It was a hard year. 365 days packed tight. There is no denying that the world spun around a little faster, but we held on or at least tried. Like years in the past, film took our temperature and delivered stories that found us where we needed them. These are ten that grabbed at me.
10. The One I Love
Film has always had a bad rap for the “more is better” ideals that pervade it. Fill the screen with as much buisness as possible, edit it to the quickest speed you can, and ramp up the drama. Maybe this is why films with minuscule casts and locations and a gingerly progressing pace can really stand out, especially at such a high caliber as The One I Love.
Staring only Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass for 95% of the film (Ted Danson shows up in a scene in the first act) this film falls on their shoulders and they shine as a couple whose marriage is on the rocks after an infidelity. But this isn’t the sort of mumble-core drama Duplass is known for, even if that aesthetic seems to match the genre. Things get weird quickly, turning this little indie into a modern day Twilight Zone thinker. That isn’t to suggest the film grows dark. In fact, the farther down the rabbit hole things go, the more you enjoy the proceedings.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy
Making a “fun” movie is a lost art. These days, far too often the plot or characters are either too serious or cynical to allow pure whimsy to come through, but Guardians of the Galaxy put the “pop” back in popcorn movie.
Headlined by the excellently goofy Chris Pratt, the film is the odd one out amongst comic book fare that’s been filling cinemas at a suffocating rate. Yes, its a Marvel movie. No, it’s not about super heroes. Yes, it has some overarching multi-film franchise lip service to perform. No, it doesn’t really care about it (as it literally says the Infinity Stone “has a Ark of the Covenant/Maltese Falcon vibe.”)
But, even while it’s perfectly okay with being the Marvel family equivalent of your fun uncle, it also greatly understands the need for true human moments, something rather amiss in others of the genre. It’s a bold step to start your film with a mother dying of cancer. It’s a brave moment to have a drunken rodent have a sober realization that he never asked to be who he is. It’s an incredible event when you get this cynic to tear up as a tree-man states “We are Groot” and makes a sacrifice. Like its titular ragtag team, this film has more going for it then what’s at facevalue.
Beyond all the other films on this list, Interstellar has scope. Pushing past the confines of space, time, and dimension, it desires to twist your brain like a wet rag and then shake it out a few times. While this can certainly lead to over explanation by the film and over analysis by the viewer, the story remains, for the most part, focused on two things — the need for survival and the desire to explore.
It is these two factors that the film consistently explores, though the scenario is ever changing. Is finding out the unknown worth having everything you love age rapidly in front of you? If you’re the only human being for lightyears, do you wait for help though it most likely won’t arrive?
It’s rare for a big movie to also have big ideas, but Interstellar succeeds on engaging its audience and inspiring awe and fear for the inky blackness that hangs above us.
7. Get On Up
The life of James Brown was as spirited and soulful as any song he ever sung. He was a man who could shoot a pulse of blues right through the funk and that’s because is life was both in equal parts. An abandoned boy brought up in a whore house, Brown sung his way up the mountain, negating those who helped him to the sidelines. Sinatra be damned — it was Brown who “did it his way.”
Director Tate Taylor created a film that went farther than just the typical biopic. This thing bobs and weaves to the music, dishing out moments of Brown’s life out of order and allowing the man himself to host the proceedings, dropping knowledge right on the audience with a wink and a smile. And that smile belongs to Chadwick Boseman, playing an uncanny Brown. He exudes everything about the man, from his goofy swagger to his ferocity and it is a delight.
But this isn’t a polished-up version of the Godfather of Soul’s life. It allows his dark side out, but wisely never lets it overtake the big picture, playing the moments to support the whole. When Brown throws his wife across the room, he flashes a glance to the camera only to look away ashamed and, for the first time, say nothing. He’s hosting this film, but that doesn’t mean he exactly enjoys you seeing everything. It is in these moments that the showman melts away and you see the ferocious tiger of a man, who had no bootstraps to pull himself up with, but did so anyway by downright talent and willpower.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is far too often vilified for never straying far from his house style, but The Grand Budapest Hotel both enhances and expands on what makes him so recognizable and forms a great dichotomy of tone. On one hand you have his most vulgar and violent work to date. On the other, a quirky mix of aspect ratios, stop motion animation, miniature sets, and luscious time periods. It’s a weird yet enticing mix.
Also per Anderson style, the cast is all excellent, ranging from newcomers like Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham to staples, such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. But the film belongs to Ralph Fiennes, who brings both a paternal quality and a cheeky set of morals to Gustave H. — the head concierge of the hotel. It is in him that the film’s tonal relationship is embodied and, without a doubt, at its most fun.
But even if the film is Anderson at his quirkiest (though he may continue to surprise) the film’s tale is just as bittersweet as the rest of his filmography, laying out an old man’s reflections of a war torn time he’d never want to return to, but will never let go of. It’s one of the director’s less hopeful films, but it may be his most content.
