2014 is halfway over.
For many film fans, this realization will be met with the usual impatient reaction of “can’t we just get to Fall and the good stuff already?” However, if I’m being completely honest, it’s somewhat surprising that it isn’t September by now. My year has been a blur; a frightening reminder that, though it may have moments of interminability, existence is ultimately finite and perpetually chugging toward oblivion, no matter how much I might’ve been entertained along the way.
But you didn’t click on this article to read my existential ramblings. What you really want to know is: what made up the best of the best of the first six months of 2014? Like every year, there was gold to be mined at the local cineplex, art house, on TV, VOD and via the numerous repertory lines established by studios to release their respective back catalogues. Sometimes the gifts are so great that an EOY list just will not suffice. You need a guide to the riches you might’ve missed during the first part of the calendar year as well. Thankfully, I’m looking out for your interests and have compiled the Bastards Guide to Entertainment — a fifteen slot list that details the superlative pieces of cinematic and televised entertainment this year has offered thus far.
15. Joe (d. David Gordon Green, w. Gary Hawkins)
Before Joe, I hadn’t completely given up on David Gordon Green as a filmmaker, but I was certainly close to thinking his days of making idiosyncratic, personal films were over. Though his work on Eastbound and Down is impressive and I’m one of the few who actually flat-out loves Your Highness (a good minotaur cock joke goes a long way), it’s hard not to look at something like Prince Avalanche and wonder if commercial work hadn’t completely watered down his North Carolina-bred Southern aesthetic (it doesn’t help that Criterion released a beautiful Blu of George Washington this year as a reminder of how far Green has strayed from his initial path). However, Joe is a return to form of sorts, sporting the director’s thought-dead cinematic fascinations (his work with non-actors is brilliant here) and eye for moments of blue-collar beauty. It doesn’t hurt that Nicolas Cage turns in what is easily one of the best performances of his career as the titular man of violence. Pointing his mega-acting inward, Cage seethes, his burly chest about ready to explode with elemental wrath; restrained genius that makes you forgive the truly great actor stooping to nonsense like The Frozen Ground. Best utilized as the second film in a Tye Sheridan coming-of-age double feature with last year’s Mud (or, if you’re really adventurous, you could add Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and make it a triple), Joe is a movie about life’s lost triumphs and the constant desire to retain dignity in an uncertain present.
14. Southern Comfort [Blu-Ray, 1981] (d. Walter Hill, w. Michael Kane, Walter Hill & David Giler)
I’ve never been one to hide my absolute adoration of Walter Hill. One of my all-time favorite directors, his filmography has sadly become something of a blind spot (or completely misunderstood) for most of this new generation of filmmakers and critics. Thankfully, Shout! Factory has given one of his many masterworks, Southern Comfort, their deluxe Blu-ray treatment, loading up the disc with brand new interviews with man himself, as well as an utterly sparkling and crisp HD transfer. Backwoods brutality has never looked this damn good, and if you’ve never seen a Walter Hill film I’d suggest you start here and then work your way through his entire catalogue. The Hill brand of masculine action movies is rarely (if ever) replicated in the modern age and anyone remotely interested in the blood & bullets genre would do well to pick this one up.
13. Nymphomaniac (d. & w. Lars von Trier)
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier returns to deliver a four-hour opus of depravity that doubles as a desperate plea for spiritual and emotional fulfillment. Von Trier has always made a habit of placing himself directly inside of his films (see 1987’s Epidemic for the best example), but never has one of his works felt quite like a direct confessional or personal examination. Nymphomaniac plays like a laundry list of bad deeds being offered up to the audience for judgment, yet it also unifies von Trier’s stylistically diverse filmography and (believe it or not) acts as a kind of all-encompassing “gateway drug” picture that hand-holds potential newcomers down the path of his numerous thematic obsessions. Granted, I don’t know how many folks are going to choose a 241-minute epic detailing the semen covered feats of a sex addict as their “first von Trier”, but stranger things in life have happened. All I ask is that, if you do approach this smut-filled behemoth, you do so with an open mind, as there is subtext layered upon subtext that can be dissected. Von Trier has certainly made caustically button-pushing texts before, but Nymphomaniac certainly isn’t one of them.
