The Mid-Year Highs and Lows Part Four: The Best of the Year So Far

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All good things must come to an end, and that includes this now four part series on the best and worst of the first half that I’ve done with Robert Hamer. Today we wrap up by diving into the top flicks that 2014 has had to offer us, which is what I know you’ve all been waiting for. So, without further delay, here you go…

Joey's_Mid-Year_Favorite_Films
Joey’s Picks
Robert's_Mid-Year_Favorite_Films
Robert’s Picks

Robert: You’ve been a lot more forgiving on 2014’s crop of effects-driven entertainment than I was. Yet when it came to highlighting the year’s best so far, only Godzilla made the cut. I really wish I could support that movie more than I do, because it does boast some awe-inspiring setpieces and ambitious formal gambits. But I still find its story being at war with itself, ending up a strange hybrid of collective problem solving-based Japanese storytelling with the lone “Hero’s Journey” framework of American action movies with – at best – flawed results, and I’m still weirded out with how quickly Godzilla was declared the “hero” virtually by fiat and how often the film visually recalled past tragedies without seeming to know why. So what vaulted this one above and beyond all the other big action spectacles you’ve seen so far this year? Your review mentioned that Gareth Edwards aimed for “a bit more” than most blockbusters…what did you mean by that?

GodzillaJoey: Well, I think he was one of, if not the most effective at taking the Christopher Nolan/Dark Knight approach to a blockbuster in a while. It was meant to be taken seriously, and felt like it. Call me crazy, but that hybrid you spoke of worked for me. I also think the film knew what it was doing when recalling real life tragedies in its destruction. Personally, I think the disconnect on screen we have with that sort of a depiction as compared to reality has nothing to do with the film itself. As humans who lived through something like 9/11, we didn’t have a movie show it to us first, so when movies simulate crumbling buildings for example, we’re working off a real image, so the phony one strikes a different cord. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I didn’t see a huge deal with that, I just see it as a reality of modern day disaster movies. Basically, I thought Edwards did a hell of a job at not winking at the camera and not giving us another Pacific Rim. I know you liked that one more than I did, but I wasn’t fond of that one at all and am pretty glad they don’t have much in common with each other.

On the flip side, you cited Edge of Tomorrow, so I want to see what you have to say on that one. Why is this Tom Cruise epic not like all the other ones? Keep in mind that I’m very fond of the film as well, but I have a hunch you didn’t like some of his other ones that I did, like Knight and Day for example. What made this one work for you?

Edge_of_TomorrowRobert: As a Tom Cruise vehicle? That’s easy: William Cage is the first character he’s played in a long time who actually comes off like a believable, flawed human being with an actual arc. Roy Miller and especially Jack Reacher are introduced to us as the kewlest badasses on the planet who are totally awesome at everything…and by the end of their films they’re the kewlest badasses on the planet who are totally awesome at everything. We’re introduced to Cage as a sniveling coward who’s forced to work toward becoming a hero as the story progresses. It’s amazing to me how many mainstream movie protagonists these days don’t change in any dramatically compelling way, and this movie was a stark reminder of why that’s such a make-or-break part of character development.

But Edge of Tomorrow is also far and away this year’s (or last year’s, for that matter) most successful example of popcorn action-adventure filmmaking in all the ways that matter. It’s certainly the most muscular. There’s no fat, no pointless diversions, no convoluted mythology-building in its plotting at all – say what you will about the “logic” of its story, the way in which it’s presented is so trim and economical that it hardly matters. Not only that, but the central gimmick of “Live. Die. Repeat.” was flexed in a surprising variety of tonal and plot directions, keeping it fleet and engaging throughout. One that I honestly wasn’t anticipating was how funny it often was (there’s sight gag involving a truck that’s as hilarious as any scene I’ve encountered so far this year). Also commendable was how the film’s trial-and-error mechanics felt genuinely rewarding to watch when they could have easily devolved into tedium. Doug Liman and editor James Herbert smartly avoided getting hung up on the details of Cage’s powers (sort of the anti-Inception, if you will); instead they kept things moving along at a steady clip through only the big action scenes and major plot reveals while highlighting their repetitive progression through details in acting, writing and dialogue.

