Movies, TV, books, the Web: 2013's bests -- so far

We're halfway through the year. Determined to catch up this summer? Here's your guide to everything you must know

Published July 4, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

"The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner. This novel has a bold, seamless confidence in itself and in the significance of what it has to say that you don’t realize was missing from most fiction by American women until you see it exhibited by Kushner. More than any other recent novel, it challenges the parameters of what convention deems a "big book." “The Flamethrowers” mostly takes place in the late 1970s, in New York, in Italy and a little bit in the salt flats of Utah, and it is mostly narrated by a young woman nicknamed Reno (after her hometown), as she makes her way through the Manhattan art scene. But the thrill of this novel has as much to do with its voice as with its subject matter; you have to read it to see what all the fuss is about, and to appreciate the accolades, and controversy, that will surely follow. -- Laura Miller

Renata Adler's reissued novels. Given that either one can be read in an afternoon, there's no excuse not to have caught up with "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark" by now. The two novels by the journalist Renata Adler (famous for her film criticism and her excoriations of her literary rivals) take the temperature of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with detours into academia, material culture, and meta-journalism. We'd recommend starting with "Pitch Dark," which has something of a plot surrounding a late night on a country road in Ireland, before moving to the stream-of-consciousness "Speedboat," about all the anxieties a New Yorker, writer and woman felt during the Ford administration. -- Daniel D'Addario

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie's third novel follows a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who moves to America and becomes a blogger, but later returns to Nigeria and the love of her life Obinze (who's now married with a child). The novel's amusingly self-referential: Amid its romantic plot, the characters read and critique romance novels. It's also a lot more than a romance. Adichie's a smart and funny observer of slang, of technology, and of the body -- Ifemelu's acute awareness of the space she and other people take up in the world makes the novel feel especially alive. -- Anna North

"Going Clear: Scientology Exposed" by Lawrence Wright. You know that Wright's history of the notoriously litigious and grudge-nursing Church of Scientology had to be reported and fact-checked to a fare-thee-well. What it didn't have to be is an insightful page-turner about the human craving for transcendence and personal power and the terrible places it takes some of us. Scientology leaders' outrageous shenanigans and flagrant misdeeds speak for themselves, so Wright need only convey the facts with a minimum of hoopla. He strives to be fair, noting all the ways that Scientology resembles other religions that began as suspect or fringe movements, but he catches church spokesmen in so many lies and unearths so much evidence of malfeasance that his caveats do tend to get swamped. For all the information conveyed, strong narrative core keeps the book from turning into a research dump and I found it impossible to put down. -- Laura Miller

The return of "Hyperbole and a Half." Internet comedian and blogger Allie Brosh has returned after an 18-month hiatus this spring. For those unfamiliar with Brosh's blog "Hyperbole and a Half," deemed one of the funniest sites on the Internet, her first post in 2013 will be enough to hook you in: Brosh recounts her travails with chronic depression using crude but funny MS Paint drawings, a dash of absurdism, and leaping wit, creating something that conveys both the gravity of depression and the hopefulness that awaits those on the other side of it. -- Prachi Gupta

"The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America." by George Packer. Short on opining and long on perspective, this nonfiction account of several American lives over the past 35 years offers no overt argument about what's happened to our country. Instead it's wide ranging, deeply reported, historically grounded and ideologically restrained. To write “The Unwinding,” Packer clearly had to spend a lot of time out of his own habitat and in the company of other people, listening more than talking. The result is a choral portrait of a nation ever more divided by income inequality, ruthless unconcern for the unfortunate and, above all, loneliness and disconnection. Some famous figures appear, but the key figures, the ones whose trajectories arc through the entire book like ribs or rafters, are unknowns: an African-American factory worker turned organizer in Ohio, a disillusioned lawyer who drifts from public service to finance and back again, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with extreme libertarian beliefs, and a scion of North Carolina tobacco farmers trying to make it as an entrepreneur. In the book’s most bravura chapters, the city of Tampa, Fla., serves as yet another character. “Where had it all gone?" thinks one of these people about her hometown. "The things that had made it a community — stores, schools, churches, playgrounds, fruit trees — were gone, along with half the houses and two-thirds of the people, and if you didn’t know the history, you wouldn’t know what was missing.” Now we do. -- Laura Miller

