Dominick Mayer (DM): Well, as of the launch of CoS Film, we’re two-thirds of the way through 2014. It’s been an interesting film year, one where we’ve seen everything from the definitive evidence of Marvel Studios as a massive force in American film, to the most over-saturated summer season for tentpole studio movies in years, to a massive push in the direction of VOD releasing as a potential next frontier for independent cinema.
My question to all of you, in kicking off both this new section of the site and the upcoming “awards season,” is what do you think the most important or notable trend has been in film so far this year? For me, it’s easily a summer season that’s served as a harbinger of how it appears things are going to go for a while. There were top-shelf releases every weekend from the start of May through early August, and the coming years, especially with DC getting into the mass-production game, look to continue the trend. It almost feels like the bubble has to burst sooner or later, right?
Justin Gerber (JG): For me, it’s the VOD same-day-as-release-in-theaters approach that’s continuing to leap out at me as the years go by. On my personal list of favorite films this year, two were released through this studio strategy, bringing us closer and closer not only to indie flicks strictly seeing release in this fashion, but blockbusters in the years to come. With piracy out of control (see: The Expendables 3), the major studios are going to start considering following this format. Control the chaos.
When I was reviewing and calculating our lists, I noticed a strong variety of genres. Granted, at the end of the year, the expected heavy-hitting dramas will likely replace a good number of these films, but we have movies ranging from comic book adaptations and dramas to over-the-top comedies, sci-fi action, etc. Dare I say film is reclaiming its throne over television once more? Or am I the only one?
Blake Goble (BG): You’re not the only one. With Breaking Bad and Mad Men in their twilight, maybe it’s time for some wild new properties in theaters.
Granted, Hollywood’s in a bit of a tizzy over falling profits for tentpoles. Did you know that this year’s box office is down roughly 19 percent when compared to last year? In a way, it’s a blessing that movies like Godzilla and the seventh X-Men are stalling financially over time, because limited releases get a fairer shake at finding an audience. Instead of 10 screens for a Marvel movie at the multiplex, you have five, and the other five get chances at The Grand Budapest Hotel or Boyhood.
Michael Roffman (MR): Blake, I think the box office dip might be due to oversaturation, actually — sort of like riding the same roller coaster multiple times in one afternoon. You get sick and dizzy, and that cotton candy starts to look like poison. The problem nowadays is that these rollercoasters never stop. What was the gap between The Hobbit and Jack Ryan or Ride Along and The Lego Movie? A few weeks? In those few weeks, Hollywood was rolling out dozens of Oscar contenders and would-be blockbusters like The Wolf of Wall Street. So, I think what’s happening is that supply is going through the roof, while demand … I don’t know where it’s going. It’s there, but it’s not like TV or Netflix. You can’t binge on this stuff without hurting your wallet, or turning to the depths of hell online.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Time.com on the evolution of the summer blockbuster, concluding that any studio could release something during any season, especially following the juggernaut success of Lego and the slightly hot receptions for Lone Survivor or Ride Along. Of course, not every film went by unscathed — see: Robocop or Jack Ryan — but filmgoers were still out in full force. (There was also a bit in there about quality v. quantity and how old franchises aren’t sure things anymore, but that’s neither here nor there.) This probably explains why Warner Bros. set Batman v. Superman feat. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the whole buffet: Justice League Prequel Dawn of the Dead in March 2016. It’s because they can. So, if there’s been any trend worth noticing in 2014, I’d say it’s the healthy portions all year long.
But what I’ve personally enjoyed is how, similarly to record labels, there are certain studios worth following — specifically, A24 Films. Prior to this year, I’ve never really subscribed to any studio, per se. I’ve enjoyed several films from Focus, I recall a number of fun thrill rides out of Dimension, and Miramax has its name on landmark indie films, but never have I printed out their schedule and memorized their dates. Going forward, I sort of feel that way about A24, almost wanting to get a sticker for my … Blu-Ray player? I don’t know. They’ve tickled the same part of my brain that Merge does, making me excited with whatever vision they have right now. Under the Skin? Locke? Enemy? Obvious Child? Last year’s Spring Breakers? It’s all proven quality over a number of genres, which probably explains why our list is so varied this year, Justin.
Folks, I swear I wasn’t paid for that last bit. I swear. ::stuffs hands in his pockets::
BG: I used to love comic book movies like pizza (even when they’re bad, they’re good), but you’re right; oversaturated properties are exhausting in every respect.
And yeah, you can totally play hype man for A24 and Ariana Huffington! I’m of a similar mind with Radius-TwC. They pumped out Snowpiercer, Blue Ruin, Fed Up, Supermensch, and the upcoming The One I Love. So what if it’s a fringe offshoot of Weinstein? It’s an interesting new movie label and a helluva lot more unpredictable and entertaining than Marvel’s slate.
Although, some of the best movies I’ve seen this year – Ida, The Overnighters, Violette, Closed Curtain – all came from micro-distributors.
