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2014: The Masterpieces

Another year gone, and good riddance. 2014 may not have been quite as bad as that godawful 2013, but I’m still quite glad to be rid of this year as we all move on to (hopefully) greener pastures. But first, it’s that unfortunate time of year when we look back at the highlights and failures of our latest trip around the sun.

In previous years, my Year in Review articles have been comprised of Top Ten lists, like most critics write. But this year, I’d like to try and get a little more creative. Though my articles will still be roughly divided into my usual “Masterpieces,” “Disappointments,” and “Wild Rides” lists, my selections will not be ranked.

No, I’m giving out “awards” this year. I’ve devised a list of 24 “categories” (8 in each list) for the films of 2014. The viable candidates will be listed and I’ll try to make a case for why I’ve selected one of them to be the “winner.”

Owing to the changed format, I’ve slightly modified my usual Year in Review rules. This year, they are as follows:

1. The only films considered will be those that I’ve personally seen and reviewed. So many great ones passed me by this year, as always. I dearly wish that I could’ve gotten around to We Are the Best!Trust MeThe CongressI OriginsBlue RuinEnemyHoneymoon, Force MajeurePredestinationThe One That I Love, Knights of BadassdomDear White People, and a whole bunch of others, but alas, this is only a one-man operation and I only have one set of eyeballs.

Also, I deeply regret that movies like SelmaA Most Violent Year, Inherent Vice, and American Sniper will not be included. Though they are technically 2014 movies (due to a limited release in December 2014, just enough to merit Oscar consideration), they will not see wide release until later in January (when there’s much less competition in cineplexes). This whole awards campaigning loophole bullshit gets worse every year and I’ve already bothered with it as much as I’d care to.

2a. Movies released before 2014 are disqualified. It kills me that SnowpiercerThe Lunchbox, and Dom Hemingway aren’t up for consideration, but they were all released overseas in 2013, which makes them 2013 films.

2b. Festival screenings in 2013 don’t count. It’s a proven fact that movies can change in editing between festival screenings and theatrical distribution. So anytime a movie is shown at a festival before a full or limited release, I give the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a work in progress.

3. Only one award per movie, and only one movie per award. I don’t want any tied wins because that’s lazy, and I don’t want any one film to win everything because that’s boring.

We begin with the “Masterpieces,” by which I mean “the films most deserving to be remembered as classics by future generations.” These are the works of cinematic art that show excellence in filmmaking craft, pushing boundaries by way of ambition, creativity, and intelligence. Let’s start with something easy…

Best Light Drama

There were a lot of good ones this year. We got the Latin-infused, mouth-watering goodness of Chef, as well as the poignant and humorous The Skeleton Twins. Hell, even the underrated Draft Day is worthy of consideration. But really, who am I even trying to kid?

I didn’t like The Grand Budapest Hotel as much as most other critics, but that’s only because I know that Wes Anderson can do much better. Sorry, but I personally think that his colorful, meticulously handmade “dollhouse” style is better-suited for a more straightforward “fairy tale” kind of story, like The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Moonrise Kingdom. Even so, there’s no denying that this is a very funny movie with some beautifully sweet moments. Also, every single member of this cast turns in an exceptional performance, down to the last hilarious cameo. And of course, the attention to detail is staggering. Purely in terms of visual quality, this has to be the best-constructed movie of the year. That should definitely be worth some recognition, at least.

Best Dramatic Romance

There were two dramatic romances that thoroughly dominated pop culture in 2014. One of them was Gone Girl, though its status as a “romance” is dubious at best. The other was The Fault in Our Stars, even though that movie never kicked into gear until its third act.

This award goes instead to Only Lovers Left Alive, a gleefully macabre vampire romance that’s superbly written, very creatively directed, and offers the year’s greatest onscreen couple by way of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. It’s an extraordinary piece of cinematic art that somehow brought new life to a genre as tired as vampire movies, which is a noteworthy accomplishment in itself.

Best Crime Drama

Again, Gone Girl is a very popular choice for this one, though The Drop is another exceptional crime drama released in 2014. Most people would pick either one of these, and for very good reason. But then, most people haven’t seen Starred Up.

