Top Ten Best Movies of 2014 So Far
Ever since the prosperous age of the 1920's, films have had a wide range of diverse approaches. Now in 2014, the possibilities of cinema are endless. When you enter a multiplex you can now easily move from one radically different genre to the next. Cinema grew really quickly over the past hundred years and that's why it's such an adventure to explore and analyze the many different ways cinema can be crafted.
We're just over six months out of this year and I've already seen a rich, thoughtful bunch of films that are all doing something fresh and startlingly new with the medium of cinema. I've compiled a top ten list of films that demonstrate fearlessness, bravery, and a sharp willingness to take bold risks with creative ideas. These ten marvelous films show what incredible possibilities there are with cinema, and in the process make us feel genuine emotion and take our breath away.
There are few filmmakers as ambitious as Richard Linklater which is just one of the many reasons why he's a national treasure in the film industry and a unique voice in cinema today. His ability to write characters and dialogue is unmatched by his peers which is remarkable considering the growing amount of gifted filmmakers working in this medium right now. What's perhaps both the most startlingly and surprising aspect of the film is Patricia Arquette's performance as a mother who always wants the best for her kids but just never can find the right husband. Her subtle nuances and gentle emotional range give her role a substantial amount of depth and meaning. I haven't seen a performance as naturalistic as Elar Coltrane's as the main focus of the film, who we watch grow up from age seven to age eighteen throughout the course of a twelve year period shot in real time every summer of each year. In last year's masterpiece Before Midnight, Ethan Hawke's character was more of a romantic role whereas in Boyhood more of the role's focus is on fatherhood and the importance of parents. Hawke is absolutely superb in every scene he's in and proves that he's one of the finest actors of his generation. I can't say enough great things about this film, and even though it's already been a year of outstanding films, Boyhood is one stunner you owe yourself to see and a joyous, simply crafted masterwork of cinema that represents the greatest of what American filmmaking is capable of.
Some movies come out of nowhere and completely restore your faith in the embracing power of cinema. 'Under the Skin' is that kind of groundbreaking masterpiece. British director Jonathan Glazer fills this beautifully strange spectacle with haunting dream imagery, a mesmerizing score by Mica Levi, and a terrific visual style. Scarlett Johansann delivers a brilliantly crafted performance as someone who may be more than human who goes around a small town in Scotland, seduces men and then mysterious things start happening to them afterwards. This may sound too weird or strange for some audiences to handle, however, the film has a sort of transfixing dream-like pull that holds the viewer spellbound with its superb use of nightmarish images and naturalistic dialogue. Loosely based on the novel by Michael Faber, 'Under the Skin' is Glazer's first feature film in over nine years and it's his most complex and satisfying work to date that's altogether an enthralling cinematic voyage. This is Johansann's greatest screen performance, requiring her to explore a wide range of emotional terrain. Johansann may seem like just another pretty face in Hollywood but lately she's been picking bold and daring projects that challenge her own abilities as an actress. Johansann first really struck me as somebody with tremendous talent with her remarkably subtle performance in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation but since then she's been put in big glossy studio pictures that limited her extremely. However, last year she delivered some of the most touching voice acting ever in film with her performance in Spike Jonze's 'Her'. Now with her undisputedly ferocious role in 'Under the Skin' she's officially deemed herself as an actress of not just true beauty but of true fearlessness. Nobody else makes as fascinating of films as Glazer does and perhaps that's why he's such an essential filmmaker to the world of cinema.
