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2013: The Best Films Of The Year…So Far

2013: The Best Films Of The Year...So Far

Wow, wait, okay, what? It’s June? Right! So here we are again, rapidly approaching the midpoint of another year, and as is our custom, we’re taking a moment to pause and look back at 2013 so far, and to discuss, debate, and throw hissy fits over what we collectively consider the best films we’ve seen so far. As regards bigger releases, the year up to now has been, if we’re honest, a little so-so, with the blockbuster hopefuls ranging from the slightly disappointing to the outright dire (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain,” “After Earth,” “Oblivion,” with “Iron Man 3” probably proving the best of the bunch to date.) That said, in the smaller screens of your multiplex and at the arthouse, a few gems have managed to find their way through and there is a whole bevy of films we’ve been lucky enough to catch early that are coming down the pike soon, and many of those are so good that they should drag up the base standard of the year by a good margin.

So we’re dividing this piece into two this year — the first part detailing those films that have already hit theaters and made an impression on us, and the second talking about those that are just around the corner and which we urge you to keep an eye out for. So let’s get to it….

Stories We Tell
There’s family, there’s history and then there’s the truth, but as Sarah Polley explores in her beautiful and uniquely moving documentary “Stories We Tell,” all of those terms carry different weight depending on the eye of the beholder. Begun as a project to investigate her own family background, “Stories We Tell” blossoms into a riveting portrait of a family still carrying secrets, heartache and accepted truths that sometimes fly in the face of reality. But Polley’s entire point is that one person’s “reality” is someone else’s “fiction” and her brilliant film almost deconstructs itself as it goes along, calling into question its own presentation of the “facts” yet never feeling academic, and always wholly emotional. It’s the rare documentary that we’d argue contains “spoilers” which aren’t just part of the narrative (though it’s more enjoyable if you’re in the dark a bit,) but the presentation itself. One of the most intelligent documentaries we’ve seen in quite some time, at times enlightening and profound, the film proves the simple truth that the “Stories We Tell” about our own lives can’t always be trusted. [Read our Venice 2012 review]

From its buzzy, fuzzy, authentically VHS aesthetic, to its loose, almost docu-feeling evocation of the events around the pivotal 1998 election in Chile, Pablo Larrain’s “No” is a jolt of infectious, innovative filmmaking. The concluding chapter of his unofficial thematic trilogy dealing with different aspects of life under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (the previous entries being “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” which, appropriately was on last year’s corresponding list), “No” distinguishes itself from its predecessors in more ways than just its off-the-cuff look and satirical, sarcastic humor. In fact, where Larrain’s previous films dealt in darkly accented stories of violence and death, “No” is altogether breezier in tone, if never disposable, pitting Gael Garcia Bernal’s advertising executive, well versed in cheery, cheesy Coca-Cola-style ads, as the David against the State “Yes” lobby’s Goliath. In many ways the film is, and should be, almost anti-dramatic — the occasional riot or threat scene aside, most of the action takes place in meeting rooms, living rooms or small TV studios as Bernal pitches his ideas to the willfully uncomprehending “suits.” And while he finds an unexpected idealism buried under layers of marketing pragmatism, the challenge is often to make the decision-makers see that while the topics they’re dealing in are of epic, life-or-death, historic importance, sometimes the only way to gain majority attention is with a catchy jingle. Never exaggerating or overdramatizing the story, but bringing it to vibrant, authentic life, Larrain pulls off a truly impressive feat in not just making an engaging film about an advertising campaign for an election, but in making an ordinary, everyday hero of a marketing guy who made the word “No” into a positive and, almost inadvertently, helped change the world. [Read our Cannes 2012 review]