"Veep" on HBO. They say that sitcoms need a half-season or more to hit their stride, but since I don't watch many half-hour comedies, I've never seen this principle in action before. The first season of "Veep" was OK, but depended too much on the bungling of the title character, Vice President Selina Meyer, and the too-obvious gag of the VP's political impotence for its laughs. Season 2, on the other hand, has been sharpened to a merciless point. We do get to see Selina exhibit some of the competence that must have landed her the gig in the first place, but the other characters haven't changed, exactly. Instead, they've deepened from types (the workaholic young female chief of staff; the slimily handsome professional bastard; the befuddled old-timer; the fawning personal assistant) into full personalities, largely via friction with outsiders: a soulless pollster, a slick presidential rival who works his military service into every public statement, a fabulously profane and deliciously apocalyptic White House chief of staff ("We're at DEFCON fuck!"). Instead of photo ops and other trivialities, Selina has dealt with a hostage crisis, a budget standoff and weak midterm elections for her party, so the conflicts feel meatier, but it's the writing that bristles and glitters at every turn. -- Laura Miller

“The Gatekeepers.” One could argue that Sony released Israeli director Dror Moreh’s extraordinary documentary, built around exclusive interviews with former leaders of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret police, a few months too early to get the attention it deserved. Although it was nominated for best documentary at the 2012 Oscars (even before it had reached theaters), “The Gatekeepers” very much deserves a second look in the wake of the Edward Snowden case and the revelations about NSA spying on Americans. Moreh spins a dark but utterly fascinating secret history of Israeli domestic espionage, exploring its biggest successes and failures – in the latter category, nothing looms larger than the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Jewish settler – and its death struggle against democratic oversight. “The Gatekeepers” is full of surprises, including the fact that every Shin Bet head comes off as a complicated human being with grave regrets about the overall direction their country has taken. -- Andrew O'Hehir

“Stories We Tell.” There are plenty of documentaries that blur the line between truth and fiction, and the family-secrets confessional film has become its own sort of cliché. And then there’s the brilliant and occasionally gasp-inducing “Stories We Tell,” the first nonfiction work from Canadian actress-turned-director Sarah Polley, who after just three movies belongs on the short list of best young filmmakers in North America. Exploring a swirl of uncertainty and rumor surrounding her own family – in fact, surrounding her own parentage – Polley emerges with a sly, hilarious and often beautiful film that is both a tribute to the spirit of her late mother, a high-WASP love letter to her detached, English-born father and a reminder that all we really ever have of the elusive and seductive past are the stories we tell about it now. -- Andrew O'Hehir

“Beyond the Hills.” Largely set at a remote Christian monastery in a poor and backward region of northeastern Romania, Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to the international hit “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is undeniably what festival-goers call a “tough sit.” But this torn-from-the-tabloids tale of a headstrong young woman whose intense same-sex passion leads to accusations of demonic possession and an attempted exorcism has stuck with me like no other film released in 2013. Mungiu’s mordant view of the human condition and mud-under-the-nails realism combine with the memorable performances of Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan (who shared the best-actress prize at Cannes last year) to create a powerful if enigmatic moral fable that dramatizes the clash between tradition and modernity but refuses to boil down to some simplistic equation. To Western eyes, the charismatic priest (Valeriu Andriuta) who yearns to save young Alina from Satan is both misguided and wrong. Perhaps it makes things even worse that he is not a black-hearted or cruel person, and means her no harm. -- Andrew O'Hehir

