under skin2

The 4th of July is America’s annual half-time show. Gaudy, overproduced, and vulgar, sure — but mixed with legitimate dignity, grand aspirations, and honorable impulses nonetheless. We put the past 6 messy months behind us, pack up whatever’s salvageable to carry onward, and hope the rest of the year will be better. And somehow, against all odds, it usually is. One thing we can always count on improving from July to year’s end are the movies we’ll get to see. But hold on, not so fast. Any diligent culture-watcher should pause to reflect on the previous 26 weeks. If we don’t try to harvest the best books, music, TV, and movies of the first 6 months of the year we look like ungrateful slackers. So let’s fling in and give it a go. Let’s take a moment to remember the movies that mattered to us in the first half of 2014. Gaudy, overproduced, and vulgar, sure — but mixed with legitimate dignity, grand aspirations, and honorable impulses nonetheless.

Telluride is less than 8 weeks away, so once again we’re running out of time to focus on any film that doesn’t have the Oscar albatross slung around its neck. Now’s our last chance to talk about the movies we love because we just do — not because we’re hoping to help sway the Academy or one another to our way of thinking. I don’t mean to sound cynical about that part of the industry machinery. It’s all part of the system that delivers a wealth of pleasure year after year. I feel really great about some of the movies we’ve been given already this year, and I’m feeling even better about many others we’ll soon get to see. But, yeah, it can be demoralizing to know that we’re about cut a dozen brilliant movies loose, drop them like fading relationships, and barely care as some of them drift out of the conversation for pretty much ever.

So I’ll ask that you not look at this list and wonder what the hell some of my favorites have to with the awards cycle. Because I’m not worried about that right now. I’m well aware that only about a quarter of the movies I’ve loved so far this year will ever have a shot at the Oscars. That matters to me not a bit. I only want to name a few of the movies that thrilled me this year and a few that wrecked me. Some that lifted me up and some that tore me down. Some movies make me think for days, and others help me toquit thinking for a couple of hours. All types of movies, all sorts of styles, all degrees of artistry, all levels of importance. Because moviegoers like us have all kinds of needs, don’t we though? What I love most about movies is all the tasty flavors made to satisfy all our ravenous appetites.

Now that I’ve collected this rough list, I see one thing all these films have in common: they’re all spectacular visual experiences. Richly detailed with opulent production design, exquisitely photographed with a dazzling range of  technique, artfully constructed with extraordinary narrative imagination, and gracefully composed to obsessive perfection.  Each of these movies is so gorgeous to behold, I nearly slip into a altered state of consciousness just watching the images unfold onscreen.  The best of these movies reveal their meanings with a dreamlike sensation and even the least meditative among them immerse us in startling new worlds.

Big Screen

  • Ida, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski. Beautifully balances stark formal austerity with a shimmer of sensuous self-discovery.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson. Operates like an intricate Bavarian cuckoo clock in an elaborate gift box.
  • Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer. Menacing sci-fi horror that’s virtually hallucinatory, sexual predators and their prey.
  • The Immigrant, dir. James Gray. Arrival in America on Ellis Island begins tragically and goes steeply downhill from there.
  • Only Lovers Left Alive, dir. Jim Jarmusch. Dripping with dissolution, immortal love endures eternally while the world rots.
  • Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho. Brutally hardcore sci-fi with social conscience goes deeper than simply indicting the 1%.
  • Calvary, dir. John Michael McDonagh. Irish priest copes with death threats and depraved moral turpitude. Hilariously.
  • The Congress, dir. Ari Folman. Everything you’d expect from an animated Stanisław Lem tale of ego-transmogrification.
  • A Field in England, Ben Wheatley. Surreal 17th-century nightmare, like David Lynch directing Treasure of Sierra Madre.
  • Godzilla, dir. Gareth Edwards. Notorious lizard king finally gets to roam a monumental epic big enough to do him justice.
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2, dir. Dean DeBlois. Expands the adventures of Toothless and Hiccup in wondrous ways.
  • Maleficent, dir. Robert Stromberg. Angelina Jolie as wickedly vindictive and benevolently heartbreaking as you’d expect.
  • Blue Ruin, dir. Jeremy Saulnier. The year’s least likely revenge thriller with an impact far larger than its micro-budget roots.
  • Edge of Tomorrow, dir. Doug Liman. Loopy non-stop Möbius-strip storyline takes itself seriously so we can have a blast.
  • Captain America, dir. Joe Anthony and Joe Russo. Slick action serves an urgent awareness of the surveillance state.
  • The Raid 2, dir. Gareth Evans. Gory ballet numbs into submission and splatters the screen like a roid-rage Jackson Pollack.
  • The LEGO Movie, Chris Miller, Phil Lord. Bizzaro World Toy Story with a wildly agile imagination and subversive wallop.
  • Noah, dir, Darren Aronofsky. Wacky visionary warns of mankind’s doom and path to salvation. Noah and Aronofsky both.
  • Enemy, dir. Denis Villeneuve. Franz Kafka hooks up with Joseph Conrad to cook up a slick sexy existential doppelgangbang.
  • The Fault in Our Stars, dir. Josh Boone. Soars on its candid sincerity and tentative sex appeal – just like all young love.

