A year in movies that blew me away – 2014

I read the other day an article in The New Yorker which claimed that 2014 was easily a year in which you could come up with more than 30 movie titles from around the world that really need to be seen. At first I was a little skeptical about this argument, but when I started compiling my own best-of list, I realized the author was right: as I mentioned in my last post, I normally average no more than 5-6 truly great movies in a year, so for me to come up with a list with more than 10 titles on it really means that 2014 was a good year (to reference a shitty movie). In any case, it was a good year to be Scarlett Johansson, Jake Gyllenhaal, a vampire, a doppelgänger, and an Australian or New Zealand moviemaker.

Now, I normally lack time to see everything that I find interesting in the same year as it comes out, as well as lacking proper access to smaller national cinematographies, so I watch many movies with a delay of a year or two after they become available. But this year I’ve been lucky enough to have more time at my disposal and to stay abreast of the recent releases, partly thanks to a subscription to Empire magazine that my boyfriend has seen fit to equip our bathroom with. Even so, there are a few movies, such as IdaBirdman, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, that I still haven’t caught up with.

Pic courtesy of robaroundbooks.com
@ robaroundbooks.com

The movies listed below are in no ranking order, but if I had to choose my top 3 very bestest, mostest favorite movies this year, it’d have to be Under The Skin, The Babadook, and Only Lovers Left Alive. They blend together some of my favorite genres, topics, and moods: horror, vampires, decadence, high estheticism, uncanny, slightly disturbing, and psychological Gothic.

Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch

This one came as a double surprise because it a) managed to bring something new to the dangerously depleted genre of vampire anything, and b) was Jarmusch’s best (and only truly good) movie since Dead Man back in 1995. A reverie on art, the passage of time, and love, this is also a deeply felt study of bonds made through birth, blood, and time. And to boot, an excellent soundtrack. I warn you, though – it’s a slow-paced, artistic, philosophical movie that, like its main protagonists, takes its time.

Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer

Glazer had already come onto my radar with 2004’s Birth, which I stumbled on late one night on TV about three years ago. It was – and still is – by far one of the weirdest, most unsettling movies I’d seen in my entire life. Under The Skin joins this rarefied pantheon of superweird, disjointed, mind-boggling realities invoked on film. Glazer has a disturbing aptitude for nailing the uncanny and the fantastic in a way that would make both Tzvetan Todorov and Stanley Kubrick (his spiritual fathers) proud. The man also knows how to pick his leading ladies: first Nicole Kidman in Birth (one of the highlights of her career), and now Scarlett Johansson (also a career highlight). With this one, I issue a much stronger warning – it. is. not. for. everyone.

The Babadook, Jennifer Kent

I’ve already said everything I needed to about this film in my previous post. I have since rewatched it a second time, and can only continue to marvel at the sheer brilliance of it.

Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich

This very well made documentary almost made me weep and punch my sofa in (artistic) frustration at Hollywood’s epic failure – the decision not to fund genius director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s screen adaptation of the genre-defining, seminal science fiction novel Dune. The sheer weight of name-dropping in artist collaboration on Jodorowsky’s project – H.R.Giger, Pink Floyd, Moebius, Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles (to name just a few) – was enough to have my mouth both watering and agape. Impressively, the documentary strives to give insight into Hollywood’s side of the story as well: the project came with a truly exorbitant price tag attached to it, and Jodorowsky wasn’t ready to budge an inch on his artistic vision, which kinda helps you see why the movie was never made. But the vision of this fail at greatness will stay with you forever.

from deadshirt.net
from deadshirt.net

Life Itself, Steve James

Steve James is a talented documentary maker (see Hoop Dreams). This one is an intimate, heart-wrenching portrayal of the life and times of movie critic extraordinaire Roger Ebert, shot during the last few months of his life. To see a man physically reduced to a husk by disease still showing an immense amount of spirit is always an inspiration to me, and a reminder not to feel so bad about my own health problems. A very powerful, moving piece of art.

Calvary, John Michael McDonagh

A brilliant performance by Brendan Gleeson, and an incredibly well-written script shot through with equal amounts of black humor, wit, and sensitivity, are the two strongest points in a powerful movie. I had a feeling it went a bit under the radar, though, being an Irish drama, thus giving me even more reason to recommend it with gusto.

