Here’s a bold statement: 2014 is looking like a pretty damn good year for movies so far. We’ve had a few strong ones in a row (2011, 2012 and 2013 were all overflowing with goodness), but a little less than halfway through this year, and the discerning moviegoer has been spoiled with choices. Of course, there’s been a lot of swill, but from the blockbuster to tiny foreign indies, there’s been plenty worth checking out.
As is traditional once it gets to June, we’ve sat back and taken stock, and picked out the very best movies of 2014 (so far). In fact, there’s been so much goodness on offer that we could fill the list a couple of times over solely with films we’ve seen at 2014 festivals. But while that’s certainly been the story of our 2014, it’s not particularly representative of the what’s been going in the U.S. theaters, so we’ve strictly limited ourselves to a slightly uneven split between films that have actually already been released, and those that we’ve seen at a festival (Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Tribeca or Cannes) that either have 2014 dates slated, or we strongly suspect/hope that they will.
But we’re also keen to know what you’ve enjoyed in 2014, at festivals, in theaters or on VOD—let us know your own favorites of the year so far in the comments section. And read our choices below…
Best Films That Have Been Released In 2014
There are plenty of scuzzy revenge-type American independent genre movies out there, but for one to premiere at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight suggests that it’s something special, and that’s exactly what “Blue Ruin” delivered by the time we caught up to it in Toronto 2013 (read Gabe’s A- review). The story of a vagrant who discovers that the man convicted of murdering his parents has been released from prison and sets out to take vengeance, only to become a target of the killer’s family in turn, is a bravura follow-up to “Murder Party” by director Jeremy Saulnier. Our reviewer found that the film avoids the wish-fulfillment of much of its genre, and as a consequence it’s a movie “of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs, but for what’s waiting just off screen at every turn.” He found it to be “the most suspenseful American film of the year, a thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky: sudden, terrifying and excitingly singular.” It got a small release, through Radius/TWC in April, but it more feels like the kind of film that people, especially genre fiends, will be discovering and obsessing over on home video formats for years to come.
“Submarine” might not have been perfect, but it marked the arrival of a hugely exciting new voice in the shape of actor-turned-director Richard Ayoade. His follow-up, the Dostoevsky-indebted “The Double,” co-written with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother), was worth the wait: an even more distinctive and odd film that’s quite different from anything else you’ll see in 2014 (Kevin’s A- verdict). Following mild-mannered office drone Simon James as his life takes a dark turn when a doppelganger named James Simon joins his company, soon winning over colleagues and the girl that he secretly loves, as Kevin said in Toronto, the film “matches its visual consistency with a narrative rhythm that is utterly engaging,” with a gorgeous look from DP Erik Wilson and a great score by Andrew Hewitt. It also has an “emotional and thematic pull that is surprisingly weighty for this sort of picture,” while among a strong and eclectic cast also including Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor, star Jesse Eisenberg “gives two excellent performances… [allowing] him to find new notes to both his trademark on-screen personas.” Magnolia released the film for a very limited run in May, and it’s one well worth the bother of seeking out if you still can.
“Edge Of Tomorrow”
With the whopping great exception of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it’s actually been a pretty good year for blockbusters so far: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Godzilla” and “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” have all had much to recommend them, even if none were flawless. But the best of the batch, at least so far, is not one that we were expecting: Tom Cruise vehicle “Edge Of Tomorrow,” which has started rolling out internationally and arrives in U.S. theaters on Friday. Doug Liman‘s film is a rarity for a summer tentpole: a big movie that’s not a sequel, and not based on a well-established household name property. Its DNA is familiar, to some extent, taking the conceit of “Groundhog Day” and layering it on to a sci-fi war picture, with a overwhelming hint of World War II (the film centers around a D-Day style invasion of alien-occupied Europe from the U.K.). But Liman, making his best movie in at least a decade, combines the elements into something that feels fresh, aided by a script that’s significantly smarter than it needs to be, and giving the action sequences an energy and clarity, doing for the sci-fi flick what he did for the spy movie with “The Bourne Identity.” Cruise has his best mainstream role in eons, the film initially making him a very unsympathetic, cowardly figure and letting him earn the audience’s trust, in part thanks to Emily Blunt, who’s instantly iconic in a welcome kick-ass female co-lead (a rare example of Cruise genuinely sharing the spotlight). The film doesn’t stick the landing, and it should be said that there are one or two naysayers on staff (contrast Drew Taylor’s rave review with Gabe Toro’s counterpoint pan of the film), but most of us are firmly of the belief that “Edge Of Tomorrow” is the blockbuster of the year so far.
