After a summer season of blockbusters that gave the cinematic landscape of jewels and gems worthy of inspection a shake, “awards season,” from which some worthy contenders showed themselves, came roaring. Likewise, a backlog of more movies in the thick of this holiday season growing, certain timely realities proved elusive, in terms of getting to see everything 2014 — a year with more discoveries on my part than planned anticipation — had to offer. For that reason, potential favorites may turn up by the time some people, including myself, get to see those.
Yet, among the larger blockbusters (Interstellar, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy) and widely lauded releases (Gone Girl, Boyhood, Whiplash, Birdman), surveying every crevice of that landscape, there were a lot of movies that were released, watched, podcasted about and reviewed here on Sound on Sight.
(Look for Sound on Sight’s finalized, staff-wide list of this year’s best on December 28.)
In fact, you see, there were little more than 950 movies throughout this year alone. From all the ones I had a chance to see, what will follow is a rundown — limited to 10 films of my head-scratching choosing that share thematic connections worth this mental exercise — of films that, while radically different from one another (some dark, others more hopeful), somehow, to these set of big eyes, defined the year of this subjective movie-watching trajectory.
Of course, it does not hurt that they were thrilling, challenging, exciting, stimulating, arresting, cinematically disarming, and all that descriptive stuff whose explanation will be reserved for each film, respectively.
But in general, to glance at the more popular films of this year, similar themes seen in those — which will be followed up on after the next paragraph — like time, artistic drive and love, are just as much applicable to what some of these few films imparted thematically.
Using time as strategic mechanic, Richard Linklater’s universally beloved Boyhood, shot over the course of 12 years, charted the American coming-of-age experience from boyhood to adulthood. Gone Girl wrapped its head around the complications of love, in the process putting on a sly face of romantic perfection — that veil its very falsification — escaping the buzzing ubiquity of scrutiny. Love was contended, reasoned and bargained with, sometimes in wishful terms, in The One I Love. Among the artistically ambitious — with Christopher Nolan becoming one such director — Michael Keaton’s Riggan in Birdman tries to rise from underneath a floundering career, while Miles Teller’s Andrew is just breaking out in Whiplash, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s cybernetic Louis Bloom — plying a camera of sinister motivations with programmed autonomy — cashing in on death in Dan Gilroy’s death-on-wheels, Nightcrawler.
More interesting when personalized, regardless of its triviality, there is always the inner impulse to pull out a theme that best encompasses any given year in cinema, however indefinite or futile.
But, to be either of the two, poring over these few, handpicked films, what comes to mind the most among these pieces are ideas of evolved identity, the ineluctability of free will and liberty, various forms of appreciation and understanding (past, present, future) from the connective assemblage of reunion, acclimation, and, again, love.
A Year of Incidental Understanding
(For those sensitive to descriptors that directly deal with plot points, written in as vague a terms as I can, please be forewarned.)
One, couched between a couple who have lived enough through centuries, picks apart the artistic works of the past for its audiences’ information. Another one, in particular, seems to have been an encumbrance around everyone else’s time. Up against his better half — looking for his wife, in this instance — one is still putting the pieces together of what really happened that night. For the criminally imprisoned, a father and son are just starting to rebuild a wrecked relationship. Elsewhere, on the blinking highway, a man becomes, well, a new man.
Another one sees a woman making everyone around her laugh, while dealing with some serious issues brought on by drunkenness and accident.
Another few (a team of explorers, a novice, a non-human) work against the unrelenting forces of temporal ambiguity — the future, an unknown, newfound past, and a newly-discovered present.
For instance, Christopher Nolan’s journey to the infinite beyond spans decades. A slice of which is stolen in a 10-minute set piece resulting from growing gravitational time dilations that are way more frightening than — seriously — monsters or aliens (Godzilla included).
Celestial black holes and wormholes are also folded into Nolan’s metaphorically layered fabric of cinematic defiance — as foretold in Dylan Thomas’ poem heard multiple times in the movie — that “rages against” a dying format that, through Interstellar’s existence, becomes a eulogy on film.
