(This article ran in the Jan. 16 edition of the Press & Dakotan and can be found here.)
When I look at my list of favorite movies for 2014, I am struck by how many of them pushed boundaries from both a storytelling and technical level.
Despite the many challenges that face the film industry, people who want to create find ways to do it and are not settling for the status quo.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Birdman” have received the most Oscar nominations this year, and they also feature on my list. “Boyhood” also received some Oscar love. The fact that some of the other films on my list — particularly “Under the Skin” and “Nightcrawler” — received no major recognition is a crime against celluloid. But if I wasn’t upset about a snub, it wouldn’t be the Oscars.
Unfortunately, if you didn’t travel to theaters outside of Yankton, you didn’t see more than one of these films on the big screen. (I believe “Nightcrawler” had a run in our community.)
Without further ado, here is the list:
This was a smart and very fun piece of science fiction from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. It follows a rebellion of the oppressed on a train racing around the world. The elaborate locomotive holds the remnants of humanity after an attempt to halt climate change miserably fails. It is at times scary, thrilling and absurd, and it definitely has some analogies for our current times with its depiction of a class system and the privileged elite.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
This is Wes Anderson’s most complicated vision ever to be brought to life — and that’s saying something. The visual flair and intelligence on display in “Grand Budapest” is sometimes hard to keep up with but worth the investment. Ralph Fiennes shines.
What can I say about “Boyhood” that hasn’t already been said in the volumes of critical praise it has received? It is an ambitious cinematic experiment filmed during the course of 12 years, and it succeeded in capturing the growth and life experiences of a fictional boy and his family members during that time. It’s such a simple idea, but one that could have failed at so many turns. I feel like its impact on me was not as profound as it apparently was with many other critics, but it was an incredible journey, nonetheless.
7. The Rover
I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic films that explain little, and “The Rover” fits into that category. In it, a man (played by Guy Pearce) is hell-bent on recovering his stolen car. Along the way, he picks up a mentally handicapped man (played by an impressive Robert Pattinson) who accompanies him on the long trip in the Australian outback.
6. Force Majeure
“Force Majeure” is an examination of male and female gender roles and how different rules apply. It is also a look at how fast family dynamics can change based on a split-second decision. Despite the beautiful and tranquil setting, the film is both a comedy and a drama that, if you watch with a significant other, will fire up some potentially heated conversations once the credits have rolled.
I love movies that have an energy that invigorates me while giving me little idea of where they will go. There is a thrill in the unknown. Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” is hours and hours of sexual and psychological exploration. Ideas are clutched tightly and then let go. It’s certainly not a journey for the faint-hearted soul, because — as you may have guessed from the title — it does not shy away from its subjects. Von Trier has never been known for his timidity. Hop on for the ride, so to speak. Try not to fall off.
4. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The slick cinematography and jazzy soundtrack make the audience feel like it is actually in a New York City theater following the behind-the-scenes dramatics of an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Michael Keaton shines as the former cinema superhero Riggan Thomson, who is trying to revive his career without the use of a mask and costume. The film is a reflection on the creative impulse and the feelings of self-doubt that so often accompany it. Edward Norton is great, too, as an indulgent, unpredictable actor.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Do you sometimes feel like a vampire who has lived for centuries and has become bored with the petty pursuits of humanity? If so, this is the film for you. Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” is the best thing the iconic director has made in a long time, and it is damn cool. I mean, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s cool. Except it has a lot more brains than those now ubiquitous pinup posters. The devotion to art and human creation expressed in the film is exhilarating, as is its expression of frustration and disappointment in where the human race has landed.
“Nightcrawler” is about an entrepreneurial young man on its surface, and many people are tempted to see it as a critique of a bloodthirsty and craven media. But I think that is severely underestimating the palette of this film. To me, “Nightcrawler” is a condemnation of the inhumanity of capitalism. Look at the United States and its total devotion to the religion of hustling. We live in a society where almost all human interaction and activities have been reduced to a dollar value. Lou Bloom is the coyote who comes in from the hills surrounding Los Angeles to scavenge the city for sustenance. He is America — a place where we’ve almost universally chosen to judge each human being’s worth on his or her ability to earn money doing whatever task necessary. The more disregard you show to your fellow human beings in the pure pursuit of the almighty dollar, the bigger hero you can become in the cathedrals of American thought. Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were reading this for my political rants. On to number one …
1. Under the Skin
With shades of such cinematic luminaries as David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick, as well as director Jonathan Glazer’s utter determination not to hand things down to the audience, I was mesmerized by this film from its opening scene to its last. The role of Mica Levi’s hypnotic, alien and downright creepy soundtrack in transporting my mind into this universe cannot be understated. By showing us what it’s like to be an alien in a human’s clothing, “Under the Skin” shows us what it means to be human on a very functional level. This is not only a movie of the year, it’s quite possibly a movie of the decade.
Honorable mentions for 2014 include: “Inherent Vice,” “Whiplash,” “Selma,” “Ida,” “Happy Christmas,” “Stranger by the Lake,” “A Trip to Italy,” “It Felt Like Love,” “Dear White People,” “Obvious Child,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Babadook,” “Locke,” “Starred Up,” “A Most Wanted Man,” “The Drop,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Calvary,” “Frank,” “Wild,” “A Field in England,” “Top 5,” “The Congress” and “Listen Up, Phillip.” That’s a lot of good film watching.
Best documentaries I saw? “Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets;” “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia;” “The Missing Picture;” “Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger;” “Happy Valley” and “20,000 Days on Earth.”
Most overrated film I saw in 2014? “American Sniper.” It was much too simplistic for my taste.