It's always tough to create a vampire movie that will actually be interesting, especially after the incredibly dull Twilight franchise, but 'Only Lovers Left Alive' succeeds to soaring heights. One of independent film's greatest filmmakers, Jim Jamusch creates a bleak, dark and hypnotic atmosphere while following two vampire lovers swooning through the desolated streets of Detroit. Adam, played with brooding intensity by Tom Hiddleton, is a depressed musician roaming the city to find purpose and meaning with his lover Eve, played by the always fantastic Tilda Swinton. All sorts of crazy trouble appear once Adam's wild sister Ava arrives, played superbly by Mia Walikonska. Jarmusch brings together an impressive supporting cast that includes Anton Yelchin and two Jarmusch regulars, John Hurt and Jeffrey Wright. Jarmusch's fascinating trademark use of volcanic guitar music and terrific dark humor adds to the immersive power of this expertly crafted film. One thing's for sure, Jim Jarmusch has come back with a satisfying return to form for him and has crafted one of the most engaging vampire stories ever brought to the screen.
The image of Guy Pierce, with his rugged, tough look, facial hair all over the place, wearing sandals and dirty shorts, with the stinging sun above miles of hot sand, conveys the appearance of a classic western. Many people have said that the genre of the western is rapidly dying, however David Michod's tremendous abilities as a filmmaker prove that the western is very much alive and well. There hasn't been a film I've seen in recent memory that has depicted a character's surroundings with this much detail and focus. Michod sets his film in his native land of Australia which proves to be a unique and captivating setting for this storyline. There's never any zombies or any mass killing viruses in this movie, just a 'collapse' that causes this wasteland setting that occurred many years after the economic meltdown in 2008. What's perhaps most surprising about this film is Robert Pattinson's performance as a mentally disabled man who Guy Pierce meets after his car is stolen. The two of them go looking for his car amid the chaos going on among them while the camera looms over the desert skies with a palpable sense of craft and patience. Pattinson seems to always be criticized because of his lead role in the incredibly dull Twilight franchise however since then he's been working with a variety of gifted filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and now impressively with Michod. Michod's gentle, slow burn method of storytelling goes quite well with the pace and tone of the film. This is Guy Pierce's finest performance, requiring him to command the screen in every scene without any false notes. The relationship between Pierce and Pattinson is well fleshed out through the course of the film, all with a mesmerizing score similar to that of Jonny Greenwood's for There Will be Blood. Michod has successfully turned a tired genre into something fresh and exciting, as well as demonstrating that the western can still make an impeccable impact on screen. Michod turned heads in 2010 with his excellent film Animal Kingdom, and The Rover proves that he's growing and expanding his horizon as a filmmaker. With a boatload of apocalyptic movies having just recently been released in the last few years, The Rover stands out, as something both provocative and expertly crafted.
Being part of such a massively rewarded filmmaking family dynasty, it must be incredibly hard to defy expectations. Especially when your grandfather is the Oscar winning director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. Yet Gia Coppola runs past those expectations and fully becomes a filmmaker to watch with her wonderfully imaginative and bold directorial debut, Palo Alto. The plot may at first glance seem like something ripped out of the pages of a John Hughes screenplay, and even though the influence of Hughes is obviously featured throughout the film, Coppola creates her own form of the high school movie genre using indie pop music, colorful cinematography, and a gentle sense of the emotions that the troubled teenage characters are going through. Emma Roberts, the niece of Julia Roberts, never appeared on screen to be very capable with a role until now. Her sensitive, quietly emotional demeanor is devastatingly effective and gives the film a powerful center. Jack Kilmer appears to be lit as this generation's River Phoenix, with Phoenix's vibrant intensity radiating through Kilmer's star-making performance. Val Kilmer also makes an appearance as Roberts' stoned father who's moments with Roberts felt heartbreaking and honest. Coppola never holds anything back, always presenting these characters as the maturing misfits that they are without ever sugarcoating a particular scene or situation. James Franco wrote the collection of short stories that the film is based on and he even takes a supporting role as a seductive soccer coach. With impeccable lighting and a fantastic use of color to create an atmosphere and a tone, 'Palo Alto' stands out from the large crowd of the 'troubled teen in high school' genre and successfully turns the cliches we associate with these kinds of films into something deeper and more profound. There's a sincere amount of emotion towards these characters who make some bad decisions and have to eventually face the incoming consequences of their actions. Coppola also develops a surprising amount of touching substance throughout whether through the film's catchy indie soundtrack, the carefully shot images, and the many naturalistic performances. Gia's strengths as a filmmaker are noticeably similar to her aunt Sofia's however Gia formulates skills that Sofia can't even express. Just with her debut feature, Gia Coppola shows that she can create films just as impressive as her relatives work. Watch out for her in the future, because 'Palo Alto' confirms her as an unstoppable new face in cinema today.
