Matt’s Top Ten of 2014
I’ve been an extant human American for almost 33 years and an incorrigible, obsessive cineaste for at least half that. Since becoming absorbed, Borg-like, into Film Culture my love of the moving image has never wavered. But the specific qualities that excite me about Film seem to ebb, flow, and transmogrify almost every year. Some years my fickle, Aspartame-ravaged heart swoons for clockwork plotting and ginsu-sharp satirical insights. Other years it’s overreaching ambition and unbridled conceptual sprawl that get my mid-thorax TARS diamond-hard, if you know what I mean.
Through assembling my Top 10 each January I can usually diagnose where my head’s at. But this year? There’s a bit of everything here: bombast and restraint, earnest humanism and icy intellectualism, postmodern snottiness and classical melodrama, bittersweet nostalgia and cutthroat futurism, etc. There’s a metric ton of genre deconstruction, the surname “Anderson,” and hipster vampiredom. Sure it’s a clusterfuck, but the important thing to remember is that these are Films, Films are Art, and Art will bury us all. May God have pity on your soul. Onward!
10. Only Lovers Left Alive
Like I mentioned above (and as we’ll see again later) 2014 was a big year for laid-back Nosferatu cool. And be it westerns (Dead Man), gangster movies (Ghost Dog), or spy thrillers (The Limits of Control), ivory-headed indie aesthete Jim Jarmusch is no stranger to disassembling genre parts and pinching them through his own distinctive coffee-and-nicotine-stained filter to create something special. Thus, his invariably low-key take on the long-lasting union between two bored, bohemian bloodsuckers is as fresh a perspective on vampire lore as we’ve had since George Romero’s Martin. But despite plenty of brooding gothic mood, Lovers isn’t even much of a horror movie. There’s only one scene—one shot, really—where the movie shows its fangs, so to speak (don’t worry, you’ll know the one). Add to this potent witches’ brew two fantastic lead performances from Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as the titular lovers and you’ve got something wholly unique: a slack, sensual exploration of companionship across eternity and the nourishing power of Art, all shot amid the arrestingly beautiful and thematically apropos ruins of Detroit. This is a movie for cape-and-guitar fetishists alike. And while I’m at least one of those things, the truth is I may be both.
9. A Field in England
There was a lot of hype this year about Jennifer Kent’s horror-flick debut, The Babadook, but while I appreciated Kent’s filmmaking I was totally underwhelmed by the film’s scare factor. Sure, it was a good movie. But it left my Captian E.O. underoos dry as an Outback-bleached tumbleweed. The last horror movie that truly had me gasping for mouthfuls of rancid, fetid air was Ben Wheatley’s 2011 hitmen-in-hell stunner Kill List. Ever since, Wheatley has been one of my favorite new directors. Following up 2012’s Sightseers, A Field in England is Wheatley’s smallest and most experimental work yet. Chronicling the travails of a handful of fools, scoundrels, alchemists, and thieves on an AWOL interlude during the English Civil War, England presents a black comedy about genteel Renn Faire manners quickly coming undone in the grip of madness, greed, and psychedelic potions. Wheatley presents a vision of human society much closer to the primitive world than any of its bumbling characters suspect, with barbarism and pagan fervor lurking furtively behind each and every blood-soaked hedgerow. Shot in high-contrast black and white and frequently given over to fits of what can best be described as “nonlinear chucklefuckery”, England is perhaps the weirdest film on my list—which is saying something. Perfect for enjoying a flagon of mead with a card-playing skeleton.
