Wow! 2014 was a really great year for movies! So many films this year were easy to love, with rich character studies that tackled unique situations. 2013 may have been more stylistically diverse, but 2014 finds many of our great directors at the very top of their game, creating complete and thoughtful movies that would be competitive in any year.
Perhaps the only real shame here is that we’re witnessing the co-opting and destruction of nerd culture. YA and comic fiction have become the money engines, fueling CGI spectacles that are aimed right at the middle of the road, common denominator, PG-13 cash piles. It’s nice that everyone got with the program – sci fi is awesome, superheroes are fun, and those things are even better when they have continuity and thematic through lines. But its still sad to see something like The Giver getting a mediocre, soon forgotten adaptation.
Even though sci-fi and fantasy have become a little strip mined over the decade, there was still plenty of room in 2014 for rich creative stories. In particular we saw a lot of films created by writer directors, with well-acted characters who found themselves in very sophisticated situations. The dramas, comedies, and thrillers below all homed in on the human element. Okay, maybe it was a little narcissistic this year, as nearly every great film below dug into the psyche for its juice. What the hell makes us tick? Hey, we’re interesting, okay? Get over it and enjoy the best films of 2014!
1. Birdman – Movie of the Year
Inarritu was never really on my radar before, but what a trajectory this guy has had. During the treacly hysterics of 21 Grams and Babel he demonstrated his understanding of emotion but never delved into the complexity of thought. He prefered his characters to be quiet cyphers, in an attempt to force profundity. Teaming up with Javier Bardem on the Oscar winning Biutiful marked a stylistic turning point. The characters in that film were much more guarded, discarding the stretches of vulnerable eye contact that almost became Inarritu’s signature. Biutiful also depended much more on internal dilemmas, the quiet distress of a man who must suffer and exploit in equal measures, rather than the externalized conflict setpieces of previous films. As promising as Buitiful was, it is still shocking that Inarritu seized the initiative and doubled down inside of one film, writing and directing the audaciously complex Birdman : Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
Birdman finds Michael Keaton playing a version of himself, a celebrity of super hero film lineage who has now decided to stake his remaining stock and cash on a stab at credibility in the world of the theatre. Adapting a novel from a childhood hero, Keaton needs everything to go right to show the world he has something to offer besides being a chiseled CGI enhanced phony. As you might expect, nearly everything goes wrong at some point in this high-wire comedy, usually because everyone is trying to control the situation at once. Birdman never cuts a shot; using the skill of Gravity’s cinematographer the camera simply floats between conversations and through time jumps, drifting to interesting things around the theatre and New York. What makes Birdman particularly interesting though is the dissonance between the perspective and the characters. It constantly undermines expectations about the characters. Does Keaton have a genuine artistic soul, or is this play a manifestation of his ego-mania? It’s nearly impossible to tell, and the more we learn about him the less we can be sure. The same is true even for side characters; his daughter seems at first to be an ingenue with some father issues, but she quickly blooms into someone who seems to represent the perils and pitfalls of youth. The central question revolves around the struggle between Riggan (Keaton) and the theatre bred Mike, played by Edward Norton, who joins the play at the last minute and threatens to upstage and undermine Riggan. We’ll drift about trying to understand these volatile men and women, as they squabble over who is the better artist. Meanwhile we’re trying to figure out why it matters so much. While this could created a cacophony of entitlement you might find in a lackadaisical indie film, Birdman instead pumps along with its jazz drum soundtrack, a tight and complex machine thats always heading somewhere.
At heart Inarritu seems to be wondering where great art comes from. We take certain things for granted; Coppola, Fitzgerald, Da Vinci. But these men all struggled and itinerated. What was the necessary juice to get their works over the finish line, to enshrine them in the pantheon? Birdman underscores the ambiguity of the origin of art, obscuring and ridiculing in equal parts the role the ego and the unconscious play in constructing something that is synergistically unique. Trapped in the twisting backstage world, Birdman explores these issues in a unique and satifying way, making it one of the strongest fictional treatises to come out this year. It’s funny, bold, and the overall best film of 2014.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Every film Wes Anderson makes seems uniquely his. Although he now has close to two decades of love letters from critics in his dresser, that kind of statement could double as an invective against the always irreverent and almost fatally hip helmer of Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums. Indeed, during Moonrise Kingdom he teetered dangerously close to cruising on hipster autopilot, giving his talented regulars almost nothing but kitsch to fill 90 minutes with. It was questionable whether Anderson still had room to grow, or whether he would calcify into a reliable comedy director with a spritz of Tang. It pleases me to say that the Grand Budapest Hotel is probably Anderson’s best film so far, a funny and poignant decade spanning adventure, which once again could only have been made by one man.