Last year, Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal teamed up for “Prisoners,” a gripping and beautifully made thriller that featured one of the best performances of the year from Gyllenhaal. But even before that, the pair had worked together fruitfully, quietly making Canadian indie “Enemy,” a thriller about a professor who discovers he has a doppelganger, which premiered at TIFF alongside “Prisoners,” and according to our Rodrigo Perez, it’s even better. He described the film as an “equally dark but more experimental and arty cousin,” to the other film, like “Paul Thomas Anderson of ‘There Will Be Blood‘ making a Brian De Palma movie, or Claire Denis directing Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Memento.’ ” “Thick with weighty themes, disquieting portent and anxious tension,” according to Rodrigo, it cements Villeneuve’s talents, and showcases those of the supporting cast like Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rosselini. And if you thought Gyllenhaal was great in “Prisoners,” you ain’t seen nothing yet: the actor “carries the entire film on his shoulders, and he delivers with a smoldering internalized performance of torment that is easily his finest work.” A24 released the film back in March, but if you missed it, no fear: it hits DVD and Blu-ray on June 24th.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
One would think that it would have been hard to top the reaction to Wes Anderson‘s last film, 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which won plaudits as it opened Cannes and proved to be his most critically and commercially successful picture since “The Royal Tenenbaums” over a decade earlier. But less than two years later, Wes was back, and the reaction to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was even warmer: it won rave reviews, and has proven a legitimate arthouse box office smash, taking in over $150 million so far, more than twice his previous best haul, and a bigger take than other hefty pictures like “The Monuments Men,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Transcendence,” among others. It’s particularly satisfying because the film reaches something like peak Wes: featuring his biggest and most expansive cast, toplined by a performance of unexpected comic genius from Ralph Fiennes (virtually matched by newcomer Tony Revolori), intricately told in homage to Stefan Zweig, and more like an impossibly beautiful cuckoo clock/wedding cake combo than ever before. Frequently hilarious, but undercut with a deep thread of melancholy, the film does leave you sad, rather than uplifted. But, as Jessica Kiang said in her review from Berlin, “It is indeed a strange thing to feel a little sad at the absence of something that you never had, but where on earth in the real world might we ever encounter such craft, such dedication to beauty, such attention to detail? Perhaps nowhere, except in a Wes Anderson movie.” The film is still in some theaters, and comes to DVD and Blu-ray on June 17th.
“Hide Your Smiling Faces”
Easily our favorite film of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, the fantastic work by cinematographer/writer-turned-feature filmmaker Daniel Patrick Carbone, may have been the most striking debut we saw all last year. Possessing a similar appreciation for the beauty and mysteries of childhood and nature, like David Gordon Green and Terrence Malick, plus a Michael Haneke-esque disquiet, Carbone’s film may have influences, but the director turns them into something unnerving, unforgettable and stunning. Understanding the beauty in terrible images and vice versa, what resonates most deeply is how Carbone skillfully articulates what the boys cannot express: they’re ill-equipped to emotionally deal with the tragedy around them and this frustration manifests in all kinds of behavior, sometimes destructive, sometimes just inquisitive. “Hide Your Smiling Faces” has a terrific control of tone too that’s shaped by a haunting soundscape-y score from Robert Donne of Labradford and Spokane. Let’s also hope it’s not the last we see of the child actors Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones, both of whom deliver authentic and naturalistic performances. Tribeca Films released it at the end of March, but it’s on iTunes, Amazon and other streaming services now.
Pawel Pawlikowski is an undervalued filmmaker (best known for “My Summer Of Love“), who aside from his return with 2012’s disappointing “The Woman In The Fifth,” has been away for too long. But he came storming back with “Ida,” a beautiful little black-and-white Bressonian gem. Oli caught it first at the London Film Festival, calling it “absolutely stunning, one of the year’s best films,” and Jess reviewed it in full in Marrakech, agreeing that it’s a “small, quiet, polished film that unfolds slowly but with remarkable assurance,” with some “truly remarkable cinematography,” and a “striking central performance” from young Polish actress Agata Trzebuchowska (a non-professional actress who Pawlikowski found waitressing in his local cafe). It’s a little film that might not be for everyone, but as the winner of the top prize at the BFI London Film Festival, we clearly weren’t alone in our feelings about it. Music Box Films released it at the start of May, and it’s proved a bit of a sleeper hit, taking nearly $1m so far, one of the company’s biggest hits ever, so track it down if you can.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner as directed by Playlist favorite James Gray (“We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers“), period drama “The Immigrant” screamed Oscar-contender from the outset, but it’s actually quite a different animal with divergent concerns, as Harvey Weinstein found out (he pretty much dumped the movie, despite rave reviews, one of the biggest shames of 2014 so far), really more of a slow-burning emotional drama exploring the ideas of forgiveness and redemption via terrible characters that are nearly beyond salvation. Even more mature and patient than expected, especially for a filmmaker who has made a name on thoughtful and contemplative morality tales, “The Immigrant” won’t be for all audiences, but it’s still one of our favorites of 2014 so far, and boasts yet another astonishing performance from Phoenix, who is late-on revealed as just as pivotal to the film as Cotillard. And that’s not to mention gorgeous cinematography from the great Darius Khondji. As Jess said in Cannes in 2013, it’s “contained, restrained, thoughtful filmmaking that satisfies on nearly every level.” The film is now in limited release.
