After Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was released in mid-July, there was an immediate sense in the Dissolve office that the rest of the year was a race for second place. Watching a child grow up over a 12-year period is enormously powerful on its own, but through the prism of this one life, Linklater makes so many profound observations about love, family, politics, religion, the South, and the changes that happen at home and in the culture at large. Though we reached a solid consensus over Her in our inaugural poll, that was nothing compared to Boyhood, which topped five of our seven individual ballots, and placed second on a sixth. From there, the best of 2014 branched out into a diverse assortment of auteur favorites, unconventional historical biopics, form-challenging documentaries, and mainstream hits that proved that even a risk-averse Hollywood could still put out smart, innovative, broadly appealing entertainments. The only unifying theme is that 2014 came in like a lion and out like a lamb: Of the films below, only Selma and Inherent Vice were harvested from the late-year awards crop. Otherwise, there are no hidden patterns, just confirmation that great films came in all sizes and from all corners this year.
If Boyhood were nothing more than its central hook—director Richard Linklater filmed it over a period of 12 years, using the same actors throughout—it would be one of 2014’s most memorable films, but not necessarily the year’s best. What pushed Boyhood from an interesting cinematic experiment to the year’s boldest, most striking feature is the way Linklater captures, in a completely organic manner, some deep truths about growing up, relationships, and American life, all within a compelling portrait of a single suburban Texas family. Boyhood’s story isn’t universal, but it is truthful and instantly engaging, and Linklater’s unfussy deployment of his time-lapse approach engenders an instant connection between viewers and the characters. Watching Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) transition from kids to teens to young adults with little comment or fanfare—with only a few smartly deployed pop-cultural signposts to orient viewers to their place in time—creates the sense that we’ve known them for more than the almost three hours we spend with them; it’s fascinating without being distracting. Aided by Ethan Hawke and a revelatory Patricia Arquette, playing the kids’ estranged parents, Coltrane is the north star of Boyhood’s wandering narrative, a fixed point within this immersive, affecting, unique cinematic experience.
|2||The Grand Budapest Hotel|
Early reports about Wes Anderson’s latest unique confection made it sound dauntingly convoluted. He’s using three separate aspect ratios! It takes place in four different decades! There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks! While all of these things proved true, however, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s madcap narrative—primarily set in 1932, and shot in the old-school Academy ratio—unfolds with such prodigious elegance and confidence that following its serpentine path is pure pleasure. As the hotel’s beloved concierge, M. Gustave, Ralph Fiennes projects a dogged sense of civility and decorum in the face of increasingly nasty events; this is simultaneously Anderson’s most frivolous film and his most violent, and it thrives on that paradox. But that’s something to think about afterward, when pondering the reasons why M. Gustave’s tale is refracted through 1968, 1985, and the present day. In the moment, it’s enough just to delight in Grand Budapest’s exquisite design, ebullient score (Alexandre Desplat + balalaikas!), magnificent supporting cast (with special mention to Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, respectively snide and sinister as the chief baddies), and unceasing inventiveness. And in M. Gustave, who deserved a better fate.
|3||Under The Skin|
Part Species and part Morvern Callar, Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel looks at Scottish cities and countrysides from an alien’s point of view, following one predatory extraterrestrial (played by Scarlett Johansson) as she seduces human men and lures them into a bizarre trap. By the end of Under The Skin, Johansson’s creature begins to adopt more human characteristics of compassion and curiosity, giving the film a satisfyingly rounded narrative. But before that happens, Glazer actively seeks to disorient the audience, combing documentary-style footage of alien/human interactions with scenes of the monster going about her lethal business. Under The Skin is both terrifying and beautiful—filling the screen with images unlike any seen in movies before, then gradually grounding itself in one entity’s dawning awareness of her own identity.
