Way Too Indie’s Best Films of 2014 (So Far)

By @DJansick
Way Too Indie’s Best Films of 2014 (So Far)

Now that we’re officially at the halfway mark of the year, we put our heads together here at Way Too Indie to come up with our favorite films of 2014 so far. Our list contains a variety of films ranging from festival darlings, indie dramas, horror movies, and even a couple of (really good) mainstream movies. We decided to only include films that had a North American release date between January 1st through June 30th to keep things consistent. Considering our list for the front-half of the year looks this solid, we’re eagerly waiting to see what the rest of year brings. In the meantime, here are the best films of 2014…so far.

Way Too Indie’s Best Films of 2014 (So Far)

#15 – The Immigrant

The Immigrant movie

James Gray is quickly becoming one of the most shamefully unsung directors of American cinema today. He started off remarkably well in 1994, when his debut Little Odessa won the Silver Bear at Venice. Fast forward 20 years, and he’s only managed to complete four more features, mostly because his films haven’t been getting the critical and box-office love needed to stay prolific. The pattern continues with his latest, The Immigrant – which premiered at Cannes last year, and bless the French festival for realizing Gray’s talent because since his debut, every single one of his features unveiled there. If you’ve seen the first part of our Best Of 2014 (So Far) Hangouts session, you’ll hear me showering all kinds of praise on this beautiful, gentle, unique, and softly stirring picture about a woman’s unwavering love for her sister, a man’s wavering love for this woman, and the rock-solid strength of faith. Detractors like to call it out on its melodrama but I think Gray manages, thanks in large part to the orchestration of the mise-en-scene and cinematography which glide us back into its 1920s New York setting, to put the mellow in the real drama of the story. Marion Cotillard, Gray-regular Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner deliver outstanding performances, and lovers of visual storytelling will be rightly gawking at the last shot of the film for some time. It’s still my favorite of the year. Don’t listen to the hushed-up welcome The Immigrant received once it finally got released this year, and go melt into it on the big screen as soon as you can. [Nik]
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#14 – Oculus

Oculus movie

I’ll be the first to admit that a horror film centered around a haunted mirror sounds ridiculous. While Mike Flanagan’s Oculus contains a simple premise—an antique mirror that possesses people to commit murder—the film is surprisingly smart. The film begins by having two siblings recall their past with wildly different interpretations, forcing the audience to pick a side. Then with fancy editing techniques, Oculus seamlessly blends flashbacks into the present, making it impossible to tell what’s real and what the mirror is manipulating. Like The Conjuring before it, Oculus demonstrates how unsettling suspense that sticks with you is far superior to temporary jump scares. [Dustin]
Oculus Review | Watch Trailer

#13 – A Spell To Ward off the Darkness

A Spell To Ward off the Darkness movie

The symbol separating each of the three acts in A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is an equilateral triangle, an image that would appropriately sum up the film’s structure. As a mute, unnamed man (Robert A.A. Lowe) spends a third of the film trying out a specific lifestyle (living on an Estonian commune, living in isolation in Finland, performing with a black metal band in Norway) before promptly moving on to the next, directors Ben Rivers & Ben Russell craft a cinematic powerhouse about an existential quest for belonging. The sublime camerawork, from a hypnotic opening shot to a gorgeous long take watching the man fish, comes to a head in the film’s final third. As the man embraces primal fury through his playing with the metal band, the film’s themes come together in a spiritual, near-transcendental way. It’s sublime filmmaking, plain and simple. [CJ]
A Spell To Ward off the Darkness Review | Watch Trailer

#12 – Locke

Locke movie

On a late night highway drive into London, Tom Hardy navigates a series of phone calls that unravel his life in close to real time, despite his never leaving the confines of a BMW X5. If that idea doesn’t intrinsically sound compelling, there is little in Locke that will convince you otherwise; however, the subtle-yet-bold execution from writer-director Steven Knight (writer of Dirty Pretty Things & Eastern Promises) makes the film stand out even amongst one-man thrillers. In the lead role, Hardy delivers a strong performance that doesn’t require overt physicality. Despite its limiting setting, Locke remains compelling through carefully constructed dialogs and engaging until its ending. [Zachary]
Locke Review | Watch Trailer

#11 – Chef

Chef movie

Food porn it is, but one-dimensional it’s not. Jon Favreau’s winning, heartfelt dramedy Chef follows a creatively plateaued executive chef (Favreau) as he travels cross-country with his son and best friend (John Leguizamo) in the food truck of his dreams to rediscover his passion for food. From watching Favreau chomp on a crispy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside grilled cheese, to seeing him in ecstasy as he savors a smoky, tender morsel of Texas barbecue, the film will make you want to sprint out of the theater and straight to the closest eatery, guaranteed. The film’s got soul, too, as it tells a touching father-son tale that’ll make even the hardest of hearts a little sniffly. (Or maybe it’s the onions…) The cast of A-players, including Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, are well-suited in their roles and each have good chemistry with Favreau. Post-movie dinner plans are a must! [Bernard]
Chef Review | Watch Trailer

