After a week of looking at the best and worst the film industry had to offer this last calendar year, we have finally come to the main event. I’ve included fifteen films and five honorable mentions beyond the standard top ten simply because I wanted to spotlight more of the great films that hit screens and home video in 2014.
Starred Up - This gripping and intense prison drama heralded the true arrival of Jack O’Connell before his more high profile turn in the much, much worse Unbroken. Comes alive when Rupert Friend’s psychiatrist drafts O’Connell into a prison support group. The whole film is a time bomb with the shortest of fuses, seconds away from exploding at all times.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? - Sion Sono’s madcap romp is chiefly concerned with two warring factions of the Yakuza and the young woman caught between them, as well as a renegade group of guerilla filmmakers called the F*ck Bombers who see their eventual confrontation as a cinematic opportunity. Also, a toothpaste jingle plays a foundational role in the plot. This movie is crazy.
Nymphomaniac - This is, as one would expect, the purest distillation of Lars von Trier, a four hour sexually explicit bildungsroman about a woman’s battle (if you can call it that) with sexual addiction. There is a legitimate movie at the center of this beyond all the standard von Trier shock value, as evidenced by the wonderful conversational framing device with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard. It is absolutely not for everyone, but there is something special for those who can find its wavelength.
Venus in Fur - Polanski’s second stage adaptation running is a huge improvement over Carnage. The two-person one scene film is a crackling, provocative war of words and battle of the sexes, featuring a wonderful performance from Emmanuelle Seigner and strong support by Mathieu Amalric. The twisty screenplay is a delight, and plays out as a tense, taut joy.
The Guest - Adam Wingard’s follow-up to the middling but at times exciting You’re Next is a huge step up, a manic ball of energy that takes the best aspects of the slasher movies and big spectacle action flicks that rose to prominence in the 80’s. Built around a fantastically charismatic lead turn from Dan Stevens, The Guest is a Sam Raimi-esque throwback hoot.
15. Force Majeure (Directed by Ruben Östlund)
This Swedish import has made waves on the festival circuit and has an inside track on getting a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars (or not…). The tale of a family vacationing in the French Alps only to have their relationships strained by an impromptu moment of cowardice is humorous as often as it is awkward and uncomfortable. It also has quite a bit to say (both positively and negatively) about the role of the male in the modern family unit and the pressures therein. Johannes Kunke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are wonderful as the leads, and they’re bolstered by Kristofer Hivju’s strong support. Östlund does good by the technical aspects as well; the harsh white of the snow contrasts well with the throwback 70’s style of the resort. The sparse music is used well, and the sound design is well implemented. With a great ending that makes for a sly commentary on gender politics, Force Majeure is not to be slept on, regardless of what the Academy may believe.
14. The Trip to Italy (Directed by Michael Winterbottom)
Both the funniest and arguably the most depressing comedy of the year, Winterbottom’s sequel to The Trip takes its central premise (two comedians who only vaguely like each other go on a tour of restaurants and write an article about the experience) and expands on it, transplanting Coogan and Brydon from the United Kingdom to the Italian countryside as they trace the movements of Shelley and Byron and have some good meals along the way. The Trip to Italy is funny, often riotously so, but its true value and staying power comes from those in-between moments as Coogan and Brydon contemplate their mortality, their celebrity and the importance of family. The simple pleasures of more impressions or the two men driving down a twisty Italian road in a convertible singing along to Alanis Morissette engage, but it’s the shot of Brydon, alone in a hotel room, the shot of Coogan looking wistfully out to the sea that make it last.
13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour)
This assured and confident independent feature is an audacious meld of styles and influences, an Iranian film shot in California, a vampire film that’s also a Western with an undeniable Jarmusch-ian flair, a feminist manifesto and genre picture. With this many balls to juggle over the course of its 100 minutes, the degree of difficulty was high, but in practice the film never feels like it takes a false step. It has elements of David Lynch and Let the Right One In, as well as beautiful, stark black-and-white cinematography that bolsters the story of the unlikely romance between a local boy on the brink of poverty and a vampire with a distinctly feminist streak in her choice of prey. It is a lovely film, and one that hits the perfect mix of feeling new and fresh through its reliance on retro fashion and music. Bad City, the town of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is a wholly new creation, and one that heralds the emergence of a director to watch in the future.
