The first half of 2013 was a strange time for movies. Coming after the amazing final two months of 2012 - easily the best 60 days ever in my 21 years of reviewing - anything was bound to be a disappointment, but a fall this far was unexpected. The question to consider is whether the lackluster January-June portion of the 2013 calendar was just a "down" segment of the normal motion picture cycle or whether it augurs a more fundamental change. Have we entered a period in which "quality" films are all held for the end of the year and Hollywood populates multiplexes during the other three seasons with lukewarm junk, marginal material, and blockbusters? It will take a few years to get a handle on this. Having endured six months of unremarkable theatrical releases, however (and I have tried hard to avoid the worst of the worst), I look forward to better days. Things certainly couldn't get worse.
Nine of the ten films on this mid-year list won't be there when the end-of-the-year list is revealed in about six months' time. As of June 30, I haven't awarded any film 3.5 stars since December, although there is one four-star citation. Some have argued that I'm being unduly harsh but I don't think my standards have changed. Keep in mind that I was doling out 3.5 star ratings like candy late last year. Yes, there have been some good movies but none that warrant crossing the line between the "good, unqualified recommendation" level of three stars to the "very good, highly worth seeing" level of 3.5 stars.
The following ten movies deserve to be singled out for light entertainment purposes or, in a few cases, something more substantive. There's not a lot of difference separating #2 from #10. The lone standout is at #1 and there's a huge chasm between it and the first runner-up. A little more about that below. As is usual for me, the titles are presented in reverse order:
#10: Man of Steel: There's plenty wrong with Zack Snyder's re-imagination of the "Superman" legend and his film pales in comparison to Richard Donner's late-'70s/early-'80s version, but there's no denying that the movie shines in places and is visually spectacular. Plus, Henry Cavill may be the best actor ever to put on the suit with the big "S." In many ways, it won't be possible to truly evaluate Man of Steel for years since the success of this film will in some ways be determined by how well this new iteration of Superman develops from the foundation laid here.
#9: Much Ado about Nothing: It's possible to argue that Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing is the ultimate cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Joss Whedon isn't attempting to knock Branagh from his high perch, but he becomes only the second superhero film director to set his sights on Shakespeare, making the connection obvious. This Much Ado is a small, stripped down version but can still boast its own set of charms, chief of which is the chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick. But isn't that always the case with this play? If a filmmaker (and his actors) get this right, the story works, and Whedon gets it right.
#8: This is the End: Yes, there was another Hangover this summer but This is the End became the raunchy comedy to see. Although one could argue there's a little too much ego stroking going on, that doesn't take away from the fact that the movie is at times very funny. And a lot of things can be forgiven in the name of humor. Plus, where else can you hear Hermione drop the f-bomb every few seconds when she's on screen? And where else can you see a coked-out Michael Cera grab Rihanna's ass?
#7: Monsters University: Probably Pixar's best film in three years, Monsters University is a pleasant little family romp. However, while it offers an enjoyable 100 minutes, it left me wondering if and when we're going to get another classic from the corporation that developed the animated gold standard. Not this year, apparently. Still, this is at the top of the heap for summer 2013 big-screen cartoons.
#6: Star Trek into Darkness: The second film in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot series is in many ways similar to its predecessor - glossy, action-packed, and filled with valentines to Trekkies (or Trekkers). Unfortunately, it also suffers from the same problem: it doesn't hold together on repeat viewings. The more times one watches this movie, the more holes appear until the fabric looks a little like Swiss cheese. When one places this in its proper place alongside 11 other big-screen Star Trek outings, this one falls somewhere in the middle. Summer fun, but I think a lot of fans were hoping for something more.
#5: Disconnect: There's no doubting that this movie proffers a serious message about communication (and the lack thereof) in modern society. At its best, Disconnect is effective and affecting but the three loosely connected stories vary considerably in quality and power, and the slower, less impressive parts blunt the overall impact. Still, it's worth a look especially once it reaches home video. The story about the bullied kid hits hard.
#4: Side Effects: Is it Soderbergh's last theatrical feature? Who knows. If it is, the versatile filmmaker exits stage left with a perfect Hitchcock homage. Replete with delightful twists and strong performances, this represented 2013's first unqualified recommendation and, because it's already available on DVD, there's no reason to wait to see it if you haven't already done so.
#3: Mud: Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in modern-day America with Matthew McConaughy as Jim? It works surprisingly well in unexpected ways. McConaughy's performance goes alongside some of his other recent roles as expert examples of what an actor can do when he invests himself fully in a role.
#2: Stoker: Devilishly, deliciously depraved, Stoker is an engaging black comedy/thriller that's unlike anything else out there right now. It's not nearly as bizarre as Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy, but it was still too much for the average American movie-goer, who didn't know quite what to make of this twisted coming-of-age story of a seemingly innocent young woman who's not quite as sweet as she might seem. If she was the girl next door, you'd move.
#1: Before Midnight: The crown jewel of the first half of 2013, Before Midnight is the third film in Richard Linklater's Before series (I won't call it a trilogy because there are likely to be additional installments) and the best of three very strong entries. It's a little surprising that it was released so early in the year but I guess there was a concern about it becoming "lost" if it opened in October, November, or December. When the dust settles at the end of the year, I expect this movie to be sitting at #1. It's so strong a film that it's hard to believe there's anything better waiting in the wings. In fact, it's a stronger movie that my #1s for 2010, 2011, and 2012 and it will be the first title since The Dark Knight to enter my personal Top 100. Before Midnight tells a simple story about how love changes over the years when two people live in close proximity to one another. The narrative, emotions, and character interaction are perfect. The film's strengths lie in its honesty and truth and the two incredible, Oscar-worthy performances by the leads. A wonderful film. It can still be found in a limited number of theaters and is due out on DVD late in the year.