Upstream Color
If you haven’t slipped under the shimmery, hypnotic spell of Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” yet, we can only urge you to do so without delay. Without doubt one of the best value films we’ve seen all year — purely in terms of how long after it ends you still can feel the lasting sustain of its melancholic, wondering, questioning chords — it’s as unique an experience as we hope to have at the movies all year, any year. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about it is the precision with which it creates such a lyrical story — Carruth’s frightening braininess and preoccupation with the cleanliness of mathematical logic are here in spades, and yet that’s all set in service of an agenda that’s far more about the indefinable mysteries of love and connection. Boasting a labyrinthine, impressionistic plot that you can either get hung up on the details of or allow wash over you in a haze of fragmentary images and evocative soundtrack details (we’re more for the latter course, but both work out just fine), it’s a prime example of a film that many will find frustrating in its opacity, but that brings a tenfold return on investment for those willing to let themselves be borne along by its currents. Stunningly shot, evocatively scored and perfectly performed by Carruth himself and actress/director Amy Seimetz, “Upstream Color” is a remarkable, enigmatic love story that can’t be faulted for giving us no easy answers when the questions it’s brave and ambitious enough to ask are this massive. It’s a film set at the edge of everything, where reason becomes awe and where the inexplicable somehow makes a resonant kind of sense, and it’s as beautiful and infinitely detailed as a fractal image. It’s a work of wonder, and it’s wonderful. [Read our Sundance 2013 review]

Before Midnight
Ethan Hawke has been fond of saying that “Before Midnight” is the conclusion to the lowest-grossing trilogy in the history of motion pictures, which makes us wonder just how much the “Police Academy” movies made. Hawke’s statement also both heightens and diminishes the colossal accomplishment of these three amazing films. Richard Linklater‘s “Before Sunrise” seemed like something of a lark, a charmingly experimental love story co-conceived by its two leads (Hawke and Julie Delpy) that was so miniaturized in size that it could have been the final word on whatever it was the three of them were trying to say (something about emotionally messy connections and the kind of impromptu way that two people can fall in love). The sequel, “Before Sunset,” was more technically ambitious and emotionally raw – it unfolded almost in real time, like the most achingly beautiful episode of “24” you could ever imagine (it also has one of the great final lines in the history of movies). But somehow “Before Midnight” manages to blow them all away – this is the love-struck couple in middle age, when things have become thorny and complicated and sometimes unbearable. That Linklater, Delpy and Hawke are able to pull this off at all is kind of incredible, but the real magic lies in the way that the movie never feels like a grind; you may squirm but you never want to leave your seat. The air of romanticism that’s braided through these movies still remains, but it’s been dulled and worn down by time. After watching “Before Midnight” it’s hard to get into something like “Iron Man 3” that’s all dazzle, no soul — so it may be the conclusion (for now) to the lowest-grossing movie trilogy of all time, but “Before Midnight” is undoubtedly one of the most creatively successful. [Read our Sundance 2013 review]

The Act of Killing”
We left the screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” trembling and dazed, and trying hard to cast around for the right superlatives to attach to what we had just experienced. The fact is the film is an extraordinarily disturbing and provocative watch, occasionally almost psychologically unbearable to invest in, and yet at the same time completely impossible to tear your attention from, and we’re very glad it’s starting to get the kind of attention and distribution it deserves. We should warn you, it’s not for the fainthearted in its depiction of a side of human nature so dark it’s normally impossible to detect, and of a genocide rendered all the more horrifying for being so casually acknowledged, it isn’t in any way at all an easy experience. It is however, profoundly intelligent, narratively inventive, challenging and thought-provoking and almost impossibly revealing as to how depraved and corrupted a person can become within a depraved and corrupted society. But it’s not simply bleak, it does chart an incredible, if incremental change in its lead character that a lesser film would paint in simpler, brighter colors to end on a note of hope. “The Act of Killing” is not that film, it’s gone too far down the rabbit hole for any such pat conclusions — there may be catharsis here, but there is no redemption because some sins are simply too soul-staining — but it’s a voyage deep into the heart of darkness that we will never be able to forget. [Read our Berlin 2013 review]