12. Edge of Tomorrow (Directed by Doug Liman)
The biggest blockbuster surprise of 2014, Doug Liman’s Tom Cruise vehicle based on the hilariously (and terribly) named novel All You Need is Kill could have easily been a ponderous bore like Cruise’s last major sci-fi flick Oblivion, but a deeply satisfying and clever script from Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth combined with a real sense of mirth made it into something special. The extended second act, which amounts to essentially one giant training montage that plays out over dozens of Tom Cruise deaths, is among the year’s very best, replete with snappy editing and comedic smash cuts. It also reaps the benefits of subverting the expectations of a Tom Cruise role; he starts the film as an unrepentant coward and must grow into the hero we all expect from Cruise, playing off the strong and satisfying lead female performance from Emily Blunt. Edge of Tomorrow was well-received by critics (clearly like myself), but its overly serious trailers did not translate to a strong box office. This is the sort of film that could have long term wheels and should. It deserves an audience.
11. The Double (Directed by Richard Ayoade)
Comedian and The IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade’s second feature, The Double, is a wonderfully twisted little comedy adaptation of the Dostoevsky novella featuring an excellent twin performance from Jesse Eisenberg, playing both the most stereotypical Jesse Eisenberg part possible as well as his exact opposite in the same film. The confident, free-wheeling Eisenberg is a side of him we’ve never really seen that he pulls off with aplomb, and Ayoade designs the film with a pointedly Gilliam-esque flair and some good old fashioned Hitchcock paranoia. Borrowing that sense of bureaucratic dystopia from Brazil, Ayoade also finds inspiration from David Lynch’s Eraserhead and adds a bit of Rear Window to taste. The Double is a clever and strange little movie, one with a lot to offer in terms of production design and performance (not just from Eisenberg, but also Mia Wasikowska and Wallace Shawn). One of a couple movies on this list currently streaming on Netflix, this is more than worth its time.
10. CitizenFour (Directed by Laura Poitras)
The most powerful documentary of 2014, Laura Poitras’ portrait of Edward Snowden benefits from the most direct of access. Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald were contacted by Snowden to both document and vet his NSA leaks from the summer of 2013. The central hour of the film, consisting of Greenwald, Poitras and Snowden sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong as the leaks break to the press are gripping, not just for the enormity of getting a moment so historical on film as it happened, but also for the way it captures Snowden the man divorced from the bluster of his revelations. They lucked out, as he is an engaging and gregarious screen presence, exceedingly well spoken and photogenic. This is a documentary by way of Enemy of the State, a paranoid thriller and governmental conspiracy film made all the more relevant by virtue of the fact that it actually happened.
9. Listen Up Philip (Directed by Alex Ross Perry)
The caustic and biting Listen Up Philip is the bastard child of Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, the New York literary elite taken to its heady extreme. Director Alex Ross Perry has created a two-headed dragon of misanthropy in Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce, two unrepentant cads who are more than perfect for each other. It is at times difficult to figure out exactly why we want to watch movies like this, ones with nary a sympathetic lead to be found (and barely any sympathetic characters at all, really), but Listen Up Philip fights for its existence by finding some way to instill charm and wit in the way these awful human beings act and react to the world around them, as well as giving each a strong female foil (Elisabeth Moss as Schwartzman’s girlfriend and Krysten Ritter as Pryce’s daughter) who is usually much easier to swallow. The cast is uniformly wonderful, with Moss an especial highlight, and it manages to constantly entertain in a dry, acerbic fashion.
