The Story Thus Far -- Thomas' Picks for the First Half of 2013

Gotta admit: this has been an unusual year at the movies. After a summer of merely sufficient blockbusters that range from a Christopher Nolan-produced bombardment about America's mythical "superman" to the return of a fabled villain in the Star Trek franchise, it's comforting to see movies about gray morality towards a convict in the Southern US and the simple conversations between a long-married couple stand tall among the year's more satisfying cinematic productions. Shane Black directed a humorous and exciting Shane Black film that so happened to have Iron Man in it, while Brat Pitt's over-budget, problematic in-name adaptation of World War Z somehow ended up being ... well, not too shabby at all, certainly better than expected. Interestingly enough, this year's mix of meager successes and outright flops opened the door for several unexpected films to shine brighter than they might have under different circumstances, from a visually alluring sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise to a popular Korean director's first outing in the English-language.

Here's a collection of the top films I've taken away from 2013 up to this point, with more assuredly to come as the year continues.

5. Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh regularly suggests that the latest film he's working on could very well be the last before he dedicates to painting full-time ... or, at the very least, the last piece of work before going on an extended sabbatical. If he had followed through the first time he mentioned this while making Contagion, then we wouldn't have had the chance to experience Side Effects, his provocative suspense-thriller about a desperate young bipolar patient, Emily, who experiences some unsettling and volatile results after taking a newly-prescribed medication. While Jude Law's affinity for strung-out sleuths continues here as the doctor investigating his responsibility for the repercussions, it's the haunting, tricky performance from Rooney Mara as an unreadable manic depressive that plays a crucial role in the film's convincingly impulsive plot twists and tonal shifts. One could dispute the practicality of the mystery lying underneath Emily's condition, sure, but conceding to that premise becomes worth it to see how Soderbergh explores themes of blind faith in medicine and the authenticity of symptoms.

4. Oblivion

Joseph Kosinski has bottled an unidentifiable spark in Oblivion, his end-of-the-world sci-fi film. Unanswered questions, familiar themes, and gaps in logic should weigh it down, structured around a man, Jack, who patrols, guards, and repairs the lands and tech remaining on Earth following a climate-damaging crisis. Yet, it discovers this stark and intimate essence while moving between clinically-composed locations and motifs, conveying emotion through visuals not unlike Tarkovsky's Solaris or Stalker. Cruise wears his cap-wearing "idealized everyman" persona with pertinence here, while his rapport with Andrea Riseborough as his remote navigator and romantic partner evolves with some moderately complex tension. Jack's fluctuating mental state -- and the way he interprets what remains of Earth and its denizens -- becomes a central feature to Kosinski's film, building to moments of revelation and defiance once a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) brings the truth into the picture. There's well-structured action, sure, involving robots and violent nomads, but none of it lacks purpose. And it certainly knows how to telegraph an ending.

3. Stoker

Park Chan-wook has established himself as a skilled travel guide through the deep, brooding pathos of individuals with warped moral compasses (and warped mental states), and his more recent piece of work -- also his first English-language film -- is no exception. Stoker tells the story of a gifted yet reclusive eighteen-year-old, India (Mia Wasikowska) whose father abruptly dies, nudging her already shaky mental state over the edge as she struggles to identify with her mother and get through the rest of her school year. The arrival of her previously-unmentioned uncle, a sly and aggressive sort with an aura not unlike India's, transforms the film into a brew of mystery, suspicion, and sensory provocation built around the coming-of-age of this peculiar girl; Park Chan-wook's flair for teasing the senses with eroticism and violent tendencies is in full force here, both on visual and sonic fronts. Once it arrived at a particular scene involving a misty shower and a realization point in India's shifting personality, nimbly portrayed by Wasikowska in yet another slow-simmering role, it becomes quite a cinematic beast.

2. Before Midnight

Celene and Jesse have changed over the past twenty years. Well, sort of. Now, the star-crossed couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are parents to a pair of twins, living in Europe as one continues to write and the other considers leaving her current job for a position in the government. But, despite their years, they've largely stayed the same people we've grown to know, only with a few eccentricities that have evolved over time -- something they continue to discover right before us. We catch up with them in Before Midnight at the tail end of their vacation along the Grecian peninsula, where Jesse's son from his previous marriage has recently flown back to the states following an extended stay. Everything that plays out is in typical Richard Linklater fashion, in every possible and wonderful way, where the couple's viewpoints clash and resolve through their walks, flirtations, and arguments. It's simply a delight to see this faithful progression of these people, to see where the roads of adulthood have taken them ... for better or worse.

1. Mud

I wasn't sure how Jeff Nichols could possible match the quality of Take Shelter, but Mud comes awfully, awfully close to doing so. Instead of the complexity of a schizophrenic's crippling fear of an oncoming disaster, the challenge at this film's core revolves around the moral grayness behind a pair of teenage boys helping a man, Mud, who's stuck on an island while on the run from the law. As expected of Nichols, it's a character study above everything else, exploring how a young boy -- whose parents are in the middle of a divorce -- perceives the calm demeanor and rational explanations of a man who's done what he did in the name of love. Does he believe him, trust him, or should he heed the advice of others and keep his distance? Directed with raw, hefty, yet authentic emotion by Nichols through deep-southern locales and commanded by slate of tremendous performances, namely from a rugged and thin Matthew McConaughey, this is a powerhouse of a film that gracefully touches on the confusing power of love, the allure of mythology, and the distance that placing faith in a stranger can take you. It's my front-runner for the year's best, even this early on.

Honorable Mention: Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro delivers exactly what's promised from the premise behind Pacific Rim: mile-high ferocious monsters from the depths of the earth, stalwart robots named Jaegers and the charismatic pilots who control them, and a spectacle of the director's visual style as the two collide. There's a lot to admire in the ideas behind how two combat-hardened pilots "sync" together into a collaborative mental machine, as well as the effort put into the mild economic and political content built around the robots' defense. The only "problem", per se, with del Toro's blockbuster is that it really only meets those demands, without going the extra mileage to achieve the complexity that hallmarks his Spanish-language pictures, such as Pan's Labyrinth. There's nothing wrong with that at all, really, because Pacific Rim ends up being a thrilling, gorgeous display of technological prowess and earnest big-budget gravitas, littered with authentic character moments and more than a few gasp-worthy displays. And bless del Toro for finding a way to get Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ron Perlman in the same charisma-powered flick. It could've been more, but it's great at what it sets out to do.


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