After last weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations, we are officially over halfway through 2014, as well as the moviegoing calendar attached to it. Most moviegoers chose to celebrate the occasion by electing Transformers: Age of Extinction as the most attended movie for the holiday—it’s second weekend in the top spot at the global box office. And now, as American audiences seem to have had most of their fill of Michael Bay’s giant robots, they are gearing up for a trip into another CGI-heavy landscape filled with animated apes and dazzling spectacle for this dawning weekend.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a good popcorn diversion at the multiplex—and we loved Dawn of the Planet of the Apes—there’s also no denying that there is a certain saturation point that can be reached with big budget razzle-dazzle. This year is halfway over, and we haven’t even gotten to a majority of the blockbuster remakes, reboots, sequels, and sequels to reboots. It’s so exhausting that some more discerning viewers might want to stay away from the movie theater altogether. But that would be a mistake.
Among all the noise and the booming sound mixes, this year has also been a treasure trove for quality, challenging, and even heart-warming cinema for those who know where to look. Indeed, there have been so many good movies with wide appeal that didn’t rely on a spec of focus-testing that it can be rewarding just to rattle them off as a palate cleanser to the summer movie season. So, without further adieu, here are 21 movies from 2014 that you must see, but might have missed.
(click the titles for full length reviews)
The year began for U.S. filmgoers with a bittersweet farewell to one of the greatest artists and creators in the history of animation. As Hayao Miyazaki’s final picture, The Wind Rises makes for a beautiful daydream about the flights of fancy that come with creation. Technically, it’s a fictional biography on Jiro Horikoshi, an innovator in Japanese aviation. But the movie is more about the lift of true inspiration, even above uncomfortable historic realities, such as Horikoshi’s part in designing two aircraft used by the Empire in Japan during World War II, including at Pearl Harbor. Some Americans may find that juxtaposition too difficult to tolerate, but when taken solely as a film devoid from reality, the wind more than rises—it soars.
Out of all the movies I’m recommending that you catch up on, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is easily the weirdest and the most challenging. But that’s par for the course with Wheatley, whose last two films — Kill List and Sightseers — were among my favorites of their respective years. Field is unquestionably his strangest and most experimental work yet, a surreal fusion of the occult, psychodrama and historical thriller that, like Borgman, offers little in the way of explanations or motivations for his cryptic storyline.
The film, set in the mid-17th century, follows an alchemist’s assistant and several deserters from the English Civil War as they are driven to madness and murder by the effects of hallucinogens and a sadistic magician (Michael Smiley) who coerces them to help him find a “treasure” in an eerie, windswept field. Shot in black and white, the film often feels like a hallucination itself, and boasts some of Wheatley’ most disturbing imagery to date. Track this down (along with Wheatley’s other films) and watch the work of a director who we’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the next few years.
Nearly every great or challenging work of cinema ever made has received a fawning documentary that looked back on how it came to be. But rarely has an unproduced film received such glowing treatment. Yet, that is exactly what happens in Frank Pavich’s brisk and wholly engrossing trip into the intergalactic madness that would have been Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune adaptation—a metaphysical wildness that still lives in the wry Chilean-French filmmaker to this day.
In Jodorowsky’s Dune, Pavich bemusedly tracks what happens when the filmmaker behind El Topo and The Holy Mountain attempted to birth a science fiction vision that might have rivaled Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and still seems breathtaking via storyboards by today’s standards. And with a production that would have included a score by Pink Floyd and Orson Wells as a space dictator, it is something we still long to watch. While both the director and his documentarian’s assertions that this failed 1975 venture paved the way for Star Wars and Alien seem simultaneously truthful and exaggerated, there is no denying that Jodorowsky’s Dune is influential to this day and would have been far more satisfying than David Lynch’s failed attempt at an adaptation in 1984. This documentary certainly is.
Admittedly, Lars von Trier is not everyone’s cup of tea. Even I have a complicated relationship with the filmmaker, and my feelings toward both volumes of his lascivious Nymphomaniac opus are no exception. However, when one looks back at the past six months of 2014, it is impossible to deny the lingering touch of Joe’s hedonistic hand. Sometimes frustrating, but never anything short of hypnotic, Nymphomanaic (especially in its first act) draws the viewer into its lurid world of a young Englishwoman named Joe. Just as she grows more experienced in her pastime, the emptier her life becomes. Though in von Trier’s estimation that’s not so bad. It’s even heavenly.
A challenging work that asks audiences to both sympathize for and revile a protagonist played in the present by Charlotte Gainsbourg and in many flashbacks by newcomer Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac can be funny, heartbreaking, and even transcendently feminist in von Trier’s typically cynical and mean-spirited way. Hardly a date movie, Nymphomaniac is still an irresistible vision, no matter how much we insist otherwise.
