Best Films of 2014

In 2014, online viewing edged out theaters, which screened underwhelming offerings
TROUBLE MAGNET P.I.: In 1970s L.A., detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) winds up searching for his ex-girlfriend's missing boyfriend—and later, his ex-girlfriend—in 'Inherent Vice,' an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name.

The indie producer and festival director Ted Hope recently penned a column listing 30 reasons why the film industry is in trouble. After the Sony hack, you'd have to ask: only 30?

Hope's starting point was easy enough to guess—2014 saw the lowest box office numbers since Bill Clinton was in office. You could say that the lack of originality in mainstream films was a big reason for dwindling audiences; the New York Times noted that eight out of 12 sequels sank this year, failing to make more money than their originals.

The numbers also suggest a growing preference among movie fans to stay home and watch video on demand (VOD) rather than pay rising theater ticket prices and rub shoulders with strangers in the dark. Almost everyone has had a bad theater-going experience—sitting next to texting multi-taskers, eating vast trayloads of food, sometimes even changing a baby who is howling with rage from having its eardrums rattled by the Dolby sound. It's so much easier to stay home and watch a downloaded film while having your own telephone conversation, eating vast trayloads of food, etc. It wasn't so long ago that VOD was rickety and buggy. Viewers without fiber optics waited 24 hours for iTunes to deliver The Avengers. They swore obscenities at that maddening spinning asterisk under the frozen image on the screen. That was then. VOD may not play freeze-tag now, but Netflix, Hulu et al still play hide and seek. It takes some serious hunting to find films off the most-popular roster; it takes planning to learn when these films are going to be discontinued. And it takes research to go past the indexing that sends you on detective errands to try to find foreign, classic and really independent films.

VOD offers a chance for beginning filmmakers to get their work seen, but if VOD providers pay, they aren't issuing the kinds of checks that will allow indie filmmakers to prosper. What affects the relationship with VOD and the small-scale filmmakers who feed it is the same problem afflicting writers, scholars, and musicians: the Internet's ability to drink your milkshake without paying you for it.

The cinema industry has faced numerous crises over the years—government censors, the arrival of sound, unions, the blacklist, television, and later cable television. What separates the content-producing, tentpole-worshipping vice executive from the true and honorable showperson is one thing: the latter has the old faith that a seriously good movie will find its audience despite the odds. There's still a chance to be surprised by a film made for the good reason that it needed to be made. By accident, I went to Cinequest and joined in on a viewing of what would become one of my top 10, Ida, a black-and-white Polish film about personal honor in the face of totalitarianism. Ida grew on me through repeated viewings, and I found others who marveled at it. As always, I hope we understand the difference between seeing a movie—going to it in silence, submitting to it, letting it take us away—and watching a download between the clatter of dishes, and trips to the refrigerator or the laundry room.

On my 2014 list are five films about struggling artists and writers, including the overlooked comedy The Skeleton Twins, featuring an excellent Bill Hader as an actor with dashed hopes. A far more serious struggle for a living is charted in the documentary The Overnighters, about laborers drawn to the Dakotas to work in the region's burgeoning fracking industry. Birdman sums up the current anguish in the movie industry over too many damn superhero movies, while admitting most of us are suckers for fireballs and explosions. If Birdman ended up as the best movie in so many critics' lists, maybe it's because it mirrors the troubled situation in the cinema business.

Amid such a lunatic story of entrapment in a theater, I wanted to get outside a little. Violette LeDuc, the exasperating and fascinating writer-heroine of Violette, did her share of trekking if not as much as the heroines of Wild and Tracks did. I recommended the unintentional double bill of Wild and Tracks, not just because films with women in them are getting outrageously scarce, but because during this booming tech economy, nobody is getting outside much.

I'm not a fan of war movies, but Fury was an unusually well-built and ruthless one. The very grim central sequence of the tank crew dragooning themselves in a German house was fearful and honest—it had a truthfulness that hasn't been seen in 100 war movies (and Saving Private Ryan is one of that 100).

Mike Leigh's refusal to make an angel out of J. M. W. Turner, the seascape artist, caused Mr. Turner to turn a lot of stomachs. By all means, deplore Turner's sexual ethics, but be amazed at the way England's finest living film director recreated some 30 years in the middle 1800s. Film critic is my fall-back job; I really wanted to be a chrononaut, and Mr. Turner drops you fast into the England of the years before Victoria came in to dry everything up.

Speaking of tightly run domains, Inherent Vice contrasts the open water of the Santa Monica Bay with a Los Angeles being rolled up and caged by the hippie-hating, door-busting 1970s LAPD. That's relevance for you, considering so many people in 2014 were asking Juvenal's question: "Who watches the watchmen?" The paranoia runs deep but so does the crazed humor in this eclectic defective-detective story. I watched it with a friend who has done some technical work in film, and he exclaimed with pleasure: "How did this movie get made?" I never know the answer to that question—outside the morasses and ashpits of the current movies, somehow the great ones survive.

Best of 2014, in no order:


Big Eyes

Mr. Turner


Inherent Vice


The Overnighters

The Skeleton Twins


Wild/Tracks (tied)

Runners up:

"Too Many Cooks" (viral video), Captain America II: The Winter Soldier, We're the Best, The Box Trolls, Grand Budapest Hotel

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