No one can see everything. Particularly with prestige TV now competing for our attention, there's a lot of cultural noise out there even for the most hardcore cinephile, and with upwards of a dozen movies being released in major cities every week (not to mention VOD), it's easy for a great movie to get lost in the mix. Well, that's where we come in.
We're over halfway through the year, and with the (usually) barren months of August and September creeping up, it's starting to feel like time to catch up on some of the movies that might have slipped by between January and June. So, having examined some of the films that most disappointed us in 2014 so far a week or two back, the Playlist staff have picked out some movies that they, individually, believe were undersung, underrated or undervalued in the first half of the year (and note how one person's treasure is another one's trash as their definitely are some overlaps in the aforementioned disappointed piece).
The rule: each available staff member got to pick one movie (or, if they felt strongly enough, two), that had been released between January 1st and June 30th this year in the U.S. (excluding festival titles), and that they felt could use a little more love. Take a look at the choices below, and let us know your own undersung faves of 2014 so far in the comments section below.
It's always a pleasure to see an actor bite into a role, but what Jude Law does in "Dom Hemingway" goes far beyond cinematic mastication. Chest puffed, lips curled into a snarl, a mischievous grin smeared on his face, and carrying the weight of regret and the hope of the future on his shoulders, his "Dom Hemingway" is a man who has burned through the world and still believes it owes him something. And he wants to take that debt and finally put his feet up after a lifetime of headbutting the law (metaphorically certainly, and probably literally too). And Law is fearless here in a film that demands him to go from an opening monologue about the distinct qualities of his cock to humbling himself in an attempt to reconnect with his daughter. As you might expect, its a wild ride, but one dripping with wit and a surprising amount of heart. In a sense, "Dom Hemimgway" is a cousin to "Filth" in terms of presenting audiences with a moral degenerate as their lead. But Dom isn't just self-loathing to the extent of nihilist self-destruction. Beneath the bravado, woman chasing and f-bombs are good intentions from a guy, who in his own wildly perverse way, is trying to be decent. And that's what makes "Dom Hemingway" worth visiting. There are all sorts variations on this kind of movie, but few who do it with right mix of hedonism and humility, all while having this kind of fun at the same time.
And for a second pick, I nearly forgot (like most people it seems) that Kore-Eda Hirokazu's "Like Father, Like Son" opened in January, and it really deserved better. Probably lost in the buzz of the Sundance Film Festival, because no one seemed to really talk about it at the time, make sure to track it down because it's a beautiful, deeply moving observation on family, parenthood and the very definition of love itself. Masterful stuff from Hirokazu as always, with performances that will break your heart.
Some might quibble at the need to defend Darren Aronofsky's "Noah"—the film got decent reviews, even if ours wasn't one of them, and did well enough at the box office. Maybe it's just my bubble, but I feel like the reaction in general varied between "I hated it," "I couldn't be bothered with it," and "that wasn't as bad as I thought," so I feel compelled to fight in its corner, because I pretty much straight up loved the film. Perhaps the weirdest, most unlikely studio blockbuster in living memory, "Noah" sees Darren Aronofsky finally get to play on a giant canvas, with his passion-project take on the Old Testament tale of apocalypse and redemption. But anyone fearing that the director was going to water down his trademark style didn't have to worry: this was uncompromised Aronofsky, ballsily taking one of the most famous Biblical stories, and recasting its title character as, basically, the villain. Many got hung up on the giant stone-angels that caused so much controversy, but for all the effects work (which is mostly remarkable), it's still a thoughtful and complex film, digging into issues of faith and fanaticism in a way that's almost unheard of for a hugely expensive tentpole, let alone one that was actively courting the religious crowd. Aronofsky's filmmaking is as impressive as ever, and though some of the supporting roles get a bit lost, Russell Crowe comes storming back to give his best performance in a decade, entirely committed and fierce. Like with all of Aronofsky's films, I wouldn't begrudge anyone for not liking it: he's not to everyone's taste, and doesn't really know the meaning of the word "subtle," for better or worse. And it's certainly a flawed achievement, but one that I suspect will grow in reputation and stature over time. And if nothing else, it features Ray Winstone biting off a snake's head, so its place in cinematic history is assured for that alone.
There were plenty of other options out there for my second pick: I concur with many of the ones on this list, especially "Obvious Child," and could have happily fought the corner for "A Field In England," "Breathe In," "Mistaken For Strangers," "Joe," "Belle," "Ida," "Palo Alto" or "Night Moves," but in the end plumped for a film I wasn't even sure got a U.S. release until I looked it up - Anthony Chen's "Ilo Ilo," which only ever played four theaters in the U.S, and grossed only $50,000. The winner of the Camera d'Or for first films at last year's Cannes, and a rare film hailing from Singapore to make it out of the city-state, it's a simple tale, indebted to the humanism of the Dardennes and Asghar Farhadi, about a middle-class family who, despite facing economic difficulty, hire a live-in Filipino maid to care for their troublemaking son as the arrival of their second child approaches. Low-key and never feeling contrived or melodramatic, Chen's rich screenplay gives an immediate sense of the local culture and of his deeply human characters, aided no end by the outstanding performances (particularly from Lav Diaz veteran Angeli Bayani as Teresa, the maid). Given its limited release, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm the only Playlister to have seen the film (I reviewed it for another outlet on its UK release), but they, and you, should check it out as soon as it hits VOD or similar.
I’ll be the first to admit that David Michod’s “The Rover” didn’t land with me quite as hard as it did with our reviewer out of Cannes. It was my kind of movie, sparse, minimalist, hauntingly moody, possessing a menacing slow burn to it—but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave me at a bit of a distance. I wanted slightly more—just one more emotional scene like the sequence with Guy Pearce’s character staring with deep wells of empathy at the caged dogs melting with heat from the Australian Outback. But perhaps more than any film this year, or at least any film that I wasn’t immediately taken with, its simmering intensity and single-minded drive has really resonated with me. A lot of that comes from the internalized rage of Guy Pearce, a performance that has become one of my favorites of the year. Now Robert Pattinson is good, but Pearce is something else; like a feral animal on a mission that cannot be stopped (and considering his recent excellent turns in "Lawless," "Breathe In" and "Hateship, Loveship" it feels like we have a new mini Pearce renaissance on our hands). There’s a fury within the heart of “The Rover,” but it’s from a ravaged soul who’s had everything taken from him. It’s a possessed and ghostly shell of a man who will stop at nothing to properly mourn all that he has lost and loved. You cannot and will not deny that from this character. The movie really got killed in wide release, its languid rhythms and atmospheric meditations on our humanity (or lack thereof) just not built for the mainstream multiplexes and that’s a shame. Definitely make the effort to catch up with this one and give it time to marinate after it’s done.
I don’t have a second pick, but “Enemy,” “Obvious Child,” "The Double" and “The Immigrant” are all movies that were (at least somewhat) lauded by critics and not enough audiences loved. David Gordon Green's "Joe" was an interesting exploration of the damaged male ego drawn to destruction, and Nicolas Cage put in a superbly restrained and mannered performance, but the movie was summarily ignored for some reason. Hopefully these films all find their audience on DVD and VOD eventually.