The Movies We Loved in 2014
Brian Phillips: You were hoping, perhaps, for subtler dialogue? Deeper character development? Insight both profound and sympathetic into the workings of the human soul? A plot that made sense? Is that what you thought you were signing up for when you bought your popcorn for the giant-lizard movie? OK, sure — on the traditional-cinematic-virtues front, Godzilla may not have been Ikiru, or even Yojimbo, or even Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. But come on; knocking this film for having a thin screenplay is like knocking a volcano for having incoherent politics. Godzilla: The Story was a utilitarian holding tank for Godzilla: The Procession of Unforgettable City-Ravaging Monster Fights, and I’m sorry, I was riveted. The sense of scale, the slow pans across screen-filling demon shoulders, the searing eyes, the skydiving-elephant screams — it was as if a sheaf of William Blake drawings had come to life and immediately started eating each other (as they would). Compared with something like Guardians of the Galaxy, it wasn’t a movie at all, which was what made it so great. It was the moment when you closed your eyes afterward and saw the creature coming out of the flame halo at the back of your skull. Was Samuel L. Jackson or somebody in it? I have no idea.
Jimi: All Is by My Side and Get on Up
Alex Pappademas: It was a great, great year for flawed, ambitious docudramas about flawed, ambitious black-mystic entertainers. By embracing doubt and ambiguity as organizing principles, John Ridley’s Jimi: All Is by My Side and Tate Taylor’s Get on Up both dynamited great-man-biopic convention as thoroughly as their respective subjects — Jimi Hendrix and James Brown — did the American songbook. Taylor’s estate-approved film, the glossier and more lavishly soundtracked of the two, is the most unflinching, druggy, and free-associative movie about a prominent Republican since Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Ridley’s film, made for $25 million less than Taylor’s and without access to a note of Hendrix’s music, might be even better. André Benjamin’s often quite funny lead performance chisels a rock god free of canonical amber and lets him breathe; Ridley’s script gives us Jimi the dreamer but also Jimi the misogynist and Jimi the fierce head-cutting competitor and Jimi the politically benighted hipster doofus, and makes excuses for none of them.
Molly Lambert: In the spirit of great Los Angeles night movies like Collateral and Heat, Dan Gilroy’s thriller, driven by a bug-eyed nightmare of a performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, is an instant classic. A West Coast Travis Bickle with a greasy Harvey Levin sheen, Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, trawls the bioluminescent late-night streets of L.A. like a bottom-feeding predator, tonguing up every last bloody bit of marine snow. Nightcrawler is a great, dark, cynical tale about entertainment that is surprisingly subtle for all of its curb-stomping aplomb. It also features a great second banana in British rapper/actor Riz Ahmed and has a fabulous Network-ish performance from Rene Russo, kicking off a much-needed Russo-sance.
Mark Lisanti: When you finally get around to seeing John Wick — probably on VOD, because you’ve already more or less missed the theatrical bus on this one — there’s roughly a 100 percent chance you’ll become enthralled with one particular aspect of it. And no, it’s not Keanu Reeves’s sudden and (chronologically, not spiritually) premature transformation into late-career, bad-guy-obliterating Liam Neeson. And no, it’s not the puppy-killing premise, though that will provide you more than enough moral cover to feel OK about all of those bullet-riddled bodies neatly stacking up like gold coins, because you kill a puppy, dude, and barely-out-of-retirement Assassin Neo is coming to jack you into the afterlife via the silencer barrel in the back of your neck.
No: It’s the hotel. The Continental. The four-star experience all discerning hit men in the John Wick universe seek out when they’re on a job, where the front desk will keep your dirty business hush-hush, where the turndown service will leave a mint hollow-point on your pillow. It’s the most intriguing cinematic place I visited in 2014. And I’m checking back in the moment an on-demand reservation opens up.
Sean Fennessey: “Chaos is order yet undeciphered.”
What a magnificent sentence that explains any manager’s life. It appears as a title card at the start of Denis Villeneuve’s sixth feature, Enemy. We’ll get back to that shortly.
I have this friend who’s afraid of spiders. This is a great guy to talk movies with, but due to his arachnophobia, I found it difficult to discuss Enemy with him. He hates this movie. Spiders are a persistent theme and visual cue, particularly fuzzy, bulbous, ominous tarantulas. They stalk Villeneuve’s Toronto — a muted but expansive vision of a city, glazed with a marigold filter — and appear in unlikely places. Like under a nude woman’s high heel, or perhaps in place of her head. They’re flashbulbs in a nightmare, and well, my friend, he just can’t see past it. So I taunt him about it, this small vehicle for the two sides of Jake Gyllenhaal. Here I am, taunting him right now. Why are you so afraid of spiders, man?
About that undeciphered chaos: Enemy isn’t exactly about that. It’s far more about duality, consciousness, desires, failed ambitions, motorcycles, blonde women, mother issues, beards, and those nightmares. Is it a little pretentious about them? Sure. But does it feature the year’s most mesmerizing, horrifying final 30 seconds? Yes. After you’ve seen it — you should see it — I recommend this 25-minute explainer, though only if you like your chaos deciphered.
