20 Best 2014 Films We've Already Seen

The more OCD among us here at Playlist Towers find it a source of constant aggravation that release dates vary so much from territory to territory, and festivals often get premieres a full 18-or-so months before a film gains a proper U.S. release—making a cut-and-dry list of any given year’s movies less science than art. And while it’s an art that has already yielded our first magnum opus of the year, the 100 Most Anticipated Movies Of 2014, (and we should probably be awarded the rest of January off as a result) there’s still a category of film we’ve left unmined: those movies that we saw and reviewed in 2013 at festivals or sneak screenings or parts foreign tha t won’t be in theaters until 2014.

And so we went back to the grindstone to bring you this list of 20 (plus a host of honorable mentions and also rans) of the films that very well might have made it onto our Most Anticipated list had we not already seen them, along with summaries of and links to our original reviews, and their release dates, where they have them. If, in general, foretelling what’s going to be good and what’s not is a bit of a blindfolded darts game, these films at least are known quantities, and on their strength alone, we can be pretty excited for 2014.

The Zero Theorem

"The Zero Theorem"
Synopsis: Qohen, a reclusive man, who's spent his life waiting for a phone call, is asked to solve the Zero Theorem, an equation that proves that existence is meaningless.
Verdict: The world's eyes might be on the Monty Python reunion later in 2014, but Terry Gilliam has something more pressing on the way: the release of his latest film, "The Zero Theorem," which premiered at Venice last year. Starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry and Matt Damon, it's not, as Oliver said in his review, "an unreserved return to form, but it's an admirably ambitious and thoughtful sci-fi mindbender." The film's bright future world is "a bit passé," but once it gets going, it's probably Gilliam's best in at least a decade, with an "atypical and human" performance from Waltz in particular, and "rich production and costume design." More importantly than anything, it cuts close to the bone, with much of the film feeling like Gilliam confronting his own mortality: "for all the film's flaws, it feels like a very personal and moving piece of work as Qohen moves towards some kind of acceptance that his time on Earth will be brief in the grand scale of things... it's not so much a film about a search for a meaning, as an embrace of meaningless, and it's fascinating in that respect." That alone makes it more valuable than anything the director's made for a long while.
Our Review: Oliver's B- verdict from Venice
Release Date: Has distribution in most of the world except the U.S, but we're sure that'll change before too long.

Bluebird, John Slattery, Emily Meade

Synopsis: In a small, snowy Maine town, a brief moment of negligence by two women causes a tragedy that impacts the whole community.
Verdict: The feature directorial debut of Lance Edmands, who served as editor on Lena Dunham's breakout "Tiny Furniture" couldn't be much different from Dunham's film: a quiet, devastating drama with a cast of actors better known for their TV work than screen appearances: Amy Morton of "Blue Bloods," John Slattery of "Mad Men," Adam Driver from "Girls" and Margo Martindale from "Justified" among them. But according to our Rodrigo Perez when he saw the film at Tribeca last year, it can sit alongside any all-star Hollywood cast, proving to be an "affecting and moving examination of family, mothers, connectedness and the ripple effect of tragic consequences." That ace cast are all excellent, especially the "terrific" Morton and the "outstanding" Krause, while "Martha Marcy May Marlene" DoP Jody Lee Lipes gives it all a "beautifully stark and disquieting look." Despite the melodramatic set-up, director Edmands "resists all levels of melodrama in sentimentality, and yet the picture is just as arresting and emotional as any drama I've seen this year, albeit in a quiet manner." Sounds like Edmands is very much one to watch in the future.
Our Review: Rod's B+ review from Tribeca can be found here.
Release Date: Again, no U.S. distributor yet, hopefully that'll change soon.

