[8 July 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The first six months of 2014 have already passed (time flies when you’re having… to sit through dozens of movies each week???) and there are already pundits pronouncing this the worst year ever, film wise. They point to the lackluster box office, the continuing success of bloated Summer tentpoles, and the inability for those seeking sanctuary from such spectacle to find realistic alternative outlets.
On the other hand, there have been a bevy of interesting efforts released this year that have either flown under the radar or received their standard Cineplex due, confirming that excellence is where you find it, not where it’s forced into some genre pigeonhole that Hollywood has micromanaged to influence international receipts. Indeed, the foreign film market is becoming so important, and profitable, for the Tinseltown suits that they frequently forget that US audiences count, too.
Still, like most sites which cover film, we seem destined to deal with the fact that there are only a few more months before Awards Season and its tsunami of “important” titles. By that time, most of what we loved in the earlier part of the year will be forgotten amidst handwringing, star turns, and serious subject matter.
With that in mind, we’re looking back on January through June’s releases and have come up with a list of the 10 Best Films of 2014, So Far. Oddly enough, you’ll find several popcorn efforts here, as well as a few that didn’t play beyond the standard limited release/VOD dynamic. It will be interesting to see if any, or all, end up back here come January 2015. As with most movie years, 2014 is just getting started. There’s a whole lot left to go, enough to make any of the previous doom and gloom predictions seem pathetic (and premature) by contrast.
Bravo, Marvel. No one expected a second tier entry in a First Universe progression to be so solidly old school, and as a result, so meaty and meaningful. Sure, this is all just a set-up for more over the top Avengers antics, but the Russo Brothers bring something to the table that few (outside Christopher Nolan) have attempted: bringing these highly fantastical characters into line with reality. The whole ‘70s spy thing worked, as did the mandatory last act blockbuster spectacle. In between are savvy character turns by Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson, each securing their spot in the comic book canon. (Full Review)
One of the biggest disappointments of 2014 will be the fact that this amazing collaboration between Doug Liman and Tom Cruise will earn less at the box office than a myriad of mediocre titles released this year. Many point to the controversial star, though his recent antics have been nothing but polished and professional—just like this film. The Groundhog Day-like conceit of constant repetition may have been “too much” for today’s mainstream audience, but the way in which Liman realizes his sci-fi vision is so creative and compelling that confusion shouldn’t have been the result. Just greatness. (Full Review)
Fans of the first film are still smarting over its loss to legitimate contender Toy Story 3. Yet this sensational second installment more than makes up for the failings of the original, when it comes to awards. Building beautifully on the situations set-up in Part One, writer/director Dean DeBlois brings a singular vision to this sequel, something that’s hard to find in today’s animation-by-committee dynamic. There is heroics as well as heart here, with enough chills to inspire adults and enough thrills to make the wee ones wiggle. Fun and truly exhilarating, we can’t wait for the inevitable Part Three.
Alejandro Jodorowsky appears twice on this list, and with good reason. He remains one of the most misunderstood and defiant of auteurs, doing as he pleases while never leaving his many muses in the lurch. This, however, was his first film in over 23 years, and the results speak highly for the man who made his name with El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre. An autobiographical sketch of his youth growing up in Chile, The Dance of Reality contains elements both fanciful (his opera-singing “mother”) and flawed (his philosophy-hopping “father”). Still a master of imagery and visuals, Jodorowsky has lost none of his edge, thankfully. (Full Review)
“Everything is Awesome” is the literal theme song for this amazing movie, a mash-up of genre tropes and creative invention that proves that no one can handle the “unfilmmable” better than Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The duo (who delivered our #12 choice for 2014, 22 Jump Street) have an uncanny knack for taking apart a property and discovering the magic within. Even the most dense idea—a stop motion-like look inside a construction toy’s world—comes together as a masterpiece of manipulation. They are geniuses at both celebrating and taking the piss out of their projects, this being no exception.(Full Review)
If Steven Spielberg were an up and coming filmmaker working in today’s cutthroat market, this would be his breakout, a showcase for the aesthetic of holding back on the “wow” factor while working to deliver both poignancy and character. Naturally, Gareth Edwards was criticized by some for not delivering the Summer season spectacle right up front, but anyone who saw his first film, Monsters, knew this wasn’t going to be some Michael Bay Jr. production. By treating the Toho titan with reverence and respect, we wound up with a terrific update of the old man-in-suit methodology, except this time, the terror is legitimate, not laughable. (Full Review)
This is about as close as we will ever get to seeing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic put on film. Utilizing interviews with the still-living members of the director’s handpicked “spirit warriors” and going a long, long way to proving his mandate for “a movie as prophet”, this definitive documentary leaves no stone unturned. From some surreal casting choices (Salvador Dali? David Carradine?) to the amazing ambition of the F/X crew (some of the stuff they wanted to do would be hard to achieve even by today’s CG-heavy standards), it’s all information overload, conflicting personalities, endless possibilities, and “what-if” wonderment. (Full Review)
The fact that we are even getting a chance to see Bong Joon-ho dystopian parable in its original form is reason enough to celebrate this otherwise fascinating slice of speculative fiction. Originally, distributor Harvey Weinstein wanted the traditional “20 minutes” cut from the movie, as well as the inclusion of narration and insert titles to help “the people in Peoria” understand this supposedly confusion story. In reality, it was just more manipulation from a man known for same. Bong’s “us vs. them” saga of a post-apocalyptic train filled with class-ranked survivors is obvious in its narrative and surprisingly dense in its imagery. (Full Review)
So far, not a single Summer blockbuster—not a singe one—can match the action sequences and fight scenes in Gareth Evans amazing sequel to his hit martial arts movie. Taking a more laid back approach to the plotline (we called it “a gonzo Godfather”) and filling in the character gaps with one amazing stunt-filled set-piece after another, The Raid 2 managed to top the already frantic and brutal battles of the first film. By expanding the backdrop to include even more crime family falderal, the director has designed a franchise that can easily be return to again and again. Can’t wait for Part Three. (Full Review)
Leave it to Lars Von Trier to take the potentially tacky subject of one woman’s overactive libido and turn it into a psychological dissertation on everything female. There is victim mentality and feminism flowing through every frame of this film, while the daring director of such masterworks as Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, and Breaking the Waves pushes the boundaries of acceptable onscreen “interaction”. Current muse Charlotte Gainsbourg is brilliant as the title character, but a lot of credit needs to go to young Stacy Martin as the adolescent version of the troubled individual. Raising many questions while answering few, this is another strong work from Denmark’s determined maverick. (Full Review: Part 1, Part 2)