The best films of 2014 (so far): A halftime report in superlatives

The best films of 2014 (so far): A halftime report in superlatives

Hollywood rebooted Godzilla. Tom Cruise rebooted his charisma. Scarlett Johansson played double duty on a Friday in April. And Richard Linklater filmed some kid for a dozen years. (That last one isn’t as creepy as it sounds.) Just six months into 2014, and a lot has happened in the world of cinema. In the interest of trimming a few titles from your (and our own) inevitable December catch-up list, The A.V. Club is here to throw a spotlight on the finest films that have hit American theaters since January (including a few the staff disagree on). And because a ranked list is so end-of-the-year, we’ve highlighted our favorites through unranked superlatives instead. Those looking for a more comprehensive reference guide can scroll to the bottom of this article, where we’ve linked to every movie that got a B+ or higher on the site since the start of 2014. Did we miss anything essential? Sound off in the comments section underneath.

Best expression of Jurassic Park fandom: Godzilla
Gareth Edwards was in his first years of film school when Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park hit theaters, and it seems to have left a hell of an impression on the young student. Godzilla, Edwards’ canny Hollywood debut, may be a 3-D special-effects extravaganza, but its best moments are structured around delayed reveals and implication, whether it’s a pen rolling across a desk, tensile wires flopping around in the dark, or just characters staring at disbelief at something off-camera. The film plays like a feature-length tribute to Jurassic Park’s first T. rex sequence, with a little bit of Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds (floating bodies, burning trains) thrown in for good measure. [IV]

Best song that isn’t “Everything Is Awesome”: “Hate The Sport,” We Are The Best!
Lukas Moodysson’s rock ’n’ roll movie is unique in that its two lead characters, 13-year-olds Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), begin with almost no musical ability. They eventually make friends with Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a talented guitarist who teaches them some rudimentary chords and rhythm, but before that even happens they’ve written their first single: “Hate The Sport,” a rant against the indignities and banalities of mandatory gym class. Watching Bobo and Klara work out their lyrics and rhymes, then hammer away at drums and bass, barely playing together, gets straight to the heart of the movie’s simple yet boundless charm. The point isn’t polish or professionalism, but the youthful exuberance of the kids’ musical bond. Despite its confrontational title, “Hate The Sport”—like We Are the Best! itself—is pure joy. [JH]

Best bid for iconography: Scarlett Johansson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Under The Skin
Scarlett Johansson is very much a 21st-century movie star. Her rich and varied resume only has a few big hits, mostly from the Marvel Studios film franchise, and she’s as famous for her magazine covers and personal life as her acting. That fame lends extra heft to the most impressive single day for an actor in 2014: April 4, when Johansson opened both Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. In the former, Johansson’s Black Widow character from The Avengers gets a bona fide co-starring role, balancing out the weary do-gooding of Chris Evans’ Captain America with sardonic, flirty underplaying. Cap is a man out of time, brushing up against Johansson’s modern woman. Over in Under The Skin, Johansson’s familiar default expression—wide-eyed, mouth slightly agape—takes on an otherworldly quality. She plays an alien who roams the Scottish countryside, seducing strangers and performing some manner of unknown experiments. Eventually, she becomes curious about the humanity she’s both exploring and destroying. Throughout the film, the sight of Johansson’s movie-star visage becomes an iconic beacon; she’s the spiral at the center of Glazer’s cinematic hypnosis. Both movies mix her skills as a performer with an ineffable star quality. Johansson’s terrific year so far creates perhaps undue anticipation for her Luc Besson-directed vehicle coming down the pike in a few weeks. [JH]

Most inept quest for vengeance: Blue Ruin
Most revenge thrillers pivot around the actions of a highly competent badass—either some ruthless professional who knows the science of payback, or some ordinary person transformed by rage or grief into an unstoppable killing machine. Blue Ruin, however, is not most revenge thrillers. Of the various ways it deviates from the genre template, the funniest and most fruitful may be the fact that its vengeful hero is, to put it kindly, untrained in the field of settling scores. It’s not just that Dwight (Macon Blair), with his ill-fitting shirts and wounded-puppy eyes, doesn’t look the part of a one-man reckoning. He’s also in completely over his head, fundamentally lacking what Liam Neeson might call “a very particular set of skills.” Disabling a vehicle, only to realize he needs it as a makeshift getaway car, and trying to treat his own leg wound with supermarket supplies, are just two of the epic fuck-ups this amateur angel-of-death commits. That he still manages to thin the numbers of his rivals is a testament only to his raw desperation—a quality that a more ordinary, less compelling revenge thriller would surely treat like a steroid, instead of just the one thing keeping him alive. [AD]