“The Lego Movie”
Go back a year ago, or even less, and suggest that a 90-minute computer-animated toy commercial would be one of the best movies of the early part of 2014, and you’d probably be committed to a mental asylum. Or perhaps not: you might have found a small group of supporters among those of us who knew that Warner Bros‘ “The Lego Movie” was being masterminded by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directors of “Cloudy With Chance Of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street,” two earlier properties that sounded wretched on paper, and turned out to be hugely enjoyable. And, as it turned out, they’d outdone themselves with “The Lego Movie,” a meta-tastic, beautiful looking, uproariously funny blockbuster that pits Chris Pratt‘s everyman Emmett and his various helpers (including Elizabeth Banks‘ kick-ass female lead, Morgan Freeman‘s senile wizard and best of all, Will Arnett’s total dick take on Batman) against Will Ferrell‘s Lord Business. Taking hero’s-journey tropes and tearing into them, packing gags into every frame and then turning everything on its head with a dazzling third-act twist, it’s a film so inventive, beautifully made and even moving that it could sit happily among Pixar‘s output, and that’s remarkably rare when it comes to Hollywood’s animated fare. As Drew Taylor said in his review, it was “the first great studio film of 2014, one that fills you with childlike wonder and awe, no matter your age.” Somehow, the duo also made a second great comedy in the space of four months: the imminent “22 Jump Street” is terrific too. “The Lego Movie” hits DVD on June 17th.
The second directorial feature from “Eastern Promises” writer Steven Knight after so-so Jason Statham vehicle “Hummingbird,” “Locke” was both more stripped down and more ambitious: a film set entirely within a moving car, shot in real time, with only one actor on screen (the rest of the cast are heard over the phone, but never seen). But when that actor is the great Tom Hardy, you figure you’re in for something special, and “Locke” was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far. Oli’s review from Venice last year said that Knight does a terrific job of making a morality play drama feel like a thriller, with an astonishing turn from Hardy, “giving the performance of his career to date.” Ultimately, it’s a sort of character study, “a complete portrait of a man—one who can be commanding, weak, funny, loving, cold, single-minded, selfless and selfish—and by the end of the drive, you feel like you’ve known Ivan for years.” After 2013 brought impressive one-man shows from Sandra Bullock and Robert Redford, “Locke” is a very worthy successor. Released at the end of April by A24, it’s still in many theaters now, and comes to home video on August 12th.
After “Wendy And Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” you could be mistaken for thinking you could know what to expect from a new film from Kelly Reichardt. What we weren’t expecting is a Hitchcockian and Chabrolian thriller of guilt and suspense about a trio of eco-terrorists plotting to blow up a dam, but it’s a left-turn that Reichardt makes with aplomb. At Venice, Oli found that the film kicks off with “an almost docudrama-like feeling to proceedings,” before a second half that “shifts effortlessly into a portrait of guilt.” As ever with the filmmaker, “the environment is just as much of a character as the people,” but she also takes to the genre elements nicely, with the final set-piece being “the most claustrophobic thing she’s made.” And at the center, as with “The Double,” is another marvelous performance from Jesse Eisenberg, “shorn of his motormouth, his assuredness and his tics, he’s a revelation here,” proving “sinister and vulnerable virtually within the same breath.” Cinedigm just released the film this past weekend.
Between “Girls,” “Broad City” and movies like “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “In A World,” it feels like female-driven comedy is finally getting a foothold among the packed field of Apatow imitators and the like, and the latest to impress in that mold is Gillian Robespierre‘s impressive, warm directorial debut “Obvious Child,” which premiered at Sundance. Consciously acting as a sort of a riposte to unexpected-pregnancy hits like “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” the film sees a struggling stand-up comedian Donna (ex-SNL-er Jenny Slate) dumped by her boyfriend, only to accidentally conceive during a rebound one-night-stand with a random dude (Jake Lacy). Rather than going through with it, a la those earlier examples, she’s committed to an abortion, but that doesn’t mean that love can’t blossom in the meantime. It’s an admirably uncompromising and feminist take on the genre, with a smart and sharp sense of humor, but plenty of pathos too. The cast (also including Gaby Hoffmann and Richard Kind, among others) are superb, but it’s the star-making turn from Slate that really makes the film sing, and we’re sure to see a lot more from her down the road. It’s a little rough around the edges in places, but, as James Rocchi wrote from Park City, “it never feels rushed or slapdash,” and ultimately proves “tough and funny and true and snappy.” Playlist staffers who’ve caught up with the movie since have liked it even more than James did, and this has real crossover potential when A24 release it in theaters this Friday, June 6th.
