I filed my Top 10 list this year, as every year, with a heavy sigh. Sure, I could number 10 movies that curled my toes, shout out a couple standout performances, and definitely wag a finger at a worst film. But what about, well, the weirder stuff?
These are the intangibles, the unquantifiables. The movies and moments that burrowed in the brain, brought me joy, and, on occasion, made me batshit crazy.
Bill Hader was in two movies this year – The Skeleton Twins and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – and they both had their problems. But Hader was a revelation twice over, and I’m pretty sure going forward critics are going to stop appending “former SNL performer” to his name before we sing his hosannas.
I’m not sure Emily Blunt has yet found a movie wholly worthy of her talents, but I enjoyed the hell out of her performance in Into the Woods. (Despite being a musical theatre nerd, somehow I missed Sondheim’s musical onstage, so I have no quibble with the liberties taken with Rob Marshall’s film adaptation – apparently, quite a few – and I was surprised at how taken I was with the film.) Blunt was also bang-up in the somewhat overpraised but still enjoyable Edge of Tomorrow, or Die, Rinse, Repeat, or whatever the hell they’re calling it now. Truly: How many actresses can boast being both handy with artillery and at home in Queen Victoria’s heavy skirts.
Gaby Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal deserve credit alone for their terrific supporting work in movies this year: Hoffman pulled the curious double duty of being the sage, slant-eyebrowed confidante of two women unhappily pregnant in both Wild and Obvious Child, while a sublimely snarly Gyllenhaal crashed the china cabinet of the arthouse curio Frank. Better yet, the two actresses also appeared in my two favorite small-screen experiences of the year: Hoffmann in Amazon’s transcendent Transparent and Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman, a joint BBC/SundanceTV production that started out a pleasurably twisty thriller and turned into something utterly gutting. (It’s streaming on Netflix now.)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Previously little known in the States (unless you were paying attention to her TV work in Doctor Who, MI:5, or Undercovers), she had a “Hey, Look Me Over!” kind of year, starring in the small but worthy period piece Belle and the shoulda-been-bigger Beyond the Lights, playing a pop star transitioning from a Beyoncé into a Solange.
And then there was Tilda Swinton, who really was just the Swintoniest this year, to the cartwheels-and-hand-claps of her devoted fanbase. (Yep, I’m in the club.) I actually missed her starring role in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (more on that later), but I dearly loved her rich old lady cameo in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was later in the year upstaged by her scene-stealing work in Snowpiercer...
Six critics took part in this year’s Austin Chronicle film ballot. As you’d expect from six voices shouting from his or her own particular pulpit, there’s not a lot of consensus there. But every damn one of us named Tilda Swinton’s “all-in, loony bin” performance in Snowpiercer, largely for this particular speech. She’s magnificent.
It’s perhaps unsporting to talk about a movie that hasn’t opened yet here in Austin, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice has just about the kickiest moment of arrival as any film this year. After a brief opening, the credits kick in to Can’s anthemic song “Vitamin C,” and the effect is like that first thrilling tug on the ribbon to unwrap a present: Oh yeah, things are about to get really good.
Again, one I don’t want to say too much about because it doesn’t open in Austin until late January, but J.C. Chandor’s mostly cerebral thriller A Most Violent Year left me breathless from two different chase sequences. The first – very light spoilers here – is set on the 59th Street Bridge and is laugh-out-loud brilliant for taking two opposing forces and fun-housing them into reluctant allies, like a Looney Tunes cartoon with a quizzical balloon reading “wait, who’s chasing who here?” The second chase comes later, and this one’s not really a spoiler. Lead Oscar Isaac (who really belongs in the More, Please category, too; see you when the Force Awakens, friend) is chasing a guy along train tracks. He’s running, in dress shoes, no less... and running... and running... until suddenly he face plants. I can’t imagine the moment was scripted (if so, all the better), and it drove right to the heart of why I flipped so hard for the film, which has mostly been ignored in the end of year accolades: It’s a real-feeling stumble, an entirely relatable instance of human frailty, human fuck-up. It isn’t overdone – it just is, just like life.
Hard truths: I pretty much hated Foxcatcher. (Steve Davis’ review nailed my own “is this all there is?” feeling.) But boy golly, that opening sequence is something. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, playing brothers and Olympian wrestlers, go through their opening warmup together. There is so much precise choreography and tiny but important takeaways in their body language, it’s a marvel of subtle character revelation and an absolute mesmerism.