"The Place Beyond the Pines." While director Derek Cianfrance's previous film, "Blue Valentine," trafficked in easy, cynical miserabilism, "Pines" took on a next-to-impossible task: showing the consequences of violence over the course of generations. Bradley Cooper, a newly minted serious actor, did his best work ever as a too-ambitious police officer whose interaction with a bank-robbing Ryan Gosling ends up affecting both of their sons years later. As Cooper, years later, runs for attorney general, his son's life begins to unravel into a morass of drugs and violence; neither father nor son can escape the cycle of violence upon which their family's success is built. To its discredit, "The Place Beyond the Pines" is testosterone-drenched to a fault -- women are impediments to the story, really. But the story Cianfrance is telling has the operatic sweep of one of the Great American Novels that authors used to attempt. -- Daniel D'Addario

“Before Midnight.” For the conclusion of “the lowest-grossing trilogy in movie history,” to quote director Richard Linklater, he and the series’ beloved duo, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, have ventured into truly unexplored terrain: the difficult middle years of marriage. The first flush of romantic love, as seen in “Before Sunrise,” is of course magical, but possibly overpraised in film and literature. And hardly anything in life seems as miraculous as the chance reunion years later, as in “Before Sunset,” even if it often turns out to be the universe’s idea of a practical joke. In Linklater’s beautiful and bittersweet capstone to the series (once again co-written with Delpy and Hawke), Jesse and Céline find themselves in the Greek islands, but not as strangers or lost lovers. This time they’re exhausted parents (of twins!), sick of each other’s jokes, tired of mutual sacrifice and not at all sure the whole thing was worth it. So it’s all the more remarkable that “Before Midnight” is ultimately the most rewarding and romantic of all their adventures, an enduring tribute to the power and pain of love. -- Andrew O'Hehir

Michael Shannon's Delta Gamma letter performance. It was glorious enough when the expletive-laden email from a very, very committed sorority girl berating her sisters for being, among other things, goddamn boners, went viral.  But when the Oscar-nominated Michael Shannon brought his uniquely psychotic brand of intensity to the text, it elevated the entire thing to a whole new level. Shannon's directive to "Punch yourself in the face … right now" is the most hilarious performance to ever haunt your nightmares. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

Patton Oswalt's eight-minute, improvised "Star Wars"-themed monologue. Comedian Patton Oswalt nerded out in an epic 8-minute improvised monologue on the set of "Parks and Recreation." Producers wanted Oswalt to riff on "Star Wars- Episode 7," knowing that only a few bits of his rant would make it on the screen. The result is a Marvel Comics, Jedi-invaded world that not even the likes of Joss Whedon could create. -- Prachi Gupta

"Birth Control on the Bottom." If you took delight in the  "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" meme, which ridicules the proliferation of stock images of women getting orgiastic over herbs, you will enjoy the Dannon commercial parody sketch, "Birth Control on the Bottom." Written by "Parks and Recreation" writer Megan Amram, the sketch stars talent like Retta and Weird Al, and gives a pitch-perfect comeuppance to the health food industry's portrayal of women. -- Prachi Gupta

“Top of The Lake.” The seven-episode miniseries created by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss is the best thing that's been on television all year, and it’s streaming on Netflix so you have no excuse. The series is like Campion’s version of “Twin Peaks,” though that undermine’s the project’s originality too much. A troubled detective tries to find a pregnant 12-year-old in a small New Zealand town that has a serious rape problem, with all the surreal elements, gorgeous cinematography, feminism and sensuality that are Campion’s hallmarks. Moss has never been better, and she’s joined by Holly Hunter as a no-nonsense guru and Peter Mullan as the riveting town capo. -- Willa Paskin

“Borgen.” It's a Danish series about a female prime minister, but don’t dismiss it just because you have no patience for subtitles: You would be missing one of TV’s most charismatic performances and the very rare series that is adult and captivating without violence or assholes. Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as Birgitte Nyborg, a politician, wife and mother who unexpectedly becomes P.M. and has to grow into the job, at some serious personal expense. (Her marriage begins as one of the most delightful I’ve ever seen — I’m talking Eric and Tami Taylor delightful —  if it doesn’t stay that way.) The show was inspired by “The West Wing” but takes place on a much more human Danish-size scale and is the best rejoinder I’ve seen for the specious notion that decent people don’t make for good drama. -- Willa Paskin

