As I write this the month of December has just started and Wal-Mart Black Friday shoppers are still nursing last weekend’s battle wounds. To whom I feel the need to tangentially say… take comfort retail guerrillas, a good-sized television with a clean picture is worth every beating you take to land it. Don’t let these Centurion Card ball-breakers, who paid full price, try to convince you otherwise.
This country was built on war and television. You honor us one and all.
Back to subject. As I reflect on the year in movies this week it strikes me that though it wasn’t, for me personally, a generally strong year for commercial blockbusters, it turned out 2014 was a really good year for indie features. Which wasn’t just a nice surprise, but, lets be honest, was a much needed respite from chronic blockbuster fatigue. (read Marvel’s upcoming line-up of comic book movie releases from now till 2019 and tell me that that activity won’t put hair on your palms) So many meaty indie movies hit in 2014 that for the first time what I liked started lining up with the rest of the film analysts in gen-pop.
Not that I totally bought into everything Club Meh went for. Looking around at the other Top 10 film lists released this month, there’s a well beaten path of material that it seems like few film critics were willing to stray too far off of, (Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Lego Movie) and then a gnarled tangle of briars and weeds (read Richard Brody’s Top 10 of 2014 list for illumination) where anyone outside of a few desperate psycho-hipsters would dare venture. Too many of these lists I’m coming across this December are safe and fleeting, or are, even worse, stuffy and impervious – and fleeting. It is my firm belief that if you publish a Top 10 list you should be willing to sit down and marathon it at some point in the future.
Which means, yes homeboy, you’re going to have to watch Manakamana and Goodbye To Language and Leviathan back to back to back if you really mean it. I think we’d start seeing a more optimistic, less self-aggrandizing, attitude in the Top 10 community in the future.
To make a point out of any of this, what I’m saying is that some years the film snobs get an extra ration of grog, other years the cosplay geek gets his. 2014 was the year of the critic. So raise your rum and howl you filthy, stuck-up scallywags.
Looking ahead to 2015 – with the return of golden geek-era properties like Star Wars and Jurassic Park, as well as Comic-Con powerhouses like The Avengers sequel – it’s going to be the year of the commercial blockbuster. Which I couldn’t be more excited for. After 30 years I will finally get a chance to lay eyes on a new Mad Max film next Summer.
In the meantime however… here’s the ten movies from 2014 that I completely flipped out over:
10) Begin Again – Directed by John Carney
Call it a character flaw, call it a defect in my appreciation of the art form, call it a chink in my masculinity, but John Carney movies charm the pants off of me. I was all geared-up to hate Begin Again (trailer) with its cutesy, A-list cast – some of them reprobates from NBC’s The Voice – and its exchange-Dublin-for-New York retooling of Once, but then, damnit all to hell, this movie ended up winning me over with its infectious naivety and optimism. In Carney stories the ills of the world are quickly diagnosed – our hearts are broken too easily. As luck would have it, the cure to our fragility is a quick fix – we can pick up a guitar and make music. I remember back when Cameron Crowe made films like this one. All heart and invincible sentimentality. Fun, feel-bluesy films where the characters don’t always end up together, but they do end up drowning their melancholy in wine and song together. Begin Again also has my favorite ending in any movie in 2014. The film starts – I thought brilliantly – with Mark Ruffalo’s Dan drunkenly arranging an imaginary band behind Gretta’s live (dead) acoustic performance in a bar – giving the song some much needed punch and volume. The film ends with Gretta watching as the most personal song in her catalog is expanded into a stadium pop anthem by the man she wrote it for. It’s exactly at this moment the real tragedy of this singer/song writer becomes clear. All she wants is to keep her music at a basic, personal level, while all the men in her life want to take that intimacy and blow it up into something profitable. Stick around for the credits though. The capitalist pigs don’t quite win in this instance.