Leah Pickett (LP): Even if most indie or arthouse production companies are offshoots of “The Big Six” major film studios — for reference, Focus Features is tied to NBCUniversal, and Sony’s Columbia Pictures unit begat Sony Pictures Classics — we’re still getting those more idiosyncratic and challenging films into theaters that we may never have had the opportunity to see otherwise, like Calvary, a new Irish drama from Fox Searchlight that is spectacular, or one of my favorite films from last year, Nebraska, a Paramount Vantage indie that may have never seen the light of day (or the Academy Awards nominations) without its major studio backing.
Still, that’s not to say that smaller production companies like A24 might not overtake the major studio subsidiaries in the not-so-distant future. A great example of this is the guerrilla-style filmmaking employed for arthouse fare like 2013’s Escape from Tomorrow, the truly chilling horror film shot undercover at the Walt Disney World park in Orlando, or the Banksy documentary Exit through the Gift Shop. Both of these films were distributed by Producer’s Distribution Agency (PDA), a relatively young company with a bucketload of potential.
As for the big studio films that have been released in 2014 thus far, I think most of the flops have been deserved: Noah, Transcendence, I Frankenstein, Winter’s Tale, and Pompeii were particularly awful. The only film that I think deserved better box office numbers than it ultimately accrued is Edge of Tomorrow, a great science fiction popcorn flick that suffered from a blah title, a weak marketing campaign, and, presumably, a fair amount of Tom Cruise action movie fatigue.
MR: I agree. I think there’s actually been a striking response from filmgoers who might be getting a little more practical with their expenses. The flops you mentioned were all deserved, and I’d like to think there’s a strong general consensus against unnecessary reboots, which might explain why RoboCop fizzled out. (I don’t count Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, because that’s a franchise that actually deserved a proper restart. Unfortunately, we were given soggy slime.) Still, there’s been a minor yet egregious amount of stupidity that’s proven strong at the box office, starting with this past January’s Ride Along and continuing with critical catastrophes a la Tammy or Transformers: Age of Extinction.
But the top box office contenders this year are quite smart. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a sleek ’70s political thriller encapsulated in a Marvel action vehicle, meta comedies The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street remain in the top 10, and quasi-artsy tentpole films like Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved popular in their execution as well. However, it’s a little sad that the highest grossing film of the year (so far) that’s not attached to any franchise or comic book property is Neighbors, which sits at No. 14, right ahead of Ride Along.
Still, IFC Films recently scored a big win with Boyhood, which should go on to surpass Y Tu Mama Tambien as the second-highest grossing film the company has ever released. It’s little wins like that that go a long, long way and eventually lead to more opportunities for both filmmakers and filmgoers. Based on last year’s box office reception to Oscar’s top picks, it would appear that quality has a place in mainstream film. Having said that, I doubt this year’s crop of Oscar contenders will do the box office traffic of last year’s All-Star season, but I do expect some surprises.
Speaking of which, what film surprised you the most this year?
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Roy Ivy (RI): Biggest surprise for me? Grand Piano. I had plenty of reason to be wary. The John Cusack I know and love died long ago (I’d say around 1408) and came back from the swamp all joyless and slumming. I’ve never watched a movie starring Elijah Wood because it stars Elijah Wood. And it was dumped to VOD last March without much fanfare, keeping with the stigma that VOD is trying to shake. But despite Cusack’s sweaty heavy and the Phone Booth-inspired plot, I enjoyed the hell out of this tense little De Palma knockoff.
I’m glad that the VOD same-day-as-release-in-theaters approach is getting smaller stuff to a broader audience, but it still feels like the redheaded stepchild of distribution. When movies hit VOD, they hit BitTorrent five seconds later, and far more people pirate than purchase. The VOD success of Snowpiercer (which was in torrentland nearly six months before VOD) makes me think of Tom Petty’s recent #1 album. It isn’t that great, but your dad knows the star (“he played in that Captain America,” “he’s my favorite Wilbury”), and he still buys stuff because he’s an honest patron of the arts who hasn’t figured out how torrents work. But I wish I had a chance to see Grand Piano in one of the five theaters it played in and not VOD, ’cause it sure was good lookin’.
Adriane Neuenschwander (AN): Yeah, I’m also a bit skeptical about the future of video on demand. Clearly, with box-office numbers declining bit by bit every year, the movie studios have to embrace new distribution channels. But like Roy argued, illegal downloads are going to continue to take a huge chunk out of any VOD profits. All that said, it’s hard to gauge just how profitable VOD is anyway, since most of those numbers — in terms of both viewers and revenue — are rarely publicized. But my guess is that video-on-demand releases must be doing okay, or why would Mark Cuban and the other rich-as-hell folks at Magnolia Pictures, and its offshoot Magnet Releasing (which was responsible for the surprisingly decent Grand Piano), keep sticking with it?
