I used to care about movies a lot more than TV growing up, because the small screen was so formulaic and predictable while the big one had all the memorable, high-quality stuff. That equation’s pretty much flipped 180 degrees in recent years, but 2014 went a long way towards restoring my faith in the power of cinema with more films I flat-out loved than any year in recent memory.
WILD CARDS (potentially list-worthy 2014 movies as yet unseen by moi): Guardians of the Galaxy*, Inherent Vice, Life Itself, Selma, The Skeleton Twins, We Are The Best!, Whiplash
1. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE
Are creative visions worth fighting for? To be honest, it’s a fairly unpopular sentiment. Artists in all fields — from painters, sculptors, and musicians to actors, writers, and filmmakers — spend their lives battling internal and external voices challenging the worth of what they do. After all, why should anyone waste valuable time and money on a bunch of made-up stuff from another person’s imagination? That’s just one of the vital questions at the heart of Frank Pavich’s fascinating, inspiring documentary about the iconoclastic Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky and his impossible dream of creating an epic motion picture that would literally “change the world”. The project, a phantasmagorical adaptation of Frank Hebert’s sci-fi epic Dune, brought together a fascinating who’s who of mad geniuses including Pink Floyd, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali (“as the mad emperor of the galaxy”), while Jodorowsky’s ideas and the work of his collaborators H.R. Giger (Alien), Dan O’Bannon (Star Wars), and the French comic master Mœbius continue to influence the look and style of pop culture to this day. Sadly and perhaps inevitably, Jodorowsky had to shelve his version of Dune (which ultimately became a bizarrely terrible David Lynch vehicle), yet Pavich captures the value of even the most unlikely attempts at expression right from the opening frames with the Viktor Frankl quote: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
The boundaries of art and commerce (as well as genius and madness) are further explored in this offbeat and ultimately moving tale of a troubled outsider musician hiding from the world (both onstage and off) beneath a giant paper-mâché head. And while that premise may sound unrelatable and dangerously twee, the story — based on gonzo journalist Jon Ronson’s experiences playing keyboards for a similarly be-masked lead singer — touches on timely questions of individual freedom and the definition of success in the selfie-aggrandizing social media age. For the troubled misfits of the defiantly experimental band Soronprfbs, music is a bond and a salve against the harsh realities of a world they can barely endure — until an ambitious new keyboardist attempts to make the band “popular” but instead winds up transforming them into a freak show. Even with his face obscured for most of the movie, Michael Fassbender’s an indelible presence as the title character, well matched by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as his fiercely protective bandmate, Clara. I love you all.
Speaking of ambition, experimental visions, and bold creative risks, acclaimed indie auteur Richard Linklater rolled the dice on a twelve-year cinematic gamble that paid off in spectacular fashion this year with the unprecedented coming-of-age story, Boyhood. After filming some opening scenes with six-year-old Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and his own real-life daughter Lorelei in 2002, Linklater reunited with his leads (and a sprawling supporting cast) every year or two for the next decade to chronicle the lives of the fractured, fictional Evans family. Coltrane and the others literally age before our eyes in specific, closely observed lives tested by universal experiences of love and loss against the backdrop of recent history. Linklater generally underplays both the central gimmick and the drama, resulting in a naturalistic rhythm that packs a cumulative punch of surprising emotional power.
