2014-halfway-best

2014 is half over, and while that means we’re still six months away from our official ‘Best Of’ lists it also means it’s time to point out several great movies that you may very well have missed so far. Granted, if you’re a regular reader here at FSR than you’ve probably already heard us praising some or all of the films below, but either way the list of films here should serve as a guide of movies to seek out when you’re in the mood for something other than studio releases.

As we did last year Landon Palmer and I have selected ten fantastic films from the past six months that we think deserve more attention than they received. It’s worth noting though that we’re not including festival-only titles and instead are limiting ourselves to small releases that have had some degree of exposure in theaters or on VOD. This made it a little bit tougher as half of my own top ten of 2014 so far only played Sundance (or other fests) while the other half are wide releases. But while these ten films may not be the ten best of the year so far they are great movies well worth watching.

Blue Ruin

Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin isn’t like any paint-by-numbers revenge flick. Car-dwelling wanderer Dwight (Macon Blair) executes revenge against his parents’ killers within the film’s first twenty minutes, and what a bloody, anti-cathartic mess it is. What follows throughout the film’s running time is the inevitable fallout of a belated act by a desperate man with nothing left to lose. Dwight’s methods aren’t exact – his determination does not mute his sometimes darkly comic attempt to better his pursuers. He is, in short, human and vulnerable, an element that’s too often missing from this genre that values calculated setpieces over what it actually means, in terms physical and existential, to pursue vengeance with full comprehension of its compounding consequences. Blue Ruin is a white-knuckle thriller that rises far above the trappings of its genre conventions with its confident approach to detail and a layered central performance by Blair. This is what it means to not pull your punches. – Landon Palmer

Where can you see it? – Currently available on VOD and hits Blu-ray/DVD on July 22, 2014

Borgman

Alex van Warmerham’s Borgman feels like the cinematic brainchild of Luis Bunuel and Michael Haneke, except significantly more inscrutable. A veteran Dutch surrealist little-known in the United States, van Warmerham’s irreverent play with cinematic logic is at times as joyfully inventive as it is brutal. Borgman (Jan Bijovet), a drifter who lives in the ground, happens upon an upper-middle class household in which he convinces a family to take him in as a gardener. He slowly takes over and intricately ruins their domestic stasis, both in their waking lives and in their dreams, and in doing so reveals the violence and prejudice that undergirds their modern home. Borgman’s intentions are ambiguous, and that’s exactly what makes Borgman such a uniquely discomfiting experience for the viewer. The film takes you out of the realm of anything resembling conventional cinematic logic and places you in a superficially familiar but profoundly foreign territory. I’m still not sure exactly what this provocation adds up to, but it’s a dark and strange ride very much worth taking. - Landon Palmer

Where can you see it? - Currently in limited theatrical release

Child’s Pose

Many films in the so-called “Romanian New Wave” have ostensibly captured the nation’s reckoning with the legacy and aftermath of living under a totalitarian rule that bred an insidiously anti-humanist and profoundly sexist culture, with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills included as some of the most affecting achievements in this regard. Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose is one of few imports I’ve seen that delves deeply into the immediate experience of a particular facet of contemporary Romanian life, chronicling a wealthy mother’s damage control as she navigates the blowback of her irresponsible, “affluenza”-suffering son’s accidental killing of a kid biking while driving late at night. Luminita Gheorghiu gives a commanding performance as Cornelia, a woman attempting to exercise a reactive definition of love against a family that barely acknowledges her existence. Her incremental growth as a character throughout this delicate film is phenomenal, and Child’s Pose will surprise you up until the very end with its unforced moments of genuine, human compassion. - Landon Palmer

Where can you see it? – Currently available on DVD

A Coffee In Berlin

Niko has a lot on his plate at the moment, but the one thing he wants is a decent cup of coffee. We follow along for a day in his life as he travels Berlin seeing friends, family and strangers alike and struggling in his relationships with them all. Writer/director Jan Ole Gerster has crafted a simple look at modern twentysomething life. Like all of our lives it’s a tragicomedy, or at least a day-long glimpse at one, but its chosen timeframe means this isn’t meant to be a tale of redemption or major character arcs. We’re given a look at Niko’s here and now, but we’re left with a hope for where he’ll go tomorrow. The playful, jazzy score and black & white photography add to an atmosphere that finds delight and discomfort in almost equal measure, and while it may feel familiar at times it never feels foreign. – Rob Hunter

Where can you see it? – Currently in limited theatrical release

Maidentrip

When I was fourteen years old my greatest accomplishment was installing a homemade (from instructions) cable de-scrambler on my television so I could experience the late-night joys of Cinemax. By contrast, Dutch teenager Laura Dekker set out at fourteen on a solo sailing trip around the globe. Her journey covered 27,000 nautical miles and lasted 519 days, and she currently holds the unofficial record for youngest person to accomplish such a feat. Maidentrip documents Dekker’s incredibly impressive adventure mostly through footage she took herself while sailing apart from friends, family and strangers alike. We get to watch as this confident and capable young woman deals with inclement weather, impending madness caused by doldrums and a constantly developing desire for a life other than the one she left behind in Holland. By the time she crosses the equator, dancing alone in a party hat and offering pancakes to Neptune, you’ll find yourself loving her spirit and personality nearly as much as she loves the sea. - Rob Hunter

