by Tony Dayoub
So far, 2013 has been a stronger year for American cinema than I expected. But admittedly, my near complete ignorance of this year's foreign films probably has more to do with my lack of easy, timely access to them. By awards season I'll have seen most of this year's movies, and that usually upsets my list considerably. So I'm sure you'll see representation of the overseas contingent then. Anyway, whatevs... the list of 2013's best films so far, my response to Indiewire's recent Critics Poll, appears after the jump.
Side Effects, Directed by Steven Soderbergh - Reviewed here. Want to see a true auteur at the top of his game? Look no further than Side Effects, a film that recalls Soderbergh's best exposés (Traffic) and procedurals (Contagion) while batting cleanup for a series of movies about post-recession materialism that began with the underrated The Girlfriend Experience.
Passion, dir. Brian De Palma - Reviewed here. That this illogical but virtuosic movie still ranks so high despite the fact that I saw it at a press screening last September should tell you how strongly I believe in it. Detractors will scream at the movies nonsensical plot holes. What, they never saw Dressed to Kill? If you allow De Palma to put you under the picture's dreamy thrall I guarantee you will be swept up by one hell of an erotic suspense thriller.
This Is the End, dirs. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen - Reviewed here. Faced with even something as monumental as the Apocalypse, Rogen, actor friends Jay Baruchel, James Franco and more (all playing themselves) behave as self-centered, vacuous and selfish as they do most of the rest of the time. That is this movie's conceit and it pays off big because Goldberg and Rogen keep the film brisk, lean and on target just long enough for its one, black joke to avoid wearing out its welcome.
Iron Man 3, dir. Shane Black - Reviewed here. Who's the real hero, the armored Iron Man or the very human Tony Stark? This final chapter of the Marvel film series firmly comes down on the side of the latter. With the armor in a near-constant state of disrepair, Iron Man 3 puts Robert Downey, Jr. in the spotlight. That's probably good for Downey, who no doubt leveraged this entry's phenomenal success at the worldwide box office to get himself a better deal for his participation in the upcoming Avengers sequels during recent contract negotiations. But its definitely a plus for us.
Berberian Sound Studio, dir. Peter Strickland - Reviewed here. Does a horror film need to show you gruesome images in order to terrify you? Strickland takes up the challenge of making a frightening movie by concentrating purely on the aural elements and succeeds. Much of the film takes place in a darkened sound studio, inky blackness shrouding the better part of each frame. Those claustrophobic shadows and an increasingly disturbing series of letters—on the rather banal subject of birdwatching—to sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) from his mother only highlight the absurdity of the fact that he hasn't seem to have ventured out of the studio even once since his contract began. But its the disconcerting sounds Gilderoy records for the movie within the movie that chill you to the bone.
Hannibal (TV Series), Season 1, Executive Producer Bryan Fuller - Okay, I cheated with this one a little. But if you've read my past lists, you know I have a propensity for looking to the unignorable landscape of long-form programming for anything substantial enough to stand in the same arena as the best of cinema. And this year it's this reboot/remake of a literary property which hit its stratospheric peak of popularity with the Academy Award-winning movie The Silence of the Lambs. Fuller had two strokes of genius in developing this show. The first was his decision to focus on the strange "buddy cop" dynamic between FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and psychiatric consultant Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), taking surprisingly little license to reimagine their partnership from a minimal amount of backstory established in Thomas Harris' first Lecter novel, Red Dragon (itself the basis for two movies). The second was convincing a conservative network like NBC to allow him the freedom to depict some fairly graphic and gory crime scenes in a condensed 13-episode season that is more in line with the cable series model. This allows for more time to shoot each episode and greater concentration of its budget in each potent installment. The results are self-evident. Hannibal is one of the most visually arresting, dramatically satisfying and well-orchestrated series to ever hit network TV. Its first season is worth watching once it arrives to DVD/VOD/streaming (it's on iTunes already). You'll have plenty of time to catch up before it returns for a confirmed second season next spring.
Spring Breakers, dir. Harmony Korine - Reviewed here. If its concerns—sex, drugs and violence—weren't so squarely conventional, Spring Breakers would be, in fact, a version of pure cinema one might feel more comfortable seeing in the context of some bizarre art installation. It has even less to say about the human condition as detractors flogging Korine for moralism would have you believe. The filmmaker delivers on exactly what he promises. The movie is as beautiful and mesmerizing a nihilistic void as you'd find at spring break week in Daytona.
The We and the I, dir. Michel Gondry - Reviewed here. This movie succeeds at capturing the emotional peaks and valleys of a city bus full of South Bronx kids returning home from school without ever leaving the confines of the vehicle. Of course, given that its the imaginative Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) at the helm, it shouldn't be a surprise. Using the subtlest forms of split-screen and potent flashbacks, he is able to maneuver around the limitations he set for himself with the same stylistic aplomb he displayed in the music video arena.
Man of Steel, dir. Zack Snyder - Reviewed here. Divisive as the last act of this movie is—it consists of a 40-minute battle royale that virtually flattens Metropolis—I would argue that it drives home the point that every era gets the Superman it deserves. The character has always represented American values and in this case, he reflects a country more concerned with security than safety. Superman (Henry Cavill) stops at nothing to prevent the misguided General Zod (Michael Shannon) from destroying Earth. But at what cost? The loss of life and property under Superman's watch surely sets up a logical rationale for multi-billionaire Lex Luthor's antipathy for the alien in an upcoming installment.
Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach - Reviewed here. In more ways than one, Frances Ha is reminiscent of Woody Allen's Manhattan. But credit Baumbach for realizing that star Greta Gerwig is more than just a pretty face. She co-wrote the film with Baumbach and together they give us the ideal follow-up to his Greenberg, this time focusing on a woman-child who life kicks in the ass a few times before she realizes she's got to grow up.