It’s been an interesting half year for movies. Despite the fact that my residence in Middle of Nowhere, Midwest, USA has prevented me from checking out a number of highly interesting films in time to make this article (The reportedly superb Under the Skin, Locke, and The Wind Rises to name a few), I’ve still been able to enjoy plenty of gems and loathe plenty of duds. There’s been exceptional straightforward action flicks in the form of Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past, daring character studies like Nymphomaniac and Enemy, and some truly unique family adventures with The Lego Movie and Muppets: Most Wanted. Be sure to check back for my end of year column counting off the years best but, for now, here’s my take on what film has had to offer at the midway point of 2014.
Best Movie: Enemy (Denis Villenueve)
Sometimes a great film isn’t a whole lot more than the sum of a bunch of really mesmerizing parts. Such is the case with Prisoners director Denis Villenueve’s most recent collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal. See, even after multiple viewings I can’t even begin to explain “what it all means” or if it even means anything at all. Villenueve’s highly surreal film has a simple premise: after Gyllenhaal’s character Adam Bell, a vaguely depressed college professor, believes he sees his doppelganger in a movie he seeks him out. Aaaaand, that’s the most ordinary thing about the movie. Every other aspect of Enemy is brilliantly weird. From Nicolas Bolduc’s face melting cinematography that oscillates between conventional and grainy black and white with no warning to Gyllenhaal’s brilliant simultaneous portrayal of two completely different people with completely different lives, every aspect of film form connects with nightmarish impact.
Worst Movie: Cold Comes the Night (Tze Chun)
There was some speculation of what Bryan Cranston’s first post-Breaking Bad move would be. I’m not sure exactly when Tze Chun’s noirish Cold Comes the Night was filmed or originally slated to be released, but it’s a real shame that this turned out to be it. Everything that could be wrong with a film rears its ugly head here: inexplicable decisions made by the protagonist (at one point, Alice Eve, in the lead role, sneaks into a junkyard late at night wearing a blaze orange jacket, expecting to go unnoticed.), unintenionally hammy acting by just about everyone (Cranston might be the worst offender. As a drug mule of Eastern European descent he employs a hodgepodge of accents that drift from Russian to Ukrainian and back again), and poorly shot action scenes (an in-car shootout between Cranston and his bosses is more laughable than slick). There’s fun bad movies like this year’s Dom Hemingway and then there’s this: a jumble of composite noir-action ideas and characters that all fall flat in the least entertaining ways possible.
Best Performance by an Actor: Tom Hiddelston (Only Lovers Left Alive)
This may be a bit of a cheat since Tilda Swinton plays just as important a role in Jim Jarmusch’s newest film, but Hiddelston is too good here to ignore. Jarmusch is no stranger to the creation of cool, brooding, damaged characters and he may have crafted his most interesting one yet in Tom Hiddleston’s Adam (Swinton’s character is named Eve). While a less assured actor may have overplayed his role, feeling constricted by playing such a decidedly Jarmuschian character, but Hiddleston, as a music-obsessed, centuries old vampire delivers a muted, nuanced performance that relies more on facial expressions and body language than grandiose speeches.
Best Performance by an Actress: Mia Wasikowska (Tracks)
There are a lot of things to love about John Curran’s Australian Outback trek movie Tracks. Mandy Walker’s desert cinematography is arrestingly beautiful, Adam Driver’s supporting performance is funny yet restrained, and the true story being worked with is inspiring but never hokey. Wasikowska, though, steals the show, offering up her best performance in a year full of great ones (she has supporting roles in both Only Lovers Left Alive and The Double, opposite a pair of Jesse Eisenbergs.) As real life Australian Robyn Davidson, Wasikowska exudes a plausible restlessness as she forgoes conventional wisdom and makes her way across the Outback with her faithful dog and a handful of camels. The fact that the film doesn’t do the best job of making Davidson’s motivations clear is a testament to Wasikowska’s performance. Even though we’re not quite sure why she’s doing this, Wasikowska gives us reason to care by giving off a truly enigmatic and human vibe.
