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story.lead_photo.caption Rinko Kikuchi stars in "Kumico The Treasure Hunter," showing at the Little Rock Film Festival

The movie year is a marathon; the pace kicks up nearer the end. By the calendar, we're more than halfway through 2014. Since it's one of those languid summer weeks that lends itself to rumination, maybe it's worth taking a minute to contextualize the year so far.

And so far, 2014 hasn't been a bad year for Hollywood movies -- The Lego Movie, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and even the box office misfire Edge of Tomorrow were entertaining and surprisingly smart. I haven't seen 22 Jump Street yet, but I enjoyed its precursor. There are people who insist Neighbors is the year's funniest film.

I have a clear favorite from the year's first half, and that's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which screened at this year's Little Rock Film Festival and which will likely get a theatrical release at some point this year. (The film's rights were acquired by the distributor Amplify earlier this month.)

Kumiko is a stunning little movie, co-written by brothers David (who also directed) and Nathan Zellner based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who travels to Minnesota to find the suitcase full of cash that Steve Buscemi's Carl Showalter buries in the Minnesota snow in the Coen brothers' 1996 classic Fargo. It's a beautiful and haunting story about irrational obsession and the ways movies can infect us. It's the sort of movie that's probably going to be seen by more people on DVD or video on demand than in theaters. It's poetic, funny and terribly sad. (I saw it before I saw the FX television series Fargo, which similarly invokes Carl's talismanic suitcase.)

After that, well, let's just put these in alphabetical order:

Boyhood -- I'm still making up my mind on this one, which is tentatively scheduled to open in Arkansas on Aug. 15. Richard Linklater's epic coming-of-age picture has been universally acclaimed. I liked some of it quite a lot and was impressed by the ambition. I'll save my -- fairly serious -- misgivings for the review.

Blue Ruin -- Jeremy Saulnier's debut feature -- another movie partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign -- is not a conventional revenge story, although it does offer some of the same cold thrills as the '70s vigilante movies it echoes. It charts the grim trajectory of unlikely avenging angel Dwight Evans (Macon Blair), a shambling, damaged but apparently gentle soul who, denied justice for a primal wound, takes the law into his hands. Yet that's only the first 30 minutes or so of the story. What's really interesting is what comes next.

Cold in July -- Based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Jim Mickle's atmospheric Cold in July is the sort of naturalistic, nuanced thriller you don't see much in this age of overt, high-concept star-driven cinema. It almost feels like a novelistic TV show. Set in completely recognizable East Texas in the late 1980s, it's ostensibly a coming-of-age tale for mild-mannered Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), a family man who reluctantly kills an unarmed burglar who breaks into his family's home. While Dane is nearly paralyzed with guilt, he suddenly has to contend with the dead man's father, Russell (Sam Shepard), a career criminal who has just been released from prison.

The Grand Budapest Hotel -- While I'm not prepared to say this is Wes Anderson's best film, it may be his most visually interesting live-action movie and the best expression of his peculiar, meticulously realized sensibility. You can hate it if you want, but recognize that the man knows exactly what he wants to put on screen.

Joe -- David Gordon Green's (and Nicolas Cage's) comeback film. Based on a 1991 novel of the same name by Larry Brown, Joe echoes Green's critically acclaimed early work George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003) and most directly Undertow, his 2004 riff on Night of the Hunter. It almost seems like Green was listening to those critics who wished for him to "return to form" after his recent forays into stoner comedy. If last year's Prince Avalanche -- a remake of the obscure Icelandic feature Either Way -- signaled that Green had at least temporarily exhausted his desire to make studio comedies (which deserve defending, though not right now), Joe feels like a kind of homecoming.

Life Itself -- Steve James' affectionate look at the life and times of the late Roger Ebert is a little too long, and a little too eager to show us the most harrowing stuff, but I'm glad it exists.

Locke -- To try to describe writer-director Steven Knight's Locke is inherently reductive. It's about a Welshman in a car, traveling from Birmingham to London, talking to various people on his Bluetooth-enabled mobile device as he drives. The film takes place almost in real time -- the real journey would take about two hours, but Locke makes it in 85 minutes. Except for a brief preface when we watch a pair of boots exiting a construction site and walking across a parking lot, the film takes place entirely inside a nicely appointed BMW X5 SUV (were it not already taken, Ride Along would have been a good title).

This potentially claustrophobic experience is transformed into a rich emotional epic, one of the most satisfying and whole-feeling movies of the past few years, thanks to a thrilling if understated performance by Tom Hardy (the chameleon-like British actor best known for portraying Bane in the last Batman film), a taut, nervy script by Knight (who wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises) and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. Locke is a man on a reluctant but determined mission, driving straight into an uncertain future as the pieces of his old life fly apart.

Ne me quitte pas -- Hilarious and heartbreaking, this Belgian documentary by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden is a harrowing look at the effects of alcoholism and the best buddy comedy of the year. The movie begins with Marcel's wife leaving him because of his drinking, and the drinking that ensues in the aftermath of her leaving. (Marcel's friend Bob helps out.) I don't know the extent to which the narrative was shaped by the directors -- the film is one that Little Rock Film Festival programmer Robert Greene chose for his nonfiction series at this year's festival -- but it works on any number of levels as entertainment and as an artful examination of how humans live.

Obvious Child -- Hardly perfect, but full of empathy and brave enough to depict its characters as real people in desperation.

Only Lovers Left Alive -- Jim Jarmusch's strong entry into the vampire genre features two genuine movie stars -- Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. And Mia Wasikowska.

Sacred Hearts Holy Souls -- Mark Headman's meditation of Catholic boys school is the best short film I've seen this year. Honorable mention goes to David Bogard's A Matter of Honor and Tara Sheffer's 13 Pieces of the Universe.

Snowpiercer -- The first English-language film from Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director who achieved international success with the monster movie The Host in 2007 and the unsettling murder mystery Mother in 2009, is a strange and ambitious project, an allegory about class warfare, environmental recklessness and possibly predestination that at times seems like it was written by a bright eighth-grader with attention deficit disorder and a fondness for kick-butt martial arts movies. It has about it a gorgeous incoherence that overwhelms any logical objections to its absurd premise. It was a lot of fun.

Under the Skin -- One adjective that's often been applied to writer-director Jonathan Glazer's work (which also includes 2000's Sexy Beast and 2004's Birth) is "Kubrickian," but the classic movie that Under the Skin most reminds me of is Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), although that's more for its elliptical storytelling than the similarities of plot. Like Roeg, Glazer -- in this film at least; I remember Sexy Beast as being viciously verbal -- shows rather than tells, with the aural cues provided mainly by Mica Levi's weird synth score. It's really no problem that the thick Glaswegian accents of some of the characters at first sound nearly indecipherable. This is how our world looks to fresh but fully adult (perhaps super-intelligent) eyes. This is the naked lunch William Burroughs was talking about.

If you've heard anything about Under the Skin, it's that it stars Scarlett Johansson as an otherworldly being. And that she's often naked in the film. We meet her as she strips the clothes from a dead doppelganger, a strange man on a motorcycle she has recently collected. This isn't the sort of film that allows for a lot of dramatic histrionics, but Johansson has an unnerving way of switching from clinical detachment to engaging humanoid without jamming the gears. The transition is all the more chilling for its seamlessness. She's to be praised for her willingness to take this role, which basically allows Glazer to use her image and persona in service of an unsettling and unflinching yet ultimately beautiful film that can be read in a myriad of ways. This is a movie that will haunt you.


MovieStyle on 07/25/2014

Print Headline: Pacing the pack/Just past midway in 2014 movie run, Hollywood has some front-runners


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