Now that the halfway mark has hit between the dawn of a hopeful 2014 and the inevitable exasperated gasp of relief that another year of harrowing grief is finally over, we're inclined to look back on the past six months of cinematic glory. First, we set our sights to the best performances of the year, both leading and supporting. The thespian achievements that made us laugh, cry, wince (in the good way, not the Adam Levine in Begin Again way), and cheer. Here's a quick list of some of the most impressive performances we've seen so far in 2014.
Fox Searchlight Pictures via Everett Collection
Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest HotelIt would be no surprise to anyone that Ralph Fiennes can act his way around a cerebral drama, and probably no real shock that he can handle himself in a sharp, fast-paced comedy either. But Grand Budapest is even doses of both, and Fiennes never slips up in his delivery of the rigid, obsessive Gustave H. as both a humane hero and a comic wonder.
Gina Piersanti in It Felt Like LoveThe best part of this terrific movie about struggling with your identity in adolescence is its star, Gina Piersanti, who makes the subtleties of her sad story vividly accessible.
Nicolas Cage in JoeSome of the picks on this list aren't precisely because the performances blew us away, but because of how happy we were to see the actors in question turn in something worthwhile. Cage is great in Joe, his first halfway decent movie in quite some time, serving to prove that he's still an actor who deserves critical attention.
Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive Sharing screentime and immaculate chemistry with Tom Hiddleston, who too is wonderful in the picture, Swinton manages an unfathomable energy without detracting from the film's focal point of the duo's romantic partnership. Shining so bright through the dark and dusky sheaths of Only Lovers, Swinton is the best part of what is plausibly the very best movie of 2014.
A24 via Everett Collection
Tom Hardy in LockeIf you liked Locke whatsoever, you'd have to credit that to Hardy's performance. As the only actor onscreen toggling his attentions between a steering wheel, a cell phone, and his own inner demons, the man gets truly theatrical in a way you don't often get to see on the big screen.
Mira Grosin in We Are the Best!One of the youngest individuals on the list is one third of the headlining trio in We Are the Best!, a sweet, fun, earnest film about Swedish schoolgirls reaching for (and just about finding) a new identity in punk rock music. Although each member of the band is a treat, the plucky and acerbic Grosin stands out as a particularly special performer.
Tom Cruise in Edge of TomorrowIn the vein of the Nic Cage/Joe qualification, we chose Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow performance stricly because of how long it's been since we've seen the once beloved and presently bemoaned movie star provide genuine thrills... it's been even longer since he's provided genuine laughter, which he does in no small doses in Edge of Tomorrow. The reason Cruise works so well in the sci-fi picture? He's playing a jackass — the sort of character at which he proved himself a master back in the '80s but has shied away from in recent years. Stick to the jerks, Cruise. Maverick, Charlie Babbitt, Tom "Morrow" Edgerson... you're good at 'em.
Jenny Slate in Obvious ChildThe most impressive part of Slate's turn as the early-life-crisis-stricken Donna in Obvious Child: her stand-up comedy routines are a genuine pleasure to watch (no mean feat for any movie). Slate's fresh turn on the wacky gal we often see in stand-up comedies is bolstered by her agency and palpable identity; this isn't just someone we're forced to see through a hard time, this is a human being who we're truly rooting for. We can give thanks to the script, certainly, but also to the naturally funny and engaging Slate.
Jesse Eisenberg in The DoubleEisenberg gets a rare gift in The Double: a chance to bank on the sort of work that made him famous in the first place, and to try out a brand new bag on the viewing public. The always neurotic performer ups the ante on his nervous shtick as Simon James, but breaks loose with a dickish confidence that tops even Mark Zuckerberg's hubris as James Simon.
Agata Kulesza in IdaThanks to Kulesza, Ida winds up a shockingly charming, funny, and (less surprisingly) very sad film. A look at the post-Holocaust years through the eyes of a long-internally-suffering Jewish woman (Kulesza) and her neice doesn't seem like a ground particularly fertile for anything "upbeat," but the sharp and spry performance of Kulesza makes for a uniquely inviting portrait of a somber, bizarre world.
Ken Watanabe in GodzillaWatanabe delivers what is hands down the weirdest performance in any blockbuster we've seen this year, or plausibly in recent years. The actor channels Jeff Goldblum-level "out there"-ness as a scientist who comes face to face with the titular monster after a lifetime devoted to research on the subject. Most of Watanabe's screentime is spent staring off into nowhere, a choice emblematic of unmistakable lunacy residing in the mind of this obsessed professor. We can feel his pain... but it's pure joy to watch.
Nat Wolff in Palo Alto Likely more recognizable for his supporting turn in The Fault in Our Stars, Wolff is a powerhouse in another ennui-soaked high school drama: Palo Alto, which is far more cynical (and terrific) than the aforementioned feature. Wolff plays a teen succumbing to loneliness, self-loathing, and substance abuse in the nihilistic tornado that is his upper class existence. At once the clown and the beacon of tragedy, Wolff really knocks it out of the park in Gia Coppola's debut.
