Shockingly, we are more than halfway through 2013. As always, the best, most "prestigious" movies won't be released until November or December, because the people who vote on the Oscars are senile and cannot remember anything they saw more than 20 minutes ago. But there have been plenty of outstanding movies already released. So, today, Grierson & Leitch present our favorite movies of the first half of 2013. They're in alphabetical order so we don't reveal any hints about our end-of-year top 10 lists, which will be ranked. (Obviously. What are we, monsters?) We didn't see everything that came out, but we saw most of 'em. So here's our top 12, six from each of us.
Before Midnight. Movies are really good at suggesting the “happily ever after” of a romantic relationship rather than actually showing it. But the incredibly funny and poignant Before Midnight does a great job of suggesting what committed love really looks like: full of uncertainty, half-remembered fights, and lingering passion that helps you remember why you stuck with this goddamn annoying person for so long.
Frances Ha. Greta Gerwig has been tapped as the next big breakout star for years, but Frances Ha is where she really showed the full range of what she can do. Playing a New Yorker trying to pull her life together, she (and filmmaker/boyfriend Noah Baumbach) shine a light on twentysomething flailing that's bittersweet but genuinely charming.
Leviathan. Most documentaries are straightforward representations of the chronicled subject, but Leviathan is something far more beautiful and frightening: a nightmarish, sensory-overload portrait of life on a commercial fishing boat. There aren’t tidy narrative arcs or an overriding message—just directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel throwing you into the thick of the open seas while birds screech overhead and gutted fish bleed all over the deck.
Spring Breakers. James Franco’s wacko, endlessly meme-able performance got most of the attention, but writer-director Harmony Korine’s movie is pretty hypnotic and nutso throughout, depicting spring break as an alluring but also disgusting Pleasure Island. Korine's own ambivalence—he never quite decided if he loves the place or hates it—makes the whole thing work.
Stories We Tell. Actress-director Sarah Polley’s documentary about her family has some great twists, but the strength of this personal-but-smart film is that even if you know already what Polley uncovers about her background, the movie’s core themes remain the same. Every family has secrets, and everybody telling a story about themselves shifts certain details to make it work for their purposes: Stories We Tell takes those givens and does something incredibly moving with them.
Upstream Color. In the time since making Primer, writer-director-star Shane Carruth has done some thinking about relationships, recovery and second chances. Out of that came Upstream Color, a seemingly opaque puzzle movie that’s actually quite literal: It’s the story of two shattered people (Carruth and Amy Seimetz) who find each other. It’s really that simple—and, of course, also that complex.
Before Midnight. Much darker than the first two films, but that's just in the same way that life has a tendency to get a lot darker as you get older. I don't want to spoil just about anything about where Jesse and Celine are with their lives at this point, except to say that these are the same two people you've known for the last 16 years, but more so, sometimes retracting into distilled versions of themselves, unable to see the world the way they once did. Yet they still, somehow, believe. I didn't like Before Midnight more than the first two films, but that is sort of the point. It's easier to love unconditionally when you're young.
No. So this is how you do a drama about a historical event. In 1988, international forces pressured Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to hold a referendum on his rule. A huge advertising blitz was born, from the brutal Pinochet forces pushing YES and the dissidents crying NO. Less a movie about politics than about advertising—this is basically the Chilean Mad Men—it features an enormously appealing lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal, an impressively even-handed approach, and a dynamic visual gimmick. (The whole thing is shot on videotape quality, giving it a strange combination of nostalgia and realism.) As entertaining as it is important.
Spring Breakers. Empty, soulless trash, which is both what it is and what it is about. Hypnotic and deeply weird, it's Harmony Korine's ode to excess and what might, deep down, be the true terrifying heart of the American dream. Full of ridiculous pop art moments—nearly all provided by a redeemed James Franco as lunatic Tampa drug dealer Alien—it is as gonzo as it is impeccably well put-together. (Korine might be a weirdo, but the guy can make a damned movie.) I sort of giggle every time I think of this movie.
Stories We Tell. Actress-director Sarah Polley starts to make a movie about her late mother's life, but, once she starts asking questions, it soon turns into something else entirely. And her family starts getting real nervous about the questions. The surprises of this film should be left for you to discover, but Polley does a masterful job of, essentially, trying to recreate a life, through interviews, reenactments, and genuine curiosity. The movie isn't really about the Polley family: It's about memory, and loss, and forgiveness, and, through it all, hope. It'll knock you over.
To The Wonder. This is Terrence Malick in particularly dreamy, camera-circling-around-fields-of-wheat mode, so, obviously, it isn't for everyone. But this still swept me away. The plot is confusing and best not bothered with. What matters are the feelings Malick conjures up, and this time, because he has set this in the real present-day, with its pick-up trucks and Sonic drive-throughs and suburban sprawl, it feels more powerful, more urgent. It's thrilling to see Malick conjure his powers for use in the real world, and it points down an avenue I can't wait for him to pursue. He's a director who makes everything feel important.
Upstream Color. I've seen this movie twice since my initial baffled-yet-rapturous review, and while I think I understand it a little better, I'm still pretty sure figuring it out is only half the point. Writer/director/producer/star Shane Carruth was cold and removed in Primer, but here, the subtext is love, and hope, and the need for companionship in the face of the loss of identity. Even if you don't catch everything—and I still haven't myself, three times in—the sense of redemption through love is overwhelming, in large part thanks to a lovely, fierce performance by Amy Seimetz. It's the first time Carruth has made the heart swirl as much as the brain.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.