OK, let’s add up how many major Oscar contenders emerged from the first half of 2014.
Let’s see: 18 minus three, times pi, divided by 0, run through an equation where X/A equals .143 and the answer is: None.
Which is hardly unexpected. Although it does happen, it’s rare when Oscar fare emerges in the first half of the year. Sure, “The LEGO Movie” might have a shot at animation, and “Noah” could eke out some technical nods, but in terms of major players, there’s pretty much zilch.
However, that doesn’t mean the first half of the year was all garbage; far from it. It just means time is an awards contender’s enemy, and films from the first six months tend to be forgotten when studios start rolling out their big guns in September.
So let us salute those whose quality is about to be overlooked. There was no factoring in of box office success in choosing this top 10 of the first half of 2014, but surprisingly three of the films have exceeded $100 million in domestic earnings.
Foreign language films that opened elsewhere last year were excluded (goodbye, “The Lunchbox,” “Ida,” “The Great Beauty” and “Gloria”), as were late arrivals who qualified for this year’s Oscars (“Lone Survivor”). Which leaves, in order of release date:
“The LEGO Movie” (2/7) Yes, there were certainly commercial concerns here, but the entire meta-capitalistic commentary on involuntary programmed responses was still pretty rich stuff. And, oh yeah, watching little plastic blocks take on twisted personalities was kind of fun, too. Plus, it earned more than $250 million at the box office.
“Tim’s Vermeer” (2/28) This oddball documentary about a nonpainter inventor from Texas who decides to prove he can perfectly reproduce a painting from a revered master by using a convolution of mirrors and his own unskilled hands is a study in obsession and perseverance. Absolutely fascinating.
“Noah” (3/28) Director Darren Aronofsky’s wild elaboration on the biblical tale was probably the first religious epic to use giant talking angels made of boulders, but it was his willingness to take such risks, and to put such strong characters and conflicts into a paper-thin story, that paid off.
“Nymphomaniac” (4/4) Lars von Trier’s movie came out in two parts, each guaranteed to shock the vast majority of humanity with its lead character’s sexual obsessions. But sex is only a small part of what von Trier is investigating here — he’s looking at power and self-loathing and gender, as well as fly-fishing and classical music. His reach must be respected.
“Under the Skin” (4/18) And talking about reach ... director Jonathan Glazer delivered a chilling, vague story about an alien hiding within the body of a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) who seduces men in Edinburgh, Scotland, only to send them to their doom. Thoroughly, thrillingly eerie.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” (5/2) Tilda Swinton (who better?) and Tom Hiddleston play longtime vampire lovers lounging about in Detroit, musing on the vagaries of eternal life and searching for the perfect guitar sound. Almost nothing goes on, but then that’s how a vampire’s life would likely feel. The darkly affectionate portrait of Detroit is perfect.
“Locke” (5/16) This may be the most brilliantly contained film ever. One man (Tom Hardy) drives to London in a car by himself, speaking with his wife and kids, co-workers, boss and a woman about to have his child by wireless phone. Writer-director Steven Knight transforms a one-man show into mesmerizing cinema.
“Maleficent” (5/30) Angelina Jolie plays a damaged fairy queen out for revenge in this magnificently filmed twisted fairy tale. The beatific Elle Fanning is the girl she’s set to destroy ... until she falls in love with her innocent spirit. By the way, worldwide earnings so far: $633 million.
“Rover” (6/20) Guy Pearce goes hunting for car thieves in post-apocalyptic Australia, accompanied by the mentally scattered brother (Robert Pattinson) of one of the thieves. Dark and dirty all the way, the brutality is tempered by the odd, compassionate relationship Pearce and Pattinson build.
“Obvious Child” (6/27) Certainly the best romantic comedy about abortion you’ll see this year. Except it’s not about abortion, it’s about life choices and responsibilities, and it’s also surprisingly, consistently funny thanks in great part to star Jenny Slate, the current queen of quirk. Unexpected in every way.