The scariest villain this year couldn’t be found in a horror movie—not even The Babadook. It was J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher, an uncompromising music instructor who believes genius can only emerge from abuse. Clad in a tight black T-shirt, Fletcher sometimes seems more mouth and muscle than man, as he puts his theory into practice by browbeating his students until they reach his standards—or leave broken. Like all effective villains, he’s scarier because he has a clear point of view, and there’s a chance he might be right. That’s what Andrew (Miles Teller), a gifted drummer who wants only to be the best, has to wrestle with throughout the film, up to and including a stunning finale that leaves who emerged the victor of their movie-long struggle an open question. But it’s also the way Simmons allows moments of tenderness to slip into the performances that makes Fletcher so disarming, even if they are couched in lies and disingenuous strategizing. He knows what beauty sounds like, and he doesn’t care if he has to bend and twist the lives of others in order to hear it.
|5||Only Lovers Left Alive|
In Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the vampire genre, Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play, respectively, Adam and Eve, a pair of long-married vampires living in far-flung parts of the globe. He’s holed up in a cluttered Detroit home. She’s in Tangier. But it isn’t that big of a deal, really: What’s a little time apart when you’re staring down eternity? As the film opens, they don’t really seem to be on the same page, anyway. Eve is, however paradoxically, sunny by nature, while Adam keeps sinking further into despair as he watches the world fall apart, thanks to human shortsightedness. (Jarmusch makes great use of a crumbling Detroit to drive the point home.) There’s bloodsucking in the movie, sure, but Only Lovers Left Alive is a Jarmusch film above all, and one of his best at that. No one has more time to hang out and ruminate than vampires, and some of the film’s best scenes feature his undead heroes weighing the tragedy of time and the foolishness of humanity against our ability to cough up a Billie Holiday or a Buster Keaton once in a while. Maybe there’s some light left in all that darkness after all.
After multiple cancer surgeries left critic Roger Ebert disfigured and voiceless in the last years of his life, he not only refused to retreat from public life, he became more ferociously engaged than ever before. His memoir Life Itself reflected this renewed spirit, and Steve James’ documentary of the same name goes deeper still. The film alternates between contemporary scenes of Ebert and his wife Chaz spending time in and out of hospitals and rehab, and a look back at a life so full of adventure, it’d take a man with Ebert’s imagination to make it up. Life Itself takes a long, bittersweet look at a Chicago and newspaper world that has long since vanished, tackles Ebert’s alcoholism head-on, and offers a love story for the ages through Ebert’s soul-affirming marriage to Chaz. It’s a film of wit and uncommon candor that captures all the seasons of Ebert’s life, from the precocious college kid ruling the student newspaper to Ebert’s partnerships with Russ Meyer and Gene Siskel to his coronation as one of our most important and influential thinkers as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Candid, affectionate, and deeply moving, Life Itself is Ebert’s final gift to a world from which he both took and gave so much.
|7||Two Days, One Night|
The premise for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest film couldn’t be simpler, nor its scale smaller, nor its stakes huger: Still recovering from a nervous breakdown, Sandra (Marion Cotillard, slipping right into the Dardennes’ milieu), a factory worker, discovers that her co-workers have been given the choice of letting her keep her job, or receiving year-end bonuses. After a first vote that overwhelmingly finds them choosing to dismiss her, Sandra has a weekend to change their minds or watch as her already-tenuous grip on a middle-class existence slips away. Along the way she faces opposition both from others and from her own tendency toward despair. As usual with the Dardennes, Two Days, One Night builds in intensity simply by hanging back and observing—until a stunning finale that reveals how much every offhand moment along the way has mattered.
Writer-director Ruben Östlund starts with the perfect family: beautiful parents, beautiful children, wealthy enough to afford a lengthy vacation at an Alpine ski resort, damnably Scandinavian. He then proceeds to show how brittle such a model family can be—how one split-second decision can open up faultlines that they never knew existed. The incident in question occurs when a “controlled avalanche”—artificially triggered by the resort for safety and aesthetic reasons—appears to be out of control while the family is lunching on a patio. The father’s reaction to the event bothers his wife, and questions about what happened metastasizes from jokingly passive-aggressive to a genuine marital crisis. Östlund directs Force Majeure with a pristine, Michael Haneke-like reserve, but the film is less judgmental and funnier than Haneke, and more open to the possibility that such crises aren’t always terminal. It’s also one of the year’s best post-screening conversation-starters/date-ruiners: What would you do on either side of that situation? Does an instinctual response to an emergency reveal a person’s true character? Answer carefully.
