The Oscar nominations have been announced, so the 2014 movie year is officially over. My following list of notable movies is distilled from seeing 179 films that were released in 2014 (45 in an actual theater!). As always, the list is based on having only seen each film once and it is presented in alphabetical order because I refuse to try to logically or emotionally justify how each of these can be better or worse than the other.
I had a difficult time cutting my secondary list down to ten this year, so I left out some that I would probably put on the list if I was making it on another day. For example, I really liked The Grand Budapest Hotel (and I actually think Wes Anderson continues to display a growing maturity that was evident in Moonrise Kingdom), but you will most likely find that one on a lot of other lists. There are very specific things I loved about films like The Homesman, Ida, Laggies, The Rover, or White Bird in a Blizzard, but I couldn’t bring myself to replace one of the others with them at this particular moment (so I not-so-sneakily mention them here too).
Here’s the meticulously arbitrary Top Ten:
THE BABADOOK [Australia]
“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. Possibly the best horror movie to break out of the horror movie ghetto in years. Unlike some of the other excellent horror movies I’ve enjoyed this year (The Sacrament, Starry Eyes, The Taking of Deborah Logan), this Australian debut transcends the trappings of the genre to be both a substantial scarefest and a literate story on the trials of single motherhood (I was debating about putting Cheap Thrills here on the list for a similar reason, but I’ll just mention it here instead). You might want the physical book after seeing it, but, then again, maybe you won’t. I’m not sure how it holds up to repeat viewings, but I look forward to whatever Jennifer Kent does next.
BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) [USA]
This movie is on a lot of lists. Why? Because it’s a great piece of theatre, with a wonderful ensemble of actors, and an immensely talented director who has finally chosen to embrace not being so overly serious. The big themes are still there, the (self) satire is available for those who want to dig for it, but it remains grounded/levitates in a kind of truth that only the artifice of performance can provide. A wonderful mix of staged-blocked acting and free form cinematics. I wasn’t expecting any particular narrative resolution, because I was just enjoying being along for the ride. And that drum score is great (despite being weirdly disqualified from the Oscars).
BLUE RUIN [USA/France]
A revenge thriller that takes an ordinary, not-so-prepared man as its subject. I didn’t know where this movie was going in the beginning, but I knew it was going somewhere good. I liked the cinematography’s lingering sense of place in rural Virginia and the lead actor’s literally transformative character arc. The change in physical presence alone is intriguing enough as we fill in the details to catch up with the backstory, as the narrative progresses forwards, but the way it subverts expectations of the motivations for revenge makes this more than just another plot-driven indie thriller.
This film will always be known as the one that had taken 12 years to shoot, following its actors and characters over a real progression of time. An ambitious undertaking for all those involved, of course, but the finished film still has to stand on its own. And it does. Some people didn’t care for it, because it does care to follow the typical trajectory of the Bildungsroman. Richard Linklater is a literate guy, a self-professed autodidact sure, but someone with a recognizably well-honed craft that easily weaves in-and-out of mainstream and formally experimental filmmaking. He has chosen a story of discovery; an open-ended narrative that shows us characters that do not typically get such exhaustive treatment. For me, the film is less about the boy and more about the parents’ journey. For not being much of a fan of Patricia Arquette in the past, I will say that she is excellent here. Ethan Hawke also brings a kind of, shall we say, burgeoning maturity to his acting that we get to see in a sort of meta-progression here. Certainly not a masterpiece in narrative terms, it is still a singular, formal achievement that should be celebrated as a notable piece of Cinema of any year.
I ORIGINS [USA]
From the writer-director of ANOTHER EARTH comes another science-fiction-in-concept-only film. In this case, the film has to do with the genetics of eyesight and the possibly fingerprint-like uniqueness of the iris. What I liked about this film so much was how it purposefully shifts its genre (and expectations) at particular points in ways that make it quite like several different stories combined into one. This might be jarring to some, but I felt it crucial to exploring its themes of science and faith. This is not really a religious movie, but it explores ideas that naturally come up in the evidence vs. belief argument in a way that is refreshingly not confrontational or political (in my view). It’s an interesting, unpredictable story that is made much better by the chemistry of its three leads.