Tilda Swinton in SnowpiercerThe only actor on this list twice (unless you count Jesse Eisenberg for his dual roles in The Double) is Tilda Swinton, who proves herself as powerful a character actor as she is a leading stoic. In stark contrast to her Only Lovers heroine, Swinton's Snowpiercer character is a wicked, delusional tyrant who would be petrifying were she not so damn hilarious.
Agata Trzebuchowska in IdaYep, there is a second actor from Ida on this list, and she's also named Agata. In fact, the younger of the two stars gives what is indeed the more remarkable performance, playing almost exclusively silent as she drinks in her aunt's life of tragic hedonism from a two-foot distance. The Ida/Anna role might have been little more than a lens for the audience to view the horrors of the Holocaust, but Trzebuchowska's restrained anguish gives the story an intriguing slant. All the pangs of the post World War II world that filter through her come out the other end with a peculiar, insightful flavor.
Daniel Radcliffe in What ifSometimes all it takes for a role to stick with you is laughter. Daniel Radcliffe, who we all love, is destined for a long career in comedy. As the romantic lead of What if, Radcliffe is super-Hugh-Grant levels of dashing, debonair, self-deprecating, and f**king funny. His rapid fire delivery, affable countenance, and complete mastery of the most eclectic wordplay makes his What if turn (as a guy named Wallace, no less) more than worthy of the world's post-Potter love.
Nathan Varnson in Hide Your Smiling FacesFinally, representing one of our favorite movies of the year is Nathan Varnson, a child actor who plays a young boy dealing with the sudden death of a close friend. There are no big, showy moments in Smiling Faces. Everything Varnson showcases is largely internalized; his role is predominantly wordless, in fact. All the more reason why it stands out in our minds as one of the best of the year.
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Best of Seven
Finding something worthwhile on TV can be such a hassle. With all of your favorite shows having ended for the summer, you find yourself drowning in an endless sea of television programming; you gorge yourself, and yet are left somehow unsatisfied. And of course all those damn digital channels take just a half-second too long to load for you to channel-surf comfortably like you did back in the day. So: we are going to make things easy for you. Check in here each Monday with Best of 7, beginning this week, and we'll tell you what to watch, when, where, and why. Of course there's always the old standbys - The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, all of the other Late Night fluff - but each Monday we're going help you wade through the crap and get right to the good stuff. That's what TV should be about. The good stuff.
9PM: The Bachelorette, ABC. Nine bachelors will accompany Ali to Iceland - land of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano - and only seven will leave! Horseback riding, spelunking, spa-ing, and a poetry contest are just some of the frightful challenges the men will face.
9PM-11PM: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Comedy Central. It's Always Sunny, FX's edgy comedy series, is getting a second home on Comedy Central. If you haven't seen it, check out this mostly hilarious show (the earlier seasons are considerably better) with a four-episode marathon from 9 to 11 Monday night, featuring some of the show's best episodes: 'Charlie Goes America All Over Everybody's Ass,' 'Dennis and Dee Get a New Dad,' 'The Gang Finds a Dumpster Baby,' and 'The Gang Gets Invincible.'
10PM: The Hard Times of RJ Berger, MTV. This new half-hour comedy series from MTV, about a nerdy teen blessed with a large 'package', is actually pretty funny - which is surprising, since this is MTV. In 'The Berger Cometh,' RJ tries out for the school musical to get closer to his dream girl, Jenny, but problems arise when the two get too close for comfort.
9PM: Mean Girls, ABC Family. Remember Linday Lohan's halcyon days in this surprisingly funny comedy, written by Tina Fey (who also co-stars), wherein high school girls are mean to each other in every imaginable way. With Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried, and some other people - but Tim Meadows is my personal favorite as the school's alternatively awkward and bad-ass principal.
10PM: Deadliest Warrior, Spike. Have you seen this show? A team of 'experts' line up behind two different 'deadliest warriors' (say, William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu), test out their weaponry with tons of slow-mo cameras rolling, and then analyze the results to determine who is indeed, the deadlier warrior. This week: KGB vs. CIA.
9PM: Top Chef: D.C., Bravo. This season's Top Chef is in our nation's capital! The remaining chefs must plate healthy kid food at a local middle school to support First Lady Michelle Obama's national initiative to end childhood obesity. No word yet on whether Mrs. Obama will appear, but my guess is she will! Watch it and find out.
5pm-1AM: Stephen King's 'The Stand', SyFy. When 99.9% of the population dies after the accidental outbreak of a government-engineered Super-flu, the mysteriously immune survivors must help each other rebuild civilization, even as they begin to realize that they are involved in a struggle between good and evil of literally Biblical proportions. Loosely based on the novel by Stephen King, 'The Stand' miniseries has horror, gore, and - as in every Stephen King movie - a mystical black person who has all the answers (seriously - Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, Scatman Crothers in The Shining, the list goes on).
Does that not interest you? There's not much else on. Go watch Toy Story 3!
