The 2014 Halftime Report

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As hard as it is to believe, we now find ourselves six months into another year. Of course, we should use this time to reflect. Not on our lives, of course. Who cares about that? We should instead turn our attention to the various movies that have been released so far in 2014, and this has probably been the best January-to-June stretch we’ve seen in several years. Normally when I do a mid-year post, I have trouble coming up with five movies that I really liked. This time around, I quite easily came up with a list of 10 movies I really, really liked, and the even greater miracle is just how strong Hollywood has been so far this year. We didn’t get our first genuine stinker of the summer movie season until a certain Michael Bay arrived last week to muck things up. 2014 is off to a rousing start, and we still have six months ahead that are full of new movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and more.

This post, in essence, is a brief cinematic report card. I will be offering my picks for the best and worst of the year so far, and then will conclude with a list of all the movies I’m looking forward to in the coming months. It’s pretty simple stuff, but what better way to celebrate the Fourth of July weekend than to praise the year in film so far, while also stopping to make fun of Labor Day and Winter’s Tale? It just feels right.

THE BEST

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My choice for the best film of the year so far came down to two films, and the race was so close that it seems silly to even bother choosing one over the other. But if we cannot turn art into a useless horse race, then what is it good for? Therefore, I hereby proclaim the best film of 2014 (so far) to be Wes Anderson’s wonderful The Grand Budapest Hotel. As you may or may not recall, I recently wrote a post about how my opinion of Anderson’s films has changed dramatically over the years. Not too long ago, I could never have imagined falling so head over heels for one of his creations, but his latest is a film that keeps on giving with every viewing. (I’ve seen it three times, and I plan on revisiting it many times in the future.) Anderson has spent his whole career creating a unique, meticulously-crafted universe, and never has his vision felt more fully-realized. Even the use of shifting aspect ratios feels utterly purposeful, and it’s just one way of illustrating how the prim and proper world symbolized by Ralph Fiennes’  protagonist Gustave has turned into a distant memory. This is a wildly entertaining and brilliantly constructed film, and it moves so quickly and energetically that when Anderson’s signature melancholy breaks through, it comes as a surprise, albeit one that is earned in every conceivable way.

The other best films of the year so far… (in alphabetical order)

  • Blue Ruin is an indie thriller that came out of nowhere to wow critics and audiences on the festival circuit, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a simple enough revenge thriller, but Jeremy Saulnier turns it into an unrelentingly tense experience that promises even greater things to come.
  • It may lose a bit of steam when the climax comes around, but Edge of Tomorrow is intelligent and funny in ways most modern summer blockbusters are not. It may not have succeeded at the box office, but it has already put together a vocal fan base that can only continue to grow.
  • Instead of sticking to the established blockbuster formula, Gareth Edwards turned his version of Godzilla into a patient and exciting monster movie that’s more than a little reminiscent of early Spielberg. He has a gift for using his visuals to actually tell the story rather than distract from it, and I didn’t realize just how rare a quality that was until I saw it done right.
  • It may be a 100-minute toy commercial, but The LEGO Movie is one of the greatest toy commercials ever made. The red hot Phil Lord and Christopher Miller took a cynical project and turned it into a hilarious and surprisingly emotional family film about the importance of creativity and individuality.
  • Steven Knight’s second directorial effort Locke takes place almost entirely in a car, and the audience watches as Tom Hardy tries to keep his life from completely falling apart over the course of a 90-minute drive. It’s the kind of film that lives and dies based on the central performance, but Hardy makes it sing.
  • Of all the mainstream comedies to come out this year, Nicholas Stoller’s surprise smash Neighbors may well be the best of the bunch. Unlike other improv-heavy comedies, this film moves quickly from scene to scene, and rarely does it ever get stuck in a single gag. Not only does it feature a funny cast doing funny work, but Stoller does his part to make the performers look especially good doing it.
  • Darren Aronofsky’s Noah became controversial for its deviations from the Biblical story, but the idea that the film is an attack on religion is ludicrous. It’s about a man coming to terms with what his creator has asked him to do, and Aronofsky uses the story to explore ideas most $100 million films wouldn’t dare touch. This is the rare big-budget epic in which the spectacle may actually be the least interesting part.
  • It’s no surprise that Jim Jarmusch would make a slightly unconventional vampire film, and though his Only Lovers Left Alive may not have much of anything in terms of plot, it creates a unique group of central characters, played just about perfectly by a talented group of performers.
  • I just realized I never told you what film challenged The Grand Budapest Hotel for the top spot, and the answer to that question is Jonathan Glazer’s spellbinding Under the Skin. This is visual storytelling at its finest, and it floats from scene to scene with terrifying grace.

THE WORST

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Prior to Labor Day, I was a big fan of Jason Reitman. I had liked all four of his previous films to varying degrees. During my time at Ohio State, he once came and spoke at our campus, and he was utterly charming. That said, this film is a mess in every conceivable way. The script for this thing is better fit for a soap opera or Lifetime movie than a major theatrical release, and if you’ve ever wanted to see the world’s longest, most erotically-charged pie-baking montage, then you needn’t look any further. This is a case of a group of insanely talented people committing wholeheartedly to a project that was misguided right from the start. This kind of material is not Reitman’s strong suit in the slightest, but if he were to make a different movie with this same exact cast, it might turn out to be wonderful. In fact, he should go ahead and do it. I’m more than willing to pretend this never happened.

