Not every year is the best year for movies. We don’t get a 1939 or a 1974 or a 1982 or a 1992 or a 2013 every time out. We need lesser years to balance the books. Lesser years like 2014. I saw many a likeable movie this year, but I didn’t love any the way I loved Upstream Color and Inside Llewyn Davis, I wasn’t moved by any the way I was moved by 12 Years A Slave and Before Midnight, and I wasn’t brainwhacked by any the way I was brainwhacked by John Dies At The End and Spring Breakers.
I was, rather, intrigued. Many an intriguing something or other went down this year, and thus, this list. These movies may or not be the best of the year. But good or bad, they’ve all got something going on worth talking about. A feat in itself, given the vast corporate nerdscape having wholly swallowed the film industry. It’s all Marvel and Star Wars and sequels without end from here on out, my friends. Let’s hope the weird and small continue to burble up and relieve our blown-out eyeballs.
There is precious little variation in docs about musicians. Their hardscrabble beginnings. Challenging parents. Trouble at school. The promise of music. The hit single. The sex. The drugs. The downward spiral. Rock bottom. The phoenix rising. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Comeback album. And finally, a documentary. Doesn’t matter who you are what you’ve done, it’s a one size fits all style of filmmaking.
20,000 Days is different. Very different. I’ve read reviews saying only hardcore Nick Cave fans will like it. Others saying it’s a perfect intro for newcomers to his music. Yet the three people I’ve talked to who’ve seen it—one longtime, harcore fan, and two lesser fans, but neither a Nick Cave newbie—more or less hated this movie.
I liked it. I didn’t like all of it. I like how strange it is. That it isn’t a documentary so much as a fictional film starring the character Nick Cave. Which may be the only real Nick Cave left. The stilted staged scenes with the psychologist. The real conversations with friends in staged settings. Cave’s narration. The Nick Cave archive. These are unusual ideas for the relating of a life. 20,000 Days takes risks and comes up with something new. And strange.
Whiplash is just that: a case of cinematic whiplash. It functions with almost no story. It is one drummer’s fury and one music instructor’s wrath. And it is music. Mostly, it is drumming. Insane, pummeling drumming. J.K. Simmons gives one of the year’s best performances as the instructor. Are his methods the equivalent of a thrown cymbal? Is he the hero? Or the villian overcome? Must there be a villian to overcome? Is he a necessary evil? Or a force, ultimately, for good? Whiplash offers no answers.
10. Inherent Vice
In which Paul Thomas Anderson gives us a literal adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel. It’s intriguing without even seeing it. Having seen it, I found it intriguing, strange, out of the ordinary, and not in any specific way successful. The book is not a movie. Translating it with few alterations leaves one wanting. Yet scenes stand out. Performances stand out. The dialogue, mostly unaltered Pynchon, is not the dialogue one typically hears in movies. The comic moments that click may be the biggest laughs at the movies all year. Yet many of the comic moments fail to click. It’s set in L.A., but there are few cars and fewer people. It’s an empty L.A. It’s an L.A. that never existed. Maybe these characters never existed. Maybe they’re already extinct. Inherent Vice touches on intriguing ideas, but without Pynchon’s swirling, endless paragraphs paving the way, does little to develop them. And yet—what a curious movie.
74 shots, each a bit longer than a minute, in black & white. That’s Visitors, the latest collaboration between director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass. It doesn’t get more intriguing than this. Is it even a movie? Well, why not? Call it a documentary. One made by ancient or perhaps future denizens of the planet, observing us from afar. The subject of the movie, says Reggio, is us, watching the movie. Put that in your hat and eat it.
Watching Under The Skin, I found it nothing but intriguing. It didn’t move me. It didn’t give me much to think about. I can’t say I especially liked it. But man is it ever intriguing. A story stripped bare. Our world seen through alien eyes, with visuals approximating alien perception. There may be no more memorable scene(s) in 2014 than Scarlett Johansson’s black room of liquid death. There may be no soundtrack more visceral.