“Only Lovers Left Alive”
The vampire movie might feel played out for most of us, but if anyone was going to find something new in it, it was Jim Jarmusch, who delivers with “Only Lovers Left Alive” his best, and most purely enjoyable, film in years. As Jess said when she dropped her verdict in Cannes back in 2013, “It’s an offbeat, fun and frequently very funny film, lifted out of disposability by some wonderfully rich production design, music and photography, and by the cherishable performances of the leads.” And she wasn’t alone: the film ended up on our lists of our favorite films from both the New York and London Film Festivals too. The whole cast (which includes Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright) is terrific, but it’s really the showcase for Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, who play the star-crossed bloodsuckers, and the pair “are so good, and so well-matched, that their love story is surprisingly romantic and sexy.” Beautiful to look at and to listen to, this is a definite early-year treat. This hit theaters back in April, but should be still hanging around in the right places.
Easily one of our most anticipated of
the year, we started to worry if we’d ever see “Snowpiercer,” the
English-language debut of Korean master Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,”
“Memories Of Murder,” “Mother“), given the bubbling controversy over the
film and Harvey Weinstein‘s intentions to release a truncated
version. But the film opened in France uncut in October, and U.K.
correspondent Oliver Lyttelton hopped across the Channel to catch it,
and found it more than worth the trip, calling it “the best pure
science-fiction film since ‘Children Of Men.’ ” Building a “remarkably
rich, coherent future world,” melding “tones without them clashing,” and
with smart and complex politics underpinning “an inventive and exciting
action film,” it also features some excellent performances from a cast
including Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John
Hurt and Song Kang-ho, among others. Fortunately, the controversy over the final cut came to naught, as Weinstein finally agreed to release the full version, which hits at the end of the month, on June 29th, with a simultaneous VOD release.
“Under The Skin”
The long-awaited new film from Jonathan Glazer, the director of “Sexy Beast” and “Birth,” his first in nine years, was always going to get an awful lot of attention from us. And while it’s been divisive—it received boos at its Venice premiere from a select few—the majority of Playlist staffers fell for it hard. Telluride correspondent Chris Willman said that lead Scarlett Johansson is “perfectly cast,” and that while the “somber pacing and downer themes” may turn some off, “a cult audience with a penchant for SF morality tales may warm to this.” Oliver Lyttelton went much further in Venice, giving five reasons why it was one of the best movies of the year, including that it’s Glazer “at his most experimental and unfiltered,” that it’s “not quite like anything you’ve seen,” and that “it features some of the most striking images of the year.” If nothing else, it’s going to be worth seeing just for Mica Levi‘s “rhythmic, often drone-like, otherworldly and often terrifying” score, but there’s far more treasure to be found here. Released by A24 at the start of April, it’s still in a handful of theaters, but hits DVD and Blu-ray next month, on July 15th.
Films We’ve Seen At Festivals Awaiting Release
2014 is very much Jack O’Connell‘s year. His leading role in “Starred Up” is coming soon, he’s got his Hollywood breakthrough on the horizon in Angelina Jolie‘s Oscar-touted drama “Unbroken,” and perhaps best of all, he headlined Berlin standout “71,” the directorial debut of British TV helmer Yann Demange (“Topboy“). A taut, smart thriller set during the Northern Irish troubles in 1971, it follows O’Connell’s British soldier, deployed to Belfast only to see his first assignment go horribly south. Separated from his squadmates, he has to survive alone on the streets and make it back to the barracks while evading the IRA men out to kill him. According to Jessica Kiang’s review, his journey takes on “an almost mythic resonance,” the film walking “the line between realism and metaphor so well that the story feels utterly authentic to its claustrophobic setting, and yet broader, more sweeping, more universal too.” O’Connell delivers another “intense and committed performance,” but it’s just as impressive a showcase for Demange, who combines gritty docudrama camerawork, razor-sharp editing and a curious kind of impressionism, brilliantly executing a very strong script from Gregory Burke that doesn’t “skirt its issues… instead it explodes them to reveal a deeper, wider truth.” The film has been picked up by Roadside Attractions, and though they might hold it until after “Unbroken” lands, we hope they unleash it on the U.S. as soon as possible.
A candidate for the longest duration between the start of a production and its eventual completion in the history of cinema (the film shot a few weeks every year for the last 12 years), the arrival of Richard Linklater‘s intimate epic “Boyhood” proved to be very much worth the wait. Tracking young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to college, the near-three-hour picture “feels much less like a greatest hits package and more analogous to being in the moment,” according to Rodrigo Perez’s review, proving to be “warm, soulful, funny and quietly insightful,” and something of a crowning achievement for the filmmaker, feeling “disarmingly light on its feet, sweet, funny and playful in the early years not unlike the director’s movies about kids, but as they mature, so does the movie.” Rod’s take wasn’t as unqualified a rave as those who called it the director’s masterpiece, admitting it sags “a little bit in the unremarkable years,” but the “cumulative result of ‘Boyhood’ is rather touching and stunning,” and it proves to be “a remarkable accomplishment that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.” Other Playlisters have found the film even more impressive, and it’s more than likely you will too when the film arrives in theaters in just a few weeks, on July 11th.
