SN&R film critics riff on bleak times, shiny new beginnings and the best in 2014 film
Daniel Barnes and Jim Lane reflect on all things Scarlett Johansson, Muppets and Wes Anderson
In a recent article for the pop culture website Grantland, film columnist Mark Harris decried the brand-name franchising of Hollywood blockbusters, calling the ever-increasing glut of sequels, prequels, side-quels, remakes, premakes, and assorted satellite films “the end.” Harris estimated that as many as 150 sequels and franchise installments could be released over the next four years, including such seemingly unthinkable propositions as Now You See Me 2, Kung Fu Panda 3, Beverly Hills Cop 4, Ice Age 11, and Madagascar 162 (some figures have been estimated). At the 2014 domestic box office, 13 of the 14 highest-grossing films were sequels or established “brand name” products, and the only one that wasn’t (Big Hero 6) had the most misleading title since Leonard, Part 6. Undeniably, these are bleak times for cinema purists (they always are), but is it really the end? Only two sequels were deemed good enough to make our very different year-end lists (although we are willing to watch as many Snowpiercer prequels as Joon-ho Bong wants to make), so perhaps the end of film is just a new beginning.Inspired inscrutability for the win
Daniel Barnes’ end-of-year picks
Distinctive voices, unique visions and innovative approaches to storytelling abound in my favorite films of 2014. I have siphoned my favorite documentaries into a separate list in a selfish attempt to shoehorn more wonderful movies into this roundup. As Joanna Newsom’s phantasmic Sortilege says in Inherent Vice, “Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.” The year is ending, but the films live forever.
1. Under the Skin: No surprise here—Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic film about a beautiful alien (Scarlett Johansson) who seduces and harvests Scottish males haunted me all year long. Under the Skin will always be remembered for its mesmerizing music and visuals, but a second viewing helped clarify the character-building craft at work in a seemingly random narrative, especially the way that Johansson’s alien subtly shifts from heedless predator into self-aware prey.
2. Inherent Vice: Inspired inscrutability. With a permed and perma-stoned Joaquin Phoenix mumbling his way through a post-Manson world of dopers, cop actors, drug-dealing dentists, undercover saxophone players and pussy-eater specials, Paul Thomas Anderson has made his daffiest movie to date. So why does the ending pack such a melancholy wallop, and why does it cling to me like a case of the “little kid blues”?
3. Listen Up Philip: With the neophyte novelist Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman, turning the ambition of Max Fischer into airborne self-loathing), a miserable narcissist driven to new levels of anhedonia and boorish behavior by his extremely minor notability, writer-director Alex Ross Perry has created a neurotic asshole for the ages.
4. Boyhood: So much has been made about the narrative “experiment” of Richard Linklater’s soulful, small-scale epic (i.e. the long-form shooting schedule that followed lead actor Ellar Coltrane from kindergartener to college student), that the film’s most miraculous achievement has gone largely unnoticed: All stitched together, it’s one of the most seamless, consistent and tightly paced films of the year.
5. Mr. Turner: This beautifully composed biopic covers the last couple of decades in the life of 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner, but it is also writer-director Mike Leigh’s most personal statement on his own life and art. As Turner, long-time Leigh veteran Timothy Spall is a stomping, shouting, groaning, growling, grunting tour de force.
6. Stranger by the Lake: Alain Guiraudie’s French-language erotic thriller, set entirely on a sun-dappled beach for gay cruisers, plays like Hitchcock distilled into his purest form.
7. We Are the Best!: Lukas Moodysson’s story of middle-school rebels who start a punk band in early-1980s Stockholm is a pure blast of feminist fun.
8. Snowpiercer: In a time of increasingly diminished expectations, Joon-Ho Bong proved that it’s possible to create an intelligent blockbuster, but only if Harvey Weinstein doesn’t kill it first.
9. Foxcatcher: Director Bennett Miller crafts a claustrophobic thriller of slowly mounting dread, and gets intensely physical performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The most intricately detailed Russian nesting doll that Wes Anderson has created yet, but also his most grounded film in over a decade.