Wes Anderson’s hands are all over this thing, which he both wrote and directed. The central narrative follows the phenomenal Ralph Fiennes and his straightman bellboy protege Tony Revolori, as they keep the Grand Budapest running through intrigue both financial and political. The film starts with a series of nested framing stories which unfold like some great pop-up book, creating a fifty year epilogue before the film proper even begins. Once we’re settled in a bit, Fiennes and Revolori will begin racing through European setpieces like an Indiana Jones movie. New to Anderson but familiar to Dr. Jones, the tone is somewhere between grim and comical. Willem Defoe, in the role he was perhaps born to play, is fulfilling his leather-clad enforcer duties when he shuts a door on a man’s hand so hard the fingers fall to the ground, split off from the stem like sliced cheese. Defoe calmly collects and saves the digits in a handkerchief. It is darkly comic, like so much of the film, showing off spirited creativity in the midst of loss.
This Anderson-enhanced dichotomy makes it hard to know how to feel during the film, until all of the pieces are on the board. Fiennes character is fascinatingly resistant to characterization; he is a principled philanderer, a pacifist fascist, a scrappy wimp. Only after we’ve watched him over the hours does his duty at the Grand Budapest begin to make sense. Like the framing stories, the ideas of nostalgia, honor, and love begin to unwrap. Anderson’s bizarre flare colors the tale, with stop motion and scale models. He has created a very sophisticated and emotionally resonant film out of pieces and materials never before seen. The Grand Budapest Hotel is about as close to instant classic as you can get.
Snowpiercer is the only blockbuster on the list this year, and one of the only action films that tread new ground without the crutches of casting, continuity, or canon. Okay, sure, it has a deep cast including Chris Evans, but Bong hides him under a mudcaked proletariat disguise and then uses him like a lance to skewer every other character he’s played. Snowpiercer, forged from the graphic novel source by master smith Joon-ho Bong, is exactly the kind of intelligent and transgressive battlecry which justifies the big, explosion filled screen. In other films, Liam Neeson losing a relative hardly warrants a blink, but in Snowpiercer just crossing the threshold into a new traincar is an edge of the seat, nail biting experience. Credit where credit is due, the central concept, in which a single perpetually moving train holds the last of humanity, is a brilliant concoction of forced volatility and mystery. How the hell does life on this thing work? Snowpiercer shows you one car at a time, but that has to be earned. Don’t worry, not by you dear reader. Sit back and enjoy, but keep your brain on. The journey to the head of the train makes up one of the most visceral and rewarding movies ever made.
4. Winter Sleep
Sometimes it is embarrassing how good Europeans are at drama. Often times the American box office will provide the delightful choice between high strung melodrama or paint-drying slice of life. Most of our best dramatists lean heavily on comedy to keep the interest high, constructing flashy confrontations and plumbing new heights (depths?) of awkwardness inbetween more heartfelt moments. Winter Sleep, the new film from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’s auteur Nuri Ceylon, avoids these issues. It is rigorously constructed and yet forces nothing to happen. One climactic encounter, which takes nearly thirty minutes of the three hour running time, is nothing more than a brother and sister’s idle chatter slowly transforming into something more hostile. But make no mistake, you’re going to need the full run time if you want to understand Haluk Bilginer’s mountain hotel proprietor Aydin. Far from a simple bigot or despot, Aydin couches his manipulations and condescensions in pragmaticism and pliancy. A common refrain is “no one is making you stay, do what you want.” He rarely crosses the line into wrong territory in his solutions, he just make people overwhelmingly unhappy with his behavior, his need to be correct. The other two main characters, his sister and wife, have very different philosophies which the film also deflates. Beautifully shot in the isolated Turkish steps, Winter Sleep is a great exploration of the difficulty of bumping egos with even a single other person.
