Favorite 15 Films of 2014 (So Far) From murder to full frontal to bear traps

Murder, full frontal, children’s toys, bear traps — here are our 15 favorite films of 2014 so far, informally calculated from our writers’ lists, rankings, and good vibes. It’s a dark bunch of films overall, with even directors typecast for cheerful whimsy dealing in dismemberment and just-offscreen genocide. Still, the best of 2014 is also diverse enough that if you need a break from, say, sex with murderers (who doesn’t?) or the methodical destruction of the family unit, you can have it, whether in the form of an abortion/poop joke comedy or the smartest big-budget kids’ animation in years.

Honorable mentions: The Double, Enemy, We Are the Best!, Manakamana, Like Father Like Son, Snowpiercer, Only Lovers Left Alive, Summer of Blood, Breadcrumb Trail, Locke, Last of the Unjust, A Coffee in Berlin, Child’s Pose, Maidentrip, Wrong Cops

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Dir. Ben Russell and Ben Rivers

[Rouge International]

We hear a choir of voices chanting over the dark waters, but only the camera is moving. And then stillness, the texture of solitude. We are beyond interaction at this point, inside a space created where we as viewers have disappeared, as if the lake has found its way into us and we no longer think. A place outside the tragicomedy of discourse, of selves. [...] Filmmakers Ben Russell and Ben Rivers make an interesting decision to bookend the film with this opening scene and the final twenty-something-minute-long black metal concert, as if to say these two types of surrendering — one to nature and its bellowing within us, and the other, an immersion in thrashing sound and screaming — experience a loss of self. At first we dissolve in scenery, and at last we dissolve in sound. Neither is hung up on anything other than tone, and this breathes a rare life into the film, making it seem alive. [full review]

A Field in England
Dir. Ben Wheatley

[Drafthouse Films]

Despite comparisons to Ken Russell and the period horror films churned out by the Hammer and Amicus studios, and the invocations of Bergman and Fellini in its opaque surrealism, A Field in England structurally resembles a Western: the basic plot is a paraphrase of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with several savage characters in wide-brimmed hats and long coats seeking a buried treasure as a civil war rages around them. [...] Of course, no Western I know of ever placed its characters in painterly still tableaux or subjected them to stroboscopic freakouts. The film's free-floating weirdness feels deliberate rather than inevitable, as if Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump (his wife and frequent collaborator) have worked hard to make it strange. But perhaps that's evidence of the degree to which modern audiences expect movies to make sense, in a way they didn't in the late 60s and early 70s (a period from which this film draws inspiration), when psychedelia and surrealism crept into even mainstream fare, and films were weird not due to conscious effort but because they couldn't be any other way. [full review]

Dir. Lars von Trier


The film exhausts itself with a constant stream of sound, texture, motion, stink, and cruelty until it is left seeping like the open wounds on Joe's inner thighs. And yet, in the end, it still feels awake, open, like it is doing shit to you even when you leave the theater. I have seen Antichrist maybe four times now, and I can still think back on certain scenes and feel injected. It's incredible wanting that feeling again from when you first see a film, as it seems more and more rare. Nymphomaniac promises this kind of lurking, too, like it's going to stick to your insides and grow, taking space on and making you full. "Fill all my holes," Joe repeats throughout the film as a kind of mantra. A request to plug up an uncontainable body that is as large as a lake, a field, a black hole. Von Trier's idea of what it's like to be a woman. And I thank him for wondering. [full review]

Obvious Child
Dir. Gillian Robespierre

[A24 Films]