There have been countless attempts recently to depict a hardscrabble, low-income life in an attempt to replicate the “Southern Gothic” aesthetic beautifully depicted by authors like Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams. The problem is that most of these endeavors (everything from TV’s “True Blood” to February’s “Twilight” riff “Beautiful Creatures“) come across as campy, soulless approximations, all snarled cartoony accents and loopy, moss-draped sets. Jeff Nichols‘ “Mud,” his third and most assured feature film, never feels like a put-on. Everything is slightly heightened – from the titular character (played with a kind of rattlesnake slipperiness by Matthew McConaughey), a man encased by self-styled mythologizing and a code of ethics that doesn’t extend to killing gangsters, to the way Nichols’ camera glides glacially along the river – but that’s because life in the south is heightened too, everything is sweaty and sticky and slightly rusty. At its heart, though, “Mud” is a coming-of-age story, one profoundly interested in the things that fascinate in youth – young romance, shoot-outs, and the seemingly Herculean task of freeing a boat from a tree. “Mud” is a movie that, like the river it’s centered around, washes over you, a beguiling, charming, genuine Southern-fried treat (without all the calories). [Read our review]

Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach‘s last couple of movies (“Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg“) were so glum and dour that they gave off the sensation of physical weight; they literally dragged you down. So it comes as something of a surprise that “Frances Ha” is such an effervescent bobble – a fizzy pop confection that’s equally indebted to the French New Wave, Woody Allen and the collection of soul and disco songs sprinkled throughout the soundtrack (has a Hot Chocolate jam ever been put to better use?) Inspired by Baumbach’s co-writer/muse/girlfriend/star Greta Gerwig (in a truly breakout performance), “Frances Ha” investigates the incredibly specific emotional space between two female friends and the way that life, cresting the 30-year-mark, seems to become less about hope and promise and more about compromise and concessions. It’s a movie about easing into adulthood in a city (New York) where everyone thinks that they’re still eighteen. Captured in timeless, velvety black-and-white, “Frances Ha” is a movie so effortlessly joyful that it almost bounces across the screen. As a struggling dancer dealing with the dissolution of her longtime relationship, a fractured relationship with her former best friend/roommate, and a series of creative endeavors that never seem to pan out, Gerwig’s Frances is someone who pinballs through life without much thought. You get the impression that she would devolve into one of Baumbach’s surly, self-centered misanthropes if she ever slowed down long enough to evaluate the situation. Thankfully she never does. [Read our review]

The Kings Of Summer
It’s hardly been a great year for American comedy on the big screen — not when the biggest hits have been “The Hangover Part III” and “Identity Thief,” anyway. But there’s one shining exception that’s been brightening up the landscape since Sundance, and is starting to make its way into theaters. We’ve had high hopes for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts since his short “Successful Alcoholics” a few years back, but we’re not sure we were prepared for how truly excellent his first feature, “The Kings Of Summer” is. An interesting companion piece to “Mud,” the film tells the story of two best friends (future megastar Nick Robinson, “Super 8” actor Gabriel Basso) who, fed up with their overbearing parents (including Nick Offerman, in his best non “Parks and Rec” performance to date), and with the help of show-stealing oddball Biaggio (Moises Arias), build a house in the woods where they can act like grown-ups. Existing in a timeless not-quite-reality that tips its hat to ’80s classics like “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies” while blending it with an up-to-the-minute sense of humor that betrays Vogt-Roberts’ links with the current comedy scene (big-name stand-ups like Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Burress have cameos), it’s certainly the funniest film we’ve seen in 2013 so far, minute by minute. And yet it’s also proof that capital-C comedy doesn’t have to be as disposable as its studio counterparts; it spins the trend of the last few years on its head, and rather than following adults caught in arrested development, it’s about kids who are racing prematurely to an adulthood that they’re not quite ready for yet. What’s more, in contrast to the flat, ugly look of most cinematic laughers, it’s a genuinely beautiful-looking film, capturing those endless summer days where anything seems possible. Like every debut feature, it’s imperfect, but this is what Vogt-Roberts can do first time at bat, we’re dying to see what he comes up with second time around. [Read our review]

