The Tens: Best Of Film 2014

Nightcrawler-JAKE-GYLLENHAAL-CAMERA-DEAD-BODY-BEST-OF-FILM-2014It was a very good year at the movies… but a weird one. Reversing the trend of recent years, the summer blockbuster fare offered a surprising amount of good taste, from the goofy-fun Guardians Of The Galaxy to the surprisingly clever Edge Of Tomorrow. Even sequels like Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes and unnecessary reboots like Godzilla offered something in the way of quality.

I saw many films I liked over the course of the year, and not too many that I didn’t. 2014 was not a year of masterpieces, save one or two, but a year when more movies than average were better than you’d think.

That’s good news and all, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the Academy Award nominations announced this morning. Only one of my own Top Ten films is found in the eight-movie Best Picture lineup (you probably already know which). Two more are included if you expand out to my Top 20. The lack of diversity among the nominees is disheartening, but it’s endemic more of a lack of diversity in high-profile releases; the showing for people of color in awards season shouldn’t rely entirely on Selma‘s shoulders, but that’s how it went down this year. In general, the Academy went for the dullest, blandest available options — old vets like Meryl Streep and Robert Duvall got nods for roles no one would consider amongst their best work, the Weinstein-backed Imitation Game nabbed a predictable but depressing eight nominations despite its flagrant mediocrity in nearly all categories, and if the Best Director race were a food, it would best be likened to a bowl of plain, room temperature oatmeal. American Sniper made a surprisingly strong showing with six nods, presumably because it has the word “American” in the title.

This was a year in which a black woman could have made history as the first nominee of her gender and race to make it into the Best Director category. (Ava DuVernay must be kicking herself for not titling her film American Selma.) I am a fan of one or two of the films in just about every category, and the most likely winners are, for the most part, the most deserving, so it could be worse.

But it could be better. Since the Oscars have largely failed me this year, I am especially proud to announce my own ten favorite films of 2014.

maps-to-the-stars-sarah-gadon-julianne-moore-pool-david-cronenberg10. MAPS TO THE STARS

It seems appropriate to start off with a tour of Hollywood. Sit back and relax, folks, as we cruise past the homes of Tinseltown’s elite and mighty. Witness them in their natural habitat, fucking and killing each other. Watch the cub as he learns to hunt, mimicking the moves of an older, more dominant male. See the parents protect their young fiercely, savagely, showing no mercy. Observe as the wounded female takes a deadly swipe at an even more wounded female — but oh! Oh! Look how the weaker one fights back!

Now, look away, folks! It’s about to get bloody!

David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars is one crazy movie, veering wildly in tone from satirical comedy to moody drama to violent shocker. It is, in many moments, truly funny, but in most movies that are this amusing, most of the cast doesn’t end up dead by the end credits. The macabre elements won’t shock anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s previous works, including A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, though this is more tongue-in-cheek than many of his efforts. The morals in this movie universe are severely fucked, as they are in Hollywood. Maps To The Stars is a vehemently nasty piece of work.

But it’s also a sharp satire of overprivileged brats, both the teen and adult variety. One of its main characters is the child star Benjie, who is feeling insecure about his age even before he’s legally able to drive. He’s no longer the ingenue, so he cops a Justin Bieber-like attitude as his behavior goes unchecked, escalating until he makes some truly fatal mistakes. Faring no better is Havana Segrand, a middle-aged Lindsay Lohan, as petulant and childish as any teenager. Like Benjie, she’s concerned that she’s past her expiration date in Hollywood. Both Benjie and Havana hallucinate dead acquaintances; meanwhile, there’s a mysterious girl covered in scars who has just stepped off a bus in Hollywood…

Maps To The Stars is a willfully weird cinematic experience. Some will find its shifting tones jarring. Others will find them delightful. Obviously, I’m in the latter camp, and while Julianne Moore deservingly sweeps up awards for her stellar work in Still Alice, it comes as no surprise to me that she can do drama brilliantly. Maps To The Stars, on the other hand, shows that she’s an equally gifted comedienne. Her performance would be the most brilliant satire of Hollywood narcissism in any year that didn’t see the resurgence of Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. It’s enough to make those tourist lookie-loos swear that they’ll never come back to Hollywood…

