The year just ending wasn’t a terrible one for movies, but it will be remembered as depressingly uninspired. Earnest craftsmanship is the mantra of the moment, particularly in the risk-phobic American cinema. Consider the siege we’ve endured (especially since Labor Day) of serious, solid movies -- including Gone Girl, Foxcatcher, Exodus: Gods and Kings, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, A Most Violent Year and Still Alice -- that demanded our attention for long hours and repaid us with the briefest flashes of transcendent joy, insight or pathos.
It was no easy task summoning memorable moments from the year’s morass, yet here in chronological order are the sequences that, for me, best captured the vitality and intelligent power that movies are capable of expressing.
Polish-born, English-based writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski returned to his birthplace to make a stark black-and-white moral tale that was not only set in the early 1960s, but designed to look and feel like a movie from that period. Pawlikowski cast a non-professional as a blank-faced, convent-raised young woman on the verge of taking her vows who is first sent to meet the aunt she didn’t know she had. The women consequently embark on a road trip to a nightmare past and potentially freeing future. Among countless haunting sequences in this profound, stripped-down movie, I see the aunt -- brilliantly depicted by Agata Kulesz as a ruthlessly idealistic and savagely disappointed Communist long mired in 100 proof cynicism -- lighting a cigarette in a bare-bones restaurant and scoping out a nearby male with all the warmth and empathy of a Siberian wolf.
Leading roles for women were in short supply (so what’s new?), especially for actresses of a certain age. Hanif Kureishi’s screenplay about a long-married and palpably frustrated British couple channeling happier days and looking for lost magic in Paris paired the astonishing Lindsay Duncan with national treasure Jim Broadbent. Duncan is a delicious revelation, by turns scathing and rambunctious, flirty and brutally direct. Her playing of a restaurant scene with Broadbent, especially after the shockingly large check arrives, was one of the year’s high points.
Love Is Strange
Another older couple, the newly married gay men portrayed by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, supplies the heart and soulfulness of Ira Sachs’ endearing yet rigorously unsentimental family drama. You may relish conflict in movies; I savor unexpected moments of connection and tenderness. Love is Strange gives us a precious handful, notably a late-night conversation in which Lithgow’s usually oblivious character offers encouragement -- and conveys some understanding -- to the justifiably resentful teenager compelled by circumstances to share his personal space (i.e., his bunk bed) with an much older gay relative.
My first three choices suggest that I identify more with older characters each passing year. In my defense, how could you connect with the bland, blank slate that Richard Linklater chose as the focus of his lengthy, superficial opus? Consequently, the moments I most vividly recall involve Ethan Hawke. Linklater’s decision to use the same actors over a decade-plus of filming produce some unique results -- hence Boyhood’s inclusion on this list -- but the film has surprisingly little to say about the way this child’s passions and values were influenced by his family and society. For a coming-of-age story with exceptional character insight that also punches you in the gut, revisit Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
The gripping opening scene of John Michael McDonagh’s existential Irish mortality play comprises a single, static shot of a priest’s face in the confession booth as he listens to an unidentified parishioner promise to kill him the following Sunday. Brendan Gleeson’s hulking yet ambivalent portrayal -- in complete partnership with McDonagh’s literate, grown-up script -- carries the scene and the movie into dark, rich places.
Revived by San Francisco Cinematheque at the Castro in November, Andy Warhol’s 1966 double projection, three-and-a half-hour quasi-fictional portrait of denizens of New York’s Chelsea Hotel was one of the weirder pleasures of the year. The parade of fanatically long takes was quintessentially Warholian in that the interminable moments were as central to Warhol’s conception as the compelling ones. I shall long remember Nico standing in a kitchen endlessly trimming her bangs in a hand mirror (file under Innocence), beloved cult figure and in-person guest Mary Woronov skulking and glowering onscreen (No-method Acting) and Pope Ondine shooting speed and going off on some poor woman (Mania).
Listen Up Philip
Alex Ross Perry’s frenetic tale of a self-obsessed young novelist features a relentless performance by Jason Schwartzman as the most insufferable subspecies of educated urban schmuck -- the kind who thinks that being self-aware and owning it somehow redeems his schmuckiness. Perry, wisely recognizing that audiences need a break from this egomaniac, dispatches Philip for a good, long while to follow his erstwhile girlfriend.
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) delivers the best pure, concentrated acting to grace a screen this year, most memorably in a sequence where she wordlessly glides through a sequence of four or five emotions in response to a piece of news.
A North Dakota pastor risks alienating his congregation by providing shelter and assistance to the horde of homeless men who’ve come from all over seeking oil-related jobs in this riveting profile by Bay Area documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss. In a strong year for documentaries (so what’s new?), The Overnighters exposed the post-Depression dislocation and desperation that is pervasive yet somehow invisible (at least on television). I have questions about the doc’s structure and ethics, but there’s no denying the unsettling effectiveness of an awkward dinner-table scene with the minister’s family.
I am ticked off, to tell you the truth, that Ava DuVernay’s impeccably mounted and frequently moving reenactment of a pivotal chain of events in the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t booked into theaters a month before Election Day. It’s all about money, of course: Opening on Christmas Day when children are out of school (and will be for the next week or two) will likely result in better box office than an October run. OK, but if the film’s goals include making a difference -- well, you get my point. I suppose I’ll embrace the silver lining, namely that Annie won’t be the only screen representation of black people that white people will see this holiday season.
A lovingly rendered period piece that’s all nuance, shadow and light, Mike Leigh’s portrait of British painter J.M.W. Turner consists almost entirely of small moments. There are no heart-wrenching revelations or confessions, no knockdown, drag-out fights. So how to choose a defining image from Leigh’s compositions or Timothy Spall’s fully inhabited performance? I can’t, except to cite any of the many instances of the rotund, top-heavy Turner walking -- navigating whatever terrain with supreme self-confidence, accepting the labor required without hesitation, oblivious to other people and seeing what only he can see. We feel we have the experience of being privy to a man living his life, not an actor playing a role or following a script. That may or may not be a kind of magic or miracle, but it is transcendent.