This may have been the year of the ape, dinosaur, and dragon, but you won’t find Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies in what follows. Nor did I care for Interstellar, which was scientifically bonkers and philosophical cheese. These are the true gems of 2014, with ’71 at top beyond criticism.
1. ’71. 5 stars. This taut thriller is set in west Belfast in the early years of the Irish Troubles — a year before Bloody Sunday – but it’s less a political thriller and more a horror/suspense piece that exploits the political background to remarkable effect. I knew Jack O’Connell would become a brilliant actor (his performance as the psychopathic teen in Eden Lake, 2008, was mind-blowing), and here he plays Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets separated from his company during a street riot. He is pursued by angry Belfast residents, and runs deeper into enemy territory, barely escaping murder at every turn, and finding help in unlikely places. One character who leaves a particular impression is the young boy who brings Hook to a pub, and gets blown to pieces when a bomb goes off. This is incredibly nail-biting suspense “behind enemy lines”, with superb control of action and pacing. My favorite of the year hands down.
2. Fury. 5 stars. The best war movie made in a long time. Few capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. In the final days of WWII, an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it. The tank battles are bloody nightmares; the Nazis resist every step of the way. My favorite scene comes in the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in, and a thoroughly unpleasant dinner ensues. Fury is my favorite war film after the sacred trilogy of Bergman (Shame), Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Kubrick (Paths of Glory). And it buries Saving Private Ryan, which I didn’t like at all.
3. The Babadook. 4 ½ stars. When Friedkin called this the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, that got my attention. Scarier than his own Exorcist? I don’t think so, but you can make a case for it. Some parts nearly gave me a heart attack. The performances are as operatic and visceral as those in Fire Walk With Me, and as in Twin Peaks, we never know for sure whether the monster is real or imagined. In some scenes Amelia appears to be hallucinating as she breaks down, but in others reacting to a real presence in the home. Heavy shades of The Shining, as this deranged parent tries to kill her over-imaginative child. Critics even compare it to Polanski’s Repulsion. But there’s no derivative feel at all. It’s the kind of horror film I’d given up hope for ever seeing again, engaging us with characters we deeply care about.
4. Noah. 4 ½ stars. The story of the Flood served up Lord of the Rings style. It works, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. Reviewed here.
5. Snowpiercer. 4 ½ stars. The U.S. release coincided with that of Noah, and I saw them back to back as a bleak double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. It’s truly brilliant.
6. The Homesman (2014). 4 ½ stars. This Western is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but the Irishman adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.
7. Spring. 4 ½ stars. A back-seat horror treasure. We never learn if Louise is a vampire or some kind of alien, mostly because that element is circumstantial. Spring is a romance that has been endlessly compared to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. If you love the conversations between Jesse and Celine (as I do), and if you’re a horror fan too, then you’ll eat up Evan and Louise. Their relationship evolves out of witty and entirely organic dialogue, and on the occasions when Louise’s body rebels and transforms, and she has to go out and kill, it seems like we’re suddenly in a different movie. The clash works wonderfully, and it’s the kind of cinematic daring I’d like to see more often.
8. Gone Girl. 4 ½ stars. Two entries on my list involve preposterous plots weaved through a dark mesmerizing surrealism. Gone Girl is the first, and it’s David Fincher’s best film since Seven. The direction is immaculate; the editing flawless; at two and a half hours, I wanted it to go on longer. The forensic intrigue of Zodiac is mixed with the mind-fucking glee of The Game to keep us clueless, and since I was ignorant of the book and steered clear of reviews, I was truly that. The genius of the film lies in the way it shuttles back and forth between the pre- and post-disappearance of Amy, with events ringing hollow in both periods even when they unfold as revelations. Fincher doesn’t yank us around or abuse our trust. Nor does he exactly distort the events he portrays. He just frames them in a clever way that gives new meaning to the polysemous nature of truth. That’s the true ride, more than the plotting itself.
9. X-Men: Days of Future Past. 4 ½ stars. Of the seven X-Men films to date, this one is the best. Here we finally get the all-out war between mutants and humanity, requiring time travel to save the day but without cheap resets — so we get to have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live again. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. Ellen Page reprises her role as Kitty Pryde (from the awful Last Stand), and this time she’s actually an important character: it’s her powers that make the time travel mission possible. The Catch-22’s are brilliant: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion.
10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. 4 stars. A feminist spin from the Muslim world is what we need in today’s climate, and this Iranian piece is pure feminine defiance. It’s not preachy; it doesn’t let its message get in the way of a good story. It’s set in a remote town full of pimps and thieves, where a young man is trying to rise above the depraved, and the vampire preys at night. She’s endearing like the girl of Let the Right One In, a lover of music and skateboarding, and her victims tend to be abusive males. Dress attire serves a brilliant inversion. The Iranian chador keeps women stifled, but here it looks like a “Dracula cape” symbolizing the girl’s ferocious liberation. If the movie is light on plot it’s filled with atmosphere, and the Farsi language is a big part of that.
11. Lone Survivor. 4 stars. Based on the true account (see what’s fact and fiction here) of four navy seals on a covert operation in Afghanistan 2005. As they invade a Taliban hideout, they’re spotted by goat herders and make the kind but stupid decision to let them go rather than kill them on the spot. From that point it’s the four seals fending off unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, and appear suddenly from behind trees. This is one of the most emotionally draining military sequences ever filmed, showing how much damage the human body can actually absorb before giving up the ghost. The film honors the seals who died in Operation Red Wings, but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way.
12. Boyhood. 4 stars. It boasts a near perfect (99%) critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I certainly wouldn’t call it that good — it’s not a masterpiece like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy — it does what Richard Linklater films do best, mining truths out of the minutia of everyday life. The conceit has been way over-hyped: Linklater shot the film over 12 years, once every year for three or four days of shooting, so the characters literally grow before our eyes without the enhancements of makeup, special effects or use of different actors. If we didn’t know this in advance, I suspect Boyhood would have been closer to a non-event. The film could have been made the standard way and no worse for it. Boyhood speaks to the human condition in mundane events, which should but never come across boring in a Linklater film.
13. Grand Piano. 4 stars. My second entry involving a ludicrous premise that works for rather than against. If Gone Girl is about keeping a husband glued to his wife through the most perverse blackmail conceivable, Grand Piano is about keeping a musician glued to the piano — lest he be shot by a sniper for playing a single wrong note. This sniper speaks to the pianist through an earpiece, as the poor guy performs in front of a crowd expecting him to fail. The style reminds of Brian DePalma, though more polished and less trashy. It’s Elijah Wood’s best outing since Frodo days, and he’s well suited in his nerdy victimized role. This is a film you savor for style, not substance, wondering how you could have possibly loved it so much as the credits start rolling.
14. The Den. 4 stars. The found-footage genre is awful, but The Den uses it to great effect. The plot is standard enough: a young woman witnesses a gruesome murder online, and she eventually becomes the killers’ next target. It’s the way everything unfolds via the webcams, Skype, surveillance cameras, and moving cursors that makes the results so effective. In short order, the killer hacks into Elizabeth’s computer and makes her life hell. It starts with pranks (like forwarding of a homemade sex tape to her academic supervisor and getting her fired), then escalates to things far worse. The film succeeds in making us feel vulnerable, because of the terrifying ease with which virtual threats and cyber-home invasions can be executed. In the final act, Elizabeth wakes up in the den — a grim warehouse containing victims tied to chairs — and she, naturally, becomes the next featured online murder; a foreordained ending which pulls no punches.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)