No one can see everything. Particularly with prestige TV now competing for our attention, there’s a lot of cultural noise out there even for the most hardcore cinephile, and with upwards of a dozen movies being released in major cities every week (not to mention VOD), it’s easy for a great movie to get lost in the mix. Well, that’s where we come in.
We’re over halfway through the year, and with the (usually) barren months of August and September creeping up, it’s starting to feel like time to catch up on some of the movies that might have slipped by between January and June. So, having examined some of the films that most disappointed us in 2014 so far a week or two back, the Playlist staff have picked out some movies that they, individually, believe were undersung, underrated or undervalued in the first half of the year (and note how one person’s treasure is another one’s trash as their definitely are some overlaps in the aforementioned disappointed piece).
The rule: each available staff member got to pick one movie (or, if they felt strongly enough, two), that had been released between January 1st and June 30th this year in the U.S. (excluding festival titles), and that they felt could use a little more love. Take a look at the choices below, and let us know your own undersung faves of 2014 so far in the comments section below.
It’s always a pleasure to see an actor bite into a role, but what Jude Law does in “Dom Hemingway” goes far beyond cinematic mastication. Chest puffed, lips curled into a snarl, a mischievous grin smeared on his face, and carrying the weight of regret and the hope of the future on his shoulders, his “Dom Hemingway” is a man who has burned through the world and still believes it owes him something. And he wants to take that debt and finally put his feet up after a lifetime of headbutting the law (metaphorically certainly, and probably literally too). And Law is fearless here in a film that demands him to go from an opening monologue about the distinct qualities of his cock to humbling himself in an attempt to reconnect with his daughter. As you might expect, its a wild ride, but one dripping with wit and a surprising amount of heart. In a sense, “Dom Hemimgway” is a cousin to “Filth” in terms of presenting audiences with a moral degenerate as their lead. But Dom isn’t just self-loathing to the extent of nihilist self-destruction. Beneath the bravado, woman chasing and f-bombs are good intentions from a guy, who in his own wildly perverse way, is trying to be decent. And that’s what makes “Dom Hemingway” worth visiting. There are all sorts variations on this kind of movie, but few who do it with right mix of hedonism and humility, all while having this kind of fun at the same time.
And for a second pick, I nearly forgot (like most people it seems) that Kore-Eda Hirokazu‘s “Like Father, Like Son” opened in January, and it really deserved better. Probably lost in the buzz of the Sundance Film Festival, because no one seemed to really talk about it at the time, make sure to track it down because it’s a beautiful, deeply moving observation on family, parenthood and the very definition of love itself. Masterful stuff from Hirokazu as always, with performances that will break your heart.
Some might quibble at the need to defend Darren Aronofsky‘s “Noah“—the film got decent reviews, even if ours wasn’t one of them, and did well enough at the box office. Maybe it’s just my bubble, but I feel like the reaction in general varied between “I hated it,” “I couldn’t be bothered with it,” and “that wasn’t as bad as I thought,” so I feel compelled to fight in its corner, because I pretty much straight up loved the film. Perhaps the weirdest, most unlikely studio blockbuster in living memory, “Noah” sees Darren Aronofsky finally get to play on a giant canvas, with his passion-project take on the Old Testament tale of apocalypse and redemption. But anyone fearing that the director was going to water down his trademark style didn’t have to worry: this was uncompromised Aronofsky, ballsily taking one of the most famous Biblical stories, and recasting its title character as, basically, the villain. Many got hung up on the giant stone-angels that caused so much controversy, but for all the effects work (which is mostly remarkable), it’s still a thoughtful and complex film, digging into issues of faith and fanaticism in a way that’s almost unheard of for a hugely expensive tentpole, let alone one that was actively courting the religious crowd. Aronofsky’s filmmaking is as impressive as ever, and though some of the supporting roles get a bit lost, Russell Crowe comes storming back to give his best performance in a decade, entirely committed and fierce. Like with all of Aronofsky’s films, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for not liking it: he’s not to everyone’s taste, and doesn’t really know the meaning of the word “subtle,” for better or worse. And it’s certainly a flawed achievement, but one that I suspect will grow in reputation and stature over time. And if nothing else, it features Ray Winstone biting off a snake’s head, so its place in cinematic history is assured for that alone.
