10) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)
We've all seen the movie where the hardened convict, after a battle of wills with an authority figure, finally comes to the end of his defiance and begins to soften. The apotheosis of this trope is represented by the much-maligned "It's not your fault" scene from Good Will Hunting, but it's subverted in Starred Up, which has no illusions about the UK's prison system or the people enmeshed in it. It takes its title from the situation of its protagonist, a teenage felon who has been "starred up" from juvenile detention to an adult prison. Eric (Jack O'Connell) has known nothing but the punishment of the state for his entire life, with an arrest record stretching back to puberty and a prison-lifer for a father. He's no innocent waif either, as likely to beat a fellow convict half to death as he is to bum a smoke from him. Eric's aggression is scary but also understandable—caught in the gears of a system that is just as scary, he almost has no choice but to shape himself to fit his environs. That "almost" is a possible ray of light, as he is put into a counseling group with the goal of teaching him to manage his savagery. But the walls of prison are thick, and the cracks that let those rays of light in are hard to find and even harder to keep open.
9) Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
Look into the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler, and behold the thousand-yard stare of America's rat race, circa 2014. With his neverending stream of business-world platitudes and job-interview chutzpah, Bloom embodies the capitalistic drive to succeed in its purest form. The effect is creepy, not only because of Bloom's gaunt, hungry face but also because he simply takes the lessons of life coaches and business gurus to their logical conclusion. If the end goal of life is to know what you want and pursue it with everything you've got, then why not do as Louis Bloom does? As a "nightcrawler" (a paparazzo who prowls the nighttime streets for violent crime footage to sell to morning-news TV shows), Bloom wants the best news footage possible—even if that means tampering with car-accident bodies or letting an assault run its course in order to film the aftermath. No longer bound by the restrictions of propriety or compassion, Bloom is finally free to ascend to great heights. He is animated solely by an inhuman diligence. He is an amoral Pinocchio, a marionette whose strings have been cut but who feels no desire to become a real boy.
8) Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
When I try to articulate what makes most of Richard Linklater's films so good, the temptation is to talk about them as if they are earth-shaking, medium-defining cinematic events. Well-intentioned hyperbole is an easy shortcut for conveying a film's quality, but it's an ill fit for Linklater. He doesn't ask big questions or suggest big answers—his characters do, but Linklater doesn't. He's more interested in the behavior and life rhythms of his characters; the armchair philosophizing is merely a phenomenon of those things.
Boyhood isn't Linklater's best film, but it's the best at embodying this quintessentially Linklater-esque vision of life: a succession of moments that are cumulative rather than linear. Few, if any, people remember childhood as a straight line leading from infanthood to maturity. We are far more likely to remember snatches of time that seemed undistinguished in the moment, yet ended up snagging on some crag inside our heads and sticking there. Those snatches of experience accumulate into a unique, if ramshackle, personal history.
In the end, that is what Boyhood is about—not childhood but rather time. Linklater isn't making a biography of young Mason Jr.—he's creating a filmic representation of over a decade of life. It is remarkable that Linklater spent twelve years recording a boy as he grew up, but it's even more remarkable that he was able to depict those twelve years in a way that feels true both to the character and to the way we all experience life and memory. After all, Mason is not the only character who ages twelve years during the film. Boyhood, to paraphrase Whitman, contains multitudes.
7) Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Aydin, the protagonist of Winter Sleep, is many things—a former stage actor, a hotel manager, a self-styled intellectual—but his primary occupation seems to be as a pharisee. Utterly convinced of his own rectitude, Aydin doesn't even need religion in order to browbeat everyone around him. His wife, his sister, his devout Muslim tenants—all of them struggle not to be ground up in the gears of his picayune arguments. (In internet parlance, he's an inveterate sea lion.) As winter sets in around the countryside hotel Aydin owns, his friends and family find themselves trapped indoors with him; and as the old proverb has it, it's better to live in the attic than in a house with a quarrelsome person.
Just as Richard Linklater does, Nuri Bilge Ceylan allows their conversations to unspool at length, a technique that adds fine shading to his characters while also making us keenly aware of the story's temporal breadth—the passage of time becomes a part of the film's texture. Winter Sleep is a conversation epic in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy epic. With the help of Gokhan Tiryaki's painterly cinematography, Ceylan maps out the contours of Aydin's personality and relationships with the same expansiveness as Peter Jackson's exploration of Middle-earth. The possibility of redemption for Aydin is present yet slim. His pedantry and self-righteousness isolate him spiritually from other people, but he may be too blinkered by those traits to step out of his self-made prison. Echoing Milton's Lucifer, Aydin says, "My kingdom may be small, but at least I'm the king there."
6) Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
You could be forgiven for assuming that the vampire genre had been sucked dry by YA angst and Anne Rice's undead-'n'-ennui stories. Vampires haven't enjoyed being vampires for some time now, it seems. Thank goodness we have Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive to revitalize the creatures for us. Jarmusch gives his vampires a good reason to be bummed out (vampires are going extinct thanks to the fact that their only food source—human blood—is becoming irrevocably polluted by unnatural chemicals), but he also gives them a good reason to enjoy their undying state (they have all the time in the world to savor humanity's greatest artistic achievements throughout the generations). Almost everything dies—a theme that Jarmusch underscores by setting the film in the urban decay of once-mighty Detroit—but true immortality can be found through art. If this is true, then Jarmusch has a long life ahead of him thanks to films like this one.
5) Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)
To my mind, the most interesting aspect of stories about aliens is not the idea that their technologies, languages, and bodies are different from ours, but rather the idea that their inner lives are completely unfathomable to a human mind. In the end, the gap between our two species may be unbridgeable. Scarlett Johansson's alien in Under the Skin is no Star Trek humanoid just aching to know what makes Earthlings tick—she is wholly Other. Director Jonathan Glazer miraculously finds a cinematic language to match, using image and sound in ways that flirt with abstraction in order to create the impression of an otherworldly consciousness dispassionately observing its surroundings. The alien's reactions to having a human body and existing in proximity with other humans are as fascinating as they are (frequently) horrifying. By presenting such things to us without making any effort to explicate them, Glazer manages to reveal facets of humanity unglimpsed by even the most psychologically realistic character studies. In his hands, the maxim "show, don't tell" reveals itself as an incredibly muscular philosophy. By the end, as Johansson's character finds herself shocked and confused at what is happening within and around her, the audience is right there with her, sharing in her bewilderment.
4) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
The well-worn criticism of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is that it derails once it leaves behind the boot camp and R. Lee Ermey's abusive drill sergeant. As the argument has it, the meat of Kubrick's film lies not in its Vietnam War sequences but in its portrayal of how people can be broken down and rebuilt into beings who exist to do one thing and do it well. I happen to think that Full Metal Jacket is strong all the way through, but naysayers can rejoice that their prince has finally come, in the form of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. The character of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who should already have a spot cleared on his mantle for an Oscar statuette) is Ermey's drill sergeant transplanted to an elite New York music school and determined to produce jazz prodigies instead of soldiers. Fletcher's ornate profanity and psychological cruelty are both amusing and frightening to witness, and his tactics become even more disturbing when they actually start to work on his student Andrew (Miles Teller), an ambitious young drummer. Fletcher wants to produce greatness at any cost, and Andrew wants to become great at any cost: a match made in hell.
Whiplash achieves its own greatness by making Andrew's ascent as thrilling as it is unnerving. Fletcher's and Andrew's obsessions are deeply damaging to themselves and others, but they still produce great music as a result. They wouldn't be obsessed if their sought-after prize weren't so great. Chazelle isn't ashamed to let us enjoy the fruits of their screwed-up relationship, which creates a meaningful tension. We know of the darkness that underlies their partnership; can we still bear that in mind when their climactic concert is overpowering us with the exhilaration of sound, image, and editing? Chazelle isn't shy about unleashing the full potency of cinema on us in order to make us ask how much power we should allow art over our lives.
3) Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)
It's not really a secret that people of faith often struggle with doubt, pettiness, and plain old sin, but these days it's surprisingly rare to encounter films that take both the faith and the struggle seriously. This is one of the reasons why Calvary is such a treasure. The protagonist, Father James, does not always turn the other cheek or offer life-changing counsel to his parishioners; but he tries, dammit, and he doesn't buckle under the weight of his failures or his neighbors' scorn.
Those neighbors are the second reason Calvary is great. John Michael McDonagh doesn't shrink from the prospect of sketching out unrepentant human depravity in all its forms: the murderer, the adulterer, the sneering atheist, the prideful rich. And then there's the central sin that sets the plot's machinery in motion—molested as a child by a priest, a man promises to kill Father James in retribution. Father James has done nothing to warrant the death sentence, but isn't that the essence of the sacrifice to which the film's title refers? Humans do horrible things, often laughing as they do so; an innocent person offers his own life in recompense. McDonagh's depiction of the situation is colorful, sardonic, and ultimately beautiful. People of faith, offer a prayer of thanks that a film like this one exists.
2) Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Visually, Ida is preposterously gorgeous. The last time a black-and-white film was this perfectly shot, I was putting The Turin Horse on my best-of-2012 list. Entire essays could be written about the cinematography, but let's stick with just Pawel Pawlikowski's shot composition for now. He consistently frames shots (see above) so that his protagonist, Ida, is surrounded by negative space. Our eyes are drawn to this space, seemingly empty and yet churning with all sorts of intangibles—Poland's World War II history, the silent presence of God, and above all the inner thoughts of the characters. Ida, an orphan and Catholic novitiate who learns of her Jewish heritage near the beginning of the film, is an enigma; in black-and-white, her dark eyes might as well be opaque. But with every shot that confines her face to one-fourth of the frame while the remaining three-fourths remain conspicuously empty, the film creates the strong impression of her churning thoughts as she tries to come to terms with the deep rift between her adopted Christian identity and her inherited Jewish identity. Pawlikowski doesn't elucidate these enigmas for us. Whatever fills the silences and negative spaces in his film remains a mystery. The mystery is the point.
1) The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
From my write-up in the CAPC 25:
"[Wes] Anderson sprinkles the film with standout shots and sequences throughout its running time, of course—a single black-and-white scene toward the end moved me more than anything else in his filmography. But the film is a symphony, not a series of solos. Everything harmonizes—the luscious cinematography and immaculate production design combine to create a setting that is half storybook, half history. This is the perfect tone to set for the film, in which the aging proprietor of the titular hotel tells a writer about how he came of age as its lobby boy. Most of us remember formative periods in our lives as some combination of actual fact and embellished perception. Anderson’s signature stylization fits this story like a lavender glove."
As someone who is left cold by Anderson's films about as often as I am galvanized by them, I was caught off guard by how much I loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. It may be that I'm just a sucker for films that stand at the threshold to the future while looking over their shoulder at the past. Events that are over, people who are gone, and memories that are fading—they all cluster in the distance, waving their handkerchiefs as we are borne forward into the times that await us. There's beauty and happiness in looking back at these things, but grief is intermingled also. On earth, we gain things only to lose them eventually, something that Wes Anderson's latest film understands instinctively and depicts with the utmost warmth. It warms me to watch it.