Chef! Chef is a really sweet movie. It’s not great, but it’s feel-good in a way, well, you feel good about. There’s a nifty little scene that transcends the benign feel-goodishness of the picture – when Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo sing along to the Hot 8 Brass Band’s version of “Sexual Healing.” It’s just two dudes in a truck tooling along the highway, singing along cuz why not, and then there’s Favreau’s preteen son, an unsure smile stealing across his face. The moment is perfection: A genuine bromance between two adults, and a chair to the grownups table pulled out for the youngling.
Le Week-End: Again, not a great movie, but Jim Broadbent (that guy! so good!) moved me to tears with his drunken, headphones-on singalong to “Like a Rolling Stone.” The movie’s about late middle age, but the moment has something universal to say to anyone getting older and trying to shrink the chasm between now and that glorious then of youth.
Boyhood. It’s a major achievement in film, no doubt (although I’d argue the Before series is just as notable of one). I didn’t love it; I hungered for a stronger spine to the story. But Patricia Arquette broke my heart with her empty nest speech. In my rich imaginary universe, there’s a movie called Motherhood, and she wins all the awards for it.
Oh sheesh, I really don’t get all the slobbering over Whiplash.
It roared out of Sundance 2014, and it’s easy enough to see why: Its leads are a comfy fit for a prescripted, Entertainment Weekly narrative – hail Miles Teller, the young buck earning his indie bona fides on the way to blockbuster parts, and J.K. Simmons, the seasoned character actor making good in a marquee role. There’s no overstating the gargantuan goose Whiplash gets from the drumbeat built into the script – it’s about a frosh drummer (Teller) trying to cut the mustard in an elite jazz band led by Simmons’ maniacal drill sergeant – and that driving beat elevates the heart rate in a way that confuses the film’s impact with its bodily effect. (Birdman’s drum score has the same physical bludgeoning, but I think its story and technical prowess stand up to the challenge.)
Whiplash is not not entertaining, at least up to a point, and Simmons is an absolute beast in the part. (Grantland’s Alex Pappademas memorably described his comportment as that of a human erection, while I couldn’t shake a comparison to the ancient, allergic turtle Morla in The Neverending Story, had Morla been limber enough to shake a jazz leg.) But Simmons and Teller’s characters aren’t scripted with any dimension. They live for one purpose, and that purpose isn’t jazz; crudely put, it’s jizz.
The opening camerawork is telling: Quick pans from sidewalk to skyscrapers and the reverse, from the gutter to great heights and vice versa. Whiplash is emphatically about extremes. Either you bleed for your art, or you don’t. And real men bleed, goes the film’s logic. (You might ask a woman for her perspective, but Whiplash tenders exactly one notable speaking part to a woman, who’s curtly dismissed by Teller when he decides she might get in the way of his progress.)
The movie doesn’t explicitly endorse Simmons’ brutal methodology but it doesn’t exactly condemn it either, and there’s a generalized romanticism here of the gender assumptions embedded in these jazz enthusiasts’ “folk” tales (i.e., Bird got tough when he had a cymbal thrown at him). As for other jazz myths: It’s curious that sex never figures into the mix; if Teller and his ditched girlfriend ever progressed beyond eating pizza, it isn’t signaled. He’s too busy metaphorically comparing dicks with Simmons, in a kind of sublimated foreplay, to be bothered with real sex, the standard starting point of so much great art.
There’s a major implausibility at the core of Whiplash’s climax – that Simmons’ conductor would rather lay an egg on the stage of Lincoln Center than concede defeat to his former protege – and an even bigger affront in its triumphant conclusion: that an ego so monstrous he would sabotage his own reputation to publicly humiliate another musician would suddenly chill out and nod right-on, jazz cat when the kid met his challenge. Anything critical writer/director Damien Chazelle might have been trying to say up to this point – about Simmons’ brutality, about Teller’s myopia, about the redemptive power of music – is rendered moot. Whiplash, stuffed and trussed like it’s a movie about making art, is really just about one dude proving his dudeness to another dude. And the crowd goes wild???
Holy hell, a lot of movies were released this year. I saw a lot of them! But I couldn’t get to them all. Here’s an incomplete list of all the movies I didn’t see (or see all the way to the end; note to self: don’t start movies in bed after midnight): The Tribe, Only Lovers Left Alive, Leviathan, Love Is Strange, Enemy, Listen Up Philip, National Gallery, Wild Tales, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Dear White People, Coherence, Land Ho!... Dammit, I’m dancing as fast as I can!
2015’s still a mystery, but here are some of the movies I’m most eager to tear into: Mad Max, Results, Inside Out, Manglehorn, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Nobody Wants the Night...
Aw, hell, who am I kidding?
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