There were plenty of other options out there for my second pick: I concur with many of the ones on this list, especially “Obvious Child,” and could have happily fought the corner for “A Field In England,” “Breathe In,” “Mistaken For Strangers,” “Joe,” “Belle,” “Ida,” “Palo Alto” or “Night Moves,” but in the end plumped for a film I wasn’t even sure got a U.S. release until I looked it up – Anthony Chen‘s “Ilo Ilo,” which only ever played four theaters in the U.S, and grossed only $50,000. The winner of the Camera d’Or for first films at last year’s Cannes, and a rare film hailing from Singapore to make it out of the city-state, it’s a simple tale, indebted to the humanism of the Dardennes and Asghar Farhadi, about a middle-class family who, despite facing economic difficulty, hire a live-in Filipino maid to care for their troublemaking son as the arrival of their second child approaches. Low-key and never feeling contrived or melodramatic, Chen’s rich screenplay gives an immediate sense of the local culture and of his deeply human characters, aided no end by the outstanding performances (particularly from Lav Diaz veteran Angeli Bayani as Teresa, the maid). Given its limited release, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the only Playlister to have seen the film (I reviewed it for another outlet on its UK release), but they, and you, should check it out as soon as it hits VOD or similar.
I’ll be the first to admit that David Michod’s “The Rover”
didn’t land with me quite as hard as it did with our reviewer out of
Cannes. It was my kind of movie, sparse, minimalist, hauntingly moody, possessing a menacing slow burn to it—but I’d be lying if I said it
didn’t leave me at a bit of a distance. I wanted slightly more—just
one more emotional scene like the sequence with Guy Pearce’s
character staring with deep wells of empathy at the caged dogs melting
with heat from the Australian Outback. But perhaps more than any film
this year, or at least any film that I wasn’t immediately taken
with, its simmering intensity and single-minded drive has really
resonated with me. A lot of that comes from the internalized rage of Guy
Pearce, a performance that has become one of my favorites of the year. Now Robert Pattinson is good, but Pearce is something else; like a feral animal on a mission that cannot be stopped (and considering his recent excellent turns in “Lawless,” “Breathe In” and “Hateship, Loveship” it feels like we have a new mini Pearce renaissance on our hands). There’s a fury within the heart of “The Rover,” but it’s from a ravaged soul who’s had everything taken from him. It’s a possessed and ghostly shell of a man who will stop at nothing to properly mourn all that he has lost and loved. You cannot and will not deny that from this character. The movie really got killed in wide release, its languid rhythms and atmospheric meditations on our humanity (or lack thereof) just not built for the mainstream multiplexes and that’s a shame. Definitely make the effort to catch up with this one and give it time to marinate after it’s done.
I don’t have a second pick, but “Enemy,” “Obvious Child,” “The Double” and “The Immigrant” are all movies that were (at least somewhat) lauded by critics and not enough audiences loved. David Gordon Green‘s “Joe” was an interesting exploration of the damaged male ego drawn to destruction, and Nicolas Cage put in a superbly restrained and mannered performance, but the movie was summarily ignored for some reason. Hopefully these films all find their audience on DVD and VOD eventually.
If you’re looking for a truthful, acid, funny, sharp, bittersweet, immaculately written and performed tale of how it is possible to retain your individuality and even your sex drive into your early pensionable years, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, well, you have a very specific set of requirements, don’t you? But “Le Week-end” is all of those things and more. An unexpected treat from Roger Michell (“Venus,” “Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”) it feels like a quantum leap forward for the director in terms of depth and insight, a lot due to Hanif Kureishi‘s outstanding script. Now I will always be biased toward anything with Jim Broadbent in it because he is the best person at acting, but even with my positive prejudice, the logline of the film was a little off-putting: “aging British couple visit Paris and bicker” is an enthusiasm-dampener, make no mistake. But that just meant I had the thrill of discovery in addition to the pleasure of such a terrific, mean, wise film—one that is wholly undersold by any single-sentence plot description. Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan give two of the best performances of the year as an utterly believable but weirdly individualistic long-married couple who find their relationship fraying and coalescing on a weekend trip to Paris, while the film also features a delicious supporting turn from Jeff Goldblum. Kureishi’s witty, diamond-cut script captures with such tender specificity the folly and hubris and hilarity of aging that, despite some genuinely hard and downbeat moments, including possibly the most excruciating dinner party toast/nervous breakdown scene ever written, it actually gives me hope. A lot of that is probably due to the very final scene, though, which I may be more in love with than any single scene of the year: not wanting to spoil, suffice to say, it ends with this wonderful/despicable couple, superlatively drawn as as two spiky, thorny, vain, mean-spirited, adorable individuals reaffirming, be it ever so briefly, that while they may be facing encroaching irrelevance and losing their place in the world, they do have a world together. And as sometimes complacent, sometimes resentful a place as that might be, occasionally the two of them are perfectly, sublimely, in step. Perhaps it is worth spending a lifetime with someone just to have such a moment.
