The year has now half passed us by, which marks a good opportunity to take stock of what it’s offered cinematically so far. Releasing a “best of” list for half a year may seem like clickbaiting, and perhaps it is, but it’s no more so than any other kind of list. Besides, this is a good opportunity to keep track of movies that we might otherwise forget when the time comes to review our favorites at the end of the year. And more importantly, it’s a reminder to everyone who isn’t a critic of what to keep an eye out for, since many of these films are now hitting home media and/or streaming services, and are thus more easily available. If any of these initially passed you by, then we wholeheartedly encourage you to seek them out.
When people think of a period piece set in a Western country about black people, they think slavery, an understandable if deeply reductive assumption actively enforced by cinematic representation. That makes Belle such a breath of fresh air on its face, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is fantastic as the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman who is raised as an aristocrat herself. Removed from the more direct violence of slavery narrative, Belle can devote its time to digging up the subtler systemic manifestations of the societies that made slavery possible. The film hones in on the absurd social graces that do not overcome prejudice, merely perfume it with false niceties that drop the second Dido walks out of earshot. Dido’s large inheritance throws the borders society erects around her into disarray, and the confusion that her fellow nobles feel when weighing their feelings against the temptation of her dowry illustrates how economic stratification deliberately consigns minority races to lesser castes. Nominally structured as a corsetted romance, Belle displays such a keen awareness identity politics, the historical accumulation of racism, and even the role of art in upholding the racial status quo that a blurb cannot begin to unpack what a vital film it is. — Jake Cole
In a world full of bloated superhero movies and explosion-fests, Gareth Edward’s film is a welcome relief. Edwards understands that ocular assault does not equal spectacle, and instead shows a great deal of classy restraint in crafting the most elegantly directed blockbuster since The Dark Knight. Drawing influence from films like Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and others, Godzilla presents us with a series of events that are so terrifying in scope that we begin to understand our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things, or at least next to god-like monsters doing battle. If we’re not careful, the earth will simply do away with us, and move on. — Kevin Ketchum
Too often the human element is lost in films based on superhumans, but Captain America’s wholly singular belief in doing the right thing is what makes him such a unique character. He is alone in his outlook on the world. Cap is making peace with this post 9/11 environment a little at a time. He’s catching up with pop-culture (he’s seen War Games, hasn’t listened to Nirvana), but adjusting to the new political landscape is more difficult. His mission has always been to do what’s right, but it’s becoming harder to tell what right is anymore. That moral crossroads is infinitely more interesting than any fistfight with a villain, and what sets this film apart from the genre. At first it’s a little strange to see such adult topics as treatment of veterans, geopolitics, and the invasion of personal liberty covered in a blockbuster aimed at wide audiences. Marvel films have largely been accused of being the same stories with only a different costume to set them apart. Yet The Winter Soldier aims higher by harkening back to 1970s political thrillers that basked in the fear and paranoia of the world we lived in then—perhaps much hasn’t changed. — Colin Biggs
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo DaVinci. As so many studio films get bogged down by an abundance of plot, forcing down our throats endless machinations in lieu of character development or heart, along comes Jon Favreau’s Chef, a pleasant concoction content with simply existing. After losing his job, a chef buys a food truck and drives across the country with his best friend and his son. In an inferior movie, that logline is the jump-off point for zany misadventures, twists and turns, rises and falls. Favreau eschews all of that, trusting that the fondness he shows for his characters will be infectious, and the audience will enjoy spending time with happy people having fun. Favreau and Leguizamo both do career-best work on screen, the music is sensational, and the food all looks delicious. Assisted by Favreau’s personal and heartfelt script, clearly autobiographical in nature (it’s easy to draw a straight line from his studio departure to make this indie film to his character departing the corporate restaurant work to make a food truck), Chef is a film that wields a sneaky emotional punch alongside its laughs. The creation of actual characters and the removal of needless plot clutter make that possible. Sophistication, indeed. — Russell Hainline
21.) The Raid 2: Berandal
Gareth Evans’ economical 2012 hit, The Raid: Redemption, showed exactly what a small scale action film can accomplish with a stringent budget, a minimized location, and a cast of non-professional actors with real world martial arts bona fides. His follow-up jettisons that “less is more” philosophy in favor of naked ambition, ballooning the original ‘s intimate setting and personal stakes to Godfather proportions; Evans’ shift in narrative sensibility in The Raid 2: Berandal ups the ante for sheer quality and quantity of carnage. Nobody died while shooting the film, in which our hero from the previous picture goes undercover in Jakarta’s vicious criminal underworld in the name of revenge, family, and the pursuit of justice, but after bearing witness to a destructive, extended car chase through claustrophobic city streets, you might begin harboring suspicions to the contrary. 2014 has yet to produce an action bonanza that’s a fraction as bloody, daring, and flat out unbridled as The Raid 2. Odds favor the film remaining undisputed in each department by year’s end. — Andy Crump
