I’m struck by how many titles on my list of best movies of 2014 are about problematic, sometimes deeply unpleasant people. Maybe it was that kind of year — i.e., a terrible one. I don’t need to go into the litany of things that have gone wrong since January, since they’re still boiling forth from our news feeds and digital conversations with malignant force. Are the 24-7 forums of Twitter and Instagram and outraged comment fields a way to meaningfully discuss and ultimately heal? Or is this just the new cage-fighting for a populace wired for combat?
Normally during cultural downturns, people flock to escapist entertainments, and there was enough of that in movie theaters to keep Hollywood afloat — barely. But a look at the 10 highest-grossing movies of the year suggests why even fans are turning cynical: four are based on comic books and two on lines of toys. Six are sequels; seven if you count “Maleficent.” And the studios wonder why more and more people are staying home to dial up movies on demand and watch TV series that do engage our demons.
Bad times bring out the beast in a lot of us, though, and the movies that seemed to me to matter most in 2014 concerned characters who are their own worst enemies or are, at best, unsure and untrusting of the heroism others projected onto them. A scene in Clint Eastwood’s unexpectedly superb “American Sniper” touches on this zeitgeist: a returned Iraqi veteran telling Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) that Kyle is a legend while everything in Cooper’s face suggests that his character knows otherwise.
There are reluctant heroes everywhere in the year’s movies, even up to David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King in “Selma,” a movie whose many virtues and handful of flaws I’m still wrestling with. (For now, it’s neither on my list nor permanently off it.) And there are men — and some women — behaving badly, which is to say they’re recognizably human. Audiences, trained by inclination and studio practice to prefer the good news, can push against such films and protagonists. But in times of stress, it’s interesting to see the pressure points where characters buckle, the better to consider our own weak spots.
So “The Immigrant” retells the American narrative of arrival as a saga of exploitation and endurance, while “Inherent Vice” sees the death of the ’60s as the birth of our era of subterranean malfeasance. “Citizenfour” contends with the surveillance state few of us want to admit has ensnared us, while “Birdman” is a comic nightmare of the fame game run amok.
Then there are the respites, like “Manakamana,” a meditation in documentary form, or the playful, wise “Grand Budapest Hotel,” in which Wes Anderson reminds us that the past was a time of disaster as well — just more stylish and with nicer trains. And what is to me (and many others) the year’s finest film takes several steps back to give us the long view and to reiterate that people are good, people are flawed, people endure. “Boyhood” transcended its gimmick to serve as a life raft of decency in a year that needed it, and maybe it’s not too much to ask whether Richard Linklater can just go on revisiting the life of Mason every year and keep us posted on what he finds. We’ll all need company as we head into the unknown.
In a pop landscape in which we’re sold novelty around the clock, Richard Linklater had the temerity to make poetry from the mundane. All it took was adjusting the lens a bit — bringing us around to the other side of the telescope to witness a kid coming of age across 12 years of filming. “Boyhood” is a major event in the history of the cinema not because it shows us something new but because it breathes fresh meaning into the familiar: life, days, the pains and pleasures of human interaction. Let us pause to thank the movie gods that the director landed on Ellar Coltrane as the 6-year-old to follow through the thickets of adolescence; coincidentally or not, the boy becomes a very specific kind of Linklater man, observant and stubbornly himself. The professional actors surrounding him — Patricia Arquette as Mason’s careworn mother, Ethan Hawke as his feckless father — seem shamed into honesty by Coltrane’s performance. Or is the kid just being himself? It doesn’t matter. There are certain artifacts that let us stand back to appreciate the big picture — time-lapse selfies on the Web, photo essays that show sisters aging, step by step, through the decades. It’s a gimmick and a blessing, one that lets us feel a little like God and a lot more human. With “Boyhood,” the approach blooms into waking life, and the miracle is that Linklater and company appear to be making it up as they go along. As are we all.
The Weinstein Company didn’t exactly throw James Gray’s aching period piece away, but it still took a year after the film’s debut at Cannes 2013 before the film was released with minimal fanfare to a theatrical market that treated it like road kill. Their loss and yours: Marion Cotillard gives her most incandescent performance to date as Ewa, a Polish émigré in New York City at the dawn of the 1920s. Photographed by Darius Khondji in lamplit golds and brooding umbers, the plot follows Ewa’s descent into the theatrical and sexual underworld, with Joaquin Phoenix as her corruptor and Jeremy Renner a possible savior. “The Immigrant” is a straight-up melodrama, unembarrassed and true, and Gray treats Cotillard as a saint out of the silents, with close-ups worthy of Lillian Gish and a final scene that would be one of the heartbreaking glories of any movie year. D.W. Griffith would have understood this movie. So might you if you seek it out on Netflix, the only place it seems to be available. Find the biggest screen you can, turn off the lights, slow down your metabolism, and worship at the church of cinema.
