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Criticwire Survey: Halftime Top 5

The Criticwire Survey on the best movies, TV shows, music and more of 2014 so far.
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Ralph Fiennes in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Ralph Fiennes in "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics a questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: What are your five favorite cultural experiences of 2014? They can be movies (or screenings), TV shows (or episodes), music: You name it. (A tally of the most popular responses can be found at the end of this post.)

Adam Nayman, the Globe and Mail, Cinema Scope

Wussy, "Attica!" I could also include Charles Taylor's brilliant essay on Wussy and "Attica!" in the Los Angeles Review of Books here, since for me the album and this superb piece of criticism are now inextricably linked; as ambivalent as I often am about Taylor's film writing, he taps a rich vein of cultural reflection here, and excavates a lot of meaning from a record that I would (and am) otherwise perfectly content to see simply as a source of (inexhaustible) pleasure. I don't know if I'd apply the hoary (and probably meaningless) descriptor "cinematic" to Wussy's music but in the sense that it features characters and narratives interacting inside precisely created aesthetic spaces, it probably is.  With this in mind, "Teenage Wasteland" is a kind of widescreen epic -- corn fields at magic hour -- and "Beautiful," the closer, is some kind of scratched super-16 home movie. 

"The Immigrant": The closing shot of James Gray's fifth feature distills so many meanings -- narrative, historical, cultural -- into a single painstakingly composed image that I'm tempted to call it a true coup de cinema. And yet for the most part "The Immigrant" is a sparely (though of course smartly) directed film, moving its story along -- and its protagonist through its story -- with an efficiency that belies its maker's reputation as some sort of grand cineaste. What resonates most strongly here is not any sort of over-deliberate visual design so much as the tension between two schools of dramaturgy -- pure old-guard melodrama and a kind of quiet, stinging contemporariness -- and the sense that something novel (if not necessarily new) is being created in the process. Great acting across the board too, especially from Joaquin Phoenix, who for the third film in a row with Gray manages to create a character spacious enough to accommodate a slow-burning and thorough evolution from beginning to end. 

"Locke": Speaking of great acting, in "Locke," Tom Hardy throws his hat in the ring for the most technically accomplished British actor of his generation. After watching (and listening!) to his one-man show in Steven Locke's surprisingly supple and surpassingly humane dark-night-of-the-soul drama -- filmed entirely inside the front seat of a car barreling down the M6 -- I'm convinced that he's a truly major talent; he uses his face, voice and body with such confidence that I was reminded of John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins (the latter especially in the soft velvety Welshness lining his line readings). On paper, the role of a flawed, arrogant, desperate, proud, tortured, brilliant man confined with his demons might read like a screenwriter's too-bright idea - a gimmick, basically -- but Hardy's performance is both elastic enough to encompass all of these masculine archetypes and hard-edged enough to work against the hints of sentimentality in the script. If I see a better lead performance all year by an actor of either gender I'll be delighted because it will mean two landmark turns in the same twelve-month period.

"It Felt Like Love": Eliza Hittman's debut has already been duly praised for its keen eye (and ear) and subtle revamping of coming-of-age tropes, but I feel obliged to give it props here for those things and more: when you're watching a young filmmaker's debut feature and finding yourself reminded of Lucrecia Martel -- both in the ways Hittman films adolescent bodies and gets inside the throbbing consciousnesses of her young heroine -- it feels like the sort of thing that you should mention as often as possible. A good debut features makes you want to see more from a director; a very good one -- like "It Felt Like Love" -- warrants revisitation as soon as possible. 

"True Detective": OK so sue me, I 1) am bookending this movie top five list with a record and television show 2) have selected "True Detective," which has already been written about more than it deserves to be and 3) am saying for the record that I really like it, which might surprise the people I bitched about the ending to. Well, I am myself surprised by how sympathetic I ended up being in retrospect to HBO's latest pop-cultural watershed, mostly because I realize now that the six (or seven) hours of excellent fun this very flawed series gave me (and my viewing partner, my wife) is not  invalidated by its very disappointing and conventional ending. If anything, for promising more than it delivers and prompting a lot of reflection about how that dynamic actually works -- if it's native to serialized storytelling or actually just a distended version of how a lot of genre material works onscreen in every format -- "True Detective" ended up as the most discussable thing I've seen all year. And not all of my kudos is for extra-textual reasons; Fukunaga's direction of the third, fourth (yeah yeah the tracking shot; there are 48 other good minutes there) and fifth episodes was genuinely excellent.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

"Boyhood": I finally saw it last week, and while I'm still working over my thoughts about it, what struck me on first viewing was how very, very authentic the things that might have been contrived "period" details (like political references or the discussions of "Star Wars") had the film been all shot at once felt easy and nostalgic. I can't wait to see it again.

