2014, like any year prior to it, was a magnificent year for moviegoing.
Granted, there were the duds, the sequels, the franchises, and, once again, a Michael Bay Transformers movie took the number one spot at the box office, but they pale in comparison to the slew of inventive, creative, and original movies that found their way on to screens big and small.
Depending on who you read, there were somewhere between 600 and 900 movies released in 2014. Certainly no shortage of options for adventurous moviegoers. Of those 600 to 900 new releases, I clocked in with 200 (an arbitrary goal I set for myself last January, I logged 185 in 2013) which is a nice round number that makes me foolish enough to search for greater themes and motifs from the year, but I will try to resist any pontificating as to what the following 10 (11 really) movies are trying to do in relation—or opposition—to the other movies released this year. It is an easy trap to get sucked into, but very few movies are made in reaction to other movies, current political events or shifts in the zeitgeist. Instead, they are released at fortuitous times and their message is given greater resonance, whether intended or not. It’s a funny thing, timing, and like a good punchline, it is necessary for a work of art to succeed.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, July 11)–Shot a couple of days at a time over the course of 12 years, writer/director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood strives to trace the experience of growing up. A lofty ambition to say the least and few have hit their mark quite like this. There have been some that criticize Boyhood’s over-simplification of life, or reductive nature (it is a white male experience after all), but a movie does not speak for a society. A movie can only speak for its characters, and in Boyhood, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) comes through loud and clear. But there is more, there is so much more. How Linklater and editor, Sandra Adair, turn periods into commas, constructing a life not of sentences, but of stream of consciousness; how cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly maintain a consistent style through the 12-year process; the stunning performances from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, etc. In Boyhood, Linklater documents a post 9-11 world, shifting politics, religion, pop culture, Texas, and on and on. All of the movies on this list are movies that contain multitudes that can be unpacked with multiple viewers, but Boyhood is a rare work where its ambition is matched by its execution. Boyhood is a living history.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, March 7)—What exactly is Wes Anderson’s style? Quirky? Cutesy? Whimsical? Exacting? Complex? As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune pointed out, there is a moment in Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket, where Dignan (Owen Wilson) pauses—mid-robbery—to slightly adjust the position of a green army man. Everything has a place and everything in its place. That is Wes Anderson’s style, and he has been using it (for better and for worse) ever since his debut almost 20-years ago, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson seems to find a new gear. Accumulating his previous experience in live-action and stop-motion, The Grand Budapest Hotel is one giant smorgasbord of cinema, incorporating every possible trick of the trade one could conceive and a few more, including three different aspect ratios that correspond to three different time periods. The story of Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel is a nostalgia for a time in Europe that never quite was, and indeed The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nostalgia for a time in cinema that never quite was. Some movies play like dreams, other like nightmares, but few play like tiny little universes. It’s all there for you to see, just go ahead and take a look.
God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch, September 5)—Can a pop song save your life? Maybe. At least that what Belle & Sebastian front man, Stuart Murdoch, wants you to believe. Belle & Sebastian has been making cinematic music full of classic heroines for the better part of two decades, so it only seems natural that Murdoch would try his hand at a movie. He got Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray to go along for the ride, and the viewer is the victor. Loosely based on the formation of Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch tackles (lightly) eating disorder, adolescence, and love, complete with all of the youthful energy these damaged characters can bring. And the music excels. It’s a beautiful jolt of joy.
The Immigrant (James Gray, May 16)—Roger Ebert famously called movies “empathy machines” and there were few in 2014 that had a devastating effect like James Gray’s The Immigrant. The story concerns Ewa (Marion Cotillard) a Polish immigrant who will get deported if she does not go with Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) a pimp of sorts. At first, Ewa hopes that Bruno will help her and reunited her with her sister, but she quickly realizes the life that awaits her and hardens her heart. Bruno, himself a Jewish immigrant, has already constructed a wall around his, but once he falls for Ewa, that wall starts to crumble. The lush and wonderful images from cinematographer, Darius Khondji, are stunning and they speak for themselves. The Immigrant is a classic piece of filmmaking that proves if the form ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Keep on Keepin’ On (Alan Hicks, December 5)—Keep on Keepin’ On is a documentary of a life well lived. In this case, that life belongs to Clark Terry, a phenomenal jazz trumpeter with an affable smile and a true love for the form. Terry’s story is the primary focus of Keepin’ On, but director Alan Hicks (himself a student of Terry) incorporates the rise of one of Terry’s students, the up-and-coming pianist, Justin Kauflin. It is a typical documentary with nothing remarkable in the filmmaking process, yet, the two subjects are profoundly humbling. Terry suffers from Type-2 Diabetes and it has taken his sight, both of his legs and his ability to play, Kauflin has been blind since age 11, but they resolve to keep on keepin’ on. Not because of the obstacles that they face, or even in spite of them, but because they wouldn’t have it any other way. Dizzy Gillespie once described Terry as the “happiest sound in jazz”, and Hicks manages to capture that sound, that mood, that spirit in practically every frame of Keep On Keepin’ On. The result is a powerful one, and it is one that has lingered.
