I tried. No one can say I didn’t try. In the waning days of September, I travelled across Australia. I visited the strange, mythical Cheesebridge, England. I pretty much toured the whole damn world with Simon Pegg. No one can say I didn’t go out looking for movies that would let me conclude the first three quarters of 2014 didn’t totally suck.
The first three-quarters of 2014 pretty much sucked nonetheless.
Of course there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. And of course, I haven’t seen everything. But amongst the feature films that got their first wide release in the USA between January 1, 2014 and September 30, 2014, I did see quite a bit. Here, then, is where we stand heading into the prestige months to come. Since a lion’s share of awards will go to movies that open over the next three months, I’d like to recap what typically amounts to a pre-season. Here are the best and worst of the first nine months of 2014:
Top Five Pictures
Joon-ho Bong’s dystopian action piece is full of stylish energy and bizarre characters. And it has something to say about personal freedom as well. If it goes a little overboard at times, that’s easy to forgive. It is the most interesting-looking picture so far this year.
In a year that has featured movies from the three gods of the American Indie (Messrs Anderson, Jarmusch, and Linklater), Richard Linklater’s remarkable 12-year chronicle of a family’s evolution wins Indie God honours.
It begins with an anonymous confessor threatening to murder his priest and ends with an ambiguous note of hope. John Michael McDonagh’s tense drama is full of bitter humour and weary redemption.
David Michoud’s follow-up to Animal Kingdom firmly establishes him as the foremost new purveyor of contemporary violence. With Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson at their best, Michoud further examines the manner in which human violence is passed from the weathered to the innocent as a rite of passage.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier and lead actor Macon Blair create a halting, messy revenge story in which the killer is not possessed of super-human abilities and the actual human cost of violence is not laughed off with a clever tag line. This very smart thriller hits like a gut punch and is a welcome improvement on the meaningless violence prevalent in so much modern film.
Bottom Five Pictures
Hopefully Jude Law has gotten this vanity project out of his system and can return to more worthwhile endeavours. Dom is a thoroughly unlikeable asshole and spending a couple hours with him is no picnic. What’s worse, the film reduces Richard E. Grant to a snivelling lackey. What have they done to my Withnail?
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Seth MacFarlane is very funny. And on TV, where his obnoxious and crude humour can be confined to the small space of a sitcom, it works. Blown up to feature film, length, it doesn’t. There are some laughs here, but not nearly enough to offset the dreariness.
Not sure what writer-director Charlie Stratton was thinking in this adaptation of Therese Raquin. He miscasts his two lead actors, and films it in such a dark and depressing manner from the beginning that there is no real room for descent.
Need for Speed
Is it fair to really rip a movie adapted from a video game? When the screenplay is this ludicrous, it is. I know Aaron Paul wants to capitalise on the Jesse Pinkman phenomenon, but this ain’t the way to do it. You’re not an action hero. Do a Marshall Mathers biopic instead.
They Came Together
I chose The Family as last year’s worst film over the arguably inferior The Counselor because I really hate it when talented people phone it in. They Came Together assembles a talented cast to mock romcoms. A barrel, a gun, and a bunch of fish come to mind. And it’s hardly even funny, with tired and drawn-out jokes, and multiple stomach-churning moments. Best forgotten by all involved – cast, crew, and audience alike.
Best Actor (only two of whom have an actual Oscar shot)
Jason Bateman (Bad Words)
He is also good in the rather bad This is Where I Leave You, but this nasty role is even better.
Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up)
The movie largely sanitises James Brown (virtually no sex?) but Boseman does stellar work. Joaquin Phoenix and Jamie Foxx have scored big playing music stars, and Boseman has a shot at an actual nom.
Brendan Gleeson (Calvary)
Gleeson has been one of our better actors for quite some time and this role as a priest with a death sentence lets him show off his full range of humour, pain, decency, and frustration in a remarkable manner. If I had my way, he would be a top contender.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy)
Nightcrawler is still to come and he will get more acclaim for it. But this dual role for Denis Villeneuve allows him to play two sides of the same character and he pulls it off effortlessly.
Tom Hardy (Locke)
Like Bateman and Gyllenhaal, Hardy may be better known in 2014 for his work in The Drop opposite James Gandolfini, but in Locke, he essentially sits in his car and speaks for about 80 minutes. The fact that the movie is watchable at all is a testament to one of the best young actors out there, giving an extraordinarily controlled performance.
Best Actress (only one of whom has a very outside chance at an actual nom)
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Non-professional actor Ellar Coltrane has gotten most of the attention for Richard Linklater’s film, but Arquette, as his mother, is the real backbone of the movie. Filmed over twelve years, during which her physical appearance was constantly changing, Arquette’s journey matches Coltrane’s. She has a shot, though I don’t know how good a one.
Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin)
Say what you want about Johansson, but there is no actor or actress today taking on a wider range of interesting roles. A year after playing a disembodied voice in Her (and doing it exceptionally well, I might add), she tackles a virtually mute alien life form in Jonathan Glazer’s enchanting, maddening thriller. (And does it quite well, I might add.)
Elisabeth Moss (The One I Love)
Like Jake Gyllenhaal, Moss gets to play two versions of the same character in Charlie McDowell’s sci-fi romance. Her ability to convey which character she is at any given moment through the slightest change in posture makes the whole thing work. Moss has appeared in a lot of movie’s but until now she has been primarily known as a TV actor. Performances like this should change that.
Mia Wasikowska (Tracks)
This is one of those performances that is so natural that it’s hard to realise you are watching something extraordinary. As Robyn Davidson walks further and further into the Australian desert, Wasikowska reveals more and more of the nuance in a very quiet, and very exceptional, character.
Perdita Weeks (As Above, So Below)
For those of you who think it is sacrilege to include a performance from a rather cheap, found footage horror film on a list of this nature, I would just say that without Weeks’ assured performance as the daredevil Scarlett, this above-average horror doesn’t exist. Just as Manuela Velasco will never get proper credit for her work in REC, Weeks will not get any recognition for this work. So I’m giving her some.
Tom Felton (In Secret)
OK, if you were paying attention, you know I thought the movie sucked. But Jessica Lange is quite good in a supporting role, and Felton, heretofore best known as Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter franchise, is a revelation as Camille, the sad-sack, doomed husband.
Roly Minutma (Tracks)
Roly Mintuma is only in about 15 minutes of Tracks. But he is so refreshing as the wise and witty village elder who helps Mia Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson on part of her journey that he just lights up the screen and turns Mr. Eddy into a most memorable character.
Mandy Patinkin (Wish I Was Here)
Gabe Bloom is a devout, yet pragmatic Jewish man dying of cancer. He loves his two sons and can be a beast to both of them. I can’t think of an actor better suited to play these contradictions today than Patinkin – the perfect blend of pomposity and pathos in Zach Braff’s melodrama.
Robert Pattinson (The Rover)
Pattinson has lots of devoted fans to whom this amazing performance did not come as a surprise. But to those who only know him as Edward Cullen, this will blow your doors off. He stands there frame for frame with Guy Pearce and never falters.
Matthias Schoenaerts (The Drop)
Anyone who saw Schoenaerts’ stunning performance in Bullhead knows that no other current actor packs as much brooding menace into a mere glance. That quality is put to perfect use in Michael Roskam’s first American movie. Incidentally, this has been a good year for minor psycho roles with Adam David Thompson in A Walk Among the Tombstones and Tracy Morgan’s bizarre Mr. Gristle in The Boxtrolls.
Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street)
Of course it’s easy to overlook broad comedies and the performers in them. But don’t overlook Bell, who has the wicked and raunchy comic panache to become the new Melissa McCarthy.
Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You)
How much better would this ineffectual comedy have been if it had focused more on Britton’s psychiatrist-on-a-fling character. After all, she was the only adult in the movie.
Agata Kulesza (Ida)
(Warning – obscure movie analogy ahead): In Ingmar Bergman’s epic Persona, fans often rave about Liv Ullman’s totally silent performance while undervaluing Bibi Andersson’s chattering nurse Alma. In the same way, I suspect audiences come away from Pawel Pawlikowski’s somber drama amazed at the beautiful young Agata Trzebuchowksa’s passive performance while not recognising Kulesza, as Ida’s aunt, breathes heartbreaking life into the material.
Maggie Smith (My Old Lady)
What more do I need to say? It’s Maggie Smith, for Chrissakes. Leave it at this. The first hour of Israel Horovitz’s movie is quite good. The second hour, not so much. Smith is mostly in the first hour.
Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive)
My only double nominee. Wasikowska struts onto the screen between Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton and creates a hurricane in Jim Jarmusch’s typically reserved vampire-love story. She may not be the female equivalent of Roberto Benigni, but she has her own way of revving things up.
One general note: If I liked the end of Skeleton Twins better, it would have been mentioned somewhere. As it is, it’s a top ten movie. And all three of its feature male performers – Bill Hader (lead), Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell (support) – were on my short list. Probably deserves more love.
One special performance note: We may never learn who they are, but the young unknowns in Justin Cole’s The Upper Footage do remarkable jobs of depicting laziness, sloth, and then sheer panicky terror. Hats off to you, whoever you may be.
That’s it. Those are the movies and performances I want to recognise from the first three quarters of 2014. I think they are quite good, despite it being a down year. Though I left out a few movies and performers, there is not a lot of depth beyond the ones I mentioned.
But never fear. During my recent sojourns, I saw trailers for Birdman and Whiplash. Gone Girl will (thankfully) open soon, so I don’t have to see that trailer anymore. There are lots of promising movies on the upcoming schedule which could rescue the year. As a famous movie once reminded us:
“And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.” (Bonus points if you know what it is.)