If Alexander Payne went to England and decided to cheekily remake “Natural Born Killers,” it would probably look something like “Sightseers,” Ben Wheatley‘s latest humanist horror comedy. It doesn’t have the quite the same collect-your-bearings whoosh of Wheatley’s last film, “Kill List,” but it’s equally impressive for different reasons. Instead of wild tonal shifts there are subtle fluctuations in mood and style; this is a “straight” comedy twisted and inverted and dipped in coal-black tar. It helps that Wheatley and his stars/co-writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram so fully inhabit this world that, while barbed and satirical, the movie never comes across as condescending. It’s terribly sincere, even when its characters are doing terrible things. As a pair of dumpy suburban England schlubs who decide to go camping, Lowe and Oram become these characters, people who are probably together because no one else would have anything to do with them. When the trip goes from hilariously banal to genuinely bloody, it seems like a natural progression – everyone has been on the vacation that they would kill to get out of, these two just take that literally. “Sightseers” is easily one of the funniest movies released this year, and even more so because each laugh carries with it an equally jolting shock. So bloody good. [Read our Cannes 2012 review]

The Place Beyond The Pines
If Derek Cianfrance‘s “Blue Valentine” was the perfect debut rock album, simple and toothsome and pure, then “The Place Beyond the Pines” is the “difficult” sophomore album, where the musicians have decided to add all sorts of potentially problematic embellishments, things like strings and children’s choirs and 8-minute-long prog breakdowns. It doesn’t knock you for the same emotional loop but you can’t help but goggle at its seemingly bottomless ambition and novelistic zeal. Employing a uniquely assured structure, “The Place Beyond The Pines” is equal parts family drama and sprawling crime epic, and while its thematic concerns (“the sins of the father” is a big one) sometimes threaten to topple what is an occasionally wobbly enterprise with a number of moving parts, it still manages to resonate emotionally. Ryan Gosling is a motorcycle stunt driver-turned-bank robber who falls in love with Eva Mendes‘ small-town girl and ends up fathering a child. Bradley Cooper is the cop intent on bringing him down and… That’s all you can say about the movie’s plot without threatening to ruin some of the many wonderful twists and turns. The movie jumps forward in time without so much as a title card indicating as much; with just two movies under his belt, it’s clear that Cianfrance is a director obsessed with what time does to relationships and his gorgeously naturalistic, assured approach to the depiction of time is part of what makes “The Place Beyond The Pines” so powerful. As far as second albums go, it’s a wonder. [Read our review]

Beyond The Hills
It’s winter in rural Romania, but it’s more than the chill of the season that’s instilling a damp discomfort in the bones of the characters in Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond The Hills.” The arrival of Alina (Cristina Flutur) to a strictly orthodox religious compound to visit her friend, and possible former lover Voichita (Cosmina Straten) to convince her to leave so they can be together, sets off a chain of events that are grim, surreal and undeniably powerful. Mungiu, who came to international attention with “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” once again employs his favored long takes, with minimal movement, to possibly even subtler effect here, with results that are no less devastating. This is really the story of two kinds of obsession that can crush the soul — faith and love — and how the zeal of the former, can overtake the latter to the point of obliterating all compassion. Stratan and Flutur shared the Best Actress prize in 2012 at Cannes and it’s easy to see why. They both deliver tremendous turns, finding nuances of pain, longing, devotion and more that enrich Mungiu’s thematically ambitious film. It’s a film in which possession of the soul — by God or the devil — locks humanity out of the heart, but the commitment of love could be the most powerful force to fight it. [Our review is here]

