We opened 2014 with heated anticipation for the next great turns from Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Lars von Trier, and a number of other cinematic vets. But the year has also treated us to a hefty sum of noteworthy first timers. We've caught a wide variety of debut attempts over the course of these past eight months, with enough qualitative range to incite reactions from "The next Hitchcock!" to "I might be able to get you a gig with my friend who does wedding videos, but don't tell him you know me." Here's a quick rundown of the debut flicks we've seen so far in '14, from great to terrible.
Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
Palo AltoDirector: Gia CoppolaWhy we're already on her bandwagon: In the vein of her aunt Sofia, the young Gia Coppola showcases an indubitable understanding of upper class ennui.
Hide Your Smiling Faces Director: Daniel Patrick CarboneWhy we're already on his bandwagon: Carbone's primarily wordless coming-of-age drama shows off his patience and pensiveness, not to mention his ability to skirt the self-importance than many films of Smiling Faces' ilk seem to bear.
Obvious ChildDirector: Gillian RobespierreWhy we're already on her bandwagon: It's funny as hell even within the margins of genre tradition, and sweet without succumbing to Hollywood sugar.
THE VERY GOOD
Zero MotivationDirector: Talya LavieShows promise of: A knack for absurdist humor and grounded character relationships alike.
It Felt Like LoveDirector: Eliza HittmanShows promise of: A uniquely keen empathy for how young people conduct themselves, both internally and among one another.
Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
The Bachelor Weekend/The StagDirector: John ButlerShows potential in: A good sense of humor, especially when it veers closer to Apatow than McKay.
Are You HereDirector: Matthew WeinerShows potential in: Social commentary through character construction, but Weiner needs a better handle on cinematic pacing.
The One I LoveDirector: Charlie McDowellShows potential in: Big ideas, and the presentation thereof, but lacks in the ultimate execution of where they can and ought to go.
Drafthouse Films via Everett Collection
Beneath the Harvest SkyDirector: Aron Gaudet and Gita PullapillyThere's room for improvement regarding: A sharper attention to the characters and story, which occasionally fade out of focus at the behest of a vivid North Maine setting.
LullabyDirector: Andrew LevitasThere's room for improvement regarding The acerbic but knowing humor shared by the central family members, in favor of the intense melodrama that the film feels impelled to stuff itself with from time to time.
Cheap ThrillsDirector: E.L. KatzThere's room for improvement regarding: The energy set toward invoking a truly interesting story or course of events, rather than the allowance of the "weird" or "dangerous" to take the wheel altogether like it does here.
TammyDirector: Ben FalconeThere's room for improvement regarding: An authentic commitment to the sincerity in the characters, in place of wild and wacky antics like jetski crashes and deer mouth-to-mouth... though these were probably studio notes, we have to assume.
Music Box Films via Everett Collection
Winter’s TaleDirector: Akiva GoldsmanWhat we hope he gets right next time: A more defined storytelling goal. While some of the film's elements worked in a vaccuum, Goldsman had been gestating a Winter's Tale adaptation for years, coming out the gate with something that is oddly both convoluted and terribly narrow.
MaleficentDirector: Robert StrombergWhat we hope he gets right next time: More Angie.
A Coffee in Berlin/Oh BoyDirector: Jan Ole GersterWhat we hope he gets right next time: A better understanding of the fine line between cheeky and irritating.
Earth to EchoDirector: Dave GreenWhat we hope he gets right next time: Ditch the essentially pointless found footage antic and hone in on the fleeting spirit of the kids.
TranscendenceDirector: Wally PfisterWhy we're nervous for his future: Pfister is a skilled cinematographer, but his grasp of character, story, and ambiance seem dangerously absent.
Goodbye to All ThatDirector: Angus McLachlanWhy we're nervous for his future: Ambitions seem to fall shy of originality, settling instead on retreading the same indie dramedy territory we've seen time and time again, but without any discernible charisma.
If I StayDirector: R.J. CutlerWhy we're nervous for his future: A dastardly aesthetic, paper-thin characters, a devoted marriage to teen movie cliches, and a potentially dangerous mentality driving the story altogether do not bode well for Cutler's future behind the camera.
