Best Films of 2013 (So Far)

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The Heat

The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, is Hollywood’s obligatory female-led film of the summer. It’s also one of the flat-out funniest films of the year, period. Between Bridesmaids and Identity Thief, McCarthy has already made her case as one of the funniest women in film, and she only cements that here with an intense, anarchic turn as Detective Shannon Mullins. Bullock, meanwhile, has played uptight and neurotic before, but she’s never been paired up with quite as polar opposite a performer as she is here as FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn. With both performers in roles that allow them to expand on their most notable characteristics, they take what would otherwise be a standard-fare buddy cop flick and turn it into a riotous tour de force.

Iron Man 3

After unifying the Marvel universe with The Avengers last year, Iron Man 3 is the first film to deal with the aftermath of that team-up. What director and co-writer Shane Black does is something unexpected: he gives Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) a form of PTSD. There’s a reason that Iron Man is the most successful of Marvel’s superhero film franchises, and it lies in Downey. Giving him some new angles to play keeps Iron Man 3 from feeling like a rehash of the series’ previous films. The villainous turns from Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley also give the series a pair of villains who are actually intriguing.

The Kings of Summer

Making its way into the crowded coming-of-age genre, The Kings of Summer stands out thanks to a trio of engaging young actors—Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias—and a riotously hilarious supporting cast that includes Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Allison Brie and Mary Lynn Rajskub. The choice to let the cast, particularly the improv-trained supporting cast, go off-script keeps the film from becoming predictable. That predictability really only comes into play near the end, as events begin to draw the boys apart before bringing them back together. Still, The Kings of Summer is one of the funniest films of the summer, and it’s well worth watching.

Man of Steel

What happens when you take one of the most iconic superheroes of all time and pair him with the filmmakers behind the most critically acclaimed superhero film trilogy of all time? You get Man of Steel, a take on Superman that’s equal parts Dark Knight Trilogy and something else entirely. In this reboot of the Superman film continuity, Henry Cavill plays Clark Kent / Kal-El (note: the name Superman is barely mentioned in this film) as a more conflicted individual than we’ve seen in previous incarnations. The reasons for the conflict can ultimately be traced to two diverging thoughts regarding Clark’s abilities: Kryptonian father Jor-El believes his son will be a god to the people of Earth, while Earth father Jonathan Kent thinks Clark will be an outcast. This dynamic creates a far more interesting origin story for the character than we’ve seen in 1978′s Superman. That doesn’t even touch on the action, which may very well be the most impressive on-screen superhero brawling I’ve ever seen (and yes, that includes The Avengers‘ mega-battle).

Monsters University

By this point, it’s fair to say we’re well into Pixar 2.0, a period for the studio that’s not quite as fondly thought of as original Pixar. And yet, Monsters University is a worthy addition to the Pixar canon all the same. Unlike Cars 2‘s unwanted focus or Brave‘s promising but somewhat slight story, Monsters University takes two of the most popular characters in Pixar history—Mike and Sully—and puts them in a new surrounding: college. Since the film’s a prequel, in some way we know how this will end, but the journey the film takes is what makes it work. It helps that Mike and Sully are two of Pixar’s most beloved characters. We know that they end up best friends, but seeing the journey they take to reach that point is filled with enough twists to make the story interesting. Pixar may no longer be the critically acclaimed powerhouse it was a few years ago, but if they keep it up, they’ll still tower over DreamWorks and other animation studios.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling reunites with director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) for The Place Beyond the Pines, an ambitious and sprawling character drama that focuses on the lives of two men—motorcycle rider turned bank robber Luke (Gosling) and policeman Avery (Bradley Cooper)—and their families as their worlds collide one fateful day. The film takes place over three acts spanning several years, with each focusing on a different character. It’s an interesting way to structure the film. The first, Gosling-led act nails the dark tone of Luke’s descent into crime as a way to support his new family. It dovetails into the more ambitious, slightly weaker Cooper-led act. Cooper’s act spans over a longer period of time, and the tone of his act is different from Gosling’s; while it’s strong, it doesn’t quite capture the impact of the first act. The third act, jumping forward several years, features Dane DeHaan (Chronicle) as a teenager with connections to Avery and Luke. While DeHaan holds his own compared to his more well-known co-stars, the act’s attempt to put the other two into perspective makes it the weakest of the three, unfortunately weakening an otherwise stellar film.

Side Effects

If Side Effects is truly director Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical film, he’s going out with a bang. Side Effects follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) as she deals with her life following husband Martin’s (Channing Tatum) release from prison. With the help of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), Emily is able to find a pharmaceutical approach that keeps her calm…aside from some unexpected side effects from her experimental drug. After Emily commits a horrific crime, Dr. Banks finds himself at the center of controversy as his credibility is questioned. Armed with a remarkable cast that also includes Catherine Zeta-Jones, Soderbergh tells a tale that plays like a modern update of an 80s suspense film. The plot occasionally strains credibility, but only slightly. The twists and turns in the film, though, make this far from predictable. In all, though, this is a well-crafted, well-acted film that will leave audiences hooked.

Stoker

Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose releases include Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, makes his English-language debut with Stoker, an arresting psychological thriller starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, and written by Wentworth Miller. Thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the name “Stoker” has a long-running connection to a particular type of violence: brutal and romantic. That type of violence fits with what’s portrayed in Stoker, the story of India Stoker (Wasikowska), whose father died under mysterious circumstances. When India’s uncle, Charlie (Goode), ends up moving in with India and her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), he brings with him a wave of violence that awakens India emotionally—and sexually. If that sounds at least a little incestuous, you’re correct. Park certainly isn’t shy about using incest in his films (Oldboy in particular uses this to a devastating end), and that disturbing aspect works well at establishing a genuinely creepy psychological thriller, even more than the bursts of violence that progressively dominate the film.

This Is the End

In all honesty, I had no expectation that This Is the End would be any good. A slew of actors playing versions of themselves around an apocalyptic storyline? This sounds like a potential disaster. Instead, This Is the End is one of the flat-out funniest films of the summer. The plot in a nutshell: Jay Baruchel comes to L.A. to visit best friend Seth Rogen. Seth ends up dragging Jay to a party at James Franco’s house; while they’re there, all hell breaks loose. What makes the film work are two things: (1) every actor in this film is willing to send up their image in some way, and (2) the film is incredibly raunchy—I don’t think I’ve seen this much male genitalia in a mainstream film in quite some time. The film isn’t for everybody, certainly, but if crass stoner humor is your thing, this may be the funniest film you see this summer.

What Maisie Knew

Based on the Henry James story of the same name from 1897, What Maisie Knew tells the story of Maisie (newcomer Onata Aprile), a young girl caught in-between her two self-involved parents (played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), who use the girl as a bargaining tool in their selfish attempts to one-up each other. Maisie’s care ultimately falls to each parents’ new partners (Alexander Skarsgård and Joanna Vanderham). Even as it hits on the same emotional notes throughout its runtime, watching Maisie’s increasing understanding of her parents faults makes What Maisie Knew one of the more emotionally devastating films of the year. It’s also easily one of the best dramatic films released this year, and it deserves a bigger audience than its limited release has given it.

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