by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
There will be those who try to convince people 2014 was a weak year for film. They would be wrong. For independent releases, for smaller budgeted fare and foreign language imports, this was a stunning 12 months at the multiplex, and it's likely a number of titles - Boyhood, Birdman, Leviathan, Locke, Enemy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Force Majeure, Obvious Child, Selma, Mommy, Under the Skin, Nightcrawler, Beyond the Lights and Mr. Turner just to name a scant few - are ones we are going to be talking about and analyzing for years to come.
The issue for most moviegoers, of course, is the lack of bigger budgeted studio releases being anything worth talking more than a couple minutes about. Sure Marvel had a couple of massive hits, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, the latter to many being something of a minor game-changer for the studio as it broadened their so-called 'Cinematic Universe' into the realm of escapist science fiction. But even those films weren't ones easy to place amongst the best of the year, because for all their multiple strengths neither was overall strong or different enough to separate themselves from a rather crowded field of very-good-not-quite-great entertainments that littered the multiplex virtually every weekend.
In many ways, 2014 was the year when the major Hollywood studios finally made it all but clear they were no longer crafting their bigger, flashier epics for the domestic U.S. market, instead reaching out for that international dollar. Nowhere was that more apparent than the case of Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, the year's biggest ticket seller from a global perspective. That movie might as well have had a sign around its neck labeled 'Made for China,' the fourth entry in the series even more a discombobulated sound and fury over narrative substance than usual for the popular toy-based franchise.
The other major story, of course, was the fuss surrounding the Sony comedy The Interview which included the cyber-attack on the studio (according to the FBI an assault spearheaded by North Korea), the cancellation of its Christmas Day release, the uproar that followed (including a dressing down of the studio by President Obama during a press conference) and a subsequent about-face that led to it being screened in a handful of independent theaters as well as made available for download online. This hullabaloo set a number of precedents, not the least of which being the fact it made just over $15 million its opening weekend from digital sales - potentially showing studios big ticket films don't have to be given an exclusive theatrical release in order to turn a profit.
This was also a year when so-called 'faith-based' features took the box office by storm. Or, at least, that's what they did during the first quarter of 2014, Son of God, God's Not Dead and Heaven's For Real turning hefty profits while boasting tiny production budgets. Heck, even idiosyncratic director Darren Aronofsky's Noah made over $100 million at the domestic box office even with most conservative Christians criticizing the film for not being biblically inaccurate (whatever that means), the movie an Easter hit few saw coming. But the rest of the year was a different story entirely. A slew of faith-based flicks, including Moms Night Out, When the Game Stands Tall, Left Behind and The Identical, came and went at the multiplex, even Ridley Scott's massive Exodus: Gods and Kings failing to make anything close to a profit.
For my part, 2014 was a year filled with numerous delights, and even if few Hollywood spectacles captured my attention, there were plenty of other mesmerizing efforts that certainly kept my interests continually piqued. Filmmakers channeled the inner Hitchcock to pull off a variety of bait and switch tactics thinking making you think you were watching a movie about one character only to suddenly discover this wasn't the case at all, Proxy and At the Devil's Door being prime examples; while others flipped the script in order to analyze hot-button societal issues like gender and race equality under the guise of being a simple-minded thriller, comedy or period melodrama, Gone Girl, Belle, Top Five, Love is Strange and The Purge: Anarchy all come to mind on that front. All-in-all, I watched over 220 films in 2014, a number of them ones I'll treasure long into the foreseeable future.
The following are my choices for the top ten motion pictures of 2014 along with some other random thoughts about the year's releases. Here's hoping 2015 is just as glorious.
Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making coming of age drama following a young boy from 6 to 18 was a revelation for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its breathtaking, magnificently simplistic authenticity. But, more than that, it's also an insightful, monumentally significant dissection of motherhood, all of it anchored by a self-effacing, nakedly raw performance from Patricia Arquette that's as honest as it is naturalistic. The movie of the year for more reasons than one.
2. A Most Violent Year
New York. 1981. That's the stage for writer/director J.C. Chandor's latest stunner, the filmmaker channeling both Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet as he chronicles the attempts of heating oil magnate (superbly portrayed by Oscar Isaac) and his manipulatively brilliant wife (a sensational Jessica Chastain) to increase their holdings in a highly volatile, and violent, marketplace. A whirlwind of dramatic momentum bristling with intensity and suspense, the movie is an old school real world thriller where black and white do not exist and varying stages of grey battle it out for supremacy.
