By Eric Kohn | Indiewire June 14, 2014 at 6:43PM
On Monday, Indiewire will publish the results of its critics' survey featuring the best movies of 2014 so far, reflecting the votes of over 70 critics listed in our Criticwire Network. These tastemakers have a lot to choose from, but there are some basic rules to this game: Voters are limited to selecting films that have opened in theaters or on video-demand platforms this year. That means that some hits from the 2014 festival circuit — Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," for example, which opens in July — don’t qualify, and year-end top 10 lists are likely to look a whole lot different.
Even so, the U.S. release calendar has so far offered more than enough memorable new movies from around the world to merit innumerable top 10 list possibilities. In anticipation of the countless others coming your way at the start of next week, here's mine — with a coda looking ahead to a few other releases just around the corner but already deserving of this treatment. The following list is ranked, but needless to say, they’re all first-rate. (And when you're through here, be sure to check out these highlights from the year in television so far.)
10. "Cheap Thrills"
Savagely assaulting the desperate state of a blue-collar family man, the comedic thriller "Cheap Thrills" establishes a ridiculous premise early on and takes it to various extremes, again and again, until you just have to accept the crazy venture on its own terms or simply give up. That's also the situation for its dazed antihero, Craig (Pat Healy), a broke father who's newly unemployed when he comes across the affluent Colin (David Koechner) in a bar and plays along with a series of increasingly deranged bets in exchange for monetary rewards. The metaphoric weight to the scenario is immediately evident, but "Cheap Thrills" basically uses that starting point to mess around. It asks, "How far would you go?" and then tries to find a grotesque answer.
Roger Michell's lovely two-hander is a welcome rebound after "Hyde Park on Hudson" that owes much to Hanif Kureishi’s elegant screenplay. The convivial plot involves a near-geriatric British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) wandering Paris on a vacation for their 30th wedding anniversary, which doesn’t take long to go awry. As they go for the jugular in their arguments over the proper direction for their lives, they blossom into deeply relatable figures: Both disgruntled academics, they seem both deeply committed to each other and eager to question the nature of that bond at every moment. Are they a dysfunctional couple or perfect for each other? "Le Week-End" wrestles with both possibilities in each scene. He's a self-involved sad sack and she's a thoughtful soul-searcher eager to explore new experiences. Michell crafts a delicately entertaining experience pitched somewhere between theatrical minimalism and a travelogue, with darkly amusing exchanges between the couple that marry the gags with a melancholic philosophical weight. Plus, Jeff Goldblum as an old pal from the Broadbent character’s past, vulgar bickering and a concluding Godard homage. More American comedies should offer such rich delights under the guise of gentle humor. Until then, we have "Le Week-End."
A masterwork of understatement, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof's unbearably suspenseful tale—which the exiled director made in spite of a 20-year filmmaking ban issued by his country—shifts between various older journalists and the conflicted hitman forced to torture and murder them. While the writers evade tapped phone lines and the advances of various shadowy figures, they bicker amongst each other about the value of getting the story out there and the ensuing sacrifices being made in the process. With their families' survival at risk, one by one they become compromised, but not without a palpable sense of rage; meanwhile, the weak-willed hired gun gripes about his own compromises for the sake of his sick child. Even the scheming overlord of the censorship office, who coldly goes through the motions to contain the story, has a history of doing time that suggests he works out of necessity rather than conviction. Nobody in this closed-minded system has it easy, but they keep fighting ahead, which prevents the movie from devolving into a pity party and instead transforms it into a captivating survival story.
If the fashionable bloodsuckers of the "Twilight" movies traded their frantic stares for expressions of ennui, they might have something in common with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the retro-cool vampires at the heart of Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive." But that could never happen. Jarmusch's characters are always too hip for the mainstream, which he reminds viewers by making a welcome return to the realm of deadpan comedies that put his work on the map. A centuries-old couple bored with contemporary society, Adam and Eve spend part of the movie living separately in Detroit and Tangiers before uniting at each location, muttering refrains about modern culture and recalling better times. They have sparse company in their understated despair: An enjoyable John Hurt surfaces in a few scenes to play the stately Christopher Marlowe, still hurt by living eternally in the shadow of William Shakespeare. Eve's horny younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) crashes at Adam's Detroit home in search of an excuse to party and briefly causes problems that, if they didn't involve casual violence, wouldn't seem out of place in a chick flick. But "Only Lovers Left Alive," despite its unapologetically silly developments, also contains the wistfulness and wine-drenched romanticism of "Before Sunrise" and its sequels. "It's over for us, isn't it?" Swinton's vampire sighs when thinking about the past. But "Only Lovers Left Alive" is the latest suggestion that one America's great modern auteurs has plenty left to say.
6. "The Double"
"The Double" is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but there's a lot more than the sensibilities of the Russian literary giant hanging over this grimly amusing picture. In his strangest performance to date, Jesse Eisenberg plays two characters, although it's hard to tell if one of them really exists. British director and comedian Richard Ayoade's follow-up to his stylized coming-of-age tale "Submarine," the abstract drama owes an obvious debt to "Brazil," but also borrows liberally from the likes of "1984," the labyrinthine plotting of a Kafka story and the outmoded aesthetics of '80s computer commercials, while maintaining a deadpan stillness that calls to mind Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Yet the familiar elements of "The Double," which Ayoade co-wrote with Avi Korine, coalesce into a unique whole that turns the material into a contemplative nightmare.
