Five years is an eternity in the life of a film.
Five years is an eternity in the life of a film. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these movies play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed films of 2014 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Birdman, Whiplash and Guardians of the Galaxy didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! Here is what we said in 2014.
10. Two Days, One Night (dirs: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
As we exist within a climate where human empathy feels challenged, a film like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night feels revolutionary. The premise is quite simple: Following a medical leave from her job due to depression, factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has been told by the management that the team can function without her. They come to a compromise, however, in which Sandra has one weekend to convince her coworkers to sacrifice their yearly bonus so she can keep her job. It’s a painful endeavor to endure as a viewer, watching Sandra conjure up the courage to approach her workmates and beg them to give up 1,000 euros. The dynamics in these interactions are monumentally moving in their complicated combination of compassion and clearheaded consideration; it’s hard not to empathize with both parties when Sandra is pleading with someone to give up a large sum of money that could hugely benefit their family.
The Dardenne brothers zero in on these stripped-down interactions while deeply scrutinizing topics of mental illness, class and universal understanding. It’s a magical and stirring piece of cinema that penetrates the soul in ways that few films in the 21st century have managed to achieve. – Greg Vellante
9. Nightcrawler (dir: Dan Gilroy)
In the tradition of films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sweet Smell of Success, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler will endure the test of time as a brilliant-dirtbag character portrait that doubles as a scathing indictment of the intersection of capitalism and the worst corners of humanity. Centered around Jake Gyllenhaal’s criminally unsung performance as Louis Bloom, a terrifying go-getter whose cancerous ambition borders on homicidal, the film functions as a dystopian, L.A. noir thriller just as well as a cautionary tale about the logical extrapolation of modern influencer culture.
Many films of the last decade attempt to decry the harmful elements of social acceleration, how the insistence that every “entrepreneur” can have their own personal empire if they just push hard enough and remain positive. But none do so with such macabre gusto. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom looks like a zombie barista, a thing that would not die and clawed back from the grave based solely on the mantralike recitation of self-help hokum snatched from the hashtags of an Instagram post. Watching his horrific journey from unemployed ghoul to crime-scene photographer to media mogul, the film’s darkly comic approach makes it nearly impossible to tell whether or not Bloom is meant to be derided as the absolute worst kind of person or held on a pedestal as the best.
All that’s certain is he’s the singular distillation of all that is wrong with the way things have become, proof that following these self-betterment maxims to their end points is sure to crossover into mania. – Dominic Griffin
8. Interstellar (dir: Christopher Nolan)
Christopher Nolan’s films have a reputation for lacking a sense of humanity and emotion in service to big ideas. Given this fair criticism, Interstellar represents the film where this penchant meets emotional resonance, creating what is undoubtedly his masterpiece. With a heap of Star Trek and a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film tells the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murphy (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn at different stages) and how the love between father and daughter saved humanity.
Cooper is one in a long line of last cowboys pining for a frontier, but his is space, a place no one goes to anymore. Humanity is in the middle of its extinction and a blight is about to wipe out corn, the last source of food that will grow. Now a farmer, Cooper has to deal with the revisionist history taught in public schools where the moon landing is seen as a propaganda tool rather than a fact and forgotten tech like drones clutter the air waiting to be seized and stripped by former pilots and engineers. Five years ago, this future looked like speculation, but reality has only worsened in the interim, making a future where breathing is an activity best performed indoors feel eerily like the present if one lives in California an hour away from a raging wildfire.
But, as a lover of big ideas, what Nolan has crafted is an ode to NASA and a time when the frontier around us was only as vast as American imagination allowed it to be. He pines for a time when science and art were pillars of human potential rather than competing majors, and he poses the notion that love is quantifiable and as essential a force in our universe as gravity. – Don Kelly
7. Under the Skin (dir: Jonathan Glazer)
In his final collection of cultural criticism, The Weird and the Eerie, the late English writer Mark Fisher defined the latter quality with a pithy aphorism: “the absence of something that should be there, or the presence of something that should not.” He continues by enshrining Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 sci-fi masterpiece as a memorable recent example of cinematic eeriness, a fair designation for a movie that rightly exemplifies both these states. Cloaked within an alluring human costume, the nameless creature embodied by Scarlett Johansson is certainly something that should not be there, a monster hidden in plain sight, roaming Scottish highways in search of prey. The familiarity of the disguise slyly draws as much attention to the quality that should be there and isn’t, the yawning void of any trace of empathy inside this hollow outer shell.
