Seven months into the year, and there's already been a number of films well-worth watching. Our cinephile Wael Khairy runs us through the best of them...
This is my first stab at a mid-year list of best films. Usually the great films of any given year come out during awards season, between September and December, but so far it’s been a promising year for movies. Whether or not any of the listed films survive to make it to my end-of-the-year list remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, I’m quite surprised by the number of quality films that came out within the first six months of 2014. The list is compromised of great animated films, summer blockbusters, foreign films, and art-house flicks. Ranking them is pretty much pointless, because there is no universal criteria one can use to rank films of different genres. How can I compare an almost perfect blockbuster to a flawed cinematic art film? The latter may be the better film from an artistic standpoint, but the former may have succeeded in reaching its genre goals more efficiently; get the drift? I hate ranking films, almost as much as I hate using the star-system in reviews. For that very reason, I will only list the films I enjoyed without ranking them.
Short Term 12
Brie Larson delivers the breakthrough performance of the year as a counselor going the extra mile to be there for troubled kids at a foster-care facility. This is one of the best independent films to come out of the US in a long time. A brilliantly written triumph of both drama and comedy, Short Term 12 will have you wiping tears off your face one second and laughing out loud the next.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, is, simply put, breathtaking. Every single black-and-white frame in its short 80-minute runtime is worthy of being framed against a wall. Ida tells the story of an orphan brought up by nuns. Before taking her vows, she visits her aunt, Wanda, only to discover a dark family secret that dates back to the Nazi occupation. This is a film about self-discovery, discovering who you are, and where you belong in this world. A nun takes off her gown, lights up a cigarette and drinks some wine. Ida is about soul searching.
A Simple Life
Technically, this isn’t a 2014 film, but in my defense, it did get a first-run theatrical release in some countries, so I’ll go ahead and cheat by sneaking it into my list. Ann Hui’s A Simple Life is one of the most heartwarming films I have ever seen. It follows a caretaker into an old people’s home, where she is regularly visited by her previous employer, played by China’s biggest action star, Andy Lau. The film bares resemblance to Intouchables, yet focuses more on the human relationship. It starts with a maid taking care of her employer. When the roles are reversed, a beautiful friendship is formed. Deannie Yip delivers the strongest female performance in years. A Simple Life is a simple film about goodness and human kindness.
This is Nicolas Cage back in proper form. Cage delivers his best performance since his dual performances in Adaptation. He plays a hard as nails ex-con forming a father like bond with rising child star Tye Sheridan. The film is bound to draw comparisons to last year’s Mud. In fact, both films would make a perfect double-bill, and while I thoroughly enjoyed both, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be Joe. If there’s any justice in this world, Gary Poulter will receive a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his stone-cold performance of an abusive father who pimps out his own daughter. Poulter is not an actor, but a homeless man who got lucky when he was cast in this role. He was found dead in the streets a mere two months after filming ended.
Like Father, Like Son
Imagine finding out the son you raised as your own wasn’t really yours. After a nurse confesses to switching two babies after birth, two families are faced with the most difficult choice of their lives. Do you choose to raise you biological son, or do you stick with the child you raised as your own for six years? But the choice is even more complicated; one family is rich, the other is underprivileged. Do you let go of the son you’ve loved for so many years knowing he’ll live a less privileged life? Or do you choose your own blood and abandon the kid you know by heart? Like Father, Like Son is a real head-scratcher.
Edge of Tomorrow
Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) directs the surprise hit of the year. I would never in a million years have imagined that this Tom Cruise vehicle would end up being my favorite summer blockbuster of the year. The trailers made it seem like a sci-fi action flick with a Groundhog Day twist to the plot. While it is that, it’s also one of the funniest most thrilling films of the year. Smart, humorous and action packed, Edge of Tomorrow is the only blockbuster on this list that I have watched twice on the big screen. Tom Cruise delivers great comedic chops as a soldier who finds himself in a time loop, fighting the same battle over and over again. This is sci-fi at its most entertaining.
Calvary marks John Michael McDonagh’s second collaboration with Brendan Gleeson following the awkwardly funny, The Guard. For those of you who don’t know, John Michael McDonagh is Martin McDonagh’s brother; he directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Both brothers have proven to be some of the most promising writers of their generation. All their films are instantly quotable with hilarious dialogues covering though-provoking themes. Gleeson plays a good-natured priest who is faced with a death threat in the film’s captivating opening confession scene. The priest didn’t do anything wrong, and the man in the confession booth knows it. But the mysterious man who admits to being orally and anally raped by a priest during childhood thinks killing a good priest over a bad one will have a bigger impact. He gives our protagonist a week to make his peace with God and those around him.
