Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark

2014: The Year in Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In movies, there's often a difference between "based on a true story" and truth itself. We critics sometimes forget the difference, often allowing ourselves to be impressed when a movie tells a true story. But the real magic in movies is when a filmmaker connects directly with an audience, when the viewer finds something true within the work. Positioning the true story of a real person between a filmmaker and an audience may be impressive, but it doesn't get to the heart of things. I'd like to think that the ten movies on my list have a certain truth in them, something honest and emotional. It's probably not a coincidence that so many of the movies on my list are comedies, or at least contain laughs. In short, these are movies by filmmakers who are in love with making films, and that love comes through to us.

Following my top ten films, please find my ten runners-up and my ten honorable mentions, followed by great performances, my favorite DVD and Blu-ray releases, and, lastly, my list of the year's worst.

The Top Ten

10. Goodbye to Language 3D
Cranky old genius Jean-Luc Godard, now eighty-four, is just as elusive as ever, asking questions and making statements from out of the ether; they can either seem brilliant or baffling. In his first 3D movie, Goodbye to Language 3D, he takes his intellectual discourse with moving images to a new level, splitting the dimensions apart, exploring water, or simply following a dog through a boldly-colored autumn wood. But don't worry: he's still angry about the death of books and the rise of electronic devices. You'll get a new idea every few seconds here, which is more than many movies have during their entire running times.

9. The Skeleton Twins
Former "SNL" stars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig had worked together many times before, notably in supporting roles as husband-and-wife Adventureland (one of the best movies of 2009), but in Craig Johnson's comedy-drama The Skeleton Twins, they take center stage and give two of the finest performances of the year (even though they won't receive a single award). They're estranged twins who consider suicide at the same moment and reunite for a period of soul-bearing. It looks like a typical indie, but Johnson's direction is so spot-on, so intelligent, and so organic that it never hits a false note. And it's very funny.

8. Jodorowsky's Dune
Citizenfour may be the year's most important documentary, but I prefer Jodorowsky's Dune for its sheer life-force. Of the two, it will be around much longer, and bear repeat viewings. Director Frank Pavich beautifully tracks the course of one of the most fascinating unproduced movies in history, with brilliant, eccentric, raconteur Alejandro Jodorowsky telling his often unbelievable story with great passion. Maybe it's a shame that Jodorowsky's Dune was never made and maybe it's not, but I think that this movie is the true masterpiece.

7. Under the Skin
Director Jonathan Glazer had been absent from the screen for ten years before finally returning with this moody sci-fi work. Its story, of aliens kidnapping humans and absorbing their life forces to survive, could have been told in a dozen "B" movies, but Glazer elevates Under the Skin to something truly haunting and otherworldly, with astounding silences, and raw, primitive interactions. Scarlett Johansson has long been one of my favorite actors, but in a rather un-showy role, she steps up her game even further.

6. Snowpiercer
Of all the apocalyptic movies of the past few years (there must be a mood of general hopelessness in the air), Bong Joon-ho's first English-language production was both the darkest and the brightest. Its entire, brilliant visual and sound scheme was dedicated to the act of moving forward, through sci-fi train cars filled with things and people from all over the world. Snowpiercer touches on economy, environment, drugs, violence, education, and so many other themes with deftness and without preaching. It's awake and alive and open to ideas.

5. The Lego Movie
I agree with my esteemed colleague Fernando Croce that The Lego Movie would have been better if it had been directed by Joe Dante, but I still love the very funny movie that came from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. What could have been a massive attempt at marketing turned instead into a subtle exploration of identity; are we part of a collective or are we ourselves? The filmmakers made detailed computer animation look like homemade stop-motion animation, in the end, celebrated the art of playing, an art too often lost in the movies.

