From intergalactic journeys to save the world to intimate portraits of a child growing up (often in the same film), 2014 has been a hell of a year for movies. Lament the saturation of CGI-laden franchises, reboots and superhero films all you like, but some fantastic, revelatory works of cinema came out this last year – even some of those comic book movies you’re so worried about. What’s more, the arthouse got a real workout as well, with some films that will stick in my craw for years to come. Here are the films I happened to see and really love this year, (paired with another great 2014 film that didn’t quite make the list, but is well worth checking out).
10) The Guest
Adam Wingard already made a great impression on me with last year’s subtly subversive horror film You’re Next, but The Guest blows even its marginal successes out of the water with a killer sense of fun. A pulpy, cathartic thriller that’s dripping with 80s throwback style (including a Drive-esque synthpop score as its undercurrent), The Guest stars Dan Stevens as a mysterious Iraq war vet who drops in on his dead war buddy’s family to visit and reminisce. However, beneath his disturbingly pleasant veneer and ruggedly handsome face lies a desperate, supernaturally deadly killer. The plot’s no great shakes, but Stevens turns in a captivating performance as the intriguingly impenetrable title character, and the film’s pacing and dark sense of humor are just so damn great. You’ll never laugh harder at a scene involving hand grenades and a diner in a film this year or any other.
Pair With: Blue Ruin – for another gritty, 80s-inspired revenge thriller, this time with a killer who is startlingly vulnerable and woefully unprepared for the dark deeds he must do.
Christopher Nolan’s become a divisive filmmaker of late, especially after everyone figured out his tricks (Hans Zimmer? Check. Dreamlike editing? Check. A sense of lofty humorlessness and cold, alienating filmmaking style? Check and check!). His contemplative, self-serious sci-fi epic Interstellar certainly doesn’t match up to its own lofty comparisons to 2001 and other science fiction classics; that being said, it’s still a work of tremendous ambition and heart, with staggering visuals, a powerful Hans Zimmer score, and a commitment to its thematic core over plot minutiae that I personally admire. Yes, it’s got a treacly ‘love conquers all’ ending, but it feels incredibly fitting to the surprisingly simple and emotional story Nolan’s trying to tell. McConaughey and the rest of the cast are convincing in their roles, and the production design (including the robots TARS and CASE) are topnotch, creating a world of great texture and import. There are movies not on this list that maybe technically work better as films, but the overall affect of Interstellar, with its unending optimism and willingness to (wait for it) shoot for the stars, cannot be ignored.
Pair With: Guardians of the Galaxy – for the fun side of intergalactic travel, complete with an eminently watchable cast of misfits, a kickin’ classic-rock soundtrack, and Marvel’s most eclectic sense of charm yet.
Starting with a confession booth threat by a mysterious man threatening to kill a priest (Brendan Gleeson) seven days hence, Calvary only grows more intriguing and deeply introspective from there. Director John Michael McDonagh takes a bit of gangster-film inspiration from his playwright/filmmaker brother Michael for Calvary, but uses this somewhat gimmicky premise to sit down with the citizenry of a sleepy Irish coastal town and find out what makes them tick. Gleeson is incredible as the realistically flawed and straightforward priest, dispensing sage wisdom and sneering condemnation in equal measure, and he is bolstered by a supporting cast of great Irish actors (Chris O’Dowd, Brendan Gleeson’s son Domhnall) who flesh out this operatic drama with aplomb. Don’t worry, though – there’s more than enough of the McDonagh brothers’ signature gallows humor to keep the proceedings from becoming too heady.
Pair With: Ida – for an equally haunting look at how the injustices of the world can affect even the strongest of faith (available on Netflix).
Michael Mann and Nicolas Winding Refn, among others, have already given us our fair share of neon-soaked neo-noirs set in LA, but given just how damn good Nightcrawler is, I’m willing to add Dan Gilroy to that list. Jake Gyllenhaal has been on quite a hot streak in the past few years, knocking out one great performance after another, but he certainly turns in his greatest transformation here as the gaunt, vampiric opportunist Louis Bloom. Bloom, with his sunken eyes and eerily computer-like tone of voice, is ambition personified – a manipulative, predatory bottom feeder who will do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals and climb the ladder of TV journalism. Nightcrawler shines as a character study, a mood piece, and a crime thriller, but perhaps its greatest victory is as a darkly comic satire of the lengths to which we are told to go to succeed in America.