True to its title, Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child features the Paul Simon song in the film. It's more than just a snappy — and for a low-budget indie, undoubtedly expensive — soundtrack choice: it underscores an early scene in the film around which the plot pivots. Aspiring comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is rudely dumped by her cheating boyfriend, and told by her boss that the bargain bookstore where she works is closing. Seeking consolation, she allows herself to be picked up by the relentlessly square Max (Jake Lacy), and their foreplay, a silly dance party in his living room, is edited to Simon's song. Donna brushes Max off as a one-night stand — until she finds out she is pregnant a few weeks later. This complication lingers in the background as Max tries to pursue Donna, and she tries to avoid him and the truth. The film has been labeled "an abortion romantic comedy," which tells us more about our politics than the film itself, but I can see why people have struggled to define it. I'm not quite sure how to situate Robespierre's film, and how or to whom to recommend it. Some people say a lie's a lie's a lie / But I say why / Why deny the obvious child? / Why deny the obvious child? Is it "the obvious child" or "the obvious, child"? It's both. [full review]

Dir. Alex van Warmerdam

[Drafthouse Films]

The film has been compared to the work of Michael Haneke, and van Warmerdam does have a similar proclivity to show cold-blooded brutality in a shockingly direct way. But whereas Haneke characteristically works with narrative negative space, inviting the audience to speculate on the very core of what they've seen, van Warmerdam's film, though it includes fantastical/unexplained elements, is a tightly constructed mechanism that delights in the craft and precision of Borgman and his cohorts as they progress toward a clear and specific goal. Haneke plays conceptual games using naturalistic scenes as his building blocks; Van Warmerdam creates a heightened reality to tell a story that unfolds organically, cruel as nature. […] It's an ambitious, brilliantly conceived piece, full of striking images that hang around in your thoughts afterwards. The final sequence suggests no less than the fall of the capitalist system, and not for the better. [full review]

The Dance of Reality
Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky

[Abkco Films]

Jodorowsky's latest is an uncompromisingly lyrical and surreal film, which is only hampered by some segments that find the filmmakers' digital equipment not up to the task of capturing the master's vision. We're introduced to a mother who only communicates through bursts of opera singing and comes up with a truly awe-inspiring cure for the plague; a classically Jodorowskian group of severely disfigured men (victims of mine accidents); and a brutal, Stalinesque father (played exquisitely by Jodorowsky's eldest son, Brontis) obsessed with assassinating General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and who screams the mantra "God doesn't exist!" with as much fervor as a Westboro Baptist protester. Traversing this strange landscape is a young Jodorowsky (Jeremias Herskovits), ridiculed by his Chilean peers for his Jewish Ukrainian ancestry and constantly tested by his father for strength and resistance to pain. This boyhood Jodorowsky plays a Dante to the Virgil of Mr. Jodorowsky himself, looking surprisingly spry for an 85-year-old, guiding his younger self through sometimes traumatic, sometimes joyful, but always very powerful experiences. What's most remarkable about all this weirdness is the director's absolute refusal to treat any of his characters with anything less than the utmost compassion and dignity. Here we see a Jodorowsky less incensed by political discord and perceived injustice, and more concerned with the lives of the individuals he's decided to follow in his film. [full review]

The LEGO Movie
Dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller

[Warner Bros.]

As with any kids’ film, the concept is a ridiculous one, especially typed out like this in review form. But The Lego Movie elevates itself beyond its somewhat cornball premise thanks to everyone on board. Lord and Miller wrench some genuine laughs out of the limited physical movement of these Lego people and the outlandish circumstances these characters are in, while also providing some healthy digs at corporate culture. The cast is pitch-perfect, too, with some great work thrown in the mix by Liam Neeson as a split-personality policeman and Charlie Day as a hyperactive 80s-era spaceman. […] The real gem of this production, though, is the animation staff. Working within the confines of Lego shapes and using models from throughout the toy brand’s history, they create vast landscapes that should send collectors into convulsions of joy and envy. Absolutely everything — from explosions to a vast ocean to a strange nebula that lies just outside President Business’s office building — is rendered as if built from actual Lego pieces. [full review]

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

[Music Box Films]

