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Top 10 films of 2014 so far

BY MATTHEW BYRD | AUGUST 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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1. Boyhood 

Richard Linklater, the laid-back, exceedingly Texan director of cult-hits such as Dazed and Confused and Slacker, has spoken often of Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus Raging Bull as the film that changed his life, the one that acted as a catalyst for expressing his creativity. Linklater has made his Raging Bull, the film he will be ultimately be remembered for, the one that will act as a catalyst for countless other young directors and their films. Shot sporadically over a 12-year period, Boyhood tracks the life of a young Texan boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and the friends and family around him from the ages of 6 to 18. It is, at once, a fascinating time capsule of the 2000s, a beautifully shapeless tracking of the maturation of family, and an examination of the experiences that make up our character. Boyhood is a masterpiece, and if it’s not my top film of 2014 when December rolls around, whatever is will be something truly revolutionary. I doubt it.

2. The LEGO Movie

The plot is bonkers. Emmet (Chris Pratt), a boringly normal LEGO figurine construction worker, becomes embroiled in a plot to overthrow the sinister corporatist tyrant of LEGO land, Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his menacing lackey Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), alongside Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Lord Virtuvius (Morgan Freeman), and Batman (Will Arnett). At once a beautifully animated, devilishly funny adventure film and also an ingeniously constructed send-up of consumerism, “destiny” archetypes, and the idea of “special” people, The LEGO Movie is the best animated film of the decade so far and has to be considered a frontrunner for a Best Animated Picture Oscar. I walked into this film expecting the usual lazily assembled, cringe-inducing drivel to be shoveled into the trough in front of me. I came out believing that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (22 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) were geniuses.

3. Snowpiercer

I predicted how South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s first English-language film would end around five to six times. Each subsequent attempt ended up more inaccurate than the last. Set aboard a train carrying the last vestiges of a humanity ravaged by climate change, starkly divided between a ruinously poor rear and Hunger Games-esque rich front, Snowpiercer’s portrayal of a class revolt (led by Captain America himself, Chris Evans) is part poignant sociopolitical commentary and part exhilarating (and wondrously violent) action film. Rounded out with a top-flight cast including Song Kang-Ho, Go Ah-sung, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Octavia Spencer performing at the peak of their craft, Snowpiercer is one of the most daring, most entertaining, and most surprising moves to arrive in recent memory.

4. Obvious Child 

In its own way, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child is a quiet revolution. Robespierre takes on the über-taboo topic of abortion with a mixture of restrained, anti-lyrical dialogue, a cold Brooklyn winter filled with warm performances by (the brilliant) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, and Gabe Liebman, gentle yet riotous humor, and a refusal to be anything but honest about the world and situations it burrows itself into. Films that tackle “edgy” topics will sometimes fall into the trap of infecting the material with enough seriousness, melodrama, and artificial importance to bring on a case of cinematic gout. Obvious Child sidesteps all of this to produce a work that earns every bit of praise bestowed upon it.

5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A meditation on the human propensity for conflict and the fluid nature of political decision making that just happens to have talking apes riding on horseback while shooting machine guns into the air. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is certainly the smartest and possibly the best blockbuster of this, or for that matter any, summer so far. And it should be noted that it would be a shame on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences if Andy Serkis does not receive an Oscar nomination for his tremendous performance as Caesar, the profound and magnetic leader of the apes who hopes for peace between his kind and humans but knows that there is little he can do to stop the inevitable.

6. Under the Skin

As cold and unwelcoming as the Scottish landscape it inhabits, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin may not be the best film of the year, but it is certainly one of the most unsettling. Tracking Scarlett Johansson as an alien tasked by unexplained extraterrestrial handlers with luring men with the promise of sexual fulfillment only to provide them with a fate best described as ghastly. An expertly shot, eerily atmospheric exploration of the relationship between “the other” and the rest of society, Under the Skin also contains one of the best shots of the year so far. I won’t give it away, but it involves a motorcycle, a broken car window, and an escapee. When you see it, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t heard of Jonathan Glazer prior to this film.

7. Life Itself

Half journey through the career of Roger Ebert, the country’s most well-known and possibly best film critic, by one of the country’s best documentarian’s (Hoop Dreams’ Steve James), half painfully intimate view into Ebert’s final march towards death, Life Itself left me both in awe of Ebert’s prowess for life and writing and terribly sad with the knowledge that the world is much poorer without his words appearing on my computer screen every Wednesday and Thursday.

8. A Field in England

Essentially a massive acid trip disguised as a surreal display of a small episode in the middle of the English Civil War, director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump have stitched together ribald and erudite dialogue with a psychedelic visual aesthetic. A Field in England manages to convey the pointlessness and soul-crushing blackness of early modern European warfare with more tact and entertainment than a thousand Elizabethan costume dramas. Michael Smiley as an Irishman who may or may not be connected to Lucifer himself is worth the price of admission alone.

9. Nymphomaniac Parts I and II

I don’t think this will be on my list at the end of the year, and I wouldn’t even necessarily classify it as good. I left the theater incredibly frustrated at director Lars Von Trier’s (whose default position would seem to be with his middle finger up to the audience) sex epic. The last 30 seconds are horrible, the dialogue can be stilted, and it’s four hours long. But a film that manages to string together hard-core sex scenes, classical music, extrapolations on the differences between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and mob shakedowns while always being entertaining and briefly managing to be affecting, a film you ought to see.

10. 22 Jump Street

The second film on this list from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 22 Jump Street, like The LEGO Movie, is a brilliant send-up of action films, Hollywood sequel culture, and the homoeroticism at the heart of the straight white male buddy-cop dynamic. While not as great as its predecessor, 22 Jump Street’s well-executed action scenes, hundred-a-minute jokes pace, and terrific performances from Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, and even Ice Cube make this a refreshing alternative to the bland action films that audiences have been expected to gobble up over the past decade or so.


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