If there was one word to sum up 2014 in film, it was “depressing.” No recent year has featured such a dearth of not just great movies but even passable ones. With the critical and commercial success of Marvel Studio’s cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking, “bland” is no longer a byproduct of Hollywood but seemingly the main aspiration. Studios seemed to be competing to produce the most mediocre, forgettable, boilerplate film possible . It was no wonder the box office hit a recent low.
“Depressing” didn’t just describe the lack of quality films, but the quality films themselves. The few films which managed to rise above the rest were all-around miserable affairs, with even the comedies focusing on such dire subjects as dictatorial maniacs, mental illness and familial breakdown. Perhaps a backlash to the mute frivolity gaining hold in cinema? Who knows?
13. Gone Girl (d. David Fincher)
David Fincher makes clinical films, and Gone Girl may be his most sterile entry to date. Based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, Gone Girl is carefully calculated to toy with the your perceptions, and it does so flawlessly, the plot twisting itself from your hands whenever you feel you have it all figured out. It’s a movie designed to play with the audience, and its apparent Fincher’s focus lies in here rather than with any character or emotion. The characters are only pawns for Fincher to manipulate at will, as is the audience. It’s masterful but unfeeling, and the film’s failure to rouse any emotion is not because the characters are unlikable but that they’re observed as if specimens under a microscope. Gone Girl is a brilliant experiment, but only a good movie.
12. Snowpiercer (d. Bong Joon-ho)
If reviews are to be believed, Snowpiercer is a thoughtful allegory about capitalism and the growing chasm between the wealthy and poor. In reality, director Bong Joon-ho is much more interested in shoot-outs, psychic powers and flayed limbs, with the presence of the undeveloped capitalism themes giving critics suitable cover for their enjoyment. Snowpiercer has nothing thoughtful to say, and the plot is not just absurd but lazy, frequently inconsistent with the dystopian reality it has created, but there’s no denying it’s a lot of fun. Its inventive in a way few films are anymore, and while it all doesn’t come together to tell a completely cohesive story, it has some great bits and pieces.
11. Frank (d. Lenny Abrahamson)
Frank is a movie with much more going on than at first may appear. For starters, hidden away underneath the titular Frank’s massive paper mache mask is Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender, his presence not limited the least by the facial obstruction. Even more deceivingly, what begins as a seemingly light, picaresque look at a ragtag group of musicians becomes something more, a powerful rejection of the romanticizing of mental illness, as well as the self-absorption of the attention-fueled Internet culture. Frank is the rare movie which chooses not to coast on superficial charm and risks subverting audiences’ expectations.
THE 10 BEST
10. The Interview (d. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
It is a shame that so few of today’s Hollywood films stray from formula, because it’s through subverting conventions that we are forced to think and actively engage with movies as anything more than mindless entertainment. By applying Seth Rogen’s typical stoner shtick to a plot that involves the assassination of a real-life political leader, The Interview becomes something more than a dick-and-fart joke movie. Its easily Rogen’s funniest movie in years, with his and James Franco’s bumbling American tabloid newsies recruited to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, but it’s the juxtaposition of the infantile comedy with the horrors of a brutal regime which lend the comedy a poignancy, a reminder of the importance of treating with ridicule those who lead through fear, and of our fortune in having the luxury of silliness. There was a tendency to label The Interview as brave or satirically brilliant; its neither, but it’s a great comedy and the rare one which rises above its laughs.
9. Locke (d. Steven Knight)
One of the most thrilling movies of the year takes place entirely inside of a car. In Locke, Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke makes phone calls from inside his car as outside, his entire world falls down around him. The action never strays from sedentary, but the film careens through moral dilemmas, childhood trauma and gripping high-stakes decisions as Locke attempts to keep his marriage, job and future from crumbling down around him with only his car phone. It’s captivating, perhaps the only fault being the passivity the set-up dictates of the character. Still, even if he’s no longer guiding the ship, watching Locke swept away on the turbulence of his life is as thrilling as any movie experience. Despite an overdone accent, Tom Hardy gives an incredible performance, his simple monologues among the most chilling and powerful cinematic moments of any this year.