There’s a lot of first-film uncertainty in regards to John Slattery’s directorial debut, which adapts a Pete Dexter novel about sadness and small-town rot. The “Mad Men” star doesn’t seem certain as to whether he’s making a comedy, a parody or a drama. But hidden within each character interaction is an entire story about a broken spirit trying to put the pieces together. John Turturro, muted and reserved in this year’s “Fading Gigolo,” gives a stronger performance here as a tragically lonely meat locker entrepreneur, one ready to give the shirt off his back as a show of gratitude. Richard Jenkins just about rolled out of a bottle as the town’s respected, romantic newspaper columnist. Caleb Landry Jones is, once again, an irritated, open wound as a sociopathic shit-talker with a love of the blade and delusions of grandeur. And, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman, how we miss this man: this is one of those archetypical Hoffman perfs, a walking monument to disappointment, powered by booze, heartburn and impotent rage. Hoffman’s turn is like walking flop sweat, his booming physicality emphasizing the dark comedy at the heart of this class-based drama, where locals take “dirty-faced” as an insult and ignored spouses listlessly look out on their bedroom views of overfed landfills. Slattery gives the story life, and an identity. Hoffman gives it a soul.
“Cold in July”
Director Jim Mickle and his creative partner Nick Damici (who usually co-writes and co-stars in their movies) are not tourists; they take genre seriously. For the past few years, their craft has been getting increasingly more refined while their thematic concerns have deepened and intensified; from the dusty, post-apocalyptic vampire world of “Stakeland” to the solemn remake “We Are What We Are” (probably the most delicate, feminine cannibal movie ever), they are building a filmography that is both unpredictable and yet unified. And their newest film, “Cold in July,” which premiered at Sundance this year and was based on a long forgotten, out-of-print mystery by East Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale, is their greatest accomplishment yet—a twisty, turny, blood-soaked ode to eighties politics and what it means to be a man. It was also, of course, totally underrated. While the film made a minor splash at Sundance and was picked up by IFC Films, it bafflingly skipped South by Southwest (odd, considering how receptive the festival is to genre fare and the fact that it’s set in Texas) and was released in late spring with little fanfare and so-so box office (it made a little more than $400,000). A shame, really, given how commercially viable and flat-out entertaining the film is. Set in the eighties, the movie concerns a nebbish frame store owner (played by Michael C. Hall from “Dexter“) who murders a man who has broken into his home. After the man’s father (Sam Shepard, relishing every moment), newly released from prison, comes after Hall, the two form an uneasy alliance and, along with a pig farmer/private eye (Don Johnson, in another late-career highlight), set about to uncover an even weirder mystery. Stylistically, “Cold in July” is wonderfully outré, mixing elements from “Road House” on up to the films of John Carpenter, complete with a moody synth score by Jeff Beal (one of the year’s very best). But it’s what’s underneath all of the atmosphere and dread and exploding heads that makes “Cold in July” so special; it’s about what it takes to be an upstanding man in a world spinning wildly out of control and the lengths some people will go to make order out of chaos, at least for a little bit.