Most finicky use of aspect ratios, naturally: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is known for being persnickety, with even the tiniest props carrying his signature. With that reputation well in hand, he turned to another aspect of film he could manipulate: the aspect ratio. The fabulously manic The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in three different eras: the 1930s, 1960s, and, briefly, the 1980s. For the latest scenes in the timeline, Anderson uses the standard 1.85:1 ratio, a familiar look. The scenes in the ’60s were filmed at a more sweeping 2.35:1. Boldest of all—and most quirky, in a distinctly Andersonian way—are the scenes filmed at 1.37:1, very close to the standards of the 1930s. At that ratio, the film is much closer to a square, which is both slightly jarring and slightly magical. [Josh Modell]

Most unassuming period soundtrack: Boyhood
Between Dazed And Confused and School Of Rock, to name only the two most obvious examples, Richard Linklater has proven himself the master of the rock soundtrack. Yet rarely has his use of old-school tracks been defter than in Boyhood. To accompany his story—which, shot over the course of 12 years, charts the coming-of-age of Ellar Coltrane’s young Texan—Linklater employs a variety of tunes that correspond to his action’s given year. Far more impressive than the period-specific accuracy of his selections, however, is the fact that the director refuses to call undue attention to them. Generally employed to set the tone of each new sequence (as if they were chapter-prefacing quotes) but cut off before they prove to be distracting embellishments, Linklater’s songs—including tracks from Coldplay, The Hives, The Flaming Lips, Cat Power, and The Black Keys—enhance the material’s mood without letting it devolve into hey-guys-nostalgia! gimmickry. [NS]

Best case for finally retiring that cheapest of gimmicks, color cinematography: Ida
Look, it was cool for a while, before the novelty wore off. But isn’t it about time that we all stopped pretending that color cinematography is anything more than a passing trend or cheap gimmick—a desperate attempt, like Smell-O-Vision or D-BOX—to sell movie tickets? Fans of that passé ploy should feast their eyes on Ida, and then say with a straight face that the spectrum of light has anything on the timeless beauty of black-and-white. The first film director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer Of Love) has shot in his native Poland, Ida follows a young novitiate nun who discovers that she’s a Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation. Narratively, the movie is spare and affecting. Visually, it’s absolutely breathtaking, full of painterly backdrops and stark juxtapositions of light and dark—the latter exemplified by the inky eyes and pallid skin of lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska. Every monochromatic image, shot in the boxy Academy ratio, is gorgeous enough to hang in a museum. You had a good run, color, you really did. But Ida proves that the only shade cinema ever needed was gray. [AD]

Best puppeteer: Matt Vogel in Muppets Most Wanted
It might seem lazy, at first, that the major new Muppet introduced in the sequel Muppets Most Wanted is essentially an evil twin for Kermit The Frog. But as performed by Muppeteer Matt Vogel (and as written by James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller), the nefarious Constantine is a highlight of an altogether delightful comedy. Vogel gets a lot of mileage out of Constantine’s Russian accent, his utter inability to imitate Kermit (or, in the parlance of Constantine, “KOR-MEET”), and his mangling of Muppet names (like his old pals “Zongo” and “Fonzie”). But the performance goes beyond mere vocalizing. He stoops Constantine’s posture so his every move looks like a slinking lurch, rather than Kermit’s chipper hop, and pulls his frog mouth down into a sinister grimace. Though Constantine looks just like Kermit, Vogel’s dextrous puppetry enables a very funny running gag: The other Muppets remaining completely oblivious to the switch. [JH]

Best use of Ellis Island: The Immigrant
Admittedly, this is a very narrow category, since James Gray’s The Immigrant is, in fact, the first movie to film scenes of immigrants being processed at Ellis Island—a cornerstone of national myth—at the actual location. (Fun fact: The Ellis Island sequence in The Godfather Part II was shot at a fish market in Italy.) There are two good reasons why nobody’s done it before. First, Ellis Island is a museum. Second, it’s an island, and not a very large one at that. Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji reportedly solved both problems by shooting after hours, and towing barges packed with lights to the island to imitate daylight. Even if the viewer doesn’t know the story behind the scenes, they still get to experience performances—especially Marion Cotillard’s richly shaded turn as Polish immigrant Ewa Cybulska—which were affected by Gray’s insistence on authenticity. At the risk of sounding mystical, it seems like filming the Ellis Island sequences on location lent the proceedings an element of ritual, turning the extras and bit actors into mediums for the country’s past. [IV]

