Writing a year-end movie wrap-up is a useful way of acknowledging quality, but it’s also a handy method for capturing what’s in the air at any given moment. Check lists from 1967 or 1985, and you can tell a lot about the temper of the times.
This year, anybody who filed an annual think-piece before mid-December missed the movie story of 2014. The film in question, of course, is The Interview—pulled from wide release by its studio, but still the recipient of more press than all the other big holiday movies combined. Seth Rogen’s North Korean assassination-com got Sony hacked and cast a chill across Hollywood. (Anyone care to make a political satire now about Putin’s Russia? Oh, right: Andrey Zvyagintsev already did with Leviathan, due here in February.) Whatever The Interview’s merits—it’s now playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown; see our website for full review—it eclipsed a movie year that was already very mixed.
Big Hollywood films disappointed, although the delightful Guardians of the Galaxy—sure to be the year’s top-grossing picture—sent a message that a movie could be wildly popular and still be hugely quirky. And it wasn’t a sequel or a remake.
There was encouraging news in the lower-budgeted ranks, where some filmmakers took fascinating chances. An entire movie about a guy in a car? Steven Knight’s Locke gave Tom Hardy a bravura one-man show. A comedy about abortion? Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child created a risky blend of the thoughtful and the profane, and launched Jenny Slate as a leading lady. And how can we describe Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin—a revenge movie with a Home Alone homage? Maybe the most reassuring sign of the year was the continued health of indie-film stalwarts. Directors like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson hit high notes, and Jim Jarmusch found new life. John Sayles’ little-seen Go for Sisters (released here in January) was his best in years.
Who were the year’s losers? Well, Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal had a hard time of it, as you may have heard. And anyone who ever sent an e-mail in Hollywood is feeling nervous right now. We might also note that the sword-and-sandals picture failed to make a comeback: Remember Pompeii, The Legend of Hercules, or just plain Hercules? Neither does anybody else. The holiday-season soft opening of Exodus: Gods and Kings might be the last gasp on that score.
But let’s survey the best of 2014, and imagine what all this might tell us about ourselves when we look back in 10 years. A pink box of sugary confections from Mendl’s Bakery to the following:
1 The Grand Budapest Hotel Both hotel and movie seem to spring from a vanished era—but such is the pleasure of Wes Anderson’s wonderful comedy about a fussy hotel manager (Ralph Fiennes) and his way of doing things just so. “His world had vanished long before he ever entered it, but . . . he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” That’s a description of Fiennes’ Monsieur Gustave, but also of Anderson’s moviemaking method.
2 Only Lovers Left Alive Jim Jarmusch directed this stylish vampire movie, with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as immortals lounging around Detroit. The movie makes decadence look pretty good, as the vampires cling to music and books (and regular doses of hospital plasma) while the rest of society declines into barbarism.
3 Under the Skin Good movies create their own worlds, and my top three are all about that. None is more alarming than what we see in this film, in which a mysterious visitor (Scarlett Johansson) lures men to their horrifying ends. Director Jonathan Glazer keeps us guessing right up to the unexpectedly touching conclusion, and composer Mica Levi’s music will give you nightmares.
4 Two Days, One Night I’m looking ahead on this one, because although it counts as a 2014 release, it doesn’t open around here until January 30. But it’s great: Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker who must go around convincing her fellow employees not to vote her out of a job. The simplicity of the setup is heart-wringing, and Belgian filmmaking duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike) have created one of their best.
5 Boyhood This is the film Richard Linklater and his cast took 12 years to make—allowing the realistic aging of its youthful protagonist (Ellar Coltrane, who goes from age 6 to 18). Linklater leaves out the three-act story arc in favor of the gentle unfolding of childhood experiences; that they don’t seem to build to Something Big is part of the point. It’s not a masterpiece—I don’t think it wants to be—but it’s a special movie.
6 Blue Ruin and The Rover (tie). Two action movies with a twist. Ruin is a loopy revenge picture that takes it for granted that revenge is an absurd exercise; leading man Macon Blair gives a heroic performance. Rover is a grim Aussie film, mildly post-apocalyptic, in which Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson make an uneasy duo. Director David Michod strips everything down so that all details matter—including the payoff of the last 60 seconds.
8 Force Majeure A Swedish film that delivered the searing view of marriage that Gone Girl supposedly contained. A husband has a weak moment during a brief crisis; his wife won’t let him forget it. Director Ruben Östlund keeps the temperature on simmer for the remainder of the film.
9 The Homesman Tommy Lee Jones directed and stars in a Western about a frontier lady (Hilary Swank) guiding a wagon full of deranged women. It has some odd shifts from comedy to drama, but the overall mood is haunting.
10 Edge of Tomorrow This sci-fi variation on Groundhog Day was considered a box-office disappointment, but it’s an ingenious piece of big-canvas Hollywood moviemaking. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt play futuristic warriors navigating a crease in the time-space continuum, in which new lessons must be learned with every repetition of the same day.
Many good films jockey for runner-up position. I liked Joanna Hogg’s British mood piece, Exhibition; Kelly Reichardt’s low-key look at eco-terrorists, Night Moves; Roman Polanski’s finely calibrated Venus in Fur; and John Curran’s Aussie walkabout, Tracks. Strong genre pictures were led by Jennifer Kent’s storybook tale The Babadook, Bong Joon-ho’s crazed sci-fi flick Snowpiercer, and—you bet—James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Make room for Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange, which gave great roles to John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, and the adolescent punk rockers of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! And there were quite a few good documentaries, but Finding Vivian Maier deserves special note for its poignant profile of an artist who remained completely and utterly unknown—until now.
Missed/on my Scarecrow list: Coherence, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lucy.