2014 was a great year for weird, wonderful, bizarre, and truly unique movies. So good, in fact, that this Six Pack will be in two parts over the next two weeks. There are even some 2014 movies that I didn’t have a chance to see that I suspect would make admirable contributions (most notably Horns and The Babadook). So here is a list of, not only some of my favorite movies of the year, but also some of the strangest, quirkiest, and most twisted of the bunch.
Being a fan of Michael Keaton, I was predisposed to enjoy this movie if only for the performance the actor put in. But Birdman has much more going for it than the pitch perfect Keaton and his neurotic band of stage actors. The film is a dysfunctional backstage dramedy, filmed in collection of long scenes that fit together to appear as one long, continuous take. The focus is on the varied neuroses and insecurities of the professional actors that people the vanity project of an aging Hollywood celebrity. The Hollywood actor in question is Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who imagines he has telekinetic powers and whose inner voice is his foul mouthed, truth telling comicbook alter-ego Birdman. Riggan, like everyone else, is battling an existential crisis regarding his self-worth as both an actor and a human being. The film is a roller-coaster of emotion with an extremely thin veil of sanity disguising the underlying disconnect from reality.
This was one of the surprise independent hits of the summer, with Chris Evans leading a post-apocalyptic rebellion aboard a train with a self-sustaining eco-system and an increasingly distinct class system. The film itself is an American-Korean adaptation of a French graphic novel. If those diverse credentials don’t strike you as unique, I don’t know what will. The revolt by the lower class, back-of-the-train population is violent and bloody, and realistically expected to be over before it starts. But Evans and Co. push on to the front of the train, only to discover the horrible truth behind their rebellion, the uneven class system, and what exactly Evans has to prove by leading his people to a better life.
Only Lovers Left Alive
This was absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year. Jim Jarmusch delivers an incredibly Jarmuschian tale of a community of vampires, their loneliness in eternal life, and frustration regarding the disconnect between the current state of humanity and their advanced understanding of it. While these vampires have a unique culture shared by their kind, they are also incredibly human in their emotions and desires. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton make for a beautifully tragic love story and are both incredibly relatable despite their undead status. While their lifestyle and the cinematography presenting it gives off a romanticized feeling, the truth simmering just beneath the surface is filled with loneliness and tragedy.
It’s hard to come up with a more unique premise than that of Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, in which a struggling, mediocre musician who falls into the company of a strange, talented band of misfits begins to chronicle their recording sessions in order to garner a following. Oh, and the visionary leader of the band, Frank, always wears a false head over his own. The fact that Frank is played by the incredibly handsome Michael Fassbender and effectively keeps his face hidden for most the film is a detail that I quite enjoy. We all knew that Fassbender was a pretty good actor, but here he lets his performance take front stage over his face. The end product is a quirky journey down the rabbit hole of near fame, the struggles of mental illness, and the destructive power of the lust for fame.
Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a haunting, stark, and beautiful movie about an alien, disguised as a beautiful human woman (Scarlet Johansson), who mysteriously hunts and lures men to their death. The result is a surreal journey from hunter to self-discovery as the alien comes to terms with both its humanity and sexuality. Johansson starts out as a blank slate, easily moldable into the bait by which men are trapped. As she tallies up conquests, however, you can see the emotion and confusion creep into her eyes and the curiosity that accompanies her actions. The bleak Scottish settings of the action perfectly balance and compliment the stark abstractness of the Kubrickian cut scenes. It is a strange and affecting movie by a director who excels at the strange and affecting. It’s too bad that Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) has only done three movies in the last fourteen years.
I never think I’m a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal until I realize that I often very much approve of his film choices. Last year he starred in the abstract and disturbing Enemy, and in previous years both Zodiac and Donnie Darko. This year he adds an exceptional movie to his resume of dark, strange, and twisted films with Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal plays a greasy and charming sociopath looking for success in Los Angeles, grabbing onto any scheme he thinks might shoot him to the big time. He happens across the professional practice of filming footage of accidents and crimes for the television news, the perfect job for an amoral and determined man like himself. He hires on a poorly paid intern and starts roaming the street with a police scanner, looking for the closest and goriest footage of high class victims of low class crime. As the film progresses, his boundaries disintegrate and his determination increases, until you feel kind of dirty for rooting for him in the first place.