We’re a bunch of culture geeks here at Loser City, which means we love nothing so much as conformity, lists, and faux definitive rankings of things. With that in mind, this month we’re bringing you our Loser City Best Ofs, lists on lists on lists of our picks for top video games, comics, and everything else, along with personal lists from our authors on the things that kept us from crying now and then during this terrible, terrible year.
This week, we’re focusing on film.
In 10 Things I Hate About You’s immortal conversation between Chastity and Bianca, the two reflect on the difference between like and love. Bianca muses that she likes her Skechers, but she loves her Prada backpack. Chastity counters that she loves her Skechers. Bianca’s retort: “That’s because you don’t have a Prada backpack.” When it came to film, 2014 had Prada backpacks to spare. It was a particularly great year for for films that meant something: impressive directorial debuts, indie movies that could only be described as epic, comedies that had bite and vision beyond measure, big-budget flicks with a level of morality and heart to match their technical achievements. For pete’s sake, only in a year with so many stunning films from all genres and budgets could one of Wes Anderson’s best films become the Skechers to Loser City’s collection of Prada backpacks. In short, we loved our movies this year, and we’re here to share our top picks. Read ’em, applaud ’em, debate ’em, and tell us your own.
Director: Gillian Robespierre
There are tons of critical biases when it comes to discussions about “great films,” and if you indulge those biases too much, allowing them to color the way you define greatness, you might end up dismissing Obvious Child as slight. If you did that, deciding that a romantic comedy with a female protagonist is inherently undeserving of words like “genius” and “best,” then you’d be fucking up. Obvious Child is one of the great films of 2014, and–no small feat–while our staff selections contained almost no overlap, it was the only film that landed on a majority of folks’ Top 3 lists. Chugging steadily along in a year marked by horrifying reminders of how much sexism still dominates our lives, Obvious Child has been 2014’s little abortion movie that could. This film is small in scope–Jenny Slate’s character Donna, a stand-up comic, is impregnated by a one-night stand, proceeds to have an abortion, and navigates a potential relationship with the sweet guy who impregnated her–while being huge in impact.
First-time director Gillian Robespierre makes all the right calls when it comes to pacing and tone. The fearless, inimitable Jenny Slate and her talented castmates nail every joke, play every emotion with almost uncomfortable accuracy, and build a world so real and necessary for 2014 that I, for one, had multiple days where the only thing keeping me going was remembering Obvious Child and knowing that I’m not alone. That there are smart girls who make dirty jokes, who act like idiots when they’re having drunk sex, who fall in love with their drunk sex partners, who are funny, remarkable, and worthy of love, even when they’re laying on an operating table or spending ill-advised time alone with David Cross. (Just kidding, DC, you seem like you’re a doll in real life.) There shouldn’t have been a gap that desperately needed filled by Obvious Child. There should be dozens upon dozens of movies like this. But there aren’t, and Obvious Child was here, and it mattered. – Kayleigh Hughes
Director: Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s grand experiment was a cinematic epic light years away from the cosmic, CGI-enhanced spectacle of most films that receive that label. It was an epic of human proportions, telling a 13-year tale in a manner that has rarely been attempted in film. By keeping the stakes low and the plot basic, Linklater was able to wring new depths out of the most familiar story, a boy becoming a man. The highly ambitious project could have easily been a train wreck, but Linklater kept it grounded with his writing, tracking the passage of time not with title cards or dramatic story breaks, but muted cues such as a change in haircut or a song from the film’s expertly-crafted soundtrack. As grand as Boyhood was, it wouldn’t be on this list without the performances of its four leads. Patricia Arquette elevated a broad, underwritten role into one of the most moving onscreen portrayals of motherhood of the past decade. Ethan Hawke got the meatier role, but kept his performance from being too flashy. Most notable were Ellar Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater, who grow from children to adults over the course of three hours in a manner that feels wholly authentic. Boyhood is the rare film that feels much too short at 166 minutes. Admittedly, it has its faults, but to a 23-year-old man who grew up in the same parts of Texas as the characters in the film, no movie this year packed the heavy emotional punch of Boyhood. – David Sackllah
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master, There Will Be Blood,) follows Lou ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) through a haze of various exotic strains of cannabis smoke as he investigates the sudden and suspicious disappearance of his “ex old-lady” and her “billionaire land-developer boyfriend.” The cast includes big names like Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Benicio Del Toro alongside songwriter/harpist Joanna Newsom (a real delight, as it turns out), an effectively squirmy Jenna Malone, a woefully underused and extremely pregnant Maya Rudolph, and porn star Belladona. The soundtrack, curated and written by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), features oddball luminaries Can, a new track from Radiohead called “Spooks,” and the infectious “(What A) Wonderful World” from Sam Cooke. The story involves, among other things, a ship, a looney bin, an unfinished housing development, and a semi-real mystic narrator/seer to guide the audience through the fog which rolls in thick and low over the Southern California coast.
