Here we are, folks, the end of the road for my write-up of the films I saw in 2014. Revenge, blood-sucking Detroiters and Austin barbecue for everyone after the jump.
#10: Blue Ruin
I love revenge films. No apologies, no explanations, I just like a good ‘ol story about someone going off and taking revenge on those who did them wrong. And boy howdy, this movie is an excellent, thoughtful flick about how revenge is both a release and a curse on those looking for it. Macon Blair, an actor previously completely unknown to me, is good as hell here as someone looking to take revenge on the man who killed his parents and is now being released from prison after 10 or so years; if you look at this as The Crossing Guard but done with a different emphasis, that’s an excellent way to look at this smart, touching thriller that had me tearing up at the end.
#9: Guardians of the Galaxy
What’s left to say about this movie? Marvel, after what in retrospect might seem like safe bets with films about characters people at least casually knew the names of, decided to go with a movie about a team a lot of comics fans didn’t even especially know that much about, hire a director who’d done good work but nothing on this scale and trust it all on a lead performance from an actor with critical praise but (quite frankly) was on a perennially almost cancelled show on a network that flirted with going under. Somehow, it all worked and we got a movie that’s wildly entertaining as well as has something to say about it’s characters. Who knew one of our favorite relationships of the year was going to be between a sentient tree and a talking raccoon with severe anger management issues? I could easily watch this movie again right now.
#8: Only Lovers Left Alive
I guess we all figured that we’d seen pretty much every variation of vampire movies possible over the last few decades (even the underappreciated Byzantium (2012) felt a bit like Neil Jordan repeating himself). But somehow Jim Jarmusch took his interest in the oddball and the outsiders and gave us a new and interesting look at vampires. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he also had Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston to work with (and when the movie was announced, I think a lot of us thought it was odd that Swinton hadn’t played a vampire already). I liked quite a lot that this movie is about their loneliness and their dependency, but almost never feels morose or humorless. One of the best soundtracks of the year makes for a great backdrop to this sad and funny look at their loner lives (also, Jarmusch proves he’s one of the few people to figure out how to use Mia Wasikowska effectively).
#7: Stranger By The Lake (Línconnu du lac)
A really late entry this year for me, this is one of those oddball thrillers where it’s never in doubt who the murderer is; what makes the movie interesting is seeing how everyone will react. This murder, which takes place at a gay cruising beach in France, is almost even incidental to the plot as the main character finds himself drawn to the murderer and to the lonely recent divorcee who’s started coming to the beach but keeps himself apart from the main groups. Meanwhile, a lone police lieutenant is snooping around and asking embarrassing questions...well, you can see at some point the tensions are going to break but the question is when and how. The way I’ve described it almost makes it sound like farce, and in some hands it might have ended up this way, but this movie is deadly serious but never in a dull way.
#6: Obvious Child
Jenny Slate for me has always been one of those occasional fun guests on the comedy podcast scene, so I at least knew who she was. But I had no idea she had the acting chops required for this smart, funny and human movie about a woman in New York whose life takes a turn for the more….inconvenient over the space of a few months. As written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, this could have well been yet another movie of navel gazing about experiences millions of women have every year, but theres a deftness and intelligence to this movie that raises the material to a more universal plane. It reminds me a lot of High Fidelity in that both are about taking a further step into maturity in your life, which sounds horribly preach, but this movie has no interest in preaching.
#5: The Babadook
The best horror movies are about something much more than jump scares and thrills and Babadook delivers in spades in this movie where the supernatural horror unleashed by a picture book is almost incidental to the horror of being a widowed mother with a problem child. Essie Davis, someone I only knew previously from the Australian 1920s-set TV series The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, delivers a magnificent performance as a mother at the end of her wits dealing with her son who insists on seeing monsters everywhere and lashing out at them. She never has a second to herself, she looks like she hasn’t slept properly in weeks or months and she’s one shade away from cracking but still feels guilty if she doesn’t look after her son every moment (one of the most effective scenes in the movie is when she gets half a day to herself, actually takes the time to have an ice cream on a park bench and then is hit with the huge guilt of something having happened to her son while she was gone). Add in...something infecting her house, this claustrophobic little home of hers, and she slowly almost goes mad. It’s a great performance in an exceedingly effective horror movie, one of the best of the last few years.