Music Box Films "Ida"

Synopsis: In 1960s Poland, a young orphan girl about to take her vows as a nun discovers that she's Jewish, and sets out on a road trip with her only living relative.
Verdict: Pawel Pawlikowski is an undervalued filmmaker (best known for "My Summer Of Love"), who aside from his return with 2012's disappointing "The Woman In The Fifth," has been away for too long. But he came storming back with "Ida," a beautiful little black-and-white Bressonian gem. Oli caught it first at the London Film Festival, calling it "absolutely stunning, one of the year's best films," and Jess reviewed it in full in Marrakech, agreeing that it's a "small, quiet, polished film that unfolds slowly but with remarkable assurance," with some "truly remarkable cinematography," and a "striking central performance" from young Polish actress Agata Trzebuchowska. It's a little film that might not be for everyone, but as the winner of the top prize at the BFI London Film Festival, we clearly weren't alone.
Our Review: Jess' B+ review from Marrakech is here, or you can read Oli's take in his year-end list, where it placed at No. 4.
Release Date: Gets a U.K. release in September, and in the U.S., Music Box Films has the rights, and we await a firm date.

Mood Indigo Poster Header

"Mood Indigo"
Synopsis: A young man falls in love with a girl, but on the honeymoon after they marry, inhales a spore that gives her a terminal illness, which can only be cured with endless fresh flowers.
Verdict: The opening sentence of Jess' review of Michel Gondry's new film "Mood Indigo" from Karlovy Vary is one of the best things we ran last year, so this is probably a good place to reprint it: "So if we were to CHROME CARROTS attempt to replicate the PERSPEX LIMO omnipresent inventiveness of TINY MOUSE IN A TINY HOUSE Michel Gondry’s latest film throughout the PIANO THAT MAKES COCKTAILS course of this review, it would SUNLIGHT IS STRING get pretty old, pretty damn RUBIK’S CUBE ORGANISER quick." And that should give you a pretty good idea of what you're in for: lots of Gondry's trademark endlessly inventive visuals, "full of manic little details and tricksy filmmaking which charms and exhausts in equal measure." Aside from an unexpectedly downbeat second half, the film is a "huge Rube Goldberg machine, full of lights and buzzers and levers that ping and whistle endearingly, but are connected to nothing and serve no greater function in the larger apparatus. And while it feels churlish to complain about too much care and intricate creativity lavished on a production when most Hollywood films suffer from a lack of same, at 2 hours 15 minutes it just wore us down." All that said, Gondry's been cutting the film down by as much as thirty-five minutes, so it'll be interesting to see if the new cut is more palatable.
Review: Jess' B-/C+ take from Karlovy Vary can be read here, though bear in mind the finished film is likely to be quite different, and certainly this is one case where less may definitely prove more.

Release Date: No U.S. distributor yet, hopefully one'll materialize before too long.

Tsai Ming-Liang's 'Stray Dogs'

"Stray Dogs"
Synopsis: The story of a family living between the cracks in a Taiwanese city, it follows a homeless father and his two children trying to survive as they mourn the departure of the mother.
Verdict: A new film from Tsai Ming-Liang was always going to be an event for the artsier kind of cinephile and "Stray Dogs" (which the Taiwanese director of "Goodbye Dragon Inn" claimed was his last film, though he seems to have another, "Journey To The West," starring Denis Lavant, premiering in Berlin in February) did not disappoint. Oliver caught the film at Venice, calling it one of the five best of the festival, and saying that "almost as much as anything he's ever made, 'Stray Dogs' frustrates those looking for answers or traditional narrative, and moves at an especially sleepy pace, with some shots lasting around the ten-minute mark." But the mood, "more dream-like than kitchen sink" is unforgettable, and the form is "fully realized and strongly executed," with every shot feeling "perfectly composed," and every time Tsai makes a cut, you can't see how it could have been done any other way." In short, while it's not for the blockbuster crowd, it's a true masterclass from a filmmaker that we're glad isn't hanging his hat up any time soon.
Our Review: Oli's A- take from Venice is here.
Release Date: Despite glowing reviews and placement on quite a few critics' 2013 lists, U.S. distribution has proven elusive so far. Surely someone will step in sooner rather than later.