Monday, June 30, 2014

The Best Movies of 2014...So Far

With June finally and its end, we're just about to reach the halfway point of the year. And while the studios love to save most of their major awards contenders for the September-December window, 2014 has already gotten off to a stellar start, despite a few horrendous blunders. Last year, I broke down my "best of the first 6 months" post by various Oscar categories. After trying to make those lists for 2014, I wound up with enough entries to fill up multiple long posts. Instead, I'll be doing quick rundowns of 15-20 standout films from the year thus far (by US release date, no matter how small), and then do quick bullet points for specific categories, such as noteworthy Direction, Scores, Cinematography, etc...

Without further adeiu, here's my increasingly crowded list of favorites from 2014 as of today, June 30th. If the rest of the year keeps going at the same pace, then creating a definitive "Best of 2014" list is going to be even more challenging than it was to do so for 2013, and that's saying quite a bit.

Jordan's Top 15 Films of 2014

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel: 

Though Wes Anderson's previous film, 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, has a bit more emotional weight, the director's latest is still superbly accomplished on its own terms. Deftly adapting his hyper-deadpan style to the world of zany farces, Anderson turns in a thoroughly delightful film that also boasts an uncommonly complex narrative structure. The fairy tale visuals are sublime, as are the performances from the vast ensemble. Ralph Fiennes is absolutely dynamite in his first Anderson film. His Gustave is fussy professionally, yet quite wild personally (let's just say he likes his women older). And even amid all the wackiness and clockwork-like plotting, Anderson manages to beautifully capture a tiny slice of the world doing its best to maintain old standards, even as the horrors of modern warfare and genocide loom just out of the frame. The old hotel Gustave loves so much is indeed grand, as is the film.

2. Under the Skin: 
Chilly, eerie, and distant, Jonathan Glazer's third feature film still possess a surprising amount of humanity, despite its alien protagonist. Channeling Kubrick even with a miniscule budget, this contemplative sci-fi psychological drama boasts a haunting atmosphere (Mica Levi's freaky score still lingers) and a beautifully nuanced performance from star Scarlett Johansson. As distant and blank as the character initially is, Johansson is able to gently push beyond the surface and tap into a fascinating cross section of power and sex. The budget may have been small, but that didn't stop Glazer and co. from fully realizing some big ideas.

3. Night Moves: 

If you thought that Jesse Eisenberg was a one-hit wonder and would never do anything worthwhile after The Social Network, Night Moves is here to say otherwise. The second half of a one-two punch for the young actor, Night Moves is a steadily paced, yet nerve-wracking thriller that avoids simplification. Instead, director Kelly Reichardt works with all sorts of shades of grey in this eco-terrorist thriller, which is beautifully acted by Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard. The conclusion risks muddling the message, but it's ultimately a drop in an otherwise gripping ocean of a story.

4. The Rover: 

Though it's easy to see why David Michod's second film has been so divisive, I can't fight it any longer. I'm a fan, and my appreciation for the film has only grown in the weeks since I first saw it. Loaded with minimalist world-building, and rich with character development, The Rover is a powerful journey that has some clear influences, yet avoids easy categorization. Michod's handling of violence is tightly wound, with every gunshot loaded with dread as to what will follow. Guy Pearce owns the film in front of the camera, creating a rich character whose final revelation feels like legitimate development, rather than an easy cop-out to give meaning to a bunch of nothing. 

5. Snowpiercer: 

While The Rover's post-apocalyptic future is set in the blazing heat of the Outback, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer goes in the opposite direction, throwing us into a future where Earth has been frozen over. Set entirely aboard a globe-spanning train, this sci-fi adventure feels much grander than the overly-pixelated destruction porn that Hollywood often mistakes as "epic."Filled with juicy performances, strong storytelling, and just the right dose of black humor, Snowpiercer is a reminder of what summer action spectacles can be when they put storytelling first.