COHERENCE-EMILY-FOXLER-NICHOLAS-BRENDON9. COHERENCE

It was a good year for science fiction on the big screen, both in big budget blockbuster form (Edge Of Tomorrow, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Interstellar) and a handful of inventive indies that swapped special effects for intellectual curiosity. The One I Love had Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass playing a couple whose counseling takes a freaky turn, which was plenty of fun. But for my money, I preferred an even smaller doppelganger story made on a really tiny budget.

A prime example of how an imaginative filmmaker can do a lot with a little, James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is a nifty sci-fi thriller that manages to be smart, spooky, and suspenseful all while taking place almost entirely in a single dining room. A comet is passing overhead while four Angelino couples have gathered for a dinner party, guzzling wine and reveling in each other’s dramas when suddenly iPhones start smashing of their own accord and the lights go out. There’s no internet, no cell service — and suddenly these eight friends are left to fend for themselves when something seriously trippy begins happening.

Yes, it’s a classic Twilight Zone-style setup, and anyone expecting jump scares or CGI monsters will go home utterly empty-handed. Coherence is a thinking person’s thriller, one where quantum physics is the villain. (When was the last time you saw a movie like that?) The script was entirely improvised, with the actors knowing almost nothing about what they were facing, which must be why their reactions feel so genuine. The only recognizable star is Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Nicholas Brendon, playing a washed up TV star with a drinking problem — not so far from the truth — and the rest of the cast feels similarly lived-in and down-to-earth, like eight people you really would meet at a Los Angeles dinner party. (Inevitably, at least one would be a washed up TV star with a drinking problem.)

Coherence won’t change the face of science fiction at the movies, and it’s best watched with no expectations and as little prior knowledge as possible. (I had literally no idea what genre it even was when I saw it.) But it represents the very best of do-it-yourself, ultra-low-budget, single-location filmmaking without feeling even slightly claustrophobic, except in the way it’s intended to. It’s the kind of movie a studio would never make, and the kind of movie creatives like Byrkit can and will make anyway, even without an assist from Hollywood.  frank-michael-fassbender8. FRANK

Lots of movies are made about artists, mainly because movies are made by artists. There are few subjects more often explored than the tortures of being creative, which is how we got films like Big Eyes, Birdman, Chef, Mr. Turner, Listen Up Philip, and We Are The Best in 2014, to name a few.

What is not always the case is that many films raised questions about whether or not the creative geniuses in question were really so masterful at all. Whiplash tells the story of a young musician sacrificing everything for a tyrant maestro who demands perfection in the most flawed of ways, and it was very good. But Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank goes deeper and darker in exploring the link between genius and madness, ultimately making a stronger (if more ambiguous) point.

Our protagonist is not the titular Frank but Jon, a young man who wants desperately to express himself musically but displays no discernible talent. Even his tweets are banal and cliche. Jon is asked to join a quirky, obscure band called the Soronprfbs that plays pretentious, unmelodic music. The Soronprfbs are perfectly content being as offbeat as their unpronounceable moniker, but Jon’s desperate need to be liked and adored eventually worms its way into the frontman’s papier-mâché head, too.

Frank uses comedic extremes to explore complex ideas about the chasm between authenticity and popularity, about the traits we worship in a musical artist and disdain in anyone else, about how empty and fleeting social media stardom can be. Most of the music in Frank is hilariously awful, from the unlistenable noise of Frank’s early work to an attempt at mainstream pop that he dubs “Frank’s Most Likable Song Ever” (though there is something bizarrely beautiful about his final number, “I Love You All”).

Frank eventually reveals himself not as a complicated genius, but as a child-like savant, forcing us to question the reverence these characters have had for him all along. Ultimately, the character Frank’s creativity is purer and less adulterated than any calculated attempt at mainstream success could be, and that is true of Frank the film as well. The absurdity of many early scenes gradually gives way to something profound and unexpected. Surfaces can be deceiving; leave it to a man with a papier-mâché head to teach such a lesson.

