1. Grand Budapest Hotel
I don’t excuse the twee or the saccharine. I’m no Wes Anderson apologist. And I’ve hated many of his films as much as the next guy. But here was a little gem of a movie that ended up being what I loved most in 2014. All of the director’s famous set design and visual aesthetics were here, but rather than serve as distraction or grimace-inducing “quirk,” they acted to bring that decaying hotel to life as a character unto itself. And it (like many other Central European edifices, I imagine) spoke volumes about love, loss, and the bittersweet fruits of memory. Great actors giving great performances to tell a great story. It’s why we go to the movies.
Not a friendly or a forgiving film, it was, all the same, an unforgettable one. I’m not sure I ever knew exactly what this movie meant, but the experience of watching it, of attempting to decipher its challenging style, opaque narrative, and hypnotic rhythms was all the fun in the world. Witnessing the unconventional, being drawn into an artist’s special vision of the world, elevating and transporting oneself in the process: it’s the OTHER reason we go to the movies.
Here is a Russian novel, set in Texas, committed to film over the course of twelve years. Set aside the Oscar buzz, the annoying and inexplicable backlash against the film, and give yourself over to the extraordinary feat of filmmaking that is Boyhood. And yes, in case anyone noticed this part in the movie, and was wondering: schoolchildren here really do pledge allegiance to the Texas flag each and every morning.
A Holocaust movie not about the camps but the after, about the attempt to move on, to forget. Wonderful and understated performances matched with a phenomenal soundtrack (forget Whiplash, ladies and gentlemen, THIS was your jazz film of 2014) amount to a beautiful if spare piece of cinema.
The quiet, slow, but undeniably menacing spirit of this movie had me hooked from the beginning. Desire, sex and death all set against the film’s single location (which it never strays from): a few square meters of beach in scenic lakeside France.
A towering performance from David Oyelowo steals the show here, and yet, the movie somehow also captures the sweep and scale of an entire movement. This was a gripping film, deft in its weaving together of many stories, and in many places, simply inspiring. Forget the tiresome barb-trading over LBJ’s portrayal in the movie (those few scenes don’t amount to much, really), which seems to have somewhat tarnished its reputation. This movie is an argument, a call to action, not a documentary. As such, it was remarkably successful.
Sometimes you just want to watch Tom Hardy talk on a cell phone for an hour and a half about pouring concrete and makin’ babies. What seems slim, even preposterous, on paper, and probably shouldn’t have worked on screen, instead amounted to an exceptional film.
John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have never been better, and Ira Sachs’ camera captures the big joys, small pleasures, petty annoyances, and terrifying crises that can comprise the life that two people (and two families) share together. I dare you to look away from the visual and mostly unspoken poetry that ends this movie.
What was with all the doppelganger movies this past year? Well, don’t get me wrong, I liked The Double alright, but, for my money, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy took the prize. Don’t waste your time with Nightcrawler, either. That was a thematically tired and tedious little number. No, your REAL best Jake Gyllenhaal performance came here. Not only was it just fun to watch The Man play a history professor (tenured ASSOCIATE, natch) and deliver deranged lectures on Hegelian dialectics, but, to see the performance come as only one half of an unhinged double-duty, two-characters-at-the-same-time tour de force (and no, this was a not a Farrelly brothers comedy)? Yes, please. I couldn’t be sure what happened at the end. Was that resignation or recognition that flashed across Professor Gyllenhaal’s face as the final, twisted image (of this macabre little number) came into focus? I wasn’t sure, but I sure did enjoy the ride.
I don’t want to get into the sometimes ham-fisted politics. I’d rather not discuss the tepid ending (this movie blew its budget on a deliciously devilish Tilda Swinton’s dentures, and clearly had little left over with which to animate polar bears). But can we all just agree that car by increasingly wild car, this movie was the most inventive, visually stunning, and sonically arresting thing to happen to runaway trains since Soul Asylum’s classic 1992 jam? Sure we can.
NB: This Texan lives in a somewhat remote (culturally speaking) corner of the state, meaning that many movies never make it to his doorstep. I have not seen Leviathan, Two Days, One Night, and a few others that may very well have appeared on this list. But I apologize for nothing. That is, after all, what it means to be a Texan.