Here we have a prison drama centered around a terribly dysfunctional, powerfully acted, incredibly poignant relationship between a father/son pair of inmates. It also works as a movie that’s frightfully immersive, displaying every aspect of prison life in painstaking detail to show how modern prisons are failing to help criminals. It’s a fascinating coming-of-age story, wrapped around the question of whether prisons should work to educate and reform convicts or merely keep them caged like animals. This movie works on so many levels and it’s a damn shame that it hasn’t gotten more recognition.

Best War/Political Drama

Any discussion of war movies in 2014 must address Fury, though I personally thought that the movie was too dark and gritty for its own good. The Imitation Game was much closer to my tastes, full of whip-smart dialogue with great performances and somewhat relevant social commentary, but the whole film had such a tired feel to it. I’m sick to death of WWII films, especially since we have a war or two going on right now to learn so much from. Enter A Most Wanted Man.

The entire film seems to be an ode to complexity. The twisting touch-and-go plot reflects our modern world of ambiguous morals and uncertain allegiances, where problems have to be solved with patience and creativity rather than brute force. Every single performance is masterful, the plot is complex without ever being incomprehensible, and the messages about our post-9/11 world are potent. Great stuff.

Best Tragedy

Again, Fury deserves a mention and again loses to a more deserving film. In this case, it’s Calvary, the incredibly potent film with a wide variety of statements about death, forgiveness, aging, and religion, all wrapped around a neat little whodunit. Brendan Gleeson leads a superlative cast, and every frame of this movie is visually striking. Everything about this movie — from the very first line of the script to the heartbreaking final montage — is guaranteed to land like a punch to the gut.

Best Mindfuck

To clarify: By “mindfuck,” I mean a movie that uses confusing or psychedelic imagery to make some mind-blowing artistic statement. A fine example from 2014 would be The Zero Theorem, though the description would also apply to just about anything else from Terry Gilliam’s filmography. Personally, however, I was much more fond of Coherence, the no-budget sci-fi horror that turns quantum physics on its ear.

Yet both of these bow before Under the Skin, which used bewildering imagery toward making an array of remarkably novel comments about the human condition. Pain, death, sexuality, happiness, compassion, greed, loneliness… Really, just about anything that has to do with being human is on the table with this movie. And it’s being explored through the alien eyes of Scarlett Johansson in the performance of her lifetime, with the most trippy visuals I’ve seen since The Tree of Life. I won’t pretend to understand all of what was being shown, but I know it was amazing to watch.

Best Star Vehicle

Under the Skin would be a solid contender for this one, since the entire film revolves around Scarlett Johansson  and her performance, but that film already has an award. Wild is another good candidate, made expressly as a vehicle for Reese Witherspoon’s talents, even though it suffered from a few script deficiencies. Locke is a far stronger contender, featuring a powerhouse turn from Tom Hardy and some jaw-dropping visuals, which is especially impressive considering the limitations of a movie set entirely inside a car.

But of course, the clear winner for this one is Nightcrawler, which featured Jake Gyllenhaal giving the Best Lead Actor performance of the year. Louis Bloom is a fascinating character who works as a horrifying parody of modern capitalism and news media, deconstructing the American Dream by showing how only a sociopath could still believe it, much less achieve it. Though the movie features stunning visuals and a stellar supporting cast, this is very much Gyllenhaal’s show and he crushes it.

Best Masterpiece

We come at last to the best in show. Which film is truly the greatest picture of the year? Some would say Birdman, which is indeed a fine movie superbly presented. But so much of it rests on a foundation of elitist “high art/low art” bullshit that still grates my nerves. No, that was never going to be my top pick. I almost hate to say it, but I knew I had my top pick selected the moment I first saw it.

And of course it’s fucking Boyhood. I know it’s already a cliche pick at this point, but for damn good reason.

Purely in terms of ambition, effort, and creativity, it’s hard to top a film that took twelve summers to make. Yet this movie is so much more than its central gimmick. It’s a compelling, heartwrenching, uplifting story about all the different phases of growing up. The characters and their development arcs are all so fascinating that there will most assuredly be something in this movie that will stay for a very long time with everyone who watches it. And of course, it helps that director Richard Linklater and his cast are impeccably on point, with Patricia Arquette giving the best performance I saw all year.

It’s such a rare pleasure to see a film so great that it allows me to use all the superlatives and hyperbole I want and feel justified in doing so. Boyhood is that good, and that’s why I’m calling it the year’s best.

Come back tomorrow for the Disappointments list!

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