I actually forgot about two movies I saw in 2014, the new X-Men film and the Michael Fassbender-starring Frank. I’ve retroactively added them to the list. To see my opinions on them, click here.
And now, for the Final Five (Battlestar Galactica reference):
5. Blue Ruin
The most low-key film on my list, this indie revenge thriller gets points for its interesting structure, unique protagonist, and low-key, easy-to-follow plot. It’s a revenge story where the hero is a bumbling dweeb who’s terrible at vengeance, who messes up half the time, and who by the third act has such misty morals, you begin to wonder if you’re even rooting for him anymore. It’s short and sweet and to the point, with just the right amount of violence and humor to keep you entertained while making you contemplate the nature of morality.
Short and sweet… just like the above paragraph! (pats self on back for brevity)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’m generally not the biggest Wes Anderson fan. I think he makes fine movies and the ones I’ve seen—Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic— are all great, but I agree with the most common criticism that they tend to be pretty much the same thing: melancholic tales of dysfunctional families and lost loves sewn together with twee visuals and indie rock scores.
Most Anderson fans seem to rank Grand Budapest pretty low, but I think it might be my favorite from his oeuvre. I love the story within a story within a story structure and the various aspect ratios used to depict these shifts in perspective. I love the art design and its whimsy, how it takes a 1930s European aesthetic and tweaks it ever so subtly to make it weird and Anderson-y (e.g. the fake Nazis). The Grand Budapest itself reminds me of the hotel in Alan Moore’s porno comic Lost Girls—it has that same ethereal, fairy tale quality to it.
Above all, I love Ralph Fiennes, an actor who flip flops between run of the mill and outstanding, and here gives one of his best performances. Gustave H. is a brilliant creation and Fiennes brings him to life like no other actor could. For a film that deals with such dark subject matter, I was struck by how well Anderson balanced the violent, the tragic, and the joyful, all in the same story. He may make the same movie over and over, but with Grand Budapest he boiled it down to a science.
Since I loved this movie, I want to get my one criticism out of the way right now: James Newton Howard’s score is terrible. Most people don’t notice movie scores and really, that’s a good thing, because like all movie magic, if the audience notices it, it ain’t workin’. But I have an ear for it and am a fan of good scores, my favorite being Howard Shore’s work for The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I also like me some Hans Zimmer bwaaaaaammmmm).
Newton Howard is what I would call a “rent-a-composer.” I’m borrowing this term from my favorites, Redlettermedia, who once described Brett Ratner as a “rent-a-director.” Oh shit, Matthew Vaughn can’t direct X-Men 3? Whatever, let’s just rent Ratner for a few months. Newton Howard is to composers what Ratner is to directors. He can be serviceable, but his music is rarely memorable. The only moment from any of his work that I can recall is a scene in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, when Katniss is being raised up into the arena and Newton Howard tried his hand at some Zimmer bwaaaaaam.
With Nightcrawler, I think he was attempting to emulate Cliff Martinez’ moody electronica from Drive, but Newton Howard is a man meant for more traditional work, and the end result is bizarre. A notable scene involves Jake Gyllenhaal dragging a corpse to make a better photo, and Newton Howard accompanies this with weird, new age xylophones, as if the scene we are witnessing is quirky and not horrifying.
I suppose he was trying to match the black comedy of the film, and now that I’ve spent three paragraphs complaining about something 99% of you probably didn’t notice, let’s talk about what puts this on the #3 spot. The black comedy is certainly one of the chief reasons. I hate the news media as much as the next liberal scumbag, and local news is the Dark Lord of TV news. It’s pointless and sensational and paints a portrait of humanity in which our baser inclinations are our only inclinations. Nightcrawler is great because it skewers TV news but in such a bombastic way that its entertainment value is never overshadowed by its message. The very premise is utterly ridiculous, but the news has gotten so ridiculous that it’s almost believable.
Gyllenhaal gives his best performance; it’s truly enthralling and it’s why so much has been written about his Oscar snub. Some of my favorite scenes were moments where Louis goes about his daily routine. He tries to smile in the mirror and forces a laugh at a joke he doesn’t understand, because he’s a sociopath and comedy is beyond him; it’s all about showing his struggle to act like a normal human being.
Nightcrawler does emulate Drive, and ultimately is the inferior film, but the two are different enough that it still holds up on its own. Drive is light on plot and character and is more of a tone poem than a story. Nightcrawler’s plot is gripping and is the driving force of the film. The script is very well-written and nowadays that’s the #1 thing I’m looking for in a movie, since so many films, both big and small, are completely nonsensical.
