Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”
Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s portrait of the artist as a young man. Shot over twelve years with the same cast, it follows Texas kid Mason, who ages from six to eighteen as both he and the actor playing him mature before our eyes. No film I’ve seen has so humbly toed the line between fact and fiction, between character and performer, between screenplay and real-life. As his childhood years are conveyed in a succession of small formative moments, Mason splits time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), who we watch change as well, physically and emotionally. In that way, Boyhood suggests that growing up is a process that occurs everyday and lasts a lifetime.
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
Jim Jarmusch’s far-out hipster cinema takes an appropriately supernatural turn with Only Lovers Left Alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old vampire lovers who hang around Detroit in an abandoned house that evokes Dracula’s castle. The demon-rock score is like haunted heaven; the actors are brilliantly droll; the art direction transforms rows of condemned auto plants into a gothic wonderland. In a canny metaphor for the lethargic routine of a junkie lifestyle, the two crave blood and then spin into satisfied ecstasy once they consume it. More than anything, Only Lovers Left Alive is a great love story about how intellectual unity can transcend an eternity of tedium.
In the tradition of post-war art cinema, Ida is a devastating drama about confronting the hidden horrors of World War II. In sixties Poland, an orphaned nun leaves the convent days before her solemn vows to learn how her parents perished during the war. In artful black and white, the cinematography is beautifully symbolic, as subjects sink down to the bottom of the frame, crushed under the weight of history above. The heroine and her dejected aunt, a Holocaust survivor who now ironically works as a Soviet bureaucrat, literally unearth and reinter family skeletons. But Ida isn’t interested in resolutions, rather the painful ambivalence of coping with the past or choosing to ignore it.
Like most noteworthy Russian art, Leviathan is a magnificent bummer. A mechanic in a seaside village enlists an army friend, a Moscow lawyer, to help stop the mayor from seizing his property. He’s unaware, however, how helpless he is before the larger familial, legal and spiritual powers at work. First keeping its distance, the film then surreptitiously pulls you in, until eventually the troubled faces become unshakeable. The title makes dual allusions—to both the biblical sea-monster described in Job and Thomas Hobbes’ book on the freedoms we sacrifice for protective government. Hence Leviathan shows how Russia’s corrupt church and state collude to steamroll everyday people, one hand washing the other.
5. Under The Skin
Jonathon Glazer’s Under The Skin is the rare sci-fi horror film with the philosophical heft of early Cronenberg. Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial spider-woman who drives around Scotland luring Johns to their dooms and harvesting their tissue for unspecified purposes. With a disregard for exposition the story unfolds like a microscope over a virus coming into progressively clearer focus. The indelible images cast a trippy variegation of colored filters, and the hypnotic score features the scratchy strings of The Shining. By the end, Under The Skin’s chief concern is the discovery of self, which it suggests could mean the distinction between bestial indifference and human empathy.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s dollhouse filmmaking has never felt as rich and melancholy as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The central farce recalls Lubitsch: in Europe, between world wars, a smarmy concierge vies to recover a valuable painting he inherited from a deceased crone. That plot, however, is merely a nesting doll within a more substantial epic. The caper occurs under the looming cloud of war, and the persecutory hand of Fascism appears often. Like most Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel has plenty of deadpan whimsy, but what resonates is its underlying tragedy of love found and inevitably lost, of nostalgia and regret, of lives swept up in the unstoppable flow of history.
7. Mr. Turner
As British Romantic-era landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Timothy Spall communicates more through gurgles and grunts than most actors can doing Shakespeare. In Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh’s eloquent biopic, the subject is a revered master but also a cad who ignored his wife, shacked-up with an Irish widow, and abused the servant woman who loved him. Spectacular photography illustrates how pictures made it from his private perception to the gallery wall. But most poetically the film depicts how he became an overnight laughingstock for experimenting with abstraction centuries before it was acceptable. Mr. Turner concerns a complicated man whose genius was both his legacy and downfall.
Great art often emerges from toxic situations. In Whiplash, a young Jazz drummer at a prestigious New York conservatory butts heads with his martinet instructor. The teacher (played with terrifying vigor by character-actor J.K. Simmons) hurls both insults and objects while the pupil counters with impregnable ambition. Like the Black Swan of band movies (minus the hallucinatory nonsense), the film demonstrates what an artist sacrifices for his art. But the showstopper finale, as the editing assumes the thrilling tempo of the music, channels the freeing rhapsodic spirit of Jazz itself. Thus Whiplash ultimately insinuates that greatness is borne from the synergy of all inspirational forces, positive and negative.
9. Night Moves
Who knew such a suspenseful thriller could come from Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic, understated direction? Night Moves follows a trio of environmental terrorists (Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, in my favorite male performance of the year) as they plan and execute the bombing of a hydro-electrical dam in Oregon. The centerpiece crime unfolds so patiently it’s harrowing; the characters reveal their true selves only once the heat of exposure surrounds them like homemade napalm. Even before the ambiguous conclusion, Night Moves proves a captivating study of impotence, or the combustible frustration wrought by repressed sex and an inadequacy to effect change in the world.
10. Force Majeure
Like a great Polanski film, Force Majeure is about the perils of intimacy. A Swedish couple and their two children take a ski-trip to the French Alps, where a natural near-disaster causes a serious rift. The location’s chalk-white placidity and the hypnotic patterns and sounds skiers create as they traverse fleshly groomed runs may put the mind at ease. But like a mountainside before an avalanche, the calm is startling, the silence deafening, and this nuclear family quietly boiling with anger and shame. Force majeure means a term-of-contract wherein parties agree to shed liability after an extraordinary occurrence. This deftly funny, complex film uses that to symbolize the roles men and women expect each other to play.
Honorable Mentions: Locke, The Lunchbox, Venus In Fur, Palo Alto, Nightcrawler