Edge of Tomorrow is not perfect; I’m still unsure if it’ll hold up to repeat viewings and I freely admit that the ending, while tremendously satisfying on an emotional level, doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s so smartly presented, cleverly written and surprisingly well-acted otherwise that the real question isn’t why would I consider it one of the best films of the first half of 2014, but why would anyone not?

Oh, this is fun! There are actually a couple of interesting similarities and differences between our top tens, not least of which are the two films that are on both of our lists. Both The Lego Movie and Under the Skin have stuck with me far more than I originally thought they would, and I’m so glad to see the number of fans both of them have gathered.

Joey: Considering Edge of Tomorrow is in my top 15, I certainly am all for you highlighting Cruise and the film itself. As for the two movies that we have in common on our lists, they couldn’t be more different, but you’re right that they both stay with you more than you’d expect. Under the Skin is haunting in just about every single way possible, while The Lego Movie has this wild manic energy that simulates what it’s like to be playing with a child, until of course you find out that that’s exactly what you’re doing. From there, the flick actually becomes rather touching, particularly in terms of where the inspiration for President Business comes from. Hey, remember that story from Fox News a few months ago on the film’s supposed anti-business agenda? You know, the one made by billion-dollar company Warner Bros? Beyond that though, since I didn’t get a chance to see Only Lovers Left Alive, could you sell me and the readers on why it’s a must see film from the first half of the year?

Only_Lovers_Left_AliveRobert: Okay, so full disclaimer: some people are just never going to get into Jim Jarmusch, and in a way, I can’t fault them. He’s one of those directors with a very…distinct kind of appeal, one that will never reach a broad audience. In fact, before this one the only Jarmusch film I ever really loved was Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Only Lovers Left Alive is not as good as his urban samurai masterpiece, but it’s as close as he’s ever come to reaching that high mark, and it makes sense because they both work for similar reasons. It’s a very stylish and unique blend of genres that you wouldn’t think would complement each other as well as they do here, and like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch’s main interest is in the lifestyle that would inform such one-of-a-kind characters. Case in point: taking something as overused as vampires and avoiding almost all of the popular thematic avenues (with the exception of “bloodlust as a metaphor for drug addiction” metaphor that luckily isn’t belabored at all) that other movies usually take with them in favor of exploring the effects of such a supernaturally long lifespan on one’s perspective on life, love, and art. These are, put simply, vampire hipsters, and yet are maybe the only hipsters I’ve ever encountered who actually earn their claims to superior tastes because they’ve been able to absorb several lifetimes of art and entertainment. This is also true of their shared nostalgia, which is an emotion I’m usually dismissive of, but Adam’s ruminations on what’s been lost over time is unusually considered, especially when they tour Detroit and show the broken-down shells of the city’s former glory.

Even better though, was how that kind of fatigue and cultural connoisseurship is treated as part of Adam and Eve’s (yep) shared experiences of their long-term relationship. One of my biggest gripes with how romances are portrayed in the movies is how they only seem interested in the very beginning or, sometimes, the very end, and I can’t help but feel that the failure rate of modern marriages is at least partially attributable to how a generation raised by popular entertainment were never taught to recognize the pleasures of a humble, longtime romantic partnership. So I give major kudos to Jarmusch for portraying that kind of marriage in a way that seems completely honest while still hewing to the otherworldliness of his premise. Love isn’t just the “spark” that brings two young horny people together – it also grows into a deep understanding between two lovers. The kind that’s totally fine with just staying in tonight and watching a movie instead of going out. The kind that use what they’ve already learned about each other’s opinions to have really deep conversations about them. The kind where she intuitively knows when he’s just in one of his little moods or when he’s in a serious depression and she needs to be there for him. That Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton share such awesome chemistry is also a huge part of why I loved every second the movie spent with the two of them together.