After his last four or five outings, I’d begun the reluctant process of writing Clint Eastwood off as a director. (“Jersey Boys”? Really?) Yet here he is at 84 with one of his very best works, a no-nonsense, clear-eyed warrior’s tale that avoids partisanship or polemics and instead depicts how killing people slowly and unfailingly hollows out a man’s soul. Bradley Cooper, beefy and unaccountably terse, plays Kyle, the late Navy SEAL whose 160 confirmed kills (out of a probable 260) make him the most lethal sniper in Navy history. “American Sniper” honors both Kyle’s sense of duty and the terrible places it takes him, inside and out; as fellow soldiers and his wife (Sienna Miller) come unglued over the years and tours of Iraq, he becomes a totemic figure who would rather be anything else. The climactic firefight in a sandstorm is one of Eastwood’s most brilliant filmmaking moments as well as a precise metaphor for a nation that lost its way in the aftermath of 9/11. In fact, the only thing the movie bobbles is the ending of Chris Kyle’s story -- but to be fair, so did life. (Already playing in NY and LA; opens in Boston Jan. 16.)
Partisan filmmaking at its most electrifying, Laura Poitras’s documentary gives audiences a rare front-row seat at history as it unfolds. Unlike a spotlight hog like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden seems almost perversely banal: a bespectacled wonk who found himself horrified at how compromised our privacy is in an era of international government surveillance and who thought we should know. “Citizenfour” is a paranoid global thriller that takes place in anonymous hotel rooms, Snowden, Poitras, and journalist Glenn Greenwald parsing mountains of NSA documents for publication and shifting uneasily whenever the fire alarm goes off. Primary research as nonfiction suspense, reportage as drama, the movie has to be seen by anyone who bothers to have an opinion on Snowden and his actions. More intriguingly, by baring how thoroughly and closely all of us are watched, “Citizenfour” forces moviegoers to examine how much freedom they think they want, and why.
A lot of young filmmakers delivered first-rate work this year — you could make a solid Top Five from “The Babadook,” “Obvious Child,” “Dear White People,” “Nightcrawler,” and “Blue Ruin” alone — but the second movie from the 29-year-old Damian Chazelle is such a confident stylistic whirlwind that one is tempted to stand back in awe. A power struggle between a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistic conservatory professor (J.K. Simmons, with the charisma of a great villain and the dead eyes of a velociraptor), “Whiplash” is really about the making of a monster, and it’s put across with burnished cinematography, editing that swings like a Lester Young solo, and the sense of a writer-director ecstatically finding his groove. The final scene, a rhythmic frenzy that seems to go on beyond the bounds of propriety or filmmaking sense, is both the final round of the boxing match and the entirety of “Whiplash” in miniature. Chazelle plays his audience like a drum kit, leading us with craft to a moment of pure release and lingering unease.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) seemed to turn a corner for Wes Anderson — it felt whole, sure of itself, and it was a hit — and his first post-“Kingdom” film is buoyed by that fresh poise. A truly generous comedy that takes place in a fictional European country between the wars, “Grand Budapest” throbs with affection for a lost civilization of rich dowagers, purloined paintings, great concierges (Ralph Fiennes in the most gracefully loopy performance of his career), and advancing troops. The central story is nestled within several others, like a Russian doll or a small Slavic city-state, but what might seem like a neurotic tic in an earlier Anderson film seems merely a chance to play, and play well, here. Deeply funny, deeply sad, stuffed with a sardine-tin of actors: Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldlum, Willem Dafoe — who isn’t in this thing? Yet it’s Anderson’s movie every step of the way, a marzipan world whose charm never disguises a sense of loss.