It’s a status mirrored in the world around her, as the focus on cold exchanges of resources—both monetary and sexual—twists everyday interaction into something equivalently alien. This allows the uncanny air of dislocation to be maintained even as stirrings of emotion appear, bleeding humanity into the character’s formerly vacant point of view. It’s a transformation that only leaves her more vulnerable to the depredations of those she’s hunting, a predator among predators, robbed of her killer instinct. Shot in a mix of dashcam verité and avant-garde artifice, Under the Skin deals in visual extremes, grainy night-time footage segueing into blasts of loud primary colors and washes of white and black. The film’s palette develops along with its protagonist, shades of grey seeping in as her experience deepens, the power of aesthetics diminished but never entirely overcome. The result is a rare achievement, a horror thriller that manages to imbue its terror with tenderness, without diminishing the macabre atmosphere. Instead it shifts the locus of evil in another direction, away from the alien and back toward ourselves. – Jesse Cataldo
6. Inherent Vice (dir: Paul Thomas Anderson)
At once the counterpoint to and the culmination of Paul Thomas Anderson’s turn toward new American epics, Inherent Vice presents the vastness of Los Angeles, and a conspiracy that dwarfs the city, through the intimate paranoia of its stoned but perceptive hero. Joaquin Phoenix brings a shambolic, idiot-savant energy to Doc Sportello, a man who drifts so listlessly among clues that he’s as shocked as anyone that he eventually discovers truth of any importance, much less the reality of a colossal criminal enterprise. Thomas Pynchon’s labyrinths of crypto-postmodern language, at once rigidly technical and vibrantly referential, is the sort of writing that immediately gets tagged “unadaptable.” But Anderson manages to retain the knotty verbal dexterity of Pynchon’s style while crucially highlighting the core of melancholia and defeat that pervades the author’s antic travesty. The film is the inverse of Magnolia, growing ever colder and more remote the more its strung-out narrative coalesces and resolves. The eventual clarity of the film’s shaggy-dog mystery brings with it a horror that undercuts the humor of its zany illuminati of dentists and New Age healers, revealing it all to be a metaphor for the way that American society poisons its people and then sells cures back to them. – Jake Cole
5. Boyhood (dir: Richard Linklater)
On paper, Boyhood’s central novelty seems clever at best, gimmicky at worst. Famously, it was shot in small patches from 2001 to 2013, with the pieces sewn together into a heartbreaking cinematic quilt. The viewer experiences time, which hastily slips through these characters’ fingers, without the need of multiple actors playing the same role, as the film stretches across years and unspools during its nearly three-hour runtime. But Boyhood isn’t just a formal stunt. This is Richard Linklater’s bittersweet paean to mortality, his masterpiece of verisimilitude.
As a work of fictional filmmaking, Boyhood remains unprecedented. It has a few notable precursors, such as Michael Apted’s nonfictional Up series and Linklater’s own Before trilogy, but no other major standalone film confronts the passage of time so viscerally and so rapidly. Mason (Ellar Coltrane), our protagonist in this naturalistic tale, begins Boyhood as a (bratty yet thoughtful) kid and ends as a (thoughtful yet bratty) young man. The transformation is revelatory.
The twist here is that Boyhood isn’t really Mason’s story. He may be the center of gravity, but Linklater’s adult characters have trajectories that are more important and interesting. Dad (Ethan Hawke) evolves from a fuckup to a boring evangelist of the Beatles’ solo works. Mom (Patricia Arquette) is Boyhood’s true hero. She starts meek and becomes mighty, but she’s always vulnerable.
Linklater doesn’t mark the transition from one year to the next with title cards or onscreen text. There’s no need. The midnight release of a Harry Potter volume, a tween’s obsession with early Lady Gaga, the plaintive notes of a Gotye song—these context clues come and go, but they situate us in time and place. Boyhood is at once mundane and sweeping. Through the alchemy of brilliant filmmaking, it transcends cultural specificity and the particulars of everyday life. The result is both natural and sublime. – Peter Tabakis
4. Gone Girl (dir: David Fincher)
Gone Girl was a sensation first as a book and then as a film, and even five years later, it’s not hard to see why. Amy Dunne’s (Rosamund Pike) take on feminism, revealed in the Cool Girl monologue, remains as mercilessly absolute, startling, frightening and unique as it was the first time we saw that scene, as the titular missing wife goes wheeling off down the highway, leaving behind any possibility of going back to her old life.
It’s a difficult feat to adapt a book that features not one but two unreliable narrators, but director David Fincher pulls it off beautifully. The film is a gorgeous terror ride from start to finish, uniting stellar lead performances with a tense score and foreboding, carefully rendered visual style. It exhibits the deeply troubling gender dynamics that characterize and mischaracterize our world through the unique light of a twisted relationship.