Though on the surface it appears to have sprouted from the same blackly humorous sensibility as Playlist favorites Yorgos Lanthimos and Michael Haneke, this awesomely bizarre deconstructionist home invasion movie/religious allegory is on its own wavelength entirely. Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam (who also appears in the film) has been making features for nearly thirty years now, and his experience shows. But if it helps get more people to watch the damn thing, then yeah, I’ll concede, this shit is “Dogtooth” meets “Funny Games.” If those films mean anything to you, good or bad, you should seek out this future cult oddity barely given a release in the US by the lovely folks at Drafthouse Films, who continue to pursue and release challenging, complex films of varied genres from around the world. They’re unafraid of tough sells (just look at their slate from the last 12 months), already have a distinct voice in the indie distribution game, and clearly passionate about finding an audience—any audience, big or small—for films that deserve them, like “Borgman.” The title refers to the main character, a bearded and disheveled vagrant who shows up at the front door of a well-off family asking for a bath. They refuse, and the funny games begin. It’s a film that will frustrate and fascinate in equal measure, but is no doubt worth your time. Be ready to pay attention and theorize after the credits roll. The film is loaded with all kinds of Christian symbols and touchstones: Borgman’s first name is Camiel (look up its significance and prepare to go down the rabbit hole); several characters have noticeable scars on their backs (angels who’ve lost their wings, or souls?); and the setting is transformed into a demented quasi-Garden of Eden near the end. There’s a lot more to see in it, and even more to talk about. “Borgman” also has one of the most memorable shots of 2014 so far, involving the disposal of several dead bodies. For those who latch on to its peculiar fairy tale vibe, the rewards are ample. The desire to re-watch will probably take over and you may have a new favorite weird movie to recommend to other fans of cinematic strangeness.
This Israeli film is the feature debut of Nadav Lapid. Remember that name, because on the strength of this alone, he should go on to big things. Unfortunately, most of us have had nary a chance to see the damn thing. Technically, it’s a 2011 release, but it played the festival circuit for years and then got a minimal release just this summer. Barely anyone saw it. “Policeman” is oddly titled, since it’s actually a film of two halves: part one follows an elite squad of anti-terrorist cops—mostly zeroing in on the de facto leader (Yiftach Klein, full of machismo and so, so excellent)—as they deal with one member’s cancer and a previous mission that went bad; part two then hops over to the other side—a young, inexperienced and entitled group of radicals conspiring together for a hostage attack at a rich couple’s wedding. There’s loads of political, jingoistic and cultural subtext subtly layered in the bifurcated narrative, some of which will go over most heads (a lot of it did for me). But Lapid wisely never gets preachy, instead trusting each viewer to find their own meaning in his unobtrusive style, Kubrickian in its cold detachment, formal rigor and unwillingness to let the audience off with easy answers. What I latched on to was a brilliant deconstruction of a certain type of male figure very common to American moviegoers, the macho, jockish, soldier type. The first half works as a subversion and real study of this archetype, playing like “Top Gun” for the arthouse crowd. The second, which of course climaxes (thrillingly I might add) by joining up both disparate storylines, is akin to last year’s “Captain Phillips.” Its portrayal of “terrorists” way out of their depth up against an laughably superior force bred for their destruction is handled even better—with deeper empathy and far more complex and messy—I’d argue, than Paul Greengrass did with his multiple Oscar nominee. Seek out “Policeman,” but be patient (no video or streaming release has been announced yet, but if you have an all-region player it’s available on R2). It’s worth the wait.
“The Internet’s Own Boy”
I’m not masochistic enough to go to bat for the wonderfully weird and wacky “Tammy,” at risk of baiting the commenters more than I already have this year, but I’ll mention that I quite enjoyed that film more than other critics and I think it’s getting an unfair rap. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to Kathy Bates’ lesbian barbecue? I’d be first in line for that spin off. (I also quite rather liked “Maleficent” while we’re at it). There were a number of women-directed films that came out this year that I’ve already sung the praises of, from Eliza Hittman’s honest meditation on the pitfalls (and beauty) of adolescent sexuality in “It Felt Like Love,” to the inspiring shoot-from-the-hip style of the legendary Elaine Stritch in Chiemi Karasawa’s “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” to the pure cinematic poetry that is Petra Costa’s docu-memory “Elena.” There’s so much great stuff out there that you may not have seen and will absolutely delight you, and these three are a great start.