The other worst films of the year so far… (in alphabetical order)

  • McG is in the middle of one heck of a losing streak. His last film, This Means War, was one of the worst of its year, and now the Kevin Costner vehicle 3 Days to Kill is another unpleasant addition to his filmography.
  • Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with the technophobia thriller Transcendencewhich has some fine ideas but drowns under a sea of stupidity and massive logic leaps.
  • If Transformers: Age of Extinction is any indication, even Michael Bay seems bored of these movies at this point. It’s an endless parade of incoherence and meaningless CGI, and he can’t even bother to make this installment offensive in any interesting way. It simply goes about its cynical business in especially cynical fashion.
  • Of the films on this list, Winter’s Tale may be the one I’d actually recommend, just so you all can see the degree to which a passion project can go so horribly wrong. This a movie where literally nothing makes sense, and then an absurd Will Smith cameo winds up being the cherry on top. It’s not a particularly fun watch, but it’s captivating in its absurdity.

STILL TO COME

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And now, the films I’m most looking forward to in the second half of 2014.

  • Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, has already gotten great reviews in limited release and will be expanding this weekend.
  • The Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself seems set to be one of the most acclaimed nonfiction films of the year, and it will get a limited theatrical/VOD release this weekend.
  • After the surprise success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves takes the helm for the much-anticipated sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
  • Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has one heck of a hook: it was filmed over a 12-year period, tracking the growth of young actor Ellar Coltrane. Reviews from the festival circuit have been glowing as well.
  • The trailer for I Origins just looks silly, but I was a fan of Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, so what the heck.
  • Michel Gondry has faded into the background since the failure of The Green Hornet, but perhaps Mood Indigo will bring him back to the forefront.
  • It’s been ages since Luc Besson has directed a good movie, but the idea of Scarlett Johansson in action hero mode in Lucy is definitely intriguing.
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films are starting to trickle out, and the Anton Corbijn-directed spy thriller A Most Wanted Man becomes essential viewing for that reason alone.
  • As the Marvel Cinematic Universe starts to become more and more homogenized, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy seems as though it could be a breath of fresh air.
  • The James Brown biopic Get On Up seems like pretty typical stuff, but Chadwick Bosemen was terrific in 42, and I’m interested to see what he does here.
  • Any movie with Brendan Gleeson is worth a look, and the Irish film The Calvary seems like it really could be something. Early reviews have been good as well.
  • Goon director Michael Dowse moves into the romantic comedy genre with What Ifwhich throws Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan together as our sure-to-be-adorable leads.
  • My expectations aren’t sky high for Let’s Be Cops, but Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. are wonderful comedic performers who may have to lift this thing up with their bare hands.
  • So, Frank is a comedy film in which Michael Fassbender wears a paper-mâché head the whole time. Count me in.
  • Festival favorite The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby concerns itself with the relationship between James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, and it explores their story from both points of view.
  • David Fincher. Gone Girl. What do you need, a road map?
  • Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s second directorial effort The Interview has already generated some press, thanks to the North Korean government’s less-than-thrilled reaction to the trailer. I don’t expect that will quiet down in the coming months.
  • Miles Teller stars in the jazz-drumming film Whiplash, which got a great reception when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year.
  • Alejandro González Iñárritu lost a great deal of critical support with his last film Biutiful, but the trailer for his new film Birdman is downright captivating.
  • Matthew Vaughn gets back to his super-British action movie roots with Kingsman: The Secret Service, which stars Colin Firth as a secret agent.
  • Christopher Nolan officially embarks on his post-Batman career with Interstellar. We don’t know a lot about it yet, but based on the early trailers, it sure seems like a whole lot of movie.
  • End of Watch director David Ayer tackles World War II in Fury, which seems to be taking the bold stance that war isn’t that great a thing.
  • The long-delayed Foxcatcher has started making the festival rounds this year, and this wrestling drama starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo has garnered mostly positive reviews.
  • This holiday season: Dumb and Dumber ToI’m not above it.
  • Both Hunger Games films so far have been strong, and with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1we reach the beginning of the end.
  • The Alan Turing drama The Imitation Game has Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role and the Weinsteins backing it. Deserved or not, don’t be surprised to hear this title a lot during Oscar season.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films have become two of my favorite movies, period, and this winter brings us his Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice.
  • We haven’t exactly been clamoring for a new take on The Ten Commandments, but Ridley Scott has directed one anyway. It’s called Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it stars Christian Bale as Moses.
  • Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy finally picked up some steam in The Desolation of Smaug, and this winter he brings this bloated saga to an end in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Well, that’s been the halftime report, all! Thank you all for joining me, and here’s hoping the second half of 2014 lives up to the first. Will any of these films unseat The Grand Budapest Hotel? Will Dumb and Dumber To have the successful Oscar campaign we’re all anticipating? Will the long-heralded Death of Cinema finally arrive in the next six months? Stay tuned!

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