My life’s seen a significant amount of change this year, the most noticeable being my marriage in April. What planning for that big day has begotten has included bachelor parties in Chicago, post-wedding trips to New York and a Honeymoon proper in gay Paris. (Oh, also, marrying the love of my life, but that’s ancillary.) The year’s also been a good step forward both from a professional and scholarly standpoint. While my grown-up job’s not changed much in the last 12 months, the work keeps getting more and more manageable. And as for the writing MFA I’m pursuing, I will say I personally feel better about my writing and my ability to self-edit than ever before.
But you don’t care about that. You care about the movies. And hoo-boy, did I ever mess up this movie year.
As of today, I have watched only 68 movies that qualify for my 2014 List. (Follow the link to see them all, and don’t mind spoiling my Top 10.) That’s not even close to my number from last year, which I’d originally called my worst year since I started writing about film. I really do chalk this up to less spare time; whenever I wasn’t planning or studying, I didn’t exactly care to spend my spare minutes in a movie theater, or even to catch up on titles I missed. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, or to catch the next episode of Transparent or OitNB. Also, they have this crazy new thing right now called “reading.” I gave that a shot too. Highly recommended.
But if we’re being realistic, 68 movies is not an insignificant number of movies by any means. I do think that’s enough to have some semi-complete opinions on what came out this past calendar year. So why don’t I just dive in, and let you know what I most responded to as a 68-time movie-goer in 2014.
My Embarrassing List of Notable Films I Did Not See:
* Movie that was unavailable for me to (legally) watch by the time this published
** Movie I swear I tried to finish, but just couldn’t muster the patience. I’m almost 30, people.
Tilda Swinton gave three great performances in 2014. Three. Each one great. And I sincerely doubt she will be nominated for even one of them. That’s a shame, because no other actor this year, regardless of how many movies they made, informed their work with so much generosity and idiosyncrasy. Though perhaps the latter descriptor goes without saying; I don’t think there’s a more idiosyncratic actor working today than Swinton. You certainly can’t imagine anybody else playing any of her roles – whether it’s a wealthy octogenarian of a love interest (Grand Budapest Hotel), a sniveling centipede of a bureaucrat (Snowpiercer) or a yak hair-donning vampire who pals around with Christopher Marlowe (Only Lovers Left Alive).
Really, though, it’s the generosity of these three performances that make Swinton so essential. She knows she is a plot device in Budapest, making the most of her time while still ceding ground to Ralph Fiennes. She knows she is the physical embodiment of Snowpiercer’s jaundiced system of rule, so she plays the character as the ladder-climber she needs to be. And in Lovers she manages to imbue soul within an entire movie, without forgetting she has a co-star and several other key players to interact with. But more on that movie later.
Runners-Up: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood; Mira Barkhammar, We Are the Best!; Macon Blair, Blue Ruin; Essie Davis, The Babadook; Pierre Deladonchamps, Stranger by the Lake; Brendan Gleeson, Calvary; Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler; Tom Hardy, Locke; Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin and Lucy; Lisa Loven Kongsli, Force Majeure; Agata Kulesza, Ida; Chris Rock, Top Five; J.K. Simmons, Whiplash; Jenny Slate, Obvious Child.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is about many things. Too many to count, probably. But if you are looking for the scene that best epitomizes what the movie is trying to say, I can think of no better moment than when Mason asks his dad to confirm that “there’s no real magic in the world.” While Mason clarifies that he refers to mystical beings like elves, this gives a dad his chance to stretch his son’s mind. “What makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale?” Mason Sr. shoots back. His son, nonplussed, re-submits his original question about the existence of elves. Dad answers back, simply, in the negative, and they go back to sleep.
Practically the entire movie happens here, including Boyhood’s defense of its own existence. The scene argues for finding the magical in the ordinary, the significance and insignificance of the every day, and possibly even the futility in articulating some kind of greater truth with some kind of reductive explanation. And then the scene ends, and the movie goes on. Just as life goes on.
