5 Award-Worthy Films From the Junk-Dominated First Months of 2013

Gimme the Loot SXSW H 2012

It happens every year, but the jarring effect of it never wears off: Shortly after the Oscars, in movie theaters all over the country, a few awards season holdovers -- primarily platform releases like Silver Linings Playbook and foreign-language films like Amour -- begin to share marquees with, and then get overrun by, pure and utter junk of every variety.

There are sequels (March 29's G.I. Joe: Retaliation), adaptations (March 8's Oz the Great and Powerful) and remakes (April 5's Evil Dead), plus "original" stories that could only be described as moronic (Feb. 8's Identity Thief), embarrassing (March 15's The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), pretentious (April 12's To the Wonder), reinvention attempts (March 22's Admission), blatant cash-grabs (March 22's Olympus Has Fallen) and the latest self-titled Tyler Perry flick struggling to crack 15 percent on RottenTomatoes.com (March 29's Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, starring the distinguished actress Kim Kardashian).

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Sadly, we have grown to expect and accept this. The spring has become the doldrums for good movies because, the reasoning goes, if a movie was of any quality, it would have been released before the end of the previous year and thereby eligible for awards consideration (first-quarter releases are almost never remembered at the end of their own year), and if it had any real mass-appeal potential, it would have been held until the summer (when kids are out of school and prowling the malls). No wonder movie audiences -- and movie talent -- are fleeing in record numbers to television, which has never been better.

This year, though, for whatever reason, there have been a few noteworthy exceptions to this rule. There have been a few movies that, in addition to trying to entertain us, also tried to say something profound -- among them Spring Breakers (March 22), a dispiriting flick about the lost generation known as today's American teenagers, and Disconnect (April 12), which presents the manifold ways in which the Internet is ruining our lives -- and, even more excitingly, there have been a few movies that succeeded in doing so, and might even deserve to be remembered at the end of the year.

Here is a look at the five best (listed in order of release):

Side Effects (February 8, trailer)

Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh's swan song (supposedly), penned by Scott Z. Burns, is a riveting, Hitchcockian psychological thriller that initially appears to be about the impact on patients of the incestuous relationship between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, but eventually reveals itself, through more third-act twists than every other 2013 film combined, to be something quite different altogether. The film proves that Oscar nominee Rooney Mara's star-making turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was no fluke and also features Oscar nominee Jude Law's best performance in years. Even Channing Tatum comes off OK in this one, in a supporting part that, in more ways than one, evokes Janet Leigh's in Psycho. (I'm afraid that the one person who was miscast was Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones.) Sure, the film goes on a bit too long and comes to be implausible, but it's very smart and entertaining overall.

Add to long-list: Mara for best actress; Burns for best original screenplay

Gimme the Loot (March 22, trailer)

The directorial debut of 31-year-old Adam Leon, a white kid who majored in African-American studies, is a gritty, immensely fun and funny exploration of class and race in present-day New York, seen through the eyes of two teenage graffiti artists (the remarkably naturalistic first-timers Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson) whom you can't help but like in spite of their petty crimes, and who can't quite bring themselves to admit that they like each other. The duo's quixotic quest to raise $500 to gain special entry to and "bomb" the home-run apple at the Mets baseball stadium has the vibe of a Spike Lee joint and the sound of a Quentin Tarantino flick, with laugh-out-loud riffs on subjects ranging from yarmulkes to condoms. It premiered at last year's South by Southwest, where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize; played at Cannes; and recently garnered Leon the Someone to Watch accolade at the Indie Spirit Awards.

Add to long-list: Washington for best actress; Leon for best original screenplay

The Sapphires (March 22, trailer)

The biggest mystery of 2012, to me, was why The Weinstein Co. pushed this gem of a film -- which received a 10-minute standing ovation after its Cannes premiere, subsequently won numerous festivals' audience awards and became a hit overseas -- into 2013. Wayne Blair's first film, a musical-dramedy inspired by real people and events, chronicles the unlikely rise of and travels of an Aboriginal soul group, under the tutelage of a wacky manager (Chris O'Dowd), during the era of the war in Vietnam, which they toured. It was derived from a play written by Tony Briggs, the son of one of the group's four members, who subsequently co-wrote its screenplay. I caught its North American premiere in Telluride, and absolutely loved it; thanks to the great singing of the young ladies and O'Dowd's hilarious and charisma-dripping perf (he was heretofore best known for his work in Bridesmaids), it was the most joyous movie that I saw all year, and it could do some major damage at the next Golden Globes.

Add to long-list: O'Dowd for best actor

The Place Beyond the Pines (March 29, trailer)

Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to Blue Valentine (2010), while not quite as tight or polished, feels just as alive and emotionally wrenching, in no small part because it also features one of that film's two muses, Ryan Gosling -- at least in the first third of a multi-storied morality-play like those made by D.W. Griffith a century ago. The storyline featuring Gosling, as a circus motorcyclist who will do anything to try to woo back the woman (Eva Mendes) who has borne his child but no longer wants to be with him, crashes into that of Bradley Cooper, playing a cop who finds out the hard way that his profession is not as noble as he imagined. The final installment of this triptych, which abruptly flashes forward 15 years, illustrates -- powerfully, if also a bit too literally -- how the actions of one generation can have reverberations on others. At 140 minutes in length, the film is a bit too long, but has a lot of interesting things to say. (Once you've seen it, check out this video of an extensive chat that I had with Cianfrance in Toronto after the film's world premiere there.)

Add to long-list: Gosling for best supporting actor; Cianfrance for best original screenplay

The Iceman (May 3, trailer)

Israeli filmmaker Ariel Vromen's super-violent crime film, which I caught at Telluride (between its Venice premiere and Toronto showing), is based on the true story of a dark guy who became a mafia contract killer and one of the most prolific murderers in history, Richard Kuklinski. Kuklinski is portrayed as a zombie who occasionally explodes into a monster by the great character actor Michael Shannon, who is the reigning master of playing mentally twisted characters, from his Oscar-nominated performance in Revolutionary Road (2008) to his Emmy-worthy performance on Boardwalk Empire (2010-) to his Oscar nomination-worthy turn in Take Shelter (2011). The film shows Kuklinski juggling his lives at home, with his wife (Winona Ryder) and kids, and at work, for his mafia boss (Ray Liotta), and, in memorable cameos, some of the other people who factor into one or the other, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, Stephen Dorff and James Franco.

Add to long-list: Shannon for best actor