Give me a couple of weeks and I promise this list will look different. Despite a serious amount of binge during my holiday break, I still have yet to see THE GUEST, BIRDMAN, BOYHOOD, WHIPLASH, THE IMMIGRANT and many more of the notable films and documentaries of 2014. By this time next year, I will definitely be caught up on 2014 and explaining to you why I haven’t yet finished my list for 2015.
Just… just stop making movies for a year, you know? Let us all catch up.
A lot has been written about how 2014 was a down year for Hollywood, and to counter that, many more people wrote about how many interesting films were released in the spaces opened up by the lack of blockbusters. I admit that this has been a more memorable year than most in terms of the quality of the films released. Just falling off the list are titles like JOE, SNOWPIERCER, SELMA (which is certainly a more important film than many on this list and should be treated accordingly), and THE ROVER, which deserves its own post on how it made me rethink my approach to post-apocalyptic cinema. Even the summer releases – DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – seemed a little smarter than what we’ve seen in the past. So I think we had a pretty good 2014, don’t you?
The truth is, we’re all genre film fans here. We look for action movies, horror movies, exploitation cinema; for us, the industry is always healthy, because what we love tends to come a little cheap. The genre is the star, friends, and no amount of special effects or high-profile casting will entice us as much as positive word-of-mouth coming out of TIFF or SXSW.
If nothing else, it makes for some pretty eclectic lists at year’s end. Here’s mine.
Perhaps growing up in a small town left its mark on me, but movies like BLUE RUIN – backcountry thrillers where violence is always just around the corner and families create their own mode of justice – will always appeal to the southern gunslinger in me (if I’m being honest, I probably have a secret love of westerns but find horses off-putting). There are plenty of great moments I can pick out from BLUE RUIN, such as the slow escalation of the film’s opening or the way Dwight seeks out help from an old high school friend, but nothing will endure as much as the standout performance by Macon Blair. His fragility, determination, and damnation lead to one of the better performances of the year, and Blair runs circles around more recognizable talent (Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell) in similar titles (OUT OF THE FURNACE, A SINGLE SHOT, respectively) from the last few years.
I suppose the lapsed Catholic in me always knew that CALVARY was going to be a punch in the gut. It isn’t just that John McDonagh’s film captures the twin issues of faith and grief against the context of a small Irish town; McDonagh is also able to paint a scathing picture of personal responsibility, where the line between doing a good thing and doing a thing good enough blurs for everyone involved. I walked out of the theater with the Edmund Burke quote spinning around in my head – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” – and, months later, I still remember calling my fiancée to expel some of the sadness the movie made me feel. There’s no denying that 2014 was a pretty hard year; this might just be the movie that best represents what we as a society struggled with.
COLD IN JULY
The first surprise in COLD IN JULY is Don Johnson. There comes a point in every actor’s career where they cannot play the leading man anymore; they either transition into the grumpy old-timer roles or they disappear completely. The middle-aged Johnson is pure southern charm in snakeskin boots, hinting at a second act in his career that few would have seem coming. And then the movie surprises again with its twists and turns, tossing Hall’s central character into a blend of revenge and redemption that ends miles away from where it started. Even the best character studies tend to be short on narrative and long on performance; it is relieving in its own way to watch a movie swing for the fences and end up with a ground-rule double. COLD IN JULY isn’t tidy, but Lord, aren’t you at least a little bit tired of tidy films?
EDGE OF TOMORROW
One of my favorite storylines from 2014 was the critical resurgence of Tom Cruise as Hollywood leading man. A lot of this was due to the work of Amy Nicholson, whose book on Cruise was preceded by an extremely popular excerpt on how YouTube destroyed his star power. There’s a wealth of great analysis of Cruise in Nicholson’s writing – including his underrated penchant for taking risks with his onscreen persona – and EDGE OF TOMORROW consolidates a lot of that into one film. This is something of a greatest hits collection for Cruise enthusiasts: we have the Running Cruise, the Pathetic Cruise, the Macho Cruise, and the Intense Cruise, all playing second fiddle to Emily Blunt’s action hero Rita. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the last truly great action film of Cruise’s career before he (finally) succumbs to his fifties.Which he will. I mean, he has to. Right?