But onto the actual meat and potatoes of this discussion. To answer your question, Michael, a handful of movies surprised me this year, all of which were victims of shoddy marketing campaigns. Leah, you already mentioned Edge of Tomorrow, a darkly funny sci-fi picture that got sold to audiences as Transformers: Now with Extra Tom Cruise. I was also pleasantly surprised by Sabotage, the new obscenity- and gore-laden David Ayer film. This one totally got dumped by the studios — probably after the dismal performances of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last few starring vehicles (Escape Plan and The Last Stand) — and only made $5 million in its opening weekend. Poor Arnold is doing some of his finest work now that he’s got that whole political thing out of his system, but if the studios won’t back any of his films with advertising dollars and nonstop publicity campaigns, few people are going to see any of them.
Finally, I was completely startled by Oculus. The trailer for that movie looked terrible. In fact, until about 10 minutes into it, I was still convinced that the film was about two stupid teens who battle a demonic mirror (because that’s how Relativity sold it). But it’s actually a surprisingly smart horror film that explores themes like the fuzziness of memory and childhood perceptions, and it prizes mood over blood and CGI effects.
What about the rest of you guys? Have any movies completely dashed your expectations this year?
Randall Colburn (RC): Nymph()maniac. I have no idea how this movie is going to age, and I’d argue that’s the case for most Von Trier films. Culturally, Dancer in the Dark is considered one of the Danish provocateur’s best films, but with every passing year people seem to pile on it more and more. On the other hand, I found Dogville and Manderlay too mean-spirited when they premiered a decade or so ago, but subsequent viewings have found ample resonance in their cruel, detached spin on Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt methods of distancing. As for Melancholia, well, I saw that on a second date with a nice girl. Not the best choice. All this goes to say that I have a complicated relationship with Von Trier, and when I stumbled into the Landmark for Nymphomaniac, Pt. 1 some months ago, it wasn’t with the highest expectations.
Surprisingly, I left exhilarated. Nymph()maniac is thoroughly modern, a bizarre, endlessly ballsy (pun intended) mishmash of genres that weaves a disarming amount of pitch-black comedy into the trauma of its protagonist. It’s a tightrope, surely, this chaotic oscillation, but Von Trier’s control over it is masterful and a sign of how transcendent film can be when it mirrors the unpredictability of our every moment.
I worry the sheer brazenness of a film like Nymph()maniac — a four-hour epic, split into two parts, about a controversial and unconventional subject — will be eclipsed by the innovation and accessibility of Boyhood. Boyhood is the better film, but more arthouse filmmakers might benefit by taking the kind of risks Von Trier did with Nymph()maniac.
Though, of course, we wouldn’t want concept to trump story. Or do we? Have any other films this year successfully challenged form and structure like those two?
MR: Perhaps not as much as Nymph()maniac, but I’d argue Locke tested its audiences with form. Tom Hardy’s entire life breaks down over the film’s gripping 84 minutes, and it all takes place in a car as he drives from Birmingham to London. It could have been a snore, but similar to other guy-trapped-in-a-small-space films (e.g. Phone Booth, Buried), it’s one of the year’s more gripping thrillers. The way director Steven Knight utilizes silence is just brilliant; I remember having to look away during Hardy’s realization that he left his folder, originally compiled for his colleague, back at the office. The claustrophobic tension reminded me of Polanski’s greatest moments, if not Hitchcock’s, and the way it’s so unforgiving adds a touch of realism that these thrillers often negate.
You’re right, though. The top winner with regard to form is without a doubt Linklater, who just has to be in contention for Best Director in 2015. After all, the past two years of the Academy Awards have rewarded far more innovative filmmakers than in past ceremonies. Alfonso Cuaron won for his VFX spectacle Gravity earlier this year, and Ang Lee received the same award a year prior for similar inventions with Life of Pi. Considering every review or write-up on Boyhood insists upon its form as something we’ve “never seen before,” I’d imagine Oscar already has it penciled in on a ballot somewhere in Hollywood.
I did want to throw in one film that surprised me this year: Joe. Somehow David Gordon Green managed to squeeze an honest performance out of Nicolas Cage, who dusts off a rugged brand of masculinity that hasn’t hit the silver screen in years. His chemistry alongside the ever-reliable Tye Sheridan is palpable, in addition to the film’s supporting cast of Texas locals. Green doesn’t offer any restraint with his sense of realism, revealing a forgotten side of America that’s sobering, if not horrifying. However, given its backwoods setting and a down-on-his-luck Sheridan, some might toss it aside as Mud II. It’s really not, though. I’d argue it’s better. I think I just did?
Justin, what’s grabbed your attention?