#10 – Cold in July

Cold in July movie

Jim Mickle has been stunning audiences for a few years now with his run of successful indie horror films, but this sopping wet with sweat, moody and atmospheric 1980’s set Texan thriller is his best yet. When a decent man (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills an intruder in his home, it brings the intruder’s father to town to even the score. When Hall does some digging into his own shooting he finds out that he may or may not be able to trust the cops that investigated the crime. From there Cold in July unspools into gritty grind house delight as loads of blood is spilled in a spectacular shootout. [Blake]
Cold in July Review | Watch Trailer

#9 – Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin movie

This Southern thriller is a mixture of revenge, brutal violence and unpredictability. A mysterious man, who happens to be horrible as an assassin, goes after a family of hicks who in some capacity (we never find out why) wronged his own. What makes Blue Ruin so good is that it never insults the audience’s intelligence and has a clear direction it wants to go in. It also has a lead character who chooses to carry out acts of violent vengeance and at times isn’t completely up to the task. Making a revenge film with a lead character that is very sloppy is a breath of fresh air. The lesson of the film? Revenge is never simple and it’s never clean. [Blake]
Blue Ruin Review | Watch Trailer

#8 – The Double

The Double movie

Two Jesse Eisenbergs: one painfully nebbish, the other unflappably confident. Many actors have pulled off portraying their own doppleganger but in The Double, Eisenberg’s dual roles exist in a beautifully detailed retro-futuristic environment reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The 2nd feature from actor/filmmaker Richard Ayoade retains the quirky sense of humor that defined his teenage love comedy Submarine, but the tone is considerably more mature in The Double with darker jokes and deeper philosophical themes. Ayoade’s movie moves at a brisk pace, bouncing between comedy, drama, romance and thriller in an unpredictable manner until its shocking ending. Although The Double contains significant, notable influences from others filmmakers, the amalgam of ideas portrayed in this movie becomes the unique vision of Ayoade. [Zachary]
The Double Review | Watch Trailer

#7 – Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake movie

Set entirely on a beach where gay men rendezvous for brief sexual encounters, Stranger by the Lake is among the year’s best and most unusual thrillers. When Franck witnesses a man being drowned in the lake by his lover, he is pulled between fear and seduction, unsure whether to go to the police or get even closer to the mysterious killer. Still, Stranger by the Lake is much more than a run-of-the-mill murder thriller — though those elements are extraordinarily tuned. Dealing with many issues surrounding homosexuality, including inclusion, community and being “the other”, the film also becomes among the most probing films in a rapidly growing gay cinema. You can come for the exploration of these issues and then stay for the explicit sex scenes. All of this tension (sexual and otherwise) leads to a dynamite conclusion that will have you on the edge of your seat. [Aaron]
Stranger by the Lake Review | Watch Trailer

#6 – Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer movie

Summer is normally the breeding ground when studios launch their latest franchise/sequel blockbuster to the masses. At first glance, Snowpiercer seems to hit all the check marks for a standard popcorn movie: huge budget ($40 million), all-star cast (Chris Evans, Ed Harris, Tilda Swinton), and a graphic novel adaptation that promises action. But Snowpiercer remarkably satisfies both the arthouse and mainstream crowds with a high-concept plotline stuffed with stunning visuals and marvelous action sequences.

This single location blockbuster is set in the near feature where a chemical reaction creates a new ice age, survived only by a small group of people aboard a sophisticated train that travels around the world on an endless loop. A class system divides the train’s society, causing the lower class to revolt against the billionaire industrialist at the helm. The film’s pacing perfectly balances thoughtful backstories with action-packed mayhem. The Weinstein Company’s decision to make Snowpiercer a limited release is a shame, this is a rare science-fiction film that everyone should see. [Dustin]
Snowpiercer Review | Watch Trailer

#5 – Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive movie

Yes, Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the best vampire films in ages, but calling it a “vampire movie” would be selling it short. Jarmusch is more fascinated by immortality and human creativity. Vampire couple Adam & Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, both fantastic), while madly in love with each other, differ on their view of humans. Adam’s cynicism toward “zombies” consistently goes up against Eve’s optimism (when Adam says he feels like the sand is at the bottom of the hourglass, she tells him to turn it over), but Jarmusch clearly takes Eve’s side on the debate. Only Lovers Left Alive is a celebration of artistic triumphs, with piles of literary and musical references only Jarmusch is able to pull off without any sense of pomposity. These characters have lived for centuries, and it becomes clear that, for them, their only true friends are the various forms of art they surround themselves with. Through this Jarmusch paints a different view of eternal life; humans may not live forever, but their art and legacy will never die. [CJ]
Only Lovers Left Alive Review | Watch Trailer