“The Americans.” The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep cover Communist operatives, living in 1980s America, with kids, a house in the burbs, fake jobs and a long-term marriage that’s simultaneously bogus and all too real. Beautifully acted by Russell and Rhys, as well as Noah Emmerich, who plays the FBI agent on their trail, it’s got action sequences, romance, spy games, great characters and '80s clothing, and effortlessly makes you root for pawns of the evil empire. It’s as thoughtful as it is fun, which is to say it’s a lot of both. -- Willa Paskin

"Room 237." Obsessive and brilliant, the documentary about Stanley Kubrick's masterful "The Shining" -- and the cultish hunt for secret clues within it – is a love letter to the movies and the boundless curiosity of fans. Was there ever a sweeter homage to such a chilling classic? -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

"Body Party" by Ciara. One of the most successful new recording artists in the first half of the 2000s, Ciara has recently struggled with her record label; her last album, the disappointing "Basic Instinct," came out in 2010 and there've been years of silence since then. Apparently by sheer force of will, the R&B singer's brought herself back from the brink with "Body Party," a single from a forthcoming album. The song, a classic slow burner that recalls the better work of Janet Jackson, came out in March but is perfect for the later hours of a humid summer party. The album, to be released July 5, will likely be playing from car stereos for the next two months. -- Daniel D'Addario

"Heartthrob," by Tegan & Sara. "Heartthrob" is a big, bold statement from the Canadian sister act Tegan and Sara Quin. Gone is the duo’s razor-sharp guitar-pop and plucky singing style; instead, the album is dominated by widescreen synth pop informed by lavish ’80s production values (echoing drums! sparkly keyboards! glossy layers!) and sophisticated vocal performances. Fittingly, "Heartthrob’s" lyrics are also more complex: Romance-gone-awry dissections (the slow, agonizing decline of a crumbling relationship; cutting ties with an ex) alternate with fresh, saucy takes on love — from appreciating a partner’s measured take on dating to the eyebrow-raising line, “All I dream of lately is how to get you underneath me.” File "Heartthrob" right next to Prince, Cyndi Lauper and the other radio stars of 1984. -- Annie Zaleski

"The Messenger," by Johnny Marr. In a year where it’s all the rage for influential U.K. artists to release albums after a long break — see: David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine and Suede — one of the best records released so far comes from ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. The prolific veteran (who’s also played with Modest Mouse and the Cribs) has never stopped collaborating or innovating. His solo debut, "The Messenger," is a collection of lively rock 'n' roll with no pretense or gimmicks, just plenty of snaky riffs and diverse influences: Britpop swoons, biting post-punk, angsty ’80s alt-rock and nods to sturdy English rock icons (including Oasis and, yes, Bowie). What’s most impressive about "The Messenger" is Marr’s confidence as a frontman — vocally, he veers from forceful (“Sun & Moon”) to vulnerable (“Lockdown”) with ease. -- Annie Zaleski

"Save Rock & Roll," by Fall Out Boy. Make no mistake, the members of the Chicago quartet aren’t suffering from delusions of grandeur: The album’s title is a reference to a rock 'n' roll “attitude” more than a boast, says bassist Pete Wentz. In fact, "Save Rock & Roll" harkens to a time when the line between pop and rock music was delightfully blurry — and stellar craftsmanship and indelible melodies mattered most. Anchored by Patrick Stump’s soul-coated vocals — the frontman impressively nails both falsetto crooning and ferocious snarls — the music touches on sinewy hip-hop, glam-metal, ’80s Top 40, sassy punk and even piano-aided classic rock. Lyrically, however, "Save Rock & Roll" is obsessed with anything but frivolity. One song describes adulthood as being “doomed to organizing walk-in closets like tombs,” and the rest of the album addresses what happens once life’s harsher realities replace youthful idealism and romantic notions. -- Annie Zaleski

