ByChristopher White, writer at

2014 was an experimental year for movies. These films were bold, and many provided some of the most ambitious story-telling we've seen in years. Birdman was manipulated to appear as if captured in one single take; Boyhood’s entire cast grew up before our eyes; and despite the demands of its genre, Interstellar stubbornly adhered to the use of practical effects over digital whimsy.

This sort of unbridled self-assurance can have devastating consequences, and it’s arguable as to whether or not these films are ambitious to a fault. Either way, ambition makes for a very memorable viewing experience, and I loved a lot of what came out this year.

Here are fifteen movies from this year that have changed the art of cinema forever:

15. Locke

Locke, like many films this year, toyed with the idea of time. Not just its role within a narrative, but also its use during the film-making process. Locke’s story unnfolds in real time, and is utterly devoid of any narrative skips or short-cuts: you see everything as it happens in Locke’s car while he talks on the phone with various people in his life. A 90 minute movie that takes place in a car, with only one actor on screen—sounds like a chore, I know; but somehow the script manages to keep a steady pace and a natural sense of urgency to all of Locke’s conversations. He might not be doing much—other than driving and talking on the phone—but there sure is a hell of a lot going on, and plenty of suspense to keep you engaged for his entire trip. Locke is undoubtedly experimental, yet successful in its ability to stay interesting given the simplest of circumstances.

14. Frank

Inspired by true events, Frank chronicles the escapades of a band that can’t even pronounce their own name. The Soronprfbs [sic] are led by Frank, a man that wears a giant fake head over his own real one. He sleeps and showers in it, eats through a straw, and explains his facial expressions during his conversations to make up for a lack of countenance. Like Frank, The Soronprfbs also prefer to remain hidden within a thick fog of obscurity: they don’t care about fans or followers…except for when they sometimes do. Eventually an opportunity to play at SXSW in Austin opens up, and they give it a shot. Frank is an outrageous movie that probably works best while tucked within its own ironic shell (or giant fake head in this case), and gets a bit awkward during the few moments when it attempts to emerge and be serious. That’s probably its biggest problem: it’s hard to tell when it wants to be real. (But that also may be the point). By turns hilarious and deeply sad, this dark comedy is worth checking out.

13. The Babadook

In a lot of ways The Babadook is what you’d expect, and follows a recognizable formula employed by many other horror films. I think the trick to good horror is in the pacing: the conflict has to expose itself gradually so as to remain tantalizing, yet it also has to be fast enough so it doesn’t get boring. You want mystery and tension in horror, and I think a lot of films in this genre ruin the tension by getting lost in the mystery. The result is pure cheese. On top of this, it’s also got to be original, and that’s something we don’t get very often Horror. The Babadook is historical in its seemingly effortless ability to meet both of these criteria. At its core, this is a movie about depression, an excursion into the spookiest corners of a mentally disturbed person and the complex relationship with her child.

12. Borgman

If you want weird, then you want Borgman, a Dutch film that is surely destined for cult status in the near future. Its cosmos is as compelling as it is confounding, a place where natural law and logic have been replaced by, well, some weirdass shit. Let’s just say that. What makes it good though is that there are enough discernible pieces in the midst of all its chaos that allow the viewer a way to navigate, and perhaps even make sense of, all of its smirking oddity. It’s weird, but not necessarily incomprehensible—that is, as long as you’re willing to pay attention and use your brain while you watch. If you enjoyed recent head-scratchers such as Holy Motors, Upstream Color, or Dogtooth, then you will absolutely love Borgman.

11. Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer will go down as a classic in the science-fiction genre. This movie just works in every possible sense! It encases you in a dismal, icy future (and train) where the earth has been destroyed in an effort to stop global warming: cooling systems were launched into space, but instead of solving the problem, they produced the exact opposite extreme…a frozen planet. Thus, the earth’s last inhabitants live in an enormous train that never stops circling the earth, one that’s organized according to social class: horrible conditions in the back, ideal conditions in the front. When the story begins, revolution has been boiling up, with Chris Evan’s character fortuitously assuming the role as leader. Snowpiercer is thrilling and action-packed, and unexpectedly bizarre in places.

10. Enemy

Another mind-screw, and probably the only one that can match Borgman’s weirdness. Again though, it doesn’t feel like they were just making it up as they went. The film’s events may be enigmatic, but they never quite feel unwarranted. This movie is excellently paced and manages to be suspenseful its entire run-time, even if you’re struggling to understand exactly what’s happening.

Enemy is peppered with a few very shocking moments, one in particular at the end which is the stuff of nightmares. Proceed with caution.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive

A really unique take on the vampire genre. Don’t expect much from these bloodsuckers though, because they seem to have a stronger penchant for books and music than they do carnage. Depression is also a major issue. Thankfully this doesn’t exactly take the “vampireness” out of them, since they most definitely still thrive on a heavy consumption of blood. The difficulty of obtaining it non-violently is what gives this film its edge though, and a clever sense of irony. In the midst of constantly worrying about where and how to get it, Adam and Eve fill their time listening to music, reading books, and dealing with Eve’s slightly perfidious little sister, Eva.