JG: It’s been a struggle to find an answer to this question, because for me, the surprises haven’t been about whether or not a movie was good, but rather how good certain movies have been. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the 8th Apes movie to see release in the past 45 years. It’s a sequel to a prequel of an original that had already been remade (follow that and you get a prize), and it may be the best film in that franchise since the original. The motion capture is somehow even more believable this go ’round, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes is only a few years old! It’s a summer blockbuster with exciting action sequences (the one-shot with Jason Clarke running about a building under siege is one particular standout) and another mo-cap performance that will secure Andy Serkis a lifetime achievement award in about 25 years.
The second surprise was how much I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the Marvel movie with the most heart, as I touched upon in an earlier review I wrote of the film. For a movie in which the most recognizable character appears for two seconds in a post-credit sequence (NO SPOILERS), I was stunned by how taken I was with every character, especially the one-two tangent of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel’s voice-only work as Rocket and Groot, respectively.
Well, we’re nearly there, folks! The big reveal of Consequence of Sound‘s Top 10 Movies of 2014 (So Far). But before we get there, I’d like to see if the rest of our staff would care to share personal faves that didn’t make the cut. Blake? Care to share with the reading public?
BG: Oh, well … yeah, the biggest surprises pretty much came from the stuff that wasn’t marketed to death. The ones I hadn’t heard about until screening. The little movies that could. It’s one of the best feelings to walk into a film with zero context and walk out pleased, impressed, or even moved. Like, Music Box released Ida, a beautiful black-and-white drama about a nun in the 1960s about to take her vows, only to find out she was born Jewish. Or there was Violette, a stirring, frank, and emotional biopic about erotic French novelist Violette Leduc that was heartbreaking and challenging. These movies managed to sneak into smaller arthouse theaters under the radar. They’re gone now, but they’ll likely hit Blu-Ray or VOD soon!
Keeping that in mind, the biggest and most stirring surprise I caught this year was at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Closed Curtain, by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, was an innovative work that grows more and more impressive upon reflection. Quick context: its director, Panahi, was placed under house arrest by the Iranian government several years ago, and as part of that arrest, he’s forbidden to make movies. That’s like the death sentence for a creative artist. However, despite what he described as severe melancholy from his situation, Panahi has somehow made not one, but two unique films since that arrest and snuck them out of his home for worldwide screening.
In that regard, Closed Curtain is a testament to artistic vision and its power to overcome obstacles and censorship. The film is a stark, clean, and meditative two-parter. The first half is a jab at the house arrest, depicting a writer in isolation, paranoid about the outside world. Then, the story stops and becomes this sort of meta-reflection on an artist trapped and his limping creative process, and Panahi, as himself, wanders within his own home unsure of his story, his filmmaking, and his lockup. It’s so unusual, yet rewarding and moving, and I hope tons and tons of people find it.
Oh, and I kind of liked Jersey Boys and The Fault in Our Stars … what?
MR: I caught several head-turners at this year’s South by Southwest that still haven’t received a proper release. I thought Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’s Creep handled the found footage genre well with an idea that might have been too meta to be construed as horror, but nonetheless left a mark in my mind that night and many after. I also really enjoyed the Australian time-travel comedy The Infinite Man. Hugh Sullivan penned a screenplay of Escherian proportions that utilizes one setting (a deserted motel) and three characters (the highlight being Josh McConville, but they’re all exceptional) to create an incredibly complex sci-fi film that never feels incredibly complex. It’s like a long-lost episode of The Twilight Zone, if only it had been rewritten by Martin McDonagh. I’m sure it’ll find a cult following very soon.
We’ve barely mentioned Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, either. Over the summer, Mike Myers’ directorial debut received plenty of press and accolades and rightfully so. It’s rare you find a story as compelling as Gordon’s, and the way Myers weaves through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, etc. feels so tangible and honest and addictive. I found myself engulfed in each time period as photos, videos, and interviews worked their temporal magic on the silver screen. The film’s second half offers up some intriguing elements to Gordon’s life that aren’t fully discussed and seem a tad withheld, but it’s a wonderful documentary about the luckiest guy in show business. I couldn’t stop smiling at South by Southwest, and it’s another trip through time I’ll take advantage of again and again.
Did I mention Locke earlier? Oh, right. I did. Yeah, that was phenomenal, too.
LP: My favorite that didn’t make our list is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The story is interesting, the action is suspenseful, the fight sequences (particularly any of those invoking the brutality of the Winter Soldier) are thrilling, and [SPOILER ALERT] Robert Redford makes for an excellent villain. Nick Fury and Black Widow return, each revealing a slightly more vulnerable side of themselves. Captain America is still the Superman of the Marvel universe (i.e. a bit too earnest, kind of bland, sometimes boring), but with each new film Chris Evans adds a little something – a pinch of sarcastic humor here, a dash of depression there – to balance out all of the optimism and sincerity. I still think of him as a Ken doll with a shield most of the time, but the flashbacks of him as a scrawny dork, though obviously CGI’d, make him relatable in the “I-used-to-be-a-nerd-like-Peter-Parker-too!” sort of way.
The Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan, is both terrifying and sympathetic, a difficult feat to pull off. But directors Joe and Anthony Russo, whose short resume before this film was highlighted by You, Me and Dupree and Arrested Development, succeed on all counts and fire from all cylinders: historical and political, comic and tragic, digital and dystopian. Superhero films have been on a critical and box office roll lately, and with releases as good as Winter Soldier, it’s easy to see why.
AN: I agree with Leah. The Winter Soldier was pretty great, and I continue to be shocked by how much the superhero genre has improved over the years. Maybe we have Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot to thank for that, or maybe it’s just because Joel Schumacher has bowed out of making big-budget movies for the past decade. But I think that 2014 has also been a great year for comedies. The writing-directing team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord are batting a thousand with me so far in their brief careers, and they had two critical and box-office successes this year: The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street.
I damn near had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see The Lego Movie — I guess the trauma of seeing other films based on toys and games from the ’80s was still too fresh in my mind — but it was surprisingly funny and touching, without ever dumbing itself down for family audiences. And even though 22 Jump Street was almost an exact retread of 21 Jump Street, it still delivered as a sharp send-up of action movies and sequels in general. Of course, most studios are still waiting a few months to release their Oscar bait, so lighter fare like Lego and Jump probably won’t make it on very many critics’ best-of-the-year lists. I guess comedies, no matter how good they are, are always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
RI: I did drag Adriane kicking and screaming and frowning and frumping to The Lego Movie. And every time she laughed, I felt vindicated (even though the best The Empire Strikes Back joke ever filmed was lost on her). But I’m gonna need some sort of voodoo hex to make her watch The Raid 2. Can’t blame her. We weren’t impressed with The Raid: Redemption, but that’s my fault for picking a fight with a sniffling audience member twice my size who looked like he’d make good on the death threat he dealt me. Really cast a 300-pound pall over the movie. But watching The Raid 2 in the safety of my undies at home while I sucked on leftover spare ribs was one of my best life experiences as a man, and it’s maybe one of the best action films ever made (that prison yard mud fight … holy shit!). I’m also a sucker for deep undercover cop plotlines where the hero’s always seconds away from being made, and I’m always amazed when a two-and-a-half-hour flick feels like 90 minutes.
But Guardians. Did anybody else cry? Not just get misty or choked up? I’m talking both eyes streaming as you try to collect yourself and hope your girlfriend doesn’t notice you openly weeping. ‘Cause it sure got me. That’s two times in my life that I’ve shed tears when an animated character voiced by Vin Diesel martyrs himself. That big, sniffling bastard at The Raid: Redemption should have kicked my ass.
MR: I believe there were tears, but it could have been flashes of horror stemming from my fear of never seeing Lee Pace again. Thankfully, Halt and Catch Fire was renewed. Sigh.
RC: First off, Mike, Lee Pace’s Ronan was the ultimate snore in an otherwise exhilarating movie. Guardians needs to step it up in the villain department next time, and that’s an order. Second, I’m with Roy in the blubber department, a refreshing development since I’ve found tears in short supply over the last few years. Fie on cry porn like The Fault in our Stars, it’s the unexpected that destroys me; hell, the last time I bawled at a movie was Rick Alverson’s disarming, underrated 2012 film The Comedy, if only because it hit so dangerously close to home. Guardians got me in the gut, as did Boyhood, of course, though my sob session was spoiled somewhat by the final five minutes, some of the most superfluous I’ve ever seen in a film.
That bitchy, little nitpick reminds me: during this discussion, we never quite delved into our disappointments and duds, did we? That’s a good sign, right? Thinking back on the year so far, it’s hard for me to pinpoint a movie I hated. The only candidate is 24 Exposures, a conceptually interesting cheapie made in the mold of Skinemax sleaze by indie journeyman Joe Swanberg. Swanberg’s prolific as hell, prone to releasing even the most tossed-off of projects (hello, Uncle Kent!), but this is the first of his projects that I think should’ve stayed on the shelf. It’s unsexy, poorly acted, and boooooooring. Luckily, he swiftly scrubbed it from the collective consciousness by releasing the delightful Happy Christmas, one of my favorite films of the year thus far.
MR: No, I agree with you. Pace was the weakest link in the film, considering he wasn’t given much to do at all. I just couldn’t stop thinking about that show. Halt. Catch. Fire. #shamelessplug
JG: I have a lot of love for the intense Night Moves, which sets up Dakota Fanning nicely for a successful career as an adult actress going forward. It’s a quiet, suspenseful movie about terrorism where the only explosions happen off-screen, since the filmmakers are far more interested with how the guilty parties deal with the aftermath of their actions. Did I mention the terrorists are American? There is also Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about the director’s failed-yet-ambitious dream of bringing the Frank Herbert novel to the big screen in the 1970s. Orson Welles would have basically been paid in food to appear in the movie. Parody become reality.
