And those are certainly not the only much movies I missed this year. Other big blind spots right now include Bong Jun-hoo's "Snowpiercer," Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Justin Simien's "Dear White People," Lenny Abramson's "Frank," and J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year." There are also any number number of foreign films I have yet to see, most notably Ruben Östlund's "Force Majeure."
So this is certainly not meant to be any sort of comprehensive "BEST OF" 2014 list. Like usual, these are simply the films I did see that stuck with me the most.
In ascending order:
10. "Nightcrawler" (Dan Gilroy)
Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom — an edge-of-society looser who finds his true calling as a tabloid videographer in the "if it bleeds, it leads" Los Angeles media market — is perhaps the most terrifying (and, paradoxically, the most hilarious) onscreen sociopath since Patrick Bateman. Like "American Psycho" before it, "Nightcrawler" is a truly nasty piece of work. It's at once desperately funny and perfectly skin-crawling.
"The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you, Lou...is to think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut," explains equally depraved morning television host Nina Romina (Rene Russo). That should give you a pretty good idea of where this film is coming from.
9. "Selma" (Ava DuVernay)
at length about DuVernay's superlative portrait of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, so I won't go into too much more detail here. All I'll say is that the film's shocking exclusion from this year's Oscars is going to go down in history as one of the most jaw-dropping fuckups in the history of the Academy.
8. "Blue Ruin" (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier's black-as-pitch indie "Blue Ruin" doesn't exactly reinvent the revenge-movie wheel. But it's a stark, gorgeously shot (on a shoestring budget) film that features one of the most compelling main characters I've seen in quite a long time. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a singularly damaged individual. A near-mute mass of seething rage, he is as frightening as he is sympathetic as he executes some ill-planned vengeance upon the man he believes murdered his parents.
Saulnier's at-times stiff dialogue doesn't do his star any favors, but Blair manages to make a lot out of very little to work with. In his hands, Dwight becomes much more than a dangerously violent and unpredictable misfit. It's as heart-wrenching a portrait of jagged, existential pain as I can remember.
7. "Guardians of the Galaxy" (James Gunn)
6. "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" (Ned Benson)
The grim subject matter — the dissolution of a marriage following the sudden death of a child – may be a turnoff for some. But Benson's assured script and direction, as well as two stunning and empathetic performances by Jessica Chastain and James MacAvoy (along with solid supporting turns from Viola Davis, Bill Hader, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, and Ciarán Hinds), make it worth a watch. It's a deeply moving and cathartic film, with as much hope as there is despair. It marks Benson as a filmmaker to watch.
5. "The Rover" (David Michôd)
To be fair, it is an incredibly bleak film. So bleak that even I — a guy who counts "Jacob's Ladder," "Apocalypse Now" and "Taxi Driver" amongst his very favorite films — kind of recoiled a little from it. And Pattinson's performance does take a little getting used to. But once you give yourself over to the film, it's an experience like no other.
Australian director Michôd burst onto the scene with 2010's gritty crime drama "Animal Kingdom," and he ups the ante significantly with the sun-blasted nightmare that is "The Rover." It's "The Road Warrior" as the story would probably look if that scenario happened for real — brutal, pointless, and absolutely no fun whatsoever. And I mean that as a compliment. The total nihilism of this film is stark, harrowing and 100 percent by design.
This isn't a film for everyone. But if you like your amorally violent apocalyptic road movies to be liberally infused with a nauseating sense of profound dread, you might want to give it a shot.
4. "The Babadook" (Jennifer Kent)
reviewed Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" a few weeks back. The only thing I'll add here is that this movie still freaks me out. I don't scare easily, but the film has made it legitimately hard for me to sleep with the lights off. And every time my furnace or water heater makes a noise in the middle of the night, I find myself wanting to cry.
3. "Obvious Child" (Gillian Robespierre)
"Obvious Child" centers on Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a standout performance), a potty-mouthed standup comic in Brooklyn who gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand and decides to have an abortion. If this sounds like a movie trying its hardest to be edgy, take a closer look. The film has a soft heart at its core, and it's ultimately more about a young, somewhat out-of-control woman trying to find her way than it is a partisan screed on a hot button political issue.
Robespierre and Slate manage to infuse the movie with a joke-a-minute patter while still keeping it firmly grounded in reality. Visually, the film is a little rough around the edges, but that only adds to the sense of verisimilitude.
And it's fucking funny. Slate is comic gold, but she proves here that she can anchor the dramatic moments just as confidently as she can deliver a good pee-fart joke.
2. "Whiplash" (Damien Chazelle)
I finally got a chance to see "Whiplash" just the other night (it's what I was waiting for before putting together this list). Holy shit. This is as intense a movie as I've seen in years. It's a film about an upscale jazz conservatory that unfolds like torture porn. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
"Whiplash" succeeds brilliantly where — to my mind — Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" utterly failed. Both films deal with similar themes, but where Aronofsky lost himself in all the pseudo-Lynchian visual babble and faux-Cronenbergian body horror, Chazelle keeps his film solidly on point. He gives us a cruelly rendered dissection of the destructive but symbiotic relationship between an aspiring jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), and his abusive teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in the role we all knew he was born to play since we first saw him way back when on "Oz").
This movie will cut pretty close to the bone for anyone out there involved in any sort of creative pursuit. The vulnerability created by Andrew's need for perfection opens him up to Fletcher's manipulations and torments, and as the story progresses it is as gripping and stomach-churning as any Hitchcockian thriller. But just as soon as you think you know where this movie is going, it takes a wild left turn that feels at once absurd and completely real.
Teller is great here, but the movie belongs to Simmons. It's one of those tour-de-force performances that every actor dreams of and so few ever have the chance to do. Simmons makes the most of it, and then some.
1. "Inherent Vice" (Paul Thomas Anderson)
wrote about Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" along with "Selma" about a week ago. I still haven't come any closer to figuring the movie out. But I simply don't care. I fell for Anderson's wacko vision hook, line and sinker. Even now, just thinking about it sends me into paroxysms of absolute joy. As far as I'm concerned, this is the year's one true masterpiece.
I appear to be in the minority on this film, so take this recommendation with a grain of salt. But if I had to save any of these films from the ravages of the upcoming apocalypse, this would be the one.
The Lego Movie
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Happy Valley (documentary)
Mistaken For Strangers (documentary)
Bonus: Biggest Disappointment — "Gone Girl" (David Fincher)
This film was ultimately a victim of too-high expectations for me. David Fincher is probably my favorite living director, and I absolutely loved Gillian Flynn's original novel. There's no denying that their combined efforts brought about a respectable adaptation. But the movie is just missing something essential, and I have a hard time looking back on it and not dwelling on the things that didn't quite work for me. Ultimately, Fincher's austere style just doesn't live up to the crackle of Flynn's prose, and neither Nick (Ben Affleck) nor Amy (Rosamund Pike) really came alive for me on the screen the way they did on the page. It's like watching a story I love being performed behind a pane of dirty glass.
I certainly wouldn't say to skip the movie. But do yourself a favor and read the book first. Don't deprive yourself of that gift.