Best integration of a thought experiment from quantum physics: Coherence
Exposition is usually a drag, but it’s different when the characters themselves are desperately trying to work out exactly what’s going on. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence—arguably the best feature-length approximation of a classic Twilight Zone episode ever made—lets a group of eight friends holding a dinner party struggle for a while with various weirdness as a comet passes overhead, then introduces a possible theory in the form of notes found in a physics textbook. The movie briefly pauses for a layman’s summary of the thought experiment known as “Schrödinger’s cat,” which posits a cat inside a box with a 50-50 chance of survival, rendering it somehow simultaneously alive and dead. This explanation initially seems overly convenient, but the joke is that Erwin Schrödinger, the physicist who invented the cat scenario, intended it as reductio ad absurdum—he was trying to demonstrate that a rival’s interpretation of quantum mechanics was ludicrous. Likewise, Coherence’s hapless characters learn nothing useful from these notes, which causes them to leap to wild conclusions and overreact. It’s a knowing parody of a lightbulb moment. [MD]

Best use of Mia Wasikowska: Only Lovers Left Alive (runner up: The Double)
Mia Wasikowska elevates everything she’s in, even holding her own against Tim Burton’s rococo CGI explosion as the star of Alice In Wonderland. In Only Lovers Left Alive, she’s a storm in the form of a bloodsucker, with glittery shoes and vintage dresses and kittenish fangs, and practically the only real source of action in Jim Jarmusch’s ultra-cool vampire movie. It’s a pleasure to hang around with Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), but they don’t do very much until Wasikowska’s Ava comes sauntering in to shake things up. For more of the actresses’ MVP charm, see The Double, wherein human turtleneck Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is pushed into action when his doppelganger James (also Eisenberg) begins making moves on Wasikowska’s character, Hannah. Hannah, who was written into the script by director Richard Ayoade and isn’t in the original novella by Dostoyevsky, might be relegated to the copy room in the basement, but she’s not afraid to give Simon or James or any of the other creeps lurking about a good earful. [Jenni Miller]

Most devastating use of clay: The Missing Picture
Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh has devoted an entire career to chronicling the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, whose social-engineering policies in the late ’70s decimated his homeland, resulting in the deaths of anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people. Yet in attempting to make a documentary about his own experiences at one of the labor camps, Panh faced a unique obstacle: Only a little footage of the camps exists, and it was all shot, carefully and misleadingly, for Khmer Rouge propaganda films. Panh’s novel and eccentric solution to this absence of visual data—the “missing picture” of the title—was to recreate his memories using detailed clay figurines, which he artfully arranged in elaborate dioramas. Somehow, these tableaux feel more vivid, more real, than the random snippets of archival footage; maybe it’s the physicality of the figurines, forever-grimacing surrogates for the director’s slain family, or the bleakly eloquent voiceover anecdotes that accompany the still imagery. Either way, The Missing Picture demonstrates a powerful, disturbing new function for an art-class supply. Gumby it isn’t. [AD]

Best subversion of Liam Neeson’s screen persona since The GreyNon-Stop
Air marshal Bill Marks is an alcoholic. He probably shouldn’t have access to a gun. He makes dumb mistakes. He conducts searches that turn up nothing. He lies—a lot. He inadvertently kills his partner. Why haven’t the other passengers on the plane tied Marks up? Because he looks and sounds exactly like Liam Neeson. Non-Stop, an immensely entertaining locked-room thriller set aboard a transatlantic flight, makes its protagonist about as incompetent as Hollywood convention will allow, playing off Neeson’s screen persona to earn the passengers’—and the audience’s—unwarranted trust. Though the movie’s War On Terror parallels aren’t exactly elegant (especially once the identity of the hijacker is revealed), they do play nicely off of Neeson’s performance, which manages to show, through example, just how a group of people would come to trust a bad leader who happens to look the part. [IV]

