Jake Disch

The Films of 2014, Part 2

Welcome back! Or welcome, if you didn’t read part one, what with the worst movies and the ones that almost made this list. It was long, I know. I’m not mad. Anyway, here it is! My totally awesome…

TOP 5 MOVIES OF 2014

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

FUCK YES.

FUCK YES.

After hitting doubles in 2013 with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, Marvel hit a home run its first time at bat in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Between that movie’s release and Guardians in August, something happened. Edgar Wright, he of Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, dropped out of directing the Paul Rudd-starring Antman, citing conflict with Marvel Studios over the script. The internet nerd-rage was palpable and the hiring of replacement Peyton Reed (whose last feature film was the 2008 Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man) did little to heal the wounds. Hollywood soothsayers were whispering that between that debacle and Guardians, which used low-profile comic book heroes, no bankable stars, and was almost definitely too weird for general audiences, that Marvel’s days of printing money were over. But those pundits hadn’t done their homework.

If they had, they would have known that director James Gunn has a strong voice and vision, as evidenced by the ridiculously awesome Slither and Super. They would have known that Chris Pratt’s ability to charm audiences knows no bounds (he is consistently the best thing about the great Parks and Recreation), and they would have known that every ten-year-old who saw a space raccoon firing a machine gun in the trailers would drag their parents to the movie on opening day. All of those things combined to make the biggest movie of the year. And for once, it was a movie that genuinely deserved to be a massive hit.

Guardians is far from perfect. Its plot can charitably be described as formulaic, its ending is basically a copy/paste of The Avengers, and it falls into the trap of turning its badass heroine into a love interest and then making her fight the only other major female character in the movie. What makes it work is the charm of each of the characters and the overall tone. Gunn sets that tone in the movie’s opening moments: after a brief prologue, we see Pratt’s Starlord dancing across the desolate surface of an alien world to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love” and it’s hard not to fall head over heels with the whole enterprise right there. Then you get a new generation’s Han and Chewie in Rocket and Groot, a thrilling escape from space prison, Benicio Del Toro’s hair, and even a tear-worthy moment of sacrifice. It all moves at a quick pace, is backed by a great soundtrack, and is so loveable that I was worried it might feel bad if I didn’t include it on this list.

4. Birdman

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“Smells like balls.”

Birdman is a marvel on so many levels. It is audacious, huge, unwieldy, and stylish to a fault. It’s also filled with brilliant performances, including a pitch-perfect Michael Keaton (the occasional Beetlejuice-esque growl filled me with glee), Edward Norton doing what I can only assume is a riff on himself, and Emma Stone with the monologue of the year. It’s pretentious as hell, but I couldn’t bring myself to give a shit when it was so ridiculously, deliriously entertaining.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (who, between this and Gravity, is doing the most spectacular work around right now) fashion most of the film to appear as one continuous take. This sounds gimmicky and distracting, but it somehow feels natural. One scene flows into another, time passes strangely, and in this way the film slowly begins to make us feel the pressure and the madness of Keaton’s washed-up former superhero actor Riggan Thompson. While the pre-release buzz was calling the Actor Formerly Known as Batman’s performance “meta,” he at no point relies on our prior knowledge of his Batman movies to fashion this character. Riggan emerges fully formed as the greatest achievement of Keaton’s career, and yes I’ve seen Multiplicity. While very different movies, Birdman was just as funny, just as thrilling, and every bit as wildly entertaining as Guardians.

3. Cheap Thrills

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Get ready for a lot of this.

I saw this movie back in March after seeing a few folks on the ol’ Twitters twittering about it, and I have spent way too much time since trying, and failing, to convince my friends to watch it with me. The darkest of dark comedies and featuring Anchorman‘s David Koechner as a very unsettling man with a terrible hat and too much money, Cheap Thrills is the perfect result of writers and a director having a single idea and pushing that one thought as far as it can possibly be pushed. That thought? “If I were desperate, how far would I go for money?”

The answer, for Pat Healy’s Craig, is very very far. Craig is having a bad day: he’s about to be evicted from his apartment, he has no money to support his wife and baby, and he’s just been fired from his shitty job. He mopes over to a local bar where he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry, pulling off a perfect combination of likeable charm and alpha male assholery), an old friend. They’re soon spotted by a rather mismatched couple: Koechner’s Colin and Sara Paxton’s much younger Violet, who start paying these two schmoes to perform various feats of idiocy for their entertainment. It starts with taking a shot or getting a woman at the bar to slap them and escalates to a hysterical scene of the two men racing to be the first to shit on the floor. And then it gets weird.