Small Screen

  • Burning Bush
  • True Detective
  • Breaking Bad
  • Mad Men
  • Penny Dreadful
  • Fargo
  • House of Cards
  • Peaky Blinders
  • Veep
  • Justified
  • The Hollow Crown
  • Game of Thrones
  • Girls
  • Cosmos
  • Hannibal
  • Luther
  • Orphan Black
  • Broad City
  • The Normal Heart
  • Rectify
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  • murtaza

    Excellent, I would add the following also:
    Like Father, Like Son
    Run & Jump
    In Bloom
    Stranger by the Lake

  • Those movies you name are all on my list of Need-to-see, murtaza. I was going to explain that there will be some inevitable gaps in what I’ve been able to see so far this year.

    I wanted to explain that if a movie is absent here today it’s not because I didn’t like it — it might just mean that I haven’t seen it yet.

    This post was in draft but Sasha felt it was ready to go — so I’m fine with that. What I’ll do next is give each of these films a feature post of its own, so I can talk about each one of them in depth, a couple of movies each day for the next couple of weeks. This is really just an outline of what I plan to cover over the next several days.

    Consider this post to be a Table of Contents for the movies I want to feature in more depth over the next week or so. A series of posts we’ll do on the best of the first half of the year.

  • Robin Write

    I will use this as my half-time check-list Ryan. Good job.

  • Work in progress, Robin Write. I was planning to flesh this out a little more before posting but I’m fine with it going online as is. I hit publish too soon, before I was done.

    This way I can get everyone’s feedback before I fill in details and make a case for why I feel lucky to have seen each of these movies so early in the year. From my perspective, 2014 is already off to a really great start.

  • Al Robinson

    The two from your list I’ve seen, and agree with are The Grand Budapest Hotel and Godzilla. But I will also add The Lego Movie. But my #1 so far is TGBH. I really hope Wes finally gets a BP nomination.

  • murtaza

    That would be terrific Ryan, would love to read your in depth analysis of these movies.

  • david

    Great list Ryan. My favorite movies so far.Begin Again,The Toy Soldiers, Palo Alto, The Fault In Our Stars

  • Here are the films which, US release date in consideration, ought to be eligible for Oscar 2014 that I have seen and liked, in a rough order from best to slightly less best…

    Norte, the End of History
    Child’s Pose
    Under the Skin
    In Bloom
    Night Moves
    The Last of the Unjust
    Stranger by the Lake
    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    The LEGO Movie
    Mistaken for Strangers
    An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
    Rigor Mortis
    Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater
    Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

    Nymphomaniac won’t be eligible cos it was released on VOD prior to cinemas, right? Cos if it will be eligible, then it’d certainly be high on that list. Also, The Case Against 8 opened in New York before being shown on HBO, though I don’t think it’ll be eligible either, will it? It’d be there too.

