Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is inspired by our Best Of Film 2014 list:
What was your favorite movie that didn’t make The A.V. Club’s 2014 Best Of Film list?
I’ve already addressed the exclusion of Tsai Ming-liang’s gut-wrenching Stray Dogs from our aggregate best list. So here’s another one I wish had made the cut: Blue Ruin, a tense and darkly comic study of what happens when a meek, ordinary man tries to play vengeful vigilante. (Short version: It doesn’t go well.) Macon Blair, the film’s terrific unknown star, doesn’t look or sound like the type of person who’d embark on a score-settling rampage, and that’s part of what makes his violent misadventures so gripping: The film turns upends revenge-thriller conventions by following someone seriously ill-equipped to handle the shitstorm he’s created for himself. Unfolding against a beautifully mundane Virginia landscape, and focusing on the fascinating nitty-gritty of outlaw life, Blue Ruin is a new classic of low-budget, high-anxiety genre filmmaking. I expect great things from its director, Jeremy Saulnier, who’s proven he doesn’t need mounds of cash to get hearts racing.
I actually tried to convince Alex—er, “A.A.”—to expand our Best Of list this year just so that we could include John Wick, but, to no avail. However, I’d like to take this time to sing the praises of another smart-dumb action movie that didn’t make our list, and, in fact, ended up getting squeezed out of my own ballot: Luc Besson’s supremely ludicrous Lucy, in which Scarlett Johansson becomes a telekinetic transhuman super-genius after overdosing on a consciousness-expanding synthetic drug. It’s the most energetic work Besson has done since The Fifth Element, chock-full of jokey cutaways, unreal violence, and pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, much of it emanating from the mouth of Morgan Freeman. It’s a lot of fun and I’m not ashamed to say that, in many respects, I preferred it to Under The Skin.
I’ll go to bat for Nightcrawler, the creepy psychological thriller dominated by a crazy-eyed performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Louis Bloom, a job seeker whose intensity and hyper-verbalism imply that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but in a place never before explored on film. The job he finds and eventually masters is crime-scene videographer, an occupation easy to relish if your blindered focus doesn’t take a lot of human emotion into account. It’s a chilling portrayal that never exactly gets scary, but is all the better for it. I wouldn’t call Nightcrawler a great film exactly, but it’s most certainly one of the year’s strangest and most watchable wide releases.
Neighbors wasn’t necessarily the quote-unquote “best” movie I saw in 2014, but it’s the movie I’ve recommended to the most people. For whatever reason, the “town versus gown” battle between Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, and Dave Franco really resonated with me, something that’s especially weird considering I watched it on a plane. It’s just really funny—or really my sense of humor, save the breast milk scene that, well, ugh. It also made me feel totally okay with my desire to eat pizza in bed and just be married and kind of boring for a little bit.
I’ve dropped some hints here and there, so it should come as no surprise that I have an immense amount of admiration for Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child. It’s a smart, straightforward movie that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do. Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacy) go through the motions of a rom-com, but Obvious Child never loses sight of reality and both the leads are so charming and relatable, it’s hard not to resist. While the budding relationship and the impending abortion push the story forward, it’s Donna’s interactions with close friends and family that hold everything together. Donna has plenty of opportunities to give up, but she’s also got an incredible support system to keep her moving forward. Even in brief scenes, the cast (including Gaby Hoffmann, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, and Gabe Liedman) is able to convey the compassion and shared histories between their characters, which makes it clear that Donna needs them in her life in the same way that they do her. It’s a sweet-natured film with an understated message about the importance of human connection that really made me appreciate the people in my own life. Oh, and on top of all of that, it’s hysterical.
Frank would make a good double bill with our No. 16 pick, God Help The Girl: Both tell the stories of musicians eking it out on the margins, singing through their own psychic noise in order to give the world something beautiful and new. Frank also has its basis in the experiences of a cult musician from the U.K., though Chris “Frank Sidebottom” Sievey never commanded a fanatical following like God Help The Girl director-Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. But Sievey did make some willfully weird music, the legacy of which is channeled through Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, which drops an aspiring songwriter (Domhnall Gleeson) into the art-rock collective commanded by the mononymous Frank (Michael Fassbender in a fake head of cartoonish proportions). The film has a bit of a weak finish, but its middle act is spectacular, an unflinching, darkly comic look at the inevitably frustrating process of making truly unique art. That sort of singular expression is the character Frank’s white whale, and though it had one obvious counterpart at the cinema this year, the movie Frank nearly bags its own one-of-a-kind whale.