I’ll now turn my focus to my boy Chris Evans and his two action vehicles. Leah and Adriane mentioned one of our new Marvel movie faves, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so I won’t go into too much detail here. I can only say I thought it was a solid comic book movie with or without its preexisting universe and that Robert Redford turned what could have been a phoned-in performance into something much more sinister (take note, Harrison Ford!). His other film, the apocalyptic and bizarre actioner Snowpiercer, also hit home with its dark humor (see Allison Pill’s entire scene) and go-for-broke performances (see Tilda Swinton) in a movie about one group of people trying to move to the front of a train. It’s much more exciting that I just made it out to be.
Dominick? How about you?
DM: Bringing it home, I really enjoyed the hell out of Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s the most I’ve ever enjoyed a Jim Jarmusch film in a walk, and it works on a lot of levels, from a deft revisionist vampire fable to a weary screed against the death of rock music in the digital age. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are impeccably cast as jaded, centuries-old intellectuals, and the whole film hums with irony and a bleak, old-world kind of love. It’s a gorgeous elegy for a lot of things, and outside of a really cloying Jack White shout-out about midway through, it’s one of the best films I’ve watched all year.
But let’s call it a day, shall we? We’ve said a lot but have a ton more to see in the remaining months of the year before it’s time to start making stressful declarations of what 2014’s best offerings have truly been.
And to those of you reading, welcome to CoS Film. You now know a little about us and will have ample chances to get to know us better in the coming weeks. We’ll have reviews of the latest releases and plenty more on film old, modern, and future alike. We’re absurdly excited to get going and hope you’ll come along with us.
Turn the page for our rankings…
10. Obvious Child
Advanced buzz told us Obvious Child was a romantic comedy centering on an abortion. I remember thinking that idea was fairly original for a full-length feature, but could it rise above being a mean-spirited look at a controversial procedure? Yes. Would the filmmakers rest on their laurels with such an edgy topic, assuming the subject will draw in a cult audience and, as a result, just phone it in? No. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre finds the fine line between the romance and the pain without succumbing to audience manipulation, while Jenny Slate delivers what can only be viewed as a star-making performance.
As the lead protagonist, Slate’s Donna is a recently dumped stand-up comedian struggling to find her place among her people. Her day job is at a book store, but her days always end with nights of comedy or nights of drinking with her two closest friends, sometimes both. She gets drunk one night and hooks up with The Office’s Jake Lacy, which changes everything (SPOILER ALERT: she gets pregnant).
It’s in the discovery where Slate shines. Her visit with a doctor early on rings so true it almost seems invasive to witness, showcasing the actress’s abilities as a dramatic actress in addition to her previously recognized talents as a comedian (Marcel the Shell, YouTube’sCatherine, guest turns on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, etc.). Slate’s decision to abort is never taken lightly, no matter how well she masks it around her friends and family. May she be remembered come award season. –Justin Gerber
9. Edge of Tomorrow
Say what you will about that diminutive stack of Thetans with the perpetually inauthentic smile that you just wanna slap off his face, but the guy’s batting a solid .366 when it comes to scripts. And every time Tom Cruise gets a boner for sci-fi, it validates the pre-preview’s “Go Big or Go Home” campaign. Edge of Tomorrow goes way big, with a time-resetting premise that’s smartly played: always amusing, never Shane Carruth befuddling, never betraying the internal rules of its universe, and never dumbed down for the dummies. I don’t blame audiences for avoiding it due to the headachy Halo 7 previews and that generic-as-Waldrug title, but I wish they had known a few things last June.
It’s not only the best sci-fi film of the year; it’s one of the best comedies, with crackerjack one-liners and payoffs in spades, aided by nun-tight editing that keeps the movie just two seconds ahead of even the most prescient “I figured out The Sixth Sense’s ending two minutes in” of viewers. I also wish the avoidant knew that Cruise starts out as a lily-livered chickenshit before deservedly progressing into a badass. He’s never done that before, and his progress (I think he dies over 1,000 times) is a blast to follow while the increasingly competent Liman keeps the movie moving like a MIG. It’s PG-13 violence done right (the kind that makes you wince and never gives ya blueballs), and I have yet to meet a single person (even staunch Cruise haters) who wasn’t swept up in its giddy Groundhog Day-with-guns inertia. –Roy Ivy
8. Life Itself
Life Itself makes great efforts to know, define, and reflect on Roger Ebert. Because he loved going to the movies so much, maybe more than anyone else, more than we could understand, it is not surprising at all that this biographical documentary feels like an authoritative stamp on all movies. Through this one guy, everyone found an access point.
A stirring portrait of famed film critic Roger Ebert, as well as a bighearted love letter to art and cinema, Life Itself feel like a total package for filmgoers. Steve James’ latest documentary had first-hand access to one of the finest and most accessible news writer of our time, showing him warts and all in his last days before he passed away in early 2013. It’s 2014 and not only is Roger Ebert’s voice still carrying on, but he inspired what has been the most captivating movie about the movies. It is also a celebration of his life and work and a testament to Ebert’s intelligence and accessibility.