All of these phenomena, situated in the endless frontiers of the ones and zeros, xs and ys, that is relativity, becomes one of many conundrums Interstellar (among many, many, and (oh!) many others) poses — part messy, part heady and at times curious — with eye-opening and sweeping inquiry, all set to the entrancing and swelling ostinatos of Hans Zimmer’s symphonically possessive, organ-heavy ecclesiastical score.
Earth has become inhabitable. A Dust Bowl has preyed on its ecology. Corn is the only crop left for continued survival. In between Zimmer’s score, the dialogue as incomprehensible as can be (sometimes because of Zimmer’s score), none of that matters.
Nolan makes use of all the visuals and aural techniques to draw viewers into a studio blockbuster bursting at the seams with protruding, visionary grandiosity and enormity that, quite frankly, never bores, as much as it talks, explains away and expounds on the science from which it takes inspiration (drawn from Kip Thorne’s theories in “The Science of Interstellar”) and then imagines to visually vivid life — to the extent that it can.
In science, people do that — a whole lot — while justifying their crackpot theories. The people in Interstellar do that as well. But eventually — through its focal point — it typifies the movie’s absurd and gravity-transcending dialectics of love that is somehow (and remarkably) sensibly identifiable and relatable, making all the mumbo-jumbo of “how?” “where?” and “when?” worth your eyes.
Neither a known property nor a sequel of any kind, it is huge, towering, bombastic and originally native filmmaking, and while only Nolan seems to be interested in doing these superstructure types of movies, it made everyone in 2014 do exactly what it does for 246 minutes: talk, discuss, and expound on its science — one of many reasons why all of us just love getting lost at the movies.
Similarly, but far from the same, the rediscovery of a slipped away past adds understanding in Paweł Pawlikowski quiet, meditative, rebellious and tactfully assured period drama, Ida. A hauntingly photographed coming-of-age film that takes place in the aftermath of a Postwar Poland, Ida follows the inhibitions of a novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska, composed) who has to confront the realities of her own faith before taking her vows. It heavily treads along a rich atmospheric density that recalls ‘60s cinema.
Patiently shot in black-and-white digital, director Pawlikowski, with his cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, monochromatically document main character Ida’s discovery of a certain familial revelation that puts her in direct contact with her aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza, played remarkably with seasoned irreverence), now a judge, with a storied past as a powerful prosecutor during the reign of Stalin.
Now, in her darker, middle-age days, she has turned into a heavy drinker. Wanda is in many ways a symbolic opposite of Ida’s morally pious chastity — Ida, a behavioral order to Wanda’s disarray where both of them somehow make do, despite their contradictions.
Bressonian in style, Ida — arranged inside an Academy ratio (4:3) expressive of the nature of orphan Ida’s back story of having endured a boxed-in life at a convent for the better part of her life — has the creakiness of an antiquated, recently dusted-off folktale that leads into a road movie, fueled by elements of noire.
In undoubting terms, it has the feel of a newly discovered classic film.
Pawlikowski makes use of deceptive, stationary camera angles that sum up the two polar ends of ardent religiosity (the heavenly above) and isolation (the grounded below). His framings, placed in ways that bring enough vertical headroom above the characters, further visualize the spatial “above.”
First-time actress Trzebuchowska’s devoutness and spirituality, contrasted against her aunt’s proclivities, become a discourse upon the differences that separate the beliefs of two disparate women, both as extreme as the other. But, for Ida, to perceive and witness is to come to terms with herself, her life, modernity, and her past, unfettered into a life that has just begun by the time the credits have rolled.
From breaking out of the built-up mounds of isolation in Ida, two distinct realities coexist in Jonathan Glazer’s fever dream, Under the Skin, which throws Scarlett Johansson’s into her best, and most challenging role. Like a serpentine, she slithers through the streets of Glasgow, inviting men of all shapes and sizes to a goopy reservoir of ink.
Written by both Walter Campbell and Glazer, loosely adapted from Michel Faber’s novel with the same title, they decode the text of this piece enough to make their interpretation, through Glazer’s direction, more avant-garde in spirit.
Refreshingly experimental, Glazer works off the edges of the periphery, at a complete and conclusively considered register. Mostly a product of its process and production, it has the mark of naturalism and vérité, awash in swirls of mysterioso and fish-out-of-water sci-fi.