2. The Guest
Very few people saw this film or seem to know it existed. Directed by Adam Wingard, most well-known for 2013’s black comedy mumblegore You’re Next, The Guest is a more straightforward thriller that still sports Wingard’s trademark style. Much like contemporaries such as Ti West, Wingard loves the 80s, and is great at creating films that feel like throwbacks while still being fresh and original. He’s big on synth scores and other tropes of the decade, but he’s a good storyteller and his films still feel modern.
I don’t want to talk about the plot too much because part of the joy of this movie is not knowing what’s going to happen, I’ll just say that about halfway through there’s a twist that changes everything and from then on The Guest is a crazy thrill ride. Like most of my favorite movies, its plot is simple and easy-to-follow but doesn’t treat the audience like an idiot. It’s not as scary as You’re Next, but it’s more of an action thriller and has several awesome setpieces. Plus, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you get to see Dan Stevens play a terrifying badass, and not whatever charming British aristocrat I’m sure he plays on that show (I don’t watch it. What do I look like, a sexagenarian?).
I know, I’m predictable. It’s the movie that won the Best Picture Oscar, the award ceremony I consider as relevant as broadcast television. But it was seriously the best movie I saw all year. I’ve dabbled in theater and worked as a writer’s assistant on The Pee-Wee Herman Show, so I enjoyed Birdman’s examination of Broadway theater and the chaotic nature of putting on a show. I also loved how the film examined the nature of celebrity in a post-Twitter age, and its sharp critique of how Hollywood and the masses it serves treat actors like commodities and not people. I love how it skewered the way in which Hollywood pigeonholes stars and prevents them from expanding beyond their horizons, beyond whatever role gave them their first success. It’s great satire, but subtle satire. It’s not in-your-face commentary like Dr. Strangelove, but it certainly has something to say.
Simply put, it’s just a really great story, and above all else, felt original. Films get brownie points from TheHil simply for being something different. They can have structured scripts and definable character arcs as long as they’re doing something I haven’t seen before. I’ve seen faux-single take shots before— Iñárritu and his buddy Alfonso Cuarón are known for them—but I’d never seen a film comprised entirely of one single take (even if was faked, and I know, I know, there are more impressive single take shots, such as the classic opening sequence of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or the film Russian Ark). In a vacuum, a single take shot isn’t all that impressive beyond the logistical nightmare that is choreographing such a camera move, but Iñárritu is creative with how he utilizes them, and uses the camera moves to give the audience a sense of space, taking them from dressing room to backstage to stage, so that the viewer is hyper-aware of how big the theater is and where each scene is taking place.
There is also the surreal elements to be considered, and as a fan of surrealism I loved seeing Michael Keaton hover in his tidy whities, hearing the gruff voice of Birdman taunting him in voiceover, and seeing him fly above Manhattan with a Man of Steel poster ironically placed in the background. The final act, in which Birdman convinces Keaton that what the masses really want isn’t stage adaptations of Raymond Carver stories but explosive action and over-the-top nonsense, adds another layer of satire, in which Iñárritu lambasts the blockbuster industry and asks the question: what is more important to the mob, story or spectacle?
All of these rich thematic layers are bolstered by a terrific cast, each of whom deliver the performance of a lifetime. Keaton is obviously great as is Naomi Watts and Zach Galifanakis, but my personal favorites were Emma Stone and Ed Norton. I loved how Stone’s character seemed to exist to stand up for Millenials, who are too often labeled as lazy, entitled ingrates, but are people in our own right. Norton’s character felt exactly like a real Broadway douche, an actor who’s convinced himself that by sticking to the stage, he is somehow better than sellouts like Keaton. I love characters who are assholes but get a pass by being great at what they do (though I am tired of the House M.D. trope), and Norton embodied that asshole to a T.
I hate the awards cycle that commandeers the American movie industry in the final quarter of the year. The awards themselves have become meaningless, as they do not recognize the best films of the year, but rather the films that best replicate the formula the voters are looking for. American cinema, both Hollywood and the independent film industry, are still more than capable of producing great work, but I feel film is stagnating more than other artistic mediums. Thus, it was a joy to see a film this peculiar receive such well-deserved recognition. I’m sure the Academy voters gave it the win simply because it was a movie about them, but nonetheless, it’s heartening to see such an ambitious project take home the top prize.
As always, there were a bunch of films I didn’t get around to seeing, including:
20,000 Days on Earth, The Babadook, Big Bad Wolves, Citizenfour, Dear White People, Enemy, Force Majeure, Fury, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Raid 2: Berendal, The Rover, Selma, Snowpiercer, Top Five, Under the Skin and Whiplash.