As of today, we are halfway through 2014. Most of your "prestige" movies aren't out yet—only a third of our top 10s last year were from the first half of 2013 —but that doesn't mean this year's first six months didn't have its delights. Surprisingly, many of the standouts were bigger-budgeted studio movies; to make sure they aren't forgotten come year-end-list time, Grierson & Leitch today present our favorite movies of the first half of 2014. Here's our top 12, six from each of us.
The Grand Budapest Hotel. At 2014's halfway point, Ralph Fiennes remains ahead of the pack on my Best Actor ballot. He's done comedy before (In Bruges), but his portrayal of the dandyish, principled, pompous Gustave H is really remarkable—as intricate, stylish, and delightful as the film that contains it. Funny and genuinely thrilling as the film may be, it's also incredibly moving, revisiting Wes Anderson's great theme: the impossibility of holding onto the past.
The Lego Movie. I can't remember the last blockbuster this distinctive and personal, as opposed to feeling designed by a huge conglomerate to offend no one and make as much money as possible. Among its other pleasures, The Lego Movie gloriously recaptures the feeling of being a kid and making up adventures on the fly, giddy about the limitless possibilities of storytelling. And its ending contains one of those rare third-act twists that actually enhances everything that came before.
Manakamana. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's documentary couldn't have a simpler premise. Consisting of 11 unbroken shots of different individuals riding on a cable car in the Nepalese mountains, Manakamana gives us the rare chance to people-watch in a movie theater, observing folks when their guard is lowered and they're just being themselves. Most would classify this movie as "experimental," but that might not suggest just how funny and strangely life-affirming it is.
Night Moves. The first half is a chilly thriller about three budding eco-terrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) planning a night strike on an Oregon dam. The second half is a tense character study once everything goes to hell. The latest distinctive drama from filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is less Crime and Punishment than it is a subtle story about shifting power dynamics among a group of coconspirators. Great performances, terrific score, killer final shot.
Under the Skin. Both filmmaker Jonathan Glazer and actress Scarlett Johansson do some of their best work yet in a story about an alluring alien driving around Scotland picking up (and feasting on) hapless pedestrians. It's a horror film with a lot of soul and a sci-fi flick that's deeply concerned with the elemental components of being alive: compassion, intelligence, a yearning for connection. So creepy, so beautiful.
The Unknown Known. This fascinating/maddening portrait of Donald Rumsfeld by Fog of War director Errol Morris proves that 1) the former Secretary of Defense still thinks he's the smartest man in the room; and 2) his smug, reptilian swagger remains strangely hypnotic, even charming in its way. With the U.S. possibly planning a return visit to Iraq, this documentary no longer feels like a postmortem on recent history—more like a nightmare we're still living.
Blue Ruin. Revenge cinema is always polarizing—it always drives poor David Edelstein batty—but I'm a sucker for it: It's a unique cinematic gift to be able to tsk-tsk vigilant renegades and get off on the violence and rage of their quests as well. Which is why Blue Ruin works so perfectly. A homeless man (Mason Blair) whose life has been a disaster since his parents were murdered as a child discovers that the man who killed them is being released from jail early; his decision to take action sends his life, and everyone else's, in shocking new directions. The film is taut but wry; it never winks, but it's not oppressively self-serious either. It's a smart, bloody thriller that keeps springing weird new directions on you. One man's revenge is another man's instigating incident.
Joe. Known mostly as Nicolas Cage's Comeback Movie—even though no one saw it—this should probably be known more as the return of David Gordon Green, the filmmaker whose All The Real Girls, George Washington, and Undertow earned him Malick comparisons before his 30th birthday (Roger Ebert called him "the next great American filmmaker"), but who took a strange turn in his thirties, moving to comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. One of those movies is good, but it was clear Green had lost his way. (Ebert's review of Your Highness is like a disappointed dad exasperated with a wayward son.)