THE IMMIGRANT [USA]
James Gray seems to continually display a detached sense of narrative in his pictures. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but his films have been oddly missing something that keeps me from loving them (when I feel like I should be). That being said, he also has a way of bringing some sort of lost classical mentality to his pictures that few filmmakers (still) possess. The Weinsteins apparently dumped this film without any support behind it. It’s not exactly a marketably uplifting story, but the acting is amazing. Marion Cotillard is truly glorious in this movie. 20 pages of Polish dialogue in her first English language lead role (neither of which are her native language)? No problem. Her emotional commitment here transcends any faults in the picture. While Renner seems a bit miscast and/or underused (as usual), Joaquin Phoenix tackles his complicated character with a display of moral depth that holds the movie together (as usual). This is one I need to see again, but I know I won’t see anything else like it anytime soon. P.S. Cotillard is also thoroughly amazing in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (see below).
INHERENT VICE [USA]
It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson picture, so, of course, I’m biased (probably my favorite, active American filmmaker). And it’s a PTA picture of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Whaaat? I read it awhile back and I honestly don’t know if the story is intelligible enough to follow without having it as a background. That being said, it is a stoner-detective story, so the narrative “fog” isn’t really supposed to be totally coherent. The ensemble put together here is really the draw (SNL relations aside, using Joanna Newsom as narrator was a pretty inspired choice, right?) and the time period detail that is shot (on film), so reliably amazing by Robert Elswit, makes it a more accomplished picture than it might appear at first glance. Resisting the urge to make this film just be some sort of collage of cinematics taken from the likes of CHINATOWN, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE BIG LEBOWSKI had to have been harder than it seems. I’m starting to see PTA’s choices as charting cultural-historical timeframes of America. One could think of this as some sort of historical flipside to the birth of American industry in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (one of the most current masterpieces of cinema, if you didn’t know) or the post-WWII ennui of THE MASTER (still chewing on that one) or maybe a kind of multiverse prequel to the end of innocence late ’70s BOOGIE NIGHTS. Pynchon’s a tricky beast who covers all of this; the will to Power and Industry has been challenged by the hippie relativism born of the loss of its free revolutionary ideals soon to be overtaken by whitewashed, suburban, conspiratorial-corporatized New America. Beware the Golden Fang. It’s a snapshot of time in a bottle that existed before I was born and will never exist again for anyone. Pynchon wills it to re-being in Word and PTA traces it to Image for your brain. You’re welcome.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the most eerily great performances of the year and his own career. It is amazing to see such a commitment to character and a story that chooses to defy narrative convention to such success. I went in to this having only seen the poster (and knowing it, thankfully, had nothing to do with the X-Men comic books). I left enthralled having seen something like no other movie this year. This is a great character study, but it is also, on some level, about the (desperation of the) American Dream and our culture’s latent obsession with the detachment of reality/civilization through media. This has been near the top of my list since I walked out of the theatre.
STARRED UP [UK]
Jack O’Connell may have a star making performance in this year’s UNBROKEN, but this is the film I first saw him in and it is nothing if not a performance that requires you to take notice. Playing a feral street kid given an adult prison sentence (eventually in the same block as his lifelong absent father), O’Connell delivers an awe-inspiringly unstoppable ball of rage molded by ill-reenforced behavior and environment. Much of the narrative concerns his interactions among a progressive-thinking counselor (Homeland‘s Rupert Friend) and his loyal group of inmates. Almost Shakespearian in its overtones (and its at times indecipherable accents), this packs a powerful punch that doesn’t placate to one’s sense of heroism or insulated history like certain aforementioned Hollywood fare.
Some people discount this film because it doesn’t treat Jazz ‘correctly’. I say, this movie is about something other than Jazz music (though the musical sequences are still pretty amazing in my opinion). This is a film about an individual driven beyond the normal ideals of competition and an instructor who fuels that drive. It is about a co-dependent relationship that breeds destruction AND talent. It is a film that showcases acting between two (male) individuals that is simply amazing to watch. While I agree that authenticity is important, I defer to the musicians actually involved in the film (the writer/director‘s experience among them) than any particular film critic. I am much more interested in the film’s finely crafted construction of how (music) competition is used as a means of Power and Conquest (ok, so maybe those shouldn’t be capitalized, but hopefully you get the point). Focusing on details, like whether Buddy Rich is an appropriate idol for a serious music student, discounts the depth that is build into these specific characters.
