By: Daniel Reynolds
Each year, after the dregs of February and March, we start to look at the upcoming year in film to wonder if it will be any good. In 2013, there were signs that a masterful year was coming – the Coens, Cuaron, McQueen, Jonze, and more were in the mix. We were in good hands. Somehow, 2014 felt more muted; films appeared to disappoint or disappear, franchises were plentiful, and there was one last Hobbit movie to get through.
And yet, as always seems to be the case by the end of the year, a mere list of ten films can hardly due 2014 justice. Somehow there was still a bounty of films that didn’t make the cut. I was hard-pressed to leave small films like Omar, The Rover and Gloria off the list. What of the sly Only Lovers Left Alive or insane Snowpiercer? What should be said of the sheer size and spectacle of Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy? If nothing else we can say that 2014 was a year in which David Fincher made a very good film, Gone Girl, that also didn’t make the list. How about that.
In any case, here’s what did make my top ten list of films for 2014. We will probably not agree on it – but then again, that’s better than a monolith of consensus. Despite the doom-sayers, there are good films out there still being made. Please enjoy.
We are living in 2015 now and it feels ridiculous to ignore all the huge (and getting, um, huger) films that continue to come out on the franchise side of things. Despite the coming wars between Marvel and DC, I was most impressed by the unlikeliest franchise film of the bunch: the sequel to a prequel of the storied Planet of the Apes. Stay with me here. Unlike almost any other blockbuster film of its type, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes crafts a narrative that is both simple to follow and, let’s be honest, shocking in its unique moral complexity; the heroes have to make tough choices with consequences, the villains are not entirely wrong in their approach. Director Matt Reeves knows just how to maintain the balance between action and heart. And at the centre is Caesar, as embodied by Andy Serkis. This is the rare film that creates a real emotional rapport with a CGI-created character, and a non-human no less. It’s also the rare sequel that actually has me pining for the next film in the series.
Here’s the secret of The Trip to Italy (and The Trip and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story): Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and Michael Winterbottom are having a grand time. In many ways, their latest film together is their lightest effort. The “plot” is little more than an excuse to get twin charmers Coogan and Brydon out on the open road goosing each other, competing over silly things and employing their delicious comedic sensibilities. In Winterbottom’s capable hands, the film sings. The surprise comes this time with Brydon who, while still cheery in spirit, gets a chance to do more of the dramatic heavy lifting. Still, using the phrase “dramatic heavy lifting” feels over done. The Trip to Italy allows its heroes to wonder about death and legacy and artistic merit. It’s a filmed midlife crisis. But also, goddamn, it’s funny and the food looks delicious. To paraphrase Spencer Tracy (and shoehorn another food reference in), there may not be much meat on The Trip to Italy, but what’s there is choice.
In a year when questions of authenticity have rung out in every cultural quarter, Theeb arrived with little fanfare. It’s a film that strives for a lived-in realness and it achieves this by diving deep into the heart of some of history’s most forgotten figures. Made by first time director Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb is a coming-of-age story set against the vast history of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The title character is a bedouin boy who is forced to learn of the wider world through the sharp intrusion of war. In another film this would have perhaps meant the start of some grand heroic adventure. Nowar instead keeps things intimate. His desert looms large, the elegant score swells, and we learn instead what it takes to assert an identity of self in an overwhelming landscape. In this small way, Theeb is a triumph. Sadly, it remains to be seen if the film will get a wider release, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Boyhood took 12 years to make and it survives as perhaps the luckiest film production of all time. Nothing serious befell any of its main actors; this in and of itself is an achievement. Director Richard Linklater, definitely the only filmmaker laid-back enough to attempt such an awesome and time consuming feat, achieves a new level of documentary. His film is fiction, sure, but the emotions he gets at feel real. I was not moved by Boyhood as much as I thought I would be. It’s second half seems to just traipse along at a reluctant teen-aged pace (and Ellar Coltrane, the boy in question, isn’t much of an actor). And yet, the passage of time becomes hard to ignore. This, along with Patricia Arquette’s performance as the mother, becomes the lasting memory of the film. We don’t get insane drama and sustained soap opera hysterics. Instead, we are left to ponder a life that luckily continues to flow along on its course. We have no idea where it will end up, but Linklater’s confidence rubs off on us. We’ll all see it through to the end.
Like clockwork, it happens: Wes Anderson directs a film, I watch the film, the film makes it onto my best ten list. This feels like an appropriate way to describe an Anderson film and its effect. With The Grand Budapest Hotel we get one of his most expansive works to date, filled with a cast that could get heads spinning in any of the last three or four decades. It’s this nod to inclusiveness that also welcomes in the flush of history that powers the film. Unlike every other Anderson film that feels locked away in a storybook or play set, The Grand Budapest Hotel (which, ironically, was inspired by books) allows for some acute commentary on the crushing costs of barbarism. Yes, a young love story line is still there, and all kinds of other madcap events. But what hangs with you, within this story within a story within a story, is the thought that the world can no longer create characters as bizarre and lovable as Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave. It’s Anderson saying good bye to a whole way of life and in typical fashion, the heart quietly breaks at the thought.