Yet another writer/director graces the list – a former actress out of Australia, Jennifer Kent has created a debut that is perhaps the most stylized film on the list save Anderson’s. Babadook concerns the titular monster haunting a single mother with a disturbing child, a thoroughbred horror film in its aural language and the antique loaded gloomy house where most of the film takes place. However, this is about as far from a James Wan imitation as you can get. Kent terrorizes peculiar Amelia, played by Essie Davis, stripping her soul of fears and wants and displaying them for the camera. Her love of her child is paired with her hatred at the loss he represents, and those feelings fuel the Babadook as it encroaches on their codependent lives. Even without the psychological element, Kent knows how to use vulnerability to make something scary instead of relying on pop outs and sonic shoves. This is really a classic horror film in addition to being an indie film, and is one of the most stylish and effective films of 2014.
The next two films are both acting showcases, the first of which displays the indomitable JK Simmons as a musical misanthrope control freak. Throughout Whiplash, your eyes are drawn to him as if watching a cobra in striking position. Unleashing venom is just one of the tools he uses to beat into shape his victims, members of a jazz band at a conservatory for aspiring musicians. He represents both the wall and the road to success, a connected and established teacher who promises to raise his students up at the same time he stomps on their faces. What makes this brute fascinating is that his effect on a young student, played by Miles Teller, is violence without action. He never touches or hurts anyone physically. Teller and the other students nearly destroy themselves weathering their teacher and trying to earn his respect, going so far as to draw blood, fight amongst each other and destroy personal ties. Simmons power over Teller lies completely in the realm of expectations. The question, which Whiplash leaves open to consideration, is whether going through the Simmon’s fire is really necessary for greatness.
Jake Gyllenhaal undergoes an amazing transformation for Nightcrawler. The affable mumbly kid who nearly disappears in dross like Prince of Persia reemerges as a cunning sociopath, a smarmy skeleton mocking his former self like some evil twin. He exudes a high energy desperation which powers the film as its amoral center. Gyllenhaal explores the world of late night carnage, collecting bloody footage for newscasts and quickly excelling in ethically dicey territory. Writer director David Goyer makes no bones about his opinion here, Nightcrawler is a condemnation of both the man and the society that rewards him for his behavior. But it’s also a terribly interesting look at how the world reacts to a man like this, squirming yet caught by the lure as his dark sunken eyes sit fixed. Rather than an empty showcase, Nightcrawler uses this career best performance to power its fascinating engine.
Many of the great films this year focused on creating complexity among characters in difficult situations, digging deeply into each character’s psyche to spark the rising and falling actions. Calvary instead is written as direct parable. Brendan Gleeson, the cheery priest of a little squat township somewhere, remains a cypher as he heads through the week towards the day when someone will try to murder him. Even though Gleeson knows who it is, he never tells us and the film doesn’t let on. This is one of many details that Calvary refuses to reveal, choosing to keep us at a distance. The baggage of the past doesn’t matter that much in Calvary, despite ostensibly creating the main conflict. Gleeson, his daughter, and the villagers are people outside of time, outside of their own lives. Throughout Calvary, the most important matter is the choices we make today and tomorrow. This lends all the more weight to Gleeson’s grappling with hostility and forgiveness. He doesn’t choose his path because of his faith, his friends, or past events that constructed a moral framework. He decides, in the moment, what is the right thing for him to do. McDonagh’s Calvary shows that you can find high drama in thoughtful philosophy rather than circumstance.
Linklater’s talk piece is a fine display of creative filmmaking. Filmed over twelve years with the same actors it literally charts the growth of the young boy Mason, from elementary school to college admission. Linklater succeeds in capturing the zeitgeist, both in the tribulations of maturing in an environment you basically have no control over, and in the way the era we grow up in affects our personalities. Boyhood doesn’t just focus on major life changes. Instead it is more about the feel of adolescence, like how information filters down imperfectly to children from society and their parents. Boyhood is also about those parents, who seem just as lost in the tumult they create. Linklater has crafted an entertaining imitation of life, focusing on inessential experiences that in retrospect help define that awkward inbetween period. Boyhood will add another ten years of adolescent memories to your brain, which whether you want them or not is a pretty unique accomplishment.
