By Paul Rai
Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, “Nightcrawler” follows what is arguably one of the seediest yet enrapturing characters of 2014. Lou Bloom everything an employer would look for in a worker — he is determined, self-taught, and highly intelligent. As a small-time thief, he yearns for a job or even a trade to advance his life into a full-fledged career. He soon finds himself involved in freelance video journalism that sells footage of crime scenes where he manages to get the first scoop and can sell it to a news station. As he quickly learns the ropes on roaming the sultry streets of L.A., he finds himself not only conquering his version of the American dream, but becoming a pathological, yet charming sociopath. Morals are disposable for him; he is very literal, perceptive, and dastardly cunning. Bloom is the kind of person that can easily persuade someone to fork over their cake, and convince them they don’t deserve to eat it. Yet, what Gilroy shows is that this is the aftermath of a lost generation, now left in shambles at a post-recession United States. Job opportunities are scarce, and people now have to mold and become something even more than just an ideal candidate for a job. Like Bloom, they must sink to levels of pure evil conniving villainy. Jake Gyllenhaal gives what is the best performance of his career — he is the portrait of creepy, slick worm, awaiting to take advantage of any situation. His performance is equally captivating as it is vile. While the film does become a huge satire on the extremities of the media for being dependent on the “What bleeds, leads” headline news segment, it is more of an effect from people like Bloom who have decided to carve their space in the American heartland.
4. “Inherent Vice”
Muddled, foggy, almost incoherent and yet marvelous, Paul Thomas Anderson’s wacky crime noir is another tremendous feet for the director. Based on the infamous book by Thomas Pynchon, “Vice” plays out like a convoluted plot, full of layers upon layers that get bogged down by characters that are each representative to the world of “Vice.” It is the early seventies, on the sandy beaches of Los Angeles, our hero, Private Eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by an old flame — she inquires him to look up the disappearance of her current fling, Mickey Wolfmann, who is believed to have been committed to a “looney bin” by his current wife, and her boyfriend, to embezzle money from his estate. Already Doc is nearing down the rabbit hole of confusion, but soon, he gets caught in a whirlwind of a missing person’s case, an international drug cartel known as “The Golden Fang” importing heroin to Doc’s quaint community, and butting heads with a fascist, authoritative mad-dog known as Detective F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Doc clearly is one heck-of-a-doozy here. The luscious cinematography by Anderson-favorite Robert Elswit lends to the surreal bright haze that not only perpetuated the daytime beach setting, but gives the feeling of an old, vintage 70s-era film. Johnny Greenwood’s atmospheric score gives off the feeling of the cool-vibe feeling that long permeated the “hippie-loving” culture of the 60s and 70s. Each performance is as everlasting and vibrant as the layered and tangential dialogue that Anderson adapts with impeccable respect and integrity to the mysterious Thomas Pynchon, whose works are among the greatest contemporary works of twentieth century literature. While it may seem aimless and pointless, the where it all might not make sense, rest assured, every move and choice made by Anderson is deliberate and subtle — this comedically wry, crime noir is among one of the best misunderstood films of 2014.
3. “A Most Violent Year”
With J.C. Chandor’s third directorial achievement, he is quickly becoming one of the most exciting, creative voices in cinema right now. Set in a 1981 New York, “Year” follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as an immigrant with his own up-and-coming heating oil company called Standard Oil, and aims to secure financial independence by buying his own fuel oil terminal to beat his competitors. However, competitors see him as a threat and continuously hijack his trucks, severely costing him thousands of losses. As he closes the deal with a down payment that will close in a month, he soon faces a strong storm of forces bent on not only destroying his business, but his aspirations for the American Dream. What Chandor does beautifully is he does not revert to genre conventions and tropes that are riddled with the crime genre. Abel is a man of integrity and respect stuck in a world that is full of mobs and gangsters — the entire film is how in the face of violence, he will not succumb and dismantle his morals for power. He is uncompromising in believing in violence as the only answer, as he tries desperately to be steadfast in the face of insurmountable odds as he also faces Lawrence (David Oyelowo), an Assistant District Attorney who is investigating his company for tax evasion and other illegal activities. Isaac is truly outstanding; with such a calm demeanor with so much conflict, he is both calm and collected as he is scared and tempted to cave into his inner urge to become a caricature of a gangster that his competitors have become. Jessica Chastain plays Abel’s wife, Anna, and she represents a side that Abel isn’t — the ruthless crime figure that is not afraid to fire a gun, something Abel cannot bring himself to do. As both clash over the “right” way to handle the forces pummeling them, the moral question arises on how to truly fight corruption.
