Well, we’re finally here. I’m sorry this took a little while, but I’ve had a very busy January. Anyway, 2014 -and all its social troubles- is gone. While we try to make 2015 better, let’s take some time to look at the best movies that were released last year, which more often than not ended up dealing with some of the year’s biggest issues.
2015 was a year marked by social discrepancy, and fights for equality from all kinds of minority groups: Women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people… and I think that the movies that resonated the most with me -while displaying pretty fantastic filmmaking on their own right- dealt in their way with the struggle for equality, happiness, and fairness. Many of these movies seem to be telling us why it’s important to never be quiet, to always be fighting for what is right. Even if we fail, it’s important to take a stance. Anyway, without further ado, here are my favorite movies of 2014…
The 10 Best Movies of 2014:
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
(Wes Anderson, 100 min., USA)
“To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it – but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace”
On first glance, a perfectly constructed and hilarious adventure, that operates with the precision of a swiss watch: always moving forward and carefully sheltered by the narrative equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. But if we look further, we will find The Grand Budapest Hotel to be the culmination of Wes Anderson’s career as a director, and a sort of manifesto through which he decided to prove that the obsessively twee and mannered movies he loves making have a place in this world. Set in a fictional land before the rise of an alternate version of Nazism, this is a love letter for delicate things, and the value of beautiful art in the face of destruction. Monsieur Gustave H (a magnificent Ralph Fiennes) holds on to the ideal of a time that has evaporated, but the fact that such a world might have vanished, doesn’t mean that it’s not fighting for.
2. Under the Skin
(Jonathan Glazer, 108 min., UK)
“When is the last time you touched someone?”
A new kind of star vehicle for Scarlett Johansson (who thank to this movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Lucy made 2014 into her banner year). Also, an experimental film in which the movie star plays an alien that drives around Scotland luring unsuspecting men into her deadly hive. The third movie by Jonathan Glazer is a masterpiece of miss en scene, using striking imagery and Mica Levi’s haunting score, to create some of the most iconic and stirring sequences of the year. But Under the Skin is also a story of the predator becoming the prey, that culminates in a fatalistic look at the role of female sexuality in modern society. Not even a man-eating alien is safe in our sexist world.
(Ava DuVernay, 127 min., USA)
“I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.“
That’s the MLK quote with which I opened my review of Ava DuVernay’s portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most powerful experiences I had at the cinema all year, and one of the most rewarding. Beyond that, I think the quote speaks for itself.
4. We Are the Best!
(Lukas Moodysson, 102 min., Sweden)
“Hate the sport! Hate the sport!”
Three thirteen-year-old girls for a punk band in 1980s Stockholm. They suck, and they have the time of their lives. Lukas Moodysson is perhaps one of the most observant directors in the world (if you need proof, watch 2000’s Together), and it’s still very surprising that a middle-aged man could so perfectly capture the complexly mundane inner life of three female teens. I mean, I’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl, but my God, does this movie remind me of the girls I knew in middle school, of the questions and fears I’ve heard them talk about, and most importantly, of the joy that a teen can experience when they finally find that one thing. Every girl and every body in the world should see this movie! Pardon the pun, but it is, after all, just the best.
5. The Homesman
(Tommy Lee Jones, 122 min., USA/France)
-Tell me just a kind word.
-That I’m a good woman… I helped you.
Tommy Lee Jones’s second movie as a director premiered to muted reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and was barely seen during its U.S. release. Not surprising, since it is a western that is hugely informed by the history of the genre, but a pity nonetheless, since it is one of the most powerful movies I saw all year. In it, Hilary Swank and Jones himself team-up to travel across the West and bring three crazy women to a sanatorium. What starts out as a feminist take on the western, reveals itself to be something much darker and relevant. It is a story about human ambivalence and its role in American society, as well as a carefully made movie, where every detail is as bold as it is specific.