Bennett Miller might, until a couple of weeks ago, have been the least well-known filmmaker ever to have had his first two movies turn out as hugely acclaimed Best Picture nominees. Both “Capote” and “Moneyball” were praised to the skies, but in both cases, it felt like others involved with the project overshadowed the director. But now that he’s won Best Director at Cannes, there’s little chance of Miller’s contribution ever being undervalued again, especially as “Foxcatcher” is the best of his three outstanding pictures to date (review here). On the one hand, it’s almost a modest little story, a (mostly) platonic love triangle between Channing Tatum‘s Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, his older, more successful and happier brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and eerie millionaire heir John du Pont (an unrecognizable Steve Carell). And it’s furiously, scintillatingly acted by all three: Carell’s performance has been the headliner, and it’s an amazing turn, but Tatum and Ruffalo are subtly just as astonishingly transformed, entirely lived-in and fully realized. But this isn’t just a three-hander. The script takes the story of these three people and turns it into something massive, looking at America, the privilege bought by immense, unearned wealth, the emotional toll of failure, and brotherhood, both literal and figurative. It’s an incredibly rich, complex work, and Miller directs the hell out of it. His technique isn’t showy, but it is meticulously judged and technically perfect (one scene, as du Pont gives a speech to his wrestling team in front of his mother, should be taught in film schools). We tried to resist hyperbole coming out of the film, but a week or so on, “Foxcatcher” feels more and more like it could be the best American movie of the last few years. Expect it to do the fall festival circuit before Sony Pictures Classics release it on November 14th.
Going into Sundance, “Frank” certainly looked like one of the most curious propositions of the festival, if not the year, promising a film where Michael Fassbender spends the whole thing encased in a paper mache head. But as it turned out, it was also arguably the best movie of the festival, proving to be a favorite of several staff members either in Park City or in other places in the world (the film’s already hit theaters in the U.K. and elsewhere). Based very, very loosely on writer Jon Ronson‘s (“The Men Who Stared At Goats“) experiences with Mancunian musician/comedian Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, and directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, the film is, according to Rod’s A grade review, “an off-the-wall and terrific paean to the misfits and freaks of the world, their dreams, visions and togetherness.” One of the more convincing movies about being in a band, “like a mutated ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ ” and accompanied with “so many laugh-out-loud little flavors and shades,” it’s “unlike anything you’ve seen in recent memory.” Featuring tremendous performances from the whole cast which, aside from Fassbender, also includes Domhnall Gleeson, Scoot McNairy and a “scene-stealing” Maggie Gyllenhaal, “it certainly won’t be for everyone, but this terrific and sublime experience, and strikingly original film, is mandatory watching for the adventurous viewer.” It’s heading next to the Los Angeles Film Festival in a few weeks before Magnolia release it on August 22nd.
Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a new Russian masterpiece in town, and its name is “Leviathan.” From the very beginning of Andrei Zvyagintsev‘s latest, all crashing waves and colossal sounds of Philip Glass, we were hooked, and the film was the rare one that united all of our Cannes correspondents this year. For a parable on suffering, its thematic issue of divine justice from the Book Of Job, and deep symbolism through its titular sea-monster, “Leviathan” is much funnier than it sounds thanks to characters diving into biblical amounts of vodka and a razor sharp wit aimed at the fallacy of authority. This humor balances out the bleakness and incredibly heart-felt storyline very effectively, and makes this Zyvagintsev’s most entertaining film to date. The plot follows a down-on-his-luck mechanic, Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), as he struggles to preserve everything that’s dear to him; his home, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenko), while going up against the town’s corrupt mayor, the terrifically Charles Laughton-esque Vadim (Roman Madyanov). The film is an artistic behemoth, from the incredible performances that breath life into each character, to the fastidious mise-en-scene that make surroundings feel like second-homes in record time, to the balletic camera movements that are such an integral part of the film’s feeling of intimacy. Like us, Sony Pictures Classics were probably hoping that the film would pick up the Palme d’Or at the festival, but nevertheless, we’re delighted they’ll be releasing the film in the U.S.
“Listen Up Philip”
His last film, “The Color Wheel,” became a serious favorite in the critical community, but after “Listen Up Philip,” the cult of director Alex Ross Perry is likely to grow much, much further. In part, it’s that he has some bigger names involved with Jason Schwartzman taking the lead role, and Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Dree Hemingway, Jess Weixler and Kate Lyn Sheil among the supporting cast. But more than anything, according to Rodrigo Perez’s review from Park City, it’s that the film sees the flourishing of a new voice with its “deeply misanthropic portrait of narcissism” that’s drawing comparisons to Noah Baumbach‘s earlier work. “A hilariously acidic look at the New York literary world and the complex and fragile egos within,” it gives Schwartzman “his best role since ‘Rushmore‘ ” as a self-absorbed on-the-rise author whose relationship is deteriorating and who falls under the spell of his idol, though Moss and Pryce are equally good, the latter in particular delivering a performance that might be his career best. Perry evokes “a pricklier Woody Allen, a less fastidious Wes Anderson” and even John Cassavetes, but carving out its own groove as well, the film’s also beautifully shot by Sean Price Williams, and scored by Keegan DeWitt. Curiously, no distributor has been announced yet, but the director told us on Twitter yesterday that news should arrive very soon.