9) Coherence – Directed by James Ward Byrkit
So you haven’t heard of this. Which normally is the only criteria some movies need to land on any given critic’s Top 10 list. (I’m looking at you Force Majeure) If I were to tell you that the most mind-bending and worthwhile science fiction film this year wasn’t Interstellar, but happened to be a small, independent puzzler of a motion picture directed by the guy that wrote Rango – would you believe me? I wouldn’t either. Though some folks have compared Byrkit’s Coherence (trailer) to the 2004 film Primer, I don’t believe it’s a comparison that gives enough credit to how great Coherence is on its own. Unlike Shane Carruth’s film, Coherence doesn’t ever lose sight of its identity as an entertainment property under the onslaught of science. It’s a much more fun, drafty film than either Primer or Upstream Color. It takes care of the viewer even as it puts their concentration and intellect through their paces. Since most of the fun of Coherence is learning what the flick is about I’ll leave the plot alone. Just know that James Ward Byrkit decided to shoot his movie like one of those How To Host a Murder parties. His actors – all professional improv talent – were given plot points to bring up in the general discussion of the evening, not knowing what was going to happen next. The end result is a dinner party spent with the liberally perfumed, liberally moneyed, liberally self referential cast of a Robert Mondavi wine commercial as they descend into insecurity, mistrust, and madness. It’s bloody wonderful.
8) Top Five – Directed by Chris Rock
The death of a comedian is no small thing. We lost Robin Williams in August. I can only speak for myself, but celebrity deaths rarely feel like personal losses, except this one did. The comedian understands the world better than the world understands the world. When Hamlet lifted Yorick’s skull and asked: “Where are your jibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that wont to set the table on a roar?” He meant it. That scene in Shakespeare’s play beautifully illustrating the wear and tear of being the clown. The loss of Robin, the weird, unsettling downfall of Bill Cosby, the near fanatical hostility toward political incorrectness permeating the zeitgeist – and lets not forget about North Korean hackers threatening mayhem and murder at openings of The Interview here stateside this month – have kind of created a black hole in contemporary comedy in 2014. So it was within this gloomy climate that I went into Chris Rock’s Top Five, (trailer) and discovered that Rock, by pure providence, was struggling with the same issues. In Top Five he’s pretty much Hamlet holding up his own empty skull and asking it: Why aren’t we as funny as we used to be? Not that Top Five is the funniest film of 2014 – I think that distinction goes handily to Neighbors – it just presents comedy as a vital resource to our continued sanity. Or in this film, continued sobriety. Chris Rock didn’t make a definable comedy, (though I definitely do not want to downplay how funny this movie is – when Rock throws punches they are in stinging flurries) in contrast Top Five is that other “F” word. It’s a legitimate film. Off the cuff, aloof, sincere, and as crazy as it may sound.. kind of heart-warming. I didn’t see this one coming. Love late year surprises.
7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Directed by Matt Reeves
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes (trailer) is a film about revolution – an ideology we sort of romanticize here in the west. The movie may open like a Disney picture, (a newborn prince, a satisfied king in his castle) but ends up buried in the vicinity of The Battle of Algiers. Its characters may strive toward the common goal of peace between species, but violent revolution looms – and soon, consumes – the diplomacy between the two tribes. Men become slaves. Gorillas become guerrillas. I saw many, many horror movies in 2014, (my favorite being Zachary Donohue’s The Den) but for my money the single scariest moment on film this year was the moment where the villain Koba grabs the ape Ash by the hair, after Ash refuses to participate in an execution, and then hauls the chimp kicking and screaming up the steps inside of a court house, and hurls him off a balcony to his death. However romantic the idea of revolution may have been it gets swallowed up immediately in this moment in this film. For once we have a PG-13 Summer film where the act of committing violence isn’t camouflaged under the guise of “action” – instead, it’s just as ugly and terrifying as it should be. After Cloverfield, Let Me In, and now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves certainly has a career started worth investing a major interest in.