If not for the ending, as meaningless and botched as any I’ve ever seen, Edge of Tomorrow would take its place among science fiction classics. The title didn’t help either. Nor did Tom Cruise starring. Anyone fool enough to endure last year’s Oblivion would have been rightly wary or another Cruise sci-fi flick.
Edge of Tomorrow is the first video game movie. Not a movie of a video game, but literally a video game. This is intriguing. It’s Groundhog Day with guns. It’s fantastically entertaining for much of its running time, watching this poor bastard live and die and live and die and die and die and die. The villianous aliens are original and highly weird. It is not, all told, a stupid movie. It is very, very clever. Until the ending, which plays as a last-ditch effort to ensure the kind of bland cheer we’ve come to expect in summer crapola. Too bad. If someone had the clout or the balls to see this one through to a finale as intriguing as what precedes it, we’d have had something special.
I don’t give two blue shits about vampires. Romantic? Hardly. I’m sick of them. And then Jarmusch comes along with a vampire movie in which, essentially, nothing happens. And it’s his best movie since Ghost Dog. Jarmusch remains one of the most intriguing directors working. Even when his actionless movies don’t click (The Limits of Control comes to mind (though even that one has some wonderful moments)), they are unique. They demand attention. Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt are vampires, and I didn’t hate them. This may be the most amazing thing to happen at the movies all year.
A modern fable of exceeding weirdness, Borgman, though I didn’t love it when I saw it, has stuck in my head ever since, and I find myself yearning to watch it again. Nothing that happens in Borgman is explained, nothing makes any direct, logical sense, but when it ended, I nodded, thinking, “Yes, exactly, it could have happened no other way.” Borgman doesn’t merely contain intriguing elements; it consists only of intriguing elements. It’s the kind of movie that makes you wonder how its makers knew it would work. Does it work? I don’t know. I think I need to see it again.
What I found intriguing about Nightcrawler is that it hasn’t been made before. It’s so very simple and so very wonderful. It’s as dark as can be and no movie this year made me laugh harder. It almost feels like a throwback to certain ‘80s movies. I don’t know why, exactly, but it made me think of things like After Hours and The Hidden, darkly humorous, straightforward movies that burrow into your brain. It’s been criticized for being an easy takedown of an obvious target, a simplified Network. But so what? It’s smart and wicked and entertaining. Movies don’t have to change the world to be great. They only have to do what they do well.
A psychedelic movie trip in black & white set during the English Civil War with five characters wandering around a field high on mushrooms looking for either an alehouse or buried treasure while a mysterious black orb blocks out the sun is not what one normally sees at the cinema. A Field In England is all kinds of intriguing. It has to be seen to be understood. Though you won’t understand a thing once you’ve seen it. Ben Wheatley is a fantastically intriguing director, turning simple stories on their heads, then jumping on those heads until their eyeballs pop out. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Best Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. And the most Wes Andersonish movie of all time. Intriguing to me because the Wes Anderson aesthetic has been wearing on me since, well, since everything he’s made since Rushmore, and yet here he is doubling down on every twee artsy idea he’s ever come up with, and what he’s come up with is a completely wonderful movie. The performances are wonderful, the art direction is wonderful, the absurdly rapid pacing is wonderful, the jokes are biting, and even if there’s a certain absence of deep emotion going on, it doesn’t matter. It’s a sad funny romantic yearning for a past that never existed.
What could be more intriguing than Boyhood? A movie made over 12 years. The actors age from scene to scene. No one has ever played with time in the movies the way Richard Linklater does here, not in a single film. Then to have the boy in question essentially drift through his young life. Not a troublemaker. Not a go-getter. Just a kid, watching, learning, waiting to find out who he is. His life doesn’t start until the film ends. And yet watching him grow up—along with his sister and his parents—is fascinating. It’s a strangely undramatic film that nevertheless pulls you along.
Certainly there was yet more intrigue in the movies of 2014, but I probably failed to see those other ones, so I’ll have to wait until next year to wonder at their oddities. That is if I have the time to do so between the 937 comic book sequels set to open in 2015.