Behind The Candelabra
The most impressive trick (among many) that the glitzy, gaudy, exuberant Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” pulls off is in dealing even-handedly with a star who was so much larger than life that the temptation to render him as a caricature must have been all but overwhelming. But Steven Soderbergh, with characteristic restraint and intelligence, avoids this trap, a feat made doubly impressive by that fact that, in basing the film on ex-lover Scott Thorson’s book, the material would easily have been there for a character assassination. But ‘Candelabra’ isn’t a hagiography either, it’s a nuanced and surprisingly touching look at late-life Liberace, his moments of monstrousness (having Thorson undergo plastic surgery to look more like a younger version of himself is possibly the oogiest) balanced by moments of great tenderness and love, the rawer and realer for coming from beneath layers of lurex and sequins. But of course all the directorial good intentions in the world would be nothing without the performances to embody all these subtleties, and in Matt Damon’s wide-eyed, gradually wising-up Thorson and Michael Douglas’s jaw-droppingly brilliant Liberace, Soderbergh finds the beating heart of the picture. Both actors are on career-best form here, though Douglas, perhaps deservedly will grab the majority of the limelight for his revelatory turn — nothing he’s done before even hinted at the level of commitment and humanity he brings to Lee. Of course, it’s a sad irony that ‘Candelabra’ with its meticulous period detailing and flamboyant sets and costumes, is one of Soderbergh’s most big-screen-worthy films, but it will be a small-screen experience for many U.S. viewers, still, the film’s greatest strengths are its storytelling and characterization which simply sing, off screens of any size. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]

Coming Soon: The Best Movies of The Year (That We’ve Already Seen)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” 
A public service announcement before we begin: While it admittedly shares a superficially similar storyline to “Badlands” and there’s a few sunkissed shots in the beginning that are familiar visuals, to call “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” a Malick re-do or modern update (as some have) is frustratingly reductive and off base. One of the best films of the year by far and an arresting, tense, smoldering crime/romance drama set in the 1970s, David Lowery’s third full-length feature certainly has very different moods, tenors and preoccupations than Mr. ‘Tree Of Life.’ Like a portentous bad moon rising, the outlaw tale of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a Cormac McCarthy tragic romance, a Johnny Cash requiem, a Will Oldham dirge and a Godspeed You Black Emperor tornado rolling into town, and you know that can’t end well. It’s dark, atmospheric and burns with intense, sweaty dread. On top of all that it boasts a fantastic cast (who all deliver terrific performances) of Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and an excellent comeback role for Keith Carradine. Simply put, it’s a must-see film. [Our review from Sundance 2013]

Inside Llewyn Davis
The logline for the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” may not be especially appealing on paper, but from the completely bravura opening scene, which is an exquisitely shot sequence of Oscar Isaac’s titular singer/songwriter performing a song in its entirety, we were completely and totally hooked. In fact, there was a particular moment early on where we felt ourselves relax completely, and more or less tune out our critical voice, because we simply felt in such safe storytelling hands. As an example of the sheer unquestioning pleasure that can be gained from watching a film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is unequaled this year. Isaac himself is breathtakingly good — we’d liked him before but had no idea he’d be capable of anything as winsomely human and relatable as this performance. The story merely meanders through several days in his life and yet, loosely plotted though it is, it never lost its grip on our hearts and minds and engaged us completely through funny/sad, funny/happy and funny/funny moments until its thoroughly satisfying, sweetly melancholic ending. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful film, and finds the Coens in masterful form, turning in something that is entirely, idiosyncratically them and yet simultaneously something very new and perfect; a fully-formed story of a fully-formed character with whom it’s impossible not to fall just a little bit in love. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]