It’s fair, too, showing the critic as a great guy, a loving husband, and a spirited raconteur … but the movie is honest in showing that he wasn’t always that nice. If you’ve been to the movies, if you loved Siskel & Ebert, if you care about art, Life Itself is a hymn to all ears. We’re gonna go out on a limb and guess Roger himself might have given this the old thumbs up. –Blake Goble
7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster in which the human characters are incidental. Following the genesis of the Apes universe to its painful, logical endgame, Dawn is a film about how a simple act of ignorance can lead to the possible eradication of a species. It’s also a film that concerns an ape riding a horse through a wall of fire, screaming as he wields a machine gun, but hey. The whole shebang started with Charlton Heston, did it not?
The film does more than humanize the apes; rather, through Caesar’s (Andy Serkis, once again altering how we perceive “acting”) struggles to create and protect an egalitarian society of apes, it demands that audiences attempt to honor their status as different but equal to humans. And possibly superior. After all, where the apes have the humans to use as a horror story, a fable to tell their children on how not to destroy the world you inhabit, the remaining humans are scavengers, terrified and reaching for anything that could give them hope for survival.
It’s complex, heady stuff for a summer blockbuster and the ninth installment of a series to boot, but Dawn works thanks to Matt Reeves’ empathetic direction and the film’s insistence on treating human and ape alike as worthy of sustained life, even when the characters within can’t do the same. Who would’ve thought that the year’s most poignant meditation on the inevitability of war and destruction would come from here? –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
6. Cheap Thrills
Yes, Cheap Thrills has a gimmicky premise. Two down-on-their-luck guys perform increasingly violent dares for cash from a cruel, charismatic millionaire? Chopped fingers, illicit dumps, dog carcasses? It’s entertaining as hell, sure, but that’s midnight movie splatter shit. That’s not best-movie-of-the-year shit. So, as the credits rolled, I had trouble articulating to myself just why Cheap Thrills made my heart so heavy, my stomach so roller coaster-y. Luckily, star Pat Healy articulated it for me during the post-show Q&A.
According to Healy, he and co-star Ethan Embry had a contentious relationship — a bully/pipsqueak dynamic — from day one. (Sidenote: have y’all seen Ethan Embry lately? Homebody got swoll.) Healy gleefully relayed how certain shots depict actual barbs between the two, as well as the genuine terror he felt when Embry hovered over him with a butcher knife during a pivotal scene. It was nasty, Healy said, and neither said goodbye on the final day of filming.
As he spun these tales, my exuberant reaction to the movie crystallized: Cheap Thrills doesn’t hinge on its premise, nor on David Koechner’s manic energy as the instigator, but on the pulpy intensity, the palpable violence that binds its two leads. These dudes hate each other, and that hate pours from the screen like blood from the Overlook’s elevator.
Healy — one of this generation’s most nuanced and daring actors — radiates self-loathing and inner turmoil, while Embry –stomping all over his sensitive ‘90s teen image — uncorks a keg’s worth of rage, resulting in a conflict that transcends its central gimmick. Director E.L. Katz copped to encouraging Embry’s bullying, a move that’s nearly as clever as his vision, which manifests elegantly in cinematography that mirrors the emotional state of its protagonist.
Healy says he and Embry made up during the press junket. Better then, I say, than during filming. Without that conflict, this might just be another midnight movie. –Randall Colburn
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
Although Marvel’s been taking more and more chances of late behind the lens (Shane Black, the Russo brothers, Edgar Wri … never mind), it’s hard to argue that they’ve taken a bigger one than James Gunn, Troma affiliate and helmer of the underrated dark comedies Super and Slither. That’s to say nothing of choosing the Guardians for the next franchise starter, given that America had been exposed to a lot of cool superheroes with chiseled physiques and city-smashing powers and not a raccoon/giant tree/Batista. But it works and makes for quite possibly the best Marvel film to date.
By tethering the film around a band of endearing misfits, Gunn has the freedom to get weird with the Marvel universe, and he does. From the anachronistic but perfect soundtrack to the fleet-footed humor that keeps the film moving, Guardians of the Galaxy stands as a love letter to the dweebier, more earnest side of comic books. It’s amazing how endearing superheroes become when they’re all a little flawed and a little mortal. (Hey there, Man of Steel.) The film is a visual feast; it’s uplifting in a way too few summer films are these days, and it even makes the now-customary explosion porn finale work perfectly in context of everything that precedes it. It’s a film that demands a sequel, just so we can have more time with the loveable squad. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
4. They Came Together
It’s rare to watch a comedy that’s so relentlessly funny that you have to see it twice because you laughed over half the punchlines the first time. They Came Together is just that type of movie. This smart-as-a-whip satire of rom-coms sprung from the minds of co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter, who haven’t joined forces to pen a full-length feature since the release of their cult hit Wet Hot American Summer in 2001. Wet Hot alums Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star as the mismatched romantic leads, and both actors are so likable, so naturally charming that they’re capable of throwing themselves into the script’s darkest recesses — be it meeting your girlfriend’s white-supremacist parents for the first time or realizing you want to bang your own grandma — without turning the audience against them.
