I believe that 2012 and 2013 were two of the best movie years in recent memory. However, the majority of quality films were reserved for the end of the year (for both years, nine of the ten films that made my Best Of list were released in the final ten weeks of the calendar year). The first half of 2014 was better than the first half of 2013. Included below (in alphabetical order) are my Top 5 films of the year so far. Only films that opened theatrically in Toronto between January 1st and July 1st qualify for this list (film fest titles with impending release dates do not qualify). I suspect at least two of the films on this mid-year list will end up on my end-of-year list in about six months’ time.
‘Edge of Tomorrow’ directed by Doug Liman is a superbly entertaining, effects-driven black comedy. It isn’t so much a time travel movie as much as an experience. A military officer (Tom Cruise) is stuck in a time loop where he repeatedly relives the same day in which alien invaders ambush the military assault directed against them. Cruise has always been a likeable actor; he is 52 years old, and he is still an action star. But, age is finally bringing forth his vulnerability and this gives the film its poignancy. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is simultaneously about what it is about while also serving as a metaphor for the actor’s career: this is an actor you can’t bring down, even in Hollywood’s current universe of computer generated creatures, robotics, and explosions. Everything is of a piece and the results are dazzling – star, structure, set-up, script. This thing really moves, and it has a great sense of humor. We’re now halfway through the summer movie season and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ still looks like it will be the summer’s best blockbuster. Currently playing in theaters.
Wes Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is his most ambitious undertaking yet. A new lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori) at a 1930s era luxurious hotel assists the concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is contending with the aftermath of receiving a priceless piece of art from one his late clients. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is, among other things, a story about stories; or, at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. The movie is a blast, yes. But, it’s at the service of something more substantial. I was charmed (as I usually am with Mr. Anderson’s work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. Currently available on Blu-Ray.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s’ ‘Ida’ (pronounced Eeda), a compact masterpiece that takes place in Poland in 1962, is about a woman who learns, days before taking her vows at a convent, that she is a Jew. Superb performance from first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska as the title character. ‘Ida’ is both a road movie and a detective story. Little is stated directly; we infer from offhand remarks, and subtle suggestions. What’s also distinctive about the picture is the look of it – I was enthralled by it visually. ‘Ida’ is beautifully photographed; shot in inky black-and-white, deployed almost entirely in static long shots, and contained within a narrow frame that is almost square. This is an appropriate visual aesthetic given the characters’ initial black-and-white conceptions of the world. But most importantly, you’re wrapped up in this story – you care about Anna’s (Ida’s) fate. There is so much feeling here, and the fact that this is a return home for the filmmaker (who was born in Poland but grew up in Great Britain) makes me believe that this movie must have come from a personal place. Thrilling, haunting, original, and masterfully accomplished. Polish with English subtitles. Currently playing in theaters (limited); on Blu-Ray September 9th.
‘Like Father Like Son’
Heartbreaking scenario: six years into raising their only child, a young couple is told that their son is not theirs at all – a hospital error switched two baby boys at birth. The couple meets their biological child for the first time as well as the family that raised them. What happens next? ‘Like Father Like Son’ will be an especially tough watch for many parents but the questions posed by the film are universal in nature. There are no easy answers here. Especially in a patriarchal society like Japan, in which the momentousness of blood ties cannot be overstated. This moving drama from master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda follows the relationship between these two families over the course of a year, documenting the rhythmical pattern of their lives with such care and empathy that even miniscule changes to their routine have unsettling impact. Kore-eda never judges his characters or their actions. Everything about the film (performances, tone, pacing, editing) is outstanding. This is filmmaking of the highest order. Japanese with English subtitles. Currently available on DVD (no Blu-Ray release date as of yet).
The cop who survived the events of the first film goes undercover in prison to cosy up to the son of a crime kingpin so he can eventually get into the organization. He does that very thing but, of course, it gets way more complicated,. Writer-director Gareth Evans is painting on a wider canvas. The expanded scope allows for more focus on character and plot, but the film has a great sense of momentum, with one violent confrontation leading to another and another and another. I was informed that the sequel’s plot was what Mr. Evans had intended for the original picture. Maybe he needed to warm up first. The first is a generic exercise. The sequel pulls no punches. Literally. I could care less for violent action pictures; but with such dazzlingly stylized visual flourishes, every confrontation feels substantial and there is a heightened sense of danger. Just when you think the movie has reached its peak, it manages to surprise us by incrementally raising the stakes until we reach the breathtaking, and exhausting climax (which is spectacular, even by the standards established previously in this movie). After watching this movie, you will feel as though you have been in combat. Currently available on Blu-Ray July 8th.