8. Inherent Vice
I don’t even know if I like Inherent Vice all that much. But I’d feel queasy if I left it off my list, so here we are. In its favor: the film’s vibrant, early-70s Manson-era flower glower time period and pan-LA setting, its cracked noir tropes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s meticulous production design and shot composition, Josh Brolin’s performance as unhinged Establishment flatfoot Bigfoot Bronson, and a soundtrack filled with the grooviest groovy-ass needle drops in all God’s groovy creation. Evaluated strictly on the merit of its individual scenes, Vice is an unqualified success—artful, well acted, and hilariously ramshackle. Somehow, though, it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts—but fascinatingly so. But if you’re a PTA fan (and what drooling imbecile isn’t?), Vice represents an intriguing set of new possibilities. Much as 2002’s perplexing Punch-Drunk Love captured a transitional moment in the director’s career between his early Hard Eight/Boogie Nights/Magnolia cycle and his stately There Will Be Blood/The Master phase, so too does Inherent Vice point ahead toward a vision that Anderson can hopefully continue to develop into something more fully realized. What’s more, Vice will undoubtedly appreciate in critical and popular acclaim in future years as part of like-mined Hollyweird trilogy that also includes The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Just watch out for those Inherentfest assholes and their damn Japanese pancakes.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I’m pretty sure I’m first person to notice this – Wes Anderson’s fantastical, nostalgia-soaked The Grand Budapest Hotel is, at heart, a meditation on the nature of storytelling. With its nested narrative structure and playful jumble of film formats and aspect ratios, Anderson’s hit hospitality caper demonstrates that the persnickety King of Twee is now thinking deeply and critically about his medium as a tool for manipulating the bounds of metaphysical reality. Pull your story outward by one degree and suddenly your omniscient narrator becomes just another character at the mercy of whoever may be telling the story one level up. Turn an ostensibly happy ending into a tragic one with a single line of voiceover. Begin and end plotlines at surgically precise moments to fundamentally alter their context and meaning. There’s a lot of shit Anderson pulls here that’s so subtle and sophisticated it hardly even registers on initial viewing. Luckily, the Houston Helmer never forgets to entertain, making re-watches not just easy, but delightful. Naturally, the film is greatly aided by a slew of hilarious, poignant performances from a cast stacked with A-list talent. The Grand Budapest Hotel—both the film and the fictional resort destination—are dense and sensuous places filled with pleasure and excitement. Return visits welcome.
6. Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways
You’re right: this was a TV show, not a movie. But who are you that you care so much about what’s on my Top 10? How’s your life, dude? Like, just let me put HBO’s Dave Grohl-helmed love letter to American music as expressed through civic identity on my G-D list, bro. Why? Because I like music, I like America, and I like traveling to new places and learning what makes individual cities unique and important. And because I like to believe that, despite technological advancements and mass communication, regionalism still exists and is interesting. These are values I apparently share with Mr. Grohl, as well as a with wide swath of enthusiastic interview subjects including Ian MacKaye, Willie Nelson, Steve Albini, Josh Homme, Steve Earle, Daniel Lanois, Bonnie Raitt, and literally dozens of others who chime in with smart, well-informed opinions about the business and craft of music-making. Sure, Sonic Highways is rockist as hell. If you don’t believe that wrestling sounds out of a guitar is intrinsically more interesting than dialing up some bleeps and bloops on a laptop, then this may not be the docu-series for you. But if you enjoy seeing artistic professionals do work at elite levels, the Foo’s travelogue to America’s greatest recording spaces is guaranteed to edify and delight. Do I actually like the Foo Fighters as a band, or any of the music they recorded for this project? Look, let’s not cloud the issue here. What’s important is that Sonic Highways was the most purely pleasurable eight hours I spent in front of a TV screen this year. Devil horns up.
Forget the gimmick behind Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making epic of day-to-day American mundanity. Banish from your psychic memory the image of titular boy Ellar Coltrane’s time-lapse transformation from potato-shaped Bobby Hill clone into jazzbo UT freshman. Try to ignore the fact that at the rate of 180 minutes per each 1.2 decades, Coltrane’s Mason will be in his mid-70s in just twelve short hours of screen time—a rate of acceleration that far outstrips the grim prognosis of Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack. No, Mason’s immanent decrepitude and demise (most likely by cargo short poisoning) shouldn’t be a distraction from Boyhood’s dramatic accomplishments, nor from its under-appreciated value as a historical document. From superficial technological signposts like candy-colored Mac desktop egg pods, to wider civic shifts like the 2008 Presidential Elections, Boyhood is as comprehensive, objective, and apolitical a snapshot of the years 2002-2014 as you’re ever likely to find. This virtue will only become more apparent as the period of time captured by the film recedes deeper into past, growing more alien and remote. Only then, like fine wine or vintage pornography, will Boyhood become even more textured, alluring, and important. I can’t wait for Manhood in 2026.
4. The Guest
There’s a theory I’ve been working on that goes a little something like this: Adam Wingard (and his screenwriter Simon Barrett) are, today, to John Carpenter what peak-era Brian De Palma was to Alfred Hitchcock. In both cases, you have a visionary genre craftsman and their more twisted, erotically charged disciple. And just as De Palma seized Hitchcock’s innovative refinements to the thriller and steered it into choppier psychosexual waters, so too have Wingard and Barrett seized Carpenter’s signature pop-grindhouse economy and re-imagined it as something weirder and more expressionistic. They began this process with last year’s cult-breakthrough animal mask advertorial You’re Next, but they’ve already outdone themselves with this year’s awesome, electric, and gleefully chaotic The Guest. But there’s more than just John Carpenter at work in Wingard & Barrett’s dreamlike crypto-fascist fable about a deranged supersoldier (a revelatory Dan Stevens, late of Downton Abby) and his frequently lethal attempts to insinuate himself into the domestic lives of a fallen comrade’s family. There’s plenty of James Cameron in there too, plus plenty of the faux Reagan-era robo-sex appeal of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. Not to mention Uncle Buck. The results? An exhilarating, unpredictable explosion of 100-proof genre-film flavoroids. To bastardize a couplet from 2014’s best hip hop album: “Top ‘o the morning/The Guest to your face is fuckin’ Folgers.”
3. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
One of the best things a cool movie can do is make you feel cool. To let its tastefully-calibrated hipness reflect back on your own dumb personality, tastes, and lifestyle choices—even if you’re a 32-year-old quadruple cat owner who drives a Kia Soul and wears a butt-ton of Old Navy (like, hypothetically). It particularly helps if you happen to see this cool movie at a cool movie theater, which is why my #3 film of the year and its associated viewing experience warrant a shout-out to Santa Ana’s awesome The Frida Cinema. Speaking of Santa Ana and other such foreboding, otherworldly Southern California hellscapes, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Bakersfield-shot-but-Iran-set hepcat bloodsucker mood piece was 2014’s most purely gorgeous piece of filmmaking. Using a minimalist plot about a lonely female vampire navigating a grim, Apocalypse-adjacent suburb filled with addiction, death, and boredom, Amirpour fills every moment of her amazing 107-minute debut feature with gorgeous actors, gorgeous images, and gorgeous music. And sure, there are plenty of trenchant social and political metaphors at work just by virtue of the film’s premise and setting. But for me, Girl’s stylish, sexy, and subversive genre trappings were glucose enough on their own to satisfy this gorehound’s horror-loving sweet tooth. I look forward to the cult of Home Alone (not that one) looming large in the years to come.
2. Blue Ruin
Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you—not unlike a vengeful orphan lurking in a dank bathroom waiting to shiv you in the jugular. At first glance, Ruin looks like an unassuming genre exercise, a shaggy-dog Appalachian neo-noir with a bumbling naïf at its center. But it builds, scene-by-scene, incident-by-incident, into something deeply tragic and profound. Sure, it has all of the usual revenge-thriller themes going for it: the infinite feedback loop of violence, the cold comfort of vengeance, etc. But Ruin isolates the intellectualized nihilism of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and gives it a beating, breaking heart, thanks in no small part to Macon Blair’s soulful performance as Dwight, the gentle, emotionally-damaged drifter who sets out a mission to put a blood-soaked period on his family’s fatal feud with a clan of rival dirtbags. Dwight’s journey from off-the-grid loner to amateur executioner is as tightly plotted-and-knotted as anything by Raymond Chandler. But Saulnier strips away hardboiled fiction’s cynicism by presenting a weak-willed, relatable anti-hero filled from toe to tongue with love—a love he can’t empty himself of or steel himself against. That’s what makes the inevitably bleak ending of Blue Ruin so heartbreaking. You’ll never hear someone say the phrase “the keys are in the car” the same way again.
1. Under the Skin
In my remarkable, mind-expanding introduction to this countdown I talked a lot of shit about how 2014 lacked an overriding theme or aesthetic. That’s why my top spot goes to the one film this year that so successfully held together so many disparate moods and textures. Jonathan Glazer’s Kubrick-influenced tale of tawdry extraterrestrial conspicuous consumption was at once hot and cool, political and personal, sexy and clinical, and intimate and epic—while maintaining a consistent tone throughout. It’s a visionary movie in the original OED-sanctioned, non-Zack Snydery sense of the word. Which I guess is a pretentious way of saying: I’ve never seen anything like it. There are some truly first-ballot Hall of Fame sequences and images here, from an abruptly orphaned infant sobbing and crawling along the clammy cobblestones of an unforgiving Scottish beach, to a naked man with neurofibromatosis making a doomed escape through the mundane landscapes of suburban Glagsgow, to a de-meatified caul of ex-humanoid skin being violently sucked through a pinhole-sized exhaust flume into an inky black void and churned into glowing, lavalike ecotoplasm on a cosmic blood-sluice to nowhere. And yes, Scarlett Johansson’s photo-napalm eyes, mouth, breasts, and butt—but why not those things, too? It’s not sexy, exactly, but it’s also not not sexy, y’know? This movie, like its protagonist, is otherwordly. And just like its protagonist’s prey, I was powerless to its seduction.
And just to acknowledge the other side of things, here’s my bottom 10:
- The Sacrament (disappointing)