No one could make a convincing argument 2014 was an outstanding year for films. That’s not to say it didn’t feature several outstanding films, but piecing together a top 10 list was much more difficult than it might have been in 2013 and would’ve been literally impossible if the output from the last three months of the year was not included.
Much of the year in film catered toward blockbuster action films and sequels, a trend that will continue through the forseeable future. Modern Hollywood is on the precipice of a major turning point. As in years past, the list of top box office performers was littered with new franchises and sequels. With 25 sequels in various franchises scheduled to be released in 2015 and the film branches of Marvel and DC unveiling plans for numerous franchises and sequels over the next five years, we’re entering deeper into a world where studios bankroll projects that require the absolute least amount of risk. That’s not to say some of these films aren’t well done, but for every “X-Men: Days of Future Past” or “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” there are 10 variations on the mindless drivel Michael Bay produces.
If any sign arrived that the prospects for challenging and provocative filmmaking are in jeopardy, it was the year-end farce surrounding the release of Seth Rogen’s North Korea-mocking “The Interview” and the subsequent retaliatory Sony hacking. The absurd drama resulted in theater chains dropping the film, Sony then cancelling the Christmas Day release and ultimately backtracking to release the film in independent theatres and for online streaming. I watched “The Interview” on Google Play over the holidays and it’s little more than a moderately funny film, but the uproar and panic over it could set an ugly precedent for the future. If a film as slight as “The Interview” can pose this much of a threat to artistic freedom, then what are the prospects for a truly important film with a challenging message?
In the midst of the turmoil, some outstanding films were released. One film stood out well above the rest, but the entire top 10 show there is still a future for exciting filmmaking.
- Guardians of the Galaxy
It wasn’t quite the top box-office earner of the year, but it’s safe to say “Guardians of the Galaxy” was the most buzzed about box office hit of 2014. Marvel had already long since solidified its place as a Hollywood power player with “The Avengers,” as well as the “Iron Man” and “Captain America” franchises, but “Guardians” ensured the comic book giant has the Midas touch at the moment. Reviving a little-known series from the Marvel back catalog, “Guardians” is one of the funniest and least self-serious superhero films of recent memory.
Chris Pratt cemented his ability to carry a film as Peter Quill a.ka. Star Lord, and he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including a racoon bounty hunter voiced by Bradley Cooper and a tree-like humanoid whose only lines are a variation on “I am Groot.” If it sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s the point and the movie is well aware. Everyone involved knows they’re a part of a big-budget action film and have a blast flipping expectations for the genre on their side.
In recent years, Jon Favreau has made a second career for himself as a director, most notably with the first “Iron Man” film. He’s behind the camera for this one as well, but also in front of the screen, playing the title character of Carl Casper, a Los Angeles chef who is stuck cooking an uninspired menu at the behest of his blowhard restauranteur boss, played by Dustin Hoffman. Casper finally reaches a breaking point after an encounter with a food critic and sets out to reinspire himself. This leads to the bulk of the film, where he renovates a food truck and drives it cross country from Miami back home to L.A. with his former kitchen partner, played by John Leguizamo, and his son, with stops along the way in New Orleans and Austin.
This is the definition of simple, feel-good filmmaking. The plot is paper-thin and what little there is doesn’t amount to much drama, but “Chef” is one of the most enjoyable films of 2014, consistently entertaining and often very funny.
A word of warning though: this is not a movie you should watch when you’re hungry. As you might expect from a film about a chef, much of the running time is spent depicting the preparation of delicious-looking meals. More than likely, you’ll be dying for a Cuban sandwich after watching this film.
There are many reasons to fear for humanity’s future, but a prevailing one in the 21st century is our voyeuristic thirst for sensationalism. We’re repulsed by a car crash or a violent murder, but we can’t look away and the media preys upon this compulsion. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles petty thief who discovers there is money to be made by filming footage of accidents and crimes and then selling the footage to local news stations. As he becomes more and more successful in his new profession, his true nature emerges with disturbing results.