Where can you see it? – Currently available on VOD and hits DVD on July 8, 2014

The Rover

Eric (Guy Pearce) may not have much in the post-global financial crisis Australian outback, but at least he has a car. Well, he had a car until a band of thieves steal it, and now he has something else: an untethered desire to get his car back. Like Under the Skin below, this is a film I expect to earn more detractors than fans. It’s a slowburn tale that shows little interest in sharing or building a cohesive narrative beyond that very straightforward synopsis, but there’s far more beneath the hood. Director David Michod’s Animal Kingdom follow-up is a different beast, one that follows Eric and his simpleton hostage turned sidekick (Robert Pattinson) as they chase after the only that matters in this godforsaken world. It’s a dry and dirty landscape that comes to life onscreen even as it fills up with death, and both Pearce and Pattinson embrace their surroundings completely. The simplicity remains through the ending which, while equally uncomplicated, packs a whallop all the same. – Rob Hunter

Where can you see it? – Currently in limited theatrical release

Stranger By the Lake

The French are given month long holidays that only the most privileged of us in the US experience, and apparently they get themselves in all types of trouble doing so. The entirety of Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake takes place at a lakeside cruising spot, where the intrepid young Franck (Pierre Dedalonchamps) looks for kicks while ogling an enigmatic French Tom Selleck (Christophe Paou). Along the way, he strikes up a friendship with the older, less handsome, seemingly straight Henri (Patrick d’Assumcao), who works as the Mind opposite French Tom Selleck’s Body. Franck one day witnesses French Tom Selleck apparently drowning a lover, which only heightens his destructive interest in the potential of this frightening and magnetic new paramour. What ensues is a dizzying, obtuse mystery and an ingenious combination of casual murder, casual sex, unclear motives, quirky comedy, uninhibited male genitalia and a general sense of foreboding as Franck’s little paradise threatens to fall apart. This impeccably photographed film defiantly refuses easy categorization. - Landon Palmer

Where can you see it? – Currently available on DVD

Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer‘s film is a gorgeous piece of film-making that leaves the narrative heavy-lifting to the viewers as it eschews a traditional setup and instead relies on visuals to clue us in as the story progresses. We’re experiencing an unknown entity, meaning both Scarlett Johansson’s character and the film, purely through our senses. She’s doing the same as she observes without preconceived notions or background noise, like a nature documentary building a relationship with the world around her, and we’re the wildlife on display. The only cliche attached to Under the Skin is that it’s truly not for everyone. Seriously, nine out of every ten people reading this are going to hate it. Its pacing is languorous, it lacks a proper protagonist and it’s aggressive in telling you what you can do with your traditional narrative structure. But it also appeals to needs that most movies refuse to satisfy, ones a steady diet of Hollywood films may have numbed into to a vegetative state. It makes us uncomfortable, challenges us to think and forces us into the shoes and feet of discoverers in a new world. It wants to burrow beneath your epidermal layer. Do yourself a favor, and let it in. - Rob Hunter

Where can you see it? – Currently available on VOD and in limited theatrical release and hits Blu-ray/DVD on July 15, 2014

The Unknown Known

Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known has suffered from inevitable comparisons to his Oscar-winning The Fog of War, but Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t possess the sense of history that Robert McNamara carried. Where McNamara was reflective, frank and even a bit self-effacing, Rumsfeld is an evasive and pretentious speaker functioning as his own publicist. But that’s exactly what makes The Unknown Known a rather brilliant horse of a different color from his previous Secretary of Defense entry. For those looking for accountability in the wake of a destructive war that now threatens to begin anew, The Unknown Known will certainly disappoint. But for those curious to live for a moment inside the contradictory mind of a head of state and lifetime politician whose relationship to truth only pertains the needs of the immediate moment, The Unknown Known is deeply revelatory and fascinating. The film doesn’t deliver the fantasy of absolution; it is instead a portrait of the way of thinking that plagues our oligarchy. Errol Morris has spent his career exploring the often specious nature of knowledge and the myriad ways we come to understand the world, and with Donald Rumsfeld he has met his greatest challenge yet. - Landon Palmer

Where can you see it? – Currently available on Blu-ray/DVD

We Are the Best!

I don’t think I’ve ever been a young preteen Swedish girl trying to form a punk band in the early ’80s, but if I was I’d hope to have even half the strength, optimism and attitude as Bobo, Klara and Hedvig. The three girls form a tight friendship over their shared interest in hairstyles, punk music lyrics and remaining true to themselves in a sea of disco-loving, brightly dressed automatons, and their infectious determination drives them forward and helps them navigate the all too recognizable perils of being a twelve to fourteen year old. If there’s a more joyous and joyful movie this year than We Are the Best! not only will I be one ecstatic movie-lover, but I’ll also eat some kind of hat-shaped food item. Lukas Moodysson‘s latest film is an absolute pleasure to watch and experience, a rare treat that fully immerses you in a world that’s foreign yet familiar with its story of the time in our lives when we still believed anything and everything was possible. - Rob Hunter

Where can you see it? – Currently available on VOD and in limited theatrical release

Runners-up: Bad Words, The Big Ask, The Dance of Reality, Enemy, Finding Vivian Maier, Ida, Jimmy P., Vic + Flo Saw a Bear


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