8. Only Lovers Left Alive (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
Whereas A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a vampire movie with heavily influence from Jim Jarmusch, this is a vampire movie directed by Jim Jarmusch. He approaches the genre in a way only he could, casting Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston (who, let’s face it, are probably actually vampires) as the original hipsters, the ultimate distillation of “I knew it before it was cool” because they were alive for the majority of pop culture. Only Lovers Left Alive is a stately, operatic affair set in opulent Tangier and decaying Detroit, an ode to love persevering over centuries and oceans. Jarmusch is the king of detached cool, and nothing screams cool more than Swinton and Hiddleston in their sunglasses absentmindedly lounging in the back of a dingy Detroit club as some unknown band drones on in the background. With a great soundtrack and excellent performances, Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s strongest film since the 90’s.
7. Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)
Released to the rest of the world in 2013 but hitting stateside last year, Bong Joon-ho’s wild dystopian epic narrowly avoided a heavy-handed cut from the Weinsteins (think The Grandmaster, the original cut of which is still not available in the States) to emerge unscathed into theaters in the summer. Bong is a singular and strange director, one more than willing to cut through the tension of his most serious scenes with an explosion of slapstick, and that same sort of manic energy is at play in Snowpiercer. Set on an endlessly running train circumnavigating an Earth engulfed by a new ice age brought on by an attempt to combat climate change, it follows Chris Evans’ ragtag bunch of revolutionaries as they fight their way from one end of the train to the other. Snowpiercer is another film that finds its inspiration from Terry Gilliam (so much so that John Hurt’s character is named Gilliam), utilizing his same sense for contrast and explosions of color in the middle of grime. It kicks itself up another notch in its second half as they reach the more affluent cars. Snowpiercer is yet another in a long line of “not for everyone, but perfect for some” films, and I fall thoroughly into the latter category.
6. Two Days, One Night (Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Few movies feel as of its time as the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, a movie whose tension relies on existing in a post-financial collapse world where the shrinking of the middle class has put families into the position of clawing by paycheck to paycheck. There is a cruelty at the center of the film, one inflicted on Marion Cotillard’s Sandra who, upon preparing her return to work from an extended break spent fighting clinical depression, discovers she has been fired, but has one week to convince her coworkers to allow her to stay and give up a substantial bonus in the process. It is difficult watching a woman, crippled by fear and anxiety and the prospect of tumbling away from their middle class lifestyle into destitution, forced to undergo this trial, a harrowingly personal and emotionally fraught ordeal. Cotillard is the glue that holds everything together, giving a performance that is among the year’s very best.
5. Selma (Directed by Ava Duvernay)
In some ways the spiritual successor to Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, Ava Duvernay’s Selma takes a look at the organization and execution of the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr (as played masterfully by David Oyelowo). This is a film about procedure more than it is a film about King, focused solely on the machinations of the protests that may be spearheaded by King, but casts a wide net of pastors, and support groups, as well as an equally wide net of antagonists and agitators. Selma works so well in part due to its general disinterest in kowtowing to standard biopic cliches, focusing instead on its people as people instead of people as monuments to their own eventual legacy. The central Bloody Sunday sequence is shot like a horror film, and feels devastatingly real.
4. Ida (Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)
The moody, assured Ida is a gorgeous film, almost certainly the most gorgeous of the year in its own way, resplendent in its black-and-white cinematography and Academy ratio. Much has been made (by me) about the film’s unorthodox staging and shot composition, but Ida is not just visually spellbinding. Its story is deep and satisfying, a powerful look at family secrets and the rot that can spread from them the longer they spend in the shadows. Both of the Agatas who are at the center of Ida, lead Agata Trzebuchowksa and support Agata Kulesza, offer two sides of the same coin, chaste versus uninhibited, that push and pull between relatives who seem both entirely alien to each other and at the same time clearly of the same blood. They make the perfect pair for what eventually evolves into its own sort of coming-of-age road trip movie, one that has tragic implications once it reaches its final act. Ida is a solemn, dignified and austere film, but it is also one that is not afraid to let its hair out of its bonnet from time to time. You won’t find a film more beautiful released last year, and would be hard pressed to find one more resonant.