A gorgeous Polish film set several years after World War II, Ida deals with the fallout from the holocaust and communist occupation in a subtle manner. Eastern Europe has limped into the 60’s and is now more or less stable. On the eve of social revolution in the West, Ida is about to take her convent vows and has one last chance to learn about the family she never had, most of whom were lost in the war. What sets the film apart from other movies about past tragedies is her disinterest in this issue. Raised an orphan and then a nun, young Ida only learns she is Jewish upon meeting her only surviving relative, Aunt Wanda. They embark to find her parent’s grave. At the same time she is discovering her past she is also experiencing the modern world outside the convent for the first time. Her sanctimonious demeanor is impenetrable, she calmly awaits the dawn. In stark contrast, the modern, mature and collected Wanda is dragged into a breakdown she has avoided for two decades. Ida delves into the tension between these two women without screaming or violence; even the color scheme is muted to gorgeously shot black and white. The film focuses on victims, survivors, and perpetrators years after the fact, creating a damning portrayal of the way our choices define us even if we try to rationalize and forget them away.
Best of the Rest
Here are a few more great films from 2014 that just missed the cut.
The Trip to Italy – If ever there was a film that didn’t scream sequel it was The Trip, the surprisingly thoughtful day in the life improvisation session that tagged along with Coogan and Brydon around England. However, moving the caravan to picturesque Italy has actually improved the bizarre mix of drama and comedy, highlighting the ways in which we hope for the future on one hand and sabotage our lives and self esteem with the other. A sun dappled ocean dive as two adults talk about expectations makes for the best ending shot of the year.
X Men Days of Future Past – While the blockbusters of the world have had some trouble competing with the writer directors critically, they seem to be content settling for second prize (a billion dollars). Some of these totems to modern commerce weren’t that bad, including this revitalization of the X-Men timeline which proved that First Class wasn’t just a Vaughn led fluke and seems to have restarted ambition for the franchise. While the climax was a little muted, the realization of one of the comic’s best stories was whip smart and loaded with entertaining moments, and the grim Future timeline made it feel like there was really something on the line.
Frank – A hilarious look at the nature of genius, Frank is an able companion piece to Birdman and Whiplash. The main character is a hanger-on out of his depth played by Brendan Gleeson’s progeny Domnhall Gleeson. The artistic genius is the titular Frank, an Arcade Fire/Ariel Pink type bohemian indie rock frontman who lives and breathes musical possibility. Frank’s peculiarities are summed up in the giant head mask he wears at all times, completely hiding the man underneath. Gleeson’s romantic notions of a comfortable singer-songwriter lifestyle are dashed against the rocks as he tries to compete with Frank, revealing the gulf in both talent and emotional damage between them.
Two Days One Night – The Dardennes craft another touching bite of reality. Although it’s missing some of the kick of their previous work, Two Days One Night follows an excellent Marion Cotillard as she grapples with being fired shortly after returning to work from an absense caused by mental breakdown. Her boss, in an attempt to shift the moral responsibility for firing her, offers her a chance to stay on if a majority of the 15 or so people at the company will vote to return their 1000 Euro bonuses. Thus begins a form of torture for the shy, depressed Cotillard; she must go to her co-workers one by one and attempt to appeal to them, convince them her need is greater than theirs. The Dardennes smartly follow the implications of this journey, making Two Days One Night a tight and enjoyable moral film.
Guardians of the Galaxy – Although this movie certainly needs no help from me, I can’t help but recommend it just based on how enjoyable it was. James Gunn’s come from nowhere mega-success is the perfect arc-type for how blockbusters should be. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a space-fairing epic which scratches the itch left behind by the failures of Firefly and the Star Wars prequels. The perfect panacea to the influx of overly-dour pugilists in tights we’ve been seeing lately.
Well, that’s it for 2014, a great year in film, and 2015 is upon us. Let’s see what dreams may come.
Originally published on Synthetic Error February 20, 2015