The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie is the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year. Packed with cultural references and nods to various films, genres and celebrities, it also works as a satirical worldview allegory disguised as a children’s film. But what makes this one of the best-animated films of the year is the fact that it captures the practical magic and universal love for the manufactured line of construction toys. Much like Lego itself, the film is meant to be enjoyed by adults and kids alike.
Under the Skin
Country: United Kingdom
Under the Skin is the year’s most visually memorable film, and that’s saying something, considering the fact that it’s the year Wes Anderson came out with arguably the best art-directed film of his career. Film has been around for over a century now, and if you’ve studied film history and viewed significant films from various eras, you’ll realise that most of today’s new releases are not that original. You can’t blame the art form, though. With over a hundred years of cinema, filmmakers recycle, remake, and try to improve upon originals with lesser sequels, etc.
Rarely do I stumble upon a film that shows me something new, something I’ve never seen before. Under the Skin is one of those rare films. The music, sound effects, cinematography and art-direction is so fresh and different; it almost feels alien, much like its protagonist, an extraterrestrial being played by Scarlett Johansson. She terrorising the streets of Scotland seducing pedestrians, much like the visuals seduces the viewer. I’m not sure, if I’ll ever watch this film again, but I do know that I will never forget it. Some of the images and scenes will always stay with me, a testament to the vivid supremacy of its picturesque visuals.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
In the future, high-tech robots take part in a genocide to terminate a race of humans. The leaders of that decaying race send back one man to alter the past, and stop the future from ever happening. How? By uniting with familiar faces in a mission to stop the high-tech robots from getting manufactured in the first place. No, I did not just write the exact plot of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but that of the new X-Men film.
It comes as no surprise that James Cameron served as an advisor to this film. In all fairness, the comic book this X-Men installment was based on could have predated the Terminator films. Nevertheless, I’ve seen it all before, and I was blown away the first time and I loved it the second time. X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best superhero movie of the year, the most entertaining X-Men film to date, and arguably the best Marvel film yet. The film ties up all the other entries in a creative manner and introduces the world to an awesome new mutant who goes by the name of Quicksilver. It made me want to watch all the other X-Men films again, just to grasp all the nods and references X-Men: Days of Future Past packs. It also made me want to re-watch the far superior, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, so the overall effect was fairly positive, I must say.
Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal independent film is a powerful tribute to the revenge flicks of the 70s. His film follows a loner who seeks out to kill a man who just got released from prison. To reveal anything more would ruin the viewing experience for you. Much like Drive, it is a quiet film with sudden loud bursts of extreme violence. You get the sense that trouble always lurks around the corner as things quickly spiral out of control leading to a shocking family feud showdown. Blue Ruin is an almost dialogue free film that oozes with natural realism and sheer brutality.
The Wind Rises
Before The Wind Rises official release date, Hayao Miyazaki aka Walt Disney of Japan, announced that this would be his final film. Naturally, my expectations were very high. I can’t say there’s a single film of his that I didn’t enjoy. His swan song exceeded all my expectations. The Wind Rises is his most adult film yet. This biopic follows the life of World War II fighter plane designer, Jiro Horikoshi.
The animation is some of the director’s best yet. The beautifully drawn landscapes are harmonious, a visual feast to the eye. It incorporates a recurring Miyazaki theme, his fascination with flying. But this is all to be expected from the master filmmaker. What threw me off guard is the touching love story that unravels in the second half of the picture. The Wind Rises is the most heartbreaking animated film since Disney’s The Lion King, or even Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
Country: United Kingdom
After seeing Locke at the Sundance Film Festival, Steven Spielberg called Tom Hardy and asked him one question: “How did you do that?” Tom Hardy is arguably his generation’s best actor. His powerhouse performance here is a revelation, but the true star of this film is writer director Steven Knight. He’s the one I would’ve called with that question, for he basically kept me on the edge of my seat through a series of masterfully written phone calls. Knight literally painted my imagination with his written words. There are three plot lines happening simultaneously in Locke, yet the camera never leaves the confines of a car. We see Locke driving for an hour and a half, and through various phone calls we get driven into his world. Locke is a case study of masterful acting and fascinating writing. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The general consensus is that this is Wes Anderson’s best film to date. I must admit I’m not as over the moon about Wes Anderson’s latest film as everyone else seems to be. In fact, I would rate at least three other Anderson films higher than this one. But the fact remains; The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the best films of the year so far. The art-direction is a sight to behold; this could be Anderson’s most well photographed film yet. All the key elements of a classic Wes Anderson film come into play, the quirky characters, the endless symmetrical shots, and the offbeat cameos by the regulars. If you’re a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, you’ve probably already seen this, multiple times. If you’re not, I must warn you, it’s Anderson delivering more of the same, but heck, with Anderson – the same is better than most of what’s out there.
Honourable Mentions: Only Lovers Left Alive, Breathe In, Godzilla, The Raid 2: Berandal, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Double, Enemy, Snowpiercer
Special Mention: Life Itself