With June upon us and nearly half the year in film gone already, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the films that have come and gone in this sixth month span, with a specific eye on my favorites of the bunch. It’s also time to look at the best performances of the young year as it’s simply never too early to look toward awards season this Fall. Each year, there seems to be a film or performance that sneaks through the cracks and somehow, someway stays relevant long enough to take the Academy by storm (i.e. The Hurt Locker in 2009). There are also those films that I didn’t have much expectation for, but that took me completely by surprise. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at a few films and performances that struck a chord with me and may just end up on my year-end list come early 2014.
Fast & Furious 6
A film that I had absolutely no expectation for until the positive critical notices started rolling in was Justin Lin’s latest entry in the Vin Diesel led Fast & Furious franchise. I had been fooled once before with Fast Five, so it was to my great surprise that this entry finally backed the critics up. With a simple yet effective story and some of the most absurd stunts ever committed to film, Furious 6 was quite simply an entertaining time at the cinema. While not a great film, it’s a whole lot of fun, even for an automobile amateur such as myself.
Pain & Gain
Another surprise film with the ampersand touch, Michael Bay’s latest had an up-hill battle trying to even engage me on the simplest level. From the man who has made a career out of dumbing down many an action film for the young male teen demographic, I was shocked at myself when leaving the theater after witnessing this creatine-filled thrill ride. I legitimately liked a Michael Bay film. Why? Well, while the Bay touches are still there, the charismatic performances from Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson willed me to enjoy myself. They’re idiotic bodybuilders whose ineptness only adds to your enjoyment of the film. While the true life story on which the film is based is certainly a disturbing one, a film is its own entity. This entity just happens to be hilarious.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Although much has been made over J.J. Abrams’ perceived shortcomings in the aftermath of the release of this space sequel, for me it accomplishes the main thing I look for in any given Summer blockbuster: it entertains at all costs. It also boasts a great villainous turn from Benedict Cumberbatch and an emotional core that leads Abrams to reinvent an iconic Star Trek moment. Taking chances in a surefire money-making property is a good way to endear yourself to me, just saying.
Matthew McConaughey – Mud
Continuing his career resurrection of the past few years with a vengeance, the shirtless wonder’s performance as the titular Mud is definitely among the finest work of his career. McConaughey captures the mysterious outsider in an extremely vivid way, giving him a heartbreaking tenderness that truly comes out when telling tales of his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to his new adolescent friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). It’s hard to put into words exactly what works so well about the performance, but perhaps it is best captured in the moment when Mud finally happens upon Juniper. We watch McConaughey’s face and know everything.
James Franco – Spring Breakers
Easily the strangest but most entertaining performance of the year belongs to James Franco in Harmony Korine’s fairy-tale look into the underbelly of Florida’s spring-break culture. From a scene in which Franco’s Alien (“…truth be told, I’m not from this planet”) shows the impressionable spring break co-eds all his ‘shit’, to a musical interlude where he serenades them to Britney Spears, Franco’s performance may very well not be from this world. Thankfully for us, that’s a very good thing.
Ryan Gosling – The Place Beyond the Pines
Surprising virtually nobody, Gosling’s electric performance as motorcycle-wunderkind Luke is still nonetheless impressive. For a film broken up into three distinct segments, the one revolving around him works best because he’s the kind of actor who says as much with a simple look as a page-long monologue. His character is fully realized and aches from a past that is only ever alluded to. The argument could be made that this is a performance by a true movie star, but I prefer to look at it as a portrait of a beaten and broken man by someone who captures the essence of what it is to, quite simply, be human.
Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Perhaps the best performance of the year to date comes from Greta Gerwig as Frances, a ‘woman-child’ of sorts who fears growing up and potentially losing her roommate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who may just be on the verge of growing up herself. Gerwig is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes at the exact same moment. She gives her character Frances an unbridled sense of optimism despite living a less-than-successful existence herself. She makes you want to both laugh hysterically and curl up into a ball and cry. Now that’s a performance.
The Place Beyond The Pines
A crime epic ode to unconditional love and broken families, Derek Cianfrance’s film takes us to a place beyond the pines, but more importantly, to a place where the complicated nature of being human is on full display.
Four little chickies went down to the beach, met an Alien, and embraced a life of crime. It could have been just another exploitation of spring break culture, but Harmony Korine’s neon-lit intensely strange expose on the behaviors our celebrity-obsessed culture breeds clearly had other things on its mind.
The Spectacular Now
U.S. Release Date: August 2nd, 2013
An achingly real high school coming of age film with impressive performances from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley that will us to examine the nature of young love. Along the way, we may just come to realize that just because our parents have made mistakes, it doesn’t always mean we are destined to do the same.
U.S. Release Date: August 9th, 2013
The perfect amalgamation of the two distinctly different periods of David Gordon Green’s career, Prince Avalanche is a strange and downright hilarious film about two highway workers destined to clash over their differences. The great turns from Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch provide a chemistry unmatched by any other film so far this year.
A black and white jolt of optimism from a man known for far more somber fair, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the kind of film that seems destined to linger in your mind for the forseeable future. Not only is Gerwig fantastic as Frances, but she’s anchored by a supporting cast that weave in and out of her life so much so that its hard to separate your own existence from hers.
A tale of the south far more concerned with the real flawed people that inhabit it than the typical stereotypes and ridiculous characterizations. Jeff Nichols has mastered the essence of this sub-set of American culture so much so that it’s nearly impossible to not long for your own escape into Mud’s world.
The perfect ending (?) to the perfect film trilogy, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight takes Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) to the only possible place you could imagine them. Easily my favorite film of the year to date and anchored by two more great turns from its leads, it’s the perfect antidote to the false romanticizing of typical Hollywood fare. This is life, this is romance; it ain’t always pretty but it’s always worth the journey.
Coming Soon: The Television Year in Review , Most Anticipated Films of Awards Season