Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Films of 2014
It was a so-so year for movies, THR's chief film critic writes, though highlights included a searing drama about corruption in Russia, a moody vampire romance, a biopic that transcends the limits of the genre and a gritty New York crime thriller
This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In many of the best films of 2014, society and social norms were shaken, stirred, subverted and stretched to the breaking point.
It's also telling that every movie on my top 10 this year depicts some form of malaise, be it in the relatively recent past or pointedly in the present. Even an intimate story of a modern vampire couple takes place against the backdrop of a desolate urban landscape where nourishment is scarce. The world, as portrayed in American as well as foreign cinema, is not a pretty place right now.
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Far from a great year, it was more fair to middling and one that again made manifest that the most venturesome and impressive work is being done independently, on the industry's margins and by specialty divisions — not by major studios.
There were any number of fine to solid entries by established directors, but few you could happily describe as "great entertainment" in the traditional sense of the term (the rarest commodity of all in today's Hollywood).
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On the plus side, 2014 benefited from a lively mix of filmmakers, including a handful of women and African-Americans, first-timers and indie-world stalwarts working at or near the top of their games.
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Here are my favorites of the year.
The film that should have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Andrey Zvyagintsev's lengthy and corrosive mural of corruption in modern Russia is a full meal — bold and rich thematically, visually, dramatically and politically. A Russian friend argued that the film chickens out by not including Putin in its list of targets, but the critique seemed implicit. Even by Russian standards, this has the weight of a masterpiece.
As movingly close to an autobiographical testament as Jim Jarmusch likely will ever make, this narcotically moody, atmospheric work is a portrait of a marriage and a proclamation of aesthetic priorities disguised as a globe-trotting, centuries-leaping vampire tale.
I'm still not sure about the multiple endings, and that talk with the New York Times critic never would have happened in the real world, but Alejandro G. Inarritu's Broadway-set drama bursts with such cinematic and thespian zest that you feel the creative juices flowing from all involved — behind and in front of the ever-mobile camera. Has any cinematographer in the history of cinema ever emerged so far ahead of the pack as Emmanuel Lubezki has right now?
What an unexpected achievement: a boxy-formatted black-and-white film by a Polish-British filmmaker (Pawel Pawlikowski, whose career prior to this had gone into something of an eclipse) that concerns a prospective nun who learns she is Jewish. This would have been a first-rate art house item 50 years ago, and is so today.
A magnum opus more than a decade in the making, Richard Linklater's spectacle of growing up unfurls before our eyes in a fittingly prosaic, naturalistic manner, shot through with stuff-of-life drama. The history of U.S. independent cinema during the past 25 years is full of promising first and second features, but this is a rarer feat: an enormously accomplished payoff film.
It was daring to imagine that a compelling, even remotely palatable drama could be made from a story as creepy as this upper-class/lower-class tale of unspoken impulses and eventual murder. But Bennett Miller, in his third consecutive biographical drama, found a way with the help of a thoroughly remarkable cast (Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and controlled doses of ambiguity.
7. WILD TALES
The biggest domestic hit of all time in its native Argentina, this malevolently humorous breakthrough feature from writer-director Damian Szifron clearly struck a nerve. Each part of the multisegment film draws upon domestic discontent in distinct and often uproarious ways, leading one to suspect that the young filmmaker will be heard from again in the near future.
Setting his story 30 years ago, in a time most New Yorkers would probably prefer to forget, J.C. Chandor resurrected the gritty, Sidney Lumet-style cinema of the time for a compelling tale about the long odds that decency, good intentions and composure face against pervasive corruption, moral decay and a climate ultimately defined by brute force.
Normally, I resist films I suspect will be overtly socially conscious and emotionally button-pushing. So I really have to hand it to Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb for doing something else: illuminating and making credible the human moments between Martin Luther King Jr. and those in his inner circle, especially his wife, as well as those on its periphery, from Lyndon B. Johnson to Malcolm X.
There's never a dull moment — narratively and especially stylistically — in this semi-nostalgic but clear-eyed tragicomic drama, which infuses director Wes Anderson's trademark idiosyncracies with the wise, between-the-wars melancholy of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, whose work inspired the film.
Not wanting to cut back on the number of narrative features in my top 10, I left out the numerous documentaries that otherwise might have made the list. Three of them stand a bit above the others this year: Wim Wenders' and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's The Salt of the Earth, Laura Poitras' much buzzed-about Citizenfour and Steve James' Life Itself (about late film critic Roger Ebert).
