and that’s keenly contemplated in Jill Solloway’s wry, humanistic and well-drawn (she won the coveted directing award at Sundance this year) portrait of a woman in need of connection. Comedic and laugh-out-loud observant, “Afternoon Delight” isn’t afraid to get sexually frank, uncomfortable and downright ugly either. It’s a painfully honest depiction of the travails of motherhood and marriage, and while it’s not to everyone’s cup of tea, we’re sure it’s easily one of the most engaging films we saw all summer. And frankly, we’re grateful a sophisticated and complex flick like this exists in the time of monsters vs. robots, capes, aliens and diminishing returns.
Easy friendship, flirtation and cold beers … what could possibly go wrong? The surprising thing about Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is not the higher than usual wattage cast (Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston) or even the presence of an actual budget that probably has more zeroes on it than the director has seen before, but it how it slyly subverts expectations this kind of premise sets up. The film centers on Kate and Luke, co-workers at brewery whose rapport goes beyond collegial into something more electric. But both are in committed relationships, but a weekend trip for both couples—as both Kate and Luke draw closer—brings with it some surprising consequences. As we wrote in our review, “relationships are hard. Our biology is essentially wired to be completely destructive to monogamy and [the film] does a great job of exploring that friction.” Though utilizing an improvisatory approach that keeps things fresh, Swanberg also demanded a structure and goals for each scene, and the result is the rare comedy that feels both lively and authentic with recognizably genuine emotion to boot. The cast has terrific chemistry and particular Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson whose alchemy is seriously off the charts. This generation of workaday folks taking comfort where they can is usually captured with a degree of cynicism, but “Drinking Buddies” prevails for being honest with its characters and its emotion.
On the cusp of a technological revolution, a group of the country’s leading computer experts gather together to write a blueprint for the future of artificial technology. Sounds like blockbuster material, but in fact it’s the starting point for Andrew Bujalski’s playful, often absurdist comedy about nerds fumbling around in the dark in an attempt to advance computers beyond the realm of comprehension. The idea is to develop a computer program that successfully competes in chess with a human, but in the meantime, the three-day motel stay provides a ping pong machine for the various social outcasts to bunch against each other, whether it’s with the spiky-haired freeloader trying to find sanctuary on someone’s floor, the only woman attendee who has to cope with the awkward sexual tension, or the conspiratorial interloping Luddite who hosts pot-smoking bullshit sessions in his room after hours. “Computer Chess” is powered by the uncomfortable banter between participants, all of whom believe that as they type away on their massive processors, they’re being watched by government forces. Bujalski shot the picture with the most era-appropriate low-fi cameras he could find, giving the experiment the feel of beaten-up VHS, creating a world frozen in time, where the possibilities were endless as long as we could get out of our own bumbling way. It feels like a stunt, and has a similar no-budget aesthetic as Bujalski’s earlier films, and yet it’s easily one of the year’s most out-and-out entertaining movies.
Anchored by Mads Mikkelsen’s Cannes Best Actor-winning central performance, Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant but harrowing “The Hunt” is a scorchingly tense return to form (and to early themes) for the “Festen” director. An account of the witchhunt that ensues after a false accusation of paedophilia among a tight-knit group of friends, some critics have complained about the central, innocent man’s passivity in the face of his increasing pariah status within the community. To them I say, respectfully, whaaa? He is not passive, he’s paralyzed with incredulity, the knowledge of his innocence, and the belief that his friends must come to their senses. So while he is victimized physically and emotionally by others, the real drama of the film is internal—it is not about proving his innocence, it is about not believing for a second that anyone could actually need proof. And finally it is him, simply having to say the words, that ends the misery but it’s also a defeat—an acknowledgement that the friendships he believed in were not what he had thought. That the protagonist’s terrible predicament is partly the result of this trapped, circular thinking is the film’s greatest strength, and it makes the man’s situation almost unbearably relatable. Terrifying, chilly and ruthlessly logical, the film may not have needed its final, slightly gimmicky twist, but otherwise nothing had us as far on the edge of our seat all year as this did.
Honorable Mention: Of course that’s just the ten most of us feel strongly about. Strong, viable, worthwhile contenders are many, including Edgar Wright‘s ambitious, you-can’t-go-back-home sci-fi/buddy comedy “The World’s End.” Woody Allen‘s “Blue Jasmine” has a crackling, Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett and boasts a terrific supporting cast, but the script and execution are sometimes obvious and lacking, so thus being outside the top ten. “The Spectacular Now” is a strong coming-of age movie. If you’re looking for “Frances Ha” and “The Kings Of Summer,” we really consider them late spring movies and you can find them in our Best Films Of The Year So Far list. Also worthwhile is the terrific documentary “Cutie And The Boxer,” the tense drama, “A Hijacking,” Sebastian Silva‘s comedy drug trip, “Crystal Fairy,” the indie drama “Sparrows Dance,” and the activism/journalism doc “Blackfish.” If we were going to give mild props to some tentpole this season it would probably be “Iron Man 3” and “World War Z,” the former is fun, but disposable and the latter has strong ideas that don’t always come together. Place your gripes below. — Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Jessica Kiang, Kevin Jagernauth