"Ida": It's not the best film I expect to see this year, but besides its beautiful photography, I loved it for attempting to deal with the problem of irrevocable life choices (something that drives many movies) in a host of ways, large and small, national and individual. I also thought the way it treated the border between religious and secular reminded me of "The Great Beauty," which -- instead of seeing one as better or worse than the other (as many films seem to -- saw them both as vital parts of the greater reality we live in, and us as woven into a fabric that includes both.

"Orphan Black": A show I never expected to like. But I do, and I'm hoping it carries on. It reminds me, oddly perhaps, of that James Cameron show "Dark Angel," though for none of the eight or so reasons that make it good. Those reasons are (1-7) Tatiana Maslany and (8) Jordan Gavaris.

"True Detective": For ending exactly as it should have, in my book. Rust had a lot of time to sit there and think. Who says people can't change, a little? (Also for giving me an excuse to talk about "flat circles" an awful lot.) 

"Le Week-end": What I will love and remember forever is the final scene, with Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan spent and washed up, but together, getting slowly drunk on white wine, then dancing the Madison with Jeff Goldblum. 

Mad Men, "Waterloo": Bert Cooper. The perfect goodbye.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

"Manakamana": The Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab has been steadily developing some of the freshest experiments with film form of the past few years, and this meditative look at the various passengers of a cable car riding up and down the Nepal Valley is one of the lab's richest offerings yet. More movies should urge us to sit still and pay close attention to every nuance on the screen. 

"Boyhood" at Sundance: Everyone knew that Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making narrative would be an unprecedented storytelling accomplishment. But nobody could have anticipated that it would also feel so fresh, gentle and real -- not only his best movie, but maybe the best movie about growing up ever.

"Goodbye to Language" at Cannes: I wouldn't say that Jean-Luc Godard's zany film essay was my favorite movie at this year's Cannes Film Festival, but it was certainly my favorite moviegoing experience -- from the fervent cries of "Godard forever!" that preceded the screening to the thundering applause that followed the first instance of Godard toying around with 3-D technology in a truly innovative fashion. It was like experiencing the elation of discovering Godard's cinematic brilliance for the first time all over again.

The Box Office Success of "The Grand Budapest Hotel": No longer a mere eccentric of the American film scene, Wes Anderson has become an establishment figure, and the country's film culture is so much richer because of it.

The $11 Billion Year: Anne Thompson's yearlong chronicle of the film business is an eloquent encapsulation of the rush involved in experiencing the world that makes movies happen up close -- the good, the bad, and the wildly unpredictable.

"Adventure Time," Season 6 premiere: Not many of my film peers have jumped on the bandwagon for this sage-like look at nostalgia and melancholy in children's cartoon clothing, but I'm continually thrilled by how it continues to deepen as its writers grow more confident and ambitious with the material. The season 6 premiere of the show contained two mutilations and the violent death of a main character, but it was also sweet, funny and sad -- a delicate balance that unquestionably makes "Adventure Time" one of the best shows out there right now.
"We Are the Best"
"We Are the Best"

Alonso Duralde, the Wrap

"We Are the Best!": If another movie in 2014 leaves me with as big a grin on my face, it's gonna be a great year. Lukas Moodysson plays to the strengths of his best films to date ("Together," "Show Me Love") in a deliriously entertaining celebration of youthful rebellion and the power of punk.

"Locke": So many movies wander away from the thing that makes them interesting, so I was thrilled when I realized this film was going to commit to the conceit of Tom Hardy driving a car and talking on the phone. Thoroughly hypnotic.

"Under the Skin": I predict that, like "2001" before it, this is a movie that's going to be argued over (and whose meaning will be debated for decades to come. We've had to wait a long time for a new Jonathan Glazer movie, but this was worth it.

"Love Is Strange": Ira Sachs gets his most A-list cast to date -- John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei -- but he stays true to his own quirky rhythms and moments of quiet discovery in this story about two older gay men separated by financial circumstances after they've finally won the right to be legally married. Their sense of togetherness, even when apart, is palpable.