Caution — The linked trailer below is most certainly NSFW.
12. 22 Jump Street (d. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, w. Michael Bacall, Oren Oziel & Rodney Rothman)
How are these movies this good? While the meta-textual in-jokes threaten to collapse like a house of cards in a very “pop will eat itself” sort of way, it’s the broad, beefy shoulders of Channing Tatum on which this superlative second installment rests. Tatum is a natural comedian, as his doofy-yet-lovable Officer Jenko regains his “cool kid” status and is given plenty of chances to make a completely endearing ass out of himself while hunting down yet another juvenile junk peddler. Meanwhile, Little Schmidtty (Jonah Hill, resting on his laurels maybe a bit too much here) is back to being the class goober, barely hanging on to any kind of social status as the two navigate college life and their own tumultuously blossoming bromance (which really should’ve been consummated at the film’s finale but, to be honest, I didn’t expect a big studio comedy sequel to have THAT kinda balls). It’s just like the first one…but not; the directing duo of Lord & Miller cranking up both the action and call-backs to twelve while still managing to churn out quite a few new side-splitting yuk-yuks simultaneously. Solid comedic sequels are a rarity in any age, yet 22 Jump Street continues the hot streak L&M have been on (The Lego Movie being their other 2014 masterpiece of improbability). Now fanboys shout their name whenever potential candidates for future marquee franchise entries are discussed, leading me to believe that they will undoubtedly be helming a Jabba the Hutt origin story for release in 2025.
11. The Attorney (d. Yang Woo-seok, w. Hyeon-ho Yoon & Yang Woo-seok)
Playing like a South Korean riff on the tired American “prestige picture”, Yang Woo-seok’s The Attorney is a rousing melodrama with just enough darkness to never let you forget which country’s film industry bore it. Featuring yet another stunning turn from Bong Joon-ho/Park Chan-wook regular Song Kang-ho (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), what starts out as a somewhat aloof comedy about a misfit tax attorney transmorphs into a politically charged stab at the country’s oppressive policing policies. Most South Korean films that become popular in the US are mostly associated with revenge, darkness and brutality, and while there’s a bit of the third here, the ending of The Attorney is stand-up-and-cheer inspiring. Its been a long while since we’ve gotten a courtroom drama this good, and it’ll be fascinating to see what first-time writer/director Woo-seok does next.
Warning — the linked trailer is super silly and really not representative of the final film whatsoever (but it’s the only clip I got so…).
10. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia [Blu-Ray, 1974] (d. Sam Peckinpah, w. Sam Peckinpah & Gordon T. Dawson)
Twilight Time’s exceptional Blu-ray release inspired me to attempt to rank the films of “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah. Here’s an excerpt from that long-form piece, which found Alfredo Garcia coming in near the top…
“Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a diseased motion picture. It swaggers and sways, like a man who’s been at the bar since eleven in the morning until close, drunkenly hunting for something he may not quite understand himself. One of the ultimate “journey” pictures, Alfredo Garcia contains one of the greatest screen performances of all time from one of the most undervalued character actors who ever lived. Warren Oates’ Benny is the sad loser who sells his soul for a hefty chunk of change, embarking on a crass mission that will tarnish his spirit (as well as his white suit) forever. Playing what is essentially a fictional version of “Bloody Sam” himself (Oates even went as a far as to wear Peckinpah’s sunglasses in the film), it’s a scathingly autobiographical piece of fiction that comes from the darkest corner of the artist’s soul. The ending of Alfredo Garcia is one of stunning power (complete with one of the director’s favorite images — the flash of a firing gun’s muzzle), and begs the question: what would happen to every bad man on this planet should they somehow eradicate their better halves?”
Buy this disc while you still have the chance (as usual, Twilight Time only pressed 3000 copies). It may not sport many special features, but the pristine presentation of the film itself warrants the somewhat silly price tag ($40).
