Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne; 2014): Proving again that her silent film beauty is surpassed only by her sublime talent, Marion Cotillard delivers a quietly complex—and Oscar-nominated— performance in the latest humanist gem from the Dardenne brothers. As an unemployed factory worker who embarks on a door-knock quest to win back her old job, Cotillard isn’t so much deglamourised as she is transformed by the heartbreaking gesture of her performance. Two Days is an unlikely nail-biter, and Cotillard’s portrait of a woman unraveling against the turmoil of mental illness is as ravishing as it is affecting.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013): Eco-terrorist thriller as slow-burn horror movie, the latest from Wendy & Lucy director Kelly Reichardt is an eerily disarming study in the pursuit of the perceived moral high ground—and the catastrophic personal fallout that can follow. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard play environmental warriors conspiring to bomb a dam, an operation Reichardt handles with unusual restraint. But it’s the aftermath that packs the punch, with an especially chilling Eisenberg at his sociopathic finest.
The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra, 2013): Fans of chance connections between lonely souls will have plenty to dine on with this cute Indian drama from director Ritesh Batra. Life of Pi’s Iffran Khan stars as Saajan, an accountant on the verge of retirement who strikes up an unlikely pen-pal friendship with Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a housewife whose lunchboxes she prepares for her husband are somehow ending up on Saajan’s desk—a mix-up due to an apparently complicated food delivery system. Perhaps obvious to a fault, The Lunchbox nonetheless serves up some life truths amid the gentle performances.
The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013): Barely released in cinemas, The Immigrant is one of the finest films of the year—thus deepening the mystery as to why director James Gray continues to be so underappreciated. Giving a luminous, almost silent film-style performance, Marion Cotillard stars as a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York, where her poor fortune leads her to become untangled with Joaquin Phoenix’s unscrupulous people dealer and Jeremy Renner’s illusionist. Shot by Darius Khondji with stunning light that recalls Gordon Willis’ Godfather work, Gray’s film likewise conjures New Hollywood classicism to craft his own great American novel. The final shot alone is impossible to forget.
The November Man (Roger Donaldson, 2014): You can take the man out of Bond but never the Bond out of the man, as Pierce Brosnan ably proves playing a retired CIA operative out for revenge—and marked for death—when he’s caught in a deadly game of secrets between corrupt American agents and a Russian despot. No cliché is left unturned, but Donaldson’s workmanlike direction, Brosnan’s rough elegance and the presence of fellow 007 alum Olga Kurylenko mean this could well be your dad’s new favorite holiday movie.
Sharknado 2: The Second One (Anthony C. Ferrante, 2014): The producers of this inevitable sequel may as well have just gone with Number Two for their “clever” title wink, for this is creative excrement at its finest: inexplicably both dumber and more boring than the first in spite of a bigger budget and New York location, it’s exactly the kind of work you’d expect from hashtag-driven entertainment. Everybody involved wants you to revel in that fact that it’s “so bad it’s good,” of course, which makes critiquing such cynical garbage almost redundant. Cult classics are organically grown, not constructed, and whatever ironic buzz the first, deliberately atrocious Sharknado generated on social media has been turned into a calculated ploy here. The “star” cameos—Perez Hilton, Kelly Osborne, US news anchors hamming it up while actual urban crime no doubt goes unreported elsewhere—are plentiful, while the sharks seem unusually scarce, despite several supposedly dense storms descending on Manhattan. In the movie’s minimal defense, the sharks-on-a-plane opening is enjoyably idiotic and at least gives Flying High! star Robert Hays a proper tribute, and Ian Ziering again keeps an admirably straight face—no easy task opposite Tara Reid.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013): You’re a vampire who’s been alive forever: imagine your record collection. Plenty of films have tangled with the existential pickle of the undead, but this might be the first to frame immortality as cultural curation—in other words, the natural extension of its director’s career-long catalogue of cool. As usual with Jarmusch, though, the hip surface belies a moving undertow; it’s both an inventory of vintage guitars and a relationship of longing and regret. It’s all there in the opening shot that dissolves from rotating stars to a turntable, set to Jarmusch’s own Neil Young-channeling chords. Hiddleston’s Adam is a reclusive musician genius plagued by suicidal thoughts, while Swinton’s Eve (uh-huh), curious and alive, hasn’t met an era she couldn’t engage with. The gentle frisson between these ancient flames plays like Jarmusch’s dialogue with culture itself, especially when Eve’s younger sister—the impetuous, wild Wasikowska–introduces the disarray of modern life. Typically glacial, Lovers isn’t a movie for fans of bloodthirsty horror, but it certainly engages the melancholy of all the best vampire cinema. And yeah, the soundtrack is pretty cool.
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013): Set almost entirely within a concert hall, this chamber thriller pulls off the considerable feat of extracting a mini symphony of suspense from a mostly silly premise, while satisfying that audience that yearns to see 1989’s long overdue teen slacker showdown—Lloyd Dobler punching Bill S. Preston in the face. Glassy eyes at a constant crescendo, Elijah Wood plays a gifted pianist making a crucial comeback when he starts receiving threats from Cusack’s unseen creep-with-a-gun in the audience: perform an infamously unplayable piece, or your wife dies. The end game matters less than the stylish execution, which, with its roaming camera and split-screen nods, approaches moments of vintage Brian De Palma tension.
They Came Together (David Wain, 2014): Satirising a moth-eaten genre can be a fool’s errand, especially when the target in question—the romantic comedy—has long been self-aware with post-modern winks for knowing audiences. Thankfully writer-director Wain, who took similar aim at the summer comedy in Wet Hot American Summer, has the smarts to mostly pull it off, adding plenty of absurdity to the obvious. Rudd plays a heart-of-gold corporate jerk to Poehler’s clutzy cliché and, well, you know the rest. The convention-mocking amounts to a movie-length skit, but old hands Rudd and Poehler, straight faces masterfully in tact, play the terrible dialogue and cheesy scenarios with a comic aplomb that’s very easy to like.
Originally published in Empire magazine