And a secondary ten:
This indie sci-fi microbudget drama has a great concept (best to just go into it without any preparation – though, generally speaking, it has to do with multiverse paradoxes) with largely improvised dialogue by its ensemble of actors. Like this year’s Frequencies (which I almost included, but is a little too cute for its own good, in my opinion), the conceptual framework alone makes this movie pointing out. I enjoyed the enclosed-space, stage-play like interaction of the actors (because that’s usually my favorite type of drama). It’s a small story told over a large concept that some may feel short-shrifted by its refusal to expand, but it kept me interested throughout [link is an aid for after seeing the film].
This was a late addition, so I’m still might be overly swayed by the momentum of the picture. It has its flaws and if you don’t like/connect with the obviously heightened characters (though played with a range I’ve had yet to see from Justin Long and Emmy Rossum), then you probably won’t enjoy this. The cinematography is catchy, intentionally using different looks for each sequence, but the fact that it is a dialogue-driven picture is what made it so engaging for me. Some of the male character is over/underwritten, but for a debut feature I think it’s a notably innovative take on the ubiquitous “young people in love” picture. It takes several moments in a relationship and gives them to us out-of-order, allowing us to see the progression unfold from a unique perspective that comments on each before it as you sequence it together as a viewer. While I have yet to see the HIM and HER films of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (probably my most regretted to have not had the chance to see yet), and I expect they are completely different in execution, the idea seems similar and entirely suited to Cinema in a way that has surprisingly not been overused already.
DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT [Belgium/France]
Despite having seen and admired nearly every Dardenne Brothers film, I don’t think I’ve ever had one on a year-end list. I suppose it’s time to rectify that. As always, a simple story unfolds with deceptively simply looking direction; A woman will lose her factory job unless her fellow employees vote to forgo their yearly bonus. Over the time frame of the title, she visits them all individually to ask them to consider sacrificing that money so she can continue to support her family. Marion Cotillard, how do you do it? You are marvel to behold yet again.
THE DROP [USA]
This film may not necessarily be “best of the year” material, but I can’t help myself. Tom Hardy and Matthias Schoenaerts are literally two of my favorite living (relatively young) actors. This is, sadly, the last living performance of James Gandolfini. We also have a Swedish Noomi Rapace playing a more than convincing native Jersey girl. The quality of acting here transcends the drably colored, noir-ish caper feel painted here (adapated by Dennis Lehane, from his own story, no less). I hesitate to write such hyperbole, but Tom Hardy is channeling an ON THE WATERFRONT kind of performance here. The man subsumes himself into character (LOCKE is another performance worth taking note of this year, especially). And Schoenaerts (reteaming with his BULLHEAD director), continues to expertly make manifesting inner emotion in physicality look effortless.
It’s the OTHER amazing Jake Gyllenhaal performance this year in a film that might be a bit too abstract to recommend to some, but starts with a great premise regardless. The surface story of a man who finds another man who looks exactly like him acting in a film he randomly stumbles upon, only to investigate him to the point of an ever growing confusion, is a great idea. What sets this movie apart is the direction and (attempt toward) social commentary. I tried reading the book and couldn’t make it through (it’s stylistic choice to keep paragraph breaks and spoken dialogue to more-than-noticeable minimum was killing me). The translation to film could be seen as a cinematic counterpoint to that, but somehow made the story that much more intriguing to me. Lots of people surely feel cheated by the end, but I just gasped and smiled at its ingeniously embedded Bergman reference which influenced my interpretation of the whole film retrospectively in a way that may not even be diagetically correct. I love it when that happens.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR [USA]
I’m on the fence about this one, because I JUST watched it. Oscar Isaac is amazing here in the arc that he is given, while Jessica Chastain does so much with so little (really very little). It is very well framed, tightly controlled story (with obvious echoes of a Sidney Lumet kind of New York picture), but it may seem a bit too epic in scope while insular in delivery. There are several scenes that beg for more time and others that never call back to another (I’m not sure what the point of a particular character really is, when he’s given so little context among how things play out, for example). It’s like we are only seeing one episode of a much larger story. I can fill in the blanks, and I like doing that, but does that make me like the picture better for it? It’s not really a narrative that calls for interpretative leaps. Still, it is an intriguing play on the rise-to-power story that is so period fetishistic that it makes you take notice. Maybe, like some other viewers, I just want another Lumet picture that we’ll never get and this will have to be a more than competent consolation…
A lot of people will see WILD this year. It’s a decent movie about one woman’s 1,110 mile life-affirming trek through the Pacific Coast Trail in California. I wouldn’t want to diminish that person’s (true) story (despite it feeling at times like some sort of spiritual mashup of 127 Hours and Eat Pray Love). This film recounts another woman’s journey: Robyn Davidson‘s 1,700 mile camel trek across half of Australia (well, Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean). Maybe I just like Mia Wasikowska better than Reese Witherspoon. Or maybe I just think Australia is more visually interesting than California. Regardless, this is a journey worth taking (check out some of the National Geographic photos, if you like).
