Been kind of a strange year for cinema, with Hollywood lacking those brassy, tried-and-true "event" movies that typically come out of its woodwork . That's alright, though, because in their place comes a robust arrangement of less-assertive films tackling themes of troubled childhoods, domestic suspicion, recovering from creative stagnancy, zealous belief and ... uh, pet revenge. It's also been a unique year for horror to be hiding in unsuspecting places, from pop-up storybooks to the psychological force from a music instructor. Thankfully, of course, there are a few old reliables: pulpy thrills elevated by David Fincher, a science-fiction blokbuster with Tom Cruise behind the wheel, and a slice-of-life depiction from Richard Linklater built on a singular concept. As usual, below follow my picks for the ten most prominent films that I'll be taking away from the year, arranged in alphabetical order since I'm not too hot on numerical ranking.
Australian director Jennifer Kent emerges on the filmmaking scene in a deafening way with The Babadook, using the space between dark fantasy and horror as a mean of telling a chilling story of mystical literature and burgeoning psychosis. Most of the film's effectiveness comes in the ominous mood crafted in the shadowy space of single-mother and widow Amelia's house, where the deep-blue textured walls become an interpretive playground for how she handles her still-traumatized son and his obsessive coping mechanisms: hunting monsters and reading storybooks. When they find the book, the hidden pop-up nightmare that plants the idea of "The Babadook" in their minds, Kent's film descends into relatively subtle horror that plays with insistent sights and sounds suggesting the manifestation of the Boogeyman-like creature, leaving it up to the viewer to decide on the veracity of its presence. The paths it leads Amelia and her son down might not be the most terrifying, resisting the urge to lash out with tons of knee-jump scares for the sake of a consistent mood, but Essie Davis' electric performance doing battle with the film's gloomy ambiguity produces its own disconcerting amusements.
Having grown up with Michael Keaton as "my" live-action Batman, it felt like there was an underlying layer of personal context present while watching the actor's character in Birdman, Riggan, struggle to find his relevancy some time after his stint as the titular comic-book superhero. There's a lot of depth present in Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's film that doesn't rely on this added perspective at all, from raising a daughter amid immense fame to the hollowness that can come from performing classic plays and the heartless power of critics. There are also several divine performances that not only elevate Keaton, but find their own complex characterization amid Riggan's doomed theater debut; Watts and Norton are fantastic, but there's a rawness about Emma Stone's turn as the daughter that's captivating. Yet, it's hard not to embrace the transcendence of life and art while observing Riggan within his predominately one-take journey through the theater, dressing rooms, and streets of Broadway, deftly commanded by Keaton in a mesmerizing depiction of an ex-hero that literally seems designed for him.
Few films are as appreciated sight unseen as Richard Linklater's Boyhood, his decade-long project in depicting the maturation of a boy from his prepubescent years all the way to his high-school graduation. The idea itself, filtered through the lens of the slice-of-life director responsible for Dazed and Confused and the Before ... series, amasses its own mix of expectation and respect for its ambition before the first frame even appears: the sporadic gathering of the same actors across a twelve-year period to tell an observable and cohesive coming-of-age story, of both the boy himself and the family around him. For the film to exist at all is a marvel; however, Linklater does things with the material befitting a director whose artistic method goes beyond simply gluing together scenes that sprawl across time. Cleverly perceptible transitions between years and unostentatious references to each time period allow Mason's story, at times subtle and other times harrowing, to blossom into a marvelous portrayal of growing up, parenting, and the path that leads someone towards discovering who they are.
In a fit of professional crisis, Chef Carl Casper drops his professional gig at a fancy restaurant and takes up the wheel of a food truck, cooking simple food for people to enjoy as a way of getting back to his roots, both creatively and mentally. In a way, after his stint on the Iron Man franchise and with Cowboys and Aliens, Chef looks like it marks the same style of transition for Jon Favreau's directorial talent, stripping away the big drama and set pieces for a straightforward and immensely satisfying fusion of comedy and drama. Favreau ties in endearing themes of raising a child between amicably divorced parents and the process of overcoming public shame, juxtaposed with a clear -- dare I say, savory -- love for food through exhilarating scenes of cooking. Likable characters and a very easily relatable premise make for the cinematic equivalent of a comfort dish, dashed with some of Favreau's friends in high places for a little additional character. Put simply, it made me smile and feel fulfilled more than just about any other film released this year.
