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Best films of the year (so far): 17 superlatives to honor 2013’s finest

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Conventional wisdom holds that the best movies of any given year tend to drop during its second half, as studios ease audiences out of the popcorn fare of summer and into the adult-friendly awards bait of the chillier months. But then, “conventional” has almost nothing to do with this year’s crop of early-bird triumphs, an unusual (and unusually strong) front load of films. From Hollywood horror gems like Mama to rule-breaking documentaries like The Act Of Killing and Leviathan, the first half of 2013 was filthy with great cinema—enough so that, were nothing else to open between now and New Year’s Eve, we’d still have a mighty respectable best-of list. Below, we look back on the year so far through superlatives, honoring the highlights while still hoping, with apologies to Alain Resnais, that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.


Best use of CGI: Kon-Tiki
Too many films use CGI as a crutch, to replace the hard work of getting a difficult but not impossible shot. Yet every now and then, CGI is used as it should be: to achieve an effect that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise. The Norwegian film Kon-Tiki, which dramatizes Thor Heyerdahl’s famous journey to Polynesia by balsa-wood raft, is mostly an old-school adventure yarn. But then comes a gorgeous, unbroken shot midway through Heyerdahl’s trip in which the camera flies up, up, up over the raft, through the clouds, into space, over toward the moon on one side of the planet, then over toward the sun on the other side, and finally back down to the raft again. It may be the most ambitious God’s-eye view ever attempted, and enough to make even a jaded CGI-hater feel like a goggle-eyed kid again. [SM]

Most welcome demonstration of faith in the viewer’s intelligence: Upstream Color
Shane Carruth’s long-awaited sophomore feature adamantly refuses to spoon-feed any element of its complex narrative, which depicts a life cycle encompassing rare orchids, mind-altering worms, and a psychic link between humans and pigs. When the movie’s thief (Thiago Martins) holds his hypnotized victim (Amy Seimetz) in place temporarily, for example, we don’t hear his initial offscreen instruction. Instead, Carruth gives us the moment of her release (“You can leave the tile. The rest of the floor will support your weight now”), trusting that we’re capable of extrapolating backward. It’s the opposite approach that most movies take—even relatively smart independent and foreign films—which tend to underline important details multiple times, deathly afraid that somebody out there might not get it. Upstream Color fascinates in multiple ways, but it also offers something truly rare: respect. [MD]


Best goth bassist: Jessica Chastain, Mama
Jessica Chastain may have earned an Oscar nom as a steely, obsessed CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, but for pure ass-kicking style, that performance has nothing on her turn in Mama. As a punk-rock bassist left to care for her husband’s two nieces when they’re found in the woods—years after having disappeared—Chastain is all goth gloriousness, a woman of black-haired, tattooed, don’t-tread-on-me attitude. As she spends time with the traumatized girls, Chastain slowly transforms from combative warden to caring surrogate mother, all while striking a stunning riot-grrrl pose. Her badass flair and matching disposition are the heartbeat of this wicked fairy tale, and ultimately make her a figure of dark maternal protectiveness fit for combating the titular malevolent mommy. [NS]

Scariest exorcism: Beyond The Hills
The power of Christ has compelled a lot of unholy inhabitants this year, from the body squatters of The Last Exorcism Part II and The Conjuring to the sarcastic demon force that takes residence inside Jonah Hill in This Is The End. But 2013’s most frightening devil-expunging ceremony is the one without a real devil to expunge. In the intense Romanian slow-burn Beyond The Hills, iron-willed Cristina Flutur travels to a remote monastery in search of childhood companion—and, it’s implied, former lover—Cosmina Stratan. When the object of her affection politely vetoes the plan to run away together, Flutur directs her hurt feelings at the entire convent. Blasphemous words are uttered, one thing leads to another, and soon the troubled girl is being strapped to a plank in a misguided attempt to drive the evil out of her. It’s a long, suffocatingly intense sequence—disturbing not just for the insane lengths these holy people will go to silence a dissenter, but also for the frightful ferocity Flutur summons. Hell knows no fury like this woman scorned. [AD]

Movie likeliest to make audiences grateful for air-conditioning: Sun Don’t Shine
Sun Don’t Shine, the directorial debut of actress Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color), is a dreamy, scuzzy 16 mm throwback to the sub-B-movies of yesteryear, like the regional exploitation movies of the ’70s and the compact low-end noirs of the ’50s. Set over the course of about 24 hours, the movie follows lovers-on-the-run Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil as they argue, drive around in an un-air-conditioned car, and sweat, sweat, sweat in the humid Florida heat. Audley spends much of the movie wiping perspiration out of his eyes, while the pale, woozy Sheil always looks like she’s on the verge of passing out from heat exhaustion. Few movies have rendered temperature more vividly, or put it to better use; in Seimetz’s hands, the stifling, suffocating heat becomes an extension of the characters’ desperation. [IV]

