Spend any amount of time with critics, movie-biz reporters, or entertainment analysts and they'll probably tell you how disappointed they were with the movies this year. At the end of August, news outlets called summer 2014 the worst box-office summer in North America in twenty years. Sequels and a lack of freshness were cited as the main reasons for disappointing ticket sales. Later in the year, it was revealed that Hollywood's position at the top of the worldwide film market is being chipped away by competition from China, a phenomenon that began in the 1980s.
Business analysts weren't the only ones trumpeting bad news. In the holiday release Annie, a media-savvy character opines: "Product placement — it's the only thing keeping the movie business afloat." Even normally levelheaded reviewers couldn't escape a sour feeling about what was passing in front of their eyes. At the December meeting of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, critics made offhand complaints of poor performances and clumsy screenwriting — even in films being considered for year-end awards. And now, the Sony hack brouhaha.
Don't believe any of it. Take it from a grumpy critic: 2014 was not a rotten year for movies. In fact, it was as full of happy surprises as any screen year in recent memory. You just have to know where to look. Here, in alphabetical order, are the year's ten best movies: Birdman, Blue Ruin, Boyhood, Calvary, Gone Girl, The Homesman, Ida, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler, and Violette.
The Express reviewed Birdman, Calvary, Gone Girl, The Homesman, Ida, and Nightcrawler — the stories of, respectively, a has-been actor staging a comeback; a troubled Catholic priest trying to solve a murder mystery; a marriage turned violent; a classically minded western about a man and woman on a dangerous journey; a mismatched pair of cousins in 1960s Poland digging up their painful past; and the career of a rogue news videographer on the trail of sensationalism. Only one of the six could remotely be called sweet. Most feature physical or emotional violence, or both. But don't violent people deserve a little love?
The most radical narrative schema in the bunch is John Michael McDonagh's Calvary. Told in a detective-story framework by writer-director McDonagh (brother of playwright-filmmaker Martin McDonagh), the story of the temptations of small-town Irish priest James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) has been likened to a religious tableau. Sure enough, the sinners in the incredibly corrupt village give him a devil of a going-over as he makes the rounds, trying to find out which of his parishioners came into the confessional and threatened to kill him. You don't have to be religious to admire Gleeson's acting or the priest's moral character. Lavelle's ordeals at the hands of the increasingly grotesque villagers reveal him to be the closest thing we'll see to a saint in the works of the merry brothers McD. Father James is further indication that Gleeson is Ireland's — hell, the world's — pre-eminent impersonator of priests and gangsters, but be aware that Calvary is a challenging piece of drama. The keywords in The-Numbers.com's listing for it include: Life in a Small Town, Sex Crimes, Child Abuse, Atheism, Suicide Attempt, Serial Killer, and Cannibalism. Not surprisingly, relatively few people went to see it. Those who did watched one of the most intelligent movies of the year.
"Nothing good is ever easy" might also be the motto of Ida, by Pawel Pawlikowski. Again, there are barriers to mass appeal: a black and white film, in Polish with subtitles. It's about a novice Roman Catholic nun whose birth name is Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) and her reunion with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a bitter communist government judge, in the early 1960s. Their search for the remains of Ida's parents telescopes twenty years of national guilt, remorse, and loss into an oddly moving road pic, told in the same Sixties visual style as the fashionable Eastern European films of the era. Kulesza's performance, the gorgeous cinematography, the biting dialogue by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Pawlikowski's oblique tenderness toward these two misfits make Ida a resolutely atypical Holocaust movie, a quiet character study of immense emotional power.
Both Gone Girl and Nightcrawler are ultra-stylish crime dramas with a difference. David Fincher's marital nightmare yarn offers one brilliant performance (Rosamund Pike); one very good one (Ben Affleck); a clutch of unforgettable bit parts by Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Lola Kirke, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, and Patrick Fugit; a blistering screenplay adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel; and Fincher's sure-footed touch with the nuances of contempt. Some audience members and even a few reviewers expressed their frustration with a scenario that didn't tie up properly at the end. Life's funny that way. Fincher is capable of making a complicated film, but one that doesn't make sense is something he does not ever do. Amy and Nick Dunne's hell is our luxuriant garden of human folly. For what it's worth, Gone Girl is the highest-grossing movie on this list. But don't let that dissuade you. It's a dazzler.
In the wrong hands, Nightcrawler might have been just another loony-lawbreaker-in-LA shockeroo, but Dan Gilroy has the right hands, and he's made a superlative genre item in the story of Lou Bloom, modern-day entrepreneur. If Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal in a sublimely creepy turn) isn't stealing your copper wire, he's selling you images of your unlucky friends and neighbors, broadcast by TV news director Nina (Rene Russo). Nina and Lou will do anything, anything, to get what they need — they're the craven-hearted spiritual descendants of Chinatown's Noah Cross, another unscrupulous Angeleno. We fully go along with the notion that writer-director Gilroy's (The Bourne Legacy, The Fall) night-town neo-noir is a merciless critique of out-of-control capitalism, with Lou as the political candidate of the future, or, God forbid, your boss. Endlessly topical and endlessly scary.