Gone Girl, David Fincher

Finally, after many years, a really, really good movie by Fincher in the vein of Seven and The Game. Granted, the book it was adapted from had already laid the foundations for a good story and a good script, but it still could’ve been easily screwed up. I thought he did a masterful job here in creating a suspenseful thriller where you feel a mounting sense of dread almost from the opening scenes, supported by a chill-inducing soundtrack courtesy of the faithful Trent Reznor. Rosamund Pike gave the perfomance of her career as the titular gone girl, and Ben Affleck is very decent, too.

from allocine.fr
from allocine.fr

Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski

Orlowski’s documentary follows National Geographic photographer James Balog across frozen landscapes as he tries to mount time-lapse cameras in inhospitable environments on a mission to prove the existence of global warming via the effect it has on glaciers. Visually stunning, haunted by a beautiful soundtrack (the song performed by Scarlett Johansson is actually really good), it very nearly reduced me to tears as I watched so much natural beauty disappearing while so many people around the world are still waiting to be persuaded that global warming is a real thing.

Predestination, the Spierig brothers

Another Australian dark horse in the race, this movie carries traces of Looper, Source Code, and Inception in its DNA but somehow manages to take a step further and evolve with the concept of the ouroboros. I won’t even try to get into a plot summary here because it would both spoil it for you and confuse you. Ethan Hawke is surprisingly good, but the real scene stealer is Australian actress Sarah Snook who is simply incredible in her dual role. Watching requires focus and some serious thinking, and probably some googling afterwards, but hopefully this doesn’t put you off.

Enemy, Denis Villeneuve

Villeneuve is another director who’s been on my radar for a few years now, ever since 2010’s Incendies. That movie actually rendered me speechless for some time, a feat usually accomplished only by Lars Von Trier. He followed it up with Prisoners in 2013, which was so good that it shook up the whole tired detective/thriller genre, but kinda went unnoticed in the theaters despite critics immediately picking up on how brilliant it was. By contrast, Enemy is a much harder pill to swallow because it’s very surreal and uncanny (crossing into Glazer territory, actually), based on a novel written by the late great Portuguese writer José Saramago, which itself taps into “weird” doppelgänger literature, and smacks heavily of Kafka. Not a recipe for enticing audiences, I know. In fact, the ending is controversial and very open to interpretation, but while I was at first thrown off by it and dissatisfied, I realized I just needed some time to process it, and found myself intrigued enough by the whole thing to actually keep going back to it in my mind and analyzing it. I like this kind of thing immensely, though, but I also fully understand everybody who doesn’t. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, though, does for it what Sarah Snook’s does for Predestination.

from impawards.com
from impawards.com

What We Do In The Shadows, J. Clement and T. Waititi

This horror mockumentary about a motley crew of vampires sharing a home in Wellington is a breath of fresh air both in terms of comedy and treatment of vampire-related material, maybe because it hails from as far as New Zealand. Fans of HBO’s series The Flight Of The Conchords will be delighted with this piece and recognize the particular strain of humor that permeates it.

Housebound, Gerard Johnstone

Another comedy horror from New Zealand about a woman sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home which might also be haunted. I rarely have so much fun watching a movie as I did with this confidently directed, brilliantly acted flick that hits a home run both on the comedy and the horror front. Go Kiwi filmmakers!

Boyhood, Richard Linklater

The sheer novelty of the idea of shooting a film over a period of 11 years with the same actors is enough to make you wanna see it, but it’s also a really good coming-of-age movie that at its core tries to explore the role of parents as behavioral models for their children, and how childhood experiences inform later decisions in life. An interesting experiment that offers a different perspective on growing up.

Honorable mentions:

The Double – Richard Ayoade’s debut as director is a quirky, intruiguing take on the apparently very popular issue of doppelgängers.

Cold In July – In making this his comeback movie, Don Johnson chose very wisely, and delivered a very good performance. Ditto for Sam Shepard and Michael C. Hall (of Six Feet Under and Dexter fame), with the latter showcasing an amazing array of emotions. A many-layered, emotional film with enough surprising turns to keep you glued to the screen.

Nebraska – A sombre, heart-wrenching look at old age and family bonds, in turns funny, tragic, and warm. Amazing performance by Bruce Dern.

Locke – For a movie that takes places entirely inside a car, and relies solely on the delivery of a single actor – a very good Tom Hardy – I didn’t find it boring at all. Life-altering conversations are conducted over the phone, and the story unfolds within an hour’s drive on English motorways. For me, it worked.

Tim’s Vermeer – a bit of a slow burner for nerdy types, this documentary casts a different light on the life and works of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, specifically on theories as to how he created some of his most famous paintings. The light is (literally) shed by American entrepreneur and inventor Tim Jenison through his daring experiment of recreating/duplicating Vermeer’s painting techniques.

To Be Takei – this is a feel-good documentary about overcoming difficult odds, and finding love (in a hopeless place). And of course, it’s about George Takei, so what’s not to like?

