December 28, 2014

The Year in Review: 2014

What cinematic achievements of 2014 will be seared in our memories for years to come? Probably the fact that it was the year of a new Star Wars movie trailer (one for a film that admittedly looks like an improvement over the last three movies) and the fact that it was the year Sony caved in to the demands of hackers but then quickly backtracked and released their little piece of comic effigy, The Interview. And, maybe, 2014 will be remembered as the year that Richard Linklater finished a daring new project, Boyhood, which took 12 years to film. 

I used to feel sad that there were so many bad movies being made in my lifetime, but now I'm more optimistic. I'm ecstatic when a really good movie gets made, and I'm particularly amazed when a big studio release actually manages to be entertaining, or somehow miraculously elicits a strong or funny or otherwise memorable performance. 

The hardest task in writing this post was figuring out where to put Jonathan Glazer's hypnotic Under the Skin, which was so strange and beautifully made. In it, Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who lures men into her lair and then does unspeakable things to them. But this is just one layer of a movie that receives my 2nd "What the Hell" Award. (In 2012, I was so stunned and taken aback by the Leos Carax film Holy Motors that I gave the movie its own special—albeit ambiguous—acknowledgement.) Under the Skin will confuse you, possibly even frustrate you, but it is without a doubt the most unique movie of the year, and yet another reason to laud the career of Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t know if 2014 was a good year or a bad year for movies. Since there are hundreds and hundreds of movies being released these days, the fact that I saw only about 50 of them means that my sampling is far from complete. But there were lots of movies to recommend this year, and the ones on this list remind me of the possibilities of movies and the sheer diversity of the stuff being made today. Granted, much of that diversity comes from the independent film world. But there were even major studio releases that surprised, or films directed by people who have worked inside the studio system that broke through the routine safety that studio heads prefer. There were, of course, lots of reasons not to go to the movies as well. But as I take stock of the movie year, I'm hopeful. So, without further ado, here are my "ten" favorite movies of 2014:

10. I’m squeezing three comedies into my #10 slot: Jon Favreau’s Chef—The exuberant, ridiculously unrealistic but wonderfully charming and fun foodie road trip movie; Nick Cassavetes’s The Other Woman—The much-maligned First Wives Club-esque farce featuring Leslie Mann’s deliriously funny performance; it's the movie that made me laugh the most this year; And finally, Justin Simien’s Dear White People—A refreshing satire in the vein of Spike Lee (which I enjoyed a lot more than any Spike Lee film I’ve seen) about race in the ivy league. (The first two are available for rental on iTunes.) 

9. Whiplash—Damien Chazelle’s intensely exciting and fascinating study of a young musician who endures his teacher’s abuse because he’s obsessed with being great. It’s flawed, but it’s a hell of a movie. (In theaters now.)

8. The Drop—James Gandolfini’s fine, slick, cold performance is just one reason to recommend Michael Roskam’s The Drop, which was a tense, subtle, weird and exciting little thriller. (And Tom Hardy was great in it too.) (Available for rental on iTunes.)

7. John Wick—Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, both former stuntmen, have crafted perhaps the most beautiful action film I’ve ever seen. And it’s certainly one of the best-choreographed action movies in recent memory. Keanu Reeves, always at his best when his performance is based on his physicality rather than his speaking, is terrific and commanding, and the movie is an elegant, at times garish concoction of cinematic depravity. (Possibly still in your theater.)

6. Wild—Reese Witherspoon, playing writer Cheryl Strayed, wanders the Pacific Crest Trail while having flashbacks of her self-destructive life choices and her beloved mother, played by Laura Dern. A movie (adapted from Strayed’s memoir and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée) that lets you feel its wounds without becoming overly self-serious or indulgently pitying toward its protagonist. (In theaters now.)

5. Only Lovers Left Alive—It’s surprising to think that I would like a Jim Jarmusch film this much, but Only Lovers Left Alive is a delicious night owl of a movie about vampires, romance, Detroit, Tangier, literature, and rock ‘n’ roll. A hipster gothic to be sure, but so good. (Available for rental on iTunes.)

4. Gone Girl—Maliciously entertaining, pulpy trash, beautified by the direction of David Fincher and, from what I can tell, a vast improvement over the novel (adapted by the author herself, Gillian Flynn). It's yet another reason to like Ben Affleck again.

3. Boyhood—Richard Linklater makes a daring movie about everyday life, filmed over 12 years’ time with the same actors, and it’s stunning, beautiful, funny, interesting, honest, and important without demanding our unmitigated devotion. (Available on iTunes for purchase, but soon available for rental.)

2. Force Majeure—Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund offers up a beautiful, uncomfortable, funny, profound little movie about the unexpected events that take place during a family’s trip to the French Alps. See this one on a big screen, preferably right before you go on vacation.

1. The ImmigrantThe Immigrant taps into an enormous need in movies right now: the need for feeling. I was completely blown away by its emotional power and visual luster, not to mention the performances of Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. (And also, this one is streaming on Netflix.)

Honorable Mention

Dan Gilroy’s brilliantly sinister L.A. thriller Nightcrawler
Chris Rock’s terrific riff of a movie about race (among other things), Top Five
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s fascinating shutterbug documentary Finding Vivian Maier
Anton Corbijn’s slow-moving but tense, intriguing terrorist thriller A Most Wanted Man
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel
Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors
and Mark Waters’s underrated teen gothic-comedy-romance-fantasy-thriller Vampire Academy.

Favorite Performances:
Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner in The Immigrant
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli in Force Majeure
Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, and Kim Dickens in Gone Girl
Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern in Wild
Keanu Reeves in John Wick
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler
Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson in Top Five
Leslie Mann in The Other Woman
Rose Byrne and Zac Efron in Neighbors
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Jenny Slade and Gaby Hoffman in Obvious Child
Bill Murray and Bob Balaban in The Monuments Men

Favorite New-to-Me Movies:
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975)
Jack Reacher (2012)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Passion (2012)
The Right Stuff (1983)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Top Hat (1936) 

Movies I Still Need to See:

Inherent Vice
Maps to the Stars
A Most Violent Year
Still Alice


Anonymous said...

Great list! I'm excited to see all of these movies, so I'm bookmarking this. The only ones I've seen are the other woman, which I was surprised to enjoy, but then again I do almost always like Leslie Mann, Gone Girl, which I enjoyed very much though not as much as the book, which I was very surprised by, and the grand Budapest hotel, which I just unreservedly loved (I even bought the DVD). Thanks for this!!

pannedreview said...

The Grand Budapest Hotel was a surprise for me--because I have never enjoyed Wes Anderson's movies. But it was very good.

Unknown said...

I can't believe Snowpiercer did not make your top ten! The Budapest hotel was awesome.