4. Ida
I initially skipped Ida based on its description, a nun discovers that she's Jewish and that her parents perished in the Holocaust, as well as the threat that it's the "official Oscar submission" from Poland, which surely meant that it was an upright, boring blue-ribbon movie instead of anything that someone would like to watch. But I underestimated the thoughtfulness of director Pawel Pawlikowski, and what I actually got was a movie of incredible movement and poetry. The black-and-white images, and sustained, off-kilter shots are brilliantly designed to deflect the story's horrors, just as the passage of time would.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Unlike many of my colleagues, I have never tired of Wes Anderson's candy-colored dollhouse movies. To me, he's one of the great original filmmakers working today, and I'm always happy to check out whatever his unique mind comes up with. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel turned out to be one of his finest works, successfully combining all the elements he's best at, such as a strong central figure, concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a strong central relationship, with lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The film's design is as spectacular as ever, resorting to handmade, miniature props and moving up to changing aspect ratios for different time periods.

2. Birdman
This is the fifth film by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu. I have never been a fan. His only other remotely good movie was his first, Amores Perros, which was basically an accomplished Pulp Fiction ripoff. How surprising, then, to find a movie so alive, funny, crazy, heartbreaking, and filled with dreams and ideas. And at the center, a massive return to form by one of my all-time favorite actors, Michael Keaton, who is finally getting the notice he deserves. Not to mention the great supporting cast, and a shout-out to Raymond Carver. I saw Birdman on my birthday in 2014, and it was a perfect present.

1. Boyhood
What else could #1 be? Richard Linklater's Boyhood was a casual experiment that, thanks to the talent, charisma, and perseverance of those involved, turned into a masterpiece for all time. It could have been a gimmick film ("watch the actors age in front of your eyes"), but instead it turns into a meditation on life itself, a plunging us into an emotional discourse on memory, love, family, pain, and millions of other of the tiny things that make up our existence. It stands head and shoulders over everything else.

A Dozen Runners up (in alphabetical order):

Honorable Mention:

Great Performances

  • Michael Keaton (Birdman)
  • Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins)
  • Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
  • Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts (Birdman)
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman (A Most Wanted Man)
  • Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
  • Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin, Lucy)
  • Brendan Gleeson (Calvary)
  • Essie Davis (The Babdook)
  • Hilary Swank (The Homesman)
  • Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Agata Kulesza (Ida)
  • Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall (The Judge)
  • Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
  • Eileen Atkins (Magic in the Moonlight)
  • Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens (Gone Girl)

  • Great DVD and Blu-ray Releases
    I no longer review DVDs and Blu-rays with the same regularity or intensity that I once did, and there were several worthy releases that I did not get a chance to see. This list, while not comprehensive, comprises the best of the ones I did see.

    1. The Complete Jacques Tati
    2. The Shooting & Ride in the Whirlwind
    3. Chaplin's Mutual Comedies 1916-1917
    4. Gravity
    5. Persona
    6. Red River
    7. Scanners
    8. Caught
    9. Planet of the Vampires
    10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

    And: L'Avventura, The Conformist, La Dolce Vita, Edge of Tomorrow, The Lego Movie, Men in War, Nostalghia, The Nutty Professor, The Rover, Sorcerer, Y tu mama tambien

    Guilty Pleasures & Little Treasures

  • As Above/So Below
  • Cheap Thrills
  • Chef
  • Coherence
  • Dom Hemingway
  • The Double
  • Joe
  • Life After Beth
  • Life of Crime
  • Need for Speed
  • Night Moves
  • Oculus
  • The Rover
  • Starred Up
  • Stonehearst Asylum
  • 3 Days to Kill
  • To Be Takei
  • White Bird in a Blizzard

  • The Year's Worst Films
    There were plenty more, but I stopped before I got too depressed.

  • Blended
  • Devil's Due
  • Divergent
  • Dracula Untold
  • Horrible Bosses 2
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I
  • Interstellar
  • Labor Day
  • Last Weekend
  • Left Behind
  • The Legend of Hercules
  • Men, Women & Children
  • Ouija
  • The Pyramid
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Third Person
  • 300: Rise of an Empire
  • Transcendence
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction
  • Tusk
  • Unbroken
  • Winter's Tale
  • Hulu
    Movies Unlimtied