Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ten Best Movies of 2014 - So Far: A Half Time Top 10

It’s been a decent year for movies so far in 2014 – and that’s even taking into consideration that because of the new addition to my family – and Canadian release schedules – I still have quite a bit of catching up to do on the films from the first 6 months of 2014. Among the films I missed were: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (should get to it this weekend), Draft Day, Oculus, The Railway Man, The Lunchbox, The Raid 2, Le Week-End, Particle Fever, Palo Alto, Cold in July, Like Father Like Son, Obvious Child, Bethlehem, Omar, The Dance of Reality, Child’s Pose, Cheap Thrills, The Missing Picture, The Last of the Unjust, Ilo Ilo, Borgman, Venus in Fur, Jimmy P., Grand Piano, Coherence and Manakamana. Most of these are because they weren’t really released in Canada – at least not very wide – and are ones I will catch up with in the coming months.

But there was still plenty I did see that I quite enjoyed. Among the films that I don’t have room for in the top 10 are 4 summer blockbusters (or would be blockbusters) – X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer), Captain America: The Winter Solider (Anthony & Joe Russo), Godzilla (Gareth Edwards) and Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) – all of which is summer entertainment done right. Then there were the smaller movies like Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski), Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt), We Are the Best (Lukas Moodysson), Joe (David Gordon Green) and The Immigrant (James Gray) which offered a respite from the larger movies hell-bent on destruction that I think are quite deserving of attention. Then there are these 10, which are the best of the best so far this year. The top film is guaranteed a spot on my year end list – probably a very high one – and I think number 2 will make it as well. The next two or three may or may not, depending on how strong the rest of the year is.

10. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)/The Rover (David Michod)
Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin and David Michod’s The Rover (the review of which will be up later this week) are both expertly crafted, well written and extremely well-acted genre films. I don’t really think that either has anything deeper to say than their surfaces – but their surfaces are so good I don’t really care that much. Blue Ruin is a revenge film that twists things slightly, as the man on a mission (an excellent Macon Blair) cannot quite believe he’s able to do everything that he does. Saulnier, working with almost no money, has crafted an excellent, bloody little film. Michod is following up his excellent Animal Kingdom, with a post-apocalyptic (at least economic apocalyptic) Western with an excellent performance by Guy Pearce who desperately wants his car back – for reasons that don’t become clear until its quietly moving finally shot. Robert Pattinson is quite good as his somewhat dimwitted hostage/partner. Both films are bloody, violent and disturbing. No, they are not deep films – but they are excellent examples of their genres just the same.

9. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier’s two part, four and a half hour “sex epic” really is one long film, and yet despite what Trier says, you have to assume he knew it was getting cut in two as like Tarantino’s Kill Bill there is a definite distinction between the two halves of the film. The first half is probably a little bit better – a little lighter, more entertaining and funnier – and seems to set up a second half where anything can happen. Reviewing just the first half, I wasn’t sure if the entire project would turn out to be a horrible movie, a masterpiece or something in between – the result is definitely “in between”. What this remains a fascinating, challenging, provocative movie from beginning to end – with great performances by Stacy Martin as “Young Joe” and Charlotte Gainsbourg as “Joe” – our narrator – as well as Stellan Skarsgard, who listens to her entire story without understanding a word of it, setting up the inevitable conclusion. Trier has always liked to poke and prod his audience – and he does the same thing this time around. It’s not his masterpiece, like I hoped it may be, but it’s still certainly one of the most memorable films of the year.

8. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
Alain Guiraudie’s thriller is a meticulously plotted film about a gay cruising spot – where one man (Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to two very different men on the beach. The first is a little pudgy, and sits off the side and claims to be straight – he just likes the view (Patrick d'Assumçao) – and the pair bond as they talk. The other is the mustached muscle man who he is immediately sexually attracted to (Christophe Paou) – so much so that not even the fact that he witnesses him kill his previous lover is enough to stop him. The film is sexually explicit – but never exploitive. It is a finely crafted thriller in the Hitchcock mode about the dangers of lust and desire. A brilliant little thriller.

7. The Lego Movie (Chris Miller & Phil Lord)
The gross of the rest of the films on this list combined doesn’t even approach half of what this film made (which, at the time I’m writing this anyway, is still the top grossing film of the year). But sometimes animated blockbusters get everything right – and that’s certainly the case with The Lego Movie, an endlessly inventive animated film that recalls the best work of Pixar. I loved the animated look of the film – which comes up with all sorts of visually inventive ways to create everything out of Lego. The movie is consistently hilarious – poking fun at the conventions of blockbusters movies throughout. The voice work by the entire cast is superb. Even if it’s a contradiction for two huge corporations – the movie studio and the toy company – to make a movie about the evils of business, I didn’t really care because the film really is that entertaining. Everything is Awesome is right.