"The Case Against 8": This HBO documentary about the legal battle to overturn California's Proposition 8 doesn't tell the only story about the fight for marriage equality in this country, but it's a riveting, insider-y look at this one particular case. The results feel like a valentine to the Constitution and the judicial system.

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

"Bravest Warriors." Slightly more mature (though chronologically younger) Web-based cousin to Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" ("AT" creator Pen Ward designed the characters, which were developed by Breehn Burns into this YouTube-based series). The milieu is science-fiction rather than fantasy -- "teenage heroes doing good and fighting evil in the absence of their hero parents" is not exactly what the show is about, though it briefly states the premise -- but it's love that makes both these worlds go round. (Mixed here with a little sexiness, if not actually sex.) This is a place where cereal is made with seahorse dreams and rainbow spit; a computer-generated elf gains independent being, grows huge and envelops the universe in tyrannical pink bliss; and one's future selves meet for drinks at the Parasox Pub. Funny, deep, beautiful.

Tig Notaro, live at Largo, Los Angeles May 22. I'm not sure what to call this -- performance art seems too stuffy, but stand-up comedy doesn't get it either. A living essay in the relationship between an artist and an audience, perhaps, which ended in a purposeful denial of laughter, in a nervously quiet room, with directed applause contracted to a single group clap. Genius, whatever it was.

"Mad Men," Season 7, Part the First. My pet theory, which is perhaps not a radical one, is that the show, from its Douglas Sirk-ish melodramatic beginnings, has become (in the best possible way) a comedy. Analysts have sifted the props and costumes and yesterday's papers for signs of Don Draper's suicide or murder; but at this point his seems to me the story of a man swimming crookedly toward the light, while the show more generally concerns people (as yet) unfit for normal domestic relationships who find meaning in work. (Perhaps Don is a third-marriage man; Neve Campbell is still out there, somewhere, and New York City is a small town.) And they do find meaning; it is not a cynical show, as easily as it might be. And cheers for Robert Morse's musical farewell -- some caviled, but why would you cast the star of "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and not have him sing his way offstage?.

"Broad City"/"Annie and a Side of Fries." Comedy Central is full of impressive programs right now, and I could as easily have headed this paragraph with the continuing-great "Inside Amy Schumer" or "Kroll Show." But I'll highlight the freshman team of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer and their sitcom "Broad City" -- a kind of semi-surrealist New York "Laverne & Shirley," with weed, that jauntily mixes classic and modern voices -- for its heart and optimism. And it gives me a chance to mention Jacobson's sweet one-woman YouTube series, "Annie and a Side of Fries," in which she plays an 11-year-old child of divorce, vlogging from her room in her father's apartment.

David Hockney, "A Bigger Picture," de Young Museum, San Francisco. There's a temptation to take Hockney less seriously for his popularity and accessibility, but there's still something to be said for an artist who Paints What He Sees, who makes the real world more visible by getting between you and it. This exhibition of mostly recent, mostly large works (massively attended) was big and complex and seductive, unapologetic for being full of people and trees.

Vadim Rizov, Filmmaker

The best film that world premiered this year and has distribution but has yet to be released is "Boyhood." The best 2014 premiere I've seen that's as yet without distribution is Tsai Ming-liang's "Journey to the West." The best calendar year 2013 festival premiere to see release so far this year is "Under the Skin." The best calendar year 2013 film to be scheduled for release later this year is "Stray Dogs." The best previously undistributed movie of calendar year 2009 to receive a one-week run at NYC's Anthology Film Archives, thereby making it technically a possible answer, is Alain Guiraudie's badly underseen "The King of Escape." The best calendar film of 2014 to both premiere and already be released is "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

R. Emmet Sweeney, Movie Morlocks

"A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness"
"A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness"