The thematic and structural gimmicks of Birdman are far more conspicuous, given writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s decisions to cast erstwhile Batman Michael Keaton as the onetime star of a superhero franchise in a backstage drama seemingly filmed in one continuous take. But those elements actually suit the jittery, stream-of-consciousness surrealism of the project’s playful take on artifice and authenticity. We never quite know what’s meant to be real, just as Keaton’s has-been movie star Riggan Thomson constantly doubts his own motives, talent, and sanity as he sinks everything he’s got into a highfalutin Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Was Riggan a sell-out for starring in mindless popcorn movies in the first place or an idiot for not sticking with a lucrative Hollywood cash cow? Is his labor of love (or desperation?) an unexpected masterpiece or a pretentious failure? Was he a good or a bad father to his daughter (Emma Stone)? And can anyone ever really know the truth about themselves (or anything, really)? Maybe not, but I do know this is one of the most inventive, energetic, and funniest movies about suicidal depression and existential despair ever made. (At least, I think so…for now…)
The premise is absurd: after a technological disaster freezes the Earth, the only surviving humans live in a brutal caste system aboard a supertrain forever circling the globe. But even before Tilda Swinton shows up in male drag as a grotesque ruling class ideologue, it’s clear Bong Joon-ho’s “Anything Can Happen Day” action dystopia is the kind of instant cult classic best enjoyed by hopping aboard and just going with it. As a ragtag band of oppressed Occupy Snowpiercer rebels from the back of the train fight their way forward, car by car, to the luxurious environs of the one percent, the whole cockamamie contraption’s literally and figuratively on the verge of flying off the rails at every turn — and that wild energy’s exactly what makes Joon-ho’s goofy, stylish adaptation of Jacques Lob’s graphic novel such an enjoyably unpredictable ride.
6. EDGE OF TOMORROW (a.k.a. LIVE DIE REPEAT)
A generic marketing campaign (and title) downplayed the clever premise and plotting of this surprisingly funny Tom Cruise vehicle, dooming it to lukewarm box office numbers. But director Doug Liman’s science fiction take on Groundhog Day is worth a look even for those who can’t stand Cruise (if only for the pleasure of seeing his character killed again and again over the course of the film’s running time). And, no, the fact that he dies (like, a lot) isn’t a spoiler, since Edge of Tomorrow‘s story hinges on a catastrophic alien invasion repeating endlessly thanks to a rift in the space/time continuum. Like Source Code before it, Liman’s film merges the “play ’til you get it right” video game aesthetic with the arcade-style suspense of a player rapidly running out of quarters.
7. GONE GIRL
No, I didn’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel before viewing David Fincher’s slick, slippery, refreshingly cynical adaptation — meaning that my enjoyment of the film involved encountering the source material’s juicy narrative machinations fresh in the theater. For those unfamiliar with either version of the story, I’ll only say Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck play a married couple living in Missouri…and then, at a certain point, the girl is gone. It’s also no spoiler to say the supporting players (including Tyler “Madea” Perry, Kim “Joanie Stubbs” Dickens, and a very un-Doogie Neil Patrick Harris) are top notch, and the media satire is spot on (despite some critics’ gripes that it’s somehow possible to go over-the-top with mocking depictions of Nancy Grace and the odious cable news outrage machine she represents). But it’s Flynn’s acid burn assessment of Cool Girls and the men they wind up with that really leaves a mark.
8. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Since we’re seemingly stuck with the big budget superhero genre for the foreseeable future, it’s at least reassuring to know that every now and then even superhero sequels can be as clever and well-crafted as The Winter Soldier. For one thing, this follow-up to The First Avenger tempers the CGI overload plaguing most current blockbusters, resulting in memorable meat space set pieces like an instant classic Hollywood car chase and a John Woo-style ten-on-one elevator melee. The old school action (as well as the gravitas of Robert Redford’s supporting role) is a deliberate nod to 1970s conspiracy thrillers — and while Joe and Anthony Russo’s film doesn’t exactly dig all that deeply into the nuances of its post-Snowden indictment of government surveillance run amok, it’s also nice to see a billion dollar franchise with a bit more on its mind than just rock’em sock’em robots.