THE-SKELETON-TWINS-bill-hader-drag-kristen-wiig-cowboy-halloween-costumes7. THE SKELETON TWINS

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader starring in a movie together? That’s a no-brainer. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader starring in a movie that’s all about sexual abuse, infidelity, and suicide? Not so likely. The Skeleton Twins is a fresh, smartly-scripted indie dramedy that isn’t afraid to go dark, showing us the most interesting work we’ve seen from Hader or Wiig this side of Saturday Night Live. Their sketch comedy camaraderie translates easily into sibling chemistry as they play Milo and Maggie, twins who make suicidal overtures on the same day, brought back into each other’s lives after a ten-year silence. The reason for the brother-sister breakup is revealed along the way, and it’s a doozy.

The Skeleton Twins has enough comedy to satisfy Bridesmaids fans and enough drama to let us truly empathize with these characters. Come for the laughter, stay for the tears. Suicide is often a gimmick in indies, but in this one, it’s a real threat. We believe that one or both of these characters won’t live to see the end of the movie (and maybe they don’t). Milo and Maggie’s lip sync to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” may be the comedic highlight of 2014; sequences involving laughing gas and dressing up for Halloween are equally hysterical. In these scenes, The Skeleton Twins might as well be a broad Bridesmaids-style studio comedy about a married woman and her sassy gay brother.

But in the end, The Skeleton Twins eschews feel-good sentiment for spiky drama, like Maggie’s not-so-nice treatment of her devoted hubby (Luke Wilson), her acidic attitude toward her mother, and a jaw-droppingly harsh line she delivers to Milo in their climactic argument. Bill Hader officially joins the ranks of Saturday Night Live alums who can carry a drama — Kristen Wiig’s already there, but she’s never been better. It was too much to ask of the Academy to recognize either of them this year, but would it have been such a crime to nominate it for Original Screenplay? No other film had The Skeleton Twins‘ blend of sharp dialogue, strong characterization, and bold storytelling. The film charts a course toward a bittersweet ending, making for the shrewdest mix of comedy and pathos in 2014. Enemy-Jake-Gyllenhaal6. ENEMY

What the fuck?

Those three little words are on everybody’s mind as Denis Villeneuve’s psychological thriller comes to an abrupt conclusion, and it’s not like things were super normal before that startling final image. This was a big year for doppelgangers, from The One I Love and Coherence (mentioned above) to Enemy‘s darkly comedic cousin, The Double, which starred Jesse Eisenberg as an office drone who encounters a savvier, suaver version of himself, illuminating all his flaws in comparison. I quite enjoyed The Double, but my biggest kick in the Year of Doppelgangers was derived from Enemy, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays a history professor who sees an extra in a movie who looks exactly like him. The more he tries to unravel this mystery, the more mysterious the mystery gets… (And watch out for spiders!)

What do I love about Enemy? Just about everything. Gyllenhaal gives not one but two diverse, dynamic performances, and Sarah Gadon is equally compelling as Jake #2’s pregnant wife. The score by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is creepy and mesmerizing, one of the best this year. Enemy forces us to focus on obscure items, like blueberries and keys and spiders, and wonder what the hell they mean.

Beyond that ballsy ending, what I admire most about Villeneuve’s film is that it does no hand-holding. Want to understand what’s happening in Enemy? Well, you’re on your own. See it two times, maybe three. Read up on theories on the internet. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Under The Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, was an equally elusive sci-fi story of 2014, receiving a lot more critical praise than Enemy. Though I admired its subtext, the film as a whole didn’t work as well for me as Enemy did.

Enemy isn’t just a movie, it’s a full-on brain teaser designed to give you hours of fun. (Or torture, depending on your perspective.) It’s not for everyone and was never meant to be, but for those of us who find most movie puzzles too easily solvable, Enemy is unpredictable, providing a jolting shock to the senses dulled by too much mindless pap. If I had to pick a cinematic moment from 2014 that floored me like no other, it would be the end of Enemy.

