A few weeks ago, more than 3 million assholes shelled out $42 million to see Grown Ups 2. As we take the rest of the week off and recall the wonderful movies we’ve screened so far in 2013, it is hard to believe that people are still spending their $12 to see Adam Sandler and friends act like a bunch of dickheads. We hope this list inspires you to choose something else at the multi-plex. Thank you for reading. New content will resume on Monday. – David Harris
The Act of Killing (Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)
A group of middle-aged friends gather ’round singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Cotton Fields.” Are they gracefully aging entertainers? Yes, but no. This remarkable documentary offers strange images the likes of which you have never seen before, exotic dreams of dancing maidens in a landscape of natural beauty and Day-Glo surrealism. What makes the film so powerful, and so provocative, is that the people whose imaginations spawned these spectacular images killed hundreds of people. Director Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make a documentary about the victims of Indonesian death squads in the 1960s. A conventional film would lay out statistics and numbers and a clear morality, but Oppenheimer took the brave stance of observing his subjects without judgment and guiding them through both staged reenactments and elaborate fictions. Screen violence in the age of Quentin Tarantino and “The Sopranos” has immersed viewers into the brutal worlds of colorful characters they can identify with, but The Act of Killing goes one step further: it draws us into the lives of real monsters and makes us want to hear them and see their visions. But these visions come at a price. Can the fictions we create about ourselves ever mask our horrible crimes? Forget the rest of the year. I know I won’t see a more powerful film than this. – Pat Padua
Before Midnight is the antidote for happily ever after. A fictional Up series in miniature, we return once again to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) nine years after they are reunited in Before Sunset. Rocky times have set upon the couple who are now vacationing in Greece with their twin daughters. But if Before Midnight is an update on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it stings all the more because we’ve seen the couple fall in love, lose each other and then reunify in prior movies. After 90 heartbreaking minutes, we will likely have to wait another nine years to see if Jesse and Celine can survive together.
For those of us who have taken this journey with the couple, starting back in 1995, Before Midnight is like a welcome reunion with old friends. The years add resonance, but even as a stand-alone feature, Before Midnight is a harrowing portrait of a relationship in peril. Linklater, who co-scripted with Delpy and Hawke, is wise to expand the film to include more characters this time around. This series of films is just like a relationship, growing to include more and more people as the intensity wanes over the years.
Perhaps we don’t want Jesse and Celine to split for our own selfish reasons. As we age, those romantic notions of true love begin to seem silly. We don’t fully know what has transpired during the past nine years for our protagonists. We want the relationship to work out for our own fear. Fear that our own youth is slipping away, that the slog into middle age is unavoidable. We didn’t live these lives. Just like for Celine and Jesse, we are no longer those buoyant kids, free of responsibility, riding trains through Europe with nothing but hopefulness waiting for us at the next stop. – David Harris
Frances Ha (Dir: Noah Baumbach)
If Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film, Greenberg, can be seen, as the director terms it, as a depiction of the worst version of himself, then Frances Ha is the fortuitous artistic leavening that results from his exposure to Greta Gerwig, as a collaborator and perhaps even as a partner. It’s Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding (2007) that’s the real warning about where he was heading creatively, with the laughs that catch in the throat starting to asphyxiate him. The bleak cynicism that has been his signature is still present in Frances Ha, but it’s met and ultimately defeated by Gerwig’s unique hesitant optimism laced with pragmatism. As Frances, an aspiring dancer figuring out that her best laid plans may not come to fruition as she encroaches on her late 20s, Gerwig is equal parts endearing, heartbreaking, hilarious and even hesitatingly inspirational as she slowly finds her footing in a necessarily unbalanced life. Shot in a warm black-and-white, the film takes great care to explore the various intimacies experienced by Frances, especially her shifting friendship with Sophie (Mickey Sumner, plainly terrific), a relationship that’s piercingly real. The whole thing perfectly captures an underexplored part of the modern journey to adulthood, when the last load-bearing walls of youthful aspiration rapidly fall to rubble and must be replaced by something new and more enduring. Depending on inclination, the ending of Frances Ha can be seen as either defeatist or hopeful. Either way—and maybe because it can be seen either way—I argue that it’s firmly great. – Dan Seeger
In a decade with seemingly more documentaries being churned out than ever before, many of them especially drab and didactic, it’s more than refreshing to find a film like Leviathan, a singularly cinematic experience that pushes innovation into the realm of the avant-garde. Emerging from the same Harvard Sensory Ethnography lab that produced films like Spare Parts and Sweetgrass, this one adopts a similar mode of wordless contemplation. Yet while Sweetgrass uncovered the patterns of a deceptively unfamiliar world with gentle patience, Leviathan is all about confrontational images; captured on GoPro cameras anchored to sections of a hulking fishing trawler, it is observation as visual assault, straining the boundaries of the form. Dying fish flop about as the camera slides around the deck; birds and sea clash across an upside-down image; the dark sea grows almost psychedelically baroque and monstrous. Meanwhile, quiet interludes like a fisherman falling asleep to the quiet glow of a wall-mounted television interrupt the chaos, identifying the small, fragile human element in this churning sea of elemental horror. It’s the rare film that might actually benefit from some sort of 4D feature, since you can practically already feel the sea spit and smell the stink of salt and fish guts. – Jesse Cataldo
Museum Hours (Dir: Jem Cohen)