Jonathan Glazer’s psychosexual Under the Skin might be a riff on The Man Who Fell to Earth, but when that man is actually Scarlett Johansson in a movie that is for all intents and purposes a silent picture, you’ll still have our attention. Like the above listed movie, this trippy voyage into the unknown with Johansson embodying a truly alien entity as an extraterrestrial succubus, will not appeal to all viewers. But for those who don’t mind a movie that aims to do more than its title when it slithers beneath your flesh and reaches the most unpleasant anxieties of your soul, there is something alluring about this bizarrely nihilistic vision. And we’re not only talking about Johansson’s figure.
With its $58 million box office in the U.S. alone, The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily the most viewed movie on this list, but it is one that more than deserves acknowledgement since to date it is also the best movie of 2014. Wes Anderson’s eighth feature is a pure joy to watch with its nearly trademarked unique blend of madcap dryness and reserved mania from a cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, and more. Yet, it is also the most ambitious film in Anderson’s career with its decade-spanning story-within-a-story structure that is three or four degrees removed into the unreliable narrator trope. Since each era has its own aspect ratio, the film celebrates the many varieties of moviemaking just as much as historical periods.
Set in the fictional central European nation of Zubrowka—Anderson’s own play at modern cinematic world-building—the picture follows Fiennes in one of the best performances of his career as M. Gustave, the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel on the eve of the Second World War and the rise of fascism. It is a hilarious but intentionally melancholy affair with a constant pale of Hemingway styled realism waiting in the wings to be doused over this whistling-past-the-graveyard comedy. A tribute to the early talkies of Ernst Lubitsch, the picture also swirls with big ideas and new narrative complexities for Anderson, including a shockingly violent suspense scene right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Simply put, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the first movie of 2014 that will undoubtedly be watched, enjoyed, and savored for many, many more years to come. But you shouldn’t wait that long to both laugh and cry with it. Watch it right now!
Actor John Turturro got behind the camera for his fifth directorial feature in Fading Gigolo, an odd but pleasant comedy about a New York City for adults. As a picture that smells of the old mahogany and dark chocolate found in the late night smooth jazz of Woody Allen pictures, Turturro even gets the famed funnyman to appear in his movie.
With as much interest in making love to Gotham as any woman, it is in the visage of Vanessa Paradis’ Avigal that the movie finds a unique commentary on both subjects. As a member of the little-filmed Willamsburg Hasidic Jewish community, Vanessa becomes a muse for protagonist Fioravante (Turturro) as well as the central conflict when her community condemns her for seeing an outsider. Caught in the crosshairs is Woody Allen as the unflappably funny bookstore owner-turned-pimp Murray. A pleasant distraction for any warm evening, Fading Gigolo never vanishes from sight.
The Raid was an all-out blitzkrieg of mayhem and violence filtered through the fatal ballet of the Indonesian martial arts known as pencak silat and wrapped around a simple tale of cops vs. gangsters in a floor-by-floor battle up through an apartment tower. With his sequel, writer/director Gareth Evans expands upon his initial story, opens it up, and creates a genuine crime epic that still feels uniquely original to the country in which it takes place. The characters are much more fleshed out, the stakes are much higher, and the violence is even more brutal, plentiful and hyper-intense.
In other words, if you think that the action and violence emanating from Hollywood all tends to look the same, then The Raid 2 is for you. Yes, it’s subtitled (get over it), but the story is cleanly told and relentlessly paced — this was the fastest two and a half hours I spent in a theater this year. See The Raid 2 and you won’t ever look at conventional American crime thrillers in the same way.
And on the subject of undeniable foreign films, there is something hilariously universal about Talya Lavie’s brutally harsh military comedy, Zero Motivation. Spoken mostly in Hebrew, Zero Motivation follows several women with no ambition or even illusions to the banality of militarism. Conscripted to serve in the Israeli armed forces, as is the law, Naïve Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) join forces first out of despair and boredom, respectively, and ultimately become Tel Aviv’s answer to Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould. A case study in black comedy, Zero Motivation has more going on for it than its title might suggest.
Locke is just around 90 minutes long, takes place entirely in a car, and features a cast of one. Tom Hardy plays the title role, a man whose life unravels in real time as he travels down a British motorway, intent on doing what he thinks is the right thing even at the cost of his job, his family, and everything he once knew. Although we never leave that car, Locke is gripping cinema and a melancholy, compact character study of a man in turmoil.