Pair With: Enemy – for another Jake Gyllenhaal acting masterclass, this time as two halves of the same self who accidentally discover each other in a sickeningly yellow world of greed, jealousy and insecurity (available on Amazon Prime).
6) The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s films are always lauded (or decried) for their impenetrable, intricate doll-house nature, in which ornate settings and whimsical characters are given to us with a deadpan sense of comic timing. For better or worse, Anderson has chosen to hone his unique style to a laser focus with each successive film, and Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly the most wholehearted embrace of his own style. Yet, for all its quintessential coldness and emphasis on flat staging and bright storybook colors, Budapest manages to tell one of Anderson’s most intimate and human stories yet – the friendship between an impoverished lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and the effete but strong-willed Gustave H. (a career-high performance from Ralph Fiennes, mixing culture and vulgarity to great effect). It’s even got some great thematic nuggets in there about the romantic nature by which we view the past (as evidenced by the nested narrative of flashbacks and stories, with the outer layer being literally the Death of the Author), and the cold-hearted and ruthless nature of war. Anderson’s not for everybody, to be sure, but if you can stomach/appreciate/love his style, The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet another fine example of it. It’s thoroughly middle-of-the-road Anderson – but for me, that just means it’s only incredible.
Pair With: Force Majeure – for more hotel-based antics – here, a family grapples with the aftereffects of a small but significant moment of cowardice in a ritzy ski resort, surrounded by whirring machinery and voyeuristic staff.
Richard Linklater’s 12-year project, chronicling the filmed-in-real-time tale of young Mason (Ellar Contrane) as he grows up from the age of six to the age of eighteen, has seemingly received just as much praise as it has derision, particularly by critics who were lukewarm on it amongst everyone else’s ebullient praise, perhaps out of irritation. Still, for all the cries of its lack of style, the pretentious philosophical ramblings of teenage Mason (which is most certainly intentional – I mean, come on, who among us wasn’t an irritating, know-it-all twat who stuck his nose up at the world at 14?) and the overbearing whiteness of the whole affair (which is totally fair), Boyhood remains an incredible accomplishment. Its anti-style actually works greatly in its favor – it manages to accurately reflect the banalities of childhood, the fluid nature of memory, the flashes of recognition we have of cultural artifacts from a previous time, and our struggles to redefine our relationships with our parents and friends as we change and grow right along with them. Boyhood isn’t just about the boy in the title growing up, but Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette’s exasperated parents as well – Mason essentially becomes a window through which to see the vulnerabilities and flaws inherent to any parent, especially ones who are divorced but maintain an amiable relationship for their children. From start to finish, Boyhood is a deeply heartfelt, innocent look at how it takes a village to raise a child, and the gradual need for the child to take on those responsibilities himself.
Pair With: Wild – where Boyhood has a boy growing up and becoming his own man, this movie offers a contrasting journey of an adult trying to reconnect with the memory of her dead mother over the course of a 1000-mile hike.
4) The LEGO Movie
We’ve covered The LEGO Movie extensively here, both in Fresh Pour form and in an actual episode, so we won’t go on as much about it here. Still, The LEGO Movie remains one of the greatest early surprises of 2014, and proof that you can actually transcend the trappings of a corporate toy commercial to actually comment upon the nature of play as a concept, and how we relate to others through it. On top of that, the film’s rapid-fire comic timing and boundless, infectious energy allows for plenty of time for digs at Hollywood action films, comic book franchises, celebrity culture, and a host of other on-point gags.
Pair With: 22 Jump Street – for more of Lord and Miller at their best, offering the other half of a surprisingly hilarious and pointed satire of Hollywood, franchises, sequels and action movie tropes.