Gyllenhaal dropped about 30 pounds for the role, reducing his body to a thin frame with eyes bugging out as he exploits other people’s misfortune. Similar to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is on the outside looking in at the rest of the world. It’s not that he doesn’t understand normal emotions, like empathy, he simply prefers his own detached world view.
Shot mostly at night in Los Angeles, “Nightcrawler” evokes a side of the city that feels seedy and corrupt, much like the characaters in the film. Rene Russo offers a strong performance as a local TV producer, but Gyllenhaal is the draw here. He commits completely to the role and creates a memorable portrait of a sociopath.
Nine years ago, Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award for portraying June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.” She seemed primed for a long stretch of fantastic roles and though she still remained firmly in the spotlight, Witherspoon’s talents were mostly wasted in lame romantic comedies and misguided dramas. That disappointment makes her performance in “Wild” all the more satisfying.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who abruptly decides to hike the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone after a series of personal setbacks. Interspersing Cheryl’s journey with flashbacks to her past, the film effectively evokes the way we recall things, fragmented memories that emerge in a disjointed pattern. None of it would work without a powerful lead performance, and Witherspoon is up to the task. Onscreen for the entire running time, she carries the film, often in scenes by herself, and makes you feel sympathy for a character that could very easily come off as unlikeable at times.
- Inherent Vice
I read Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” over the summer and it proved to be a very confusing, but also very funny, novel that makes you feel you are experiencing some sort of altered state. The film version, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights”), is extremely faithful to the novel, but somehow manages to create a much more satisfying experience.
Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a stoner private investigator in 1970 who is asked by an ex-girlfriend to investigate a plot to kidnap her current lover, a Los Angeles real-estate mogul. Sportello subsequentally also becomes involved in pursuing the disappearence of a saxophone player from a surf band and the death of a white-supremacist bodyguard, all of which could be tied to the machinations of a mysterious enterprise know as the Golden Fang.
It sounds confusing and it is, but similar to the novel, it becomes clear pretty quickly the plot is a secondary concern. It’s far more engaging to simply enjoy watching Phoenix’s Sportello bounce from scene to scene, encountering one outrageous character after another. Few are as bizarre as Josh Brolin’s Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a straight-edge, crewcutted LAPD detective who seems to take strange pleasure in antagonizing Sportello.
The meandering plot and slow pacing will confound some people, but the best approach is to simply go with the flow and trust that Anderson, who really has never made a bad film, knows what he’s doing. Beyond the humor and the confusing plot, “Inherent Vice” is a compelling depiction of the post-Manson era in L.A. and the clear division between clean-cut white America and the slowly-dying free-love, hippie culture.
- Gone Girl
The best thriller of 2014 and one of the year’s most talked-about films, “Gone Girl” lived up to the expectations of the source novel’s fans. In literary form, “Gone Girl” features alternating first-person narratives by a pair of unreliable narrators, a structure that wouldn’t work on film, but author Gillian Flynn found a way transfer the story to film while retaining suspense and tension even for those that know all of the plot’s twists and turns.
Playing Amy, a housewife married to Nick (Ben Affleck) who mysteriously disappears on the day of her anniversary, relative unknown Rosamund Pike gives an outstanding performance with a number of layers that can’t really be discussed without going into spoiler territory. Suffice to say Amy is an extremely complicated character to play, but Pike is up for the challenge and gives a performance that will stay with you long after the film ends.
“Gone Girl” has a lot to say about the nature of marriage, gender roles and whether one can ever truly know their partner. These are weighty issues, but “Gone Girl” balances this by placing them in the midst of a truly insane storyline that is very entertaining to watch and often darkly funny.
It’s kind of amazing there have not been more screen adaptations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life considering his cultural legacy in America. In “Selma”, director Ava DuVernay wisely opts to focus on a single moment from King’s life, zeroing in on the legendary activist’s role in leading the 1965 voter registration march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Everything in the film hinges on the role of King, and British actor David Oyelowo is transformative in the part. Apparently the filmmakers were unable to get the rights to King’s actual speeches, but Oyelowo is still able to capture the reverend’s oratory power before large crowds. He’s equally effective in quieter scenes, most notably the ones depicting King’s strained home life with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
“Selma” gains additionally power by the fact that despite taking place nearly 50 years ago, it’s very much an appropriate film for the current state of our nation. Premiering the same year as the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, “Selma” is a reminder that racial tension is still very much a part of our society and we’re still far from achieving the ideals King sought after.
