Two thousand fourteen is in the books -- or down the drain, depending on how your particular annum went -- which means it's time once again to highlight the bestest movies of the previous 12 months.
We've done this list for a few years now, and in the past I justified the inclusion of certain films by pointing out they were likely the only ones folks in the Bayou City had a chance of seeing, given the nigh nonexistent options for independent and foreign cinema here. I've never (well, rarely) argued that my choices were the absolute best movies released in a given year, just that they were the best among the options available to Houstonians.
But to paraphrase multiple-documentary subject Bob Dylan, times be changin'. Thanks to Netflix and other on-demand services, many of the year's most critically acclaimed films (Virunga and Ida among them) are available to subscribers even though they never screened locally. Whether or not watching a movie on your TV is better than experiencing it in the theater is a discussion for another time, and for one more year, at least, I'm concentrating on movies that were released in Houston theaters.
Not too many horror movies make it to end-of-year lists, mostly because their creators seem unable to free them from the restrictions of the genre (and if they do, they just make five more variations on the same theme; hello, Paranormal Activity). Australian Jennifer Kent's debut would at first appear to be just another haunted-house tale, but Kent's economical use of light and shadow, the paranoia and nagging questions about the mother's sanity, and a suspenseful build-up to monstrous confrontation soon tear things asunder Down Under, setting The Babadook well apart from its tired slasher brethren.
I've been mildly surprised at the recent backlash against Richard Linklater's magnum opus. I say "mildly" because it's hard for anything to earn universal acclaim anymore. Criticism, of course, should always be candid and thoughtful, but to call Boyhood "gimmicky" because Linklater shot 15-20 minutes of film a year for 12 years is dubious in the extreme. Is this movie perfect? Probably not, but it's as touchingly honest a depiction of family life (for certain values of family, obviously) as any I've seen, and Linklater -- wrapping up a trifecta that began with Bernie and Before Midnight -- is making some of the best movies of his career.
What's your opinion of former NSA contractor-turned-exile Edward Snowden? Is he a true patriot exposing the sinister machinations of the surveillance state? Or is he a filthy traitor whose leaked documents have jeopardized the lives of thousands of Americans? Admittedly, Laura Poitras's taut documentary may not do much to change your mind (though her sympathies clearly lie with the former). The real insight here isn't just Snowden's motivations, but the terrifying inescapabilty of the government's invasion of our privacy, and the dismal realization that things have likely progressed past the point where anyone can do anything to stop it. Merry Christmas!
Edge of Tomorrow
Just when we had almost completely written Tom Cruise off as being the demented mouthpiece of a pernicious pseudo-religion with lifeless eyes (like a doll's eyes) and no sense of humor...it turns out he has a sense of humor after all! Despite an unfortunate title (I can't have been the only person who thought of Carson's "Edge of Wetness") and a clumsy marketing campaign (should've just called it Live, Die, Repeat to begin with), EoT was surprisingly self-aware, agreeably violent and a hell of a lot funnier than it had any right to be. Cruise's career may not have needed a "resurrection," but this sure felt like one. Did L. Ron allow for those?
Guardians of the Galaxy
Be honest, when you hear that a third-tier comic-book property was being directed for Marvel by the guy previously best known as a Troma screenwriter, did you think it would end up being 2014's highest-grossing film? James Gunn has done the unthinkable, giving us one of the best movies of the year (comic book or otherwise), eliciting star-making turns from the likes of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista (!), and even developing a convincing character arc for a CGI raccoon. GotG takes us all back to a time when movies afforded audiences the opportunity to lose themselves in another world without embarrassment. We are Groot.
How many directors are there whose every new movie is occasion for fanfare (and not the kind you get from wiseass movie critics sharpening their blades, à la Michael Bay)? However many there are, Paul Thomas Anderson is at the top of the list. Departing here from the sprawl of There Will Be Blood and the intensity of The Master, PTA (as his friends call him) sucks us into the '70s with his adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's shambling mystery. Anchored by Joaquin Phoenix as an affable stoner PI and Josh Brolin's psychotically closeted detective, Inherent Vice proves once again how ahead of the pack Anderson is and how vital his films are.
It might be difficult for those who didn't grow up in the 1980s to understand my generation's fetishization of that decade's action movies. Yes, they could be jingoistic, misogynist, blood-drenched and latently homosexual (often all at the same time), but you could rarely argue that they weren't fun. Keanu Reeves is an unlikely resuscitator of the genre, considering he mostly missed out on the era (Point Break, while certainly '80s in spirit, was released in 1991). John Wick eschews the brooding aesthetic of so many recent action movies and dishes out a film that's as unassuming in its ambitions as it is enjoyable to watch.
Roger Ebert represented the apex of a career in film criticism, all but unattainable now in an era when the number of people able to make a living watching and subsequently writing or talking about movies can almost be counted on two thumbs. He was the most (hell, the only) recognizable movie critic for so many of us as well as one of the most valued voices in the industry. Interviewing a wide range of subjects from across Ebert's life and career, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) gives a fitting sendoff to a man loved by many, hated by more than a few, but respected by all.
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I'm trying to imagine the meeting in which writer/director Steve Knight pitched a movie about Tom Hardy making phone calls from a car for almost 90 minutes. The character he plays, Ivan Locke, is a successful construction manager and family man who's now paying the price for a fateful mistake. That Hardy, splendid in a second movie this year (see also The Drop), conveys so much remorse, intensity and sorrow without ever leaving his car seat makes me wonder when we can finally recognize him as one of the finest actors of this generation.
I suppose Lou Bloom technically qualifies as part of the Horatio Alger myth, since going from petty theft to freelance camera work elevates one from rags to...if not "riches," then at least some money and notoriety. Is Alger's meritocracy still applicable today, if in fact it ever was? What writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to be telling us is: The tables have turned, and "honesty and thrift" are less marketable in the 21st-century economic landscape than ruthlessness and cynicism. Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal's disturbing performance, Nightcrawler isn't just an indictment of the media; it's a sobering reflection of America as a whole.