Catchiest theme song: No 
The excellent Chilean film No, about a vapid, upbeat advertising campaign that helped oust dictator Augusto Pinochet in the late ’80s, walks a tightrope between joy and cynicism. On the one hand, it’s thrilling seeing a tyrant get what’s coming to him, but on the other it’s depressing to see ad-man Gael García Bernal woo the public with silly catchphrases, leg-warmers, and spandex. At bottom, the movie is a deeply ambivalent weighing of the pros and cons of pop, and it has its perfect theme song in the campaign’s real-life jingle. Using hearty hand claps as punctuation, the chipper youth of Chile gather in the streets and sing Bernal’s insanely catchy but ultimately meaningless refrain: “Chee-LAY! Na na, na, na, CHEE-lay!” Months after seeing the film, that dippy little ditty remains stubbornly, happily lodged in the brain. [SM]


Speediest remake: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
Last year, legendary French director Alain Resnais made an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s 1941 play Eurydice, starring a group of unknown young actors. About three seconds later, he made another adaptation of Eurydice, this one starring the likes of Michel Piccoli, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Lambert Wilson, and other professionals. In You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, the professionals, playing themselves, watch their younger counterparts onscreen, ostensibly to evaluate whether this small company is worthy of being permitted to stage such a renowned work. (The framing story is loosely based on another Anouilh play, Dear Antoine.) They know the roles so intimately, however, having played them at various points in their lives, that they can’t help repeating the lines, a fraction of a beat after the film-within-the-film. Eventually, two nearly simultaneous performances are unfolding in spaces both real and imagined—a high-wire act that perhaps only Resnais could pull off. [MD]


Most surrealistic use of a fish statue: The Act Of Killing
There’s plenty of horror in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing, a documentary about genocidal Indonesian gangsters bragging about their crimes and then re-creating them, for the camera, in the styles of classic crime cinema. Yet for all the madness on display, perhaps no sight is more awe-inspiringly bizarre than that of the killers staging an expressionistic fantasy scene in which they, alongside a troupe of dancers, sashay out of an enormous fish statue. That this is merely the start of a sequence in which they’ll proceed to dance in front of a waterfall before ultimately taking flight (ostensibly rising to heaven) merely compounds the surreal strangeness of the moment, as does the fact that the procession out of the fish is led by one of the killers in drag. [NS]


Best diegetic use of music: “Every 1’s a Winner,” Frances Ha
About two-thirds of the way through Frances Ha, Frances (Greta Gerwig) somewhat foolishly heads off to Paris by herself for a weekend, and director Noah Baumbach commemorates this impulsive act not with Jacques Brel or even Daft Punk, but with Hot Chocolate’s 1978 funk anthem “Every 1’s a Winner,” which could scarcely be less French or less Frances. Turns out, though, that the joke is better still: It eventually becomes clear that it’s Frances herself who’s listening to the song, over and over again throughout her trip, in what appears to be an effort to psych herself up as she wanders around all alone. It’s a non-intuitive means of evoking pathos, and perfectly judged—something like Kool And The Gang’s “Celebration” would have been too blatantly ironic. Plus, it’s just a great fucking tune. [MD]

Best non-diegetic use of music: “Everytime,” Spring Breakers
Spring Breakers’ comingling of violence and sex, as well as its alternately sincere and sarcastic romanticism of its crass-criminal characters, is encapsulated by the late scene in which James Franco’s thug serenades his trio of pink-ski-masked disciples at sunset with a piano rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” Franco’s musical expression of his “sensitive side” quickly segues to a montage scored to Spears’ actual recording, which gently cascades over the soundtrack as director Harmony Korine alternates between images of the shotgun-toting characters dancing around the water’s edge with balletic grace, and slow-mo scenes of them gleefully robbing and beating people in motel rooms, arcades, and weddings. For a film that thrives on ironic contrasts, it’s a setpiece of tongue-in-cheek beauty and tenderness, glorifying its protagonists while nonetheless exposing their delusions and the underlying ugliness of such cinematic sex-drugs-and-guns fantasies. [NS]


Best use of a house: The Unspeakable Act
Much of Dan Sallitt’s superlative sort-of-comedy The Unspeakable Act takes place in a big, rambling, Queen Anne-style house in a leafy, suburban-looking part of Brooklyn. The house is three stories tall, steep-roofed, and asparagus-colored with jasmine yellow trim. The front is dominated by a wide veranda; inside, on the first floor, the ceilings are too high and the doorways are too wide. Upstairs, there are an untold number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and other small hideaways. This oversized house provides The Unspeakable Act with many of its central images (empty staircases, characters looking through doorways or isolating themselves in their bedrooms). It also becomes a metaphor for the film itself, a visually sparse-but-roomy movie about a person—newcomer Tallie Medel, playing a teenager who has an incestuous attachment to her older brother and, contrary to the title, will just not stop talking about it—with more mental and emotional space than she knows what to do with. [IV]