The Past
One of the highlights of the Cannes Film Festival, one that is already staring potential Oscar talk, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” might be the best-written movie we’ve seen so far this year. With four main characters, caught up in a melodrama about divorce, the risk of this story veering into one dimensional histrionics is high, but Farhadi navigates it thanks to an almost novelistic drawing of his characters and narrative. The story pivots around Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her ex Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who has flown from Tehran to Paris to finalize their divorce. She’s already planning to move on and live with single father Samir (Tahar Rahim), but from the moment Ahmad steps into his old house he quickly sees that Marie has much than divorce papers to clear from a life that has fallen into an tapestry of complication which she strains to keep from unraveling. Farhadi has great compassion for his characters but he’s not above seeing their flaws either, and “The Past” never favors one character over another. Instead, over the course of the movie, as revelations come to light (particularly for the other characters in the movie) and the story dips and turns, it’s not so much our allegiances that change, as our understanding of the decisions that have been made and choices taken. The entire cast is outstanding, with special notice going to Pauline Burlet who plays Lucie, Marie’s daughter. She’s given a particularly tricky arc but thanks both to Farhadi’s writing and her pitch perfect delivery, Burlet brings real heart to someone whose soul is weighted with tremendously damaging knowledge. Dense and astonishingly well developed, and capturing the messiness of relationships and elusive qualities that bring people together and push them apart, Farhadi’s film is a deeply human look at the struggle to move on from the mistakes, pains and emotional scars from our past so we can forge a brighter future.  [Read our review from Cannes 2013]

Given that it was made by a female director in an environment as hostile to both women and film as Saudi Arabia (where women can’t drive, and cinemas have been closed for decades), it’s genuinely staggering that “Wadjda” — which made its U.S. debut at Tribeca on its way to a full release from Sony Pictures Classics — turned out as brilliantly as it did. Owing equal debt to Italian neo-realism and more contemporary Iranian cinema, Haifaa Al-Mansour‘s feature debut follows the title character, a rebellious 12-year-old girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition at school in order to win enough money to ride a bike. Meanwhile her mother (Reem Abdullah) fights to hold on to her husband, whose wealthy mother is encouraging him to get a second wife. To a western audience, Riyadh might feel like an alien setting, and Al-Mansour shoots the city, and the world, with both the back-of-the-hand expertise of an insider and the inquisitive eye of an outsider (she went to film school in the U.S., and had to direct mostly from the back of a van, lest she be seen doing the job in public). It’s an unashamedly political picture but relaying its message — about the rotten lot of women in the country — through the personal and the specific, with a humanism that refuses to demonize difficult characters like Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) or the stern headmistress Ms. Hussa (Ahd).  It might tip into sentimentality in places, but it’s the kind of sentiment that’s entirely earned, and few would begrudge it in a film as warm, sweet and beautifully made as this. [Read our review from LFF 2012]

Blue Is The Warmest Color
While we’re not yet sure of the details of the U.S. release of Abdellatif’s Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” we’re fairly certain its Palme d’Or win and near-deafening buzz should see distributors Sundance Selects strike sometime in 2013. It’s a film that deserves as wide an audience as possible in spite of its forbidding length; a hugely powerful work of great empathy and insight that features a performance from Léa Seydoux that would probably have been the most talked-about coming out of Cannes had it not been overshadowed by that of the film’s lead Adele Exarchopolous. Exarchopolous, feeling like she’s come from nowhere, is in every single scene, the unflinching center of our attention and identification throughout, and Kechiche weaves the film around her so unobtrusively that you almost don’t feel his presence (except possibly in the film’s laudably graphic but nonetheless overlong first lesbian sex scene) — surely a mark of an exceptional skill. We’ve been a fan of the director’s previous work (the drably-titled “The Secret of the Grain” is anything but drab, and a great favorite) but here he finds a previously unmatched depth and resonance in the simple charting of a first love from its initial giddy, heady heights, through a realistic and relatable relationship to its end, and the messy way one of us always stops loving the other first. That central relationship may be same-sex, but the film is profoundly wise about how it feels and what it means for your sense of self to be in love, no matter who the object of your affections. It gives it a universality far beyond any reductive categorisation. [Read our review from Cannes 2013]

