“Why even do a mid-year top ten,” I was asked the other day. The thought was that six months into 2014, there aren’t even close to that many movies worthy of recognition.
Oh there are. There always are. Hollywood tends to save its most potent material for Oscar season, but the studio system features a few early titles annually, not to mention the indies and foreign titles that show up by the dozen weekly. With VOD ever more present, catching up with lesser known films is easier than ever, making the compilation of mid-year lists a worthy cause in areas that aren’t just NYC or LA.
Also, it’s far more fun to make a mid-ten. The perceived pressure of end of the year list-making brings out anxieties, as if one’s writer’s card will be revoked if the wrong picture makes or, even worse, doesn’t make one’s list.
So below are the movie I most look forward to revisiting, discussing and enjoying that received domestic release in the opening salvo of 2014.
Jeremy Saulnier’s dark revenge thriller engages in no small part due to its central conceit; the revenge happens early. What Saulnier is interested in is what happens after you murder somebody who has wronged you. How does it stein the killer’s mind? How does one’s family react to the action? How does the family of the newly deceased react? Blue Ruin blackly delves into these ideas with an impressive calculation, slyly placing some twisted comedic beats along the way.
Two films into his career and Richard Ayoade is proving to be an exciting talent. The British actor has shown with Submarine and now The Double that he is a writer/director capable of melding diverse tones, blending humor into tales of outsiders. Where Submarine focused on a teenager trying to find himself, The Double speaks to what happens when that literally occurs. Jesse Eisenberg is stupendous as wayward, unhappy office drone confronted by a doppelganger that has managed to succeed in life in all the ways he himself has failed.
I do these lists alphabetically because ranking them is arbitrary and would change literally minutes after completion. There is something fitting that this year’s other doppelganger movie follows here. Enemy mines some of the same territory as The Double, though it views the scenario from a very different vantage-point. Where The Double plays with the absurdity that nobody notices how two Eisenbergs are wandering around together, Enemy hones in on the insanity that would arise when one suddenly finds out an identical version of oneself exists. Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Javier Gullon adapt Jose Aramago’s novel into a glorious mindf*ck of envy, confusion and spiders. Yes, spiders.
Ernest & Celestine
A bear and a mouse become friends in a land where the former craves sweets and the latter works for a dentist. Ernest & Celestine may sound peculiar; it’s a fantastic kind though. Resembling watercolors brought to life, this animated film is based on a series of children’s books and is the best kind of family film. The picture never talks down to children or tries to rope in adults via references to “Breaking Bad” or Lady Gaga. It has a kids imagination, mindset and heart. It is a sweet, earnest and moving tale that is well worth every ounce of love it’s garnered.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
That brief window of time circa The Darjeeling Limited when people began to question if Wes Anderson was on a permanent downhill slope seems almost impossible to fathom now. His rapid-fire humor, doll-like staging and quirky demeanor has been perfected, as he now molds it into a wide range of stories that feel of a piece, but not mere copies. The Grand Budapest Hotel features Anderson’s knack for having archetypes quickly be worked into deeper characters; using clichés as effective shorthand. Ralph Feinnes is a tremendous treat as Gustave, the persnickety hotel concierge who gets stuck trying to outrun a fascist government, spoiled children and Willem Dafoe.
The Lego Movie
Months later and it is still hard to believe that The Lego Movie wasn’t only enjoyable, it was downright fantastic. This goofy reworking of the reluctant chosen one via the famous toy blocks, with a healthy helping of Batman, Gandalf and the like, is infectiously fun. Where Ernest & Celestine touched on the strengths of children’s storytelling, The Lego Movie jumps in the sandbox and channels the randomness of a kid’s playtime.
Who needs heady when the laughs are this frequent and felt? Neighbors has a slew of funny actors, being funny, and allows for a quality actress (Rose Byrne) to show a refreshing new shade to herself. Seth Rogen and Byrne are a blast as two parents that are coming to grip with the things one must give up as a parent and the amusing turn that happens when you’re suddenly the old one in the group. Neighbors wields pop-culture references and vulgarity in a manner that many Hollywood movies try for, and very few ever do properly.
An effortlessly successful comedy about discovering love and who really cares about you; Obvious Child will probably be remembered by the easier shorthand as the abortion comedy. We can hope that’s not the case for what we have here is a collection of strong new talent in terms of directing, writing and acting. At the heart of the matter is Jenny Slate’s Donna, a struggling comedienne that is humorous and unique, frantic and human. She is one of a kind, even as you can swear you know somebody just like her.
Only Lovers Left Alive
A lot of directors on this list are new, young talents, each attempting to make a name for him-or-herself. Jim Jarmusch doesn’t need to do that; a filmmaker who long ago established himself as one of the premiere working American directors. With a handful of great movies to his name already, Jarmusch added another with Only Lovers Left Alive, his take on vampire lore. Instead of enviable, all-mighty creatures, Jarmusch’s bloodsuckers merely have eternal problems. How does one stay interested in life when you’ve seen it all? What does one eat when the only source of food keeps contaminating itself with drugs and chemicals? In the midst of this is a centuries-old relationship between Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, the former seeing immortality as a playground for discovery, the latter of which finds society to be forever crumbling and wasteful. The pair are amazing, as is the whole itself.
Under the Skin
As I wrote earlier, I don’t rank my top tens, though at the end of the year I do pick a favorite. If that favorite doesn’t wind up being Under the Skin, this will be one hell of a year. Director Jonathan Glazer’s film is genuinely like no other, a loose adaptation of the Michael Faber novel where an alien wanders alone in Scotland. Scarlett Johansson is said alien, a seductress, victim and inquirer of humanity. Johansson is a revelation here, mysterious and tender in equal doses, wandering about the city and her own barren residence on the outskirts of the city. Glazer’s images are a haze of emptiness and allure, making the everyday feel enticing, even as it seems overpowering to Johansson’s traveler. Themes of female sexuality and the dichotomy of the strengths and terrors that it holds are at the forefront of this great movie.