Rather than the dramatic histrionics that [the film’s] clash of figures may suggest, Pawlikawski’s approach is austere and subdued (even the romance is dealt with elegantly), capturing a sense of spiritual tranquility with a purity and economy of form that is rare outside of a Bresson or Dreyer film, yet with a political and moral fervor that this type of material demands. Its compositions are often fragmented, with close-ups capturing only a portion of Ida’s face or placing her at the very bottom of the frame as if her sense of self is dominated by the world around her while the soundtrack, only once interrupted by a brief spurt of non-diagetic sound, is wonderfully spare, the emptiness filled either with natural sounds or brief interludes of classical or jazz music (most memorably John Coltrane’s “Naima” in its most sentimental moment and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony ironically in its most tragic) played by the characters. This minimalist aesthetic is not only suitably contemplative, but allows the films dramatic moments hit with a crashing crescendo and the visceral indignation of Wanda to clash so wonderfully with the serene solemnity of Ida. [full review]

Under the Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer

[A24 Films]

She leads all of the men into a smooth and reflective black plane, where they follow her as she undresses — more and more with each man, with the first just her shirt coming off, but by the third man she is naked — and then, once all of their clothes are off, they descend, seemingly without hesitation, into a body of gelatin or liquid, where they are suspended until suddenly deteriorating silently. This is in stark contrast to the scene that starts the movie, when the succubus steals the body of the dead girl, which takes place among impossible white, luminescent and shining, infinite. […] There are many more of these visually-stunning and inventive moments. But Under the Skin is not “interesting” to look at a lot of the time, mostly taking place in a van as Scarlett Johansson’s character drives around the streets of Scotland, talking to men, taking a few of them, leaving most of them where they are. Glazer employed documentary techniques for these scenes — everyday non-actors, unstaged footage of crowds — giving them the feeling of anthropological filmmaking, almost predatory in its detached observation. [full review]

Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
Dir. Denis Côté


Côté’s film […] thrives on that ambiguity and the isolated feeling it creates. The secondary characters are mostly one-dimensional — Jackie (who appears late in the film but plays a crucial role) is a villain, Guillaume is a stooge, and Emile is a ghost. But Côté’s portrait is also carefully tender at points. In many ways, the relationship between the two women exhibits a complex psychology of post-incarceration life. When Flo sustains an injury that requires her to wear a leg cast, she points out that Vic almost seems pleased by her lack of mobility. Thankfully, Robitaille and Bohringer carry the film with subtle expressiveness from its initial vagaries through the harrowing final ten minutes (and trust me when I say that it’s a uniquely shocking conclusion). What you make of that ending is entirely up to you, but it sticks in your throat like an unspoken word. Whatever the nature of the complex bonds between Vic, Flo, and the outside world, the idea that they are essentially real is hard to deny. [full review]

12 O’Clock Boys
Dir. Lotfy Nathan


Over a span of three years, relatively unknown first time director Lotfy Nathan trained his camera on a young West Baltimore boy named Pug as he transitioned from a bright-eyed, boundlessly energetic pre-teen to a somewhat world-weary 13-year-old with an increasingly hard edge. Pug, whose undeniable magnetism and knack for guileless insight affords this film its most compelling reason for being, is obsessed with doing wheelies on dirt bikes and ATVs with a passionate intensity that only seems to present itself in the very young. While his fascination is intriguing and lends itself to some downright breathtaking action montages, the film revolves around an emotional center consisting of its subject growing up poor in some of the rougher parts of Baltimore with little parental supervision. What makes 12 O’Clock Boys a nearly perfect film hinges on how everyone involved managed to transcend the easily-exploitable particulars of Pug’s situation to create a work that treats a minor subject with an inspiring amount of respect and autonomy. [full review]

Stranger by the Lake
Dir. Alain Guiraudie

[Strand Releasing]

