by Glenn Lovell
There were more reasons not to go out to the movies than ever before. And that’s what we mostly did in 2014, stayed home ‒ by the millions ‒ choosing to concentrate on quick-turnover DVDs, PPV, streaming Netflix and other online platforms.
Which may account for why the parking lot at a nearby megaplex was eerily vacant. AMC and other chains reported a 50 percent drop in attendance over the first nine months. Especially worrying: Hollywood’s usually reliable target audience, the 12- to 27-year-old set, seemed to have lost interest. It was bound to happen, no? The iPhone/Xbox demographic has never been as nostalgic as we boomers about the “movie-going experience.”
Oh, sure, we occasionally took the bait and queued for “event” pictures, such as “Unbroken” and “Interstellar.” Almost to a one, they underwhelmed. The ragtag space opera “Guardians of the Galaxy” became the summer’s surprise draw; Disney animation and Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Spider-Man joined it on the list of Top 10 money-makers. Also performing well: the rebooted Godzilla and “Planet of the Apes” franchises. They almost made up for such crash-and-burn concoctions as “The Expendables 3” and “Dracula Untold.”
The year’s big movie story was straight out of the Dr. Strangelove-ian ’60s. North Korea threatened nuclear Armageddon in retaliation for Sony Pictures’ rude buddy comedy “The Interview.” Sony and exhibitors folded. The scatological James Franco-Seth Rogan reunion was pulled from first-run houses. No matter. The cineplex’s loss was the digital world’s gain, as the film set new records for Google Play and Xbox Live. (On New Year’s Day, Comcast VOD added the title to its menu.)
No, not what you’d call a memorable year in the dark.
Still, we were able to find a handful of titles to cheer about. Not surprisingly, they were low-budget festival favorites that favored story and character over CG effects. In no particular order, last year’s standouts were:
1. “Snowpiercer.” A mash-up of “Runaway Train” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Like the latter, this dystopian allegory imagines a futureworld in which the haves feed off the have-nots, only now the setting is a “Dune”-inspired bullet train that gives new meaning to “coach” and “first-class.” Directed by South Korea’s Joon-ho Bong.
2. “Nightcrawler.” The best Scorsese film not directed by Scorsese. Jake Gyllenhaal as you’ve never seen him before plays a freelance videographer who will go to any lengths to score the night’s top story, even if it means rearranging a crime scene. Dan Gilroy announced his arrival as a director to watch.
3. “Whiplash.” The anti-“Mr. Holland’s Opus.” An intense pocket drama about a student drummer who falls under the spell of a relentless conservatory conductor. Miles Teller plays the would-be Gene Krupa who literally bleeds for his art, and J.K. Simmons is the tyrannical teacher. Tough to watch but rewarding, especially for Simmons intimidating performance.
Teller, Simmons in “Whiplash”
4. “Birdman.” The scandalously undervalued Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park in this hard-to-categorize dramedy about a onetime box-office champ who, drowning in self-contempt, walked away from a hit franchise, much as Keaton walked away from Batman in 1992. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu (“Amores Perros”) directed and co-wrote the year’s most exhilarating workout, which is, essentially, an ongoing backstage debate between a tormented “artist” and his commercial-hack alter-ego. Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts co-star.
5. “Flamenco Flamenco.” A new film by Spain’s Carlos Saura (“Carmen”) is always an event. One shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”) is doubly so. Saura, 83, continues his love affair with indigenous song and dance (cante, toque, baile and palmas) with this blindingly beautiful mix of performance, Goya tableaux and Brechtian stagecraft.
6. “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater redefined the family/coming-of-age drama by shooting the same cast over a 12-year stretch. Little happens ‒ except a succession of minor crises . Ellar Coltrane plays the main character, from ages six to 18; Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are superb as the loving, soon-to-be-separated parents. If ever a film could be described as a life experience, this is it.
7. “The Homesman.” Tommy Lee Jones brings home the year’s unlikeliest triumph ‒ a grim feminist Western. Jones directed and co-stars in this adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel about a tough spinster (Hilary Swank) and a boozy no-account who take three deranged women by wagon from Nebraska to St. Louis.
8. “The Skeleton Twins.” Don’t be put off by the opening scene ‒ an attempted suicide. This brother-sister reunion comedy co-starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader proved one of the year’s most rewarding entertainments. A bit like “Harold & Maude,” only more heartfelt.
9. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Deadpan fantasist Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) returns with his best looking film yet, a quirky fairy tale-political satire set in the world’s most ornate hotel between the world wars. Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolon play concierge and protégé; Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law make up part of the familiar ensemble.
10. “Life Itself.” Steve James directed this documentary about film critic Roger Ebert’s final days battling disfiguring thyroid cancer. What could have been morbid in the extreme turns out to be a fascinating, life-affirming memoir, a tribute to both Ebert the ultimate fanboy and Ebert the unlikely real-life hero.
Year’s spookiest film: Australia’s “The Babadook”
Year’s most bizarre sci-fi’er: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”
Year’s best vigilante/payback thrillers: “Cold in July” and “In the Blood”
Year’s best import: Sweden’s “Force Majeure”
Year’s biggest disappointments: “The Monuments Men,” “Interstellar” and “Wild”
Lovell, former movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.