Hide Your Smiling Faces
Apparently there’s no release date or distributor yet that we know of, but that would be a huge shame because the most arresting film of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival was certainly “Hide Your Smiling Faces.” The feature-length debut of DP-turned-writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone, ‘Smiling Faces’ definitely announces DPC as a bold new filmmaker to keep an eye on. A moody and atmospheric exploration of adolescents in rural America who unexpectedly have to deal with mortality when a mysterious death enters their lives. Plot takes a backseat to this beautiful, but anguished tale of teenagers struggling with emotions that are beyond their maturity. Unnerving and disquieting and yet sundappled and gorgeously shot, ‘Smiling Faces’ is something of a Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke and David Gordon Green bastard lovechild. It perhaps most resembles Green’s “George Washington” on the surface — children exploring the nooks and crannies of nature while grappling with their own emotional issues — but ultimately it is its own beast; a formidable piece of filmmaking and a stellar debut. [Read our review from Tribeca 2013]

Ranking movies can sometimes suck, but perhaps possibly just a slight hair behind “Hide Your Smiling Faces” as the “discovery of Tribeca 2013” is Lance Edmand’s striking and haunting debut, “Bluebird.” A former editor (he clipped together “Tiny Furniture” for Lena Dunham), Edmands opening bow is superb for several reasons but chief among them is that you would never guess in a million years that this mature and patient drama was a debut film. Centering on the interconnectedness of a tragedy that ripples out and touches two disparate families in a frigid logging town in Maine, the film not only boasts a carefully composed and preternaturally assured eye, it features some terrific performances by actors you may not know yet, but soon will. Sure Adam Driver from “Girls” and “Mad Men” star John Slattery are solid in their parts, but it’s the terrific trio of females in the film that are particularly remarkable including Amy Morton (Tony winner for “August: Osage County,” also George Clooney’s sister in “Up In The Air”), Louisa Krause (the bitchy, scene-stealing hotel clerk in “Young Adult“), and Emily Meade (“Fringe,” “My Soul to Take“). Understated and subdued, the picture can remind one at times of David Gordon Green’s “Snow Angels” but as much as we love Green’s film, this simple and sometimes ambiguous film could arguably be seen as the less Hollywood version of a somewhat similar tale. No word on when this one hits in 2013, but it can’t be soon enough. [Read our Tribeca 2013 review]

Short Term 12
The highlight of this year’s otherwise unmemorable 2013 SXSW Film Festival, Destin Cretton’s sophomore effort snatched up the top prize at the fest. Chronicling the 20-something supervising staff of a foster care facility who have to navigate the troubled waters of a world filled with abused, neglected and discarded teenagers, this bruising drama is both authentic and heartrending. Centering on two staff members in a relationship who also have their own personal issues, the names Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street“) and John Gallagher Jr. (HBO‘s “The Newsroom“) probably don’t jump out at you when discussing some of the best young actors working today, but holy hell they are terrific, with Brie particularly impressing far beyond anything she’s done thus far. Opening later this summer, “Short Term 12” is worth your time and then some. [Read our review from SXSW 2013]

Prince Avalanche
To many,
David Gordon Green’s career is a head scratcher. He began as the heir apparent to Malick with his stunning debut “George Washington” and seemed poised to remain one of the most beloved indie filmmakers out there with movies like “All The Real Girls,” “Snow Angels” and to a lesser extent, the uneven experiment that was “Undertow” (which Malick himself handpicked him to direct). Then Green did what most assumed was go mainstream, with a string of comedies that included “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” The reality seems to be that Green, like Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle and Gus Van Sant (three filmmakers he admires), has omnivorous taste and wants to try everything (and arguably his restless drives shows that he wants to try several things at once within the same movie). While many would call “Prince Avalanche” Green’s return to his indie roots, it’s much more than that, a melding of all his sensibilities thus far into something boldly idiosyncratic, humanistic and vital. The plot is a “Waiting For Godot”-like two-hander (starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) about two at-odds-with-each other highway road workers spending their summer toiling away in the middle of nowhere while both nursing female troubles; ‘Avalanche’ is both hilarious, meditative and deeply full of life. Green’s best film so far? If not, damn fucking close. [Read our review from Sundance 2013]