But, I decided to take this chance to shout out what I think is one of the most important documentaries of the year, one that I think everyone should see: Brian Knappenberger’s “The Internet’s Own Boy.” Our reviewer praised the film and gave it a B, but I’m in the camp that this film should be pressed upon anyone and everyone at any opportunity. I knew virtually nothing of Aaron Swartz’s story going into this film, and walked out ready to purchase a t-shirt with a Che-style rendering of Aaron’s face. The doc pulls off the difficult task of synthesizing a bunch of very complicated Internet Stuff (copyright laws, freedom of information, net neutrality) and makes it look not only easy, but stylish, exciting, and urgently important. The film also touches on the issues of surveillance, the failing American justice system, and the perils of genius such as Swartz. Knappenberger was given a gift in the figure of Aaron, someone who’s tragically short life was personally roiled by these issues that trouble our country so much today. His clarity, eloquence, and passion captured on screen makes you wish he was still alive not only to explain these issues to us but to lead the charge like he did with SOPA/PIPA and other issues. It’s illuminating, enfuriating and inspiring, so go watch the movie (it’s on VOD) already!
“A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness”
Some movies are destined for the obscure, usually underrated, often under-seen section, and “A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness” flirts with this destiny from start to finish. Directors Ben Russell and Ben Rivers collaborate and fuse their combined knowledge of documentary filmmaking, Fine Arts, photography, and a shared passion for ethnography to produce an exceptional piece of cinema that will stick with the patient ones among you like super glue. Here’s a good indication of how under-seen this one is; ‘A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness’ (seriously, how great is that title?) flew so low under the radar during its festival run last year that none of us from The Playlist got to cover it, and it only received an ultra-limited theatrical release this year in April from KimStim. So conventional reviews be damned, this feature provides the perfect platform for me to shower praise on this existentialist wet dream of a movie. A fellow film critic from another outlet recommended it to me, and I won’t lie, some fidgeting happened while I watched, but the wealth of cinematic wonderment contained within its succinct 98 minutes completely won me over by the end. The film is clearly structured into three equilateral sections (an image of a triangle pops in to mind-fuck you and make you think in geometrical terms) and follows a nameless man, who speaks not a word, as he lives in an Estonian commune, embraces solitude in the wilderness of Finland, and plays guitar for a black metal band in Norway. And you might be surprised to find out which one of the three parts is the most spiritual and eerily peaceful one. I know I was. The cinematography is breathtaking, the camera movement so distinct and thriving with purpose, and the food for thought left over is in super-sized portions. For those who like their cinema with a side of philosophy, garnished with poetic imagery, I implore you to seek this one out as soon as it becomes available. Good news is, KimStim are extending release later in the fall. Check out the film’s official website here.
While I don’t feel strongly enough about a second choice to write about it, I’ll tip my hat off to “Beneath The Harvest Sky”, “The Immigrant” and “Borgman” as films that got way less than they deserved from critics and audiences alike.
Merely casting “Obvious Child” as the “abortion rom-com” limits the film in an unfair way. Yes, (spoiler alert) Jenny Slate’s standup comedian character Donna has an abortion, and the movie depicts this normal female experience just as it is in an incredibly bold way (you know, by actually depicting it). The movie is everything Fox News hates, with a pro-choice stance, casual sex and feminism rolled into one 90-minute package. But beyond its progressive message, Gillian Robespierre’s film is at its heart a great romantic comedy, giving perhaps a little more weight to the comedy than the romance. However, it’s remarkably sweet, particularly for a film that has its central couple peeing on a New York street and farting in each other’s faces on their first night together. With scenes like that–and the opening stand-up performance that focuses on vaginal discharge–this movie feels improvised and fresh, almost to its detriment. It could be easy to overlook the great script and dismiss it as the product of witty actors like Slate and co-star Gabe Liedman riffing on camera, but Robespierre deserves credit for crafting it. By that same token, Slate makes Donna feel so natural that it’s easy to question if she’s playing herself, but there’s so much more going on here. She has great chemistry with Jake Lacey, who plays her preppy love interest, as well as with Gaby Hoffman as her best friend Nellie. But where she might be strongest is in her solo moments, whether eliciting awkward laughter on stage or obsessing over an ex. We might not have all lived her character’s experiences here, but Slate makes Donna’s life feel like our own.