#4 – Under The Skin

Under The Skin movie

If there is a more alluring and visually striking film than Under the Skin to come out this year, I want to see it immediately (and then probably disagree). Jonathan Glazer’s nine-year return to feature filmmaking is a strange mix of science fiction and horror, though it doesn’t really try hard to be either. Instead, it simplifies everything (almost radical for modern sci-fi), taking out most of a conventional plot for mood and visual poetry. The film never gives us any direct explanation of who our alien protagonist is and why she is on her mission, but these answers probably aren’t that important. Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed visitor, who roams through the misty Scottish cities looking to trap men to steal their essence, is both otherworldly and human, frightening and sympathetic. Even though there isn’t a lot of plot for her to deliver, it is one of the most challenging performances of the year so far and one of her best. Add in one of the most interesting productions ever, an unforgettable score, and a repeated haunting scene featuring total blackness, and Under the Skin is creeping in on special distinction. [Aaron]

Under The Skin Review | Watch Trailer

#3 – Nymphomaniac (Vol 1+2)

Nymphomaniac movie

Lars Von Trier, you lunatic. Much has been said about Von Trier’s latest opus, starting with its various lengths, versions, and parts. The bottom line on that is that the original 5 and a half hour uncut full version has yet to see a theatrical light of day anywhere, the film was split into two volumes for easier distribution, and both volumes were censored and cut down into two 2-hour-long parts. An uncut Vol.1 premiered at the Berlinale, and an uncut Vol.2 will premiere at TIFF later this year, but consider this entry as the full, censored & stripped-down version of Nymphomaniac that’s seen public release. There should be colossal quotations marks around stripped down, of course, since even a censored and cut Von Trier manages to protrude, probe, and puncture all kinds of safety nets to make – in my opinion – the greatest film in 2014 released so far. What makes Nymphomaniac one of Von Trier’s greatest accomplishments and something of a crowning achievement for his career thus far, is that the film manages to be his funniest, most entertaining, deeply felt, super-intellectual, and most vulnerable to date. Through the character of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Von Trier gets to criticize humanity’s hypocritical ethics and morals, and through Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) he gets to make the most wonderful digressions about the art of fly-fishing and Edgar Allan Poe, among other things. Nymphomaniac is also a film about storytelling, individual freedom, identity, sanctity of faith, and sex. Lots and lots of sex. It’s something of a miracle, then, that it’s one of the most tasteful and thought-provoking films of the past few years. [Nik]
Nymphomaniac Review | Watch Trailer

#2 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel movie

Never has Wes Anderson worked with such precision, elegance, and style as he does in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Brimming with delectable fancies, the tale of hotel concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his misadventures with his loyal lobby boy Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) is one of Anderson’s best, transforming from murder mystery to heist film seamlessly all while telling a charming story of friendship throughout. Fiennes gives one of the deftest performances of his career, bringing M. Gustave to life while upholding the character’s rigid formality. The period setting of the remote, 1930s European resort plays to Anderson’s strengths, fitting his colorful visual style like a glove and making the film a wonder to behold. It’s hard to think of a moviemaker more technically sound, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is quite possibly the finest demonstration of his skills. [Bernard]
The Grand Budapest Hotel Review | Watch Trailer

#1 – The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie

If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you probably aren’t judging us right now quite so harshly as our indie-devoted followers are, because you are in on it. We know guys, we know. Our #1 of the year so far is an animated so-called children’s movie starring a toy brand. Which just proves great movies can come out of anywhere.

Directing-writing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have written a script that jumps the adult-child barrier possibly better than any family film ever has. Employing major voice talent throughout, the film features the voice of Chris Pratt as Emmet, a construction worker Lego who wholeheartedly embraces the Lego drone lifestyle, being the best version of the limited self he can be. When he finds a strange red block that attaches itself to him in a construction zone one day, badass chick Wildstyle (voiced in sultry tones by Elizabeth Banks) declares him the prophesied ‘Special’, the Lego hero who will save them all from Lord Business (Will Ferrell, of course) and encourage creativity in the Lego world. Emmet accepts the title, hoping to get in with Wildstyle, and the two, along with Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), Spaceman Benny (Charlie Day), and the Gandalf/God-like Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), embark on an epic journey to save the people of their world. The film is sharply hilarious and perfectly poignant. Opting for a refreshing think for yourself message and positing that being oneself is better than hoping for ‘specialness’, The Lego Movie throws the usual themes of uniquely qualified heroes down the drain. Adding to the impressive story and non-stop laughs is a film that looks truly innovative. Bright and colorful, the film looks like a stop-animated film made from real Lego materials, the details are simply astounding.

When a film gets all the elements right, it doesn’t matter if it was made for 4-year-olds or 40-year-olds, it’s just damn good. [Ananda]
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