Hardy is superb: his Locke values logic, reason, and practicality above all else, and struggles to keep his emotions in check to get himself and those who depend on him through their ordeal. His biggest failing is not understanding that sometimes even reason won’t work, no matter how hard he tries. Director Steven Knight gives us an intimate, often devastating close-up look at how quickly our own lives can come undone because of one wrong decision.
The second feature film from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier was funded entirely by friends, family, and a kickstarter campaign. From those humble beginnings, Saulnier has created a modern noir that drips with dread and is haunted by both violence from the past and tragedy yet to come. Saulnier’s childhood friend, Macon Blair, gives a mesmerizing performance as Dwight Evans, a grubby vagrant who, it turns out, is actually a self-styled angel of vengeance for something done to his family years earlier. The beauty of Blue Ruin, however, is that Dwight is no professional, stumbling his way through his mission with a mix of fear, luck and courage that makes him one of the more interesting anti-heroes to hit the screen this year.
In 1996, Jon Favreau announced himself as a major talent in the Hollywood writing pool when he examined the Generation X quarter-life crisis through a devastatingly hilarious (and squeamish) phone call scene in Swingers. With Chef, writer and director Favreau returns to the humor of the uncomfortable in a story about midlife anguish, conflicted emotions inherent with artistic and commercial interests, and really, really good food.
Chef is a delight as a comedy that will play for any audience and any age-group in its story about a chef (Favreau) whose bad temper and worse sense of knowledge about Twitter and social media costs him his job—but wins him time with his son and an audience only too happy to see him hit the road in a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. A big screen party with notable supporting work by John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson, and a cameoing Robert Downey Jr., Chef is the perfect summertime meal.
You may find yourself asking what kind of movie Cold in July is supposed to be. Is it a psychological thriller? A balls-out action flick? You may still ask yourself these questions while watching. It doesn’t matter. Cold in July is a powerful little film that deals with weighty subjects (guilt, responsibility, revenge) but still manages to get a wink in at the most unexpected of moments.
Adapted from Joe Lansdale’s novel of the same name, director Jim Mickle guides a brilliant trio of Michael C. Hall, Sam Shephard, and Don Johnson (especially Don Johnson) through a series of uncomfortable events, never letting one of them slip into the kinds of stereotypes that these characters would easily lend themselves to. Mickle (aided by Jeff Grace’s minimalist synthesizer score that recalls old John Carpenter flicks) makes sure that Cold in July is full of the kind of tension that only breaks when it’s good and ready…and when it does, watch out. Alternately terrifying and hilarious, it just won’t ever let you get comfortable.
Another movie that features a strong turn by Don Johnson is Alex of Venice, the directorial debut of veteran character actor Chris Messina. Featuring a cornucopia of performance showcases, the standouts about this fondly familiar take on a family upheaval include Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the titular Alex and Johnson as her struggling actor father who is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Winstead continues to prove herself in the indie circuit as an actress of extraordinary range when she marries the funny and charming with the earnestness of pain. Like Smashed, Winstead’s Alex suffers from a family life falling apart (though for very different reasons). Contrasted with the wild child euphoria of Alex’s sister Lily (Katie Nehra), Alex’s tightly wound workaholic self is heading toward an epiphany or self-destruction when facing divorce.
Still, the greatest epiphany lies in Johnson’s talent as Papa Roger. Like the real-life actor, Roger used to be on a TV show, but now demands respectability. He highlights his daughter’s family life dysfunction is as old as time when he auditions for Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Whether rural 19th century Russia or present day SoCal, families always have dysfunction. Still, this feel good movie keeps the worst of it at bay save for in Roger’s eyes as he struggles to remember all his lines.
Another Alex of the 2014 vintage, which has its release set for August, is one that might just be a touchstone for millennials to come. With more than a hint of The Big Chill, About Alex touches a new generation’s first experience with it’s icy cold fingers.
When Alex (Jason Ritter) fails to commit suicide, his college buddies from almost 10 years ago all converge on an Upstate New York house that once served as a getaway. Turning from intervention to reunion, the familiar premise offers authentic resonance for a new age demographic that has to deal with the end of collegiate life—and even childhood—while still pushing 30. And with a charming cast that also includes Aubrey Plaza, Max Greenfield, Jane Levy, Nate Parker, Maggie Grace, and Max Minghella, this is one group of friends who are likely to befriend many, many more.
Coming to America is a story large enough for an opera. So, why not a story small enough for a seedy back alley world of shadows and showbiz gangsters? In James Gray’s latest film, the immigrant story of a Polish girl named Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is not nearly as romantic as one might expect. When she arrives fresh off the boat with a checkered past, the U.S. government doesn’t want her, but Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) does. The merciful pimp recruits Ewa into his burlesque show where every day lived is one step closer to hell—or perhaps just the friendly magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner).
