By: Daniel Reynolds
So we’re sliding into the summer now and, as has been noted, getting a little exhausted by all the irony and explosions (and ironic explosions). What else is new? I say let’s shake off the malaise and embrace the past six months of film. If you’re like me (perish the thought), you’ve seen plenty of movies that got you jazzed, and a few that, um, didn’t.
In an effort to determine which film deserves the highest accolades, I decided it was time for the Midyear Movie Madness Tournament.
(Pause for audible gasp.)
Here’s how it works: Given that I’ve seen 24 films that have been released so far in 2014, we’ll have four divisions of six films each. The winners in each round will get a bye in the second while the others duke it out, until finally we reach a final four and an eventual champion: the best film so far of 2014. Now, let’s check the bracket!
Study the bracket. Learn it. And now that we know its visual structure (thanks Dagonas!) and we know the real life stakes (none), it’s time to get started on this blood bath of a first round.
The First Round
This grouping, I admit, is a bit of an odds and ends collection. Think of it as a mid-major college that gets into the NCAA tourney with maybe one highly touted prospect and a bunch of guys that wear t-shirts under their jerseys. The films have been ranked based on the overall star power in each film.
Just take a look at this poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s got multiple Academy Award winners, legendary actors across multiple time periods, a huge movie star or three, and some kid named Tony Revolori. No way is a Wes Anderson movie getting knocked out in any first round that I’m overseeing.
Gabrielle‘s claim to fame? French Canadian singing sensation Robert Charlebois makes an appearance. It’s a sweet little film, but yeah, that’s how that shook out.
I say again: I wanted with every fibre of my being to love The Monuments Men. The story, the setting, the actors, the writers, the director. Just tell me that George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray are gonna be paling around and I’m on board. So then, what in the hell happened?
I’ll tell you what: The Monuments Men is a complete mess in tone, pacing, character and plot. Things happen and you don’t care, more things happen and then you fall asleep. Even if Obvious Child had been even just a mediocre movie (it’s not; it’s pretty good), it would have gotten the win here. May God have mercy on your soul for this one, Clooney, you’ve got me cheering for Jenny Slate.
On the one hand, Chef has Jon Favreau in prime “I’m a big shot director now” mode. He calls in every favour to stock his small, unassuming food film with huge stars like Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Dustin Hoffman. That said: the movie is seriously slack. The entire second half is one long high-five, with the only moments of tension coming from whether or not Favreau and son get lunch made on time (spoiler: they do).
On the other hand, a simple pentagram of actors in Only Lovers Left Alive: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt. Oh yeah, and director Jim Jarmusch is back at the height of his mood enhancing powers. Only Lovers Left Alive has the best score of any film so far this year, some of the best cinematography, and the best use of Detroit this side of Elmore Leonard. It also tells a story of vampires that won’t have you rolling your eyes. For that alone, it moves on.
Here we are in everyone’s favourite grouping: films with subtitles! To be fair, only a couple of these films rely heavily on other languages, most just take place firmly in locales that are not North America. Let’s all get over it together. To keep it familiar, I seeded the films based on the number of recognizable movie stars.
I’d be the first to tell you that Gloria is a quality film. It tells the story of a middle-aged Chilean woman who is trying to find her way in life as an empty nest-er, post-divorce. Basically, it is the kind of film you don’t really see anymore unless, like, Meryl Streep or Nora Ephron (RIP) are involved. BUT…
The Rover is a mean, incisive film with a monumental performance from Guy Pearce, and a remarkable turn from Robert Pattinson. It’s the latest film from the Australian David Michôd. And it will kick your ass. Gloria is something new, The Rover is something powerful.
When I think on Locke I keep turning back to the idea that it was made on a dare. Can you make a film that is 99.5 percent just Tom Hardy talking on the phone? Locke has the answer: Yes. Sure, its ending drives off a cliff, but Locke is generally a positive experiment. (It gets the two-seed because of Hardy alone.)
Now Omar doesn’t have any star power. It’s the work of a lot of first time or unsung Middle Eastern actors and actresses. What it does have is the assured hand of Academy Award nominated director Hany Abu-Assad. It’s got a love triangle, pointed political analysis, visuals both poetic and painful, and an ending that fiercely lashes out. It gets the nod.
Finally, the middle of this bracket sees a showdown between two love stories. In Le Week-End, we have an aged romance which finds Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan tripping through Goddard’s Paris as they struggle to reignite and reaffirm their love and passion for one another. In The Lunch Box, there is Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur communicating purely through letters (and food) as they search for happiness in modern Mumbai.
While Le Week-End does have Jeff Goldblum, who seems to float through the film on wings, The Lunchbox is a perfectly constructed film with delicate moments both beautiful and bittersweet, making it hard to deny it a spot in the second round.