UNDER THE SKIN [UK/USA]
First of all: If you don’t know what this film is about and you have any inkling to see it, just watch the thing. DO NOT read what it is about. I think the realization of what’s going on would be much richer coming from a place of ignorance. Because I was unfortunate enough to read a basic description beforehand, while watching this film I had a problem with the abstractness. I wanted more narrative (for that I suggest reading the book, because it’s all there). Though when the film was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The images stayed with me for days. Jonathan Glazer has made something I don’t understand. It’s like a cross between Kubrick and Kiarostami (2001 and Taste of Cherry to be more exact). Some have named this one of the best pictures of the year. I hesitate to do that. Maybe I’m just slow. Regardless, it’s an obvious visual achievement to be celebrated.
VI ÄR BÄST! / WE ARE THE BEST! [Sweden]
Three tween girls form their own punk band in 1982 Stockholm, despite never having played together and everyone telling them punk is dead. We see its influence on their attitude toward their parents, society, other music, boys, etc. The movie is funny, mean, heartfelt, and imperfectly shot. However, Lukas Moodyson has a way with actors (especially of the younger variety) and this is a film that really gets to what it’s like to be full of confused pubescent angst. It’s based on his wife’s graphic novel, which probably has something to do with why it’s his best reviewed film in a decade.
JIGOKU DE NAZE WARUI / WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? [Japan]
From the director of the confoundingly genius Love Exposure, comes an expectedly zany, energetic bloody meditation on the love of cinema. A band of misfits cinephiles, who daydream about making their great masterpiece, stumble into making a film financed and featuring local yakuza. Inventive in its level of meta-ness (which is hard to do these days), Sono’s fast-paced, irreverent hilarity is on display here again culminating in a showdown for the ages. Has the film camera been used with such insanity since, what, Peeping Tom? Those familiar with post-pinku eiga sluge will understand the above average construction here and the uninitiated might just stare with their tongues out.
With the ever-changing number of formats and delivery avenues for content these days, I feel like pointing out that most people’s rules (mine included) for “Best of the Year Movie Lists” tend to isolate themselves to feature film releases (formerly distinguished by the easily identifiable adjective of theatrical releases), but as we know, there are great things out there that go straight-to-video and, yes, the so-called “boob tube“. Television has some great stuff and here’s one of the best “movies” I saw this year as a two part television episode:
LOUIE “In the Woods” Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 [USA]
This show consistently surprises me with its quality. Yes, it is funny because it is written, directed, edited, and stars one of the most successful stand-up comics of the 21st century. But that’s not why it’s great. It’s because Louis Szekely is a storyteller who happens to also be a filmmaker. Rather than rely on the usual sketch-based, joke-baiting pieces found in contemporary television or blockbuster comedies, he chooses to tell a human story, albeit usually with an element of absurdity, focused on telling a particular truth(s). “In the Woods” aired as two consecutive episodes on FX (as with most of his multi-episode arcs, there’s no need to have necessarily seen any previous seasons). It tells a story in flashback of a character billed as “Young Louie” and his teenage marijuana use that is spawned by the main character Louie’s realization that his young daughter has started her own experimentation. What makes this one of the best pieces of television (or motion pictures in general) that I saw in the past year is the way the story is told. Its tone is never false. Its point is never too broad or even deliberate in intent, but obviously meticulously crafted in its execution. It presents an story idea and allows you to choose what it is. It’s simply brilliant and I couldn’t keep from mentioning it here.
If you want to comment on the choices here (or not here), I will try to respond. While I enjoy trying to keep up with all the current stuff out there, I will now enjoy going back to watching whatever I want whenever I want. Thanks for reading!