Five years later, Gone Girl holds as proof that the ultimate villain, the villain that wields real power, is not the maniac trying to conquer the world. The ultimate villain is a regular person, driven to radical ends because they believe they’re right. The power in Amy Dunne’s character is that she has methodically rationalized, and therefore believes wholeheartedly in, everything that she does, to the absolute point that she is ready to stake her known life on it. She’s thought about it hard and she knows where she stands: Better to be gone than to be cool. – Laura Dzubay
3. The Babadook (dir: Jennifer Kent)
Though it was rapturously received by critics and audiences alike upon its 2014 release, Jennifer Kent’s terrifying Aussie indie The Babadook flew relatively under the radar, rustling up a mere 10 million dollars at the worldwide box office. But, thanks to word of mouth (and Netflix), Mr. Babadook has touched more and more lives over the past five years, and deservedly so.
The film follows Amelia (an extraordinary Essie Davis), an Australian single mom with a difficult six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). When Amelia reads Sam a creepy children’s book called Mister Babadook, the boy becomes convinced that the titular fiend is real, and strange events start happening around the house.
In addition to giving us one of the scariest movie monsters of all time, The Babadook has held up because it is a genuinely moving drama. Davis’s performance, a kaleidoscope of sadness, exhaustion, fear, guilt, hope and resilience, is perhaps even more memorable than the monster himself. She and Kent create a terrifying but relatable portrait of motherhood. However, though Mr. Babadook certainly acts as a metaphor for Amelia’s struggles, one of the film’s biggest achievements is that the monster always feels like a real threat, not some shadowy subconscious message.
Horror has, in its own odd way, occasionally been ahead of the game in terms of film feminism, but that’s mostly in front of the camera. Horror is a genre dominated by male brand names like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Jason Blum and Jordan Peele. Perhaps the most important thing about The Babadook is that it was written and directed by a woman, produced by women and has a female lead. It shows that women can thrive in this male genre. Maybe they can even do it better. – Mike McClelland
2. Snowpiercer (dir: Bong Joon-ho)
The gap between rich and poor has yawned steadily wider for decades, but even as of 2014, a society as economically and culturally divided as found in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer still felt like a bit of a stretch. Dystopian films in general have seemed especially prescient of late, but the South Korean director’s particular take on opulence for the privileged at the expense of oppressed masses resonates even more strongly five years later. Likewise, the whole of society trapped on a perpetually moving train racing towards nowhere effectively sums up the mood of our current sociopolitical moment. The persecuted “scum” huddled in the titular train’s rear cars aren’t far off from images of asylum-seeking masses kept huddled in cages and described as vermin by the world’s most powerful. A character as cartoonishly grotesque as Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason would make a natural fit for a current cabinet position.
As our cultural climate languishes under kakistocracy, Snowpiercer offers catharsis in the revolt of the untouchables, who storm from the rear cars to escape persecution and destroy their social order. In 2014, the film felt a tad heavy-handed in its commentary, but in 2019, where hyperbole and ostentatious proclamation dominate our discourse, it’s clear that Bong’s film was ahead of its time. – Josh Goller
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir: Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson made his bones as a director building gorgeous, obsessively detailed worlds to train his camera on, and then promptly populating these worlds with some of the most damaged characters put to film. Anderson’s highly curated sensibility reads like an antidote to existential messiness, collapsing pangs of human fragility into brightly-colored baubles. It’s one thing if the shot’s functionally perfect; it’s quite another if that shot’s subject is as brazenly imperfect as a Max Fischer, or a Tenenbaum, or even a Mr. Fox.
It’s that same kind of gleeful juxtaposition that gives the wild romp of The Grand Budapest Hotel its staying power and makes its serious moments that much more resonant. It’s one of Anderson’s lighter films, maybe even more so than Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the most willing to indulge the director’s old-school screwball comedy tendencies. But, as ribald and silly as it gets, it’s also an earnest look at the currency of human decency, even set against the artifice of a hotel for Europe’s uber-rich on the eve of World War II.
There’s a whole laundry list of oddball delights in Grand Budapest, not least of which is Willem Dafoe as a fanged German Expressionist hitman. But it’s the relationship between M. Gustave, played by a meticulous and uproarious Ralph Fiennes in a career-high performance, and Tony Revolori’s stalwart lobby boy Zero, that most lovingly embodies Anderson’s dogged pursuit of perfect imperfection. “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” Gustave tells Zero early in the film. Amid Grand Budapest’s deliciously clever murder-mystery trappings, the friendship between a foppish concierge and a jittery lobby boy anchors, and in fact deepens, a film concerned most with how small kindnesses contain power. – Matthew Apadula