May 16 — America in the ’50s made monster movies so that we could demonstrate how capable we were at overcoming anything and everything (hint, hint Russia). It was patriotic jingoism and boasting. Japan was coming off a much different experience. A longstanding tradition of creating demons was translated into an oversize, culture-wide god of vengeance meant to punish a country that was possessed by national shame for its actions in World War 2. In the beginning, before Godzilla became the 28-film, constantly reincarnated, Japanese James Bond, he wasn’t just a monster – he was a judgment.
Being big and eating trains and making noise didn’t make him terrifying. There was an underlying, creeping sense that no one in particular had earned his wrath, and so no one in particular could beat him. An entire culture had earned him through the hubris of imperialism and turning a blind eye to the actions of their own country. An entire culture could only avoid his wrath again by changing its values.
Now is a unique point in time for the American psyche to have a monster that reflects that, but it’s what director Gareth Edwards has stated he wants to do. How you translate that sense of fear and responsibility for Godzilla…that’s achievable. How you translate a national sense of shame…well, we’re not a culture that considers shame a valuable emotion. The most overwhelming component of Japanese film in the ’50s was a shame so deep that penance was more often an unattainable pursuit than an achievable goal. Reaching it could only be measured in lifetimes. If you can get that across to a Western audience in a blockbuster film, let alone a Western monster movie, then you’ve stayed true to the original 1954 film. Watch the trailer here.
Good luck, Godzilla. We could use you at a time like this.
February 21 — Palestine’s second Oscar nominee concerns a Palestinian freedom fighter coerced into becoming an Israeli informant. The academic side of me is fascinated with the last decade’s evolution of the Thai and Indonesian film industries, and wonders which culture will be next to dive headfirst into the medium. Palestine’s has as much to say as any culture out there. The humanitarian part of me, that had years-long access to a Native American library and its historical records as a kid (and is likely to piss off a few friends by saying this), thinks those 1.7 million Palestinians who were kicked off their land shouldn’t be forced to live in a guarded, walled ghetto. Watch the trailer here.
18. The Hobbit: There and Back Again
December 17 — If the first Hobbit was an episodic road picture centered on its characters and the second was fantasy tourism focused on its locations, what will the third one be? Based on the book and how many loose threads there are to tie up, I’m guessing it’s the action movie of the bunch. That’s good and bad. I’m a sucker for swordplay, but no matter how good the action, nothing holds up to that scenery. I really wouldn’t mind seeing Bilbo and his entourage go on another hike or two instead, or stop off to enjoy a pint in some tucked-away pub. How much to get Anthony Bourdain to Middle-earth?
17. The Guest
No date set — I don’t like slashers. The scares are too simplistic. Horror works best when it operates by its own logic. “Crazy murderer is crazy” isn’t logic; it’s an excuse. You’re Next was easily the best horror movie of 2013. It was also the most intelligent slasher I’ve seen, by turns darkly comedic and plotted with character-driven cross-purposes. It could’ve made a stage play. The Guest is Adam Wingard’s follow-up in a year that looks to be sorely lacking in good horror. Wingard’s only made one film, but already I’m a loyal fan.
16. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One
The Hunger Games still retains a certain campiness in how certain plot points are achieved, but it has something important and crucial to say about how we live our lives today. I’ve heard bad things about the last book, on which this year’s entry into the franchise is based, but based on Francis Lawrence’s direction and Jennifer Lawrence’s monumental performance in Catching Fire, I have more than enough faith in this cast and crew to keep the odds in its favor.
15. Wish I Was Here
September — Despite the Kickstarter controversy Zach Braff underwent to fund this, the early word out of Sundance is that it’s a masterpiece. I haven’t revisited Scrubs or Garden State in years, and I’m very curious as to whether they were artifacts of my early twenties or if they’d hold up just as well today. I’m a little afraid to see which, but I’m hoping Braff is still only getting started as a storyteller.
14. The Giver
August 15 — The United States is a bit like the city in Logan’s Run, except once you reach a certain age you aren’t disintegrated. Instead, you’re made to read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a much more humane approach. Considered one of those novels that’s impossible to adapt into film, I couldn’t think of a better director to try anyway. Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) puts character first, damn everything else, and with Jeff Bridges starring as the titular Giver, keeper of a dystopian society’s memories, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, I have an incredible amount of hope for this film.
13. Edge of Tomorrow
June 6 — Tom Cruise has always had a good head for science-fiction projects: Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and one of my top 5 films of 2013, Oblivion. This last featured a small cast and the kind of plot you’d find in the ’70s era of literary science-fiction. I don’t know that director Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is capable of as fresh a perspective on the genre as Oblivion‘s Joseph Kosinski, but Edge of Tomorrow is based on the [much better titled] Japanese novel All You Need is Kill and adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote The Usual Suspects. The trailer and its “Live, Die, Repeat” motif shows that Groundhog Day would not have been as much fun if Bill Murray were repeating D-Day against aliens instead of a day in the suburbs. It’s striking, and Emily Blunt’s turn as Cruise’s anchor-in-time is one of the roles I anticipate most in 2014. Watch the trailer here.
12. Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1 and 2
March 21 & April 18 — The capstone to Lars Von Trier’s “Trilogy of Depression,” that started with “Antichrist” and continued with “Melancholia.” While he’s no stranger to controversy, Von Trier doesn’t make films just for the argument. He’s made triumphs and messes, but his movies are always full of ideas. Nymphomaniac is an epistolary film in which two people (Charlotte Gainsbourg & Stellan Skarsgard) recount their past intimate encounters. Already referred to as FILTH by more people than have had a chance to see it, it may be just that, or it may be yet be an artful and important portal into two characters’ loneliness and egoism.
11. Only Lovers Left Alive
April 11 — Tom Hiddleston plays Loki in the Thor movies. Here, he’s an underground vampire rocker named Adam. Tilda Swinton is an indie darling who played the White Witch, the best bit in the Narnia films. Here, she’s Adam’s vampire lover of the past several centuries, Eve. Mia Wasikowska was Alice in Tim Burton’s unfortunate adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. She’s been paying penance by doing far more interesting movies ever since. She’s Eve’s little sister, Ava, and provides the trouble between the other two. Jim Jarmusch is a director who makes deeply personal films about reclusive characters. This looks like his best. Watch the trailer here.