Responsively experiential, interrupted by tonally freaky unevenness, Under the Skin humanizes the prosaic nature of humanity. Decisively enough, it becomes an allegory on how bodies are constantly-moving, accessorized objects of expression — the world a catwalk on which everything is staged — to which the simples of responses become a threat.
Unfamiliarity and the attempt at assimilation run like rivers of blood here, with a main character that, trapped inside her humanely inescapable “other,” has the misfortune to wear this world’s cloth of familiarity on her person, in the process turning herself into a target of sexual prey. Glazer replaces predatory hegemony with foreign weakness and vulnerability, seen from the cracks of a crumbling divide where the fissures become indistinguishable and where powers are shifted around with capriciously unexpected randomness, here — rather shockingly — to the sympathies of the audience.
By turns heartbreaking and just sad, Under the Skin appropriates, with bull’s-eye centrality, objectification. Disturbing as it is, Glazer’s stalking camera holds up a mirror against postmodernism in ways that are equally as much relevant as they are resonant in this increasingly progressive, yet dystopian-cum-utopian, world of ours.
Gorgeously staged by Daniel Landin’s estranged cinematography, the film also stresses the unknown surrealism only evident in the main character, working, in kind, with the perceptive responses of the viewer, set to a tempo that — inch by another stranger inch — paves a foggy way for elliptical storytelling that further drives home undertones of loneliness, adaptation, human experience, and the allure of femininity.
Throughout, Johansson is accompanied by the stand-out, terrifyingly active, moody viola compositions of first-time composer Mica Levi that — rhythmically — twitch, snake, roll, rattle and clip in and out of every frame, announcing alienation and seclusion.
Complemented by Levi’s discordance, Johansson delivers one of this year’s more memorable performances, playing a character about as unpredictable as the whooshing winds of circumstance itself to which there are no moral compasses, identifiers or descriptors.
She simply is, struggling to fit in, before she breaks out of her mold.
Refusing to break out of one such mold is Jason Schwartzman’s viperously quick-witted Philip Lewis Friedman, a man as corrosive as acid, as sharp as a knife, as articulate as an orator, as adept as a professional, and as horrible as the villain he is.
Philip is an author and part-time teacher, moonlighting as a bigheaded narcissist, who, at all times, gets away with wordy murder, mostly delivered, thrown, and hurled with scholarly persuasion and venomous toxicity.
Half the offense taken by all the people around him comes from keeping up with him, too, with that talking-book elocution of his.
Alex Ross Perry’s latest, Listen Up Philip, is an artist’s unyielding intentions of creative retention, where the film’s truer study of arrogance, self-worth, the refusal of the sacrificing of art, and the speeds at which temperaments shift, swivel and spill forth, come in. As successful as he is, Philip is very much the result of self-admiration, who cannot imagine the idea of letting go of one iota of his creativity, just to get his nearest and dearest one bit happier.
Topped with a hairstyle that does not require a lot of upkeep, his beard carelessly sprawled all over his chin, Philip is also a man so dedicated to his craft, with perfections more apparent in his mannerisms and intelligence than his looks. As a protective measure, he has perfected the art of offending people, with physical innocuousness, primarily as a defensive mechanism.
Philip is awaiting the publication of his second book, “Obidant.” In between all the pressing grandstanding is his girlfriend, Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), who is slowly starting to lose her patience with Philip.
It is not until Philip starts seeing himself in one Ike Zimmerman — an author and variation on Philip himself, who offers him an oasis in which to further cultivate his literal voice — when that acid starts to dissolve their relationship.
Conceptually and emotionally, Moss’ performance— working in coordination with that of Schwartzman’s — is part defensive and part persistent, particularly her strong-willed tenacity of having given Philip as much understanding as she has, which has now gone far beyond the point of acceptable.
She may also be a crinkling foil for Philip, a victim of cause and effect, all because of her boyfriend’s ideals. At her worst, she is the emotional equivalent of a scrunched-up Coke can. What makes her such an emphatically strong presence throughout the film — as much a main character as Philip — is Perry’s dedication to her side of the story.
Her will to undo all those dents Philip has pushed into her inner core is the mark of a strong character, with an arc that bends, curves and stretches to completion. His storytelling here, which only nods at Philip as the main character, favors both parties, both leading a dance of destruction — together and at a far remove — in ways that asks for judgment on the part of the audience.