"A Spell to Ward off the Darkness" is in search of utopia and can only find it at a black metal concert in Norway. In its epileptic Super 16mm beauty, it's a work of secular transcendence and the film I most hope to revisit. I've already had a second go-round with Manoel de Oliveira's "Gebo and the Shadow," made in 2012, which is finally receiving a micro-release at Anthology Film Archives. After the charming flight of necrophiliac fancy that was "The Strange Case of Angelica," this is an elemental thudding back to earth. "The Strange Little Cat" is also concerned with the quotidian, charting the rhythms of one day and night inside a Berlin apartment. It's intricate choreography places equal emphasis on objects as much as people, so one has to pay as close attention to the clothes dryer as the children. "Pompeii" is the most beautiful Hollywood movie of the year. Well, unless you consider "The Immigrant" as Hollywood. Call it a tie! I'm still breezing my way through Scott Eyman's John Wayne biography, but it's essential. He treats him as an artist instead of a symbol, and provides crucial context for his years on Poverty Row, in which he was learning how to turn Marion Morrison into "John Wayne." My 2014 soundtrack has been dominated by Sturgill Simpson's lysergic "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," the Eric Revis Quartet's inside-out "In Memory of Things Yet Seen," and Wussy's gorgeously worn out "Attica!" And if I had to choose a single it would be Eric Church's hard fucking song "Like a Wrecking Ball."

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

This reads like a list of people and places: "Belle," "Ida," "Palo Alto," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The LEGO Movie."

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound

Here are my top six nonfiction films of the first half of 2014: Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels Van Koevorden's punch-drunk buddy comedy "Ne Me Quitte Pas," Roberto Minervini's semi-real, Texas mini-epic "Stop the Pounding Heart," Argentinian dance video/Warhol homage/mise-en-scene lesson "Living Stars," Jess Moss' knotty, emotional and surprising "The Overnighters," Mati Diop's lovely and heartbreaking "Mille soleils" and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard Nick Cave artfilm portrait "20,000 Days on Earth."

Jason Osder, "Let the Fire Burn"

I'll just go with what I know, which is docs. My top five to this point are: "Virunga," "In Country," "Point and Shoot," "The Overnighters"  and "The Lion's Mouth Opens."

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

My anal-retentive nod to the fact that June 1 isn't quite halfway is naming my top 4 general release films, plus one festival favorite. Top of 2014 thus far is "Under the Skin," so creepy and insinuating and utterly singular in its vision that I just want to strangle future Kubrick comparisons in their sleep. Bubbling under that top spot are "Only Lovers Left Alive" (gloriously, drolly satisfying in a way that only Jim Jarmusch features can be) and "The LEGO Movie" (as purely joyful and committed to the power of creativity as you could hope for in a movie based on a toy). Then there's uniquely funky documentary experience of "Mistaken for Strangers," which is such a wistful character study that "The National concert movie" should be removed from all further discussion of it. And finally, there's my favorite Sundance discovery, the great Australian horror film "The Babadook," which is both terrific as a simple genre exercise and (like so many great horror movies) a brilliant piece of allegorical writing.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

Here's ten in no particular order: "Manakamana," "Under the Skin," "Boyhood," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Immigrant," "Child's Pose," "The Dance of Reality," "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Obvious Child," "The Unknown Known."

Only two by women, is that because of me or the film industry?

Ben Travers,  Indiewire

I may be biased as a television critic, and the best of the film world is always reserved for the second half of the year, but TV is dominating its cultural big brother so far in 2014 (at least for those of us who couldn't make it to Cannes). "True Detective" basically won an Oscar already -- believe me, Matthew McConaughey didn't just win for "Dallas Buyers Club" -- and it would win more, if eligible. "Veep" and "Silicon Valley" have also helped in regaining the network crown for cultural achievement at HBO, and "Penny Dreadful" is putting Showtime back in competition after a few years without a "Best" level show. 

Throw in part one of an excellent "Mad Men" season seven and a reinvention of "Archer" in season five that saw everyone's favorite spy switch sides, and TV 2014 is off to an incredible start. There have only been a few moments in theaters comparable, with "Joe" the only full film to stand out. The last 30 minutes of "Godzilla" were the most thrilling since Smaug chased those hobbits out of his cave, but almost too little too late for a film postponing its action to the point of exhaustion. "Joe," though, with a restrained, layered performance from Nicolas Cage, could compete with the big boys over on the small box.

Andrew Welch, To Be (Cont'd)

"Hannibal"
"Hannibal"

Since my daughter's birth earlier this year, it's been difficult to stay current with new releases or even with what's on TV -- with the exception of "Hannibal," the Bryan Fuller series on NBC. If you haven't seen it–and that's most of you, judging from the show's low ratings–it stars Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter, the popular character from Thomas Harris' novels, and Hugh Dancy as his troubled foil. So far the series has functioned as a prequel to Harris' first Hannibal book, Red Dragon, though Fuller has a seven season plan that would eventually cover everything.

