Top 10 Films of 2013 So Far

Ignore the 12 month calendar, when it comes to movies, the year is divided into two seasons: before the fall, and after the fall. We get mid-level genre fare from January until May, along with a couple of second-tier blockbusters. Summer brings out the big franchise sequels, and a few well-reviewed indies as counter-programming. But any studio—large or small—that has a promising movie made with artistry and intelligence, usually holds it back till the unofficial beginning of Oscar season, heralded by three festivals (Venice, Telluride, and Toronto) that take place in early September.

In Hollywood wisdom, this is where anything aimed at adults begins the four month race toward Academy Award nominations—without which, box office prospects are considered severely impaired. So, what this means for moviegoers, is that for right months we bemoan the lack of anything good in cinemas, catch up on all the quality cable TV shows, then find ourselves scurrying to catch up with a sudden embarrassment of riches, many of which get lost in the hustle. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s the way things are, and hey, at least we get a few months when loving movies is not a zero sum game.  

And yet, 2013 has been a schizophrenic year. On the one hand, the multiplexes have been filled with the usual bloated lowest-common-denominator dreck, but on the other, indie movies have been much stronger than usual, and I can count at least 10 films released thus far that I would heartily recommend without reservation. So, without further ado, my personal best of 2013, at the unofficial half-way point before the quality onslaught begins.  

Honorable Mentions: Pacific Rim was dumb as a brick, and yet, a movie aimed at 12-year-old boys that made me feel (and cheer) like one. The Great Gatsby was an over-stylized mess, and yet a bold and unique interpretation of a classic text. Spring Breakers‘s hallucinatory fever dream eventually fizzled, and yet contained a balls-out brilliant performance by James Franco. World War Z was instantly forgettable, robbed of the novel’s socio-political satire, and yet an undeniably exciting thrill ride with some fantastically realized set pieces.  

10. Stories We Tell

While I wasn’t a fan of Sarah Polley’s first two directorial outings, there’s no denying the emotional power and skilled construction of her very personal documentary essay—which interweaves an entire family’s memories and secrets into a fascinating rumination on the various facets of  so-called "shared truths" and the different ways people construct narratives from the seen and unseen events of their lives.   

 

9. Mud

Though not as transcendent or mind-blowing as Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ third feature is a well-told, laid-back Southern yarn, that blends Twain and Dickens for a sweet yet unsentimental coming of age story set in the swamplands of the Bayou, as a young boy’s chance encounter with an ex-con brings his ideas and notions about love crashing into reality.  

 

8. Frances Ha

Like an episode of Girls directed by Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach makes his best movie since Squid and the Whale, with this rarest of beasts—a romantic comedy with no romance. Greta Gerwig creates a vivid, completely unique character, whose growth and maturation has, refreshingly, absolutely nothing to do with finding a man.  

 

7. The East

Brit Marling writes herself a great role in this smart, complex thriller set in a grass roots eco-terrorist cell. The moral nuances are embraced, the characters are believable and fully realized, the pace is exciting, and the themes urgent and relevant without ever being preachy.  

 

6. Blue Jasmine

Woody’s best movie since Vickiy Cristina Barcelona is a searing indictment of 1% entitlement, and in Cate Blanchett’s performance, contains the best special effect of the year. Her performance is a thing to be amazed by—a slow motion breakdown that is never less than utterly hypnotic, and no matter how despicable, still manages to somehow, strangely retain our sympathies due to its unavoidable, messy humanity.

   

5. The World’s End

Edgar Wright’s third and final film in the loosely connected "Cornetto Trilogy" (`after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is hysterically funny, riotously entertaining, mind-bogglingly ambitious, and actually, genuinely about something: the dead end nature of nostalgia, the corporatization of culture, the effect of time on friendships, and the self-destructive yet utterly unique nature of the human ego, that sets us apart from all other species, animal or alien. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers beating up the The Big Chill after a dozen pints at a stand-up comedy night, The World’s End is two completely different films unapologetically smushed together to make something brilliant and unique, and the final ten minute epilogue is the most brazenly left-field and inspired ending I’ve seen this decade.  

 

4. Short Term 12

Depicting the lives of a young couple as they navigate a roster of damaged, abused kids in a foster care facility, this absolute gem navigates truly treacherous terrain and somehow manages to avoid cheap sentiment and predictability, achieving its own kind of clear-eyed grace without ever hitting a false note. Brie Larson is a revelation as a woman whose no-bullshit  compassion with her young charges conflicts with her struggles to heal her own past, but the entire cast does stand-out work in this hard-hitting, deeply humane, genuinely important film about the actual skill it takes to love others, and ourselves.