Mech suits and time-travel aren't really two of my favorite things among the science-fiction genre, so expectations going into Edge of Tomorrow -- no, not Live.Die.Repeat, dammit -- hinged more on curiosity toward what Bourne Identity director Doug Liman would make of the material than legitimate enthusiasm. Imagine my jubilation upon seeing a film that starts out with Tom Cruise not as a seasoned expert in combat or science, but as a weaselly military spokesperson who's forced to the front line of battle against alien forces, strapped into a exosuit with the barest of hands-on military training -- and the results aren't pretty. With the introduction of the film's eventually-explained jumps through time to the same point before the invasion, Cage takes the opportunity to incrementally better his skills through repetition, recalling the joy of playing a video-game level until he's figured out all the idiosyncrasies enough to locate the real soldier, "Full Metal Bitch" Rita (an exceptionally-realized and authentic female heroine thanks to Emily Blunt), and find out how to prevent a slaughter on humanity from happening at all. Fierce action, shrewd humor, and a strong thematic backbone built on redemption, fortitude and taking time for granted makes for an utterly absorbing blockbuster that gleefully relishes the idea of, essentially, "Phil Connors vs. Aliens".
David Fincher's talent for shining a spotlight on the poignant underbellies of pulpy stories reaches another pinnacle with Gone Girl, his adaptation of Gillian Flynn's twisted psychological thriller. Her book, which she personally adapted for the big screen, takes a lot of crazy turns throughout the investigation into the disappearance of Nick Dunne's wife, Amy (an enigmatic and alluring Rosamund Pike), the storied daughter of a children's book author who based his central character off her, making her something of a cultural darling. An underlying degree of suspicion about Nick Dunne's integrity overlaps with themes of mistrust in marriage and the subjectivity of domestic arguments, elevated by Fincher's perceptive grasp on photography and musical accompaniment (again sporting a mood-propelling score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the story only really gets started once the truth unravels about Amy's fate, flipping characters' motivations on their heads as Fincher does his damnedest to relish -- and distort -- the light and dark sides of Amazing Amy and her admirers. Even knowing what was coming, I was entranced and thrilled, laughing quite a bit at its dark humor alongside its unsettling descent.
After struggling with inconsequential indie dramas over the past five or so years, martial-arts enthusiast Keanu Reeves finally found the right venue for his talents by directing Man of Tai Chi, while also starring in it as an intense dark-suited villain with fighting skills and brooding motivations. It proves to be a uniquely fitting segue into his performance in John Wick, hinged on a retired and aged ex-assassin who's lured back into the underground circuit after gangsters violently intrude on his life -- including killing his dog -- shortly after his wife's death. Some of the year's best action comes out of John's onslaught on his former employers, but it's not of the dodged-bullet and infinite blocked-attack variety: the gunplay is tight and precise with few wasted bullets, and the hand-to-hand brawls are built on both brutal maneuvers and infallibility of the combatants. It proves to be the ideal vehicle for the actor's physicality some fifteen-plus years after his iconic role in The Matrix, while delivering a satisfying amount of bittersweet depth over John Wick's recovering, revenge-seeking psyche.
Going into Noah with the expectation that Darren Aronofsky's going to color within the lines of gospel would be a mistake, though it's understandable why some might expect him to do so. The name Noah in itself and the premise lying underneath his narrative are, after all, modeled from a brief, fantastical story told in the book of Genesis (and also appears in other religion's texts), which Aronofsky became interested in at a very young age. What he sees in the parable will differ from the way others view the saga of the great flood, though, and the man tasked by a higher power to build an animal-preserving vessel worth weathering it: Aronofsky embraces the line between devotion and madness, the harshness behind purging all life from the planet, and the haunting moral conflict in standing by and observing the benevolent creator's judgment. There's a lot of room for interpretation around "Noah's Ark", and Aronofsky uses that freedom to craft a mesmerizing vision with a flexible grasp on spirituality and the integrity of mankind, though it's also an unsubtle tonal departure that won't be for everyone.