Gray’s 1921 setting is evocative because it inverts the implicit romanticism for that period with a level of urban cynicism that wouldn’t come into American fiction for another decade or two. Yet, when buttressed with serious acting wattage from Cotillard and Phoenix—the latter returning despite the supposed falling out of Gray and the actor on Two Lovers’ publicity tour—The Immigrant is as beckoning as Lady Liberty herself.
It is often said that life imitates art. But sometimes it’s just art that imitates art. This is certainly the case in Venus in Fur, Roman Polanski’s latest stagebound adaptation for the screen. In a movie that stars Mathieu Amalric as a stage director and consistent Polanski muse (and wife) Emmanuelle Seigner as an auditioning actress, this is the kind of Gordian knot feminism that would do George Bernard Shaw proud—or at least Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Based on the David Ives play of the same name, Polanski’s film follows Ives’ play as the story of a doomed stage adaptation for the Sacher-Masoch novella Venus in Furs (1870) in which gender and professional roles are switched during a sadomasochistic meeting of the minds—amongst other things—between Amalric and Seigner. A peculiar film to be sure, it’s very much a product of theatre, it also works very well in the movie theater.
A mysterious vagrant disrupts an upper middle class Dutch family in this unsettling allegory that functions as horror movie, satire, and surreal political statement. Director Alex van Warmerdam’s supremely eerie feature leaves its many questions unanswered, which only adds to the film’s disturbing nature. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, as the title character (the remarkable Jan Bijvoet) insinuates himself into the lives of an upper middle class family and proceeds to utterly destroy them with the aid of several equally malevolent companions.
Are Borgman and his friends demons? Psychic vampires? Symbols of Europe’s unease over its growing tide of immigrants? Their actions and motivations are never explained, making them that much more frightening. So many horror movies today depend on visual effects, heavy-handed back stories and conventional scares, which makes the quiet dread and stillness of Borgman that much more effective.
To hell with mindless junk like Transformers: Age of Extinction. Snowpiercer is the real deal: a pulsating, wild-eyed rollercoaster ride through a post-apocalyptic landscape as only mad Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) can envision it. But in addition to the relentless action and stylized, often shocking violence, Bong incorporates some actual ideas into his storyline, making Snowpiercer rich on an intellectual level as well.
The movie puts the last remnants of humanity on a super-train that endlessly circles the frozen earth with the haves living in luxury and decadence up front and the have-nots barely existing in the grimy, crowded rear. Chris Evans leads a rebellion and delivers perhaps the finest performance yet of his career — his Curtis, while noble, is a far cry from Captain America. You should also show up to see Tilda Swinton as a vile bureaucrat from the front of the train.
Snowpiercer has inexplicably been given a very limited release by its distributor, the Weinstein Company, so you should do your best to seek it out. It’s worth it.
If you’re a history buff, a gangster fan or a true crime addict, Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger is a custom fit. It is the only place you’ll see the real James “Whitey” Bulger on film. Not Jack Nicholson or Johnny Depp playing a character called Whitey, but the real deal. Joe Berlinger isn’t just directing a movie, he’s making a case, and it’s not the case the government’s making. It starts with a spoiler, and guess what? Whitey Bulger is guilty. But he still didn’t get a fair trial. And what’s worse. The public didn’t get a proper airing of the crimes. Justice wasn’t served. That’s just the beginning.
There are criminals, and there are crimes. Whitey was convicted of his crimes but he was an unapologetic criminal, and that’s what they do. There are other crimes here, and they were committed by the very people who are supposed to keep citizens safe. Berlinger makes as strong a case against the federal government as he does against the former Public Enemy Number 1. Bulger aided and abetted these travesties of justice as the feds kept him safe while they went after the Italian Mafia. The Feds took sides in a turf war and left a lot of collateral damage. Case closed.
If you have ever been a fan of film, film criticism, or especially film criticism by Roger Ebert, Life Itself is not to be missed. More an affectionate afterhours toast to Roger’s memory than a strictly distant biography, Roger—and his wife Chaz Ebert—cast a large presence in the collaboration of this film, which chronicles Ebert’s life and career as both a newspaper critic and an international syndicated television star. It also was made during the last four-plus months of Ebert’s life and offers an agonizing glimpse into his final days.
Still, the movie is primarily about the people in Roger’s life—including filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and less impressed, critical colleagues like Richard Corliss—considering the man that changed the face of film criticism forevermore.