Perry, from both sides, makes ample use of microscopic, face-rubbing, compositions that reflect the inner and contracted emotional scope of this couple: the narrow outlook of an artist’s ambitions who is so determined to let everything go for the sake of his own art and Ashley’s emotionally mental battles, a source of constant reminders (with an apartment rife with materials written by Philip), of allowing herself to get over Philip.
Comparatively, emotions are held at remote bay in Gillian Robespierre’s first-time effort.
Stirringly funny, scatological, and grossly crass, tipping on the verge of awkwardness and distasteful disaster, the super-daring, foul-mouthed romantic comedy, Obvious Child, proceeds with the cautiousness of a bomb technician, put through one mine field after the other. The best thing about it is that it never explodes.
Its calibrated sense of balance — commendably written and directed by Gillian Robespierre — is nothing short of admirable and fearless, and one of this year’s gems. Expanded from a 23-minute long short, Robespierre’s debut, which premiered at this year’s Sundance, makes no concessions with regard to its subject matter — it simply treats it with naturalistic, hey-we-gotta-deal-with-this matter-of-factness.
Following the life of an eccentric stand-up comedienne, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) — floating through her art in the contemporary comedy scene in Williamsburg, her relationships, friends and family, and personal responsibilities — the story of this modern-day artist is such a rare breed by today’s standards.
Robespierre broaches the issue of abortion her own way, with the actual intention of following through on it to its very logical end, in place of presenting it as an excuse, or a sentimental burden with which to forward this linearly focused plot.
It tackles — with brute force sincerity, forthrightness and simplicity — the sensitivities that surround this particularly politicized, fraught issue, without the unnecessarily shoehorned appendices of polemics. So long as there is a solution, on the part of Donna, her life and creativity is not born anew, but rather engraved with more dimensionality. She is taught as much as she is grown by the end, which becomes additive to her own understanding of herself and her art.
Through Robespierre’s carefully written script — her words, at times wincing and complexly lewd — Donna is the exemplification of a millennial female’s anxiety and headache, mired in urbane ennui, and a creeping sense of womanhood and autonomy that weighs and bears down on her, all set against daunting realizations of independence, only seen in her problems and actions.
Independent and actionable in his own right is Jack O’Connell — as the 19-year-old, troubled young man, Eric Love — who rips apart every scene in Starred Up, David Mackenzie’s fire-breathing prison drama about a father and his son. When he is first seen, he has the impulses of a fully-grown, untamed bull, eagerly waiting to try his horns out, out on the field.
Having graduated to a maximum-security adult prison at such a young age (or “starred up,” in the movie’s parlance), he is lead — with the observant camera at all times placed behind his shoulders — to his cell, housing criminals of all kinds of stripes, including rapists and murderers.
With his unblinking intensity, at times the result of a living waxwork — mentally and physically already armed with the necessities for survival — he stands tall among his fellow inmates, ready to pounce at any opportunity that he is given.
O’Connell, controlled and methodical without edging into Method kitsch, is imposing in a quiet and calm sort of way. With flashes of vulnerably that are missed with the blink of an eye, he is less loudly macho than merely cold and impenetrable. There is history and style in the way he walks through those layered halls of the penitentiary, on his way to his next few walls inside which he is to be locked.
O’Connell makes Eric all the more discomfiting to be around, because of that calmness with which he carries himself. At no point are viewers certain of the safety of his cellmates or guards.
Enter his dad, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn, heatedly mouthy) an even more messed up version himself, who adds, furthers and enlivens the already dysfunctional texture of this relationship, which slowly starts to — through arguments, lashes-to-lashes stares, swears, shouting, facial contortions — take baby-steps towards a bittersweet, upsetting, and sympathetic resolution between two broken halves of the same torn soul. Through the directorial eye of Mackenzie, which bounces in and out of Eric’s cell, from one side of the wing to the other, it is Jonathan Asser’s script — parts of which based on his experiences as a volunteer in a similar situation — that bring domestic compatibility between Eric’s rage and Neville’s simmering tumult, organically bound by their inextricably-linked blood.