   

3. Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s second feature after the Sundance-winning Primer, is one of the boldest American art films of this young century, that practically invents its own cinematic language. There are elements of plot, there are characters, but the narrative follows the logic of dreams and emotions, which, if you surrender to their flow, provide a truly unforgettable trip (in all senses of the word). I’m not sure I can tell you what it all means—it involves identity-theft, fear of intimacy, alienation, love, and ur… pigs—but it made sense to me at a deeply sub-conscious level, and there are images and scenes forever burned into my brain, that still have me in awe. An uncompromised work of art by a true visionary auteur—this is the future of independently financed, independently made, independently distributed film, that breaks the mold of all pre-existing cinema within the prevailing, and failing, current system. A one-of-a-kind masterpiece, pure and simple.

   

2. Before Midnight

The perfect end to a perfect trilogy. Richard Linklater’s third and final rumination on romance is one of the most mature, realistic, yet deliciously enthralling depictions of a long term relationship, beyond its characters’ fantasies and idealized expectations of what love should be. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are mesmerizing in their conversational dance around each other’s alter egos, who, after 20 years and sojourns in three European countries, reveal layers and complexities that most films daren’t even attempt. Before Midnight works as a great stand alone movie, but as the third part of a larger whole, completes one of the strangest and genuinely romantic cinematic experiments of all time.

   

1. The Grandmaster

Absolutely avoid the dumbed-down butchered version currently screening in US cinemas, head down to Chinatown or `yes.asia.com’, and buy the full, uncut, 130 minute Chinese version, in all its overstuffed, culturally specific glory. This jaw-droppingly beautiful movie is like Dr. Zhivago with martial arts, an elegiac tone poem for the honor-bound, highly coded world of kung fu before it spread its reach to the outer world. Ostensibly a biopic of Bruce Lee’s teacher, Ip Man, it is above all, another masterpiece from Wong Kar-wai, and like the rest of his oeuvre,  a highly stylized, achingly romantic mood mosaic about beautiful, heartbroken smokers, with the added bonus of the most hands down awesome fight sequences since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  

 

 

And that’s it for the first eight months. The rest of the year begins with a bang now, as I head down to the Toronto film festival. Stay tuned for thoughts on Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, The Past, Prisoners,  and many, many more, as we collectively forget the calamities on most studios’ slates, believe in a world where art and commerce happily co-exist, and let the fall feast of films begin.  

Daniel Hardy lives in a cabin in the woods, watches a lot of movies, and occasionally writes screenplays for a living. 

Edgar Wright on His Favorite Films and Biggest Influences

Last week, Edgar Wright’s latest installment of the Cornetto trilogy—The World’s End—stormed into theaters, opening to rave reviews, with critics and fans alike praising the its mix of pub crawling pleasure and emotional weight. In our feature with Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, we said that the film was:

…a paranoid sci-fi capper to a sequence of films that began with zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and continued with buddy-action flick Hot Fuzz. Of course, there’s more linking these movies than big laughs and genre thrills—there’s also a lot of heart, an emotive power that can knock you out when you least expect it.
 
There’s much ado about British drinking culture, too, especially in The World’s End, which follows an ill-fated pub crawl. In that sense, it’s not merely fanboy catnip—it’s a dead-serious alcoholic odyssey.
And thanks to TIME (via The Sevent Art), you can enjoy a brief but lovely interview with Wright from 2010 in which he explains his love and admiration for some of his favorite films and biggest influences—from Carrie to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And adding to what Wright says in the video about An American Werewolf in London, we noted in our feature Your Favorite Directors on the Films That Changed Their Lives, that Wright said: 
I’ve always been fascinated by horror films and genre films. And horror films harbored a fascination for me and always have been something I’ve wanted to watch and wanted to make. Equally, I’m very fascinated by comedy. I suppose the reason that this film changed my life is that very early on in my film-watching experiences, I saw a film that was so sophisticated in its tone and what it managed to achieve.
 
It really changed my life. It’s informed both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. There have been moments of verbal comedy, physical comedy, and tonal comedy. And extreme violence, somehow. Something like An American Werewolf in London, the idea of having this mix of socially awkward comedy prided by incredibly vivd Oscar-winning horror, was just astonishing—is really astonishing. Horror films never get considered for Academy Awards; it’s incredible that An American Werewolf in London won the first ever makeup Oscar.
For a closer look at his favorite films, check out the video below. 
 

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, And Edgar Wright Make It To ‘The World’s End’

The accidental so-called “Cornetto trilogy” reaches a dazzling conclusion in The World’s End, hitting theaters today: a paranoid sci-fi capper to a sequence of films that began with zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and continued with buddy-action flick Hot Fuzz. Of course, there’s more linking these movies than big laughs and genre thrills—there’s also a lot of heart, an emotive power that can knock you out when you least expect it.