9. Noah (d. Darren Aronofsky, w. Ari Handel & Darren Aronofsky)
Much like the Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Blu-ray, Noah was another work that lead me to go back and evaluate/contextualize its creator’s body of work as a whole. Here’s an excerpt from my much longer piece on the films of Darren Aronofsky:
“Re-purposing the Old Testament fable into a secular examination of God’s Will and the men who both adhere to and buck against it, the devoutly anti-theist director creates a rousing screen fantasy that stands toe-to-toe with the best entries in the genre. Treating the sacred text no differently than Peter Jackson did Tolkien, Noah moves with the same lumbering intensity as Russell Crowe in the role of the titular ark-constructing prophet. Full of stone angel monsters and eruptions of nuclear magic, the spectacle surpasses even that of popular comic book adaptations, as armies of evil men are annihilated by fire and water in equal measure. For the first time in his career, Aronofsky was granted a big enough budget (at $125 million, it’s more than double the allotment for all of his previous pictures COMBINED) to bring the entirety of his vision to life, without sacrificing he and co-writer/producer Ari Handel’s distinct thematic interest in the union of science and theology. It’s a disarming bit of de-mythologization that is daring and provocative; heady material for what is essentially a CGI-laden spectacle picture.”
To summarize – Aronofsky has made the best big budget tent pole film of the year (thus far). Full of his trademark visual tics (those creation montages!) and focused on his own obsessions, it’s further proof that the best films, both large and small, are those that are injected with the director’s passion for life.
8. The Raid 2 (d. & w. Gareth Evans)
The movie that has caused the most hyperbolic reactions this year. I’ve seen it called the “action movie equivalent of The Godfather Part II” and compared to the work of other genre luminaries such as John Woo (which, to be honest, seems like a more apt comparison). So if we’re sticking with exaggeration, I’ll go with this over-baked analogy: if The Raid was Gareth Evans’ The Killer, The Raid 2 is his Hard Boiled. Eschewing the original’s minimalist characterization in favor of maximalist sprawl, what the movie lacks in sound story logic, it more than makes up for in massive set pieces (an even truer comparison might be The Matrix Reloaded, what with that movie’s completely-unnecessary-yet-totally-amazing car chase and kung fu fights that stop the entire film cold). The Raid 2 (or The Raid: Berandal, depending on how much of a pedantic purist you are) is way too long, becomes incredibly cartoonish by the end and revels in the ugliness of the violence probably a bit too much. But that doesn’t render the movie’s earnest ambitions and propulsive intensity any less impressive. The Raid 2 is the work of collective insanity, as Edwards flexes his filmmaking muscles and numerous stuntmen put themselves in harm’s way just for the sake of “the shot”. Much like its predecessor, it’s a rare narrative feature that reminds you how traditional storytelling can be jettisoned completely if you’re a good enough cinematic magician, and with The Raid 2, Edwards has proven himself to be one of the best.
7. Review [Comedy Central Series] (Executive Producer/Star: Andy Daly)
“Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”
Before he slipped on the tweedy, tan jacket of Forrest Macneil, all I really knew improvisational impresario Andy Daly from was playing Principal Cutler, the romantic foe to washed up John Rocker clone, Kenny Powers, on HBO’s Eastbound & Down. I enjoyed Daly in that role, but nothing he displayed there prepared me for the utterly brilliant work he puts in on the alternately hilarious and depressing high-concept Comedy Central sitcom Review. MacNeil is a hapless schlub who has elected to host a reality series in which he reviews (on a star rating, of course) life experiences that his viewers suggest. What results is MacNeil trying everything from cocaine to forcefully divorcing his wife to becoming motherfucking Batman for a day. It’s as absurd and hilarious as it sounds, but what really sets the series apart is its commitment to delivering a defined arc for Forrest to navigate. What could’ve been a series of disconnected vignettes is instead a rather ingenious bit of long form storytelling, as MacNeil learns what’s truly important to his continued existence as a human being while also letting us know that racism really is only a half-star experience. With an aces supporting cast (James Urbaniak truly kills as Forrest’s deadpan producer) and Daly willing to charge headfirst into the bizarre, Review is the big surprise of 2014’s spring television season.