8. Force Majeure (d. Ruben Ostlund)
Once Force Majeure opens with its beautiful, photo-perfect family smiling for a group shot, it becomes inevitable that the sorry family will be cruelly torn apart by films’ end. Yet despite being likened to the works of cinematic sadists Haenke and von Trier, Force Majeure’s depiction of familial breakdown manages to balance its black comedy, unbearable humiliation and bleakness with a real warmth and reverence for its characters. Force Majeure is a look at how one act – a father fearfully abandoning his family during what they think to be an avalanche – besets the breakdown of a family, severing the fragile gender dynamics that holds their nuclear family together. Force Majeure is wickedly funny, and an incisive analysis of both the social roles we play and the true nature of our character. Yet what separates Force Majeure from the cruelty and bleakness of its peers is that it never descends to pointless torture, pulling the limbs from its characters for the sake of it; rather, it’s a film with something to say.
7. Edge of Tomorrow (d. Doug Liman)
Blockbusters of yore had a charm and quality that separated them from the mindless bombast of today’s; Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow will be considered a classic among them, to be remembered for many years rather than forgotten. A combination of Aliens meets Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow is a deft mix of nail-biting action, sci-fi and black comedy, throwing Tom Cruise’s bespectacled reporter into a time warp where he is forced to repeat again and again one day in an alien invasion. It’s an ingenious set-up for an action film, allowing its hero the experience of repeated fallibility in a way which would derail any other movie. It’s this set-up which also allows Edge of Tomorrow a greater sense of realism, despite the time travel and mech suits, allowing for real-life consequences (try rolling under a moving car and you’ll be crushed) along with Herculean obstacles to fling the hero up against. With Cruise’s character diced, crushed and murdered with each day, the fun of Edge of Tomorrow is in seeing how he manages to move past each progressive challenge. There is nothing brilliant or thought-provoking about this movie, but its big mindless fun expertly done.
6. The Expendables 3 (d. Patrick Hughes)
The Expendables movies are some of the last big-budget movies with anything going on, subversive thought-provoking films masquerading as nostalgia throwbacks and mindless fun. Despite its revolving cast of aging superstars, the Expendables movies have always truly been defined by two distinctive traits: subverting typical action movie convention, and acknowledging the realities of violence and warfare. For the latter, despite downgrading to a PG-13 rating, The Expendables 3 continues to be one of the few films depicting the true consequences of violence, its mercenary heroes relationship with violence shown to be akin to that of drug addiction or romantic love, the burly badasses moping around, eating out of tubs of ice cream and watching soaps on TV like a lovesick girl when they are unable to kill. It’s a deeply interesting subversion of the typical action hero, and The Expendables 3 is rife with them. The line between the heroes and the villain is deliberately blurred, Mel Gibson’s former-mercenary baddie alluding to the heroes own past crimes. The Expendables 3 is also one of the first action films to make two of its manliest heroes part of a gay couple. The film is a step-down from the first two installments, yet The Expendables 3 remains one of the few interesting action films, a movie which isn’t afraid to dive past trope and convention to mine real emotion, thoughtfulness and intrigue.
5. Enemy (d. Dennis Villeneuve)
Enemy is a film which eschews easy explanation, a movie which bucks the trend of over-explanation and exposition, instead miring itself in a world of trippy mind-bending, heavy symbolism and monstrous spiders. It’s bizarre and evades easy understanding, but unlike many a film with nothing under its skin, Enemy has layers, hidden meanings and a compelling story. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as two vastly different doppelgangers is one of the best of the year, second to only his brilliant turn in Nightcrawler.
4. Whiplash (d. Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash sounds like typical Oscar bait: a young student is pushed to his limits by his hardened teacher. The result couldn’t be further from what the log-line suggests. Whiplash is a brutal, unrelenting takedown of the typical inspirational success story, acknowledging the miserable struggle often necessary for success and questioning whether the cost of greatness is truly worth it. Through the wildly abusive teacher-student relationship depicted, Whiplash posits tough questions about greatness and success. Perhaps Whiplash’s greatest achievement is that it captures the maniacal intensity and desperation required for success, transforming what could have been award-bait into something akin to a horror movie. As its two central characters face off, Whiplash twists and turns as intensely as any thriller, easily the most masterful film of the year in terms of script alone.
