Before the fall

N&R film critics’ favorite films of 2014 (so far)

<i>Under the Skin</i>

Under the Skin

N&R film critics’ favorite films of 2014 (so far)

Experience becomes memory

Under the Skin: Many sounds and images from Jonathan Glazer’s film continue to haunt me, especially that slow, oblivious sink into the inky abyss. But the film endures longest as an unsettling take on the nature of identity. Leaving the universe of this film was like being suddenly snapped out of a hypnotist’s trance, and I feel as if I have been half-living in its reverie ever since.

Boyhood: In Richard Linklater’s achingly beautiful film, a child goes to bed one night and wakes up a year older. Ask any parent: It happens. There is the feeling throughout that the protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane, literally growing up on camera), is simultaneously living and remembering his childhood, just as experience becomes memory the moment it occurs. This is Renoir and Truffaut on their best days.

Stranger by the Lake: Alain Guiraudie’s insidious thriller is the homoerotic flipside to the gender-gaze politics of Under the Skin. The explicit and erotic gay sex scenes are all anyone talks about, but Guiraudie’s ability to sustain a discomforting suspense is worthy of Hitchcock or Haneke, keeping the film balanced on a knife’s edge of orgasm and murder.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson has been retreating into the shoebox project of his imagination to increasingly alienating effect, so it’s a pleasant surprise that his best film in a decade is also his most elegantly detailed diorama to date, with a great lead performance from Ralph Fiennes.

The Raid 2: Berandal: Snowpiercer had bigger ideas and Edge of Tomorrow was funnier, but The Raid 2: Berandal provided the purest action high of the year. Gareth Evans expands his claustrophobic The Raid: Redemption into an epic of sleazy grandeur, featuring gloriously over-the-top fight scenes announced with the operatic fanfare of a Sergio Leone gunfight.

—Daniel Barnes

Because, Muppets

Chef: Written and directed by its star, Jon Favreau, this road picture wandered a bit here and there, but the trip was always worth taking, as Favreau, son Emjay Anthony and pal John Leguizamo drove a refurbished food truck form Florida to L.A., cooking and serving as they went. Cameos from Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and several others iced this tasty cake very nicely.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Quirky filmmaker Wes Anderson may be an acquired taste, but movies like this one make it easy. Simultaneously funny and sad, this tale of a European luxury hotel between the World Wars was a melancholy valentine to lost (and maybe imaginary) elegance, with a nearly bottomless bag of comic tricks and a hilarious change-of-pace turn by Ralph Fiennes.

Locke: It sounded like the worst idea for a movie ever—a man in a car on the phone—but this was the riveting story of a man throwing his life away out of a misguided sense of duty. Brilliantly written by director Steven Knight, with a powerhouse performance by Tom Hardy (greatly aided by unseen phone voices) and beautiful, almost abstract cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos.

Muppets Most Wanted: The Muppets’ eighth theatrical feature was the best one since the very first—and maybe even better than that. A parade of guest stars, clever songs by Bret McKenzie, and a riot of groan-and-guffaw jokes from Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin. There was more pure fun here than in any movie all year.

Tim’s Vermeer: If the Oscar for documentary feature still meant anything, this one would win. Comic magicians Penn (producing and narrating) and Teller (directing) follow inventor Tim Jenison as he seeks to duplicate a painting by 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, testing his theory of what made Vermeer so great. A fascinating examination of the relationship between art and technology.

—Jim Lane

Five that came Chico’s way

The Grand Budapest Hotel: A fanciful delight in every respect. The whimsical meanderings of its story are very much a part of its offbeat charm and the many small, bittersweet pleasures that go with it. An abundance of quirky characters, confectionery colors and eccentric curios are all part of the tragicomic entertainment here.

Cold in July

La Grande Bellezza/The Good Life: Winner of the 2014 Oscar for best foreign film (and finally making it to Chico this spring), this latter-day take on “la dolce vita” boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Toni Servillo, a wry and intricate insider’s tour of 21st century Rome, a Fellini-esque phantasmagoria of faces, places and moods cooked up by director Paolo Sorrentino.

Boyhood: The passage of time in this story is always in motion here, as is the film’s sense of “boyhood.” But it’s also full of passing reflections on marriage and family, the fate of human passion in the digital/electronic world, daily life in modern-day Texas, education, magic, faith, football, photography and more.

Under the Skin: With Scarlett Johansson playing a sort of extraterrestrial femme fatale, this offbeat film takes shape as a chilly, sexy, ironic parable about the paradoxes and ambiguities of human nature and sexual desire. The film’s semi-surrealist special effects have a weird sublimity to them as well.

Locke: Ivan Locke (played by a quietly fierce Tom Hardy) is driving alone, headed for London on a British motorway, in what gradually emerges as an exceptional kind of mission. The main dramatic action, mostly a matter of the lone driver’s increasingly fraught cell phone conversations, is a tour de force of offbeat characterization.

And, some favorites not shown (so far) in Chico: Only Lovers Left Alive, Dormant Beauty, Blue Ruin, Cold in July, The French Minister.

—Juan-Carlos Selznick