Working with concrete has never been so suspenseful. Writer/director Steven Knight's 90-minute ticking clock marvel of a decent man literally driving towards an unforeseen future all of his own, somewhat selfish, making is a masterful drama anchored by a performance from star Tom Hardy that's one for the ages. A movie that understands life, in all its seemingly mundane complexity, is far more invigorating and emotionally explosive than any time bomb or revolver hidden under a floorboard ever could be.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson's latest candy-colored confectionary treat might just be his best yet, this story inside a story inside a story about a renowned hotel concierge who delivers life lessons to an eager young pupil a delight first frame to last. Film goes far beyond its beautiful artifice to deliver a somber, heartfelt aria to life in all its melodious, oftentimes painful mystery, ultimately delivering a powerfully somber coda that's as intimate and personal as it is far-reaching and universal.
Set to the jazzy percussion-driven cadences of its own unique design, this descent into artistic misery and creation is a rousing, full-throttle blast that's a sublime roller coaster of emotion and catharsis building to a surreal ending that brings everything taking place full circle. Michael Keaton's soul-searing performance is enough to watch this one on its own, but when added to the combined brilliance of the remainder of the all-star cast (Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis and Andrea Riseborough) director Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest becomes remarkably close to being essential. Either way, it's one of 2014's most towering, and thus memorable, achievements.
6. Obvious Child
Star Jenny Slate and writer/director Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child is an out of this world comedic spellbinder that is as funny as it is nervy, going places and asking questions so fearless, so far-reaching, I'm still astounded they both had the combined courage (and talent) to ask them. Beautifully scripted, expertly acted, this romantic wonder about unintended pregnancy and its consequences has more laughs and more tears than any other film released in all of 2014.
7. Cheap Thrills
Talk about ballsy, director E.L. Katz and writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga deliver a midnight adrenaline shocker that goes far beyond its exploitation roots becoming something visceral, smart and altogether unforgettable in the process. One of two masterful motion pictures that dissected the dark side of the American Dream (Foxcatcher being the other) with exacting circumspection, this night of escalating terror between friends (Pat Healy and Ethan Embry, both excellent) facing off against one another for cash is a numbing, cold-hearted descent into madness that's beyond unforgettable.
The second collaboration between writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson (The Guard being their first), Calvary is a coal-black dramatic comedy of excruciating power to amaze and destroy, the film arguably the year's best examination of faith (both its redemptive and destructive powers) building to a climax that had me shuddering in tearful self-examination. It's a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve yet does so in the most subtle and genuine of ways, Gleeson anchoring it, delivering a performance of complex introspection that reflects the entire gamut of the human spectrum. Stunning.
Darren Aronofsky's biblical epic about a man, his family and an ark to hold all of God's creations is easily the year's love-hate spectacle of hubris and imagination, going above and beyond in ways that boggle the mind. Russell Crowe gives a towering performance as the titular man of faith who gives all he has for the higher power who commands him, while the director levies a titanic storm of observational commentary, talking about who we are as a species and the terrors we assault one another with when greed, avarice and selfishness rule our lives.
10. The Guest
Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the creative wunderkinds behind You're Next, ascend to the next level with the freewheeling, energetically creative thriller The Guest, the movie a gigantic, uninhibited whirligig full of numerous surprises built straight out of the characters themselves and the plight they collectively face. At the center of it all is Dan Stevens as the title character, his clean-cut good looks and charismatic smile inadvertently hiding a horrifying secret that would make Stephen King, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy all equally proud. Movie should have been the action hit of 2014; here's hoping it finds a gigantic audience the moment it hits DVD and Blu-ray.
A Second Ten (in alphabetic order)
Belle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Foxcatcher, Into the Woods, Love is Strange, Mommy, Mr. Turner, Only Lovers Left Alive, Under the Skin, Wild Tales
A Third Ten...Because I Can (in alphabetic order)
Cold in July, Force Majeure, The Homesman, The LEGO Movie, Leviathan, Life Itself, A Most Wanted Man, Proxy, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Didn't See It; Wish I Had (in alphabetic order)
Beyond the Lights, Dear White People, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Dom Hemingway, The Drop, Filth, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodbye to Language, Grand Piano, Happy Christmas, The Immigrant, Kill the Messenger, Le Week-End, Men, Women & Children, Night Moves, Nymphomaniac, The Overnighters, Pride, Selma, The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, The Skeleton Twins, Venus in Fur, V/H/S: Viral, What If, White Bird in a Blizzard, Zero Motivation, The Zero Theorem
WORST OF THE YEAR (in alphabetic order)
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, That Awkward Moment, Better Living Through Chemistry, Dumb and Dumber To, If I Stay, The Legend of Hercules, No Good Deed, Ride Along, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Winter's Tale
More Worst of the Worst (in alphabetic order)
3 Days to Kill, A Million Ways to Die in the West, And So It Goes, Annie, Dracula Untold, Draft Day, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gimme Shelter, God's Pocket, I, Frankenstein, The Judge, Rio 2, The Signal, Vampire Academy