A return for director Mike Leigh to the period genre of “Topsy Turvy,” this initially seems a plotless amble through the second half of a great painter’s life. It may be that the film exists simply to allow the director, with the aid of cinematographer Dick Pope, to re-create the light and atmospherics of J.M.W. Turner’s art on film; ”Mr. Turner” is a visual rapture that needs to be screened on the biggest canvas you can find. But there are mysteries of color and personality here as well. Since Turner’s work, toward the end, approached Abstract Expressionism some 100 years ahead of schedule, there’s a sense of a visionary climbing so far out on a limb that no one else even realizes there’s a tree. Timothy Spall avoids great-artist posturing and plays the painter as the frumptious genius he apparently was; the movie, in its portrait of a bygone society and the men and women in it, is so period-perfect that it’s like peering into another world. More than anything, this movie’s about seeing and trying to convince a disbelieving world of what you’ve seen. (Already playing in NY and LA; opens in Boston Jan. 9.)
By contrast, this is about everything not seen, the deep-ocean currents of paranoia and distrust that began to coalesce at the end of the 1960s and that — the way novelist Thomas Pynchon and director Paul Thomas Anderson see it — we fully live with today. Ostensibly a hippie detective story, with Joaquin Phoenix as a big goofy sheepdog of a gumshoe, “Vice” re-creates 1970 California as the moment when the ’60s turned into the ’80s and no one noticed. Of the bustling rogue’s gallery cast, Josh Brolin’s badass cop is a hoot and Katherine Waterston’s shady lady can haunt you well past the end credits. The entire film floats on a secondary high of pot and supple filmmaking, but in its wayward comic fashion it explores the roots of the dread that courses beneath a film like “Citizenfour” — the notion that while we were chasing cosmic bliss, the ground beneath us was sold and we were part of the deal. It’s a movie to watch twice, if you can; what seems like self-indulgent drift the first time starts making an awful kind of sense on the rebound. (Already playing in NY and LA; opens in Boston Jan. 9.)
The latest film from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab to bend the physics of what we call documentaries is a simple thing in outline. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez anchored a camera to a cable car carrying spiritual pilgrims up a Himalayan mountain and filmed them in uninterrupted nine-minute takes. What sounds like visual wallpaper becomes many things instead: a study of human beings in repose, a photo album of the family of man, an experiment in how we pour meaning and narrative into the blank canvas of a face. It’s a travelogue, too, and more than that, a people-ogue, with guest appearances by Nepalese heavy-metal rockers, American tourists, a silent married couple — are they content or angry with each other? — and a tram full of unlucky goats. A profound and cleansing experience that forces a moviegoer to downshift to the speed of life.
Or: The Actor’s Nightmare restaged on Broadway for a culture in full celebrity overdrive. Poor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), pinned to the wall by his vanishing Hollywood fame and Emmanuel Lubezki’s prowling, single-take camerawork. He’s desperate to mount his silly production of a Raymond Carver story as stage-lights crash down on the cast, his daughter (Emma Stone) sneers, his producer (Zach Galifianakis) stews, a rival (Edward Norton) scandalizes preview audiences, a critic (Lindsay Duncan) sharpens her quill, and the specter of his most celebrated role — a costumed superhero not unlike the one Keaton played back in the ’90s -- stalks his psyche. Director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu drops the philosophical maunderings of his earlier films to create a dazzling stylistic circus out of one man’s midlife meltdown. In the center ring is one of our favorite movie madmen finding his inner demon again and at last.
11. ‘Life Itself’
A documentary love letter to a dear, departed film critic -- Roger Ebert, just about the only one of the species deserving such treatment. (I’m not holding my breath.)
12. ‘Two Days, One Night’
Another wonderful performance by Marion Cotillard, wrenching and real as a factory worker who has a weekend to hold on to her job. The Dardenne brothers strike again.
13. ‘Dear White People’
A frisky, openhearted comedy about the campus racial divide, rough on the edges but written and directed with smarts by Justin Simien. We’ll be hearing more from him.
14. ‘Under the Skin’
Scarlett Johansson had a year of acting riskily, no more so than in her playing of a mysterious alien in Jonathan Glazer’s creepy-as-hell cinematic puzzler.
One man, one car, one 90-minute drive into London, and all the troubles in the world coming through the speakerphone. Not a gimmick but a genuinely suspenseful drama with Tom Hardy in the driver’s seat.
AND MORE : Honorable mentions: ‘The Babadook,’ ‘Blue Ruin,’ ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ ‘Foxcatcher,’ ‘The Homesman,’ ‘Ida,’ ‘Listen Up Philip,’ ‘Love Is Strange,’ ‘Nymphomaniac’ Pts I & II, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘We Are the Best!’
“A Million Ways to Die in the West”
The Year in Arts coverage
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.