The 25 Best Movies of 2013 (So Far)

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The cinematic year of 2013 has already brought us the return of an established master (Richard Linklater, with Before Midnight) and the potential emergence of a new one (Shane Carruth, with Upstream Color). The second half of the year is likely to provide us with more great moments, but for now, here are our favorites of the year so far.

25. Eden (Megan Griffiths)
The plot of Megan Griffiths’ thriller seems too far-fetched and cruel to believe — an innocent teenager is kidnapped and forced into four years of sexual slavery in a warehouse just a few miles from her own house before finally escaping. But not only does this type of thing happen in America, it did happen to Chong Kim, on whose incredible story the film is based. It doesn’t work at every moment. I found many of the scenes overdone and thought Griffiths lingered a bit too long on the many scenes of violence and humiliation. But the story is an important one, and the acting is outstanding, particularly from Special Jury Award winner Jamie Chung. This is her first real chance to show her acting chops in a big project, and she’s obviously much more talented than her previous projects (The Real World, Sucker Punch, The Hangover II, etc) have allowed her to show.—Michael Dunaway

24. The East (Zal Batmanglij)
Director Zal Batmanglij and Actress Brit Marling join forces again as co-writers in their fast-moving followup to 2012’s Sound of My Voice. The East is the story of a private-firm intelligence agent (Marling) looking to infiltrate a shadowy group of anticorporate terrorsists, and it’s fun to see her on the other side of the ledger (she was the leader of the group being infiltrated in Sound). Marling is wonderful as always, Alexander Skarsgaard is appropriately mysterious as the leader of the group, and Ellen Page turns in her best performance in years. The film was produced by Ridley Scott (and executive produced by his late brother Tony), and the Hollywood pedigree shows; Batmanglij seems to be making his bid for the brass ring here, and he should get it.—Michael Dunaway

23. Welcome to Pine Hill (Adam Leon)
Keith Miller’s multiple award winner (full disclosure: I served on the jury at Sarasota that chose him for the Independent Visions award) would be notable for its black protagonist even if it were merely a competent film; indie film just doesn’t explore the African American experience often. Fortunately, though, it’s a powerfully compelling drama. An opening scene depicts an encounter full of potential menace (a similar encounter actually happened between Miller and star Shannon Harper; it’s how they met). But it never boils over into actual violence, and throughout, the film steadfastly refuses to go in the directions you expect it to. Harper’s Abu looks like a bit of a thug but is actually an intelligent and competent man, probably a bit too intelligent and competent for the lower middle-class job he’s stuck in. When he learns he’s contracted inoperable cancer, the feeling of lost potential is potent, and the rest of the film—as he struggles to face his impending death—is powerful.—Michael Dunaway

22. Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon)
An astoundingly spirited debut from director Adam Leon, Gimme the Loot keeps a youthful faith in the endless possibilities of the future. But the movie also stays grounded in the realities of struggling, up-and-coming artists. It’s human and hopeful, never letting the tone get too cynical or bitter. Leon’s film embeds a mature friendship in the story of two teen graffiti artists trying to pull off the biggest graffiti tag in the Bronx. Much more grownup than it looks, Gimme the Loot is that rare teen-centric film whose brisk pace is unburdened by sentimentality.—Monica Castillo

21. 56 Up (Michael Apted)
56 Up is the eighth installment in Granada Television’s Up series, which documents the lives of 14 British children beginning in 1964 when they were seven years old, up to today. Since the original episode, every seven years the camera crew has returned to catch up with the participants on where their lives have taken them since the last episode and to ask them a routine round of questions about their lives—the answers to which predictably vary wildly with the passing of time.—Emily Kirkpatrick

20. Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein)
To “fill the void” means to simultaneously gain and lose. For Shira, she is keeping her family together at the cost of her own ambitions. It’s a kind of self-sacrifice not seen in American films. Burshtein captures these delicate moments brilliantly. As part of an Orthodox Hasidic community, she builds a bridges between her insular society and the most likely secular audience that will want to tear Shira out from the confines of the situation. But that’s not what Fill the Void is about. Shira chooses to tie her family back together and help her community heal. And we have to respect that choice as well.—Monica Castillo

19. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black)
Whereas most actors, no matter how adept the performance, play second fiddle to the character they portray, Downey Jr. has pretty much displaced Tony Stark, fifty years of comic book character development notwithstanding. In part, it’s because the character himself has never been as compelling as the armor he wore, but mainly, it’s because Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is just so damned much more enjoyable to be around than Stark Classic. It doesn’t matter that, in terms of hero profiles, Downey Jr.’s breezy, edgy quipping is pure Spider-Man. In fact, it’s telling that, in a realm pretty much defined by a fandom that will wail and gnash teeth about even the slightest deviation from canon, no one really cared. It’s the primary reason why a superhero film where the protagonist spends most of his time out of his armor rather than in it is not just bearable, but downright fun. It’s why the neutering of an arch-villain—though still a troublesome precedent for the Marvel film universe as a whole—works fine within the framework of the film. It’s why, in the frivolous debates of the future, the question “Who was the best Iron Man?” will really be, “Who has done the best version of Robert Downey Jr.?”—Michael Burgin