The finale for the second season just aired on Friday, May 23, and it was a doozy. As others around the web have noted, if NBC hadn't renewed it for a third season, this would've been the most traumatizing series finale of all time -- but also one of the best and most daring, in my opinion. Fuller is a brilliantly inventive showrunner, while Mikkelsen's poise and athleticism make him perfect for Harris' refined monster. If you love good TV, but you haven't seen "Hannibal," you need to fix that.

if I had to choose some runners-up, I'd go with Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Dance of Reality," and a couple of new (or rebooted) comic book titles from Marvel: Kelly Sue DeConnick's "Captain Marvel" and Cullen Bunn's "Magneto."

Kiva Reardon, cleo

As always, there's been more garbage than good, but it's far too easy to only point out the bad. Besides, dear Sam Adams asked us to be positive, so here's to the gems 2014 have yielded thus far. May the year's concluding months be just as fruitful. 

"Ida": Pawel Pawlikowski's first Polish language feature resonates in its stark simplicity -- the parable-like story, the sharp black and white cinematography. Pawlikowski further places his faith in his images, allowing his tale to unfold through gestures, looks and framing. Topping it all off is Agata Trzebuchowska's performance, who has a Greta Garbo-esque quality.

"We Are the Best!": Lukas Moodysson's adaptation of his wife Coco Moodysson's graphic novel earns its exclamation point and then some. The film harnesses the energy of its three young leads (Mira Grosin, Mira Barkhammar, Liv LeMoyne), creating an exuberant coming-of-age story with the best message of all: make rad female friends, start a band.

"Vic + Flo Saw a Bear": This is cheating, as Denis Cote's film opened in 2013 in Canada, but this elliptical romance-turned-horror story is worth highlighting again and again.

"It Felt Like Love": This is another fub, as Eliza Hittman's film didn't open in Canada, outside of a one-off screening hosted by cleo and Toronto production company MDFF. But since first seeing Hittman's work in Rotterdam in January 2013, I haven't been able to get her protagonist's plight off my mind.

"Stranger by the Lake": Unceremoniously released in the Great White North in mid-January, far too few people saw Alain Guiraudie's film. It's too bad about the winter opening, too, as it really should be the film of the summer.

"Manakamna": Yet another twisting of the rules: the latest by Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez) hasn't gotten a Canadian release date. I first saw the film at Locarno Film Festival last August, which isn't just a way to say I went to Locarno, but to note that Spray and Velez's vision has stayed with me for the better part of the year.

Honourable mention: "Non-Stop," for joining the incredible screen talents that are Liam Neeson and Lupita Nyong'o.

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

Mid-year Top 5 movies: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Boyhood," "Mommy," "Leviathan (the Cannes 2014 one), ""Edge of Tomorrow."

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

The early months have offered a handful of movies (four in release, plus one that's being screened at festivals) that the remainder of the year will be hard-pressed to match in one essential and unusual quality: perceptual and conceptual transformation (though I anticipate several coming from Cannes that could fit into that exalted category). "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Last of the Unjust" are both studies in performance, exercises not in style but about style. It's no news that Wes Anderson's film is a heroic and tragic revelation of the moral substance of connoisseurship and disciplined personal bearing. But Claude Lanzmann's film also features a brilliant and desperately disciplined performer in a real-world tragedy, Benjamin Murmelstein, a rabbi who became the self-described Scheherazade of Theresienstadt, where he helped the Nazis put on their own show -- the propaganda images of the so-called model concentration camp -- in order to keep the camp from being liquidated and its inmates from being killed. Murmelstein's bearing is as ingrained as is that of the concierge Gustave H., and he paid grievously for the misinterpretation of it (and, judging from some reviews of the film, he continues to pay for it now, long after his death). James Gray's "The Immigrant" and Eliza Hittman's "It Felt Like Love" are meticulously naturalistic dramas that, without a hint of narrative gamesmanship or reflexive gimmickry, shatter the frame of representation with the intensity of passion, the music of visual composition, the current of personal history and reminiscence. Both of them, in their own ways, render the familiar categories of cinematic form irrelevant.  The yet-unreleased film in question is Josephine Decker's "Thou Wast Mild & Lovely," which recalibrates the very idea of the cinematic image and offers an astonishing reimagination of the basic elements of filmmaking, from framing, focus, texture, and gesture to the succession of shots and the evocation of dramatic events. What it doesn't offer is a method or a device; it, too, is a matter of personal style and its substance.


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