“Love Is Strange”
Nine years after winning the Grand Jury Prize with “Forty Shades Of Blue,” filmmaker Ira Sachs was back at Sundance with his latest, “Love Is Strange.” Like his last film, the excellent “Keep The Lights On” (which was at the festival two years back), it’s a low-key love story between two men, but while that dealt with twenty/thirtysomethings, “Love Is Strange” follows a couple, played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, who’ve been together for nearly forty years, and who are about to finally tie the knot. Fortunately, the film is just as humane and lovely as its predecessor, according to James Rocchi’s review. “If ‘Love Is Strange’ were nothing more than a showcase for its performances, it would still be superlative,” he wrote, calling the central duo “perfect… with all of the feeling and fights and closeness that a real couple would have.” But Sachs isn’t just telling a love story, with the movie also addressing “New York economics, subsidized housing, prejudice’s more socially acceptable forms and how the rent is, in the words of the sage prophets, too damn high.” But it’s the central relationship that most are responding to: as James’ review concludes, “I doubt I’ll see a more finely performed and beautifully crafted love story, with or without any mere modifiers, up on the big screen this year.”
Xavier Dolan‘s Venice film “Tom at the Farm” had been our favorite of his before we went to watch his Cannes Competition entry “Mommy” (our rave review here). And so the news that he’d gone back to themes and indeed cast members from before that film (Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement both appeared in “Laurence Anyways” and “I Killed My Mother“) had us wondering whether he was moving forward or backward. But “Mommy” was a wonderful surprise—a synthesis of the aesthetic confidence and curiosity of ‘Tom’ (right down to aspect ratio experimentation within the film) with a soapish, almost Almodovar-esque story of mothers and sons and female friendship and the beauty that the messiness of life sometimes hides. And it also has quite the most remarkable soundtrack of any Cannes entry in that it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever listen to this one on its own: Dido, Counting Crows, Celine Dion, Oasis and Eiffel 65 tracks are used in a baldfaced attempt to be deliberately unhip. Add to that the stellar performances, from Dorval, Clement and Antoine Olivier Pilon, the stunning, largely square-format photography and a real compassion and wisdom even in its soapiest moments, and you have a pure, joyous thrill of a film. There’s a moment in which Steve (Pilon) cycling on his bike with the blue sky behind him stretches his arms out, literally pushing back the sides of frame so that the 1:1 aspect ratio becomes widescreen. It brought a spontaneous round of applause from the audience, and a burst of giddy pure-joy laughter that you rarely hear from a few thousand gathered journalists, but that ludicrously uplifting moment did for the film what the film did for us at the festival—it opened wide the shutters and let in more life than we’d imagined possible to that point. Dolan’s films sometimes take a while to reach the U.S., but given the raves at Cannes, we can’t imagine that’ll be the case here, even if it’s currently without a distributor.
Going into Cannes, we’d heard murmurs that “Mr. Turner” was something of a disappointment from Mike Leigh, and it wasn’t too difficult to believe. After all, it was slightly new territory for Leigh and a biopic of controversial painter J.M.W. Turner didn’t exactly sound like the frolicking good times we had with “Topsy-Turvy,” its closest cousin from Leigh’s filmography. So you can imagine how happy we were to have any tenuous reservations quickly dismissed by one of Leigh’s greatest achievements (read our review). With Timothy Spall at his most boisterous and thunderously introverted, and resplendent photography evoking Turner’s genius and bridging the artistic gaps of cinema and painting, along with Mike Leigh’s signature style of organic writing and seamless directing, it was a fairly major highlight of the festival. As ever, “Mr. Turner” balances out a refreshing sense of humor (here, mostly in the form of the bellowing Spall and his many variations on the grunt) with an affecting story of a deeply troubled soul; a man whose relationship with his father, his colleagues, and his different kinds of families all suffered due to his inability to fully express himself. This caged feeling was only truly liberated when he was painting his shipwrecks and tumultuous seas, and with Leigh’s craftsmanship this liberation is magically captured and contained throughout its running time. Spall deservedly picked up Best Actor at the festival, and that might well not be the last time the film picks up awards heat, especially with Sony Pictures Classics giving it a prime December 19th date.