Cult filmmaker who most closely resembles a cult leader: Alejandro Jodorowsky, The Dance Of Reality and Jodorowsky’s Dune
This year has brought a double serving of Alejandro Jodorowsky to American theaters, re-introducing (or is it initiating?) viewers into the world of the most cult-like of cult filmmakers. Jodorowsky’s Dune—a documentary about his ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic—plays like the world’s longest Kickstarter pitch video, sustained by the octogenarian director’s intense, rascally charisma, which turns every outrageous pronouncement (“I was raping Frank Herbert, you know, raping—but with love!”) into beautiful music. The failure of the project is reframed as another of Jodorowsky’s ceremonial quests for enlightenment; it ends, unsurprisingly, with a plug for his new film, The Dance Of Reality, a ritualistic, autobiographical comic fantasy in which he confronts his difficult childhood and abusive father, occasionally appearing on camera. Once the credits start rolling on that film, viewers might find themselves wondering whether they’ve seen a great movie, or unwittingly participated into a New Age guru’s cleansing ceremony. Most likely, it’s both. [IV]

Most effective use of movie-star repetition: Edge Of Tomorrow
Movie stars often receive criticism for sticking with the very personas that made them famous in the first place. Audiences and critics delight at their natural charisma, until it codifies into shtick. Tom Cruise has been in in this zone at least since his personal life started distracting from his stardom—and he hasn’t always helped matters by retreating to the kinds of straight-ahead vehicles he often eschewed in his prime. Edge Of Tomorrow looked at first like another one of those: a slick, big-budget thriller. But Doug Liman’s smart, playful sci-fi picture effectively reintroduces Tom Cruise, Movie Star. By positioning his character as a prototypical Cruise slickster (a military PR guy) and sticking him in a time loop (thrown into battle, he restarts every time he dies), the movie allows his familiarity (and his familiar jerk-to-hero arc) to become an anchor. By the third or fourth time through, Cruise’s familiar tics and mannerisms take on real pathos; even his pining for a woman two decades his junior has a bittersweet quality. Edge Of Tomorrow itself is witty and well-made, but it’s driven by Cruise’s most soulful star turn in ages. [JH]

Most jarring mid-film gear change: Proxy
Zack Parker’s slow-burn thriller about the dark side of motherhood is among the year’s most divisive movies, and a specific scene at its midpoint tends to divide yea-sayers from naysayers. The first half follows a young woman (Alexia Rasmussen) who turns to a support group after she’s viciously attacked while in the late stages of pregnancy, losing the baby as a result. Her subsequent friendship with another grieving mother (Alexa Havins) takes a series of increasingly odd turns, with Parker repeatedly upending assumptions about who these people are and what they want. Then comes the scene: a strikingly stylized set piece, equal parts Brian De Palma and Lars Von Trier, upending the narrative so completely that it takes a while to realize it wasn’t a dream sequence. Not everyone will appreciate Proxy’s abrupt new direction, which shifts focus to a degree meriting comparison to Psycho, but Parker’s willingness to risk failure and alienate viewers heralds an ambition too infrequently seen in contemporary genre fare. He’s the real deal. [MD]

Best reality show disguised as a rock doc: Mistaken For Strangers
A straight-ahead documentary about The National would make a compelling film: The band’s rise over the past decade has been slow and remarkable, and its unusual lineup—two sets of brothers plus a singer—surely contains great stories. Strangely, though, said singer’s brother, Tom Berninger, doesn’t focus on the band much at all. Instead, his documentary—which he filmed while on tour as a roadie for the band—explores mostly his own feelings. He’s jealous of his big brother for making it as a rock star, but also doesn’t quite get why The National is famous. (He’s more of a metal guy, and kind of a fuck-up.) At first Mistaken For Strangers seems almost too outsized to be real: Is this some kind of Kaufman-esque send-up of the genre? But no, it’s just that the Berninger boys are indeed strange, especially when together. [Josh Modell]

Best no-budget aerial footage: Norte, The End Of History
Norte, The End Of History, Lav Diaz’s four-hour yarn about guilt and transcendence in the modern-day Philippines, is the director’s most accessible work to date. (Accessibility is, of course, relative, especially when it comes to filmmakers best known for making nine-hour-long movies on black-and-white consumer-grade video.) Part of that is owed to the presence of an honest-to-God director of photography, Lauro Rene Manda. Shot in 2.39 widescreen, in color, and marked by long takes and glacial camera movements, Norte is easily the most conventionally handsome thing Diaz has ever put his name on. It comes as something of a shock, then, when the movie abruptly breaks its rigorous style for a dream sequence composed of no-budget aerial shots—seemingly produced by attaching a GoPro to an RC plane—that hearken back to Diaz’s handmade roots and yet look like nothing he (or any other narrative filmmaker) has done before. Camera-carrying, gimbal-mount quadcopter drones have made inroads in TV production in the last couple of years (expect to see them showing up in movies soon), but the effect Diaz achieves is rawer, and more in keeping with the spirit of the scene. It feels like an unmoored consciousness, hurtling over the landscape. [IV]