3. Nightcrawler (d. Dan Gilroy)
Frequently made out to be a criticism of tabloid journalism and paparazzi, Nightcrawler is much broader, an indictment of our entire corporate-infused, narcissism-rewarding culture. Most frightening about Nightcrawler isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal’s gauntly, bug-eyed sociopath but how his success-fueled self-absorption and sociopathy is constantly awarded by those around him. It’s a haunting mix of Taxi Driver and “How to Make Friends & Influence People,” a film which isn’t afraid to take a bold stand against social dogma. Nightcrawler does not just feature a sociopath as its hero but that posits many of our society’s own heroes and role models are not much different. Frightening and surreal.
2. The Babadook (d. Jennifer Kent)
The Babadook is one of the nastiest films I’ve seen in years, and it achieves its special brand of nastiness with little violence or carnage, nor even much of a threat of it. Instead, The Babadook dives into the deeply unsettling territories of broken families, trauma and mental illness, exploring the thoughts and feelings few people ever dare admit to themselves. There are ghosts, but The Babadook is at its most horrifying when it’s dealing with the daily minutiae of its single mother heroine’s life. There’s a tendency to write off horror movies, but few films understand trauma and mental illness as well as The Babadook, which confronts all the harsh realities and unfortunate truths few wish to acknowledge. Expertly crafted in every way, The Babadook is a master class in horror, a movie that achieves those aims through its characters and contains a startling resonance beyond its disturbing imagery and scares. It’s a little too apparent, but its heavy-handedness never detracts from its power. If the Hollywood award system was based on merit, The Babadook easily should have walked away with several Oscars.
1. Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II (d. Lars von Trier)
The most depressing trend in film today is the utter avoidance of any meaning, the lengths gone to in an attempt to please the broadest audience, sanitize anything objectionable, and placate the most mediocre sensibility. Lars von Trier is a “provocateur”, often offensive simply for the sake of it, but he’s also one of the few filmmakers willing to fearlessly explore any subject matter, theme or sacred cow. Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1& 2 is an epic, a pornographic odyssey which seemingly touches on every subject, from sex to art to science to the differences between the genders and the conflict between art and science. Von Trier isn’t afraid to delve into the most depraved of subject matter or the most sacred of themes, creating a movie both viscerally unrelenting and thoughtfully meditative. It’s the rare film which touches on the entire spectrum of emotions, often simultaneously horribly depressing, wickedly funny and oddly beautiful.
Movies I missed: Inherent Vice, Big Bad Wolves, Foxcatcher, Bird People, Calvary, Two Days One Night, Starred Up, Big Eyes, The Double, The Dance of Reality, A Field in England, Jodoworsky’s Dune.
MOST UNDERRATED FILM OF THE YEAR
Transformers: Age of Extinction (d. Michael Bay)
If there was one movie which bore the brunt of viewer’s loathing in 2015, it was Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay’s fourth entry in the seemingly never-ending alien-robot series. Gratuitous product placement, an incomprehensible plot, dated racial stereotypes and a general preponderance of stupidity were all singled out by critics and fans alike as contributing to the year’s definitive low-point. Yet, there’s little separating Transformers: Age of Extinction from the other superhero blockbusters and action flicks which have received acclaim and success. Transformers: Age of Extinction isn’t any less mindless than Guardians of the Galaxy or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and in many ways, treats its audience with a greater respect than those films. Transformers: Age of Extinction knows its trash and doesn’t bother trying to convince its audience otherwise; instead, Michael Bay has fun with the film’s acknowledged trashiness, pushing the clichés and silliness to ridiculous extremes. Product placement isn’t snuck in under viewer’s eyes, but spilled across a roadway pile-up. Robots appear as ethnic stereotypes, for some reason. The hero appears to turn psychotic halfway through the movie. It doesn’t make much sense, but its fun – and bold, audacious and interesting in a way few recent blockbusters are. With Marvel Studios’ bland cookie-cutter superhero template taking over the cinematic scene, it’s nice to see a blockbuster that’s bold and audacious, even if very dumb.