Together, they extract the grit and crunch coursing through the strains of this father and his son, with fine-grained, albeit grindingly twisted, accuracy that in the end is moving.
Though not in the same way, two other distant souls are bound by blood in Jim Jarmusch’s nocturnally-intoxicating Only Lovers Left Alive, a lamentation of the absorption of art and culture, which turns an already-overdone, mythological genre into chic, art-house, curio-cool that remains one of this year’s best.
Jarmusch justifies the schematics of his idle, languidly talky and meandering piece, which jumps from the yellowy and twinkly lights of Tangier to the blackened vestiges of what once may have been a city of prosperity and progressivism, Detroit. He uses the story of Adam and Eve (here played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) as a stand-in for his own characters’ infinity.
In between all the symbology, both of them become an illustration of their cities and the times. Adam, a depressed and dour musician, is stuck in the retro past (his appropriately-draped apartment stuffed with all things vintage, from such cultural memorabilia as select guitars to vinyl records) grousing on and on about people as “zombies,” who have all lost touch with reality.
Eve — as pale as a drifting ghost — with her hustling-and-busting vibes, reaches out to Adam. By contrast, though, she has embraced technology, berating, over the digital airwaves, Adam’s antiquity.
Through his screenplay, Jarmusch talks as much about his own misgivings about a misbegotten past as he does to those whose attention he seeks: you and I.
Metaphors, represented as voguish vampirism (eventually getting to a drug-fueled point where their next fix becomes a problem), give way to what Jarmusch sensationalizes as the recklessness evident in rock-star coolness, and the questionable addiction thereof.
By extension — considering the central premise — his dialogue can be rewardingly mature, in ways that are irrefutably personal and informingly welcome, just enough so to brush up against the dangers of didacticism without ever doing so. After all, it tracks the immortality of two well-read jaded vampires — both perhaps as cool as the other, their UV-protecting Wayfarers hugging their faces — who have lived just enough to curate all forms of art to, again, both you and I. That is about as great a reason to be talking to his audience as any.
Jarmusch does never make any grand statements about what matters and what does not. Nor does he announce the undying and vampiric nature his two main characters, so much as he touches on them, extending a hand of invitation that asks for an exploration of a time that time itself may not have been kind to up until now.
Time is both kind and unkind to the titular character Kaguya in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Princess Kaguya, limning watercolor strokes of pure visual vibrancy, works feelings of earthly wonder, Gaian beauty and life itself — painted against the looming enormity of nature — into a broad canvas of delight. Based on the old Japanese folktale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Princess Kaguya is a lovingly made adaptation that immediately carries the heavy sweep of an epic that starts as a children’s picture book, lilting with breathtaking nursery rhymes that become humming reminders of a reminiscent past, before it matures into a devastating parable of the transience of life and the injuriousness felt in the inevitability of separation.
Unlike his better half, Hayao Miyazaki, this Studio Ghibli piece of hand-drawn work, directed by the animator-turned-veteran-turned-magician, Isao Takahata (the co-founder of Ghibli) — who shocked viewers with his seminally somber Grave of the Fireflies — uses minimalism to draw up pictures of such enchanting detail, human emotion and poignant nuance. Through close-ups, characters’ faces flick and twitch with economic transition, some of whom more behaviorally believable than live action footage.
At more than two hours long, Takahata’s film, with all the sounds of a swansong, covers a whole lot of ground. Between the gilded palatial to the up-and-coming pastoral, Kaguya, in this coming-of-age story, ages and grows — at breakneck ticks and speeds — into a patrician woman of nobility, who, in time, comes to realize a memorable past she never had a hand in fully living out.
Throughout these two strands, Takahata alternates between the capital, where Kaguya starts spending more and more time, and the countryside, which becomes a wistfully remembered , lived-in place of heartfelt peace, relational history and nostalgic remembrance.
Takahata, together with his animators, are careful, meticulous and inventive in how they map their efforts to the screen. Specks of emotion are preferred as opposed to bursts of movement, only reserved to one scene where such animation is more impressionistically relevant to Kaguya’s frustrations.
That one scene, which traces Kaguya’s rebelliousness, breaking herself free from her bleeding crimson kimono, racing towards the outer woods — splashed with washes of paint and black ink — is one of soaring ecstasy. She is captured from the side, her gleaming silhouette blotted against scrolling swaths of greenery, its blurring effects rendering her into a speeding vulpine.