The Lego Movie/Snowpiercer (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, February 7/Bong Joon-ho, June 27)—Grouping these two movies together seems like an odd marriage, but dig a little deeper: Both display an excellent sense of humor, both deal with father/son issues, both place the future of humanity firmly in the hands of the female, but most importantly, both render Joseph Campbell’s The Heroes’ Journey so well that it comes off as invention, not derivation. Snowpiercer is significantly grittier than The Lego Movie (these punches really kill), but both are a slickly produced and resonate with our current political and economic climate, as well as addressing the rift in gender roles, a little discussion of conformity and global warming and the basic relationships between sons and mothers, daughters and fathers and the all important question, “What is next?” Both films are too complex to neatly describe (or confine) but both manage to have their cake and eat it too.
Life Itself (Steve James, July 4)—Roger Ebert wasn’t just a lights-out film critic, he was a damn fine writer and documenter of the world around him. His 2011 memoir, Life Itself, was the entertaining and descriptive memories of one man’s journey from mid-western boyhood to the spotlight of newspapers and TV cameras, and all the bumps along the way. When Steve James announced that he was going to turn Ebert’s memoir into a documentary, he had plenty of material to draw on, but instead, James opted for a companion piece to Ebert’s memoir and Life Itself plays more like an oral history of Chicago’s beloved critic. Combining the last few months of Ebert’s life with archival footage from Ebert’s TV shows, appearances, speeches, and interviews from loved ones and friends, Life Itself doesn’t just give an idea of Ebert, but of a life lived well and well lived. Subject aside, Life Itself is an impressive piece of documentary that leaves a deeper impression than anything else, one that persists time after time.
Locke (Steven Knight, April 25)—In a way, Locke is the least cinematic of these picks, yet despite its imposed confinement, few movies have been this kinetic. The story tracks Stephen Locke (Tom Hardy) as he commutes from work to a hospital for the birth of his son. The movie plays in real-time, and takes place entirely in the front seat of Locke’s BMW as he conducts business and family matters over the phone. Hardy holds the screen for the entirety of the picture, but Locke is much more than a cinematic experiment, or a bravado performance, it is about finding stories in the smallest of places. A lot can happen on a car ride home, and in Locke, everything does happens. Locke, and for that matter Boyhood, has been unfairly maligned and dismissed as a cinematic exercises, in other words, “Nice effort, but we are hoping for a little more.” In essence, all movies are an exercise, but the ones that dare, the ones with ambition, are the ones that matter.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, April 11)—The mythical vampire have been so deeply mined for material in the past decade that most projects are delivered dead on arrival. Which is what made writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s take so revelatory, he managed to breathe life into an 800-year-old cranky couple and make them relatable. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch answers questions no one thought to ask: What does one do all night every night with no end in sight? How have GMOs, medication, and drugs affected the blood vampires need to survive? And, my favorite: How does one view humanity when the best of us are allowed to slip into obscurity of history? Featuring two rock-solid lead performances from Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton is a fresh and light look at a couple of ancient night-crawlers.
They Came Together (David Wain, June 27)—I appreciate movies that are aware they are movies and movie characters that act accordingly. Sometimes, the joke wears thin and can become overbearing and sometime it is too frequently used as a cop-out, but in the hands of David Wain and Co., They Came Together, becomes a laugh riot send-up from start to finish. The story is well crafted with all of the usual trappings: he works for a giant soul-sucking candy corporation and she works for a Non-Profit Candy Shoppe and boy do they fight like cats and dogs when they show up to the same Halloween party dressed as Benjamin Franklin, but when they discover that they have a mutual affection for fiction books, the sparks fly! Paul Rudd and Amy Pohler anchor this zany project chocked full of familiar faces and walk-on cameos, but what balances They Came Together is not just the meta-aspects of the plot and characters, but the sheer pleasure of the absurd. This was the only movie of 2014 where I can honestly say I laughed from start to finish, and still find the jokes funny six months later.