6) Whiplash – Directed by Damien Chazelle
I’m not a fan of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide because I have a thing for submarine movies. I love the flick because you get to see two heavyweight actors like Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman tear into each other like pugilists. Same thing goes for Whiplash. (trailer) Though I knew that JK Simmons was a tough contender, I had no idea, until this film, that Miles Teller had this amount of fight in him. My interest in jazz music hovers somewhere just under disgruntled acceptance. Thankfully, what you take away from Whiplash has nothing to do with your investment in music theory, history, or appreciation. Your first peek at Simmons is in your first minute of the film, and if the look of his character, Fletcher, (wizened beatnik with day-glo blue eyes, a 19 year old’s muscle mass buried under a 60 year old’s elastic skin, with the official arsehole’s haircut of no hair at all) doesn’t send shivers down your spine, just wait till he starts talking. Think of Fletcher’s mouth as the gangway door of one of those landing craft during the Normandy invasion sequence of Saving Private Ryan. When it opens, absolutely all hell breaks loose. Now that I’ve managed to bring two war films into the Whiplash conversation, the metaphor seems correct to me. There are scenes in Whiplash that flat rattled me. Imagine my surprise when one of the most edgy, ballsy – dare I say, dangerous – movies of 2014 turned out to be a movie about a student drummer’s war with his jazz teacher. I left Whiplash completely exhausted, empowered, and grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. Not all critically friendly movies need be boring. Here’s proof.
5) Under The Skin – Directed by Jonathan Glazer
My current opinion of this business is that most of it, especially the podcasting sector, has become a litany of collegiate level educations haggling over the value of Sam Raimi and Verhoeven movies. Young, bright academics slumming it under the pretense of eccentricity and kitsch. My big idea is to grab three men like myself, older men of rough intellect, and do a podcast where we tackle films above our academic paygrade. Imagine the apes in A Space Odyssey, but taking 100 lb. pneumatic jackhammers to the monolith. First in line would be Jonathan Glazer’s masterpiece of minutia and molting, Under The Skin. (trailer) As to why I believe that Under The Skin is a masterpiece I can only point at the entire thing – the music which might not be music at all, the make-up, the clothes, the cold, synthetic lighting palette, the aimlessness of its narrative, the guerrilla filmmaking, Johansson’s perfect (wait for it…) neutral performance as the film’s ballast, its ethereal and oddly touching ending – and say that as far as cinema is concerned, this feels like what Stanley Kubrick began to explore back in 1968, and that no one with any true proficiency has managed to get close to until now. Some men are capable of recreating the dreamworld on film. Jon Glazer has that gift. He’s made something lasting and substantial with Under The Skin. Like its beautiful antagonist it doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere around here. Totally otherworldly, yet curiously innerworldly at the same time.
4) The Raid 2: Berandal – Directed by Gareth Evans
Nobody in this business bangs harder and heavier than Gareth Evans. Absolutely nobody. While Snowpiercer seems like the critically trendier, instant-film-geek-cred pick during this Top 10 season, it’s still just a madhouse melange of crushed noses, crushed bug bars, a slug of caste system satire, with no real ending. On the other hand, Berandal (trailer) breaks plenty of bones – and rules – and has an absolutely epic ending. I doubt anyone (outside of a pun merchant) would call a movie where one cop fries another cop’s head on a commercial kitchen range a slow-burn movie, but compared to its predecessor, The Raid: Redemption, Berandal does take its time. Evans makes something in the vein of a deep-cover cop film – sort of like Scorsese’s The Departed – but with rabid violence and fight scenes so thrilling they border on religious experiences. There are moments in Berandal – vicious, body-altering moments – that you will never be able to unsee, so better hit the rewind button on your Blu-ray player and see them again. I read an interview where Evans explained how they got a continuous shot during the film’s car chase sequence, (a car chase that involves a four-way fist fight in one car, and a gun battle raging in the chase cars) which involved cameramen on sport bikes shooting the action in the lead vehicle, pulling out and dropping back to the second car, where another cameraman – camouflaged as a CAR SEAT – took the camera and continued to shoot the action in his vehicle. In the era of the CG quick-fix, this is the kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants filmmaking approach action cinema needs. The Raid 2 was straight up gangster. Now bring on The Raid 3 please.