“#Beautiful,” by Mariah Carey and Miguel. In a year with abundant summer jam possibilities, this song is poised to stave off top contenders such as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Only the hashtag dates the tune as a modern composition; musically, it’s a languid, retro-dizzy hybrid of ‘70s R&B and soul sweetness tinged by the shadow of Motown. Although Carey’s trademark octave-defying trills flit in and out of the background, her vocal delivery is flirty and understated, matching Miguel’s own alluring vibe. Best of all, the song’s simple theme — a boy and a girl coyly dance around their attraction for one another — has substance, too: To his crush, Miguel coos, “You’re beautiful, and your mind is fucking beautiful.” Admiring a lady for her brains and beauty? Now that’s an unstoppable seduction technique. -- Annie Zaleski

The Lindy West/Jim Norton debate on rape jokes. It's incredibly unfortunate that it inspired an appalling deluge of threats and insults from the lowest lowlifes on the Internet, because the unlikely pairing of Jezebel's Lindy West and comic Jim Norton on W. Kamau Bell's "Totally Biased" show in May was one of the smartest, sharpest, most civil conversations to come out of a divisive topic ever. With both sides earnestly grappling with the difficult issues of sensitivity, artistic expression, accountability, in the end, it offered no easy solutions. But for those who chose to watch with open ears and hearts, it was lively, thought-provoking and highly entertaining -- a rare case when both sides of a debate seemed to win. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

All things Tilda Swinton. Vamping with David Bowie in "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)."  Leading the crowd and dancing joyously to Barry White at Roger Ebert's memorial service.  Napping in a box at the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody, but nobody can beat Swinton this year as the epitome of cool, artsy ecstasy. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

Comebacks. 2013 has already proven an exceptional year for returns.  Netflix gave us an embarrassment of riches with a full new season of  "Arrested Development,"  seven years after Fox canceled it.  Kickstarter helped kickstart a "Veronica Mars" movie, six years after the series ended. Dan Harmon announced his return to "Community," a year after being replaced as showrunner. Disco pioneer Nile Rogers even came back, teaming up with Daft Punk to create the breezy, indisputable summer jam champ "Get Lucky." Who says all good things must come to an end? -- Mary Elizabeth Williams

Issa Rae. Rae's probably still most famous for her witty Web series, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl." But the actress, writer and director is poised to become a multimedia star. She was recently cast as Nina Simone in a biopic of "A Raisin in the Sun" author Lorraine Hansberry, she's got a book of essays coming out in 2014, and she just started a gig as one of the hosts of the new talk show, "Exhale." If you haven't heard of her, you're about to. -- Anna North

Previously.TV. Recap websites are all over the Internet -- churning out thousands of words of mechanical writing overnight on every plot detail in "Bunheads" or "Parks and Recreation." It was time for a new manner of covering last night's programming, and the creators of the modern recap format have done it again. Years after creating the venerable Television Without Pity, Tara Ariano, David T. Cole and Sarah D. Bunting have created a fun site that slices and dices television programming in brief, snappy pieces. These have so far included a phony résumé for "Mad Men's" Bob Benson, a look at the stars taking paycheck gigs in cheesy TV ads, and fake recaps in the stentorial, sexist voice of "The Newsroom" anchor Will McAvoy -- just about the only recaps that are doing something new with the form. -- Daniel D'Addario

The TalkhouseThe concept of The Talkhouse is so simple, it’s amazing something like it didn’t exist until now: Nearly every day, the website publishes a different musician responding to something music-related — new album releases mostly, although other pieces have also covered Warped Tour, a rock star memoir and the mundane reality of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle — however they see fit. So far, the resulting free-form essays, numbered lists and even a comic have been of extremely high quality (unsurprising, since the editor in chief is journalist/author Michael Azerrad), refreshingly unfiltered and, more often than not, brutally honest. This last quality especially makes the Talkhouse a riveting daily read: Free from editorial (or publicist) pressure, the site demystifies the modern music industry while encouraging fresh, insightful discourse about art and the creative process. -- Annie Zaleski

By Salon Staff

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