2014 is all but one-third over, and by my yardstick there have been ten commercially-released films thus far that have definitely cut the mustard (Locke, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Noah, Omar, Only Lovers Left Alive, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Tim’s Vermeer, Fading Gigolo). To these you need to add nine film-festival stand-outs — Yann Demange‘s ’71 (which I saw in Berlin) along with eight from the Sundance Film Festival for a grand total of 19 — par for the course for any January-to-April season.
The Sundance picks, once again, are Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash, (2) Craig Johnson‘s The Skeleton Twins, (3) Steve James‘ Life Itself, (4) Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood, (5) Lynn Shelton‘s Laggies, (6) James D. Cooper‘s Lambert & Stamp, (7) Charlie McDowell‘s The One I Love and (8) Chapman and Maclain Way‘s The Battered Bastards of Baseball.
What other films should I have included? And don’t mention The LEGO Movie. I don’t want to to know about that film, ever. However rich and spiritual it may be, its success has lowered the bar in the Hollywood mainstream industry and made it cool for any puerile kid-distraction concept to be made into a film. It might be cool on its own terms but it has polluted the waters. In my mind it’s a chemical plant dumping toxic substances into the Hudson.
My commercial-released 2014 faves, in this order:
1. Steven Knight‘s Locke — “It might sound a bit confining or even boring, but it’s not — trust me. This is not some arcane aesthetic exercise. And it’s not really a stunt film. It’s a story about a real guy coping with pressure and responsibility and love and adulthood and serious, real-deal consequences and trying to man up and do the right thing without allowing everything else to fall into a heap on the floor.”
2. Wes Anderson‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel — “Rest assured that while Budapest is a full-out ‘Wes Anderson film’ (archly stylized, deadpan humor, anally designed) it also delights with flourishy performances and a pizazzy, loquacious script that feels like Ernst Lubitsch back from the dead, and particularly with unexpected feeling — robust affection for its characters mixed with a melancholy lament for an early-to-mid 20th Century realm that no longer exists.”
3. Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida — “This is one superbly composed, austere, Robert Bresson– or Carl Dreyer-like art film — set in 1962 and shot in black-and-white with a 1.37 aspect ratio. It’s about nuns, vows, cigarettes, fate, family skeletons, sex and sexy saxophones, Nazis and Jews and the grim atmosphere of Communist Poland. And it’s anchored by two understated knockout performances — one by the quietly mesmerizing, ginger-haired Agata Trzebuchowska as a young almost-nun named Anna, the other by Agata Kulesza as Anna’s aunt — the morose, blunt-spoken, hard-drinking, somewhat promiscuous Wanda. Not a whole lot happens but enough does. Everything is choice, precise, careful, plain. It’s a highly disciplined film that is restrained but complete in a less-is-more fashion.”
4. Anthony and Joe Russo‘s Captain America: The Winter Soldier — “This is one sharp, well-written (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely), rock-solid, mega-efficient, super-expensive something or other, and with a certain humanist empathy that seeps through from time to time. Speaking as a confirmed hater of comic-book movies, I was really and truly okay with this thing. It’s way, way above the level of The Avengers (which I mostly despised) and the second and third Iron Man movies. If you’re going to shell out your hard-earned coin for a comic-book movie, this is the way to go.”
5. Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah — “A Bible movie for those Christians who aren’t ignorant, climate-change-denying, Republican-supporting assholes. It’s genuinely mystical at times, and when it’s not that it’s at least imaginative or audacious or somewhat nutty. Most movies go in the other direction — they try to numb you out with tropes you’ve seen a million times. But Aronofsky was not asleep at the wheel when he cowrote and directed this puppy. If you don’t appreciate Noah‘s general verve and occasional nuttiness then I don’t know what to say to you. Go rent Pompeii or something.”
6. Hany Abu-Assad‘s Omar — “A taut, urgent, highly realistic thriller that squeezes its characters and viewers like a vise.”
7. Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive — “A very droll, no-laugh-funny vampire movie about middle-aged goth hipster musician types. Basically a nocturnal lifestyle movie that Lou Reed would have loved. After catching it 11 months ago at the 2013 Cannes Film festival I called it ‘a perfect William S. Burroughsian hipster mood trip…I sank into it like heroin.'”
8. Chiemi Karasawa‘s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me — “One of the frankest and boldest docs I’ve ever seen (or would want to see) about what a bitch being 87 years old can be. Karasawa’s film is admirably blunt and candid, but that Bette Davis line about aging being “not for sissies” has never seemed more dead-on. This is no glossy showbiz portrait. Well, it is but it has more on its mind than just praise, and some of what we’re shown is unpleasant. I’m just being as honest as Karasawa’s film, okay? It’s not a walk in the park, this thing. But it’s quite tough and ballsy. And hats off to the subject for allowing the raw truth to come through.
9. Teller‘s Tim’s Vermeer — “A delightful, fascinating, highly intelligent, inventive and spirit-lifting film for everyone — the Telluride praise was well earned.”
10. John Turturro‘s Fading Gigolo — “A gentle, Brooklyn-based, light-touch, indie-romantic fable. It’s appealing in a kindly, burnished, old-fashioned way, and it happens in a realm entirely (and in some ways charmingly) of Turturro’s imagining. The atmosphere is one of reverence, nostalgia, dignity, romance, class, compassion, tradition. Eroticism, trust me, barely pokes through, but when it does it’s because of the gap-toothed Vanessa Paradis, making her English-language debut.”