David Fincher’s screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s acidic, bestselling thriller pulls off something few adaptations manage: It sticks close to the source material (thanks to Flynn’s script, and in spite of Fincher-spawned rumors otherwise) while still breathing authentic cinematic life into it. Ben Affleck was a controversial choice for the role of Nick Dunne, a bar owner suspected of murdering his wife Amy, but his often vaguely drowsy, vaguely sullen affect works beautifully here to convey Nick’s dull bafflement and frustration as the case against him builds, in the media and in the minds of the police. Rosamund Pike as Amy (one of our picks for best lead actress of 2014) was also a controversial casting choice—too much of an unknown factor for a big Hollywood tentpole movie—but she handles a tricky, nuanced role with a beautiful chill. There are plenty of pleasant but significant surprises in the movie, including Tyler Perry in a small role as a pricy, flashy lawyer, but the real surprise is how well Fincher’s low-light, high-intensity approach works with the material, and how effortlessly this hyperbolically dark, twisty potboiler of a book translates into something weighty and memorably oppressive onscreen.
There are so many remarkable things about Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma, about Martin Luther King’s 1965 protests on behalf of disenfranchised black voters in Alabama, but the primary one is that it isn’t bombastic. For a film about a period of high drama in American history, centered on a charismatic leader and a struggle to redress a vast injustice, it’s remarkably even-keeled, letting the situation move viewers instead of pushing the characters to emote big, or pounding the emotions home with musical flourishes. David Oyelowo as King doesn’t have King’s speeches to fall back on, so DuVernay (uncredited on the script for contractual reasons, though she reworked it completely) limits the fiery rhetoric and focuses on the kind of behind-the-scenes calculation that made Lincoln such a powerful and unusual historical drama: This isn’t a story about impulsive, reckless action, but about a systematic political campaign, fought in the public eye and with mortal stakes, with calculation and care. DuVernay’s film finds the humanity in the participants, their fears and frustration and determination, and makes them life-sized rather than larger than life. But she also doesn’t lose the story in the emotions. And amid this careful balancing act, she still stages action sequences with an eye toward throat-clenching horror.
Within the first 10 minutes of Dan Gilroy’s seedy Los Angeles neo-noir Nightcrawler, a gaunt, creepy stranger named Lou Bloom has both savagely beaten a security guard and applied for a job by delivering a disturbingly polished line of business-seminar patter. And that’s all Nightcrawler is for the next 100 minutes: Bloom committing shockingly antisocial acts, then delivering little speeches. Though Gilroy has something to say about the state of modern journalism—by showing how easily the amoral Bloom rises through the ranks of freelance videographers who sell sordid crime-scene footage to the local news—the film is primarily a character study of one memorably sick individual. If Jake Gyllenhaal weren’t so magnetic in the role of Bloom, Nightcrawler wouldn’t work. But Gyllenhaal is great, and Lou Bloom joins the ranks of classic movie creeps, fitting somewhere between Travis Bickle and Gordon Gekko.
For a while, it looked as if Harvey Weinstein might force Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho to release a truncated version of his highly anticipated fifth feature. Bong won that battle, thankfully, but it’s a wonder that such a demented vision, requiring a fairly sizable budget, ever got made in the first place. There’s no subtlety to Snowpiercer’s dystopian near-future, in which what little is left of humanity endlessly rides a mammoth super-train around the frozen Earth, with the elite living it up in the front cars and the huddled masses surviving on roach-gelatin at the rear. Unlike last year’s dreary Elysium, however, Bong’s adaptation of an obscure French graphic novel has manic fun with its grim premise, from Tilda Swinton’s grotesque parody of an entitled twit to the way each successive compartment on the train, moving forward, is more opulent and eye-popping than the last. Given the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor in many ostensibly first-world countries (e.g., America), perhaps there’s no better way to address the problem than by pushing it to such a ludicrous extreme. Certainly there’s no more entertaining way.
In Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, Peter Fonda is described thusly: “You’re not specific enough to be a person. You’re more like a vibe.” That first part doesn’t really apply to Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s SoCal comic noir, which is nothing if not obsessively particular about the music, language, fashion, and hairstyles of 1970 “Gordita Beach,” a fictional avatar for a fading slice of hippie paradise. The second part is absolutely essential to its hazy appeal. The film follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a mutton-chopped P.I. in the tradition of stoner sleuths like Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, as he looks into the case of his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend’s disappearance. Following the plot—on first viewing, anyway—is like trying to unpack four Chinatowns layered atop each other, but like many great detective movies, Inherent Vice is more interested in the “vibe,” using its knotty procedural elements to investigate the world behind them. Anderson’s affection for a Southern California that no longer exists—and for the films of the era, and for celluloid itself—comes to the fore in a gorgeous, wistful, disarmingly goofy, and thoroughly iconoclastic work of art.
If nothing else, Obvious Child should receive a special commendation for singlehandedly proving the moribund romantic-comedy genre still has the potential to surprise in 2014. Expanded from Gillian Robespierre’s 2009 short film of the same name, Obvious Child hides a warm, squishy heart beneath a ballsy, potty-mouthed exterior. Building a romance around an abortion—one that actually happens, and is not reconsidered for a moment—sounds like a high-degree-of-difficulty proposition, but Robespierre’s story (co-written with Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm) mines the emotions of the situation without once holding it up for scrutiny or judgement. Instead, she allows her main character, aspiring stand-up Donna Stern (Jenny Slate, in a name-making performance), to reveal her own flaws and insecurities through her hilarious interactions with friends, family, audience members, and a one-night stand named Max (played by Jake Lacy). Though Obvious Child’s bare-bones plot turns on the sputtering romance between Donna and Max, it never forces them to navigate the sort of convoluted obstacles endemic to lesser rom-coms. Instead, it just tags alongside its charismatic leading lady as she stumbles toward maturity, making fart jokes all the way.
|15||The Lego Movie|
Released in the movie dead zone of February, The Lego Movie was 2014’s first great cinematic surprise, one that launched co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller into the realm of Can Do No Wrong. Following their unexpected success adapting the musty properties Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, Lord and Miller cemented the narrative that they have the golden touch when it comes to taking concepts that seem like they just shouldn’t work, and somehow making them work. When it was announced,The Lego Movie sounded like the worst kind of cash-grab, a feature-length commercial based on a beloved toy that would appeal to the nostalgia of money-spending adults, while simultaneously indoctrinating a whole new generation—and it did turn out to be that, to an extent, but also so much more. Lord and Miller’s screenplay homed in on the innate creativity and sense of play at the heart of Lego’s enduring appeal, while also incorporating a Chosen One narrative that let them tweak superhero and blockbuster conventions while still incorporating their most appealing elements. Add in the film’s CGI approach to brickfilm animation, which captures the toy’s handmade spirit while allowing for the sort of spectacular setpieces such a story (and budget) demands, and a cannily chosen voice cast that includes everyone’s favorite imaginary best friend, Chris Pratt, amid a ton of comedy ringers, and you have Lord and Miller’s can’t-miss, but difficult-to-replicate, formula for unlikely blockbuster success.
The meaning behind Pascale Ferran’s wonderfully whimsical magical-realist fantasy is obscure, but that’s certainly better than if it were force-fed to viewers. Half the film focuses on an American divesting himself of his job, wife, and family while on business in Paris; his break with his former life is abrupt and deeply hurtful for all concerned. The other half focuses on one of the maids in his hotel, who abruptly transforms into a sparrow. As a bird, she steeps herself in voyeurism, spying on friends and hotel guests, and enjoying flight—escaping from her life just as he did, but fleetly and painlessly. Ferran seems to be contrasting the fantasy of escapism with the reality, but by ordering the maid’s story second, and spending so much time on her joyous revels and sweet encounters, she stacks the deck toward the fantasy. It’s a strange film, but an expertly made and perfectly acted one, with the CGI bird effects so seamlessly incorporated, they make the film feel like realism. And it makes complete freedom feel so vital and gratifying, it’s as though Ferran is tempting viewers to drop their lives cold—while simultaneously warning about the possible aftershocks.
