Rita’s Top Ten of 2014
10. They Came Together
They Came Together doesn’t get anywhere near the dizzyingly bizarre comic heights of some of David Wain’s previous comedies, but when you’re parodying something as entrenched in its own vanilla-ness as the mainstream studio romantic comedy, a little bit of absurdity goes a long way. Wain’s send-up of that genre’s tired cliches and problematic tropes can be pretty cutting – for example, when it’s revealed that Amy Poehler’s parents are full blown white supremacists, it feel less like over-the-top shock humor and more like a semi-logical extension of the whitewashed versions of New York in which so many romcoms take place. But it also demonstrates an incredibly deep understanding of the romcom formula that clearly comes, at least in part, from a place of love. I feel confident that David Wain could make an earnest version of They Came Together with the same cast that would also be fantastic, albeit in very different way.
9. Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow has so much to offer that so many other action films this year conspicuously lacked. Among its virtues: A premise that’s twisty and weird without being egregiously nonsensical. Fight sequences that are kinetic and propulsive, and refreshingly devoid of the “two enormous CGI armies crashing into each other” thing that’s become so ubiquitous lately. A female lead every bit as dynamic and interesting as her male counterpart. More than one instance of real, honest-to-God humor. A performance from Tom Cruise that leans into his more weaselly qualities, making his eventual transformation into a hero that much more rewarding. I didn’t see another action movie this year that was as clever, as energetic, and as fun as this one.
8. The One I Love
If you could change anything about your romantic partner, what would it be? How much would you change? How much can you change before they stop being the person they were when you met them, and become someone altogether different? The One I Love tries to answer these questions by literalizing them, in the form of a mysterious guest house where couple Sophie and Ethan stumble upon their ideal versions of each other. Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass are excellent as the “real” Sophie and Ethan, and maybe even better as the subtly different alternate versions of them. Justin Lader’s script hints just enough at the film’s larger mythology to pique curiosity, but not enough to answer the unanswerable questions that anyone in a relationship has no doubt struggled with.
7. Gone Girl
In addition to being a edge-of-your-seat mystery and a visual feast, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel is a cornucopia of complex and contradictory ideas about gender and marriage. Is Amy Dunne an offensive parody of a misogynist’s worst nightmare? Or is she an avenging angel who visits retribution upon shallow men who would rather accept a beautiful woman’s obsequious behavior at face value than dig deeper and risk not getting laid? I personally think she’s both, but lean more heavily toward the latter. (It seems meaningful to me that Pike previously played Jane, the sweetest, prettiest, and least interesting Bennett sister, in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. Maybe Nick and Amy are just an inside-out, horror show version of Jane and Mr. Bingley?)
6. The Immigrant
James Gray’s period drama is so well-acted and beautifully composed that even if it were a straightforward, predictable melodrama full of stock characters, it would still be an impressive accomplishment. Luckily, Gray doesn’t stop there. While the outlines of the story are extremely familiar – a beautiful young innocent comes to the big bad city and is led astray by untrustworthy men – Gray and co-writer Ric Menello tweak each one of their characters just enough to keep the viewer off-balance and unsure of who to root for. Marion Cotillard’s Ewa is tougher than than she seems, somewhat complicit in her own exploitation, and even a little amoral and predatory herself. Joaquin Phoenix imbues her pimp Bruno with a weird blend of brutality and cowardice that’s intriguing and repellant at the same time, and Jeremy Renner plays a physically magnetic magician who seems like Ewa’s knight in shining armor until he turns out to be a opportunistic flake. It’s also the first film about Ellis Island to actually be shot there, lending every frame a stark authenticity that bolsters its thorny, uncompromising characterizations even more.
A knotty, complicated meditation on faith and morality that doesn’t pull any punches or supply any easy answers, and pulls off the difficult trick of maintaining a certain level of empathy for all of its characters without shying away from the fact that most of them are fundamentally pretty awful. Brendan Gleeson’s lead performance as Father James is remarkable to watch as he attempts to navigate the darkness closing in around him following a violent threat from a parishioner. Larry Smith’s gorgeous cinematography only helps to drive home the ambiguous nature of the story. Even in a place as picturesque as this, people still lead lives of quiet desperation, and can’t help but lash out at the authority figures they only half believe in.
Selma often gets tagged as a Martin Luther King biopic, and while David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King is wonderful and compelling, the film’s greatest strength is its depiction of the Civil Rights Movement as a large, multifarious, sometimes very conflicted group effort. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, it spends a great deal of time showing the careful strategy that went into making the sweeping changes of the sixties come to pass, without giving short shrift to the very human emotions that sometimes made those strategies harder to execute.
3. Obvious Child
Many great romantic comedies succeed because they are charming fantasies that momentarily distract us from the painful ambiguity of real life. Obvious Child is absolutely not that kind of romantic comedy, but it’s still great. Jenny Slate’s Donna is already kind of a mess before her boyfriend announces he’s leaving her for another woman, and once that happens, well, it’s all downhill from there. The fact that Donna is allowed to be a mess, to make a pretty awful mistake in the form of an unplanned pregnancy, and to then deal with that mistake on her own terms and still be deemed worthy of love, is a lot more generous than many lesser romcoms are to their female leads.
2. Under the Skin
A sensory experience unlike anything I’ve seen before. Jonathan Glazer does such an excellent job of putting us in the place of his extraterrestrial protagonist that it’s frankly unsettling. Daniel Landin’s stark cinematography and Mica Levi’s eerie, assaultive score combine with a deceptively complex lead performance from Scarlett Johansson to create a creepy, fascinating ride that not only asks what it means to be human, but also whether being human is even worth it.
Boyhood is a low concept story that could almost be dismissed as pedestrian, told with a high concept twist that could almost be dismissed as gimmick. The way these two qualities bounce off of each other results in a truly arresting filmgoing experience that’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced in a theater. It’s simultaneously a detailed depiction of a particular time and place (being a child of divorce in Texas in the aughts), and a sweeping evocation of what can only be called the human condition. The fact that I saw Boyhood shortly after the birth of my first nephew – the first person whose life I will have consciously born witness to from the very beginning – definitely made it hit me harder emotionally. But having a kid in your life is not a prerequisite to loving Linklater’s film. For as much as it’s about the pains and joys of growing from a child to an adult, in a larger sense it’s about the way that time changes and plays tricks on all of us, which is just about the most universal experience I can think of.