I caught FOUND at the 2013 New York City Horror Film Festival; since then, it’s become one of the movies I stump for the most with horror film fans. Sure, it’s super low-budget, and there are a few dalliances with exploitation that upset the tone – such as the film-within-a-film VHS tape that the main character obsesses over – but FOUND also brings together horror and adolescence in a way I’ve never seen before. Marty’s realization that his brother is a serial killer could really be any one of a hundred different teenage revelations about death, sex, or the fallibility of adults. As he tentatively reevaluates his relationship with his brother, he begins to also poke at the boundaries of his average suburban life. A must-see for any fans of the genre.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
I do not consider myself the world’s biggest Wes Anderson fan – if pushed, I might have admitted that his American Express commercial is actually my favorite of his works – but I was enchanted by THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Perhaps it was the way in which Anderson’s slightly anachronistic sense of style was matched to the old-fashioned nature of the setting; perhaps the posh nature of the hotel’s inhabitants provided the right tone for Anderson’s stilted dialogue; and perhaps the doomed nature of the Grand Budapest Hotel mirrored the director’s own waning klout as a purveyor of quirk. Any way you slice it, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was the rare Wes Anderson film that clicked for me. What a difference a Ralph makes.
The most impressive bit of choreography in 2014 came not in an action film or a musical, but in GRAND PIANO, the Hitchcockian thriller by Spanish composer/director Eugenio Mira. Sure, GRAND PIANO doesn’treally break new ground – it’s basically just SPEED in an orchestra – but there’s a confidence and economy in its execution that allows it to play with the more serious films of the year. The banter between a frantic Elijah Wood and a languidly menacing John Cusack would have made for an entertaining B-movie in its own right, but the physical commitment that Wood makes to the role – and the periods where Mira leaves the actor exposed in long take to sell the virtuosity of his performance – gives the movie its staying power. If you are interested in the way that soundtrack and scene inform each other, you should know this movie by heart.
Two movies I loved in 2014 were about violent men who go on a killing spree because their dog died. What does that say about the current state of pet owners in America? Ok, fine, so the puppy in JOHN WICK might symbolize more than just a ball of cuteness and fluff – not that it has to, really – but either way, it kicks off one of the best action films of the last few years. WICK accomplishes this by downplaying the gunfights and opening up a world of professional killers and the support services that spring up around them. There’s a wonderful supporting cast – populated primarily by actors from former HBO shows, weirdly enough –but the film’s anchor is Keanu and his normal no-nonsense line deliveries. Keanu has been rocking the gruff onscreen persona for years now, but it’s only recently that he’s aged into his own performance style. What felt thin at thirty works incredibly well at fifty.
There’s a line associated with the Marvel comics character Wolverine that I’ve always enjoyed: “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn’t very nice.” So goes Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom. Ignore for a moment the arguments regarding NIGHTCRAWLER’s satire – whether it is too broad or too exaggerated – and view the film simply through this lens. Louis Bloom is unquestionably the best at what he does. Gyllenhaal and director Dan Gilroy could almost have made this film about anything – about media or sports or commercial fishing, whatever – and the truth of that character would shine through. Whatever Bloom puts his mind to, he succeeds at. The only problem is, what Bloom does isn’t very nice. NIGHTCRAWLER was 117 minutes of moral ambiguity and power struggles between people with very little left to lose. All that media stuff? That was the cherry on the top.
WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is a joyous film. It takes joy in the form of filmmaking; it takes joy in our relationship to cinema, the ways in which we grow up – or just grow old – surrounded by the movies. Like its nominal protagonists – the perpetually-adolescent Fuck Bombers – it is also wonderfully earnest in its reflexivity, filled to the brim with viscera and profanity and references to other films. The term “geek” has probably lost all meaning in an era of blockbuster comic book adaptations and mega-center conventions, but WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?is also an unabashedly geeky film, too obsessed with what it loves to worry about public restraint. It’s a film that wears its love of cinema on its sleeve, and just might be the most goddamn entertaining movie of the year to boot.
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