6. Joe: 
David Gordon Green hit a bit of a rough patch when Hollywood came knocking at his door, but his return to his indie roots couldn't have been more of a knockout. The director's ability to capture rural American life has remained firmly intact, and his gradual pacing is a perfect fit for this makeshift father-son story. Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan turn in excellent performances. The former reasserts himself as a legitimately compelling presence, while the later proves why he's suddenly shooting up the ladder to indie stardom. 

7. The Double: 

The shades of Brazil and The Trial are certainly noticeable, yet Richard Ayoade's second film still feels very much like its own entity. The 80s-version-of-the-future sets are shrouded in shadows, which only enhances the bubbling undercurrent of darkly comedic energy. Ayoade's writing and directing are fast and charming in their straightforward oddness, which makes the heavily stylized world feel almost instantly easy to engage with. Jesse Eisenberg, pulling double duty, delivers a pair of striking performances as he wanders, mumbles, sulks, and struts his way through Ayoade's unnerving, yet oddly charming dystopia.

8. A Field in England: 

I saw Ben Wheatley's latest last summer, and it refuses to get out of my head. Though I've never been able to quite connect with his previous two films, A Field in England, with its smorgasbord of stylistic and thematic influences, left me dumbstruck in the best sense of the word. I'm still not sure if I've been able to extract a great profound message from its endless rabbit hole of freakiness, but Wheatley's execution ensures that the unanswered questions remain fascinating, even if it's hard to ever come close to an answer. Even if it was all just a hallucinogenic battle between murky forces neither entirely good nor evil, A Field in England feels as rich as its setting is empty.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive: 

I have a confession to make. Only Lovers Left Alive is, in fact, the first Jim Jarmusch film I've ever seen. So I can't really make comparisons about how it stacks up to his other films, or how similar or different it is from the rest of his work. What I can say is that, despite an occasionally sluggish first act, Lovers' hazy atmosphere really got to me, even though I've become increasingly convinced that it hasn't really got much of anything on its mind. Led by a beautiful performance from Tilda Swinton, and featuring some seductively atmospheric filmmaking, Only Lovers Left Alive shows that, even after all of ths time, there are still new ways to twist the vampire genre, even if it's mostly left to the style, and not the substance. As Swinton's Eve remarks after a rather vivid encounter, "Well, that certainly was visual."

10. Enemy: 

The other movie about doppelgängers from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, Denis Villeneuve's Enemy sits in stark contrast with The Double. The Double, despite its quirks, is rather accessible. Enemy, meanwhile, makes no effort to be commercial or enjoyable. The atmosphere, right down to the sickly yellow color palette, is intentionally oppressive, and the first half of the film sometimes drags. Yet the deeper one goes into Enemy's web, the more intriguing its head-scratching mysteries become. Though he has fewer opportunities to play off of himself than Eisenberg, Jake Gyllenhaal still does a fine job of distinguishing between both of his characters, while Sarah Gadon turns in a surprisingly compelling performance as the arrogant Gyllenhaal's confused fiance. And, despite the slow pacing, there's no doubt you'll at least leave Enemy with your pulse racing (and possibly, a newly developed sense of arachnophobia).

11. Obvious Child: 

Put simply, we desperately need more comedies and romantic comedies like Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child. It is fast, funny, moving, and topical, all without being heavy handed. It also features a breakthrough performance for comedian and actress Jenny Slate, who proves that she's capable of far more than the broad supporting roles she's played on TV. Like the film, Slate knows how to make you laugh hysterically but then genuinely move you with refreshing frankness. Robespierre is just starting to write her next film (which will also star slate). If Obvious Child is any indication, we've just stumbled upon a truly exciting comedic voice. 