3. Whiplash (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
The propulsive, taut and tense Whiplash is only the second feature from writer/director Damien Chazelle, but it doesn’t feel that way. The war of minds between Miles Teller’s up-and-coming jazz drummer and JK Simmons’ demonic, sadistic bandleader is perhaps the most adrenaline-soaked film of the year. Sure, there are big time action spectacles with their wars between armies and their explosions, but they pale in comparison to Simmons, sinewy and clad in black, lording over his studio band with misplaced malice behind his eyes. Fletcher tells Andrew late in the film that the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” Whiplash will make you believe that the most frightening words are “not quite my tempo.” Thrillingly acted, dazzlingly shot and immaculately edited, the film shows the true potential of the cinematic form to dazzle and excite, even when it hardly amounts to more than two people and a drum set in a room. Whiplash is the distillation of drumming: syncopated, violent and surprisingly bloody. It is the movie drumming as an art form deserves.
2. Boyhood (Directed by Richard Linklater)
It’s always a nice feeling when your most anticipated film of the year manages to live up to its expectations. I had first heard about the project that became Boyhood many years back, probably around 2008 or so, and at the time I hadn’t fully fallen in love with Richard Linklater yet. The change for me came with finally taking the time to watch the Before trilogy, culminating with last year’s phenomenal Before Midnight. I didn’t see a single frame of footage for Boyhood before stepping into the theater in downtown Boston in July, to the extent that I shut my eyes and plugged my ears when trailers would play at other films I attended. Boyhood is a cinematic achievement unlike any other, not just because of its 12-year filming schedule that allowed its cast to age in real time, but for how Linklater went about telling the story itself. This is a film that is undeniably, gleefully of its time (well, its times), constantly referencing songs and technology of its time. It dates itself aggressively, and in so doing operates on a sort of outlaw charm, doing the things that coming-of-age stories always try to avoid. Linklater skips the truly important bits. We don’t see Ellar Coltrane’s first kiss. We don’t see him graduate from high school. Boyhood defines itself through the in-between moments, crafting a compelling life out of the mundane. Linklater has created a singular vision with this film.
1. Under the Skin (Directed by Jonathan Glazer)
The battle between Glazer and Linklater for the top spot this year was an ugly one, violent and compelling, but after months of consideration and much gnashing of teeth, I had to go with Glazer’s moody, assured Kubrickian science fiction masterpiece in the end. The (loosely) adapted tale from writers Glazer and Walter Campbell follows Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien masquerading as a female in the Scottish countryside as she stalks her prey from a nondescript van. The beauty of Under the Skin lies in its unconventionality: the bewildering opening sequence feels like the balletic movement of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mica Levi’s score is certainly among the year’s very best (regardless of what The Academy may think), the use of untrained people unaware they were being filmed builds the verisimilitude, and Daniel Landin’s icy, deliberate cinematography creates an inhuman distance that reinforces its all-encompassing sense of looking at the Earth as something that is not a home. It is a film about predators and prey, one that shifts the locus of this power dynamic at its halfway point in such a wonderfully subtle way that it’s already been turned on its head before you become completely aware it has happened. The final sequences of Under the Skin are moments of both exquisite beauty and unimaginable horror, a testament to the depths mankind will reach when faced with the unknown. Under the Skin is a phenomenally bizarre masterpiece, one that unsettles and unnerves as it spins its tale, never giving in to genre conventions or the expectations of modern cinematic form. You won’t find a movie released last year quite like this one.
So there we have it. The final countdown, as it were. There was a lot of good in 2014 when it comes to film releases, from over-performing blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Edge of Tomorrow, to surprisingly effective biopics like Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything or Selma. It wasn’t all that perfect, with the heretofore dependable Hunger Games franchise slipping as it entered its final turn, and some of the high profile awards show contenders like Birdman and The Imitation Game falling flat. But above all of that, this was the year of Whiplash, the year of Boyhood and Under the Skin. For those three films alone, this year would be considered worthy. But hopefully this last week of articles has made it clear that there was plenty to like, no matter your personal tastes.
Stay tuned next week for a few final 2014 reviews of A Most Violent Year and American Sniper, as well as my first look at a 2015 release with Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy. Onward and upward in 2015.