    And a few films, again ranked, which I have seen and liked but have not yet been released in the US this year:

    The Congress
    Journey to the West
    Grace of Monaco

  • And there’s Panh Rithy’s The Missing Picture, which was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, but might be eligible for main categories this year. It’d be very high indeed on that list – third or fourth probably.

  • There are 5 movies on your list I haven’t seen. A couple of them haven’t been released yet and I didn’t get a screening opportunity. Generally I’d agree with your list, although I wasn’t as high on Under The Skin or Godzilla as most other people.

    My list:

    1. Boyhood
    2. Snowpiercer
    3. We Are The Best!
    4. The Immigrant
    5. Blue Ruin
    6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
    7. The Dance Of Reality
    8. Locke
    9. Neighbors
    10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    11. Ida
    12. The Raid 2: Berendal
    13. Only Lovers Left Alive
    14. The LEGO Movie
    15. Edge Of Tomorrow
    16. Jodorowsky’s Dune
    17. Noah
    18. 22 Jump Street
    19. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
    20. Night Moves
    21. Under The Skin
    22. The Rover
    23. Godzilla
    24. The Fault In Our Stars
    25. Journey To The West

    1. Fateful Findings
    2. Winter’s Tale
    3. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
    4. The Monuments Men
    5. A Million Ways To Die In The West

    1. Orange Is The New Black
    2. Louie
    3. Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule
    4. Fargo
    5. Review with Forrest MacNeil
    6. Mad Men
    7. Veep
    8. True Detective
    9. Game Of Thrones
    10. Silicon Valley
    11. Kroll Show

  • I’ve also seen several 4th quarter films at advance screenings that were all good, though undoubtedly flawed. Obviously one must reserve judgement about a film like that as much can change from now till Oct-Nov. Out of the work in progress films I saw, the most interesting were Men, Women & Children and Birdman.

  • I’m envious of everyone else’s lists. You’ve all seen movies that I’m dying to see. I should more accurately have subtitled this piece with some sort of asterisk like *(Best of All the Movies I’ve Been Able to See) but the headline was already a tangled thicket of hedging-my-bets qualifiers.

    I’ll say again: I’m jealous of all your lists. I’m pissed at how irresistible all your lists look.

  • Natasha

    Under the Skin is not for everyone. It’s possible you may have a seemingly limited reaction to it until you spend time thinking about it afterwards (at least that’s sort of what happened to me). My appreciation of it multiplied with every hour that passed after my viewing of it. I plan on studying it further. An excellent film–perhaps stunning the more you think about it–but not for everyone and if AMPAS even considered it I’d faint from the shock. From a critical standpoint–my top pick for 2014 so far….

  • This has probably been my worst year for keeping up with new releases. I’ve been so focused on television and going down the Netflix rabbit hole for older films that I have not seen much, and even then, most of it hasn’t been very good.


    1. They Came Together

    2. The LEGO Movie
    3. Only Lovers Left Alive
    4. Veronica Mars
    5. Bad Words
    6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

    7. Maleficent
    8. Cheap Thrills
    9. G.B.F.
    10. The Wind Rises
    11. Obvious Child
    12. Nurse 3D
    13. Snowpiercer

    14. 22 Jump Street
    15. Draft Day
    16. Noah

    17. Under the Skin
    18. Muppets Most Wanted
    19. Mitt

    20. How to Train Your Dragon 2
    21. A Million Ways to Die in the West
    22. Neighbors

    23. Non-Stop
    24. That Awkward Moment

    25. Labor Day

    26. Vampire Academy

  • Al Robinson

    Okay, going over all of the ones I’ve seen released this year, here is my current top 5:
    1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
    2. The Lego Movie
    3. The Monuments Men
    4. Godzilla
    5. 22 Jump Street

    Of the ones I missed, and still want to see:
    Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    Cesar Chavez
    Edge of Tomorrow
    Million Dollar Arm
    X-Men: Days of Future Past

  • Joey

    I saw Under the Skin almost 2 months ago, and the imagery still haunts me. It’s so specific in my mind. I can’t stake it.

  • Phil Boroff

    Why is The Grand Budapest Hotel not listed in the Contender Tracker? I am baffled…

  • Haunting is precisely right, Joey. It’s a movie that absolutely got under my skin.