It’s all so damn stylish and fun, and I love the music throughout. Open your mind to a new kind of vampire movie and give this little gem a shot.

8. Boyhood

This will win Best Picture at the Oscars, and I think it mostly deserves it. Richard Linklator stunned the world when he proved that it’s possible to have characters grow up over the course of a movie. It just took him twelve years. Boyhood’s pretty weird because of this, not just because we see characters age—but also because this very aspect eliminates any sense of plot. I think plot is a little overrated though. Sometimes it’s not even necessary, especially when a story’s characters are complex and interesting enough. Boyhood sheds new light on this concept of “characterization”, or at least I’d like to think it transfigures it in some way. We see fictional beings cast in a light of genuine temporality, and it’s nothing less than a bit eerie watching them gradually age before our eyes.

7. Blue Ruin

A baby brother to No Country for Old Men, and a reminder that films needn't strive for complexity in order to stun their audience: simplicity has its own wow factor. What’s especially remarkable about Blue Ruin is its ability to crank out so much tension with so little information. We stumble into a brutal and austere world the moment the film begins, and never once does it let up or soften its grip. Similar to No Country, the violence in the film feels heavy, shocking, and realistic. There’s a terrifying uncertainty to real-life violence, and it’s to the film’s credit for trying very hard to portray this aspect of it. They may not achieve it perfectly in every scene, but Blue Ruin is a mostly satisfying, albeit intensely distressing viewing experience that is worth your time.

6. Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher is such an incredible film, and my personal favorite from director Bennett Miller. This is some seriously deep shit, the sort of thing that only really begins to reveal its layers once it’s finished. It is perhaps the most atmospheric film of the year, a movie that operates via its setting more than its plot, and the effect is truly enveloping. There is so much food for thought in it, so much to “wrestle” over (haha sorry), and this may make it too daunting (or just unenjoyable) for some. It’s hard to say why this movie even exists, because in this reviewer’s estimation the story is not exactly remarkable. But as Roger Ebert once said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” It’s the how that matters in Foxcatcher.

When people talk about the “feel” of a film they might mean various things: the lighting, the setting, or the camerawork perhaps; but Foxcatcher’s “feel” is seemingly intangible in this sense. I guess I just mean to say that it’s so impressively made that you don’t have time to pinpoint exactly what was done to achieve such a palpable atmosphere. It’s hypnotic, and I found myself pleasurably lost within its framework.

Foxcatcher is a slow burn for sure, but that is to its favor. This is the sort of movie that wants to convince you of its world and merge you with its psychology, as opposed to just gripping you by the throat and throwing you in. The pacing is profoundly deliberate, a slow-rolling rhythm that might take some patience at first, but once you’re in sync you begin to sense its purpose and enjoy the ride.

This is a precise film, and one that, I think, will be studied for quite some time. It’s a dark and tremendously moody experience that might take some patience at first, but manages to awe us with its dark spirituality in every scene.

5. Interstellar

I teach Language Arts, so I grade essays a lot. Occasionally I’ll get one that’s unusually difficult to score, and this can be for a number of reasons: maybe it’s beautifully written, but completely off topic, or maybe it just doesn’t live up to the quality of what that student has turned in before. In some cases I even wonder if I’m completely blind to its quality in the first place, simply because of what I know that student is capable of, or because of my expectations of them. For that, I end up struggling to determine if I’m being too soft or too harsh as I grade it.

Sometimes though, and this is rare, I’ll receive a paper that contains both astonishing and abysmal qualities: some sections might be utterly inchoate, lacking any perceivable structure or relevance, while other parts feel like they’ve been formed by an other-worldly grace of sorts. This roller-coaster shift in quality is mostly prevalent in papers that are especially verbose.

The same goes for albums and movies, I think. The longer or more ambitious a work is, the more vulnerable it becomes, and the more opportunities it has to let you down. Hence we’re faced with the difficulty of grading something as epic and ambitious as Interstellar. Is it a let-down because of its flaws, or is great because of its achievements?

I have to say the latter. I think any person with an imagination, a slight curiosity about theoretical science, and perhaps a soft-spot for church organ would probably agree; but still, I suppose that determination ultimately depends on how impactful you consider its pros are in the first place. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the imagery, music, and scientific footing are strong; but however much you are impressed by these things is going to determine whether or not Interstellar’s problems also concern you very much.

I was pretty impressed, and I think many of its issues are at most merely trivial in comparison to everything it gets right. Interstellar is such an earnest project, and a sincere love-letter to cinema itself. The movie is uniquely satisfying for people that have an appreciation for the “hands-on” aspect of film-making: the sets, props, practical effects, music, and even Nolan’s stubborn use of film instead of digital—this was a passion project, fueled by a childhood fascination with the idea of space-travel. Just about everything you see in it was actually there in front of the camera, and that is incredibly difficult to do in a genre like this. Interstellar represents a kind of apotheosis in this regard, and it is its biggest selling point.

