Does Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice carouse under the guise of pretense while wallowing in languidness and stubborn self-indulgence? Is it goofy, ill-conceived aloofness or a layered, self-aware masterstroke that elicits hard-earned hyperbolic labels such as “unlike anything that’s ever been made”? Staying true to the essence of Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is, nearly to its detriment, too many things, but, no matter–it is simultaneously aware and vehemently unashamed of that fact. It’s a neo-noir stoner romp that’s deliberately scatter-brained: The film is just as high as its anti-hero, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a P.I. in fictional Gordita Beach, California–a setting that recalls a nostalgic locale from the films of Anderson’s past–most notably the San Fernando Valley of Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.
Inherent Vice is perpetually in flux: It’s hilarious, sweet, dark and strangely unnerving. It is in every sense a Paul Thomas Anderson film, top to bottom, end over end and his seventh feature is, above all, a film of textures; it’s a dreamlike fashioning of a specific state of mind–a crafting of a distinct time and place, and Anderson’s stylistic preferences become the film’s beautifully bewildering lifeblood. Inherent Vice is a wonderfully befuddled yet dazzling anachronism–not since the neo-noir of the 1970’s has the feeling of an era been so richly evoked on film. In fact, the film’s evocation of such a uniquely American epoch transforms Inherent Vice entirely, making it something of an experience rather than a centerpiece for casual observation.
2014’s best (and most challenging) film is Jonathan Glazer’s minimalist sci-fi masterpiece Under the Skin. Steeped in the distinct visual language of Stanley Kubrick’s formidable years, Glazer’s film draws from the look and feel of the great master’s work, but this adaptation of the novel by the same name possesses its own firebrand sense of uniqueness. Under the Skin’s power is derived from an intentional, overly ambiguous narrative composition–it harbors a stealthy, calculated detachment that revels in the oddities of mystery, guaranteed to infuriate some, sure to astound others. The experience of Under the Skin is akin to that of a perpetual pendulum swing of interpretation: It’s a series of sensations and moments–some literal, others metaphorical–that culminate in a hypnotizing rendering of the desolate side of what it means to be, or not be, human.
Johansson’s work in Under the Skin is the best of her career. Here, she is stripped down, working seamlessly within the complex subtleties of physical nuance. For Glazer, the comparisons to Kubrick are easy to make and remain wholeheartedly warranted: Under the Skin is a chilling, hauntingly beautiful mood piece–a masterpiece of modern cinema.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, an exquisitely photographed call-back to the early career of Ingmar Bergman, is a slowly unravelling, tactfully fashioned film centered around the inner turmoil of a young nun and her worldly, cynical aunt. Anna or, Ida–as she later comes to be known–is asked to step away before receiving her vows and, as she does so, unknowingly delves into a complicated, unfamiliar secular reality. Midway through the film’s opening stages, we begin to sense that something revelatory is afoot, and so it is; Ida and Wanda’s journey unearths a rigamarole of very human experiences for both characters: some unpleasant, others that take root and give way to personal, even spiritual growth.
Ida shares a striking similarity with another great film from 2014, Under the Skin: Like Scarlett Johansson’s alien being, Agata Trzebuchowska’s performance garners its reserved dynamics from an unsuspecting place–that of expertly controlled subtlety. Films like Ida rarely–if ever–find themselves in the commercial marketplace, which is both a curse and a blessing. The former because exposure to hidden gems remains limited to wider audiences, the latter because when you stumble upon them, it almost feels like a revelation.
When a new Richard Linklater film is in the works, movie enthusiasts sit up and take notice. When a cinephile from Texas catches wind of such a thing, a calendar goes up, the countdown begins, each days’ box engraved with an agonizingly etched ‘X.’ If you’re not sure what Boyhood is, you probably live under a rock. Or you don’t talk to anyone, much less engage in the time-sucking ‘frivolity’ of the internet. The Houston, Texas filmmaker’s seventeenth and most daring picture proved to be a risk that paid huge dividends in a multitude of ways. Staging an artful dramatic rendering of a boy, year to year, as he ages into young adulthood, would sound like an insurmountable task to almost any qualified filmmaker, but, Linklater took the risk, and, because he did, we’re all a little better off.
The enormity of the undertaking is undeniably impressive, but, what makes Boyhood extraordinary is its director’s mindful touches–especially as they relate to what it means to be both young and male: For me, watching the film is comparable to being a passive observer in the unfolding of my past, and for that, Boyhood is a rare, exceptional piece of nostalgic cinema–one unlike anything ever made.
Unlike most movie enthusiasts, the films of David Fincher haven’t much intrigued me. Perhaps that’s because they’ve always been on the business end of the much maligned ‘hype machine.’ In late 2010, I walked out of The Social Network, but that was less Fincher’s fault than it was Aaron Sorkin’s–Fincher’s direction, in fact, was borderline seamless, often deliberately cool. Sorkin’s unnatural, hyper-chatty screenplay rubbed me in all the wrong ways, but, with time, I was able to look the other way. Fincher’s latest turned my expectations on their respective heads–I avoided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in fear of further disappointment, but, Gone Girl has proved to be some of his best work.