Pawel Palikowski’s black-and-white period drama focuses on a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in the late 1950s who discovers she’s the daughter of a Jewish family that died during the war. Arriving in the opening minutes, that hook is just the start of a fascinating voyage into post-WWII Europe that’s equal parts brooding tragedy and deadpan road trip comedy. Trzebuchowska’s remarkably versatile performance provides a wonderful magnification of the dichotomy between secular and religious attitudes that ultimately splits the difference. It’s the most sophisticated treatment of cross-generational Holocaust trauma in ages.
Technically one long movie, Lars Von Trier’s naughty paean to sexuality in all its messy complexities actually benefits from its fragmented release, mainly because it allows the superior first half to stand on its own. Of course, both volumes offer the same blend of provocative storytelling and liberal doses of highbrow references threaded together with Von Trier’s obsession with a self-aware, operatic style. But since Volume II is mired in plot detail, as a whole it amounts to one long third-act problem bound to suffer in the shadow of the unbridled energy throughout Volume I. Carried by the peculiar chemistry shared by a seemingly asexual Stellan Skarsgaard and the titular Charlotte Gainsbourg, and an equally formidable turn by rising star Stacy Martin as the promiscuous young woman presented in flashbacks, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is a consistent delight. More than that, it transcends the dark setup by quickly transforming into a disarming comedy that somehow pokes fun at its very existence by rendering the underlying bleakness of the human condition as a grand punchline. “Nymphomaniac” is far from Von Trier’s best film, but its first volume amounts to an expertly crafted turn-on that distills the appeal of his career to date.
Rithy Panh's diary-like chronicle of his adolescent experiences in a forced labor camp under the destructive grip of the Khmer Rouge demonstrates cinema at the height of its powers. Though it had a qualifying run last year that yielded an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, the movie received its official release in March, and so long as it qualifies for a top 10 list it deserves the spot. Through its blend of poetic autobiography and allegiance to historical responsibility, "The Missing Picture" fully represents the singular vision of its creator. Its handcrafted feel imbues each moment with an intimate expression of anguish matched only by the faintest glimmer of hope in Panh’s search for catharsis in creativity. Watching the movie, one can’t help but feel a personal connection to his plight. Recalling "troubled times where fear alternates with hope," Panh states from the outset that as a 50-year-old, he remains haunted by death surrounding his youth, and the fierce grip of the Khmer Rouge as it forced Cambodian citizens to plow the fields under increasingly inhumane circumstances throughout the 1970s. "These are not missing pictures," he admits at one point, "because they’re inside me."
Over the years, Wes Anderson's movies have steadily developed a lush, eccentric world that operates on its own terms, and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" excels at exploring it. Anderson's colorful period piece reflects the sensibilities of its creator at the height of his artistic confidence. While it notably draws from preexisting material — namely, the writings of Viennese intellectual Stefan Zweig, though Anderson has also tipped his hat to various other sources of wartime literature — one of America's most distinguished modern auteurs has spun his clutter of reference points into a collage-like fantasy adventure that clearly fuses with the rest of his oeuvre. Yet within the constraints of his distinctive tinkering, Anderson remains a compelling storyteller who provides an actor's playground, in this case providing Ralph Fiennes with one of his most distinguished roles. While it has many familiar ingredients — from the atmosphere to the ensemble of Anderson regulars in nearly every part — in its allegiance to Anderson's vision, everything about "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a welcome dose of originality.
The camera-wielding researchers at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, an eccentric team responsible for experimental documentaries like last year's groundbreaking fishing-boat portrait "Leviathan" and the shepherd-focused "Sweetgrass," typically refuse to identify as "filmmakers" in the traditional sense of the word. The group's latest effort, the startlingly unique viewing experience "Manakamana," provides the best case for that claim. Shot with a static camera exclusively within the confines of a cable car as it travels up and down the Nepal Valley for a series of 10-minute rides, "Manakamana" contains nothing traditionally movie-like in its progression. And that's exactly what makes it one of the most engrossing cinematic achievements to come along since… well, "Leviathan." While it has no precise narrative arc, "Manakamana" slowly grows its intrigue, rewarding patient viewers with a fascinating showcase of various occupants and an overall meditational quality. While impatient audiences may grow frustrated with the experience, that very reaction speaks to its appeal. "Manakamana" says as much about the erosion of patience as it does about the value of holding onto it.
Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood," which tracks a Texan child from his experiences as a hapless seven-year-old into an inquisitive young adult, has been justly heralded as a landmark in film history since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It should continue generating such enthusiasm when it hits theaters in July. While Lav Diaz's "Norte, the End of History" didn’t take quite as long to make, the Filipino director’s four-hour-plus modern day treatment of "Crime and Punishment" (opening next week) is nevertheless a breathtaking accomplishment that sublimates its heft into the storytelling so well that it’s practically beside the point. More ingenuity can be found in another film opening this coming Friday, "Exhibition," rising U.K. filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s elegantly textured portrait of a middle-aged woman (portrayed by Viv Albertine, former guitarist of The Slits) experiencing a sense of disconnect from her expansive household.
But perhaps the best summer counter-programming arrives next month with Jafar Panahi’s somber meta-meditation on life under house arrest, "Closed Curtain," which starts out as the tale of a man on a lam (with an adorable dog as his partner) and eventually turns into an explicit meditation on creative expression under censorship. Fortunately for us, with "Closed Curtain" opening in July, Panahi gets the last word in that battle.