6. Thief [Blu-Ray, 1981] (d. & w. Michael Mann)
Arguably one of the most distinctive American directorial debuts of all time, Michael Mann’s first big screen foray following a legendary television run is carried by a seriously cool James Caan and punctuated with bursts of the filmmaker’s now-trademarked bombastic violence. Auteurist to its very core, Thief begins Mann’s silver screen fascinations with hard men who adhere to rigorous moral codes. The Criterion Collection has cleaned the film up and delivered a disc that stacks up to even their unusually high standards, as neon lights gleam off of metallic bodies while the synths of Tangerine Dream build a driving, rhythmic force. Those who love Mann’s other crime sagas (Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) would do well to go back to where it all began, as Thief is still possibly the best film the notoriously perfectionist director has ever made.
5. Possession [Blu-Ray, 1981] (d. Andrzej Zulawski, w. Andrzej Zulawski & Frederic Tuten)
Easily the cult film release of 2014 (the “teal” transfer on the upcoming Phantom of the Paradise disc precludes it from being truly “great”), Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession is a must-see for anyone interested in either grindhouse or art house filmmaking. Featuring one of the most batshit performances ever committed to celluloid, it’s difficult to not look away from Isabelle Adjani’s manic mental deterioration simply due to the fact that it often feels as if you’re witnessing a true nervous breakdown (the urban legend revolving around Possession is that Adjani attempted to take her own life shortly after production wrapped). Possession is the type of picture that the term “singular vision” was invented to describe, as not only do I have a feeling that the only person the film makes 100% sense to is Zulawski (as my friend Phil once pointed out), but the attention to presenting a cinematic nightmare pervades nearly every frame (the Steadicam work is absolutely exhausting). Mondo Vision have put together an incredible package for a picture that’s been damn near impossible to find on disc (its been OOP in America for years) and is probably only a known entity to the most die-hard film fanatics. So ignore the somewhat steep price tag ($40) and take the plunge, as Possession is a movie that sears itself into your psyche after just one viewing.
4. Under the Skin (d. Jonathan Glazer, w. Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer)
Alternately beguiling and unsettling, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in nearly a decade is an existential horror show, molded out of equal parts Andrei Tarkovsky and John McNaughton. An alien (Scarlett Johansson) comes to Earth and begins to feed off of the souls of stray Scottish men she picks up in a nondescript white van. Playing somewhat like a free-form, experimental take on Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (and featuring just as much extraterrestrial nudity), Glazer offers no easy answers and ends on a feminist note that comments on the devaluation of not only women’s lives, but all lives in general. It’s easy to see why the film has been so divisive — it was basically booed out of Venice — but those willing to give themselves over to its ominous drone (Mica Levi’s buzzing score is easily the one to top this year) will more than likely have much to consider for weeks, months and (hopefully) years to come.
3. True Detective [HBO Series] (d. Cary Joji Fukunaga, w. Nic Pizzolatto)
Nic Pizzolatto’s mercurial rise to fame is rather well-deserved. With only one other credit to his name (scripting two episodes of The Killing’s first season — a gig he apparently doesn’t like talking about in interviews), Pizzolatto somehow managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist, strangle it and mount deer antlers on its head, allowing us to then examine and pick apart every last detail, a la the show’s now iconic detectives, Rust Cohle (MatthewMcConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). While some of the criticisms the show earned itself are certainly valid (its attitude toward women remains somewhat troubling even on repeat viewings), those who assigned “greater aspirations” to the show early on (no doubt encouraged by rabid media coverage that stoked the fires of its fans’ wildest theories) are then holding its rather lovely, character-completeing ending in suspect contempt. At its core, True Detective uses tried and true genre tropes as a means to examine its two intense (and intensely flawed) subjects, featuring career best work from both of its leads. Those who dismiss it for its flaws seem to have a detrimental “baby with the bath water” mentality, discounting the entire eight-hour affair (which boasts some of the most masterful direction ever committed to television) via some rather flimsy criticisms. As nihilistic as Jim Thompson at his darkest and featuring some of the best hard-boiled dialogue since Elmore Leonard, True Detective is a yellow-stained dime store crime novel come to life, and the mind races with the possibilities of what the second, self-contained season will bring. Pizzolatto has said that the show takes so much out of him that he can only foresee finishing three seasons. I hope he’s wrong, as I want an entire bookshelf lined with entries in this stellar series.