In a summer stuffed with gargantuan franchise properties, the most thrilling thing I’ve seen in the last few months is a museum tour. Jem Cohen casually strolls around the Viennese museum that makes up the film’s primary setting, basking in the works of masters as visitors either ignore the artwork or impart pretentious readings that they will accept as the only right answer. Around the edges, however, the staff moves, soaking in each painting and sculpture until the world of the present takes on the composition of old art. Tourist Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) and guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) struggle with personal issues as they chat and appraise the art, but the more Cohen zooms in on an extraneous detail of a Brueghel painting or a composed frame of reality resembles Rembrandt, the more it seems as if art might actually have some answers for them. Seemingly tacked-on scenes like that of a guide (Ela Piplits) politely but firmly standing up to a bloviating tourist’s myopic, dismissive interpretation of Brueghel open up further reflection of these classics, and as characters make offhand observations about the smallest nuances of a canvas, it becomes clear that, in a time when it seems nothing new can be created, original art can be made even off the backs of old works. – Jake Cole
Room 237 (Dir: Rodney Ascher)
Part documentary and part meditation on critical analysis, Room 237 explores diverse theories on the text and subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). These interpretations, presented by a series of unseen narrators and often speculating on Kubrick’s personal motivations, range from interesting to ridiculous, but the plausibility of their theories is not the point. Instead, Room 237 is a terrific little film that riffs on methods used to examine a text, especially the way individuals challenge themselves to make sense of complicated situations. Room 237 gets a bit smug at times, but its exploration of how an individual’s agenda, insights and psychological limits inform their reading of a film undermines, purposely or not, any judgment on the interviewees that the film tries to make. Certainly, some of the interviewees make specious claims, but the methods used to arrive at these unlikely theories are fascinating. Often unintentionally, they reveal complicated visual parallels, hidden patterns in set design and even some of Kubrick’s skewed humor nestled in small moments within the script. Besides, it’s a lot of fun, as any exercise that combines a film’s subtext with our own overstuffed personal baggage should be. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Sarah Polley’s fourth feature film, Stories We Tell, a pseudo-documentary and brutally honest love letter to the intricacies of family, holds the distinction of being the first (and so far only) movie of 2013 to make me cry. Polley opens the film with a montage of “home movie” footage featuring her beautiful actress mother, long-since deceased, dancing and swaying and mugging for the camera as she cares for her infant daughter, while Bon Iver’s saccharine but ridiculously affecting “Skinny Love” plays over the whole thing; I lost it. Polley’s mother, Diane, was a great spirit in life, a hard-working mother and talented actress, and Polley has created a movie that somehow celebrates her life while calling her legacy (Polley and her siblings) seriously into question. There’s much more to this doc than what you might think, and not just regarding Polley’s reason for making it (a few years back she discovered that the man who raised her is not her biological father, and that one of her mother’s lifelong best friends gets that distinction). She has a lot up her sleeve, but a more serious goal than creating beautiful images with cinematic tricks. Polley is, simply put, the best kind of personal-experimental filmmaker: she takes what’s important to her and finds a way to relate her feelings through a style that takes you by surprise. Polley’s stylistic and structural control is now clear (in last year’s Take This Waltz she was only intermittently brilliant) and her commitment to honesty and to never turning her camera away from her subjects is as admirable as it is tear-inducing. This is bona fide heartbreaking filmmaking. – Alex Peterson
This Is the End (Dir: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
The terrifying destruction of the entire world as told in the Book of Revelation wouldn’t seem to be the most obvious setting for a buddy comedy, but somehow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg made it happen. The longtime writing partners embarked upon their directorial debut with a tale of the apocalypse as it happens to their closest friends (and one other guy), including James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and others, all playing versions of themselves. But despite the Hollywood hills bursting into flame and the almost absurd level of death that occurs throughout the film, the real heart of the film is the friendship between Rogen and Jay Baruchel.
As two friends slowly growing apart as their lives take different paths, Baruchel and Rogen are surprisingly touching, with both their grievances and loyalty to each other being completely understandable. Neither comes off as the bad guy, just friends desperate to cling to something that’s quickly dwindling due to life circumstances. And of course, all around this moving, low-key story is extraordinarily filthy improvisation and celebrities playing with their public image (including a truly hilarious turn by Michael Cera as the douchiest manchild in the world). By the final, unexpected cameo in the film, you get to understand why these two want to stay friends and why that could be Heaven for them. – Nathan Kamal
The Unspeakable Act (Dir: Dan Sallitt)
On the surface, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act is among the most plainspoken and modestly staged films of the year. Telling the story of an emotionally confused 17-year-old girl’s incestuous feelings toward her 18-year-old brother, the film’s static camera, deep focus and sensible “A-follows-B-follows-C” editing style leaves little room for metaphor and even less for abstraction, suggesting on the behalf of Sallitt an almost foolish commitment to realism. But careful viewing exposes The Unspeakable Act as a most intricate and mysterious film. Sallitt’s sense of pace and rhythm is novelistic, clearly influenced by the likes of J.D. Salinger. His dialogue emerges organically from his characters—thanks in no short order to his fine pair of lead actors, Tallie Medel (as Jackie, the sister) and Sky Hirschkron (Matthew, the brother)—while the aforementioned editing style, which initially seems like something of a nonstarter, enables Sallitt to further explore the impact of time within the story (entire months go by with all the effort of turning a page). Yet for all its endearing qualities, The Unspeakable Act is often confounding. The inscrutable nature of the characters (particularly that of Jackie, our mystifying, doe-eyed anti-heroine whom Sallitt describes as “an unsolvable puzzle”) and the irresolution of the story seem to actively defy its salacious nature. But as in Éric Rohmer, to whom Sallitt dedicates the film, the taboo scenario is merely a placeholder for deeper, less sensational and infinitely more fascinating human behavior. – Drew Hunt