Because seriously… what the fuck?

Nightcrawler-Rene-Russo-desk-JAKE-GYLLENHAAL5. NIGHTCRAWLER

As much as I loved Enemy, I must admit that it contains only the second (and third) best Jake Gyllenhaal performance of 2014. The top slot goes to Nightcrawler, in many ways a spiritual sequel to my favorite film of 2013, The Wolf Of Wall Street. (Though Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom makes Jordan Belfort look like Mother Theresa.) It’s a shame the Academy didn’t agree, as Gyllenhaal’s slimy intensity is enough to make your skin crawl. It’s not often that the protagonist of a movie is also one of the year’s ickiest screen villains. (And in a just world, Rene Russo would be nominated, too — did Meryl Streep really need that 19th nomination?)

On the one hand, Nightcrawler is all about the news media, as cutthroat and savage as it was shown to be back in the 1970s, in Network, and the 1990s, in To Die For. In that respect, Nightcrawler adds nothing new (though still has plenty of fun rolling around in such tropes). What’s fresh in Dan Gilroy’s impressive first feature is the Lou Bloom character, quite likely a sociopath, spouting off self-help tripe he’s memorized off the internet in order to sound more “human.” Lou Bloom has no empathy for his fellow man. He takes full advantage of his underpaid assistant, he treats women like objects and sex like a negotiation, and he will break any and every law in order to beat his competition. In other words, he’s exactly like most CEOs of major corporations.

Lou Bloom doesn’t revel in excess the way Jordan Belfort and his cronies did in The Wolf Of Wall Street. He has no real interest in money, except as it relates to success. As a “nightcrawler” who speeds throughout Los Angeles chasing car accidents and crime scenes, hoping to shoot the most extreme footage for the morning news, Bloom has twisted the American dream into a nightmare, and his line of work — chosen at random — means that the more gruesomely terrible things happen to people he doesn’t know, the happier he is with his work. (And the more money he makes.)

Lou Bloom is willing to exploit anyone and everyone so that he comes out on top, and many people are willing to be exploited by him because they’ll also get ahead in more incremental ways. If that makes you uncomfortable — well, good! It should. But that’s living in America in 2014…
a-most-violent-year4. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

…Which isn’t all that different from living in America in 1981, as it turns out. Crime stories have often been used to explore broader American themes. Tony Soprano was a gangster, but also a family man who felt pressured by the enormous demands of his work. Michael Corleone was just a guy who wanted to carve out his own identity rather than fall back on the family business, which just so happened to involve the occasional murder. Most Americans will never kill a fellow human, but it’s not so hard to relate to characters who do, which must mean something. A Most Violent Year gets at what that “something” is.

The protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s drama, played by Oscar Isaac, is not a gangster. And he’s trying really hard not to be. His wife Anna comes from a violent family; many of associates are as crooked as they come; he’s being pressured from all sides to retaliate because his business is being robbed. We expect Abel to react violently, because that’s what we’re trained to want in such movies. Vengeance. Abel fights against these instincts, and his own, holding out on violence even as violence encroaches closer and closer on him. The movie does the same — it’s one of the least bloody crime epics you’ll ever see, which is not to say that there isn’t some violence. What there is more of, however, is talk of violence. Particularly gripping are Abel and Anna’s arguments about whether they’re safer or at more risk with some artillery in their house. Abel isn’t a fan of guns; Anna doesn’t agree with him. There may be no more divisive issue in America at the moment; A Most Violent Year touches on it fleetingly but directly, in perhaps as blatant a way as an American film can get away with. One of the big questions hanging over Chandor’s movie is: will Abel embrace his Second Amendment right to bear arms? And: should he?

A Most Violent Year isn’t just a tease; it’s proof that taking the straight and narrow path is often the hardest available route. Abel can choose to be good at his business or good as a person, but likely not both. He is the polar opposite of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, a man tortured by the limited options available to him; but like Lou Bloom, he is willing to do what he must in order to get ahead in America. Lou’s year turns out to be a lot more violent than Abel’s, but both stories arrive at a similar conclusion — the worker bees, often minorities, will suffer countless injustices, while the fat cats living large at the top of the heap turn a blind eye to their suffering.