I haven’t walked away as jazzed by a movie in a long time as I was by Birdman, and that’s not just because of its constantly pounding drum score. Count me on the side of those who believe Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is fully self-implicating in its deconstruction of artistic pretensions, which spares no one—not Michael Keaton’s fallen superhero who’s trying to prove he’s serious with a stodgy Broadway play, not the Barthes-quoting critics licking their chops to take him down, not even the man behind the camera. (The whole movie can be summed up in two double-edged monologues: Keaton’s defensive, yet clearly deluded rebuke to an equally self-important theater reviewer; and Emma Stone’s show-stopping “You don’t matter” monologue, a haymaker delivered to the ego of everyone in its orbit—characters, viewers, and filmmakers included.) But even besides the meta joys of watching the former, better Batman lament that he’ll still never be as famous as George Clooney, or Edward Norton play a difficult actor who starts changing his lines all willy-nilly, Birdman is genuinely, shockingly fun for all its supposed big ideas, crammed with great, messy performances, and boasting a wicked eagerness to acknowledge that “big ideas” are full of shit. Not that my opinion matters, of course.
I just watched The Babadook and can’t stop thinking about it. I’m not usually a fan of horror, not because of the genre but because I’m a giant wuss. While the traditional scares made me jump out of my seat (as wusses are wont to do), what scared me the most was how terrifying it made motherhood look. Essie Davis is incredible as grieving widow and mother Amelia who is haunted by the nominal character that arises from a children’s book her son (the equally fantastic Noah Wiseman) finds. The Babadook is able to articulate how many parents feel: sometimes they just really don’t like their kids. But, in the end, they love them fiercely, and Amelia is one of the great demonstrations of maternal power, in the same vein as Alien’s Ripley and Poltergeist’s Diane. It’s an excellent first showing from new talent Jennifer Kent, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Let’s break this down: Of my submitted top 15 movies of the year, eight made this list, and another one is singled out for the “outlier” section of my ballot. Rather than skip down to the next highest-ranked movies on my ballot, at least some of which I bet others will mention, I’ll go for a personal favorite from my list that seems less likely to garner year-end attention: The Boxtrolls, the third stop-motion feature from Laika. It got pretty good reviews and did mildly reasonable business back in September; I found it not just passable but utterly delightful, very much on the same level as Coraline and ParaNorman. As a lot of CG animation turns to dazzling action sequences and a lot of hand-drawn animation, well, doesn’t exist, stop-motion has become the go-to medium for upholding the tradition of comedy and characterization through animation technique, rather than wisecracks or hero’s quests. There are some funny verbal jokes, delivered with an Aardman-ish Englishness (when I saw it theatrically, one particularly silly pun made my row of grown-ass adults laugh uproariously, much to the confusion of the children in the row behind us), but much of the fun of The Boxtrolls comes from behavior: the way young Eggs, the human who thinks he’s a troll, behaves around other trolls; the way the trolls communicate in a nonsense language; and the way the bad guy contorts himself trying to fit into high society. Calling Laika the new Pixar might be a tad premature, but it’s certainly adept at weaving big laughs and complex themes into its considerable technical accomplishments.
This year’s movie that got me right in the soft spot was probably Only Lovers Left Alive. A vampire flick that uses endless life to suggest both the otherworldly scope and remove it offers, as well as the inevitability of becoming a hipster, Jim Jarmusch’s deeply low-key movie managed to be both lyrical and dryly funny, with the moments of camp that any vampire flick demands. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are note-perfect leads—sensual but self-aware and inhabited in a way the best on-screen characters are—and nighttime Detroit seems to come to life under their gaze. It’s quietly marvelous, and a film I’ve kept coming back to.