Honorable Mention:
Obviously, there’ve been a few we’ve missed. Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” starring an outstandingly good Mads Mikkelsen, is a film we love and it ended up on three of our Best Films Of The Year lists… last year, because we all saw it at film festivals. While we really admire it and encourage you to see it, we felt like we’ve given it enough love and decided to place some of these other picks first, but it just missed the cut (review here). The same can be said, to some degree, for “Ginger & Rosa,” “A Hijacking” and “The Attack,” three additional films we saw last year at film festivals and were included on some of our year end lists (RP‘s, Oli’s and Jess‘ lists, respectively.) The first features a stunning turn by Elle Fanning (her best to date, this kid is gonna be a Meryl Streep when she’s older); “A Hijacking” is a super tense drama about a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates; and “The Attack” is a gripping and fearless drama detailing a good man’s unraveling after he discovers his wife was a suicide bomber. Also, something that arguably should have been near the top of our proper list is Jane Campion‘s breathtakingly good, haunting and moody crime thriller, “Top Of The Lake.” Of course it was a seven part TV series, but don’t be surprised if you see it on our individual lists at the end of the year anyhow.

Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder” was too divisive for the whole group to include it in the main list. You can probably tell from our podcast earlier this year, some of us loved it, others hated it and some of just thought it was admirable, but not Malick’s most successful film. Other festival films we dug not making the cut included “The Rocket” and “What Richard Did” from Tribeca, and “Breathe In” from Sundance. Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is kind of an enthralling blast of music and visuals, but falls short story wise, so it ain’t on the main list. As uneven as it is, there remains plenty to love about it, including James Franco playing a white trashy Florida rapper and a defining Britney Spears cover/music moment. The provocative “We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks” is an essential doc as is “The Gatekeepers” which we saw at TIFF last year. And lest we break embargo, we won’t write any major details, but Zack Snyder’s “Man Of Steel,” (impressive and yet imperfect) is certainly is strong enough to merit inclusion here (note the sole blockbuster on this list).

As for the “coming soon” section, there are some films that we’ve seen at festivals and that will arrive at some point but don’t have firmed-up release dates yet so we didn’t add them, like James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Jim Mickle‘s deliciously atmospheric, slow-build cannibal horror remakeWe Are What We Are.” From the festival circuit, coming later this year and also worth your time is “The Spectacular Now” starring strong performances from Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Brie Larson.

In Case You Are Wondering: Fought Over & Didn’t Make The Cut 
OK, what’s not on our list and why? Lots of us like “Room 237,” the documentary about Kubrick‘s “The Shining,” but some of us made the strong case that it’s like fan fiction gone wrong, or like being trapped at a dinner party with a nerd going on and on about something that’s interesting at first, but then makes you want to shoot yourself after a while. Plenty of us enjoyed the thrillers “Trance” and “Side Effects” but they are admittedly thin, inessential films with little long-term sustain. At best they are shiny baubles that you aren’t going to pack with you on a trip (or include on a Best of Year list). While some of us (OK, just Drew) think “The Croods” is the best DreamWorks Animation feature since “How to Train Your Dragon,” the rest of us don’t necessarily think that’s much to write home about. While we love Cate Shortland, her sophomore feature, “Lore,” just felt somewhat unremarkable. The same can sadly be said for two auteurs, Olivier Assayas and Abbas Kiarostami. While there are supporters for both “Something In The Air” and “Like Someone In Love,” the naysayers on these films were much more vocal about the middlingness of both and beat into submission those who thought they were “a’ight.” Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” features the best Dennis Quaid performance in forever and its last act is rather excellent, but the film is too uneven and unfocused for us to include here. “Shadow Dancer” is a decent espionage thriller, but again, not quite memorable enough to include in our main list. And while Joss Whedon‘s low-budget Shakespeare adaptation “Much Ado About Nothing” is hugely entertaining and outrageously funny (in the same way all things kissed-by-Whedon are), its cheap, DIY looseness just keeps it from achieving actual greatness.   

What has impressed you so far this year? What you are looking forward to and what do you think should also make the cut? Let us know below. — Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, Oliver Lyttelton, Cory Everett

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