It works as a character study, a mood piece, a low-key romance…even the film’s only scene of genuine horror works well. Really, the only part of Only Lovers Left Alive that I wasn’t crazy about were all of its highfalutin Easter Eggs that started to come off as Jarmusch reminding us how refined his cultural palate is. Why yes, I did notice your sly parody of a scene in In the Mood for Love, you clever, clever auteur, you! Their aliases when they book their flights are Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan? Oh, how funny to someone as smart as me who knows those names! But even then, for every tiresome inside reference, there were many genuinely witty, amusing moments to make up for it in the dark comedy department.

Only Lovers Left Alive is also gorgeously shot (I dare you to name a movie with better nighttime photography so far this year), with very lived-in sets and costumes that tell us as much about these characters as the writing and acting, all coming together for something that I loved luxuriating in.

Life_ItselfJoey: Damn, now I wish I’d seen this one. I’ll catch up to it on Blu-Ray in a few weeks, but still. I’ll also be getting a copy of Blue Ruin sent to me in the coming days (it wound up coming this week), I’d like to know more about that one from you if you’d care to oblige me. We’ve already spoken about some of the films on my list within this piece, so while I’m sure we’ll get back to something like Chef or Godzilla, I’m going to turn my attention to Life Itself for a minute. It’s my number one of the year so far and while it’s hardly a visual spectacle, it works far beyond that of a traditional documentary. It’s an up-close look at an influential person from my line of work, a harrowing depiction of living with cancer, and also a first-rate love story. I don’t usually cry at documentaries, but this one got me. You feel the lust for life and love on display. Roger Ebert was many things, but you come away feeling like above all else, he was a man who loved and was loved.

That’s the thing really…it’s been romanticism that’s got me this year so far. If you look at my top ten list, three of my top five choices made me tear up, with 5 to 7 and The Fault in Our Stars really making me put on the waterworks. For whatever reason, love and love lost has been a theme for me. I’ve yet to have a film that I’ve just lost myself in the setting and characters completely, beyond anything else, but I have gotten lost in love stories. Maybe I’m an old cheeseball, but I got wrapped up in Hazel and Gus having their little infinity in The Fault in Our Stars, Brian and Arielle having a very unusual affair in 5 to 7, and of course the very real depiction of a couple in Life Itself, where Chaz Ebert literally says goodbye to Roger.

On a less sappy note, I would say that the technical aspects of Under the Skin are incredibly hypnotic, while with the aforementioned Godzilla there was a sense of dread that I wish more epic flicks of that nature had.

Robert: You always were a bit of a romantic, Joey. I mean, I’m not one to judge, what with my favorite 2014 movie right now being The Immigrant and all. In fact I wish I had some sort of “theme” or dominant emotion in my top tens like yours. Romance is certainly a big part of at least three of them, along with tragedy, and luckily a few laughs where I honestly wasn’t expecting to find them. I felt a surprising amount of tension watching my top ten, whether it was the constantly-shifting powers and vulnerabilities of the alien in Under the Skin, or the relentless violence of The Raid 2, or even the knowledge that Anna learns about herself and what she does with it in Ida. Though when it comes to tension Blue Ruin delivers by far the most. I’m not sure if I can say much more about Blue Ruin that I didn’t already cover in my review without spoiling anything, and I really don’t want to spoil all the twists and turns it has. I’ll just say I’m glad you’re finally getting a chance to see it for yourself in a few days.

Your words on Life Itself are really striking since you’re not often a documentary kind of guy unless it’s from Michael Moore. You said earlier that “it works far beyond that of a traditional documentary” but…how? You cried during this documentary but not How to Survive a Plague or The Interrupters?

Joey: I am quite the romantic, though I will say that if you look back at my past top ten lists, ironically the years when I’ve been in a relationship are the years where I tend to cite less overtly romantic works. For example: In a relationship? Argo and Drive. Single? Blue Valentine and Her. Go figure.