Perhaps Under the Skin might have been better off had it not been Scarlett Johansson's first time appearing nude on-screen. Her other-worldly character's perception of her body in the film, and how she uses it in her pursuit of hapless human men for her incredible vague and interpretive purposes, commands a strong thematic presence in Jonathan Glazer's lyrical science-fiction trip. Focus falls directly on her discomfort in this foreign skin of her and how her identity's shaped by it, guided by a tense yet stoic performance from Johansson that speaks volumes through her character's pointed gazes and discomforting body language. Abstract visuals serve as their own storytelling devices around the largely straightforward premise, protracted and harsh in its perspective on humanity in ways that can be both maddening and mesmerizing. The experience lingers long after Glazer peels its many layers away; whether it's in a good way or bad, by virtue of its lustful provocations or its moody and drawn-out visual prose, will lie with the viewer. I find it spellbinding.
Whiplash contains one of the year's most effective villains, and I'm not exactly talking about the deftly-crafted, haunting presence of J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher. Sure, his menacing harassment of talented first-year drumming student Andrew is certainly potent enough to earn that distinction, nudging the film into the unsettling gap between drama and psychological horror with the sheer volume of tension generated in their interactions. What I'm referring to as the villain here is the abstract concept of failure coupled with the fear of mediocrity, whose influences pushes teachers to punish their pupils beyond their limits and for aspiring creative professionals to wreak irreparable damage -- both mental and physical -- upon themselves in competitive pursuit of perfection. The jazz music world of Whiplash becomes a cutthroat atmosphere in the midst of disarming rhythms and nimble wood and brass instruments, a perplexing atmosphere for a young musician's struggle with unrewarded excellence as he sheds literal blood, sweat, and tears for greatness, both in the eyes of his relentless instructor and his family.
If we're being completely honest here, I went into the first part of Francis Lawrence's end to the Hunger Games saga with the expectation that it could, very well, end up in this position. Clearly, the wisest idea when bringing the not-so-warmly received final book in a trilogy to the big screen is to split it in half, right? Precisely what one might expect plays out on-screen: lots of build up with very little payoff. Oh, the folks who wrote the adaptation tried rather hard to give it an individualized arc, hinged on the fate of a lead character endangered at the end of Catching Fire, yet it still feels exactly as if we're cut off just as Katniss' fiery resistance to the Capitol has truly ignited. It doesn't help that Jennifer Lawrence seems to be yelling to the rafters with her dramatic PTSD-fueled fury in order to justify the gears of war, to supplement the lack of resolution with gravitas. Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 feels like introductory, grim escalation halfheartedly fed into a Zero Dark Thirty-esque sequence that extinguishes one conflict while we're waiting for the real one to catch fire.
Admittedly, my gaming experience over the past year has largely been dedicated to getting through my backlog whenever possible -- some of which gets covered in this article: Last-Gen's Overlooked Games: Ten From a Movie Geek -- but Dragon Age: Inquisition still stood out from the new releases I did play as an absorbing rebound for developer BioWare following their difficulties with Dragon Age II. While it's not quite the hearty role-playing experience found in DA: Origins, lacking a substantial back-story for the player-character and restricting skill options in the otherwise invigorating combat, it comes surprisingly close in its incorporation of past lore and the player's ability to control their Inquisitor, their eyes and ears in orchestrating a resistance against a power-hungry darkspawn who feels they have a right to deification. Expansive environments across Thedas are peppered with a mix of substantive side-quests and traditional MMO-style gathering operations that urge the player to explore the beautifully-rendered fantastical world, while a host of well-drawn characters accompanies them on their journeys, supplying BioWare's signature charm through world-shaping decisions both big and small. Not a true return to form, but a huge step in the right direction.
All the films on this list really stuck with me once the year was over and done, ending in a mix of nostalgia and personal identification with a lot of the ideas touched on in them. In that, despite some disappointment and a lack of monumental heavy-hitters, I'd certainly chalk this year up as a success. Here's hoping the coming year delivers yet another wonderful run at the movies, dear readers. Speak with you all soon; keep in touch.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 1/26/2015