20.) The Rover
Think the western is dead? Think again. After the failures of last year’s The Lone Ranger and this summer’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, Australian director David Michôd has shown American filmmakers how it’s done. Transplanting the antiquated world of guns, saloons, and brothels to a dystopian future, Michôd has doubled down on the bleakness of his 2010 debut Animal Kingdom and created a violent, naturalist masterpiece. Guy Pearce stars as a stoic, grizzled loner who teams up with a mentally-disabled young man (Robert Pattinson) to track down the three thieves who stole his car. The destination doesn’t matter; it’s the journey that counts, and Michôd reveals the film’s moral landscape slowly, thanks to two dynamic performances from his leads. Pearce is typically understated, revealing his character’s humanity so imperceptibly we hardly notice, while Pattinson’s depiction of mental illness is broad and often squirm-inducing. Either way, the impact is the same, and it reinforces the film’s grim themes: Amidst the harsh, desolate outback (which needs little embellishment to stand-in for a post-apocalyptic Australia), all innocence must be buried. — Noah Gittell
Darren Aronofsky has always been the most agnostic filmmaker alive today working with incredibly religious themes, each of his characters enduring great suffering to achieve either euphoria or nirvana. The most explicit example of these religious undertones was his sci-fi/fantasy/surrealist masterwork The Fountain, until his Biblical epic Noah released into mainstream cinemas earlier this year as perhaps the single craziest major studio venture in recent memory. Whereas The Fountain confronted Aronofsky’s own agnosticism on a spiritual level, combining elements of Judeo-Christian, Mayan, Buddhist, and Hindu mythology, Noah confronts it on a cultural level to create a stunning work of revisionist pop-culture fantasy. Wielding the tropes of both modern and ancient myth-making to create a telling of this story like no other, the results are as visionary as they are maddeningly (and intentionally) inconsistent. What other filmmaker would transform Noah from sympathetic blockbuster action hero to a raving mad Colonel Kurtz? Or tell the story of the Seven Days of Creation using imagery straight out of scientific evolutionary theory? Noah is more than just the work of a crazy visionary that’s somehow slipped into a mainstream blockbuster; it presents a new way of religious myth-making, confronting the future that the myth has helped spawn. — Christopher Runyon
Here’s some background on one of film criticism’s more famous quotes: when Godard said “tracking shots are a question of morality,” it wasn’t a rigid philosophy, but a half-jokey rebuke. He and a number of other Cahiers du Cinema critics were discussing Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon Amour, and Eric Rohmer said he wasn’t surprised that many were finding the film “jarring.” Another critic asked, “morally or aesthetically”, and Godard answered with his now-famous maxim. It’s an assertion that form can’t, and shouldn’t, be separated from function. Snowpiercer, the 5th film by Bong Joon-ho, understands that. As reluctant hero Curtis (Chris Evans) fights his way to the front of the titular train, Bong’s camera constantly tracks alongside him; as Curtis matures, the camera does too, tracking left-to-right, faster and faster, left-to-right. The character’s co-conspirator Nam (Song Kang-ho) has more admirable aspirations than said “hero” does, and so Bong’s compositions grant Nam true freedom, allowing him to stand in the center and corners of the frame, rather than forcing him to walk along the lateral rail. And when Curtis regresses, shooting an unarmed woman, Bong’s camera reverses for the only time in the movie, tracking from right-to-left instead while he completes the barbaric act. A question of morality. — Jake Mulligan
17.) They Came Together
The timing couldn’t be better for They Came Together. The genre of the middling rom-com appears to be in limbo, hovering between its death throes and the inevitable nostalgia that follows, which director David Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter have sheathed perfectly with this spoof of all-too-familiar rom-com tropes. Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd lead a constellation of hilarious people (and one city so charismatic, it’s as if it’s another character) as the two meet-cuties who recount the story of how they met to their very, very patient friends (Ellie Kemper and Bill Hader). Wain and Showalter, whose ‘80s camp movie parody Wet Hot American Summer has rightfully become a neo-classic since its 2001 release, inseminate their latest with just as much absurd silliness for a breathlessly joke-loaded 83 minutes. Sharing more of a DNA with Airplane! and The Naked Gun films than the spiteful anti-comedies of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg, They Came Together mounts one convulsively funny set piece after another, with hardly a single punch line falling limp. It’s flushed-cheek hilarity and a firm return for Wain and company, whose upcoming Wet Hot prequel can’t come soon enough. — Jesse Knight
16.) We Are the Best!