    Here’s what a slapdash fluid thing this is. I’m still putting the pieces together.

    I’ve left off a handful of movies I meant to include.
    The Fault Is in Our Stars
    The LEGO Movie
    Blue Ruin
    Nymphomaniac 1.
    others that I need to insert. I’ll do that.

    toldja this was a work in progress. I accidentally hit publish before it was fully formed.

    How sick are we all that so many of us can already find 20 or 25 movies to admire this year even as we give up on MOST OF THE INDUSTRY EXPERTS WHO VOTE FOR THE ACADEMY AWARDS® ever watching a fraction of the movies they should be considering?

    I find consolation in telling myself that I’m more of an active part of the industry that approximately 20-25% of Academy Members who haven’t worked on any movie in 25 years.

    In fact, anyone who’s bought an actual movie ticket to see more than 10 movies this year is more of an active member of the film community than the 20% of Academy members who claim they can’t even think of more than 5 movies they like every year.

  • Dre

    1. The Wind Rises
    2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
    4. Nymphomaniac I and II
    5. We Are The Best
    6. Noah
    7. Hateship Loveship
    8. The Lego Movie
    9. The Unknown Known
    10. Visitors

  • Manuel

    01. Stranger by the lake
    02. Under the Skin
    03. The Grand Budapest Hotel
    04. Like Father, Like Son
    05. Finding Vivian Maier
    06. X-Men: Days of Future Past
    07. Begin Again
    08. The Fault in Our Stars
    09. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
    10. Noah

  • I’ve seen 46 films in the theater so far this year, so I’m about on pace for my normal 100 a year, for the record. Regarding Under The Skin, I gave it plenty of thought, plus a rewatch, and I’ve decided I find the film a paper thin style exercise with some good, even perhaps haunting, imagery and not much else. I wouldn’t go so far as the detractors that say it is basically Species for the art house, but I definitely recognize that there isn’t much going on in the way of narrative or thematic content. Its purposeful minimalism comes off as alienating and off-putting, rather than profound as many others have read it.

  • Its purposeful minimalism comes off as alienating and off-putting…

    Chris, that’s exactly how I felt halfway into it.

    …rather than profound as many others have read it.

    and then the thing that happens happened and I fell hard for it on the side of profound

    — because it wasn’t giving me enough to think about at first, and then all at once it was making me thinking all kinds of interesting thoughts.

    Who can tell me what other movies have used that sort aural dissonance to make our skin crawl? I’m trying to think of other movies that used ambient music in the same way. Can’t put my finger on titles or directors though. Polanski? Giallo Italian horror?

  • Dragon

    “Ambient music”

    I’d say part of The Social Network.

  • yes! thank you — and by extrapolation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is even more the kind of comparison I was groping for. Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Karen O.

    It’s that sinister throbbing pulse of bitchslap percussion. Then at times it sounded like metallic fuck-squeaking bed-springs trapped inside a cello, trying to scratch their way free.

    Thanks for the spark of connection, Dragon.

  • Alan of Montreal

    I just saw Ida last week, and I was blown away. It’s a perfect film in many respects.

  • jazz

    Great list Ryan. I need to see Boyhood and Snowpierecer. Also Chef, it seems to the most recent release with decent reviews – at least in comparisons to Transformers 4 or Tammy.

    Forget binge watching OITNB, I need to binge watch some of these films

  • Eric P.

    Just want to say that I’m really really glad that you’re posting more. I love your writing style: it has hints of Sasha, but you have your own voice. I’m very much looking forward to your in depth analysis of all of these.