The original Star Wars not only ushered in the blockbuster era, it also spawned a legion of imitators—epic battles of good versus evil played out with faster-than-light drive, laser guns, and all manner of guy-in-a-suit aliens. While the outer-space milieu of George Lucas’ trilogy was easy to imitate, the magic of Star Wars proved more difficult to capture, as subsequent efforts (including Lucas’ own prequel films) missed out on crucial parts of the formula—usually the junky, lived-in feel of everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away, and the sense of pure fun that’s inevitably missing in space operas from The Black Hole to The Chronicles Of Riddick. It took until 2014 for someone to finally crack the Star Wars formula, as James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy managed to effortlessly combine whiz-bang action, wisecracking heroes, a menagerie of memorable aliens, inventive sci-fi technology, and an epic good-versus-evil showdown that managed to stay just on the right side of ponderous. Marvel Studios’ winning streak continued with panache, as Guardians made it fun to go into outer space again. Whether J.J. Abrams will be able to recapture the magic nearly as well remains to be seen, but if he fails, at least we got to see one great Star Wars movie in the 2010s.
I said it in July, and even though I really enjoyed Guardians Of The Galaxy, my answer is still the same: for me, the best movie of the year (that I actually got around to seeing) was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For me, it’s the Wrath Of Khan of superhero sequels, a film that says, “Okay, now that you know Cap’s back, he’s going to kick some ass,” and then promptly goes on to let him kick ass… and to let Black Widow kick ass, and to let Falcon kick ass. There’s a whole lot of ass-kicking in this film, is what I’m saying, and no other movie-going experience of 2014 made me more giddy, and, frankly, if you’re not giddy by the time you leave a movie theater, why did you bother going in the first place? (The closing rhetorical question was paid for in part by a grant from the Popcorn Movie Aficionados Society.)
I saw maybe a dozen movies in theaters this year (TV critic), but I still managed to have two of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a theater before. Under The Skin was mesmerizing and unsettling, but Snowpiercer left me cheering—easily the best action-sci-fi-adventure-dystopia-polemic I’ve seen in ages, Bong Joon-ho’s pulpy, revolutionary masterpiece managed to be both richly inventive and thematically rigorous, telling the allegorical story of the haves and have-nots, all trapped on a train together in a world frozen by cataclysmic climate change. The cast is tremendous, including Tilda Swinton doing her best Margaret Thatcher-as-an-anime-character impression, and Chris Evans, a reluctant hero whose leading-man familiarity is put to unsettlingly subversive use before the end. The script is often blunt and occasionally didactic, but the set-pieces are a marvel, and the commitment to a challenging, uncompromising ideal make this something special: a dark fantasy more than willing to follow itself through to the logical, and necessary, conclusion.
I’m a sucker for a good big-screen romance, which is a tough thing to find these days. Luckily this year I didn’t have to settle for the watered-down blandness of a Nicholas Sparks movie (The Best Of Me was not, sadly, the best of Sparks, whose stories otherwise can be reasonably pleasant in their predictable pap), thanks to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s wonderful Beyond The Lights. Focused in vision and featuring a fantastic performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond The Lights remembers what many romance-based stories often forget: For the love story to work, it must first have characters who are complex and interesting on their own. It’s because of this attention to character that Beyond The Lights is so much more than a story of a famous pop star finding love with a Los Angeles police officer; it’s a story of two people fighting to find out who they really are, both separately and together.
Justin Simien’s career got off to an auspicious start with his debut feature, Dear White People. Though plagued by the unevenness of a first film, Dear White People also reveals Simien’s keen eye for observation and his sharp sense of humor. His characters—four black students at a fictional Ivy League college—may claim to have all the answers, but Simien smartly undercuts their moral authority with shades of gray; he’s more interested in raising questions about race and identity than in trying to answer them. Yet the film is not without its heart; it was a joy to recognize myself in the wonderfully flawed Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a young woman struggling to balance anger, activism, and art. Dear White People wasn’t the best movie of the year, but it was a very good one. And I have every hope Simien will go on to top lists like this in the near future.