Dan Fierman: Neighbors is funny. It is obviously, uproariously funny. It features exploding toilets, awkward sex, and what is almost certainly the best double De Niro impression in the history of the medium. But it is also profound — seriously! — on the subjects of parenthood, adulthood, and, especially, aging. If the experience of getting older is all about loss — loss of cool and sex, friends and hair — and the simple back-of-the-envelope math of days ticking away, it is also about making peace with yourself as a parent, an adult, and confident thirtysomething who can change diapers one minute and smoke weed the next. The genius of Neighbors is that it mines both sides of that equation for comedy and poignancy.
Well, that and it proves you’re never too old to scarf down a bag of high-test magic mushrooms.
Jason Concepcion: Blue Ruin opens with scenes of utter domesticity. Three remote controls lined up neatly, shoulder to shoulder, on a coffee table next to a glass cup in the shape of seashell, a television blaring in the background. There’s a plate of food, and a half-full glass of water on a butter-colored kitchen counter, with soft daylight shining in from the window above the sink. Board games are stacked up on a cabinet next to the staircase, a digital thermostat with a Post-it note below, a woodcut sign spelling “Relax” in blocky letters hanging from a hempen cord. In the bathroom, towels are stacked up on the closed toilet lid, the sound of water running, steam rising lazily in the air.
The veneer of suburban coziness and unremarkable normalcy lasts less than one minute before writer/director Jeremy Saulnier tears it, almost cruelly, away. It’s a simple twist, but one I don’t want to spoil, because of the way it spins your head completely around. From there, you’re on your guard, and what follows is a sense of steadily approaching, unavoidable doom, like thunder rumbling from a distant bank of dark clouds. A stone-classic revenge thriller.
The Raid 2
Chris Ryan: Warning: Don’t watch the above symphony of death and face-kicking unless you want your preconceived notion of what a “good action scene” is changed. You think Winter Soldier had some cool fights? Winter Soldier is basically Short Circuit compared with Gareth Evans’s drum solo of a shoot-’em-up. This thing is just so percussive. They don’t make them like this in America any more, because I think it is literally illegal to make them like this in America anymore. Protect stuntmen at all costs, you know what I mean? The Raid 2 might not have had the short-fuse dynamite stick of a plot that Evans’s original did — cop versus all the drug dealers, in an apartment tower — but the sequel’s sprawling story only meant there were more settings for barely controlled chaos.
Why did they put a glass house in the middle of a highway?! WHO CARES. For cinematic adrenaline junkies, The Raid 2 was the film that made us say, “Man, I think I need to chill out and watch The Fault in Our Stars.”
The Fault in Our Stars
Mallory Rubin: “I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories,” Hazel Grace Lancaster says at the beginning of the above trailer as she gazes into the abyss, and right away, we know that The Fault in Our Stars is going to teach us something. The film is a faithful adaptation of John Green’s excellent young-adult novel about two teenage cancer patients, Hazel and Augustus Waters, who meet in support group and fall in love. Nothing about the premise makes the “sad stories” label a surprise. We know, in broad strokes, how this one’s going to end. Cancer is sad. And so is death. And so is love.
But the thing Hazel and Gus teach us is that even if the endpoint is already determined, there can be a lot of happiness along the way. They teach us that there’s joy to be found in egging a villain’s car, and talking about a book with a friend, and sinking into bed with someone for the first time. They teach us that time is precious, and not only because it’s fleeting. They teach us that acceptance can be hard, but also freeing, and that learning to appreciate the gifts this world provides alongside the heartache is in some ways the most important thing we can do. They teach us about pain, and control, and perspective.
They teach us that we can’t decide whether we get sick, or when we’re going to die, but that we can decide whom we’re going to love, and what we’re going to cherish, and how we’re going to tell our stories. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for their little infinity.
Steven Hyden: The setup sounds like a repurposed scenario from an old Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode: Two estranged, down-on-their-luck friends encounter an obnoxious rich guy and his beautiful wife in a bar. They all wind up back at his place. The rich guy playfully offers a wad of cash to whichever broke dude can hold his breath the longest. From there, the rich guy’s dares get more dangerous, outlandish, and lucrative. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what happens next, as the sickeningly watchable B-movie allure of Cheap Thrills derives from writer-director E.L. Katz methodically raising the stakes, step by logical step, until his movie finally loses its damn mind. I’ll just mention that Cheap Thrills stars Pat Healy, cast against type as the film’s most sympathetic character; an unrecognizable Ethan Embry, who has grown out his Can’t Hardly Wait peach fuzz; David Koechner, cast according to type as a white male jackass who’s not as idiotic as he seems; and Sara Paxton, who I just realized also starred with Healy in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, which I didn’t notice before because this part is the exact opposite. If you recognize any of the names I just reeled off, you will probably like this movie.
Other selling points:
1. It has the best dismembered finger scene since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
2. It’s possible to read this movie as an allegory about the NFL.
Robert Mays: My expectations for a movie are always pretty simple. If a film knows what it is, and I get what I came for, I go home happy. Out of all the trips I made to the theater this year, Non-Stop gave me the purest version of that.
