Mid-year top ten lists are enjoyable, a breezier way to put together a collection of good to great movies that people may have missed in the first half of the cinematic calendar. Unlike the pieces which go up in December, there is traditionally less – though still some – yelling about leaving off this or that. Instead, cinephiles and casual filmgoers use them as a catch-up or guide to what might been overlooked.
The following ten movies are the ten best I’ve seen at this juncture, a combination of blockbusters, art-house and foreign, with a documentary that may be the finest of them all. There are, as always, omissions due to time constraints and mood; Spring Breakers was included until ten minutes ago. Hopefully, you will have seen some of these movies or are interested after seeing their inclusion, but either way thank you for reading as always.
Phew. Glad that one worked out. Nine years after the piece of cinematic perfection Before Sunset, which was nine years after the lovely Before Sunrise, we received Richard Linklater’s third outing with Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine. Before Midnight arrived with lofty expectations, a sort of Dark Knight Rises for the indie-minded. Not only did Linklater and company not disappoint, they went in new directions, just following a similar structure; lots of talking over a brief amount of time. This time, Jesse and Celine were talking about romance from the brain instead of the gut, though with the same intelligence and wit. More than not a disappointment, Before Midnight is arguably the best of the series…so far.
Beyond the Hills
It would appear we’ve got a great new auteur on hands in the form of Cristian Mungiu. 2007’s 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days was one of the finest movies of the first decade of this century and his follow-up Beyond the Hills is a worthy successor. The dark drama delves into traditional religious beliefs and how they clash with modern morals, contorting people to believe the unthinkable. This discrepancy emerges out of a relationship between two women, once romantically involved but separated after leaving the orphanage in which they grew up together. Mungiu’s direction is cold, though importantly non-judgmental. Heinous things are done in this picture. Mungiu has no interest in presenting them as simple.
Fast & Furious 6
Twice in the past week I’ve had to convince people to give Fast & Furious 6 a watch; both times the person believed I was joking. It makes sense, since we’re talking about the sixth film in a decade-plus-old franchise that prominently features Paul Walker. Yet, here we are, with Justin Lin’s insane, easy-going behemoth speeding comfortably past the self-serious, played-out hero stories cluttering the highway. With a deep, funny ensemble and sharply crafted set pieces, what we have here is a movie to be gulped down, plus a big-ass tank.
Outside of not hating Oz the Great and Powerful, I’m not sure I’ve had a bigger argument over a topic than Noah Baumbach in 2013. It isn’t that people think Franches Ha – Baumbach’s latest – is anything short of spectacular; they do. I just happen to believe Baumbach’s work has earned him a spot at the elite American director’s table. Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale were acidic gold, as Margot at the Wedding stands as one of the underrated works of recent cinema. Frances Ha has Baumbach working new, French New Wave inspired muscles, keeping his knack for humorous, based in humanity dialogue, only with a slightly softer side. Gerwig’s performance is the latest in a string of standout turns, a young woman clinging the last strings of naivety youth allows.
Yes, that The Heat. Sure its box-office is booming nicely thus far, but buzz around this buddy-cop comedy wasn’t especially strong, due in no small part to a trailer offering prat-falls and little else. Said falls remain,, exclamation points to scenes rather than the entirety, with a filling by tv veterans Paul Feig and Katie Dippold that gives Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy plenty more to chew on from beginning to end. Consistently funny callbacks are sprayed through out, with a variety of side characters popping in for equally good gags.
Like Someone in Love
Abbas Kiarostami has never been interested in making things easy for his viewers. His films tend to skip any expository dialogue, dropping audiences directly into whatever situation his characters are facing. Never has this been more difficult than in Like Someone in Love, where we begin the picture in a bar, with a handful of men and women apparently stepping into focus, only to step aside for our eventual pseudo-lead, a young prostitute residing in Tokyo, whose inability to make her life into what she wanted is dragging others into her anguish, be they an elderly client, relative or boyfriend. Secrets are everywhere, as is an intimate, underplayed sense of loneliness, one of Kiarostami’s long-running and finest themes.
The smart, menacing Gomorrah showed Italian director Matteo Garrone to be a man capable of intricate, layered storytelling. His latest revealed a different side; a heart. Sure Gomorroah was more than just a intriguing mobster movie, but who knew the man behind it could make a tale of family, obsession and ego with the same sense of place, plus a nuanced, Capra-esque vibe to boot. If awards in America were handed out to movies of a smaller scale like Reality, than surely Aniello Arena would scoop his share of Lead Actor trophies for his Luciano, a reality-show super-fan trying to make the most of his could-be big break, even at the cost of those he seeks to help. Add to that a variety of gorgeous long takes unveiling a wedding procession and the innards of the “Big Brother” stage; you’re left with a marvelous gem.
Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut Stoker is a delightfully twisted film that fits tightly along his past works. In telling the story of a trouble teenage girl (Mia Wasikowska), her cold mother (Nicole Kidman) and her devilish uncle (Matthew Goode), the filmmaker crafted lush visuals that resonate months after release, including maybe the best shot of 2013; a stream of hair being brushed and turning into a thick, bristling brush of tall grass. Some have called Stoker all style and no substance, which is ignoring its pitch black humor and cruel, yet alluring tone.
Stories We Tell
Though this list isn’t numbered, if it was, there’s a strong possibility Stories We Tell would be at the top of the pile. Sarah Polley’s moving documentary about her family and the rumor/joke that hovers around them. Through home videos (of a sort), interviews and much more, Polley unfurls the truth about the much discussed story; is her father also the biological one? It’s full of surprises, in the way it’s told and how the facts come popping forth, garnering sincere tears and laughs. That essence of how one crafts our own personal narratives is lovingly crafted.
To the Wonder
For whatever reason, To the Wonder appears to have disappeared off the radar for most movie fans, despite being a Terrence Malick film and a pretty terrific work. It’s a challenging picture, and one that can easily be dismissed by casual viewers seeking something more plot-centric. Those up for something more with a capital A for Artistic, with a moving view on the agonies and ecstasies of love and how they relate to a person’s take on believing in a higher power, will be taken by To the Wonder. The central performance by Olga Kurylenko is revelatory in particular, showing an actress capable of poignant melancholy. It’s a shaggy film and Malick’s weakest to date, therefore still better than 90% of what’s out there.