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.
- 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.
- Burning Bush
- True Detective
- Breaking Bad
- Mad Men
- Penny Dreadful
- House of Cards
- Peaky Blinders
- The Hollow Crown
- Game of Thrones
- Orphan Black
- Broad City
- The Normal Heart