There are no real villains in A Most Violent Year. These are just everyday people doing what they can to get ahead — which is sometimes immoral, sometimes illegal. Lou Bloom would probably admire Abel Morales; Abel would abhor Lou Bloom. Whether by choice or happenstance, they’re a couple of the biggest scoundrels of 2014; they might be the most despicable Americans on screen in 2014, except that this year also gave us…

gone-girl-ROSAMUND-PIKE-BEN-AFFLECK-CHAMPAGNE3. GONE GIRL

…”Amazing” Amy! Who, throughout the course of Gone Girl, does prove herself to be truly fucking exceptional.

Abel and Anna’s marriage in A Most Violent Year is a little fucked up. Nick and Amy’s marriage in Gone Girl is a lot fucked up. That’s already kind of a spoiler, so if you have seriously somehow made it all the way to January 2015 without learning what the big twist in Gone Girl is, skip ahead to #2 — or, better yet, read on and get it over with, and welcome back to pop culture relevance.

The problem in Nick and Amy’s marriage is the same problem as in a lot of marriages: she’s faking it. The difference is that “it” is not merely an orgasm, but her own abduction and murder. And as is true in both cases, she blames it on her husband.

Like the novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a playful thriller. It’s as much a black comedy as it is a mystery, to the extent that even an exceedingly gruesome murder is so over-the-top it’s almost funny. David Fincher is one of our most reliable filmmakers — I’m never disappointed by his output. He has the rare knack for elevating genre movies far above and beyond their genre, and in this case, injecting more meaning and nuance into a pulpy bestseller than was there to begin with.

Gone Girl prompted more critical discourse than any other film of 2014, and for good reason. It’s a sharp satire of the way our easily manipulated media seizes onto domestic tragedies, and ultimate pointlessness of the truth. Nick and Amy’s marriage is farce on a number of levels, but aren’t so many marriages equally artificial? Nick and Amy each have a role to play in the theater of matrimony; their marriage is “just for show,” as American Beauty put it. And what we end up with in the third act of Gone Girl is merely a macabre extension of what thousands or millions of Americans are already doing — putting a happy face on for the cameras when what’s inside is sad and broken and probably best abandoned.

Gone Girl needn’t have been so incisive to be the hit that it was — that’s just a bonus. Rosamund Pike is spectacular as the ruthless Amy, but Flynn has smartly balanced this story out with more admirable female characters, played to perfection by Kim Dickens and Carrie Coon. It’s refreshing just to see so many women playing key roles in a genre thriller, but Gone Girl has a lot more to offer than a feminist casting coup. Amy Dunne is an evil genius — it’s only fitting that Gone Girl be the smartest movie of the year.

Gone Girl provides the best blend of smarts and pure entertainment in 2014. The real crime in this story is that Gillian Flynn was robbed of an Oscar nomination — which only proves Gone Girl‘s point about how easy it is to underestimate a woman…

antoine-olivier-pilon-mommy-red-light2. MOMMY

…Especially a woman like Die. Unemployed, single, provocatively dressed, and utterly unable to control her teenage son.

Classical scope is having a moment. Widescreen presentation was originally invented to get people away from their TVs, and in 2014 several movies have gone back to the more squarish aspect ratio of yesteryear (as TVs get bigger and wider to emulate movie screens). Ida’s squared-off black-and-white cinematography is some of the most striking of the year, making a beautifully scripted story look equally lovely, while Wes Anderson’s Oscar beloved The Grand Budapest Hotel tells the bulk of its story in a 1.33:1 scope that seems well-suited to his mannered, obsessively symmetrical stylings. Maybe before long, every movie will look like a selfie.