There is an underlying sense in the film that action, whether it represents Franck’s sexual identity or Michel’s violence, is validated by the presence of a witness. Men lurk around, emerging from the woods without warning, and the characters frequently find themselves in configurations of three. There are also rumors about a dangerous silurus (we never see it, but a silurus is a big, disgusting catfish) lurking at the bottom of the lake. These parasitic formations at first appear innocuous, and eventually collapse into violence. Still, though voyeurism and exhibitionism are instrumental to the story, they aren’t the endgame. Maybe that’s why Stranger by the Lake is able to avoid tawdriness. [The film] doesn’t feel exactly like anything I’ve seen before. In an interview included in the press materials for the film, Guiraudie commented that “the good thing about a lake is you always turn to face it.” One of the amazing things about his film is the way that seething body of water becomes the nucleus for so much orbiting activity. [full review]

The Raid 2
Dir. Gareth Evans

[Sony Pictures Classics]

Moving on from his Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 -influenced original, Evans reveals a much wider scope here in influences, story, set pieces, and cinematography. Drawing from films as disparate as The Godfather, Oldboy, Paranoia Agent, and even Hal Needham’s work, Evans is able to craft something familiar yet utterly new. The fights remain the brutal quick-paced, intimate affairs achieved by a stellar stunt team, but they aren’t shot at such close range this time, and even allow a farther depth of field to reveal the complexity Evans is capable of. Taking in a melee at a muddy prison yard, a garish nightclub, or cross-cutting between vicious acts of vengeance in multiple locations, viewers witness a whole new world of meticulously choreographed brutality. Overhead shots often reveal the chaos of this swarm of violence with just as much impact as the close shots between two grappling combatants. Of particular note is a car chase sequence that is easily one of the best in decades, and will certainly influence filmmakers for years to come. [full review]

Cold in July
Dir. Jim Mickle

[IFC Films]

Mickle borrows the visual tropes of 1980’s B-movies to adapt Joe R. Lansdale’s noir novel set in small town Texas during the same time period. In the film’s opening sequence, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) creeps through the hallways of his suburban home, bathed in blue nocturnal light, as he fatally shoots a masked burglar. When the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard) begins stalking Richard’s family, the simple case of self-defense escalates into a more complicated series of events that bend the genre from neo-noir to revenge Western. This fusion of genres finds its representative in the character of Jim Bob (Don Johnson), flamboyant cowboy farmer/private investigator. Johnson’s presence also alludes to another cultural appropriator of the cinema du look style, Miami Vice; a music-soaked shot of Jim Bob driving his convertible at night offers an obvious nod to the pilot episode directed by Michael Mann. […] In this case, the throwback cinematic style intends to match form to function as a means of deconstruction. Just as Ti West tried to recreate a horror film set in the 80s as a critical examination of societal cracks, Mickle evokes the sleazy thrillers of the time period to examine the underpinnings of violence and corruption in American culture. [full review]

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson

[Fox Searchlight Pictures]

[I]t’s the degree to which this branding exercise is adhered to and the discipline with which it is organized that makes The Grand Hotel Budapest the director’s most satisfying and worthwhile film in recent memory. This fact is particularly apparent when one considers Budapest alongside Anderson’s last attempt to make a film with such a narrow-minded aesthetic focus, the truly execrable The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). The difference here is the director’s commitment to a comparably limited set of tools: nearly every shot in the film contains some combination of flat, theatrical staging; centered compositions; 90-degree whip pans; and/or forward tracks with no rotation. The art design adheres uniformly to a proto- (or is it post-?) theatrical art-deco aesthetic, and the dialogue is a series of variations of timing based on the interrelation of arch commentary or winking exposition. The music is comically on-the-nose. What’s crucial here is not the specifics of the ingredients, but the rigidity with which the director abstains from any other expressive possibilities. […] It’s all effervescent fluff, but the film is so deeply committed to sussing out the full extent of the aesthetic possibilities in this particular arrangement of fluff that, in its own way, it winds up as a much of a committed contemporary formalist venture as, say, a Béla Tarr film. [full review]

[Art: K.E.T.]

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