(Laura Poitras, 114 min., Germany/USA)
“At this stage I can offer nothing more than my word. I am a senior government employee in the intelligence community. I hope you understand that contacting you is extremely high risk and you are willing to agree to the following precautions before I share more. This will not be a waste of your time.”
An outstanding feat of journalism. The fact that filmmaker Laura Poitras had access to film the encounter during which Edward Snowden first leaked the NSA’s secrets into the world is in and on itself pretty remarkable, but Citizenfour is truly invaluable as a document that will forever show, on record, how this historical meeting went down. That Poitras does as outstanding a job as she does portraying Snowden in an objective light, and that she manages to turn this story into an espionage thriller more exciting than any Bourne movie is almost unbelievable. But here we are, and I am thankful for a movie as visceral and angry in its portrayal of a country at a moral crossroad as Citizenfour. Only time will tell where America goes from here, but the fact that this moment has been documented is notable worth.
7. Inherent Vice
(Paul Thomas Anderson, 148 min., USA)
“… as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel would always be assured a bottomless pool of new customers.”
On first glance, a fantastic experiment. Paul Thomas Anderson steps out of his comfort zone to indulge in a ridiculously nonsensical neo-noir that is as much a poignant comedy as it is a structural portrayal of what it’s like to be stoned out of your mind. On second glance, though, this is a continuation of Anderson’s recent fascination with retelling American history, and exploring the forces to clashed in order to shape the country that we live in today. This time, the hippie dream of an alternative life outside the system is devoured by the merciless bite of vertical integration. One Nation under capitalism and so on…
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
(Isao Takahata, 137 min., Japan)
“Go round, come round, come round, O distant time
Come round, call back my heart
Birds, bugs, beasts, grass, trees, flowers
Teach me how to feel
If I hear that you pine for me, I will return to you”
This animated folk tale from veteran Studio Ghibli director Isao Takhata ends up being a very interesting companion film to Under the Skin, as the story of a tiny girl who is found by an elderly couple inside a bamboo tree becomes a feminist tragedy, in which a young girl’s will -even if she is a lunar princess- is nothing against the rigid social system that surrounds her. Delivering its message in the form of gorgeously delicate hand-painted animation, the last few minutes of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya moved me in a way that very few movies ever have.
9. Blue Ruin
(Jeremy Saulnier, 90 min., USA)
You know what’s awful? Just ’cause my dad loved your mom… we all end up dead.
A popular way to describe this movie is as “No Country for Old Men, starring an idiot”. As effective an anti-violence film as I have ever seen, Blue Ruin is, first of all, an outstanding exercise on building up tension thanks to director Jeremy Saulnier’s amazing use of lighting, sound, and atmospheric music. Macon Blair stars as a man who, after many years, decides to finally take revenge for his parents’ murder, entering a seemingly never-ending circle of violence and blood. And because he is not an action hero, but just a regular dude, we can see the horrific results that come out of trying to be the protagonist of a revenge story. Fascinating for film lovers, and exciting for everyone, the scars of Blue Ruin will stay with you for a long time.
(Richard Linklater, 165 min., USA)
“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”
The more specific things are, the more universal they become. That might be one of the biggest cliches you’ve ever heard about movies, but it seems to be the mantra through which director Richard Linklater has become one of the most reliable chroniclers of contemporary life in cinema. As the above quote demonstrates, Linklater is a filmmaker that doesn’t shy away from the clunky and imperfect philosophy that can be found in our every day life, and Boyhood, a twelve-years-in-the-making portrait of a boy growing up into a man, somehow manages to capture the insignificance of our lives in comparison to the infinite power of time, and be a celebration of the act of living at the same time.
11. Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
12. The Double (Richard Ayoade)
13. Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner)
14. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
15. The Immigrant (James Gray)
16. The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom)
17. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
18. Life Itself (Steve James)
19. They Came Together (David Wain)
20. Beyond the Lights (Gina Price-Bythewood)
The Worst Movie of the Year
Because I’m not a professional critic, but just a guy that loves movies and writing about them, I don’t have a boss or an editor that assigns me to watch movies that I think I’m probably going to hate. So, even though I sometimes have self-hating impulses that make me watch shit like The Desolation of Smaug, I don’t usually see most of the things that end in worst-of-the-year lists. Things like Jersey Shore Massacre and A Haunted House 2, I have not seen. I did see a lot of movies that I didn’t like this year, but if I’m being completely honest, there is only three movies that stand out amongst the pack. They are the dull and inartistic thriller Transcendence, the tone-deaf remake of Annie, and Clint Eastwood’s propagandistic American Sniper.
Other Movies You Should Avoid: Jersey Boys, Men Women and Children, Noah, The Imitation Game, and Begin Again
Every trailer I saw for Luc Besson’s Lucy made me think it would be the most idiotic of movies. The “we only use 10% percent of our brains” schtick is more than tired at this point, especially after Transcendence proved how cataclysmically boring a movie about a man turning into a supercomputer could be. Much to surprise, Lucy, which is still a very silly movie that isn’t nearly as deep as Besson probably wants it to be, turned out to be one of the most exciting pieces of entertainment of the summer. Anchored by a fantastic Scarlett Johansson performance (again, she had 2014 on a leash) and Besson’s determination to make his own hyperactive version of The Tree of Life, Lucy towers over almost all of this year’s big Hollywood productions by virtue of being so unafraid of taking weird chances. Not all of them payed off, but it’s a fascinating film to watch nonetheless.
It would have to be recent Golden Globe winner How to Train Your Dragon 2, a movie that is full of gorgeous visuals and state-of-the-art animation, but takes the anti-war message of its lovely predecessor and throws it in the garbage. It turns the story of Hiccup and Toothless into another generic “you’re the chosen one” piece of trash. When 2014 started, I was so excited to revisit Berk, and learn about awesome new kinds of dragons. Instead, I got a clunky Star Wars rip-off.
There are movies I really liked, like Lucy and Snowpiercer, that follow the template set up by mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and do something interesting, new, and invigorating with it. But both of those movies were not only directed by foreign directors, but largely financed with foreign money a.k.a. made outside the Hollywood Studio system. Out of the blockbusters released this year, the only one that I would call great is Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla, the one big studio release this year that understood that blockbuster entertainment is about the sensorial experiences that can be created with sound and pictures, and not about shooting some explosions and intercutting them with some funny lines of dialogue. It is also the only blockbuster this year that knows how important it is to convey the (physical and thematic) relationship between the monumental destruction of its giant monsters and its human protagonists.
Most Underrated Movie
If you’re British, you might recognize Richard Ayoade as one of the guys from The IT Crowd. If you’re American, you might recognize him as one of the unfortunate actors that starred in The Watch. If you’re me, then you know he is one of the most exciting rising talents as far as British directors are concerned. His feature debut Submarine was one of my favorites the year it was released, but with The Double –a Franz Kafka meets Terrry Gilliam story about doppelgängers and corporate ambivalence- he has made his first truly great film. The production design, sound, music (by Andrew Hewitt) and amazing performances (by Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska) all come together in a way that few directors can achieve, and that has me really excited for what he’s going to do next.
Most Overrated Movie
A lot of people were impressed by Steven Knight’s Locke, a movie in which Tom Hardy is the only actor on screen, as he drives his car through the highway and tries to put his messy life in order in the process. To be fair, Hardy gives a commendable performance, showing he is full of interesting choices, and charismatic enough to hold your attention for close to 90 minutes, but on the other hand, there was nothing about seeing this man try to be a good person that was particularly interesting to me. It was yet another story about a middle aged man feeling guilty about the choices he’s made in life. If you are a fan of the art of pouring concrete into construction sites and want to hear Hardy talk extensively about it, then watch Locke. Otherwise, you’re better off skipping it.