Runners-Up: The murder, Gone Girl; the split shot, Goodbye to Language 3D; A final chat at the bar, Love is Strange; Lou records his partner, Nightcrawler; “…and DANCING!,” Only Lovers Left Alive; The haircut, We Are the Best!; Quicksilver stops time, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I don’t blame anybody who treats Lucy as thoroughly disposable piffle. To be truthful, I see no nobler an aim in Luc Besson’s film adaptation of Zebra Stripes chewing gum, other than to be consumed and disposed of. But if modest aspirations are Besson’s worst offenses, there are plenty of summer movies much worthier of the scorn that Lucy’s received. While Lucy earns few points in the intellect department, it does deserve credit for its truly goofball exuberance and assuredly crackerjack style of filmmaking. I don’t think Besson’s a great filmmaker; his cinematic vision is only ever tenuous in its connection to larger ideas. To be fair, though, those ideas aren’t entirely absent from the canvas; I’d argue even the risible “using 100% of the brain” pseudo-science conceit is reaching for a more sublime, post-factual truth. I can’t really go into that here (but I went into it here). As a vehicle for goofy action and inexplicably intercut shots of animal footage, nobody did it better this year than Besson.
Runners-Up: Dumb and Dumber To, Happy Christmas, The Homesman, John Wick, Starred Up
I entered Guardians of the Galaxy skeptical, yet assured that the movie would be a refreshing change of pace even for sufferers of superhero fatigue. The truth is, however, that it is in lock-step with every other installment of the Marvel marketing machine, only superficially different in structure and scope from the nine Marvel movies preceding it. It’s concerned most with appealing to as broad a consumer base as possible, and peppering enough setup for future installments to all but guarantee your ticket purchase for Guardians 2. Or for Avengers 2.
I promise you that I gave the movie a chance. But even if I were to judge Guardians simply on its own merits, and not as the cog in the machine it’s meant to be, it is a complete snooze. The much-lauded humor is DreamWorks-level toothless. The arc for the centrifugal friendship between the five friends is messy and slapdash. Worst of all, the filmmaking is unforgivably shoddy; this may be the worst-looking action of any movie this year.
It’s not simply that I hate Guardians. I resent it. It’s further evidence of Hollywood’s trending acquiescence into franchise building and generic storytelling. I don’t like to indulge declinism very often, but as a lover of blockbusters – and I really do love them! – my tolerance for what Marvel is doing to them has officially dissipated.
Runners-Up: Birdman, The Double, Frank, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Listen Up Philip, Neighbors, Nymphomaniac Vol. I
Andrew Sarris liked to say there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Oscar-friendly biopics. (Well, he didn’t… but I like to say he liked to say that. But I digress.) We saw our share of that third certainty as 2014 drew to a close. By all accounts, some were supposed to be rather well-focused in their approach to the respective subject (as Mr. Turner was, and as I understand Selma and Get On Up are supposed to be). That’s decidedly not the case for The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, two tortured genius biopics that were themselves light on genius, and heavy on torture. The former is a noncommittal sampler platter Stephen Hawking’s life, confusing breadth for depth. As for the latter biopic, it approaches the very sad, complex life of Alan Turing with a bizarre, offensively incongruous kind of pleasantness. The movie’s final scene between Turing and his ex-fiancée so false, so transparent a stab at feel-good tear-jerking, that I was insulted.
Hawking and Turing were (are) great men, effectual men, and complicated men. Neither of their respective movies care about that. They just care about their awards potential.
Runners-Up: Alien Abduction, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Muppets Most Wanted, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Honorable Mentions (#11 – #20)
The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent) – A supernatural thriller about parenthood wherein the parenthood feels just as scary as the supernatural. Jennifer Kent expertly blurs the line between reality, metaphor and hallucination. Noah Wiseman is the perfectly cherubic hellion. Essie Davis portrays motherhood, beautifully, as the kind of frazzling obligation I’ve always suspected it to be.
Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremu Saulnier) – Speculative Coen Bros. fanfiction to rival TV’s Fargo. Actually, Saulnier’s film is more than that; it’s a finely tuned meditation on the futility of vengeance, both morally and logistically. A sad, pleasurable slow-burn. And Jan Brady gets some karmic comeuppance for what she did to Marcia’s nose.
Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras) – For all patriots, a true cinematic privilege. It’s an opportunity to see history in the making (Spoiler Alert: history mostly happens in a cramped hotel room). Ed Snowden is a compelling enough character, but he’s nothing in this movie compared to the not-quite-phantom menace he’s waged war against.
Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman) – It’s probably inevitable that the year’s best summer blockbuster would be such a financial bust. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt give committed performances, as always they do, and Doug Liman finds a sense of rhythm that really helps chug things along. It taps like Astaire when other blockbusters lumber like elephants.
Locke (dir. Steven Knight) – A controlled film about a man struggling to maintain control. Knight’s work transcends his script’s high-concept underpinnings to find something more useful. Same can be said of Tom Hardy, whose performance thrills for how deftly he allows the faint cracks of his character to show.
Life Itself (dir. Steve James) – A loving movie about the greatest movie lover who ever lived. While James borders dangerously close to haigiography, his affection for Roger Ebert is (understandably) impossible not to share. Ebert was everything a critic should be: a champion for art, a servant of prose and thought, and an advocate for living.
A Most Wanted Man (dir. Anton Corbijn) – A stellar post-9/11 thriller with more to offer than a twilight Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance. Corbijn shows tremendous skill in presenting international stakes amidst the backdrop of bland conference rooms and seedy alleyways. As for PSH, he’s the perfect Le Carré hero, motivated yet browbeaten. His final shot here should be the last shot we remember of him.
Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong) – Dystopian sci-fi that remembers it’s okay to have some fun every once in a while. Bong treats the apocalypse like a playground, and composes some truly remarkable set-pieces in the process. He facilitates terrific performances as well, particularly from Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson) – The year’s best children’s movie that no child will see. Moodysson is a master of tone and of conveying empathy, crafting a tale of girlhood whose authenticity could rival even Boyhood. From the impeccable casting to the pitch-perfect finale, hardly a misstep in the entire movie.
The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) – A somber, fitting sendoff by the greatest animator who ever lived. While it’s more serious-minded than anything he’s done, Miyazaki’s footprint is plainly visible. It has the imprimatur of an artist who’s figured things out as far as he can, and leaves us to figure out the rest.
Justin’s Top Ten Films of 2014
Titillating yet austere, reserved yet suspenseful, Stranger by the Lake is my token queer-themed movie of the year. That makes me a little retrograde, perhaps, given how 2014 gave us cozier and more “positive” representations of gay male identity in Love is Strange (which is quite good) and The Imitation Game (which is quite bad). But I like the idea of gay male sexuality serving material this specific, this dangerous. Guiraudie remains true to the motivations of all these characters, who all visit a remote lake for one of two reasons (to fuck, or to get fucked). But when a young man catches his new lover using that same lake for nefarious purposes, a bizarre alchemy of fear and affection and ambivalence take place. On second thought, maybe I’m not being as retrograde as all that; Stranger by the Lake certainly isn’t. It takes gay male sexuality, and makes it the stuff of cinema.
As storytellers look increasingly to television or video games or graphic novels to craft detailed, more heavily serialized narratives, I think it’s fair to say that the impulse from movie studios has been to emphasize the movies’ bigness. What distinguishes cinema from all other art forms, this trend suggests, is its propensity for spectacle. But Jonathan Glazer’s latest work advocates for the contrary. Cinema can be something far smaller, more abstract, more concise in its ambitions. Cinema can be an essay, compared to the novel that is television (or, if you prefer, to the novel that is the novel). Under the Skin reads like an essay on the claims made on the human body – particularly the female body – and how humans collectively lay claim to agency over them. But Skin is also a feat of pure, uncut cinema; complete with symbolic imagery, erratic structure and a deceptively blank performance by Scarlett Johansson. It’s the kind of movie that more movies should strive to be.
