5. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE
While Jodorowsky’s Dune may not be as important as Citizenfour or as inspiring as Life Itself, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that tells one of the most interesting stories of any movie from 2014, fictional or non-. In the early ‘70s, eccentric director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) set his sights on making the grandest science-fiction movie of all time. He purchased the rights to Frank Herbert’s seminal, space-set novel Dune and assembled a team of brilliant people to design the characters, costumes, sets, and script. Jodorowsky used his pre-production team’s plans to try and get studio funding for his mind-bogglingly bold vision. Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí all signed on to play roles; Pink Floyd came on board to compose the soundtrack; H.R. Giger, years before he’d create the nightmares of Alien, designed the look of the film. It was to be the biggest movie ever… until it never got made. Jodorowsky’s Dune spends half of its length looking back at the assembling of this revolutionary team, and half looking forward to its impact on cinema itself in everything from Star Wars and The Terminator to Alien and Blade Runner. It’s a heart-breaking, jaw-dropping, eye-opening story of perhaps the greatest movie that never was.
4. UNDER THE SKIN
Under the Skin is not for everyone. Those who have heard about the movie — it made minor headlines in certain circles for Scarlett Johansson’s agreement to go fully nude for scenes of the film — are, humourously enough, the very people who will hate it most. Under the Skin is an art film in the purest way, with extended stretches free of any dialogue and very little explanation given to the narrative of an alien seductress trying to understand humanity while hunting down victims on the streets of Scotland. It’s trippy, hypnotic, and makes no effort to be coherent or comprehensible, but incredibly rewards viewers who give themselves over to its haunting power. Johansson is utterly brilliant in a role requiring her to convey a great many thoughts and emotions, almost always without a line of dialogue. Writer-director Jonathan Glazer had a stunning vision that he clearly was able to leave uncompromised in bringing Under the Skin to the screen and the result is awe-inspiring cinema. In the 16 years since his passing, this is the closest anyone’s come to making a new Stanley Kubrick picture.
At once a typical Wes Anderson movie and also something much more, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a cleverly constructed and maturely envisioned comedy.
Taking place within a flashback within a flashback within a flashback — it makes sense when you see it — Ralph Fiennes hilariously plays Gustave H., the concierge and unofficial manager of a majestic hotel lodged high in the mountains of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, in 1932. When one of Gustave’s regular companions, the 84-year-old Madame D. (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton), dies and bequeaths Gustave her most prized painting, he finds himself embroiled in a hilarious caper involving bitter relatives, suspicious officers, ruthless criminals, colour-coordinated concierges, and his faithful lobby boy.
Boasting the largest, most impressive cast of any 2014 comedy and the most overtly funny script of anything Anderson has previously done, The Grand Budapest Hotel maintains his hyper-symmetrical aesthetic while forging bold, new narratives paths. The resulting blend of visual art and loose comedy that feels like a natural evolution for Anderson while also proves to be a wonderful bridge between his hip audiences of fans and those who’ve never found his films to be accessible enough for mainstream tastes.
It’s quite possibly the best movie Anderson has made, in a short career already comprised of several masterpieces.
2. BIRDMAN, OR
THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE
Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard. Believe the hype. But more than that, prepare yourself for one of the weirdest movies to ever win Best Picture, one of the greatest meta performances since Being John Malkovich, and one of the few truly unique visions to emerge from 2014.
Michael Keaton winkingly plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who was once the world-famous star of the Birdman superhero movies, but who has now faded into obscurity and irrelevance. To reassert his existence and leave behind a legacy greater than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, he has adapted a Raymond Carver story into a play and is directing and starring in its Broadway adaptation. He’s also secretly going crazy.
Keaton is absolutely brilliant as Riggan, as are Emma Stone as his resentful daughter and Edward Norton as his pompous co-star. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s direction, previously so dour in films like 21 Grams and Babel, is vibrantly alive in a way that gets your heartbeat racing just from watching it. It also helps that the movie is edited to look like just one tracking shot from start to finish and that its score, a frenetic drumming that conveys characters’ emotions and prefaces the narrative’s turns, is unlike anything in modern cinema.
Lots of people don’t and won’t like a movie this bizarre (especially with its divisive ending), but the best art always elicits strong reactions, and no film demonstrated that better last year than Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
On one level, Nightcrawler is a cutting indictment of TV journalism and the chase for sensationalized “news,” but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a dry drama. Writer-director Dan Gilroy creates a disturbing unease that permeates the entire movie, keeping you on edge even in scenes wherein nothing bad happens. Moments that would normally play off as awkward comedy become uncomfortable and disquieting in this increasingly twisted tale.
Antisocial loner Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon a car crash one night, discovers the profession of freelance video journalism, and finds himself obsessed with the idea. As Bloom begins brokering deals with a morning news show director (Rene Russo, the best she’s been in years), he starts making more and more decisions in his chase of occupational success that endanger those around him. Increment by increment, Bloom crosses increasingly unethical lines, until he’s committing worse and worse crimes himself, all in the chase of the perfect story.
From beginning to end, the script for Nightcrawler is perfectly written, expertly plotted, and exactly paced. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career as Bloom, wearing a gaunt frame that makes his character look eerily inhuman. With the bulging eyes of a drug-addicted Muppet and some of the most uncomfortably intense stares this side of Hannibal Lecter, Gyllenhaal makes Bloom a character every bit as memorably sociopathic as Christian Bale’s in American Psycho, Robin Williams’ in One Hour Photo, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood. It’s riveting to watch and impossible to shake.
Nightcrawler takes you on a terrifying journey that you might find you don’t really want to go on — but by that point, you’ll be too far into the movie to dare stop. The film doesn’t take a single wrong step and has the courage to see its vision through to its natural, disturbing endpoint. It’s riveting, daring filmmaking and hands-down the best movie to be released in 2014.