The latest from writer/director Lukas Moodysson proves that a film infused with joy need not be bereft of soulfulness. Following three young girls in 1982 Stockholm as they form a punk band, first purely out of rebellion (really, the best reason to form a punk band), but gradually as a way of expressing themselves, Moodysson perfectly captures the essence of childhood – that all of this is fleeting, and yet nothing is more vital or important. The girls may reject their classmates’ disapproval, or laugh away their parents lack of understanding, but a potential rift among their group is shattering, a dissolving friendship unthinkable. The titular cry may not reflect their talent – their sole song, “Hate the Sport,” is technically deficient even by punk’s loose standards – but it undoubtedly captures their spirit. And what is punk if not confidence in the face of all contrary evidence? — Scott Nye
Alternate title: Riding in Cars With Tom Hardy. An unlikely film, coming from an unlikely source, Locke works when it reasonably shouldn’t; one room films are a real thing, but turn that room into an automobile and supplement the conceit with as mundane a story as humanly possible, and you have an eighty minute recipe for arthouse boredom. But Steven Knight has learned much from his time writing screenplays (and, briefly, serving as helmsman on Jason Statham’s Hummingbird), particularly concerning character, and he puts his experience to good use engineering the plight of Tom Hardy’s beleaguered protagonist. Locke is like nothing you’ve ever seen, partly because Knight spends a huge portion of the film’s running time figuring out new and often bizarre angles to shoot from within the confines of a car – all the better to reduce visual redundancy. But the film leans entirely on one full performance, using only voices filtered through Bluetooth for background noise, to make its point. It’s a one man show more than it’s a one room movie, and in that respect, Locke is perhaps more Hardy’s achievement than Knight’s. — Andy Crump
While Leviathan traversed through all quarters of its ship and the sea, Manakamana is wholly fixated upon a different kind of experiment: the experience of remembering and forgetting; the stillness of an essential truth that materializes through the film’s countless faces and interactions: two younger women make affecting small talk after a 4 minute silence; melted ice cream slowly streaming down the hand of an elderly woman; two older men talking about “life before the cable car,” a short conversation that tails off as they strum their stringed instruments. Manakamana’s aesthetic is one of stationary complacency, charting the little moments in between our daily destinations. Journeys are made and wishes are fulfilled. Our tiny legacies live on even when the camera turns off. — Ty Landis
What sets this film apart from so many other modern bits of animation is its grasp of darkness and stakes. When one looks back at the golden age of animated films, one sees movie after movie that featured some truly frightening sequences. Often times, these sequences could even result in the demise of a major character. For years, animation has slowly been drifting away from this sort of story trope, perhaps in the notion that it was “too much” for kids. However, one wonders if such direction is actually a disservice to children watching the cartoons that they watch. Rather than learning that it’s okay to be afraid, and that death is a part of life, cartoons have begun to teach them that everything will work out fine – and with that, there have been a lot of very mundane cartoons.
How to Train Your Dragon 2, on the other hand, is not afraid to lead us into the darker parts of the woods. It wants us to understand that there is much to lose when we fly so close to the sun, and mere mortals place themselves at great risk when they do so. While it wants us to experience the jubilation of flight and the heroism that comes with overcoming our shortcomings, it wants to temper all of that with sadness and loss. It knows that without the bitter, the sweet just ain’t that sweet. And so it brings us there; under the darkened canopy to a place we fear we might not be leaving. It frightens us and saddens us which makes its moments of joy burn that much brighter. — Ryan McNeil
12.) Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II
People say that “epic” is a term that’s lost all its meaning, like “awesome” or “civil liberties.” Everything’s referred to as epic now – TV shows, comic books, movies, movies based on comic books, TV shows based on movies based on comic books. Let’s set the record straight: epic refers (per Merriam-Webster) to “a story about a hero or about exciting events or adventures; very great or large and usually difficult or impressive.” Joe, played here by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is indeed a hero, and many, uh, exciting events occur to her. Lars von Trier shoots each of those ‘events’ in their own language – the film plays out across 8 chapters, and it’s made to resemble multi-volume literature. He crisscrosses from raucous comedy to sincerely presented tragedy. He moves from Joe’s stories to in-text authorial commentary, made via Stellan Skarsgard’s character, pulled from everywhere, newsreels and images from different formats intercut. He moves from handheld compositions to Kubrickian one-shots, and indulges as many different stylistic and formal urges as he can along the way. There’s no other word for what this movie is – it transcends specific genres, tones, senses of realism; it fits into none of the rigidly-defined boxes we normally fit movies into. Nymphomaniac is an epic. — Jake Mulligan
Paranoia, bearded Jake Gyllenhaals and a whole lot of spiders abound in Denis Villeneuve’s latest brain-boiling fable. Gyllenhaal, reigning as one of Hollywood’s most adventurous movie stars, nimbly maneuvers a dual role as a timid schoolteacher and the arrogant actor he tracks down after discovering his doppelgänger. Enemy is a masterpiece of enigma, a slow-burning, sulphur-hued stalk-fest that Kafka would have loved. In it, Gyllenhaal along with Mélanie Laurent and a brilliantly icy Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis) amble among architecture so carefully orchestrated, it’s as if Villeneuve’s direction extended omnisciently to the twisted skyscrapers and webbing highways. Much like Villeneuve’s Prisoners last year and his Oscar-nominated Incendies before that, Enemy doesn’t once come up for air. From its mysterious opening sequence to its much-hyperbolized penultimate shot, which doesn’t confound the puzzle so much as explode the whole thing wide open, the sought-after Villeneuve (distribution rights for his next project closed at $20 million before a single frame was shot) demonstrates once again he’s tops at earning an audience’s exhale. –– Jesse Knight