7PM and 10:30PM: There Will Be Blood, FX. Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, the story of a early 20th century oil prospector with a borderline pathological lust for wealth, is a hands-down masterpiece. There Will Be Blood came out in 2007 but is already considered a classic piece of American cinema. Daniel Day-Lewis stars, along with Paul Dano, in this epic study of American capitalism, religion, and greed.
11PM: Se7en, Bravo. This dark, satisfying crime thriller stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as two police detectives - one just beginning his career, the other retiring - who aim to hunt down a megalomaniacal serial killer whose 'work' is inspired by the Bible's 'Seven Deadly Sins.'
8PM: Edward Scissorhands, ABC Family. Hey, it's Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton movie. This time, Depp's got scissors for hands and the simple town folk don't take to kindly to that. This movie is actually a classic, and one of Burton's best, so don't be dissuaded if you hated Alice in Wonderland.
9PM: Dinocroc vs. Supergator, SyFy. Saturday's are the worst days for television. Dinocroc vs. Supergator. That really says it all, doesn't it? Your level of enjoyment of this film is going to be heavily dependent on your... 'state of mind,' let's say. Go watch Toy Story 3 again!
10PM: Khloe and Kourtney Take Miami, E! The Kardashian girls failed to take Miami in the first season, but they are back, and trying harder than ever. Watch, enraptured, as the glorious spectacle that is their lives unfolds before you. Bask in it. Savor it. Now spit it out.
10PM: True Blood, HBO. Are you watching True Blood, yet? You should. The deliciously trashy, sexy, bloody vampire drama is not your little sister's Twilight. Nor is it The Vampire Diaries or The Gates. So get over yourself and catch up with seasons one and two before jumping headfirst into the latest season, because this is great television. The upcoming episode finds Sookie scouring Mississippi for Bill with a werewolf escort, Jason struggling with his police exams, and Bud stumbling across some new gruesomeness. Spicy!
Set in post-World War III Los Angeles Southland Tales takes place over the three days leading up to a huge Fourth of July celebration as the world is crumbling around the city’s citizens who are living in a city that has been turned into an armed camp by the government. There’s a huge cast of characters in this disjointed tale written and directed by Richard Kelly including Boxer Santaros (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) an action-movie star married to Madeline (Mandy Moore) the spoiled rich daughter of a powerful senator. Boxer turns up near the beach in L. A. suffering from complete amnesia; he’s watched by a military sniper named Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) who also narrates the film and seems to hold the key to the mystery of what happened to Santaros in the desert that caused his mental breakdown. Meanwhile Santaros falls for activist porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as radical anti-government forces led by Cyndi Pinziki (Nora Dunn) plot a huge terrorist event to take place on the Fourth. Add in a police officer (Seann William Scott) who may be the link between all the other characters and you’ve got the gist of the story. Unfortunately there are easily 10 other characters wandering around in this mishmash of a plot played by everyone from Miranda Richardson John Larroquette and Christopher Lambert to Wallace Shawn Kevin Smith Jon Lovitz and Bai Ling and not one of them seems to have a clue as to what is actually going on--which is exactly how the audience watching feels too. It is a mystery how so many usually talented actors stumbled into this incoherent mess of a movie much less how they have all succeeded in giving some of the worst performances of their careers. Dwayne Johnson the usually likable wrestler-turned-actor leads the pack resorting to rolling his eyes and twitching his fingers to portray a man in emotional distress. Sarah Michelle Gellar is equally abysmal; her ridiculous porn-star/talk-show-host character comes off as a complete caricature not a characterization. Miranda Richardson simply chews the scenery and Wallace Shawn actually does a caricature of himself which is just weird. It is no wonder that when this inane flick debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 people booed and walked out. The shock is that Sony coughed up more money for special effects and a re-edit--perhaps that is because there are so many well-known names on the cast list? Whatever the reason the still two-and-a-half-hour film is so jumbled enervating and downright boring that we’re pretty certain you’ll be tempted to head for the bathroom and never come back. The only thing that might keep you interested is if you have a Bai Ling fetish (although why you would pick her to obsess over is a complete mystery); she spends the movie vamping it up in costumes that make her look like the porn star instead of Gellar. Writer-director Richard Kelly had a cult hit with Donnie Darko which apparently made him believe that there is a market for movies that are incredibly incoherent and lacking in the most basic narrative focus. Sadly he’s made just that movie with Southland Tales; in fact he explains himself in three graphic novels and a large Web site the prequel to the movie that we apparently should have investigated beforehand since the film is supposed to be the last three chapters of the saga. But therein lies the rub as no filmmaker should assume that moviegoers will have taken the time to do those things before entering the theater. For anyone who has not embraced this self-involved filmmaker’s other work Southland Tales simply comes across as a mixed-up jumble of half-baked ideas performed by actors who look like they are involved in a high school video project not a bona fide Hollywood movie. And if the steady stampede for the door during the screening we sat all the way through is any indication this is a movie that will have patrons who have actually paid for the experience considering a quick sneak away into a different movie in the multiplex. Lord knows that only someone who is paid to watch would actually sit through this whole film. After all those are two hours and 24 minutes of life that we will never get back.