Anyway, I do like all those other docs you cited, but I think the notion that the subject is a colleague (however distant from what I do and someone I highly doubt even knew that I existed) has something to do with it. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to explain, though I’m pleased to know that a lot of other people in the industry have responded similarly, so I know I’m not alone in being extra-affected by it. Maybe it’s just the combination of love, death, and film? Honestly, I’m not sure I can put my finger on it.

Out of curiosity, what just missed cracking your top ten list? I know you aren’t pulling from a huge list, which is perfectly alright, but I’m curious what came in at 11-15 for example, or whatever number. Basically, I’m also interested in seeing where the change takes place from love it to like it to meh, or what have you. In my case, as of the end of June I’ll have seen just shy of 120 movies and there are about 60 that have three, three and a half, or four stars from me, though after about the first 20 or so it stops being something I’m particularly hot to trot about. To that end, what about you?

Robert: I saw plenty of decent stuff not in my top ten, but there are really only three movies outside my top ten that I feel deserve to be highlighted by me. Stranger by the Lake barely missed out due to me going out of my way to see a showing of Ida at the last minute. It’s not much more than a lurid thriller emphasizing style over substance, but damn if that style isn’t unwaveringly confident.

If Edge of Tomorrow is an example of the kind of popcorn movie that I hope for every summer, X-Men: Days of Future Past is summer fluff that I’m perfectly willing to settle for. The story is convoluted silliness even by X-Men standards, but Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg kept it moving along well enough to stick the landing on its character beats while delivering seriously impressive whiz-bang spectacle. Plus, any movie that wipes a franchise clean from the stink of X-Men: The Last Stand is worth at least some praise.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a movie being named by a lot of critics as the year’s best so far. While I don’t quite share their level of adoration, I did really enjoy most of the film. I really liked its alternating between 2.35:1, 1.85:1, and 1.33:1 aspect ratios to mark the different time periods of the story, as well as its visual compositions and lovely musical score. And of course it also contains one of the best performances of the year from Ralph Fiennes, and I give Wes Anderson a ton of credit for providing Fiennes with such a rich, thoughtfully-written character.

My Cold Stone line between love-it and like-it is a little blurrier than yours, though I guess if I had to draw it somewhere it would be around The Raid 2 and Gloria, which are nearest the bottom of my top ten, while I can’t imagine any but the most phenomenal year in which The Immigrant, Blue Ruin, and Only Lovers Left Alive don’t appear at the end. Hell, it would have to be a really strong year for me to knock out Under the Skin and The Lego Movie when I, well, finally catch up to the offerings of the fall/winter season of 2014. But hey, I can’t complain too much. I’ll still be around just long enough for Life Itself and especially Boyhood, which I’ve only become more excited to see as it gets closer to release.

BoyhoodJoey: I obviously can personally vouch for Boyhood and Life Itself in a big way. Without diving into Boyhood too deeply, unless you want me to of course, I’ll just say that when scholars look back on the year in film that was 2014, I have a feeling that the one movie that truly gets cited as a work of art will be Richard Linklater’s movie. Regardless of if better movies hit during Oscar season, something tells me that the experiment that Linklater successfully pulled off will be the one that makes those in the future stop and say “wow.” When you see it…you’ll understand.

I saw Stranger by the Lake at the New York Film Festival last year and liked it enough, though not nearly as much as you. I’m with you on X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Grand Budapest Hotel, though with less enthusiasm.

I had two four star movies during the first half (5 to 7 and Life Itself) and a dozen three-and-a-half star movies, so there were really only six on my end that missed the cut and still had my adoration. In that realm we’re not far off, which used to be a surprise to everyone. Hopefully this piece will show that we don’t disagree nearly as much as the readers think. We see films in very different lights by and large, but we often come together on truly worthy flicks.

To wrap things up, could you give me a one sentence summary that would, you know, sum up the first half of the year in film for you?

Robert: This year is shaping up to prove what every year proves: great movies can be found if you’re willing to look for them and support them.

Joey: Here, here!

There you have it ladies and gents. I hope you all enjoyed…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!