Top five documentaries
2. The Overnighters
3. Happy Valley
4. Mistaken for Strangers
5. Rich Hill
1. Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
2. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
4. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
5. Jason Schwartzman, Listen Up Philip
1. Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin and Lucy
2. Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
3. Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night and The Immigrant
4. Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive
5. Luminita Gheorghiu, Child’s Pose
Best Supporting Actor
1. Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
2. Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
3. Jonathan Pryce, Listen Up Philip
4. Gene Jones, The Sacrament
5. Nat Wolff, Palo Alto
Best Supporting Actress
1. Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
2. Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
3. Mia Wasikowska, Only Lovers Left Alive
4. Elizabeth Moss, Listen Up Philip
5. Tilda Swinton, SnowpiercerThe Muppets aren’t a joke, OK?
Jim Lane’s end-of-year picks
As of this writing, these are my top 10 movies of the year—of course, major releases are still coming out, and there could well be one or two I’d mention, if only I’d seen them. Anyhow, with that caveat, in alphabetical order:
1. Birdman: Alejandro Gonzaacute;lez Iñaacute;rritu’s tale of a washed-up movie star’s drive to recapture lost glory was the best and most unsettling plunge into the twisting labyrinth of a deranged mind since Black Swan—and honestly, better and more unsettling than that. Michael Keaton gave the performance of his life—the rest of which he’ll probably spend trying to convince people he’s not really like that.
2. Chef: A tour de force for writer-director-star Jon Favreau, this was a feel-good-buddy-road-trip from Florida to California as Favreau’s character, a gourmet chef out of work, reignites his culinary genius and bonds with his son (Emjay Anthony) while crossing the country in a food truck, cooking as they go. Like all good food-centric movies, it made you hungry.
3. Gone Girl: Director David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel was the movie equivalent of a compulsive summer read. Rosamund Pike gave a star-making performance as the missing wife of Ben Affleck (also in top form), and the tantalizing twists kept viewers spellbound as they slowly learned that neither husband nor wife were exactly what they seemed. We learned a little too slowly, perhaps—Fincher’s movies could often stand to lose 20 minutes or so—but that’s a quibble.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson’s valentine to the lost elegance of a fictitious Mittel-European luxury hotel was typically quirky, leaping in flashbacks from the present to the 1980s, the ’60s, and finally the ’30s for its main story. It was stylish and delightful throughout, with a wonderful comic turn by Ralph Fiennes as the hotel’s punctilious, resourceful concierge.
5. Interstellar: Director Christopher Nolan (co-writing with his brother Jonathan) gave us a mind-and-time-bending trip through a wormhole to explore the galaxy. It was a truly epic vision of the future, doubly welcome after a welter of bleak prognostications ranging from The Road to The Hunger Games. Nolan’s love-conquers-time trope may have been a bit too mundane and Wizard of Oz-ish, but his visual sweep carried the day, especially on the IMAX screen.
6. The Judge: Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall headed a strong supporting cast (Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Ken Howard) with a sharp script by Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque and director David Dobkin. It added up to a complex look at legal ethics and family baggage, as son Downey defends his estranged father Duvall, on trial for murder. It felt like a good adaptation of a fine novel.
7. Locke: What might have seemed merely a bravura stunt—one man (Tom Hardy) driving through the night talking on the phone, with the camera never leaving the car—proved to be a riveting character study of a man in crisis, throwing away his life while doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons. Hardy was brilliant, his intensity matched by a supporting cast who appear only as voices on his car phone.
8. Muppets Most Wanted: Don’t laugh. Musical comedy, that quintessentially American art form, has become an all-but-lost art. With a riot of groan-and-guffaw jokes, lively direction by James Bobin, clever songs by Bret McKenzie, and the customary parade of guest stars, this movie kept the flame alive. “Pure fun” I called it back in March, and that’s what it was.
9. Pride: Director Matthew Warchus and writer Stephen Beresford, recounting the unlikely alliance of gay activists and striking British coal miners in the 1980s, turned out the kind of movie that gives lefty agitprop a good name, without a trace of sour this-is-good-for-you righteousness. It was a joyous celebration of solidarity that sent you out grinning from ear to ear.
10. The Trip to Italy: Two Guys Bummin’ Around Italy Talkin’ might have made a better title, but with the guys played by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (as fictional versions of themselves), the talk was hilarious and the bummin’ was great fun. Supposedly written by director Michael Winterbottom, the movie felt almost completely (and brilliantly) improvised.