We all have our heroes. Some look up to basketball players, some look up to innovative businessmen. For me that's Roger Ebert who over the coarse of five decades became a pioneer in film criticism history. When he passed away at the age of seventy, I was both shocked and devastated. I grew up watching his reviews, seeing him argue ruthlessly with Gene Siskel on television and to me he was not just an impeccable icon of film criticism, but also a remarkable individual. However he also had his share of demons and that is well reflected in Steve James' latest documentary Life Itself, a wonderfully honest and heartfelt look at the life and career of the legendary Roger Ebert. Ebert dealt with alcoholism throughout his life and fought cancer on multiple occasions, eventually causing the loss of his ability to speak and the use of his jaw because of the illness. But that didn't ever stop him from writing brilliantly about the ever-changing state of cinema and he continued to debate about films until the day he died. Steve James is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers working today and I can't think of a more capable director to take on the eventful life of Ebert than James. Ebert himself championed James' work that included the magnificent Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. There are many talented people who discuss Ebert's legacy throughout the coarse of this film but it's Ebert himself who steals the show, always working hard to make a difference in the way film criticism is represented in our world. There will never be anyone else like Roger Ebert ever again, and this unforgettable documentary shows why. He was a unique, brilliant critic who always cared deeply about how the medium of film was being used and will forever be known as a one of a kind legend.
For the entire 85 minute running time of Stephen Knight's emotionally engaging 'Locke', Tom Hardy is driving in a car and having a phone conversation and the result is incredibly thrilling and utterly memorizing. Hardy, in a superbly controlled and well focused performance, plays a man who basically has everything that you need in life, a good job, a pleasant family, a nice house. But all of those things come crashing down on him because of a simple, tragic mistake that changes his life forever. It's better not to spoil the many great surprises of the film but its result is a masterfully executed thriller with Tom Hardy delivering an award caliber performance that the Oscars should notice.
Seeing that this masterpiece received an extremely slim theatrical release and little media attention is a downright shame considering the emotional impact that the film brings. After two months I still can't get this spellbinder out of my head. Director James Grey is someone who always creates thoughtful, artfully crafted films and has now made a finely detailed period piece starring Marion Cotillard who starts working for a pimp played by the great Joaquin Phoenix. Channeling the filmmaking styles of Elia Kazan and Roberto Rosselini, Grey captures these characters brilliantly and has a patience that's lacking in many other American directors today.
After making a predictable, self-serious tearjerker like 'Prisoners' it's exciting to see the French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve create something as bold and unique as 'Enemy', an excellent psychological thriller that sticks in your head and won't let go. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a depressed professor who becomes at unease after seeing his doppelgänger in a cheap B-movie. Gyllenhaal's performance is his finest and most complex to date, allowing him to explore a wide range of emotional range and requiring him to go to deep dark places within his character. 'Enemy' demonstrates Villenuve's visual capabilities, using gorgeous shades of yellow and green to capture his vision. Using dreamlike imagery and a shear sense of imaginative style, 'Enemy' becomes both unsettling and thoughtfully crafted.
With Wes Anderson's highest grossing film to date, he decided to create his first actual period piece. Unsurprisingly, it's his most finely designed production, using beautiful structures and many clever locations to capture the look and feel of the period. Ralph Fiennes really gets to spread his wings with his comedic range using his body language and facial expressions to really capture the essence of his colorful character. Using a large ensemble cast and witty dialogue, Anderson's film unfolds in a lovely and entertaining fashion.