  • Michael

    It has been a surprisingly strong first half of the year. Some of my favorite films include:

    Life Itself (technically second half but close enough. Fantastic.)
    How To Train Your Dragon 2 (really packed an emotional punch, Stunning animation)
    The Grand Budapest Hotel (rich, vibrant, and exciting. Give it up for Ralph Fiennes)
    Obvious Child (if Girls met Juno…only better)
    The Normal Heart (raw and messy. Exactly as it should be)
    22 Jump Street (guilty pleasure. My admiration of Channing Tatum grows)
    Ida (simply beautiful)
    X-Men: Days Of Future Past (smart, engaging popcorn entertainment)
    Le Week-End (a real underrated gem)
    Muppets Most Wanted (pure nostalgic joy)

    TV (Still have a lot to catch up with):
    True Detective
    Orange Is The New Black
    Game Of Thrones
    The Good Wife
    The Leftovers (so far)
    Parks & Recreation
    Mad Men

  • LeoSylver

    MY BEST MOVIES OF 2014 so far
    (1) HowToTrainYourDragon 2
    (2) X-Men:DOFP
    (3) 22 Jump Street
    (4)The Grand Budapest Hotel
    (5)The Lego Movie
    (6) Captain America:Winter Soldier

  • Joao Mattos

    “A Field in England, Ben Wheatley. Surreal 17th-century nightmare, like David Lynch directing Treasure of Sierra Madre.”

    Thiis phrase is so cool, and so true. Deserves the Pulitzer.

  • Robert Merk

    Strong list. One quick note – Joe Johnston didn’t direct CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.

  • JoeS

    IDA number one without a doubt.

    Others Ryan didn’t mention that are worthy of consideration:


    * Nominated for Foreign Film Oscar last year, but didn’t receive theatrical release until 2014

  • Al Robinson

    I forgot to talk about my favorite tv of the 1st half of 2014. My favorite fiction show is Fargo. Followed by True Detective. My favorite non-fiction show is Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.

    My favorite moment in Fargo was where Malvo mass shoots an entire office building. It was like the video game Rampage meets the movie Oldboy.

    My favorite episode of Inside Man was where Morgan was trying to be a Hollywood Paparazzo. He sucked badly.
    My favorite episode of Parts Unknown was where Anthony gets really really drunk in Thailand. Ryan, did you happen to watch that show? It’s was on CNN Sunday nights.

  • Koleś

    I’m happy “Ida” got mentioned over here. I’m really hoping that with the right campaign this movie will win Best Foreign Language Feature for Poland.

  • ‘Who can tell me what other movies have used that sort aural dissonance to make our skin crawl?’

    Gaspar Noe added a low-frequency hum, too low to be picked up by human ears, to the mix in Irreversible. It’s a specific pitch that induces nausea when people are exposed to it.

  • thanks, Robert. Fixed.

  • We’ll be sure to keep Ida in the conversation, Koleś. It’s a thing of beauty worthy to stand with the very best of the international films the Oscars have ever honored.

  • I didn’t see that, Al. I’ll try to seek it out.

  • Al Robinson

    Yeah, Ryan, I can’t remember the name of the city he tours in Thailand, but it’s a northern city.
    It’s one of the best episodes he’s EVER done, with any of his series.


  • Al Robinson

    Okay, I found it Ryan, he was in Chiang Mai and the surrounding region.

    Did you ever travel to there?

  • Bryce Forestieri

    I haven’t had time to ruminate on the subject. Y’all know by now that how much comprehensive analysis of the form, gut introspection, broad grasp of the human condition, and correct view of the world I bring to my yearly assessments, is what allows me to predict which films will be considered classics 30-40 years from now. Additionally, I haven’t seen many of the films Ryan and the other readers mention in the thread — most prominently, I believe, BOYHOOD.

    …but in the spirit of contribution. I can tell you the best thing I’ve seen all year remains UNDER THE SKIN.

    …and a *very tentative* top 10 films in the English language would be

    1. UNDER THE SKIN, Johnathan Glazer
    3. THE ROVER, David Michod
    4. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, Dean DeBlois
    5. NIGHT MOVES, Kelly Reichardt
    6. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, Jim Jarmusch
    7. GODZILLA, Gareth Edwards
    8. LOCKE, Steven Knight
    9. JOE, David Gordon Green
    10. NEIGHBORS, Nicholas Stoller

  • Al Robinson

    “Y’all know by now that how much comprehensive analysis of the form, gut introspection, broad grasp of the human condition, and correct view of the world I bring to my yearly assessments, is what allows me to predict which films will be considered classics 30-40 years from now.”