Behaving BadlyDirector: Tim GarrickWhy we're nervous for his future: Because he thought this horrible thing could work.
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As rapidly as it arrived, 2010 is rushing to a close and into the history books. This is that special time of year wherein you will be bombarded with "Best of the Year" lists from every film website in existence. That's not to say there is no value in these lists: Hollywood.com's list is due up soon and my selection will be thusly featured, but the sheer truth is that you have innumerable websites drawing from essentially the same pool of titles and the result is an echo chamber of nearly identical lists. For the most part, we rely on theatrically released films that have already received attention from countless film critics' associations. A vast majority of these films have earned every scrap of praise lavished upon them and their inclusion on multiple lists only serves as further evidence of their greatness. In the ongoing interest of celebrating the lesser known, here are my Under the Radar selections for Best of 2010. Most of these films have not received a wide release stateside and some of them were relegated to direct-to-video, but they are all worth tracking down.
If you frequent this column than you already know how much I love this film. The Finnish Christmas tale weaves horror and comedy, fantasy and cultural mythology and the end result is a wholly unique, wildly entertaining soon-to-be holiday classic. The moment wherein the young protagonist transforms into a pint-sized action hero is still one of the most memorable film moments of 2010.
I Saw the Devil
Two years ago, Korean director Ji-woon Kim knocked Fantastic Fest audiences on their asses with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a high-octane, farcical remake of Sergio Leone's classic The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. At Fantastic Fest 2010, he gave us the decidedly different but no less brilliant follow up entitled I Saw the Devil. This crime thriller pits a secret agent against a sadistic serial killer in a savage game of catch and release. As beautiful as it is haunting, I Saw the Devil was my absolute favorite film at this year's Fantastic Fest.
Best Worst Movie
Some movies are so bad that you can't help but love them. Troll 2 is certainly counted among those guilty pleasures and in fact is one of the premier bad films ever made. Michael Stephenson, child star of the 1989 flop, takes us on a hilarious ride that traces the film’s meteoric rise to cult status and ultimately reminds us what it means to be a cinemaphile.
A Horrible Way to Die
It’s no secret that the serial killer thriller is a dime-a-dozen genre. But where most of these films rely on scares and ham-fisted tension, A Horrible Way to Die brings the character study back into the fray. It’s the story of an escaped killer making his way back to the woman he loved that turned him over to the police, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. A.J. Bowen (House of the Devil, The Signal) turns in an unbelievably layered performance as serial killer Garrick Turrell navigating through a taught, genuinely suspenseful script by Simon Barrett.
When describing Rubber, it’s hard not to dwell on concept. When people hear that it is a film about a killer tire, it becomes an arduous task to focus on any subsequent explanation. But the multi-faceted approach to absurdist humor, coupled with the strong performances and interesting cinematography throughout are what keep Rubber rolling long after the novelty of its central conceit has worn thin. Also, the more than slight homage to David Cronenberg is easy to appreciate.
The Loved Ones
Adolescence is a rough enough ordeal as it is without the addition of homicidal obsession. Aussie horror flick The Loved Ones is a bloody, shocking, darkly comedic cautionary tale about what it could cost to shun the loneliest girl in school. The performance from young Robin McLeavy as the psychotic, lovesick Princess is quite literally so good it’s scary.
Director Adam Green turns a relaxing day on the slopes into an epic nightmare. Frozen is a testament to the power of close-quarters horror; creating tension in limited space. The peril in which the characters find themselves seems totally authentic and Green manages to create terror out of convention and test his characters’ survival instincts in a truly fascinating way.
Legend of the Fist
Why Donnie Yen isn’t a bigger star in America is beyond me. The guy has all the dedication and technical martial arts proficiency of Bruce Lee and his films of late have been incredible. In Legend of the Fist, as he did in Ip Man, Yen plays a Chinese cultural hero who fights against the Japanese oppression of his people. The production design and story of Legend of the Fist are fantastic, but it’s the fight sequences that allows for this film’s inclusion on the list. With blazing speed and brutal force, Yen dispatches rooms full of enemies effortlessly in a thrilling spectacle of violence.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.