Some might be frustrated by the intentionally vague contours of the shadowy and potentially vast conspiracy which lurks in the background of the narrative, but the truth, as they say, is out there, even if it never fully reveals itself. Despite an amiably shambling and chaotic aesthetic, the film has real fangs with which to snap at some of the darker sides of the American Hippy Era. In the end, Inherent Vice contains no shortage of insight into the beginnings of several socio-political trends which remain surprisingly, frustratingly, and intriguingly germane. – Johnson Hagood
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
2014 saw the continued dominance of superheroes at the box office, but the most intelligent superhero film didn’t involve any dour DC knights or gods or any grinning Marvel maniacs. No, the most intelligent superhero film came from the unlikely combination of an arthouse director and the OG of serious superheroics– Amores Perros auteur Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Batman star Michael Keaton.
With Birdman, these two collaborators created a work that dismantled personas and identity with flair and verve, confronting anti-genre film elitism and franchise baggage at once. The film has been hyped as a revival of Michael Keaton’s career, but filmgoers who were surprised by the actor’s incendiary performance are arguably part of its thematic target. Like his Birdman surrogate Riggan Thomson, Keaton has been an unpredictable former box office titan and it’s not so much that Inarritu forced an eccentric, revitalized performance out of him as he was smart enough to recognize Keaton has always been an underrated talent who just needed the right starring vehicle. But Birdman isn’t a bitter film– it’s full of surprises and vitality, making stars not just of Keaton but of its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione (working overtime to help make the film feel like one massive take) as well as supporting cast members Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis. Few films this decade let alone this year were as invigorating, smart and fun as Birdman, and until Flex Mentallo hits the big screen, this may be the best meta heroic cinema experience we’ll get. – Morgan Davis
Director: Dan Gilroy
America needs a mirror held up to it every now and again, and in 2014 we gazed at the warm, streetlight-bathed highways of Los Angeles and saw a gaggle of assholes with video cameras. Dan Gilroy’s debut film, Nightcrawler, offers a darkly comic, pissed-off look at a previously uncharted, insidious figure of society: the modern sociopath. Gilroy’s world is our world, where everyone’s rushing to exclaim “First!” and people who, with the least amount of conscience, end up proving the best means of achieving that–presuming you’re not worried about who gets hurt in the process. Unlike everything else you’ve heard about, Nightcrawler is actually about ethics in journalism.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s chameleonic, irresistible performance as Lou Bloom is Gordon Gekko by way of Travis Bickle, a calculating, alien weirdo who accidentally finds his calling by recording video of fresh human suffering for the local news. Starting with a stolen bike to pay for a camera and a police scanner, Bloom grows in both power and cunning like a 4chan version of Scarface, with no limit to the lengths he’ll go to reach his goals, as he makes threats above his weight class, delivers on others, and quietly cuts corners to maximize the lurid nature of his trade in exchange for wealth and TV ratings. Bloom sees people as either opportunities or obstacles, and even Gilroy’s film makes no effort to present him in a positive light. We’re aware that this is America now, a lawless land where the people who care the least achieve the most. – Danny Djeljosevic
Director: David Wnendt
Irresponsibly described by some critics as a “gross out comedy,” Wetlands was the film that stayed on my mind the most this year because of how interesting and fresh its spin on women’s sexual and body confidence was. Unapologetically explicit and frank but also funny, sharp and, yes, even charming, Wetlands turned one young woman’s never ending interest in her body and all its joys and obscenities into one of the most revolutionary films of the 21st century.
A magical realist take on Charlotte Roche’s infamous 2008 novel, Wetlands pulled no punches, but its biggest surprise wasn’t teenage hemorrhoids or unflinching sex scenes, it was Carla Juri’s incredible performance as Helen, the boldly gross girl protagonist. Confined to a hospital bed after an anal shaving incident, Helen refuses to let society’s belief that women should be clean, not heard, keep her from her explorations of what her body has to offer. Festival goers who saw this film this year may have gone in expecting some sub-John Waters sicksploitation, but Juri and director David Wnendt happily provided an eye openingly raw, heartfelt narrative experience, encouraging us all to be a little more open about our bodies. – Morgan Davis
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Listen, I don’t see many new movies. It’s my biggest cultural deficiency, the point at which I just don’t care enough to follow through on my egoistic ambition to be literate in the ways of pop culture. I watched Snowpiercer, which was good but not great, and one hour of Nymphomaniac. My movie watching is incredibly haphazard, a product of idle whims and Netflix recommendations. My real best movie of 2014 was 1973’s The Long Goodbye. It’s a blind spot.