18. The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
Like adolescence itself, this coming-of-age story is sweet, sad and very, very funny. And in a film featuring Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Megan Mulally, many of The Kings of Summer’s biggest laughs come from a 19-year-old actor primarily known for his performance on Disney’s Hannah Montana. Moises Arias steals every scene he’s in as Biaggio, a loyal-but-hilariously-odd sidekick to two boys (Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso) struggling to deal with oppressive family lives.—Josh Jackson

17. Leviathan (Vérena Paravel and Lucien Castain-Taylor)
This is not an easy film, plunging us into the choppy waters and brutally physical work done on a commercial fishing boat. Leviathan doesn’t bother to establish anything in the way of “characters” and eschews other modern-day documentary conventions such as tidy narrative arcs and clear presentations of talking-point information. Instead, the film offers a pronouncedly subjective experience that’s punishing not only sonically but also visually. (Those prone to motion sickness be warned.) It’s a magnificent movie that works you over in the same way a fantastic metal album does, pummeling you with sensation and leaving you staggering and stunned.—Tim Grierson

16. The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach)
Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share revisits the themes the prolific director first explored in 1969’s Kes and later in 2002’s Sweet Sixteen. With the number of unemployed young people reaching more than a million in Britain, here is a heist comedy set in the harsh reality of contemporary Glasgow, where youth who get off to a rough start see no way out and harbor no hope for the future. In an indirect indictment of a society that fails them, a small crew of petty criminals gets a fresh start by gaming the system rather than playing by the rules.—Annlee Ellingson

15. This is the End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)
Too often, Hollywood comedies aimed at a male audience skew more towards the single-digit side of the age scale. Yet there’s a pretty potent distinction between puerile and “late-juvenile” humor. The former—all fart, poop and pratfall—is the stuff that the eye rolls of girlfriends and wives is made of (not to mention a good portion of Adam Sandler and Kevin James’ careers). But the latter, done right, is an equal opportunity amuser. (Oh, eyes may still roll, but they do so while laughing.) In This Is the End, Seth Rogen, James Franco and their band of the mostly usual suspects proves just how potent this rarer variant of comedy can be—and how much it, in turn, can benefit from the application of a little eschatological urgency.—Michael Burgin

14. Shadow Dancer (James Marsh)
A woman’s betrayal of her family serves as the linchpin of the taut political drama Shadow Dancer, directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim). Set during “the Troubles” of the 20th century between Britain and Northern Ireland, the era’s bloody violence often pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore families apart. Screenwriter Tom Bradby began the novel on which the film is based while a television correspondent in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. His perspective as a journalist balances the storytelling from both sides of the conflict, never forcing the audience pick a political ideology.—Christine Ziemba

13. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)
Joss Whedon places his Much Ado About Nothing in present-day California. (The film was shot in Whedon’s Santa Monica home.) Though the setting has been updated, the language has not—a reason for lovers of Shakespeare to rejoice, and for those less familiar with him to go, “Wait, what…?” Much as with Branagh’s version, it’s a decision that guarantees Whedon’s Much Ado will not venture far beyond the confines of the art house theater and Netflix’s “Shakespeare Films” category. Of course, the language is also pretty much the reason the plays of this particular 16th Century playwright are still being made into movies. (Consider Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who has appeared in more films as a character than had his own work adapted to the screen.) In setting and tone, Much Ado manages to smoothly present a contemporary vision of the play’s original setting of wealth and ease—this is how the better, effortlessly hipper, half lives. The performance by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon of “Sigh No More” (music by Joss, lyrics by William) serves as a languid, melodic theme for the film as a whole.—Michael Burgin

12. No (Pablo Larrain)
It’s a strange notion that happiness can be packaged and bought like a bottle of ketchup. But in order for Chileans to overthrow their dictatorship in a 1988 election, this is what had to happen—enough citizens had to buy into the idea of a future state of happiness. And, as is the case for most products, happiness had to be advertised. Pablo Larrain’s fourth film and third installment of his trilogy about Chile’s dictatorship, No tells the story of how an advertising campaign for happiness helped overthrow fifteen years of tyrannical rule.—Gabrielle Lipton

11. The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh)
Nominated for an Oscar and winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary Feature award, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers may sound dry on paper: It’s a Hebrew-language documentary on Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service. But the film resonates with viewers largely due to its access to and the candidness of its interview subjects: the six surviving directors of the Israeli secret service. Through their retrospection—and some arresting special-effects wizardry—The Gatekeepers explores the role Shin Bet has played in Israel’s short, tumultuous history.—Annlee Ellingson

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