Best fish: Snowpiercer
The summer’s best action movie also features the season’s biggest “what the hell?” moment, when Chris Evans’ rebel leader—mounting an insurgency aboard a train carrying post-apocalyptic humanity’s last survivors—comes face-to-face with a horde of masked, ax-wielding adversaries. That these enemies look ferocious does plenty to ratchet up the sequence’s suspense. But further escalating things, the faceless villains break the pre-battle calm by passing a dead fish up to the front of their group, where it’s held by its tail and (in close-up slow-motion) gutted. Is it a ritualistic gesture toward the planet’s arctic condition? A symbolic act meant to foreshadow the violence they’re intending to inflect? A sign that these assassins are simply sick and tired of eating seafood? Regardless, the unlucky fish—who the Evans character later slips on, hilariously, like a banana peel—is the baffling signature image of Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling Snowpiercer. [NS]

Best advice: Joe
For ages, Nicolas Cage would outright refuse to give a dull performance, but that dependability started to slip in recent years, as he starred in a series of low-rent thrillers lacking even his lunatic energy. The upside to this unfortunate sojourn is that it allows David Gordon Green’s Southern drama, Joe, to feel like even more of a small-scale miracle. Cage exercises both restraint and his signature nutty inspiration playing the titular role, an ex-con perpetually on the brink of sliding back into violence. Joe befriends Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager with a crummy home life, and dispenses a variety of wisdom to the boy, including ruminations on the ability of lighters to attract whores. His most memorable advice comes during a spirited bout of day-drinking, when he advises Gary on how to make a “cool face,” which he describes as the result of making an extremely pained face, then attempting to smile through it. This bit of dialogue—per Green, a Cage improv—shows a sweeter, more playful side of the actor’s eccentricity. The “cool face” riff also doubles as a description of much of Green’s work: strange laughs pushing through potentially tragic situations. [JH]

Best first half of a failed movie: Nymphomaniac Vol. I
Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Lars Von Trier’s epic Nymphomaniac was cleaved in two for primarily commercial reasons; each is a self-contained narrative that just runs too damn long (over four hours, in this case) to make decent money if released as a single film. Unlike Kill Bill, however, Nymphomaniac ultimately benefits from the division, as Vol. I stands head and shoulders above the disappointing Vol. II. While the latter contains far more of the graphic, shocking sexual material promised by the title, the movie’s heart lies not in its flashbacks to heroine Joe’s erotic adventures, but in present-tense conversations between Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), the apparently asexual good Samaritan whose lifetime of voluminous reading provides him with a ready-made metaphor (fly fishing, in particular) for any occasion. Virtually all of these wry digressions occur in Vol. I, after which Seligman mostly vanishes until Vol. II’s truly putrid final scene. Furthermore, it’s Vol. I that features Uma Thurman, turning in one of the year’s most unforgettable performances as the bitterly angry wife of one of Joe’s conquests. At the end of part one, Nymphomaniac seems like a potential masterpiece; at the end of part two, it seems like a dud. [MD]

And, as promised, a list of every film that’s received a B+ or higher from The A.V. Club since January. Come at us, fall movie season!

Alan Partridge
Bethlehem
Blue Ruin
Boyhood
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
A Coffee In Berlin
Coherence
The Dance Of Reality
Edge Of Tomorrow
Ernest & Celestine
The Final Member
Gloria
God’s Pocket
Godzilla
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Horses Of God
Ida
The Immigrant
In Bloom
In Your Eyes
Ivory Tower
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Kids For Cash
The Last Of The Unjust
The LEGO Movie
Life Itself
Lucky Them
The Missing Picture
Mistaken For Strangers
Non-Stop
Norte, The End Of History
Nymphomaniac, Volume 1
Only Lovers Left Alive
Particle Fever
Policeman
Snowpiercer
Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors
Under The Skin
Venus In Fur
We Are The Best!
Young & Beautiful

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