My sad, sad exception is superhero movies. I love me some superhero movies. (Yeah, I know, I’ll watch Birdman soon, sheesh.) Whenever I watch (and almost inevitably enjoy) a superhero movie, though, I’m having an argument in my head: is this a good movie, or just a good superhero movie? Captain America: The Winter Soldier might be the only superhero film I’ve ever seen to decisively pass the test. Borrowing conventions from ’70s spy thrillers, The Winter Soldier is paranoid and frenetic, dark and sophisticated in its darkness in a way that the genre rarely delves into, accomplishing something that felt politically relevant and anti-authoritarian without losing the allegorical accessibility of its superheroics. And, unlike most superhero films, it grounds its action in a complex and equitable dynamic between a woman and a man, with Scarlett Johansson’s cynical and pragmatic spy taking the lead more often than not against Chris Evans’ larger-than-life-but-completely-out-of-his-depth hero out of time. The two had fantastic chemistry and the Russo brothers were smart enough not to try to shoehorn a romance onto their plot line, allowing their dynamic to speak for itself without falling into traditional “guy gets the girl” nonsense.
The Winter Soldier impressed me, managing to be thoughtful popcorn fare–both political and personal, allegorical and intimate. Even if you are incredibly tired of capes and masks, it’s worth a watch. It was a great movie, dammit. – Jake Muncy
Director: David Ayer
There are no happy endings in war, only outcomes.
David Ayer’s Fury is a sharp, muddy, and bloody bayonet to the heart of Tom Brokaw’s bullshit about The Greatest Generation. Nothing in war is pretty or pristine–the stench of death and permanence is everywhere, sometimes literally, with the symbolism as subtly prevalent as the tank exhaust smoke throughout. Ayer’s hand as screenwriter and director is at its peak. He deftly handles the diegetic reflections of the film, which is set in the final days of the Reich, when the Germans were launching brutal, desperate offensives with literally anybody, including women and children. The able were fed to the thresher in the name of the country that was betraying them. In the same vein, we see the crew and everyone around them push through these metaphorical death throes, and in some cases get caught in their own.
The film is entrenched and supported by a cast as bonded and forceful as the titular tank they spend time in–from Brad Pitt’s stern-handed Wardaddy to Shia LeBeouf and Jon Bernthal, giving career-making performances as believably shitty people bound together by their desire to see the next day, there isn’t a weak man in the bunch. There isn’t time to be weak, there’s only time to live on stronger. As they tread toward the expectedly crimson conclusion, the men find comfort in a verbal motif of “$1.25 a day–best job I ever had,” and in this moment Fury solidifies itself and the future of David Ayer and his cast as a force to be reckoned with. It’s as mean as it is precise: as fuck. – Rafael Gaitan
Director: Lars von Trier
It feels almost inconceivable that the controversy surrounding Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s “freaky new sex movie,” belonged to 2014. Those early months feel so far away now, and many films have outshined Nymphomaniac both at the box office and in the eyes of critics. But by my estimation, the Nymphomaniac hype fizzled so quickly upon the release of its two parts (which fully need to be considered as one piece–looking at you, ALL of America) because, rather than the expected heartless, indulgent onslaught of perversions, the film was actually just good–really good. And with a director like von Trier, really good isn’t that exciting to talk about.
Nymphomaniac is simple: a woman named Joe tells an older man the story of how she ended up laying bloody in the alley outside his home. Within this framing device, the movie wrenches wildly powerful and raw performances from already-talented actors such as Stellan Skarsgard, the invigorating but much-maligned Shia Labeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and newcomer Stacy Martin. The latter two, with nuance and an intense, shared understanding of the character, play the older and younger versions of Joe, respectively. By tracking the self-proclaimed nympho from early childhood to present day, Nymphomaniac constructs a mesmerizing narrative of vignettes, ranging from reflective to hilarious to utterly soul-wrecking, that deftly comment on the norms and niches of sexual expression and intimacy. Joe is simply telling her story–her life in sex, so to speak–but von Trier does a masterful job exploring how inseparable such concepts as “life” and “sex” really are, and the film forces you to consider your own life explicitly in terms of sexuality. Nymphomaniac is often brutal–the sex acts are as frequent and varied as the film’s artful mood shifts–but it never feels cheap, and even as it makes its way past the five-hour mark, it eschews “boring,” simply growing more vital. – Kayleigh Hughes
Director: Damien Chazelle
Whiplash is a movie about legacy, about genius, about working your body to the literal bone for the sake of your art. What it is and what it’s about are inextricably linked, knotted into a kinetic, frenetic bebop of bile and anger, and director Damian Chazelle’s camera never loses track of its subject, focusing in and out of his sacrificial self-mutilation. Miles Teller and JK Simmons both deliver career-best performances here, and much of their characters is created in the physical performances of the actors—the way the lines on their faces arch and flatten, their switch-flip movement from civility to face-to-face terrorism, the way their chests and shoulders and arms are incorporated into their pantomimed warfare. And editor Tom Cross cuts into musical cues that give the film a vitalizing, dynamic tempo, filling you with energy and making you want to get out of your seat and tap your toes.
There were few other movies that delivered comparable performances, even fewer that paired style and substance to this degree, and none that match the last 10 minutes—an anarchic microcosm of the film’s overarching structure splayed out in this chaotic whirlwind of movement, of emotion, and of reaffirmation of everything the film is trying to say. – Shea Hennum