Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
While some fools may argue that summer is a time for frolicking outdoors with friends and family, I believe that summer is for sitting alone in dark movie theaters. Who needs fresh air when you have movies and recycled air? So with the school year starting up again, it’s time for a roundup of the most interesting films I saw this summer. Of course there were plenty of movies I missed (Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy are my biggest blind spots), but I chose ten films that I believe are worth your collective time.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Shot over the course of twelve years, Boyhood follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he moves from youth into adolescence and into adulthood. While it’s easy to get caught up in the scope of Boyhood’s premise, the film itself isn’t an epic: rather, it’s a depiction of the small moments that make up a life. It doesn’t superimpose a plot onto the proceedings and instead functions like a photo album as Linklater moves from memory to memory. One of the best films of the year.
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Thematically dense but modestly executed, Calvary is a week in the life of Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the senior priest in a small Irish town. One day while James is taking confession, an unknown man tells him that a priest abused him as a child and that he plans to kill James in one week, punishing him for the crimes of the Church. James knows the identity of the man but doesn’t know if he will follow through with his threat, so he tends to the problems of his parishioners who mostly view James and the Church with disdain. What follows is an exploration of doubt, hypocrisy, and having faith in an age of skepticism. While the episodic structure leads to some pacing problems, Gleeson anchors the film with his characteristically strong acting.
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Filmed with a Spielbergian sense of scale, Edwards’ Godzilla reboot impresses mostly because it uses its human characters as props to focus on its titular monster. Edwards frames his thinly drawn characters as miniscule inhabitants of a world arguably owned by Godzilla and the MUTOs, often taking the perspective of the beasts as they watch the destruction they’ve caused. The plot is perfunctory, the characters are functional, but the monsters are larger-than-life and the film brims with confidence in all of its anti-humanistic glory.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
Taking cues from Douglas Sirk’s 50’s melodramas and the visual aesthetic of Italian neo-realism, The Immigrant follows Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish nurse who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921. Branded a woman of “low morals” by the gatekeepers in charge, she’s set to be deported but is saved by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a theater manager who begins pimping Ewa out almost as soon as she sets foot in New York City. Desperate to free her tuberculosis-afflicted sister from quarantine, Ewa struggles to retain her dignity in a cruel system with no sympathy for the plight of immigrants and women. Gray’s formal sense is magnificent as he assumes Golden Age techniques, but his visual schema places unnecessary distance between the viewer and the material—it often feels like you’re watching Ewa’s struggle rather than participating in it. Nevertheless, The Immigrant is operatic in scope and execution, and it has a phenomenal final shot that will stay with you long after The Immigrant is over.
Life Itself (Steve James)
Life Itself functions as both a biography and a wake. James tells the story of film critic Roger Ebert’s life—his years at the Chicago Sun-Times, his alcoholism, his run on Siskel & Ebert—while also depicting Ebert’s last months in the hospital struggling with cancer. James also captures one of the best love stories released this year: the one between Roger and his wife Chaz as they spend their remaining time together. Ebert describes the movies as a “machine that generates empathy,” and there’s no better embodiment of that sentiment than James’ film.
Lucy (Luc Bresson)
Lucy is a film with such profound respect for its own absurd internal logic that labeling it as “dumb” feels like false advertising. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American woman studying in Taipei when she’s suddenly kidnapped by a Korean mob boss who forces her to be a drug mule by sewing a bag of CPH4 (read: magic) into her abdomen. Eventually, the bag breaks, releasing the drug into her system and allowing her to access more and more of her brainpower, essentially turning Lucy into a God capable of telekinesis, telepathy, and time travel. Lucy is nonsensical to the X-treme, but its ambition and its fearlessness demands respect. More films should dive down the rabbit hole like this one does.
The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)
McDowell’s directorial debut name-checks The Twilight Zone and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but its premise is more in the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s work, even if the film doesn’t have the guts to follow it to its logical, thorny conclusion. Mark Duplass (The League) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) star as a couple who are encouraged by their therapist to travel to a secluded vacation home in order to save their crumbling marriage. When they get there, they discover that the house offers their relationship a chance of renewal, but it may be more than they bargained for. To say any more would ruin the film, and even though it suffers from the weight of improvisational dialogue and a strained third act, it’s still an enjoyable ride.
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tonally inconsistent to the point of irritation, Joon-ho’s English-language debut vacillates between an imaginative, Gilliam-esque sci-fi film with Marxist undertones and a groaningly blunt socio-political allegory with sci-fi undertones. After an experiment to counteract global warming fails and causes a second ice age, the remaining survivors flock to a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion engine that circles the globe. The train is divided by class—rich people in the front, poor people in the back—and soon the inhabitants of the tail section revolt over their atrocious living conditions and attempt to take over the train. Whenever Snowpiercer engages with heavy-handed class politics or takes stabs at outrageous satire, it heavily falters, but whenever it settles for being a gritty action film with an impeccable sense of structure, it’s the best “Blockbuster” in years.
They Came Together (David Wain)
David Wain’s best movie since Wet Hot American Summer, They Came Together is a beat-for-beat parody of romantic comedies (specifically ones of the You’ve Got Mail variety) with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd as the romantic leads. While it’s ultimately an exercise in how many story and genre clichés Wain can pack into an 80-minute feature (the answer is a lot), it’s so consistently funny that the smugness largely doesn’t register until much later. It’s mindless and broad, but when pitched exactly right, Wain’s outrageousness is fantastic.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
At its best, Under the Skin illustrates what cinema can do that other artistic mediums cannot: it creates meaning at the intersection of where sound and sight meet. Scarlett Johansson stars as an unnamed alien who drives around Glasgow, Scotland picking up men and bringing them back to her lair to presumably have sex before they are slowly consumed by…something. It’s not made clear, nor does it need to be. The first half of Under the Skin revels in abstraction, figurative images that imply meaning but don’t dictate it, and though it eventually molds into something resembling a narrative, it’s still a remarkable achievement. It must be seen to be understood.
Featured image courtesy of sundance.org.