8.5 *GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
NOTE: By a weird quirk of timing, I finally wound up watching Guardians of the Galaxy just hours after posting my Top Ten and, well…y’know how I said it’s reassuring to see a well-made blockbuster with a bit on its mind? Well, turns out it’s also nice to see a warm-hearted blockbuster with a great ’70s soundtrack, a goofy sense of humor, and a Groot. So, let’s call the #8 spot a tie and move on to…
9. OBVIOUS CHILD
According to NBC.com, roughly one third of adult women in America have had what Jonah Hill coyly referred to as a “shmashmortion in the unwanted pregnancy comedy Knocked Up, though the actual procedure is rarely depicted in movies or TV. But struggling stand-up comic Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) not only says the real word but does the actual deed in a quietly brave indie rom-com written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. SNL alum Slate has never been more charming on screen, though it’s the treatment of her character’s predicament that’s groundbreaking (and long overdue). Abortion’s hardly a laughing matter, but in theme and content, Obvious Child clearly suggests that it’s much healthier to be clear-eyed and truthful about the issue than it is to keep shrouding it in shame and shadow.
10. LIFE ON THE V: THE STORY OF V66
For my #10 spot, I’m going with nostalgia over comfort food — because, while I appreciated The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Trip to Italy as much as anything else on this list, they were both essentially extra helpings of films by Wes Anderson and the Winterbottom/Coogan/Brydon troika I’ve previously enjoyed in slightly different configurations. Even with far lower production values, meanwhile, Life on the V was more of a once-in-a-lifetime movie-going experience, since Eric Green’s grainy, analog rockumentary chronicles the rise and fall of a Boston music video station that only a handful of lucky Gen-Xers (who happened to live in the city at exactly the right time) are likely to remember. Yet whether your memories of the ‘80s are as faded as an old Del Fuegos concert T or you weren’t even born during the height of New Wave, Green’s labor of love brings the decade back to life with a fizzy mix of music, clips and interviews, deftly rewinding us back to a simpler time before internet killed the video star.
Honorable Mention: Tomorrow Night, No No: A Dockumentary, Neighbors, Last Hijack, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Raid 2, A Most Wanted Man, The Trip to Italy, Love Is Strange, Pride, Dear White People, To Be Takei, Foxcatcher
Memorable Moments/Performances of 2014: The ice cream tub in Tomorrow Night, Jon Favreau’s meltdown and that mouthwatering grilled cheese sandwich in Chef, the birthday gun in Boyhood, the axe scene in Creep, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s haunting rendition of “Lighthouse Keeper” in Frank, the hammer girl in The Raid 2, gorillas on horses (!!!) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the grim undertow of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wheezing, world-weary performance in A Most Wanted Man, The Trip to Italy‘s Michael Caine rematch, the lovely duet of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love Is Strange, the final parade in Pride, Edward Norton stealing all his scenes in Birdman, Tessa Thompson’s take on the term African American in Dear White People, Foxcatcher‘s ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist, Jerry Seinfeld’s cameo in Top Five
Best Short Film of the Year: “Rat Pack Rat”
At just over 18 minutes, writer Todd Rohal’s tale of a Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator (Eddie Rouse) was easily one of the most memorable (and bizarre) films of 2014. Warning: not safe for work (and definitely don’t watch it while you’re eating).
Worst Film of the Year: Let’s Go to the Rat
Like Life on the V, Let’s Go to the Rat has a very limited scope: i.e., the rise and fall of a dearly departed punk rock nightclub in Boston’s Kenmore Square. But unlike my #10 film, Andrew Szava-Kovats’ lazy documentary barely scratches the surface of his potentially interesting topic. During a screening at the Brattle in Harvard Square, the director actually yelled at audience members who questioned why his film only featured a handful of performance clips and interviews from a mere handful of musicians and former patrons, grousing that he reached out to hundreds of people but only a few agreed to appear on camera. Fair enough: indie filmmaking is hard. But then why not make an interesting short film as opposed to a boring, repetitive feature? And lapses like the failure to include at least a quick ironic shot of the luxury hotel now ensconced where the defiantly grungy club used to stand is symptomatic of the project’s overall lack of focus and imagination.
Most Disappointing: The Monuments Men
Dear George Clooney: we know you’re handsome and charming, and apparently it’s a lot of fun to be in one of your movies. But next time, maybe do a second draft of your screenplay before calling the Bill Murray hotline.