2013’s summer blockbuster season has been widely regarded as lackluster at best. But as the fall award-buzz season commences, a close look back at this year’s film canon thus far will reveal a stunning list of unsung masterpieces and quiet surprises. So here’s a sample of the year’s best in film so far, and hopefully I didn’t miss anything too essential (like Mud—sorry I still haven’t seen it…):
Sensuously perplexing and jarringly beautiful, this year’s universally acclaimed Sundance favorite breathes new life into the art of cinematic storytelling. A contemplative sci-fi drama about people connected by a supernatural parasite’s life-cycle, Upstream Color is a tour-de-force of hypnotic visual beauty. Having already shown a refreshing confidence in his audience’s intelligence with 2004’s sci-fi thriller Primer, director Shane Carruth approaches broader themes and deeper emotions with relentless audacity and ambiguity. Let’s hope that it won’t be another nine years before Carruth quietly steps onto the scene with another piece of sheer cinematic brilliance.
With this stunning black-and-white collaboration with girlfriend/star/co-writer Greta Gerwig, indie director Noah Baumbach achieves new heights of emotional resonance; approaching his usual themes of social apathy, arrested development, and East Coast elitism with an even greater sense of visual craft and daring. Under Baumbach’s wry and honest cinematic gaze, the sometimes mundane, sometimes sad, and sometimes sweet misadventures of the titular 20-something free-spirit (played with stunning flare by Gerwig) flow like a bitter-sweet trip down New York city streets that have been romanticized just long enough to maintain a youthful sense of impending doom. At its core, Frances Ha is a masterfully connected series of glowing moments (the most memorable being an almost tear-jerking dialogue-free long shot of Frances running through down a well-lit street to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Modern Love”), culminating in a glowing portrait of friendship and unconditional love.
Only God Forgives
2011’s ultraviolent crime thriller Drive was a career defining success for Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. This year’s Drive follow-up, Only God Forgives, was booed at this year’s Cannes film festival and hated by countless critics. It was the few mixed-to-positive reviews, however, that seemed to find the mastercraft in Refn’s existential neon-soaked exploitation funhouse. Falling somewhere visually and stylistically between Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch at their most sinister, Only God Forgives tells a spaghetti-western tale of outlaw vs. the world in a bloody fantasy version of Bangkok’s dark underworld. This film may be a nasty trudge through the most gruesome gutter of Refn’s directorial zeitgeist, but for anyone willing to seek out the unflinching beauty of it all, it’s a trudge well worth it.
Seldom can a seasoned filmmaker reinvent himself in the twilight years of his career as Woody Allen has done with his latest darkly satirical drama Blue Jasmine. While, yes, the usual grim explorations of human neurosis and broken love are as present here as any other Woody Allen film, there’s something about this one in particular that feels surprisingly new and relentlessly fresh. This may be in large part due to the near-perfect cast, including Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, and the ever-luminous Cate Blanchett—whose relentlessly hysteric performance as the titular role just might have already guaranteed her a best actress Oscar WIN.
The Place Beyond the Pines
This year we’ve seen two magnetizing Steve McQueen-esque performances from Ryan Gosling. But where the rising star minimalizes in Only God Forgives, he charms—however subtly—in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling’s doomed motorcycle stunt-man out to change his ways after one more criminal endeavor is the genesis of Derek Cianfrance’s epic neo-noir meditation on social unrest and the sins of the fathers, proving the young maverick director a name to look out for in the coming years. However fundamentally risky the narrative and technical form of The Place Beyond the Pines may be, the fact remains that you just don’t see movies like this anymore.
The World’s End
As the third part of what is now the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost pop-culture genre comedy trilogy (or whatever you wanna call it), The World’s End is a shameless success. Having already fought Zombies in Shaun of the Dead and shot up a quiet English village as overzealous cops in Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Frost ward off killer robots from outer space this time around, all while trying to finish an epic pub crawl that they started in their hometown as rowdy adolescents. Wright’s knack for driving both the laughs and the tears through his brilliantly frenetic work behind the camera really shines with this one, as does Pegg’s ability both as an actor and writer to use his generation’s language of pop-culture reference to explore deep human issues with real heart. And as with their previous ventures, the laughs keep coming throughout.