Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from film editor Alex “A.A.” Dowd: What’s your favorite movie of the year so far?
Nuts, again, to the prevailing wisdom that the best movies of a given year open sometime after August. 2014 has already offered an embarrassment of cinematic riches, running the budgetary spectrum from micro-indie (Blue Ruin) to mega-budget blockbuster (Godzilla). But among these eclectic triumphs, nothing has astonished me as much as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which begins its U.S. theatrical run today. There’s just never been anything quite like it, frankly. Linklater shot the film over a dozen years, reassembling the cast and crew on an annual basis; the result is that two of its stars, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, effectively grow up on screen, transforming before our eyes from grade-school actors to college-age ones. Beyond that remarkable accomplishment, Boyhood also functions as a chronicle of its director’s artistic development—the filmmaking gets more relaxed and confident as the movie progresses—as well as a staunchly naturalistic coming-of-age story. That the fictional adolescence unfolding on screen happens to resemble my own, often in disarmingly specific ways, confirms my irrational suspicion that Linklater made this movie just for me. Don’t worry, I’ll share.
It’s no secret that I love The Immigrant, James Gray’s drama about life on the margins of early-1920s New York. It was the best film I saw last year (I first caught it during its festival run), and I’ve yet to see a theatrical release this year that matches it in depth, richness, and emotional potency. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and it contains three of the year’s best performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. The first time I saw it, I had one of those quasi-mystical experiences that made me hungry for movies when I was in my teens, but which I rarely have now—the sense that, leaving the theater, I understood the world a little better than when I came in.
I know I saw better movies than Veronica Mars this year, but none felt quite as cathartic. I’d been waiting seven years for that thing, and while the dozens of Kickstarter updates I got after I donated were a little irksome, seeing it come to fruition was remarkably satisfying—and I’m not even Kristen Bell. Rob Thomas and crew did a great job making the movie a piece of pure fan service, albeit one that could easily be enjoyed by anyone who hadn’t seen the original series in a few years. It rewards repeat viewers, and it’s a great example for what could or should be done with future TV-to-movie films, so take note, Dan Harmon.
I’ve never been huge into the X-Men franchise, but lack of background didn’t matter for X-Men: Days Of Future Past. It’s my favorite movie of 2014 so far due mostly—if not entirely—to the exceptional acting. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and mutant-phobic Peter Dinklage make this movie, and Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy round out the solid cast. The storyline is muddled with time travel, and Hugh Jackman—who told Vanity Fair he may soon end his 14-year run as Wolverine—is phoning it in. It’s got slightly-better-than-average fight scenes and enjoyable ’70s sets, though, and I was especially excited that a lot of central and beloved characters die dramatically and epically. Unfortunately, the impact is diminished; thanks to time travel changing the future, they’re not actually dead. But the happy-endings-all-around plotline isn’t the point of this movie, or what makes it great. It’s the phenomenal actors giving what could be a run-of-the-mill action movie their all, despite the fact that they’re probably too good for it.
I’ll admit I’ve been pretty bad about going to see movies this year, but I’m happy with the ones I’ve caught. Of that small subset, I was most taken by Jim Jarmusch’s vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive. At first glance, the eccentric filmmaker’s latest looked both a little too cool for school (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton? Scenes shot in the urban decay of Detroit?) and weirdly behind the times (Vampires?). I honestly wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I plopped down to watch it, quite hungover, one Sunday morning. But, surprisingly (and totally unsurprisingly), Jarmusch has created one of the best hangout movies ever made. Very little happens, and what does occur is hilariously predictable, but just watching Hiddleston and Swinton talk to each other, lounge around, and be the two coolest human beings on the planet was more than enough for me.
I will defer my actual pick for best of the year so far, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hope someone else marvels at Wes Anderson’s latest mix of the hilarious and the melancholy. Instead, I’ll sing the praises of a movie that delighted me almost equally: Muppets Most Wanted, the largely ignored follow-up to the Jason Segel-penned Muppet comeback movie from 2011. I loved Segel’s movie too, but with the reintroduction of the Muppets out of the way, director and co-writer James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller are left free to craft Muppet jokes with a stamina and dexterity I more associate with golden-era Simpsons. I cracked up at nearly every disdainful, Russian-accented syllable uttered by Kermit lookalike Constantine, adored the newest batch of Bret McKenzie songs, and nerded out over the variety of Muppet cameos (the humans are pretty good, too). As with the best Muppet projects, all of the mayhem is so sweet natured that it never appears remotely mercenary.