On my next-10 list of dramatic works would be the three most notable debuts of 2014: Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child and Justin Simien's Dear White People; plus Stephen Knight's Locke, Gareth Evans' The Raid 2, David Ayer's Fury, John Ridley's Jimi: All Is by My Side, Volker Schlondorff's Diplomacy, Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner.
BEST OF THE REST
THR's movie reviewers pick more favorites from 2014
Earlier this year, it seemed inconceivable that Brendan Gleeson's haunted performance in Calvary, as an Irish priest who receives a death sentence, wouldn't be in the awards-season mix. But John Michael McDonagh's mordant contemplation of the spiritual void proved a tough sell. Even so, Gleeson's towering work is the apotheosis of an undervalued career. — DAVID ROONEY
Michelle Monaghan gave one of the year's best performances as an army medic returning home from Afghanistan in Claudia Myers' Fort Bliss. Her willingness to acknowledge the character's anger and inflexibility provides an honesty that deepens a complex portrayal of a woman vying to balance conflicting demands of career and family. — STEPHEN FARBER
THE ANIMATED/CGI PERFORMANCE
I. AM. GROOT. With just three measly words, Vin Diesel managed to root Guardians of the Galaxy's towering tree-like humanoid in an awesome galaxy of emotions — and his remarkably supple vocal performance didn't need fancy soliloquies to convey them. — MICHAEL RECHTSHAFFEN
Bouncing back from a run of critical and commercial duds, Tom Cruise (playing a cowardly U.S. army officer forced into combat against alien invaders) made his most refreshingly left-field choice in years with Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, a futuristic thriller that combines battle scenes worthy of Saving Private Ryan with a witty plot recalling Groundhog Day. — STEPHEN DALTON
The MVP of Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy's pitch-dark satire of media unscrupulousness and dog-eat-dog entrepreneurship, is cinematographer Robert Elswit, a native Angeleno whose exhilarating nocturnal cityscapes prove no less enticingly tenebrous than the hollow planes of Jake Gyllenhaal's emaciated mug. — NEIL YOUNG
What John Lithgow and Alfred Molina pull off in Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange — as a Manhattan couple that's been together for decades — is more than the sum of two great performances. In a beguiling paradox, the actors etch in details of a shared history, complicity and no-questions-asked devotion while spending much of the film's running time apart. — BOYD VAN HOEIJ
THE FOREIGN FILM
Ruben Östlund's sly, ski-resort-set comedy Force Majeure sets off a series of controlled explosions straining the relationships between a Swedish couple and their children. The fusion of surgical precision and profound yearning is as seamless as the CG-enhanced visuals, and the exploration of the modern nuclear family is the most bracing in recent movie memory. — SHERI LINDEN
THE GUILTY PLEASURE
Deliver Us From Evil, Scott Derrickson's loopy supernatural policier in which cops battle demons in the streets of New York's toughest borough, is as authentic in its urban setting as it is hilarious when it comes to Beelzebub himself — whether he's haunting the lion cage at the Bronx Zoo or being exorcised at the local police precinct. — JORDAN MINTZER
Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi fable starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress, is a many-splendored thing, but the element that best distills the essence of its insinuating, subcutaneous creepiness is Mica Levi's score. The composer layers live acoustic instruments atop synthesized strings, percussion and just-audible source noise to craft something utterly unworldly — all metallic chittering, freaky tuning and piercing sadness. — LESLIE FELPERIN
THE OVERLOOKED GEM
Kelly Reichardt's hauntingly beautiful thriller Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as Oregon "eco-terrorists," deserved more attention than it got. Tense, visually masterful and superbly acted, it's also a work of searching intelligence, posing — but wisely not answering — unsettling questions about the contradictions and moral ambiguities at the heart of radical activism. — JON FROSCH
It may have devolved into treacle, but John Carney's folk-pop musical Begin Again features one sublime scene. Down-on-his luck record company A&R man Mark Ruffalo stumbles into a bar and comes upon Keira Knightley singing while playing a battered acoustic guitar. He then imagines a glorious radio-friendly orchestration, visualized as a slew of instruments happily playing themselves. Magic. — FRANK SCHECK
Moving from Twilight to daylight, Kristen Stewart astonished in two emotionally charged roles full of depth and intensity that felt new for her: a touching portrayal of quiet love as the daughter of an Alzheimer's patient (Julianne Moore) in Still Alice and a transfixing turn as a military guard in Camp X-Ray. — DEBORAH YOUNG