Remember what we said about Jack O’Connell having a big year? It all started with “Starred Up,” an
electric prison drama from director David Mackenzie, co-starring Ben
Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend. Oliver caught the movie at the London Film
Festival back in October, and says that it “nods to Alan Clarke‘s ‘Scum‘
and Jacques Audiard‘s ‘A Prophet’… but it’s not in thrall to its
influences either, Mackenzie finding a muscular-yet-tender tone all of
his own.” The cast are all excellent, performing an authentic, lyrical
script from former prison psychologist Jonathan Asser, but it’s
O’Connell who’s the true standout, delivering a “stunning, incendiary
performance.” Jess then reviewed the film in full in Goteborg, and loved it just as much, comparing it to Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” and said that it’s “as fine an exemplar of its genre as we’ve ever seen.” The film has already opened in the U.K. and elsewhere, but Tribeca Films will start rolling it out in the U.S. from August 29th.
A late-breaking highlight from Cannes this year, and the winner of the top prize in the Critics’ Week sidebar, “The Tribe,” as Jessica Kiang pointed out in her review, looks something close to a parody of austere arthouse fare on paper, being an un-subtitled Ukranian sign-language drama. But the film turns out to “utterly defy mockery with the seriousness of its subject matter and the intelligence of its execution.” The film follows a new boy in a school for the deaf, where the students, under little supervision from the adults, have essentially formed their own brutal society. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s film is undoubtedly a difficult watch, featuring an abortion, some graphic scenes of sex and bloody violence, and the eerie quietness in which it’s all carried out is less a comment on deafness than a clever way of making us examine the idea of a closed system which, “Lord of the Flies“-like, refers only to itself. And so it’s difficult not to read it on a political level too, a statement on the corruption and power abuses endemic in those closed systems, even as protests against the Ukrainian government’s anti-EU isolationism continue to cost lives. Socially shocking (its portrayal of poverty and marginalization is grueling), politically provocative, dramatically gripping, and shot with a steady, unflinching eye for composition and light and shadow, it suggests that Slaboshpytskiy is a major find for world cinema. The film’s in talks for a U.S. distribution deal, so hopefully this’ll get a wider audience very shortly.
“Tu Dors Nicole”
One of the secret gems of the Cannes Film Festival, where it proved a highlight even among the very strong Directors’ Fortnight line-up, was French-Canadian comedy “Tu Dors Nicole,” from writer-director Stephane LaFleur (best-known as the editor of the Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar“). Following the titular insomniac (a delightful performance from Julianne Cote) as she looks after her parents house over one long, hot summer, forced to share it with her brother (Marc-Andre Gronin) and his bandmates, it drew immediate comparisons with “Frances Ha” and “Ghost World” (as well, to some extent, as Aki Kaurismaki). But Lafleur’s comic voice is quite distinct, given to surreal flights of fancy, a slightly discombobulating rhythm, and a general playfulness and visual inventiveness. He’s constantly playing with expectations (one scene sees the titular heroine, during another sleepless night, confused by a car driving around in circles and emitting strange noises, only for her to discover that the driver is a father trying to lull his child to sleep with whale noises), and though the tone is featherlight in the best way, it underlies things with a sense of melancholy and truthfulness that gives it a real impact. The performances from a mostly unknown cast are sensational, and it’s the rare comedy that feels truly cinematic. There’s no U.S. distributor yet, but look for this to crop up at TIFF and NYFF, and if no one’s snapped it up by then, we’ll put the damn thing out ourselves.
“Two Days, One Night”
Like clockwork, every three years brings a new Dardennes film at the Cannes festival, but this year was a little different, because “Two Days One Night” saw the Belgian directors working with a major movie star for the first time, in the shape of the great Marion Cotillard. And the general feeling from our Croisette contingent was that as excellent as Julianne Moore is in “Maps To The Stars,” Cotillard was robbed of Best Actress at the festival, giving a completely immersed and transparent performance. And the film itself is as great as you might imagine: a gripping, deeply moving examination of one person caught up in an unfair system and trying to quell demons exterior and interior to fix it, which works equally well as a humanist portrait, as social commentary and even as political allegory. The realism that the Dardennes are so known for may take a knock as a result, but when the film does so much else so well, it feels churlish to compare it to some of their other work, which may have stuck more strictly to the rhythms of real life, but that didn’t have quite this ambitious and broad a remit. It feels like fiction, it’s true, but it’s great fiction, resonant and intelligent and actually quite thrilling, with an ending so perfectly satisfying that our niggles about narrative wobbles in the preceding minutes were instantly forgotten. As Jessica Kiang said in her review, “it’s a deeply lovable film, satisfying, nourishing and accessible, and we were completely immersed in its plain-spoken yet impossibly resonant rhythms.” It should reach the Dardennes’ biggest audience yet when Sundance Selects release it later in the year.