I knew roughly what to expect when I went to see Under The Skin, but I still left the theater surprised—stunned, really, with this giddy, unmoored feeling that lasted the rest of the day. Scarlett Johansson as an alien who lures men to some kind of death is a premise that, while promising, could’ve gone wrong in several dozen different ways. Worse, it could’ve gone pedestrian, full of Species-esque titillation and bland stalking sequences. Instead, director Jonathan Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin found ways to repeatedly dismantle and undercut the viewer’s most basic presumptions of reality, refusing to offer clear answers in ways that satisfy more deeply than exposition ever could. We make a thousand abstract assumptions in order to process our lives, and Under The Skin dismantles this process, until it is possible, however briefly, to feel completely at odds with the world you took for granted; to feel like waking up after a dream that seemed more real than all the days of your conscious life combined. I’m a little nervous about seeing it again, in case I get lost for good.
I know I must have seen other movies this year, but when I got this question my brain devolved into a loop of Obvious Child Obvious Child Obvious Child Obvious Child (and so on). Yes, it’s immediately different and important just for having a lead character who never once questions her abortion, and for being a comedy besides, but the film doesn’t rest on the fact of its subject matter to make it special. Gillian Robespierre’s script is relentlessly and refreshingly realistic, taking great care to let everyone in the stellar cast slip into full and nuanced characters. Blunt best friends Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman are standouts, and Jake Lacy’s affable prepster love interest is far more interesting than that role tends to be. Star Jenny Slate has never been better than as this messy, hilarious, and heartbreaking heroine. So yes, you could call Obvious Child “the abortion rom-com,” and you wouldn’t be technically wrong. But the great thing about this film is that it isn’t a political statement—it’s a personal one.
Having two elementary-school-age kids means the wife and I rarely get a night out to go to a grown-up movie. Fortunately, we’re living in a golden age of kids’ movies. Frozen and Muppets Most Wanted were both delightful, but the one that really stayed with me was The Lego Movie. What could have been an utterly shameless 100 minutes of product placement ended up being a celebration of childhood and imagination that included the fairly complicated message that mindless conformity is bad, but so is mindless non-conformity. The film manages to work in plenty of Lego-specific nostalgia, without any of it seeming gratuitous, and the surprise reveal late in the film managed to hit some Pixar-worthy emotional beats. Pixar itself has been in a decline of late, but if the tradeoff is that it’s raised the bar this high for the rest of the industry, I’ll take it.
I rarely get to the movies these days (some website keeps paying me to watch all the TV), but I was thoroughly delighted by We Are The Best!, especially since it suggests director Lukas Moodysson has stepped back from the idea that all young women are doomed to a life of defeat and despoilment. The three young Swedish teens who form a punk band almost by accident aren’t the best musicians (I wouldn’t buy the soundtrack), but that’s not the point—in ’80s Stockholm (as ever) young women cling to each other for support and, yes, defense. And the DIY essence of punk offers them a rude, empowering refuge where they can strike back against rude boys, condescending adults, and (the subject of their first song) the indignities of gym class. The three young actresses are touchingly, hilariously defiant, even when they don’t have any idea what they’re doing, musically or otherwise, and Moodysson (adapting a graphic novel by his wife Coco) clearly loves and admires their loyalty and courage. It’s a heartening throwback to Moodysson’s first film, the generous-hearted teen lesbian love story Fucking Åmål, which also presented a clear-eyed but unequivocal appreciation of the ability of young women to find strength and warmth in each other, even in a Scandinavian winter.
There’s probably a slight recency effect in play here for me, but I’ve got to go with a movie I saw just the other day: Edge Of Tomorrow. As heady sci-fi action goes, it’s hard to beat a film whose premise essentially boils down to “Groundhog Day meets Aliens”—complete with original space marine Bill Paxton on hand as a master sergeant who might enjoy killing planet-destroying extraterrestrials a bit too much. But what really impressed me about the movie is how inventively it explores the narrative possibilities of someone stuck in an endless, ultra-violent time loop, as it keeps audiences guessing about just how many times Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage has relived a given scenario. It’s also got a wonderful streak of dark comedy, as the movie never shies away from one of its obvious selling points: watching Cruise suffer an endless series of horrifying, pointless deaths. Cruise, director Doug Liman, and the screenwriters take real glee in deconstructing Cruise’s invincible action-star persona, with his signature smirk taking a particular beating. Throw in terrific support from Paxton, Emily Blunt, and Brendan Gleeson, and it’s hard for me to imagine a more perfectly enjoyable summer sci-fi blockbuster.
