The turnaround continues. Having given arguably the performance of his career last year in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, Matthew McConaughey gives arguably the performance of his career for 2013 in writer-director Jeff Nichols' Mud. Once again we're down South, and romantic and familial tensions are a big part of the plot, but this here Mark Twainesque gem from the Mississippi is a far easier and life-affirming watch with much wider appeal.

For 14-year-old best pals Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) the river is an endless source of inspiration, adventure, and mischief. Like any kids their age, they're drunk on the excitement of never knowing what's around the next bend, and when they borrow Ellis' dad's boat to take a trip to a deserted island they arrive on the shores of their very own movie.

The island, they discover, has a brand new resident, a charismatic fella who goes by the name of Mud (McConaughey). Mud's interested in making a deal - but how far should you go to help a new friend in need?

2014 will be the sadder of years if Nichols, McConaughey or his two young co-stars don't get some awards recognition for their work on Mud - even 10 months out, Nichols would be a thoroughly deserving winner of next year's Best Original Screenplay Oscar. There's a lot of work to be done between now and then, but politicking and promo aside, Mud is all that's best about American cinema.

As he showed with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Nichols is a filmmaker with a remarkable sense of place and the rhythms of local life. Even sitting in an Irish cinema you'll swear you feel the sweat on your brow, while the kids will remind you of someone you've either met or used to be. And it's a measure of the man that McConaughey makes his performance more about the youngsters than it is about him - in doing so, his own work is even more powerful. Something tells us he'd make a very good director...

This coming of age story-meets-Western would've graced any era (in another time you could see Jon Voight or James Garner in the title role) and will age like the very best of both genres. The only disappointment is that you're not 14 yourself watching it.

Harry Guerin