But he gets it back with Joe, a sad coming-of-age tale about a troubled boy (Tye Sheridan) and his damaged, violent adopted father figure (Cage), and how they try to save each other. The key here is Green actually combines the best of his old career and his new one: Joe is elegiac and wistful, but it also is loose enough to let Cage run a little free, in a performance that's both restrained and full of his typical over-the-top lunacy. It's as good as Cage has been in a decade—since .. jeez, Adaptation?-and it's a wonderful sign that our David Gordon Green might have returned.
The Raid 2. The first Raid movie from Gareth Evans was supreme video-game filmmaking: Crown a hero and give him increasingly difficult obstacles to overcome, preferably in some sort of linear, achievement-based narrative. It was entertaining, but a bit slight. With the sequel, though, he broadens the scope, turning a simple (if ingenious) action movie into something resembling a crime epic. (I'm with Grierson—it's got a real Dark Knight vibe.) The story doesn't cut that deep, and there aren't the universal themes of Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, but the emotional through-line is clear and straightforward; you get where everyone's coming from. Thus, this time, the action scenes spring organically from the narrative, which makes them richer and more urgent. Also: They're even more intricate and amazing than they were in the first film, including what very well might be the best car-chase scene I've ever seen.
Snowpiercer. The best summer-movie entertainment—in a summer that's had a few good ones, actually—is the one you don't have much of a chance to see. Civilization has reached a new, man-made ice age, and the only people still alive live in a supertrain speeding around the world. The lower-class, bug-eating folks in the back, led by Chris Evans (better here than he has ever been) decide to fight back. It's a typically wild sci-fi winder from director Bong Joon-Ho, but it's also full of lovely, breathtaking imagery. Each car of the train is its own surreal world, from an aquarium to a schoolhouse to a dance club to some sort of sauna. The movie never stops moving, and its conclusion is one of the most bittersweet—yet still somehow victorious—endings of any big-budget action movie I can remember. Harvey Weinstein ruined its release here, but see it while you can. This is what they're suppose to look like.
Under the Skin. An alien comes to earth, disguised as Scarlett Johansson, and begins to off various young Scottish men in the name of some sort of interplanetary research. But then one, a young man with neurofibromatosis, falls under her spell, and she takes pity on him, and suddenly, the human race feels like it might be worth saving. That's, of course, right when it turns on her. Under the Skin is moody and strange and mysterious, but ultimately, it's about the human race, about what a dispassionate observer might think of us, if she were seeing us for the first time. We see us through her eyes, for all our faults, all our weaknesses, all our empathy, all our terror. This can be a tough sit—it's more affecting in a theater, where it can cast its spell more easily-but it's incredibly ambitious and uncompromising. And it features a Johansson performance (much of which was improvised with non-actors who didn't initially know they were being filmed) that is as moving as it is fearless.
The Unknown Known. There seemed to be some frustration with Errol Morris for not "nailing" Donald Rumsfeld in this feature-length interview (inspired, clearly, by Morris' 2003 film The Fog of War with a far more self-flagellating Robert McNamara). There has been a trend in recent documentaries to be more interested in scoring political points or preaching to the choir than painting a portrait of a man, or a concept, or a complicated situation in which human beings will inevitably make mistakes. (This was the problem with The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz: The movie is too busy deifying him and ripping apart prosecutors to give us a full picture of all the circumstances involved, and thus make his story even more tragic.)
Thankfully, Morris didn't just throw his hands up and quit once it became clear that Rumsfeld was never, ever going to give in. In fact, it makes his film richer and darker, a meditation on truth and language and denial that tells us more about Rumsfeld and the mindset behind his decisions than Rumsfeld could have imagined. We want him to be this fang-bearing villain, but it's not that easy: If it were that easy, he would have never grabbed the power he had. The Unknown Known is about that banality of evil: About how human beings make horrific mistakes sometimes without ever understanding why... and without ever once thinking they did.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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