We should all be so lucky to have a husband as successful as Tomas, or a wife as loving as Ebba, or children as beautiful as Vera and Harry, or a lifestyle so glamorous as to permit vacationing in a ritzy Alpine ski resort. But then again, should we really? Force Majeure is a painful, cutting and cruelly funny shiv in the side of the canard that is marital security. With a Hanekeian cynicism, Östlund unleashes nature (both environmental and human) to expose the fragility of marriage and family, not to mention their foundation upon the shaky ideals of masculinity, femininity and parental protectionism. Yet Östlund sports a kind of Bergmanesque empathy that saves the movie from outright nastiness; even as we laugh at these fraudulent characters for their abominably petty behavior, we firmly understand where they are coming from. Speaking of marriage, no ending this year inspired more debate between my own spouse and me. Thankfully, we made it through.
Further proof still that moviemakers should be thinking smaller in their scope today, and not always bigger, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida has got to rank amongst the most economical movies I have ever seen. While movies deserve better than to be evaluated by their runtime, it’s worth noting how much more Ida accomplishes in eighty shorn minutes than do other movies approaching twice its length. The story remains simple enough, with a young Polish nun meeting her last surviving relative – her aunt – just as she is preparing to take her vows. Yet in those brief (often one-sided) exchanges, we learn everything about this family, their history, and their context in the aftermath of wartime and genocide. Pawlikowski has many to thank for Ida: Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s strikingly asymmetrical camerawork, Agata Trzebuchowska’s active yet doe-eyed face, and Agata Kulesza’s agonizingly sad performance. He can also thank himself, for having the skill to make this matryoshka doll of a film.
I found myself responding most strongly to movies about toxicity this year: toxicity within social institutions, within our dark past, within our own physical and sexual desires, and even within cinema itself. Damien Chezelle’s breath-taking, hand-wringing, hair-tugging sophomore effort is an acute indictment on the toxicity of ambition. It is also one of the most pleasant surprises of 2014 for me, considering how hard the trailer pushed it as middle-of-the road pedagogy porn. J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher is no “Teacher with a Heart of Gold®;” he is ruthless, brilliant, and his methodology is largely suspect. But Chezelle’s hardly any kinder to Miles Teller’s Andrew, a prodigy who ain’t exactly Will Hunting himself. As tensions in this film mount, as Andrew acquiesces to his chosen art and reaches both his mental and physical breaking point, Chezelle’s ambivalence toward these clashing egos similarly mounts, all to dizzying, thrilling and cinematic effect. That final scene eliminates the desire to blink.
David Fincher’s latest is, simply, the most pure fun to be had at the movies this year. I will happily admit to imperfections (I’m not convinced the movie doesn’t take sides with one character over another). But Gone Girl is Fincher at his haute trash best. Gillian Flynn’s script does a beautiful job of indulging the viewer’s base desires for tawdry, digestible narratives (attractive blonde white girl goes missing; husband looks suspicious; unleash Nancy Grace!), even as she criticizes those same impulses by presenting them as satire. Knowing literally nothing about Flynn’s novel going in, I can safely say the twist blew me away and, while I spent half the film confused, I spent the rest of it in a dizzying high. I found myself gasping and laughing uncontrollably as the narrative jostled back and forth, in and out of the characters’ control. Gone Girl is a magnificent entertainment about owning the narrative. And it’s deeply, deeply fun.
Obiously, seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film would have to be the most significant event of anybody’s movie-going year. And I’m grateful for the experience even if it left me truly at a loss for what to think, not to mention bleeding from my eyes and my ears. Most directors still working in their eighties tend to go down a road of obstinateness and sentimentalism. With his last film, Film Socialisme, I feared that’s where Godard was heading. But with 3D technology at his disposal in Goodbye to Language, he proves he’s still leading the revolution. I won’t articulate much of what I think the movie means; the best I can offer is my specious declaration that this is a Sontag-like “war on the tyranny of meaning.” What I can say, definitively, is that Godard’s always been keen to explore the pyrotechnical joys (and agonies) of moviemaking. Whether Language is a profound achievement or a big-ol’ fart in our general directions is beside the point. The “point” is, and will always be, cinema.
Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most artistically significant player in modern animation, completed its last film this year. Their past three films, including this final one from Studio co-founder Isao Takahata, have yet to turn profits. It’s impossible not to think of Princess Kaguya in the bitter context of Ghibli’s shuttered doors, not least because of how successfully the movie reminds us of its makers’ immeasurable worth. This is an ambitious, stunningly drawn work of art that gives priority to world-building and strength of characters. There is humor, but it flows as naturally as Takahata’s brushstrokes. This is also a film of admirable moral complexity; Takahata makes pointed, sometimes cutting observances on the role class plays in these characters’ lives, as Kaguya ascends from the hardships of peasant life to the vacuous customs of the aristocracy. Yet it is seldom didactic, if ever; this is simply world being inhabited, and each character responds thusly.
And once the ending comes, and Kaguya-hime’s fate becomes a certainty, we are treated to one final, virtuoso flourish of animation. And it’s as thrilling as it is bittersweet. We bid farewell to Kaguya, and it is as much a farewell to a studio that has bestowed decades of rich, meaningful entertainment. And now the studio’s epoch has passed. Ghibli’s got one more film before the end; Kaguya’s not quite their final adieu. But it might as well be.
Richard Linklater’s movie, which may very well become one for the ages, has showered in enough superlatives from writers and critics far better than me. I will speak not to the movie’s larger achievements, then, but to my own very personal journey with the movie. As I’m sure we all remember, Boyhood was all but billed as the second coming of Kane in the advent of its release. That’s a lot of expectation to stand up to, especially for a movie whose biggest joys are found in the smallest moments. As a consequence, I am afraid the hype overwhelmed me, and Boyhood spent much of my movie year in the “respected but didn’t love” box.
I finally revisited the movie, free of anticipation. And free of anticipation, Boyhood finally worked its magic on me. Really worked. Like, “I cried twice and hugged myself countless times” worked. There’s no simple reason why such a sprawling movie should feel this intimate (my picks for the year’s two worst movies sprawled and failed miserably), but it likely has most to do with how much time Linklater and his actors had to think about the characters, and just how perfectly curated these scenes all feel in its final edit. And because these character feel so well-focused, the scenes so organic and authentic, the pretense to find greater meaning is both absent and unnecessary.
Boyhood is a whale of a movie. It’s great because it deigns to be ordinary. In a world without elves, it wields its own brand of magic.
There have been many movies about marriage this year, and many of those depicted marriages have been downright toxic. That’s not inherently a problem, of course. Conflict is the stuff of drama, after all, and several of those movies made my top ten this year. At the same time, it’s hard for such visions of marriage not to haunt you, especially when you see them the very same year you decide to tie the knot. While I’d hardly identify with Nick and Amy Dunne, or with Tomas and Ebba of Sweden, it is always reassuring to know that some marriages are made for the ages. Thank God Jim Jarmusch for Adam and Eve.
Only Lovers Left Alive, a loose-fitting movie about married vampires spending their eternity gabbing about music and literature and art, is the first movie my spouse and I watched together as husbands. The timing could not have been more serendipitous. Played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddelston, the two protagonists feel so deeply comfortable in each other’s company that, even after years of living apart, they can reunite without feeling like anything between them has been lost. They are, simply, the coolest married couple who has ever lived, informed by their years together, their mutual love of artistic expression and their snacking on blood popsicles. Now that sounds like married life!
I admit that good timing colors my affection toward Jarmusch’s movie, and I also admit it’s dicey to lavish superlatives on a movie based on a deeply subjective, specific, timely context. Yet it is for that very connection that I call Only Lovers Left Alive the year’s best film. After all, isn’t the whole point of art to open ourselves up to it, and allow personal connections to land? Adam and Eve, who’ve been around for centuries and centuries, have had infinite advantages to create and consume great art. They’ve likely forgotten more of those intense connections with art than any of us will know.
Much of that couple’s irritation comes out of how little mortal humans (they call us “zombies”) bother to appreciate the great artifacts of humanity regularly at their disposal. Even Adam has to be reminded from time to time of the old cliché that life is wasted on the living. But as his beloved wife Eve reminds him, the act of living “could be spent on surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship… and dancing!”
Art, whether we engage in its creation or appreciation, is so often about nurturing and considering our own relationship with the reality of our selves, and the others that touch us. This year, I celebrated the most important relationship of my life, it only makes sense that the art I appreciated resonated with that.