In the west of Ireland, Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is giving confession and an unseen parishioner tells him he was raped as a child by a priest so in seven days he’s going to kill Father James (because he is a good man and it will be worse for the Church). Such an odd opening, because the rest of the movie is by no means a mystery (it’s clear Father James knows who the threat is coming from), but more the story of what may be his last week. The director/writer, John Michael McDonagh, is brother to Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Six Shooter, Seven Psychopaths) and they have a similar interest in those who have guilt that they may not deserve and an almost pathological need to help others despite the danger to themselves, and Father James is definitely right in their wheelhouse. It’s a bleak, disturbing movie in a lot of ways (it’s pretty clear, for instance, that despite their genial feelings toward James the town has absolutely no use for the Church and no qualms about expressing it) but definitely worth seeing for Gleeson’s performance, as well as appearances by Chris Down and Dylan Moran.
Far more than the gimmick. So, so more. I actually saw a criticism that this movie was basically just “recording things,” which I regard as so much bullshit that I couldn’t even express it at the time. This is a damn good movie about life’s passages, but not a movie about the major events; it’s a chronicle of the little things that make life. You say goodbye to friends (there’s a moment early in the film where he doesn’t even get to say goodbye to a childhood friend that feels incredibly real), you grow to know your parents better, you get a sense of yourself...and that’s where the theme of self identity, which I mentioned days ago. Boyhood is about a boy coming to know himself, for better or for worse (luckily, for better). Something that also helps the movie is just how good Ethan Hawke and (particularly) Patricia Arquette in this; they really give the movie a solid foundation of acting for Ellar Coltrane to work off of and the end result is fantastic.
A Polish-language movie set in 1960 Communist Poland, shot in Academy-ratio with no-name actors for an American audience and on black & white film? Sounds like a dismal, foreign-language film bingo winner that no one really wants to see but sighs and gets out of the way, like eating broccoli. Well, this movie is a steak in sheep’s clothing. It starts as a very quiet story of a novitiate (the title Ida) in a Roman Catholic convent, sent to visit her aunt (her last relative) so she can say her goodbyes. But then it turns into an odd road trip to find what happened to their family in their war and the movie takes a sad but joyful tone as Ida and her aunt travel across Poland and confront demons of history and of themselves. That sounds like fun, right? But there’s an odd joyful tone to the movie (from director Pawel Pawlikowski) that keeps it from wallowing, as well as odd encounters with people like a band of musicians playing at the hotel they stay at. I hesitate to say more, because there are revelations and discoveries that reward anyone seeing this as blind as they can; it’s very, very special (and brilliantly shot by Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski).
(Bonus: My co-host Amy Watts forward this link from No Film School, These Static Frames from Oscar Contender 'Ida' Show Why Composition is King.)
#1: Under The Skin
If you’d have told me years ago that the best movie I’d see in 2014 would be starring Scarlett Johansson, I can’t imagine any time before seeing this movie that I’d have not thought it was crazy. But she delivers the performance of the year in this movie that feels like s throwback to the devil and LSD-influenced science fiction movies of the late ‘70s, like The Omen or The Visitor. But where those movies were wretched excesses that collapsed under their self-importance and indulgences, this movie is an almost naked, stripped-down exploration of Johansson's character, who is driving around Scotland and picking up men in her van for...something. (What she is picking up men for is much different in the novel this movie is adapted from; the movie and the novel have much different agendas.) You want to talk a movie about examining self identity? Here you are; I’m going to dance around it, but that’s pretty much what this movie is about. Who or what is Johansson’s character? What’s her agenda? The movie doesn’t provide any answers, but the questions it asks are fascinating and Johansson’s performance is a revelatory piece of work as she uses that interesting face of hers to do things with a small smile or a blankness of expression at the right time that are perfect for the film. I’m suck for smart, questioning science fiction like this; watching Alphaville from 1965 last night, I was struck how that movie was trying to be smart, but unlike Under The Skin it never seemed to know where it was going. Under The Skin never suffers from that, and it all comes down to Johansson and director Jonathan Glazer (who also co-wrote the adaptation with Walter Campbell); Glazer’s direction of this is so assured that we never feel even in the worst moments if “what the hell is that about?” that director doesn’t know where he’s headed. I’ve liked his previous two movies (Sexy Beast and Birth) to varying degrees, but this is his best work and a classic that people will be talking about for years.
So there we have it: 2014 in movies. A very, very good year that approaches years like 1999 and 1994 in quality (and much better than 2013). 2015, with a new Herzog movie about Gertrude bell, 2(!) new Pixar movies that aren’t sequels, a Steven Spielberg Cold War spy film based on a Coen Brothers script and whatever Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is (and of course, things I’d see anyway like Spectre and Avengers: Age of Ultron) might be one to rival it, assuming those films are bolstered by ones not even on our radar yet.