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The Best Films of 2013 So Far

The Best Films of 2013 So Far

Making a list of the best movies of the year is fun. Making a list of the best movies of the year so far is brutal.

I keep a running tally of all the movies I watch, plus a separate tally of the films I consider worthy of discussion as one of the year’s best. Right now I’ve seen somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy theatrically released movies this calendar year. Only eight of them qualified, in my mind, as top ten material. Granted I’ve missed a few notable titles — including some that ranked highly on the Criticwire Network’s list of the Best of 2013 so far. But still: eight out of seventy. That’s not a great batting average.

Without enough candidates for a full top ten, I winnowed my shortlist down to the five films below and plowed ahead. All of them are currently available for rental or purchase online, or are playing around the country in limited release. And they are:

5. “No
Directed by Pablo Larrain
Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube and VOD

An inspiring and in some ways unsettling piece of history, written not with lightning but jingles; the remarkable true story of the opposition movement in Chile that toppled dictator Augusto Pinochet with peppy slogans and feel-good marketing designed to sell democracy like soft drinks. Director Pablo Larrain, capping off a trilogy of films about life under Pinochet, manages to celebrate the “NO” campaign’s incredible achievements while still leaving wiggle room to ponder the implications of a world where brands trump ideology. Shooting the entire film on vintage Sony U-matic technology in 4:3 aspect ratio enabled Larrain to seamlessly blend the original “NO” ads with new footage, and mimicked the way Gael Garcia Bernal’s character, rising adman Rene Saavedra, blurred the line between the real and the fictional in his own work.

4. “Side Effects
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and VOD

Preparing for a retirement that looks like it may never happened, Steven Soderbergh indulged his dark side with this deliciously sordid, vaguely “Psycho”-ish Hitchcockian thriller about a young woman (Rooney Mara) who finds herself struck by a brutal case of depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) returns home from a long and miserable stay in prison. Her psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes a variety of medications, and they work, too — but not without (duh duh duhhhhh!) side effects. Operating at peak cerebral capacity himself, Sodebergh produced a great entertainment; twisty, surprising, and, like the pharmaceuticals that prove so crucial to the film’s plot and themes, one hell of a mindfuck.

3. “Stoker
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and VOD

Another Hitchcockian thriller with all kinds of allusions to “Psycho” — this one’s got a shower scene, a dingy motel, a handsome, likable young man hiding a dark secret, and even a couple of stuffed birds lying around the set. Making his English language debut, Korean auteur Park Chan-wook delivered a heavily stylized, intensely detailed piece of filmmaking, with some of the most beautiful cinematography and most precise editing of the year. Anchored by a trio of twisted lead performances from Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman, “Stoker” takes us on a wild ride into the dark secrets of a truly demented family. Even with the direct allusions to Hitchcock — Goode’s character is named Uncle Charlie like a similar one in Hitch’s “Shadow of a Doubt” — Park’s most Hitchcockian touch is a formal one: the way every single shot and cut feels meticulously and painstakingly executed according to the director’s grand design.

2. “Frances Ha
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Now playing in select theaters

Noah Baumbach has said in interviews that while most people identify Woody Allen as his clearest cultural ancestor, they often miss his biggest influence: the comedies of Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis. Viewed through that lens, “Frances Ha” begins to look like Baumbach’s “Stripes” — a pair of aimless and broke best friends struggle to grow the hell up. Both movies feature similarly bittersweet vibes with plenty of hilarious observational comedy. Both also feature truly great lead performances; in “Frances Ha”‘s case, that comes from Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the movie with Baumbach, and helped infuse the screenplay with the authentic flavor of 2010s New York City. Most underrated element: the title, which sounds a little strange and doesn’t make much sense until you see the movie, whereupon it reveals itself as the most perfect and meaningful title imaginable.

1. “Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley
Now playing in select theaters

I could make all sorts of arguments on behalf of this movie: how it brilliantly blends archival footage and reenactments, how its layering of narratives and counter-narratives from director Sarah Polley’s siblings rivals “Rashomon,” how it contains some of the most mesmerizing talking head interviews I have ever seen in my entire life. But ultimately all of that pales in comparison to this one crucial fact: this movie made me laugh and cry harder than anything else I’ve seen in 2013. Big bursts of laughter. Big salty tears. What a movie. You should see it.

Also great this year so far, in alphabetical order: 
“Before Midnight,” “John Dies at the End,” and “Kid-Thing.”

Utterly, completely, and totally not great this year so far, in alphabetical order: 
“A Good Day to Die Hard,” “The Hangover Part III,” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “The Internship” and “Jack the Giant Slayer.”

Probably great movies I missed this year so far, in alphabetical order:
“Beyond the Hills,” “Leviathan,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Mud,” and “Post Tenebras Lux.”

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