This movie pulls absolutely no punches with its characters or its themes. These two men are slowly revealed as ugly, full of regret, and trying to make up for lost time. The film is a near-perfect satire of the class divide in America. Craig and Vince are desperate, willing to debase themselves for what, to Violet and Colin, is pocket change. For their part, Colin and Violet have too much money to be interested in everyday things anymore. It’s hard to have fun when you’ve already seen and done it all, but maybe getting two idiots to shit on the floor will be entertaining. Cheap Thrills is dark and dirty, and you’ll want to give your soul a bath after watching it. But it’s also hilarious, shocking, and a must for anyone who fancies themselves a fan of satire.

2. Nightcrawler

Creepy? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Creepy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

In case you haven’t noticed from my last couple entries, I’m a big fan of dark comedy. And 2014 was a great year for dark comedies. Nightcrawler presents itself as a thriller at times, but in its rotten, festering heart it’s a very funny takedown of American media and our obsession with other people’s pain. Longtime screenwriter and first time director Dan Gilroy spins us a tale of a broke, desperate man who will do just about anything if it means he gets to label himself a success. He’s practically ripe for Cheap Thrills’ Colin to offer him a few bucks to drop a deuce on the carpet. Instead he stumbles across the world of news stringers, or nightcrawlers: people who arrive at the scene of accidents, shootings, and any incident that comes over their police scanners, and film the aftermath. They then sell that tape to local news outlets.

Jake Gyllenhaal, playing new nightcrawler Louis Bloom as wild-eyed, dangerous, but very much in control of his every move, gives my favorite male performance of the year. Gilroy frames him as a hero, daring you to root for him. A moment when Bloom takes his fancy new supercar for a spin features thumping base and a camera that lovingly pans over the car, and if you didn’t know any better you’d swear Vin Diesel was driving and you were watching Night Fast Crawl Furious or something. As Bloom starts becoming obsessed with his new job and begins to break the rules to get ahead of the competition, he enters more and more dangerous territory. Bloom represents all of our basest instincts: the drive to succeed even (or especially) at the expense of others and his obsession with tragedy resonate with his recurring (and hilarious) memorized speech about the American Dream as he sees it.

While Gyllenhaal is rightfully getting a ton of praise for his performance, everything in Nightcrawler is top notch. Gilroy has fashioned my favorite screenplay of the year and directs it with confidence and just the right amount of flash. Riz Ahmed is pitch-perfect as Bloom’s hapless employee and Bill Paxton and Rene Russo do predictably great work in supporting roles. When the credits rolled after this one, I was ready for a whole series of movies following Louis Bloom’s increasingly queasy exploits.

1. The Babadook

You will learn to shit when you see this silhouette.

You will learn to shit when you see this silhouette.

I’m not gonna lie: I love horror movies. Horror is my very favorite genre, which is terrible because it mostly sucks. In a good year, we get maybe one or two genuinely good horror movies. So it’s incredibly rare for a horror movie to not only be both scary and good, but to be so good that it starts getting mentioned in the same breath as The Shining and The Exorcist the week it comes out. But The Babadook really is that good.

First-time director (a good year for those folks, eh?) Jennifer Kent worked for ten years to get this movie made, and that dedication shows in every frame. It’s beautifully shot, impeccably written, and manages to have a monster that’s scarier than anything else that’s come out in years without ever being clearly seen. But her trump card is her star, Essie Davis. Playing Amelia, mother to the troubled Samuel (Noah Wiseman), Davis goes from grieving, to loving, to depressed, to psychotic without ever stepping into the realm of histrionics and overacting. It’s an astonishing performance. I think it’s the best of the year by a mile, and it’s a shame she likely won’t be given any awards attention for it. Because without Davis holding it together, this movie just doesn’t work.

Amelia is a single mother whose husband died in a car accident as he drove her to the hospital to give birth. Her son, Samuel, is anti-social and obsessed with the monsters in his bedtime stories. Amelia tries, but the strain of raising this kid alone is visible from their first moment onscreen together. She doesn’t understand him, and she doesn’t know how to love him. She looks at him and sees the husband she lost so she could get this little bundle of trouble instead. These feelings are gnawing at her, but despite her best efforts she can’t change them. Then she finds a mysterious new bedtime story for Samuel on his shelf: a terrifying pop-up book about the titular boogeyman Mr. Babadook. After reading it aloud to Samuel, the kid starts seeing things. Eventually, Amelia starts hearing things. Is that Mr. Babadook knocking? Or is Amelia’s emotional turmoil finally getting the better of her?

The Babadook is a small, low-budget movie that moves at its own pace. But when it takes off, it’s genuinely terrifying, pulling off a series of twists and reversals that work effortlessly. It’s a film of astonishing craft, incredible emotional weight, and it just might give you a raging case of the terror-shits. It’s also the best horror movie in years and a new classic of the genre. Let’s all hope it doesn’t take Jennifer Kent another ten years to bring us her next film.