3) Gone Girl
David Fincher’s one of my favorite directors, with his slick, methodical direction and complete mastery of tone. Even though Fincher’s gotten into a disheartening streak of adapting airport-thriller bestsellers into mediocre movies (I’m looking at you, Dragon Tattoo), he avoids that with his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, turning that lascivious, tabloid luridness into a reflection on our obsession with that same sensationalism. Affleck is well-acquitted to his role as a hapless husband with far too many eyes on him, and former Bond girl Rosamund Pike finally turns in a star-making performance as the enigmatic, mercurial and deeply, secretly assertive Amy Dunne. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, quickly becoming Fincher’s house composers, underscore the crime-thriller novel elements with aplomb, and Flynn herself adapts her own novel with a cold theatricality that befits Fincher’s sense of exactitude. A deeply frustrating and thrilling film in the best ways, Gone Girl manages to expand the rote murder-mystery plot into greater discussions of the media, the psychology of marriage, and the strange things women are forced to do when they are systematically denied agency.
Pair With: The One I Love – for another dark, fractured love story about a couple struggling to define their relationship, bringing out both the best and worst of each other (available on Netflix).
2) Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch can often be a bit hit or miss with me, as he definitely has a few tics that he hammers home from time to time, and his homespun style can often grate. However, he really knocked it out of the part with the dark, strangely romantic and idiosyncratic Only Lovers Left Alive, about a long-lost pair of centuries-old vampire lovers who reunite in a decrepit, run-down modern Detroit. The film’s ambient, grungy soundtrack fits well with the attitude of the forlorn Adam (Tom Hiddleston), sitting around in darkness and obsessing over music and guitar models while he scoffs at the ‘zombies’ outside his apartment. It’s just as much a movie about the death of culture as it is the silliness of dwelling on the death of culture, as Adam is proven right and wrong with equal measure. Even in destruction and poverty, there can be beauty – from the simple wisdom of his lover Eve (an angelic Tilda Swinton) to the hypnotic pleasure of musical performance. It’s a hangout movie, but a damn good one, and one of the more unique movies to come out in 2014.
Pair With: Snowpiercer – for another fantastical turn from Tilda Swinton as an eccentric, Thatcher-esque taskmaster on a futuristic train that houses the rest of humanity after an apocalyptic ice age. (Both films also have John Hurt as dispensers of wisdom named after – or possibly as – famous artists of the past.)
1) Under the Skin
As much as I loved many of the films that came out in 2014, none actually made me jump in my seat in terror and abject fascination. Then, I saw a naked, motionless man floating in a mysterious black nothingness suddenly deflate, leaving only his skin to billow in the aether like a used condom in a pool. That deeply unsettling image is one of many in Jon Glazer’s hypnotic, hallucinogenic film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious, predatory alien who drives a van around Scotland, looking for men to lure into her trap to be harvested for some nefarious, unknown purpose.
The film is just as much about the ownership of women’s bodies as it is about an alien invasion – ScarJo’s blank face and slight, twitchy physicality are incredible to watch, as the men she encounters (many of them non-actors who were captured with hidden cameras) leer at her, make conversation, and eventually get sprung by the same trap they clearly wish to set for Scarlett. Accompanying that are scenes in which she studies her own relationship to humanity: trying to eat cake, being helped by people after falling on the sidewalk, and even trying to engage in human sexuality herself. These small behaviors are clearly central to the flawed, incredible, haunting nature of being human, and the frustration at not meeting these simple requirements for humanity gives ScarJo an incredible depth to convey with the simplest of gestures.
Despite the minimal dialogue and challenging pace, the film’s plot is shockingly straightforward and easy to follow, Glazer’s focus remaining on the power of image and mood to tell a story. Given how often people forget that film is a visual medium, not just a literary one, a film that emphasizes the former to this degree should be celebrated. Other films this year may come and go, but Under the Skin – and that man floating in the water – will stick with me for quite a long time.
Pair With: Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Lucy – for two other examples of ScarJo as a threatening, rogue force who struggles against humanity/society (or finds a way to transcend it altogether).
Keep a look out later this weekend, because 2014 wasn’t all roses – we’ve got our Bottom 10 of 2014 coming up soon!