The Clouds of Sils Maria – Awesome performances by Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart (the girl knows how to pick her roles), and an interesting story unfolding against a backdrop of stunning Alpine scenery. For a literary-minded girl like me, this was a very rewarding movie on several levels.

Nightcrawler – like I said, this was a good year to be Jake Gyllenhaal.

Serious disappointments:

Begin Again – after the wonderful, deeply moving Once, John Carney’s latest effort is grievously disappointing in trying to badly replicate the success story that was Once. Boring, unengaging, predictable, no chemistry between lead characters, third-rate musical score (in a film about making music). Truly appalling.

Noah – One really comes to expect something different and out of the ordinary, if not always brilliant, from Darren Aronofsky. That the same person directed Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, and this Easter-time atrocity really requires a willing suspension of disbelief. There can be no excuse for bad CGI in 2014, and yet both I, Frankenstein (one of this year’s worst movies, maybe also of all time) and Noah effectively dismiss that notion in one fell swoop. It pains me to even have to mention these two in the same sentence, but at least the former has a third-rate director, cast, and budget to account for its awfulness. What is Aronofsky’s excuse again?

What were some of the movies you enjoyed watching this year?

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7 thoughts on “A year in movies that blew me away – 2014”

  1. A great list, this truly was a wonderful year for movies.

    By the way, have you read the book “Under the Skin” by Michel Faber, the one the book is based on? It’s definitely one of my favourite books and I heartily recommend it. Some reviewers said that Faber didn’t really know where to take the plot once he’d got us hooked (which he does brilliantly, in my opinion), which is a valid criticism, but it’s still one of the most unique and deeply unsettling books I’ve ever read, definitely up there with the glorious House of Leaves. 🙂

  2. Thanks! Unfortunately, I haven’t read Faber’s book yet, but have every intention to, especially with your ringing endorsement. I’ve also queued up his latest, “The Book of Strange New Things,” which sounds wildly interesting. D’you know anything about it?

  3. No, I don’t, but now that I’ve looked it up I want to read it! 🙂

    I see that you didn’t include Inherent Vice on your list, a movie that also came out this year and got decent reviews, as far as I can tell. I haven’t seen it yet, but I did read Thomas Pynchon’s novel it’s based on, and I can recommend that one as well. I don’t know if you like Pynchon (I have an unhealthy obsession with his stuff), but if you’ve ever felt he was too dense, obscure or just plain difficult, this is a novel in which he shines a brighter light on his other, easier to grasp side, the one dedicated to the simple pleasure of lighthearted humor, while still retaining his beautiful, sad style and pushing some thought-provoking ideas. Also, it’s around 300 pages long, which is nothing compared to his previous tome, Against the Day, which I would also recommend, but keep in mind that its 1,085 pages do require some patience. 😀

  4. I haven’t seen Inherent Vice yet, and yes I know it’s adapted fom Pynchon whom I also haven’t tackled yet, so that’s one of the reasons I’m not rushing to see the movie – normally I try to read the book first. But thanks for the recommendation. You should know by now that I’m not scared of big books! 😀

  5. Haha, yeah, what was I thinking? 😀

    By the way, I’d love it if you wrote about movies more often! I know you wrote about The Babadook, but I’m not sure if you’ve written about Enemy in detail. I’d be interested to read your thoughts on it, as it was one of the biggest surprises for me last year, in fact it was one of the few thought-provoking movies I’ve seen in recent years. One other movie I’d love to hear your interpretation of is David Lynch’s “Inland Empire”. It is one of the most chilling, provocative and disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, and since there aren’t that many good horror movies around, well, one can always rely on Lynch to at least provide the sophisticated scares. 😀

    1. Wow, thank you, you’ve taken me by surprise. I’ve always been a bit wary of writing about movies because I just never felt competent/qualified enough, but I guess after 20+ years of avid movie-watching I’ve earned the right to speak my mind.

      I haven’t written about Enemy in detail because, honestly, it’s been a while since I saw it so I’d have to rewatch it, plus it took me quite a long while to come to terms with it – at first, I was very angry at the ending which I felt was not satisfying and too open-ended for my tastes. Then I read Ebert’s review of it, and I’m afraid any writing I did about it now would be way too colored by what he said because he actually helped me understand it better. Also, I haven’t read Saramago’s book which I think would provide a complementary reading and give me an additional edge in discussing the movie, if that makes sense.

      Alas, I haven’t seen Inland Empire, but now you kinda made me want to. I find Lynch a bit touch-and-go so it always takes me ages to prepare for watching his movies. 🙂

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