A little cheat here. These next six films are actually movies I saw at TIFF in 2013. They’ve been released over the last few months of 2014 so here we are. The seeding is based on the odds that the average film goer has actually heard of each film.
Both these films can be viewed as visual and aural experiments. First, Under the Skin is the latest from the neo-Kubrick, Jonathan Glazer. It features brain melting music, clever visual tricks and a candid camera gimmick that watches as Scarlett Johansson tries to pick up hitchhikers in Scotland. In short: the film goes in some bizarre directions.
Meanwhile, Manakamana is a true film adventure. It is a series of unbroken takes of various riders on a cable car in Nepal. There is no plot here and the only soundtrack is the whirr of the lift. We see only the people’s faces, be they a mother and daughter, a few tourists or a lone old man, and yet, the film in its stillness becomes an almost transcendental experience.
Still, Scarlett Johansson tho.
This may have been the hardest choice. The selection committee (me) should have figured out a way to seed Ida higher because, really, it is a film worth seeing. Shot in black-and-white, Ida tells the story of a young nun in 60s-era Poland who discovers – via a destructive aunt – that she’s actually Jewish, with, as you can imagine, a complicated family history. I just wanted to hug this film after I saw it.
Night Moves, on the other hand, is the type of film that draws you in with sharp performances (from Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) and then drowns you in suspense. The movie can be cleaved into two halves: the build up towards an act of eco-terrorism and the fallout wrought from that act. What director Kelly Reichardt manages to craft here is both Hollywood thriller and a small dose of food for thought.
For anyone who has seen the films of Hirokazu Koreeda, you know what you’re likely to get. Koreeda specializes in special Ozu-esque family tales; his films never have to raise their voice, and that holds true in his latest, Like Father, Like Son. The film tells the story of two families who are told six years after the fact that, due to a hospital mix-up, their sons were switched at birth. The two families are forced to decide how far the notion of nature vs. nature really goes, and what it means to care for a child, even one that may not be – biologically speaking – your own.
Hateship Loveship is cute, and Kristen Wiig is fun to watch, but the film sloughs forward fairly obviously (even with the Alice Munro short story pedigree). It is the Family Psychology 101 to Koreeda’s Masters in Social Science.
And now we come to the heavy hitters. Here’s where you’ll find all your monsters, aliens, comic book characters and Zach Efron. This is no joke. It’s set up to rank each film based on the money they brought in, because when you’re making films at this level, that’s all that really matters.
As much as I enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow for its clever adaptation of the Groundhog Day conceit and its attempt at injecting Tom Cruise based humour (and life) into a pretty staid concept (alien invasions), the Captain will not be denied.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier had engaging performances for days, an extremely energetic plot, and a dash of Robert Redford. Sure, the action sequences were generally muddled, but the story and emotion shone through and that’s more than enough to push through to the next round. Sorry again, Tom.
The Lego Movie should have been a disaster. There is no plot to the Lego universe, no real heroes and villains, the toy tie-in felt overly crass from the outset. And yet, I went to go see it with my siblings and was charmed and moved almost against my will. Somehow directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (aided by a brilliant voice cast) manage to capture the absurd offshoots of a child’s imagination and the fun that can only be found in those little inanimate bits of plastic.
Neighbors? Well, it’s got the inspired casting of the aforementioned Efron and some sly analysis of that 30-something, post-baby life. But it also has Dave Franco and his boner superpower so you’re mileage may vary.
This was a closer call than I’d care to admit. Godzilla isn’t a perfect film; the main character (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bit of a drag, the middle third lags, and Bryan Cranston is definitely not used enough. But, man, Godzilla – the monster – is perfect in his creature battling abilities. Director Gareth Edwards knows what he’s doing.
But you know who else knows what he’s doing? Bryan Singer. Bring that guy into the X-Men universe and suddenly we’re back on firm (non-Ratner) footing. It takes a lot to tie in multiple time periods, a huge cadre of movie stars (McKellen! Fassbender! Lawrence! Stewart! Jackman!), and enough CGI to remake the world. But here we are, pumped once again to be living in the X-world.
We’re down to 12 films (and up over 2,000 words) in four groups of three. At the end of Day 1, here’s how the bracket is shaping up (in non-graphic form):
The Grand Budapest Hotel is sitting pretty with a bye into the third round while Obvious Child attempts to assert its will over the vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive.
No one wants to mess with The Rover (yet) but the second round will see The Lunchbox and Omar war over the hearts and minds of all who saw them.
The specialists of the TIFF world are watching as Under the Skin creeps into the third round while Night Moves and Like Father, Like Son dive into their duel to the death (am I overstating things?)
And finally, Captain America: The Winter Soldier cracks its knuckles and presides over the box office showdown of this tourney as X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Lego Movie give each other what for.
This tournament is definitely not for the faint of heart. But, still, come back soon for Day 2 as we march into the later rounds and decide which film is the best of 2014 so far.