Some of film’s biggest auteurs may be flocking to TV, but 2014’s powerhouse year in cinema is a statement that both established and new filmmakers are still making destination art.
What will people be talking about ten years from now? We’ll still be talking about three films that took risks. “Boyhood,” itself a time capsule and feat of anthropological imagination, won’t go away. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” its anarchic energy fixated on biting the ticket-buyers that feed blockbusters, may never look quaint. Finally, “Under the Skin” will be poked and marveled at by the next generation of film school classes just as coolly as Scarlett Johansson’s alien scrutinizes her human subjects.
Bright talents lit up the scene, perhaps none more tantalizingly than Damien Chazelle, whose percussive “Whiplash” topped my list. Watch it once for the rush, and twice to tease out the character motivations.
“John Wick” reinvigorated the action genre with the most elegantly staged carnage since John Woo, brightening a revenge formula with delightfully layered tiers of underworld rules and backstory with sequel potential.
The horror genre satisfied on surprising levels in “The Babadook,” “Housebound,” festival standouts “It Follows” and “Goodnight Mommy” (seek them out in 2015), “Honeymoon,” and most ambitiously, “Under the Skin.” Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi/horror mash-up attracted praise for its technical control, opaque content, and cold touch, hardly commodities at the box office. It left me feeling gutshot. First-timer Mica Levi’s score — that frazzled viola is the stuff of nightmares — and a beach scene featuring a dog and a toddler is now on the short list of my most disturbing movie moments.
Perhaps the most impressive indicator of 2014’s exceptional quality was what didn’t happen, namely the parade of hollow, prestige-seeking, eat-your-vegetables films that most years weigh down cinemas with honorable intentions and awards on the brain. This year the noble-minded biopics and Oscar chasers were really good, and sometimes great: “Selma” and “The Theory of Everything” well above the rest, “The Imitation Game” and “American Sniper” expertly competent, and I even found much to admire in “Wild” and “Unbroken.” Such excellence in surprising places leads me to believe we’ll be lucky to see a better year in film this decade.
Here is just a sampling of the films that made 2014 a stunner:
Discard the conventional trailer pitching this as feel-good Oscar bait: “Whiplash” is a psychological thriller of humiliation and retribution. Star Miles Teller projects an Everyman likability with an authentic Everyman face, sporting scars you can get lost in. The treat here is watching J.K. Simmons, longtime character actor and part-time Farmers Insurance spokesperson, rip into a role so far outside our ken of what he does that you can feel the typecasting yoke drop from his neck.
A memorable documentary needs a fascinating subject. Pastor Jay Reinke of Williston, North Dakota is a great one. Men lured by the oil boom in Williston need a place to stay while looking for work; Reinke offers his home and his church. His congregation objects. Director Jesse Moss’s 18-month immersion in the community feels organic rather than exploitative, making the story’s revelations all the more affecting by virtue of the accidental way he stumbles onto them. Reinke implores: “I’m broken. We’re broken...We’re in this together.” Including us.
Jake Gyllenhaal tweaks his boy scout earnestness to perverse effect as Lou Bloom, L.A. crime journalist and entrepreneur of sleaze. The joke is that while we squirm at Lou’s increasingly immoral actions, we root for him to do worse under cover of the satire loophole—it’s okay to laugh at bad behavior. Dan Gilroy’s directing debut establishes an impossibly cynical tone and then defies the expectation that he might not have the nerve to see it through.
Unlike most prison movies, “Starred Up” doesn’t start with a relative innocent entering the penal system. Eric Love (Jack O’Connell, demonstrating why he's being cast in everything) is a nasty piece of work the moment we’re introduced. Will prison soften him? His father, a major player in the same facility, fears so. Eric is part of a group therapy program, and the unpredictable scenes between Eric and other inmates as they whipsaw between provocation and affection, pummel anything the genre has produced. The reason: screenwriter Jonathan Asser is an ex-prison therapist. Be forewarned — use the subtitles option on the DVD menu to understand the slang-heavy British dialect.
Steve James’s documentary on Roger Ebert could be subtitled, “Death Itself,” so closely does it follow the critic’s last days. The doc advances the argument that critics are fans, too, champions of emerging talent, not just debunkers of fun; one of the discoveries profiled is Ava DuVernay, whose “Selma” is attracting deserved attention.
Framed like an O. Henry fable by way of India, “The Lunchbox” is a must-see for romantics and foodies, with the perfect anti-Hollywood ending you can interpret two different ways.
“Love is Strange”
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as a married couple in a delicately crafted love story; transitions from scenes melt naturally from generous close-ups of faces, Chopin piano music trickles into the soundtrack, and warmth mixed with regret fills every frame.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s passion project is rude, funny, and so meta it’s smart about being smart. Gunning for audiences who settle for Marvel-size entertainments over arty pictures like “Birdman,” Iñárritu puts magic words in his actors’ mouths, and instead of getting out of the way, he gives us roving tracking shots, Antonio Sanchez’s cymbal-heavy jazz riffs for a pulse, and style — the pizazz mostly in service of content.
What were your favorite films this year? Tell us in the comments.