But for now, my favorite Instagram-ready movie may not technically be a 2014 release in the United States at all. In Mommy, Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan focuses on a trio of characters brought together partially by blood and partially by chance. Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier-Pilon, and Suzanne Clement deliver three of the year’s most powerful performances — Dorval is Die, a single mother coping the standard array of troubles a woman in her position would, and then some. Olivier-Pilon is Steve, who is sweet as an angel in one moment and full of explosive rage the next — and we, like Die, are never sure if we should love him or fear him. Clement is Kyla, a neighbor who is brought into their lives, becoming, for a time at least, closer to Die and Steve than she is with her own family.

This was a big year for maternal relationships, from the mentally ailing mother Julianne Moore plays in Still Alice to the maternal bond that forms between aunt and niece in Ida, from the New Agey space case who abandoned her Skeleton Twins to the mysterious mama in Enemy, from the boogeymom of The Babadook to the stone cold stage mom (and a ghostly dead one) in Maps To The Stars, from the grieving parents in The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby to the soul-searching orphan of Wild to the aborted motherhood in Obvious Child. Even the biggest movie of the year, Guardians Of The Galaxy, opened up with mommy issues.

But Mommy naturally takes the cake. Aside from the core trio, there are virtually no other characters of consequence in Mommy, a lovely, heartbreaking, and unpredictable story about three relationships — the maternal bond between Die and Steve, the teacher-student dynamic between Steve and Kyla, and the eventful, unlikely friendship of Die and Kyla. If The Skeleton Twins contains the best comedic musical moment of 2014, Mommy easily wins for dramatic ones. Maybe only a quirky gay French-Canadian filmmaker of a certain age could get away with using Eiffel 65, Celine Dion, and Oasis’ “Wonderwall” to highlight serious dramatic beats in a movie, but it works.

At first, Mommy’s tight cinematography is off-putting and claustrophobic, forcing us to focus exclusively on the actors’ faces in a way we’re not used to. But it also serves as an apt visual representation of Die, Kyla, and Steve’s limited options in this world, widening in select moments that hint at more possibility than circumstance will ultimately allow.

Dolan’s film is about the kinds of characters who often go ignored in cinema — people who are struggling with the day-to-day, doing the best they can with a raw deal. When we first meet Die, she seems crass and uncouth, not the sort of woman we’d easily warm up to. But that’s a serious underestimation. By the end of Mommy, we will have fully considered Die as well as Steve and Kyla, and we will know that they aren’t the way they are because they chose to be, but because they couldn’t do any better with what they were given. Without spoiling too much, there is a montage late in Mommy that is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Mommy could have focused on any one of these three characters and been a terrific movie — instead, it gives them all equal consideration, and becomes transcendent. In many other years, Mommy would be my favorite movie, but…

boyhood_hellar-coltrane-patricia-arquette 1. BOYHOOD

…It’s 2014, and Boyhood.

What’s left to say that hasn’t been said? Yes, it’s boring to pick the same movie that the majority of critics dubbed as the best of 2014, the one the Golden Globes anointed Best Drama, the one most likely to take Best Picture at the Oscars. Seriously, when does that ever happen? Boyhood is just that good.