Best Documentary: Jodorowsky’s Dune
One of the great tragedies in the history of cinema is the disintegration of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune in 1974. The El Topo and Holy Mountain master had already recruited individuals who would go on to work on such landmark sci-fi films like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Alien and was well into the production process before major studio reticence forced the project to shut down for good. Frank Pavich’s documentary explores not only the tumultuous history of the project from beginning to premature end, it also looks at the lasting legacy it had in the form of collaborators H.R. Geiger and Christopher Foss taking many of the ideas started on Dune and expanding them on other films. The real treats here is the extensive interview footage with the mystical, talkative Jodorowsky himself. He holds nothing back, unleashing 40 years of pent up information and emotion regarding his aborted Dune attempt. Also, throughout the entire film, the hundreds of concept images drawn up Jodorowsky and his collaborators are blown up in full detail.
Best Cinematography: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s films are always visual treats, replete with meticulously designed sets, lush colors and eye-catching stop motion animation in lieu of CGI. While his most recent picture may lack in the characterization department, Anderson and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman pulled out all the stops aesthetically. Perhaps the most expansive film in Anderson’s oeuvre, location-wise, The Grand Budapest Hotel follows it’s protagonists (and villains, in Willem Defoe’s case) all over the the fictional European country of Zubrowka in the midst of what is assumed to be World War II. Anderson and Yeoman treat the audience to the beautiful Hotel itself, in stop motion miniature form from a distance, and then in all it’s painstakingly crafted beauty up close; a complicated prison break sequence that harkened back to the most impressive moments of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and a climax that includes a harrowing race through carefully built, snowcapped, stop motion mountains.
Biggest Disappointment: Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Darren Aronofsky movies have become mini-events for movie fanatics. Even if his films don’t always deliver in terms of offering a great complete package (many would argue that his frequently beautiful imagery is a means to cover up his thin plots), there are always multiple elements, whether it be those striking visuals or the frequently explosive performances he extracts from his actors, that make them worth seeing and dissecting. This is what makes his take on the story of Noah and the Great Flood so underwhelming. The ultimate hope when a consistently interesting, visionary director receives the financial freedom of a big studio blockbuster is that he will be able to take all of those unique traits from his smaller films ad blow them up on a larger scale; hopefully exposing his work to a whole new audience. Unfortunately, aside from a visually captivating “creation” sequence, everything here just feels too safe. For a filmmaker that has never shied away from offering up thought-provoking ideas, Noah is decidedly devoid of them. There is little to no commentary on religion, faith, human nature, free will, or any number of the topics that this story is ripe with. Instead, Aronofsky delivered a pretty by the numbers action movie with solid visuals and some shoehorned second and third act drama that is beyond predictable.
Biggest Surprise: Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
While Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding techniques have opened up exciting new avenues of funding for professional and amateur filmmakers alike, the resulting films have been largely hit or miss (looking at you Veronica Mars and Wish I Was Here). The fact that Jeremy Saulnier’s meditative, violent Blue Ruin was completely Kickstarter funded would be reason enough to celebrate. That such a good film could come together through public backing is truly exciting and a testament to the possibilities of the medium. However, the Kickstarter aspect of it is really beside the point. Blue Ruin is just a damn good movie, crowdsourcing or not. In Saulnier’s gripping story Dwight (Macon Blair) has just learned that the man convicted of murdering his parents is being released from prison, so he takes it upon himself to implement his own brand of justice. What sounds like a fairly typical genre film is elevated to greatness through several components. Macon Blair, as the lead of an unheralded cast, transforms before our eyes from a reticent and withdrawn individual to a wild-eyed, anguished man hellbent on destruction. Saulnier’s precise, atmospheric cinematography is filled with little details (be on the lookout for extensive yet appropriate uses of the color blue), and his camera work makes great use of focus and long shots to reflect the addled mind of his protagonist. Even with all of those tangibly great aspects, what I found most impressive is how skillfully Saulnier’s film tiptoes the line between action packed genre thriller and soulful, meditative character study. Just when I was sure of the direction Saulnier was taking me, he changed course and delivered an unexpected and satisfying new chapter of Dwight’s story. I can’t wait to see what might happen when Saulnier gets some serious money behind him. Hopefully, he doesn’t neglect what makes his movies special, like Darren Aronofsky has.
Dustin is currently studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He loves movies, music, basketball, and beer. Follow him on Twitter @Dustin_W317.