The movie is intended to be fun above all else, even when it’s busy explaining its wonders to us. Exposition is much tighter here than in Inception. Despite my love for that film, I think it’s almost irreversibly fucked by its insistence on explaining itself while also trying to entertain. In my opinion, Interstellar spins your head in a much more satisfying way, one that’s rooted in the theoretical science of Kip Thorne. These seemingly inexplicable concepts not only reach us in sensible fashion, but also manage to seduce. I was fascinated with the film’s brief scientific interludes.

Above all, I think Nolan meant to create the most maximal theater experience possible, a roller coaster ride of sight, sound, and emotion—a film that pushes our understanding of immersion. I think he accomplished this, and also managed to tell an endearing, if maybe at times narratively flawed, story.

Interstellar has made a giant mark (or scar, depending on your perspective) on the history of cinema by its stubborn use of real environments, practical effects, and cumbersome celluloid as opposed to green screen or digital effects. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for these things, or if it even has a place for them. Nolan’s biggest project is the stuff of pure imagination, and something that I think science-fiction directors will return to for inspiration for many years to come.

4. Under the Skin

When a friend of mine first mentioned to me that there was a movie coming out where Scarlett Johansson played an alien disguised as…Scarlett Johansson, and is tasked to act as a prostitute so that she can kidnap men for her alien race, I thought it was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard. It’s still the dumbest sounding idea, and I feel like an idiot for even typing it.

Believe me when I say, though, that it works. It really works…and it’s terrifying. Under the Skin’s protagonist might be something other-worldly, but the film’s themes are entirely local: this is a story about humans, and the odd swaying power that our emotions can have on anything, including non-humans.

3. Birdman

Birdman made me laugh harder than any movie this year, mostly because of the outrageous interplay between Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. This film is perfectly cast, and is one of the slickest movies to come out this year in terms of pacing and camera work: the movie unfolds without any perceptible cuts to the footage, something that I don’t think has been attempted since Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope....?

Birdman will be studied, not just because it’s so well-crafted, but because it’s the kind of film that spookily eludes explanation. Does this man have telepathic powers or are these just some wacky metaphors to convey a message? Possibly both, and I’ve enjoyed hearing all the different interpretations of the film.

Birdman is a true “dark comedy” in that it’s heartbreaking, yet fittingly hilarious even in (especially in) its most desperate moments.

2. Whiplash

Films work hard to keep their viewers in suspense, and this is a great example of one that does so very naturally. These characters are never in any real danger (except for a couple flying chairs), but the drama is so riveting, making Whiplash the only movie that beats Interstellar and Blue Ruin in terms of sheer tension.

The experience might be nostalgic for any musician that’s been under the tutelage of a tyrant. In high school I had a chorus instructor that said a kid was singing out of tune because of his “fatness.” It’s true. We all actually loved this instructor, and he was definitely nothing compared to Fletcher in Whiplash, but there was still a bit of antagonism to his method.

That sort of thing is magic for cinema though, and extremely entertaining to watch on screen. Where Whiplash truly excels is in its ability to remain silent about this immoral issue. It never preaches, or even tells you what it thinks, and for that very reason the movie never gets corny. Instead, Whiplash focuses on the unshakable will of its protagonist who is phenomenally played by Miles Teller.

1. Ida

Ida is what you might call a true masterpiece. Any movie that can achieve such a freakish level of technical precision while also tearing your heart out is a rarity. Most movies impress by one or the other, but Ida…wow, what a tender, beautiful movie this is.

From start to finish, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at. In many places it’s simply stunning though. It’s a feat to create such poetic imagery in a film, but it’s next to impossible to also use that poetic imagery to tell a story without it ever feeling forced or pretentious. This is why Ida is such a marvel I think: everything you see is integral to its narrative.

One of the film’s strongest aspects is Ida herself. She has a connection with the camera like I’ve never seen in a movie, a constant awareness that she’s being watched or something, perhaps in her mind by her God. Paweloski keeps it on her with laser-like focus, giving Ida’s mental state a sense of enormous priority. To us the effect is uncanny, transfixing—and it’s the film’s smartest move because it keeps it grounded in the midst of all its poetic impressionism. The movie never feels like it’s just messing around with you.

Ida is one of the most complex characters I watched this year, one that I couldn’t help caring about. She feels real. Maybe this character is so convincing by the mere fact that I’ve never seen the actress that plays her. In this regard, I suppose it helps immensely that this is a foreign film. Nothing about her feels contrived, and the romance at the center of the film is all the more moving because of this. Her character lends a certain credibility to all the events in the film.

Ida is a brief yet incredibly powerful experience, and in a mere 80 minutes manages to communicate massive emotions. This is the sort of movie that not only teaches us profound lessons about film, but also stirs within us an empathy of the most spiritual kind, a reckless caring for the lives of other human beings, living or deceased.


Was 2014 a historical year for film?


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