It seems fitting that Boyhood be anointed the year’s best film, as so many films this year had something to do with adolescence, from the storybook whimsy of The Grand Budapest Hotel to the children’s book nightmare come to life in The Babadook. A child’s imaginary world comes to life in The Lego Movie, and the villain turns out to be the boy’s father, who can’t see that playthings are meant to be enjoyed. In Interstellar, the bond between a father and his daughter, whose adolescence and early adulthood he misses, ends up saving the planet. Guardians Of The Galaxy is helped by a gust of nostalgia as our hero listens to the mixtape is departed mother gave him as a child. The Fault In Our Stars sees two teenagers dealing with some very heavy subject matter — their own mortality — despite the tender young romance blossoming between them. Disparate adults are brought together to squabble like children in This Is Where I Leave You. A mentor  abuses his pupil in Whiplash, all in the name of pushing a prodigy to the brink of perfection (or self-destruction), while a father contemplates ending all of humanity — including his own wife and child — in Noah. The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby sees a woman who has lost her child return to her childhood home and regress, while a woman who is no way ready for motherhood seeks to terminate a pregnancy in Obvious Child. Neighbors sees two reasonably young parents mourning their carefree youth, struggling to accept that they are now the cranky “old” couple next door. We Are The Best! saw a trio of teen girls try a punk attitude on for size. Love Is Strange explores the marriage between a very mature gay couple, but ends on a note that suggests the coming of age of a much younger character instead. A woman goes on a thousand-mile trek just to process her grief at being orphaned in Wild. So many adult characters were caught in a state of arrested development: the suicidal Skeleton Twins, the underprotective parent in Force Majeur, the titular savant of Frank, the chaste Ida, the fierce and feral teenager prematurely entering a harsh man’s world in Starred Up, the born-yesterday alien vixen in Under The Skin, the ultimately immature villainness “Amazing Amy” — a children’s book heroine — in Gone Girl, the immature Angelinos in denial in Inherent Vice and Maps To The Stars. And, of course, a boy’s life is explored almost as exquisitely as it is in Linklater’s film in Mommy, but with much sadder results — you could call it the anti-Boyhood.

The above is a mixed bag of mostly-good movies, but none approach the level of greatness Linklater achieved in going out on such a limb, making a movie that could have derailed in so many ways. The year piqued early for me and anyone else who adored Boyhood, which was just about everyone — I was already all but certain back in August that I’d found my #1.

Few films have ever been made as ambitious as this — there’s not much need to reiterate that here. Twelve years, same actors, no set script, aging as real people do. Boyhood is a film about life, plain and simple. Though it chronicles the advancement of Ellar Coltrane’s Mason from early childhood to his freshman year of college, Boyhood is almost equally about his sister and parents. A curious thing happens. We often see characters aged up with makeup, and we buy the passage of time in cinematic terms, the way we buy a CGI mutant in a blockbuster. It’s not real.

But in Boyhood, time really does pass before our eyes in the most subtle of shifts, allowing us to connect to these characters more fully and completely than most. By the end of Boyhood, I felt something I’ve never felt in a movie before — that I really had experienced the last twelve years of these people’s lives. Because of that, I have a deeper connection to the characters in Boyhood than almost any other fictional character — the kind of relationship that is only built by reading and rereading a cherished novel, by spending years engaged with the protagonist of your favorite television show. It takes time to form bonds with people — real, prolonged amounts of time. The best filmmakers may be able to approximate it suitably, but there’s still that cinematic artifice. Not in Boyhood.

Richard Linklater, an engaging filmmaker who makes the movies that interest him, regardless of whether or not they fit the mold, is getting his just desserts at long last. It’s easy to imagine some other director attempting such a project and fucking it up royally, but Linklater knows how to find drama in the space between the signposts. There are few hugely dramatic moments in Boyhood, because there are few hugely dramatic moments in most young lives. At least, not ones that ultimately matter. Who we are is shaped instead by the little things — squabbless with our siblings, aimless afternoons spent with our father, some forbidden beer with buddies, our first love, a mother trying to balance her romantic pursuits and her maternal obligations. There’s nothing exceptional about boyhood, which is what’s so exceptional about Boyhood.

Boyhood is a unique film experience, but it wasn’t immediately clear that the public and awards-givers would warm up to a nearly three-hour film about, you know… life. Maybe in other years containing a juggernaut like 12 Years A Slave or Titanic, it wouldn’t have picked up steam. But in 2014, there wasn’t really a single release that had all the Oscar steam behind it.

I don’t want to take anything for granted — you never know when the Weinsteins can pull a King’s Speech and knock down a truly deserving movie in favor of some mediocre drivel. But 2014 does seem to be Boyhood‘s year, and deservedly so. It’s hard to imagine a more laudable project, not just in this year, but any year. It’s the rare movie that breaks the boundaries of the medium, showing us something we’ve never really seen on screen before. Linklater will have a hard time topping this one, but something tells me he’s up to the challenge.

boyhood-zoe-graham-ellar-coltrane*

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