Unusually, one of the biggest Sundance talking points this year arrived on opening night, and remained a buzzy movie all the way through the festival (where it took the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award), and even at Cannes, where it blew the roof off Directors’ Fortnight. And rightly so, because “Whiplash” is the real deal, not least according to James Rocchi’s review. While Damien Chazelle‘s film (based on a short of the same name), pits aspiring drummer Miles Teller against near-psychotic teacher J.K. Simmons, might sound familiar on the surface, it manages “a deeply and richly different take on that journey—not only examining the cost of struggle but the reward of it.” Teller continues to prove that “he’s the best young male actor in America,” while Simmons has “rarely been given the chance to go off the leash and run flat-out like he has here.” Chazelle makes something “more notable for its lack of compromise than any aspect of technique or craft,” and shoots “the performance scenes in a way where our expectations are both met and subverted.” One of our Cannes correspondents might have loved even more than James, and this should remain in the conversation for the rest of the year with Sony Pictures Classics releasing it in time for awards season on October 10th.
Israeli dark comedy “Zero Motivation” won the top Narrative Prize at Tribeca this year, and it felt like this was the rare prize winner that won almost unanimous support from attendees: the film attracted raves from pretty much everyone that saw it, and marks first-time filmmaker Talya Lavie as an exciting new comedic voice in cinema. Compared by many to “M.A.S.H,” and based on Lavie’s own experiences performing mandatory service in the IDF, it has a tripartite structure, and focuses on three women, Zohar (stand-out Dana Ivgy), Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Rama (Shani Klein), who are stuck in a remote desert posting with basically nothing to do. According to our Tribeca review from Rodrigo Perez, the film “is vignette-driven, but also classicist in structure,” with an effectiveness at “mining the comedy in dreariness” that’s as reminiscent of “Office Space” as it is of Altman. With a group of characters who are “extremely distinct, exceptionally convincing and well-drawn,” and Lavie displaying “a strong singular voice, a well-defined point of view… and an unusual clarity” for a first-time filmmaker, the film has the flaws often present in a debut, but makes up for it with the freshness of the new voice on display here. Zeitgeist Films have picked up “Zero Motivation” for U.S. release.
Honorable Mentions: So what else? Well, as we said, this was a fairly heartbreaking list to compile and some exclusions broke our hearts even more than others. Celine Sciamma‘s wonderful “Girlhood,” Jennifer Kent‘s terrific “The Babadook,” Eskil Vogt‘s shimmering “Blind,” John Michael McDonagh‘s flawed but interesting “Calvary,” Amma Assante‘s fresh take on the period drama “Belle,” Riley Stearns‘ “Faults“ starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Noah Buschel‘s “Glass Chin,” Angus MacLachlan‘s Tribeca hit “Goodbye To All That,“ the Zellner Brothers’ oddball, offbeat “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter“ and LGBT doc “Mala Mala“ all made it onto an earlier incarnation of this list, so that should give you an idea of the kind of backstage horse trading that goes on…
From the 2013 festival circuit, there was also Lukas Moodysson‘s hugely enjoyable return to form “We Are The Best!,” fascinating Dutch dark comedy “Borgman,” David Gordon Green‘s “Joe,” Drake Doremus‘ undervalued “Breathe In,” top documentaries “Jodorowsky’s Dune“ and “Mistaken For Strangers,” Miyazaki‘s swan song “The Wind Rises,” Ben Wheatley‘s trippy “A Field In England,” rousing Chilean drama “Gloria,“ the explicit and beautifully made “Stranger By The Lake,” and lovely Laos-set indie “The Rocket.”
As for 2014 premieres, we also enjoyed Singaporean Cannes prize-winner “Ilo Ilo” and legitimately hilarious and unusually well-made studio comedies “Neighbors” and “22 Jump Street,” while “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Raid 2,” “The Lunchbox,” “Big Bad Wolves,” “Like Father Like Son,” “Le Week-End,” “Godzilla” and “Nymphomaniac” all had supporters on staff.
Sundance also brought a number of other strong pictures, including Marjane Satrapi‘s surprisingly strong “The Voices,” Brady Corbet-starring “The Sleepwalker,” Mike Cahill‘s sci-fi “I Origins,” smart relationship comedy “The One I Love,” stripped-down genre picture “Cold In July,” true-crime doc “Whitey,” Roger Ebert tribute “Life Itself“ and many others. At Berlin, “Macondo“ and “In Order Of Disappearance“ also proved highlights, while “The Infinite Man,” “Harmontown,” “Creep,” “Wild Canaries,” “The Heart Machine,” “Honeymoon” and ‘Fort Tilden” picked up good notices at SXSW.
At Tribeca, Playlist correspondents enjoyed the likes of “Five Star,” “I Believe In Unicorns,” “The Kidnapping Of Michael Houllebecq,” “Champs,” “Young Bodies Heal Quickly,” “Dior And I,“ “Boulevard,” “1971,” “Gabriel,” “Loitering With Intent“ and “Alex Of Venice,” while at Cannes, “Princess Kaguya,” “The Rover,” “Pride,” “National Gallery,” “It Follows,” “Maidan,” “Wild Tales,” “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby,” “Maps To The Stars,” “A Hard Day,“ “Breathe,“ “Timbuktu,” “Misunderstood“ and “Force Majeure“ all proved worth checking out to various extents. Keep an eye out for them, and many more, as we move into the second half of the year.