Best response to typecasting: Crystal Fairy
For years, Michael Cera seemed capable of locking down only one type of role: the sweet-natured dweeb, a likable species of nervous teenage underdog. Perhaps fearful he’d spend the rest of his career playing variations on Juno’s Paulie Bleeker, Cera has devoted just about every minute of his recent screen time to torching his nice-guy persona—first in the new episodes of Arrested Development, which find a college-aged George-Michael behaving more and more like his conniving father, and then as a coke-snorting, pussy-hounding version of himself in This Is The End. But Cera’s most inspired detour into assholery arrived in the form of Crystal Fairy, a deeply funny road comedy that casts him as an obnoxious American tourist bumming around Chile. Obsessed with having the perfect drug experience, and largely indifferent to the desires of his travelmates, the character may be the most unsympathetic comic protagonist of the year—and, for Cera, a perfect opportunity to dash his boy-next-door charisma. [AD]


Scariest birds since The Birds: Leviathan
Far and away the year’s most innovative documentary, Leviathan uses numerous tiny, lightweight cameras to create the sensory impression of life on a fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. At various times, the viewers are sliding across the deck among hundreds of gasping fish or tossed beneath the waves alongside a net. But the movie’s most arresting images are of the seagulls that relentlessly chase the boat in search of an easy meal. Indistinct splotches of white emerging from the sky’s inky blackness, they look like heralds of a coming apocalypse; more than once, they threaten to engulf the entire frame. (Some shots eerily mirror The Birds’ opening credits sequence.) That no context of any kind is provided—for the seagulls or anything else—only makes this onslaught seem all the more hellaciously abstract. No doubt this is what Prometheus saw when he was chained to that rock. Eagle, seagulls, close enough. [MD]

Best use of an old movie studio: Reality
Early into Matteo Garrone’s Reality, fishmonger Aniello Arena arrives late to the public tryouts for Italy’s version of Big Brother; he’s just humoring his kids, though a later callback from the producers will transform him, basically overnight, into a delusional spotlight-chaser. As Arena steps into the endless line, the camera slowly reveals that the auditions are being held at Cinecittà, the famous Roman movie studio where Fellini shot La Dolce Vita. Architecturally, it’s in keeping with the film’s often-opulent backdrops, which stand in stark, ironic contrast to the working-class ordinariness of Arena’s life. But the use of the iconic locale is also a reflection of the way celebrity culture in Italy—and, by extension, much of the world—has shifted away from movie stars to the everyday schmoes burning away their 15 minutes of fame. [AD]


Most demonic umbilical cord: The Lords Of Salem
All the jump scares in the world don’t amount to The Lords Of Salem’s crazed imagery, which reaches a memorably wacko apex during a mid-film sequence in which Sheri Moon Zombie’s DJ—now under the control of three witches—is compelled to enter the mysterious apartment at the end of her hallway. There, decked out in dreadlocks, a black-and-white Freddy Krueger-style striped sweater, and ghoulish pasty makeup, she enters an opulently golden foyer where, at the top of a grand staircase, stands a deformed dwarf demon. With opera cascading over the soundtrack, Zombie reaches the top of the staircase, and then the appallingly surreal occurs: She’s suddenly grasping and shaking twin phallic umbilical cords that are protruding from the stomach of the demon, which is groaning and shaking in response. It’s a psychosexual mother-child freak-out of the most horrifically indelible kind. [NS]

Funniest parting words: Stories We Tell
Sarah Polley’s tricksy family-portrait documentary is brimming with amusing anecdotes, as relatives and acquaintances offer their conflicting takes on the complicated relationship between the director’s folks. (Her father, the actor Michael Polley, is a constant source of dry wit and amusing candor.) But Polley saves the best sound bite for last, paying off an earlier story strand with an offhand, film-ending confession. To say much more would spoil both the moment and Stories We Tell’s big twist, so let’s leave it at this: There’s something deeply funny about an evasive interview subject who decides, when given the impression that his secret isn’t such a secret after all, to suddenly let the cat out of the bag. [AD]


Best sequel we didn’t know we needed: Before Midnight
Nine years ago, Richard Linklater ended his walk-and-talk twofer Before Sunset on the perfect note of anti-resolution. So when the director announced last autumn that he was dropping back in on Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) for yet another round of sparkling, mobile conversation, it was easy to wonder if he was messing with success. Yet just as Before Sunset instantly silenced skeptics, giving viewers the wonderful Before Sunrise sequel they never asked for, Before Midnight proves that no story need conclude if the people telling it have a proper reason for it to continue. Linklater’s unexpected third installment does more than just revive the loquacious pleasures of its predecessors; it interrogates all of their gooey romantic notions, putting Jesse and Celine’s love to the test of time. Taken as a whole, the Before series constitutes one of the greatest trilogies in all of cinema. Except, in all likelihood, it’ll only stay a trilogy for another eight and a half years. [AD]