6. Locke (Steven Knight)
Writer-director Steven Knight takes what should be little more than a gimmick – one man in a car talking to various people by speakerphone as his life collapses – and crafts an excellent drama out of it. It helps that Tom Hardy is brilliant in the lead role. He plays a man who walks away from his construction job on the eve of the most important day of his career, and has to deal with the fallout from that, as well as the fallout from his family – who he finally has to admit the truth to. He has to leave – to him, he has no choice. The film finds a few brilliant ways to combat what could have been a hermetically sealed, stilted movie visually. Hardy is great – as is the variety of people he talks on the phone to. Is it a gimmick? Probably. Does that matter to me? Not in the slightest – because it works.

5. The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Richard Ayoade’s film is a vision of the future sent from the past – a film that takes place in a world very much like the future ones dreamed up by Kafka or Orwell – even if it’s based on an 1846 novella by Dostoyevsky. In it, Jessie Eisenberg plays the meek Simon James – overlooked at his data processing company and all but ignored by the object of his affection (Mia Wasikowska). Then the company hires James Simon – and even though he looks exactly like Simon, no one else seems to notice. He is the opposite of Simon in every way, and although he pretends to help him, he’s actually out to destroy him. The film resembles the world created by Terry Gilliam in Brazil, which gives the film a familiar feel. Yet despite all of the films obvious influences, it feels both original and familiar at the same time. It’s a tricky feat to pull off – but Ayoade does it, with a brilliant performance(s) by Eiseneberg to help.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive really is the most original vampire movie in years. It’s largely plotless – as a married couple (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleson) come together in Detroit and quite simply hang out for the most of the movie. It isn’t until Mia Wasikowska, as Swinton’s sister, arrives an hour into the movie that some semblance of a plot begins. But Jarmusch’s visuals are so good, the performances excellent, his sense of time and place perfect, that you hardly care that “nothing happens”. It’s barely a vampire movie at all, as Jarmusch isn’t interested in what people who make vampire movies are normally interested in – he concentrates on the fact that they have been alive for so long, have gathered more knowledge than anyone, and are frustrated by how stupid humanity has become – although sometimes art (as in the last musical performance in the movie) can make things worthwhile. A film that only an older artist could make – Only Lovers Left Alive is one of Jarmusch’s best (and I watched them all leading up to this, so I know).

3. Enemy (Denis Villenueve)
The second movie on the list about a man who discovers his doppelganger, Enemy came out before The Double, and I thought was the better, deeper film – and is probably the most underrated film of the year so far. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent as a history professor, who catches a glimpse of someone who looks exactly like in the background of a movie – and becomes obsessed with tracking him down. The film is dark – both visually and thematically. Toronto has never looked this gloomy – never mind Mississauga – not even in a Cronenberg film - which is an obvious inspiration for director Villeneuve – making his second excellent film, following Prisoners, in less than a year. This is a smaller film than Prisoners, and less audience friendly, but an even deeper one. Gyllenhaal is great in both roles, and Sarah Gadon (who seems to be the current muse of Cronenberg) richly deserved the Canadian Screen Award she won for best supporting actress. The film gets deeper and more complex right up until its brilliant, shocking finale. It’s already out on video – so if you missed in theaters (which the $1 million gross suggests most did) be sure to check it out.

2. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer has only made three films in his career – but with each film he gets more daring and original. Sexy Beast (2001) was an expertly crafted (and well-acted) crime film that wasn’t deep, but was fun. Birth (2003) was not popular when it was released – but I loved it then, and love it more now – and many have come on board since. Under the Skin is his best yet – a visually stunning sci-fi film, about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) cruising the roads of Scotland, luring men to their death. Glazer strips the story down to its bare essentials – the first 2/3 of the film barely has any plot at all, and when in the last act it becomes more explicit about its action, it’s also a little less interesting. The film is a fascinating examination of what it means to be human, with some of the most memorable images of the year (the scene on the beach, with the toddler, will haunt me until the day I die). Many, perhaps most, will hate the movie (the film had quite a few walkouts when I saw at TIFF last year) – but for those who like their films daring and ambiguous, Under the Skin is one of the best of the year. A visually stunning masterwork.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Is The Grand Budapest Hotel Wes Anderson’s best film? I re-watched all of his films in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, and have to say that if it isn’t his best, it’s damn close. The film takes place across multiple time periods, one layered inside the other, and each with a different aspect ratio. The main action takes place in an fictional European country during the outbreak of WWII, and takes place at a fancy hotel, where M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) runs with class and civility – in a world that has stopped valuing either. On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Wes Anderson film Wes Anderson has ever made – with meticulous attention to detail in production design and costume design, as well as music, where the entire cast dives in to Anderson’s very specific demands on acting style. Yet I also think The Grand Budapest Hotel is the deepest of Anderson’s films – and certainly his most ambitious – a film that looks back in time (as many of his films have done) – with a mixture of nostalgia and sadness. It’s a gorgeous and hilarious film – and Fiennes deserves Oscar consideration for his expert performance (the best ever in an Anderson movie? Maybe). But it’s also a harder film – with a violent centre about the passing of time in the 20th Century, and how it all happened. A masterpiece – and easily the best film of the year so far – and one that should be in the running for best of the year in 6 months.

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