The Ten Worst of 2014
Cuban Fury (James Griffiths, April 11)
Earth to Echo (Dave Green, July 2)
Girl on a Bicycle (Jeremy Leven, February 14)
Hateship, Loveship (Liza Johnson, April 11)
Jimi: All is By My Side (John Ridley, September 26)
Life After Beth (Jeff Baena, August 15)
Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, October 17)
Tammy (Ben Falcone, July 2)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, March 14)
Yves Saint Laurent (Jalil Lespert, June 27)
The Ten Best Non-2014 Discoveries
Faraon (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1966)
Fat City (John Huston, 1972)
The Last Day of Summer (Tadeusz Konwicki, 1958)
Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
Ordet (Carl Theodore Dryer, 1955)
The Promised Land (Andrzej Wajda, 1975)
Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
Walker (Alex Cox, 1987)
A Complete List of New Releases Seen in 2014
5 to 7, 21 Years: Richard Linklater, 22 Jump Street, The 50-Year Argument, Adult World, Alan Partridge, Alive Inside, Alleluia, Altman, And the Oscar Goes To…, Art and Craft, August Winds, The Babadook, Ballin’ at the Graveyard, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Best Offer, Bethlehem, The Better Angels, Big Eyes, Big Hero 6, Bill the Galactic Hero, A Birders Guide to Everything, Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Blue Gold: American Jeans, Blue Ruin, The Book of Life, Boyhood, The Boxtrolls, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Case Against 8, Chinese Puzzle, Citizenfour, Closed Curtain, Club Sandwich, A Coffee in Berlin, Coherence, Cold in July, The Congress, Copenhagen, El Crítico, Cuban Fury, Cut Bank, Dance of Reality, Dancing in Jaffa, A Dangerous Game, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dear White People, The Dinner, The Double, Double Play: James Benning & Richard Linklater, The Drop, Earth to Echo, Edge of Tomorrow, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Enemy, Ernest & Celéstine, Fading Gigolo, The Fault in Our Stars, Fed Up, Filth, Finding Vivian Maier, First Cousins Once Removed, A Five Star Life, For No Good Reason, Force Majuere, Foxcatcher, Frank, Futuro Beach, Guardians of the Galaxy, Girl on the Bicycle, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Giuseppe Makes a Movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Grand Piano, God Help The Girl, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, The Guest, Hanna Ranch, Happy Christmas, Hateship Loveship, Heli, The Hero of Color City, An Honest Liar, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, I Believe in Unicorns, I Origins, If God Comes Let Him Bring a Gun, Ida, The Immigrant, Interstellar, Isolated, It Felt Like Love, Ivory Tower, Jimi: All Is By My Side, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Joe, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Keep On Keepin’ On, Kill the Messenger, Korengal, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, Lake Los Angeles, Land Ho!, Last Days of Vietnam, The Last Time You Had Fun, The Lego Movie, Le Week-End, Life After Beth, Life Itself, Lilting, Listen Up Philip, Locke, The Look of Silence, Love is in the Air, Love is Strange, Low Down, Lucy, The Lunchbox, Magic in the Moonlight, Maleficent, Manakamana, Men Women & Children, The Midnight Swim, Mile High Magic, Milius, The Missing Picture, Mistaken for Strangers, Mood Indigo, A Most Wanted Man, Mr. X, Muppets Most Wanted, My Old Lady, Nightcrawler, Night Moves, Noah, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, Obvious Child, Of Horses and Men, Omar, The One I Love, Only Lovers Left Alive, Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds, Out of Print, The Overnighters, Palo Alto, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, Particle Fever, Penguins of Madagascar, Poverty Inc., Proxy, Rich Hill, Rob the Mob, The Rover, Ride Along, Seymour: An Introduction, Snowpiercer, Stations of the Cross, Stranger By the Lake, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Take Me to the River, Tammy, Teenage, They Came Together, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Touch the Wall, Traitors, The Trip to Italy, Trouble Dolls, Trying to Kill Giants, Tusk, Two Days One Night, The Two Faces of January, Under the Skin, The Unknown Known, Venus in Furs, Veronica Mars, Visitors, Viva la Libertà, Walking Under Water, The Way He Looks, We Are The Best!, The Well, Whiplash, White Bird in a Blizzard, Who is Dayani Cristal?, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Wild, Wild Canaries, The Wind Rises, Willow Creek, Words and Pictures, Worst Case Scenario, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Young Kieslowski, Yves Saint Laurent, The Zero Theorem
Once again, a very special thanks to Lindsay for her constant support and encouragement.