Settle down, I know Interstellar has its problems. It feels very long, and overwrought, and overwritten, and exhaustive. It’s world building efforts are dense and heavy, rather than light and propulsive. Christopher Nolan’s latest opus is big. It’s also the boldest, most expansive, most most film of 2014. And that’s saying something. Interstellar‘s wanton ambition is what sets it apart. Not content to leave us with an earthbound story on the powers of love, Nolan instead takes us, quite literally, beyond the infinite. We can recoil at some of the clunking exposition or be wrapped entirely in the breathtaking magnitude of what he’s created. There are sequences (Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper watching time lapsed video of his children, the entire space docking sequence, the first approach to the wormhole) that are tattooed in my memory. These things can make you forget you had doubts about Nolan at all. At a certain point he takes us so far beyond our own cynicism that it’s hard not to find yourself smiling through a few tears.
To watch Nightcrawler is akin to being slowly hugged to death. It’s “how the sausage gets made” story of TV news production begins as the skies, like the film’s conscience, go dark. We begin with unease personified in Jake Gyllenhaal’s bug-eyed and oozing performance as Lou Bloom, videographer of grime. We experience a Los Angeles that feels like it never sees the sun. And we get a vicious moral slide that is as inevitable as it is disturbing. In between, first time director Dan Gilroy lights the way with only the harsh glare of the TV screen, the clarity of an LCD, and the glint off a camera lens. That his film pushes us through these lurid paces while tautly folding in action, car chases and crime, is when we realize that Nightcrawler is not just another urban thriller; it’s a horror odyssey. There were more ambitiously scaled films that came out last year, but it was Nightcrawler that dared to dig the deepest.
Speaking of odysseys, how about a little love for the strange spectacular journey of Birdman? It’s the only film on this list that believes itself absolutely worthy of such attention. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always been one for elaborate statements. His films usually involve multiple narratives, wide swaths of geography, and emotions stacked higher than skyscrapers. With Birdman, instead of roiling around a huge area, Inarritu remains almost entirely on one block, in mostly one building, and, frankly, in one mind. This is the grand return of Michael Keaton as the only type of superhero left for him to play: a failing one. But far from failing, Birdman is borne on wings of pure belief. While Inarritu has mostly snarky things to say about modern culture, social media and artistic criticism, he is willing to jump off any cliff to prove his point. The results, as forcible messy and technically brilliant as they appear on-screen, are dazzling. Birdman is the best “comic book” movie of the year.
2) The Lunchbox
When you think of leading men for romantic movies, you don’t tend to think first of Irrfan Khan. This is not to say he’s not a handsome guy (he is), he just doesn’t seem particularly interested in romance. Those tired, soulful eyes translate to tough guys, or family men, or wise sagely figures. In The Lunchbox he’s the romantic lead. This would be odd enough if it weren’t for the fact that his paramour Ila, played by Nimrat Kaur, is only known to him through mistakenly received letters. Theirs is an India that has many people, but few heartfelt connections. The Lunchbox‘s writer/director Ritesh Batra is able to imbue the city with this specific melancholic yearning. He does more with a silent scenes of Kaur smelling a shirt, or Khan starring across the street, than other movies can do with pattering dialogue. The Lunchbox is that uncommon film that finds a connection, however unlikely, between two people, and between its makers and an audience – anywhere in the world.
Go figure the one film I don’t give a more in-depth review of is the film I like the best. Heading into Whiplash I didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew nothing about director/writer Damien Chazelle; I had never thought hard about star Miles Teller; and while J.K. Simmons has my respect (his turn as Juno’s dad locks that up), nothing about him screams “jazz band leader.” But then like a well-timed drum fill, Whiplash snapped up my attention.
Chazelle’s film screams along on two levels. It’s a straight ahead story about a teacher pushing a student to excel at jazz drumming. The teacher demands perfection; the student desires it. As presented, Whiplash is about as tight as, well, a drum. It’s use of percussive sound intentional or otherwise, its framing and editing, its sense of mood and energy are all first rate. Like a well-rehearsed band, each element of the film works in concert perfectly with everything else. But the real hook of the film is in its second ambiguous layer. As Simmons’ teacher and Teller’s student push themselves and each other higher and farther than possible, we wonder if any of this is worth it. To what end must one go for great art? To become something special? In 2014, with everybody drowning in everything all at once, Whiplash cut through the noise like the loudest of cymbal crashes.
I’m still thinking about it. Maybe 2014 wasn’t so bad after all.