Film Review

Favorite Films of 2014


Because synchronicity has been on my mind recently, I wondered while considering my favorite films of 2014 if any of them were thematically aligned, explicitly or otherwise. Turns out they are. The ten-ish films that lodged themselves into my brain this year naturally arranged themselves into pairs or groups—some odd ones, to be sure, but nevertheless interesting. I landed on four categories, some of which could easily describe many of the listed films but felt like the right headings for the films they contain. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that I’ve yet to see a number of 2014 films I suspect would make this list, here are the ones that made movies fun this year. (Spoilers aplenty ahead.)

LOOKING CLOSER (h/t Jeffrey Overstreet)
, directed by Richard Linklater
Life Itself, directed by Steve James

I preemptively connected these two films in my review of Boyhood, but time has revealed even more. Both films concern themselves with telling the unvarnished truth: in Boyhood it’s via the yearly check-ins with Mason & Co and the focus on quotidian moments over Kodak ones, and in Life Itself it’s via the camera’s unblinking view of Roger Ebert’s sad yet dignified decline. The march of time, which these two films concern themselves with greatly, is relentless and revelatory. Its power is best seen at the extremes: zoomed in to the micro, the everyday details we can see only on foot, and zoomed out to the macro, where the cosmic, birds-eye view of things looks oddly like the micro. Isn’t it funny how images from a telescope can look like something captured from a petri dish (e.g. Hubble’s picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, not-so-ironically dubbed “Pillars of Creation”). Set up a double feature, rename them The Beginning and The End, and you’ve got an amazing portrait of life, to name-check another fine movie, rendered in the spectacular now.

Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonough
Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

Let loose into their outside worlds, the Catholic priest of Calvary and the novice nun of Ida encounter the hostile brokenness of laypeople who either don’t see the need for the Church or resent it outright. These ecclesiastics—one in postwar Communist Poland and the other in modern Ireland—are spurred out from their cloistered lives by a similar commission: Get your life in order. They face a reckoning with their calling, one last chance to ponder the consequences of their decisions and make things right before destiny calls. Yet despite the gravity of their pilgrimage among the people, they mostly just listen. They absorb the pain and bitterness around them while trying to reconcile their vocation with their tempestuous milieus and arrive at peace. Can it be done? Good question.

Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Multiple dimensions. New worlds. A hero destined to save mankind. Travels through black holes and time portals. An old sage with questionable tactics. Love conquering all. I wasn’t expecting two of my favorite movies of the year to have so much in common while also being essentially polar-opposite in their style and audience, and yet here we are. Who is Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar if not the Master Builder reluctantly fulfilling his destiny to save the universe through ingenuity and love? And what are The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and other worlds if not the mystery planets the Interstellar crew sought for salvation? Even the final twists echo each other: Interstellar’s time-hopping tesseract and The Lego Movie’s portal to human Earth reveal the handiwork of an extra-dimensional Creator and redefine everything we’d seen before. Never was I in awful wonder more this year than during these two films.

Locke, directed by Steven Knight
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

What are you prepared to do? (I can’t help imagining that line being said in an intense Scottish accent.) The protagonists here have a mission and will not stop until it is accomplished. Locke’s Ivan and the Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic set a course and stick to it, come personal hell and high water—even while their worlds crumble around him and their decisions inflict suffering upon innocents. In Whiplash, Andrew’s steely determination to succeed as a jazz drummer draws blood and fractures his psyche. And Curtis, the reluctant leader of the train-bound proletariat uprising in Snowpiercer, forges forward for answers, making brutal personal sacrifices along the way. Is all this carnage worth it? Results vary, but all four of these films’ endings seem to have a similar answer.

They Came Together, directed by David Wain

Because this made me laugh so hard.

Film God Religion Review



The Master of death will come soon enough—and perhaps we can already hear His footsteps. There is no need to forestall His hour nor to fear it. When He enters into us to destroy, as it seems, the virtues and the forces that we have distilled with so much loving care out of the sap of the world, it will be as a loving fire to consummate our completion in union.  The Divine Milieu

There’s a well-known exchange in the documentary Bowling for Columbine wherein Michael Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about politics, media culture, and his supposed influence on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting. Pretty quickly after the 1999 tragedy, Manson’s violent lyrics, “trenchcoat mafia” look, and anti-authoritarian attitude were scorned by parents and politicians, and the man himself was made a primary scapegoat for the carnage done by two troubled teens. Moore asks Manson what he would say to them if he could have talked to them directly: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson said. “I’d listen to what they have to say. That’s what no one did.”

Wise words from a surprising source. I thought of them after seeing Calvary, the new film from John McDonaugh. (Here be spoilers, natch.) The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson), pastor of a small Irish parish, listening in a confession booth to something startling: a mystery parishioner, abused by a priest as a child, threatens to kill him—an innocent priest—as payment for the sins of the Church. The man tells Father James to settle his affairs, make his peace with God, and meet him on the beach in a week’s time. Father James doesn’t fight back, call the police, or flee: he listens, letting the heavy words sink in, and then embarks on his allotted week bearing a new and heavy cross.

But it’s a burden, it becomes clear, he must bear alone. His fellow parish priest (a nervous, judgmental type) doesn’t share Father James’s relative serenity, earned from his pre-priesthood life. As a layman, I’d imagine, Father James experienced the same loss, doubt, and other common plagues of the soul; it’s what makes him unlike the other priests, “too smart” for this parish as one woman puts it and yet faithful enough to abide in it. Yet even as a priest he’s still a sinner, struggling with alcohol and the desire to flee. His parishioners aren’t a reliable source of inspiration or support, their interactions with Father James throughout the week ranging from tepid respect to outright scorn. And his adult daughter, visiting after a botched suicide attempt, struggles to reconcile her father’s new pastoral role with his lack of paternal guidance in the wake of her mother’s death. He’s trying his best with the deck stacked against him, the trauma of the Catholic church sex abuse scandal still fresh for his wary flock.

Simultaneously, Father James tries to deduce his would-be killer’s identity. Like many whodunits, most of the players in his life are suspects: is it the cuckolded town butcher he confronted about beating his wife? the pompous, grandiloquent millionaire whose support he spurned? the sarcastic male prostitute who’s contemptuous of the Church? or the nihilistic doctor hardened by the suffering around him? Father James fields each of these parishioners’ caustic commentaries —against him, the Church, or whatever else travails them. He listens, but also wearies. The parade of sin feels too long, too hopelessly unredeemable. As King Theodin remarks in The Return of the King, “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

And what can we do? Marilyn Manson’s response aside, I doubt merely sitting down with the Columbine killers and listening to them would have persuaded them not to commit their heinous crimes. So for as much as Father James listens patiently to the troubles of his congregants, there’s not much he can do. He can administer absolution, sure, but only to the penitent, of which there are few. But now, with a very real target on his back, the time for talk is over: what is he to do?

Calvary winds through Father James’ (final?) week with that question in mind. It’s Gleeson’s charisma as an actor that keeps things steady throughout this tumultuous journey. Gleeson teems with soulful presence and hard-won wisdom. This differs greatly from his role as Sgt. Boyle in The Guard (also directed by McDonaugh) yet still retains a similar good-heartedness. McDonaugh brings the celestial themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption back down to earth in this darkly comic story, in a community that really could be anyone’s. It’s a welcome relief from the spate of sterile, overtly “Christian” films that proselytize more than ponder, that make good sermons but usually not good art. Calvary is good art because it isn’t sterile; it’s not afraid to get dirty, to search for truth and beauty in the muck of faith on earth. With life and death as the stakes, Calvary’s search is on indeed.