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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Best of 2014...So Far

By Joshua Handler

2014 has been a surprisingly great year for films, both independent and mainstream.  I'm not going to try to make some sweeping statements about this year's films - I'll leave that for the end of the year.  It's incredibly hard to make this list without including titles I've seen at festivals, but I will have to make do.  There are many films I've reviewed (The Notebook, 20,000 Days on Earth, and others) that would top this list but don't come out until later in the year.  Only films released theatrically before June 30 are considered.  Also, I rewatched many of these films, so my opinion of some of them grew immensely from the time I initially reviewed them.  So without further ado, here are the top 10 films of the first part of the year.

1. SNOWPIERCER (Dir. Bong Joon Ho) - I've raved about Snowpiercer and interviewed co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson, but no amount of writing could do this movie justice.  Bong Joon-ho's film is a visionary work of sci-fi cinema.  Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson's screenplay is tightly-scripted and endlessly exciting and everything from the cinematography to the music to the production design/art direction is perfect.  Chris Evans gives a strong lead performance, but Tilda Swinton steals the show.  The action 20 minutes in and Bong just keeps one-upping himself up until the very end.  In short, this is a smart, entertaining, original piece of sci-fi cinema that will stand the test of time.  Currently in theaters and on VOD.

2. THE IMMIGRANT (Dir. James Gray) - I saw James Gray's wonderful The Immigrant at the very last NYFF screening and was knocked out of my seat.  One writer described the cinematography of McCabe & Mrs. Miller as having the look of an old photograph.  The same could be said about Darius Khonji's for The Immigrant, which is the highest praise I could give.  This film is sad, enchanting, and evocative.  It transported me back to 1920s New York.  Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix give subtle, devastating performances.  I fell into its meditative pace and was entranced for the entirety of its running time.  Currently in theaters and on iTunes.

I'm not ranking the rest of these.

THEY CAME TOGETHER (Dir. David Wain) - I saw this movie twice and laughed from start to finish both times.  I'm a hard sell on comedies, but this one completely worked for me.  Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler lead an all-star cast and Wain and crew push every joke to the absolute limit.  This movie relentlessly goes so far over where any other movie would go that I couldn't help but laugh.  Currently in theaters and on VOD.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Dir. Wes Anderson) - As Wes Anderson-y as a movie could get, The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet another beautiful film from one of America's most original voices.  Ralph Fiennes yet again prove that he's one of the most versatile actors working today (who knew he had such perfect comedic timing?), and expect to see more of Tony Revolori.  His lead performance is deadpan and awkward, a.k.a. a perfect fit for Anderson's style.  Grand Budapest is ridiculously entertaining and deceptively simple, hiding layers of depth that will be missed if this film is viewed simply as a zany comedy.  Currently available on home media.

ENEMY (Dir. Denis Villeneuve) - Denis Villeneuve shot Enemy and Prisoners back-to-back.  Prisoners was an exhausting, sprawling thriller with an A-list cast.  Enemy is the exact opposite.  The only thing that the two films share is the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal.  Enemy tells the story of a teacher who discovers his doppelgänger.  While this sounds exactly like The Double, it couldn't be more different.  Enemy is disturbing, unnerving, tightly-scripted, and ambiguous.  Gyllenhaal gives a mind-blowing dual performance and that last shot, in typical Villeneuve style, is unexpected to say the least.  It's had critics and audiences debating for nearly a year.  Currently available on home media.

ILO ILO (Dir. Anthony Chen) - Winner of the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2013, Anthony Chen's unsentimental heart-melter, Ilo Ilo, is one of the most impressive debut films in recent years.  Angali Bayani's performance is subtly moving and Chen's direction and screenplay show a wisdom beyond his years.  The touching ending of this film is proof of the above statement.  Currently available for rental.

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Dir. Jim Jarmusch) - Cool, sexy, and as original as they come, Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive is more proof that Jarmusch is a genius.  With Only Lovers, Jarmusch deconstructs the tired vampire genre to create a movie that truly marches to the beat of its own drummer.  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston have natural chemistry and give two of the most restrained, yet wickedly funny performances of their respective careers.  The soundtrack is hypnotic, as is the cinematography.  As a vampire film, OLLA excels, as a romance, OLLA engages, and OLLA also works as a comedy, a drama, and a thriller.  How many movies can you say that about?  Available August 19 on home media.

ERNEST & CELESTINE (Dir. Stéphanie Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner) - Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Feature, Ernest & Celestine is a hand-drawn animated film that charmed me like few other recent animated films have done.  It filled me with a sense of wonder that I hadn't felt in a long time.  Ernest & Celestine's storyline is simple, but it is a heartfelt, funny, and magical film.  Currently available on home media.

THE CASE AGAINST 8 (Dir. Ben Cotner, Ryan White) - As important a documentary as you're likely to find this year, The Case Against 8 tells the story of the two gay and lesbian couples and the legal team who fought to overturn California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.  When people hear about this case in the news, they know the outcome and some of the basic facts, but not the people behind those facts.  Case gives this landmark court case a human face and brings the story down to a very personal level.  This is a moving film that everyone should be required to watch.  Currently available on HBO.

Special honorable mention: OBVIOUS CHILD (Dir. Gillian Robespierre) - Laugh-out-loud funny, gutsy, endearing, and brilliantly-acted, Obvious Child marks an auspicious debut for Gillian Robespierre and the start of what could be a huge acting career for Jenny Slate.  I loved this movie too much to not include it.

Honorable mentions: The Kill TeamNight Moves, How to Train Your Dragon 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Raid 2, We Are the Best!, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Hide Your Smiling Faces, The RocketStranger by the Lake, Two Lives 

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