As soon as I saw Moonrise Kingdom, I had a new favorite Wes Anderson movie, and as soon as I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, I had another. Some complain Anderson’s diorama style is airless, that—as I understand the critique—there’s no life. Well, in the first lines of Budapest, based on the work of Stefan Zweig, the narrator gets interrupted by a mischievous child who couldn’t care less that Daddy’s introducing the audience to a movie. Later there’s full back-al from a large, elderly man in the shower, and a dead-cat joke gets disgustingly real with the on-screen evidence. The movie’s all about real life puncturing a bubble of comfort. The thrust: Ralph Fiennes’ English tradition of ridiculously meticulous (i.e. Andersonian) manners comes under threat from all kinds of dark, vulgar forces, such as lobby boys without the proper training. It’s hilarious, bittersweet, and eloquent in both words and images. In the silence that follows one of the most intense scenes, Fiennes seals the deal: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” I’ve been reading Zweig stories ever since just to keep the magic alive.
This seems to be a year in which I watch and enjoy a significant number of movies but very few of them end up sticking with me for very long. The exception to this rule is Chef, a film I didn’t expect to like—and for a significant portion of the beginning of the movie, didn’t care for at all. Jon Favreau’s ode to food and the soul-fulfilling power of creative freedom is extraordinarily tin-eared at its start, but comes to life in the second act, slowly transforming into a lovely story of a father finally figuring out how to connect with his son via one of the most joyful (and delicious-looking) road trips ever put on film. There are likely many better films released so far this year but none that made me smile so genuinely, or want to eat some brisket from Franklin Barbecue so much. Road trip to Austin, anyone?
As usual, I haven’t managed to see nearly as many movies in the theater as I intended, nor have I had the time I’d like to even watch them at home, so my favorite among those that I did see is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As much as I dug the period-piece aspect of the first film, the sequel made as much as I could’ve hoped out of Cap’s first present-day solo adventure, incorporating Falcon into the storyline quite nicely, making the most out of Robert Redford’s first appearance in a comic-book movie, and—perhaps most importantly—turning S.H.I.E.L.D. completely on its ear, thereby transforming an underwhelming TV series into must-see Tuesday night television.
In terms of the rabid enthusiasm it inspired in me, I’d give the edge to Oculus, the malevolent-object horror movie by which all others shall now be judged. Granted, the subgenre’s bar wasn’t exceptionally high to begin with, but Oculus is too clever, assured, and well-crafted to faintly praise it as a triumph in the face of low expectations. Writer-director Mike Flanagan’s tale of a brother and sister trying to destroy an evil mirror sidesteps most of the laughable tropes—he fails to explain why anyone would buy such an insane mirror to begin with, but nobody’s perfect—and Flanagan provides the story a credible emotional core. The film is also structurally daring, intertwining past and present without ever getting murky, thanks mostly to its crackerjack editing. I’ve stopped recommending Oculus to my friends since receiving several, ahem, polarized responses, but my mother thought it was brilliant, ending any and all debate for me.
It’s been a few weeks since I saw The Fault In Our Stars, and with that distance I can easily point out the film’s imperfect adaptation choices and weaker narrative devices. But none of that will erase the experience of seeing it with a close friend in a nearly empty movie theater at 10 p.m. on a Monday night. From the moment Hazel starts smiling after receiving a text message from a boy she likes, I was able to turn off my critical brain and just let the film wash over me. Not only did I cry—although there was plenty of that—I also laughed with recognition over a suburban teenage life spent in basements and cars. Gus asks Hazel for her real story, not her cancer story, and that’s exactly what The Fault In Our Stars delivers. The film’s catharsis doesn’t come from watching someone else suffer, but from watching someone else live. While it would be difficult to argue it’s the best movie of the year, laugh-sobbing through a late night screening was easily one of my favorite cinematic experiences of the year.