Yet, despite its occasional bursts of depravity and over-the-top weirdness, the movie maintains this oddly endearing quality. Unlike a lot of other genre spoofs in recent years (I’m looking at you, Wayans brothers), They Came Together never seems mean or condescending towards its subject matter. Even as it’s ribbing generic conventions, such as the meet-cute, the sassy best friend, and the adorable kid who’s desperate for a father figure, there’s always the underlying sense that Showalter and Wain (who also directed) share a fondness for romantic comedies, despite all of their cheesy foibles. And maybe that’s why They Came Together works so well in the end. It’s funny and observant enough to please the comedy geek, but there’s also an expected sweetness simmering just beneath the surface that’s fit for fans of the very genre it’s satirizing. –Adriane Neuenschwander
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
In one dizzying sequence, we witness a ski slope chase created with stop-motion animation, polished, of course, with visual effects. You can’t quite put your finger on the look, but it’s certainly neat to look at. It’s obviously very meticulous in its formal presentation. As the chase ends at a cliff, the film’s lead character begins preparing his eloquent farewell. Then a shock death occurs, and the soliloquy vanishes in favor of emphatic swearing. It’s hysterical, poignant, crass, and extremely well staged.
Perhaps this is the most Wes Anderson-y film Wes Anderson’s ever made! Okay, that might sound like a knock at his aesthetic (lord knows that’s the flavor of the moment in web comedy), but The Grand Budapest Hotel is a pink and purple masterpiece of quirk, adolescence, and production design. Say hello to your new friend, hotelier Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, disarmingly charming and cheeky). Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). The pair embark on a faux-European romp, not so much concerned with going anyplace special. The Grand Budapest Hotel is all about having fun at every stop, meeting new people, seeing new locales, and engaging in every little detail for the sake of a legal-based maguffin.
Wes Anderson’s latest is a jolly accomplishment, out to have a good time just for the sake of it. Gustave is an avatar for Anderson. Any accusations of the character being shallow in his pursuit of aesthetic pleasure is squashed with the movie’s maverick charm, charisma, and likability. –Blake Goble
Why has Boyhood been heralded by film critics and moviegoers with such thunderous and nearly universal acclaim? The answer is complex and the reasons manifold.
First and foremost, director Richard Linklater’s literal interpretation of the coming-of-age story represents a landmark achievement in narrative cinema: filming one core group of actors — separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, respectively) and their two children, Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, the film’s focal point and star) — for three-day intervals over the course of 12 years.
Second, watching characters grow older onscreen is in many ways akin to watching a home movie; becoming more emotionally invested and even protective of these people is a natural progression, an involuntary empathy as the result of what feels like a shared experience.
Third, rarely has a film captured the more mundane aspects of everyday life with such poignancy and familiar closeness, as Mason’s selective memories of events both big and small, from a Harry Potter premiere party in elementary school to his first day of college, paint a canvas onto which we can project our own experiences.
The opening shot is of a six-year-old Mason staring up at a deep blue sky, eyes wide with wonder, and the film ends on a similar note with Mason at 18, awestruck by the endless well of possibilities that are yet to come. And even with a considerable runtime of nearly three hours, Boyhood, much like the fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transition from childhood to adulthood, goes by quickly, in flashes of simple, intimate moments and insights that leave a lasting impression. –Leah Pickett
1. Under The Skin
At the end of the day, nobody knows why we’re here. That uncertainty is what propels the best science fiction films. That uncertainty is what director Jonathan Glazer builds upon with Under the Skin. The premise is simple: It’s a fish out of water story, only the fish is an alien masked as Scarlett Johansson and her water feeds on hypersexualized humans.
That’s normal, right? If only.
What’s startling and so damning about Glazer’s 108-minute Kubrickian exercise is how coldly and callously the film frames our modern society. As Johansson drives around Edinburgh’s streets, we see through her eyes: a disconnected world committed to blueprint. By nightfall, we witness ravenous souls willing to devour anyone at any cost. Everyone just wants to connect.
Under the Skin is a lot of things, but warm it’s not. The film’s as chilling as its setting with the frost percolating under Mica Levi’s terrifying score. Johansson is stunning, too, delivering her greatest performance to date, especially in the film’s second half when her character experiences an existential crisis that leads to an emotionally challenging conclusion.
Few films balance beauty with terror. Glazer does both with ease in Under the Skin, an uncompromising science fiction masterpiece that will haunt you months later. Hell, it could be years. Who knows. That’s the film’s most tantalizing feat — a trait shared by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood. And really, has anyone ever shaken those off? –Michael Roffman