12. Belle: 

One could easily dismiss Belle as having received attention simply for its radical (albeit based in fact) story. It's not every day (or any day) that you see a British period romance that centers on a black woman. Yet rather than set the film up as empty progressiveness, director Amma Asante has delivered. Though sporadically overwrought, Belle is a heartfelt and intelligent look as class and race that smartly pairs its radical traits with more traditional, Austen-esque narrative tropes. The cast (with the exception of a love interest) is exceptional, but the movie ultimately belongs to break-out star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who carries the film on her shoulders with effortless grace.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 

The X-Men franchise has been through plenty of rough times, but it has redeemed itself quite spectacularly with its latest entry. Though it seems overly complicated and overcrowded on paper, director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg (who somehow also wrote the awful X-Men: The Last Stand) elegantly move between past and future, wisely using the latter setting as more of a framing device so that the more compelling past section can dominate the story. James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult all play off of each other with thrilling results, with McAvoy emerging as the film's troubled heart and soul. Of course, special mention should go to Evan Peters' brief, yet critical, turn as Quicksilver, who steals the movie during an exhilarating and hilarious prison-break sequence. Some franchises beg to be buried after only a few films. Somehow, in their seventh film, the X-Men feel fresher than ever, making 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse that much more tantalizing.

14. Ernest and Celestine: 

Simple without being simplistic, and cute without being saccharine, this slice of French animation remains one of the year's most delightful films. With its beautiful pencil and water color paint visuals, and a disarmingly sweet story about acceptance and prejudice, the film resonates deeply even though it's largely predictable fare. While it's easy to see why something like Frozen took the box office by storm, Ernest and Celestine shows that small-scale animation is still a worthy endeavor.

15. The Nymphomaniac: 

Though Lars von Trier is known as a provocateur, the most shocking thing about The Nyphomaniac is how mature it is regarding issues of sex, social mores, and gender-based double standards. Despite a rocky first half (or Part 1) that sidelines Charlotte Gainsbourg for far too long, the film builds quite nicely as it goes on and the protagonist's sexual journey becomes a traumatic downward spiral. Gainsbourg takes total command of the second half, and paints a riveting portrait of woman allows sex to dominate her life out of her own pursuits, rather than out of a desire to be "wanted" or objectified. And von Trier, while still occasionally winking naughtily at the audience, puts his rough-around-the-edges visual aesthetic to smart use. I'm not sure The Nymphomaniac is quite the opus the director was striving for, but what progress he made towards his goal is admirable all the same.

Honorable Mention - Tom at the Farm: 

Though I would happily place Xavier Dolan's fourth film close to the top of the list, it has, sadly, yet to set an actual US release date for 2014. Hopefully the young director's captivating psycho-sexual finds its way out of distribution limbo sooner, rather than later.

And as for the rest....

  • Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Bong Joon Ho - Snowpiercer
  • Jonathan Glazer - Under the Skin
  • Kelly Reichardt - Night Moves
  • David Michod - The Rover
  • Xavier Dolan - Tom at the Farm
  • Jim Jarmusch - Only Lovers Left Alive
  • David Gordon Green - Joe
  • Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  • Tilda Swinton - Only Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer
  • Guy Pearce - The Rover
  • Paulina Garcia - Gloria
  • Nicolas Cage - Joe
  • Tye Sheridan - Joe
  • Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
  • Marine Vacth - Young and Beautiful
  • Pierre Yves Cardinal - Tom at the Farm
  • Lise Roy - Tom at the Farm
  • James McAvoy - Filth
  • Jesse Eisenberg - The Double and Night Moves
  • Dakota Fanning - Night Moves
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw - Belle
  • Jake Gyllenhaal - Enemy
  • Chris Evans - Snowpiercer
  • Sarah Gadon - Belle and Enemy
  • Uma Thurman - The Nymphomaniac (Part 1)
  • The Double
  • Obvious Child
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Le Week-End
  • Tom at the Farm
  • Night Moves
  • Joe
  • A Field in England
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Rover
  • Under the Skin
  • Enemy
  • Tom at the Farm
  • The Double
  • Night Moves
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Grand Piano
Art Direction and Costume Design:
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Double
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Belle
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
Original Score:
  • Under the Skin
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • The Rover
  • The Double
  • Tom at the Farm
  • Enemy
Visual Effects:
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Godzilla
Hair and Make Up:
  • Snowpiercer
  • The Rover
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

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