Halftime: The Ten Best of 2014 So Far

2014 is half done. These are the films we feel are the best of the year so far. 

Most of these might not even make it past some of the late Oscar contenders this year, but are must-see films before the year ends. These were incredibly difficult to rank, but our number one choice is a no-brainer.

10.) Noah (director: Darren Aronofsky)

"Why, you ask. Because beards
are in style."
Darren Aronofsky's spiritual sequel to The Fountain and first attempt at an expensive Hollywood blockbuster film is at once an overblown big screen entertainment and a continuation of the obsessive protagonist Aronofsky himself has been fascinated with through his entire career. Utilizing many of the stylistic motifs from The Fountain (including a direct homage to Xiabalba exploding during the creationism montage), as well as the hand-held cinematography of The Wrestler and Black Swan, Noah represents a marriage of his unique methods to storytelling aimed high for the heavens. Starring Russell Crowe in the title role as essentially the world's first true environmentalist, Noah takes the mythical notions of Nephilim as well as fictionalized, fantastical creatures and makes the Biblical fable real and relevant to our modern times.

 Much like Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, Aronofsky suggests technology and the unchecked consumption of our natural resources are throwing our lives out of balance and thus towards another great storm. When the Creator (the name 'God' is curiously bereft of mention here) hits the reset button, the title hero Noah is fraught with survivor's guilt and one has to wonder whether or not the survival of mankind has bettered or worsened the world we live in. Though Noah admittedly is flawed with the inclusion of too many characters and dramatic story arcs (Aronofsky seems better suited focusing on one character's implosion, depending on your point of view), it asks bigger questions and comes closer to visualizing the presence of spiritual and physical forces at work to save the Earth we walk than any other major motion picture in recent memory. Not to mention, it's hard to take your eyes off of its glittering sense of awe and wonder not felt since Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

"I'll arm wrestle you for it!"
9.) Nymphomaniac 1 + 2 (director: Lars Von Trier)
Lars Von Trier's bloated, overblown 5 hour epic Nymphomaniac is the densest and most fascinating personal expression of a major international director since Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900. Split into two separate films (though intended to be taken as a whole), the film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, recounting her life story divided into several chapters, of her gradual foray into heedless sexual addiction. The film leaps casually between past and present with Stacy Martin filling the shoes of a younger Joe as she dances from one sexcapade to the next. With an ensemble cast consisting of Shia LeBeouf (surprisingly good here), Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, and Connie Nielsen, it's the loose final chapter in the director's unnamed “Depression” trilogy (with Antichrist and Melancholia preceding it) as well as a platform for Von Trier to vent his disdain for the hypocrisies of modernity and the conservative right. In a move that intentionally de-eroticizes the sex onscreen is Von Trier's now infamous use of porno doubles and CGI rendering to give the illusion of major Hollywood actors engaging in explicit sexual activity. The special effect intentionally reduces the naked bodies gyrating to a mechanical, dispassionate end, and in its own way provides a notion to the viewer just how dull Joe's sexuality has become with time and tide. Could you make this story shorter? Maybe, but we wouldn't have the pleasure of hearing just how far down the rabbit hole Joe will go in search of feeling anything at all.

8.) Blue Ruin (director: Jeremy Saulnier)
"Anyone got a shirt I can
borrow? I spilled some jelly all
over myself."
A quaint thriller stands out as one of the best of 2014 so far. Borrowing heavily from the tones of the Coen Bros. while mixing in some truly gratifying scenes of vengeance,  Blue Ruin features a male lead that plays the “every man” to perfection. The fact that the main character is played by this virtually unknown actor makes it play like a bloody and inept page right out of real life. Blue Ruin shows what character development is, all the while taking its audience on a twisted drive through vengeance town. If you haven’t seen this one, watch it immediately.

7.) 22 Jump Street (directors: Chris Miller, Phil Lord)
This is the rare occasion that a sequel can stand its own against the original. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum return to the satirical spin on the TV show with tons of laughs and a budding chemistry that is still taking form. 22 Jump Street is offensive in all the right places as these guys steadily improve on everything they did in the first with a part two that stands on its own as a great buddy cop franchise comedy. The joke never wears thin through this top-notch comedy which means we’ll be getting the inevitable 23 Jump Street and many more. I say bring it.

6.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
Without a doubt, this Cap flick is not just another great Marvel film, it's one of the best action films I've seen in a long time. Yeah, its plot isn't a Bourne Ultimatum level of masterful espionage, but it's certainly the most complex of the Avenger films to date. Couple that with the ferocious and gratifying fight choreography, and you have an exceptional entry into the foray of stupid summer movies. With content like this and DoFP, the standard for dumb action flicks just got two swift kicks in the pants.

5.) Enemy (director: Denis Villeneuve)
Jake Gyllenhaal continues to drop jaws as his skills grow. He plays the part(s) of two 100% identical, but 
completely unique men who meet under astounding circumstances. Enemy is the quintessential psychological thriller which does precisely what it is supposed to. It's an elixir of creepy atmosphere, and brain tingling mystery that oozes through your conscious in the most insidious of ways. Directed with stunning discipline and surgically paced, this is a rare film that you will not be able to resist restarting the moment its bizarre final frame closes.

"Where's the trigger?!!!
Where's the trigger?!!!"

4.) The Lego Movie (directors: Chris Miller, Phil Lord)
This frenetic, neon bomb of comic brilliance is a staggering punch to the gut of expectations. Who would have thought this film would be this
freakin good?! I didn't. Not only does it sport some of the most superb animation I've seen since three-dimensional animation took off, but it's also one of the funniest films of the year. Will Arnett's Batman is, like, way better than Bale's.

3.) Under the Skin (director: Jonathan Glazer)
As I said in my original review, imagine the narrative perspective of Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth as seen through the eyes of music video auteur Chris Cunningham's Flex, and you have a rough idea of the surreal, disturbing total experience that is Under the Skin. The film is a chilling existentialist exercise in pure cinema, relying heavily on ambient sounds and minimal images of light and color to convey our world as seen through the eyes of an alien being. Midway into her infiltration of random men through the streets of Scotland, she derails her quest in search of her own self discovery and actualization. Under the Skin is closer to the cold and cool sterility of Kubrick than most directors of Kubrick's league aspire to be. Hard to say who in the film world appears all the wiser, Glazer or Malick.

"Have you never seen Shame?"
2.) X-men: Days of Future Past (director: Bryan Singer)
I'll say it. I don't care. Days of Future Past is one of the best comic films ever made. Thoroughly stomping all X-men films that came before it, DoFP, is a measured and mature film that doesn't pander to the typical potato-battery intelligence level of the common summer blockbuster audience member. Bryan Singer delightfully reigns in the meat of the film by focusing on the engaging dialogue performed by two of the best casting choices in comic film history. With no shame, the film is about its words more so than its inventive and smile inducing action.

1.) The Raid 2: Berandal (director: Gareth Evans)

I could feel my chest hair growing as I watched this behemoth of a film make me more of a man. This alone fires this adrenaline shot straight to our number one spot. The Raid 2 is The Raid only more... of all of that... and better in every way possible. Adding the unnecessarily good plot was unnecessary, but a very welcome canister of fuel to the ensuing load of ass it kicks all over Indonesia. I swear I lost teeth watching this. It features what might be the best fight scene ever captured by a camera and should be nominated for Best Picture of All Time. Citizen Kane? Please.

-JG Barnes
-Andrew Kotwicki