People love to predict the end of Hollywood due to bloated budgets and poor quality films. Yet, every year lots of good films get released to both critical praise and public success. Many other films, however, go overlooked by audiences.
Yes, some of the films listed below were actually released in 2012 overseas, but I’m a US moviegoer, so forgive my bias towards films that saw a wide release in US theaters in 2013.
Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) directs this modern homage to Mark Twain. Two boys discover a mysterious man living on an island in the river, but is he a friend, or something far more dangerous? Matthew McConaughey shines in this merging of a classic thriller with a nuanced study of place. Mud is one of the best films of the year, and it’s a shame it didn’t get more attention. It has a great feel to it that recalls cinema of the 1970s and features perhaps McConaughey’s best performance of his career.
Stories We Tell
Most moviegoers know Sarah Polley from her starring roles in such films as Go and the Dawn of the Dead remake. Here she’s both behind and in front of the camera as she produces a documentary on her father and siblings. This may sound like a bore at first, but this haunting documentary about the nature of stories, family, and the truth will continually shock you with one twist after another. Just when you think the final revelations have been made, Polley turns the entire film on its head asking both bigger and more intimate questions. It may be the smartest film of the year.
What Maisie Knew
Acclaimed author Henry James’ classic story of a girl torn between her two parents is updated to modern times. When Maisie’s parents dissolve their marriage, they trap their daughter in a bitter tug-of-war that we witness through her eyes only. Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgård star, but Onata Aprile steals the film as the titular Maisie. She’s the centering force in this tale of the power of perspective and how it shapes the reality around us.
The Way Way Back
Duncan is an awkwardly shy teenage boy dealing with his parents’ divorce. Could things get any worse? They do when he’s dragged off to the beach for the summer with his mom’s new boyfriend. But a job at a local water park lets other and himself see him in an entirely different light. Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, and Allison Janney star in this coming-of-age tale in the spirit of comedies like Meatballs. Sam Rockwell has flown under the star radar for years, and it’s a shame if this film doesn’t finally push him to that next level.
If you’re unfamiliar, “mumblecore” is the title given to a small genre of films that feature heavily naturalistic dialogue, often improvised by the actors on set. Directors Joe Swanberg and Mark Duplass are notable pioneers of the movement, and while its feel doesn’t gel with everyone, Drinking Buddies is one of the best examples of the genre. This feels slightly more scripted, but just as raw as other recent films of the genre. Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston are reliable as always, but Olivia Wilde truly shines here. As harsh as it sounds, her looks often get in the way of people taking her seriously as an actress. Here she shows why that is a loss to us all. I hope to see her in more films like this one.
What if we remade Alien as a low-budget found footage film? That’s the premise, and the great part is so much of it has nothing to do with aliens. We jump back and forth between a doomed space mission and the ground crew discussing what went wrong. This isn’t hard science fiction, but it certainly attempts to take itself more seriously than most. The day-to-day life of the crew endears them to us, and by the end we want to root for them even though we suspect the ending has already been revealed to us.
Short Term 12
Brie Larson has a pretty amazing 2013 between The Spectacular Now, Don Jon, and this film. However, this is the one that should make her a star. The fact that she didn’t get more awards attention is a shame. She’s funny, radiant, and wildly vulnerable in the role of a foster care center manager. There’s such a light hand at work in this film that all the drama feels completely organic. By the time the film is over you don’t feel emotionally drained, but rejuvenated that there still is hope in the world through the employees and the kids staying here.
One might call this a romantic comedy, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini turn in nuanced performances that elevate the film well above your average romantic comedy. Playing middle-aged single parents, the two meet but whether they fall in love is a mystery to both. This is the best adult comedy of the year, and in quite some time.
The Spectacular Now
Do you remember how falling love in high school felt? How nothing else seemed to matter, because everything about today was both the beginning and end of your existence? If the star-crossed lovers of The Spectacular Now come off that way at first, it’s only because they’re resonating as real teenagers. They even look like real teenagers for a change! However, the film succeeds not just because the characters feel real due to breakout performances, it succeeds because the film refuses to flinch and give us an easy out. There are no bad guys to root against. The ex-girlfriend is not the villain, and neither is her boyfriend. Or the alcoholic dad. Or the stressed-out mother. The antagonist is everything standing in the way of personal growth—ourselves.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is often overlooked for something it does better than just about any other film. Yes, it showcases a tragic love story that we’ve all lived in one form or another, but it also gives insight into the loss of memory and, in the process, the loss of ourselves. Bruce Dern stars in Nebraska as a man who is losing himself. As his mind fades, he worries he too might fade from existence. That starts him on a woeful journey with his son, Will Forte, that is wildly amusing and endearing. Nebraska catches you regularly off guard by being sweet when you expect funny, and funny when you expect sweet. This is perhaps Bruce Dern’s finest performance of many.
Here’s a film that has already been criminally misunderstood by many, and I imagine the looming home video release will add more to their numbers. Philomena is not a film of hate, even though you couldn’t blame someone in her position. A young pregnant girl, the titular Philomena, is forced to live at a convent and eventually give up her baby for adoption. Decades later we follow her as she attempts to reunite with the son she barely knew. The anger and hate are there, but Philomena is not the one feeling them. Eventually she convinces even the hardest of hearts—the audience’s.
Beer has rarely saved a life, but on a small island off the coast of Ireland, it just might. Alien beasts invade, and the local townsfolk discover that in this case, beer is more saving than holy water. A monster mash comedy in the grand tradition of films such as Tremors and Lake Placid. Grabbers is just as much fun as The World’s End, but seen by far fewer. If you need your British comedy fix, you could do far worse than either of these two.
Romantic comedies are rarely deeply intellectual, but sometimes they’re smarter than we give them credit for. About Time will turn off many with its overwhelming earnestness, but if you can turn off your cynicism for just a bit you’ll discover a film that’s about more than just “live each day like it’s your last.” It’s about the regret we all carry with us, and how that regret shapes us into the wiser, but older, people we are today.