There’s much ado about British drinking culture, too, especially in The World’s End, which follows an ill-fated pub crawl. In that sense, it’s not merely fanboy catnip—it’s a dead-serious alcoholic odyssey, as director-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer and star Simon Pegg, and co-star Nick Frost made clear in our interview.

“There’s a reason there’s twelve pubs on the crawl,” said Pegg, who once more takes on the duties of flawed protagonist in Gary King, a man whose life peaked in high school. “When it seems the world’s about to end, you go to the most important thing,” he explains of the character, who’s determined to finish his pub crawl despite an alien invasion, “and for him that’s lager. He’s an alcoholic.” Indeed, from the first shot of pints—struck with holy light by cinematographer Bill Pope, bubbles trickling to the top—you’ll wish American cinemas served beer. “That and at the end are the only time it’s real lager,” Frost, who plays Gary’s estranged friend Andy Knightley, dragged along for the ride, explains. Throughout the rest of filming, they had to drink a brown sugar-water concoction “with cream soda on top for the head. Lot of bathroom breaks.” “There was talk of having us catheterized,” Pegg puts in, affecting an old-man voice: "Clean my bag!" 
 
So where did the idea of a pub crawl during the apocalypse come from? Actually, the kernel of the story is nearly twenty years old: Edgar Wright in his youth filmed a short about friends attempting an epic night of drinking, only to be undone by their own enthusiasm. “That’s the first five minutes of this film,” Wright says—in the opening of The World’s End, a teenage Gary leads Andy and three other school chums on a debauch called “The Golden Mile,” at least one pint each at a dozen pubs in their suburban hometown. They never make it to the final station, The World’s End, and twenty years later, Gary is determined to rectify that with another attempt (the idea occurs to him at an alcoholics anonymous meeting).
 
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Gary’s old crew are all responsible adults now, however, played by the endlessly talented actors Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan. They and especially Andy, who has suffered for Gary’s addiction in the past, are reluctant to return to the site of their former lives, but follow their former leader. After a few pints, it occurs to them that there may be something amiss. But what? Are they just older? Are they the ones who have changed? Or has the town itself? “We wanted to take ‘alienation’ to its literal extreme,” Pegg says.
 
Alienation, substance abuse, the drifting apart of friends—that’s what gives The World’s End the weight of Oscar-worthy film, all packaged in the eye candy of a sci-fi blockbuster. Training and choreography for the relatively short 12-week shoot were intense, and it shows: no comedic team has ever staged fight scenes so convincing, in large part because they’re edited together in just a few takes, rarely use stunt doubles, and rely on the characters to determine combat style. Frost is a particular delight, boasting what Pegg called an “Incredible Hulk” performance. “He’s just so full of repressed rage,” he says. Again, something serious, just under the entertaining surface. 
 
To say much more about the adventure that unfolds would be to spoil the charm of the movie, which does a lot of winking—the names of the pubs, for example, tend to correspond to what happens plotwise within them. The music, too, culled from a 200-song playlist of Edgar Wright’s encompassing the period of 1988-1991 (around when the original pub crawl takes place) is very on the nose: we hear The Sundays’ “Here’s Where The Story Ends” on a jukebox, and The Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold” when Gary decides to drink the dregs of some abandoned pints.
 
As for the nature of the invasion, ultimately the story hinges not on the aliens’ plans but the bizarre and frustrating riddle of human nature. Why do we behave this way? Is there something fundamentally wrong with us? Pegg, Frost and Wright admit they don’t know, only that it’s good fodder for a cerebral romp through a mélange of their own childhood memories and fevered imaginations. 
 
Have they ever attempted a pub crawl themselves? Naturally. This last time, though, they got through just four bars. “Edgar’s a terrible drinker,” Frost explains. “We had to carry him home.” “I’m a terrible drinker,” Wright agrees. I ask what name he’d give a pub of his own, and he wracks his brain before deciding. “The Lightweight & Blackout,” he says.  

‘The World’s End’ Trailer Is Required Viewing

We’ve long known that the third part of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s so-called Three Flavours Cornetto Triology—which began with instant cult classics Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz—would be a sci-fi entry. But exactly how that genre would manifest in the hands of some serious geeks who like to turn blockbuster conventions on their head? That was anyone’s guess, really. Till now.

The World’s End is introduced as being about a guys’ night out, a pub crawl with a group of old friends that culminates at the establishment for which the film is apparently named. One expects a Hangover retread, almost. But all is not what it seems in the town where they hope to get soused.
As is the case for these dudes going all the way back to fanboy sitcom Spaced, the allusions come thick and fast. From the teaser alone I get the vibe that The World’s End is an homage to invasion films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Village of the Damned, and maybe even The Stepford Wives—with a healthy dose of British urban alien thriller Attack the Block. Heck, even Shaun of the Dead is referenced with a fence-jumping gag. All of which suggests we have a lot more to look forward to here.