    Bryce, you should copyright that statement. That is freaking awesome.

  • Jason B.

    So far, my favorite movies this year without any particular order.
    1. Lego Movie
    2. 22 Jump Street
    3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
    4. Edge of Tomorrow

    Neighbors was enjoyable but ruined by the trailers and Godzilla was stylistically flawed… deeply flawed.

  • Scott (the other one)

    I never recognized how profoundly fatherhood would impact my ability to watch movies until I saw “Under the Skin.” I LOVED the first half of the movie, but then the thing that happened happened and I was never able to return to my fascination with the truly haunting imagery. Unfortunately for me, haunting crossed a line that I couldn’t come back from.

  • Great lists, everyone.
    I have a hard time considering ‘The Congress’ a 2014 film, given that it was released in France exactly a year ago ! Raid2, Calvary & Enemy will be released here this summer.
    This is my top 10 so far:

    1-Under the Skin
    2-Maps to the Stars
    3-Black Coal,Thin Ice
    4-Ocho apellidos vascos
    5-Tom at the farm
    6-The Dance of Reality
    7-Life of Riley
    8-The Lego Movie
    10-The Grand Budapest Hotel

  • I completely forgot to name 5 movies that I liked a lot. They just weren’t at the forefront of my head when I thought through this list.

    So I’ve added 5 more movies and 5 more television titles. Over the next few weeks I hope I get to see more of the movies from Jan-June that you’ll all talked about.

  • @Scott (The Other One):
    Can’t agree with you more. My fiancée nearly walked out during that scene. I immediately thought of my son, who’s roughly the same age.
    However, I was able to come back on board with the film, until the brilliant finale.

  • Bryce Forestieri

    OK I understand, but can we talk about that scene?

  • Let’s be sure to mark any spoiler with

    ::: SPOILER :::
    and then maybe drop down a space or two to leave a gap like this to help people know what to skip past if they want, ok?

    Important to remember that there’s a predator in Under the Skin who regards humans the in the same way a human regards a fish or a chicken.

  • Charlie

    Sorry about the lack of spoiler tag.

  • You’re ok, Charlie. You didn’t say anything specific. All I meant was to ask that we proceed with caution if we want to talk about this issue in more detail.

  • Damn. Seeing a lot of love here for A Field in England. Thankfully, Amazon Prime has a free stream of it waiting for me. Time to see what the fuss is all about.

  • @Ryan: OK, thanks for your diligence.
    I saw “Under the Skin” knowing virtually nothing about it and I think it’s better that way.

  • Might be better if we open a post exclusively to talk about Under the Skin. There we can have a blanket Spoiler Alert on the whole discussion. That way nobody on this page will accidentally stumble onto anything they don’t want to see when they scroll through.

  • Robin Write

    I agree. I heard early on you see Scarlett Johansson naked – ruined it for me. 😉

  • I agree too 🙂

  • Scott (the other one)


    Ryan, I totally got her predatory nature (like our own), it just didn’t help that I had been jarred out of the movie on such a deeply emotional level. I’ll just throw this in about the same scene: even from my dog loving perspective, I was so pissed at those parents!

  • Scott (the other one)

    And so I’m not just a Debbie Downer, I’ll post my favorites of the year so far…

    Only Lovers Left Alive
    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    Lego Movie

    Also, The Wind Rises was fantastic, but I know it’s technically a 2013 movie that I just happened to see this year.

  • Top 10 is:

    2) Godzilla
    3) Lego Movie
    4) X-Men: Days of Future Past
    5) Chef

    There are more but I can’t think of them right now. AYE, RYAN ADD CHEF TO THE LIST!

  • Jesus, I haven’t seen Chef yet. But the best thing about this post is all your great comments — comments that I’ll use for weeks to guide me to seek out all the movies I haven’t been able to see yet.

  • Robin Write

    The post-er becomes the post-ee. 😀

  • Bryce Forestieri

    Agata Kulesza for Best Supporting Actress! It’s the film’s key performance, she is the world.

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