I haven’t seen nearly as many movies as usual this year, so most of my favorites are already covered. The only one I’d add is Stranger By The Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s quiet, creeping surveillance of a gay cruising spot. There’s Franck, the too-beautiful protagonist; Henri, his recently divorced new pal; and Michel, the apparent killer with the mustache and smirk of an old porn star. With that simple scenario, Guiraudie brings the aesthetics, politics, and psychology of gay hook-up culture to life. Start with the fact that these guys are secluded from the rest of society. The chats are casual and coded as men feel each other out. The biological process becomes a social one (as men feel each other out). Most of all Guiraudie dramatizes the self-destructive carelessness that comes with sexual desire. Who needs The Normal Heart remake when we have Stranger By The Lake?
I tried to resist The Lego Movie, I really did. It seemed crass, one step up from Battleship and all the other desperate nostalgia-grabs we spend our days making fun of. And while I was a fan of Clone High and 21 Jump Street, I wasn’t confident that Phil Lord and Chris Miller could justify a 90-minute commercial for one of the world’s most popular toy companies. But eventually I broke down, as reviews poured in and friends gushed. And as soon as the movie started, I was hooked. Part of it was the animation, both gorgeous and evocative of the magic of Lego, creating a bright, brilliant world to play in. Tegan And Sara’s criminally infectious “Everything Is Awesome” drew me in further, even as its bright tone belied the subversiveness that lurks around the movie’s edges. And while most of the characters are simple—Emmet wants to be special, Wyldstyle wants to save the world, Benny wants to make spaceships—the script and the film’s excellent voice actors give them irresistible life and nuance. By the time the film’s brilliant third-act twist arrived, both beautifully heartfelt and metaphysically trippy, I was a goner. Because, most of all, The Lego Movie is funny. Not kid-movie funny, or adult-references-shoehorned-into-a-kid-movie-to-make-adults-laugh funny. It’s funny the way Adventure Time is funny, silly and thoughtful and open to everyone, enough to make you think, even if just for a little while, that everything really might be awesome.
While not up to the level of their enduringly brilliant Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter mined their clearly encyclopedic knowledge of romantic comedies to pen the definitive rom-com parody They Came Together this year, wisely enlisting pals Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd to stand in for every twinkly, mismatched couple in the genre’s sugary history. (Suitably, Poehler’s character runs the most darling neighborhood candy store—so darling, in fact, that everything seems to be free.) In some ways, it’s like a non-evil Friedberg/Seltzer movie. The plot (Rudd’s candy mogul employer tries to drive said sweet shop out of business while he and Poehler—wait for it—fall improbably in love), consists largely of references to the recognizable genre clichés, expecting viewers to laugh in recognition. But Wain (who also directed), Showalter, and the ridiculously stacked cast (Chris Meloni, Jason Mantzoukas, Cobie Smulders, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Bill Hader, Jack McBrayer, Ellie Kemper, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Michael Shannon), put enough absurd, knowing spin on the referential gags to lift the movie to loopy heights most of the time.
It’s been a strong year for independent horror. (Under The Skin, Borgman, and The Babadook continues winning admirers, most notably William Friedkin’s gushing praise for Babadook.) While my favorite film of the year was another indie horror, Cheap Thrills, my second favorite horror film was the little gem Honeymoon by Leigh Janiak—an understated, sure-handed feature debut. What starts out as a trite premise (young newlyweds head to deserted family cabin in the woods) slowly crackles into a slow burn, before turning batshit crazy by the end. We’ve seen everything here before, from Cabin Fever to Fire In the Sky, but once things start going awry after bride Rose Leslie (Game Of Thrones) takes a midnight sleepwalking stroll into the woods, the creep factor ups to a level I haven’t experienced since I got claustrophobic and extremely weirded out during Friedkin’s Bug. I’m not going to spoil the riches, but essentially the film toys with the fear of marrying someone you think you know perfectly, and watching helplessly as they turn into a stranger before your eyes. It’s a fear to which everyone can relate, at any stage of a relationship, and the heartbreak and terror of losing someone you love, mentally and physically, hits home in a visceral way.