Quite simply, it is a fantasia, of humble, human and fantastical scale.
Ivan Locke is perhaps just as human and humble.
Throughout its 85 minutes, there is not a single shot in which Tom Hardy’s professionally put-upon Locke does not appear. Exclusively set in a car, used as a theatrical stage of sorts that makes use of mirroring shots of Hardy’s face and lightning that effectuate the ticks and tacks of his facial emotionality, the spotlight is turned on a family man who finds himself squarely aligned against a dilemma of choice.
Hardy’s one-man show performance augments this actor’s maximalism in the spatially moving, rather than resting, bounds of minimalism.
In Steven Knight’s nightscape, Locke, the many things that happen to him, mainly relayed over phone conversations, are small drops in a large pond of alarming sensitivity, whose many ripples come with far-reaching, life-changing implications that, by the end, become a zero-sum game for Locke.
By that criterion, it is a case study in communication, acted with diplomatic persuasion. By another, it is skeleton-bare, lean filmmaking, with all the needless grafting removed.
Hardy plays a foreman who must oversee the process of a large concrete pour in Birmingham. He commands the audiences’ attention, in hushed, recoiled terms, with a façade that could crack at any moment’s time.
Knight (as screenwriter), with directorial, theatrical and gripping aplomb, deconstructs the urban and contemporary working man’s duties in balancing the spinning plates of life: a wife, who is awaiting Locke’s arrival and a son, who is expecting his dad to get home in time for an important soccer game he cannot stop talking about passionately (family); his many coworkers, who are all instructed, over the phone, with different results, about the pour (work); a woman, who seeks his sympathies in her time of need (circumstance).
At times, for Knight, the movie comes off as a daring excuse to make pictures move. But he puts to trial the limitations of his flair for storytelling. He uses the car as a staging ground from which, and through which, all forms of communication are hurriedly dispatched (with Hardy-like abandon), angrily delivered, and understatedly processed.
It makes for an encouraging movie that, on paper, comes off as boringly threadbare. But — the part that makes Locke such a great, cinematic achievement — it is exactly that boredom from which Knight lifts conflict, stakes and human profundity.
A more subdued conflict is grown from within the labyrinths of Denis Villeneuve’s surreally charged Enemy — dotted with breadcrumbs of mysticism — which blazes, flashes red, and crackles before it gets entirely overcharged to the point of cinematically jolting and misleading. With those signposts, spread out over a generous running time of 90 minutes, Villeneuve shows resolute patience and enough restraint in his compositions to let the images of Nicolas Bolduc’s atmospheric cinematography instill an itsy bitsy vibe of spindly disquietude.
Adapted from José Saramago’s novel, “The Double” (not to be confused with this year’s The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg) the end product is arachnid, dreamlike, and somnolently tuned out, the lens coated with Bolduc’s sickening sallow hues of pathological discomfort that weightily waft through this alien version of Toronto, where college professor Adam Bell confronts his own issues of identity.
Emerging is a slow burn, psychological thriller of uncertainly that grips this expansive, yet desolate, Toronto, with just enough breathing room for brief snippets of nightmarish imagery to shine through, highlighted by dreamy and invasive establishing shots, observing a poisonous skyline right out of Louise Bourgeois’ mind.
The few knotted plotlines, held inside an unbreakable cocoon, lead to this year’s most oppressively, quietly horrifying, and most harrowing shot in cinema that still, 10 months later, just boggles the brain in ways that hijack any measure of understanding.
What can be gathered from this is that Villeneuve is not one to spell his ideas out, or foreground them in obvious terms. Without overstaying his welcome, his film, following a traditionally linear story, incorporates conventionality, bent by scenes out of the ordinary, resulting in a cocktail of something with a little bit of both. Repetition and the circulating of dialogue underline the fact that something is amiss, yet we are in it at all times.
In the film, the lines between reality and the unreal are blurred, with everything previously seen catching up to the real present.
His camera, here, operates in effective sequence, further drawing attention to abstract scenes that are — subtly and cleverly — tucked with symbolism that loop back to allusions of ambiguity that the film, itself, will soon be infected by.