Undoubtedly cynical, dark, and–to a degree–painstakingly satirical, Fincher weaves a delicate balance with Gone Girl, a film that builds meticulously on itself, end over end, sequence after sequence. It’s a homage to the femme fatale filmmaking of Brian De Palma, and how invigorating the whole affair becomes. Affleck is on point, but Rosemund Pike is the true revelation.
At first glance, James Gray’s The Immigrant assumes the role of 2014’s emblematic period piece and, to a certain extent, it succeeds in being just that. But, what separates The Immigrant from others like it is its refreshing proclivity for peering beyond elaborate set pieces to permeate the cumbersome set of circumstances that consume its two leads: One, a Polish immigrant striving for a new beginning, the second, a broken, burdened man who’s striving–albeit unknowingly–to do good. Throughout the film, Gray encapsulates his characters in an amber glaze–a stylistic choice that seems to underpin Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Bruno’s (Joaquin Phoenix) peculiar pair of plights with a fleeting sense of optimism.
In Gray’s latest film, Cotillard is at her best since her brilliant, emotionally revealing performance in Jacques Audiard’s great Rust and Bone. As for Phoenix’s performances, they–at least as of late–seem to come complete with pre-packaged accolades of every kind, and rightfully so.
In what is perhaps the most understated film of the year, Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is the epitome of quintessential arthouse grit. It is a restless film rife with beguiling anxiety–it’s full of dread so palpable that the film’s duration prompts a lengthy bout of elevated blood pressure, and the fact that Saulnier does so much with so little in order to create such an impressionable effect is a testament to his skill. Blue Ruin harbors a bewildering quality that never relinquishes its grasp, and this is precisely its overwhelming strength. The film’s suspense remains tightly, expertly wound–it’s looming intensity creates a domino effect that permeates the entirety of the film as well as the savage fate that awaits each of its characters.
Blue Ruin’s 90 minute run time is punctuated by a willingness to throw us headfirst into a rare brand of suspenseful chaos, and it succeeds tenfold. Anchoring the proceedings is a chilling, minimalist performance from Macon Blair.
In Interstellar–as he did in his previous effort, Inception–director Christopher Nolan piggybacks on the idea of toying with space, and, more specifically, time in an attempt to portray profound emotional resonance within a story that, when placed through the lens of meticulously calibrated narrative details, transforms itself into a grandiose science fiction fantasy of crippling unevenness, awe-inspiring ambition and fascinating technical achievement. All of its intricate scientific techno-babble aside, Nolan’s space-time spectacle is an impassioned love letter to film written in resplendent, unmistakably ardent prose.
Interstellar is an ode to the power of cinema’s capabilities, but its ability to transport us mentally and move us emotionally is the film’s most impressive achievement. Interstellar is a confounding exercise for many reasons; in its attempt to maintain ‘palatability,’ Nolan’s screenplay can’t resist the urge to tie a proverbial, painfully hokey bow around its context clues, which may be its only fatal (and glaringly obvious) flaw. Interstellar, in defiance of its tendencies to drift into an overly-mawkish state, is a powerful, exceptional piece of cinema in its purest and most enthralling form.
Like other films included in this list, Calvary is a work that plucks its subtle, gradually engrossing mood from a central performance worthy of similar adjectives. In fact, Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Father James–a humble priest in the midst of a crisis of faith–anchors John Michael McDonagh’s latest film: He is compassionate and unceasingly bemused, but an emerging sense loss of looms over him throughout the film’s duration.
As Calvary unfolds, the parallels between Christ’s peregrination to the cross and Father James’ impending fate become prognosticative, but its head never wanders into the clouds: Calvary’s most intriguing thematic aspect is revealed through the manner in which it draws a different kind of parallel entirely–Calvary is an urgent film about the societal disconnect between spirituality and 21st century secularism. At a glance, the divide between lack of belief and those who maintain their ‘faith’ seems to be widening, and McDonagh’s film expertly crafts this sentiment with razor sharp intrigue.
The Lego Movie is, without a doubt, the funniest, wittiest and one of the most well made films of 2014. Aside from its showboating of both true imagination and technical shrewdness (which is both warranted and welcomed), this mishmash of comedic voice-acting talent, superb writing and seamless editing under the umbrella of the Lego universe is one of the most enjoyable two hours of cinematic fun any viewer could ask for. The film is concerned with nothing more than having an outright blast in flashy, refined, and confident style. From the beginning, The Lego Movie is aware–minute after minute–of how good of a cinematic amalgamation it will become. Supposedly, The Lego Movie 2 is slated for a 2016 release. I can’t wait.