5. Obvious Child
Obvious Child is a savior to one of film’s most milquetoast genres — the romantic comedy. Far too often the laborious rom-com is a by the books affair, starting with the an overly quirky meet-cute and ending in happily ever after, never once actually putting its protagonists in a situation that is relatable to hard issues. Not only does this film expand the genre into actual human territory , but it’s pro-feminist to boot.
No doubt some of this is because of a sad rarity in the medium — all writing and directing credit goes to very talented women, including Director Gillian Robespierre, who strips away the comfortable genre troupes regularly applied for a story that takes place around a scheduled abortion. This isn’t some will she/ won’t she “October Baby” scenario mind you. The abortion is only the backdrop to a character study that is both introspective and funny.
This is in no small part because of Jenny Slate, who is a break out as Donna Stern. In her role, she embodies a goofy femininity that is more geniune than the air-headed Katherine Heigl vehicles that permeate our theaters. I can’t wait to see where she’s headed and maybe, just maybe, the rom-com has something fresh left in it after all.
There are moments where actors you’ve seen a thousand times pull something out of the air you never expected from them. I only liked Jake Gyllenhaal and that’s probably why he surprised me so much. I let my guard down, turned my back, and, out of no where, he pounced, delivering a searing performance that feels like nothing on his filmography before.
As Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal created a Patrick Bateman for the digital generation. A calculated, alluring, and focused individual who has a single super power — he doesn’t give a damn about civility. It’s his play thing and he pokes and prods it to become the best “Nightcrawler” in Los Angeles — a profession based on gathering footage of bloodied car wrecks and corpses. If it bleeds it leads for the news, but Bloom will never be the one found bleeding.
Nightcrawler is a neon noire of the highest caliber, but it never feels exploitive. Director Dan Gilroy lets the gore, for the most part, remain unseen and its far more frightening and alluring because of this. It’s a brash tale of journalism ethics, and voyeurism that finds that most horrible carnage inside its characters.
I have never, and most likely will never again, see a film like Birdman. A two hour backstage saga that almost completely plays out in a single (though digitally constructed) roaming take, it both feels meticulously put together while also having an almost jazzy improvised air about it. There are moments that feel unhinged and beyond off-script, as if the characters on the screen might just walk off. It’s the closest thing to living theatre I’ve felt in a cinema.
It takes balls to try something like this and, while its Alejandro González Iñárritu who has put the whole concept together, the film’s fate rests on Michael Keaton, both for his delivery of the material and its resonance with his own career. He’s an old dragon ready to roar and does he ever, delivering a performance of both anxiety and madness in equal parts.
In a weird way, Birdman is a commentary on a film genre (superher0) from a different genre (backstage drama) and insight is gained on both. I whirlwind of a ride and the most fun I had at the theater all year.
John Michael McDonagh’s second directorial effort is a damning portrayal of Ireland’s (and the world’s) relationship with both religion and, more specifically, the Catholic church. A quiet tale, it finds its friction as Father James (the incredible and reserved Brendan Gleeson) interacts with his parisonors — all who have, not only stopped believing in their faith, but nwo outright resent it.
Rare is the film that has something to say about religion without either overtly schilling for a type or outright dismissing all of it. Calvary is a post-mortem. It recognizes that the old ways have died, but has few answers on what the future should hold. There is atoning to be done and plenty of it.
Through it all, Gleeson leads a cast, including the great Chris O’Dowd and Kelly Reilly, as a figure of both humor and eloquent wisdom, searching for answers, while he decides his ominous future. It is a film that seeks out hope even in its own utter blackness. In my favorite dialogue exchange of the year, Gleeson states to his daughter, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.” When asked his number one virtue, he replies, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”
When I left the theater, my heart beat out of my chest for hours. Whiplashpushes a film about music into almost sports movie territory with the athletic ferocity it runs Andrew (Miles Teller) through the ringer to become the best jazz drummer there is. Blood’s left on the drum set in more ways than one and most of it is spilled by Fletcher, Andrews teacher, played with sheer masochistic evil by J.K Simmons.
It is a film focused on artistic greatness and what must be sacrificed to achieve it, but those answers aren’t easy. While Fletcher does everything in his power to belittle Andrew and his classmates, he suggests it’s the only true way to separate the wheat from the chaff. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Fletcher and he believes it.
But how far can you push someone before you push them too far? We find this out the hard way and so does Andrew, but not without first grappling with if there isn’t some method to Fletcher’s madness in a society that gives everyone a blue ribbon. Art, after all, is craft. Whiplash is a gut-punching examination of pushing ones self towards greatness and the sacrifices incurred along the journey.
2014 has ended, but its films stamped it as a year of examination, questioning and reflecting on humanity and our place in this world. As the film industry as a whole continues to feel the ground shift beneath its feet and new digital doors continue to open for great creatives, film has never been a more interesting and expressive medium with plenty of surprises left in store.