|17||Guardians Of The Galaxy|
Guardians Of The Galaxy benefited from a freedom rare for comic-book movies. It didn’t need to worry about disappointing legions of fans, because the source material is relatively obscure by Marvel-movie standards. Writer-director James Gunn (Super) delivered equal parts blockbuster spectacle and personal passion project, an oddball space opera headlined by Chris Pratt’s rakish Star-Lord and populated by such scene-stealers as the wisecracking Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a literal-minded mass of muscles and vengeance known as Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), fierce assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Groot (Vin Diesel), the most adorably, heroically wooden creature this side of the Giving Tree. It’s a comic-book movie with personality and soul, a dense, hilarious, imaginative world that’s worth revisiting over and over. Marvel movies are often shackled by fan expectations or the demands of a densely integrated universe, but Guardians Of The Galaxy feels gloriously free.
|18||The Missing Picture|
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Rithy Panh (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) was a little boy in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to genocidal power, and has spent much of his career trying to make sense of what happened. Part of the difficulty is that virtually all surviving photographic records of the period are official propaganda; the suffering that millions endured exists solely in anguished memories. The Missing Picture offers a unique, strangely poignant corrective: Panh stages moments from his childhood using dozens of clay figurines, carefully arranged on diorama-style sets, or superimposed onto archival footage. Had the film been made more conventionally—which is to say, had the necessary materials existed, as opposed to needing to be manufactured by hand—it likely would have felt conventionally despairing, like numerous other docs about historical atrocities. Representing these horrific events via little motionless avatars provides a level of abstraction that, paradoxically, makes them feel more immediate. It’s the same idea Todd Haynes had when he told the Karen Carpenter story using Barbie dolls, but on a grander, even bleaker scale.
Plenty of revenge thrillers are about how violence begets violence, but writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is one of the few that also acknowledges how violence can be really, physically hard. As a haunted loner named Dwight, Macon Blair is alternately pathetic and sympathetic, playing a character who’s determined to get even with the criminal family who destroyed his life—even though he may not be capable of doing the job. Saulnier and Blair (who also co-produced) root most of the action in what Dwight does and how he reacts, keeping the dialogue to a minimum and allowing the audience to think along with the hero. The result is a remarkably assured, increasingly tense film that shows how one bad decision forces another.
|20||Listen Up Philip|
Directors from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach have made comedies—often caustic ones like Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, or Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale—that poke at the foibles of the East Coast literary elite, but writer-director Alex Ross Perry goes right for the jugular. (It says something when narration by Eric Bogosian is the least abrasive element of the movie.) In Jason Schwartzman’s Philip Lewis Friedman, an up-and-coming novelist about to publish his second book (titled Obidant, thus erasing any impulse someone might have to buy it), Perry gets at the insecurity, restlessness, and self-involvement that affects certain men of letters, and the consequences their behavior has for themselves and the people who care about them. Shot in grainy 16mm and edited into sections that feel deliberately rough, like broken shards of glass, Listen Up Philip is about as defiantly vicious and absent of ingratiation as movies get. And yet Perry extends an enormous amount of generosity and depth to the characters in Philip’s sphere: Jonathan Pryce as once-revered, now-fading Philip Roth type who takes him under his wing for selfish reasons; Krysten Ritter as Pryce’s daughter, who harbors deep resentment over past and present neglect and abuse; and Elisabeth Moss as his jilted girlfriend, who hasn’t entirely forgotten the Philip she once loved.
Tomorrow: Our writers’ individual ballots, complete with breakdowns on the most memorable individual scenes of the year, and outliers that we want to champion, even if no one else on staff felt the same passion.