This is a movie that delivers on its promises: “Taken on a Plane.” Liam Neeson kills a man in an airplane lavatory. He catches a gun and fires it, all in midair. The ridiculous you want is here, in full, but the key is how everyone involved is willing to embrace it. Fun will be had — by you, and by every person onscreen.
What ultimately elevates Non-Stop beyond the B-movie winks is who all those people are. Your supporting players are Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, and Julianne Moore. The least accomplished actor involved here is Scoot McNairy. That’s saying something. If a cast of Hollywood bona fides is in this game, how can you not be?
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Andy Greenwald: Nostalgia is an indulgence. History is a tidal wave. Director Wes Anderson spent the first half of his career celebrating the former and doing his best to ignore the latter. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums were inarguably brilliant, but their emotional wallops were always far more sweet than bitter. They were wistful films suffused with a young man’s sadness over getting old — which, as slightly older men learn all too quickly, is a far different, considerably less elegant thing than the actual business of aging.
What made The Grand Budapest Hotel so magnificent was the way its feathery lightness was menaced by ever-increasing shadows. Anderson’s fantasy Europe, overrun with sexed-up dowagers, transcendent pastries, and decorum that could repel a panzer division, is beautiful but brittle; it’s the last gasp of empire reimagined as a frantic, funny sigh. As such, Budapest is at once Anderson’s most clever film and his most tragic. The manic, fussy M. Gustave (played with caffeinated brio by Ralph Fiennes) isn’t allowed the third-act dignity of a Royal Tenenbaum, whose eccentricities mellowed, like tannins in wine, into beloved quirks. Instead, Gustave’s world is smashed by unpretty — and, thus, un–Wes Anderson–y — things like guns, fascism, and neglect. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a masterpiece painted on the head of a pin — the pin of an unexploded grenade.
Under the Skin
Kevin Lincoln: By the end of Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s virtuoso meditation on the human body, the movie’s name is made literal with blunt and astonishing impact. But it helps that almost every aspect of it could be described the same way — as getting under your skin. There’s Mica Levi’s score, a skittering, droning exercise in nervously breaking down. There’s Scarlett Johansson, unknowable and dangerous and impossible to look away from, a mystical creature somewhere between Aphrodite and the Alien. There’s the city of Glasgow, shot as a rainy dystopia where men are constantly prowling around alone. And there’s that liquid blackness.
Under the Skin does not explain itself. Its ambiguity is extreme: The twinned feelings of intimacy and isolation are somewhere at the film’s center, but spiraling out from that point, there isn’t much to grab on to. Watching Under the Skin is not a soothing experience, nor is it one that’s easily understood. That doesn’t really matter. Seeing Scotland from the perspective of Johansson’s character, everything seems new and unsettling. Alien as it may be, there are real human feelings driving Under the Skin along, culminating with that ending, which is shockingly comprehensible. You still find horror in the likeliest of places.
Ryan O’Hanlon: While the cast list might suggest otherwise, there are only two people in Locke: Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy’s car, a glistening BMW X5. Despite the minimalist setup — we start with Hardy hopping into the front seat; we end with him pulling up to his destination — it’s a movie about being a son, being a father, being a husband, the novelty of hands-free communication, the less-glamorous aspects of early-stage architecture, bureaucratic red tape, soccer fandom, and all the combustible friction between working and living. And yet, it’s also just a movie about being in a car by yourself.
There’s no Theory of Everything, no five-dimensional bookcase in Locke — just Tom Hardy, stripped of all that characteristic physicality, going from one place to another, talking to all the voices that matter in his life. You never see what happened before he gets in the front seat, and there’s no indication as to where things are headed once he’s off the road. But watching Locke, like any good movie, might take you somewhere else for 85 minutes — all for less than a tank of gas.
The One I Love
Amos Barshad: Some movies make you marvel at their spectacle and scope, their faraway grandiosity. The One I Love can’t help but make you gasp in an entirely different way: Nothing, you might yet realize, was stopping me from making this myself. Shot almost entirely in one location, and almost entirely with just two actors, it’s a brilliant ode to the benefits of restriction: If you want to hold our attention for 90 minutes with nothing but dialogue and impassioned walks, you better get pretty goddamn crafty pretty goddamn quick (#NODISRESPECTTOAARONSORKIN). Every day on set, director Charlie McDowell (Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen’s kid!) and writer Justin Lader worked in concert with Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss — both, here, at the very top of their games — to push the loose script toward its predetermined climaxes, without quite being sure how they were going to get there. And by the end, after laying down a delicious string of crisp twists, they had the balls to for once not overexplain all the odd logic, and instead to say, in so many words: It was magic, bro.
Filed Under: Movies, godzilla, Brian Phillips, Mark Lisanti, John Wick, All Is By My Side, get on up, Alex Pappademas, Chris Ryan, the raid 2, Sean Fennessey, Enemy, Jason Concepcion, Blue Ruin, Ryan O'Hanlon, Locke, steven hyden, Cheap Thrills, Andy Greenwald, grand budapest hotel, Mallory Rubin, the fault in our stars, Best of 2014