Riggan Thomson is a washed-up actor who gained fame by playing the superhero Birdman in a series of films, but is now staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway. In a stroke of genius, Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, whose own career has had few highlights since he appeared in the title role of the first two “Batman” films. Keaton displays no vanity as he effectively embodies Riggan’s desperation for the play to succeed while he also struggles to maintain his sanity. Keaton is the showcase here, but he’s supported by a couple of equally strong performances by Edward Norton, as a hilariously pompous stage actor hired at the last minute for one of the play’s lead roles, and Emma Stone, as Riggan’s troubled daughter who has just been released from rehab.
Essentially the entire film takes place inside of the theatre housing Riggan’s play, and Inarritu manages to convey the claustrophobia of the setting by shooting the film to appear as one long shot. This effect is enhanced by some outstanding cinematography and a pulsating jazz –beat score.
“Were you rushing or were you dragging?” That line reading will likely send a chill down the spine after seeing “Whiplash.” It is spoken by J.K Simmons as Fletcher, a conductor at a prestigious New York City music conservatory, to aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and is preceded by Fletcher hurling a chair at Andrew’s head during a rehearsal.
Films about the contentious relationship between teacher and student are nothing new, but few are as intense as “Whiplash.” Simmons, who is all but guaranteed to win an Academy Award next month for his work here, takes a character who could come off as a one-note villain and makes him much more complicated. Fletcher doesn’t simply push his students to their breaking point out of sadistic pleasure (though that’s definitely part of it), but primarily because he believes that is the only way someone can truly achieve greatness.
Teller matches Simmons beat for beat as Andrew. In most films of this vein, the protagonist is a faultless innocent being victimized by a brutal superior, but while Teller’s Andrew is sympathetic, he’s not completely likeable, willing to alienate family or his girlfriend in his pursuit of musical success.
The question propelling the film forward is how far is too far to reach one’s goals and everything builds to an outstanding final act built around a concert performance. On the surface, the film’s resolution could be construed as a triumphant crowd-pleaser, but it’s ultimately a somewhat disturbing denouement that will leave the viewer with some conflicted emotions.
It’s difficult to recall a year when one film stood out above the rest as significantly as Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” did in 2014. For its technical achievement alone, filming an ongoing fictional narrative with the same actors over 12 years, “Boyhood” would be a landmark film, but it is far more than a hollow experiment. Instead “Boyhood” is a moving narrative that stays with you long after it has ended.
There’s a danger some viewers will come out of “Boyhood” uttering the same lament Patricia Arquette provides late in the film: “I just thought there would be more.” On the surface “Boyhood” is a film where it seems very little of consequence takes place and certainly nothing out of the ordinary. Ellar Coltrane’s Mason ages from six to 18, bouncing along with his older sister (Lorelai Linklater) as their mother Olivia (Arquette) goes through a series of troubled marriages and eventually becomes a college professor. On the fringes are Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and a number of other supporting characters who move in and out of his life, all of them shaping him into the young man who leaves for college as the film ends.
The regularness of the film’s narrative gives the film relatibility and each moment of the film that seems inconsequential on its own accumulates to a very moving combined piece.
Coltrane’s is clearly not a professional actor, but his lack of onscreen polish is crucial to keeping Mason’s narrative grounded in reality. He is also supported by a pair of outstanding performances from Hawke and Arquette, who like Coltrane, age and evolve over the film’s 12-year span.
Ultimately the greatest credit for the film’s success needs to go to Linklater. From his breakthrough with “Dazed and Confused” to the underappreciate “Before” series and studio hits like “School of Rock,” Linklater has always seemed to be an under-the-radar talent, but with “Boyhood” he’s reached a career-high by writing and directing a film that will resonate for a long time.