3) Calvary – Directed by Michael McDonagh
If I could grab the Brothers McDonagh – Martin and Michael – and plant big kisses of affection on each man’s forehead, I would do so mercilessly and without shame. The two siblings are uncanny filmmakers and truly gifted screenwriters. I discovered Martin through In Bruges a few years ago, and then Seven Psychopaths a couple after that. Since I’m always looking for new talent to stalk, it seemed like I stumbled upon creative gold. Martin is a pure filmmaking fan’s filmmaker. One who can navigate the fragile membrane between comedy and melancholy – and still knock you over with spectacular dialog. Until recently I had no idea that he had a brother who made films just as sharp and dark, and just as painfully funny. With the McDonagh brothers, it seemed like I had stumbled upon not just gold, but an entire goldmine. Both guys representing the muse Thalia. Both Melpomene. Both just as heavy with the pen as they are with the gun. (look closely in the opening few minutes of Calvary and you’ll spot Michael’s nod to his brother’s film In Bruges in the headline of a newspaper Father James is reading at breakfast) But enough about House McDonagh. Calvary… completely blew me away. (trailer) In a year that made the Bible look like amateur hour, (Noah, Exodus: Gods and Kings) it was a surprise to discover a film with a script that didn’t tackle the subject of faith with kid gloves, but still managed to leave it with its dignity in tact. Brendan Gleeson’s Father James answers some pretty brutal questions in this movie – all while facing a date with a murderer that he knows the identity of, but we’re never let in on until the end of the story. Calvary is a complex film. At the same time, there’s a simple, savage honesty to Gleeson’s performance. Surely the finest work the actor’s ever done, and one of the best performances of 2014.
2) Gone Girl – Directed by David Fincher
Before talking about this film, and after writing about that last one, it feels like I should enter the confessional booth as well. David Fincher is my all time favorite film director. As it so happens, Fatal Attraction is one of my all time favorite movies from the 80’s. Gone Girl (trailer) and Fatal Attraction are cinema royalty to me. Dark queens of surreptitious majesty and distant relation, but sharing the same craving for ripping out the human heart – unfurling it like a rubber coin purse, exposing its plaque-caked hollows and hidden mysteries. Though I still firmly believe that Gone Girl is a movie that Fincher cleverly molded into a commentary about the proliferation of cameras in our society, and as a side effect, our growing obsession with the cult of image – it’s still kindred spirit to Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction. I labeled it 2014’s perfect date movie because it’s not just a great movie, (and make no bones about it, Gone Girl is a movie, most definitely not anything as snooty as a film) but it’s going to get couples discussing all of the important relationship questions. Questions like: What would we do in the aftermath of infidelity? What can our love survive? More importantly, what can’t it survive? Also, if things go sideways, how do I get away with your murder? Think of it as a horror flick for the freshly betrothed. Think of it as a popcorn movie for people who believe that they’re above popcorn movies. Which is what David Fincher’s films have always been. He lives in the neutral zone between art and entertainment. Though Gone Girl has pop-fiction trappings, they only make the film that much more subversive and feral. And lets face it, Trent Reznor is the man when it comes to scoring movies.
1) Nightcrawler – Directed by Dan Gilroy
I’m searching my memory trying to remember a director’s debut feature that was as polished, as hot, that packed as much punch, as Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. (trailer) I have to look back to the year 2000 when Andrew Dominik released Chopper on an unsuspecting world. Out of everything I saw in 2014 this was the one movie that gave me the biggest buzz. Nothing as boring as an Oscar buzz, but a genuine alcohol buzz – one that never dissipated or wavered in strength through the entire run of the film. If your love for movies borders on psychosis, Nightcrawler is the stimulative equivalent of cramming your frontal lobe into a live light socket and holding it there for 117 most excellent minutes. As far as acting is concerned, it didn’t get any better than Gyllenhaal’s performance in this film, this year. No matter which stud the Academy decides to drop their trophy on next February, nobody put in better work than Jake in 2014. He started off hot in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and he absolutely kills it in Nightcrawler. As far as the film is concerned – and yes, this was my favorite movie of 2014 – Nightcrawler fits right in with other cult status LA crime movies like Heat, LA Confidential, Collateral, Drive, Chinatown, and Pulp Fiction. It has that muscular, tabloid attitude you only develop by cruising lead-footed through the halogen canyons of The City Of Angels at 3am in the morning. Last year I was a huge fan of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In 2011 it was Drive. Whatever dark appreciation I’ve been blessed with for the more oily corners of the cinema world, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler finds a hallowed seat there. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have it.