While this may not be my number one favorite film of the year, this is, without a doubt, the best film of 2014. Damien Chazelle has crafted a masterpiece; not a single frame or single note rings false. Equivalent to the intensity of a modern horror thriller, “Whiplash” is not just the most exciting and rousing film of 2014, but is the kind of film that will be studied for decades for its flawless and immaculate execution of how extraordinary direction can elevate a script. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a freshman jazz drummer at a prestigious music conservatory, as he aims to not just be the best, but “one of the greats.” He is quickly picked up by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) a well-renowned conductor who accepts Andrew to join his band. However, it is revealed the Fletcher is not only abusive to his students (yelling insults and humiliating them is the least he can do), but pushes his students — both physically and mentally — to be the image of perfection. Just a simple note and Fletcher will throw a chair at your head, inconsiderate of the consequences. Andrew realizes that he must get the validation from him if he ever so chooses to advance himself as a drummer. Both Andrew and Fletcher find themselves in the middle of a heated battle — Fletcher tortures Andrew with his unrelenting, unethical practices as Andrew will not give up. What happens next I dare not say, but all I can say is that it culminates into one of the greatest, grand finales I’ve ever seen. To say the film ends on a high-note is an understatement; it is truly unforgettable. Chazelle orchestrates such an intense film that is both an exciting piece of entertainment but also serves as a moral quandary on the idea of how much would one suffer for their obsession and is it all worth the suffering. Teller is truly the breakout star — always being typecast as the obnoxious, snarky character, here, he is emotionally vulnerable, dedicated and powerless. Teller himself performed most of the drumming, as he bleeds and looses his grip on his sanity as he goes to war with both the drum and Fletcher. And Simmons’s performance is the absolute best of 2014. Always been a character actor, Simmons not only excels as this malicious teacher, but is sensational in every aspect. With the precise and pristine editing by Tom Cross and the sweeping camera work by Sharone Meir, we enter the world of this studio band, where each instrument is the students’ weapon, and with drumming, Andrew aims to not only drum till his hands are bare bone, but to sound off the arrival of a new Buddy Rich.
1. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Hard to believe that such a consciously self-aware, self-referential, cynical film managed to win Best Picture among the so much fluff at this year’s Oscars, but believe it — Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s offbeat, dark comedy is not only my favorite film of 2014, but now among my favorites of all time. In a role that is truly a comeback in every sense of the word, Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a washed-up Hollywood actor known for playing a superhero character known as Birdman in the early 90s, but as he soon left the franchise, his career plummeted. Now he plans to stage a comeback on Broadway by adapting, starring and directing a play, but is soon coming to terms with his true identity as he is continuously plagued by a deep, ominous voice in his head (it is his alter ego, Birdman) convincing him that he will always be the man in the costume and not a real actor. With days of rehearsals and previews that become disastrous as dealing with a pretentious, self-inflated actor, Mike Shiner, which (Edward Norton), trying to mend the strained relationship with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), coming out of rehab, and the line between reality art begins to blur, Riggan’s identity crisis escalates into something truly transformative. Did I mention that the entire film is shot to create the allusion that it is one, long continuous tracking shot? Emmanuel Lubezki, the ultimate cinematographer of tracking shots, does his most ambitious work by having the film give the look that it is in all one, seamless shot, as his camera follows various characters in various places, incorporating time-jumps and even special effects to show Riggan’s mind deteriorating to believe he possess superpowers, both Iñárritu and Lubezki stage one of the greatest magic tricks in cinema. This is Keaton’s story — never minding the fact that he did play Batman in his career, and after he left from playing him, his career did suffer, one can almost see this as something of an inside joke of art imitating life, but Keaton pours everything he has into this role — it is almost uncomfortable at how this tale of such a sorrowful character could resemble real life. Almost to the point how the Birdman character comments to Riggan’s age “60’s the new 30,” as Keaton is the same age. He is truly incredible, as he delves into the pits of Riggan’s soul, one can’t help but feel Keaton has truly made a comeback with this film. Both Norton and Stone are fantastic, as is the entire cast. The score by Antonio Sanchez is one of the most original scores I’ve heard for a film since Greenwood’s work on “There Will be Blood.” Composed mostly of just a jazzy drum beat, the score is as striking as it is animated. The real star is Iñárritu — having always been a director of human suffering and making films about characters suffering into miserable ends, to see such a change to make a black comedy, he manages to take that human suffering and put a jester’s hat on it. The dialogue is as hilarious and irreverent; the staging of his scenes is magnificent, in one great scene where Riggan struts in Times Square in his underwear, to another where he imagines being Birdman again with action scenes and explosions, “not this talky, depressing, philosophical expletive” as Birdman emphasizes to Riggan. It truly is one of the most impressive films about Hollywood to ever be made, and with such a verve and wit. It may be unconventional and bizarre, but that only makes it so inspired and sensational.
My favorite films of 2014:
- “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
- “A Most Violent Year”
- “Inherent Vice”
- “The Rover”
- “The Lego Movie”
- “Under the Skin”
- “Gone Girl”
- 13 “Edge of Tomorrow”
- “Blue Ruin”
- “The Calvary”