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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Best Films of Summer 2013

A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.


By Joshua Handler

This summer I screened and reviewed around 70 movies.  Needless to say, it was a mixed bag.  This summer saw its fair share of terrible blockbusters (each summer they seem to get dumber and dumber) and stellar indies.  The only three mainstream films this summer that got above a 3-star rating were Elysium (review here), Star Trek Into Darkness (not reviewed), and You're Next (review).  This does not mean that I have a bias against mainstream films.  As you may have noticed, I have actually been reviewing more mainstream films, as I truly do like seeing them.  The lower ratings just indicate the poor quality of the movies.  This summer's selection of indies was remarkable.  There were quite a few that passed under the radar that really shouldn't have (Drug War and Fill the Void are just some of those movies).  The following films, I believe, epitomize independent cinema today.  They are a group of bold, provocative, and compelling films that are unlike any I've seen before.

More Honorable Mentions: Una Noche (review), Laurence Anyways (review), Much Ado About Nothing (review), Twenty Feet From Stardom (review), You're Next (review), Crystal Fairy (review).

Photo by Merrick Morton © 2013 Gravier Productions 
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Honorable Mention: Blue Jasmine (Dir. Woody Allen) – While this Allen film has an engrossing story, Blue Jasmine is Cate Blanchett’s show.  No performance has driven an entire film like this all year.  Again, Blue Jasmine features a strong story, but it is Blanchett’s performance that hits it out of the park.  She plays Jasmine, a woman who moves from her high life in New York to San Francisco to live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).  Blanchett is a powerhouse, perfectly capturing Jasmine’s mental decline.  She commands every frame and will certainly receive an Oscar nomination.  My review here.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
10. Drinking Buddies (Dir. Joe Swanberg) – This fully improvised beauty’s success belongs to its four actors: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.  Each gives a performance so realistic that it was hard to believe that the film was a work of fiction.  Wilde is mesmerizing and so is Johnson.  Their easy chemistry drives the film, giving it a feeling of hanging out with old friends.  My review here.

Photo credit: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
9. Blackfish (Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwate) – This disturbing, eye-opening documentary will cause anyone who has ever been to Sea World to feel a massive amount of guilt.  Cowperthwaite’s doc made waves at Sundance this year, as it explores why Sea World’s killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three people.  This is a passionate film that infuriated and horrified me.  My review here.

Photo courtesy of A24 Films
8. The Spectacular Now (Dir. James Ponsoldt) – The most honest film about high school that I have ever seen, The Spectacular Now is a sensitive piece of filmmaking with career-making performances by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley who also have natural chemistry.  The screenplay, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is gutsy, as it tackles some tough issues facing teens, mainly alcoholism and dysfunctional families.  The screenplay, though, is subtle enough to not beat the audience over the head with morals and lessons, making it even more impressive and powerful.  This is John Hughes without the sentimentality.  My review here.

Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
7. Cuite and the Boxer (Dir. Zachary Heinzerling) - A beautiful documentary about Ushio Shinohara, famous for his boxing painting, and his relationship with his wife, Noriko.  Winner of the Best Directing Award for Documentary at Sundance this year, this is a moving portrait of a complicated marriage that is insightful and often quite funny.  Cutie's larger themes are universal and meaningful, yet it is in the smaller moments that this movie really shines the most.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

6. The World’s End (Dir. Edgar Wright) – The third part in Edgar Wright’s brilliant “Cornetto Trilogy” is the most energetic – and the most heartfelt.  An apocalyptic comedy unlike any other, this is the best comedy of the year thus far with stellar performances from Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine.  Inventive, bizarre, and pure fun.  What more could you ask for?  My review here.

Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

5. The Attack (Dir. Ziad Doueiri) – A devastating film that ends with an emotional gut punch, The Attack tells the story of an Arab surgeon living in Tel Aviv who slowly uncovers his wife’s secrets after a suicide bombing.  Ali Suliman’s performance is heart-wrenching, and are the cinematography and score are perfect matches to the beauty of Suliman's performance.  However, what truly distinguishes The Attack from other films about the horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is that it has a message of tolerance and peace.  A masterful, enlightened, and bleak film.  My review here.

4. The Hunt (Dir. Thomas Vinternberg) - A thought-provoking and frighteningly realistic psychological drama, The Hunt follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen in a performance that won him the Best Actor award at Cannes last year), a kindergarten teacher's aide who is falsely accused by one of his students of sexual abuse.  This accusation slowly begins to unravel Lucas' life.  Mikkelsen is incredible and Charlotte Bruus Christensen's cinematography is rich, but what makes this film so disturbing and effective is how realistic it is - the scenario presented in the film could happen to anyone.  The ending is unexpected and will stick in your mind for days.  My review here.

Courtesy of Cinedigm
3. Short Term 12 (Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton) – The American indie of the year, Short Term 12 is a heartbreaking, yet feel-good masterpiece about a young woman, Grace (Brie Larson), who lives with her boyfriend/co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and supervises a foster care facility for troubled teens.  As she helps them through their problems, she has to face her own.  Brie Larson pulls off an understated performance that is revealing and mysterious and John Gallagher Jr.’s brims with warmth and heart.  The supporting cast also gives devastating performances.  Cretton develops every character and never looks down on them.  He fills the film with small, yet powerful moments that resonated with me and have never left my mind.  Above all, though, what sets Short Term 12 apart from other films of its kind is its honesty.  My review here.

Photo by Despina Spyrou
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

2. Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater) – The finale (as of now) to one of the greatest motion picture trilogies in history, Before Midnight is a raw, melancholic, and funny look at Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, respectively) and their lives nine years after Before Sunset ended.  The acting is, as usual, stellar, as it never feels as if Delpy and Hawke are acting.  They have the best chemistry I’ve ever seen on film and their characters have to be the best-developed I’ve ever seen.  Watching each Before film is like dropping in on old friends.  Linklater’s direction is unobtrusive and he lets each scene play out as long as it needs to.  In short, this is a moving masterpiece and the finest hour of all involved.  My review here.

A scene from the documentary The Act of Killing
Courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
1. The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) – The most unique and important film I’ve seen in years, Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking psychodoc follows Anwar Congo, a perpetrator of the ‘60s Indonesian genocide, and what happens to him when Oppenheimer challenges him to recreate his crimes in whatever film style/genre he chooses (i.e. noir, musical, etc.).  The Act of Killing was executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog and is way more than just a documentary.  It is a political statement, a social experiment, a psychological study, and is, to date, the best documentary I’ve ever seen and the most revealing film about human nature that I have ever seen.  Unforgettable.  Review coming soon.

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